Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dialogue Attribution in Prose – An Opinion or Two...

The Kill Zone is pleased to welcome novelist, screenwriter, and playwright Thomas B. Sawyer. Thomas was Head Writer/Show runner of the hit CBS series, Murder, She Wrote, for which he wrote 24 episodes. Tom has written 9 network TV pilots (100 episodes), and was Head Writer/Show runner or Story Editor on 15 network TV series. The best-selling thriller, The Sixteenth Man, was his first novel. Both his book, Fiction Writing Demystified, and Storybase are Writer's Digest Book Club Selections. His latest thriller is No Place to Run. He has taught writing at UCLA and other colleges and universities. He has been nominated for an Edgar and an Emmy.

The fact that I came to narrative fiction in reverse from most writers – in that I began as a screenwriter – afforded me more than a few attitudes. And definitely not least was/is on the topic of dialogue attribution.

In novels and short stories I had long been struck by what I regard as the rampant, mindless use of “he said,” “she said,” “said he” and the like. I know that many highly regarded and/or successful writers and teachers regard such usage as a kind of pinnacle of simplicity. I agree, but not in the affirmative sense of “simple.”

As I began to contemplate my first venture into the form, I began to think about such things more seriously. Why, I wondered, would experienced, quality writers who otherwise (rightly) bust their humps to avoid using clichés, surrender to these without guilt? Or, viewed another way, when does a particular phrase cease being “economical,” and morph into a cliché?
And how many millions of trees, I asked myself, have given their lives for such conceits?

To me, even worse – no, make that dumber – is “she asked.” It’s dumber because, since it so often follows a question mark, the reader knows it’s a question, right? So why repeat it?

And then there are “he blurted,” “she exclaimed,” “he queried,” etc. If you must attribute, rather than committing those atrocities, I guess “he said” begins to look attractive.

Did I have a solution? Yeah. When I set out to write my first novel, THE SIXTEENTH MAN, I set as a goal/challenge for myself – a little secret bar-raising, if you will – that I would never use any of those phrases. Ever. Nor, actually, any direct attribution – and yet maintain clarity for the reader. The result? While hardly revolutionary – I’ve since learned that numerous novelists do it – I’m convinced that it has made my writing better, more readable, and certainly more visual.

Here’s my approach, and the way I teach it.
Work on attribution the way you work on the rest of your writing, with the care you give to your dialogue and your descriptions. Will it make a dramatic difference to your readers? Not likely. Will they even be aware of it? Probably not. Especially on a conscious level. But – will it make a difference to you as a writer? Emphatically, yes. It’ll force you to think. To challenge yourself about stuff from which most narrative writers take the day off. So that all of your writing will become fresher.

And, in the process, I found that it contributed to finding my “voice.”
It also contributed to some criticism from certain literary types who warned me that as a novelist I could not “write for the camera.” I submit that they are mistaken. The reader is the camera. The reader is seeing the pictures. Imagining the scene.
Think about conventional, by-the-numbers dialogue attribution for a moment. “She said,” does almost nothing to help the reader envision the scene. It says nothing about the body-language of the speaker, or her inflection. Where were her hands? Was her head cocked to one side? Did she, during the speech, touch her face, or the person to whom she spoke? For me, settling for “said” implies that the speaker is delivering lines with arms hanging at his/her side. Again, for me as a reader, a brief description of body-language counts for a helluvva lot more than knowing what the person is wearing, or hair-color, or the texture of sofa-upholstery.

Admittedly, noting such detail isn’t always important, but when it helps the reader “see” the action, it seems to follow that it will also help the reader “hear” the words. In my own case, as with most-but-not-all writers, when it’s obviously clear for the reader which character is speaking, I omit attribution. But when the speaker is gesturing to emphasize a point, or is revealing, say, insecurity or anger or even an emotion that contradicts his or her words, that is worth communicating to the reader. Further, when a character’s response to another’s words isn’t spoken, but is rather a gesture, a look, that can be good storytelling.

I think of it as directing my actors – just as in my scriptwriting, describing when necessary those actions that augment their speeches – or – as in non-verbal responses – replace them entirely.

I urge any writer to try it. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

All That Clutters, Isn’t Just A Family Name

By John Ramsey Miller

Once a year I get a call from a local high school English teacher inviting me to come and speak to her students for 90 minutes or so, to allow them to hear an actual author talk about the life of his kind, and answer their questions. The first year I told the students that I would answer honestly any question they wanted to ask, and truthfully at the end of the session I fully expected never to be asked back, but maybe it’s the fact that I’m their only choice of a local fiction author with books in print. I am the end of the year cap on a class that includes Stephen King’s ON WRITING, and studying a few great books. This year the teacher told me her students read IN COLD BLOOD.

