Saturday, May 12, 2018

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

Scott D. Parker

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?

Friday, May 11, 2018

Writing Routines and Habits

I've had a rough year. Longer than that, really, but the last year has really stuck it in and turned. From about a week before Bouchercon and for the next several months I was suffering from some bronchitis abomination that never really let up, even after the infection was cleared, and took on a new upper respiratory thing that cleared up just in time for allergy season. I spent well over six months not able to breathe. On top of that, I had eczema around my eyes. It's difficult to treat, painful, and does a number on self-image.

I'm lucky in that I have access to decent medical care and I've been knocking one medical issue out at a time, just in time to go in for the shots I need in my leg every six months. In the meantime, I've lost family members, friends, a massive opportunity to do major things, and my husband got put on a surprise deployment to Kuwait for six months.

I'm not writing this all out for sympathy (but if you want to send me some whiskey or a cake, please, feel free), but to point out something I've talked about before here - life gets in the way of productivity. Sometimes we go into survival mode because we have to, not because we don't care about the things that get set aside. There's nothing wrong with re-prioritizing when life kicks you in the gut and keeps going - it's often necessary. But the problem we face when we come out the other end of the pounding is... all our good habits have gone.

I'm trying to recreate a writing routine and get those creative muscles functioning. I think it's really important to be able to write anywhere, but in order to get back into a serious writing habit, it's helpful to have that some rituals and routines that get your ass in the chair.

First - I'm rededicating myself to reading more. As a parent (and now, functioning as a single parent) reading time gets easy to put aside. Too busy in the day, too tired in the night. It takes weeks or months to finish books that I could knock out in a couple days. Now I'm reminding myself that reading is actually part of writing. When you get sporadic and lazy about reading, you have to recognize that you're getting sporadic and lazy about writing.

Second - I'm going through the old work to get reacquainted. Like most writers, I have piles of stuff I worked on, just to set aside. Either I couldn't make it work, or a deadline was looming on something else, and it got shoved in a folder and forgotten. The amazing thing about stories that "don't work" and "aren't interesting" is when you've allowed yourself time away from the work, a lot of them are interesting and exciting to work on.

Third - Stocking up on coffee and doing the fucking work.

Writing is writing. Sit down and do it. It's exactly that easy, even when it's ridiculously complicated. I'm letting myself write trash, I'm letting myself write without worrying about placing stories or finishing big projects, and I'm getting into the groove again. The last year really knocked me on my ass, but I'm not letting it win.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Alex Segura: The BLACKOUT Interview

By Steve Weddle

The lovely and talented Alex Segura did a stint as a regular blogger here at Do Some Damage. He's written a number of comic books, as well as the Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery series. Pete is back in BLACKOUT, the fourth in the series. 

In BLACKOUT, startling new evidence in a cold case that's haunted Pete drags the exiled PI back to his hometown of Miami. But as Pete and his partner Kathy Bentley delve deeper into the unsolved murder, they become entangled in Miami’s obsession with a charismatic and dangerous cult leader and his even more menacing followers. At the same time, the detectives find themselves at odds with a Florida politician’s fixation on wealth, fame and power. It all converges in the heart of the Magic City and Pete is left scrambling to pick up the pieces—or die trying. 

I recently fired up the email machine to chat with Alex about his new book.

Steve Weddle: The relationship between Pete Fernandez and Kathy Bentley has evolved over the books, and it’s been compared to the pairing of Dennis Lehane's McKenzie / Gennaro. Is that a fair comparison? How do you see the dynamic between your pair?

Alex Segura: I think it's fair, and I'll never dodge a Lehane comparison. Those books were hugely influential for me - the way Lehane shows that relationships, romantic and friendly, can be sloppy and wallow in the gray areas. I didn't know Kathy was going to be such a key player until near the end of SILENT CITY, when Pete finds her and she just jumps off the page. But even back then, you know there's a connection between them. So I put that in my back pocket and let the next two books unfurl, and they developed this really strong bond as partners and friends that I found myself enjoying as a reader and writer, which is rare. But I knew I had to shake things up in BLACKOUT, because while DANGEROUS ENDS, the third and most recent novel, finds them settling into a bit of a happy ending, they were still on the run - there was stuff bubbling under the surface. So, without giving too much away, I pivoted the relationship in a direction I think people wanted, but yanked it back in kind of a cruel way. It made it more interesting to me, and at the end of the day, that's my gauge for whether to write something one way or another - would I get a kick out of it as a reader? I get bored easily when things are happy and linear. I like gray areas and messy situations. I see them as eternal partners - whether that's professional, friendly or romantic depends on the circumstances, but in the same way Miami will always be a part of the series, so will Kathy. She's Pete's co-conspirator and as much of a star to the series as he is.
Image swiped from
SW: One of the characteristics of the Pete Fernandez novels has been music as setting. Have you built scenes around songs or do you match the soundtrack up after you know what you want to happen?

