Saturday, November 17, 2018

NaNoWriMo 2018 – End of Week 2 – Mid-Book Revamps Are Okay


As of today, all NaNoWriMo writers have reached the end of the second full week. And we have reached the halfway point in the month. By the numbers, as of today, all writers should be around 28,000 words in their 50,000-word novels. First of all, if this is where you are, Congrats! You are more than halfway through the month of November and more than halfway through your book. It’s an awesome feeling, isnt’ it? Just wait until you type “The End.” That never gets old, no matter how many books you write.

I experienced an interesting bit of serendipity this week. On my current non-NaNoWriMo novel (started 1 October and aim to finish by 30 November), I hit a snag. I’m halfway through the story and I found myself a bit adrift. Unlike previous books, I’m writing this without an outline. Writing into the dark, as Dean Wesley Smith does. Every now and then, I get backed into a corner and I have to think my way out of it. What that entails for me is to put a halt to writing the current scene and ask myself a few questions about the scene, why I’m even writing it, and where do I think the story is going from there. Naturally, this process puts the kibosh on new words, but it also opens the door to the next scene.

So that’s what I did this week for my current book. A mid-book brainstorming session. Complete with notes on a whiteboard. This book is the sixth Calvin Carter novel. The first will be published in January 2019 and this one won’t be published until November 2019, but I wanted all six complete before I start publishing so I can use the various covers in marketing material. I had a fun opening sequence, but I didn’t know why the mystery men stole the MacGuffin of the story. I knew that was an issue, but I kept writing ahead, confident the true reason would manifest itself. It did, but it took a mid-book reset to do it. Now, I at least know the next quarter of the book.

What is serendipitous about this process in 2018? Well, I encountered the exact same problem in 2015 when I participated in NaNoWriMo 2015. Each week this month, as I prepare for these posts, I revisit my own daily updates from 2015. I reviewed Day 11 through Day 17 of 2015. Guess what I (re)discovered? I hit snags back then, too. Of the seven days back in 2015, five of them involved not only writing but reviewing the scope of that novel. It seemed I was writing scenes that kept affecting subsequent scenes and I just had to keep going. Two things happened back then. One, I had my best day of writing at that point with 3,538 words. Two days later, I experienced my worst at 1,703.

Writing a novel is not a short process. It is long. There will be good days and there will be bad days. The key factor is to keep going. Just keep moving forward. You can do it.

And the theme for this week is simple: if you have to stop or slow down and reassess your novel from the vantage point of the middle, do it. What’ll happen is that you will likely open the floodgates for the rest of the book.

But here’s a more down-to-earth, nuts and bolts piece of advice: If you are truly stuck, finish the scene/chapter you are currently writing. Look no further than that. Just finish this scene, and trust your creative subconscious to help you along. Chances are good you will see light at the end of the tunnel.

So, NaNoWriMo folks, how are y’all doing?

Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Importance of Awards and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

If it weren’t for the Emmy Awards, I would never have watched “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

I’ll admit: I barely watched the actual awards show. I stayed long enough to see Henry Winkler earn his first (!) primetime Emmy award (and his wonderful speech*) I also saw two actors from GODLESS win: Merritt Wever and Jeff Daniels. Loved that he thanked his horse.

The next day, I read through the rest of the winners. What struck me was this show on Amazon that won not only Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. In fact, I think it won the most awards of the evening, taking home five trophies.

But what was this show about? My wife and I were intrigued, so we pulled up Amazon and gave it a look.

NOTE: The show is eight episode long. As of this writing, I have not seen the last episode, so I’ll be basing all my thoughts on the first 7 episodes. But that is enough.

Rachel Brosnahan stars as the titular character, Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a Jewish housewife who inadvertently discovers she has a talent for stand-up comedy. The show is set in 1950s New York, and Midge lives with her husband, Joel, and their two kids in an apartment a few floors below her parents’ apartment. Tony Shalhoub plays her father, Abraham, and in a bit of “Whoa, maybe I really am getting old”, her mother is played by Marin Hinkle. You might not know the name, but she starred as Jon Cryer’s ex-wife in “Two and a Half Men.” She’s a mere two years older than me...and she’s a grandmother!

As the show opens, it’s Joel who tries his hand at stand-up. He’s not good, but Midge dutifully takes notes during his performances, compiling a notebook full of ideas and lessons learned. After a particularly bad night in which he bombed, Joel informs Midge he’s leaving her for...his secretary. She gets drunk, wanders the streets, and ends up in The Gaslight Club, the very venue Joel just stank up. She gets up on stage, overcoat covering her nightgown, and proceeds to let it all out. Susie Myerson, playing a worker in the Gaslight, sees what Midge is capable of and convinces her to give stand-up comedy a serious go.

In what could have easily been a rote-type comedy, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel vibrates with a joy not seen on the small screen in a long time. It’s a very New York show, complete with lots of Jewishness and talk about the town and society in the 1950s. This historian part of me loved it all. The clothes, the formal dinners, the evident ‘caste-like’ system is portrayed very well.

But what really sends this show over the top is the whip-smart dialogue. This TV show could easily have been adapted to a stage play, but the better comparison is the comedies of the 1930s movies. Think of the Thin Man movies or any of those films where the characters deliver their lines in a rat-a-tat fashion, always with the perfect comeback and precisely the best time. You will, um, marvel at how well these actors do their thing.

Brosnahan is a dream as Midge. Not only does she deliver the normal dialogue well, but when she gets behind the microphone to deliver her stand-up routines, she comes across as a natural. It makes me wonder if she’s ever had any desire or experience being a true stand-up comic. If not, she should definately try.

Tony Shalhoub is hilarious. I laughed out loud multiple times. And the chemistry he has with Hinkle is so palpable that you might wonder if they are not secretly married. Joel’s father is played in a wonderfully over-the-top fashion by Kevin Pollak. I know him best as the third person on Tom Cruise’s legal team in A FEW GOOD MEN, after Demi Moore. He all but steals every scene he’s in.

Every actor in this show is at the top of their game. I rarely binge, but there were a couple of nights when we’d finish one episode and, after a quick check of my watch, rolled right into the next one.

Awards are sometimes derided as things given within a group of people to bolster all those egos. I’ve never thought that. Awards, no matter the group, are intended to showcase good, quality things--in this case, TV shows--and let the world know some examples of good stuff.

I so enjoyed this show...and I never would have likely given it the chance were it not for all those Emmy wins. Well deserved, and highly recommended.


*Henry Winkler, upon winning his first primetime Emmy said, among other things, this fantastic line: “If you stay at the table long enough, the chips comes to you. Tonight, I got to clear the table.”

Let’s hear it for perseverance. And for continuing to show up.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Deep Diving Into the Mind of Christopher McQuarrie

This summer, I have seen every major film. But there is only one I want to see again. This time, in IMAX. Yeah, I’m talking about Mission Impossible: Fallout again.

Last week I wrote about sixth film in the Mission Impossible franchise. In the week since, I read every article I could find and watched every video featurette (discussions of the heists, that HALO jump, English slang, and the oh-so-charming one where Tom Cruise gets James Corden to jump out of a plane) but the crown jewel was the deep dive into the mind of director Christopher McQuarrie. Specifically I’m talking about his interview with the Empire Film Podcast. Host Chris Hewitt and McQuarrie talk. And talk. And talk. In fact, their interview is longer than MI: Fallout, which is the longest film of the entire series. But you will never be bored. You’ll want them to keep on going.

You might’ve already heard about some of the tidbits from this interview. Yeah, I’m talking about MustacheGate. Henry Cavill, deep into the filming of Fallout, was called back for reshoots on Justice League. But he had grown a mustache. Superman doesn’t have a mustache. What to do. McQuarrie relates the honest tale.

He also discusses the conspicuous absence of Jeremy Renner. His character, Brandt, starred in the two previous films, so why wasn’t he in Fallout? Again, the answer is as basic as it gets.

Those are likely the headline-grabbing pieces that might get someone to invest nearly three hours of listening. But that’s not the best. Not even close. The real gems of this interview is getting into the head of McQuarrie as he discusses, in intricate detail, aspects of the film. He talks about movie making in general, but most of his points can easily be applied to art of writing fiction. It was a master class in storytelling and making choices. More than once McQuarrie faced a deadline while shooting this film, and in nearly every time, he had to improvise. We writers talk about pantsing vs. plotting. The creation of Fallout is as close to pantsing as I’ve ever heard.

Best thing about the end of this episode? It’s only part 1. Part 2 arrives next week.

Do yourself a favor and listen to this interview. I bet you’ll come away not only with a greater appreciation of the film, but you’ll get a spark of creativity to boot. And sometimes, we all need a little spark.


