Saturday, January 18, 2020

Year 5 of an Indie Writer: Week 3 AKA Are Blogs Outdated?

Kind of an ironic question to ask in a blog post, huh? Well, I have my answer, but let me tell you why I pose it.

A Conversation


A good friend of mine recently opened a new online business here in Houston. Ever since, we both talk about our respective businesses. This week, I asked how his business is going. A trickle was his report. Ditto for me. He made an interesting observation regarding the magical secret to make his business a real income stream. He said the secret might be don't sell something millions of other people already do. Fellow authors: can I get a show of hands of folks who agree with this?

When he asked how my author business was going, my response turned into a single, long reply. It was culmination of weeks of thought about where my business is, where I want it to go, and what steps I need to take to get there. Now, when I say long, I'm talking just north of 1,300 words.

Bless my friend, he read it all. And responded.

I appreciated all his responses--some of which apply only to my own situation--but part of it I want to share today.

Are Blogs Outdated?


Let me summarize his points.

-All authors should have a personal website, not for being discovered by new readers, but for folks who are fans and want to keep up-to-date with what the author is doing.
-But a personal blog feels outdated.
-The Author Page on Amazon is probably good enough.
-Social Media is a better means for letting folks know what we're up to.
-90% of our potential audience is on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
**But everyone's on social media, and what is social media anyway but microblogs.**
-He follows creatives, but rarely checks out their sites.
-Via Social Media, he know the types of people they are, upcoming projects, and where to go should he want to purchase anything.
-If he likes their personality on social media, he'd consider checking out their stuff.
-"I don't visit blogs anymore. I don't know people who do."

The double asterisks indicate a concept I hadn't thought of. Interesting.

Now, my friend is a few years younger than my fifty-one. And he's only one guy in a sea of ideas and thoughts. But it got me to thinking: are blogs outdated?

A Defense of Blogs


I have been writing at my own blog since 2007. I have now published over 1,000 posts. I'm very proud of that accomplishment. At DoSomeDamage, I'm in my eleventh year of constantly publishing a Saturday column. Again, very proud of that accomplishment.

But is it worth it?

I still say yes.

My friend dubs blogs to be  time machines. And, as a degreed historian, I agree. I like that I have various markers based on date and specific events. What is my take on The Last Jedi or John Carter? There it is in real time for anyone to see.

And over time, my personality emerged via my blog writings, both on the personal site and at DoSomeDamage. Want to know who I am if you've never met me? Just take a look at the blog titles and the blogs themselves. It's all there.

Maybe it's my age, but I read through dozens of blogs a day. Granted, I don't read them all, but I have a feedly feed that collects all the blogs I want. Everyday, I scan through my feedly, reading the blogs whose titles intrigue me and skipping others. Skipping lots more than I read.

But yeah, I still read blogs. And in our short-attention spans selves, I think there's a place for long-form posts to go along with the microblogs of social media.

I might, however, be an outlier. What are your thoughts on blogs? Do you read them or skip them in favor of social media?

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Epilogue of The Last Jedi: Was It All We Needed?

I did something the other night I rarely do with Star Wars movies: dropped the remote.

As part of the inaugural Star Wars generation, I have lived with these films since 1977. I have watched the films countless times. When I do, however, I tend to watch them all in one go, that is, from beginning to end. I rarely watch just pieces of the various movies. No matter the film, I take them as a whole.

But I saw The Last Jedi on cable the other day and, with it being one of my all-time favorite Star Wars film, I stopped just long enough to see where everything was. Turned out, it was the beginning of the throne room scene with Kylo Ren, Snoke, and the captured Rey. Which meant it was also near the time when Finn fully accepts his "Rebel Scum" label. And Rose was still the integral part of the story. And it was minutes from the Holdo maneuver.

If you take all ten movies as a whole and made a list of great moments, two from this sequence in The Last Jedi would make my list: Rey and Kylo fighting together and the Holdo maneuver. That moment when Rey realizes what Kylo had done by killing Snoke, held for more than a few seconds, is so, so good.

Watching to the End


I ended up watching the rest of the film. Man, that visual of Luke Skywalker standing alone up against the First Order's weaponry is still one of the most incredible visuals of the entire franchise.

But it is the epilogue I'm focusing on today. That, and the final words of the film, spoken by Leia.

The Last Jedi Epilogue as The Best Final Scene of the Franchise?


As the Millennium Falcon soars away from Crait, the last few survivors of the Resistance are aboard. Rey and Leia talk about Luke, specifically him being the spark of a new hope to fight against the First Order.

The last words of the film--and the last words uttered by Carrie Fisher as Leia--are "We have all we need." Powerful words, especially considering the character has experienced and seen decades worth of fighting and striving to bring and keep peace in the galaxy. She knows this isn't the end. It never ends. There will always been the need for people to stand up to evil, to be the spark of hope in the face of darkness.

From there, we instantly cut back to Canto Bight and the young kids enslaved in those stables. One of them is telling the story of Luke Skywalker at Crait [leading credence that this is a flash forward]. When their owner/handler breaks up the group, another boy walks off alone. Using the Force, he brings a broom to his hand, but then stops. He stares up at the stars (just like Luke did) and dreams. You see the Resistance ring Rose gave him, a beacon of hope, despite his situation. He holds the broom like a lightsaber and, as a space ship or falling star streaks across the sky, we fade to black and John Williams' music takes over.

Look, we were always going to get Episode IX. We all wanted it. I wanted it. We wanted answers to questions. It was always going to end well. Our heroes were always going to prevail. I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker, got emotional both times I've seen it (more so the second time, specifically with Kylo standing alone on the husk of the second Death Star), and am perfectly fine with it being the last of the nine films.

But, in some ways, Leia said it best: we had the best ending we needed. The spark of resistance always lives on, in the generations that come after our main characters. That kid is Force sensitive. So is Finn, by the way. It doesn't matter that he's a slave. Just like Rey in The Last Jedi, he was a nobody. The spark of good, the ray of light, always lives on.

