Showing posts with label Thomas Pluck. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Thomas Pluck. Show all posts

12 January 2018

Hanging with Dave & Clete









Thomas Pluck

Last week I was in Louisiana, and I did what you do.
I drove to Cajun country to eat and explore the sites in James Lee Burke's novels!

Main Street in New Iberia
I've been visiting New Orleans since the early '90s, and I still love the city, even if portions now resemble Brooklyn and Vegas. The Crescent City's heart  still beats strong, but some things just aren't the same, and make me morose. Some things are the same, and make me morose. For example, the tent city under I-10 by the Superdome has been there since the big storm. It was 20 degrees when we drove in last weekend, and those tents sure looked cold.

We had po'boys at a nice joint in mid-city called Katie's, where the high water line was above my head. I had a fried oyster and cochon du lait po'boy with spinach remoulade, that was real good. But the vibe felt like Williamsburg ten years ago, not the New Orleans I remembered. You need to go further out to find people who aren't transplants, these days. Ride the streetcar. Tourists all take uber. Last year after Bouchercon we had a lovely conversation with a local who'd lived there his whole life and therefore sounded like he was from Brooklyn. That's a peculiarity of the Yat accent (so called because of "where y'at?" which means "how are you doing" not where are you). This time around I spent most of my visit in my hotel with the flu, so I didn't get a chance to explore so much. I did so vicariously.

Sarah went to a new fantasy & science fiction bookstore called Tubby & Coos, which I'll have to visit. My go-to is Octavia Books, and they're still kicking. Good people. Hope to have a signing there someday. A bookshop I did stop into was Books Along the Teche, the outpost of all things James Lee Burke, in New Iberia. The town he lived in and made famous with his Dave Robicheaux series, the latest of which is called Robicheaux. I reviewed it for Criminal Element, and it's one of his more prescient novels. Dave & Clete stop into Victor's Cafeteria, which is a few steps down Main Street from Books Along the Teche, and have a heart breakfast. Victor's is open from six am until ten, and then for lunch from eleven until 2pm. I was too lazy to get up early for breakfast, so I stopped in for lunch and had a plate of fried chicken and rice.

Victor's Cafeteria don't mess around.
I know why Clete loves the place. Next time I'll get up early so I can have biscuits. I had reason for being late, I usually stay with family in Baton Rouge, and that's a good hour away. So is New Orleans. And on the way is the Atchafalaya, which isn't as beautiful from the highway, but if you stop in Henderson for McGee's Boat Tours you can see it from the water and get back in time for the best gator bites around. Make sure you get leg meat, it's more tender like a chicken thigh.

Vermillionville is a "living Acadian village" kind of like Colonial Williamsburg, smack in the middle of Lafayatte, the Cajun capital of Louisiana. That's where the Ragin' Cajuns play and where Dave took Bootsie to Mulate's, though there is now a New Orleans location. The food is good and you can hear the old music if you want to two-step. Vermillionville was abandoned in the ice cold but I walked around to see the historic buildings and cottages to get an idea of turn of the century homes of the area. They even have a Petit Bayou:
I drove around New Iberia and visited Shadows-on-the-Teche, an antebellum plantation home that Dave mentions a lot. It's right on Main street and hard to miss:
In my explorations I drove behind the police department and saw two Explorers with their lights flashing, stopping a little red compact. Helen Soileau and Dave were out kicking butts and taking names. I had a bit of a scare when three more police trucks pulled into the lot I was parked in, but it was just an overflow lot they use. It would have been poetic but unpleasant to get arrested along Bayou Teche. Here is how the river looks in town. The fishing is better closer to the Atachafalaya, and the Teche remains one of the most popular fishing spots in the state. I've yet to have the pleasure. It was too cold to catch anything but the flu.
The Teche in New Iberia
About ten minutes away I stopped in St. Martinsville, home to the Evangeline Tree. Longfellow based his famous poem of the same name on the story of a local woman named Emmeline (who Burke name checks in his latest) and the romantic poem of loss became beloved in how it elegizes the lost Acadian lifestyle. This isn't the first tree to be dubbed the Evangeline Oak, but it is impressive nonetheless.
The Evangeline Oak
It's a beautiful country, though I'm not sure it was worth the flu. I hope to visit again in better weather and cast a few lines into the Teche, fill up on breakfast at Victor's, and enjoy the beauty that I hope the people there never take for granted.




22 December 2017

Money for Nothing


by Thomas Pluck

Anonymous said...
Money, money money. If you don't enjoy writing for its own sake or to entertain others, then you'd be better off pumping gas in your spare time. Stop thinking of it as a profession and insulting pubs that don't pay enough. Most of them do it out of love and lose money every month, so those that pay anything at all should be commended. Whether a publication pays nothing or several hundred dollars, it is still just a token and won't pay your bills. 
That comment was left (anonymously, of course) on my last post about crime fiction markets compared to SF/F and Lit genres that have a more robust selection of venues that pay. Now, I was not insulting non-paying markets. I briefly ran Flash Fiction Friday, which you could count as a non-paying market of a sort. Some of my first publications were at Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, and Beat to a Pulp. They still publish great content. But let's talk about this. Other genres have has this conversation. If you want to limit your artists to those who don't need to get paid for it, it changes the art you'll get. I only know a few writers without day jobs, partners or family who support them, or retirees. I'm a writer with a day job. It allows me to write whatever I want because getting paid for it doesn't matter. I also love my day job, but I wouldn't do it for the love of it, if they suddenly said the well was dry. I'd find an employer who respected me enough to pay me for my work.

And there's that. I love Robert Parker's admonishment about writer's block-- "there's no such thing as plumber's block" -- and there's something to be said about art being work. We don't like calling art work, but all the bullshit--and that's what it is--about suffering for art and not getting paid came from the patronage system before it, where artists weren't truly free to do what they wanted. If they insulted the patron, the money got cut off. The artists who were free to starve on their moral high ground, but no one told them to do it. Unlike today.

I've heard the "write for the love of the art" argument from thieves who don't want to pay for e-books before, but not someone who sounds like an editor. I did not insult the editors I interviewed, whether they paid for work or not.  If you felt snubbed or targeted, it wasn't intentional. If you want to "do it for the love" that's fine, but don't tell other people to do it. I didn't say "don't submit to non-paying markets."

"Stop thinking of it as a profession." Speak for yourself. Everyone wants someone else to work for free. Not everyone can afford to. Go tell your mechanic to work for the love and tell me where you find the wrench.

The counter argument to this is well, I need my car but I don't need books. Apparently we do. Stories are important, or we would have done away with them, don't you think?

01 December 2017

Interview: 7 Crime Fiction Editors on the State of the Short Story Market


by Thomas Pluck

I've only been writing crime stories regularly for seven years, but I've been a reader for thirty. We have the big two of Ellery Queen and Hitch, and various smaller venues. Many have come and gone. I made my first sale to Blue Murder in 2001 which promptly folded. That was after Pulphouse accepted it in 1996, to my great joy. And then they folded. Blue Murder actually published "We're All Guys Here," which you can read at [PANK] Magazine. Blue Murder paid twenty-five bucks, I think.

Sixteen years later, we've seen many rise and fall. The Big Click, an online with subscriptions edited by Nick Mamatas. ThugLit, edited by Todd Robinson, which had many stories chosen for The Best American Mystery Stories, and my Jay Desmarteaux yarn "The Last Detail." Spinetingler, an online magazine that had a brief Kindle edition (my story "Two to Tango" appears in it) and they have announced a print edition. All Due Respect, which was online, and now gone, published "White People Problems," which later became "Mannish Water," published in Betty Fedora, which is still around, publishing irregularly. A newcomer is Down & Out Magazine, by the press of the same name (my publisher) which has published two print issues. Another is Black Cat Mystery Magazine, from Wildside Press, which just published its first issue.

There are many more that have come and gone. Needle, a Magazine of Noir. Shotgun Honey, the forefront of flash fiction, remains publishing. Powder Burn Flash, Hardboiled Magazine, started in 1985 by Wayne D. Dundee and taken over by Gary Lovisi, a print-only pulp, shuttered a year or so ago. Murdaland (RIP), Manslaughter Review (alive, a yearly publication), Plots With Guns (I can't tell, they're like the killer in a slasher movie, never count them out), The Flash Fiction Offensive, Out of the Gutter, Dark City. There's also The Strand and Suspense Magazine in print, but I've never gotten a response from either editor for stories or interview queries. I know The Strand publishes one new story a month, so they're a tough one to break into, but you'll be among the legends if you do.

