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

28 September 2018

Social Issues in Crime Fiction, and a Farewell

I honestly believe—that the crime novel is where the social novel went. If you want to write about the underbelly of America, if you want to write about the second America that nobody wants to look at, you turn to the crime novel. That's the place to go. --Dennis Lehane, from an interview at Powells.com

 I agree with Mr Lehane and it is one of the reasons I chose crime fiction as the method to tell my stories. That and realizing that I wasn't finding stories about my family or the people I knew in "literary" fiction, except on rare occasions. I don't think you can write about crime without staking your position on many social issues. Even if you don't comment on them directly, you are affirming the status quo in one way or another--stating that "all is well" or "what ya gonna do, that's the way things are." Even the definition of crime is a social issue statement. At Bouchercon, I attended the criminals in fiction panel, and during the Q&A I asked, "How do you define a criminal?"

I asked the question because first of all, actual questions are rare at any writer panel. Most of the time they are manifestos or statements twisted into the form of a question, such as "the unpublished novel about my pet squirrel's ghost solving crimes would be bigger than The DaVinci Code, don't you agree?" So I wanted to give the writers something to chew on, but unfortunately I didn't get any good answers.

One writer used the legal definition, which means anyone never charged with a crime--either because they eluded police or their status and privilege acted as a Get Out of Jail Free card--isn't a "criminal." Which makes no sense at all. Jack the Ripper isn't a criminal, he was never caught. Is someone who is pardoned a criminal? Are you a criminal for life if you've done your time, but an upstanding citizen if you've been acquitted because your victims signed NDAs or disappeared? Our heroic protagonists often break dozens of laws, but they're okay. The most popular genre today, superheroes, act as vigilantes, above the law either by government sanction or their own moral code, and we cheer them on. They are criminals.



As for Get Out of Jail Free cards, police unions give out paper or gold cards to their members to give to friends and family for preferential treatment, and badges to put on windshields to avoid traffic stops, so I guess anyone who's good friends with an American police officer is unlikely to be a criminal by the legal definition, "just don't kill anybody," one recipient was told. We permit this and think it won't lead to abuse. I'm sure the strict moral codes of all involved come into play.

People from the "underbelly of society" as Lehane calls it don't get these too often, they are the hidden tax base that American municipalities leech for revenue, keeping them in a cycle of probation to give jobs to our bloated drug-war-fueled criminal injustice system, but whenever I read about corruption it's about a few "bad apples" like the guys in Don Winslow's The Force. We always forget the other half of that adage: they spoil the whole bunch. I know that's sacrilege these days, saying that our warrior caste of Heroes are complicit in a corrupt system and anyone who says "I hate bad cops! They make my job harder!" but can't produce a list of cops they got jailed for corruption is helping rot the barrel, but yes, that's what I'm saying. And when we write stories about police that ignore that unarmed black men are shot in their homes and turned into criminals, that prosecutors withhold evidence to make their cases, that judges take kickbacks to send kids to private prisons, we are the bad apples, too. Oh, that's unpleasant? That can't be entertainment? The fantasy section is over there.

Am I without sin? Hardly. I've been that cowardly guy who chuckled nervously when a man with power over me said something terrible about women and confessed to mistreating them. It's the same thing. We perpetuate it. It's our problem, not women's. I've tried to do better. I've helped train police to constrain violent people without having to shoot them, tase them, or choke them to death for selling cigarettes. I've tried to write that whether you wear blue uniforms or prison sweatpants, that you are human and have your reasons for what you do, whether those reasons are for the greater good or for personal gain, and make it entertaining in the process. They are not mutually exclusive. If you think they are, take it up with Lehane, Hammett, Hughes, Himes, Chandler, Paretsky, Mosley, and Block--who gave us openly corrupt cops in both Scudder and his cozy Burglar series.

The young bloods in crime fiction are not shoving "social issues" down your throat. It has been the crux since Hammett "took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley," as Chandler said. Even cozies today take on social issues. It is in crime fiction's DNA. Maybe we don't quote scripture, maybe we prefer Lil Wayne. He's sold 100 million albums, do you know who he is? Big as George Harrison (RIP, my favorite of the fab four). If you think "kids today" are stupid when they are the most active young generation in politics since the late '60s because you saw some edited crap on the Jay Leno show, my suggestion is to get out more. Take your head out of the Venetian vase and put it on the streets.

Thanks for listening to this rant. It will be my last for SleuthSayers. Thank you to Robert and Leigh for letting me speak here, and for all of you for reading and commenting. Fare well.

07 September 2018

Bye Bye Burt... the lesson of a good bad example.

by Thomas Pluck

Bye, Burt.

Not commemorating his role as a human being, but on film he was inescapable during my formative years. My father admired him, probably saw himself in him. His Gator McClusky from White Lightning was an inspiration from Jay Desmarteaux, and the abrupt change in character and quality from that first movie, pre-mustache, to the abysmal sequel Gator, where he chewed gum and cackled the entire time, is a warning to us all of the dangerous power of fame and hubris.


He became a joke in his later years after a string of overindulgent stinkers, and was roundly mocked by comics Robert Wuhl and Norm MacDonald. He had a comeback in Boogie Nights, under the direction of Paul Thomas Anderson. But one wonders if he needed to have a comeback at all, if he hadn't let his fame and Playgirl centerfold go to his head. See, I had to watch a lot of those stinkers. He was saved very often by his friends, such as Jackie Gleason in the Smokey & the Bandit movies, and the ensemble casts in The Cannonball Run films. I liked him, mimicking my father, until I watched the "blooper reel" credits of Cannonball Run 2 where he constantly abuses his co-star Dom DeLuise for flubbing his lines, smacking him in the face.

 


I guess that was okay because Dom was fat? DeLuise was more of an icon and hero to me after that than Burt ever was. Burt could act when he wanted to, but he never really accomplished anything other than being there in the era of his career when I first saw him. When I was old enough to watch Deliverance and White Lightning I saw some of his promise, but it never erased the smart-ass full of himself jerk that he was in Smokey, Gator, "The End," Stroker Ace, and countless other turkeys I was forced to endure on Sunday afternoons with Dad. I mean, I wanted to like him. He was irresistibly, effortlessly cool. What young boy doesn't want that? I'm thankful those blooper reels showed me what an ass he was, because those two things became inextricably linked in my young mind: People who are full of themselves turn out to be full of shit.


I think it's fitting that most young people today remember him being mocked on Celebrity Jeopardy on Saturday Night Live by Norm MacDonald than for his iconic roles. Let's face it, in the drive-in days of the '70s, we had a lot of auteur masterpieces but also a whole manure load of overly long celluloid excretions meant to keep kids off the streets and in movie theaters. I spent a year rewatching some of my old favorites and while many hold up, a hell of a lot of them don't. I think we'll find the same thing with a lot of these three hour long computer video game movies with spandex superheroes punching each other for twenty minutes straight. They're a novelty now, but looking back, some will be intolerable. (I think some, like Black Panther and Wonder Woman will hold up).

Most of Burt's prime years were wasted on crap like Gator, which is like watching a home movie of Burt on a swamp air boat for 120 minutes. But that doesn't mean his life is wasted. He made some memorable films and posing in that centerfold was daring. One of my favorite lines in fiction was written by Christopher Moore in his second novel, Coyote Blue, about an aging trickster: "Don't underestimate the value of a good bad example."

Burt was Mr. Bad Example. Don't let his regrets be in vain.

RIP, Mr. Reynolds. Thanks for the grins and the lessons in feet of clay.

24 August 2018

Pachinko Breaks the Rules, and Don't Be a Citrullo

by Thomas Pluck

I love when a book breaks "cardinal rules" (many of which are worth as much as what a cardinal might deposit on your car's freshly washed paint) and becomes a smashing success. The latest is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, author of Free Food for Millionaires--a great title--and resident of my current hometown in New Jersey. I haven't met her, but she was at our literary festival, and I missed her panel because I was volunteering. How did I learn about her book, despite her living in my town, signing at my local bookstore, her getting her own panel at the festival, and a big promo push from her publisher?

Word of mouth. Well, word of write. Roxane Gay named Pachinko one of her favorites of 2017, and I follow Roxane on Twitter. We've met, I anthologized her story "Things I Learned From Fairy Tales" in Protectors, and I haven't seen her since a Sackett Street Writers reading in a biergarten basement in Brooklyn, but she wrote a list of her favorite books for a magazine, and I read it because she has exquisite taste. And there was Pachinko, one of the few new books on the list, and she didn't bother with blurb-talk or using her usual literary critic voice, she gushed. So I picked it up, even though a Korean family drama spanning generations, 600 pages thick, isn't my go-to read.

