Saturday, February 28, 2009
We need our fans and readers because they buy our books and not just because without their purchases we’d be negatively impacted financially. A lot of authors say they only owe their readers the best book they can write and nothing else. To a lot of authors, a book sale is merely an arm’s length business transaction. Other authors go out of their way to get close to their fans, surrounding themselves with their readers at every opportunity. I know some authors who see their fan clubs as being their immediate family. And some authors will go out of their way to avoid having their fans be able to get in touch with them.
I appreciate my readers and the fans of my books. Fans are readers who read every book I write. I’d love to have a few million fans who couldn’t live without my next book. The majority of the e-mails I get from readers say they enjoyed one of my books, or are asking when a new book is coming out. I can and do answer every e-mail I get. I guess a lot of authors are afraid they’ll get so many e-mails they can’t address them all without spending hours doing so, that they make themselves very difficult to get in touch with.
See, I think being reasonably accessible to readers and fans is good for one’s career. I don’t see my readers as nuisances, instead as individuals worthy of my attention.
Web sites are sales tools, and they should promote authors, but the best ones do more than that. I think a writer’s web site should have a way for readers to contact the author. Not having that feature seems arrogant to me. I think some authors see being hard to get in touch with creates a mystique, but I don’t think it does. I always smile at the way some authors listed in the “members registries” of professional organizations have their agents phone number as the way to contact them, which I think is a waste of an agent’s time. I guess if you are making your agent enough money they might be happy to become your answering service. My agent would not be at all amused.
Every very, very, busy author I know has a private e-mail address and a business e-mail address. I have four e-mail addresses. One I’ve had for fifteen years and is my “private” box. I have one connected to my web site, which goes directly into my private site. I have another one for my corporation, Burning Rabbit, LLC., and I have a G-mail one for getting into this blog site. I check e-mails when I’m at the computer. I give anybody reading this blog permission to drop me an e-mail any time they like. It may take time to respond, if I’m busy, but I will reply.
I have a busy life aside from writing, and a wonderful family and good friends, dogs and chickens all of which require time. But I want my readers to be able to at least send me messages, to ask me questions related to my books or about writing in general.
Although I might not “owe” a reader anything beyond my book, I think communicating with the people who invest time and money in my stories, and go to the trouble to write me a note is the least I can do. Just don’t come to my house without e-mailing ahead, or better yet, calling. I’m in the book.
Friday, February 27, 2009
I’m getting a little panicky. Tomorrow (Saturday), I am moderating a panel at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, called Literary Snobs & Commercial Sellouts, an exploration of the truths and truisms of the prejudice we all have felt at one time or another.
I’m one of those people who takes moderating responsibilities pretty seriously, so as I gather research for the panel (two genre authors and one literary author), I’m finding this all to be much more difficult than I had expected. Defining genres is fairly easy. You’ve got your mysteries, your thrillers, you romances and on and on, each with their expected constructs. Okay, I get that. Sure, there are some exceptions to the rules and some crossover authors, but basically genre is, well, genre.
So, what the heck is literary? I talked to my agent today to bounce my thoughts around and hypothesized that perhaps “literary” could be defined as absence of genre. No, she said, that would be “mainstream.” Literary is something else. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a lot of help when it came to putting a finger on a useful definition of that other something.
Some who post on the Internet posit that while a commercial novel stresses plot, a literary novel stresses other-than-plot. Okay, then explain how Harper Lee or even J.D. Salinger can be considered “literary.”
There are lots of throw-away insulting definitions of “literary,” but those aren’t useful to me in my hour of need. Seriously, what makes the difference? Is it merely a matter of personal taste? Surely it has to be something more that merely “well-written,” because most books fall within a ring or two of that bull’s eye.
If a book fails to move me, can it still be “literary”? If a book does move me, can it be anything but? All input is desperately welcome.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Until I received an invite to Bouchercon, I had no idea conferences like that even existed (and until relatively recently, I had no idea how to properly pronounce Bouchercon, either, as it turns out. I have to stop myself from French-ifying it).
How cool, I thought- the opportunity to meet some of my favorite authors and discuss their books with like-minded fans. When I joined some of the online mystery groups and found out that not only could I attend, but I might even be asked to serve on a panel, it was downright mind-boggling. So the year my debut thriller was released, I devoted most of my marketing budget to conference fees, flying everywhere from Anchorage to New York.
Was it worth it?
Well, I had a great time, that's for sure. The camaraderie at these conferences is fantastic- where else could I spend a night kicking back with Jeffery Deaver and Harlan Coben? But after two years of attending as many as I could afford, I've developed some basic parameters:
- Cost and release dates: My last two books had summer releases: great for conferences, since most of the big ones occur between March and October and they're clustered in the summer months (I always think of Bouchercon as closing out conference season). THE GATEKEEPER will be released in November, so I'm cutting back dramatically on what I attend since I'll just end up pitching BONEYARD to people, many of whom already heard about it last year. Cost is always an issue- even if the conference fee isn't very expensive, once you factor in all the ancillary costs (travel, hotel, etc), each conference runs me at least a grand. And that adds up quickly. Which leads to...
- What do I hope to get out of it? Mind you, I love hanging out with fellow writers and fans, but it's hard to justify spending a thousand dollars over a weekend to do that (especially in this economy). So ideally, I hope to get on at least one good panel, and to network with people I haven't met yet. There's always a lot of debate on the lists about which conferences are worth attending, and I'm certain that everyone has a different experience. You might sell more books at smaller regional ones where you're one of a handful of authors, whereas at larger conferences you might get lost in the shuffle. Yet at those big conferences there's an opportunity to meet domestic and foreign editors, booksellers, and agents, and to get your name out to a larger cross-section of mystery fans.And sometimes the regional conferences are skewed toward local authors, so if you're not from the area, you might find yourself relegated to the panel on bug detectives (not a well-attended one, in my experience). So it largely depends on what your career goals are at that given moment. Personally, I'm doing the same thing with conference attendance that I do with my financial portfolio: spreading it out between smaller conferences like Left Coast Crime (they had me at "Hawaii") and big ones like Bouchercon (which I always seem to get a lot out of).
