Saturday, July 30, 2016

Vacation Writing

I don’t know about y’all, fellow writers, but vacations can be great times to do some work.

Back in 2005, I started my first novel. I kept working on it during my 2006 vacation. I have worked almost every vacation since then. Even last year, when the family and I traveled to San Antonio, I got the wife to drive while I sat in the back seat, iPod Touch wedged under the head rest, bluetooth keyboard on my lap, and my fingers flying. Heck, I did something like 8,000 words on one travel day.

So, when it came time to pack for my just-completed trip out west to Big Bend, Texas, I was ready. I printed out my notes. I had my synopses for a couple of westerns I have in process. I had pencils and different color pens. A whole pack of index cards. Post-it notes, both big and small. The small ones were even different colors. I still have the same Apple keyboard. I have an iPhone now. And, best of all, the brand-new Scrivener for iOS app dropped the day before we left. Man, I was ready for some awesome writing.

The trip out to Del Rio, Texas, was pretty good. I managed to think through the ending of a western novella and crack open the dam that was blocking me. By the time we arrived in Del Rio after a 5.5-hour drive, I just knew I was gonna blaze away.

Turns out, I didn’t write a thing.

For whatever reason, I didn’t break open my iPhone and write new prose. Part of the reason likely was the accidental breaking of my consecutive writing streak. Without that streak alive, I didn’t feel compelled to write every day.

And I was okay with that. It was a nice break, to be honest. During those down times where I would have written, I read. Seeing as how I was going to Big Bend, I ended up choosing RETURN OF THE RIO KID by Brett Halliday writing as Don Davis. It was set in the Big Bend region. Why not read a book like that?

No reason at all.

That break from writing actually helped fuel my desire to get back to writing. Thursday, on the way home, I sat in the back seat and wrote nearly the entire way back. I didn’t write new prose, however. I worked on the new Lillian Saxton novel. And it went splendidly. I’m getting excited to start this new book.

I guess we all need a little break every now and then. I had mine. Time to get back on the writing wagon.

How about y’all? Do y’all take breaks from writing?

Friday, July 29, 2016

Vacation Books

I just returned from a wonderful eight-day trip out to Texas’s Big Bend country. For those of y’all that don’t know where it it, visualize a map of Texas. Now, from the far left point, follow the Rio Grande (southern border) from El Paso to Brownsville. Big Bend is literally the point where the river makes a big bend. The family and I hiked, saw stars and satellites every night, and just enjoyed being away from the everyday.

Naturally, one of the things I love doing is visiting bookstores and antique stores. Interestingly, there were very few of each, although the antique stores outnumbered the bookstores. Two of the bookstores I visited were in Alpine, Texas, a great little town along Highway 90. Front Street Books is a block or two down from the Amtrak train station. They have new and used books. They had some old western pulp magazines, but I zeroed in on a couple of books.

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I have only a few Longarm novels, but how could I pass up the adventure that takes place in the Big Bend region?

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Ironically, there was a Star Western pulp magazine in the back, but I found this anthology instead. At $6.00, I was pretty much gonna buy it anyway, but the inclusion of a Day Keene story is what took it over the top.

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The Alpine Public Library has a used book store and a nice western section. Lots of Louis L’Amour, but I selected this title based on the author and, especially, the cover painting.

Now, on the way back, we stopped in Uvalde, Texas, (also on Highway 90) at the Antiques on the Square store. I had traversed the entire store, not really finding anything that struck my fancy, until I was near the checkout counter. On a shelf, tucked almost unseen, was this book.

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You are probably wondering why in the world I would buy this book from 1943. Because I write a series of books set in 1940 and will continue through World War II and beyond. This book is chock full of data, tables, photos, and details that the internet will likely just not have. In addition, many of the laws and executive orders are reprinted. To sum up, this is a perfect reference for future novels!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Stranger Things, Part 1

My nostalgia typically runs through the 1970s. That was my first decade of life (born in 1968). It included KISS, Star Wars, comics, Legos, elementary school, Saturday morning cartoons, and many more discoveries. The 1980s was the decade I came of age: Middle school, high school, music, girls, movies, graduation in 1987. Not sure why, but I tend to overlook the 1980s in my trips down nostalgia lane. Not that I didn’t have a great time in that decade. I did. I had a pretty great time during those years. But I rarely return to them.

