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

17 April 2019

Meet Me In Vancouver


I had a great time the last weekend of March, celebrating Left Coast Crime in Vancouver, British Columbia.  Ran into some past and present SleuthSayers there: R.T. Lawton, Brian Thornton, and Thomas Pluck.  Also old friends like S.J. Rozan, Kate Thornton, Ilene Schneider, and Pam Beason.  Even better I got to make new friends: Dara Carr, Cynthia Kuhn, and T.K. Thorne, among others.

But enough name-dropping!  Let me talk about the highlights of this four-day gathering of 400+ mystery readers and writers.  Naturally that includes panels.

One thing that was new to me: the panels were only 45 minutes long.  That is short.  To my surprise, I thought they worked pretty well but it definitely throws the panelists and the audience into the lap of the moderator.  If that august personage decides to spend the first five minutes reading the bios straight from the convention program, and then five more explaining his/her understanding of the panel topic, and then decides her/his questions are clearly more interesting than those of the audience, well... it can be painful.  One writer was told by an attendee: "I went to your panel.  I wish I had heard you instead of the moderator."

To give you some idea of what goes on, here are just the panels I attended:
Editors
Humour
International Settings
Law Enforcement Professionals  
Liars' Panel 
Music
Religion
Researching the Perfect Crime
Setting as Character
Short Stories and Novellas
Writing Villains

I was happy to serve on the Ecology Panel with Sara J. Henry, Dave Butler, Mark Stevens, and Gregory Zeigler.  I had suggested that topic but I felt like a bit of a fraud, since the others had written serious tales about water theft, over-development, illegal marijuana growing, etc. while my book is a comic crime novel about the Mafia trying to save the planet.  Ah, well.  We had fun.

S.J. Rozan with annoying fan
The Lefty Award Banquet was a treat.  Each table of ten was hosted by two authors and I was lucky enough to grab S.J. Rozan as a partner.  Like good hosts we brought extra wine and some tchotchkes for our guests (organic seed packets for Greenfellas; chopsticks in honor of Rozan's Chinese-American detective Lydia Chin).  We must have had a good time because our table was the last to leave.

There are two other big events.  At Speed Dating pairs of authors rush from table to table, giving their elevator pitch to groups of readers.  I have been on both sides of this dating spectrum and I can tell you that it's more fun to listen to forty different speeches than to give the same one twenty times.  The other event is the New Author Breakfast where all those who were published in the last year get to give an even briefer explanation of their book.

But let's talk about some little events.  There was a series called One-Shots, in which authors got to talk for fifteen minutes about some topic.  At the Toronto Bouchercon I did one of these about how my library caught the thief who had robbed over one hundred libraries.  Only about four people showed up.  This is not surprising; the events were not well publicized and tucked far away from the main rooms.

So this year I was ready.  I printed up ten posters (8.5x11) announcing the subject and the location.  I left them on the swag table where writers leave book marks and other paraphernalia.

It worked.  All the posters vanished and about twenty people showed up.  So if any of you plan to do a one-shot at a convention, remember that it pays to advertise.

The next day there was supposed to be a one-shot about author events from the bookseller's point of view.  People showed up for it but, alas, the bookseller, was not able to attend the convention.

Terri talking books
But what luck!  My wife was there.  Terri has worked for a decade at the best bookstore between Vancouver and Seattle, a shop that holds more than 300 author events every year.  So she gallantly stepped in and gave the attendees a lot of helpful tips.  When she signed up for LCC she had no idea she was going to be one of the speakers.

Next year Left Coast Crime will be in San Diego.  I recommend it.  In two weeks I will be back with a collection of words of wisdom I gathered at the con.  Here is a sample.  Perhaps you can  guess which  famous writer declared: "Me and God talk.  We go way back."



