Showing posts with label westerns. Show all posts
Showing posts with label westerns. 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.


26 March 2016

What to Eat When You Read (They let me off my leash again...)

by Melodie Campbell

I like to get in the mood, when I’m reading. Here’s my list of how to pair your nosh to your book:

Westerns
Riders of the Purple Sage. Cow country. This would suggest a certain menu. Steak, medium rare. Tempting, but hard to cut a steak while simultaneously holding a book and turning pages. Really, Mel Brooks had the right idea. Beans, and plenty of them. Make sure you’re NOT reading in public.

Chick-lit
Slipping into the realm of the unknown here. Chicks are slim young things, right? They would eat salad. I hate salad. Ergo…hand me a western.

Action-Adventure
The trouble with Bond-clone movies and books is you’re apt to spill your martini with all that racing around in the plot. Things blow up a lot in the action-adventure genre. This might suggest popcorn. But make sure you pop it before you eat it. Keep the explosions to your book. (Or switch to westerns.)

Horror
This is obvious. Ribs. Dripping with BBQ sauce.
Herself's personal additions: Cilantro and goat cheese <<shivers>>

Romance
Chocolate.

CanLit (Literature, for all you American types.)
It will be unusual, expensive, and unpalatable. You won’t “understand” why others think it is so good. Your palate has not been suitably developed to appreciate such fineness. Caviar. Escargot (it always sounds so much better in French.) Duck liver (you can look up the French spelling.) If you get beyond the first bite (er…page one,) Yay for you. Hard to read – hard to eat.

Mystery
Should be obvious, right? Chinese food! Get someone else to order it for you, so the mystery deepens.

Fantasy
Try to find Ambrosia. They really dig it on Olympia. If you can’t find that, substitute ice cream. (I know. You thought I was going to say wine. But my fantasy is ice cream with a suitably delicious Greek God-ling. Okay, he doesn’t have to be a God yet. Just young and Greek. Okay, this is slipping into erotica…

Erotica
Forget the oysters, artichokes, or other silly vegetable-type aphrodisiacs. (Fish is almost a vegetable. Trust me.) The answer is more chocolate. (Silly. That’s the answer to almost anything.)

Sci-fi
KIND nut bars. Okay, is the metaphor too obvious?

What to Eat if you’re a Writer:
Coffee.
And humble pie.

Melodie Campbell’s latest mob comedy, TheGoddaughter Caper, has just been released. It’s an offer you can’t refuse. Available at all the usual suspects.