Saturday, May 29, 2021

100 Days: The Summer of Productivity

Here in the US, every new president is judged by what he does in his first one hundred days. It harkens back to 1933 when Franklin Roosevelt entered office in the midst of the Great Depression and accomplished a dizzying amount of laws and regulations in a little over three months. Every subsequent president is measured by that same yardstick even though most haven't experienced the dire circumstances FDR faced. Still, everyone does it and it has become standard. In fact, it shaped President Biden's early agenda, with his administration's efforts all focused on that date.

For us creatives, having bookends by which to measure our creativity is also a good thing, but how often do we start something on any given day and then have to mark a calendar at our desired end point? Often, we literally count days on a paper calendar and do the math in our heads.

But summers provide us with obvious an obvious beginning and an obvious ending. Memorial Day kicks off the summer vibe while Labor Day concludes it. What happens in between is defined as 'summer.' It doesn't matter that summer's heat extends--at least here in Houston--into September and October. What matters is a codifed set of days that counts as perhaps the best time of the year. Yeah, the holiday season is great, too, and it is the most wonderful time of the year, but over the past decade or so, I have really started to enjoy summer. The low-key vibe, the refreshing cocktails, the grilling of anything, the summer movie blockbusters, the beach reads. It's just a great time to kick back and just take it easy.

It is also a time to work and be productive.

For those of us for whom their creative job is second to a day job, our productivity is parceled out among our day job responsibilities. It's why I wake in the 5am hour on weekdays to write and, when I'm at the office, write during lunch on my Chromebook. While doing the creative thing isn't that different during the summer than any other time of year, with a definate beginning and end, the summer season has, by default, a running clock. A countdown if you will. Labor Day can be your deadline. It's real and set in stone and everyone knows it.

So that's why I have, in the past few years, used summer as a time of greater productivity. Often I start and end something fresh. This year, however, I'm still laboring over my current work in progress, so the primary goal of summer 2021 is to complete that manuscript. And publish my next novel. 

Those are my tentpole objectives in the Summer of 2021.

What are yours?

Note: You get a 100 days if you start today. It's 99 if you start tomorrow and 98 if you start Monday. I'm not counting Labor Day as a work day. That'll be a day of celebration for completing that which you accomplished this summer.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Amateur Sleuth Trims Down Suspect List in Death at the Salon by Louise R. Innes

Daisy Thorne owns the Ooh-La-La hair salon in the small English town of Edgemead. As is her routine, she takes care of her last customer, cleans up the place, and, on that evening, amid a torrential rainstorm, leaves out the back door. It is there when she discovers Mel Haverstock, lying on the ground, Daisy's own cutting shears jutting into the victim's back. 

Well, that's not good. But, she does the dutiful thing and reports the crime to the local police. DCI Paul McGuinness arrives and surveys the evidence. By-the-book guy that he is and despite their prior relationship in solving another crime, McGuinness does the only thing the evidence suggests: brings Daisy in for questioning. She's got motive: Mel and Daisy were not the best of friends back in high school. She's got the weapon: those were Daisy's scissors in Mel's back after all. She's got no alibi: she was alone in the salon. And Daisy's DNA is on the victim's clothes. What's a cop to do? 

Well, what's an amateur detective to do but clear her name while staying often one step ahead of McGuinness's own investigation.

As I've mentioned before, I'm reading lots of cozy mysteries in 2021, a genre I've barely read in the past. I call it Cozy College and the primary reading list is the Cozy Corner subscription service through Houston's Murder by the Book. This book list is curated by the bookstore's own John McDougall and Death at a Salon is the April selection. To date, John has selected first-in-series books, but Death at a Salon by Louise R. Innes is the second. The first book's events were referenced through this current book, but you really don't need to have read Death at a Country Mansion to enjoy Death at the Salon.

And boy did I enjoy this novel. Up until now, my favorite of the Cozy Corner books was February's Murder at the Beacon Bakeshop, but Death at the Salon might take the top spot. I'm a fan of the various BBC mystery shows that make their way across the pond so that probably plays a factor. This book has all the Englishisms I've seen in those shows, like tea drinking, small-town settings, and a nice and varied cast of characters. But if you don't like the lead character, any book or TV show falls apart. Happy to say that Daisy is delightful and instantly likable. 

