Showing posts with label Tony Hillerman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tony Hillerman. Show all posts

11 April 2018

The Hillerman Prize

David Edgerley Gates

The past ten years I've been a reader for the Hillerman Prize. (They in fact call it a 'judge,' but that inflates my influence or importance.) The contest is for the best first mystery in a Western setting, in the spirit of the late Tony Hillerman, and what it comes down to is reading up to half a dozen manuscript submissions. Each year's winner gets a book contract with St. Martin's. It's a blind test, because the authors are anonymous at the time I see the manuscripts.  

I think the process is pretty fair. There are obviously quite a few of us, spread out across the mystery community, writers, readers, and editors, and I don't imagine any of us have a particular axe to grind. I might prefer hard-boiled to cozy, myself, but if it'd good, it doesn't matter. Tie goes to the runner. You have a responsibility to give good weight.

Having said that, there's the Yes, But factor. Basically, you're a gatekeeper. You're triaging the slush pile. It's the inside of the transom. You want to know why those interns at publishing houses were ready to slit their wrists, back in the day? Now you know. Now, on the other hand, no such job exists. The big trades don't accept unsolicited. Agented only. Which makes agents the gatekeepers, and they don't accept unsolicited, you have to pitch. Which means the Hillerman's a throwback.

You see where this is going. Think about your own stuff that got turned down, even by a sympathetic editor. After a certain amount of heartbreak, you begin to harden your heart, but let's be honest, you always take it personally, because it's personal. How not? This is something you made out of whole cloth. You bled on it, laid awake nights, washed it in your own tears. And some oblivious bozo sends it down the slop chute with a dismissive comment or two.

So, yes. It's a stacked deck. It does none of us any credit to claim otherwise. Then again, to be utterly brutal about it, you think what's being published is crap? You ought to look at what doesn't make the cut. Some of it's just numbingly bad. As if these people had never picked up a mystery in their lives, or paid much attention. You give in to terminal aggravation, sad to say.

A very well-regarded agent once explained to me that editors read for rejection, meaning they wait for the first stumble, and spike the book. It's an unforgiving process. Maybe we all make the same rookie mistakes, and learn by doing, but surely by now, with all the practical advice available - Larry Block, Stephen King, David Morrell, Anne Lamott, just off the top of my head - is the learning curve really that steep? The fifty-page flashback. The serial killer first-person prologue. The indecipherable clue, held up to a mirror or over a candle flame, and blindingly obvious to Aunt Hezekiah, who does acrostics, or the insufferably precocious sixth-grade computer savant. Not that you can't get away with devices like these, but it takes a practiced hand, and cute wears out its welcome in a hurry. Tonstant Weader Fwows Up.

You want to respect the work. You know how much work it is. That first year, I read all six manuscripts front to back, and it was a real effort, because two of them were terrible, but I thought I owed it. Two of them were marginal. One of them was better than okay, and one of them was really good. I strongly recommended a second read for the two I liked.

In subsequent years, I'm loath to admit, I've had less patience. It's not something you really want to cop to, but the plain fact is, if it's a shitty book, you can tell pretty quick. Once or twice I haven't even lasted thirty pages, and that only because I felt obligated to go further than page two, knowing from the outset it was road kill.

On the upside, out of some sixty-odd books, I've found at least one to like every year, or something to like, a solid lead character, the evocation of place.  I've never picked a winner. I've picked a couple I thought might go the distance, but not, in the end. I hope they're heard from, down the road. I know of one guy who submitted, and didn't actually win, and got a three-book contract out of it. 

If there's a lesson in this, it's humility. Good, bad, or indifferent, these people laced on their sneakers, and came out ready to play. You gotta keep faith with them.


12 October 2016

The Devil in the Details

David Edgerley Gates


On the heels of my last post, about the movie JUGGERNAUT and the physicality of detail, I had an exchange with Leigh Lundin about how much is too much.  

Leigh and I agree that there's a wicked temptation in arcane vocabulary. I used S-18's as an example some few weeks back. He mentions chatter between pilots and Air Traffic Control. Professionals talk in jargon. It's the Capt. Midnight secret decoder ring culture. You get to be the guy behind the curtain. The anointed, the brotherhood of furtive handshakes and rope-soled sneakers.

For writers, there's an obvious snare we've all fallen into. You know something intimately, or if you don't, you do the homework. And of course you don't want all that effort to go to waste, so you shovel it on, because nobody stays your hand. But it's an undigested lump, that sinks to the pit of your stomach. This is also where the expression's likely to come in, that it smells of the lamp. You had to look it up, and it shows.

Supposing, though, for the sake of argument, that the special skill or knowledge we want to use in our story is something we're actually hands-on with. We've got every confidence, we're not going to drop a stitch, we've got ownership. You can still bog yourself down. Witness my story "Cover of Darkness," which was also referenced in the JUGGERNAUT post.

A word of explanation. "Cover of Darkness" is about a clandestine mission. A covert ops team is flown into West Berlin to recover a Russian fighter plane that's crashed in the British sector, in sixty feet of water. The team has to make the dive at night, and before the Russians get wise to what they're doing.

Okay. Underwater salvage work, which is already dangerous enough. Then you got the clock ticking, and the Russians breathing down their necks, and everybody in the competing spy hierarchies looking to take credit. But wait one. What really interested me about the story was how they knew what they had. What made this particular aircraft such a prize? So in the original draft, I had fifteen or eighteen seriously dense pages of explanation, the decrypts, the radar signatures and ELINT profile, performance data, Pilot Billet Suffixes - it all fed the mix. And my then-editor Cathleen Jordan said to me, Ahem. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the story actually starts when these guys go in the river. This is all deeply fascinating stuff, but it just goes on forever, and my eyes doth glaze over. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it's gotta go.

I was heartbroken. Not least because I knew she was right. It was deeply fascinating stuff to me, but it was dead weight on the story. It was cement shoes. Of course, it was good. Don't get me wrong. It was assured, it was authentic, it was solid, it was sexy, even. It was a great intelligence briefing. And it was irrelevant.


So. The trick is to strike a balance. Enough to catch a scent, but don't overstay your welcome. Which isn't always easy. And sometimes, if it's one of your enthusiasms, there's no such thing as too much. There's never enough. You have to trust to instinct. Learn by doing. Just don't take all the air out of the room.

Because there's always the chance that you're right, and the conventional wisdom is mistaken. Tony Hillerman tells a story. When he finished the first of the Navajo books, THE BLESSING WAY, he was shopping it around, and a name agent (who shall remain nameless) wrote him a note. She thought there was a lot to like, but she had a question for him. Couldn't he get rid of all that Indian crap?