For me, it happened in stages. I wrote in college, and even sold a story to a magazine. That story was “We’re All Guys Here,” and the magazine was Pulphouse, a big deal at the time. They shut down without publishing it, and I fussed around sending stories to literary journals and it found a home in a mag called Blue Murder. But I’ll admit it, after all that struggling, I quit. I didn’t know what I wanted to write about. Nothing was driving me. I got caught up playing video games, instead of creating. My life felt aimless for a few years, and after a death in the family gave me a mid-thirties brush with mortality, I decided a big change was in order.
No more games. I hit the gym, went hiking, started dating again, joined a fight gym and trained in mixed martial arts. About as complete a turnaround as you could imagine. And when I started doing things, I started coming up with stories in my head. As I was driving, or in the shower before work. I discovered several crime fiction markets online, and I’d take my lunch hour and write short stories. All the while, I was crafting a novel in my head.
I started reading more, and a handful of novels showed me that I could write the stories I was thinking about. I’d always loved crime fiction, from Hammett to Lawrence Block, Andrew Vachss, and James Lee Burke; to mysteries like Barbara Block’s pet store series, but I wasn’t caught up with the genre. My mother lent me The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow and Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell. They were fast, funny, and about crooks and grifters, not sleuths or police. None of my family were mobbed up, but they were bikers, bartenders, waitresses. The only police officer in the family got fired for stealing. Winslow and Bazell wrote about people I knew and showed me it was okay to write about them instead of forcing my stories to be about upstanding citizens who wouldn’t buy something that fell off a truck. Or sell it.
Then an online friend challenged me with NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. I had my ideas, and I knew I could write—I had banged out a couple dozen short stories that were picked up by online markets, and I had received good feedback from readers—so it was time to put up or shut up. On November first of 2010, I got to work. And I made the fifty-thousand-word deadline by the end of the month. What I called Beat the Jinx was far from done (and I stole the title from Bazell) so I soldiered on until it was too long and needed heavy edits.
Then the real work began. I kept writing stories, and my writing got tighter and I let my voice ring through, instead of throttling it to conform to expectations. David Cranmer of Beat to a Pulp Press came to me with an idea for a story about a lost Japanese sword and a fighter named Reeves… and that book just came to me. I had never thought about writing an adventure thriller, but my knowledge of Japan (I had visited a fighter friend there and trained there) and World War II history just exploded in my brain. Six months later I had a final draft of Blade of Dishonor.
A book I love, I’m proud to have written, that I dedicated to my two WWII veteran great-uncles Butch and Jimmy. This book took time away from the first one, but it taught me lessons in both craft and the business: that there are many things out of a writer’s control. Due to tragedy, the book wouldn’t be published for years if Beat to a Pulp Press did so. I worked a deal with David and published the book myself, after hiring editor Jaye Manus, a book designer who works with none other than Lawrence Block. She got the book into fighting shape, and I got back to …
Well, I got the bright idea to edit an anthology to support PROTECT, the National Association to Protect Children, a lobby that I have volunteered for. Dozens of writers showed interest, and it felt great to have a purpose. But again, this delayed the first book I’d begun two years ago. I kept editing it, but slowly. Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT not only raised a few thousand dollars to fight child abuse and online predators, but it helped me hone my editing skills, and introduced me to many new writers. And when it was done, it was time to get back to work on my Jay Desmarteaux novel, then called Bury the Hatchet.
Two drafts later, and I had a book I was proud to query. Kind agents like Elizabeth Kracht, Nat Sobel, Janet Reid, and Chip MacGregor gave me feedback—and in Kracht’s case, very helpful notes—that pointed me in the right direction. One more draft and the novel wasted no time introducing readers to Jay Desmarteaux, putting forth the stakes, and unleashing him on the world. My mistake was sending it to over 150 agents in its previous state. I had played my hand too early.
While I was tuning it up, I edited The Protectors 2: Heroes, which was nominated for an Anthony Award for best anthology. Then my pal Josh Stallings—author of the beautiful and tough Mo McGuire series, and the Anthony-nominated memoir All the Wild Children and disco heist novel Young Americans, patted me on the shoulder and said it was time to stop dragging my feet. He’d read an early draft and believed in Jay Desmarteaux. Even after three years of drafts and beta readers, it hadn’t been fine-tuned enough. Now it was lean and mean and full of heart. And good for me, the agents hadn’t shopped it to editors. So I could do it myself.
I liked what Down & Out Books was doing, and Josh Stallings introduced me to publisher Eric Campbell at Noir at the Bar in Raleigh. I had seen him at the Down & Out table before, but this time we had time to talk, and he liked the story I read—I’ll be damned if I remember what it was—but it stood out enough that he remembered me when I queried him directly. He liked the book, and I’ve been with Down & Out since then. He appreciates what I try to do with a book, and his team helps me accomplish it. Of course, there was one more round of edits, and they made the book even better.
In March 2017 they released Bad Boy Boogie, the first Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller. It only took six years, and three other books, before my “first novel” was published. And I’m nearly done with the first draft of the second Jay novel, where he raises hell in Louisiana. I promise it won’t take six years for this one to hit the shelves.
Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture. He has trained with fighters in the U.S. and Japan, but he’s no tough guy: Joyce Carol Oates calls him a “lovely kitty man.” He shares his hideout with his sassy Louisiana wife and their two felines. You can find him online at www.thomaspluck.com and on twitter as @thomaspluck.
To learn more about Thomas Pluck’s newest book, click on the cover below: