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

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.

13 May 2016

Anthony Award Finalists: Best Anthology or Collection

By Art Taylor

Last week, Bouchercon announced this year’s finalists for the Anthony Awards, and I was pleased to get two mentions on that slate: one for my own writing, with On The Road With Del & Louise (Henery Press) earning a nomination for Best First Novel (just on the heels of winning the Agatha in that category the week prior), and another on behalf of the contributors to Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015 (Down & Out Books), which earned attention in the Best Anthology or Collection category. I’m honored, needless to say, with the attention! And congratulations as well to fellow SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens, whose Agatha-nominated novel Fighting Chance earned another honor as a finalist for this year's Anthony for Best Young Adult Novel—great news all around!

Soon after the Anthony news came out, I reached out about hosting here a quick chat with the other finalists for Best Anthology or Collection:

I have a couple of these anthologies already on the shelf, and I’ll be picking up the others soon, and just wanted to offer a chance for all of us to share some information about our respective collections and the writers who contributed.

Two questions each below, and everyone’s stepping to the podium (so to speak) in alphabetical order. Join me in welcoming them to SleuthSayers today!

First, while the titles of our respective collections already might give some sense of what readers will find on the pages within, how would you describe your own editorial principles/guidelines in selecting stories for and shaping your particular anthology—or in Chris’s case, for sorting through and considering your own stories?

Christopher Irvin: Witnessing the collection come together, story by story, was one of the most rewarding aspects of publishing the book. I'd kept an assortment of lists in notebooks over the past few years of potential line-ups for a collection, but it wasn't until late 2014 (when I was seriously thinking of pitching a collection) that I began to recognize themes of family, melancholia, regret, etc., that were present in nearly all of my work. It was a revelation that has since made me step back and reflect more on my work and the decisions (conscious, or more likely unconscious) that I make in my writing. Long story, short, the selection fell in along the above mentioned themes, trending a tad more 'literary' toward the end, especially with the four new stories in the collection. It's been fun to see how my work and interests have evolved over the past few years. It's one of the reasons I  really enjoy reading other author's collections as well.


Thomas Pluck: When you're putting together an anthology to fight child abuse, it inspires all sorts of anger in the contributors. It's a subject that we don't want to think about, and when we do, it quite rightfully ticks us off. The strong abusing the weak. So the natural instinct is for writers to tackle the subject head-on, and write about it. The first Protectors anthology has many more stories about children in danger, and while it was a great success, it made for a tough read. For the second book, I specifically asked for other kinds of stories. The book is called Heroes for two reasons: it's a loose theme, and the Protect H.E.R.O. Corps is who the book benefits. That stands for Human Exploitation Rescue Operative; the HERO Corps is a joint effort between USSOCOM and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to train and hire wounded veterans as computer forensic technicians, to assist law enforcement in locating and rescuing the child victims of predators. It's a very tough job, one that combat veterans are suited for, because they have experience with the toll such a job takes. With such a heavy subject, I wanted lighter stories. And while we do have a few tales where children are rescued, the stories run the gamut from traditional crime and mystery, whimsical fantasy, historical mystery, revenge tales, horror, and tales of everyday heroism. The order was the tough part. It's a huge book of 55 stories. What I did was label each story with a colored sticky note, yellow for sunny or happy, red for rough or bloody, and blue for in between, and I arranged them like a palette. I played around until I could start strong with an uplifting tale or two, then dip to a few hard hitting ones, give readers a break, then hit them again, make them elated, then ease to a strong ending. Like a story.


Todd Robinson: I've always had the idea to do a Christmas-themed anthology. There are a couple out there, but none that feature the kind of lunatic writers that oil my gears, the writers who we published in Thuglit magazine.

I didn't do open submissions on it. I reached out to writers that I'd worked with at least two or three times each—writers who I knew would bring their own distinct styles to whatever they sent my way, and they truly outdid themselves. Considering the narrow theme of Christmas, I'm still amazed at how different each story is from the next. My guys and gals KILLED it.


Art Taylor: Murder Under the Oaks was produced in conjunction with last year’s Bouchercon in Raleigh, NC—which is nicknamed the City of Oaks and hence the collection’s title. In addition to featuring invited stories by some of the featured authors from the 2015 Bouchercon—including Margaret Maron, Tom Franklin, Sarah Shaber, Lori Armstrong, Sean Doolittle, and ZoĆ« Sharp—we hosted a contest that garnered more than 170 submissions, which first readers trimmed to 27 that were sent my way. My goal in making the final selections was two-fold: first, I wanted to include the best stories I could, obviously (which wasn’t hard, since so many of the entries in that final batch were terrific in many ways), but second—in keeping with the missions of Bouchercon itself—I wanted to represent as wide a spectrum as possible of the types of stories that fall under that larger genre of “mystery.” Many readers are disappointed is a mystery anthology doesn’t include detective fiction, so I was careful to represent that segment of the genre with both amateur and professional detectives (a police procedural in the mix, in fact). But there are lots of other types of stories beyond that: from the cozy end of the spectrum to some really dark noir, from historical fiction to contemporary tales, a bit of raucous humor here, a more poignant story there, something close to flash fiction alongside a novella, and right on down the line. Balancing that mix was important to me, and I hope attention to that helped to provide something for all readers.