15 September 2018

Life's Great Mysteries


I recently attended an annual literary conference held on the grounds of the State Capitol Building here in Jackson, Mississippi. It was fun as always, but I'm especially glad I went because it wound up serving as my replacement for Bouchercon this year. (I underwent abdominal surgery earlier this summer, and though I'm recovering well, I opted at the last minute not to make the long road-trip to St. Petersburg. In doing so, I missed out on (1) participating in a short-story panel, (2) signing with fellow contributors to the B'con anthology, (3) receiving in person an award during the Opening Ceremonies, and (4) visiting with a legion of old friends--but, under the circumstances, I think it was the right decision. And I thank you again, Michael Bracken, for agreeing to stand in for me and accept my award in my absence.)


Instead of B'con, I ended up driving about a hundredth of that distance a few weeks ago to take part in our fourth annual Mississippi Book Festival. Almost ten thousand readers and writers braved the heat and humidity and intermittent thunderstorms to attend, and about three-fourths of those folks attended the more than forty panel discussions held throughout the day. Guests included Salman Rushdie, Karl Rove, Greg Iles, Richard Ford, and Jon Meacham.

I was on two panels, one of them "Southern Writers on Writing," because I'd contributed an essay to an anthology of the same name, and the other "Life's Great Mysteries," which I also moderated. It's this second panel I'd like to talk about today, because my three fellow panelists were indeed great mystery authors, and wrote three of the most interesting and entertaining crime novels I've read in a long time.

The first, Michael Kardos, is the author of Bluff (Mysterious Press), a thriller that Kardos has described as "a heist book disguised as a poker book disguised as a magic novel." It's the story of disgraced magician and card-trick prodigy Natalie Webb, who's been reduced to performing for local festivals and birthday parties and lives alone with her pigeons and stacks of overdue bills. She teams up with another cardsharp to try to win a fortune in a high-stakes poker game with a group of Jersey big-shots, an operation which of course doesn't go as planned. Kardos, who has also written two other novels, a short-story collection, and a textbook on writing, is an associate professor of English and the co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.

The second panelist was William Boyle, author of The Lonely Witness (Pegasus Books). Though not a sequel, this novel features as its protagonist a character introduced in Boyle's book Gravesend (which was also covered in one of Thomas Pluck's SleuthSayers columns)--and both stories are set in the depressing but fascinating Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn. A truly "literary" mystery, this novel features former convicts, wanna-be gangsters, almost-forgotten classmates, Italian and Russian mobsters, and working-class people struggling to survive. Boyle, whose work has been compared to that of Elmore Leonard, George Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane, is also the author of the novel Everything Is Broken and the short-story collection Death Don't Have No Mercy. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

The third panelist, Stephen Mack Jones, discussed his novel August Snow (Soho Crime), which is the first in a series featuring Snow as an ex-Detroit police officer who--after being ushered out of the force for blowing the whistle on department corruption--returns to Detroit to try to prove his worth as a member of the community. The author has described this book as a novel of second chances--for Snow, for some of his drug-dealer acquaintances, and ultimately for the battered and crumbling neighborhoods of his hometown. A Detroit native himself, Stephen Mack Jones is a poet and a playwright, and was awarded the prestigious Hammett Prize by the International Associaton of Crime Writers. His work has also been nominated for the Shamus Award, the Nero Award, and the Strand Magazine Critics Award for Best First Novel.


Two of these three novelists--Mike Kardos and Bill Boyle--I already knew; Stephen Mack Jones I'd not met before. All three made my moderating job easy and kept the audience interested throughout.

I encourage you to try their books--you won't be disappointed.

24 August 2018

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


by Thomas Pluck

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

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

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

GASP!

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

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



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

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


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

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

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




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

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

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



10 August 2018

Why Can't We Be Friends?


by Thomas Pluck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




16 March 2018

We Got the Funk... and The Point!


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

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

This is my favorite author photo of LB, from the affirmation tape:
You do not have to write.

He didn't need no pony tail.
The world will keep on spinning. The only person who will beat you up over it is yourself. The anxiety of that appointment with the writing desk can crush you, and that's what the affirmation is meant to counter. Just sit there and fart around and some words are sure to come out. (Along with a certain amount of flatus). Joe Lansdale has more of a tough-love approach with it. If you don't have to write, don't. Don't bother us with your scribbling if this is something you're doing because someone else says you ought to write a book, or you think it might be "fun." If you're driven, then you will write.