You can find the interview here or via your favorite podcast app (I use and love Overcast).

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Mission Impossible: Fallout - The Best Pulp Movie This Year

First of all, Mission Impossible: Fallout is a phenomenal movie. I absolutely loved it. The action scenes are as you’d expect: awesome, over-the-top, and genuinely thrilling, especially when you know and see with your own eyes that Tom Cruise is doing practically all of them. Can you believe Cruise all but started doing these action movies around the age of forty, the age where many actors stop? The man knows how to craft a film.

I sat through most of the action scenes with a big goofy grin plastered on my face, loving practically every minute of film. I even jumped a few times, as did my wife who also thoroughly enjoyed the film. Heck, even my boy, seeing only his second Cruise movie and first MI film enjoyed it. Avengers: Infinity War was fantastic for what it did, The Incredibles 2 was gloriously fun, but MI: Fallout is hands down the best thrill ride of the summer.

One of my favorite hallmarks of these movies are the scenes where something appears to happen…only to learn later that another thing also happened that set everything into motion. It’s very much like a movie serial from the 1940s where you see Captain America appears to perish in a car explosion that caromed off a cliff…only to see that he jumped off at the last minute. Can’t get enough of that kind of thing.

Lester Dent’s plan for writing a pulp story also ran through my mind during certain scenes. Naturally, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt gets into trouble, and then more trouble, and yet more trouble. Then he must face choices that veer from bad to terrible. Just like Dent tells us writers. Oh, and that very end sequence, in Dent’s tales or MI films? Always there and always satisfying.

Speaking of satisfying, Henry Cavill is wonderful in this. He’s a big brute of a man, and those fighting scenes in the bathroom (they’re in the trailer) is brutal and vicious. Rebecca Ferguson returns and she is as bad ass as she was in the last movie. Simon Pegg is always a breath of levity in movies like this, especially this one which had much more humor than you’d expect.

Seriously, go now to a theater and buy your ticket to Mission Impossible: Fallout. It’s a living pulp story. You will enjoy it. Tom Cruise guarantees it and I wholeheartedly agree.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Gray Ghost by Clive Cussler and Robin Burcell

Clive Cussler is one of those authors I admire. He cut his teeth on his Dirk Pitt novels before expanding his universe to include the NUMA series (Kurt Austin) and Oregon Files (Juan Cabrillo). These three series have numerous crossovers (if my paltry reading of the entire run is any indication). But it’s his Isaac Bell series, set in the early days of the 20th Century, that I really enjoy. The fourth series is the Fargo adventures, featuring Sam and Remi Fargo. They’re a charming pair of millionaires (thanks to Sam’s invention) and they travel the world, searching for treasure and doing good. I had only read one novel of theirs to date (THE TOMBS) but the latest novel, THE GRAY GHOST, features not only them, but Isaac Bell.

How, might you ask, can a story set in the present also include Bell? Well, it’s a very clever conceit. In 2018, someone steals the Gray Ghost, a Rolls-Royce car from 1906. In the course of the story, Sam and Remi get involved in the search for the priceless car. You see, there has always been a legend that treasure exists in the car, but no one has found it for over a century. As soon as the Fargos get involved, they have bad guys trying to stop them, even while they try to help the actual present-day owners locate the vehicle.

Where Isaac Bell comes in is through a journal. Back in 1906, Bell helped an ancestor of the present owner thwart another attempt to steal the Gray Ghost. That ancestor kept a journal of the exploits, but that volume of the journal is missing in the present day. Stolen. Cussler and co-author Robin Burcell keep the action going not only with the Fargo adventures but the Bell investigation as well, interspersing passages of the journal with the current action.

As with all Cussler novels, I listened to the brilliant Scott Brick narrate the story. It was interesting to hear slight variations between how Cussler and Burcell treat Bell versus Cussler and Justin Scott, the team who writes the Bell novels. Brick brings so much to his narration that it enlivens the story above the mere prose.

If I have one criticism of this series, it’s in the back-and-forth dialogue of the two main characters. Often times, you don’t get the spark of passion between husband and wife. I’m not calling for a bunch of intimate scenes, and I’m completely fine with them walking to a hotel room with the knowledge of what they’re about to do, but I would like to see a little more fire to their relationship. In one of the dire moments in this book, I got the sense of it, but I’d like to see if when they’re not fighting for their lives. It’s a little thing, but noticeable.

For a good summer beach read, THE GRAY GHOST is a humdinger, and it’s propelled me to my next Fargo adventure, THE MAYAN SECRETS.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Project: Nemesis by Jeremy Robinson

When I asked my fellow science fiction book club friend how he came to select PROJECT: NEMESIS by Jeremy Robinson, he said he was looking for something that captured the 60s cartoon/monster movie vibe. Additionally, he heard a couple of folks saying this book was a genuine effort to do an American kaiju book. Well, that would have been enough for me, too. But a premise is only half of the equation. The book has to deliver.

Two words come to mind: Nailed it!

PROJECT: NEMESIS starts with a military operation in the far north and two soldiers stumble upon the remains of a giant monster. This story is set in a nebulous future/present where Japanese soldiers work with Americans and train together. When a high-ranking general arrives, he promptly asks the younger Japanese soldier to shoot his American partner.


The story cuts to our main hero, John Hudson, Department of Homeland Security-Paranormal Division. He’s in Maine mostly to investigate a series of reports of a Sasquatch sightings. He arrives at a cabin where he’s supposed to sleep only to find a mama bear and cubs have staked out their claim. So, in a novel about a kaiju, you first get a bear attack. And it’s pretty darn exciting. Hudson survives—but not his truck—and he throws back quite a few beers to decompress. Well, the next morning, the local law officer in the person of Sheriff Ashley Collins and, through his hangover, Hudson accompanies Collins to interview the old man who called in the complaints. What they find is unexpected: a seemingly abandoned military base from the Cold War days. But if it’s abandoned, then why is the razor wire new? And why is the wire coated with a substance meant to look like rust? And why is there a man and his hidden partners there pointing a shotgun at them?

PROJECT: NEMESIS definitely earns the name ‘thriller’ because the action rarely lets up. Robinson throws in a lot of sequences that are just flat-out fun. Plus, there’s a kaiju, the Japanese word used to describe giant monsters like Godzilla, Mothra, or King Kong. What makes this story interesting is how the kaiju was created and birthed. It may not be totally unique in the entire oeuvre of monster movies, but I liked it.

The bulk of the book is told from Hudson’s first person, present tense point of view. It gives the story a breathless immediacy.  When the POV switches, it’s all still present tense, including a few scenes featuring the kaiju itself. You actually get a ‘why’ to go with all the destruction. More importantly, you get a twist on a common story trope. Most of the time when an author introduces you to a character via their POV, you make the assumption you’ll be with that character the entire way through the book. Nope. He manages to make you care for a character and then have that character die. It was a shock, as in “Did [that character] just get killed?” Yup. It made the rest of the action higher pitched because you never knew if any of the main characters would get offed.

I listened to the audiobook and this is a perfect case for narrator giving that little extra something that comes across as greater than the whole. Hudson is basically your typical wise-cracking hero, and Jeffrey Kafer is pitch perfect. Robinson’s words and Kafer’s narration sucked me in almost immediately. Heck, I finished this nearly nine-hour book in five days. I started volunteering for household chores. Need the lawn watered? I’ll do it, just let me get my phone. Oh, we need to drive our empty glass bottles to get recycled? I’m your man.

PROJECT: NEMESIS is nothing less than a thrilling summer blockbuster in prose.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson

Almost from the day it was announced, I knew I wanted to read THE PRESIDENT IS MISSING by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. On the one hand you have one of the all-time best-selling authors who has created his own fiction factory. On the other, you have a former president who served for eight years in the office and could provide vital details as only a man who sat in the Oval Office could. It was a match made in heaven.

But would the book be any good?

It’s an honest question, but let’s be honest: if it’s got Patterson’s name on it, the story will at least be serviceable.

And I’m here to tell you it’s more than serviceable. It’s pretty darn good.

The story opens as President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan, newly widowed, is facing the prospect of a compelled testimony in front of a Congressional committee. Impeachment is in the air because Duncan recently ordered a special forces raid seemingly to save notorious terrorist Suliman Cindoruk, leader of the Sons of Jihad group. The Speaker of the House—a member of the unnamed ‘other party’; Duncan’s party affiliation also remains unnamed making it more bipartisan—who has designs on the presidency smells blood.