One mag that came up, in bitter memory, was the short-lived NOIR Magazine that raised $36,000 by crowdfunding for a digital-only release on iPad. I was a contributor. With such a limited market, iPad owners, I didn't understand how they would last. I read it on my mom's iPad. It was buggy and I couldn't read it. And then NOIR Magazine was gone. I hope the authors were paid well, because that was a big chunk of change for one issue. Gamut Magazine was multigenre and raised $55,000 - Editor Richard Thomas just announced they're shuttering after a SINGLE YEAR. After a 30% increase in subscriptions. I'm not sure they had a sustainable business model if a 30% jump in subs wasn't enough to keep it afloat. It's rough out there. If you read on, you'll see that getting $2.99 an issue for a magazine that produced regular award-winners can be like pulling teeth.

What's the deal?

Another thing that hasn't changed is that some pay pro or semi-pro rates, others don't pay at all, and a few pay the Mystery Writers of America minimum of $25, which lets them be anointed as official markets and be considered for the Edgars. If you write a 2500 word story, that's a penny a word. Considered pulp rate in the '30s, maybe you can buy lunch with it these days. No offense to the magazines who pay this rate, but I wish the MWA looked toward the SFWA and set a higher bar for professional rates. It would shrink the pool of "official markets," yes. But wouldn't it be nice to be paid a nickel a word? But to do that, you have to sell copies. And fewer and fewer are sold these days. I couldn't find Alfred Hitchcock or Ellery Queen at Barnes & Noble. You can get them at The Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan, or you can subscribe.

So I wanted to get an idea of what could be done to enrich the short story market for crime fiction, so I asked six editors a few questions about the state of things. My questions in bold.

Carla Coupe, Black Cat Mystery Magazine (in print and accepting submissions)

Carla Coupe has been at Wildside Press for over 7 years, and co-edits Black Cat Mystery Magazine, their newest ​publication. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies, and two were nominated for Agatha Awards. One of her Sherlock Holmes pastiches, "The Book of Tobit," was included in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2012. (Read her full interview with Barb Goffman here.)

Why do you think a market should pay, and does the MWA minimum have a bearing on your payment structure?
​Markets should pay because writers are talented artists who deserve payment for their works. We pay a competitive per word rate, so the total amount depends on story length.

How much do you charge for an issue, and did raising or lowering the price have a severe impact on readership?
Paper copies are $10 each, plus shipping (but if you subscribe you get a price break), and the e-versions are $3.99 each (ditto regarding subscriptions). We want to keep both versions affordable and set our prices with that in mind.​

Do you think the free online magazines cut into sales?
​They probably do to some degree, but just as important is that they set the expectation​ that everything on the web should be free. It's very frustrating for many artists, authors, and musicians.

Does paying for a story raise the bar of quality of what you'll accept?
​We've been very fortunate to receive many amazing stories--more than we can include in the next two issues--so that isn't an issue for us.

What has been your experience running a magazine in the crime genre, and why do you think there are fewer paying markets in Mystery than SF and Horror?
​Since we have just started Black Cat Mystery Magazine, we don't have a lot of experiences to share yet. So far it's been very positive, if a bit hectic. We're fortunate that we have such a large pool of talented writers to draw from, and time will tell regarding our success in the marketplace. I'm not sure why there are fewer paying markets in the mystery and crime field -- perhaps because there are so many crime shows on TV? It could be that fans of the genre can get their mystery fix on the box, and/or don't have the time or inclination for reading. But that's just a guess.


Nick Mamatas, The Big Click (defunct, but back issues are online)

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including The Last Weekend, I Am Providence, and Hexen Sabbath. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, Tor.com, and many other venues. Nick has also co-edited several anthologies, including Haunted Legends with Ellen Datlow, The Future is Japanese, Phantasm Japan, and Hanzai Japan with Masumi Washington, and Mixed Up with Molly Tanzer. His fiction and editorial work has variously been nominated for the Hugo, World Fantasy, Bram Stoker, Locus, and International Horror Guild awards.

Why do you think markets should pay, and does the MWA minimum have a bearing on your payment structure?
I think MWA's minimum is too low. It should be higher. A minimum of $100 per story is essential.

How much did you charge for an issue, and do you think raising or lowering the price would have a severe impact on readership?
We were a free online magazine that sold advertising, and also sold ebook editions of our issues for $2.99 each. We also offered subscriptions via Weightless Books. Once upon a time, Amazon allowed for direct subscriptions via Kindle, but small magazines with no print component are no longer allowed in that program. The ones you can subscribe to are grandfathered in.

Do you think the free online magazines cut into sales?
No, it's a different model. Does radio cut in to live music ticket sales? Maybe in some abstract sense, but they're really just two different ways of making money from songs.

Does paying for a story raises the bar of quality of what you'll accept?
No, it raises the ceiling on the quality of story we received though.

What has been your experience running a magazine in the crime genre, and why do you think there are fewer paying markets in Mystery than SF and Horror?
The sense I got was that the novel is so important to the genre that short fiction was always ever a sideline. One thing we categorically refused to take was the "enhancement" story about some side adventure of a novelist's series character, which agents often encourage their writers to produce. We didn't want afterthoughts. We were offered many many afterthoughts.

I think SF and horror have more paying markets because of organized fandom in those genres—it's generally fans with a little money to burn who start magazines these days, and they do it because of their love of the genre and to become prominent in the "scene."  The various awards in SF and horror have multiple short fiction categories, which also encourages writers to participate more. Crime/mystery doesn't have nearly the same level of organized fan activity.

Jack Getze, Spinetingler Magazine (in print and accepting submissions)

Former newsman Jack Getze is Fiction Editor for Anthony-nominated Spinetingler Magazine, one of the internet's oldest websites for noir, crime and horror short stories. His screwball mysteries -- BIG NUMBERS, BIG MONEY, BIG MOJO, and BIG SHOES -- were published by Down and Out Books, as is his new thriller, THE BLACK KACHINA. His short stories have appeared online at A Twist of Noir, Beat to a Pulp, The Big Adios, and several anthologies.

Why do you think a market should pay, and does the MWA minimum have a bearing on your payment structure?
We like to think everything we do is for the newer writers, including the small payment of $25. Getting paid for fiction meant a lot to Sandra and I when we started, and I think writers appreciate the token payment today as well. We'd like to raise that number if future sales allow it. The MWA minimum has not been a factor.

How much do you charge for an issue, and did raising or lowering the price have a severe impact on readership?
We've been online only, and thus free, for almost a decade, but we've just re-launched our print magazine in November. We're charging $5.95 for the ebook and $10.95 for the printed copy. Down & Out Books, our contract publisher, had considerable input on pricing. It could change in the future. Can't answer the second part because we haven't had enough time to gauge readership.

Do you think the free online magazines cut into sales?
No, personally I don't. I don't think readers buy a ton of short stories unless they're already interested in the writer. I might be wrong. Many people think it's the format, that apps and shorter stories you can read quickly on the telephone might be a more salable product. That takes money and investment that Spinetingler doesn't have right now. When Sandra calls me Spinetingler's "owner," it's because I get to pay the bills.

Does paying for a story raises the bar of quality of what you'll accept?
No. We've paid since inception, and my criteria is pretty simple: I buy the stories I personally enjoy reading.

What has been your experience running a magazine in the crime genre, and why do you think there are fewer paying markets in Mystery than SF and Horror?
We run some horror at Spinetingler, although not as much as crime, suspense and mystery. I'd run more horror if I saw stories I liked because our readers enjoy the it, but many submissions seem too gory for me. I had to call a fairly well known writer once and apologize. The writing was so good, the story intriguing, but damn it was gory with lots of body parts and blood. I couldn't finish, told the man somebody else would buy. Not me.

I believe sci-fi and horror have captured young readers' hearts more than mystery. Not sure why, but my guess is the tired image of Sherlock Holmes dooms the genre to a sitting room where old people sit and drink tea. Solving crimes is not as much fun as running from zombies. Every young person I know personally -- anybody under 50 is young to me -- loves sci-fi, horror and speculative fiction. I hope mystery isn't on the way out but I worry whenever I attend a mystery conference. Not many young readers.


