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Showing posts sorted by relevance for query thomas pluck. Sort by date Show all posts

18 March 2017

On Killing and Consequences


Thomas Pluck
Thomas Pluck
Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in 2017, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which Mystery People called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.” He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim Museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, also home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture.

NOTE: I met Thomas at Bouchercon 2015, and have been a fan of his novels and stories ever since. Please join me in welcoming him to SleuthSayers!
— John Floyd


by Thomas Pluck

Normal people don't like violence, but they sure enjoy reading about it. And those of us who write violent stories are often called hypocrites when we decry violence in the real world. If you glorify violence, you may be inspiring it. But then again, you can inspire violence with a story that includes little. Just ask Salinger.

I have experienced violence, witnessed violence, and trained in violence. And I write stories that often depict violence. Yet I do not support violence, except in defense. You can call me a hypocrite if you like, that's your prerogative. But the difference is that I know the consequences of violence, and if anything, I write about those consequences more than the violence itself.

On Twitter, director Jeremy Saulnier recently got into a tiff (which seems to be what Twitter is best for, lately) when he supported a woman's charity run that was against gun violence. He writes violent films, such as Blue Ruin and Green Room. The troll said that audiences just see violence and react with "awesome! His head blew up!" To paraphrase, Saulnier replied "have you seen my movies?"

Truffaut famously said that there were no antiwar films because "to show something is to ennoble it" and later amended it, saying he never saw an antiwar film, because in the end they are all pro-war. Violence is exciting, and no matter how brutal you make it, someone will be titillated. In fact, you may only jade the audience. We're a long way from when Derek Raymond made readers flinch with the opening to I Was Dora Suarez. We've seen war films and crime films with limbs dangling by a thread. Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Don Winslow's The Cartel, both dare the reader to continue, as the bloodshed mounts. I don't recall anyone swearing off crime fiction or westerns after reading them. Because they show the consequences.

It's a kind of shell shock. The adrenaline scours your veins and leaves you feeling empty. Everyone loves a good revenge tale, but there's a reason Sicilians say "when you set out for revenge, dig two graves." The other one is for yourself. Because revenge is a fantasy of justice. The only justice that would truly satisfy us requires a time machine. We can't be the person we were before we were victimized, and the dead can't be brought back. And as Gandhi said "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." Revenge, if unchecked, would eventually kill us all. The Vikings had the blood price, to end such disputes. If only it were so easy.

Violence is not pretty and it always has a price. My great-uncle Butch (to whom I dedicated Blade of Dishonor) never spoke about his time in World War 2, except once. With tears in his eyes, he wept for the enemies he had killed. "They were just kids forced off to war, just like us." He was years past ninety when he came to that conclusion, and I am grateful he taught it to me. Because we stop glorifying violence by making our villains human. They can be evil humans, but they must be humans. Rare is the person who wakes up and says, "what evil can I do today?" Even the people we would classify as evil, the utterly selfish, who seem to take glee in trampling others on their route to success, have to say that their victims were weak, and deserved it. They couldn't face it otherwise. Psychopaths without empathy, cannot feel other's pain, but they feel their own acutely. They are not superhuman. The psychopath we perhaps know the most about, Carl Panzram, refused to believe that anyone thought differently than he did. That we were all out for ourselves, that we were just good at hiding it. There was no proving Panzram wrong; it's not as if he would have broken down in the face of true altruism. His mind simply would not permit such a belief to exist.

In Bad Boy Boogie, I studied "killology," as Lt. Dan Grossman calls it, which is the study of killing and how it affects professional soldiers and police. I also researched victims of abuse and bullying. Having experienced it myself, I wanted to know how those who avenged themselves felt. And it was no cure. As one character says, "It doesn't get better. It gets bitter." And Jay Desmarteaux, who begins as an acolyte of vengeance, who sincerely believes "some people just need killing," undergoes a journey of discovery that not only exposes the evil that people will commit to protect their deepest inner selves, but how killing affects the psyche, no matter how just a killing we tell ourselves it is.