Some things you never forget. The book that actually made me want to become a writer was Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD. I was a sophomore in High School and I went to a bookstore in 1965 and bought the book and I paid like $6.95 for it, plus tax. The cover is frayed from being carried around for decades and being stored here and there. I know it is a first edition, but a second or third printing, I think. Presently I have it in one of my crates in the shed, but haven’t seen it in two years.

I remember, not just reading it, but reading it straight through. I didn’t put it aside for more than a few minutes at a time to go to the bathroom or eat a few bites. In those days sleep was sometimes secondary to entertainment, and that book was astounding. The first True Crime written as a novel. Who wasn’t fascinated by the author, Truman Capote, and how this odd little man could go to a small community in rural Kansas and ingratiate himself to the community in order to gather the necessary information. A tiny, lisping squeak toy of a man––a Chihuahua running between the legs of wolves.

It’s two great stories, the crime and the authoring, and how Capote finished the book, but waited for the execution so he’d have the ending he (perhaps not prayed for) needed to give the book a knockout punch. I think the two films of that era that were true to the books were IN COLD BLOOD, and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Close friends and brilliant writers, both. Mrs. Lee never published another novel, and vanished from publishing in the way of JD Salinger. Truman, on the other hand, was everywhere. Truman Capote was reduced from serious novelist to social butterfly gossip spreader––a court jester of the rich and bored. Truman stopped drinking long enough to write a few stories over the years, and he kept talking about his great work to come, ANSWERED PRAYERS, but what was published (in my opinion) lacked the Capote flair, energy or purpose.

I suppose Harper Lee said everything she needed to say, and had nothing else to write that she hadn’t already put on paper. Truman Capote made a millions with COLD BLOOD, became a lazy fop, in the company of shallow people, drowning in booze and prescription medications. He’s tragic cautionary tale on many levels, but you can’t take IN COLD BLOOD away from him, or diminish its impact the reading public or on thousands of aspiring authors. Capote’s career after ICB is why I have such admiration for Dan Brown, JK Rolling, John Grisham, and the other authors who have a wildly successful book and keep writing despite their success and the additional attractive distractions flooding in around them. I have been lucky and have made a good living writing since 1995, and I always figured that if I couldn’t sell books any longer, I’d open myself a nice Chrysler dealership. Now I’m having to look at new alternatives…

I bet most of us can remember what book flipped our “Man, I bet I could do that!” switch?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Write What You Know

By John Gilstrap

Of all the instructional clichés, I think that “Write What You Know” discourages more new writers than any other. It’s a particularly pernicious thing to say to students, who tend to take such things more literally, but it’s also misleading for adults.

So here’s the Gilstrap version of that advice: Unless you live one hell of a life, stay away from what you know.

Who wants to read about commuting to and from a job, working hard and loving a family who loves you back? I can’t imagine a more boring story. (Actually, I can. The daily diary of a novelist: Got up this morning. Made stuff up. Went to bed.)

Looking at my own fiction, I’ve never: killed anyone; escaped from prison; blown up a chemical weapons facility (came close, though); survived a plane crash; or rescued a hostage. I like to think that I make my characters’ experience real enough for readers, but there’s no way I can say that I wrote those stories as something I “know.”

I have a hunch that the person who first launched the cliché actually meant something closer to, “Write From Your Heart.” Or maybe, “Write So It Feels Real.” I can live with those. To me, it’s about extrapolating emotion.

It’s about imagination. It’s about doing what most of us started doing as children, and then never grew out of: role playing. If you’ve loved people, how hard is it to imagine what it would be like to lose them?

I’ve never been in a knife fight, but I’ve been frightened and I’ve cut my hand slicing a bagel. If I’m writing from the point of view of the attackee, I’ve got everything I need for a convincing scene. (If I’m portraying the attacker, on the other hand, I have some research to do regarding fighting technique.)

I’ve taught writing seminars at the high school and college level where “Write What You Know” has actually stymied creativity. “Does that mean we can only write about school?” students ask. “I want to write about a serial killer.”

Then write the story, I tell them. If there’s a story in your soul pounding to come out, then write the damn thing down. Get it off your chest and out of your brain. Just do enough research to make it convincing. And make me love your protagonist from within. Imagine the character fully enough that I can see what he sees and feel what he feels.

It’s about the—forgive me—Human Condition. As a writer, your job is to pull me in.

I got it! The instructional cliché should be: “Write What You Understand.”

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Show and Tell

by Michelle Gagnonpot stove

Last week Joe had a great post about figuring out where your story actually begins. I'm in a group that posts online excerpts, mainly of first chapters, and today I thought I'd discuss something that seems to crop up again and again in those posts.