So it came as an interesting curiosity when I saw the trailer to Stranger Things, the 8-episode TV series from Netflix. Perhaps I had been away from the 80s for so long, mentally, that everything in this trailer piqued my interest. To be honest, I got pretty darn excited about seeing the show. The trailer itself seemed to check off just about every 80s visual reference you could imagine. Camera moving across backyard a la ET? Check. Flashlight emerging from elevator, also reminiscent of ET? Check. Boys on bikes? Check. Boys finding an “ET” and bringing her home? Check. Wait a second. Are all these images from ET? No, but Stranger Things is a love letter to Steven Spielberg’s films and Stephen King’s books. It's even got "Stephen King" font on the title card! Oh, and John Carpenter’s film scores.

I’m up through Episode 5 of the show, and boy am I digging this series. The creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, lather on so much 80s goodness in just about every shot and line of script that it’ll make you wonder if Netflix didn’t just discover some long-lost TV show from 1983. Heck, if you were to play a drinking game where you verbally identify a shot or a line of dialogue from an 80s movie, you’d be smashed halfway through the first episode. But all of this 80s love is not played ironically. This is real, genuine love of the era and its movies.

The basic plot is revealed in the trailer. Will, one of a quartet of young nerdlings, disappears after he rides home at night after a terrific game of Dungeons and Dragons. Winona Ryder is his single mom who was working. His older brother, Jonathan, is a loner who likes to take pictures with his camera and worked an extra shift the previous night. Quickly they realize Will is missing and things get started.

The leader of the young nerds, Mike, convinces his pals that they can find Will whereas the cops and adults cannot. In their nighttime hunt, they discover a girl. She won’t say anything. Her shaved head makes her look odd as does the tattoo of “011” on her forearm. They take her back to Mike’s house and hide her in the basement. Quickly, they figure out she has some special powers. She also knows where Will is: “Hiding.”

Meanwhile, Mike’s sister, Nancy, is infatuated with a boy, Steve, sort of a bad boy. He’s slept around but she’s a bookworm. Her friend, Barb, warns Nancy that Steve’s no good, but Nancy only has googly eyes for the handsome lad. Barb and Nancy go to a party at Steve’s house while his parents are away. Nancy makes some questionable choices and Barb bides her time outside on the diving board. Until something snatches her.

Sheriff Jim Hopper is a divorcee who self medicates. In typical fashion in a show like this, initially he’s reluctant to listen to the wailings of Will’s mom, chalking up her words to a frantic mother. But soon, however, he changes his mind.

Needless to say, all of these plot threads start to converge around episode 4. And I’ll freely admit that I’m in the dark on where this show is going. I’ve got a general idea, but I’m willing to just let the show take me where it will.

Oh, and Matthew Modine is now playing the Peter Coyote role. Bonus points if you get the reference.

I’m enjoying the heck out of this show. Ryder is great as the crazy-with-worry mother. I remember thinking during the first episode “How old must I be if Winona Ryder is playing the mom?” Old enough. All the cast are doing great. The youngsters are straight out of a Goonies casting call, but I’m fine with that. Absolutely love the music! Pure early 80s synth moody soundtrack.

I’m definitely looking forward to finishing this series. It’s a television highlight of the summer.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Western Words

I live and write in 2016, the 21st Century, and there isn’t any real way to know how folks talked in the Old West. The only way to discover what words people used in conversation is to read then-contemporary documents and glean what I can and put it in my stories.

There is, however, another way: western novels and stories. From the earliest days, authors sometimes had the opportunity to interview real old west cowboys. Or these future authors—I’m thinking of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Lester Dent—they actually grew up around some of these cowboys. No matter how the early 20th Century authors got their data, they put what they learned or knew into their stories.