She keeps her cool under pressure, but still comes across as real. She fears for herself were she not to clear her name and hurts when other things happen to folks she knows. Author Louise Innes plays out the subtle romantic thread between Daisy and Paul very well, especially as the events put a strain on their delicate relationship. For his part, Paul is nicely characterized not simply as a gruff policeman nor as the hunk Daisy pines for, but as one who likes Daisy yet still has a job to do. Those two positions clash within him as the story goes on, and it's fascinating to see how it plays out. 

Interestingly for an amateur sleuth, Daisy is actually pursuing an criminology diploma at a local college. I'm guessing it's because of her solving the first case, but I'm not sure. Thus, throughout the story, she'll drop some nugget she learned from her studies and apply it to the current case, even when that something is used against her, like when she's arrested for the crime. I found that to be actually realistic. 

What I especially loved was the ending. Taking a page from Agatha Christie herself and with the flair of Nick Charles from the Thin Man movies, Daisy and Paul bring all the suspects into the same space. I'll give you zero guesses as to the location. There, the true culprit is revealed. Innes does a great job at keeping the villain hidden from the reader, compelling you to keep turning pages. She is the author of twenty-five novels so she knows how to pace a story. It is effortless here and carried me to the last page.

Which is where I jumped off and found her website. She writes different styles of books under variations of her name. What's great about the site for the Daisy Thorne series is you can get a free ebook prequel by signing up to her newsletter. Done. You can also purchase the first book in the series, Death at a Country Manor. Done. And, later this year, the third book in the series, Death at Holly Hall will be published. I'll eagerly be waiting.

In the accompanying postcard he includes with the paperback, John mentioned he wanted to feature a story not set in America. I reached out to John this week and asked him why he selected Death at the Salon. "Part of the reason was the release date. Because cozy readers tend to stay up on new releases I'm trying to pick current titles that they hopefully haven't picked up yet. But I also really loved the first in the series. There are some great British cozies that revolve around bookstores and libraries, but a salon is a perfect setting for a cozy, and I'm surprised we don't see more of them. They're ideal community hubs for gossip and sleuthing. I'd been looking for the right non-US set book to feature, and Innes's combination of setting and characters is really wonderful."

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@Barrie Summy

Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Value of a State-of-the-Business Examination

It all started with a question and it ended up with a complete evaluation of my writing and publishing life.

One of my longtime book club friends--we're going on our twelfth year together--has a side business and it is not going as well as he envisioned. He explained why and then turned his attention to me. "How's the publishing game?  It's been a few years now, are you encouraged by how it's proceeding?"

What began as a reply to his email turned into a 3,300-word (and counting) evaluation of my writing life, my publishing life, where I am now, and where I want to go. With the day job and the family stuff, I don't have a ton of free time on my hands so the exercise stretched out the entire week. Not coincidentally, 1 May is my Writer's New Year's Day, a commemoration of my decision back on 1 May 2013 to start writing with purpose.

What followed was a technique I've used for years: a written dialogue. This is one where I ask questions of myself and then I answer them. And, since I'm literally talking with myself, I get to be brutally honest. Who else is gonna read this, right? 

Am I encouraged? That is an interesting way to ask how it's going. I've been pondering it for a few days and I have a two-part response: No, not really, but, at the same time, I have not been giving it the attention it deserves if I want to see results.

The Analysis Begins

Thus, by answering with a qualified 'no,' I started analyzing the parts of the business I can control. It goes back to one of my favorite phrases about publishing: Control the Controllables. I can control my writing, how much time I devote to it, and what I write. This is absent all talk of sales. I truly cannot control that. Neither can you. No one can. But we can control what we write. For me, it boiled down to time and speed. I can write fast and I can start a writing session on-the-run (so I don't have to build up speed) so the words the flow out usually are not a problem. 

Time proved the key factor. Despite me working from home, I realized I began 'sleeping in' on weekdays. When I had a commute, I used to wake at 5am. I kept that routine at the start of the working-from-home phase, but over the past year, my wakeup time slid later and later. Throw in the morning Bible reading and the amount of time I have to write in the pre-day-job quiet of the house ended up being 30-45 minutes. Sure, those minutes and words add up, but they are not truly as productive as I used to be.

