Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Interview with Untreed Reads Editor Jay Hartman

Untreed Reads is a newish e-book publisher. They do short stories, novellas and novels in all genres (except romance and erotica), listing several mysteries in their collection.

Editor Jay Hartman is a regular poster on the SMFS message group. Recently I emailed him with a few questions, and he provides some interesting insights into the world of e-book publishing.

DBK: How did Untreed Reads get started?

JH: For about ten years, I was the Content Editor for KnowBetter.com, one of the Internet's first websites dealing with electronic books. After those ten years the site owner and I decided to part ways and work on new projects. I was still doing ebook reviews and commentary around the Web, and decided to launch my own blog in November of 2009. As I continued to work on it, I realized that I couldn't find the types of works that I wanted to read, so decided...what the heck? I'll branch out into publishing for some of those markets that are underrepresented and use the knowledge I had gathered from the years in the industry to try and make it successful.

I happened to be having a discussion with someone at a birthday party about ebooks, and K.D. Sullivan overheard and was very interested. K.D. is a multi-published print author and had run her own editorial services company. We got to talking about the different things we'd like to do with the company and...presto. Untreed Reads launched at the end of February 2010 with the short story How to Eat Fruit by the wonderful Anne Brooke.

DBK: How do you see short works (novellas, short stories, flash fiction) factoring into the e-reader market?

JH: Flash fiction is still a really tough market. There's a difference between telling a super-short story and telling a super-short story well. I can also tell you that from a business standpoint I don't think the world is ready to pay for flash fiction. Novellas, novelettes and short stories are a whole other ballgame.
Untreed Reads didn't initially set out to have such a large focus on short form, but it just happened and the response has been HUGE.

The overseas markets are especially hungry for shorts. I think as readers' free time shrinks, there's a need for them to get that release from their daily woes in a shorter burst. A lot of folks don't have the time to sit down and focus on full-length novels anymore. A short story, however, can be quickly devoured while waiting for a bus, standing in line at the bank, in between classes etc.. The portability of the ebook just makes it that much more viable of a solution, with readers able to access their content on devices they carry around with them all day anyway. You don't necessarily NEED a Kindle. Crack out your smartphone or iPad or some other device and you're good to go.

DBK: According to most accounts, self-published authors are receiving about 70 percent royalties on e-books. Why should authors work with Untreed instead for 50 percent royalties?

JH: So first some clarification. That 70% is simply not completely accurate. Every retailer out there claiming to offer 70% royalties has some catch: the title has to be purchased in the US, the title has to be priced at $2.99 or more, there's a fee for transmitting the story, there's a fee for processing the credit cards...SOMETHING. And in those cases the author SHOULD be getting the 70%, because the retailers aren't doing any publicity, promotion, marketing or anything else to help them get the word out. They're not designing covers, they're not formatting the title. Basically, all they're doing is giving an author a chance to put their title up and then taking a cut of the profits. And, there's no vetting of the material for potential readers. Just because somebody CAN publish their own work doesn't mean they SHOULD publish their own work.

In our case, we run exactly like a traditional NY print publisher, except that we take submissions from both authors and agents. We have a submission process to determine what we feel is of value to release to the marketplace. We don't charge our authors for cover design, formatting or ISBNs. We do basic proofreading and content assessments with the author to get the work in the best possible shape.

Upon its release we do tons of marketing and publicity to back the title. Most importantly, a publisher can distribute where an author by themselves cannot. Places like Smashwords can get an author into maybe five markets when their process is actually working, and folks can get into Amazon on their own. However, we distribute to 50+ retailers around the world and on every continent. And, in some genres, the UK market is infinitely stronger than the US market so without some entry into that sales world an author isn't going to get as much notice. We're actually a rarity in the ebook world in terms of the sheer reach of our distribution. Most other ebook publishers are pretty limited in their range. 70% in your pocket isn't worth much if readers are turned away from being able to buy a title. Would you rather have 70% of 50 copies sold or 50% of hundreds?

DBK: You mentioned in an SMFS post that your short stories are selling better than novels. Do you have figures on how well short stories are selling?

