Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Thrill of the Book Hunt

Scott D. Parker

I can still remember the telephone number of my childhood home. Can you?

It’s a funny thing, memorizing telephone numbers. Back in the day, you had either to memorize a number someone gave you or write it down on whatever slip of paper was handy. Now, all you have to do is talk to your smartphone and it’ll do the work for you. Create a contact, type in the name, and, from then on, all you have to do is say “Call Tom Bombadil” and the smartphone does the rest.
You don’t even have to memorize the number anymore. Some might say that’s progress. It is, to some extent. Some might say that something so mundane as memorizing phone numbers can be eliminated from our daily mental lives in favor of something more important. Like watching TV, right?

Back in the day—I’m forty eight now—when there was a disagreement on the playground over the air date of the Star Trek episode “A Taste of Armageddon,” there was only a few ways to resolve the conflict: either have a copy of Starlog #1—which listed all the episodes and air dates—or a copy of James Blish’s book. Or have someone old enough to remember, but the chances that they would would be next to nil. Nowadays, all you have to do to remember an air date, the singer of this song that just came on the radio but you can’t for the life of you remember who sang it, or the number of quarts in five gallons of gasoline is pull out your cell phone and look it up. Google is fantastic.

But Google is also a crutch. I’ve taken a new tactic when it comes to things I certainly should know or remember but the answer is not coming to me: wait five minutes. Chances are there are two things at work here. One, you probably don’t need the information Right-This-Minute so you can afford to wait. Two, the answer, most likely, will come to you in those five minutes. Then, you’ve avoided the Google crutch and exercised your brain. Win win.

How does this relate to books? I enjoy frequenting used bookstores and I do it regularly. In the age of the internet, I can type in the title of a particular novel that I want to read and locate a copy within seconds. Then, if I truly want the title, I can most likely buy it. Wait a few days and viola! The novel is in my hands. That is immensely cool.

But part of the fun of buying used books is the hunt itself. In the late 70s and early 80s, I searched for the Star Trek Log books by Alan Dean Foster. I ended up finding one on a vacation to Boise, Idaho. The thrill of the find was in almost equal proportion to the concept that I traveled half a continent to find it. I’ve got a low-burn search for all of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Cool and Lam books. I don’t have all thirty yet, but I’m getting there. For the longest time, I vaguely remembered from the early 80s. The cover was unique. It showed an image of a rocket being launched but instead of an American flag, it had a Confederate flag. I wanted to find that book.

And I did. In 2001 in Portland, Oregon. The find was accompanied with an incredible thrill of a hunt completed.

The thrill of the book hunt. There’s something to that.

There’s more. A few times, there have been in my hands a book I more or less want to read, but I know that if I take it home that very day, it would just sit there, unread, for weeks or months or years. The key there is “more or less.” If I truly want the book, I buy it. But if I’m wishy-washy, I’ve put it back back on the bookstore shelf, confident that I’ll find it again. Or maybe it was that I wanted the hunt again.

Have y’all ever resisted the urge to click on the internet and just buy a book rather than scour used bookstores? Certainly I’m not the only one who enjoys the book hunt, am I?

What is your favorite book hunt story?

Friday, March 17, 2017

St. Patrick's Day Tips

There are only a few things you should never do on St. Patrick's Day, and I'm here to make sure you know  them.

1) Don't drive drunk. You're a grown adult.
2) Don't participate in shitty Irish stereotypes.
3) Don't drink green beer. Seriously, it's whatever the bar's cheapest beer is, with food coloring. Why?
4) Don't rob a bank dressed as a leprechaun.

You heard me.

What the hell is going on here?

Perhaps he felt it was a convenient disguise, and that people wouldn't necessarily balk when seeing a grown man in a short-pants green suit and a top hat. Besides, the fake beard would make for an easy-to-ditch facial disguise. What he didn't count on, I guess, is that people notice giant leprechauns running around, even on St. Patrick's Day.

The police were able to get  a clear picture of his day, I suppose by asking "Did anyone see a giant leprechaun?" And the story doesn't  have a happy ending, either. He and his getaway driver put up chase, but eventually had the ditch their car and run. Details are a little hazy after that, but neither made it out alive.

If you have to choose between drinking green beer like an asshole and robbing a bank dressed like an asshole, I guess drink the beer. But better to do neither.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Perseverance, NaNoWriMo, and the Bad Boy Boogie

I first heard of NaNoWriMo in 2010, and I thought it was crazy. For one, it sounded like Mork from Ork. Nannoo Nannoo? NaNoWriMo?
Secondly, a whole novel in a month? Many have been written in as little or even less time. But those writers were pros, not first time novelists. I chickened out that time, but when November 2011 came around a lot had changed in my life. I was married, and my wife Sarah gave me the kick in the ass required:
"You're always talking about writing that book."
Put up or shut up, Tommy boy.