Thus, to rectify my writing time, to control the controllables, I started waking earlier. Consequently, I also went to bed earlier. Give and take, right? I’ll be continuing that next week and the week after.

What is the Roadmap?

That’s the simple part. The larger thing is publishing schedule. I examined my available manuscripts. Including my current WIP, I have a dozen books either completely finished or close enough for a thorough edit. Why are these books not already in the pipeline? To that question, I had no answer. Laziness? Chalk it up to ‘not enough time in the week’? Hogwash. If I’m an indie author, then I make the time to publish what I write. I haven’t been. But I will be. 

Thus, I made a publishing schedule for the next 2.5 years. I’m still fine tuning it and allowing for me to slip in newly written manuscripts—I’m pretty jazzed on the current WIP and its sequels—but I have a roadmap. It’s what traditional publishers do, right? Same should be for me. And you, if you’re an indie. The next book I’ll publish is my Harry Truman book this summer.

Fixing the Online Stuff

Armed with a new publishing schedule, I examined my online life, specifically the websites. I have my blogspot blog which dates back over fourteen years and I don’t want to ditch it. I have my author website that needs a refresh. And I have my new project that’ll I’ll tease here for a summer launch, probably around the time of the Truman book’s publication. I’ve already stopped updating one website and will disband it this month. No need mentioning it here. It’s for the dustbin. 

Another aspect of online life is engagement. While I’m decent at it, I’m not as engaged as I want to be. Expect to see a little bit more of myself online on Twitter and Facebook.

The biggest online challenge is to create an online store. It’’ll be a way to sell direct to readers that’ll be as seamless as other online stores, enable me to increase my outreach, and pocket a little extra cash. The tools for this are present, I just need to implement them.

So, after a week’s worth of reassessment and the creation of a new roadmap, I have a better handle on my writing and the business of writing. What began as an email response with a somewhat dour answer has turned into a happy exercise and a renewed sense of purpose. I’m now ready to reply to my friend, but I won’t be copying the entire 3,300-word piece. I’ll just tell him to read this post. 

Do you have any of these State of the Business type things in your writing business? 

Saturday, May 8, 2021

It's the Kitten's Fault in Furbidden Fatality by Deborah Blake

You would think winning the lottery would solve all your problems, but if you've heard real-life stories of lottery winners ruining their lives, then you know money doesn't solve everything. Unless, that is, you have a purpose. Or a mystery to solve.

Kari Stuart, twenty-nine years old, is the lottery winner in question in Furbidden Fatality, the first in a new series by Deborah Blake, and it is the March 2021 selection in Murder by the Book's cozy mystery subscription service. What you don't see on page one is Kari extravagantly spending her money or doing the other things folks flush with new  cash do. Instead, she is driving a small black kitten she found to the local animal shelter. What she finds, however, is a run-down facility with no more room to take in the cute kitten. Turned away and wondering what to do with the cat, Kari impusively buys the shelter, giving her aimless life new focus.

As stories of this type do, we now get to meet all the supporting cast of Lakeview, the town in which she grew up. Suz, her best friend, who often serves as the Greek chorus, throwing reality at Kari at various times in the book, especially at the beginning when she first learns of Kari's purchase of Serenity Sanctuary. Sara Hanover, volunteer at the shelter, is a former English teacher who still knows everyone in town which comes in handy as the book goes on. You’ve got Bryn, a somewhat sulky twentysomething and Daisy, the older former owner.

Into this mix comes Bill Myers, the local dog warden, and the bane of the shelter’s existence. The latest Myers accusation is against a pit bull, Buster, who is accused of biting someone else. Myers is chomping at the bit to confiscate Buster and put him down. Well, good news: he doesn’t do that, mainly because he’s murdered. On the grounds of Serenity Sanctuary.

Guess who’s the number one suspect? You’re right. Kari, who has moved in and took up residence on the property. All the clues point to her. She had the motive (save Buster), the opportunity (her land), and the weapon (Myers was choked with a snare pole). The cops barely look elsewhere, despite additional clues and information along the way, so it’s up to Kari to clear her name (and those of her friends who get pulled into the investigation) while uncovering the real killer.