Eric Campbell and Rick Ollerman, Down & Out Magazine (in print and accepting submissions)

Eric Campbell is the founder and publisher of Down & Out Books.  After spending twenty-five years in healthcare finance, Eric started Down & Out Books as an avenue to help develop and build “lost” authors. Since then, the company has published over 200 books and is home to several imprints including All Due Respect, Shotgun Honey and ABC Documentation.  The company specializes in the crime, thriller and suspense genres. 

Rick Ollerman was born in Minneapolis but moved to more humid pastures in Florida when he got out of school. He made his first dollar from writing when he sent a question into a crossword magazine as a very young boy. Later he went on to hold world records for various large skydives, has appeared in a photo spread in LIFE magazine, another in The National Enquirer, can be seen on an inspirational poster shown during the opening credits of a popular TV show, and has been interviewed on CNN. He was also an extra in the film Purple Rain where he had a full screen shot a little more than nine minutes in. His writing has appeared in technical and sporting magazines and he has edited, proofread, and written numerous introductions for many books. He’s never found a crossword magazine that pays more than that first dollar and in the meantime lives in northern New Hampshire with his wife, two children and two Golden Retrievers.

Why do you think a market should pay, and does the MWA minimum have a bearing on your payment structure?  
Eric: To get good stories from top name authors, yes, we need to pay.  They've taken time to write the story and, while the payment is pretty small, I hope to see that grow over time.  If we get the the big names then we should be able to submit to MWA for consideration.  So yes, the minimum did come was discussed when Rick and I first talked about launching the magazine.
Rick: The MWA minimum has a huge bearing on payment. The minimum is not large but it does several things: it makes each story we buy a professional transaction for the writer, it makes their work eligible for awards consideration (which would be wonderful for circulation), and as Eric says later, free does not work as a business model in the book and magazine business. If we don’t respect your work enough to pay for it, how willing are you going to be to work with me on the editing—some of which gets extensive, I’m not just a pass/fail type editor (two stories in the new issues have endings from me, and a story in the next issue will as well. Why do that much work for free? It’s because we’re all bonded by the desire to make each of these stories the best they can be). I only wish we could start out paying a per word rate like the two biggies in the field.

Interestingly, most of the writers have been surprised they get paid at all, even though it’s clearly stated on our submissions web page. They just want a story in our magazine. Which is another recurring thing I heard at Bouchercon: I want a story in your magazine. When Eric and I first talked about this and he asked, what should we call it, I immediately said, “Down & Out: The Magazine. D&O Books already has the image and identity you want to put out there. It would be up to us to put out a magazine worthwhile enough to bear the name.” And there’s no doubt in my mind we’re doing it, even though we’re young. I can tell you as editor I am uncompromising as to the stories that I’ll buy. And the idea is to get magazine readers to discover a writer’s books—which a number of people have told has happened with your own—and vice versa. We’re hoping contributing authors will publicize the existence of their work in the magazine, too.

How much do you charge for an issue, and did raising or lowering the price have a severe impact on readership?
Eric: The cost of each issue is $11.99 for TP and $5.99 for EB  for a number of reasons.  First, the authors are names you know and have been paid for their efforts. Second, until readership reaches a reasonable number to justify a print run, the book is POD so the cost to publish is a little higher. Third, the stories have been professionally edited and proofread. Bottom line, Down & Out: The Magazine is a high quality product with well-written stories. While lowering the price may result in a few add'l purchases, I don't think it would be substantial.
Rick: If you made the book free, or two dollars, the consumer values it lower than they would a competitive magazine with inferior stories that carries a higher retail price. Free doesn’t work. Occasional free can work wonderfully, occasional cheap can give you a nice boost in the arm and build loyalty from your customers, but an all the time free or cheap project simply means that’s the place your product will occupy in the consumer’s mind—at the bottom.
Show me one of the new magazines that has an all-new Moe Prager story by Reed Farrel Coleman? Or one that has a new Sheriff Dan Rhodes story by Bill Crider? In the next issue it’s a new Jim Brodie story by Barry Lancet? It doesn’t happen anywhere else.
Other magazines have used public domain short stories to fill pages because they’re cheap but we actually curate the stories we reprint and pay the entity that currently owns Black Mask. The short essays I write to introduce those stories should give readers an interesting peek into how we got here from there, then they get to read a story that may use language a bit looser than we do today but they’ll see that, damn, they’re fun to read.

Do you think the free online magazines cut into sales?
Eric: Free hurts everything we do. At some point though, free isn't sustainable. If you don't pay for content, then what kind of content will be available to you, the reader?  As a publisher, you pay for the cover, edits, proofreading, layout, etc. and if something is free, then how to you recoup your costs and, more importantly, pay the author for their hard work.
Rick: Free also robs the spirit and the heart out of what we do. What a sad state for poets who get paid with a contributor’s copy of the digest that took their poem. There’s no payment, token though it may be, the magazine doesn’t sell much, so it’s not like they’re looking at a hot growth curve, so they muddle along. No, what we do is exciting. And so very hard. Working with writers whose stories may almost work but not quite, or don’t have an adequate ending, or are too fat in the middle, or have a twist ending that you can guess from the first page—these are all problems we work on in the editing if despite these problems there’s an actual story there. By the time the issue’s almost done, all the stories have run together in my mind and they all start to read the same. Why do I do that? Because I am going to make this thing a success. And that’s something more than that weekly 8-pager they hand out at the grocery store on Fridays.

Does paying for a story raises the bar of quality of what you'll accept?
Eric: Absolutely, without a doubt.
Rick: It does, but more it’s the reputation of Down & Out, it’s the personal invitations I extend to writers (because face it, us writers don’t get a ton of love that way), and there’s a sense out there that this is going to be something and they want to be a part of it.

What has been your experience running a magazine in the crime genre, and why do you think there are fewer paying markets in Mystery than SF and Horror?
Eric: Thus far we've published two issues and we're still crawling.  We're trying to get the word out and grow this into a sustainable venture.  It takes a lot of hard work from numerous folks to pull it together.  Each issues will consist of 7 or 8 stories so if we do 4 issues a year, you're really talking about putting out 2 anthologies a year.  That's a TON of work.  I think there are fewer paying markets because total readership is down due to the aforementioned free content.  Again, I don't believe that's sustainable when no one is making a penny.  As much as we love what we do, you've still gotta eat.
Rick: I have no idea of the number of paying vs. non-paying magazines among different genres. I do know that for a while I was buying all the new magazines because I wanted to support not only the magazines, but my friends who were writing stories for them. But I found what I think most people find—I don’t like most of the stories. I just don’t. Maybe the writing’s okay but the poor endings ruin the experience. Or the writing’s just plain weak, on more of a high school level. Or the ideas are non-original and we’ve seen this story innumerable times before. Whatever. But I’d read these things and when I’d finish I’d have this funny twisted up feeling in my brain, like I’d just read something nobody had any business asking me to put down money for. That what I’d just read had been inconsistent. Three mediocre stories and one bad one can give me a feeling as though I’ve thrown away an entire day.

Everything we’re doing here is all aimed at accomplishing one thing: No. Bad. Stories. Not everyone can like every story. I can see one in particular in this second issue that is a good story but it is dark. And it’s that way because sometimes you just write a dark story. The point is, it’s good, and even if you read it and say, “That’s too dark for me, honey turn on all the lights,” you’ve already read it, it’s over, and you know you read a good story. Although you might not read that one again.

Todd Robinson, ThugLit (defunct, though back issues are available at Amazon)

Todd Robinson created and ran THUGLIT magazine for over a decade. He's not shilling anything in this bio. Sure, he wrote a couple of novels, but let's save us both the embarrassment of having to pretend you give a flying fuck.
Hi, Todd! That's Todd. Because like Conan, Cimmerian, he will not cry (or shill) I will shill for him. The Hard Bounce and Rough Trade are his Boo Malone mysteries, about a bouncer in Boston who runs an investigative agency called 4DC (as in Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap) with his buddy. Good reads, Have at 'em.

Why do you think a market should pay, and did the MWA minimum have a bearing on your payment structure?
A market should pay, because any artist should be paid for their work. Even when we were a free online mag, I paid the writers with a t-shirt. And this was when we generated NO income whatsoever. It cost me almost three-hundred dollars per issue to produce the mag.

And while I think the offer of exposure is utter bullshit, we did legitimately give the authors that. I would never claim that it was a reason to submit to us (if you can get paid, you sure as shit should do so), but over time, the proof was in the pudding with regards to how many of our authors moved up the ladder by getting pubbed by us as a starting point. We worked our asses off to make sure as many people saw the work as possible. And that's a pride I still carry with me today. Every time I see a book on a shelf that started with the author having been published in Thuglit, Bitterness takes a short coffee break and allows Pride to have a small "Fuck, yeah" moment.