AS: I think about music a lot when writing or when thinking about the novels. It's like creating a soundtrack to a movie in my head. Sometimes these references pop up in the actual book - whatever Pete is listening to in the car or at home, a nod to an artist - or in the playlists I put together as I write. Sometimes both. Like Bosch or Spenser or other iconic detectives, I wanted Pete to be a music fan - to unwind and think a case over while playing a favorite record. I've imbued him with similar tastes to mine because a) it was easier, not gonna lie and b) I felt like a lot of other books I was reading defaulted to jazz or older music - which is fine - but I wanted Pete to feel a little different, more vibrant - in the same vein as Nick Stefanos or his contemporaries.  

SW: You've had organized crime and gangs and more in the previous books, and you've got a cult in this one. How much fun was it to write about a cult and did you find yourself tempted to go over the top?

AS: That's a great question. Yeah, I had to really keep it in check, because so many cults are known for their insane methods or some other, secondary fact and the cult I was creating for BLACKOUT needed to be more disturbing than that. So that's why it evolved into a faded, "defunct" cult that ends up being not so dormant by the time Pete crosses paths with them. I wanted it to seem like they were running a skeleton crew as opposed to being this robust, well-funded operation. In my research, I found that a lot of these cults, at least the ones that had long stretches, started out actually doing some good - helping the poor and undocumented, feeding the homeless, that sort of thing. Then there was a major wrong turn at some point, and a lot of the members felt trapped, tied to the rocket, basically. I used that as a template - this was a group that included some good people that were corrupted and morphed into something much more menacing, then went away and sprung back once they discover Pete meddling in something that could hurt them. 

SW: How has Miami changed since you started writing about it?

AS: It's very different. The landscape has changed. Neighborhoods that were not great are now gentrified and hip. Wynwood didn't exist, really, when I lived there. The Miami I write is as true to the city as I can be, but is also "my" version of Miami. Places that maybe have closed still exist in my version. I get down there often because my parents live there and I have friends there, so I use that time as research along with socializing - I need to keep up with the changing skyline, honestly, and it's not easy. But as long as I do my research and stick to the things I'm familiar with, along with some great beta readers, I end up okay. 

SW: We've see Pete change over the course of these past few novels, but how have you changed as a writer? Would Pete be a different character if you started writing him now?

AS: I think so. While you see hints of what the series is going to become in Silent City, it's still very much a linear PI novel, and while I think it's different, it also honors the genre and its tropes clearly. I don't think I'd write it the same way now, as you can probably see from the books that follow SC, which isn't a diss on PI novels, I'm just saying I don't really approach the Pete books that way. I'm aware it's a series and he's a private investigator, so there are some things that have to be there - a crime, a mystery, etc. But I also just want to write about whatever is interesting to me in the moment, and I'll find a way to make that work within the framework of Pete I've created, so I'm engaged in the writing, whereas with the first book I was very much thinking "how do I add to this pantheon of private investigators? What does this series need and how can I make it different?" And, of course, I'd also like to think I'm better. I don't know what other authors do, but I don't reread my older books. I'll flip through them to reference something or make sure my info is correct, but I don't have the desire to sit back and crack open one of my books - they're done. I'm on to the next thing and that's what I'm interested in: how can I make the next book something else, something more than the ones that came before. 

SW: Whether a book or movie or TV show, a series can be tricky because people are reluctant to drop in after the story has started and, if you're already halfway through a season, who wants to go back and start all over? With that in mind. how easy is it to jump right into this series with this new book? Would you recommend a new reader start with four and go back? Or start with the first book and work forward?

AS: I always read series from the beginning. That's just me. I like to start at ground zero, or the author's desired ground zero, to learn about the characters and their world. That said, I've started series in the middle sometimes, picking up he "most acclaimed" book. But I always end up going back to the start. But I write each Pete book as a standalone, with the idea that it's going to be someone's first, because, if I'm doing my job, you're going to get new readers with each new book. I try my best to recap clearly and concisely, without bogging down the current book's narrative, because that, to me trumps all - the new book wins all. That's what matters most - making it good. But I do want readers of the series to feel like they're getting something special for being around since the first one, and on the flipside, I don't want new readers to feel lost or, even worse, bogged down by exposition. It's a tightrope, I won't lie. I've had beta readers say "Whoa, you just spoiled the whole series here!" And I get that, but I also think readers are savvy enough to figure out that they're coming into things late and hopefully they'll enjoy it enough to go back and read 'em all, even if they know where Pete will end up. 

