A Seat in the Big Chair: Ron Earl Phillips

Today we sit down with one of my favorite writers and editors (and now designers), Ron Earl Phillips...

Ron Earl is one of the titans behind Shotgun Honey, whose new anthology, Both Barrels is out now.

Ron Earl Phillips Talks Social Media and Gives a History Lesson on the Magical Word Count

1. When we were designing the cover of my first book (Choice Cuts), you contacted me, out of the blue, because you had some ideas for the design. You didn’t want money for your ideas or work, just wanted to help. I barely knew you, having published a couple stories with Shotgun Honey. What do you think it is about the noir/hardboiled community that makes it so supportive of one another’s efforts?

Before I get canonized for acts of charity and goodwill towards man, you need to know it's more pragmatic than that. I don't believe that any action is selfless, it's just a measure of what you define as compensation. When I offered to show you my direction for the cover of Choice Cuts I saw it as my way to exercise old design muscles. Something of a portfolio piece. The exercise and the fact you were happy with the final result was satisfying. Payment in full.

Payment isn't always tangible.

I think that's what makes communities like ours work. It's give and take. Before I was anything else, I was a writer, picking up other skills as I meander my own life's opus. And in this community I'm not alone; it's made up of writers from all walks of life. All wanting to tell the stories they've lived or imagined. In that we are connected. Related.

It makes us want to help each other, with the hopes we can all lift each other to the next level. Most of us are working schlubs, working hard, dreaming hard for a day we can say to friends and families—without getting the wink and a nod—that we are writers.

I've been writing for 20+ years, most of it complete crap, nearly all of it incomplete, but it wasn't until social media brought the rest of the misfits out that I felt comfortable in my own skin and that the elusive search for my voice ended. I only wish I'd discovered this community 2+ years earlier. I'm always a step behind, following the curve.

What makes this community so supportive? I hope I can answer without upsetting anyone, but often times when you have nothing to lose, you're able to give more.

2. Well let’s talk about that for a moment, social media. I often call Facebook “The Office.” And while it has the potential to be a colossal waste of time, I agree at worst it’s a necessary evil. Outside of the few conferences (e.g., Bouchercon, AWP), there doesn’t seem to be the same opportunity to meet other writers face-to-face. I mean, how many get to do a book tour? Is the danger that a solitary profession becomes absurdly so? Or do you see this (social networking) as merely evolution?

Social media? Well it really depends on which side of the blade you're cutting from.

Today's marketplace, evolving as it is, social media is, as you say, a necessary tool for writers. Actually, for just about anyone who is in the business of selling an audience on a product, and as part of the evolution of marketing the product, often times, is yourself.

The days of the solitary writer are evaporating. Yes, we still write alone, and it still might be a hundred or more miles to the closest like mind, but in this age you can't afford to stand alone. The audience is demanding more than just the story on the page; they want your soul. And those who sell it well, do well.

Of my 20+ years at honing—sure that's what we'll call it—my skills as writer, a good 15+ have been spent as a programmer. So I used to make attempts at keeping up with what might be the next big thing. It's bothersome, and to be honest I didn't understand Twitter when it showed up like your best friend's exotic date to the prom (who turned out to be his second cousin from Saskatchewan). She dressed different, had a great pair legs, smelled nice, but I sure didn't understand a world out of her mouth. Was that English?

Anyway, I didn't get Twitter. I was on board with the MySpace and the Facebook, and the various peer sharing amalgamators like Reddit and Digg.

I've connected with hundreds of writers in this community through social media, mostly through Twitter (at least at first). I hope that I've found just as many readers willing to consume my work and the work presented on Shotgun Honey when offered.

To do it well though, you have to be good at the conversation. It's not called promotion media. You have to engage, offer up to your followers, friends, Honeys more than just the product. And that takes time, which is the evil of it all.

You have to put yourself out there, and help others put their stuff out there. You're simultaneously a pimp and a ho, so shake that money-maker and be ready to lay down a bitch slap.

I don't know where we go next, but I'm waiting for that big ol' A-bomb to drop so I can see Godzilla do it Gangnam Style.

3. Both FFO and Shotgun Honey are in the flash fiction business, and we see a lot of authors appearing on both sites. But there is a marked difference, and something I envy Shotgun for having thought of first. 700 words. Having written for you guys, I know firsthand there is a huge difference between 1,000 words and 700 (Shotgun’s word limit). How did you guys come up with that particular number? Was it just by luck that you stumbled upon what seems the perfect end point? It forces trimming all excess fat.
I guess this is where I give you a history lesson?

Anyone who takes a quick glance at the Shotgun Honey “About” page will see a cursory reference to D Z Allen and his flashzine, Muzzle Flash. Our founder, Kent Gowran, drew inspiration from Allen's efforts, including that magic, sometimes lethal, 700-word limit. Sites like Muzzle Flash make me wish I had found the community sooner. I think it inspired Kent in more than word count and had stuck with him almost three years until the creation of Shotgun Honey. Especially since both D Z and the flashzine vanished from the community without so much as whimper in 2008. A mystery I try to crack every now and again.