JH: I can give you a rough idea. In August, roughly 90% of our catalog was available for sale in the UK. Just at Waterstone's alone we moved nearly 800 copies of about 30 short story titles. And that's just ONE of our 50+ retailers and just one month of sales. So you can see, that's some pretty great movement for short form. And, none of our catalog is romance or erotica, which makes that number even more interesting since theoretically romance and erotica are two of the top-selling genres.

DBK: The submission guidelines mention that Untreed has "high standards." What do those high standards entail?

JH: Quite a few questions go into this. Has the story been proofread, with grammar and structural mistakes fixed? In the case of mysteries, is the plot plausible with a satisfying conclusion that makes sense? Can the author write convincing dialogue that consists of more than just "he said" or "she said?" Is there a flow to the writing or is it choppy? Has the story been told before, or is the author bringing something original to their genre? Even more basic: can the writer actually write?

It's one thing to have a great story, but if you can't tell it properly no publisher is going to take the time to rewrite it for you. Make sure your submission is absolutely clean and as perfect as you can get it. Take the time to have a proofreader go through it before submitting. Run the work past a developmental editor to ensure that the pacing and flow of the story works. If authors invested as much time into making the work as perfect as it could be as they often do trying to get sales after the fact with a product that isn't ready for market, they'd be in much better shape to be successful.

We currently have a 50% rejection rate, perhaps a bit higher than that, because works submitted fail to meet these and many other standards. I think this goes back to what I was saying previously, where just because you CAN publish a story doesn't mean you SHOULD. There are some submissions I've wrestled with, trying to figure out if I should say yes or no. With those, I make a point of going back to the author and asking more developmental questions to get a better idea what was going on in their head. If I believe a work really has merit but isn't ready for primetime, then we'll offer the author a proposal contract to deliver us a finished work within 120 days.

Incidentally, I don't think authors should only submit a sample chapter upon which to base an entire submission decision. Sometimes the chapter that gets submitted isn't representative of what the work really is. And, with time being precious, sometimes it's better to be able to sit down and read the whole thing than have to go get the rest of the book later.

DBK: The short stories at Untreed sell for $1.50, the novels for $5.99, yet a good number of self-published authors are offering their work for less than that--as low as 99 cents for an entire novel. Why did you choose this price point?

JH: One thought here...did you ever notice that the bestseller lists at pretty much any ebook retailer includes less than five titles priced at 99 cents? In fact, usually a top 100 list at an ebook retailer doesn't have ANY titles under $5.99 unless it was a sale price?

Do you know that before Amazon created DTP the average price of an ebook over a ten year span was $5.99 and nobody had any problem paying for it? Then, places like Amazon and Lulu made it possible for anyone to publish their own work. What happened was a huge influx of material into the market filled with poor writing, bad grammar, typos, bad layouts and all sorts of other things that set the ebook industry back years.

People weren't willing to trust they were going to get good content because they kept picking up titles that were poorly written and filled with flaws. Then, along came $9.99 pricing which only made things worse. Authors, fearing a backlash to both the $9.99 pricing and the badly written stuff that was hurting the industry, panicked and started setting their prices ridiculously low in an attempt to woo back a jaded audience. The result? The market that it is now. The market still has poorly written material that anyone can throw up there, but it also has some of the BEST material to come along in a long time. After all this, it's not the PUBLISHERS who caused anything over $2.99 to be considered expensive, it's the AUTHORS.

Authors have devalued their work enough that it's now set the bar incredibly low. Authors have acted as if they need to give away their work to get it read AND THEY DON'T. Sales history in the industry over ten years proves that authors are operating under a false assumption. Unfortunately, thanks to the 99 cent crowd and others who think you should practically hand over a full-length work for no more than the price of a quart of milk, the value has gone completely out the window and now affects ALL authors. Now you have people buying based on price and not on quality of work.

The 99-cent authors aren't business people, they're just folks who want to get their writing out. What they don't realize is that their actions have affected the market for those authors who DO consider writing to be a business or a career. This was the same problem in the ebook publishing world for a few years when authors would throw up a shingle and become a publishing house overnight. They wanted to get their work out, but didn't understand that there is a business side to the craft as well. The result? Many of them folded.