Maybe The Last Jedi's ending was all we needed.

That Epilogue on The Rise of Skywalker


I've spent a lot of words on this and you might come to conclusion that I don't even want The Rise of Skywalker. That would be wrong. I enjoyed it. I'll be reading the novelization later this spring and buying and re-watching the movie. And it ended wonderfully with Rey and BB-8 staring off into the same twin suns that Luke did 42 years before. Goosebumps and tears came in equal measure both times I saw the movie.

But maybe, just maybe, you could imagine that the epilogue of The Last Jedi spliced on the end of The Rise of Skywalker. Still have Rey do her thing, but flash back to Canto Bight [or the natives on Pasaana, the planet Rey and company went to and met Lando]. The kids [or native Pasaanas] still tell the story of Luke on Crait [or Rey and her battle with the Emperor]. The boy still looks up to the sky, broom welded as a lightsaber, and dreams.

Now, the spark of hope is galaxy-wide.

Now, Leia's last line is even more powerful: "We have all we need."

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Year 5 of an Indie Writer: Week 2 AKA You Know You've Integrated the Indie Writing Lessons When...

This proved an interesting week, evidence yet again that life is full of daily surprises.

When it comes to Christmas decorations, no matter when they go up, they always come down by New Year's Eve. The family has adopted my wife's idea that you don't start a new year cleaning up the mess from the old one.

Well, I didn't follow that advice in terms of my writing.

I've been reviewing my existing-yet-not-finished stories at the beginning of this year. The good thing is that all this reviewing is helping me see what each story needs and all the tweaks along the way. The irritating thing is that I didn't do this in December. Or finished them in 2019.

Be that as it may, I wanted to wrap up these outstanding stories before tackling a brand-new one here in January. But something else sidetracked my review.

The E-mail


I received an email from a relative on my wife's side. Turns out there are a couple of writers in the family working on various books and the relative was wondering if I'd have a chance to offer any advice on the publishing and writing business.

Happily I agreed. I'm always eager to help writers no matter if they are far ahead of me in the business or just starting out. I've made course corrections along the way based on advice from veteran writers.

Wins and Losses?


Here's the thing about the writing business: it's competitive, but not always against fellow writers. It's a competition for the eyes and attentions of readers. We don't rack up wins and losses against other writers. And if you have that mindset, well, there's a better way to look at the business.

Think of it as a learning experience.

Let's say you've written a thriller. You've done your research and you have a book with a good cover, decent blurb, and is available in all the channels. It goes on sale on New Year's Day. You advertise in whatever form you choose. Yet there's another (actually a lot more) thriller book that was released on the same day.

And that other book is the one that's most popular with readers.

You'll get frustrated. You might even get upset. But you can't control what happens when you release your book into the world. You can only control that which you have direct control: cover, blurbs, and the book itself.

If you think that other author "beat" you, do some research. Buy that other book. Read it. Figure out why it is resonating more with readers than yours. If you see something, feel free to learn from that other book and incorporate those learned lessons in your next book. Nothing wrong with that.

Just don't fixate on wins and losses. The only person who loses there is you. And your potential readers. Just continue to be yourself and readers who like your stuff will find you. It'll take longer, perhaps, but avid readers are the best.

Internalized Lessons Learned


Back to the e-mail. So my relative put me in contact with the other writers and we emailed back and forth. The writer (also a she) shared some details about where she is and a choice she's contemplating. It's whether or not to sign a contract for a publishing firm not based in New York. Not one of the Big Five.

Indie that I am, I started listing the reasons I went indie and continue to stay that way. I discussed all the things I've had to learn over the five or six years I've been doing this side hustle: how to make covers, where to find editors, how to make paperbacks, how to format ebooks, etc. My response back grew longer and longer.

And I didn't even have to reference anything. I realized I have internalized all the indie author/publisher lessons so thoroughly that I can just spout them off at will.

It was a nice feeling...and it really made me want to get started with my 2020 publication schedule. It also helped me realize I enjoy the challenges and the rewards of an indie writer life. Still would appreciate the opportunity to do fiction writing full time, but the life I've carved out for myself is pretty grand.

Article of the Week


So, all of what I've described occurred prior to Thursday's post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. She has had a decades-long writing career, both in the traditional and indie world, and now preaches the good talk about the indie life. Every Thursday, she posts about the business of an indie writer.

This week is title "Fear and Publishing." It is very insightful and well worth the time to read.

Book of the Week


The first novel I'm reading in 2020 is now four years old. It's ORPHAN X by Gregg Hurwitz. This series, about Evan Smoak, a highly trained assassin, has been on my radar for a couple of years. I saw the fourth book at Barnes and Noble over the holidays (in paperback) with a fifth book coming out this year.

Why not start?

So I picked up the first book and have really enjoyed it. How much? Well, I'm reading an actual book (bought the paperback) and have carved out time specifically to read. I get most of my books via audio, but I aim to have 2020 be the year in which I read at least a book a month and listen to another book a month.

I'm only a hundred pages in, but I'm really digging this book. What's even more ironic is the timing: My NaNoWriMo 2019 book involves a character who is off the  grid like Smoak or Jack Reacher (also not read any of his books either). The sands of time and interests, every now and then, come together.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Early KISS Footage Provides Inspiration

At little over a week ago, at the always awesome Ultimate Classic Rock website, they posted the earliest known footage of KISS in concert. And it is a remarkable thing to behold.



The show was from 21 December 1973 in the Coventry in Queens, New York. The nearly nine minute black-and-white video has about 1:30 minutes of silence at the beginning. Then, after whatever speaker/microphone issue was resolved, the announcer comes on around the 1:37 mark. He tells the assembled audience that they're "right on top of them [the band]." While he probably means they'll get to hear this new band early in their career, he might also mean the people are literally right up against the stage.

No matter. Once he tells the people to put their two lips together and kiss, KISS starts in on "Deuce."

I know the song. I've known it now for forty one years. I know the show and the stagecraft. I know what they do when this song plays because I've seen it live and on hundreds of YouTube videos over the years.

And they are doing it in this video. When Ace Frehley takes the solo, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley face each other and do their choreographed moves. Later, during the outro, all three guitar players face Peter Criss's drum kit and perform the now-famous swaying.

I just grinned. It didn't matter that they were playing to probably dozens of people. No pyro (except for the candelabra in the back). The song already was all but perfected. They had a vision of where they wanted to be and what they wanted their shows to be like, including Paul's between songs banter as they launch into "Cold Gin." They didn't have the money--yet--but the carried on like they were going to sell out Madison Square Garden (which they did in less than four years).

Why bring this up now, in January 2020 when the band is on their two-year-long farewell tour? Inspiration. They started small, but knew that every little step got them closer to how they viewed themselves.

And it reminds me, here at the beginning of the decade, that the little baby step I'll be taking in 2020 to start up an online bookstore won't be one giant leap from A to Z, but a series of baby steps--and missteps--to where I envision this online bookstore to be.

But everyone has to take that first step, and that's what I'm doing here in January 2020. More news to come as the weeks and months progress.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Year 5 of an Indie Writer: Week 1 - Sore "Muscles" and Whodunit Recommendations

Happy New Year. Happy New Decade. Happy Saturday. Hope y'all had a great holiday season. Mine was pretty great. I took a week and a half from the day job which enabled me to enjoy The Lull. Or the Twilight Week. You know what I'm talking about: that time from Christmas Day to New Year's Day when each day slides into the next and you basically forget what day of the week it is. I got to church on time, but other than that, I all but didn't know.

And I didn't care. That's the beauty of that time, when you're basically away from anything resembling a normal routine. I read some Christmas stories, watched a few Hallmark Christmas movies, watched just about all the usual Christmas movies my family watches (only missed out on the new Netflix animated feature Klaus), and caught Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker twice, the second time in IMAX. There's something to be said for such a giant screen showing a giant story.

But I didn't write, and that was by choice.

Writer Know Thyself


One of the best things about keeping records of writing for the past ten years or so is being able to notice trends in how I write. When it comes to summertime writing, I'm all in, and happily so. Ditto for the spring and fall. But when December rolls around, for most of the past few years, I've not written. It seems December is a time my mind wants to enjoy stories others have written.

On the other end, however, when its time to start writing again, the muscles can be sore.

On New Year's Morning, I woke early and ran my first run of the year. It's been a little bit of time since I last run, and boy did my legs let me know it. Here, two days later, my thigh muscles are still sore. As anyone who exercises knows, if you take a break, getting back in the routine is difficult.

As is the writing routine. Which is never good for a writer.

Sore Writerly Muscles


When it comes to lifting weights or running, the simple adage to get back in the routine is just do it. Lace up the sneakers and go. Really, really easy.

But how does a writer get back into shape? Just write. Unlike exercise, however, this can sometimes be easier said than done. Again, it's utterly fascinating how we creatives can just not 'feel like it' when it comes to our craft. Sure, the writerly muscles might be sore from non-use, but our imaginations are not.

What's that you say? Well, even if I'm not physically typing words on a screen, I'm always dreaming up stories. Sometimes it's watching a movie and saying "Well, I would have done it this way." Ideas always flow at us and we writers constantly tell ourselves stories. Most of them we'll never write, but we still make them up. I've got a story idea for Christmas 2020 that popped out of nowhere. It excites me so I'll be working on it throughout the year.

But what about now? How does one get back on the horse?

Write and read. The writing is straightforward. The reading is, too. It fills the creative bucket in our imaginations, but I'll need an assist.

Whodunit Recommendations


If you're like me, then you've seen writer/director Rian Johnson's movie Knives Out. It's a modern take on a classic whodunit and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I've listened to podcast interviews with Johnson and he mentions Agatha Christie quite a bit. Turns out 2020 is the century anniversary of the publication of her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. I've already picked up my mom's copy of the book to read. I've also signed up for the newsletter via the official website.

But Christie is not the only famous writer of whodunits. Thing is, I know few, if any, in this style of writing, the Golden Age of the Detective stories between the two World Wars.

That's where y'all come in. What are some good whodunits--both classic and modern. Is there a book version a la Knives Out that take the classic cues and remixes them in a new way?

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Favorite Music/Movies/Books/TV/Performances of the Decade

Songs

2010 - Hey Soul Suster - Train
2011 - Rolling in the Deep - Adele
2012 - Hell or Hallelujah - KISS
2013 - (tie) The Stars are Out Tonight and Give Life Back to Music
2014 - Uptown Funk**
2015 - (tie) Seasons (Waiting on You) by Future Islands and Shut Up and Dance by Walk the Moon***
2016 - Put Your Money on Me*
2017 - Cumberland Gap - Jason Isbell
2018 - No Erasin' - Steve Perry
2019 - Hello Sunshine

*Song of the Decade - Up until I hear the opening chord of The Struts's "Put Your Money on Me," "Uptown Funk" was the song of the decade. Before that, it was "Give Life Back to Music" by Daft Punk. Unlike the album category, there's a whole lot more new music here. Put Your Money on Me--specifically the opening chord--sold The Struts for me. Joyful exuberance in song form.


**Uptown Funk is all but tied for first because it is everything I want in a song. Great vocals, funky bass, tight horns. I just HAVE to dance whenever I hear it.

***One man, one performance sold me the Future Islands album. Just listen to Letterman's reaction. Sounded like mine when I watched the performance live. See below.

Albums

2010 - Save Me San Francisco - Train
2011 - Chicago XXXIII: O Christmas Three
2012 - KISS - Monster
2013 - Random Access Memories and The Next Day
2014 - Chicago XXXVI: Now
2015 - Burlap to Cashmere - Freedom Souls
2016 - Everybody Wants by The Struts*
2017 - Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit - The Nashville Sound
2018 - Sting and Shaggy - 44/876
2019 - Chicago XXXVII: Christmas

*Album of the Decade - A quick review of the albums on this list reveals one glaring thing: Most are good albums by older, legacy acts. When a band like The Struts shows up on our radar with unabashed enthusiasm for making rock music fun again and for making music multiple generations can love, well, that's a great album.