But Duncan has an even greater problem. Somehow, Suliman’s cyber hackers have implanted a virus in the computer systems of the Pentagon. Codenamed “Dark Ages,” if released, the resulting damage would be catastrophic. It would literally plunge the US into a modern dark ages. And one of six members of Duncan’s inner circle—including the Vice President—is a traitor because a young girl from the Republic of Georgia is asking to meet with Duncan. Alone. And she utters “Dark Ages” to prove her point.

How could this young woman know that? Who is she? And, after Duncan goes incognito and meets at the baseball stadium, who is this other guy pointing a gun at the President of the United States?

THE PRESIDENT IS MISSING clocks in at over 500 pages, but they read extremely fast. Duncan’s prose is all in first person and the entire novel is written in the present tense, giving it an urgency. Having Duncan narrate his own scenes is great, especially with his asides when he gives details you know came from Bill Clinton’s memories. There are other characters and all those scenes are related in third person. It’s the first time I can remember reading a book like this. Granted, as a writer, I noticed the differences at first, but as the story went on and my reading speed increased, it faded away and I was solely in the action.

By now, Patterson is a master at crafting a story and, while I’ve read few, I could see how one of his stories is made. And I really loved how the tension was racketed up. Sure, there were lots of cliffhanger chapter endings, but this is a summer thriller. It’s supposed to have cliffhangers.

And there was one passage of about five chapters that completely fooled me. I thought one thing was happening and it was something else entirely. Much like watching “The Sixth Sense” a second time when you know the truth, I re-read those chapters just to see how Patterson did it. Brilliant. Also brilliant was the skillful way Patterson kept the truth behind the traitor and other characters, revealing their identity at precisely the right time. This guy can tell stories!

I purchased this book from my local grocery store and I pointed out something to some friends who noticed the book in my basket. I indicated all the other Patterson novels on display—eight?—and then at THE PRESIDENT IS MISSING. Patterson’s name was listed on top of all save the new one. It takes a president’s name to shift Patterson to second billing.

I very much enjoyed this book and would easily recommend it as a good beach read.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Congo by Michael Crichton

I'm a book dork. Are you?

I’ve read many, but not all, of Michael Crichton’s novels, but CONGO was one I had missed. I have the paperback, but it had remained on my shelf for years. Earlier this spring, a comment on the Doc Savage Facebook group said CONGO was a pretty good lost city novel. It landed back on my radar. I flipped it open and noticed one of the locations was Houston. How cool was that? Additionally, the action began on 13 June 1979. And I got to thinking: since I was already reading a book at the time, why not wait until 13 June to start the book?

So I did. Book dork? Guilty as charged. But at least I didn’t wait until 13 June 2019 to start it.

The story opens with a transmission from a team in the Congo back to their home base in Houston. The team is part of the Earth Resources Technology Services (ERTS), one of two companies searching for diamonds in the Congo rainforest. Just before the video feed is abruptly cut off, there appears to be what looks like a gorilla. Not just any ordinary ape, but something different.

Soon, a second team, led by Dr. Karen Ross, sets out to keep looking for the lost city and discover what happened to the original team. Coming along is zoologist Dr. Peter Elliot and Amy, a gorilla from the San Francisco Zoo that has learned American sign language. Along the way, Ross recruits the famed white hunter Captain Charles Munro to guide them.

I’ll admit it’s been awhile since I’ve read a Crichton novel solely written by him. (I read the posthumously published DRAGON TEETH last year.) I had forgotten just how much science the author crams into his books. What particularly interested me was some of the computer stuff the team had to do. In this age of cell phones and satellite phones and instant access, it was charming for Ross to have to wait six minutes for the satellites and her communication equipment to sync up. Then there is always the “As you Bob” moments that are liberally scattered throughout the book. With the zoologist being the outside member of the team, he gets to ask for clarification on things Ross and Munro know by heart. The science, however, was fascinating, especially regarding the attempts by scientist to teach apes communication skills. I found it ironic timing that I completed the novel a day before Koko the gorilla who learned American sign language died.

Unlike the JURASSIC PARK novel where, once the dinosaurs escape, you are in a series of chases and near misses, the action here is not as relentless. There are some political struggles that erupt in gunfire, and a few brushes with death, but CONGO is more a novel of discovery. In this, it’s a perfect book for Crichton’s talents. What makes the book even better is its seeming realness, almost as if Crichton is merely the author of a non-fiction book depicting events that really happened.

CONGO is a perfectly fine book, not in Crichton’s top tier novels, but well worth the time to read, especially if you enjoy lost city stories like I do. Now, I’m going to conduct a little search of my own and track down a copy of the 1994 movie.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Anthony Bourdain: RIP

The news of Anthony Bourdain's death early this morning Houston time was one of those events you hoped beyond hope was false. Sadly, it wasn't.

My wife and I are both foodies, yet she discovered him first and introduced him to me. We both quickly became fans. We watched his shows on whatever network. His zeal for life was palpable. He yearned for the whole story, the background of a story, and the story of a people through the lens of food. And told some amazing stories. Naturally, I appreciate his episode on my native Houston, but I also remember the one where he was trapped in Beirut. Or when he and President Obama sat in a little Vietnamese restaurant and shared a beer. Or the any number of episodes where he’d sit down with an old friend and reminiscence.

His storytelling ability started on the printed page with Kitchen Confidential. If you’ve never read it—or its semi-sequel, Medium Raw—do yourself a favor and listen to Bourdain himself read the audiobook. I wrote about Medium Raw here.

One of my favorite things about Bourdain was the tag line for this Travel Channel show, No Reservation: I travel. I write. I eat. And I’m hungry for more. I called it the Bourdain Quatrain. In that spirit, I created my own.

But man, does this news sting. It’s like a gut punch. My wife couldn’t believe it. One of her favorite traits of Bourdain was his general “F*ck you, I’m doing this” attitude. Where was that, she wondered. I don’t know. Clearly there was something dark festering inside of him that none of us saw. I pray that he finds peace in his rest. I pray also for his daughter and his family and close friends. The larger family across the nations also will mourn this genuine, unique, and ever-curious man.

If you’re reading this and think you are at your wit’s end, please seek help. Life is too, too precious. You are important and meaningful. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK.

Monday, May 28, 2018

99 Days

Ninety-nine days. That’s the length of Summer 2018. Traditionally, Memorial Day (today!) kicks off the summer while Labor Day closes it out. For me, it’s always been a more relaxed time, even when I wasn’t in school and had the summer off. I drink different wine and beer, I watch certain kinds of movies (summer blockbusters!), and I read certain kinds of books. It’s a great time, even here in the Houston heat.
But I’m wondering how many of y’all think of the summer as a productivity time. With its unique bookends, summer is always a set time. How many of y’all take on a project or two specifically to complete in the summer months? As a writer, I love the joy of beginning and ending stories in the summer. Typically the stories that emerge out of these months are more action-packed and fun. (Well, truth be told, I consider all my stories fun.) But the types of stories I write in the summer just possess a different kind of vibe.
I’ve got my own projects set out for Summer 2018. Just today, I started my latest novel. It’s a complete redraft of an earlier story I completed. It’s been sitting on my shelves, waiting to be rediscovered for a while now. I’m opting for a redraft over a revision because I am a better writer than when I first wrote this tale. It’s exciting, frankly. I easily woke up this morning, grabbed a cup of coffee, and forged ahead. And with 2865 words already written today, I’m well on my way.
Along the way, I’m going to complete a short story for an upcoming anthology and probably a few other projects. Some of those things are business-related, including a revamp of my website, the expansion of my YouTube channel, and an upgrade to my Facebook author presence.
So, how about y’all? What projects do you want to accomplish this summer? If I may paraphrase the sentence that got me back in front of the keyboard five years ago: Come Labor Day, you’ll wish you had started on Memorial Day.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Deadly Shade of Gold: Does the Longest Travis McGee Novel Hold Up?

One thing immediately stood out when I went to download the fifth book in the Travis McGee series, A DEADLY SHADE OF GOLD: it was nearly twelve hours long. That was nearly twice as long as each of the first four books in the series. What could author John D. MacDonald do with more prose and time with McGee? A lot, actually, and it mostly revolved around character.

Unlike the previous four stories where someone came to McGee and basically hired him, A DEADLY SHADE OF GOLD finds McGee visited by Sam Taggert, an old friend of McGee’s, who is on the run. He doesn’t initially tell McGee why but asks him to arrange a meeting with Sam’s old flame, Nora. He has something he needs to sell and, with that money, he and Nora will be able to pick up again where they left off…provided Nora doesn’t still hold a grudge against Sam for walking away three years ago. She doesn’t. In fact, she’s still in love with him. But no sooner than McGee picks up Nora and takes her to see Sam, they find Sam murdered and the little Central American golden idol stolen. Needless to say, McGee wants revenge…and so does Nora.