I often hear the argument that 99 cents is the right price because "unknown authors/publishers should charge less for their works." What establishes an unknown author? What, only authors who show up on the NYT Bestseller list are "real" authors? What does that say about an author if they think people should pay less for their work because they don't know who the author is...yet? Where is their sense of self worth and pride in their work? There have been numerous studies and surveys done now over the least five years that show readers believe that if a title is priced too low, then it can't be of good quality and the author is desperate to sell.

Look, $9.99 pricing isn't the right spot either, what with production costs for ebooks being lower than their print counterparts, and I'm not advocating the price point. However, there are STILL costs involved with production: time for formatting, covers, time spent proofreading, time writing, etc. and those costs HAVE to be covered and an author paid their rightful royalties. Authors need to go back to valuing themselves, their work, their time, their effort and their fellow authors. Authors who have poor skills will be ignored by readers ANYWAY. People will learn to steer clear of those authors. It's no different than finding excellence in any other industry.

At Untreed Reads, we have multiple price points depending on the length of the work ($0.99 for super-short, $1.50 for short, $1.99 for novelettes and $2.99 for novellas), and I can tell you that we've had fantastic success for our authors at every single one of those price points. And our full-length works? Still at the age-old classic price of $5.99. And...no problems with people spending the money on that at all. Build the value of the product, and the rest falls into place: pricing, fan base and success.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The In Scene

I've been thinking about the virtues of staying in-scene--lots of dialogue, immediacy of action, easy for the reader to picture--versus going out-of-scene, or into what I'll call storyteller voice. In the latter, you can show the reader an entire life, provide a lot more backstory, drop in salient details but not feel forced to give a blow-by-blow account of what happened.

For a good example of storyteller voice, check out Paul D. Brazill's piece, Anger Management, at ATON.

Brazill starts with establishing the character's deep well of anger and explains how he became involved a group of thugs, and how he left that group for a more typical life.

It's the tale of a whole life compressed into a flash-length piece. Through using this distant perspective, Brazill is freed up to do a lot of stuff he would not be able to do if he stayed in-scene. As the tension increases, he drops into present voice and reveals that his narrator hasn't left his anger behind at all and paints a devastating picture.

Personally, I write almost exclusively in-scene. I feel that when I leave the comfortable confines of scene work, I tend to ramble, or get stuck in the character's head, or ignore the story's structure. (For an example of almost entirely in-scene writing, see my story, The Bait.)

Don't get me wrong: I don't really think this is a problem right now. It allows me to focus on what I perceive to be my strengths (like dialogue) and move the story along quickly. But I've been experimenting a little more lately and trying to write pieces that straddle the line between the two.

How about you? Do you prefer one to the other? Do you even think about this kind of stuff when you write?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Cold by Ian Ayris

At Pulp Metal, Ian Ayris delivers a powerful piece of short fiction, Cold.

This is the kind of story where describing what happens misses the point entirely. Ayris is writing about the core of life and death (and crime) and a character's single, compelling decision.

Even that sounds corny--which this piece is certainly not. To be honest, I don't really know how to approach this one.

But AJ Hayes does, and this is what he wrote in the comments section:

Usually in noir you’re rooting for the big reveal. In this case though you’re cringing away and thinking “No. C’mon please make it something else. Something that will finally free that poor guys soul. But no, Ian won’t flinch. Won’t back away and say, “Oh higgeltie, piggeltie, I fooled you. It’s all a great joke on you. Everything’s all right. ’twasn’t what you thought at all. Even dour Da’s okay. There there.” No, Ian just rips your heart out, shows it to you and leaves you all alone in the scary dark. True horror is never asked for. It just happens. Moving, Ian. Very moving indeed.

 Good job, AJ! I concur.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Flash Notes

From the vault, we've got Sandra Seamans with Shattered Peace at Microhorror. I challenge you to find a story with a final, single word with as much impact as this one. The last two sentences kept running through my head. And it gave me a chance to check out Microhorror, which has posted some great stuff.

There's a new story up at Powder Burn Flash and editor Mystery Dawg has announced some changes. Powder Burn will seek to earn Mystery Writers of America certification, and they also hopes to put together a print edition tenantitvely on a quarterly basis.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Changes at ATON

Last week, Christopher Grant announced some interesting changes at A Twist of Noir.

