Monday, October 20, 2014

“Preachiness” in Novels: How to Present Controversial Ideas in Fiction

Note from Jodie: I'm busy meeting deadlines and getting ready to head off to the Surrey International Writers' Conference this week, so I invited former journalist and talented thriller author Robert Bidinotto to guest post for me here today. Take it away, Robert!

Vigilante heroes – including Dylan Hunter, the hero of my vigilante thriller series – break lots of laws and conventions. I confess that I occasionally do the same about the laws and conventions of fiction-writing.

For instance, one cardinal rule, taught by many fiction instructors, is: 

Avoid expressing your personal views about politics, religion, and other controversial issues in your fiction.

Your job as a novelist, they say, is solely to entertain—not to “preach.” If you get up on your soap box, you’ll only alienate many potential fans. To attract a broad readership, you should suppress the desire to push divisive “agendas.”

Or, as movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn famously admonished a screenwriter: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

But is it true that you shouldn’t express controversial views in popular fiction?

Well, it is true that readers of popular fiction don’t want to be lectured to or harangued. Some authors, believing they have important ideas to convey, beat readers over the head with their views. In static scenes on porches, in drawing rooms, and around dinner tables, characters don’t converse; they deliver speeches and soliloquys. Too often, these wooden, one-dimensional “characters” are little more than premises with feet.

I had to confront this issue head-on when I decided to move from nonfiction into fiction. You see, I have strongly held views and have never hidden them. My writing career began with “advocacy” journalism: essays, reviews, and other opinion pieces. So, when I decided to write thrillers a few years ago, it felt natural to incorporate my views into my stories.

First, I rejected the belief that there’s an inherent contradiction between entertaining fiction and thought-provoking fiction. Shakespeare, Ibsen, Hugo, Dickens, Tolstoy, Orwell, Dostoyevsky, Rostand—all wrote works that entertained millions while taking sides on the controversies of their times. Taken literally, the “no politics” rule would have deprived the world of Les Misérables, 1984, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin—serious novels of ideas that still won vast popular audiences.

Moreover, if you watch marketing expert Simon Sinek’s influential talk, “Start With Why,” you’ll see that building compelling stories around your passionately held beliefs can become a great marketing strategy. They will attract those who share your views, making them loyal fans, even evangelists for your work. Distinctive views also help to “brand” you, making you and your work stand out from the crowd and become more visible.

But how can authors with “something to say” avoid the pitfalls of heavy-handed preachiness? And how do I incorporate controversial ideas into popular thrillers, without turning off readers looking mainly for a good rollercoaster ride?

I think many opinionated writers fail to entertain because they engage in extraneous pontificating, rather than make their ideas integral to the stories themselves. The trick is to weave a provocative theme or premise into the very fabric of your story, making it the thread that connects your characters to each other and to the events of the plot.

In his classic how-to, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri devotes the first chapter to structuring a story upon a “premise.” Egri shows how to develop a controversial theme, first by creating major characters that hold uncompromising, opposing positions. Their clash of values drives the plot’s central conflict, which is resolved at the climax. The climax “proves” the story premise. Minor characters play complementary roles, representing “variations on the theme.” (Of course, your challenge as a literary craftsman is to make your characters seem three-dimensional and fully real—and not mere mouthpieces for arguments.)

I used Egri’s approach with my first thriller, HUNTER, which draws upon my past investigative reporting about the criminal justice system. It dramatizes the outrageous leniency I discovered, in which vicious criminals are routinely recycled back onto the streets to prey on new victims. The major antagonists are my hero, mysterious investigative journalist Dylan Hunter, and a wealthy philanthropist funding “alternatives to incarceration.” The complication is that Dylan doesn’t know that his sworn enemy also happens to be the father of the woman he loves.

This orchestration of characters allows the thriller’s theme—the injustices caused by excessive leniency—to be not only articulated and argued, but to be dramatized in action, with all the scary violence, intense suspense, and sizzling romance that thriller fans expect.