After a quick trip up to New York—where McGee does a little research and finds the time to bed Betty, the antique dearer, with whom he made a deal—McGee make their way down to Mexico. One of the best things about MacDonald’s writing is he seemingly effortless way in creating a scene. With a few pieces of description, you really get the feel, the smell, the sights and sounds of a small, out-of-the way Mexican seaside town. Various characters walk into and out of the scenes, each described in McGee’s now trademark world-weary cynicism. But of the five novels I’ve read to date, the McGee in GOLD is much more…well, I’d almost use the word ‘depressed.’ His friend has been killed, the people he interacts with in order to find the man who gave the order are all almost soulless shells, and it doesn’t help that he has some growing feelings for Nora. And she for him, apparently. She’s ready to exact her revenge, but is seems to be held back by McGee, by physically and emotionally. That they end up together is a spoiler not.

In reading up on the McGee novels, I found somewhere a comparison to James Bond. I don’t really see it in any aspect other than the female co-star. But when using this as the only metric, author MacDonald goes one step further with McGee than Ian Fleming does with Bond. In the Bond books and movies, the book ends or the camera fades to black and the credits roll with Bond and his current leading lady arm in arm. By the next book, the previous lady is long gone. What happened? Well, in the McGee books, John MacDonald shows you. Sometimes they are killed, sometimes they leave, and sometimes, it is something else. I actually enjoy and appreciate MacDonald doing this and, more importantly, McGee reacting to it, often with self-loathing or something worse. There are emotional costs to McGee bedding all these women, and yet he still does it.

Where GOLD suffers for me is its length. Yes, we get a lot more of McGee’s worldview explored and that’s wonderful. And in Nora, you have one of the more compelling female co-stars to date. But the plot rambles and wanders. In the story, McGee stresses to Nora that they must appear to be carefree lovers away on a vacation. Well, MacDonald seems to take that as an excuse to let the plot wander. I don’t know about his writing style, specifically if he wrote from an outline or not, but I’d venture a guess that he and McGee experienced this story together, simultaneously.

Interesting, right around the eight-hour mark, they story kind of ended…and there was still nearly four hours to go. I knew why McGee needed to move forward, and I knew more or less how it was going to end, but the level of caring dwindled. In many stories, the denouement is short, right after the climax. Here, it’s almost a third of the book. Which brings up the question if it even is a denouement or just the last third of a longer work. Not sure. Likely the latter. Still, the story kind of dragged on and on.

All of this is to say that A DEADLY SHADE OF GOLD is my least favorite book in this series to date. I’ve only read five—in order—and I’m looking forward to reading the sixth and see if, in my mind, MacDonald righted the ship. These novels were originally published under the Fawcett Gold Medal banner. I’ve read many of them. They tend toward fast, action-packed little thrillers that one might devour in a weekend. Through these books, I’ve learned and appreciated Wade Miller, David Dodge, Donald Hamilton, and Day Keene. MacDonald clearly has the writing chops and the character to elevate this series above the rank-and-file of a typical Gold Medal book—and he did with books one through four—but GOLD missed the mark for me.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Do You Facebook Live?

(A funny thing happened when I went to Audible to download the fifth Travis McGee novel, A DEADLY SHADE OF GOLD, by John D. MacDonald: I learned it was twice as long as the previous four. With my commute being an hour one-way (yeah, really; life in Houston), those first four books were all completed by Friday afternoon so I could write about them for my weekly DoSomeDamage column. Well, not today. As of this writing, I have about three hours left and, as much I would love to comment on the story, I haven’t reached the end. And, if a couple of the previous books are any indication, the endings of McGee novels can hold more depth than is true of a typical novel of this kind. I’ll write about A DEADLY SHADE OF GOLD but it won’t be published today.)

So y’all get a post on Facebook Live. To date, I’ve been a big fan of the concept where a user launches the Facebook app on their phone (usually, but desktops work just as well), writes a short intro, and then starts broadcasting. I’ve been able to watch bits of live music, awards ceremonies at schools, news reports, or just a person I like riffing on, say, their thoughts on Avengers: Infinity War. What’s even cooler is that the video itself is stored on the Facebook feed. That way, I can re-watch something I already watched or catch up on something I missed. It’s a great feature.

And I’ve started doing it myself. To date, I’ve only done it via my Facebook author page (Scott D. Parker: Storyteller) and it is super easy. Most of the time, I use the small microphone plugged into my phone, but the standard earbuds on my iPhone work just as fine. I just prefer the clarity the mic gives me. The only weird thing is that the images are mirrored. I discovered that when I shared a short video about an article in the latest issue of MEN’S JOURNAL about the new Kevin Costner western series, “Yellowstone.” I’m not sure if there is a button I can push to un-mirror the image or not, but if not, I’ll try to have as few text items as possible.

Why is this important to authors? For the simple reason that we cannot only communicate to our readers and friends to tell them about a new book we have on sale. In my opinion, we must let our readers know we are real people with real interests outside of just writing. Other than the “Yellowstone” article, I’ve given my thoughts about the movie “A Quiet Place” and shared one of my favorite Batman comic stories by Dennis O’Neil. What I envision is for a dialogue, a back-and-forth between folks and me. A general conversation. I have many more ideas that I’m looking forward to sharing, including possible live reports from next weekend’s Comicpalooza here in Houston.

Authors: Do you use Facebook Live? If not, you should start. If so, what do you talk about?

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Magic Sauce of John D. MacDonald in The Quick Red Fox

Four Travis McGee books in less than four weeks. I haven’t done that since….January when I read five Shadow novels. But the adventures of a pulp hero in the 1930s is rather different than those of the self-professed beach bum of the early 1960s. The McGee novels, as written by John D. MacDonald, are filled with glorious prose, astute observations of a particular place and time, and a hero with some genuine depth. The historian part of me relishes these novels specifically because of the place and time. Yes, it’s true that many of the undercurrents that swept over the later 1960s were well underway before 1963—when these novels were written—but you can never truly separate the idea that November 22, 1963, was a turning point. MacDonald, in McGee’s voice, saw the changes coming, and broadcasted it to anyone who would listen. I know these books were published in 1964 and I wonder how contemporary readers took MacDonald's observations. I’m also very curious to see if McGee ages up in these novels—the last one was published in 1985—or if he is always going to be in that particularly place and time. My assumption is that MacDonald puts McGee through the 70s and early 80s with as much acerbity and charm as he has displayed in these first four novels. The historian in me cannot wait to see what McGee might think of Vietnam, Watergate, and the changing landscape of the 1970s.

But what of THE QUICK RED FOX? The story begins simply. Lysa Dean is an A-list movie star with millions of dollars behind her name and image. That image would be tarnished if not extinguished if the dirty pictures someone mailed to her ever got out. You see, a year and a half before the book starts, she had a four-day fling full of booze, drugs, and sex. Someone snapped dozens of photos and mailed them to Dean. The movie starlet had paid off the initial run, but now, with a new picture ready for release, she wants McGee to locate the remaining photos and destroy them.

Simple, right? On the surface, yeah. But in reality, not so much. Dean approaches McGee via her personal secretary, Dana Holtzer. Dark haired (“Male musicians often wear theirs longer.”), dark eyed, and rather severe, Holtzer gets herself assigned by Dean to McGee, and the two literally jaunt around the country following leads and questioning potential suspects. Their interactions drive this novel, with McGee's looser approach versus Holtzer's uptight demeanor and backstory.

A remarkable thing about these four McGee novels: there is loads of talking but not a lot of action one might associate with private detectives. Granted, McGee is not a PI, but, going in, you might suspect that there would be plots in which multiple people want to take out McGee. There is, to date, a major action sequence in each book—the best is probably A PURPLE PLACE OF DYING—but other than that, it’s all legwork and interviewing.

And it’s utterly engrossing. I listened again to the wonderful Robert Petkoff’s narration of the audiobook, but I also purchased the paperback. I wanted to see if I could tell what made MacDonald’s prose so good on the page. Sure, he had McGee wax eloquent about this or that—his take on Vegas is spot on for 1964 and probably little would need to be changed for 2018—but it’s something different. Even now, in thinking about it, I’m beginning to form a thesis. I’ll have to check it out not only by reading more McGee novels, but in reading other MacDonald material. I went outside to the garage and pulled BORDER TOWN GIRL from a box. It’s one of two MacDonald books I owned before starting the McGee run, but I’ve never read it. I think I’ll crack it open and get a taste of a non-McGee book.