Kenneth Wishnia: First of all, we adopted a generous “You don’t have to be Jewish to write Jewish noir” policy, which turned out to be prophetic (and how Jewish is that?), because the collection includes stories by a diverse group of authors, including Asian-Canadian author Melissa Yi, Los Angeles’s own Gary Phillips, luminaries as Marge Piercy and Harlan Ellison, and self-professed survivors of Bible Belt redneck culture, Jedidiah Ayres and Travis Richardson—both of whom have been honored for their contributions: Jed’s story “Twisted Shikse” was selected for a forthcoming “best crime story of the year” anthology and Travis’s story “Quack and Dwight” has been nominated for the Derringer and the Anthony Awards. Mazl tov!

I also stressed that submissions did not have to be textbook “Noir with a capital N,” and so we ended up with stories depicting the Holocaust, cynical Jewish humor, the passing of generations, the Golden Ghetto phenomenon, child sexual abuse in the insular Orthodox communities of Brooklyn, anti-Semitism in the mid- and late-20th century United States, and the broader contradictions of ethnic identity and assimilation into American society.

Sounds pretty noir to me—even without the obligatory doomed detective and femme fatale slinking around dark alleys.


Second: There’s a whole range of different ways to tell a story, of course—but are there certain elements that consistently stand out to you as the hallmarks of a great story?

Christopher Irvin: Make me care, right? That's the bottom line that every editor wants. I need to empathize with characters—good, bad, ugly—no matter how long or short the work, I need to want to come along for the ride. My time spent editing for Shotgun Honey had a major impact on my writing to this end. Much of my writing, especially in Safe Inside the Violence, involves indirect violence or characters on the periphery of violence. Perhaps the run up to a seemingly normal encounter in their everyday lives.

There is a 700 word limit at Shotgun Honey. Authors need to bring it from the first sentence if they want to succeed. Often this results in an immediate violent encounter to up the stakes and keep the story moving. While this can be (and has been) done very well, reading these stories, learning from these stories, pushed me to go in a different direction. 


Thomas Pluck: My own writing, I write what interests me, what terrifies me, what angers me. I go for extremes, life-changing experiences, the things I would never want to discuss in public. It forces me to put my heart into it, and that resonates. While editing anthologies, I have to tone down my relentless inner critic, and just try to enjoy them. If I do, they go in the "good" pile and I think what could make them better, if anything. I have some legendary authors in here like David Morrell, Joyce Carol Oates, Harlan Ellison, Andrew Vachss. I didn't edit those stories, obviously. If there were typos in the manuscript, we corrected them together. There are a few authors who have their first publication here, who needed a little editorial help for clarity. That's my mantra: clarity, economy, then art.

What makes a great story? For me, I lose myself in them. The characters, the world, the story itself, they can't be ignored. Harlan Ellison's "Croatoan" is one. It begins with a scene so real, then descends into a nightmarish dream world, like the character is spelunking in his own subconscious. "Placebo" by Vachss is another, so spare, like a folktale. Not a word wasted. Some writers have that gift, a voice that draws you into their world. You either have it or you don't, the best we can do is trust the voice we have and let it do the work.


Todd Robinson: For me, it always starts with a great character voice and their arc within. If I don't care about the characters, why in sweet fuck-all would I care about their story?


Art Taylor: In the fiction workshops I teach at George Mason, I often quote John Updike on what he looks for in a short story: “I want stories to startle and engage me within the first few sentences, and in their middle to widen or deepen or sharpen my knowledge of human activity, and to end by giving me a sensation of completed statement.” That may sound kind of broad, but it strikes me as solid criteria—and solid advice for writers too in crafting their own stories. A couple of words I come back to time and again are compression and balance. In terms of compression, I look for stories that start as close to central action as possible (the conflict hinted at right there in the first paragraph or first line) and then rely on sharp and suggestive details rather than lengthy explanations—glimpses of larger lives and bigger stories beyond the edges of the page. Balance can refer to many things: between character and plot, for example (each informed by the other), or between beginnings and endings—especially in terms of endings that seem both surprising and inevitable in some way, as if every line, every word, has been building inexorably toward where the story ends up. When a writer can manage compression and balance—and then entertain all along the way… well, that story is a keeper, for sure.


Kenneth Wishnia: I was looking for the same elements that I look for in a great novel: vivid, compelling writing (Reed Farrel Coleman’s “Feeding the Crocodile,” which is up for an ITW Thriller Award for Best Short Story), a suspenseful set-up that engages the reader right away (Charles Ardai’s “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die”) or a non-traditional story that makes me laugh at life’s absurdities (Rabbi Adam Fisher’s “Her Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah”). Some authors hit the trifecta (David Liss’s “Jewish Easter”), but I would have accepted any combination of two out of three, or even just one if the author really nailed it.


A quick final word from Art: Do check out all these anthologies yourself—and look forward to seeing everyone in New Orleans later this year!