SW: I've seen authors spend a month high on a good review and wallow in the mire after a bad one. How do you deal with reviews? Do you even look?

AS: Yeah, I look. I have a publicity background, which is a huge help to me when promoting the books because I'm a total ham when it comes to interviews or what-have-you, but that also means I'm vigilant about coverage, including reviews. I see them pretty fast, and I don't have the self-control to not read them. Unfortunately, I feel like most authors are wired to dwell on bad reviews much longer than they should, whereas with the good ones it's like empty calories - like potato chips. You want another one because you're still hungry. I have gotten better, though. If I do get a bad review I get over it faster, and I try to appreciate the fact that the person took time out of their lives to read the book. Few things are for everyone, mystery novels included. Same with good reviews - I give myself a day to enjoy it then I move on, because people/fans forget about the good ones as fast as the bad ones, I think. The one lesson I've learned, over time, is that the best solution to any kind of review/promotional or perceptional book problem is to take a step back and talk about someone else's work. I try to plug authors all the time because it's a tough racket. There's value in recognizing good work, and I try to spread the love as much as possible. It also helps me, selfishly, because it gets my mind off whatever minor thing is stressing me out in relation to publishing - whether it's a review or potential review or whatever.

SW: I've heard that the key to marketing your product is to have other people break your news, so that you're not guilty of blatant self-promotion. What is something helpful to your author career that you've learned from your marketing/publicity career? What is something authors misunderstand here?

AS: Well, first off - there's no magic bullet, no single review or outlet that will "make or break" you. There's a handful of spots - New York Times, NPR, etc. - that will definitely move copies, but at the end of the day, it's about word of mouth, which is this vague hard to quantify thing. You need to get your books in the hands of the right people - tastemakers that will give the promotional cycle a life of its own. As a publicist, you're always happy when a PR hit you worked on happens. You're even happier when people you didn't even pitch start reviewing the book or asking for copies. It means the work resonated, and it all goes back to the book. Write a good book first and foremost, then worry about the window dressing.
Another thing that I think about a lot, especially when I'm careening toward release date and stressing about every little thing - plug other writers. Spread the love. It's the best tonic to the inside baseball publishing hamster wheel.

SW: Now that you've got a stack of books under your belt, what do you wish you'd known with your debut?

AS: I guess I'd tell myself to enjoy it more - events, panels, the writing. We can get so caught up in "what's next?" that we don't think about what's happening. It's something I've gotten better at, for sure, but I remember a lot of early events or things where I wasn't in the moment, and that's not ideal.
I'd also just tell myself to write the book I want to read, because no one else is, and that makes it unique - which is what you want your work to be: compelling and different.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Recent Reads

The series of film talks I do every year in Manhattan is approaching, and that means I have to read several cinema books to prepare.  Fiction will go on the back burner for awhile.  On the cusp of this pause in fiction reading, it seems like as good a time as any to briefly mention some recent fiction I've enjoyed, all novels.

John Shepphird's Bottom Feeders

This is a fast enjoyable whodunnit set on a low budget film shoot going on in California. I reviewed it in detail at Criminal Element

William Boyle's The Lonely Witness

Boyle's follow up to his impressive debut novel, Gravesend, is a beauty. Here's the full review I did.

Alex Segura's Blackout

The fourth book in Segura's Pete Fernandez PI series is the best so far.  If you want to read the review, you can here.

Ruth Rendell's The Vault

This was a return to an old friend.  Over the years, I've read a lot of books by Ruth Rendell.  And by Rendell writing as Barbara Vine.  But it had been a few years since I last read one of her books. No particular reason - I just hadn't. One good thing, though, about a true master, especially one as prolific as she was - you know that writer is always there, ever great, and when you feel so inclined again, you'll return to them.  

The Vault is a sequel to A Sight for Sore Eyes, one of her creepiest and strongest works.  Interesting, because A Sight for Sore Eyes is a non-Inspector Wexford Rendell novel, but The Vault features Wexford as the central character.  While Sore Eyes, like most non-Wexfords, focuses on the abnormal psychology of its criminal protagonist, Teddy Brex,  The Vault unfolds through the balanced perception of its detective.  It's Rendell in full procedural mode, and typically nuanced, lovely Rendell it is.  What a pleasure to come back to her elegant prose and quiet humor and of course her mastery with plotting, pacing, and characters.  Rendell died a few years ago, but I can only be glad that after reading twenty or so of her books, there are another fifty or so to read. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Promoting Your Book Through Thematic Thinking

Last time I dropped by I blogged about writing visually because visual writing not only enables your readers to have a strong sense of the setting in your story, but it also helps when it comes time to produce your cover.

