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

21 July 2017

A Change of Place

by Thomas Pluck

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

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.

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!




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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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?