- Is it a fan conference, or a writing one? Not that writers aren't fans- we all are, obviously. But some conferences specialize in helping new authors hone their craft and pitch agents- which is invaluable for them, but I've discovered that at those conferences, I spend most of my time dodging requests to pass a manuscript on to my agent. I'd much rather go to a true fan conference, where most of the attendees are readers who want to meet their favorite bestselling authors, and who might be persuaded to try a new one as well.
- Which genre does the conference emphasize? I've gone to a few romance conferences, and so far haven't had much luck with those (although I know my friend Alex Sokoloff has had a much more positive experience). For me, going to RWA felt like starting over again; I didn't know the lingo, and since romance isn't a major component of my books, I drew a lot of blank stares. I'm considering giving Romantic Times a shot when it lands a bit closer to home, but flying to Orlando isn't a possibility for me this April.
Even though I'm cutting back, as of right now I plan on attending Left Coast Crime, LA Times Festival of Books (a cheap flight, and I can stay with friends), Book Passage (local, and no conference fee), and Bouchercon. I'm on the fence about Thrillerfest, since NY is just so darn expensive, and I'm skipping BEA since my ARCs won't be ready yet. Also, no Edgars for me, sadly, or Sleuthfest (I could really use a trip to Florida, too. Oh well).
On the plus side, this leaves my summer largely free. But I have to wonder what poor Harlan and Jeffery will do without me. So my question for the day is: are you going to any conferences? Which ones, and why?
Monday, February 23, 2009
After Clare's lovely dreamweaver post yesterday, I thought I'd slam us down to earth with some Tool-Guy talk (okay, so I'm a Tool Gal, but honestly. who bothers to check under the belt?).
In my own writing, up until now I have been a fan of a little program called ProsePro. It's cheap, it plugs into Word, and best of all, it auto-formats my chapter headings, page and chapter numbers so that I don't have to deal with them. ProsePro has few bells and whistles other than that, but I never cared.
But then in one of my Yahoo groups, someone happened to mention a program called Liquid Story Binder.
Oh. My. God.
I've been playing around with this new program, and I've discovered so many new bells and whistles that I've become a veritable one-woman marching band. Liquid Story Binder has got timelines. It's got planners. And outline makers. And...and things I haven't even discovered yet.
Yes folks, I'm in writing Nirvana.
But here's the thing. My new infatuation with Liquid Story Binder has given me a Hugh Hefner-type roving eye for other software programs that might be out there, waiting to help me plumb the depths of the next great American Thriller Bestseller.
So I'm wondering: What writing software do you use? What is the one feature in that software that you cannot--would not--live without?
Sunday, February 22, 2009
The Kill Zone is thrilled to have New York Times Bestselling Author Michael Palmer, M.D., joining us today. Michael can not only cure your ills, he's also the maestro behind some of Thrillerfest's most inspired ballads and his books are strong medicine indeed. Read on, as he explains the whys and wherefores of McGuffins...
Greetings from New England everyone……it’s a pleasure to be a guest blogger on so prestigious a site as The Kill Zone…..i have decided to write the way I’m most comfortable—without much punctuation/capitalization……if that style is uncomfortable for some of you, you’ll have to read it through twice……actually, there is another “lesson” here…..this technique is the way I work my way through so-called writer’s block……I just relax, abandon whatever punctuation I want to abandon, as well as grammatical “structure” and write down with minimal edits, the ticker-tape that is passing through my head…..
Michelle G. knows that I enjoy talking about The McGuffin, and asked me to blog some of my thoughts here…...i’m going to sort of start at the beginning, and hope I don’t ramble on too long…..
The McGuffin is a noun created by Alfred Hitchcock, and applicable more to suspense stories than most other genres of screen plays and books, although there is certainly some crossover…..parts of some of this material can be found in the writer’s tips section of my website. . . .
when I start my books, I force myself to begin with a carefully constructed “what if” question, which is limited (for clarity’s sake) to no more than 25 words or 2 sentences—sort of a what would you say your book is about to an agent who got on the elevator on the second floor and was getting off at the fourth?? . . . . For example, for my new book, The Second Opinion, the what if is: What if an expert in IT and an expert in electronic medical records began using EMR as a murder weapon? ……sound good?.....it does to me, and I’ve had 14 of 14 books on the times list…..so let’s go with it…..
now, with the what if under my belt, before I decide on a main character (“whose book is this?”), I need to take a crack at answering the question asked in my what if . . . . That answer we will call The McGuffin . . . . it doesn’t have to be the forever answer……I can change it any time I want to . . . . it doesn’t even have to a great McGuffin—just one that works and isn’t something totally ridiculous for this book like that martians are using the information in people’s EMR to choose subjects for kidnapping to their labs . . . . actually, now that I read it over, that McGuffin ain’t too bad . . . the McGuffin doesn’t have to have any tremendous relevance to the plot, but it does have to provide a reasonable answer to the what if question…..
example: in my book Extreme Measures, the what if is simply “What if there was a drug (there is, incidentally) that could make you look like you were dead when you weren’t”…..now that’s a great what if……Poe went to the bank on what ifs like that one . . . . but where’s the story? . . . what would someone want with a drug like that??.....the answer my friends is THE MCGUFFIN……in the case of extreme measures, the baddies want to use the drug to remove homeless people from society to use them for human experimentation (using their organs for transplant would work just as well as a McGuffin, and there are dozens of others) . . . are you getting this?? . . . it’s not such a simple concept, but once you understand it, the mcguffin will support your plot development like a rock….
To summarize: a McGuffin is a plot device which you need to drive the story, but which is changeable and has no real relevance . . . I would not advise choosing your protagonist and starting your prologue without having worked out a decent McGuffin, but it’s certainly possible to try it that way and hope for McGuffin-inspiration along the way . . .
There are examples of McGuffins in all of my books, and in all of Hitchcock’s films……what was Psycho about??—certainly not the $40,000 Janet Leigh stole from her office…...she could have stolen plans for a new toaster . . .. and in North by North west, why were the baddies chasing Cary Grant?? Why to steal his McGuffin, of course……I’ll bet only a small percentage of you who have seen and loved North by Northwest can tell me why they were after Cary and Eva Marie – in fact, I’m not sure Hitchock himself could have told you fifteen minutes after he wrote it into his film . . .
