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?