Starting at ATON 601 and up until 700, every story's word count will correlate with its number. (So 601 will be 601 words, etc.) After that the maximum word count will (probably) be 3500 instead of 5000. He also plans to add interviews with writers.

Reducing the word count is something I definitely support. Reading on the computer is a bit hard on the old eyes and, I think, shorter tends to be better. You can read a couple of shorter ones on your lunch break, or while you're waiting for your plane to take off, or while your plan for world domination is being hatched. Plus it forces us long-winded writers to revise and revise again, leaving in only what is absolutely crucial.

It seems like most sites have gone in this direction--there aren't too many places out there publishing longer short stories. Off the top of my head, places with shorter limits include: Gloom Cupboard and Short, Fast and Deadly, which do all microfiction; Thrillers, Killers n Chillers and Pulp Metal are 2500 words; Flash Fiction Offensive and Powder Burn Flash are 1000 words; Crimefactory is "partial" to stories at around 3000 words; Yellow Mama is 3,500, and Beat to a Pulp has is 4000 There are other sites regularly publishing longer works (Mysterical-E, Plots with Guns and Pulp Empire come to mind), but it seems to me that the direction is toward flash and short shorts.

So what do y'all think about this? Are tight word limits better? Do they stifle creativity or foster it?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Beat on the Brat by Nigel Bird

In this year's Watery Grave International competition at The Drowning Machine, Nigel Bird nabbed first place with his brilliant, lucid short story, Beat on the Brat.

In crime fiction shorts, I've rarely seen stories with multiple narrators. I would speculate that this is because it's tough to execute and, more often than not, confuses the reader. But Bird manages to pull it off in this piece with three different narrators. It took me a second to realize what was going on, but when I did it was worth it. Bird uses this technique to an interesting effect with all of the characters witnessing the same events from different perspectives. And each character has a distinctive voice--absolutely essential for this kind of piece.

More importantly, he tells a touching and brutal story about a failed baseball player-turned clown with a glass eye, and his relationship with a couple of kids who happen to have an insane father. Bird's writing is very distinctive--a conversational tone and short, choppy sentences, which he populates with vivid metaphors.

Beat the Brat will be making another appearance in the summer issue of Needle, which should be appearing in my mailbox any day now.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

New stories galore

Great new stuff to read at several of my favorite sites:

At Thrillers, Killers 'n Chillers, Jim Harrington takes aim with a story about an assassin, titled The Target. I've read Jim's work at Flash Fiction Offensive and look forward to checking out this piece.

Paul D. Brazill's Anger Management is up at A Twist of Noir. I'll be posting about this story again in the near future, talking about storyteller voice--which is my name for a story that covers a long stretch of time.

Over at Spinetingler, Stephen D. Rogers has a quirky piece missing person piece, PI, P.I.

And an entire, brand-spanking new issue of Pulp Metal is out, with a bizarre, hilarious and tight werewolf story, The Wild Beast, by Melanie Brown.

Happy reading!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Confetti from Hell by Dermot Owens

I finally got around to checking out the last (sad face) issue of Thuglit and, as always, they delivered. One of my favorites from this issue is by an Irish writer whom I hadn't heard of before, Dermot Owens.

This kind of story is right up my alley. There are two things I always dig: contained stories that build to a single point and stories that deal with the mental/psychological aspect of crime. And if you've got a phenomenal title like Confetti from Hell, so much the better.

Liam is a reluctant member of a rebel Irish military group that (to this uneducated American) seems a lot like the IRA. He parks a Ford Focus loaded with explosives in front of a bakery, as he's been directed to, but he's not sure if he wants to go through with the bombing and questions the very basis of using violence to effect political change.

I love how Owens keeps putting his character in uncomfortable situations. When Liam--very nervous, about to commit his first act of large-scale violence--sits down at a busy cafe to make sure everyone is evacuating, a woman sits down across from him, and he begins to chat with her almost against his will. It's an excrutiating and perfectly executed scene. I'll be on the lookout for more of Owens' work in the future.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Most Important Thing

In the short history of this blog, I've tended to stick with recommending what I think is the best of the best in short crime fiction with a focus on the web. Today I'm going to stray from that formula and talk a little shop.