But I could not put the book down. Lee writes with the urgent prose of a thriller, and dances from character to character, using the third person omniscient point of view.

GASP!

I have heard many writers, agents, and self-professed writing advisers state that this is death. (Okay, one writer shared a set of rules that said it was "death" and I immediately knew I could ignore the rest.) Some of the great novels have been written in this POV, but it lost favor, and it takes chops to do it right and keep clarity in the narrative. But that doesn't mean it is "death." The second person POV is much harder to do properly, it turns many readers off--including myself--but every year there's one or two that amaze people and do well. For example, this year's Hugo winner for best short story, "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™", by Rebecca Roanhorse, is a stunning read and makes great use of the POV, forcing you to empathize with the protagonist and setting up the reversal that makes it so powerful, opening a window of understanding. I don't want to spoil it, it's 5800 words that fly by. Read it today.

I would say the third person omniscient is much easier to pull off. It is used in other genres more often. Science fiction, historical narratives, and so on. Crime leans toward narrower perspectives. First person, limited third, with "thriller-jumps" that mimic cuts in movies, where we follow many characters in a race against time.



In a mystery, you might think using the omniscient would deflate all tension from a story. After all, the narrator knows who dun it! And yet, we read many thrillers and stories where the point of view comes from the killer. Sometimes they hide their identity, other times they don't. Omniscient isn't the best choice for all crime stories, but it has a place, especially when you are dealing with many characters and their motivations are important. You can spend a lot of time trying to come up with a scene where the narrator can spy on someone to see their secret agenda, which can be a lot of fun, or you can reveal the sinister agenda openly, and let the tension flow from the reader knowing that one character is waiting to poison the other's jelly donut or shove them out a window.

But back to Pachinko. This is a crime novel. It gets its title from a pinball-like game of chance that is very popular in Japan, their version of slot machines, but are much more fun to watch:


And the parlors have been associated with organized crime, the Yakuza, much like casinos here in the States are with the Mafia. So in a way, this is The Godfather for Koreans living in Japan, an origin story that shows how colonization and wars drove many Koreans to Japan, where they are still lower than second class citizens, even if born there. They needed Korean passports to travel and could be expelled at any time, were refused "normal" jobs and found ways to survive. (This is why any politician in the USA who talks about eradicating Birth Citizenship should terrify you). Some survived by going into the distasteful career of running Pachinko parlors, and the stain of crime is on them even if they are legitimate. The story takes a long time to get to the guts of the business, but one of the major characters is a gangster who wants a poor young girl as his mistress, and she wields her power over him to help her family. Not without tragic consequences for some.

The book isn't sold as a crime story, but it will appeal to fans of the genre, especially if you enjoy historical fiction. I wasn't a fan of that either until I read Holly West's Mistress of Fortune and David Liss's The Whiskey Rebels, but the best of the bunch manage to write compelling tales even when you know the outcome of history. And you get to learn tidbits they don't teach you in school, which is always a joy.

Another great novel I missed was Gravesend by William Boyle, which is getting republished now that his novel The Lonely Witness is out in hardback. His first novel was with Broken River, with a lowing blurb from Megan Abbott, but didn't get much reach. Set in that neighborhood of Brooklyn, it weaves a story of three Italian-Americans: Conway, whose brother Duncan was gay-bashed by a local thug sixteen years ago, arming himself to deal with the killer as he is released from prison; Alessandra, who left for Hollywood and has come crawling back as her star fizzled, and Eugene, the killer's nephew, who worships him. The story doesn't go where you think, and for a short book it is as broad and thrilling as a season of The Wire.




Not many writers get Italian-Americans right, but everyone thinks they can write them because they watched Goodfellas and The Sopranos. Boyle--like me, a paisan with an Irish surname--knows the life personally, and writes the best Italian-American crime story I've read since ever. There's no glorification, he can slam us because he loves us, he is us. Too many crime novels use the Italian Goon Named Bruno as the go-to dumb thug who the P.I. can disarm with ease. I personally find these as offensive as the inarticulate thug of color that was used as the racist bugaboo in an earlier era, but I'm not going to say it's the same. Italians are considered white now, and we have the privilege that comes with it.
A bar that features in Gravesend

I worked with people involved with organized crime when I was at the port, and I knew Little Sammy Corsaro, who was accused of many things--including a plot to firebomb the offices of an organized crime taskforce--and they are nothing like the loud, brutish cartoons. They are usually quiet and polite. They do not want attention. I love Scorsese as much as the next guido, but he focuses on outliers who are taken down by their hubris, not the everyday mob guy. The loud ones are usually wannabes. Boyle of course involves a local mob boss, and he is perfect. He has the confidence of an emperor in the Colosseum, but no bluster. You don't need bluster when you have power. (See also Frank Lucas, the Harlem kingpin from American Gangster, who can shoot a man in the street and walk away, knowing no one will rat).

The reissue comes out in September, and is worth your time. And if you want to write Italian mobsters, use it as a reference instead of the Dapper Don and Joe Pesci.



10 August 2018

Why Can't We Be Friends?

by Thomas Pluck

Some say FaceBook is friendly, others say it is dangerous. Those of us old enough to remember "the Bear" commercial that played on TV for Reagan's election campaign will get what I'm saying.

The social media platform we all love has been accused of being complicit with allowing foreign interference in our elections, by selling ad space to Russian operatives. Their CEO says that Holocaust denial is "a viewpoint" and it was only today that they removed Alex Jones for "bullying," which I guess is what they call his conspiracy that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax, which caused his followers to repeatedly make death threats to the parents of murdered children, who have had to move several times to remain safe.

It is not a place I want to be. Yesterday I unfriended practically everyone who I haven't met in person or interacted with regularly, and I apologize if there was collateral damage. You can friend me again, my bad. I turned my personal profile into a page, and you can follow me there if you 'like.' If not, there's Twitter (which is really no better--they had methods in place to ban anyone who used "elon musk" in their name, after people were making fun of their fellow tech bro billionaire, but they allow hate speech in profiles and names until enough people report it). Twitter is easier to make earplugs for, with Block Lists, muted words, and other ostrich in the sand techniques.

I've met a few readers on Facebook, but I don't consider it a good platform for what I was using it for, which was event promotion. It is good for chatting and making friends, or "promoting your brand" by sharing the parts of your life that fit the writer image you want to project. I watched an excellent dark comedy called Ingrid Goes West about a woman who gets obsessed with Instagram stars and fakes her way into becoming one. It is available on Flintstones-style plastic disc for consumption, but you can't stream it directly into your consciousness just yet. It is worth the trouble. Aubrey Plaza is a rather fantastic comedic actress, best known as April on Parks & Recreation, and despite having a name like a street in a make-believe suburb, she truly inhabits this role, which goes pretty dark. It could be a crime story, a funny one. She's just as good in the delightfully weird The Little Hours, which spoofs the Decameron, and has Nick Offerman as a grumpy lord, and nuns gone bad.

Part of me has been cleaving to the icon of the reclusive writer who appears like a Greek bearing gifts whenever they have a new book out, and disappears in the interim. It's how it used to be, unless you had a column in a magazine, and blogging like this is no different. Social media has many benefits, but it is extremely draining to me, and I have mostly left Facebook except to give updates on sick cats (they are all doing well) or to create an event that reaches few of the people I'm trying to reach anyway.

Everyone has a Writer Dream. Mine, it seems, was partly inspired by one of my all-time favorite writer stories, Romancing the Stone starring Kathleen Turner, which I was reminded of while reading this incredible interview with Ms. Turner. It is highly quotable, and she offers great advice for all artists within. Anyway, she has great adventures in that movie, but she lives a quiet life. I live in a busy suburb, in a 5th floor 2 bedroom where I write with a view of Manhattan. It's as close to a cabin as I'm likely to get for now, but the noise is coming from inside the house. I've let it in, with my addiction to social media. And my health and writing have both suffered.

I recently finished the first draft of Riff Raff, Jay Desmarteaux's second yarn, and I have another novel in edits, a bar story that's light on crime and heavy on humor, and I need to write a dark short story by the end of the month, so I am retreating to my cabin. I'll see you when I get out, hopefully with a story and two more books for you.