Eventually.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See how I tied all that up there?


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

23 February 2018

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


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






Style and Formula in The French Connection
by Chris McGinley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



 ---

03 February 2018

"I said, 'He said,'" she said.


We all know there's plenty of room for disagreement in the writing/publishing world: literary vs. genre, characters vs. plot, outlining vs. pantsing, showing vs. telling, first-person vs. third-, simultaneous submissions vs. one-at-a-time, past tense vs. present, self-publishing vs. traditional, and so on. (Thomas Pluck's SleuthSayers column yesterday, mostly about POV issues, is a good example.) One of my favorite discussions, though, is the one about using/avoiding the word "said."
There is apparently a movement now to declare "said" an obsolete word. Its proponents insist that the word is unemotional, boring, and unsophisticated, and that there are many better words we can substitute. The movement's loudest cheerleader, I've heard, is a California middle-school teacher who published a successful book on the subject, and a lot of other educators and writers have climbed onto that bandwagon. One article suggested replacing "said" with "more colorful words like barked, howled, demanded, cackled, snarled, professed, argued, cautioned, remarked, or cried."

Elmore Leonard is probably spinning in his grave. One of the commandments in his 10 Rules of Writing was "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue." "Never" seems a little extreme, but I think his point was that "said" is a transparent word--the reader's eye skips right over it. Flowery synonyms for "said" can do the opposite of what I as a fiction writer want to do: they can distract the reader from the story itself, and make him or her think about the writing and the writer rather than what's written. I read somewhere that "said"--and probably "asked" as well--is more like a punctuation mark than a verb. It's unobtrusive.

Also, some substitutes for "said" seem to try to explain or clarify things too much. In the sentence "Get out," she demanded, the attribution verb is redundant--we can see that it's a demand. Same thing with "I beg you," he pleaded or "I feel terrible," she moaned. And believe me, I've seen this in a lot of students' stories. It's amateurish overwriting at best and ("I saw you," he observed) hilarious at worst.

Besides Dutch Leonard (I really miss him, by the way), there are other prominent writers who seem/seemed to prefer the word "said" over its synonyms: Larry McMurtry, Ed McBain, Robert B. Parker, Ernest Hemingway, Lee Child, Joe R. Lansdale, Janet Evanovich, Dennis Lehane, Raymond Chandler, Martin Cruz Smith, Stephen King, William Goldman, and John Sanford, to name a few.

I've rounded up several quotes on this issue of "said" avoidance:



". . . Don't tell me your character 'excaimed,' 'stated,' or 'replied.' When in doubt, just use 'said.' That's all. Maybe they 'answered.' They certainly did not 'retort.' You can use 'said' more often than you think . . . it's one of those words that takes a while before it starts sounding repetitive."
-- Ariel Gore, How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead

"The best form of dialogue attribution is 'said,' as in 'he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said."
-- Stephen King, On Writing

"Mr. [Robert] Ludlum . . . hates the 'he said' locution and avoids it as much as possible. Characters in The Bourne Ultimatum seldom 'say' anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper (Mr. Ludlum is great on whispers), intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one especially unforgettable tautology: '"I repeat," repeated Alex.' The book may sell in the billions, but it's still junk."
-- Newgate Callender, in The New York Times Book Review

"Editors and critics often refer to melodramatic dialogue tags as 'said bookisms.' They know that these phrases give our story an amateurish look. Your readers might not know what the darn things are called, but chances are that they'll notice them, too . . . In most cases, the word 'said' would work just fine, and using said bookisms detracts from the dialogue."
-- Ann M. Marble, "'Stop Using Those Said Bookisms,' the Editor Shrieked."