So try to have your McGuffin place before you begin your book – it’s much easier that way…..but don’t worry if you decide to change it along the way—it doesn’t matter….just remember, that like any other endeavor, there are A+ McGuffins and C- McGuffins . . . the more organic your McGuffin is to your story, the better . . . but a C- is still passing . . . .
Many readers (although they have never heard the word) think they are reading your book to learn the McGuffin--that is to find out exactly what has been going on--why these baddies are poisoning people to make them look like they are dead when they're not . . . but the truth is, if you are any good at this writing business, they are flipping pages like mad because you have led them to care--genuinely care--about the characters you have created . . .
What are your all-time favorite McGuffins? I’ve got one in my latest release, THE SECOND OPINION, which is in bookstores now…
Michael Palmer, M.D., is the author of the The Second Opinion, The First Patient, The Fifth Vial, The Society, Fatal, The Patient, Miracle Cure, Critical Judgment, Silent Treatment, Natural Causes, Extreme Measures, Flashback, Side Effects, and The Sisterhood. His books have been translated into thirty-five languages. He trained in internal medicine at Boston City and Massachusetts General Hospitals, spent twenty years as a full-time practitioner of internal and emergency medicine, and is now an associate director of the Massachusetts Medical Society's physician health program.
Friday, February 20, 2009
To be successful storytellers, authors have to make each character in their story seem like a real person to the reader. Not just the main characters, either. Every character has to ring true and register as individuals, not cardboard cut-outs pushed into a scene to utter words, or provide some action––which could include being a dead body. Good authors pull it off because they pitch each character’s voice so the reader hears them speaking when they are in a scene, or describes them so the reader visualizes them. And it’s never about how much an author says in describing a character, but what they choose to describe, and at what point in the story they do so. What a character says, and how they say it, tells a lot about a character, but a single action can say more about a character than a page of dialog or of physical detail.
An author’s best tool for characterization is observation. Every day, everywhere you go, you see people being themselves. You see mannerisms, you hear dialog, the music and cadence of voice, along with accents, and colloquialisms. You see people reacting to other people, you see the way people dress, how they pose, how they move, how they do a million little and big things. You see body types, how each type moves, how one figure may remind you of an inverted bowling pin, or a crow, or a skeleton covered in dried skin. As you observe, you put the images away for later, and when you are writing flashes come into your mind, or should.
Talented authors watch the world and record what they see, and will later drag their brains for snippets that bring some measure of real to a character. Some authors take pictures, or make notes, for reference, and they have stacks of pictures to root through for ideas, I suppose. Others use their minds alone and file it all away.
Settings are characters too. Pictures will capture style, details, but I find the practice oddly confining. I write from my memory because time adds an ethereal element to those images in my mind. I do use pictures for reference when I need accuracy in a setting that exists, but my best locations come from impressions of places, or several places blended by smell, texture, the way light plays and shadows fall, the tastes, the temperature into a place that only exists in my imagination and on the printed page.
There are a lot of things that separate good and bad writers. Observation is one. The ability to take observations and put them into your work and make them part of your story in a way that makes real the characters and defines them is not easily accomplished. Writing well is another story and I’ll save that for another time.
So, do you watch and file, or do you take notes or pictures?
I’m doing my part to rise to the challenge of 21st century book marketing by actively increasing my Internet footprint. I post on writers boards and try to be as cooperative and patient as I can be. People were helpful to me when I was first starting, so I think I need to invest in the Karmic balance.
A prevalent theme in these sites is an attempt to normalize and legitimize self-publishing, and I genuinely don’t get it. I don’t understand why people would pay the thousands of dollars necessary to make self-publishing happen. If the goal is to get one’s book into the hands of friends and family, a Kinko’s would serve as well as a self-publishing house. If the desired audience is bigger than that, the writer is hosed.
Selling a hundred copies to people who all know where you live is not really publishing, is it? Isn’t the point to sell not tens of copies, but tens of thousands of copies? It’s impossible to get that kind of distribution without a legitimate publisher.
Getting books on distant bookshelves requires infrastructure. Publishers establish a distribution network that involves wholesalers and transporters. After a few months, the books that don’t sell are returned to the publisher for a full refund. Authors are paid cash as an advance against royalties, and the money is theirs to keep even if the publisher fails to sell a single copy of the book. As compensation for that risk, the publisher keeps the lion’s share of the book’s cover price.
For self-published authors, none of that infrastructure is in place. Many bookstores refuse to stock self-published books because they cannot return unsold stock. If they do agree to stock a self-published book it’s probably because the visiting author is a good salesman. That’s all well and good, but who’s writing the next book (and probably working the day job) while the author is out there pounding the pavement?
I’m the first to admit that there’s a lot of crap out there from traditional publishers, but in every case, at least there’ve been some editorial hurdles. First, a literary agent blesses the book, and then it’s passed to an acquiring editor who then has to get approval from others before making an offer to buy the book. After that, there are several more editing passes before the book is finally printed and distributed.
Justly or not, it’s easy to see how self-published material is perceived by booksellers as being too undercooked for general consumption. I’m not saying they’re right necessarily, but the perception is understandable.
A popular hypothesis on the writers’ boards touts the notion that traditional publishers are resistant to new talent, and that writers have no choice but to publish on their own. It’s ridiculous. Publishers live off of new talent. They anxiously await the next great well-told story.
I think there’s undeniably a place for self-publishing. The history of a certain military unit, for example, or the story of how someone’s grandfather made his fortune against all odds are tales that will resonate with a certain definable group that is almost certainly large enough to recoup the author’s investment, but nowhere near large enough to attract the attention of a mainstream publisher. But it’s not a route to bestsellerdom.
What I worry about is my sense that too many people enter into those contracts with inflated expectations that are underwritten my greedy businessmen who know how to feed off the desires of frustrated artists. For the foreseeable future, the two publishing routes will never be seen as “equal,” anymore than a community theater production of a play will be considered the equivalent of Broadway.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Four months of writing, four weeks of editing, 100,000 words total (after approximately 10,000 words were trimmed). Three working titles (and roughly a hundred others considered and discarded), three major characters whose names changed from one draft to the next, and two alternate endings.
And finally last night, just a few hours past my deadline, I sent the completed manuscript off to my editor. Mind you, there are a few things left to do (for example, I have to go through the copy- and line-edited drafts in a few weeks). But by and large, the nitty-gritty work of writing THE GATEKEEPER is complete.
