Back in Black by Thomas Pluck

Today I am honored to welcome Thomas Pluck, author and editor of the Lost Children charity anthologies. If ever there was a win-win situation, it’s the one readers are presented with when they purchase one of the Lost Children anthologies: get a TON of great short fiction from an amazing collection of authors, and help raise money to lobby for legislation to protect children from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECTLast year Elizabeth invited me to write about the Lost Children Charity Anthology, where I collected 30 stories from a flash fiction challenge issued by Fiona Johnson and Ron Earl Phillips. It has great stories by Paul D. Brazill, David Barber, Chad Rohrbacher, Veronica Marie Lewis-Shaw, Lynn Beighley and many more. We raised over $1700 for two children’s charities with that book. It continues to be a great success.

But I’m the kind of guy who always looks for what he could have done better. Two months after it was published, I decided to do another one. I’d focus on one cause and I’d invite many of the new authors I met at Bouchercon 2011 and online. A year later, I’m back, to let you know that I can really shake ’em down:

Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT gathers 41 writers to support one cause: protecting children, through sane and effective legislation. The first book collected flash fiction; this one has one page poems to novellas. Crime, noir, westerns, thrillers, weird tales, horror, urban fantasy and transgressive lit. An exclusive first three chapters from Ken Bruen’s novel, Spectre in the Galway Wind. An Edgar finalist that hasn’t seen print since 1984. Joe Lansdale contributed a story from Hap’s childhood. George Pelecanos sent a story while he was busy on the set of Treme.

The reaction was stunning, and putting it all together was the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a writer to date. How tough was it? It was a lot of work. But as they say, a labor of love. I had to hunt down writers through publicists or query them via email. I had to scan an old typewritten story in and correct it line by line. I like to think I’ve become a much better editor of my own work after editing 40 other writers. And it sure made me more amicable to being edited, after being on the other side of the red pen, so to speak.

Would I recommend it? Sure. In fact, picking a cause you care about is a great way to start. Because it sets the stakes higher. If you fail, you’re not just quitting, or making a so-so book. You’re giving up on something you care about. Someone who’s counting on you. It will drive you to do more than your best. And it will keep you up at nights wondering what more you can do. In fact, do that with any project you find daunting and see how it ignites your drive. As Dave Marsh says in the intro, the stakes here are too high to not join this fight. PROTECT lobbies for legislation that protects children from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Where politicians use kids to push bills through, PROTECT fights for laws with teeth and hangs on like a pit bull until they are funded. Their victories include the Protect Our Children Act of 2008, which mandated that the Justice Department change course and design a new national nerve center for law enforcement to wage a war on child exploitation, the Hero to Hero program, which employs disabled veterans in the battle against child abuse, and Alicia’s Law, which permanently funded an Internet Crimes Against Children task force.

Serious stuff. How can I not support fighters like PROTECT?

I asked about a hundred writers. What I found is that most were polite and responded promptly, either in person or through their publicist. I found most email addresses on author websites, some on Facebook. I came up with a form letter that explained the project, and personalized it. I didn’t gush, I asked in a professional manner and added a personal touch, mentioning the book or story of theirs I enjoy the most. I was honest and upfront. I was also realistic- an anthology to help protect kids is hard to say no to. I asked many more than I needed, because many wouldn’t want to say no, but might not make deadline. Some stories wouldn’t be acceptable or fit the tone. I had aimed for 25. I ended up taking 41, because one late entry was so good I couldn’t say no.

It’s great being an editor. You get to read a lot of stories before anyone else. But you also have to say no to many, even good ones, because they just aren’t right for what you’re trying to do. I spent ten minutes apologizing to one seasoned pro at Bouchercon for that reason. His story tore my guts out. I didn’t want that ending the book. So I passed on reprinting one of the best noir stories I’ve ever read. That sucks. If you think editing your own work is hard, edit someone else’s when you have to be diplomatic and professional. You have to say no to good friends who write great stuff, but didn’t hit the bull’s eye this time, and we ran out of time running through edits. You get to ask a literary hero if they meant to put that comma there. You read stories until you need glasses (as of publication, I am still avoiding the inevitable appointment with the eye doctor). You learn to love the writers who don’t need a lick of copy editing, and you try to emulate their perfection in your own work.

Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECTI didn’t do this alone. I edited alone, copyedited alone, and proofread all but my own story alone. I asked several good, honest writer friends to edit my story. I asked an artist friend for cover art, and two graphic designers to put together the cover. I was lucky to be friends with the talented Jaye Manus, who jumped at the chance to design the e-book when I was two weeks from self-imposed deadline and exhausted. I knew she would do an incredible job and was prepared to pay almost any price, but she refused. She wanted to work on the book. I had been foolish not to ask from the start. Jaye writes the best blog out there on e-book programming, and has designed books for Lawrence Block. My friend Suzanne Dell’Orto designed the print book, based on Jaye’s e-book. She was also eager to help, and has designed books and covers professionally, so I was very lucky to have her. Createspace doesn’t make design too difficult, but the book looks like it is traditionally published because Suzanne knows the rules and has great talent and experience in design. And my wife Sarah designed the cover using Kim Parkhurst’s commissioned art.

My family’s not good at asking for help. We’d rather struggle on our own. I was incredibly lucky to have obvious talented candidates in easy reach to ask at the last moment. I’d pick them from day one, if I do this again. I’m saying “if” because I’m still exhausted thinking about it. I’m taking 2013 off, but the year after, I might be up for it again. The book is already so successful that I’m eager to work on a third. (I also have a problem about saying no).

Protectors has an introduction by rock critic and PROTECT board member Dave Marsh, and work by Patti Abbott, Ian Ayris, Ray Banks, Nigel Bird, Michael A. Black, Tony Black, R. Thomas Brown, Ken Bruen, Bill Cameron, Jen Conley, Charles de Lint, Wayne D. Dundee, Chad Eagleton, Les Edgerton, Andrew Fader, Matthew C. Funk, Roxane Gay, Edward A. Grainger, Glenn G. Gray, Jane Hammons, Amber Keller, Joe R. Lansdale, Frank Larnerd, Gary Lovisi, Mike Miner, Zak Mucha, Dan O’Shea, George Pelecanos, Thomas Pluck, Richard Prosch, Keith Rawson, James Reasoner, Todd Robinson, Johnny Shaw, Gerald So, Josh Stallings, Charlie Stella, Andrew Vachss, Steve Weddle, Dave White, and Chet Williamson.

I hope you’ll take a look at it. If you love good stories, I know you will enjoy it. I hope you find fiction by beloved authors within, and that it introduces you to new writing as well. But most of all, I hope it inspires you to work for something you believe in, whether it is PROTECT, a cause, or your community.

Join us: be a Protector.

Thomas Pluck writes unflinching fiction with heart. His stories have appeared in Shotgun Honey, PANK magazine, Crime Factory, Spinetingler, Plots with Guns, Beat to a Pulp, McSweeney’s, The Utne Reader and elsewhere. He edits the Lost Children charity anthologies to benefit PROTECT: The National Association to Protect Children. He is working on his first novel. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Sarah. To learn more about Thomas, visit his website.


  • Josh Stallings

    October 22, 2012 - 6:11 PM

    I spent this last weekend writing some very pain filled rough tetanus inducing chapters to Mo’s 3rd book. Like so many of us crime writers I am forced to go into dark places, or more accurately because of the dark place we go, we wind up writing crime fiction. And then I read this post. And I think of all you did to get this published. And all these fine writers who gave up nights and weekends to make this book what it is. I thought of all that, and the world didn’t seem as dark.

    Thanks for the great work Mr Pluck.

  • sabrina ogden

    October 22, 2012 - 3:18 PM

    Such amazing work for such a wonderful cause. Your hard work on these projects will never go unnoticed, Thomas!

  • Andrez Bergen

    October 13, 2012 - 12:44 AM

    Totally agree with Nigel.

  • nigel

    October 11, 2012 - 5:41 PM

    Good on you TP. A great job and a lot of energy. Well done to the team.