"[Say is] just too simple and clear and straightforward for many people. Why say something when you can declare, assert, expostulate, whine, exclaim, groan, peal, breathe, cry, explain, or asseverate it? I'm all for variety and freshness of expression, but let's not go overboard."
-- Patricia T. O'Conner, Woe Is I

". . . Some teachers, teachers who were themselves not writers, used to warn against the monotony of the word 'said.' This was wrong-headed advice."
-- Rick Demarinis, The Art & Craft of the Short Story

"In journalism circles, said is a virtue--simple, precise, and unadorned--and alternatives to it are considered frilly and silly. You don't have to agree, but be aware that lots of editors hold this view. Choose your alternatives to said with great care."
--June Casagrande, It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences

"We're all in favor of choosing exactly the right verb for the action, but when you're writing speaker attributions the right verb is nearly always 'said.' The reason those well-intentioned attempts at variety don't work is that verbs other than 'said' tend to draw attention away from the dialogue."
--Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers



You can tell which side of the argument I'm on, here--I prefer "said," and, if asked, "asked"--but I'm not a sign-waving activist. I tend to throw in some whispers, shouts, and murmurs when I feel like it. And, in all fairness, there are a lot of excellent and successful authors, among them J.K. Rowling, Nicholas Sparks, Salman Rushdie, Nevada Barr, John Irving, Patricia Cornwell, and Jan Karon, who regularly frolic in the synonymial daisies of dialogue attribution and come out smelling just fine. Bottom line is, there'll always be writers who love "said," writers who avoid it like Kryptonite, and writers who lobby for verb diversity. It's just another of those debatable issues of style where some things work for some and not for others.

"The choice is yours," he intoned.

02 February 2018

Career Suicide!!! and Rules Hawkers


Thomas Pluck








Hyperbole intended.

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

No! They were:

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

12 January 2018

Hanging with Dave & Clete










Thomas Pluck

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

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

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

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

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

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




22 December 2017

Money for Nothing



by Thomas Pluck

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

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

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

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

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

13 October 2017

American Gun Mythology and the Role of the Writer


--Thomas Pluck

It's been a little over a week since once of the worst massacres in the history of the United States committed by a civilian. And there's been a lot of talk about "what could have been done" to stop him. Because it's nearly always a him, but that's another can of worms. Once the shooting began, there was little anyone could have done. The terrorist chose a high vantage point. He moved between two windows. He set up cameras in the hallway to alert him, and fired at the door once security arrived, and killed himself.

The Internet tough guys are out in force saying that "if only..." If only what? Anyone in Nevada who wants a gun can get a gun. They have extremely lax gun laws. The crowd was not disarmed. More guns would not have saved anyone, short of having snipers at every public event. Which I am sure, will be suggested as a solution by the arms dealer lobby of the NRA, over sensible legislation for consumer ownership of military hardware.

I am a gun owner. I live in one of the states with the strictest gun laws, and I do not think they are enough. But I don't want to talk about gun control. I know I'm not going to change your mind, and you're not going to change mine.

And besides, what can writers do?

For one, we can stop promoting gun mythology. Guns are not the only solution to a problem. They are not magic wands. You don't get to decide if they wound or kill your target. You can try, but the bullet decides if it will nick the femoral artery and make that "leg wound in the meaty part of the thigh" bleed you out. The bullet decides if that shoulder wound passes through "just the muscle" ... and kills the baby in the woman's arms behind your thriller protagonist who started a gun battle on a crowded street. We perpetuate the myth of the gun as a protective talisman. It won't protect you.

After all, it's only a tool. "It is the hard heart that kills," as Gunny Hartmann would say. Sometimes it's the frightened heart that kills. I nearly shot a friend of mine one night thinking he was an intruder. I had been taught firearm safety. It was nearly not enough to save my friend's life. I train in self-defense with and without weapons. The majority of this training is to commit actions to muscle memory, because humans do not perform well under stress without such training. Yet some characters is cool as a cucumber in battle, never misses a beat, and the gun saves the day.

Horse puckey.

That's what that is.