13 July 2018

Bookstores I Visited on My Vacation This Summer, By Little Tommy Pluck, Age 47

by Thomas Pluck

The title of this post is a reference to a Harlan Ellison story you can find in Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled, one of his many collections.

Oh, Harlan. I learned of Ellison's passing while away on vacation, and while I can't say I didn't know it was coming, it affected me more than I thought it would.

He was 84 years old, hardly young, but some live twenty years longer. And someone as driven as Ellison was, you thought they'd have a shot. His health had deteriorated after a stroke, but he kept the fire burning, working with an editor to release long-lost stories and essays, and to finally put together Blood's a Rover, the collection of stories related to his classic post-apocalyptic nightmare, "A Boy and His Dog."

That book was waiting for me when I returned home, and brought back the sadness. HE as he was called in correspondence--it has a delightful outlandish godliness to it, doesn't it, like H. Rider Haggard's She or his own creation, AM, the malevolent artificial intelligence that destroys nearly all of humankind--and I met once, corresponded "infamously," once, but it made Letters of Note and appears on the internet now and then, most recently shared by Neil Gaiman.

The story is mundane, but like most things involved with science fiction fandom, was blown out of all proportion and made to seem epic and shocking, which is why I don't write speculative fiction anymore, or at least when I do, I don't call it that. I found the fandom toxic. I can't remember if I wrote him first or met him first at I-CON, held out in Stony Brook college on Long Island. I drove my silver '65 Mustang convertible out on the LIE to see a few literary heroes, illegally blasting through traffic cones blocking my way out of the Lincoln Tunnel. This was before GPS, we had the Rand-McNally Road Atlas and faith, and when I saw no police around, I swerved around those cones and hoped I wasn't heading into a parade.

The con was one of my first. I'd met Jimmy Doohan and Tom Baker at a Creation Con once, dressed as Arthur Dent in my bathrobe, but this one was bigger and different, more book-centric. Dan Simmons was there, and he'd just written the excellent Summer of Night, which is better than It, in my estimation, but not better than Boy's Life, for horror bildungsroman. Worth a read. Anyhow, Harlan was generous to me, and all in the signing line. To be fair, I'd plunked down a bunch of green for Again, Dangerous Visions, a t-shirt, some records of him reading his stories. He signed them all and shook my hand. It was a rough, knobby, workman's hand, probably from his early days as a carnie roustabout, or from hammering at his manual typewriter. But he was gracious to my flabbergasted young self, and I walked away like I'd met J.C. and had my bunions cured.

I'd heard the stories. And he's far from innocent--what he did to Connie Willis was indefensible, and he doesn't get a pass for it--but I found it hard to believe that he was irascible to innocent fans, as I was told by fan gossip. At that particular convention he was well behaved when I was in his presence, which is all one can say. We don't know anyone, really. That's why we love books. We get to know the people in them better than anyone we meet. But I digress. Harlan got up on stage for his one-man panel, decked in a bomber jacket complete with a blood chit from the air campaigns to liberate China from the Japanese Empire. Sure, he was full of himself. He liked to tell stories, and given an audience, he knew how to work it. He was never boring, for sure. I don't remember what he said, because what sticks out, was when the mic was malfunctioning, he asked "can you hear me?" and a woman sitting near me bellowed, "we can't see you!" to great applause, mocking his short stature.

Now that's hardly much of an insult, and he took it in stride, but the heckling from the crowd bothered me. What did they want? Were they fans, or did they come to watch the show, get him riled up, which he would gladly do for them? In the old days they brought rotten vegetables to throw on stage. Anyway, just a memory, hardly even a "Harlan story" worth telling. The letter, well, to my shame, I wrote it because I couldn't find a story by Gerald Kersh that he'd quoted. Now I could Google it and identify it in seconds. Back then, I re-read and skimmed all his books looking for the epigram, and came up blank. (It was in a graphic novel, which is why I missed it). So, I fired up my daisy wheel printer and sent him a letter. I wanted to use the same quote in a story I was writing in college. I didn't mention that, or send my work to him. (The story, "Phoenix," is about a Vietnam Vet haunted by a comrade who shows up like Mr. Hyde, it's preachy and garish, he goes to a Mothers of Invention show for no good reason, and my professor was very generous with his grade.)

Harlan wrote back, and while he starts off justifiably angry for me wasting his time, he can't help but praise Kersh, who became one of my own favorite writers. He's most famous for Night and the City, which was adapted as a film noir, but read anything you can get, he's a master of the short form and the novel. Fowler's End is wonderful, and his stories can be better than Roald Dahl. He captured humanity like insects in amber, magically kept alive. Here is the letter.



I was later honored to anthologize Harlan in Protectors 2: Heroes. Once again I summoned the chutzpah to write him, asking for a story for the charity anthology that helps PROTECT train wounded vets to hunt online predators. It's hard to say no to that. He offered up "Croatoan," but holding to his mantra of Pay the Writer, we settled on an honorarium of one dollar, and two copies of the book for his library, which I gladly shipped on publication. And yeah, I sneaked a copy of Blade of Dishonor in there. I doubt he read it, but he doesn't seem the type to throw a book in the trash. Hopefully it's in Ellison Wonderland, or donated to the Sherman Oaks public library. Or a doorstop in his shithouse, for all I care. He called me to seal the deal, and answering the phone to hear "Hey, kiddo! It's Harlan!" nearly gave me a heart attack. He had more energy at 80 than most have at 20. Which is why his death seems unfathomable. He was the Harlequin, but he ran like the Ticktockman, a wind-up clock that was never supposed to run down.

I'll miss him. He left us a legacy of fiction and stories and fights and slights that will be hard to forget, whether you lionize or loathe him. He had a cadre of toxic fans of his own, who Googled his name and posted anything said about him on the Internet on his website for him to read and respond to. I forgot that we traded posts on one of his forums, too. That was when I compared the movie Fallen to his novella Mefisto in Onyx. I thought they'd stolen his idea, but obviously he didn't, or he would have sued. (Watch the end of The Terminator and see the note that it was indebted to his works, specifically the Outer Limits episodes "Demon with a Glass Hand" and "Soldier," and the short story, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." I wasn't sure until I watched "Soldier." I thought he was overreacting. But hunt it down, and you'll be damned if the post-apocalyptic low budget future doesn't resemble the post-SkyNet nightmare in Terminator way too closely. Harlan didn't write very much in his later years, and it would be tragic and ironic if it was because of the internet, answering fan queries and taunts online instead of by mail.

Anyway, I was supposed to mention bookstores, wasn't I?

I really liked Writer's Block in Anchorage (Spenard, technically) Alaska. A town once infamous for rough bars is now a tourist trap with a couple of nice local ginmills such as Darwin's Theory, which hipsters call "dives" nowadays because working people drink there. But they do have a few good bookstores, and The Block is one of them. It's also a music and reading venue, a cafe, and a bar. So it's one of the few bookstores you could truly hold a Noir at the Bar at. (I enjoy attending readings at bookstores, cafes, hotels, and yoga-kombucha spaces, but call it something else maybe). Writer's Block has a nice selection, if small. I noticed horror by John Langan, a lot of Edwidge Danticat, somewhat light on crime, heavy on well-curated literary. They had Rene Denfield, James R. Benn, and Luis Alberto Urrea. The used bookstore is Title Wave, and enormous. I picked up a first edition hardcover of Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley there (such a beautiful cover).

Washington had more bookstores. Elliott Bay Book Company is wonderful, a big selection, good staff. Eagle Harbor Books out on Bainbridge Island is smaller but keeps a good selection, new and used. Overall, the trip to Bainbridge on a ferry was a waste. The ferry trip is nice, but there's not much to do on the island if you don't live there. It's some place old people go to walk to wine bars and buy crap. Vancouver has a ton of bookstores, but I only visited one, White Dwarf. They absorbed Dead Write books, and it was a time warp to the '90s, walls of mass market paperbacks in the old display shelves. It made me wish those affordable reads were more plentiful. A nice crime selection, and a friendly owner, Walter. I'm told there's a Jill as well, but I didn't meet her. Owen Laukannen clued me in to the shop, and it's worth a visit if you're in town. The used store there is Pulpfiction Books, which I'm glad I didn't visit because I spent a couple hundred bucks on books this trip and brought home a duffel full.