For the sequel, BAD DEEDS, I set the story in even more controversial territory: the clash between environmentalists and the “fracking” industry. Here, my views are not what most readers would anticipate. But once again, I present villains who uphold ideas and values opposite those of my hero. Once again, the plot brims with action, suspense, colorful characters, and white-knuckle thrills. And once again, the climax “proves” the theme.

At first I feared that my maverick opinions would turn readers off. Instead, HUNTER became a Kindle and Wall Street Journal bestseller. And the even-more-controversial BAD DEEDS is maintaining an Amazon customer rating of 4.9 out of a possible 5.0 points.

So, if you write mysteries and thrillers, relax! You don’t have to avoid touching hot-button controversies. In fact, doing so can become a badge of distinction, helping your work to stand out in the overcrowded marketplace. I describe my novels as “thrillers for thinkers.” 

And in an era of recycled plots and worn genre retreads, that’s not a bad brand.

Robert Bidinotto is author of the Kindle and Wall Street Journal bestselling thriller, HUNTER, and the thrilling sequel, BAD DEEDS. Robert earned a national reputation as an authority on criminal justice while writing investigative crime articles as a former Staff Writer for Reader's Digest. His famous 1988 article, "Getting Away with Murder," stirred a national controversy about crime and prison furlough programs and was named a 1989 finalist for a National Magazine Award. Robert is author of the acclaimed nonfiction book Criminal Justice? The Legal System vs. Individual Responsibility. He also wrote Freed to Kill—a compendium of horror stories exposing the failings of the justice system. Robert drew upon this background and his personal experiences with crime victims to write HUNTER.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Pen is Mightier

James Scott Bell

Last weekend I was at the Central Ohio Fiction Writers conference, where I met up with TKZ regular Steve Hooley. Steve handed me a package which had, inside, a most remarkable fountain pen.

Remarkable because Steve made it himself. Not only that, he made it out of Irish bog wood, which he ordered special, in celebration of my Irish ancestors. He lathed the wood and polished it, then put together the other components. It’s the kind of pen that would run a few hundred bucks if you bought it at a Waterman store. 

He even put green ink in it, another nod to the Emerald Isle.  

I hold this fine instrument in my hand with trepidation. I don't wish to befoul a virgin sheet of paper with the indecipherable scrawl that is my cursive writing. Ever since I first learned handwriting, I have never been able to get it to look like anything other than a secret code made up on the spot by a drunken Croatian spy. Steve's pen deserves to have beautiful writing at the end of its nib, which is why entrusting it to me is like placing a twelfth-century illuminated manuscript in the jaws of a pit bull for safekeeping.

However, I have determined that it must be used. Otherwise, it would be like having a solid gold Cadillac in the garage, covered in a tarp and never taken out for a spin.

Now, it just so happens I have a completely blank Moleskin notebook sitting on my shelf. 

All this calls to mind (mine, at least) the Paris of the 1920s. I should be like Hemingway or Fitzgerald and find a cafe with outdoor tables, and make notes on the passing scene, or try to write “one true sentence.” I should be jotting my thoughts about writing and the writing life so this notebook can be discovered by my heirs after I shuffle off this mortal coil, and be published with great fanfare (or some kind of fare, even if it’s just cab fare). 

Maybe it should be a diary of my deep, dark secrets, such as: I actually like Hamburger Helper. I think Bruce Springsteen is overrated. I have a secret longing to return to this life someday as Sam Elliott’s voice. 

Frankly, I don’t know what to do. Should I journal? Doodle? Try to write a story? What is the best use of my beautiful pen and immaculate notebook?

I will entertain suggestions from the TKZ community.

I thank you.

What about you? Are you a pen person? Do you like the feel of it? Or are you a dedicated typer?

And what will happen to our culture as cursive writing slides into oblivion?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Reader Friday: When Life Gives You Lemons...

Lately it feels as if the news has been all bad, all the time. (Isis! Ebola! Market roller coaster!)

Please answer the following question: 

When the 24-hour news cycle delivers nothing but lemons, how are you affected as a writer?

A. Full Stop. I make a stiff lemon-tini, and then I spend the rest of the day watching CNN Breaking News, and reading #ebola updates on Twitter.