One reader called Jay "Parker on steroids." For a fan of Don Westlake's work, that's as great a compliment as I may ever receive, Jay will crack a joke, and worse, he will regret the killing he's done, two things the outlaw demigod Parker would never do. But even Parker is more than a shell, though we don't see much evidence until the later books with Claire. He isn't a true sociopath. Once Claire comes into the picture he extends his circle of empathy to include her, and views attacks on her as if they are attacks on himself. This is a brilliant, subdued portrayal of how a killer deals psychologically with the world, and Westlake does it with incredibly entertaining stories that still have a large following.

And while Parker leaves a trail of bodies through the series, often for revenge or "to set things straight," the deaths put him and Claire at risk. The birds come home to roost. And it doesn't take away from the entertainment, or turn it into a "message story." The violent world of Parker always cuts both ways, just as in the real world.

13 May 2016

Anthony Award Finalists: Best Anthology or Collection


By Art Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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




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.


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.

03 November 2017

NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month!


Bluto cosplayer Thomas Pluck


Thomas Pluck

November is National Novel Writing Month and you're three days behind already!

NaNoWriMo for short, you're about to get flooded with word counts on social media as people try to write 50,000 words in one month. Steve Liskow wrote about this last month, and he gives courses on it, so check out his post for an introduction. I wrote my first novel, a draft called Beat the Jinx, for NaNo 2011. After three more drafts it would become Bad Boy Boogie, my second published novel, and the first in my Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller series. The drafting and rewriting is the important part, here. There's a National Novel Editing Month in March, to give you time to rest and sit on the manuscript so you have perspective, and I highly recommend taking time off and editing whatever you blast through this month, especially if you are a newer novelist.

What's new to me this year is that it's the first time I've had a novel under deadline. The second Jay Desmarteaux novel is due in mid-January, and as of now it's called Born on the Bayou. It's set entirely in Louisiana, drawing on my many visits there, and I've had many of the scenes in my head for a long time. I put together a rough outline: I like mileposts, which I can move or swerve to avoid, rather than a strict structure. Another writer called this "writing to the end of the headlights" and I like that, having just enough road to see where you're going, but not knowing where you might end up. That way the reader will hopefully be as surprised as you are.

So I cheated a bit for this year's NaNoWriMo. I began just before Bouchercon. I wanted to wait until after the convention, when I was full of energy from talking with readers and fellow writers, but I couldn't wait. I sat down and wrote the opening chapter--a prologue, even--and I've read it at two Noirs at the Bar already. The audiences have liked it. I took a big chance there, because if it went over like a fart in church, I might have been discouraged to write further. Or agonized about the direction the novel was going. So I got lucky, there. As of last night when I hammered out 2,000 words, the manuscript is around 16,500 words as November begins. So I'm cheating, kind of. It's easier to write when a novel is in motion. Inertia and all that. So my plan is to hit at least 66,500 by midnight November 30th, and have 75,000 by mid-December, giving me a month to edit (without a rest) before it goes to the publisher. This is the tightest deadline I've ever been on.

Bad Boy Boogie went through four drafts before I queried. My beta readers liked it, but a very generous agent--Elizabeth Kracht--gave me good notes on the beginning, and I amped things up for a final draft. I essentially pulled the infamous "chapter 3 is now chapter 1" switcheroo, putting strong action in the first chapter where there had been a slow burn. And it worked. My editor at the publisher had no developmental edits. Oh, there were plenty of edits to be done, but the bones were good. The novel needed a chemical peel. This is a bit of a tangent, but you should make a list of "problem words" you use and search for them before you write "final" on your draft. Some of problem words are "just," "only," "But," and "So," and you can add "ly " if you overuse adverbs. My characters nod and grin and wince and grimace and squint more than Clint Eastwood in need of Ex-Lax, as well.

This draft feels cleaner than my previous ones, as I am getting better at editing on the fly. I also go back and edit as I go, and sometimes read the last chapter I wrote before I begin the night's writing. I'm a nightowl with the writing, I wish I could do it first thing in the morning. Charles Willeford suggested writing before you use the bathroom in the morning, much less a cup of coffee. I couldn't hack that, I prefer to start between 8 and 9pm and write until 11;30, and read for a half hour before bed. It's good to have a reward set. The few TV shows I still watch? I don't use them as rewards because I like to watch them with my wife. And some of them are news shows, and it's good for me to get riled up before writing.