MWA made no impact whatsoever on our pricing. I'm not a member. The organization and I aren't friends. Part of it is that they even HAVE a fucking minimum, as though the price paid for a story is an indication of quality. Check the bookshelves, Best American Mystery Stories, the Anthony Awards, The MacCavity Awards…fuck it, ALL the awards (except the Edgars) to see if we presented amazing work from truly talented writers. According to the MWA, those stories aren't worth shit because of monetary ratios.

How much did you charge for an issue, and did raising or lowering the price have a severe impact on readership?
I started with the lowest price point at $0.99, and our readership dropped ninety-six percent. Apparently, thirteen cents a story was too much to ask. Once we rocketed up to six percent of the original readership, I raised the price to $1.99 and raised the author pay. Our readership dropped another third, and kept dropping until we were almost operating in the red in order to maintain the pay rate, and I shaved a decade off my life stressing daily about why we got all the acclaim, all the "love" and no sales.

Do you think the free online magazines cut into sales?
Absolutely. But like I said, we were free for years. And some of those free e-zines offer great material from editors who truly care about presenting quality fiction. Some just operate as a Mutual Admiration Society for authors to self-publish their own writing along with the works of their friends in order to impress their knitting circles. Those are usually fly-by-night productions that don't last six months, or whenever the jackasses realize how much work goes into it.

I made a lot of enemies with rejections, and never published a friend for being a friend. You can ask any writer that I'm close with personally. If the story wasn't good enough, it didn't get in. Period. Don't give a fuck who you are—or more importantly, who the fuck you thought you were. To do so would be a disservice to the few loyal readers we had, and a disservice to the writers themselves by presenting what amounted to a piece that didn't represent their talents to the fullest of their abilities.

I've said it before—we live in a society that would rather go to a free turd buffet with the off-chance that there's a shrimp hiding under a mountain of shit, than pay two bucks for a curated meal from a restaurant that built a reputation for high quality. I thought that over the years, we'd built a status that would have earned both us and the writers that much.

HOO boy, was I wrong.

Did paying for a story raise the bar of quality of what you'll accept?
Not at all. It increased the number of submissions we received, but the over/under on how many stories were quality over those that didn't live up to our standard remained the same. Our bar was set high with issue one. It never lowered. I never accepted a story from a "name writer" because I thought it would increase sales at the expense of a story I though was better. Would that have made sense business-wise? Sure. Am I as smart as I sometimes like to think I am? Fuuuuuuuck no.

What has been your experience running a magazine in the crime genre, and why do you think there are fewer paying markets in Mystery than SF and Horror?
It sucked. It was exasperating as hell. When I put up a video stating that I was ending the magazine, the goddamn thing got 7000 views in ten days, along with the wailing and gnashing of teeth that always accompanies a mag when it goes down. Problem was, we didn't move 7000 units of the magazine during the two years prior. If everyone who watched the video was willing to pony up what amounted to a buck a month, they wouldn't be watching that video!

I think it was that realization at the end that pushed me from straight-up frustration in to outright bitterness. Writers love having a market, but don't support them while they're in operation. But they sure will bitch and moan when they're gone.

The markets are disappearing because nobody wants to pay for the magazines. Fewer and fewer people read. Even fewer want to pay for it. That's the beginning, the middle, and the end of the problem. Writers can't get paid from a magazine when nobody is buying the magazine. Even the writers themselves.

Chris Rhatigan, All Due Respect (defunct)

Chris Rhatigan is a freelance editor and the publisher of All Due Respect Books

Why do you think a market should pay, and does the MWA minimum have a bearing on your payment structure?
I don't think there's any particular amount a market should pay. It's nice if the magazine can at least send a contributor's copy. If the magazine is just a website, then there's no way in hell it's making any money, so it's a bit unreasonable to expect payment. MWA had no bearing on our payment structure. 



How much do you charge for an issue, and did raising or lowering the price have a severe impact on readership?

We charged $2.99. When we did promos at 99 cents, we would sell triple the number of copies. The problem is Amazon's payment structure--you make 66% at $2.99 and up, but 33% at 99 cents. Of course, the idea is that you "hook new readers" with the lower prices, but I'm not convinced that ever happened. 



Do you think the free online magazines cut into sales?

No. I've never perceived the short fiction market as a zero-sum game. Many of the free sites I used to read are gone now and I highly doubt this has caused an uptick in readership for paying magazines.



Does paying for a story raises the bar of quality of what you'll accept?

Yes. ADR was a website that didn't pay writers for a few years. Later, we decided to release a magazine (Amazon and POD) and pay writers $25 a story. We received about ten times as many submissions. We ended up turning down some excellent stories.  



What has been your experience running a magazine in the crime genre, and why do you think there are fewer paying markets in Mystery than SF and Horror?

I enjoyed running the magazine and that's why it grew into All Due Respect Books. We still publish short stories in the form of collections by individual authors. About two years ago, it became clear that the magazine was taking up a significant amount of our time but was losing money. People in the crime fiction community were enthusiastic when we started and our first few issues sold a lot of copies. That didn't last. It was also a question of time. Running a magazine and a publishing house at the same time wasn't going to work. We chose the publishing house and that was the right choice. I think we have a long future ahead of us publishing excellent crime fiction while not going bankrupt. That's been my goal all along.   

To respond to the second part of your question, SF and horror sound like the exception to the rule. It's difficult to run a magazine that pays writers. I don't know anyone who reads short story magazines who isn't a writer. And writers often submit work to publications they've never read. I don't want to blame anyone here--writers, readers, editors, "the industry," etc.--but, for whatever reason, short story publications have a tiny audience, and I don't see that changing. 


Takeaways:


"Free hurts everything we do." 
I agree. I've heard it time and time again, readers who wait for a book to drop to free or 99 cents. BookBub has made a living at it. But unless readers buy the next book at a profitable price, writing is not sustainable.
"I hope mystery isn't on the way out but I worry whenever I attend a mystery conference. Not many young readers."
This will be the subject of a future post. Bouchercon may not be the perfect con to become the "Comicon of Crime" ... but we NEED a "Comicon of Crime," that is hosted in one place or by one group.
"Crime/mystery doesn't have nearly the same level of organized fan activity." 
This needs to change, but how to do it? 
"I wanted to support not only the magazines, but my friends who were writing stories for them. But I found what I think most people find—I don’t like most of the stories."
This is a big problem. When I read EQMM or AHMM even the stories that aren't my cup of joe are of high quality. I can't say that about every magazine. You need a place to cut your teeth, but that doesn't mean the story should be published. There are sites like Fictionaut and others where you can share your work and get feedback.
"The markets are disappearing because nobody wants to pay for the magazines. Fewer and fewer people read. Even fewer want to pay for it."
Big problem. But it ties into the quality issue. I loved ThugLit's high quality level and bought print issues from Amazon (I hate reading e-books now that I need glasses). But it wasn't easy to subscribe. If a mag can't do print subs--and I get it, it's a LOT of work--they need an email mailing list, minimum, to alert readers of new issues.
"writers often submit work to publications they've never read."
Much to editors' chagrin. Live and learn, writers. 

I went through the trouble of interviewing these editors to generate a discussion. Let's keep it civil, but what solutions do you see for these problems? Or do you think there's no problem at all?

03 November 2017

NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month!

Bluto cosplayer Thomas Pluck


Thomas Pluck

November is National Novel Writing Month and you're three days behind already!

NaNoWriMo for short, you're about to get flooded with word counts on social media as people try to write 50,000 words in one month. Steve Liskow wrote about this last month, and he gives courses on it, so check out his post for an introduction. I wrote my first novel, a draft called Beat the Jinx, for NaNo 2011. After three more drafts it would become Bad Boy Boogie, my second published novel, and the first in my Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller series. The drafting and rewriting is the important part, here. There's a National Novel Editing Month in March, to give you time to rest and sit on the manuscript so you have perspective, and I highly recommend taking time off and editing whatever you blast through this month, especially if you are a newer novelist.

What's new to me this year is that it's the first time I've had a novel under deadline. The second Jay Desmarteaux novel is due in mid-January, and as of now it's called Born on the Bayou. It's set entirely in Louisiana, drawing on my many visits there, and I've had many of the scenes in my head for a long time. I put together a rough outline: I like mileposts, which I can move or swerve to avoid, rather than a strict structure. Another writer called this "writing to the end of the headlights" and I like that, having just enough road to see where you're going, but not knowing where you might end up. That way the reader will hopefully be as surprised as you are.