Specifically, what The Most Important Thing is for me. Many writers go for character or plot. Joe Konrath, over at a Newbie's Guide to Publishing, says story comes before all. A lot of other writers (specifically creative writing teachers) claim character is king.

And I can't argue with either of those positions. Clearly a good plot and interesting characters are required for readable fiction.

But I will add to it. There's something else that I think almost every good story has: mood. Yeah, it's a pretty nebulous term. Sort of slips through the fingers. But I'll take a go at explaining what I mean.

Mood can be expressed through setting. Take Ray Bradbury's clinic in suspense, The Whole Town Is Sleeping. It's no coincidence that the climax of the piece is when Lavinia runs across a bridge over a ravine in the middle of the night. Eerie setting, eerie mood.

But it's often more than setting. I guess it's the ability for the author to create a world for the reader to climb into. So there needs to be consistency within that world in order for the reader to become lost in it. Whether you're reading for escape, to feel less alone, or to understand other people better, creating another world is essential.

What got me thinking about this subject was Gary Lovisi's two brilliant short stories posted over at ATON, both oozing with mood and depraved, cool worlds for the reader to jump into. These are perfect examples of noir--even by Otto Penzler's rather narrow definition of the genre.

So, what's The Most Important Thing for you?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Shot to Death by Stephen D. Rogers

There aren't many new, single-author short story collections out there. Which is a pity, since there are many excellent authors of short works who could probably fill up a collection nicely.

Luckily, Stephen D. Rogers is an exception to the rule. His latest release, Shot to Death, from Mainly Murder Press, includes 31 short stories set in New England. It's an impressive collection for an author with a lengthy track record--he's published more than 600 stories and poems in more than 200 publications.

I found myself unable to put this book down. That's not so out of the ordinary for a novel with one story line that ratchets up the tension at each chapter break. But it is different for a book of short stories, which, by its nature, creates many opportunities to stop reading. Many of the stories in this collection are like perfectly designed miniatures--making for consistently satisfying reads... and a deep set of ass cheek prints on my couch cushions.

Several of the entries are private investigator tales set in Cape Cod. Rogers often places his private investigators as negotiators in moral conundrums, such as in the opening Appearances to the Contrary and A Friendly Game, which creates interesting possibilities for character development. One of the more intriguing stories in this vein is Pipe Dream, where the investigator has to take a hard look at his own life when he's told that his daughter has a drug problem. 

Rogers also has many stories from the perspective of criminals and deploys a memorable cast of characters. (One of my favorites is the savvy jeweler, Sid, in Jumping the Fence.) Some of his stories even prove to be very funny, like a woman trying to cash in on selling stolen lottery tickets in Itching for Scratch.

However, Rogers tends toward the hardboiled and noir side of the genre. Some stories address darker subjects, such as Inn, about a domestic abuse victim on the run, or Officer Down, about an ex-cop-turned-private investigator who finds himself in the middle of a corruption scandal.

Throughout this collection, Rogers consistently demonstrates strength in several areas--particularly dialogue, pacing and endings. One thing you can expect from him is to be surprised, as his twist endings are among the best in the business. He often holds back critical information--or the protagonist discovers critical information--until the last few lines. Sometimes twist endings annoy me, but with a craftsman like Rogers, they're like the cherry on top of a Sundae. 

In his introduction, Rogers attempts to explain the lure of the genre: "Why have mystery short stories remained so popular with all the other entertainment choices currently available? The mystery short story starts and ends with story. Things happen. Lives are changed. Justice is sought, or in crime fiction, evaded. And that's only if nothing goes wrong."

This idea proves to be a driving force in Rogers' writing. He never veers from the core of each story. And that makes for happy readers.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Jackie Boy by Sam Roseme

Fat private investigator Jackie Giacomo is hired to follow around CEO Kenneth Hammonds and dig up some dirt in Sam Roseme's long-form story, Jackie Boy. He's sitting in his Ford Tempo in a ritzy San Francisco neighborhood, waiting for Hammond's to do something wrong, when the corporate hot shot goes and gets himself killed. The cops immediately finger Giacomo as the prime suspect. To discover the real killer and clear his good name, Giacomo has to dig deep into his past.