Over the years and decades of western writing, a vocabulary of how writers described things emerged. A more or less common way to make these cowboy heroes, villains, and lovely ladies speak also emerged. Ever since the first western I read, I quickly realized that western writers simply had their own unique vocabulary.

So I started reading westerns with a pencil in hand.

Every time I came across some new term, I’d circle the word. Every new-to-me western I read, I repeated this practice. It’s second nature to me now. Even the Longarm novel I picked up in Austin last weekend—Longarm and the Bank Robber’s Daughter—has multiple new words for me. Even when I read stories on my Kindle, I highlight words and phrases and collect them when I'm done.

Now, I have an ever-growing “database” of words I can use to sprinkle into my Triple Action Western stories and give them more authenticity and help the reader—and me—become immersed into the world of the Old West.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Movie Review: Hail, Caesar

MV5BMjQyODc3MTI2NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDMxMjU2NzE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Up front confession: I didn’t finish the film. I tried. Maybe I was tired. Maybe the idea of taking out the trash on a Sunday night was more appealing than the movie. I don’t know. But I just couldn’t finish the film.

What was surprising was that it was tailor-made for someone like me. It’s a period piece, set in the early 1950s. It’s an inside look at Hollywood through the eyes of Josh Broil’s character, Eddie Mannix, an executive who is described as a “fixer,” a guy who does his best to cover up the real excesses of Hollywood celebrities in order to maintain the fiction of Hollywood itself as a golden paradise where everyone is always good. He actually did a pretty good job. I like the idea of following him around.

In fact, perhaps the neatest thing is when directors/writers Ethan and Joel Coen follow Mannix around the lot of Capital Pictures and the camera shows us various movies being filmed. Scarlett Johanssen is shown when one movie is staging one of those synchronized water dance pieces and she’s dressed as a mermaid. That was fun, until she threw her crown and struck the band leader, killing the scene. Now you realize that they’ll have to do the whole thing all over again because one person, the star, screwed it up. Another number I really enjoyed was Channing Tatum’s tap dance routine on the set of a picture about sailor’s about to ship out. I loved this sequence not only because it looked like the film itself, but, partway through the piece, Mannix walks in and we get a scene of the piece from behind the scenes.

Now, you might think that this praise on these set pieces would get me through the rest of the movie. Ironically, as I type this, I’m beginning to realize what the movie is going for. The overall story is that big star Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney (I will watch anything he's in), has been kidnapped by communists. The commies have demanded a $100,000 ransom. When I turned off the film, Mannix had collected the dough and was prepared to meet the kidnappers somewhere.

But the movie was so disjointed. Ralph Fiennes, as director Laurence Laurentz, was frustrated by being told he had to work with cowboy star, Hobie Doyle, played by future Han Solo, Alden Ehrenreich. I had the wikipedia page pulled up for him and learned who he was while watching his scenes. Suddenly, now that there was a Star Wars connection, I watched him intently. I could see Ehrenreich as a young Harrison Ford.

Argh! I’m digressing, but that’s what I faced last night while watching the movie. I’m beginning to think I was just tired. Maybe the pinot grigio relaxed me too much. Maybe I’ll give the film another go, at least finish it.

Anyone out there see the whole thing? Shall I get back to it or did I just miss point?

P.S., Okay, I just re-watched the trailer. I think I'll try and finish it tonight. Still, anyone out there see this flick?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Movie Review: The Secret Life of Pets

MV5BMjQyODc3MTI2NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDMxMjU2NzE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Up front confession: I didn’t finish the film. I tried. Maybe I was tired. Maybe the idea of taking out the trash on a Sunday night was more appealing than the movie. I don’t know. But I just couldn’t finish the film.

What was surprising was that it was tailor-made for someone like me. It’s a period piece, set in the early 1950s. It’s an inside look at Hollywood through the eyes of Josh Broil’s character, Eddie Mannix, an executive who is described as a “fixer,” a guy who does his best to cover up the real excesses of Hollywood celebrities in order to maintain the fiction of Hollywood itself as a golden paradise where everyone is always good. He actually did a pretty good job. I like the idea of following him around.