Movies

2010 - Toy Story 3 (Inception runner up)
2011 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol)
2012 - The Avengers (John Carter)
2013 - Man of Steel (Iron Man 3)
2014 - Guardians of the Galaxy (Edge of Tomorrow)
2015 - Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Ant-Man)
2016 - Captain America: Civil War (Rogue One and The Nice Guys)
2017 - Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Wonder Woman)
2018 - Mission Impossible: Fallout (Avengers: Infinity War)
2019 - Avengers: Endgame* (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker)

*Movie of the decade - When a movie as big as Endgame actually sticks the landing, you can't not give it the award for best of the decade. Every feel, every cheer, every laugh, every tear was earned.

Books

2010 - Naked Heat by Richard Castle
2011 - The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
2012 - Redshirts by John Scalzi*
2013 - Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 by Lynne Olsen
2014 - Face the Music by Paul Stanley
2015 - Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham
2016 - Longarm and the Bank Robber's Daughter by James Reasoner
2017 - Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
2018 - The Cutthroat by Clive Cussler
2019 - The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot Against George Washington by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

*Book of the decade - When you bawl your eyes out on hearing the final chapter of the audio and then break down trying to explain the ending to your wife and get emotional describing it to other people, well, that's an awesome book.

Television

2010 - Sherlock
2011 - CSI: Miami
2012 - Elementary
2013 - Castle (5th season)*
2014 - The Flash
2015 - Castle (7th season)
2016 - Stranger Things
2017 - Broadchurch
2018 - The Haunting of Hill House
2019 - The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

*Television show of the decade - I was hooked with the promos. Castle was the perfect show for me: writer who loves writing and pop culture teamed up with a beautiful detective to solve crimes. The mythology of the show blossomed into something larger than crime-of-the-week. The chemistry between Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic was palpable. The writers solved the "Moonlighting problem" [how long to keep the will-they-or-won't-they tension]. And then there were the actual books that became go-to fall reading. Great series (although that last season could have been scrapped; an odd thing to say for my favorite series of the decade).

Performances


I saw a lot of shows in this decade, and quite a few in 2018 and 2019. Here, off the top of my head, are my favorites.

KISS - Farewell Tour (2019) Full review
Halestrom (2019) Full review
The Struts (2019)
Ludovico Einaudi (2018) Full review
Tony Bennett (2018)
John Adams and "City Noir" with the Houston Symphony (2014)
Future Islands on David Letterman (2015)

Monday, December 30, 2019

Albums of 2019: A Year of Surprises

If one word can summarize my music listening for 2019, it would be surprise.

Almost literally from the start of the year, the music I took in surprised me. The first weekend of January, my family drove to visit relatives. On the way, of all things, my son suggested we listen to Alice Cooper's Welcome 2 My Nightmare, the 2011 sequel to his 1975 album Welcome to my Nightmare. I was floored by how good that album is, with music spanning genres, and consummate musicians bringing their A Game to the music. That album not only set the stage for a great year of music, but sent me and my son on a musical journey to discover new music by legacy rock acts.

Legacy Rock Still Produces Great Music


By our definition, legacy rock are the old guard, the OG, rock stars that started in the 1960s and 1970s yet still make music. We tend to focus on albums produced in this century. I asked him what kicked off this focus on legacy rock acts. He said it was a combination of KISS: Sonic Boom (2009), Alice Cooper: Paranormal (2017), and, to some extent, Chicago XXX (2006). Songs in particular were Chicago's "Feel" and "Caroline,", KISS's "Yes I Know" and "Never Enough," and Alice Cooper's "Genuine American Girl" and "Paranormic Personality." A Christmas album that added to this was Twisted Sister's "A Twisted Christmas."

After hearing these albums, he got to thinking what other legacy rock acts made music in this century. Many of the selections were by bands who hadn't made music in awhile. Others, like Bon Jovi and Def Leppard, never stopped. He searched. I did, too. And we have now compiled some great albums that I never knew about. Maybe you didn't either.

Among the albums I enjoyed this year but released prior to 2019 were the following:

Alice Cooper - Welcome 2 Nightmare - A soundtrack to a Broadway musical I really want to see. Each track is a different style, all with a similar theme. I don't know a lot of Cooper's music, but this is by far my favorite.

Eagles - Long Road Out of Eden - This band is one I really loved in high school and college, but then just faded away. It was like I could only listen to so much  Eagles music in my lifetime and I had reached my limit. It got to where I'd change the station if any of their songs came on the radio. Then there is this album and I was reminded just how good they are. The Harmonies! Wonderful record and, sadly, the last with Glenn Frey.

Foreigner - Can't Slow Down - When a legacy band has to replace an iconic singer, most try to mimic the departed singer. Kelly Hanson does an exceptional job at the new songs. Yeah, he sounds like Lou Gramm's brother, but Hanson brings himself to the mix. The songs are really good at keeping what made early Foreigner good and updating it to this century. This one (2009) came fifteen years after their last album, the very definition of a legacy rock band releasing new music.

REO Speedwagon - Find Your Own Way Home - The first of two by a band I hadn't listened to in decades. This studio album arrived late in the year and right before the Christmas music started (and I rarely go back to non-Christmas music in this time of the year) but, again, this is proof that bands like this need to keep releasing new music. "Find Your Own Way Home" is a wonderful song with added weight because it comes from the point of view of an older  singer.

REO Speedwagon - Christmas With REO Speedwagon - This is one of four new Christmas albums I got this year. It's a nice record full of standard songs, highlighted by a pair of new-to-me songs: Children Go Where I Send You and I Believe in Santa. That latter is a great song that captures the spirit of the season and that of a parent and childhood.