Of the four novels so far, the characters in THE QUICK RED FOX might be the most irritating to say nothing of the events as they unfold. It’s the characters that make this book and, I suspect, it’s the characters that might be the extra little something MacDonald does to put his books in such high regard. I’ll keep reading and let y’all know.

For long-time MacDonald readers, what do you think the secret is?

P.S., the cover at the top is the paperback I bought, but how provocative is this original cover?

Saturday, May 5, 2018

John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee: One Reader's Revelation

Come on. Are you kidding me? How good is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee stories?

Yeah, I know that many of y’all already know about McGee, have read all twenty-one of his novels, and have been a fan for decades. Not me. It was only two weeks ago when I reviewed THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY. Well, I’ve now read the next two in the series and boy, am I hooked.

Back in 1964, long-time pulp writer MacDonald decided to try his hand at a series character. McGee was the result. His publisher, Fawcett Gold Medal, decided to try something different: publish the first three novels a month apart and then the subsequent novels at a longer pace. The first book was published in March, NIGHTMARE IN PINK came out in April, and A PURPLE PLACE FOR DYING in May. The fourth novel, THE QUICK RED FOX, also has a 1964 publication date, but I can’t find the month. Be that as it may, readers in 1964 saw four adventures of McGee. If they read those books like I’ve done, they’ve just devoured this new character.

NIGHTMARE finds McGee in New York. As a favor to an fellow Korean War veteran, McGee is looking into the death of the fiancĂ© of the veteran’s sister, Nina. As a man who is decidedly not an official private detective, McGee has an interesting way of approaching what might be considered his cases. He’s the proverbial fly in the ointment. He is also the rescuer of lost things, mainly women. In this book, the ‘nightmare’ part is something I never saw coming: hallucinogenic drugs, administered without consent to McGee. Author MacDonald’s descriptions here are as trippy as anything I’ve read. Couple that with the sense of dread that washed over McGee when he realizes his predicament makes this entry downright horrifying.

PURPLE PLACE has McGee meeting a potential client in a fictitious town out in the Southwest. Mona Yeoman thinks her much-older husband has bilked her inheritance and she wants some so she and her new man, a professor, can get a divorce and run off together. No sooner does McGee beg off the job than Mona is shot in the back, dead before she hits the ground. By the time McGee escapes and brings back the sheriff, the body and all traces of the murder have vanished. In a brilliant bit of prose, McGee toys with the idea that he should just leave, but he and the reader both know he won’t.

Even before I read these three novels, I know McGee as a man who lived on a boat. Strange, then, that two of the first three books take places somewhere other than Florida. I preferred PURPLE PLACE over NIGHTMARE largely because the subject matter of NIGHTMARE made me uneasy. But I also enjoyed the relationships McGee made with the women. In books like these, there’s always a woman for the lead man to bed. But then there’s always the problem of commitment. The way MacDonald lets McGee out is actually pretty natural.

The way MacDonald writes these books is so fluid and captivating. The prose sucks me in with little effort. I’ve already dug out an old collection of short stories I bought years ago of some of MacDonald’s early pulp short stories. This man can write and I can read. And I aim to read more of McGee and MacDonald. They are a revelation to me.

So, long-time fans, what are your favorite Travis McGee and/or John D. MacDonald novels? And is there a good biography of MacDonald?

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Saying Hello to Travis McGee with The Deep Blue Good-By

Travis McGee. His name is legendary in the annals of detective fiction, yet I had never read a single word about him. But his presence was certainly felt. Most importantly, I knew he lived in Florida (now I know the city: Fort Lauderdale) and his house was a boat: the Busted Flush. Much like Han Solo (er, the other way around, actually), McGee won the Flush in a poker game. I knew he wasn’t one of those licensed PIs in other books. Heck, he wasn’t even a PI. He considered himself a “salvage consultant.” He was just a guy who would take a job whenever his funds ran low. His standard procedure was to take a job and receive half of whatever was recovered as his fee. All of this I knew. What I didn’t expect was the type of story author John D. MacDonald crafted.

In this first tale, McGee is asked by Chookie McCall, a dancer friend (and owner of a perfect name in a novel like this) if he might have a listen to the story of another dancer, a Catherine Kerr. Cathy has lost something and McGee agrees. What he learns is that her son’s father walked out on her and Cathy’s had to give her son to her sister while she struggles to make ends meet. Moreover, the poor girl’s still torn over another loss: that of Junior Allen, a man who knew Cathy’s now-dead father from back in World War II. Allen ingratiated himself into Cathy’s life, but all he really seemed to do was look for something. Cathy never knew what, but one day, Allen left town only to return, this time with obvious wealth. He takes up with another woman, Lois Atkinson, likely for her money, too. Then, Allen again leaves.

Private detectives (yeah, I know McGee isn’t one but bear with me) have often been classified as knights errant, men of honor and character who stand against the march of time and culture. My reading of hard-boiled fiction isn’t wide, but man, does McGee fit this description. It doesn’t take much to convince McGee to look into Allen and follow his trail from Florida to New York to Texas and back to Florida. I don’t think there’s a character in this book that isn’t affected by the events as McGee lays them out in first person. One of the more surprising aspects was McGee’s relationship with Lois. When he meets her, she’s almost lost her mind and is in a deep state of terror. Junior Allen thoroughly corrupted her, taking her for all she was worth, and casting her aside like garbage. McGee’s tender and patient actions in this middle part threw me a curveball. It just wasn’t what I expected…and that’s a good thing. It made the listening (excellent narration by Robert Petkoff*) engrossing.

The ending threw me for a loop as well. Not going to detail it here, but if the middle was unexpected, the ending was quite different than I had anticipated.

I really enjoyed this novel. It’s hard-boiled with serious tinges of noir. There is violence in the fight scenes and MacDonald writes them with clear-eyed prose that does nothing to glorify anything. The asides McGee tells us about his views of the world and they are spot on for the time period. This book was published in March 1964, barely half a year after Kennedy was assassinated. Many historians, including myself, see that moment as turning point in history, but author MacDonald clearly had his fingers on the pulse of the country and he already knew America was changing.

*A quick note about the narrator. Robert Petkoff was the second narrator for the Richard Castle novels. I adore those novels and Petkoff really nailed the whimsical vibe of not only “Richard Castle” the author but Nathan Fillion the actor. It took me a little bit to get my head to discard “This is Castle’s voice!” but once I did, Petkoff wholly embodied the sometimes cynical Travis McGee. Petkoff has narrated all 21 McGee novels. This makes me so happy as I’m looking forward to experiencing the cases of Travis McGee with Petkoff as the voice.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

A Writer Becomes a Hero: True Fiction by Lee Goldberg

Many times, we writers invent characters to project our greatest fantasies upon. Wish you were a World War II spy? Invent one. Wish you were a dashing hero in a romance? Invent one. So it came as a fun surprise when writer Lee Goldberg created a different kind of hero: a writer.

As a huge fan of the TV show “Castle,” I’m fine with lead characters being writers. Ditto for any number of Stephen King books. What makes Ian Ludlow different (albeit slightly) is that he doesn’t suddenly become a stud. Say what you will about Castle, but he became more adept at handling situations the longer the seasons went on, despite his constant man-child behavior. Ludlow doesn’t. Granted, this is his first adventure, so who knows what’s down the road for him.

Years before the opening scene of TRUE FICTION, Ludlow and a few other writers were recruited to dream up scenarios that terrorists might deploy to inflict huge amounts of damage to the US or US assets. Ludlow’s brainstorm was a plane crashing into buildings, not in a well-populated city like Houston or Denver or Los Angeles but Waikiki, Hawaii. The definition of paradise. Ludlow thought nothing of the experiment…until a plane is hijacked and crashes into a hotel in Waikiki.

Immediately, Ludlow knows he’d likely be a target. And when the other members of his secret writing group turn up dead, it is confirmed. Margo, the grad student assigned to drive Ludlow around Seattle on his book signing, quickly gets swept up in the action and the pair must escape the attempts by the secret agency who launched the attack.

Goldberg keeps the action moving along at quite a pace as befitting a thriller. But he manages to inject some humanity into Ludlow, who, more than once, wishes he was Clint Straker, the uber-hero of his own novels. Those moments are rather humorous, especially when Margo keeps reminding him of his inadequacies. And the humor sprinkled throughout the book made me chuckle more than once.

TRUE FICTION is a fun romp of a book that’ll keep you entertained from the first word to end.