B. I write faster! Like a depressed person who feels happier when it rains, I actually get energized by grim news. 

C. Meh, the daily headlines don't affect my writing. I just tune it out. 

D. Other. (Explain.)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Let's Discuss the Latest on Self-Publishing Resources

Jordan Dane

Just a short blog post today from me, but I could really use your help. I'm interested in hearing from those who have good resources for self-publishing regarding formatting and sales ops. Since we have a wealth of experienced followers on this blog, I'd like to hear your thoughts to broaden my horizons. Self-publishing is a HUGE topic, but I'd like our chat to be focused on the questions below.

Here are some of the things I'm interested in getting updated on:

Format Questions

1.) Do you have format service companies or individuals you would recommend?
I'd like to find a one-stop company or individual who formats for all the major sales outlets: Amazon, B&N, ITunes, Kobo. Please share your experiences.

2.) What format add-ons do you recommend (as far as website links or features) that have worked for you? (ie website links, mailing list signups, retailer sales links, etc.) In other words, what marketing tools do you add to your formats that you would recommend?

3.) Within your format of text, are there navigational aspects or enhancements (bells & whistles) you would recommend to add to your content? (ie chapter list with links to easily navigate within your book, audio enhancements, etc. Some of these might be costly, but I'd love to hear any new ideas.)

4.) Does anyone have a special format service provider for Lightning Source? I hear the LS set up is expensive and corrected proofs must be reloaded. This could be cumbersome, but I hear the quality is good and LS does hardcovers with different distribution outlets. It's something I'd like more information on.

Sales Enhancements

5.) Regarding sales outlets, are there any new players worth considering?
If you have a site, please post it and comment as to why you would recommend it. I'm thinking the sites mentioned above encompass the majority of sales, but if you've found other sites worth considering, I'd love to hear about them.

6.) Has anyone added sales/purchase capability onto their website where a reader could buy from the author directly? I've seen this done via a secured PayPal app, but had concerns on sales tax and shipping. I wondered how this worked (for anyone who has experience).

7.) I know promotion is a big topic, but for the purposes of discussion and brevity, what one promotional activity or service provider do you use without fail and would recommend to anyone?

Editing & Cover Design

I haven't mentioned editing, because again that is a must have for any author and the cost can have a wide range, depending on services needed from line edits to book doctoring. I also haven't asked about book cover designers. I work with Croco Designs and love Frauke Spanuth. But feel free to mention any other self-publishing services you've found helpful.

I bow to your infinite wisdom, TKZers. Please share your thoughts.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Black Widow

Today I welcome back to TKZ my friend and fellow ITW member, Lisa Black. Lisa has one of the most unique day jobs, especially for a suspense writer. As she likes to describe it, she spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. She was a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office where she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department in Florida. Her books have been translated into six languages and one reached the New York Times mass market bestseller’s list.

I asked Lisa if any of her experience developed into a story and she related one of her first published works to me. She wouldn’t tell me where it was published, only that it was in one of those “sleazy true detective magazines” back in the day. Enjoy!
Joe Moore


Yet another case of a mild-mannered, suburban murdering mom

I wanted to write true crime before I even got into forensics. But since only the military had an internet back then, I had to find stories to Lisa-photo-smallwrite about the old-fashioned way, via the library and newspaper indexes and microfilm and this wonderful window at the Justice Center where they had to give you copies of the basic dispositions of court cases (public record, after all). And one of the first stories I chose was the mundane yet chilling tale of Terri Sramek.

One summer night Terri called the Middleburg Heights police to tell them that she had returned from church to find her husband, William Sramek, gone. There were no signs of disturbance and nothing missing from the house. She went on all four local channels to plead for information. A MHPD detective happened to catch the news and immediately sensed that something was off about Terri Sramek. She just didn’t add up.