So are you joining NaNoWriMo this year? It's about 1350 words a day. You don't have to write every day to be a writer, but I like Larry Block's admonition, "you can't write four lousy pages?" It can seem insurmountable, but having a pro diminish it so casually makes it feel less so. To do this you need to trust your voice and silence the inner critic. As Joyce Carol Oates says, write fearlessly.

This doesn't mean you should be able to bang out a book a month or even in a year. Everyone is different, and I feel that the "book a year train" has hurt a lot of writers whose best work had more time to simmer, but this is a challenge you don't have to accept. If you've been hemming and hawing about writing a book, there are worse ways to tackle it than NaNoWriMo. You'll have a bunch of us cheering you on.

Ready?
Set?
...
Go!



11 August 2017

A Review Can Be a Plum, or It Can Be the Pits...


Thomas Pluck
by Thomas Pluck

I just ate a flavor grenade.

At least that's what it's branded. It's a pluot. What's a pluot, you may ask? A hybrid of a plum and an apricot, of course. I would say the "flavor" part is a bit of false advertising. It wasn't a fragmentation or thermite explosion of flavor. But thankfully, it didn't taste like a grenade. It was good. But good isn't good enough, is it?

We need a flavor grenade, not a plum.

I like plums.

William Carlos Williams, the poet who elegized Paterson and lived in Rutherford, where he told us of the importance of the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens, also wrote of plums with a beautiful simplicity. He did not say "I'm sorry I ate the flavor grenade that were in the ice box and you were probably saving for later, they were delicious and so cold." Plum was enough.

What does this have to do with anything? Hyperbole is the standard response on the internet, on social media especially. You must love or hate everything, with a razor thin line of "meh" in between. It's okay to simply like something, especially a book. Though I've seen authors have meltdowns when someone, heaven help us if it's another author, give their book a 3 star review. That's still a passing grade, but to some it feels like a knife to the heart.

Personally I don't see a need to let someone know if I disliked a book enough to leave less than a 3. I rarely leave a rant. If it's a book that won't be hurt by my review and I feel strongly about it, I'll say why. But if it's just another author trying to get by, I don't see the need to fling my monkey excretions. I'm not a critic, and I don't want to be one. I want to write my stories. I get to write them, which makes me happy, and when a reader says they enjoyed it, I am even happier. This isn't a business for me, and I am tickled a thousand shades of fuchsia that this is the case.

Not everyone has the luxury of a day job. I have great respect for the full-time career writers, whether their spouse works or not. It ups the stakes. And my less than honest review policy--which boils down to, "if you don't have anything good to say, say nothing at all," is my acknowledgement of those stakes. Now, you do what you like. I'm not judging others, nor suggesting that my way is right or wrong. I'm sure someone will tell me.

This comes up because two of my favorite writers are going out of print. Ones I look up to, who when I was cutting my teeth on flash fiction, were the writers I hoped to be in ten years. After careful study of "overnight successes," I saw that on average, they put in seven to fourteen years in the granola mines toiling away before they were declared an "overnight success." So I gave myself ten years as a goal. I've been pecking away for nearly seven, so I'm on my way. But back to the writers who have been dropped, or whose books are going out of print for the crime of selling five to seven thousand copies. It's a tough row to hoe out there. I'm not going to make it tougher. I wish I could buy every novel my crime writing pals write, but I can't. I use the library, and I review on Goodreads and Big A when I like the book. And if it's not my cup of joe, I keep my mouth shut.

I won't write a dishonest review, so my sin for not leaving 1 and 2 star reviews is one of omission. As a former Catholic, I know those count, but aren't venal. I'm already doing a five to ten in purgatory when Grimmy comes calling, so add it to my jacket. I can do that time standing on my head. I won't say I've never written a bad review, I'm human. If you're on the gravy train and write a book that I think insults the reader by not being your best, I might leave my two cents. The champs can take a punch, get up, and keep swinging. The chumps whine to their "minions" online about it.

Which comes to the other side of hyperbole. A bad review isn't the end of the world. I've had a few that sting, from the kid who said my idea of blue collar comes from Bruce Springsteen--can I help that my dad was a construction worker and my ma was a hairdresser in New Jersey, buddy? or the one who thought the book with a sword on the cover is "awful bloody." Their opinions are theirs, and just as valid as mine. And as far as Bezos is concerned, their 2 or 3 stars are as good as any toward that magical 50, 100, 1000 count that supposedly brings angels singing from on high holding big royalty checks.