Recommended.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer

Sometimes, a little known fact in history can spark an entire story.
THE ESCAPE ARTIST is the latest novel by Meltzer, a man who has a healthy respect, understanding, and love of history. If you haven’t read any of his books, you might know him from his TV shows “Decoded” and “Lost History.” He first came onto my radar when he wrote “Identity Crisis” for DC Comics, a graphic novel that shows actual death in the DC Universe and how it affects the characters. The ending of that story reverberated through the comics for years after, and it’s still unnerving. I read his Culper Ring Series featuring Beecher White, an archivist at the National Archives. Any author who can make an archivist a hero is a good writer. I earned two degrees in history and while I may have soured on the political aspects of being a professional historian, I still retain the passion. It’s a passion Meltzer shares and it’s why I enjoy his novels. And don’t’ even get me started on his awesome series of kids’ books focusing on heroes for his son and his daughter.

In the weeks leading up to the book’s release, Meltzer’s excitement for THE ESCAPE ARTIST was palpable. His social media and his newsletter (sign up herehttp://bradmeltzer.com/) was filled with anticipation that we would soon meet Nola Brown. She is one of the two protagonists in the new book. Taking a page from lost history, Meltzer made Nola the official painter of the US military. Ever since World War I, the military have hired a painter to capture things a photograph cannot: the anguish of war and what it really means. She doesn’t show up for a little while in the book, but her presence does.

The opening chapter shows a military plane taking off from somewhere in Alaska. Soon thereafter, it crashes, but not before the unnamed female character has a chance to write a last message. The message is received by the other protagonist, Jim “Zig” Zigarowski, a mortician who works at Dover Air Force Base. This base is where all our fallen soldiers arrive after they die in service to our country. Zig and the other morticians help to give families closure by fixing up the dead. When the name “Nola Brown” comes across the big board, Zig personally takes it upon himself to work on her corpse. You see, Nola helped saved the life of Zig’s daughter back when they were Girl Scouts. It doesn’t matter that his daughter died a year after that; Nola gave Zig the extra time, and for that, he’ll pay the debt. But the woman identified as Nola Brown is, in fact, not Nola at all. Zig would know because of a particular physical mark on the real Nola. This unidentified woman’s identity is specifically being targeted so as to wipe away Nola’s existence. What gives Zig even more pause is the note he finds in the most unlikely of places: on a piece of paper in the dead woman’s stomach.  You see, if a person wanted to pass along a message in the seconds before a disaster strikes (like a plane crash), the person can write a note and swallow it. The stomach acids will preserve the paper and the message. It happened in real life on 9/11with one of the people on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Meltzer took that unknown piece of history and wove it into a spectacular story.

The narrative is divided into two main POVs: that of Zig and Nola. Often, we get “This is Nola at age sixteen” or “This is Nola at age ten” segments where a particular moment of his life is revealed, giving us a greater understanding of what makes her tick. I listened to the audio with my favorite narrator, Scott Brick, is teamed up with January LaVoy who reads Nola’s parts. The combination is fantastic.

As is the story. There are too many layers to note here without spoiling the fun of this book. In January, I discovered THE SHADOW novels from the 1930s and thoroughly devoured all that were available on Audible. Now, I’ve moved on to the reprints in my library. In breathless prose, Meltzer’s writing is clean and precise as always, delivering a bonanza of excitement that would have been right at home in the heyday of pulp fiction, with a heroine who can stand alongside The Shadow himself.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Online Identity or What URLs to Use

I’ve been planning out the new 2018 changes for my writing business and a question came to mind: when it comes to our online presence, are readers more likely to remember an author’s name or an author’s publishing house?
I think the answer is self-explanatory but let me tell you why I’m asking.

Currently, I maintain three websites: a blogspot one (my first and the one I’ve turned into my western pen name site); my mystery one (scottdennisparker.com), and one for my publishing company (quadrantfictionstudmio.com). It doesn’t take a whole lot of time to maintain, but I’m considering streamlining everything down to one, perhaps two sites. Ditto for my mailing lists (I have two). Longterm strategy is to convert at least one of my sites into an online store.

The majority of authors have websites keyed to their names: James Patterson, J. F. Penn, Dean Wesley Smith, Russell Blake, Mark Dawson, etc. A few, however, use a publishing house to serve at the main online presence. Kevin J. Anderson comes to mind (wordfire.com), the fellas at Sterling and Stone, and a few more. If you google “Kevin J. Anderson,” the first link is wordfire, complete with a tagline indicating it’s the office home of Anderson. When you consider ebook links are all hidden anyway, the actual URL doesn’t matter. Plus, readers are, by and large, computer savvy, so they’d be able to find a website.

But it’s our job as author to make it easier.

So, what do y’all do? Have a URL with your name or promote your publishing company? Or both?

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Crushing Weight of Canon

At my book club this past Tuesday, we discussed Andy Weir’s new novel, ARTEMIS. Generally, we all liked it. The grades for all five of us averaged out to somewhere in the B range. One of our fellows—the one who gave it the lowest grade—said this about the book: without the nifty descriptions of the workings of Artemis, the only city on the moon, the book and plot are quite slight.  Another person asked what has become, perhaps, an obvious question in this modern day and age: Did we think ARTEMIS had any connection or lived in the same universe as Weir’s other novel, THE MARTIAN?
The question led us down a rabbit trail of observations. ARTEMIS is a slim book and it achieved a good blend of world building without pages and pages of backstory and exposition. The talk quickly went back to the classic SF novels of the 1950s through the 1970s when major classics like RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA were not very thick. More importantly with RAMA, not all questions were answered. Why? One possibility was that Arthur. C. Clarke wanted readers to think, to wonder, and, perhaps, to finish the book each in their own way.

Cut to modern times. For this mental exercise, I’m landing more or less at 1980. In the past four decades, we have seen the rise of thicker and thicker genre novels with tons of world building. Some readers are cool with that. I am, too, but only to a degree. In addition, there was the rise of role playing game source books, with every minute detail laid out for the players to pore over, memorize, and internalize. More and more media products—books, comics, movies, TV, games—all began to have their own internal source bibles, a canon. The original sixty Sherlock Holmes stories are called “The Canon.” Serialized TV shows began to have an overarching “mythology” and writers of all stripes were steered back into the canonized boundaries.

That’s all well and good and I frankly love it when a later-season episode of The X-Files refers back to something I remembered from season 1. I’m a fan. I dig it. Ditto for Batman comics and Marvel movies and even modern-day Doc Savage novels. Speaking of Savage, when Philip Jose Farmer went to craft his "biography" of Doc, Farmer said he had the devil of a time because he was having to codify—Canonize—the work of a dozen authors over 181 novels all to meet a deadline.

But along the way, The Canon (and here, I use it in a general sense for any given property) begins to weigh down imagination. The most recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, was, I think, burdened with the crushing weight of Canonized Star Wars. Force projection? That can’t be done. Force Space Flying? That can’t be done. Ships jumping to light speed against and through another ship? That can’t be done.

Why? Because canon dictated it.

Well, so what?

On the one hand, director and writer Rian Johnson probably butted up against established canon and had someone tell him ‘no.’ On the other hand, his decision was to burst the bubble of canon and tell a story outside the canon. Granted, he has now made new canon and has expanded the boundaries of what can be done with Star Wars, but that’s kind of what I’m talking about. The boundaries of certain properties get so rigid that someone needs to come along and just blow them up and reform them anew. Give writers a chance to expand a canon while still respecting it. More often than not, the breath of fresh air given a property will satisfy.

Oh, and we all agreed that ARTEMIS and THE MARTIAN are likely not in the same universe. We all agreed that it was a good thing. Two stories, well told, and each could be enjoyed on their own.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Batman and Bill (Finger): The Search for Justice

Justice. That’s the one word that comes to mind when I watched the recently documentary by Mark Tyler Nobleman about the life of Bill Finger

Do you know that name? Well, if you don’t, perhaps you know the the character he co-created: Batman. If you are like me and you’ve read Batman comics for any length of time, you know the name of the man solely credited as the sole creator of the Dark Knight from 1939 onward. That man’s name is Bob Kane. In the heady days after Superman debuted in 1938, the company that eventually became DC Comics asked Kane to come up with a new hero. He came up with “The Bat-Man,” a red-garbed hero with a domino mask and a black, scalloped cape. Kane ran the drawing by his friend, Bill Finger, and Finger re-engineered the character into the hero we know today. He also created many of the ancillary characters: Robin, Joker, Catwoman, Scarecrow, Commissioner Gordon, and Gotham City itself.

And yet you probably don’t even know Finger’s name. Based on Nobelman’s documentary, the person single-handedly responsible for for marginalizing Finger was Kane himself. In 1965, Kane responded to what is likely the first public history of Finger’s contribution…and Kane flatly refuted Finger’s version of history. Finger died less than a decade later, alone, unknown, and all but penniless.