Cheap Trick Christmas - Were it not for Chicago, this would be my favorite Christmas album of 2019 (even though it came out in 2017). Three originals--led by "Merry Christmas Darlings," a happy, joyful song that stops halfway through and just plays the sounds of a party, complete with children's laughter--are mixed with tunes that don't always get re-recorded. Wizzard's "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday," Slade's "Merry Xmas Everybody," The Kinks' "Father Christmas," are perfect for Cheap Trick. Heck, we even get the Saturday Night Live's "I Wish It Was Christmas Today." But it is "Remember Christmas," by Harry Nilsson (From the Son of Dracula movie; yeah, really) that really surprised me. Love this album for its harder-edged yet still fun take on seasonal songs.

Legacy Rock Still Inspires


Frontiers Music keeps the flame of melodic and AOR rock alive. Back in January, I downloaded their sampler and was happily surprised by just about every song. But two songs propelled me to buy full albums by two of the bands.

Perfect Plan - All Rise - This band from Sweden could easily have been making music in the 1970s and 1980s. Their sound is right from the mold of hard rock bands with keyboard. Think Queensrhyche, Europe, (another Swedish band), Deep Purple, Foreigner, and more. Lead singer Kent Hilli has the pipes to keep up with the elders of rock with a voice reminiscent of Lou Gramm mixed with Geoff Tate and, frankly, just his own style. Speaking of styles, the different songs hearken back to earlier bands and styles, but Perfect Plan provides a good filter, making them all uniquely their own. A nice, heavy, melodic hard rock album.

One Desire - One Desire - If Perfect Plan draws from the harder-edge bands of the past, then One Desire takes a slight left, pulling from Journey, Asia, Toto, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. One Desire slides closer to the hair metal side of the 80s which is perfectly fine with me. Love that stuff, and One Desire picks up that vibe and runs with it to the 21st Century. Lead singer André Linman is as melodic a singer as Geoff Tate and Steve Perry and James LaBrie (Dream Theater), and the songs are equal to his powerful voice. "Falling Apart" is a quintessential power ballad, but it was "Hurt" (the one song on that sampler) that made me sit up and take notice.

A Year of Surprises


Not only was 2019 a year of wonderful surprises at discovering albums released prior to this year, but we got some fantastic material actually released this year. None more surprising than Bruce Springsteen's Western Stars. The Boss ditched the E Street Band for an orchestra and produced Western Stars, a wonderful album that was exactly what I wanted to hear this year. "Hello Sunshine" was the lead single. I listened to it about eight times on the last Friday of April--release day. I don't know why, but I got emotional on first listen. Happened multiple times that morning. Something about that song, the music, the words, that really struck my heart.

When the album was released in June, it just proved again and again that Western Stars is one of my all-time favorite Springsteen albums. The one-two punch of "There Goes My Miracle" followed by "Hello Sunshine" might be my favorite sequenced pair of songs in his entire discography.

Western Stars was my favorite record of the year until Chicago released Chicago 37: Christmas 2019. My son didn't think a holiday album should be the best of the year, but as I told him, Chicago 37, with it's nearly full album of original songs, is a Chicago album that just uses the trappings and vocabulary of Christmas to craft a new album.

After fifty-two years as a band, thirty-seven albums, and my personal thirty-four years as a fan, I experienced something unexpected when I listened to Chicago Christmas 2019: it surprised me. For better or worse, when I listened to XXXIII for the first time, I could actually guess the horn breaks and musical choices. Ditto for Chicago XXX. Some of that is in play here, but not as much.

Maybe it's my age (I'm fifty-one), maybe it's the more melancholy vibe to some of the songs, but Chicago Christmas 2019 hit me squarely in my heart. The holidays always are emotional, running the gamut from nostalgia of childhood to the more mature emotions of being a parent. Somehow, this collection of songs captures that spirit in an unexpected way, making it my favorite album of 2019.

Other new albums that surprised me are:


Midland - Let It Roll - This sophomore album by this Texas band is the best country album I've heard in a long, long time. We listen to the local country radio station to and from church every Sunday. We often joke that modern country is really just pop music with the occasional fiddle and steel guitar thrown in. Which makes songs like the ones Midland plays stand out. Their songs sound like country. Back in 2017, their song "Drinkin' Problem" was the key to me discovering them. Bought that album and eagerly awaited the new 2019 record. In all my years of buying music, I have never gone out to a store on release day to buy a country album. Let It Roll changed that. Excellent album. Every song is a winner. Have to admit that "Fourteen Gears" would fit easily in a playlist with Western Stars songs. And "Mr. Lonely" served as inspiration for my latest novel.

Up until Chicago 37, this was going to be the runner-up to favorite album of the year behind Springsteen. It easily is my favorite country album of the year. Both of them count as my favorite country albums of the decade.

Tesla - Shock - Up until 2019, I had never owned a Tesla CD. I could name exactly one song--"Love Song". I enjoyed it, but I don't think I've thought of Tesla in decades. The best definition of legacy rock bands making new music. Turns out, Shock is a dang good record. These guys still rock hard, as evidenced by the title track and "Tied to the Tracks." But they can also craft wonderful radio-friendly songs like my favorite from the album, "California Summer Song." Tesla is coming to Houston next year. Think I'll go see them.

Whitesnake - Flesh and Blood - If I basically never knew Tesla, I absolutely knew Whitesnake. "Here I Go Again" is one of my favorite hair metal songs of the 1980s. Still, I hadn't given Whitesnake or singer David Coverdale hardly any thought in years. So when it was announced Whitesnake would release a new album in 2019 and with the new focus on legacy rock, I certainly would give it a listen. Holy moley! These guys haven't lost a step! Granted, the mold of this music isn't too different than their 1980s heyday but I don't care. It is exactly what I want from a Whitesnake album. Lead single, "Shut Up and Kiss Me," is a perfect fist-pumping, head-bopping, driving with the windows down song, but it's "Always and Forever" that proves to be my favorite song from the album. It is basically the main song from a 1980s teen movie directed by John Hughes, the kind that would play as a montage when the students of a high school from all social strata--the jocks, the cheerleaders, the nerds, the emos--come together to decorate the gym for the big end-of-school dance. Yup.You can hear it now, can't you? Doesn't mean it's not a fantastic song.