In fact, perhaps the neatest thing is when directors/writers Ethan and Joel Coen follow Mannix around the lot of Capital Pictures and the camera shows us various movies being filmed. Scarlett Johanssen is shown when one movie is staging one of those synchronized water dance pieces and she’s dressed as a mermaid. That was fun, until she threw her crown and struck the band leader, killing the scene. Now you realize that they’ll have to do the whole thing all over again because one person, the star, screwed it up. Another number I really enjoyed was Channing Tatum’s tap dance routine on the set of a picture about sailor’s about to ship out. I loved this sequence not only because it looked like the film itself, but, partway through the piece, Mannix walks in and we get a scene of the piece from behind the scenes.

Now, you might think that this praise on these set pieces would get me through the rest of the movie. Ironically, as I type this, I’m beginning to realize what the movie is going for. The overall story is that big star Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney (I will watch anything he's in), has been kidnapped by communists. The commies have demanded a $100,000 ransom. When I turned off the film, Mannix had collected the dough and was prepared to meet the kidnappers somewhere.

But the movie was so disjointed. Ralph Fiennes, as director Laurence Laurentz, was frustrated by being told he had to work with cowboy star, Hobie Doyle, played by future Han Solo, Alden Ehrenreich. I had the wikipedia page pulled up for him and learned who he was while watching his scenes. Suddenly, now that there was a Star Wars connection, I watched him intently. I could see Ehrenreich as a young Harrison Ford.

Argh! I’m digressing, but that’s what I faced last night while watching the movie. I’m beginning to think I was just tired. Maybe the pinot grigio relaxed me too much. Maybe I’ll give the film another go, at least finish it.

Anyone out there see the whole thing? Shall I get back to it or did I just miss point?

P.S., Okay, I just re-watched the trailer. I think I'll try and finish it tonight. Still, anyone out there see this flick?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Book Review: Cross Kill by James Patterson

lg-bookshots-cross-killI’ve never read a James Patterson book before now. It wasn’t that I had anything against him. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I just didn’t have the time to keep up with his prodigious output. Actually, I’ve long admired Patterson in his strategies to produce as many books per year as possible and to generate new readers. That was why his Bookshots idea struck a chord with me. Patterson had the idea of writing shorter books, making them fast paced, and charging readers only $5. I liked the idea of creating smaller, faster reads for folks who may not have read a book since high school. That’s certainly not me, but I have come along for the ride.

The first book in the initiative is Cross Kill. It’s an Alex Cross story. The only thing I knew going in about Alex Cross was that both Morgan Freeman and Tyler Perry portrayed the character in movies. I’ve actually seen none of them. I’m not sure how many Cross novels Patterson has written, but I thought starting with Cross was a good idea. All the characters are new to me so, like the proverbial dude who hasn’t read anything since high school, I went in cold.

Police detective Cross and his partner, John Sampson, are working in a soup kitchen. Gunshots ring out and they investigate. When they get back into the preparation area, there’s a man waiting for them. He fires at both the police officers, striking Cross’s partner. But the really weird thing is that the shooter looks exactly like Gary Soneji, the main villain from Along Came a Spider. But Soneji is supposed to be dead a decade or so. According to Cross Kill, Alex Cross watched Soneji die in a ball of flames. But here Soneji is, seemingly back from the grave and ready to take out his vengeance on Alex Cross.

As if Cross didn’t already need a motive to investigate, Sampson is shot in the head and isn’t expected to survive. Now, Cross is even more driven to figure out who this shooter is and why he looks so much like his arch-enemy.

The story moves along at a fast clip. Even when Cross is hunting for clues or interviewing someone, the pace rarely slows. I went back and re-read some pages to figure out why. It turns out Patterson doesn’t spend a lot of time with description. He sketches a scene with a few words and leaves it up to reader to fill in the blanks. Not a bad way to write. I didn’t notice until I actually examined the prose. Besides, if it gets non-readers to read, who cares.