The old nugget, "Show, don't tell" relates to exposition; ideally, you want to limit spoon-feeding your reader, watching out for adverbs that drive home what a character is thinking and feeling. But what should also be taken into account is that you don't need to "show" your reader everything either.

Here's an example:

"I went into the kitchen and grabbed a pan. I put water into the pan and placed it on the stove. Then I added the seasoning to the water. After the water boiled I placed the noodles into the water."

Now, I think what the writer was attempting to do was build suspense; the problem with this passage is that unless you're writing a cookbook entry on how to prepare pasta, this is way too much information. By the time I got to the third sentence, my eyes glazed over. It's a common error. Where it tends to crop up most frequently, I've found, is with entering and leaving a room: "I turned the knob, opened the door, and stepped inside," rather than just, "I went inside," for example.

There are other ways to build suspense with a passage like this. For example, "She put water on the stove to boil. The doorbell rang. When she answered it, she found the UPS man standing there with a package. Could this be what she was waiting for?"

So...the water is still on the stove, set to boil. The heroine has apparently forgotten about it- but the reader hasn't. If you consider how you go about your day, many of your actions are automatic. You don't think through every step of putting on a pair of pants, walking across a room, or turning on your car; neither should you walk a reader through those steps (unless it's critical to illustrate a character struggling to accomplish those tasks).

I prefer to start a story by dropping the reader into the middle of an action or conversation, forcing them to do a little work to catch up. After all, when it comes to eavesdropping (not that I ever do that, of course), the point when your ears perk up is not at the initial hello, but when something really juicy comes out. That's what you want to begin with. Assume that the reader will figure out the parts you're not telling them outright- engaging with a book should require a little effort, after all. You want them to wonder what the character is thinking, and what they're going to do next. I want to know what's going to happen with that boiling water- but assume that the rest of it, whatever isn't critical, is a given and not something I need to know. For that, I'll buy a cookbook.

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, and more.

A little less action, a lot more thrills

Back in 1993, Country singer Toby Keith had a hit with the song “A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action”. That was a great hook for a song, but the concept doesn’t always work for thrillers. I’ve found that one of the mistakes beginning writers often make is confusing action with suspense; they assume a thriller must be filled with it to create suspense. They load up their stories with endless gun battles, car chases, and daredevil stunts as the heroes are being chased across continents with a relentless batch of baddies hot in pursuit. The result can begin to look like the Perils of Pauline; jumping from one fire to another. What many beginning thriller writers don’t realize is that heavy-handed action usually produces boredom, not thrills.

When there’s too much action, you can wind up with a story that lacks tension and suspense. The reader becomes bored and never really cares about who lives or who wins. If they actually finish the book, it’s probably because they’re trapped on a coast-to-coast flight or inside a vacation hotel room because it’s pouring down rain outside. See John Gilstrap’s I’m Not As Flexible As I Thought.

Too much action becomes even more apparent in the movies. The recent Bond film “Quantum Of Solace” struck me that action1way. The story was so buried in action that by the end, I simply didn’t care. All I wanted to happen was for it to be over. Don’t get me wrong, the  action sequences were amazing, but special effects and outlandish stunts can only thrill for a short time. They can’t take the place of strong character development, crisp dialogue and clever plotting.

As far as thrillers are concerned, I’ve found that most action scenes just get in the way of the story. What I enjoy is the anticipation of action and danger, and the threat of something that has not happened yet. When it does happen, the action scene becomes the release valve.

I believe that writing an action scene can be fairly easy. What’s difficult is writing a suspenseful story without having to rely on tons of action. Doing so takes skill. Anyone can write a chase sequence or describe a shoot-out. The trick is to not confuse action with suspense. Guns, fast cars and rollercoaster-like chase scenes are fun, but do they really get the reader’s heart pumping. Or is it the lead-up to the chase, the anticipation of the kill, the breathless suspense of knowing that danger is waiting just around the corner?

What do you think? Is your favorite thriller filled with car chases or is it built on an undercurrent of suspense that’s just waiting to sweep you away? What about your own writing? Do you use a lot of action or is it all cerebral?


thriller2 Available today: THRILLER 2, Stories You Just Can’t Put Down.


Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Have you asked your writing a question today?

Every once in a while I read a story where all the requisite elements for success seem to be in place. Such stories typically contain the following elements:

  • A competent hook
  • Serviceable characters
  • A well-executed plot

And yet sometimes as I'm reading along, I find that my interest wanes (and then dies) after just a few pages. So what exactly has gone wrong?

Here's one answer: After just a few paragraphs, I cease to give a flying squirrel about the hook, the characters, or the plot. Which means that I don't care about the story. Which means that the Writer in question is dead as a doornail.