I try not to read reviews, really. But you have to take the good with the bad. If I'm gonna crow that Scott Montgomery called my book "James Lee Burke slammed into old-school Dennis Lehane... with a voice all its own" I have to acknowledge the blogger who was upset that Bad Boy Boogie wasn't short and sweet like Stark. The book wasn't for him, but it was for Mr M. (Thanks, Scott).

I know the two writers whose books are going out of print will find new homes at publishers who love their work like I do. They are pros, they write great books, and readers will find them. Who are they? You'll know when their next book comes out and I say how much I loved it. Because there's one duty we do have, as readers and writers, and that's to crow about what we love. If we don't, we have only ourselves to blame if it disappears.

It reminds me of the restaurant biz, where I used to be a food blogger. Whenever a great place shut down, people would say, "I loved that place! We used to go there all the time. Why'd they close?" Then I'd ask them for the last time they ate there. "Oh, uh, six months ago, maybe?"

Why'd they close? There's your answer.

25 February 2019

The Uses of Mystery


by Janice Law

Some time ago, Thomas Pluck devoted his last SleuthSayers blog to the proposition that the novel of social realism is alive and well in certain gritty segments of the mystery genre. By coincidence, I had just finished reading Jim Gauer’s wildly ambitious, overly long but brilliantly written Novel Explosives.  

Gauer uses mystery and thriller conventions to depict the unholy nexus of crime, finance, corporate exploitation and weaponry that have devastated Mexico, especially Ciudad Juarez and the unfortunate young women who labor in its maquiladoras.

He presents familiar elements – though often with a surreal twist. Thus we have the cold and cynical Shakespeare quoting crime boss. Plus his two minions, Ray and Eugene, who are on a mission to kill the man we know first as The Poet and later as Douchebag, the erstwhile unsuspecting financial manipulator for the drug ring.

We have a possibly helpful, possibly complicit beauty in Guanajuato, Mexico, and her opposite number, who may or may not be on the side of the angels, up in El Paso. We have enough heavy weaponry to outfit any number of military thrillers and a vet with very serious PTS – but only on odd numbered days. We have police overkill and atrocities on every side and more than this reader could understand about financial chicanery.

The Poet's map was less helpful 
All this is immensely plausible, since Gauer, who is a poet, also worked for the military before making his fortune as a hedge fund executive and a venture capitalist. He is also clearly a man with a big interest in modern philosophy, human physiology, Aztec poetry and many other more abstruse topics. Your enjoyment of the novel probably depends on your own similar tastes.

But from the point of view of mystery/ thriller writers, Novel Explosives – and I should mention the ‘novel’ of the title refers to innovative weapons – is a striking example of the uses of our favorite conventions and an illustration of the fact that every generation only has so many stories.

The 18th century loved tales of female virtue imperiled but defended. The 19th enjoyed the pursuit of love and marriage then switched to the dangers of want and misery. Our side of the Atlantic loved Horatio Alger stories and then the still-popular immigrant experience. In mysteries, we, like Mr. Gauer, are fond of flawed heroes struggling to do right in a corrupt world.  Ray, his hitman, is the most morally alert of his characters, and it will not spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the book to reveal that he has nearly superhuman endurance as well as  exceptional military skills.

The creepy Mr. Big, a staple of popular fiction in print and on screen, also makes an appearance in the predatory drug lord Mr. Gomez, who represents the criminal component of  what the author sees as a corrupting and disastrous web. Drug use (and the War it) on feed profits to the violent Mexican cartels, which in turn corrupt the Mexican police and military. Criminal financiers launder drug profits and outright criminals funnel south the military grade weapons both cops and crooks need.

Exploited on every side are the unfortunate workers of the maquiladoras, often peasants forced off their land by the changes wrought by NAFTA. The workers are heavily female, very young, low paid, exploited, and at risk of rape, torture and murder. Their male counterparts, less desirable to the corporate types running the factories, opt for risky but lucrative work in the drug trade. Altogether crime, corruption and violence make Ciudad Juarez one of the anterooms of Hell.