The case had indeed been assigned to him, and he promptly received a call from an FBI agent who knew nothing about William Sramek but a lot about Terri. The detective tried to follow his monologue: In Billings, Montana, Terri worked as an executive secretary for an insurance company which handled, among other things, the Miss Montana beauty pageant. Funds turned up missing. Terri and her boss invented a robbery and then even a new ledger, except for the wrong year. She pled multiple personality disorder but couldn’t fool the court and got 10 years, while telling one boyfriend she was actually in LA attending flight attendant school.

After her release she went right back to work—her type of work—for a Salt Lake law firm and met William Sramek. When the firm discovered $65K missing the couple moved to Cleveland. Terri found a job with a financial services firm…which then, somehow, lost $40K.

The FBI caught up with her on behalf of Utah, and she promptly went into the hospital with heart palpitations, though her doctor failed to back her up. But she was also pregnant, so Utah delayed enforcement of their warrant.

Now the Middleburg Heights detective found that Terri had been trying to sell William’s coins and responding to other men’s personal ads.

That didn’t sound good.

Exactly a week after he was reported missing, a police SWAT team searched the city surrounding the Sramek home. Rangers, the law enforcement body of the Cleveland Metropark system, searched the park areas on foot and on horseback.

The hunt lasted all day. They found nothing.

But Terri Sramek was arrested again, for not informing the probation authorities of her arrests. She didn’t know it yet, but she had just enjoyed her last day of freedom for a long, long time.

Salt Lake City reinstated the charges.

Then, in the middle of August, a birdwatcher pursued a bundle of plumage into some tall grass and found a decomposing body. The skull had lost almost all its flesh and had bullet holes in its base and forehead.

Terri’s lawyer, accompanied by the victim’s family’s private investigator, went to see her in jail.

For reasons known only to herself, Terri Sramek told the two men that she had indeed shot her husband. When William suggested they go for a walk in the park, she slipped a new .38-caliber automatic into her purse, next to a bottle of baby formula. They strolled through the pretty parks and argued about money. Then, with their baby strapped to her chest, Terri shot her husband in the head and face and left him to the elements.

The baby did not cry, Terri insisted—an unusual reaction for an infant—and Terri set off to dispose of the murder weapon.

The PI told the MHPD about this confession and they told the Rangers. Their turf, their murder.

The ranger looked at Terri Sramek and felt no sympathy for someone who could put her kid in a baby carrier and then kill the little girl’s father, leaving him where he lay so that weeks later the cops would have to spoon through his bodily fluids just to recover his teeth. The ice in her veins reminded him of the movie Black Widow, in which the character played by Theresa Russell researched and wooed rich men in order to kill them, carefully covering her tracks each time. She mates, then she kills.

In an interview the Montana detective also mentioned the movie, though it hadn’t even been made when he knew her.

In jail, tearfully, hesitantly, delicately, Terri Sramek promised to cooperate. She told them that she had thrown the gun in the water while walking along the lake shoreline somewhere around Huron.

But meanwhile, yet another suburb’s PD conducted a diver training exercise. They began at a beach but weather conditions were so ideal that they moved to the Rocky River, where what looked like a human hand startled one of the divers. It turned out to be a rubber glove containing a .38 caliber revolver. Zebra mussels, the scourge of the Great Lakes, had not yet attached themselves to its surface. They sent out a “gun found” teletype, which neither MHPD nor the Rangers received, but the head diver had read about the Ranger’s search for a gun in the paper; he told a Cleveland homicide cop who happened to be a friend of the ranger. Almost simultaneously both men called the ranger. The dive team then found more bullets, and Ohio BCI recovered the scraped-off serial number. It led to a gun store and a receipt made out to Terri Sramek.

Huron, incidentally, sits on Lake Erie about fifty miles to the west of the rivers of Rocky River. Even her confession came out half lies.

Terri skated on the embezzlement charges, cut her losses and pled, getting fifteen years to life.

She is still in jail.

When we invent villains for our books, we usually make them ingeniously clever, meticulous planners. They cross every t, dot every i, are voraciously ruthless. But the scariest killers are the real ones, the ones who aren’t criminal masterminds but making it up as they go along, the ones who have jobs and children and do dishes. The ones who seem as ordinary as white bread and yet feel entitled to take what isn’t theirs—including someone else’s life.