Ask any officer about gun retention training and the "21 foot rule." That's the distance a determined individual can cross while the average officer clears their holster and readies their sidearm. It takes a little over or under a second. I've trained it. I'm a big, slow guy, but unless you're Quick-Draw McGraw, I'm going to flatten you like a rhino chasing an ice cream truck before you can get a bead on center mass. And yet, I recently read an otherwise fine novel where the protagonist shoots two armed people, one who has a battle rifle, with his .45, during a conversation. He's dead-eye dick. Never misses. And they never get off a shot. I kept reading, but this was a story that bought into our mythology about guns. Another fine novel had a character shoot four security guards "in the leg" and you know what I just said about that. This isn't Terminator 2. Those men will die or live in pain for the rest of their lives, but it's played off as merciful. It served to make the character seem a bad-ass and start things off with high tension, but all I could think of was four guys in physical therapy because that was the best the writer could do.

“We don’t sensationalize guns,” he said. “Society sensationalizes guns.”
“Have you ever watched a movie with guns and violence in it?” he continued. “Have you ever played Call of Duty, or any video game where there is shooting involved? I haven’t heard one person who said ‘no’.” --owner of Machine Gun Vegas, who advocates for stronger gun control.

Is it possible to write violence without glorifying it? Filmmaker Francois Truffaut said that it's impossible to make an anti-war film because the excitement onscreen inevitably glorifies it. I'm not so sure. Fury by David Ayers stripped me of any desire to fight in World War II. When historians and pundits opine that they never got to fight in a war, they sound like petulant children. Are they really listening to veterans? My great-uncles, before they died, confided in me about cowardly acts during wartime without shame. Because they survived. Another cried for the Germans he killed, because "they were just doing what I was doing." And yet Couch Colonels want to see millions suffer so they can get medals? If historians are pushing this sociopathic garbage, what hope do we who deal in fiction have?

Here's an interesting anecdote from John McTiernan, the director of Predator, on "gun pornography":
There were some studio types who were basically into gun pornography. They wanted to sell gun pornography. They said I wasn’t doing enough close-ups of guns and stuff. So I said, “Why don’t I just do a whole scene?” But I also made it one that had something to do with the story, because all of these guys have giant guns and the whole point is that they’re helpless in the face of this monster. That’s the whole point of the story. They’re these enormously, heavily-armed guys, and they’re not prepared for this. So the whole point was, we hit nothing. But it also got rid of the gun pornographers because I gave them five minutes of nothing but guns. So they were quiet after that. - From this interview at Cinephilia & Beyond.

Violence will always be a subject for storytelling. Nature is brutal, and we are part of it. But we must look past the logic of the victor, the survivor, who looks back as if this was destined, just, and the only solution at hand. That's a defense mechanism. "I had to kill him. It was him or me."

In self-defense, we laugh at this. You couldn't cross the street? Shut the door and call 911? You had to stand your ground? Were you defending your life or your "honor"? We say the best defense weapon is a good pair of running shoes. If you must strike, you hit until they are down and escape if you can. Because people have friends. Even jerks who want to rob you or push you around have friends. And they may not like how you kicked their friend when they were down because it felt good to show that jerk who dared to threaten you what they get for besmirching your honor.

How many stories play fast and loose to give us a villain who simply must be killed? They won't give up! They have no fear of death. The endless henchmen who file into John Wick's house made me laugh. I mean, no one thought to toss a few Molotov cocktails and burn his house down? Or tell the boss to engage in aerial intercourse with a rolling pastry, then head home? Not saying you should feel bad about liking the movie, it was good entertainment, but it's the kind of fantasy we take for granted. The kind of fantasy that makes internet tough guys think they could hit a sniper on the 32nd floor, or make it past his machine-gun nest to get to his hotel room and get him.

No, the bad guy thought of that. The hotel room door was found riddled with bullets. Just enough time for the terrorist to take out "a large, silver revolver--probably his favorite, I wonder what he named it?--and blow his own brains out. As planned.

So how do we not glorify violence? By showing the consequences. By not going Shakespeare on our characters' behinds, and killing them off for convenience. You might think this is death for a pulp story, but Billy Jack laid a whuppin' on the bad guys and he was a pacifist. He was so kind he took off his cowboy boots before he kicked you in the face. Your bad-ass heroine can learn Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and use arm locks. Your super-agent can be tired of assassination and use the defensive aspects of tai chi. Or be a boxer who simply sidesteps and slips punches and gets out of there. If you've never seen a pro boxer dodge punches by street thugs and amateurs like myself, it is really funny. You can't hit those guys! Just ask Connor MacGregor...