I also read several books on the trip thanks to long plane journeys. One was I Hear the Sirens in the Street by Adrian McKinty, a treasure. The Sean Duffy books are wonderful, set during the '80s in Belfast, when the Troubles burned hot. He knows how to tie a mystery together, and they remind me of Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr books in tone, in that they are just plain fun to read, full of repeating characters you care about, and they paint a detailed portrait of the city and time they are in. Luis Alberto Urrea's House of Broken Angels was incredible, epic in scope but under 300 pages. He continues to amaze. I finished The Bobby Gold Stories by Anthony Bourdain on the plane before takeoff. I had heard about his novels Bone in the Throat but wasn't grabbed by it. but Bobby is a great character and you can read the book in one sitting. Find a copy. It is shamefully out of print. It had a British edition, we didn't respect him enough over here. Sort of like how McKinty isn't published in the U.K., which is downright criminal. The last book I opened was Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, who lives in my town, and a book that Roxane Gay called her favorite of last year. It is, as the blurbs warn, addictive. A family saga that begins in Korea before World War II, it is paced like a thriller and written with deceptively cozy prose, in third person omniscient, masterfully. I am 200 pages in, and I have to force myself to put it down to write.

I'm nearly done with the messy first draft of Riff Raff, the second Jay Desmarteaux yarn. I have a duty-free bottle of Bruinladdich Octomore scotch waiting to celebrate when I type "The End." I thought that would be a better incentive, I bought it after Bouchercon in Toronto last September! But alas, you can't rush the work. It takes what it takes. I'm having fun with it. I hope readers will, too.


29 June 2018

North to Alaska

by Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck
By the time you read this I will have been eaten by bears.

Or moose. A Møøse once bit my sister.

Remember Monty Python? Ah, those were the days, discovering off-kilter comedy on Public Broadcasting, brought from overseas. Now I scroll through cable and everything looks like a commercial. Maybe I'm just old and cranky, I just turned 47, which is the new 29, but still old. I am frightened for my country. We have a taste for war and little empathy, because we have never been invaded. Well, the South knows war better than we do. They're still bitter over it, even though they started it. War leaves scars. And the last person to get hit always thinks they're the victim.

In a few days I'll be visiting Canada, and after the President's foolish comments, I'm wary of meeting strangers. Usually when I travel, I like finding a pub to meet the locals. When I visited Ireland during the Bush II Presidency, I drank a lot of free pints from people who wanted to ask why we elected that buffoon. Now I'm more concerned that I'll have a beer splashed in my face, or worse.

Yuppie problems. Boo hoo, my country's harmful policies might ruin my vacation.

What does this have to do with writing? Nothing, and everything.

I haven't been writing. Not as much as I'd like, or at all, depending on the day. I have trouble seeing the point.

Then I find some motivation and chunk along a bit, editing the crap I wrote the days before, and adding some more to it.

The dance band kept playing on the Titanic. People need entertainment more than ever.

When I feel this way I am reminded of a wonderful poem by Maggie Smith, called "Good Bones."

Good Bones

BY MAGGIE SMITH
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Or if you'd rather have it in a snappy hardboiled patter, the final lines from the movie Seven, written by Andrew Kevin Walker: "Ernest Hemingway once wrote, 'the world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part." Hemingway's full words are, "The world is a fine place and worth fighting for and I hate very much to leave it." But he did, when he felt useless. And he left so many cats behind. I can't imagine doing that. The cats survived, as they do. They even survived Hurricane Irma, when cat lovers fretted over the 54 six-toed felines. They weathered the storm in Hemingway's villa with its 18 inch thick limestone walls, as did the curators of the house. He built something with good bones, that outlived his own despair.

And we all do, when we write with our hearts in it.

I'll keep fighting.


08 June 2018

Today El Guapo is... 33 Years Old!

by Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck


Tomorrow I will turn 47. Yeah, I know. Not really old, these days. I remember when forty was the onset of the "mid-life crisis" brought on by the dread of mortality, which launched a thousand literary novels about boring men rubbing suede-patched elbows (and more) with women half their age, or women going on pilgrimages to Mediterranean countries to colonize young male flesh.

Me, I started writing again. Admittedly, it helped that a few months before my fortieth birthday, I married Sarah, ten years my younger, the Louisiana firecracker who I met in Manhattan and bonded over German beer and raunchy movies. She kicked me in the ass to write the novel I kept talking about. I wasn't ready, so I started small. Flash fiction came easily, and I wrote a dozen or two short stories that year, as November approached.

November, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, the elder god who strikes fear in agents and editors everywhere, who know the beast will unleash a horde of unedited young into their slush piles come the first of December. If you don't know it, the challenge is to write 50,000 words in 30 days, about 1670 words a day. A terrifying prospect to a new writer, but an afternoon's walk in the park to some pros. I jumped in and completed a novel of 115,000 unwieldy words in January called Beat the Jinx, the title a nod to Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper, a delightful over the top crime novel that I'd finished reading recently.

That novel went through several drafts and rewrites over the years. I wrote another novel, Blade of Dishonor, in a blazing (for me) six months from first to final draft, while avoiding edits. I edited three charity anthologies to benefit Protect, one larger than the other, to avoid editing the novel. Until my buddy Josh Stallings told me to stop talking about the damn novel and get it into shape. 80 queries later, I received some good notes from agent Elizabeth Kracht, and having submitted it to just about every agent I could think of who might be interested in it, I approached Eric Campbell, the publisher of Down & Out Books, and Bad Boy Boogie was born on March 29th, 2017.

And in May, it was nominated for an Anthony Award for best paperback original.

Seven years. I can't believe it took me that long. I know others who took longer with their first novel, never giving up and moving on. Jenny Milchman took ten years, I think. I know I'm getting old because it feels like yesterday, building the character of Jay Desmarteaux with short stories like "Gumbo Weather" which is now out of print, because it would require retroactive continuity. But who knows? Maybe it will find a home when I edit Riff Raff, the second Jay novel, which I'm finishing up this month.

The projects I used to lollygag weren't all wasted. The editing and copy-editing skills I learned for the Protectors anthologies are invaluable, and Blade of Dishonor showed me that I can blast through a novel if I have an outline and a vision. But I find it a lot more enjoyable to bushwhack through the forest to find the story, because I don't always know what it's really about. Riff Raff is set in Louisiana, and I wanted to confront the criminal justice system there. It's different than any other in the nation. "Angola," Louisiana State Penitentiary, houses 5800 lifers who will likely never walk free. It costs the state $700 million a year to keep them in there to die. Until recently, lifers were stewards at the Governor's mansion, proving that the state doesn't consider them dangerous. When that irony was made public, they canceled the program. Angola also hosts a rodeo, "the Wildest Show in the South," where inmates get tossed around by broncos and bulls with zero training, for the entertainment of the audience. The inmate who snatches a poker chip taped between the horns of a mad bull can win $500 in commissary money.

Not to slam Angola. They are ahead of many other prisons in craft programs and training, partly to keep the population occupied. The Angolite, the prison newspaper, written and edited by inmates, I've mentioned many times. It is an eye-opening read. Its former editor Wilbert Rideau recently won himself a retrial and was released after serving 44 years, nearly more than I've been alive.

It puts things in perspective. He wrote his first book after his release. I wanted to have Riff Raff completed before Saturday, my birthday, and it may happen and it may not. No matter what happens, I'll keep writing, and that's the important thing.

I'm reading the excellent essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee, and as a teacher and student of Annie Dillard, he says the the writing is what matters. Some have talent, some sharpen a skill, but they have seen both sputter and sink. The perseverance is what matters.

Next month, Sarah and I are going to Alaska. Partly as research for another novel I've avoided writing, based on my story "The Uncleared," about a volunteer firemen who finds a dark secret when his childhood home burns down, and goes into the Alaskan wilderness to get answers from his father. Right now that's called The Fire Inside, because I like having names for unfinished books, and soon it will be finished. And cleared.

18 May 2018

Face the Music: Public Readings and How to Survive Them

by Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck



There are few terrors greater than being faced with reading your work in front of an audience, particularly when they are strangers, or not even fans of the genre. Public speaking is a skill, and I don't want to hear writers whinging that they are introverts and just want to stay at home with their cats. No one forced you to write your book. If you were so private, it would be sitting on a closet shelf like Emily Dickinson's poems. Cut the humble shy wallflower act. Being nervous about what people will think of your book doesn't mean you are a selfless monk devoid of ego in the temple just waiting for enlightenment to strike.

