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

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.



 ---

02 February 2018

Career Suicide!!! and Rules Hawkers

Thomas Pluck








Hyperbole intended.

Recently a writer shared a link about How to Avoid Three Career-Killing Moves in Writing.
And being a writer who doesn't want to kill his career, I clicked. Now what were these moves? Going on vitriolic diatribes against reviewers who deign to give you any fewer than five stars? Buying a book by a writer who gave you a bad review, shooting it with a shotgun, and mailing it to her? Spitting on writers you don't like at cocktail parties?*

No! They were:

  • Writing in the present tense
  • Using the third person omniscient
  • Using multiple points of view
I'm not kidding. Now I can pick up successful books that use any of these without even trying. Of course, they need to be done well, but that goes with anything. I just had to laugh. Writers are still peddling The Rules, and using them to further their careers.

Writing workshops and books on writing can have real value, but be wary of anyone who says there are hard and fast rules for writing. Careers have been made on hawking "the rules", but if you read widely in the genre you want to write in, you'll learn what rules can be broken with skill. I recently read Laura Lippman's excellent Wilde Lake and she uses first person for the past scenes, with the narrator as a child, and third person when she's an adult. The point of view never wavers from the protagonist's, but it was an odd choice to use first person for the past and third for the present. But Lippman knows what she's doing, and it works wonderfully.

In my Denny the Dent stories, I have always used past tense for his childhood and present for "now," which annoyed one editor who demanded that I change it all to past tense. That has been corrected in my new story collection, Life During Wartime, which includes three Denny the Dent stories, and 21 stories total. I like to juxtapose childhood and adult scenes, and Lippman's method is very appealing, because children lend themselves to the first person, and adults are better at hiding things about themselves, so the third often works better. It wasn't third omniscient, it was limited to the protagonist, but we learned things about her that she was unlikely to share in first person.



Third omniscient has its place, but mystery often requires the limitations of perspective to "work." But not always. Two of my favorite Lawrence Block novels bounce between first person narratives of his sleuth Matt Scudder and the killer he is hunting, as he commits the crimes. This actually amps up the tension because we know how much danger Matt and Elaine and their friends are in, when from their perspectives, we would have no idea. This gives us the suspense of the bomb under the table rather than the short tension of the murderer appearing from nowhere and the victim dying in terror.

Eva Dolan breaks the rules in her thriller This is How it Ends, which I just started reading. It's gripping so far, and the POV changes are made clear in the chapter headings. That's not my favorite way to do it, but it works fine. But she needs it, because one character is in first and the others are in third. James Lee Burke does this as well in his Dave Robicheaux novels. He's a master, but sometimes this is confusing. Is the third person section what actually happened, or is it Dave telling us what he thinks happened? We can't be sure. In Swan Peak I am told he uses dueling first person perspectives and has them both on a phone call. I can't wait to see how he pulls it off. My buddy Josh Stallings--the author of the Mo McGuire hardboiled L.A. crime thrillers, and his wonderful disco-era heist novel Young Americans--raved about how well Burke handled it, so I have moved that book up my list.

For me, I prefer a loosely limited third and signify changes by beginning the sentence with the character we are following. Sometimes this is called "head jumping" when done too often, but Carl Hiaasen does it well enough, and it is entertaining as both a reader and a writer to get in the heads of bizarre characters. For me, it's fun to change voice and let the characters speak for themselves, rather than through the lens of one narrator, and you can get backgrounds and motives across much more easily than by playing games so the narrator learns it. But I enjoy singular narratives as well. In Bad Boy Boogie, the story revolves around the deceptions of Jay Desmarteaux's friends and family, so I limited the story to what Jay saw, except for one pivotal scene that drives the entire book. His greatest fear is becoming the monster that he killed, so I wrote from the perspective of that monster for one chapter, at the very end, to show the difference between them. Jay may not know the difference, but we do.

If that kills my career, put it on my tombstone.

I'm going to break my own rule and tell you my rules, which you don't have to buy on Kindle or subscribe to my Patreon to learn:

  • Write the best book or story you can in the time you have.
  • Treat people with professionalism and respect.
  • If an editor or agent has rules, follow them when submitting or querying.


Not following these won't kill your career, but they may hinder you getting a career started. I'm not sure what can kill a writer's career if they keep selling books. Killing pets, beloved characters, bouncing away from beloved series to write standalones they love... these have hurt careers, but not always killed them. They return to favorite series characters, revive them like Misery Chastain, and they are back in the saddle... maybe short one foot, like Paul Sheldon in Misery.

* Just kidding, Richard Ford did the latter two of these and still has a career

12 January 2018

Hanging with Dave & Clete









Thomas Pluck

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

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

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

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

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

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




22 December 2017

Money for Nothing


by Thomas Pluck

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

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

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

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

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

01 December 2017

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


by Thomas Pluck

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

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

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

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

What's the deal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOO boy, was I wrong.

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

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

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

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

Chris Rhatigan, All Due Respect (defunct)

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

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



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

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



Do you think the free online magazines cut into sales?

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



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

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



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

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

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


Takeaways:


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

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