I hadn't written since college. Shortly after graduated, I'd had a story accepted by Pulphouse Magazine, which promptly folded, and I let that minor setback consume me. That story didn't get published until three years later, in the now-defunct Blue Murder, and the costly and time-consuming process of mailing printed manuscripts, and the rejections, deterred  me from writing. I didn't have the perseverance required. The online crime fiction community brought me back when I discovered flash fiction. A thousand words? Easy enough! I had a knack for it, and a dozen or so publications later and it was November again, with the Big Idea for a novel crowding my head, something I called In the Garage after the Weezer song about a social outcast's hideaway.

Two months later that became a 115,000 word novel called Beat the Jinx (I had just read Josh Bazell's over the top and enjoyable as hell novel Beat the Reaper and felt the nod was a touch of good luck). But good luck it wasn't Beat the Jinx was a big old mess, with a Mary Sue protagonist, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl Friday, a confusing combination of revenge story and caper for its plot, and the most interesting character was relegated to sidekick. That version become a "drawer novel" that won't see the light of day, but I took what worked and wrote it into an action-oriented crime drama that drew on my literary heroes James Lee Burke and Richard Stark. Two different ends of the crime spectrum, one lyrical and romantic, the other fiercely driven.

Several drafts later, that book became Bad Boy Boogie, which Down & Out Books is publishing next week. The "exciting" character is Jay Desmarteaux, a Louisiana transplant lost in New Jersey, who has no idea why his parents moved there when he was a child, who joins a group of misfits who suffer the torments of a brutal bully who thanks to small-town politics and corruption can get away with his cruel misdeeds. Until Jay shows up and gives his friends some spine.

The bully is dealt with harshly and only one of them is punished. The outsider, young Jay Desmarteaux, caught in the "superpredator" days when prosecutors sentenced juveniles to Life Without Parole to show that they were tough on crime. Twenty-five years later, the Supreme Court handed down the Miller decision that labeled such sentencing as cruel and unusual punishment. And Jay, who spent his time preparing for a life in prison, is released to find his family gone, his former friends hostile, and someone who keeps trying to put him in the ground. The trail will take him through seedy Newark strip clubs, the Jersey docks still controlled by the mob, and the sheltered castles of political New Jersey power before he finds the truth of his past and why he was the one left swinging, when he stood up for his friends.

My previous novel Blade of Dishonor took 6 months from first draft to final manuscript from my editor. This one took nearly five years. I had found the perseverance I needed. Why?

Bad Boy Boogie was a book I had to write.

Like I say in the dedication, it's a true story but the names have been changed to protect the guilty. That's something Bon Scott mutters on an early AC/DC album, and it fit. So many parts of this book draw from events I experienced, knew from my town and family's history, or had heard whispers of over the years. It's about what some did to get what they have and what they will do to keep it. About growing up working class in the suburb that produced Martha Stewart, clawing your way from nothing and fighting to hang onto the scraps that your betters don't think you earned.

Bad Boy Boogie is out on March 20th, available from local bookstores and the usual retailers.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Over the weekend I went to see Get Out.  It's gotten such good reviews and word of mouth has been so strong that I had high expectations.  At the same time, as with any film collecting kudos, I was hoping the praise hasn't been excessive.  I'm pleased to say I don't think it has been and that I enjoyed the film a lot.

I don't want to talk too much about the movie because the less you know going into it, the better. And nowadays it's so hard to see a popular movie without already knowing more details about it than you probably want to.  I saw Get Out knowing not much more than the premise (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner crossed with The Stepford Wives is definitely not an inaccurate basic description), and I'm glad that's all I knew.  Chris, a black photographer in Brooklyn, goes with his white girlfriend Rose to her parents suburban house for a weekend visit, and though he wonders how they'll react to his being black - since she hasn't told them that - she assures him it will be okay. It won't be a problem for her parents, she insists.

Of course, as Chris discovers, all is not okay.  But it's not okay in a way that's puzzling.  For awhile, and as the suspense builds, you can't quite put your finger on what's wrong.

Jordan Peele's film is impressive.  It isn't just that he takes race and puts it dead smack at the center of a horror movie, but that he has full command of his loaded material. The dialogue, the jokes, pop.  All those years doing comedy on MADtv and Key and Peele honed his timing to near perfection.   In Get Out he mixes the comedy and horror (actually satire and horror) seamlessly.  Scenes bristle with tension, with something off-kilter, and then he relieves that tension, temporarily, with a fright or a laugh or sometimes both at the same time.  What's great is that you feel the dread building, you kind of sense where the story is going, but you don't know what the exact payoff will be other than some form of confirmation of the main character's fears.  It's like a black person's worst nightmare come to life, but it doesn't happen in a backwoods redneck town or among raving ethno nationalists. There's a character named Roman in the movie, and I have to assume this is Peele's nod to Roman Polanski, a master at situating menace in ordinary surroundings.  Remember seeing Rosemary's Baby for the first time? Could those nice old people in the building really be Satan worshippers?  Peele's film has a similar ambiance, though here the menace revolves around race. And just as Rosemary's terror unfolds right in the middle of affluent Manhattan, this nightmare happens in a wealthy New York City suburb.  It's a suburb where you'd think white liberals dominate, the sort of people who would've voted for Barack Obama a third time if only they could have.