It's natural to be nervous about it. However, you are doing yourself, your readers, and your colleagues a disservice if you do not practice reading aloud when you're home alone with your bored cats, whimpering dogs, and headphone-wearing partners and children. We can tell when you show up having never read this story aloud before, unless you are very well practiced at reading in public in general. Some have the knack, the gift of gab, the desire to have an audience, willing or not. And good for them. I remember the first time I read poetry in front of the Rutgers-Newark English department. I gripped that podium so tightly I thought it would shatter into timbers. Before that, remember reading a presentation in 5th grade on deer, where I was shaking like a sizzling slice of bacon in a pan, having to say "urine" with a straight face in front of my classmates. I got a little hammy after that, the class clown act in middle school and high school, doing silly spoofs of Shakespeare. That confidence faded the moment I had to read something I had written in front of people who read books for a living.

Practice does help. "Noir at the Bar" readings, where you can socially lubricate if necessary, can be a good start as long as you don't let the drink in your hand become a crutch. Invite your friends, they'll mimic their rapt attention, or look at their phones and say they were posting a photo of you to Instagram to boost your social media presence. Join a writer's association like the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and so on, and you can ask to be a reader at their events, surrounded by friendly writers who know what it's like to be up there. I did all of that. I even hosted Noir at the Bar in Manhattan for the longest year of my life-- that's another column, but if you host one of those events, you suddenly become every writer's unpaid publicist-- and all those accomplishments helped:

Now I can say "urine" in front of a crowd of strangers and not even snicker.

I had a stealth strategy, helped along by some of my pub family. They like karaoke. Some of them even insist on pronouncing it like they're in Tokyo, where it's done differently, in a private room among friends. You can do this in Koreatown in Manhattan as well, and I'm sure in other cities with such neighborhoods, if you prefer privacy, but to me that misses the point. It helps to have grown up in and around bars. My uncle ran bars for the Jewish mob in Manhattan for thirty years. I never visited one, to my chagrin--I wanted to be a bouncer, like Sascha the Slovenian, who busted knees with his club and smashed The Infamous Urinal Pooper's face on a car hood--but it was not to be. I did sit on a stool at Grandinetti's next to my grandfather and drink a Coca-Cola before Sunday dinner, while he nursed a Pabst. And I've been to every tavern in northeastern New Jersey so my father could drink while we kids had burgers and fries. Bar patrons often have the blues, and when you have the blues, you want to sing about it.

So, American karaoke is more about flipping through a binder full of songs until you find the one that reflects your soul, and belting it out in front of a bunch of people who just want to drink and not hear your caterwauling. And what better way to get a thick skin about reading in public? So what if you can't sing, few can. Even the good ones can maybe belt out one song or singer, and know not to step out of their wheelhouse. Or should. I don't. I'm a tenor. I've sang everything from Elvis to Guns 'n Roses, growled out John Fogerty, flopped terribly trying to keep up with the Ramones, serenaded my wife with a gender-bent version of the DiVinyls "I Touch Myself", and done duets of "Love Shack" by the B-52's that brought down the house, and been hugged by strangers on their birthdays for my emotional rendition of "You Oughtta Know" by Alanis Morrissette.

Comedians know. Sometimes you kill, sometimes you bomb. More often, you face a storm front of indifference. That's the ugly truth. Even if you silence a room with your reading, it doesn't mean that they are waiting with bated breath for the climax. It's a better sign than the audience talking amongst themselves, but don't get cocky. Unless it's a book event for you, they may not even be there to hear you. Even if it is your event, they may only be there to ask how they can get their epic about their Uncle Oogie and his funny-looking foot made into a movie with Tom Hanks. Hey, you write the script, use my idea, we'll both be billionaires. But it's more likely for people to show up to your events if you are a practiced reader who respects the audience.

Some advice:
Keep it short. This is another reason you practice reading at home. A "short" story of 2500 words can take 15-20 minutes to read, which is an eternity. Read excerpts. Read the good parts. Give a short introduction and start where stuff happens.

Be entertaining. If you want to read a nuanced and powerful piece, by all means do so, but read the room. If you're not alone, and the writer before you just read about a puppy who died defusing an atom bomb, you might want to chat a little bit about your book or what inspired the story so they can finish wiping their eyes and put away their tissues. Bring a backup story. I didn't do that for my only reading at Noir at the Bar D.C., where Josh Padgett brought in a great crowd. An older crowd. I had read host Ed Aymar's stories, Nik Korpon was there, they both are a little raunchy. So I brought my story "Gunplay," a hilarious poke at gun fetishism. (It went really well when Hilary Davidson read it at Shade in Manhattan, for our story swap.) I'm no Hilary Davidson. I read it to be funny, but the groans from the audience told me that a couple who cosplays as Union soldier and Scarlett O'Hara with live ammunition in the bedroom wasn't their cup of sweet tea!

I finished anyway, took a bow, and lost the audience favorite in the voting. But they will remember my name. It's not always so bad, I've had many readers come up and tell me how much they liked a story at a reading. It's a great way to introduce yourself to a new audience. It's part of the job. Even if you never do readings, chances are you will be on a panel, flanked by witty and seasoned writers, and you will have to hold your own. Or worse, you'll be next to That Guy who hogs the mike and bullies the moderator into making it a one-man show, and you will need the chutzpah to interrupt and grab the wheel of the bus so you and your fellow writers can get a word in edgewise. To some people this comes naturally. For the rest of us, practice makes passable. Read to your cat. Sing to your dog.

And be thankful for the printing press, or we'd all be reciting our stories like Homer. Maybe we'd be so good the king would pluck our eyes out so we couldn't wander off.

27 April 2018

Revise, Revise!

by Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck



Last night I attended a reading at the local Red Eye Cafe in Montclair, organized by Apryl Lee of Halfway There NJ. Poet Traci Brimhall, novelist Joan Silber, and short story writer Kem Joy Ukwu read from their latest works, and it was a good evening, except for when this old professorial dude accidentally spilled his hot coffee on me and Watchung Booksellers' stash of books for sale, because he was too stubborn to use the coat rack. I've hosted and read at dozens of Noir at the Bar events full of liquored-up writers and readers and never had a drink spilled on me, or thrown at me, even when I read "that gun story" in D.C. (it's called "Gunplay", and satirizes the American love affair with firearms, and you can read it in Life During Wartime).

So, coffee shops are more dangerous for writers than bars. I'd write at McSorley's every night if I could. Only thing in danger would be my liver, and perhaps my skill at revisions.

At the Q&A after the readings, one of the audience asked about when the writers knew when they were done revising, and if they still wrestled with doubt. And of course they wrestled with doubt. Silber said that doubt was a good sign, when you are cocksure about your work, it is usually a sign that you haven't revised it with a critical eye. Or as Joyce Carol Oates might say, you aren't writing daring enough, if you aren't concerned about how it will be received. The newer writers, Brimhall and Ukwu, both admitted that they could revise until the end of time, and even confessed to editing as they read their stories aloud!

And yes, I've done that as well. Revised on the fly when a line didn't parse well. And that's after giving it a read at home before an event, and editing with a pencil to make the words flow better. We're always trying to improve our work. Writers are much more likely to pick up an old story and grimace than marvel at its genius, though sometimes you do get a surprise and think, "I wrote that?Damn. Not bad." I'm relatively young and have only been writing regularly for about eight years--I wrote from adolescence until a few years after college, then stopped until 2010--so my experience is limited. While my voices have changed little--I have a couple of them--I'm happy to say that I have improved somewhat, and learned a lot from listening to other writers, editors, readers, and copy-editors.

That's an important lesson. If you think of editors as your enemy, you're going to have a rough time. I was privileged and fortunate to make friends with some solid editors who helped me with my earliest stories. And some of my latest. Matt Funk was one of them, he helped me with edits on "Gumbo Weather," which made it into Bouchercon's Blood on the Bayou anthology. Jimmy Callaway helped with "Lefty." Holly West, Lynn Beighley, and Elizabeth Kracht all helped with Bad Boy Boogie and then Chris Rhatigan edited it again after Down & Out Books accepted it. It ends when you have the best possible story within whatever constraints of time are set. Which is one reason that some writers only finish a book every seven or twenty years. Everyone works differently. Walter Mosley and Johnny Shaw both admit to dozens of drafts, and Mosley is prolific as hell. He just puts the time in until the book is what he wants it to be.