What I do know of D Z Allen is that he was the assistant editor for the Out of the Gutter magazine at the time he was running Muzzle Flash, which makes FFO and Shotgun Honey practically kin. I guess we're the bastard stepchild?

As for that word limit, I've tackled it myself before during the A Twist of Noir's 600 – 700 marathon challenge. I drew stories 641 ("Fish Stew") and 672 ("Killing Hope"). Both stories were original for the site, but I wrote them as I would any story, which simply was to tell the story. Then I trimmed and edited to fit the required word count for each story. Hitting an exact number is harder than having a set limit. So as a writer I knew the constraints, but [in] the hands of the right person the results can be tremendous. Powerful. I remember early on reading Matthew C. Funk's first story "Nothing to Say" and thinking this is what 700 words can say, or the way I fell in love with Trey Barker's "6/8," a lyrical mesh of madness and music. I love it when we get a story and it's green lights all the way across. Thumbs up, brah!

I think every writer should tackle the 700-word wall. Write your story and then trim it, condense it, leave the flourish behind and tell the best story you can. It's an education.

4. Of course you branched out recently with Both Barrels, Shotgun’s new anthology (featuring our very own Tom Pitts amongst a host of other top-notch crime writers). Please tell us what that process was like (expanding to longer limits), and then pimp accordingly.

Those 700 words are what brought about Both Barrels. We had talked about doing an anthology of some sort; I was probably too eager at times. We talked various kinds of anthologies, and as we published more and more stories on Shotgun Honey it was almost too hard pick and choose a direction. As the first year anniversary came near, I wanted to do an anthology so bad. I wanted to celebrate a tremendous first year, give our writers and readers something tangible. Most importantly I wanted to give Kent a reason to stick around another  4 – 6 months as editor and confidant, friend. A send-off to celebrate the site, the contributors and the editors. I didn't know at the time it would also be Sabrina [Ogden]'s farewell.

Yeah, I gush, but I want to make sure credit is given where credit is due.

But those 700 words, crusher of great writers, was a wall we decided remove. If our contributors could do so much with 700 words, imagine what they could do with 3,000, which was the sweet spot we were looking for with Both Barrels. It'd also give us a chance to work with writers who weren't so eager to confine themselves to smaller word limits.

We saw lots of stories, more as the submission deadline approached. If we accepted them all we probably could have produced three complete volumes. As you know we had to cut and cut until we had our final 29, a number that allowed us to publish 5 additional stories from our original target. It was that hard to choose. We hope those on the cusp return to challenge the gauntlet for Volume 2.

As for the process, it really wasn't much different from what we do for every story we received for the flashzine. We each read the stories, voiced our opinions and lobbied for stories we thought were necessary for the book. The only difference, really, was the word count. That and we worked with each contributor to review and edit their stories. For the daily stories we require the submissions to come in finished, well edited.

To pimp accordingly? Which is almost impossible because it would require choosing favorites or highlighting each story of the book. If you've visited or follow regularly (thank you) Shotgun Honey, then you know exactly what you're going to get. A variety of crime stories crossing the globe, each individual as a drop of blood, every story worth the price of admission, only a little longer.

5. Last one. With all this designing and editing, what's left for Ron Earl, the writer?

Envy. I say that with a half-smile on my face, but I do envy the many talented writers who've muscled out story after story, carve out the daily ritual to release those story demons. Guys who work 40+ a week at a day/night job and still manage to publish shorts regularly or plug away at that novel to completion. I have to throw a shot out to Tom Pluck, Trey Barker, Frank Bill, Matthew C. Funk and Jed Ayres (who will someday grace the screen or pages of Shotgun Honey I swear on my grave) for being inspirations of work ethic and dedication.

That said, I'm learning to manage time better. The last couple years have been personally hectic, but I've got aggressive goals for 2013, assuming we all don't buy on 12/21/12. Those include finishing my short story collection, Six Feet Cold, which will be almost entirely original stories and some re-writes of stories that made it into the world that I wasn't happy with. I don't know whether I'll shop it or just publish it under the Shotgun Honey Books brand. I'm going to take stabs at longer works, try to finish up stuff I started between 2010 to the present. I've got a notebook of fragmented stories. I'm sure there's bound to be something worth finishing. If I don't, my wife might kill me. That'd be a story, wouldn't it?

Nestled in the foothills of West Virginia, Ron Earl Phillips lives with his wife, teenaged daughter, and their three cats. When not attempting to keep a roof over their heads through the mundane and legal job as a web developer, Ron reads and writes crime fiction. He also acts as co-editor on the online flash fiction magazine, Shotgun Honey, and for the upcoming e-book charity anthology, The Lost Children. Ron also maintains the weekly writing prompt site Flash Fiction Friday. You can find out more about Ron Earl Phillips at his website, RonEarl.com.