So I cheated a bit for this year's NaNoWriMo. I began just before Bouchercon. I wanted to wait until after the convention, when I was full of energy from talking with readers and fellow writers, but I couldn't wait. I sat down and wrote the opening chapter--a prologue, even--and I've read it at two Noirs at the Bar already. The audiences have liked it. I took a big chance there, because if it went over like a fart in church, I might have been discouraged to write further. Or agonized about the direction the novel was going. So I got lucky, there. As of last night when I hammered out 2,000 words, the manuscript is around 16,500 words as November begins. So I'm cheating, kind of. It's easier to write when a novel is in motion. Inertia and all that. So my plan is to hit at least 66,500 by midnight November 30th, and have 75,000 by mid-December, giving me a month to edit (without a rest) before it goes to the publisher. This is the tightest deadline I've ever been on.

Bad Boy Boogie went through four drafts before I queried. My beta readers liked it, but a very generous agent--Elizabeth Kracht--gave me good notes on the beginning, and I amped things up for a final draft. I essentially pulled the infamous "chapter 3 is now chapter 1" switcheroo, putting strong action in the first chapter where there had been a slow burn. And it worked. My editor at the publisher had no developmental edits. Oh, there were plenty of edits to be done, but the bones were good. The novel needed a chemical peel. This is a bit of a tangent, but you should make a list of "problem words" you use and search for them before you write "final" on your draft. Some of problem words are "just," "only," "But," and "So," and you can add "ly " if you overuse adverbs. My characters nod and grin and wince and grimace and squint more than Clint Eastwood in need of Ex-Lax, as well.

This draft feels cleaner than my previous ones, as I am getting better at editing on the fly. I also go back and edit as I go, and sometimes read the last chapter I wrote before I begin the night's writing. I'm a nightowl with the writing, I wish I could do it first thing in the morning. Charles Willeford suggested writing before you use the bathroom in the morning, much less a cup of coffee. I couldn't hack that, I prefer to start between 8 and 9pm and write until 11;30, and read for a half hour before bed. It's good to have a reward set. The few TV shows I still watch? I don't use them as rewards because I like to watch them with my wife. And some of them are news shows, and it's good for me to get riled up before writing.

So are you joining NaNoWriMo this year? It's about 1350 words a day. You don't have to write every day to be a writer, but I like Larry Block's admonition, "you can't write four lousy pages?" It can seem insurmountable, but having a pro diminish it so casually makes it feel less so. To do this you need to trust your voice and silence the inner critic. As Joyce Carol Oates says, write fearlessly.

This doesn't mean you should be able to bang out a book a month or even in a year. Everyone is different, and I feel that the "book a year train" has hurt a lot of writers whose best work had more time to simmer, but this is a challenge you don't have to accept. If you've been hemming and hawing about writing a book, there are worse ways to tackle it than NaNoWriMo. You'll have a bunch of us cheering you on.

Ready?
Set?
...
Go!



13 October 2017

American Gun Mythology and the Role of the Writer

--Thomas Pluck

It's been a little over a week since once of the worst massacres in the history of the United States committed by a civilian. And there's been a lot of talk about "what could have been done" to stop him. Because it's nearly always a him, but that's another can of worms. Once the shooting began, there was little anyone could have done. The terrorist chose a high vantage point. He moved between two windows. He set up cameras in the hallway to alert him, and fired at the door once security arrived, and killed himself.

The Internet tough guys are out in force saying that "if only..." If only what? Anyone in Nevada who wants a gun can get a gun. They have extremely lax gun laws. The crowd was not disarmed. More guns would not have saved anyone, short of having snipers at every public event. Which I am sure, will be suggested as a solution by the arms dealer lobby of the NRA, over sensible legislation for consumer ownership of military hardware.

I am a gun owner. I live in one of the states with the strictest gun laws, and I do not think they are enough. But I don't want to talk about gun control. I know I'm not going to change your mind, and you're not going to change mine.

And besides, what can writers do?

For one, we can stop promoting gun mythology. Guns are not the only solution to a problem. They are not magic wands. You don't get to decide if they wound or kill your target. You can try, but the bullet decides if it will nick the femoral artery and make that "leg wound in the meaty part of the thigh" bleed you out. The bullet decides if that shoulder wound passes through "just the muscle" ... and kills the baby in the woman's arms behind your thriller protagonist who started a gun battle on a crowded street. We perpetuate the myth of the gun as a protective talisman. It won't protect you.

After all, it's only a tool. "It is the hard heart that kills," as Gunny Hartmann would say. Sometimes it's the frightened heart that kills. I nearly shot a friend of mine one night thinking he was an intruder. I had been taught firearm safety. It was nearly not enough to save my friend's life. I train in self-defense with and without weapons. The majority of this training is to commit actions to muscle memory, because humans do not perform well under stress without such training. Yet some characters is cool as a cucumber in battle, never misses a beat, and the gun saves the day.

Horse puckey.

That's what that is.

Ask any officer about gun retention training and the "21 foot rule." That's the distance a determined individual can cross while the average officer clears their holster and readies their sidearm. It takes a little over or under a second. I've trained it. I'm a big, slow guy, but unless you're Quick-Draw McGraw, I'm going to flatten you like a rhino chasing an ice cream truck before you can get a bead on center mass. And yet, I recently read an otherwise fine novel where the protagonist shoots two armed people, one who has a battle rifle, with his .45, during a conversation. He's dead-eye dick. Never misses. And they never get off a shot. I kept reading, but this was a story that bought into our mythology about guns. Another fine novel had a character shoot four security guards "in the leg" and you know what I just said about that. This isn't Terminator 2. Those men will die or live in pain for the rest of their lives, but it's played off as merciful. It served to make the character seem a bad-ass and start things off with high tension, but all I could think of was four guys in physical therapy because that was the best the writer could do.

“We don’t sensationalize guns,” he said. “Society sensationalizes guns.”
“Have you ever watched a movie with guns and violence in it?” he continued. “Have you ever played Call of Duty, or any video game where there is shooting involved? I haven’t heard one person who said ‘no’.” --owner of Machine Gun Vegas, who advocates for stronger gun control.

Is it possible to write violence without glorifying it? Filmmaker Francois Truffaut said that it's impossible to make an anti-war film because the excitement onscreen inevitably glorifies it. I'm not so sure. Fury by David Ayers stripped me of any desire to fight in World War II. When historians and pundits opine that they never got to fight in a war, they sound like petulant children. Are they really listening to veterans? My great-uncles, before they died, confided in me about cowardly acts during wartime without shame. Because they survived. Another cried for the Germans he killed, because "they were just doing what I was doing." And yet Couch Colonels want to see millions suffer so they can get medals? If historians are pushing this sociopathic garbage, what hope do we who deal in fiction have?

Here's an interesting anecdote from John McTiernan, the director of Predator, on "gun pornography":
There were some studio types who were basically into gun pornography. They wanted to sell gun pornography. They said I wasn’t doing enough close-ups of guns and stuff. So I said, “Why don’t I just do a whole scene?” But I also made it one that had something to do with the story, because all of these guys have giant guns and the whole point is that they’re helpless in the face of this monster. That’s the whole point of the story. They’re these enormously, heavily-armed guys, and they’re not prepared for this. So the whole point was, we hit nothing. But it also got rid of the gun pornographers because I gave them five minutes of nothing but guns. So they were quiet after that. - From this interview at Cinephilia & Beyond.

Violence will always be a subject for storytelling. Nature is brutal, and we are part of it. But we must look past the logic of the victor, the survivor, who looks back as if this was destined, just, and the only solution at hand. That's a defense mechanism. "I had to kill him. It was him or me."

In self-defense, we laugh at this. You couldn't cross the street? Shut the door and call 911? You had to stand your ground? Were you defending your life or your "honor"? We say the best defense weapon is a good pair of running shoes. If you must strike, you hit until they are down and escape if you can. Because people have friends. Even jerks who want to rob you or push you around have friends. And they may not like how you kicked their friend when they were down because it felt good to show that jerk who dared to threaten you what they get for besmirching your honor.