This is, hands down, my favorite part of the writing process. I dread staring at the blank page, and getting mired in what Louise Ure calls the "saggy middle," when it feels like you're never going to actually finish the darn book. And even after the rough draft is finished and polished into something that's largely presentable, there's still self-doubt to wrestle with. After hitting "send" I invariably spend weeks on pins and needles waiting for my editor to respond, convinced I'll receive an email deploring the story and the writing, insisting that I scrap it and start over (this hasn't happened yet, but you never know).
But today, ah today- the first day after handing it in, when the editor has given the all-clear and the residual stress of meeting the deadline has dissipated and I find myself facing an entire afternoon with nothing to do (well, nothing besides writing this post, cleaning my house, and paying bills, that is). This is when it finally sinks in. I've finished my fifth book (for those of you keeping track at home, yes, I did say five: it will only be my third in print, since two others never made the cut). Ahead of me lies months of marketing and everything that entails (designing bookmarks, calling/emailing bookstores, self-flagellation, etc etc etc).
Today I can just sit back and enjoy the fact that for the first time in six months, I don't have a book hanging over my head. To clarify: yes, I know I'm extraordinarily lucky to have a contract and deadlines- and I'm eternally grateful for that, every day I feel like I've won the lottery. Still, that does mean I have to produce a book on a regular basis. And as I can attest from my journalism days, even if you love the assignment, having to write it in a specific time frame makes it an obligation. Some days it's fun, others it's work: every stage of the process has its benefits and drawbacks. But for nearly six months, I've tended to little else, as the stacks of paper and other detritus scattered around my house can attest.
It's comparable to the first day of summer vacation. You know September is just around the corner, but for the moment, you can just get on your bike and go anywhere. Down the line there will be plenty of other homework assignments (new deadlines), grades (reviews, both good and bad), and field trips (tour stops). But today, you're free. And you know what? I think my house is going to stay dirty and the bills will be unpaid for just one more day. It's too rainy for a bicycle ride, but it feels like the perfect day for a matinee, and I haven't been to see a film in forever. So today's discussion question is: what should I see?
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
By Joe Moore
One of the author panels I’ll be on at the upcoming MWA SleuthFest is Anatomy of a Thriller (the other is Supernatural Sleuths). I'll be sharing the panel with literary agent Nicole Kenealy (Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency) and publisher Benjamin Leroy (founder of Bleak House Books). So to follow in Kathryn’s footsteps from her post yesterday, let’s continue discussing thrillers and what makes them so thrilling.
Although thrillers are usually considered a sub-genre of mysteries, I believe there are some interesting differences. I look at a thriller as being a mystery in reverse. By that I mean that the typical murder mystery usually starts with the discovery of a crime. The rest of the book is an attempt to figure out who committed the crime.
A thriller is just the opposite; the book begins with a threat of some kind, and the rest of the story is trying to figure out how to prevent it from happening. And unlike the typical mystery where the antagonist may not be known until the end, with a thriller we pretty much know who the bad guy is right from the get-go.
So with that basic distinction in mind, let’s list a few of the most common elements found in thrillers.
1. The Ticking Clock. Without the ticking clock such as the doomsday deadline, suspense would be hard if not impossible to create. Even with a thriller like HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER which dealt with slow-moving submarines, Clancy built in the ticking clock of the Soviets trying to find and destroy the Red October before it could make it to the safety of U.S. waters. He masterfully built in tension and suspense with an ever-looming ticking clock.
2. High Concept. In Hollywood, the term high concept is the ability to describe a script in one or two sentences usually by comparing it to two previously known motion pictures. For instance, let's say I’ve got a great idea for a movie. It’s a wacky, zany look at the lighter side of Middle Earth, sort of a ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST meets LORD OF THE RINGS. If you've seen both of those movies, you'll get an immediate visual idea of what my movie is about. High concept Hollywood style.
But with thrillers, high concept is a bit different. A book with a high concept theme is one that contains a radical or somewhat outlandish premise. For example, what if Jesus actually married, had children, and his bloodline survived down to present day? And what if the Church knew it and kept it a secret? You can’t get more outlandish than the high concept of THE DA VINCI CODE.
What if a great white shark took on a maniacal persona and seemed to systematically terrorized a small New England resort island? That's the outlandish concept of Benchley's thriller JAWS. What if someone managed to clone dinosaurs from the DNA found in fossilized mosquitoes and built a theme park that went terribly wrong? You get the idea.
3. High Stakes. Unlike the typical murder mystery, the stakes in a thriller are usually very high. Using Dan Brown's example again, if the premise were proven to be true, it would undermine the very foundation of Christianity and shake the belief system of over a billion faithful. Those are high stakes by anyone's standards.
4. Larger-Than-Life Characters. In most mysteries, the protagonist may play a huge role in the story, but that doesn’t make them larger than life. By contrast, Dirk Pitt, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, Jack Bauer, James Bond, Laura Craft, Indiana Jones, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and one that’s closest to my heart, Cotten Stone, are all larger-than-life characters in their respective worlds.
5. Multiple POV. In mysteries, it’s common to have the story told through the eyes of a limited number of characters, sometimes only one. All that can change in a thriller. Most are made up of a large cast of characters, each telling a portion of the story through different angles. Some thrillers are so complex in their POVs that you really need a scorecard. But even with multiple POVs, it’s vital to never let the reader lose sight of whose story it is. There should be only one protagonist.
6. Exotic Settings. Again, in most murder mysteries, the location is usually limited to a particular city, town or locale. But a thriller can and usually is a globetrotting event. In my latest thriller, THE 731 LEGACY, co-written with Lynn Sholes, the story takes place in, amount other locations, a medieval castle in one of the former Eastern Bloc countries of the Soviet Union and ends up in Pyongyang, North Korea. Throughout the series, our stories have taken the reader to a lost city in the Peruvian Andes, a remote church in Ethiopia reputed to contain Ark of the Covenant, the Secret Archives of the Vatican, newly discovered Anasazi ruins in New Mexico, inside the royal private residence of Buckingham Palace, secret tunnels below the Kremlin, and many other places most of us will never get to visit. Exotic locations are a mainstay of the thriller genre.
