Saturday, January 30, 2021

The Fun of Regulated Reading

Do you ever regulate your reading?

I was struggling over what term to use so let me just explain. Last year, I did a little experiment. The book of Proverbs has 31 chapters. I decided that for every month that included 31 days, I would read a chapter of Proverbs per day. To keep things interesting, I changed translations every month. Then, at the end, I was able to go back and compare notes and compare verses that I underlined. It was a pretty fun experiment and, except for the transition from July into August, I never had a back to back month.

To January 2021. As I often do, I start to cycle through all of the things that have major anniversaries. Anything with a year ending in one or six are the key ones this year. In the first week, it was the 50th anniversary of Chicago III. That got me to thinking about music and what albums we’re gonna be celebrating major milestone anniversaries. It was my son – – an avid musicologist – – who reminded me I had a book on the shelf about the year 1971 in music. Why not just read it.

The book in question is titled Never a Dull Moment: 1971 The Year Rock Exploded by David Hepworth. It came out in 2016 and I think I might’ve had it since then. Born in 1950, Hepworth came of age about the same time that rock ‘n’ roll did. Those, he was 21 years old during 1971. He has written extensively about music since the 1980s. 

What got me excited about reading this book in 2021 was a table of contents. It is broken out by month. 12 chapters, 12 months, plus an introduction.

As soon as I saw that, I had a brilliant idea: read each chapter at the beginning of each month here in 2021 and go through the year 1971 with Hepworth. I had to read chapter 1 this week, but I'll get to chapter 2  on Monday. and then continue from there. That means Led Zepplin IV is in my future. So is Sticky Finger, Nursery Crime, Hunky Dory, What's Going On, Bryter Later, and Madman Across the Water. That's just the albums I know about. I can't wait to discover new-to-me albums.

And, if chapter one is any indication, this is going to be a blast. Hepworth writes in an engaging style, but primarily he writes only from the limited perspective of that month. He tells you what Bruce Springsteen was doing, the status of the band Slade, and how Yes was reimagining how music was recorded. He even drops a cliffhanger of an ending as the chapter closed about a woman who invented the album business.

But what makes these chapters special is that Hepworth includes a short playlist of songs that were popular in that month. I already made a January 1971 playlist and dang if I haven't discovered a new-to-me band: Badfinger.

Anyway, I don't know if you read books in this regulated manner or not, but I do, and I look forward to learning about 1971 fifty years later.

Are there other books that could be read in a regulated way?

Monday, January 25, 2021

Searching for the Yellow Paper and Finding a Gold Mine

I wanted it to be like it used to be, back in the day.

If you read this blog, I wax nostalgic about a lot of things. Ever since last year's 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, I've been in a forty-years-ago vibe. Not sure why. It's likely because 1980 was one of the big transition years: graduated elementary school and started middle school. Sure, getting to high school's a big deal, but for me, this was a huge one. It was the first time I went to a new school (I attended Chambers Elementary in Alief all six years), I started learning to play the saxophone, and it was a new decade.

Part of that forty-years-ago vibe is comics, and recently, I picked up my copies of The New Teen Titans. I am enjoying them and aim to keep re-reading them, now with my adult outlook on life.

As Inauguration Day 2021 occurred this past Wednesday, another image came to mind: Inauguration Day 1981. The teachers wheeled the TV into the classroom for us all to watch the swearing in of Ronald Reagan. By the way, for those old enough, was there ever a better thing to see when you entered a classroom than a TV or a film projector? You know the answer.

It was one of the first split screens I had ever witnessed. The American hostages, imprisoned for 444 days, were released on 20 January 1981, after Reagan was sworn in. I have no memory of what I thought on that day, but everything just seemed brighter. Throw in the space shuttle Columbia's inaugural launch in April and the spring of 1981 was a pretty good season for a sixth grader.

By 1981, I had already discovered the two comic book stores here in Houston: Roy's Memory Shop and Third Planet. My family didn't go out shopping during the week too often, so Saturdays were the days that included Shipley's Do-Nuts, Saturday morning cartoons, and trips to the comic store to pick up a few issues using my allowance. Great times.

Cut to this past Saturday. After I consumed some Shipley's do-nuts and watched Saturday morning cartoons on MeTV (and Wandavision), my son and I planned on going to Half Price Books. It had been awhile and we were both looking for some new-to-us music. But I also made a little promise to myself. I would look through the comic book section and buy an old comic. It didn't matter what it was or if there was only one. It didn't matter that I could easily download old comics on my iPad. It didn't matter that I could order a collection via Amazon and have it delivered.

I wanted to buy a comic, just like the old days.

How would I know what comic to buy? Easy. Just look for the yellowed paper.

Half Price gets comics of all shapes and sizes. Some are bagged and most are modern comics, so it's pretty easy to spot the older ones. Plus, those thick annuals are even more of a treasured find. A 64-page comic for a dollar? In fact, it was one of those that first caught my eye. A Bloodlines annual from 1993. Holy cow. When did a 1990s-era comic become old enough to be yellowed?

But a few comics away in that very same row was a group of comics, all with yellowing paper. My fingers walked to that stack and revealed the title: Atari Force #2. My fingers kept walking. There was issue three, four, five. I started counting until I got to issue twenty, advertised on the cover as the final issue. I quickly went back to two and flipped the comic in front of it. Special #1.

Holy cow. This was the entire run of a comic title I remember from the 1980s but never read. Here I was awash in nostalgia for the early 80s and wanting to buy an old comic. Why not twenty?


As it turned out, Special #1 was not, in fact, the first issue. It was an issue released a year after the run ended. But my son--not a comic book collector at all--had actually picked up a few Atari Force comics at a Free Comic Book Day a year or two ago. Viola! He had issue #1.


Atari Force was originally a 5-issue series created by Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, and Jose Garcia Lopez to accompany sales of Atari video game cartridges in 1982. This run started in October 1983 (cover date January 1984) and ran for twenty issues.

Just like the old day, I laid on the floor and read issues one and two and am already digging it. Where the letters column would have been was a short essay by editor Andy Helfer, bringing readers up-to-speed on what Atari Force was and is. Issue two has an origin story of the series penned by Conway along with Fact Files that focuses on the main characters, including major events in their lives. Fun to see some of those dates is still in our future here in 2021 while others are already in our past.

I'll write about the series when I finish, but one thing literally jumped off the page: Lopez's layouts. They are not always your standard number of squares on a page with white borders. He clearly had fun playing with borders and colors and styles and it's a joy to read.

What's also fun are the ads. From spaceship models based on Return of the Jedi and action figures based on DC properties like Warlord and Sgt. Rock (sold at Kmart) to Superman peanut butter and the NBC Saturday morning cartoon lineup (The Flintstone Funnies with Fred and Barney dressed as cops?), I enjoyed remembering those old days, even if for only a few minutes.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

A Different Kind of Writing Block

How often do you restart a novel you’ve set aside?

I am an obsessive saver of things when it comes to my writing. I’ve got paper and digital notes all over the place. Most of the time, I date them so that I can have a record of a novel’s progress. Perhaps it’s the historian in me who wants to catalog every step of a process.

I keep abandoned drafts as well, again, both in paper and digital. Sometimes, I return to these fragments and pick them up to see if I can use them. For the ones that get a second life, there’s generally two philosophies on new usage: edit what you wrote or write the entire thing from scratch.

It’s a safe assumption that however long the document has remained unused, you’ve become a better writer. There have been times in which I’ve returned to a piece, read it, and was shocked that my Younger Self thought it was good. Other times I’ve re-read something and nodded my head having been reminded I can string some words together in a nice manner.

I’ve been thinking about this most of this month as my first writing project in 2021 is to restart a novel I’ve set aside more than once. Back in 2013, I wrote the entire novel that summer. It was a bloated affair, but it was complete. In fact, it was the second manuscript I ever completed, but it needed work.

In the past few years, I picked it up and created a 2.0 version but it didn’t pan out either. I had an amalgamated 3.0 version consisting of about 23,000a words and that was what I started with on New Year’s Day 2021. I nipped and tucked, tweaked and expanded the story until I reached about the 19,000-word mark. That’s when things went off the rails.

What the heck had I written? Seriously, Scott, you call that good?

No, it wasn’t. It needed some serious work.

That work was not easy. I had the actual prose printed out in front of me. I had the revised story structure via notecards next to me as well. How to reconcile?

My 5am writing sessions are limited to about 60-70 minutes. I have a hard stop where I put aside the fiction writing in favor of getting ready for the day job. I also don’t return to the fiction until the next day’s 5am writing session.

This particular section tasked me for about four days. Originally, I tried to simply read and edit and add in new words in and around the old words, but that proved too slow. My 2021 brain and writing chops would start going off on tangents I didn’t expect.

That was when I realized the 2021 Writing Brain was taking over. And I let it.

In the end, I ended up rewriting most of the chapter from scratch. It is a much better chapter than before and I’m pretty jazzed about it.

This particular section was a hurdle for me. I kept banging my head on it and it wasn’t until I allowed the skill and experience I acquired in the years since I first wrote the original prose to take over that the hurdle was surpassed.

It was a wonderful relief.

Do you have experiences like this? Do you give way when your more experienced self intuitively knows what to do to fix and old piece you wrote?

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Do you have a writer’s haven? (Plus the math of the business)

I’m an optimist by nature and nurture so I always see the bright side of things. The glass is half full kinda guy. But there’s a lot of sucky stuff going on right now in the world. I see it on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I read about it on the internet. It dominates the nightly news and the late talk shows. It rears its head at the dinner table and on phone conversations with family and friends. It is everywhere.

Except when I write.

When it’s just me, the keyboard, and my imagination, the world is a thousand miles away. I don’t let anything interfere with my writing time. I keep the world out.

Now, the “when” plays a huge role. I’m a 5am Writer, at least on the weekdays. Weekends involve some sleeping in, but I’m still a morning writer. Fundamental to my writing schedule is a simple directive: don’t let the outside world in—in any capacity—until after I’ve done my writing. The only thing open is my imagination. There will be time enough for all the other stuff later in the day.

On most mornings, I have about an hour where I do nothing but write. That’s 60 minutes. However many minutes you have, be sure to make them count.

Speaking of count, here’s the math part of the post.

This week on Twitter [Sounds like a segment on the local news, huh?], I replied to a question” What do you say to the writer who says “I don’t have time to write.”

My answer is simple: Do you have a spare 15 minutes in a day?

If so, you could write 250-500 words a day, 1,750-3,500 a week, 7,500-15,000 a month, and 91,250-182,500 a year. That’s more than enough to write more than one novel and many short stories. Everyone has a spare 15 minutes. Just choose to write.

And keep the world at bay.