Nobleman is a writer who learned of Finger’s contribution to Bat-history and set out to do one simple thing: get Bill Finger credit as co-creator on comic books, movies, and TV shows. The documentary is a step-by-step story filled with photos, interviews with relatives and business associates, and audio clips of Finger himself. Most charmingly, however, are moving comic-book like illustrations to depict certain events like Finger’s life at the end, the meeting of Kane and Finger, and even Nobleman’s own research.

That research caused a groundswell among the fans that ultimately compelled Finger’s only living descendant—his granddaughter—to pursue the great cause. If you’ve seen the 2016 movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, you know the answer.

Mark Tyler Nobleman sought justice for Bill Finger. He passed the baton off to the Finger family and earned the justice Bill Finger deserved. It makes you want to have documentaries like this for all the Golden and Silver Age creators so that they’ll all have screen and print credit.

If you are interested to know all the details, carve out 90 minutes and watch this compelling documentary from Hulu.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Gospel of Creativity with Kevin Smith

(The news of Kevin Smith's near fatal heart attack stunned me yesterday. He's a little under two years younger than I am. His heartfelt post about his near-death experience moved me to verify with my family if they knew how much they meant to me if I were to pass in an instant. I have grown to love and admire Smith's brand of optimistic fandom. The world needs more of what he's offering.

This is a piece I wrote in August 2015 after seeing Smith live. It was an event.

In his tweet, Smith wrote that he didn't want his life to end, but if it did, "I can't complain. It was a gift."

Kevin, your work has been a gift to us. Thank you, and get well soon.)

--------------------

I went to "church" on Wednesday night and the preacher was Kevin Smith.

Some of you will probably stop reading right now. Kevin Smith? The independent director of films like "Clerks," "Chasing Amy," and "Jersey Girl"? The guy who has a few dozen podcasts and fills them with talk of film and comics and humor all laced with profanities? Yup, that's the one.

I'm unique in the world of Kevin Smith fandom. I've never seen any of his films. I know him as a podcast personality. Three years ago, while listening to the podcast from SF Signal, there was mention of "...a Batman podcast by filmmaker Kevin Smith where he talks to Mark Hamill." All I heard was "Batman" and "Mark Hamill." The definitive voice of the Joker as far as I was concerned. I listened and fell in love with Fatman on Batman podcast. I've written about it more than once. (here, here, here, and here). Add in Hollywood Babble-On and  I have some great content for the week that includes the wonderfully talented Ralph Garman. 

Cut to a few weeks ago and word came down that Kevin Smith was going to be live in Houston. I knew I had to get tickets. A couple of friends and I met at the Improv Wednesday night. We got there at 7pm for the 8pm show. It started at 8:30...and didn't stop until 12:10am! No breaks. What followed in between was one part comedy show, one part great stories, and a huge, heaping helping of a motivational speaker who preached the gospel of creativity so well that if I hadn't already started my own company and published two books would've had me going home to write a business plan.

The format was Q&A and Smith joked that he might be able to get through five, maybe six questions. I thought he was joking. He wasn't. What is great about podcast--not just Smith's--is that there is no ticking clock or commercials butting up against the host to curtail discussion. There have been many times when an interview goes multiple parts. I love it because you can really dig deep and ask questions we listeners want to know. I assumed that in a live setting, some of that would actually be trimmed.

I assumed wrong. For each question asked, Smith gave the audience member his full attention. The answers were in depth and, dare I say it, reminiscent of Garrison Keillor in that whatever rabbit trail Smith traveled, he always came back around to the question asked. And the rabbit trails were so fun. A year or so younger than me, Smith basically loved the same things i loved as a kid: Batman, comics, and Star Wars. He has made a name for himself just being himself. He just has twenty something years in the film industry to bolster his heritage.

What really struck me was his passion for independent creativity. One of the questions involved a podcast. Smith paused to give an impassioned tangent about the power one individual can have in this world through podcasting. He used podcasting as a real-world example but basically said that any art can save lives. He talked so well and deeply that I wasn't the only one who picked up on his motivational style. Heck, there were so many good nuggets that I flipped over the comment cards and started taking notes. Yeah, I know: I’m odd, but when you hear words of wisdom from a guy who’s been in the fray, you take notice. Among the things I took away, in case you can’t read my scribble, are these:

  • There’s too much ‘Why’ in the world. Go for “Why not?”
  • Find something that’s yours.
  • Don’t be afraid of your thing not working.
  • Put some ‘secret sauce’ in your project, something that just for you.
  • Ask yourself: What would make your bliss?
  • Smith made “Clerks” because he kept looking for a movie like it and realized it was never going to be made unless he made it. (Of all the things I’ve heard Smith say, this one resonates most with me.)

There were others, but those are the highlights. Oh, and he talked extensively about “Tusk,” the movie he made last year. He told about its genesis (via a podcast), how his daughter had a part (as a convenience store clerk), and how Johnny Depp got involved merely by Smith taking a chance and asking a question.

I absolutely loved the show and the message of independent creativity. I’m already doing the independent publishing thing (new western short story and new Benjamin Wade novel coming next month). Now, I just have to go watch some Kevin Smith films.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Shadow: The Black Falcon

THE BLACK FALCON is not only the fourth Shadow novel I’ve read in 2018 but my fourth one overall. And, to date, it might be my favorite for all the action, mystery, and zeal of the storytelling.

As the story opens, Rowdy Kershing is at a poker game amongst his criminal brethren. When he loses his winnings, he needs to buy more chips. He does so with a fat wad of money he makes sure all around him see. What he hides is the presence of a falcon’s feather, dyed black. For Rowdy has been assigned a task: recruit some “gorillas” to be of service to the super criminal, The Black Falcon, who has already kidnapped one millionaire and taunts the police that he’ll do it again.

But as gruff a talker as Rowdy is, he pales when the Knight of Darkness enters the room. They all do. Action ensues and Rowdy squeals like a rat.

The next set piece is the preparations the police deployed to protect Elias Carthers, the next millionaire on The Black Falcon’s list. This is a great action sequence mainly for how it plays out and the clues it reveals. I know that in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, authors frequently left clues for the readers to draw their own conclusions. Pulp fiction was not too known for that, but the clues in this sequence are plain to see.

It is after these scenes where The Shadow, in disguise as millionaire Lamont Cranston, takes action not in Shadow garb. Again, I’m too new at reading these stories to know if this is normal or special, but I’m guessing it’s likely normal, seeing as how The Shadow inserts himself as Cranston into the action.

And by poking his nose into the action gets Cranston in hot water. You see, he’s a millionaire and he walks directly into the clutches of The Black Falcon. From here to the end, the action is fantastic, the revelations are eye-opening, and the ending is outstanding in a “how will he get out of this” manner.
Perhaps the reason I like this one so much is the similarities to the villains of Batman. The Joker or The Riddler rarely commit their crimes without letting everyone know ahead of time, and The Black Falcon is right in that wheelhouse. Surprisingly, the Falcon makes some deductions of his own, and that got me to worrying for The Shadow’s safety. This novel is from February 1934 so I needn’t have worried. There was still going to be another fifteen years of stories, but still.

At one point, The Shadow reveals his true face to another character…and author Walter Gibson doesn’t describe the face! He only describes the reactions of the other character. I found that simultaneously great and frustrating. Who really is The Shadow? And what must his visage look like to bring such dread?

Of the new productions by Audible, THE BLACK FALCON is not a full-cast recording but a single narrator. Thankfully, it’s the same narrator as the full-cast versions so there is continuity.
For those of y’all who have never read a Shadow novel, here is a good one with which to start. It’s got all the pieces in place for a rip-roaring pulp adventure tale.

Partners in Peril
The Shadow Unmasks
The Romanoff Jewels

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Shadow: The Romanoff Jewels

In the third Shadow novel I’ve read (actually heard; thanks Audible!), THE ROMANOFF JEWELS begins in the apartment full of wealthy men. Author Maxwell Grant (Walter Gibson) tells the reader who they are and why they’re there. One of those men is Lamont Cranston, otherwise known as…The Shadow.

Another one of those gentlemen is Marcus Holtmann. Unpretentious, Holtmann has a secret buried deep in his brain, a secret other men desperately want. You see, a friend of Holtmann’s casually let slip the hiding place of the Romanoff jewels, the very jewels seized by the Bolsheviks in 1917 when they overthrew—and murdered—Czar Nicholas II and his family. Priceless in value, nefarious men want to steal the jewels and return the czars to power. To bring out his knowledge, Holtmann is kidnapped and tortured by the insidious Michael Senov for the information.