Like any generic list, there will always be exceptions and limitations. But in general, these are the elements you'll usually find in mainstream commercial thrillers. But the biggest and most important element of all is that a thriller should thrill you. If it doesn't increase your pulse rate, keep you up late, and leave you wanting more, it probably isn't a thriller.
Are there any characteristics of a thriller not on my list? What do you look for in a good thriller?
Monday, February 16, 2009
This is going to be a huge style shift from my previous work in serial cozies. So to get prepared, I've taken myself back to "writing school."
Right now I'm reading T. Macdonald Skillman's Writing the Thriller. Her book provides a good nuts-and-bolts overview of the craft of writing thrillers. I like the way Macdonald breaks thrillers down into the various subgenres. Here's a sampling from her list:
MacDonald purposefully doesn't include paranormal as a subgenre in her list. I don't mean vampires or werewolves--those bore me. I'm thinking about paranormals like Dean Koontz's The Followers. Those are the types of stories in which you're not sure whether some of the characters are crazy, or whether something paranormal really is at work.
So after the day's reading, here's my take-away lesson:
In a suspense thriller, my main character might die.
In a series mystery like the Fat City Mysteries, you never worry too much about the main character. After all, Kate Gallagher is telling you her story in the first person. You know she's alive to tell the tale, and she'll have to survive to tell you the next one.
But in a thriller, the main character might actually die. I think this has to be the case. Consider for example The Lovely Bones. The fourteen-year-old victim in that story is dead before the story even starts.
Can you think of other suspense thrillers where you were really worried about the main character? As a writer, are you willing to actually kill your protagonist before the story ends? Is that going too far in a thriller?
How scared--and scary--do you have to be to write suspense versus mystery?
Sunday, February 15, 2009
By Jordan Dane
The Kill Zone Blog welcomes Jordan Dane for today's Sunday guest post.
In 2000, that’s what one mother in Florida faced. Her only child had conspired against her and ran away. And worse, she later discovered that her daughter had left the country—without having a passport. From the moment I read this news story, I was hooked and had to know more about how such an atrocity could happen. The teen’s trail might have gone ice cold, but her mother pushed authorities in a direction.
She knew where to start looking.
Only six months earlier, the girl had received a computer for a gift—a thoughtful present from a mother who wanted the best for her child. But this gift soon brought a virtual menace into their home. A charming and anonymous stranger lured the 14-year old girl to Greece—a man she’d met in a teen chat room. We’ve all heard stories like this. But after researching the facts behind this case, I was amazed at the audacity of this Internet predator.
And I wanted to shed light on the shrewd tactics of online predators in my upcoming book—Evil Without A Face (Feb 2009, Avon, $7.99)—the first book in my Sweet Justice series.
The online predator not only manipulated the teenager in Florida, but he also convinced law-abiding adults to cooperate with his schemes. These people thought they were helping an abused kid, but they didn’t know the facts, check with her family or contact local law enforcement. This stranger duped an employee of the local phone company into arranging for a private cell phone to talk to the girl directly. His slick manipulation scored him a purchased airline ticket (without a direct connection to him) and a clandestine ride for the girl to the airport. But after he bribed a child pornographer to acquire an illegal passport for her to leave the United States, the girl was out of the country before her mother knew she was gone.
And the chase to save the girl was on—a mother’s worst fear.
Now I know what some of you are thinking. This happened in 2000, before the added airport security measures were implemented after 9/11 in 2001. The girl would never have been allowed on a plane without proper ID. But after contacting a source in the airline industry, I was shocked to learn how many children travel unaccompanied and without a valid ID on domestic flights these days. So this extraordinary Florida case became the framework for my novel, Evil Without A Face. And I chose to set part of the story in the unique venue of Alaska where I had lived for ten years.
My novels have the feel of being ripped from today's headlines because real crime inspires me. Who says crime doesn't pay? Violence is like the ripple effect on the surface of still water. The wake radiates out from the victim and touches many people. In my books, I give a voice to the many victims of crime.
In Evil Without A Face, an illusive web of imposters on the Internet lures a deluded teen from her Alaskan home and launches a chain reaction collision course with an unlikely tangle of heroes. A new kind of criminal organization becomes the faceless enemy behind an insidious global conspiracy. And the life of one young girl and countless others hang in the balance. This is the initial driver to my new series. With an international setting, these thrillers will focus on the lives and loves of three women—a bounty hunter operating outside the law, an ambitious vice cop, and a former international operative with a mysterious past. These women give Lady Justice a whole new reason to wear blinders.
And their brand of justice is anything but sweet.
After researching the case in Florida, I became more concerned for naïve kids socializing in cyberspace—young people like my nieces and nephews. Savvy online criminals lurk in anonymity and carry on without fear of repercussion. I’m an active member of MySpace and Facebook and know how they operate. But these social networks aren’t the problem—the criminals are. And as you’ve seen in the headlines and on TV, the online community has become a real hunting ground for predators.
Why not? It’s easy pickings.
For the most part, the Internet is an invaluable tool. And it breaks down the barriers between countries, allowing many of us to have international friends. But the anonymity of cyberspace attracts all sorts of users with criminal intent. Terrorists have found new high-tech ways to recruit online and they have duped some Internet users into funding their activities or have resorted to outright stealing through subterfuge. And since crimes that cross over jurisdictions and international borders are harder to prosecute, offenders often get away with their schemes. That's why I wanted to write Evil Without A Face and dole out my brand justice. After all, who couldn’t use a liberal dose of ‘Sweet Justice’ when reality becomes stranger than fiction?
How has your use of the Internet changed over the years? Have you become more suspicious of certain behaviors from online strangers? And if you have children who use online resources, can you share some tips on how you keep them safer?
Avon/Harpercollins launched Jordan Dane’s debut suspense novels in a back to back publishing event in Spring 2008 after the 3-book series sold in auction. Ripped from the headlines, Jordan's gritty plots weave a tapestry of vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense pacing to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag—romantic suspense that “crosses over into plain thriller country”. Pursuing publication since 2003, this national best selling and critically acclaimed author received awards in 33 national writing competitions. And recently, her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM was named Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2008 and Romantic Times Magazine nominated NO ONE LIVES FOREVER as Best Intrigue Novel of 2008. Formerly an energy sales manager in the oil and gas industry, she now is following her passion to write full time. Jordan and her husband share their residence with two cats of highborn lineage and the sweet memory of an impossible to forget canine.