But how do you get better at revising your own work? I can't answer that for you. I can only say what helped me. I'm still learning. But an easy one is read your work aloud. You don't need an audience. You'll find the clumsy sentences and superfluous lines. Typos pop out, too (best way to catch all those "from" / "form" mishaps and the like). And your inordinate fondness for annoying dialogue tags, using the same word multiple times per paragraph until it seems like a fetish... those are easily corrected. You'll learn just how often your characters grin, nod, snort, shrug, and communicate with their eyebrows like they are conducting an orchestra using only their foreheads.

The other "trick" that I've found applies to me is "start with chapter three." In my case, it is often "start with act 2." In a first draft, I start too early. You want to start as late as you can with as little backstory as possible, and salt that in later if it's absolutely necessary. Even in a literary story, if you want to write about how someone's childhood makes them freak out at the car dealership when the salesperson pulls the old undercoat scam, you don't start with when her mother was teaching her to drive, and when she swerved to avoid a deer, mom stomped so hard on the rusty passenger floor well that her foot went through and broke her ankle. You start at the dealership, among the cars, peering under the frame and saying she dropped her phone when the pushy salesman asks why she's on the pavement.

There was a lot less action in the beginning of the previous draft of Bad Boy Boogie. It always began with him walking out of prison, but the hired muscle didn't show up until Act 2. I wanted Jay to "avoid the call" like in a James Campbell myth, but that didn't fit. He had to want something, and feel wronged. That's why we commit violence, after all. So he immediately heads to Tony's--after some Rutt's Hut hot dogs, to sate the appetite he built up clobbering the operators--and demands his birthright, the Hammerhead, the '71 Challenger they worked on in high school. And we not only see that he is dangerous as hell, taking out two armed veterans, but that no matter how much he hates bullies, he can be a bit of one himself, which sets up the internal struggle of the novel versus the external one, which is do right by me.

That's a lot to keep in your head at one time. I joked online when a writer complained about how hard it was to keep all the structure of a novel in his head: That's why we write them down.

It's true. Homer may have been able to recite The Odyssey at will, but ask a writer what she did to the protagonist in her third novel and she may look like a deer in the headlights. (Yes, the same deer that she almost hit on her first driving lesson, above). I make extensive use of temporary, very descriptive chapter headings, and occasional Post-It note outlines on a big piece of foam board, to keep track. I am very thankful that Scrivener has a strong search function that highlights all the chapters with a character's name, or how many times Jay calls someone "shitbird". It really helps. But you don't need a laptop or apps to write. Pen and paper still works, and you can write little 3"x5" cards with notes, tag pages with different color Post-Its, or simply scribble in the margins for notes. I know one writer with a couple novels published and dozens of stories, all written on his iPhone during breaks from work. Many writers swear by writing in longhand and editing as they type it up. You need to find what works for you. George Pelecanos writes for four hours in the morning and edits what he wrote every night. Others write at night, sleep on it, and edit it in the morning before they plunge on to the next chapters.

But how do you know what needs revision?

Well, that's a skill you pick up by reading. I mentioned the editors who sent me great notes. Those stick with you. If you find yourself critical of stories and books that you read, you have to learn to turn that eye on yourself, Dr. Lecter. It's difficult to be objective about your own work, but the usual advice is to sit on a story for a month or two, until you have the proper perspective. Meaning you look at it like something other than "the greatest story I have ever written or that can ever be written, that will make me rich enough to hire James Patterson to write for me."

Because that can be a thing. Enthusiasm is great, it can be infectious. Sometimes you need it to blast out a certain story. One that I wrote for Holly West's upcoming Go-Go's themed anthology is from the perspective of a sixteen year old high school girl, and I wrote it not long after four high school graduates crashed at our apartment. I remembered how they interacted, some of the slang they used, what they talked about. I wrote that story mostly in a hotel room in New Orleans with the flu, instead of going to a wedding. Fireworks were going off over the Mississippi for the city's 300th anniversary celebration, I was learning that even room service food in New Orleans is better than most food anywhere else, and I had the idea for my story, so I stayed up chugging Mucinex and taking Tamiflu and made the best of Flu Orleans.

And I edited the hell out of it later when I got home and wasn't sick. It was pretty clean, but I made it less confusing, cut out the tangents, and tightened up the jokes. Holly loved it. And I am grateful. A tougher edit was for a story for Down & Out Magazine, edited by Rick Ollerman. He is a tough editor, but he knows how to write a damn good story, and how to improve yours. I wanted to write something original for the first issue of Down & Out, because I was excited. But I was also in the middle of a novel. I had an idea I'd been kicking around that was for a flash story, and figured I could stretch it out. I didn't edit it as strongly as I should have, and Rick made that clear. He caught a bunch of sloppy writing and helped me clean it up. Now it's one of my favorite stories, and we got a lot of great feedback about it when the magazine dropped. And I have some even better news that I will save for later, but Rick helped make that one striking story.

It can be tougher when you get rejections and don't know why. But that's another story. If you can be professional and polite, you can always ask. But be warned, editors are used to getting hate mail for rejections, so mind your tone. I wouldn't ask unless it gets rejected by multiple markets, or the market you are sure is perfect for it--because you read every issue, don't you?--because sometimes the answer is "it just didn't grab me." A good story won't sell everywhere. The flip side to editing is the old "writer's curse." When you can't read for pleasure because you find yourself picking the book apart. I find most of that to be personal, projecting your own anger at the tough work of editing your own writing onto others. "This book isn't that great! I would've done this! and they overuse the word 'murmur'!" Sure, it may have been improved by another edit, and I've read plenty of published novels that would have, but sometimes you have to understand that it's the best book they could come up with, and forgive their trespasses. And your own. Writing is a skill and an art. You may have natural artistic ability, but skills are improved upon with hard work and experience. Which means failing sometimes. And it happens to all of us.


06 April 2018

The Long and the Short of It

by Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck

In these divisive times, I need to let you know where I stand. There are some things people just can't see eye to eye on, and we can avoid talking about it or we can just hash it out and get it over with.

What the heck is wrong with people who don't like short stories?

They pick up a book and see that it's a story collection, and then drop it like like a road apple, before they catch something. I just don't understand it, but I'll try.

I love a well-crafted short story, and of course, not all of them are. In the mystery community, some editors have said that they get a lot of short stories with series characters, meant as promotion for a the latest novel, and they aren't very compelling unless you're a fan. I've been reading a lot more short stories this year after I issued myself The Short Story Challenge, so I've read a couple of those. They're a disservice to the medium, if you ask me. There are some excellent short stories starring series characters in the genre–I'll pluck "Batman's Helpers" by Lawrence Block, as one–but in the end, they are often unsatisfying, because we are used to spending time with these characters in a novel, where you can get away with things that you can't in a short story.

A story is its own little world and must be self-contained. It may be served in a buffet with others, but unless it can be served alone, like a savory dumpling of deliciousness, it isn't a story, it's an advertisement. A story isn't an idea that can't be expanded into a novel. It's almost a novel that's been compressed into a diamond. The flaws and inclusions can't be visible to the naked eye, because the reader will spot them. Writing a good short story takes concentration and focus.

Maybe reading them does, as well.

A compliment I received from a reader was "I can't skip anything, when I read your stuff." Now, I don't consciously adhere to Elmore Leonard's rule of "I tend to leave out what readers skip", but because I honed my skills on flash fiction, I try to make every word count. In novels, I had to give myself a little more breathing room, to let the characters think and feel, to let the reader get comfortable with them. Not all short stories have a laser focus, or require you to read every word like it's a puzzle, but maybe it's less relaxing to read them? I don't know. For me, I enjoy getting lost in one, for a dozen or so pages.

It's also easier to put a novel down and pick it up later. With the rise of the smartphone, editors have tried to tap in to the short attention span of the busy reader. There was the Great Jones Street app (R.I.P.) that didn't make it. Starbucks tried super-short stories with your coffee. I think most stories require more focus than we're used to giving these days. Maybe a serial story in very short parts would work better, like 250 word chunks of a novella?

I've written stories as short as 25 words ("The Old Fashioned Way," in Stupefying Stories: Mid-October 2012),  and as long as ten thousand ("The Summer of Blind Joe Death", in Life During Wartime). The shorter ones tend to be harder, but more satisfying. My favorite flash tales were published at Shotgun Honey and The Flash Fiction Offensive. They're still delivering the goods. For me, a good flash fiction crime tale should be indebted to Roald Dahl or John Collier. "Slice of Life" stories tend to be boring, unless the writing is a knockout. Stories are where I cut my teeth, made my bones. They're a challenge, and while zine slush piles can be no less navigable than querying agents with novels, there are plenty of markets and you can still make a mark in readers' minds.