I say "Fat private investigator" because Giacomo's weight is something he is constantly battle against. And I don't mean battle against as "go on a diet"--I mean it in the hoofing-it- as-guys-with-guns-are-chasing-him sense. Giacomo is an entertaining, three-dimensional character (no pun intended) who is forced out of his comfort zone to find out who's framed him.

Thick with suspense, punchy dialogue, clever clues, and rich, seedy settings, Jackie Boy is the kind of adventurish, entertaining private eye story that fits in well at Pulp Empire. It will be included in that publication's second anthology, which is available on Lulu now.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Pewter Badge by Michael Solender

Michael Solender sure has been busy. In addition to running his blog, Not From Around Here, Are You?, which mostly features microfiction, he's a finalist in Jason Duke's Red Hot Writing Contest for his story about a Russian woman working for the Yakuza, Seventy-Two Hours or Less. And he's consistently posting quality flash and microfiction at a slew of places, including ATON, Calliope Nerve, Full of Crow, Six Sentences, etc.

I recently checked out Solender's Pewter Badge, a vignette about a L.A. hit man in Yellow Mama. Our hit man is driving around with a still-warm corpse in the trunk--only his second kill--and the guy's tongue is in a donut box in the passenger seat. He's following the speed limit and staying in his lane like a good citizen when a cop pulls him over. He starts freaking out and the story gets real good.

Solender manages to take classic bit (in this case sweating to indicate a character is nervous) and make it all his own. Here's how he puts it: "Sweat was rolling down the crack of my ass to the already pasty mass of my boxers that bunched up under my jeans." The specificity--and nastiness--of the image really fit the character and situation well. And he does an excellent job drawing in the reader to sympathize with the hit man. By the end of the story, I was rooting for this murderer to get away with it, mainly because he's so nervous and fragile.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mr. Alibi by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

In Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine's September/October issue, Kristine Kathryn Rusch serves up a funny and charming story in Mr. Alibi. It opens with down-on-her-luck private eye Belinda Sweet waiting at a bar for a client who never arrives. A schlubby guy parked at the end of the bar, Stanley Donen, asks her if she could be "his alibi," which at first she thinks is a pickup line. She soon realizes it wasn't when he casually confesses to killing his wife. But the police quickly clear Donen when they find out his wife is still alive and that he was "just playing a prank."

Sweet smells something funny about this whole situation and goes on a quest to find out who Stanley Donen really is. Sweet proves to be a tough, shrewd, likable, ethical character, offering a sharp contrast to the seediness of Los Angeles and all the scumbags she encounters in her investigation.  

Rusch has a gift for humorous observation and witty dialogue--how Donen initially confesses to the murder is hilarious. The plot is creative and unusual, with plenty of fun twists and turns. I've only checked out a few stories of Rusch's, but each one has left me wanting more.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Go buy Needle's summer issue

So I'm a college student. This means I don't have much money. And I'm not likely to part with the little money I do have.

But the $11 ($7 for the magazine, $4 for shipping) I spent on the spring issue of Needle was one of the better non-alcohol purchases I've made. Kieran Shea opens with his standard, amazing shit in The Shrewd Variant--with one of the best first lines I've seen in a while: "So, you're saying my daughter is a whore." He's followed by a whole bunch of other kick ass authors--Sandra Seamans, Christopher Grant, Paul D. Brazill to name just a few. Front to back it was a rock solid magazine, not a single story I didn't enjoy. This is something I can't say about EQMM and AHMM.

Now the summer issue is out with Sarah Weinman, Ray Banks, David Cranmer, plus a novella from Chris Holm and a whole lot more. If you haven't ordered it yet, you need to get on that.

I really like Needle's model--Steve Weddle describes it as a co-op. They're not out to make money, just to distribute excellent crime fiction. I hope they stick around for a long time.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

West, Texas, by Graham Powell

The relatively new zine, Crime Factory, has already published a slew of fine short fiction, novel excerpts, reviews, columns, and other stuff. It has a sharp look (gotta love the mugshot on the cover), a cool typewriterish font, and, oh yeah, they attracts some of the best crime fiction authors around.