They’re the really scary ones.


Lisa Black’s latest thriller is CLOSE TO THE BONE, a story that hits forensic scientist Theresa MacLean where it hurts, bringing death and destruction to the one place where she should feel the most safe—the medical examiner’s office in Cleveland, Ohio, where close to the bone 1she has worked for the past fifteen years of her life. Theresa returns in the wee hours after working a routine crime scene, only to find the body of one of her deskmen slowly cooling with the word “Confess” written in his blood. His partner is missing and presumed guilty, but Theresa isn’t so sure. The body count begins to rise but for once these victims aren’t strangers—they are Theresa’s friends and colleagues, and everyone in the building, herself included, has a place on the hit list. Visit

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Phenomenon of the Group Blog (And why we should consider returning to its power)

Note: It is my great pleasure today to welcome author J.T. Ellison as guest blogger at The Kill Zone. J.T. Ellison is the New York Times bestselling author of twelve critically acclaimed novels. Her topic today is one of my favorite subjects--the art (and future) of group blogging! ~ KL

Several years ago, the fiction world exploded with a number of group blogs. I was lucky to be a part of one of them – Murderati. Founded by Pari Taichert, the blog served as a one-stop shop for all things crime fiction. We made an early agreement to stay away from divisive issues like politics and religion, choosing to focus instead of the writing life. We started with 7 bloggers, and over the course of the blog’s life, had two dozen regular contributors. And that doesn’t include the countless guest blogs. There were births, and deaths. Triumphs and heartbreaks. Breakups and makeups. And books. So. Many. Books.

I was one of the first group of 7, and was the only one with the time (no book deal yet) and inclination to get involved in the backend of the site – the coding and hosting and all that technical stuff. And that, ultimately, was the reason I left the blog as well, but I get ahead of myself.

I grew up on Murderati. Late to writing (I started on Murderati when I was 34, published my first book when I was 37), not knowing much of what I was doing, knowing virtually nothing about the industry. The blog was both a learning experience, and a way to mark my own growth as a writer. It taught me the discipline of a deadline – for the first several years, I blogged every Friday – how important it was to think about writing, even if I wasn’t creating. In the beginning, I had to dedicate a full day to composing and editing and fretting about my blog. I ate up every ounce of advice and insight the other bloggers were sharing. I learned; we all did.

And it wasn’t just Murderati. The group blog phenomenon was everywhere. It crossed genres. There were mystery blogs and sci-fi blogs and romance blogs. There were male-centric and female-centric. We could gorge on the posts – I know the first thing I did every morning for years was get up and read everyone’s blog from all the sites. We all had communities of readers who chipped in daily with their own opinions. It was awesome.

And then we started repeating ourselves. After hundreds and thousands of entries, it was inevitable. The pressure to find a topic no one had discussed grew. People started dropping off to go work on their – you know – books. New people came in, and new life would be given. For a while.Then they too would run out of original topics, and peel away.

The decline of the group blog was gradual, but no less striking for its attrition. Facebook and Twitter gave quicker feedback, though its false intimacy at first didn’t seem to be enough to hook us all. But we began building ourselves as individuals, and boom. Talking to, instead of talking with. And like a lead singer who does a solo album, the next album had that shadow hanging over it. It was all over, though we didn’t want to admit it. We dragged on, desperately trying to keep things fresh and relevant, to work together, but all around us, the group blogs began dropping like flies, until Murderati too finally gave up the ghost.

We had a great run. Seven years of original work. Millions of words written. A built-in platform for book launches and celebrations. The respect of our peers. A community unlike any other.

Shutting down sucked.

Did the rise of “I” overcome the power of “Us”? Or did we all simply run out of things to say? I know for me, running the backend of the site was taking time away from my actual writing. I had so many deadlines that my head was spinning, and I had a massive set of personal losses that made me question the whole purpose behind the endeavor. Everything felt shallow to me – writing, blogging, reading, living – and I pulled out, knowing I wasn’t doing anyone any favors being involved anymore.

I know I missed the phenomenon that was us. But I kept telling myself it was for the best.