For more, visit www.jordandane.com.
NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM (Apr 08)
NO ONE LEFT TO TELL (May 08)
NO ONE LIVES FOREVER (Jun 08)
EVIL WITHOUT A FACE (Feb 09)
THE WRONG SIDE OF DEAD (Nov 09)
· Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2008 – Mass Market (NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM)
· Romantic Times Magazine Nominee Best Romantic Intrigue Novel of 2008 (NO ONE LIVES FOREVER)
CALENDAR OF UPCOMING GUESTS
Mark your calendar for the following guest bloggers at the Kill Zone:
Saturday, February 14, 2009
This week, I got nothing. I thought about it yesterday while I was spreading four tons of number 57 grade blue stone with a shovel. I thought about it this morning while I was shoveling sawdust laced with chicken poop and composted leaves into my wife’s garden plot. I thought about it while I was throwing tennis balls for my dogs, and while I was on the phone with Robert Gregory Browne for twenty minutes. Yep, I’ve got zippidy-doo-da butkus.
A close friend of mine died this week and I started to do this blog about losing friends, but that could be a weekly column these days. All I'm hearing from my friends is "kerplunk." She was such a treasure, but she wanted neither a funeral nor any gathering in her honor and not even an obituary. She donated her body to a medical school to make sure some good came from her passing, and she decided to do that when she was a young, beautiful woman. Her pottery studio was open the day after she died and it’s open today. I’m not going to write about her here, but I will think about her as long as I live. I may give my body to science as long as they don’t put me in that partially peeled, men-and-animals-traveling freak show. My son took my grand kids to see that and after walking in and turning around, he demanded his money back. My son is afraid of death, and those smiling, pulled-apart people about sent him to the hospital. Nothing bothers me about death except the actual dying part of it.
Life is about relationships and the lessons you learn. Writing is about ratting them out. I am writing a book where the protagonist is an old man, a Vietnam vet with a bunch of old friends who are also over the hill. It’s easy as hell to do the research because a lot of my friends are that age and we sit around a lot. In fact, I’m darned near that age myself. It’s fun writing this one because I’m using myself as a model a lot, and I can still scrap with the younger boys, yes, I can still boogie-woogie boy howdy. Well, I can remember well enough to write about it.
See I really did have nothing.
Maybe next week, I’ll sneak up on something. I bet everybody's mad that I had Valentines Day and only mentioned it this once. I've been with my wife for 32 years, and I'm still in love with her. In fact I love her more than I did Valentines Day thirty-two years ago. That's twice. I guess we grew and changed together.
Friday, February 13, 2009
I’m a reasonable man. I understand that people have jobs to do, and I respect anyone who does honest work for an honest wage. I think being a novelist makes me fairly empathetic, almost by definition, and I really do try to see issues from both sides. That said . . .
Why do the baristas in Starbucks insist on asking me if I want to leave room for cream? Having paid for a whole cup of coffee, why wouldn’t I want a whole cup of coffee? As it is, a “full” cup is typically one-eighth empty. I confess that I do, indeed, put cream in my coffee (along with two Splendas for the grande size), but I reserve the right to decide how much of my justly-purchased morning dose gets poured into the trash can to make room. Some would argue that baristas make their offer as a customer service, but in my hard-earned cynicism I know that the real mission is to collect the revenue for eight or nine servings while incurring the cost of only seven or eight.
While the topic is coffee, what is it about the customer base of Dunkin’ Donuts that makes them vapor-lock when they get to the counter? “I’ll have a dozen donuts,” they’ll say. “I’ll take two glazed, and one chocolate frosted . . . No, three glazed and two chocolate frosted, a blueberry cake . . . No, really, I only want two glazed . . .” Good God almighty, it’s a freaking donut shop! What the hell have you been thinking these last five minutes as we stood in line behind the previous indecisive customer? All I want is a damn cup of coffee.
United Airlines flight attendants, listen up. Since your bosses have decided to charge 20 bucks to check bags, people are going to bring their luggage on board and try to stuff it into the overhead bins. Get over it. Your company made the call to fill every square millimeter with additional no-legroom seats; it’s not our fault. Yelling at people for taking too long in the aisle doesn’t help anything. As for your on-time departure, where the hell was all that concern when the previous late flight made me miss my connection?
Attention drive-thru fast food tellers: Quit asking me if I want your special of the day. If I want your special of the day, I’ll ask for it. However, if you must continue to ask, try pronouncing all the words. That little speaker out there sucks.
Attention fast food restaurant managers with drive-thru windows: Political correctness aside, quit putting non-English speakers on window duty. Seriously. I said cheeseburger, fries and Diet Coke. I shouldn’t have to repeat that three times.
Tourists of the world, the fact that you think might be lost is no excuse to stop dead in your tracks at the top or the bottom of a Metrorail escalator at rush hour. Come to think of it, when you’re a tourist in Washington, I’d consider it a personal favor if you would just stay off the public transit system at rush hour. It’s astonishing how badly you screw it up.
On the highway, if you’re going to pass me, pass me. If you’re going to follow me, follow me. What are you thinking when you pull up next to me and go the same speed?
I save my final appeal for the medical community: Hey Doc, as long as you’re going to make me wait in that ridiculous gown for the 45 minutes that you’d have charged me for if I was late, is it too much to ask for a little heat?
Thanks for indulging me, folks. I actually feel a little better.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
I thought I'd discuss the dark, inner secrets of blurbs today. Blurbs are those quotes on the front and back cover by a well-known author who was kind enough to say some nice things about your book, thereby inducing people to buy it. At least in theory.
So how writers get those glowing blurbs? I find that cash works quite well, or blackmail works in a pinch (just kidding). Honestly, I have yet to be turned down for a blurb. As long as you can give someone a decent time frame in which to read the manuscript (ideally a month or two), and they're not too swamped, everyone I've approached has been exceedingly gracious.
But it was a bit of a learning process for me. For example: chances are, no one might mention the deadline for blurb submission until oh, say, three weeks before it's due. That's what happened to me with my first novel. I had prepared a list of people to ask, and we were proceeding nicely through the rounds of edits. Offhand, I asked my editor one day, "By the way, when should I send the manuscript to people to blurb?"