Over all looms Saint Death 
Where Gauer departs from the mystery/thriller format is in his treatment. The pages’ long paragraphs, the dissertations on everything from Native American medical techniques to 20th century Portuguese poetry, and enough digressions to rival Tristram Shandy take Novel Explosives into more literary territory. Add a strong strain of surreal fantasy and you are in Thomas Pynchon’s neighborhood not Michael Connolly’s.

But despite the literary fireworks, the bones of the thing will be familiar to Sleuthsayers fans: a amnesiac hero pursued by professional hitmen, both of whom have a conscience. A brutal crime lord who never dirties his hands, corrupt financial men behaving like Masters of the Universe, police and military overkill, and the deaths of innocents.

The treatment in Novel Explosives is surreal, fanciful and philosophical, but the structure owes much to popular, even pulp, fiction, illustrating once again the almost endless flexibility of the genre.

For an interesting interview with Jim Gauer – and details of doing research in Juarez –listen in to Eye 94 out of Chicago at Jim Gauer on Eye 94 .

07 September 2018

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


by Thomas Pluck

Bye, Burt.

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


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

 


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


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

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

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

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

21 July 2017

A Change of Place


I first encountered Thomas Pluck in 2011 when I read  a remarkable tale in A Twist of Noir called "The Uncleared."  You can read it here.  When I reviewed it at Little Big Crimes I wrote that "I can easily see this story as the outline for one of those looong broody tales that EQMM loves so much. Instead he fit it on a postcard, and did it with no sense of cramming or shorthand.  Quite remarkable."  It is that.
Thomas's most recent book is BAD BOY BOOGIE, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller.  Ken Bruen called it a "must re-read novel."  And like me, he is a New Jersey boy.  What else do you need to know?  

He made a guest appearance here in March, which should have warned him off, but apparently he is a slow learner and agreed to take a permanent seat at our table.  This is his first shot as a regular.  I'm sure you will enjoy it. Please make him welcome, and remind him to cut the cards.   - Robert Lopresti

Hello, everybody. I'm honored to join the crew here at SleuthSayers, and I hope you'll enjoy my triweekly musings here. And thank you for the kind words, Robert. I keep going back to "The Uncleared" and there's a novel waiting to come out, once I visit Alaska... which brings me to the subject of today's post. But first, let me say how I came to be here.

I've been a fan of the crime and mystery genre since grade school, when I cut my teeth on Agatha Christie and Encyclopedia Brown. Later came the Fletch series, Ian Fleming, and Hammett brought me into hardboiled. For a good while my trinity was Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke, and the pet shop cozies of Barbara Block (no relation) and now I read everyone from Hilary Davidson and Tana French to Joe Lansdale and Laura Lippman and Walter Mosley, and I have a soft spot for Liza Cody's Bucket Nut wrestler tales with Eva Wylie, and Christa Faust's Angel Dare series. I read outside the genre a lot as well. Stewart O'Nan, Victor LaValle, Laird Barron, Joyce Carol Oates (though she does write suspense as well), Roxane Gay. To get an idea of the range, I recommend Protectors 2: Heroes, the anthology I edited to benefit The National Association to Protect Children, which has a solid core of mystery with fantasy, horror, lit, SF, and poetry mixed in.

But enough about me, we're here to talk writing. I recently returned from a two week tour of central Europe by car, where my wife Sarah, and my best friend Johnny and I toured seven countries in 3800 kilometers, having adventures and seeing both expected and uncommon sights. And of course, it inspired several story ideas. I've always felt envious of writers who can master a sense of place without having physically visited it. Lawrence Block for one, has written several stories about countries and cities he's never been to--despite being an accomplished world traveler--and the level of verisimilitude he manages never makes you question whether he's been there.

I don't always visit areas I want to write about, or write about places I've been, but some can't help but inspire a good story. In Munich, we stayed in an area where there was a high refugee population, which gave me a good view of the stark differences; the heart of an old city blocks away from a modern one. In the space of twenty minutes we walked from a tight neighborhood of buildings hundreds of years old celebrating Charlemagne, through a tony open mall where opera was performed, to a grimier urban red light district reminiscent of old Times Square.