In the latest edition (Issue 4), Graham Powell has crafted a gritty tale in West, Texas, which, I was surprised to find out, is an actual town. The story focuses on Charlie, a North Central Texas Rodeo Champion who had two fingers crushed in a paper mill accident and is learning how to use a lasso with his left hand. But things quickly become more complicated for Charlie when he arrives home to find local asshole Denton McCoy dead in the doorway, and his wife nearby holding his .357 Magnum.

Charlie has a comfortable voice--I could hear that slight twang throughout. Combined with Powell's talent for  ratcheting up the tension, it makes for a smooth read. Powell's also what I like to call a conservationist: nearly every detail included in the story isn't just to fill out character or setting, he reuses it to push the story forward.  

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Someone you'll definitely be hearing more about

One of the main reasons I prefer reading crime fiction (and other forms of genre fiction) instead of literary fiction is for suspense. There's really nothing like hanging on an author's every word, patiently waiting to find out what happens next. When it's executed well, it's an unparalleled pleasure.

And Brian Byrne's short story up at Thrillers, Killers 'n Chillers, titled Heads or Tails, had me hooked from the first word to the last line. It's a tightly knit piece about a bank robbery gone wrong--one where the criminals are struggling with the decision to surrender to law enforcement or kill themselves. The protagonist's deep history is deftly woven into the narrative and proves essential to the story.

I won't say much more cause I don't want to give away the ending. Which is a freakin doozie.

Byrne is only 21 years old--a fact I found shocking. I'm sure you'll be hearing more about him, as he clearly has a natural gift for writing.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Coercion by Mark Boss

When Al shows up at Frank's house, there's a bloody mess all over the floor. Frank's been working on his iron game. But instead of hitting a few balls at the driving range, he bashed in his wife's lover's head. Al hesitantly agrees to help Frank dispose of the body, the first in a string of just horrible decisions Al will make.

So begins the Mark Boss short story Coercion, up at Beat to a Pulp. One of the great crime fiction forms is what I like to call the "character beatdown." It's when the characters board an express train to hell. Boss nails this form--it's violent and fast, populated with vivid details that fit the dark mood. And he finishes with a counter-intuitive ending--one that highlights the psychological complexity of the crime.

Boss will soon be shopping a manuscript to agents, a thriller called Hired Guns. Here's his blurb on the project:
Paroled LA gangbanger Hector Tombs is putting his life together--attending community college, working as a security guard at the high-tech Signum Corporation, and dating a pretty co-worker, Lisa.

Ron Haraldson is a rogue scientist with a Chinese biochemical weapon lost since the Korean War, a plan to get rich, and a vendetta against Hector's boss.  His strong right hand is Alexander Turgenev, a former Spetsnaz commando with a price on his head.   

When Ron's plot kills Lisa, and poisons Hector's mentor and two thousand civilians, Hector leads a team of specialists into battle against Turgenev's mercenaries to capture the antidote.

Bound by duty but motivated by vengeance, Hector must use the skills that put him in prison to save thousands from the grave.

Back Alley and Powder Burn Flash

Back Alley will likely be temporarily shutting down submissions. Editor Richard Helms said they've had a flood of submissions since they were approved by the MWA. Helms said they need time to "clear out the files," but he doesn't expect the moratorium to last more than a couple of months.

Seven stories will be printed in an upcoming issue of Back Alley along with the rest of Frank Norris's McTeague, but Helms said they rejected about 100 stories. (For anyone waiting on them, Helms said contracts and rejections are going out in the next week.) He said they have some well-known authors as part of the next issue's lineup, plus work from one young author "does have some impressive pub credits."

Over at Powder Burn Flash, nothing has been posted since early June. I emailed Editor Aldo Calcagno (aka Mystery Dawg) about this, who said he's taken some time off for personal downtime and cause of some "server issues." He said they'll start posting stories again later this week and that they are still open to submissions.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Star Light, Star Bright

Recently I was talking with some writer buddies about flash fiction. One complaint they both voiced was that flash often resembled a game too much--like you have to dupe the reader throughout the piece and then have an "ah-ha!" reveal with the last line. This certainly isn't always the case, but I basically agreed with them. If flash (or at least much of the flash being published) has a fatal flaw, it is its reliance on a twist at the end to make the piece work.