How many stories play fast and loose to give us a villain who simply must be killed? They won't give up! They have no fear of death. The endless henchmen who file into John Wick's house made me laugh. I mean, no one thought to toss a few Molotov cocktails and burn his house down? Or tell the boss to engage in aerial intercourse with a rolling pastry, then head home? Not saying you should feel bad about liking the movie, it was good entertainment, but it's the kind of fantasy we take for granted. The kind of fantasy that makes internet tough guys think they could hit a sniper on the 32nd floor, or make it past his machine-gun nest to get to his hotel room and get him.

No, the bad guy thought of that. The hotel room door was found riddled with bullets. Just enough time for the terrorist to take out "a large, silver revolver--probably his favorite, I wonder what he named it?--and blow his own brains out. As planned.

So how do we not glorify violence? By showing the consequences. By not going Shakespeare on our characters' behinds, and killing them off for convenience. You might think this is death for a pulp story, but Billy Jack laid a whuppin' on the bad guys and he was a pacifist. He was so kind he took off his cowboy boots before he kicked you in the face. Your bad-ass heroine can learn Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and use arm locks. Your super-agent can be tired of assassination and use the defensive aspects of tai chi. Or be a boxer who simply sidesteps and slips punches and gets out of there. If you've never seen a pro boxer dodge punches by street thugs and amateurs like myself, it is really funny. You can't hit those guys! Just ask Connor MacGregor...

I would've been much more impressed with the scene I mentioned earlier if instead of shooting the guards, he disarmed them. That's still violent, your trigger finger often gets broken when a gun is wrenched out of your hands, but I'll take a finger splint over a lifelong limp. But this is nitpicking, really. It's the big pictures that matter. Are our villains human, or caricatures? Are guns tools, or dei ex machina? Is violence an easy solution that gives us a place to end the story, or is it a trauma that affects the characters for the rest of their lives? And I don't mean one that's solved by all those whiskies they drink without seeming to be affected, but that's a third can of worms, and that's my limit.

These are questions we have to ask when we write a story.
Because stories matter.

22 September 2017

Dance Band on the Titanic

by Thomas Pluck


A lot of my fellow writers seem to feel like what we do as entertainers, is frivolous.
When there are hurricanes bearing down on people you love, politicians playing pinochle with your life, and totalitarian regimes firing missiles over your country, writing stories doesn't seem to amount to that hill of beans Rick talked about at the end of Casablanca. It feels like a futile exercise or worse, an apathetic one. Artists flaunting that we are unaffected.

I say to hell with that. Whether you write stories that attack the status quo, or entertaining yarns that completely avoid any reference to current events, do what you please. We need to be entertained, and anyone calling books "escapist," like that's a bad thing, is selling their own brand of mental snake oil. We're not going to be boiled slowly like frogs in a pot because we're distracted by books, TV shows, or even our phones at this point. If anything, the phones are keeping us from distracting ourselves from tragedy. The TV shows have banner ribbons below the action, telling us to tune into the cable news to be horrified.

And stories help keep us sane.

It's been said that the classic mystery story is about returning the world to order. That's a calming prospect. If that's your bag, write them. Your readers will thank you. My life's been chaotic for a long time. My wife and I bicker over buying a house, because to her that means home and childhood; to me, it's a place I'll be forced to leave and never see again. I grew up in a donnybrook and the relatives who had houses and not apartments made me feel uncomfortable. So I prefer stories where a tornado hits and people come out of it okay. They pull together and make a new family, and weather the storm knowing that there'll be another one coming not long after. So you might feel like your horror tale, dark thriller, or anti-hero story is just adding to the anxiety of a confusing world, but to some of us it's a lullaby.

Art is not neutral. When the status quo is a boot on your neck, if I decide to write a pleasant little story that says "everything is fine," you'd perceive it as propaganda. That's a risk we take in any era. The dystopia is not equally distributed. The good ol' days were heaven to some, hell to others. Same with today.

So nothing's changed. Write the stories you have to write.

Readers will always need you.



01 September 2017

The Lock-Up: Prison Fiction and Reality

by Thomas Pluck
About 11 million men and women cycle through U.S. jails and prisons each year, according to a September report by the online media outlet AlterNet. The report, which cited data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, the U.S.--with 5% of the world's population--is responsible for a quarter of the world's prison population. At any given moment, more than 2.3 million people are housed in "1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails, as well as military prisons, immigration detention centers and prisons in the U.S. territories," and in some parts of the country, more people are in jail than in college.
--John Corley, "Prisonomics," The Angolite, Dec. 2016 issue
That was written by John Corley, a lifer at Louisiana State Penitentiary, and editor of The Angolite magazine, the prison's newspaper. Better known as "The Farm" or Angola, the former plantation houses the most life-sentenced prisoners in the U.S., if not the world. The peace is kept through occupational programs that give the inmates opportunity to stave off boredom and better themselves, to spend quality time with family on park-like benches rather than plastic orange chairs, sports, and faith-based groups.

You would think, with 2.3 million in jail or prison, that we would have more prison stories. There's Orange is the New Black, which is an entertaining fairy tale, but we have had few prison novels of note in the past few decades, as the population has soared. The time is ripe for accurate stories that depict the school-to-prison pipeline, the vicious circle of probation fees and jail, recidivism and parole, and lifers dying in hospice. All too often our stories begin at the prison gates--like my own novel, Bad Boy Boogie--and pay little attention to what happened before. We let the imagination do the job, but our imaginations are thirty or fifty years out of date, if we're still thinking like The Birdman of Alcatraz and The Shawshank Redemption or even American Me.


Inmate Damien Costly on suicide watch. from Mother Jones

Our genre has many tropes about prison, and they come from our cultural beliefs, which come from stories, so it is a vicious circle. Many of our beliefs about incarceration are outdated. For one, no one says "shiv" anymore. That went out with "cordite." There is violence in prison, but it is usually not how it is depicted in fiction. The majority of reported sexual assaults against prisoners is committed by faculty. Rape does occur, but there are plenty of inmates who will willingly trade sex. There's no need to get an assault or murder on your jacket. When rapes occur it is often paid for as revenge, or to make the victim seek protection within a gang. I wrote about this with the Heimdall Brotherhood (a fictional white supremacist gang based on several real ones) in Bad Boy Boogie, as well as what causes some prison riots. Racial lines used to be uncrossable, but things have changed. A friend of mine who is not Latino joined the Latin Kings during his time, to have protection, for example.

The biggest fantasy is that chimo's (child molesters, in prison parlance) will be punished by the population. This seems to be the greatest wish of half the internet commenters whenever a sex offender is charged, but it rarely happens. Most will seek Protective Custody (aka "punk city") which is similar to Administrative Segregation; you're in your cell 23 hours a day, but without the punitive rules regarding visitors and reading material, etc. Incarcerated former police often opt for this as well, putting to rest the "killed by the people they put away" myth. Anyone who can be victimized probably will be, but threats and long con games are more likely than getting shanked to death. When you're dead you can't pay for protection.

The classic prison novels like On the Yard by Malcolm Braley and The Animal Factory by Edward Bunker are still good reads, but they served time in the '50s. Better is Just Like That by Les Edgerton, which involves convicts after release, but gives a great view into the criminal mindset and how well (or not) prison works as a deterrent to the outlaw kind. Les served time in the '70s and stayed current. For an outsider's view, the book Games Criminals Play is a must-read, especially if you plan on writing to prisoners, or working with prison literary or education programs. It explains the long con games some use to get favors and coerce you into illegal behavior. If you have read about psychopathic behavior or how emotional abusers "gaslight" and coerce, the methods will be familiar, and they work outside of prison as well, when a criminal wants to infiltrate a business, or blackmail a government or law enforcement worker.

They start small, asking for the tiniest of favors. Can I bum a cigarette? What time is it? This is also how con artists find victims: Hey, can you help me with something? If you say yes, you are malleable. It depends. What happened? is a better answer, if you don't want to just keep on walking, which is usually the best option. Giving an inmate a cigarette is a violation. So now when they ask you for something bigger, they can use that against you. C'mon, you gave me a smoke. You're not like the others. And when you get adamant: You have a pretty good job here, but John saw you give me the smoke, and he's a rat, he needs to look good, but I can stop him from ratting, if you help me out...