Then, "You haven't done that yet?"
Thus ensued one of the most frantic days of my life. I emailed everyone I knew, had met, or had even heard of, who might consider blurbing the book. I overdid it, actually, because I assumed that easily three-quarters of the people would say no when they found out I needed it in a little under three weeks. And you know what? No one did. One blurb came in past the deadline, but I was thrilled to use it on all of my promotional materials. For me, this was the best introduction to how much of a community the crime fiction writing world really is.
The next time, I was ready. I send the manuscript out early, to the two people whose work I thought most closely matched the books tone and subject matter. Because that's another thing I learned about blurbs. If the bestselling author of medical thrillers blurbs your book, there's a chance her fans might buy it. Imagine their shock and dismay when they discover that not only is your book not a medical thriller, but is actually a paranormal mystery involving shapeshifters. Some might love it regardless, and there are varying opinions on whether or not the name recognition of the blurber is more important than the similarity to their work. In my opinion, the book should be something a fan of the other author will find familiar.
The question is, do blurbs actually do what they're supposed to do, inspiring book sales that might not happen otherwise? I suspect yes, since publishers have clearly done more market research on this than I have, and they're fairly insistent about having something to put on that cover. Does a blurb from a fellow author have more or less impact than an excerpt from a good review? Tough to say (and I'm always reminded of the friend who received a review calling his book, "An excellent example of everything that's wrong with writing today," which his publisher promptly shortened to, "Excellent.")
I'm curious to hear whether or not a blurb has ever inspired you to buy a book you might not have picked up otherwise.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
By Joe Moore
We've discussed the Kindle e-book reader a number of times here in the past. Even though its market penetration is still modest at best, I think everyone admits it is or will be a factor in the future of publishing. So with 230,000 titles (including mine) available for downloading onto the Kindle, it's probably worth discussing again now that the product has some significant upgrades.
Recently, Amazon introduced the new Kindle 2. Some of the features in the updated version are a battery that will last two weeks, more contrast on the black-and-white screen than the previous version, faster wi-fi connections, more memory, a smaller size that weighs less than the previous device, more storage (1,500 books rather than the current 200) and a speaker with a new function that reads the text aloud. Also, Stephen King’s new novella UR will be available exclusively on the new Kindle. The latest device costs the same as the old Kindle: $359.
The new "Text-to-Speech" audio function has raised some concern with the Authors Guild who stated that it must be considered an “audio right”, but Amazon said that customers would not confuse text reading with an audiobook. (Note: this is not the same as an audiobook where a professional talent is paid to read the story in a dramatic fashion.) I haven’t heard it but I assume it's done using a synthesized voice perhaps like a dashboard GPS.
Another issue that was raised is the price of e-books for the Kindle: $9.99. Some publishers feel that the price is fine since they are investing in a lot in costly digital technology. And some say that e-books should not be considered of less value than the paper version and assume they would cost less.
With e-books being a very small (less than 1%) portion of book revenue, it would seem to me that having them at a reduced price would encourage buyers to venture into the e-book domain. But I'm sure that publishers don't want to give up revenue in these hard economic conditions.
So, with the upcoming availability of the new Kindle 2, my questions are: Is it smart of Amazon to price the product the same as the older version? Or should it be priced cheaper than the 1.0 version even with the added features? And is $9.99 a fair price for e-books or should they be sold for less than say the mass market PB version of the same book?
Monday, February 9, 2009
I went deep into the bowels of the Internet today.
Okay maybe I didn't go that deep. But I made it down as far as Google Labs. For me that's like spelunking into the Bat Caves of the Cyber Geeks.
I went there because I was searching for a hot blog topic for today's post.
You see, I had a really busy weekend. Frankly I was exhausted. I couldn't think of a dad-blamed thing to write about for today's post. So I thought, "Hey, you can find anything on the Internet. I'll just look up something hot."
So I went to IE (that's Internet Explorer, for anyone who just left Planet DOS), and typed Hot Topic into the Search box.
And lo and behold, all sorts of links popped up. Including one article called--yes--How to Find Hot Topics to Write About.
The article sent me to a site called Google Labs, where you can select Google Suggest, type in a search phrase, and find out what trends people are currently searching for, all over the world.
So I did a few searches. And the results were a bit disheartening. Here's a sampling of the results with Google's "trend temperatures":
Selena Roberts and A-Rod (Volcanic)
Georgia teaching candidates must prepare for the GACE exam before they are able to accept a position in any public school (On Fire)
Obama Press Conference (Spicy)
Grammy fashion (Mild)
I was hard pressed to turn any of these topics into something writing-oriented, however. But then I stumbled onto Google Suggest's Search Trends feature, and typed in "How to Write." That's when I hit paydirt.
It turns out that in the last twelve months, the most-searched-for article about writing fiction on the Internet was How to write a Bestseller by Maeve Binchy.
Maeve Binchy is one of my personal icons. And this article about her is a gold mine. I feel lucky to have dug it up. It's...hot.
It turns out that Maeve, who has sold a gazillion bestsellers, has just published a how-to book about how to write bestsellers. It's called The Maeve Binchy Writers' Club (published by Orion). According to the article by John Spain, the book evolved from a writing course that Maeve contributed to at the National College of Ireland in Dublin.
Aside from fiction, the number one most-searched-for writing article overall was one about how to write...iPhone applications.
No surprise there. Those writers are probably already making a bazillion dollars without writing any books at all. (That's BAH-zillion, since our zillions are getting inflated these days by TARP economics).
And that thought leaves me cold.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
We're trying something a little different today--there's no scheduled guest blogger today, so the Killers are holding "Sunday Writing School." We'll open with a writing question, provide an opinionated answer, and then you can post more questions in the comments. As the day and night goes on we'll all pick up questions from the comments and update the post with any more questions that come in, and add our (sure to be) very opinionated responses.
Question #1 (from ZenGirlWorld):
I'm working on my first mystery but I can't settle on a point of view. Which one is best? I want to use first person but everything come out sounding like a bad Humphrey Bogart movie.
Kathryn: ZenGirl, you're right in thinking that the selection of the right POV for your story is key.