That's why I found at Keri Clark's wicked little story up at Flash Me Magazine, titled Star Light, Star Bright, to be so refreshing. Clark manages to create a satisfying ending without ever resorting to a con. The action centers on the interrogation of a girl whose father has just been murdered. The girl, who is also Clark's narrator, is super smart, yet believable and unique. The exchange between her and the cop is snappy, and Clark provides just the right amount of detail to make the story work.

It's also great to see a web site that publishes several different genres--and pays its writers. Flash Me is open to submissions until Aug. 31 for a science fiction/horror/fantasy issue coming out in the fall.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

ThugLit is done

Noir powerhouse Thuglit has released issue 38, which it appears will be their last.

Started in 2005, Thuglit was one of the longest-running crime fiction zines. Editor Todd Robinson said in an interview with Outside Left that they started the site to continue where Plots with Guns had left off.

Thuglit consistently printed outstanding, well-edited, really really violent work in a very readable format. During the last three years, Kensington released three anthologies, which all received favorable reviews. Thuglit was one of the only publications to print well-known authors alongside newbies. I think many publications claim to do this but, in reality, they don't.

In the statement on the site, there are no specific reasons offered on why they decided to close, though running a small zine obviously requires a lot of time and money--it seems by surviving they're always bucking the trend. The statement also doesn't rule out the possibility of a return, but makes it appear unlikely.

I've dug a lot of Thuglit's stories over the years, but here are a couple that immediately come to mind:

Indirection, In Wait by Kieran Shea. Issue 37. Half-in-the-bag suburban morons go on a moral quest to return some litter to a group of insane meth heads. Trouble ensues.

We All Come From Splattertown by Hugh Lessig. Issue. 17. Harold, Angelo and Benny--old school buddies--go out to play paintball. But Benny ends up sort of dead and Harold uncovers all sorts of shit.

The All-Night Dentist by Vincent Kovar. Issue 8. A dentist with only vampire clients wants revenge on his ex-wife. This comes at a very high price.

What are your all-time Thuglit favorites?

Monday, August 2, 2010

The kind of flash that doesn't result in indecent exposure charges

. . .  or maybe it does. Only time will tell.

In any event, I've been checking out a lot of flash fiction as of late--I think it's the ideal length for a single-sitting reading on a computer screen--and here are a few that stood out to me:

Jason Hunt throws a vicious uppercut with Brass Knuckles in the latest edition of Yellow Mama. When a story begins with a guy giving serious consideration to which weapon is best suited for exacting the specific kind of revenge he desires, you know it's going to be good.

In one of the more creative pieces I've seen in a while, Chris Pollard explores a question that we've all asked ourselves at one time or another: If every object could speak and had feelings, what would life be like? Check out the results of his experiment at Pulp Metal Magazine.

Liam Sweeney's criminals in King of the World waste no time in the kind of fast-paced dose of noir the good people over at Powder Burn Flash have become known for.

Christopher Grant delivers his usual awesomeness with Bus Stop in a post on Thrillers, Killers 'n Chillers from last year. I'm always a fan of "average guy suddenly finds himself in a bunch of shit" stories, and Grant nails this one. It's like a clinic on how to write flash.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A college kid in way over his head

In Peter Swanson's novella-length piece, A Girl with a Clock for a Heart, George Foss embarks on a search for answers. This is a pretty standard device, but the protagonist--and the plot that follows--are anything but a stock mystery. Foss, a student at a Connecticut college, takes a bus trip from New England headed for Florida, where his girlfriend, Audrey Beck, apparently committed suicide only days earlier. He goes with the intention of talking to her parents and friends, and finding out why this seemingly normal college student decided to take her own life over Christmas break.

He quickly discovers that all is not as it seems with Miss Beck and gets mixed up with forces no teenager is prepared to deal with. Swanson has a series of clever plot twists in store, along with crackling dialogue and entertaining side characters. He clearly knows this remote corner of Central Florida--the setting is finely detailed and integrated into the storyline.

But what really stands out is George. He is a complex, likeable character with a strong voice, who feels forced to navigate extremely uncomfortable circumstances. And the way he changes is measured--I didn't even notice it until the last line--yet central to the emotional impact of the piece. It's one of several outstanding stories in the summer 2010 issue of Mysterical-E.