I would've been much more impressed with the scene I mentioned earlier if instead of shooting the guards, he disarmed them. That's still violent, your trigger finger often gets broken when a gun is wrenched out of your hands, but I'll take a finger splint over a lifelong limp. But this is nitpicking, really. It's the big pictures that matter. Are our villains human, or caricatures? Are guns tools, or dei ex machina? Is violence an easy solution that gives us a place to end the story, or is it a trauma that affects the characters for the rest of their lives? And I don't mean one that's solved by all those whiskies they drink without seeming to be affected, but that's a third can of worms, and that's my limit.

These are questions we have to ask when we write a story.
Because stories matter.

22 September 2017

Dance Band on the Titanic


by Thomas Pluck


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

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

And stories help keep us sane.

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

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

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

Readers will always need you.



01 September 2017

The Lock-Up: Prison Fiction and Reality


by Thomas Pluck
About 11 million men and women cycle through U.S. jails and prisons each year, according to a September report by the online media outlet AlterNet. The report, which cited data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, the U.S.--with 5% of the world's population--is responsible for a quarter of the world's prison population. At any given moment, more than 2.3 million people are housed in "1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails, as well as military prisons, immigration detention centers and prisons in the U.S. territories," and in some parts of the country, more people are in jail than in college.
--John Corley, "Prisonomics," The Angolite, Dec. 2016 issue
That was written by John Corley, a lifer at Louisiana State Penitentiary, and editor of The Angolite magazine, the prison's newspaper. Better known as "The Farm" or Angola, the former plantation houses the most life-sentenced prisoners in the U.S., if not the world. The peace is kept through occupational programs that give the inmates opportunity to stave off boredom and better themselves, to spend quality time with family on park-like benches rather than plastic orange chairs, sports, and faith-based groups.

You would think, with 2.3 million in jail or prison, that we would have more prison stories. There's Orange is the New Black, which is an entertaining fairy tale, but we have had few prison novels of note in the past few decades, as the population has soared. The time is ripe for accurate stories that depict the school-to-prison pipeline, the vicious circle of probation fees and jail, recidivism and parole, and lifers dying in hospice. All too often our stories begin at the prison gates--like my own novel, Bad Boy Boogie--and pay little attention to what happened before. We let the imagination do the job, but our imaginations are thirty or fifty years out of date, if we're still thinking like The Birdman of Alcatraz and The Shawshank Redemption or even American Me.


Inmate Damien Costly on suicide watch. from Mother Jones

Our genre has many tropes about prison, and they come from our cultural beliefs, which come from stories, so it is a vicious circle. Many of our beliefs about incarceration are outdated. For one, no one says "shiv" anymore. That went out with "cordite." There is violence in prison, but it is usually not how it is depicted in fiction. The majority of reported sexual assaults against prisoners is committed by faculty. Rape does occur, but there are plenty of inmates who will willingly trade sex. There's no need to get an assault or murder on your jacket. When rapes occur it is often paid for as revenge, or to make the victim seek protection within a gang. I wrote about this with the Heimdall Brotherhood (a fictional white supremacist gang based on several real ones) in Bad Boy Boogie, as well as what causes some prison riots. Racial lines used to be uncrossable, but things have changed. A friend of mine who is not Latino joined the Latin Kings during his time, to have protection, for example.

The biggest fantasy is that chimo's (child molesters, in prison parlance) will be punished by the population. This seems to be the greatest wish of half the internet commenters whenever a sex offender is charged, but it rarely happens. Most will seek Protective Custody (aka "punk city") which is similar to Administrative Segregation; you're in your cell 23 hours a day, but without the punitive rules regarding visitors and reading material, etc. Incarcerated former police often opt for this as well, putting to rest the "killed by the people they put away" myth. Anyone who can be victimized probably will be, but threats and long con games are more likely than getting shanked to death. When you're dead you can't pay for protection.