Jason Scheff - Here I Am - My discovery of Chicago came in 1985, the same year founding member Peter Cetera left the band. As such, Scheff was in the band when I started seeing them in 1987. He was in the band when they released my favorite 1980s-era album--Chicago 19--the brilliant Stone of Sisyphus, the great big band CD, and three of the four Christmas albums. When he left, I was saddened. He was my guy.

So when he finally released his second solo album in November, I was so excited. I was a little  surprised it included five Chicago songs, but he makes them his own, especially "Will You Still Love Me." But it's the new material I really love, especially the title track and "Wonderful Day," basically a Chicago song. His voice is bright and clear and powerful. My wife, who is Chicago Adjacent (that is, she likes them but not to my level) even commented how good Scheff sounds.

The Verdict


The year 2019 was great for new and new-to-me music. And with more legacy music already on the schedule for 2020--new Ozzy! New Springsteen? New Cooper?--the new decade is going to kick off great.

Here's a link to my favorite songs of 2019.

Favorite Songs of 2019

Hello Sunshine - Bruce Springsteen - Simply one of my favorite songs by Springsteen of all time. The only song I can remember that got me emotional on first listen. Multiple times. Don't know why. The song is perfectly crafted and built, layers building on each other.


I'd Do It All Again (Christmas Moon) - Chicago - Like Hello Sunshine, I got emotional on first listenn to this song. Not as many times, but it hits all the feels. Lou Pardini sings lead. Bossa nova complete with shuffle drumming and piano embellishments? This song had me in the first measure. Simply a gorgeous song. Pardini's voice is perfect for this kind of song, and the horns just layer themselves with him, perfectly in the pocket with tasteful accents, especially as they re-enter after the piano solo. Goose bump song. A new jazz standard for others to hear and sing? You betcha. Not sure who plays the piano solo, but man is it good. Lots of Christmas music reminds me of childhood. This is one of those tunes where the vibe is that of adults in love. This is the song you'd have playing over scenes of a movie in which the couple frolic in the snow, fall down while ice skating, and snuggle up together in an open horse-drawn wagon in Central Park. Loughnane's muted trumpet is the icing on this song. In addition--and this doesn't happen too often in Christmas songs--this is the song you can easily see being played for senior citizens, as they look back on their lives. Only two songs this year made me emotional on first listen (and sometimes subsequent listens), and this is one of them. The other: Hello Sunshine by Bruce Springsteen.



I Was Made of You - Alice Cooper - If Welcome 2 My Nightmare set the stage for all the legacy rock music I'd listen to in 2019, then this opening track to that album sets the stage for the fantastic collection of songs from this 2011 album. Dramatic, bold, slow simmering are all words I'd use to describe this album. The auto-tune is odd at first, but Cooper only uses it to remind folks he's still got good singing chops. The song builds and builds until Steve Hunter's guitar solo soars over the music. I can just imagine this opening an Alice Cooper show.


Fourteen Gears - Midland - All the songs on Let It Roll are great. While I was inspired to write a novel by "Mr. Lonely," (a great song complete with the singer calling out the steel guitar solo just like all great rock songs do), Fourteen Gears is probably my favorite from this album. It sits perfectly in that late 1980s/early 1990s country renaissance anchored by Garth Brooks, Brooks and Dunn, and all the other acts I listened to while frequently country bars in college. The chord progression actually makes it feel like an outtake from Springsteen's Western Stars.



California Summer Song - Tesla - A pitch-perfect slice of summer coming out of your speakers. You can "see" the video in your mind as you listen: beaches, surf, convertibles, young love, fires on the beach at sundown. How is this tune not more popular?


In and Out of Love - Perfect Plan - The first of two discoveries early in 2019 of bands that take the classic rock mold as a template and make some great new music. This tune takes that mold and updates it. Sure, In and Out of Love sounds like it should have come from a 1980s teen movie, but it's much more musically involved than that. The bass line chugs along, the harmonies are great, and lead singer Kent Hilli easily holds his own against any of the OG singers. This band is from Sweden, so I don't know if they ever tour in America, but I will happily and eagerly by a ticket. The entire album



Hurt - One Desire - Where Perfect Plan is a hard rock band, One Desire skews to the hair metal side of things. Their forefathers are Asia, Journey, Dream Theater, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Lead singer André Linman has a powerful voice that soars over the head-bopping driving music. The guitar solo by Jimmy Westerlund starts in a minor chord then provides a nice, melodic solo that would have have 80s teenagers raising their fists in triumph. And this band knows dynamics.



Always and Forever - Whitesnake - "Shut Up and Kiss Me" is the lead single from Whitesnake's new album is a perfect fist-pumping, head-bopping, driving with the windows down song, but it's the mid-tempo  "Always and Forever" that captured my heart on first listen. It's basically the main song from a 1980s teen movie directed by John Hughes, the kind that would play as a montage when the students of a high school from all social strata--the jocks, the cheerleaders, the nerds, the emos--come together to decorate the gym for the big end-of-school dance. Yup.You can hear it now, can't you? Doesn't mean it's not a fantastic song.



Here I Am - Jason Scheff - I could be tempted to select "Wonderful Day" as my favorite from Scheff's new album, but as it's basically a Chicago song (with brass), I'm going with the title track. Produced by Rascal Flatt's Jay Demarcus, the album showcases Scheff's first solo album since 1997's Chauncey. He sounds great on this song, especially on the first chorus. Really enjoy this song, and it could show up on any adult contemporary radio station across the nation.

Find Your Own Way Home - REO Speedwagon - This one arrived late in the year, just prior to Christmas Music All the Time. REO's Kevin Cronin's voice sounds fantastic on this mid-tempo power ballad (is that a trend?) and the rest of the band hasn't lost a step. At the time of its release in 2007, it had been eleven years since their last album. This song, with its lyrics of redemption, really play well as sung by an older, legacy rock band. Chord progressions are great, as is the bass line underneath, and the tasteful deployment of castanets.