Blake moves the story along pretty quickly, adding in new wrinkles to the mystery and throwing a false leads along the way. Kari and her friends have a lot of pluck as they basically become detectives despite them not knowing how to really do it. There are a couple of jokes from the police about the reality of detective work versus what is seen on TV. All in all, I didn’t figure out the killer until the end, always the mark of a good book.

I’m early in my enrollment in what I call Cozy College, where I read cozy mysteries, a genre all but brand-new to me. Of the half dozen I’ve read this year (Bait and Witch, Murder at the Beacon Bakeshop, and four Andy Carpenter novels by David Rosenfelt), Forbidden Fatality is the first one written in third person. It doesn’t diminish the book at all, but I kind of have gotten used to a lead character in a cozy being the narrator. Maybe that isn’t the norm, but it was one of the stereotypical things I thought cozies were like—and those earlier books confirmed.

Interestingly, another trope I associate with cozies that involve pets is that the pets themselves help solve the crimes. The Andy Carpenter series has pets (and, ironically, a dog shelter) but they don’t help out. In this novel, Queenie (the black kitten that started the whole thing) actually does. Makes for quite a charming little addition to a fun book.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

King Kong, Godzilla, and the Immediate Move to Comedy

A few weeks ago, my college-age son and I watched the brand-new Godzilla vs. Kong movie. I liked it pretty well as it delivered exactly what I wanted: giant monsters fighting each other and destroying a bunch of buildings (that were evacuated the writers of the film made a point to mention). For my son, it was his first kaiju film, surprising considering he loves Japanese anime. This 2021 film made him decide to watch all/most of the earlier kaiju films. I happily obliged and we started all the way back in 1933.

The original King Kong movie is still a marvel of filmmaking. Considering it came a mere five years after sound was first introduced to the process, the special effects frankly still hold up well. My son likened Kong's movements to that of the Rankin and Bass Christmas TV shows.

We followed that up with Son of Kong, an instant sequel to the first film that was produced and released in the same year. 

While King Kong was thrilling yet somber, Son of Kong was not. It was actually pretty basic until our hero humans landed back on Skull Island and found Kong's son. Then, it kind of kicked into a comedic vein. This being the first time I ever saw this movie, I was surprised by the funny turn. In the back of my mind were many of the Gozilla films of the 1960s and 1970s I remembered seeing as a kid, but I didn't think any of the Kong films had done that.

When it came time for Godzilla and with his love of anime, my son insisted we find the original 1954 movie in Japanese with sub-titles. He's a purist when it comes to subs vs. dubs. We found it and watched it. I'm sure I must have seen this movie--or the 1956 version with Raymond Burr edited into the movie--but I honestly can't remember it. 

The 1954 original is even more somber than the 1933 King Kong movie. Godzilla is an obvious analogy to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan to compel them to end the fighting in World War II. The characters tracked the monster's movements like we do hurricanes. Most telling, they realize they have no power to stop him.

The moody tone surprised me, again with color films of the Sixties in my mind. I wondered when the funnier tone would be introduced into the franchise.

It didn't take long. The second movie, Godzilla Raids Again (1955), the tone was markedly lighter. The monster itself, especially when fighting Anguirus, another kaiju, kind of looked like it was dancing or trying to do martial arts. Where you almost could squint your eyes when watching the original and not think there was a man in a rubber suit, the second movie is all in on the man-in-suit concept. In fact, some of the filmed sequences were sped up, an accident during the filming that the director decided to keep in the finish film. It gave some of those moments a Three Stooges vibe.

It really surprised me. With the third film, King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), that humor continued. Ditto when it came to the giant ape. 

Which finally got me to my question: why? Why did the creators of Godzilla--and what he represented for the Japanese people--decide to make him funny? It's not too far into the franchise when Godzilla has a son (no mom?) so the giant lizard becomes a doting dad. 

Seriously? Look, I loved these movies as a kid and I'll probably still enjoy them this year as we watch as many as possible, but why the move to lighten up the franchise? Was that where the money was? In family entertainment?

What other franchises can you think of that went lighter and funnier? Star Wars: Return of the Jedi comes to mind. James Bond has lots of it during the Roger Moore era. Say what you want about the Tim Burton Batman films, but compared to Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, those Burton films were really dark.

Are there any book series characters that underwent a comedic turn?