The classic prison novels like On the Yard by Malcolm Braley and The Animal Factory by Edward Bunker are still good reads, but they served time in the '50s. Better is Just Like That by Les Edgerton, which involves convicts after release, but gives a great view into the criminal mindset and how well (or not) prison works as a deterrent to the outlaw kind. Les served time in the '70s and stayed current. For an outsider's view, the book Games Criminals Play is a must-read, especially if you plan on writing to prisoners, or working with prison literary or education programs. It explains the long con games some use to get favors and coerce you into illegal behavior. If you have read about psychopathic behavior or how emotional abusers "gaslight" and coerce, the methods will be familiar, and they work outside of prison as well, when a criminal wants to infiltrate a business, or blackmail a government or law enforcement worker.

They start small, asking for the tiniest of favors. Can I bum a cigarette? What time is it? This is also how con artists find victims: Hey, can you help me with something? If you say yes, you are malleable. It depends. What happened? is a better answer, if you don't want to just keep on walking, which is usually the best option. Giving an inmate a cigarette is a violation. So now when they ask you for something bigger, they can use that against you. C'mon, you gave me a smoke. You're not like the others. And when you get adamant: You have a pretty good job here, but John saw you give me the smoke, and he's a rat, he needs to look good, but I can stop him from ratting, if you help me out...

If you give in a second time, they have more to use against you, and eventually this can lead to cases like the officer in Jersey City, New Jersey accused of tipping off gangs. Or the ubiquitous stories of Corrections Officers caught smuggling in contraband. It doesn't help that they are often underpaid; New Jersey has a strong CO's union, but most states don't. And with the private prison industry, things have gotten much worse. Low pay, and corporate-style accountability; it's only a problem if you get caught. Investigative journalist Shane Bauer infiltrated a Louisiana private prison and worked as a guard, and his story is illuminating not only to show how prisoners are treated and mistreated in such facilities, but how the corrections officers are. And what leads them to taking the job. It's a long read, but worth it: My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard, by Shane Bauer.

Another good read is the Phoenix New Times's reporting on Sheriff Joe Arpaio. They have collected it all here: Phoenix New Times Arpaio columns.

Inmate at Angola prison in Louisiana dries his eyes before
the Traveling Vietnam War Memorial Wall. From The Angolite.
Now this is not to say everyone in prison is good or bad. If you follow the Innocence Project, DNA has exonerated hundreds of inmates who served decades in prison. Some fall into a spiral and can't dig their way out. After cuts to mental illness care, law enforcement and prison often take the place of treatment. And then there are the ones who really deserve to be there, our favorite subjects. Just ask Norman Mailer, who worked to get Jack Abbott out of prison, only for him to stab a waiter who angered him. In the Belly of the Beast is still worth reading, for its outlaw insight. Dated as they are, You Can't Win by Jack Black and Killer: a Journal of Murder by Carl Panzram are also helpful in seeing two very different sides of criminal thinking, one the low-grade hobo scammer, the other a seasoned and heartless serial rapist and murderer, frank in his feelings toward humans, and how he was made into what he was.

 America's ignominious position as the leader in incarceration is unlikely to change any time soon, so if you want to write about prison, make sure you are informed. There are many stories to tell, and they are not all the same. The Kafkaesque circle of parole and probation, fees they must pay, losing your driver's license for a drug/etc conviction, not being able to find or hold a job because you can't drive a car and public transportation isn't available, and going to jail for not paying your fines, is horrible to watch. I've seen it up close, and all it does is shift the monetary burden to the family. Who then burden the addict or convict with guilt, which pressures them to use or violate probation again, which...

Well, maybe I should write a story about it, instead.

Here are some more sources on prison and parole:

Games Criminals Play, by Bud Allen & Diane Bosta
Subscribe to The Angolite, the magazine of Louisiana State Penitentiary, by sending a check/m.o. to The Angolite, c/o Cashier's Office, Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola LA 70712
Watch "Life on Parole," online at Frontline PBS.