Disintegrate - Def Leppard -  This instrumental track from 1999's Euphoria really got me this year. My son has been expanding his collection of Leppard's albums, and he got this in early summer. On first listen, I kept waiting for the vocals to start, then was happily surprised when none came. Lead guitarists Phil Collen wrote this tune. It has a bit of that 90s-era electronica laced throughout a driving rock rhythm. On first hearing the album, this was the only song I listened to twice before moving on to the next track.



Here's a link to my favorite albums of 2019

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Favorite Television in 2019

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (seasons 2 and 3) - I don't like to binge--I prefer my TV in weekly installments--but holy cow it is difficult not to binge this utterly delightful show. Watched season two earlier this year and season three this month. All the actors are perfectly cast, the music is stellar, the set pieces are things you want to watch over and over (S3: E8's opening is one), and the writing/directing by Amy Sherman-Palladino is fantastic. I love, love, love the witty banter, especially when there are about four characters on screen having two or more conversations. Cannot get enough of this show.

The Mandalorian - Speaking of shows coming out on a weekly basis, this first live-action Star Wars TV show was exactly what I was hoping it would be: a brand-new story, not part of the main nine films, using Star Wars as the canvas and the palette. We all know the meme that has sprung from this show, but it is the pacing--slower than you'd expect but that's perfectly fine--and the "western in space" vibe that makes me love it. Throw in great writing and interesting directing--you actually get a heist movie that morphs into "Alien" in one episode--and you've got one of the best TV things of 2019.

Unforgotten* (all seasons, but particularly 2) - Stumbled upon this early this year via PBS showing season three. Enjoyed it so much we watched seasons one and two on demand. Loved the "normalness" of the show and characters. No typical detectives here (i.e., raging alcoholics with ghosts of the past), just normal people doing a dirty job looking into cold cases. Season Two was particularly great.

[By the way, the asterisks you see in this post indicate shows my wife discovered first. Boy, does she know how to pick'em.]

Stranger Things (season 3) - A nice change from season two, Season Three of this nostalgia-filled show  showed our characters progressing since the last season, not an easy thing to do considering the younger actors are aging up. Great character moments and truly scary moments shows this franchise getting better.

Blood and Treasure - Speaking of perfect summer TV shows, Blood and Treasure is it. This show had me at the promos. Two fun, attractive actors in a breezy, action/adventure show that involves a quest per episode is exactly what I wanted this summer. The nods to past movies via music and visuals makes you look for the Easter eggs while watching these two leading characters form undeniably great chemistry. Cannot wait until Season Two in 2020.

Stumptown - Staying with network TV, this show also had me from the promos. Cobie Smulders stars as a veteran with PTSD who stumbles into a job as a private investigator. It's clear to me that she is a descendant of any number of TV PIs, most notably Jim Rockford. The shows dynamic between her, her brother, and her friends is what propels the show forward, but I really dig her gumption and determination. Most of all, I love her heart for doing what's right no matter the cost.

New Amsterdam - Ever since This is Us premiered (which I don't watch), it's been known for pulling tears out of the eyes of viewers. This medical drama is my version of that. I love the idealistic nature of Max Goodwin (played wonderfully by Ryan Eggold) as he leads his team of doctors at the New Amsterdam hospital in New York. Each episode wrestles with real-world issues, coming to various conclusions. The actors and their characters are spot on, and I look forward to Tuesdays at 9pm eagerly (that's right: this, along with Stumptown, are Appointment Television).

Evil* - The last network television show on this list is one for which I saw the promos all during the summer while watching Blood and Treasure: CBS's Evil. With a title like that, and most of the shots from the pilot, I wasn't that interested. I recognized Mike Colter as the same actor who played Luke Cage, and  Michael Emerson I knew from Lost, but that wasn't enough. Turns out my wife had started watching it and I ended up staying in the room as she watched episode four. That was all it took. I was hooked. This show wasn't exactly how my preconceived notions thought it would be. It's actually so much more. This might be the nicest surprise of 2019 on TV.

Goliath* - Speaking of things my wife started watching, Amazon's Goliath is another. I knew about the Billy Bob Thornton show when I'd go to Amazon Video's menu (to watch Mrs. Maisel) but never got off the fence. Cut to another day when I was about to go into the next room to read when my wife started watching episode three of season three of Goliath. I sat and watched. Hooked. Sure, Thornton was fantastic, but it was the guest stars that really took it higher. Beau Bridges was good, Dennis Quaid was great, but Amy Brenneman went somewhere I'd never seen her go: she was a fantastic baddie. I loved everything about this season--including Thorton's partner played hilariously by Nina Arianda Matijcio--but Brenneman was by far my favorite. I'll happily go back and watch seasons one and two.

The Kominsky Method - Season two dropped in December, and my wife and I blasted through all the episodes in two nights. Might've been three. As a middle-aged man, I can easily get the comedy of this show, but it's the heart and emotion between the characters that really sticks with you. Not only that, it's the real-life situations these characters find themselves in that, like New Amsterdam, shed a light on various parts of modern society. An open request to creator Chuck Lorre: If the seasons are only to be eight episodes, can we have at least an hour per episode? Or maybe sixteen half-hour episodes? This show is very, very good.

The Kettering Incident* - On the surface, this is a show in which a woman (played by Elizabeth Debicki) returns to her small town in Tasmania and causes ripples. Back in the day, she and another girl were biking when the other girl disappeared. Everyone blamed Debicki's character. Now that she's returned, another girl goes missing. Debicki's character, barely hanging on in life, decides to start digging and see if she can uncover what happened to both girls. That sounds like a typical BBC-type show (although this was filmed entirely in Tasmania) but the turns it takes are wonderfully odd. To even write comparisons would probably give away how the story turns, but this was one of the best discoveries of the year. The Tasmanian setting and characters were fantastic, and served as a glimpse of what life is like on that island nation. That there wasn't a second season is a shame.