Could this film be more attuned to the moment?  Peele had Get Out written and cast, apparently, by early 2016, before the presidential election, but the results of that election and the whole idea of white backlash only make the film more relevant.  Combine that relevance with how sharp and enjoyable the film is, and no wonder it's doing well.  It speaks to the time just about perfectly.  But it's also a film that should last, because it's good.  Horror movies as social critique have a rich history (just a few examples, favorites of mine, and I'm focusing on horror films with laughs - Dawn of the Dead, They Live, The Host, The Howling), and Jordan Peele's Get Out should surely be a film added to that history.  

Monday, March 13, 2017

Emotional Truth

I go on weird show binging streaks that fall outside the scope of what everyone else around here watches. During the puppy training phase of sleeping on the couch every night I let CSI run because it's a show I still essentially enjoy that I can sleep to. It doesn't get too loud or too bright and it worked for me to nap between puppy potty episodes with that show on.

Recently, I started a new show for my new stage of intermittent insomnia. Empire. I'd heard about Empire, and what's not to love about Terrence Howard, who was deliciously evil in Wayward Pines, and brings the bad and the nasty to his performance as Lucious Lyon? Or Taraji P. Henson, who was the moral compass of Person of Interest, and is the somewhat immoral instigator in Empire?

I was just about to delve into a round of manuscript edits, and I had some notes to work off of, and I was trying to work out a solution to one of the key points. I found myself halfway through the manuscript, and I felt like something hadn't quite clicked into place.

Then I had Empire on, and between all the soap hip-hop-era that drives the drama in that show there are these creative moments, when they get talking about the music, and there was an admonition to "put your truth" in the music.

 That's when I started to realize what wasn't quite coming into focus in the manuscript. I was holding back on the emotional side of things. I'll be honest; I think that's much harder to deal with when you're writing a female protagonist. Oh, but women are more emotional than men? It should be easier?

No, it isn't. When we read about a male character who is confronted by how he feels about a situation and processes it, it's seen as growth. He's really evolving, isn't he? Being affected by emotions he can't process, or processing them in a way that drives the plot grabs people, because there's this sudden hope that he'll heal or come to terms with whatever.

When women get emotional it doesn't seem all that special, because they're viewed as being more emotional. And when women get emotional it's easy for that to slip into seeming whiny or, in some cases, bitchy.  I certainly know that when my sleep level is low or I'm sick or I'm just in a mood I can be unpleasant. My husband would never come on here and tell you that, but I know he knows its true. He just happens to be very forgiving.

He will tell you that a lot of the music in Empire is not the type of music I listen to. Yet I've been drawn right into this hip-hop/rap/pop world.

I set myself a specific challenge with the last manuscript; I wrote it from one POV only, instead of my usual multiple protagonist approach.

And that one POV character is a woman.

I'd been holding back on the emotions, and it wasn't entirely unreasonable. The thing is, there are some reasons why this character keeps her feelings to herself and tries not to dwell on them. She's been pretty shut off as a way of surviving for a long time.

However, she'd been on the verge of finally addressing the issue that contributed to that emotional suppression, and her hope for resolution is snatched from her. Although she was practiced at keeping her feelings buried deep, in this situation they would undoubtedly start to surface.

 It was a delicate balance, but I thought about the scenes I was watching with Empire. I know it's just a show, and it's fiction, but they illustrated how getting in touch with your truth and putting that into the music took the music to a deeper level.

Why would I want to write a book that didn't peel all the layers back and really expose what was already brewing beneath the surface?

I went back to page one. The manuscript grew, but I believe then end result is a version that's not only longer than the original in word count, but deeper in character development, and a richer story for it.

Fingers crossed.

PS: I'd venture to say that part of the reason I feel Jamal Lyon's songs are superior to his brother's is because he'd gone through the challenge of coming out and being rejected by his father because of his sexual orientation. His truth ran deeper because he'd been on a harder path.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Comics - The Gateway Drug

The comics. Most don’t have extended storylines. Or contain important information.
And some of them, quite frankly, are just dumb. But …
If they sit on your breakfast table every day, your kids will pick them up. And read them. And then that leads to all sorts of other things. Like the sports page. And the local section. And international news. And eventually, informed citizens.
The paper can spark conversations about everything from the California drought to the discovery of new exoplanets, the price of Super Bowl ads, and of course, the presidential election.
And yes, this obviously means that you'll need to subscribe to the dead-tree version of a newspaper. Sure, you could read it on your phone, but that’s an individual experience, not a communal one. An online subscription doesn’t allow kids to drip cereal milk on Beetle Bailey as they read with their siblings peeking over their shoulders.
I was a newspaper reporter before I started writing books, so I realize that I consider the news (and newspapers in particular) more important than many people do. I will advocate for the importance of accurate, professional news outlets all day long. But this post is about the importance of the consumption mechanism involved. READING.
You start with the comics. Move on to news stories. Then maybe magazines. Entertainment Weekly, National Geographic, Motocross Action – it doesn’t matter. From there, maybe there’s a turn toward comic books or graphic novels. Or non-fiction. Or that most beautiful of art forms, the novel.
So if you’ve got kids and you don’t subscribe to home delivery, think about popping out for a Sunday paper today. Give ’em the comics page and see where it leads them.