If you give in a second time, they have more to use against you, and eventually this can lead to cases like the officer in Jersey City, New Jersey accused of tipping off gangs. Or the ubiquitous stories of Corrections Officers caught smuggling in contraband. It doesn't help that they are often underpaid; New Jersey has a strong CO's union, but most states don't. And with the private prison industry, things have gotten much worse. Low pay, and corporate-style accountability; it's only a problem if you get caught. Investigative journalist Shane Bauer infiltrated a Louisiana private prison and worked as a guard, and his story is illuminating not only to show how prisoners are treated and mistreated in such facilities, but how the corrections officers are. And what leads them to taking the job. It's a long read, but worth it: My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard, by Shane Bauer.

Another good read is the Phoenix New Times's reporting on Sheriff Joe Arpaio. They have collected it all here: Phoenix New Times Arpaio columns.

Inmate at Angola prison in Louisiana dries his eyes before
the Traveling Vietnam War Memorial Wall. From The Angolite.
Now this is not to say everyone in prison is good or bad. If you follow the Innocence Project, DNA has exonerated hundreds of inmates who served decades in prison. Some fall into a spiral and can't dig their way out. After cuts to mental illness care, law enforcement and prison often take the place of treatment. And then there are the ones who really deserve to be there, our favorite subjects. Just ask Norman Mailer, who worked to get Jack Abbott out of prison, only for him to stab a waiter who angered him. In the Belly of the Beast is still worth reading, for its outlaw insight. Dated as they are, You Can't Win by Jack Black and Killer: a Journal of Murder by Carl Panzram are also helpful in seeing two very different sides of criminal thinking, one the low-grade hobo scammer, the other a seasoned and heartless serial rapist and murderer, frank in his feelings toward humans, and how he was made into what he was.

 America's ignominious position as the leader in incarceration is unlikely to change any time soon, so if you want to write about prison, make sure you are informed. There are many stories to tell, and they are not all the same. The Kafkaesque circle of parole and probation, fees they must pay, losing your driver's license for a drug/etc conviction, not being able to find or hold a job because you can't drive a car and public transportation isn't available, and going to jail for not paying your fines, is horrible to watch. I've seen it up close, and all it does is shift the monetary burden to the family. Who then burden the addict or convict with guilt, which pressures them to use or violate probation again, which...

Well, maybe I should write a story about it, instead.

Here are some more sources on prison and parole:

Games Criminals Play, by Bud Allen & Diane Bosta
Subscribe to The Angolite, the magazine of Louisiana State Penitentiary, by sending a check/m.o. to The Angolite, c/o Cashier's Office, Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola LA 70712
Watch "Life on Parole," online at Frontline PBS.





11 August 2017

A Review Can Be a Plum, or It Can Be the Pits...

Thomas Pluck
by Thomas Pluck

I just ate a flavor grenade.

At least that's what it's branded. It's a pluot. What's a pluot, you may ask? A hybrid of a plum and an apricot, of course. I would say the "flavor" part is a bit of false advertising. It wasn't a fragmentation or thermite explosion of flavor. But thankfully, it didn't taste like a grenade. It was good. But good isn't good enough, is it?

We need a flavor grenade, not a plum.

I like plums.

William Carlos Williams, the poet who elegized Paterson and lived in Rutherford, where he told us of the importance of the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens, also wrote of plums with a beautiful simplicity. He did not say "I'm sorry I ate the flavor grenade that were in the ice box and you were probably saving for later, they were delicious and so cold." Plum was enough.

What does this have to do with anything? Hyperbole is the standard response on the internet, on social media especially. You must love or hate everything, with a razor thin line of "meh" in between. It's okay to simply like something, especially a book. Though I've seen authors have meltdowns when someone, heaven help us if it's another author, give their book a 3 star review. That's still a passing grade, but to some it feels like a knife to the heart.

Personally I don't see a need to let someone know if I disliked a book enough to leave less than a 3. I rarely leave a rant. If it's a book that won't be hurt by my review and I feel strongly about it, I'll say why. But if it's just another author trying to get by, I don't see the need to fling my monkey excretions. I'm not a critic, and I don't want to be one. I want to write my stories. I get to write them, which makes me happy, and when a reader says they enjoyed it, I am even happier. This isn't a business for me, and I am tickled a thousand shades of fuchsia that this is the case.

Not everyone has the luxury of a day job. I have great respect for the full-time career writers, whether their spouse works or not. It ups the stakes. And my less than honest review policy--which boils down to, "if you don't have anything good to say, say nothing at all," is my acknowledgement of those stakes. Now, you do what you like. I'm not judging others, nor suggesting that my way is right or wrong. I'm sure someone will tell me.

This comes up because two of my favorite writers are going out of print. Ones I look up to, who when I was cutting my teeth on flash fiction, were the writers I hoped to be in ten years. After careful study of "overnight successes," I saw that on average, they put in seven to fourteen years in the granola mines toiling away before they were declared an "overnight success." So I gave myself ten years as a goal. I've been pecking away for nearly seven, so I'm on my way. But back to the writers who have been dropped, or whose books are going out of print for the crime of selling five to seven thousand copies. It's a tough row to hoe out there. I'm not going to make it tougher. I wish I could buy every novel my crime writing pals write, but I can't. I use the library, and I review on Goodreads and Big A when I like the book. And if it's not my cup of joe, I keep my mouth shut.

I won't write a dishonest review, so my sin for not leaving 1 and 2 star reviews is one of omission. As a former Catholic, I know those count, but aren't venal. I'm already doing a five to ten in purgatory when Grimmy comes calling, so add it to my jacket. I can do that time standing on my head. I won't say I've never written a bad review, I'm human. If you're on the gravy train and write a book that I think insults the reader by not being your best, I might leave my two cents. The champs can take a punch, get up, and keep swinging. The chumps whine to their "minions" online about it.

Which comes to the other side of hyperbole. A bad review isn't the end of the world. I've had a few that sting, from the kid who said my idea of blue collar comes from Bruce Springsteen--can I help that my dad was a construction worker and my ma was a hairdresser in New Jersey, buddy? or the one who thought the book with a sword on the cover is "awful bloody." Their opinions are theirs, and just as valid as mine. And as far as Bezos is concerned, their 2 or 3 stars are as good as any toward that magical 50, 100, 1000 count that supposedly brings angels singing from on high holding big royalty checks.

I try not to read reviews, really. But you have to take the good with the bad. If I'm gonna crow that Scott Montgomery called my book "James Lee Burke slammed into old-school Dennis Lehane... with a voice all its own" I have to acknowledge the blogger who was upset that Bad Boy Boogie wasn't short and sweet like Stark. The book wasn't for him, but it was for Mr M. (Thanks, Scott).

I know the two writers whose books are going out of print will find new homes at publishers who love their work like I do. They are pros, they write great books, and readers will find them. Who are they? You'll know when their next book comes out and I say how much I loved it. Because there's one duty we do have, as readers and writers, and that's to crow about what we love. If we don't, we have only ourselves to blame if it disappears.

It reminds me of the restaurant biz, where I used to be a food blogger. Whenever a great place shut down, people would say, "I loved that place! We used to go there all the time. Why'd they close?" Then I'd ask them for the last time they ate there. "Oh, uh, six months ago, maybe?"

Why'd they close? There's your answer.

21 July 2017

A Change of Place

by Thomas Pluck

I first encountered Thomas Pluck in 2011 when I read  a remarkable tale in A Twist of Noir called "The Uncleared."  You can read it here.  When I reviewed it at Little Big Crimes I wrote that "I can easily see this story as the outline for one of those looong broody tales that EQMM loves so much. Instead he fit it on a postcard, and did it with no sense of cramming or shorthand.  Quite remarkable."  It is that.

Thomas's most recent book is BAD BOY BOOGIE, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller.  Ken Bruen called it a "must re-read novel."  And like me, he is a New Jersey boy.  What else do you need to know?  

He made a guest appearance here in March, which should have warned him off, but apparently he is a slow learner and agreed to take a permanent seat at our table.  This is his first shot as a regular.  I'm sure you will enjoy it. Please make him welcome, and remind him to cut the cards.   - Robert Lopresti

Hello, everybody. I'm honored to join the crew here at SleuthSayers, and I hope you'll enjoy my triweekly musings here. And thank you for the kind words, Robert. I keep going back to "The Uncleared" and there's a novel waiting to come out, once I visit Alaska... which brings me to the subject of today's post. But first, let me say how I came to be here.