Oddly enough, several months later, we realized most of the Murderati folks still were blogging. Though we’d run out of things to say, and complained bitterly about the time it took away from our writing, we’d kept on blogging. We just didn’t do it on Murderati. We didn’t do it together. Together became too difficult. Too time consuming. Too much effort. But we still wanted to talk. So we did it on our own blogs. On Facebook. Alone. Built our own networks of people. Our own communities.

And damn if we didn’t miss being together.

Missed it enough to try an experiment.

With the help of Writerspace, we revamped We built an archive site. Every blogger has their own pageof their old blogs. And everyone who was interested has their current blog feed automatically into the site. So we’re together, but not together. Blogging, but not on a set schedule.

I love seeing group blogs like The Kill Zone that are still going strong. I wish we could have found a way to make that happen for Murderati. Maybe someday in the future, we’ll all come together again, realizing that there is a reason animals run in packs – there’s safety and camaraderie in numbers.

What do you think? Can we ever get that heyday back again? Or have we become so divisive as a community – and we are, trust me. There’s a war going on out there –   that we are better off on our own?

Thanks so much for having me today. Y’all rock!

J.T. Ellison is the New York Times bestselling author of twelve critically acclaimed novels, including The Lost Keyand When Shadows Fall, and is the co-author of the Nicholas Drummond series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Her work has been published in over twenty countries. Her novel The Cold Room won the ITW Thriller Award for Best Paperback Original and Where All The Dead Lie was a RITA® Nominee for Best Romantic Suspense. She lives in Nashville with her husband. Visit for more insight into her wicked imagination, or follow her on Twitter @Thrillerchick or Or, if you’re so inclined, read her blog, The Tao of JT.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Do you need a rock?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

My book group just read A Paris Wife by Paula McLain, the fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway's first wife Hadley Richardson, and we all agreed to having mixed feelings about Hadley and her role as Hemingway's 'rock'  during his early career in  Paris. 

The book evokes the bohemian world of 1920s Paris and name drops a lot of literary giants but at its heart is the relationship between Hadley and Hemingway. The book made me question the extent to which Hemingway relied upon and needed Hadley's stolid support during those early days. 

I wondered how many writers feel they need someone close to them to be that kind of 'rock'  - to provide emotional as well as (often) financial support (although Hadley certainly didn't appear to contribute financially). Then there's the more mundane  support in terms of housekeeping and family duties (Hemingway could, after all, leave Hadley and his child at home while he went to a cafe to write without being bothered by any of those pesky fatherly duties!). In this day and age, I'm not sure anyone quite gets that kind of all round, 'solid as a rock' support - we are all juggling so many work/life issues that we usually have to find that support from within, rather than from someone else. 

Hemingway also found mentors for his work in Paris (most notably Gertrude Stein) so it's not entirely clear the extent to which he fed off Hadley's unwavering (if unimaginative) support for his writing (although he certainly seemed to feed off adulation and praise of any kind!). Hemingway also never lacked self-confidence or the belief that he was destined to be a 'great' writer - but how many of us can say the same? 

So how many of us writers feel we need a 'rock' in our life to reinforce our confidence and help propel our careers forward (especially early in our careers when we are still finding our literary feet)?  Do we require a 'rock' of unwavering support? Or a mentor who respects and promotes our work? Or do writers really only need a 'room of one's own' in which to flourish?

In my own career I've certainly had very supportive friends and family, but I don't think I'd classify any of them as a 'rock' in the vein of Hadley Richardson. Most of the time I feel I have to rely on myself more than others to keep the writing going. Likewise, I've some terrific writer friends who I turn to for much-needed support but none of them have ever really acted as a mentor for my own work. I'm not sure in this modern age whether the same kind of 'mentoring' really exists like it did in say 1920's Paris. But then again, maybe I just don't hang out in literary enough writing circles!!

So TKZers what do you think? Do you have, or indeed need, a 'rock' in your writing life? Have you been lucky enough to have a mentor for your career? And if you were to give advice to someone contemplating the writing life, what would you tell them regarding having either of these?