Naturally the Shadow deduces Holtmann’s whereabouts and does his best to save the man’s life. But he was a few minutes too late. Holtmann was poisoned! With his dying breaths, Holtmann relates to The Shadow all that he divulged to Senov. Armed with that knowledge, The Shadow races across the Atlantic to thwart the attempt.

I won’t give away the ending here, but I’ll just say that a piece of information The Shadow relates I didn’t see coming…but it makes all the sense in the world.

This being only my third Shadow novel, I don’t know how prevalent it was for the Knight of Darkness to travel outside the confines of New York or even America, but I appreciated how, to the European adversaries he encountered, The Shadow was a complete unknown. At least the gangsters in The Big Apple are smart enough about The Shadow to be scared. In addition, I liked how The Shadow got injured at one point, so badly that he needed to be nursed back to health, once again proving he is simply a man.

Which leads to a question I hope long-time fans of The Shadow can answer: is there ever a novel in which author Walter Gibson relates The Shadow’s training?

I’m not sure what criteria Audible used to choose which Shadow novels they produced, but I think him traveling abroad might be high on the list. Or the great ending. PARTNERS IN PERIL is a good one because of how it was used in the first Batman story. THE SHADOW UNMASKS was a natural choice that The Shadow’s origin was reveal. THE ROMANOFF JEWELS not only had foreign travel but the revelation of a key aspect of The Shadow’s legacy.

I am thoroughly enjoying these books. Next up: THE BLACK FALCON.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Eighty-five Years of Doc Savage

Eighty-five years ago today, Doc Savage landed on magazine shelves for the first time and, one might argue, helped change popular culture all the way up to the present day.

The brainchild of Street and Smith publisher, Henry Ralston and editor John Nanovic, Doc Savage was the brighter answer to the magazine’s other runaway bestseller, The Shadow. But where the Knight of Darkness fought crime at night and in the, um, shadows, The Man of Bronze was a different type of hero. He strove “every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it. Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do. Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.” He was a paragon of virtue, the kind of person kids could look up to and revere.

Clark Savage, Jr. appeared in 181 adventures from 1933 to 1949, mostly written by a single author, Lester Dent. In nearly all of them, he was accompanied by his five stalwart brothers in arms: Monk Mayfair, Ham Brooks, John Renwick, Long Tom Roberts, and William Littlejohn. Each man of the Fabulous Five was an expert in his chosen discipline, but Doc bested each. Doc had trained his mind and body since birth to be a superman. He even had a Fortress of Solitude where he would retire from time to time to study. Invariably he would emerge from his seclusion with some new invention, knowledge, or something else to benefit humankind. His headquarters on the 86th Floor of the unnamed building in New York (but we all knew was the Empire State Building) was a palace of gadgets, technology, and books where Doc and his comrades planned their adventures. And his villains were trying to take over the world long before Lex Luther or Blofeld.

If you’ve read this far, I think you will recognize some names and terms. The obvious descendant is Superman himself. Extrapolate, if you will, what Superman wrought: Batman, DC Comics, other superheroes, Marvel Comics, novels, toys, merchandise, movie serials, major motion pictures with superheroes, and many other things that shape large chunks of popular culture. In fact, the biggest superhero movie to date, The Avengers: Infinity War, can trace its roots all the way back to a pulp magazine character that debuted eight-five years ago today.

I am woefully deficient in my Doc Savage reading, but then just imagine reading one novel a month at the pace Lester Dent and a handful of other co-writers drafted the books. You would finish in 2034! But these stories are fantastic to dip into from time to time for the breathless sense of adventure and wonder.

Generations of readers grew up on the original pulp magazines while other generations were raised on the Bantam reprints of the 1960s and 1970s, with Frank Bama's depiction of Doc with a widow's peak and a tattered shirt.

Nostalgia Ventures reprinted the entire run, adding historical commentary. And Will Murray has been using abandoned outlines from Dent’s personal papers to write new adventures, including one in which Doc teams up with The Shadow, bringing the entire saga full circle.

Now, in this 85th year of Doc Savage, I plan to read a few more adventures, including the black-and-white comics from the mid 70s as published by Marvel Comics. I'll be reviewing these yarns as I get to them, beginning with The Polar Treasure next week. 

What are your favorite Doc Savage stories? How about a Top 10 list?

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Passing of Bill Crider

Even when you know the ending was approaching, it doesn’t lessen the impact when it arrives.

Bill Crider passed away last night. My deepest condolences to his family.

For all of us who knew him, he was a kind, honest man who warmly said hello whenever he saw you. I shared my thoughts about him back in December, which I now include here:

By the time I stuck my toe into the ocean that is blogging, Bill Crider was a veteran sea captain.

His was one of the first names I kept seeing pop up over and over again in comments. Slowly but surely, in reading his comments on other blogs and especially on his own blog, I got a sense of who Bill is and the kinds of stories he enjoys. I can tell you that the day he wrote his first comment on one of my own blogs was a great day. When he namedropped my blog on his “Blog Bytes” column in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, I knew I had stepped onto the stage. For so many of us writers who “came of age” in the first decade and a half of the 21st Century, I honestly think it’s a rite of passage for Bill to have read your blog and commented on it.


He has a kind, jovial face that radiates warmth and charm and a personal demeanor to match. Nevertheless, the first time in which I saw him in person, at Houston’s Murder by the Book, I grew nervous. I’m a fanboy in that I love seeing writers in person but, back then, reserved enough not to want to bother them. It was Bill’s easy-going personality that immediately put all those fears to rest. He greeted me like an old friend, smiled, and asked me about my writing. I found it odd that an accomplished writer would care about a newbie, but that’s Bill’s way. He cares about the genre, the writing, and the people behind the writing. At one meeting, right after hello, his first comment was to congratulate me on a new story. He was nice enough to respond to emails when I would send a few cover concepts to him, encouraging me all the way. He made me feel welcome, and I pass it on all the time to every writer I meet.

Godspeed, Bill. Thank you for your kind words and advice.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Night Manager TV Series

If you read the rumors about whom might replace Daniel Craig back in 2016, you would have heard Tom Hiddleston’s name bandied about. And, Daniel Craig returns for his fifth and final bow as 007, we viewers have been treated to a glimpse of what a Hiddleston-as-Bond might be like in BBC’s “The Night Manager.”

Based off a 1993 John Le Carre novel, The Night Manager has been updated to modern times. The six-episode series opens with Hiddleston serving as the night manager in a Cairo hotel during the Arab Spring. Most of the action takes place outside the doors of the hotel, but a fetching woman, Sophie, the mistress of local big shot Freddie Hamid, asks Hiddleston’s Jonathan Pine to copy some documents. A former soldier, Pine is horrified to read a list of weapons, including chemical weapons, as sold by Ironlast, the front company for notorious arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie). Pine sends the list up to London and where Oliva Colman’s character, intelligence operative Angela Burr, sees it and realizes this is a vital clue to bring down Roper. Unfortunately for Sophie, Hamid believes her to be the leak and she is killed.

And Pine drops out of sight for four years. When next we meet him, he is working in Switzerland hotel and is tasked with welcoming none other than Roper and his moll, Jed Marshall (Elizabeth Debicki). He can barely stomach the man, but puts on a professional face. Until Angela Burr approaches him about going under cover. To do the right thing. Of course Pine says yes or else we wouldn’t have enough to fill up six hours.

What follows is mostly standard fare for spy shows, but the three lead actors help carry The Night Manager above other movies or TV series of its type. The lengths Pine goes to in order to get inside Roper’s inner circle had me asking if I could do it. Likely not. But Hiddleston’s charm in on full display in every scene. He may not be Bond, but he would have been a decent one, probably a little harder edged than Pierce Brosnan but not as masculine as Craig or Sean Connery. Speaking of Bond, the opening title montages is straight out of the Bond playbook as is the music.

Hugh Laurie was a nice surprise for me. I never watched his TV show, “House,” or most of his other movies. In fact, the only thing I can truly remember him in is the live action “101 Dalmatians.” But he plays a bad guy very well. He’s eerie calm, which makes him all the more dangerous. And when he stares at Pine or other characters, silently studying them, it’s a penetrating, withering stare.

The Night Manager is full of tropes and, for the most part, the show steers away from all but the most obvious choice. The one trope that I constantly wonder about is the villain inviting the hero into the evil inner circle. Why do that? Is it born out of excessive suspicion? That isn’t the case with Roper and Pine but it still made me wonder.

What are y’all’s thoughts on The Night Manager? Did the tropes bother you?