In Amsterdam, the streets were clogged with bicycles. And our canal boat guide joked that the canals were filled with them, too. It didn't take much to make me wonder how easy it would be to chain someone to their bike with a few cinder blocks and chuck them into the water. (I might have even thought it a fitting end for a couple of cyclists who blew through pedestrian walkways while looking at their phones.) That's not so different from New Amsterdam, New York, these days with cars parking in the bike lanes and bicyclists veering onto the sidewalks and phone-addled pedestrians walking wherever they please, but there was no electricity in the air in the older city; everyone was relaxed, perhaps due to the easy access to the demon weed. (The one place they weren't relaxed was in the supermarket, the munchies, I suppose).

The story that relied on my travels the most was Blade of Dishonor, which I based on my trip to Japan to see my oldest friend compete in his first martial arts competition, train at his teacher's school, and galavant throughout Tokyo and Niigata with a bunch of rowdy fighters. That was such a culture shock that I knew I'd write about it someday, and was glad David Cranmer gave me the excuse, when he approached me to write a story about a fighter who comes into possession of a stolen sword.

Some writers draw inspiration from familiarity. The same routine, the comfortable writing room, or spot--I have a nook in the parlor with a view of Manhattan in winter, and trees the rest of the year--but others need a jolt, and some of us benefit from both. I couldn't visit the Talheim Death Pit in Germany before I wrote "Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind" for Lawrence Block's upcoming art-themed anthology Alive in Shape and Color. But I visited the area last week, and saw similar remains in the Neues Museum in Berlin, just in time for final edits. But the odd thing was, I changed nothing. What I'd come up with in my imagination felt true enough. There's one scene in a quaint Medieval village that drew on a real visit, but nothing I couldn't have gotten from a trip through Google Maps and Street View, and perusing the Medieval Justice and Torture Museum website.

So maybe you can write stories without ever leaving your chair. That's where the work gets done. And I'm glad I got back to it last night, savoring a dram of peaty scotch and writing a safecracking scene in the basement of a colonial-era tavern that never existed, based on several that are now lost to history. That's a place I like to visit in my head, and I hope it will be as enjoyable for readers to join me there on the page.

What works for you? Are your best vacations in your head, or do you draw from the real ones for inspiration?

-TP

06 April 2018

The Long and the Short of It


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.

24 August 2018

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


by Thomas Pluck

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

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

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

GASP!

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

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



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

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


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

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

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




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

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

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



22 September 2017

Dance Band on the Titanic


by Thomas Pluck


A lot of my fellow writers seem to feel like what we do as entertainers, is frivolous.
When there are hurricanes bearing down on people you love, politicians playing pinochle with your life, and totalitarian regimes firing missiles over your country, writing stories doesn't seem to amount to that hill of beans Rick talked about at the end of Casablanca. It feels like a futile exercise or worse, an apathetic one. Artists flaunting that we are unaffected.

I say to hell with that. Whether you write stories that attack the status quo, or entertaining yarns that completely avoid any reference to current events, do what you please. We need to be entertained, and anyone calling books "escapist," like that's a bad thing, is selling their own brand of mental snake oil. We're not going to be boiled slowly like frogs in a pot because we're distracted by books, TV shows, or even our phones at this point. If anything, the phones are keeping us from distracting ourselves from tragedy. The TV shows have banner ribbons below the action, telling us to tune into the cable news to be horrified.

And stories help keep us sane.

It's been said that the classic mystery story is about returning the world to order. That's a calming prospect. If that's your bag, write them. Your readers will thank you. My life's been chaotic for a long time. My wife and I bicker over buying a house, because to her that means home and childhood; to me, it's a place I'll be forced to leave and never see again. I grew up in a donnybrook and the relatives who had houses and not apartments made me feel uncomfortable. So I prefer stories where a tornado hits and people come out of it okay. They pull together and make a new family, and weather the storm knowing that there'll be another one coming not long after. So you might feel like your horror tale, dark thriller, or anti-hero story is just adding to the anxiety of a confusing world, but to some of us it's a lullaby.

Art is not neutral. When the status quo is a boot on your neck, if I decide to write a pleasant little story that says "everything is fine," you'd perceive it as propaganda. That's a risk we take in any era. The dystopia is not equally distributed. The good ol' days were heaven to some, hell to others. Same with today.

So nothing's changed. Write the stories you have to write.

Readers will always need you.