Elementary - When season six ended in 2018, I thought it was a fitting end to this version of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Well, we got a season seven and it, too, ended perfectly. While I can appreciate other versions of the characters--Jeremy Brett nailed the traditional version; Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey, Jr. did fine work; Jude Law and Martin Freeman both played Watson as a man of action--my favorite has got to be Jonny Lee Miller. Why? Because he allowed Holmes to evolve. Let's be honest: Holmes can be a bit of a dick to Watson and others. Miller's Holmes was, too, at the beginning, but not by the end of the series. Lucy Liu's Watson also was allowed to evolve from a sober companion at the start to a co-equal partner with Holmes as a detective. Absolutely loved this show and will dreadfully miss these versions of the characters. As I wrote on Twitter the night of the finale:

"Perfect casting from day one. Perfect ending. Incredible writing for a complex pair of characters and actors who love each other deeply. So well done. That is how you create a fulfilling finale."

Favorite Movies of 2019

Avengers: Endgame - My favorite of the year for all the action, the humor, the payoffs, the tears, and the feels. A remarkable end to a 21-movie series. Full review.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker - The end of a 42-year journey with the Skywalker family. I truly enjoyed the film and appreciated all the emotional payoffs.

Hobbes and Shaw - Arguably the most entertaining movie of the summer and the year. This counts as my first Fast and Furious film. Loved this movie. Full review.

Knives Out - In terms of "I think that movie looks good" to the actual viewing of the film, this is a great film. Thoroughly enjoyed it, and it has sent me on a search for more whodunits (and inspired me to try and write one).

Spider-Man: Far From Home - Much like Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr. in their respective superhero roles, Tom Holland was born to play Peter Parker. And a dang good film that keeps reminding viewers the character is just a teenager.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse - An exhuberant movie full of fun, joy, and somber moments. My son who rarely likes all the superhero movies like I do really enjoyed this film.

Jumanji: The Next Level - Dawayne Johnson and Kevin Hart have great on-screen chemistry and I think I'd watch anything they're in. The fact that the ending serves up a nice message about aging is just icing on the cake.

Shazam - It only took something like eighty years for there to be big-screen adaptation of the original Captain Marvel, but the time was worth the wait. Everything you'd want from a Shazam movie is here, led by the incredibly charismatic Zachary Levi. Full review.

IT: Chapter Two - Both parts work well as a giant six-hour movie, but this second part brought the younger actors into the show more than I expected. The adult actors were all great, but this was my first time to see Bill Hader in a serious role. Wow. And that ending...

Older Movies I Saw in 2019


A Man Called Uve - My wife read the book, saw the movie, then watched it again as I saw it. Wonderful, wonderful film.

Jersey Girl - This was the year I decided to watch all of Kevin Smith's films in the lead-up to the new movie, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. I watched all the movies cold--that is, without any prep or even without watching the trailer. I had known how Smith and star Ben Affleck dog this film over the years, but it proved to be my favorite Smith film to date. A wonderful story about a single, widowed father coming to terms with what is most important in his life: his daughter. All the feels, all the tears both times I watched it. When does this movie get a critical re-examination for how good it really is? Full review

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 52 AKA Taking Stock

Well, here it is: the final post in my year-long series of what it's like to be an indie writer. If I'm being brutally honest, where I am now is not where I expected to be on New Year's Day 2019.

The Half Year of Calvin Carter


A year ago, I anticipated me releasing all six of my Calvin Carter novels. Well, I got out three, but with the fourth, I hit a snag. In the re-reading of it for typos, I realized the book wasn't all I thought it was. It needed some additional work, work that I've not completed. Why? Various reasons, part of which is I think the book needs a little help and I ended up going in other directions. The downside is that I didn't get all six books out in 2019. The upside is I have three books in the hopper ready to be released.

One Name


Another change I made this year was to consolidate all my books under one author name: Scott Dennis Parker. I had used S.D. Parker for my westerns but came to realize readers are smart people and they can look at a book cover and determine the genre. And who is to say a mystery reader might not also be interested in a western or whatever else I end up publishing in the future.

Writing Pace


I did not write as much as I expected this year. I went through fits and starts with the fiction writing. The blog writing was much more consistent. Perhaps that's the problem? I wonder what the total word count is between blog writing and fiction writing. I'm a little worried that the blog writing might beat the fiction writing total.

What I'm aiming for in 2020--and throughout the next decade--is consistency. It's all well and good to be able to write a story rapidly--I think it makes for a better story--but it doesn't do me any good if the pace is one of fits and starts.  It would be immensely better if I were to write a lower per day word count but write every day. As many authors have said over the years, one cannot help but get better with consistency.

So that's a goal for 2020: consistent writing pace. Be it slow or fast, be consistent.

A corollary is this: knowing when the desire to write wanes. Come the last two weeks of December, I'm all about consuming books, movies, Hallmark movies, music, Christmas stories, and almost anything else. I've not been in the mood to write in recent days, and that was the case last year. And the year before. See a trend? So do I.

Plan for off weeks and days and don't give myself crap for it.

Discoverability


The goal for any writer, especially an indie writer like me. How to get folks to know my stories are out in the world. There are the typical ways of ads, blog tours and the like. But I'm looking at more non-traditional means. And I'm thinking about focusing my efforts on my hometown of Houston.

What's that you ask? Well, I can help but think focusing on letting Houston readers know I have stories they might like--many of my tales are set here--is a good focus for 2020. Definitely won't stay focused only on Houston, but it'll be my main focus.

How? Direct mail. Advertisements in local papers. Things like that. Will it work? Who knows, but why not try?

Why not?

That's the thing that has bubbled up in my thinking this last quarter of 2019. Why not try different genres? Why not try romance? Why not try an out-and-out thriller? Why not try submitting stories to print magazines?

No reason whatsoever.

Onward to 2020...


Thanks for reading in 2019. I hope you continue to read as the next decade starts.

A few years ago, I read a phrase that got me up off my seat and do something: "A year from now, you will have wished you started today."

Now, we have a new decade on the horizon. This is the last Saturday of the 2010s. And to extrapolate the above phrase forward, it becomes this: "A decade from now, you will have wished you started this year."

So I am.