Down & Out Books collected the best of my short stories in Life During Wartime.

If you want to read what I've been reading, and I've found a lot of great new and old stories this year, check out The Short Story Challenge.

If you want to read some good short stories, but prefer novels, there's always the "linked short stories" books. I have a few favorites in the crime genre.

Country Hardball by Steve Weddle is a great one, set in Arkansas along the Louisiana border. Steve edited the excellent Needle: a Magazine of Noir and knows a great story. And how to write one. Check out "Purple Hulls" for an example.

Jen Conley's Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens is another great one. Jen gets into a character's heart, whether it's Metalhead Marty, unlucky in love, or a young girl playing tag in the woods, when she runs into an encampment. 

Hilary Davidson is another of my favorite short story writers, and The Black Widow Club collects some of her best. And people say my stories are dark? 

So, are you one of the people who prefer novels over short stories? If you don't mind, please tell us why, in the comments. We won't throw rocks, or think any less of you. We like what we like.

16 March 2018

We Got the Funk... and The Point!

Thomas Pluck














"You don't have to write." --Lawrence Block

That's from LB's "tape" (now available as a digital file) of writing affirmations. I bought it for the hell of it after reading his excellent and helpful book Write For Your Life, which I also recommend. I love it because I get to hear my literary hero tell me how great I am for an hour, but he also says that I don't have to write. In the beginning, I questioned the wisdom of such an affirmation. For those with anxiety, it is a godsend.

This is my favorite author photo of LB, from the affirmation tape:
He didn't need no pony tail.

You do not have to write.

The world will keep on spinning. The only person who will beat you up over it is yourself. The anxiety of that appointment with the writing desk can crush you, and that's what the affirmation is meant to counter. Just sit there and fart around and some words are sure to come out. (Along with a certain amount of flatus). Joe Lansdale has more of a tough-love approach with it. If you don't have to write, don't. Don't bother us with your scribbling if this is something you're doing because someone else says you ought to write a book, or you think it might be "fun." If you're driven, then you will write.

Eventually.

I let a book sit for two weeks. The same book I was chunking along with since winter began, the one I hit 65,000 words with in record time, came to a halt for a number of reasons. I got the flu. Work projects ate up my sleep, and I need a good night's sleep to operate. And then I let the anxiety creep in. I started worrying about how good the book would be, which is poisonous to a first draft. You can fix it later! I had a framework and an outline, I knew the scenes I needed to write, but the path to get there became a twisty maze of passages all alike. I even used that line in the book! (If you're not an old nerd like me, it's from Zork and Colossal Cave, two of the first text-based computer games written in the '60s.)

So to put it mildly, I was in a funk. A capital F Funk.

Which reminded me of my friend Matthew C. Funk, a once prolific crime writer who seems to have all but stopped writing. Which is a damn shame. Matt excelled at the hardest boiled stories from the Desire projects in New Orleans, and police stories set there. His stories were short and sharp, like a hideout punch dagger to kidneys. The last I'd heard he had a novel whose publisher went belly-up, and it hasn't yet found a new home. Which is a shame, because I'd really like to read City of NO, as it was called when Exhibit A had it. I reached out to Matt but haven't heard back yet. You can read some of Matt's stories at Shotgun Honey. Matt was also an editor for Needle: A Magazine of Noir, and helped me edit my early Jay Desmarteaux story "Gumbo Weather," which attracted the attention of agent Nat Sobel, and the story later appeared in Blood on the Bayou for Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans.

I know another writer who seems to have stopped after that imprint shuttered its windows, and it is a damn shame. They are both fine writers and the genre is lesser without their perspectives. Last night, an hour before we went to see A Wrinkle in Time--more on that later--I sat down and banged out half a chapter of my sprawling Louisiana novel, returning to the part set in Angola prison, and damn it felt good. The characters felt alive, and I felt proud to have given them brief life on the page.

I wonder if it was LB telling me I didn't have to, or my fear of meeting a similar fate if my publisher collapsed, or if it was Champion Joe Lansdale's Texas boot kicking me in the patoot that made me write when I thought there was no point to it? Or was it the freedom of not having a point?

Then again, as Harry Nilsson taught me, everything has a point. Even Oblio, the one kid from Pointed Village who was born without a point on his head, on his wonderful children's album, aptly named The Point!. Listen to it if you haven't. You may know the songs "Me and My Arrow" and "Think About Your Troubles", which had some success. Arrow is Oblio's pointy-headed dog, who jumps on his head so he can play ring-toss with the other kids. See, they toss rings and catch them on their pointy heads.... see the trippy animated movie, if you don't believe me!



Listen, it was the seventies. This made sense then. Or we pretended it did. My father, a burly construction worker who made Andrew Dice Clay's parody character seem realistic, loved this album. After he died, I listened to his vinyl copy, and while it's simplistic, it does have a point. Everything has a point, nothing is pointless. Writing this book doesn't have to have the purpose of creating a great follow-up to Bad Boy Boogie. It could be a learning experience. I'm weaving four narratives, and it is both invigorating and challenging, and even if I fail, I will have become a better writer in the process. So that's the point.

Depression, and "funks"--as I like to call non-clinical depression--are insidious. The clinical kind, you can only try to head off. Most people need medication and therapy and I won't diminish their struggle. Anxiety, which I have, is bad enough. But funks can be battled. It's not a fight, and you're not weak when you fail. You need to learn yourself, and see when they are coming, and do what you can to derail them or ride them out. I know that I feel better when I write on a schedule, but sometimes the story needs to simmer, and it's not ready to move on. For me, sitting at the desk and listening to music that goes with the story, or going for a walk--tough in the weather we've had lately--are both tools I use. When I go for a walk WITHOUT MY PHONE I am often amazed how story problems shake loose as I tread the uneven slate sidewalks of my "quaint" town. I like hikes as well, and Eagle Rock's trails will get more of my tracks once the snow melts.

Watching good movies and reading good books helps as well. I liked Black Panther and Annihilation. The former is just a good superhero and science fiction story that makes you challenge your assumptions. It's less violent than most--they use EMP weapons and hand to hand more than firearms, thanks to bulletproof vibranium armor--and is one of the best comic book movies out of the enormous bunch. And it's an origin story, so you don't need to have seen any other movies or read the books to enjoy it. Just plain good storytelling as well. Begins in media res, explains just enough, and ties everything together. The villains even have a point, no one is all good or bad, and there are a lot of characters to love.

Annihilation is more of a horror tale than science fiction. It uses the investigation of a terrifying anomaly to explore what it means to be human, and if a human being ever really knows another, which is one of my favorite subjects. It's beautiful, scary, entertaining, and puzzling, but if you don't like ambiguity... it may not be for you. It is more like Predator than 2001: A Space Odyssey and introduces humanity to terrors we can barely understand and cannot fight or control, so Lovecraftian with a dose of Crichton. I was expecting a story more like Arrival so it took some processing for me, but if you go in with the right expectations, you will be satisfied. And it is a movie we will be talking about for a long time.

The most polarizing film of late seems to be A Wrinkle in Time, which I loved. I have not read the books. I went in cold, and if you didn't like the changes made from the books, I can't argue with you. On its own, I found it beautiful and inspiring, and one of the best explorations of how a child deals with low self-esteem. It reminded me of Wonder Woman in a small way. When Diana walks up the ladder out of the trenches into No Man's Land, a lot of us burst into tears of joy. She was an outsider who refused to accept this is the way it is and her actions were the response, they are that way because you permit them to be. If you go in cold and accept the story at face value, Wrinkle will give you many, many such emotional moments as young Meg overcomes her self-doubts. It struck a nerve with me, because while my father didn't vanish into a wormhole, my parents did divorce when I was seven, and it was a personality-altering event. I became a mouse. Look at me and you wouldn't believe it, but it took years of physical and emotional training to break out of my introverted shell, and I still find parties about as fun to navigate as whitewater rapids.

The story is for children and throws no bones to adults. It never winks at the camera. You will either accept Oprah as a towering goddess of light or you won't. I chose to accept, and found it very rewarding. Chris Pine (Dr Murray), like everyone in the movie, is completed unabashed in their emotions. We are used to unabashed cruelty, but seeing that applied to wonder, joy, love, doubt... we often see it as mawkish, thanks to the "cool" factor that Madison Avenue has told us is paramount to protect our weak inner selves, preferably with a costume of expensive clothing and accessories, maybe an Omega Seamaster? I thought he was excellent, he reminded me of a cross between Fred Rogers and Carl Sagan. The villain is a childish and hateful universal force, and Ms. Which (Oprah) describes how it bends us toward evil so perfectly that it choked me up. We are all little children, sometimes. We just get better at hiding it.