I think it's tempting to use first-person POV, but a drawback is that your character has to be in every scene, and that gets to be awkward. Plus, if you use a first-person POV, make sure that character doesn't "know" anything in the story that he or she hasn't seen, read, or been told. Sometimes authors have to do backflips to get around this constraint.
I'll let some of the other Killers jump in while I'm thinking some more about this POV question...
Hi, ZenGirlWorld. Gilstrap here. I stay away from the first person for several reasons. First of all, as Kathryn says, storytelling can become a real pain when you have to develop every detail through the eyes of a single character. By telling the story through shifting points of view, I find it easier to build the tension because the reader can know things that the characters don't. In first person, you simply don't have that luxury. Most importantly for me, though, is the fact that first person narrative guarantees that the narrator lives. I don't ever want a reader to feel comfortable about that.
Kathryn again: You're talking about multiple third person POV, right John? There's also limited third-person POV, which lets the POV be shown from both inside and outside the character's head (I had to go back to my writing books to look that term up)!
Gilstrap's turn. I actually don't know what to call what I'm talking about (limited vs. multiple 3rd person). I'm pretty much self-taught, so the terminology escapes me. I always just ask myself, "Who's scene is it?" If I've got a killer sneaking up on a helpless victim, I have to whose POV provides for the best thrill ride for the reader. When I'm writing from Bad Guy's perspective, all the observations, and even the narrative voice are exclusively his. He (and therefore the reader) can only feel his own feelings and observe the actions that he can see, smell, hear, taste and feel.
Let's say, for the sake of illustration, that Bad Guy is hunting Good Guy, but doesn't know yet where he is. In that circumstance, while I'm in Bad Guy's POV, it would be a huge cheat for me as the narrator to throw in a line like, "Only fifty feet away, Good Guy tried to make himself invisible." While I'm locked in BG's POV, I can't have the knowledge.
If it's important to the story, however, that the reader be aware of cowering GG only 50 feet away, I'll have to switch to GG's point of view.
Question #2 :Sarah asks:
I also am writing my first mystery, I normally write Urban Legend. I started with one character as the main focus, but quickly realized that she was not where the real story was. Although she does hold some of it. So I changed to the partner being the MC and he is in 1st person. But I also have his partner Devin and others POV's written in third. I don't mix them, if it's from Detective Michael's pov, it stays on his in first. If it's 3rd person from Devin's or the killers, it stays in theirs. Is that okay?
I don't think it's confusing, but how often is that done?
Kathryn: I think one question to ask yourself about your story, Sarah, might be whether you're writing a mystery or a suspense thriller. It sort of sounds to me like you might have more of a suspense story, but that's just my first impression. I think the other Killers could give you more insight on that if we knew more about your story. (Author Carolyn Wheat has a great sixteen point comparison between mystery and suspense, and if I can find a link to it I'll add it).
(Couldn't find the link to the tips but here's an article with Carolyn Wheat - her book will have the tips I'm sure!)
Certainly some stories have used mixed POVs, but the POV has to be handled very carefully to control the POV. In the book Writing the Thriller by T. Macdonald Skillman, MacDonald mentions Michael Connelly's The Poet as one example. One effective technique is to use third-person POV for the protagonist and other major characters, and then use first-person POV for the unidentified killer. It gives the story a very creepy effect.
Gilstrap's advice: You're attempting to do a very difficult, non-traditional sleight of hand that is fraught with potential pitfalls. I've said for years that there are no rules in this game, and that every writer should steadfastly stay the course for any strategy that is crucial to the story. In my experience, fancy stuff is rarely essential, and can often distract from the reader's experience. Only you can make the call as to what works and what doesn't, but as you make your evaluation, I encourage you to think like a reader, not like a writer.
[ See the Comments for more advice from the Killers!]
So what are your writing questions? Post them in the comments and the Killers will do our best to answer!
CALENDAR OF UPCOMING GUESTS
Mark your calendar for the following guest bloggers at the Kill Zone:
Saturday, February 7, 2009
I’ve been busy lately––really busy––and I let Saturday slip up on me. I woke up an hour ago, discovered it was Saturday morning and so I’m writing this before Gilstrap emails me to ask where my blog is. Not that I don’t take this blog seriously, because I take it as seriously as most bloggers possibly can. I know people read it, but I’m not convinced anybody really sits around all week waiting to see what I have to say about anything. Life has just flat been taking up all of my time. I'm sorry. So kill me.
The publishing news is all downbeat. All the news is downbeat or insane. They are finding out that depressed people read less, and flogging people with doomsday scenarios hourly doesn’t seem to be raising spirits at all. Imagine that.
The good news has become depressive. Normally a woman has eight babies at one time and it’s "Joy To The World" time, and people flood the parents with cash, give them a reality show, build new rooms on the house, neighbors volunteer to help change diapers, pay millions for pictures... Goo. Goo. Ga. Ga. Not any more. Yesterday there was the woman who had the octupletinos, or whatever you call eight babies (other than a litter). After a couple of days, the media turned on her like wolves. She’s got six kids already but she’s lonely so she wants as many children as she can shoot out. I'm thinking Queen ant here. She can somehow afford to have eggs implanted by some "irresponsible" clinic run by a mad scientist. Only six eggs, but two eggs made twins! The newscast says the medical bill could run one to three million dollars. I’m sure she’ll pay that bill if it takes three billion years. This single mother says she is not only going to raise fourteen children, but she’s going to take this opportunity to go back to college. In good times she’d be untouchable––a virtual saint and media darling. This story was, according to the media, a wolf in sheep's clothing.
What planet do they find these people on? Maybe she’ll run for congress. God knows she’d fit right in. And if she waits and gets all of her kids to vote for her, she’s a shoe in.
Michael Phelps smoking marijuana. So what?
The media (this was on Today) is already comparing President Obama with Jimmy Carter. Remember that administration?
North Korea has a new long-range missile to hang a nuke on.
Foreign fighters have lost in Iraq, so they are flooding into Afghanistan.
And the Russians want to get back into Afghanistan to help us.
Congress wants to run the financial end of our country like they've run the government.
I think I’ll quit watching the news. I mean what’s the point? It’s like watching a train wreck from inside the train.
Now is the time to write fiction.
The whole world is fictional.
I feel better now.