I’m a newbie to Patterson and Alex Cross so I imagine lots of the dialogue and thoughts would mean a whole lot more to folks who have already read the books or seen those movies, but I got through it. I was rarely lost because the gaps were mostly filled in and I could deduce the rest.

Then there the ending. It’s a cliffhanger. A pretty big one at that. In many of the self-publishing podcasts and blogs I read, a good deal of discussion is given to cliffhangers, both pro and con. While I don’t usually mind a certain type of cliffhanger—say, the end of Star Wars where Luke has blown up the Death Star but Darth Vader has escaped and you know he’ll return—this one is pretty out there. Even a tad aggravating. To make matters worse, there isn’t any “Come back in September for the exciting conclusion!” so I’m not sure when this sequel will land.

Other than the end, I enjoyed the book. Actually, truth be told, the ending didn't bother me too much. I smiled at how well Patterson hooked me. And, yeah, I’ll be buying the sequel.

Job well done, Mr. Patterson.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

RTX/SGC 2016 Convention in Austin

I’m used to comic book and SF conventions. The people who attend are, by and large, my people. I’m one of them. But an internet/gaming/YouTube convention? I’m more of a bystander, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a blast at the RTX/SGC convention in Austin over the weekend.

According to the website, “RTX is a three day gaming and internet culture event hosted by Rooster Teeth!” The con was held at the Austin Convention Center (ACC), one block north of Town Lake. I graduated from The University of Texas at Austin but I never had cause—or knew about—the ACC. Man, is it huge. And packed with a lot of people. The percentage of cosplayers was not as high as Comicpalooza in Houston, but they were still there. Most of the attendees were folks with ages ranging from teenagers to upper twenties. I saw a decent number of younger kids with parents in two and some folks more my age without a young chaperon, but, by and large, this seemed to be a young person’s con.

That being said, the first area you see right inside the main doors was the retro arcade games! Asteroids! Tron (very glitchy)! Donkey Kong! Pole Position II! Star Wars! <—this was the original Star Wars vector graphics game which I still know how to play and win. That made my day.

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Two YouTubers were the big draw for me and my boy. Jirard the Completionist is a dude who, as his name implies, completes a game every week.

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ProJared is another reviewer/game player who is highly thought of here at my house.

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Both are funny guys. We attended both panels on Saturday. Now, what that means is that we sat in line at 1pm, attended the Completionist panel at 2pm, got back in line at 3pm, and then saw ProJared at 4pm. That may sound…interesting…but being in line at a con like this can actually be fun. You start up conversations with folks and share stories. The Completionist picked 8 audience members to come up and play a Super Smash Bros. tournament. ProJared’s experience doing stand-up comedy was on full display. Both panels were a lot of fun.

The weekend was not without its challenges. As soon as we got to Austin, the transmission in my dad’s van decided to stop working. Enter: tow truck. Enter: Toyota dealership. Enter: Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Enter: being 4 hours late to the start of the convention. Ugh! But…that delay enabled us to be at the exact right spot for us to meet the Completionist and ProJared just walking around the convention floor! So we got our photos without having to wait in any lines! So it all worked out.

Conventions. Love’em. Love the people and the vibes.

Oh, and I found myself on TV.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan

The_Legend_of_Tarzan_posterI’m to the point now where I rarely, if ever, read any reviews prior to seeing a movie. I watch the trailer and if it grabs me, I’ll go see the movie. And, boy, did the Legend of Tarzan trailer grab me! I had no idea there was a new Tarzan movie being made so the trailer was a happy surprise. But a lot of times, trailers stuff all the best parts into the previews and leave nothing for the movie. Would LoT suffer the same fate?

No! Absolutely not! If you love Tarzan, if you love adventure movies, this is a great film. Highly entertaining with many sequences that had me smiling and all but cheering out loud.