The only movie I can compare it to is What Dreams May Come, which was also beautiful and unafraid to talk about love. It was also mocked for it. We've been fed bitter and cynical pablum for so long we can have trouble experiencing wonder. Cynicism is easy; if you can't win, why fight? Because fighting it is the point.

See how I tied all that up there?


P.S., You can listen to the full album of The Point! on YouTube before you go buy it.

23 February 2018

Style and Formula in The French Connection - a guest post by Chris McGinley

Let me introduce Chris McGinley, a writer and reviewer whose work has appeared in Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, Near to the Knuckle, and Yellow Mama. We were jawing about one of my favorite films, William Friedkin's classic The French Connection, and he had a lot to say. I thought it deserved a wider audience. --Thomas Pluck






Style and Formula in The French Connection
by Chris McGinley

Much has been written about the style and mood of William Friedkin's The French Connection (1971).  Commentators are fond of identifying influences ranging from Costa-Gavras' Z and the Maysles brothers work, to the more recently noted Kartemquin documentaries of the 1960s.  There's been a great deal of talk about long takes, overlapping dialogue and the film's "gritty" verite style generally.  What's so interesting to me, however, is how the elements of cinematography and sound establish the important formal elements of the police procedural in The French Connection.  The scenes unfold in a manner so completely artful and seamless that we forget we're watching a Hollywood cop film.  Indeed, what's unorthodox (and liberating) about the film is not that it deviates significantly from the procedural formula, but that the elements of formula are artfully hidden in its style.

The opening Marseilles scene, and the shakedown at the Oasis bar that follows, establish some narrative basics common to the procedural.  So far, we know we're in the gritty world of undercover narcs who will most likely encounter something outside of their usual experience, something international, something "big."  None of this is especially imaginative or atypical.  But the foot chase that follows the shakedown introduces a few elements unique to the narrative.  First, it initiates a trope that works in tandem with the visual style of the film, pursuit.  Yes, most cop films involve pursuit of some sort, but pursuit in The French Connection represents something larger.  In fact, for Popeye and Cloudy chase is the heart of investigatory work.  They walk, run, drive, stake-out, ride subways, and generally tail their quarry.  Such scenes occupy the bulk of the screen time. There's precious little gun-play and virtually no tough guy talk in The French Connection.  No suspect is ever braced or interviewed formally.   And when there is some dialogue between cop and con, like at the close of the foot chase scene, the film seems to make a point about its uselessness.  (The "pick your feet in Poughkeepsie" comment is to this day still an enigmatic remark, and the cops get nothing important from the pusher they arrest.)  But we are introduced to their singular metier: chase.

It's this element that drives the story, again in some degree like many cop films, but in far greater quantity, and in a manner that serves the stylistic innovation for which the film is so notable.  As viewers, we never tire of the relentless pursuit, nor do we lament the absence of any profiling, interrogation, cop fraternity, or even the sex and romance common to so many procedurals of the era.  This is because the formal feature of pursuit, the detective work at the heart of the film, operates in the service of the film's style, or look.  In the first twenty minutes alone, Popeye and Cloudy follow Sal and Angie across locations in Times Square, the Lower East Side, Little Italy, Brooklyn, and the Upper west Side.  We get swept up not in the dialogue between the cops--or in the commission of any actual crimes--but in the locales and in the way they are presented to us, as naturalistic tableaus often filmed in hand held shots.  Actually, Doyle and Cloudy say little to each other during this first twenty minutes.  They simply follow.  The locations, the neon lights, the grey urban landscapes, and the cars and bridges together form a varied terrain that shapes the aesthetic of the film and simultaneously serves the formal narrative function of pursuit/detection. 

Interestingly, neither Sal, Angie, nor Joel Weinstock utters a single audible word by this point, nor have they committed a crime.   Rather, it's the visual tableau, the film's much-noted "verite" aesthetic, that propels the narrative, not a criminal backstory or a crime witnessed by cops, or even a credible lead.  Initially, the cops' boss, Simonson, tells them that they "couldn't bust a three time loser" with the weak evidence they have on Sal or Weinstock.  And though the first chase ends in a most uneventful moment that would seem to support his assertion, Sal and Angie stuffing the newspapers they sell into the front sections, the cops know that the tail has paid off.  It's led to the Weinstock connection.    

The varied landscapes of the film through which the constant chase is conducted, brilliantly shot in their natural dreariness by cinematographer Owen Roizman, should also be understood as a formal narrative element relating to the cops' ability to pursue the criminals.  Until now, the detectives have been confined to Brooklyn, in fact to Bedford-Stuyvesant, and so they must lobby Chief Simonson for a detachment in order to make a plea for the case.  But Simonson is reluctant to allow the cops to go beyond their district, and he supports his logic through chastising the cops who bring in only small time hoods and dealers, though he concedes that they lead the department in arrests year after year.  At the risk of over-reaching here, I propose that the expanded geographical jurisdiction, which the Chief wisely approves in the end, serves the narrative demands of the film as much as it does the work of Popeye and Cloudy.  The cops need to follow the chase wherever it takes them.  It's what they do: chase.  And it's the chase itself that shapes the film's distinctive aesthetic--the under-lit interiors and the sunless and frigid exteriors of the many locations across the city, sites that take the cops well beyond their usual beat, to places both above and below ground.

It's also clear early on that that non-diegetic sound is crucial to the formal elements of the procedural in The French Connection.  Again, the cops don't do a whole lot of talking.  Their continued pursuit of Sal, Charnier, and Weinstock is characterized by a conspicuous lack of dialogue, in fact. But it's the score by avant-garde jazz composer Don Ellis that aids in creating both the tension and movement necessary to narrative development.  It all begins at The Chez, where Popeye and Cloudy go for a drink on the night they arrest the pusher.  Here again the formal elements of the genre, in this instance a hunch that leads to a chase, are presented without much dialogue.  Popeye tells Cloudy he recognizes "at least two junk connections" at Sal's table.  But as he locks onto his quarry, the diegetic music of the Three Degrees' "Everybody's Going to the Moon" fades out and Ellis' high pitched, electronic dissonance rises.  We watch people talk at Sal's table, but we only see their mouths move.  This technique is repeated in the scene where Popeye keeps tabs on Charnier while he dines at Le Copain, and in places elsewhere where neither the viewer nor the cops are privy to an important conversation. 

Instead, it's Ellis' atonal score that heightens the tension in so many of these scenes, creating a narrative momentum where it wouldn't exist otherwise.  For example, consider again the scene in which the cops first follow Sal and Angie.   On the surface, it's little more than a slow speed tail scene around town.  Nothing substantive really happens, and all the cops see is a possible "drop" in Little Italy and a car switch.  At one point, Cloudy nearly falls asleep.  But Ellis' baleful brass notes and discordant passages are used to enliven the scene, to give it tension and motion.  There's a kinetic feel to it that belies the slow speed nature of the "chase."  I won't discuss in detail the several other scenes in which the score heightens the action and supports the element of pursuit, but it happens throughout the long tail of Charnier and company around town, in the stakeout of the drug car, in the Ward Island scenes, and in other places.

It's true that there are a few stock elements of the Hollywood procedural in places, but they seem perfunctory and cliché (almost bogus by design), and it's not at all clear how they function formally in the film.  Simonson plays the role of the combustible chief at odds with the detectives in two separate scenes, the second of which seems entirely unnecessary.  He removes the cops from special assignment, but there are no repercussions to follow.  Popeye is immediately targeted by the sniper and the case simply resumes without further comment from the Chief.  (The cops never go "rogue," as it were.)  Cloudy performs some clever detection in places, like in the scene where Devereaux's car is examined.  But such elements are rare.  No, the film constructs its formal genre elements principally through its style, not through dialogue or the conventions of the procedural like interviews, profiling, tough-guy talk, or even violence (of which there is comparatively little). 

Together, Ellis' avant-garde score and Roizman's changing landscapes, themselves a sort of kinesthesis created through editing, propel the narrative action in a way few other films have ever done.  Simply put, this is why The French Connection is so important to the Hollywood police procedural.  Its formal elements are embodied in large part through its style, something so rarely seen either before or since.



 ---