Today, I want to talk about writing thematically.

This is another important thing you can incorporate in your manuscript that will help you in several ways. First, many works are categorized thematically. There are stories classified as coming of age tales. There are works focused on conflicts. Others may focus on dangerous philosophies or political schools of thought that are emerging.

Being able to readily identify themes in your work is something that many readers will connect to. It's also something that can add depth to your material.

More importantly, it can give you something specific to talk about when it comes time to promote your latest release.

Now, I love a great story. I love great characters. The greatest joy in a read is discovering a new character that I want to spend time with who has an intriguing story to tell, like Dana and Jana in Terror is our Business: Dana Roberts' Casebook of Horrors.

Lately, however, I've also been taking note of some of the themes that have been prevalent in works I've been reading. Terror is about more than the supernatural. It's also about understanding our beliefs, confronting our disbeliefs, and restoration.

Freeze-Frame Revolution is a great commentary on the dangers of technology. The author can talk about the environment and how we're destroying the earth and what that's going to mean for generations to come. He can also talk about how technology may - or may not - save us.

Right there I've mentioned two books that are entertaining as hell that have some solid themes the authors can talk about. I mean, you don't want to give away the plot in an interview; you just want to tease it. So when you have themes in mind you have other things you can talk about that can pique the interest of potential readers without giving away the elements of your story that will keep them turning the pages.

Another example of a recent read, for me, is The Oddling Prince. Where do I begin with the themes? It's a coming-of-age story. It's about loss. It's about forgiveness. It's about evil and restoration and love and so much more. All jammed into this delightful quest story that turns the quest construct on its head.

When I wrote The Spying Moon I thought about themes. Loneliness. Exclusion. The things that keep us from fitting in, from our goals, from doing our job, from being happy. What I hoped was that incorporating these themes would add depth to my protagonist and it was nice to see these two specific hopes I had reflected in a blurb I received:

"With a keen eye for Canadian detail, Ruttan crafts a grim thriller with a unique social conscience. We need more stories like this one. Kendall Moreau is a Mountie you won’t soon forget.”
- Sarah L Johnson, bestselling author of Infractus and Suicide Stitch: Eleven Stories

Remember that people want to be entertained and they also want to find characters that they either idolize or relate to in some way. Identifying the themes and talking about those aspects of your work is a way of widening the appeal for potential readers who are hearing about your new novel. 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Beauty of Blind Reading

When you’re picking out a book to read, you usually do things. You look at the cover art. You read the synopsis on the back. Maybe you glance at the author bio or see what reviews are quoted. And you definitely take a look at where it’s shelved in the library or the bookstore. Because it’s your hard-earned time, and possibly also your hard-earned money, that you’re committing when you walk out with that book. And you want to know, as best you can, that it’s going to be worth it.
That’s how I’ve always done it. Until last year. In 2017, I made a commitment of a different sort. I agreed to be a judge for the Edgar Awards. They’re given out by Mystery Writers of America to honor the best in crime fiction, fact crime, and biography. Unlike other awards where voters pick from whatever they happen to have read that year, the Edgars require that judges read every book published in their particular category that year.
I was one of five judges for Best First Novel. The books arrived in the mail throughout the year, shipped by the publishers. By about the third one, I’d made a decision. I peeled off the dust jacket without looking at it, and just started reading. And I did that for all the rest of the 73 books** submitted to us. I didn’t know what they were about, which writers had blurbed the books, what the authors looked like, or even in some cases whether they were male or female. Each book was a blank slate to me.
And it was fantastic. I was genuinely surprised over and over again by plot twists or character revelations that would have been ruined had I read the back cover or inside flap. Now, believe me, I get it. That synopsis is designed to make you want to read the book, and it’s going to throw everything it can at you in order to do that. And I usually appreciate it, because time and money are scarce. I want to make a good decision, one where I’m more than reasonably sure I’m going to like the book.
But for the first, and maybe only time, I had the luxury of not having to choose. I read books I never would have picked up normally, and enjoyed many of them. So I highly recommend blind reading. Think about walking into the library and just pulling something off the shelf at random to take home. Don’t cheat and look at the back cover. Or if that’s too daring, ask fellow readers whose taste you trust to recommend a book with nothing more than a “I think you’ll like this.” Don’t let them tell you what it’s about, or what else the author has written, or anything else at all.
And let me know how it goes. 
**This was not a lot of books. The Best Paperback Original category had about 350 entries, and the Best Novel category had more than 530. Crime fiction is one heck of a popular genre, but then as a Do Some Damage reader, you already knew that, right? 
I got to present the Best First Novel Edgar last week at the awards banquet in NYC.