Legends of Tarzan starts with a decision that was probably the best decision possible: make this movie NOT be the origin. When the film opens, John Clayton III is already back in London, in the House of Lords. He’s married to Jane Porter and they are living their lives happily. His days as Tarzan are legend. Those stories are already printed in dime novels of the day. Now, scattered throughout the movie are flashbacks to Tarzan’s origin. And they worked well to educate those who may not know Tarzan’s story—who, exactly, is this?—and to flesh out this story’s through line. I suppose some folks in this century might not know Tarzan, but they will be fully up-to-date after LoT.

The story kicks off with an invitation from the King of Belgium for Lord Greystoke to travel to the Congo and tour the new schools and such. Unbeknownst to John Clayton is that this plan is really an elaborate ruse by Leon Rom, played by Christopher Waltz, to lure Tarzan down to the Congo to capture him and deliver him to Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou). Mbonga, you see, has his eye on vengeance because Tarzan killed Mbenga’s son. Reluctantly, Tarzan agrees to the trip and is accompanied not only by Jane (Margot Robbie) but Samuel Jackson, playing Dr. George Washington Williams. Now, Jackson was nowhere in the trailers so he was a complete surprise to me. He brought the comedic relief. He also served as a surrogate audience member not familiar with all that Tarzan can do. He performed his task just like you’d expect Samuel Jackson to do. After all, in 2016, Jackson only play one character: “Samuel Jackson.” If you like that, you’ll be fine with him. If you don’t, he’ll be annoying. I’ll admit I was initially jarred when I realized Jackson wasn’t just in a cameo, but I like him so I went with it.

If you have read any of the books—I’ve only read the first three—or seen any of the movies, you know what’s going to happen so there’s little use in relating it here. Jane gets herself captured and Tarzan must rescue her. Heck, even the trailer has Christopher Waltz deliver a standout line: “He’s Tarzan. You’re Jane. He will come.” In order to do that, Tarzan and his growing team of allies, both animal and human, traverse through the jungle where Tarzan meets up with old friends and enemies. It is in these scenes where modern technology has finally allowed you to see the images in your head when you read the books. The gorillas are HUGE and vicious. The elephants even huger but graceful. And the jungle environs are exactly what I wanted to see.

An interesting note to the characters of Jackson and Waltz. Both don’t know what Tarzan can do so each comment—almost meta-comment—on what’s happening. It’s humorous and it didn’t take me out of the film. But I can see where some might find that irritating. No one in the theater yesterday minded a bit. We laughed at the funny spots and a few folks clapped when the movie was over.

Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd is new to me. I never watched True Blood so, for me, he was Tarzan. He did such a great job showing you how difficult it was for John Clayton to hold back his savage upbringing in London. Even in Africa, when the chase is on, initially, he is still reticent. But when Jane is taken, boy, hold onto your hats. Even Jane tells Waltz basically “You have no idea what’s in store for you.” She says it with such honesty that it comes across not as bragging but as a certainty.

There are so many great sequences in this film that to tell but a few would spoil it for y’all. The stampede in the trailer is exactly what you think it is and it hearkens back to The Beasts of Tarzan where he can talk to the animals. Waltz’s little accouterment is interesting and I’d like someone more versed in the lore to let me know if it’s from the books or made up for the movie. Either way, I thought it pretty nifty. The soundtrack by Rupert Gregson-Williams is pretty good at mixing African beats and sounds with traditional orchestral music. In many scenes, with the vista of Africa on the screen, the music swirled to match.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, whether he was writing Tarzan, John Carter, Caron of Venus, or who knows what else, often had a standard plot formula: girl gets kidnapped and guy must rescue her. It’s old fashioned, but it’s also pure. You don’t need anything else. You don’t need angst. You only need love. Love drives the character to great feats of daring-do to save the one he loves. It has it slow moments, but that’s only to let you catch your breath before the next action sequence. It is a modern pulp adventure movie with all the trappings of modern movie making behind it.

If you love that kind of movie, you will love this movie.

I do, and I did.

It hit every beat I want to see, that I expected to see, but did so in such a way as to be greater than the sum of its parts. This is a fantastic summer movie that I will be adding to my DVD collection later this year.