I've been a fan of the crime and mystery genre since grade school, when I cut my teeth on Agatha Christie and Encyclopedia Brown. Later came the Fletch series, Ian Fleming, and Hammett brought me into hardboiled. For a good while my trinity was Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke, and the pet shop cozies of Barbara Block (no relation) and now I read everyone from Hilary Davidson and Tana French to Joe Lansdale and Laura Lippman and Walter Mosley, and I have a soft spot for Liza Cody's Bucket Nut wrestler tales with Eva Wylie, and Christa Faust's Angel Dare series. I read outside the genre a lot as well. Stewart O'Nan, Victor LaValle, Laird Barron, Joyce Carol Oates (though she does write suspense as well), Roxane Gay. To get an idea of the range, I recommend Protectors 2: Heroes, the anthology I edited to benefit The National Association to Protect Children, which has a solid core of mystery with fantasy, horror, lit, SF, and poetry mixed in.

But enough about me, we're here to talk writing. I recently returned from a two week tour of central Europe by car, where my wife Sarah, and my best friend Johnny and I toured seven countries in 3800 kilometers, having adventures and seeing both expected and uncommon sights. And of course, it inspired several story ideas. I've always felt envious of writers who can master a sense of place without having physically visited it. Lawrence Block for one, has written several stories about countries and cities he's never been to--despite being an accomplished world traveler--and the level of verisimilitude he manages never makes you question whether he's been there.

I don't always visit areas I want to write about, or write about places I've been, but some can't help but inspire a good story. In Munich, we stayed in an area where there was a high refugee population, which gave me a good view of the stark differences; the heart of an old city blocks away from a modern one. In the space of twenty minutes we walked from a tight neighborhood of buildings hundreds of years old celebrating Charlemagne, through a tony open mall where opera was performed, to a grimier urban red light district reminiscent of old Times Square.

In Amsterdam, the streets were clogged with bicycles. And our canal boat guide joked that the canals were filled with them, too. It didn't take much to make me wonder how easy it would be to chain someone to their bike with a few cinder blocks and chuck them into the water. (I might have even thought it a fitting end for a couple of cyclists who blew through pedestrian walkways while looking at their phones.) That's not so different from New Amsterdam, New York, these days with cars parking in the bike lanes and bicyclists veering onto the sidewalks and phone-addled pedestrians walking wherever they please, but there was no electricity in the air in the older city; everyone was relaxed, perhaps due to the easy access to the demon weed. (The one place they weren't relaxed was in the supermarket, the munchies, I suppose).

The story that relied on my travels the most was Blade of Dishonor, which I based on my trip to Japan to see my oldest friend compete in his first martial arts competition, train at his teacher's school, and galavant throughout Tokyo and Niigata with a bunch of rowdy fighters. That was such a culture shock that I knew I'd write about it someday, and was glad David Cranmer gave me the excuse, when he approached me to write a story about a fighter who comes into possession of a stolen sword.

Some writers draw inspiration from familiarity. The same routine, the comfortable writing room, or spot--I have a nook in the parlor with a view of Manhattan in winter, and trees the rest of the year--but others need a jolt, and some of us benefit from both. I couldn't visit the Talheim Death Pit in Germany before I wrote "Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind" for Lawrence Block's upcoming art-themed anthology Alive in Shape and Color. But I visited the area last week, and saw similar remains in the Neues Museum in Berlin, just in time for final edits. But the odd thing was, I changed nothing. What I'd come up with in my imagination felt true enough. There's one scene in a quaint Medieval village that drew on a real visit, but nothing I couldn't have gotten from a trip through Google Maps and Street View, and perusing the Medieval Justice and Torture Museum website.

So maybe you can write stories without ever leaving your chair. That's where the work gets done. And I'm glad I got back to it last night, savoring a dram of peaty scotch and writing a safecracking scene in the basement of a colonial-era tavern that never existed, based on several that are now lost to history. That's a place I like to visit in my head, and I hope it will be as enjoyable for readers to join me there on the page.

What works for you? Are your best vacations in your head, or do you draw from the real ones for inspiration?

-TP

18 March 2017

On Killing and Consequences

Thomas Pluck
Thomas Pluck
Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in 2017, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which Mystery People called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.” He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim Museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, also home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture.

NOTE: I met Thomas at Bouchercon 2015, and have been a fan of his novels and stories ever since. Please join me in welcoming him to SleuthSayers!
— John Floyd


by Thomas Pluck

Normal people don't like violence, but they sure enjoy reading about it. And those of us who write violent stories are often called hypocrites when we decry violence in the real world. If you glorify violence, you may be inspiring it. But then again, you can inspire violence with a story that includes little. Just ask Salinger.

I have experienced violence, witnessed violence, and trained in violence. And I write stories that often depict violence. Yet I do not support violence, except in defense. You can call me a hypocrite if you like, that's your prerogative. But the difference is that I know the consequences of violence, and if anything, I write about those consequences more than the violence itself.

On Twitter, director Jeremy Saulnier recently got into a tiff (which seems to be what Twitter is best for, lately) when he supported a woman's charity run that was against gun violence. He writes violent films, such as Blue Ruin and Green Room. The troll said that audiences just see violence and react with "awesome! His head blew up!" To paraphrase, Saulnier replied "have you seen my movies?"

Truffaut famously said that there were no antiwar films because "to show something is to ennoble it" and later amended it, saying he never saw an antiwar film, because in the end they are all pro-war. Violence is exciting, and no matter how brutal you make it, someone will be titillated. In fact, you may only jade the audience. We're a long way from when Derek Raymond made readers flinch with the opening to I Was Dora Suarez. We've seen war films and crime films with limbs dangling by a thread. Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Don Winslow's The Cartel, both dare the reader to continue, as the bloodshed mounts. I don't recall anyone swearing off crime fiction or westerns after reading them. Because they show the consequences.

It's a kind of shell shock. The adrenaline scours your veins and leaves you feeling empty. Everyone loves a good revenge tale, but there's a reason Sicilians say "when you set out for revenge, dig two graves." The other one is for yourself. Because revenge is a fantasy of justice. The only justice that would truly satisfy us requires a time machine. We can't be the person we were before we were victimized, and the dead can't be brought back. And as Gandhi said "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." Revenge, if unchecked, would eventually kill us all. The Vikings had the blood price, to end such disputes. If only it were so easy.

Violence is not pretty and it always has a price. My great-uncle Butch (to whom I dedicated Blade of Dishonor) never spoke about his time in World War 2, except once. With tears in his eyes, he wept for the enemies he had killed. "They were just kids forced off to war, just like us." He was years past ninety when he came to that conclusion, and I am grateful he taught it to me. Because we stop glorifying violence by making our villains human. They can be evil humans, but they must be humans. Rare is the person who wakes up and says, "what evil can I do today?" Even the people we would classify as evil, the utterly selfish, who seem to take glee in trampling others on their route to success, have to say that their victims were weak, and deserved it. They couldn't face it otherwise. Psychopaths without empathy, cannot feel other's pain, but they feel their own acutely. They are not superhuman. The psychopath we perhaps know the most about, Carl Panzram, refused to believe that anyone thought differently than he did. That we were all out for ourselves, that we were just good at hiding it. There was no proving Panzram wrong; it's not as if he would have broken down in the face of true altruism. His mind simply would not permit such a belief to exist.

In Bad Boy Boogie, I studied "killology," as Lt. Dan Grossman calls it, which is the study of killing and how it affects professional soldiers and police. I also researched victims of abuse and bullying. Having experienced it myself, I wanted to know how those who avenged themselves felt. And it was no cure. As one character says, "It doesn't get better. It gets bitter." And Jay Desmarteaux, who begins as an acolyte of vengeance, who sincerely believes "some people just need killing," undergoes a journey of discovery that not only exposes the evil that people will commit to protect their deepest inner selves, but how killing affects the psyche, no matter how just a killing we tell ourselves it is.

One reader called Jay "Parker on steroids." For a fan of Don Westlake's work, that's as great a compliment as I may ever receive, Jay will crack a joke, and worse, he will regret the killing he's done, two things the outlaw demigod Parker would never do. But even Parker is more than a shell, though we don't see much evidence until the later books with Claire. He isn't a true sociopath. Once Claire comes into the picture he extends his circle of empathy to include her, and views attacks on her as if they are attacks on himself. This is a brilliant, subdued portrayal of how a killer deals psychologically with the world, and Westlake does it with incredibly entertaining stories that still have a large following.

And while Parker leaves a trail of bodies through the series, often for revenge or "to set things straight," the deaths put him and Claire at risk. The birds come home to roost. And it doesn't take away from the entertainment, or turn it into a "message story." The violent world of Parker always cuts both ways, just as in the real world.