In a past blog post that was circulated by Esquire, writer Darin Strauss said that it helps to apply a "So What?" test to each sentence in a story. To apply such a test, according to Strauss, we can measure each of our sentences against the following criteria: Why should I care about this sentence? How does it reveal character? What difference does it make to the plot? To the story?

When I first heard about Strauss's sentence test (which he attributed to Lee K. Abbott), it was like an epiphany to me, because when we ask every sentence in our novel "So What?" or "Who cares?", it helps us to avoid the following writing hazards:

  • Boilerplate character description

  • Rote, unnecessary movements by all characters, especially the main character

  • Go-nowhere dialogue

  • Boring scene description

So here's my question to you: When you're writing, do you apply such a test to each and every sentence? Do you go back and root out "filler" sentences during rewrite?

And to take on the challenge, if you don't mind sharing: What's the last sentence that you wrote today? Is it important to your story? Why will your reader care about that sentence?


Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, and more.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

To be Audacious

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I literally just flew back from Mayhem in the Midlands and, after delays due to tornado warnings and foul weather, my apologies for being a bit woolly headed now that my body is telling me it's close to midnight (even if that's not quite the case back on the West Coast yet). The conference was fabulous, small but intimate, the way Mayhem is supposed to be. After hearing Jan Burke's great interview of Dana Stabenow and Kent Krueger's hilarious interview of Zoe Sharp I have come away with a new goal:

To be Audacious

Jan Burke said she thought all writers had to be audacious to be successful. Just committing something to the page and believing it was worthy of another person reading it was audacious in and of itself but, after hearing some background for both Dana Stabenow and Zoe Sharp, I soon realized I am way, way behind on the audacity stakes.

Though I don't consider myself to be a totally boring wuss in real life, I do have to at least pretend to be the stable, serious mum to my boys (husband included) and this limits my capacity for recklessness in real life. In my writing life, however, I have the freedom to be whatever I want...and I definitely think I need to add more audacity...which got me thinking...

How does one become an audacious writer? How can I constantly challenge myself and the craft of writing? What is the most audacious thing I hope to achieve in my writing? Hmmm...the most erotic sex scene ever? craziest murder victim ever? Perhaps the most unexpected death of main character ever...( I getting anyone worried at this point???) No, I know I need to aim higher - but how?

So help me out here - what do you think is the most audacious thing a writer can do?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

What Puts the Thrill in Thriller?

The Kill Zone is delighted to welcome Alexandra Sokoloff to the blog today. As a screenwriter, Alexandra has sold original mystery and thriller scripts and written novel adaptations for numerous Hollywood studios. Her debut ghost story, THE HARROWING, was nominated for both a Bram Stoker award and Anthony award for Best First Novel. Her second supernatural thriller, THE PRICE, was called “some of the most original and freshly unnerving work in the genre” by the New York Times Book Review, and her short story, “The Edge of Seventeen” is currently nominated for a Thriller award for best short story. Her third spooky thriller, THE UNSEEN, is out now, and is based on real-life experiments conducted at the parapsychology lab on the Duke University campus. She is currently working on a fourth supernatural thriller for St. Martin’s Press and a paranormal thriller for Harlequin Nocturne, and is writing a book on SCREENWRITING TRICKS FOR AUTHORS, based on her popular workshop and blog.

By Alexandra Sokoloff (

I’m sure every one of us here has ended up on or attended that particular panel by now, also variously called Thrill Me!, You Kill Me, How to Write Suspense, How to Write a Million Dollar Thriller… (and if you’ve got that last one figured out, would you let me know?).

On my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors blog I talk a lot about specific techniques for creating suspense. But the bottom line to me is always – different things thrill different people. In people, in bed, in life, and in books. So the core issue, and something I never get tired of talking about with thriller writers and readers, is – what does it for YOU?

Because there are all kinds of literary thrills. Many thrillers are based on action and adrenaline – the experience the author wants to create and that the reader wants to experience is that roller-coaster feeling. I myself am not big on that kind of thrill. I love a good adrenaline rush in a book (in fact I pretty much require them, repeatedly). But pure action scenes mostly bore me senseless, and big guns and machines and explosions and car chases make my eyes glaze over. Nuclear threat? Not my cup of tea. Spies? I’ll pass. Assassins? Uh-uh. Terrorists?... Can I go now?

I'm not even really that fond of serial killers (God, I hate it when things like that come out of my mouth. Or hands. Occupational hazard...) unless we're talking archetypally mythic serial killers like the ones in pre-HANNIBAL Thomas Harris, and in Mo Hayder's darker than dark thrillers.
What I’m looking for in a book is the sensual – okay, sexual – thrill of going into the unknown. How it feels to know that there’s something there in the dark with you that’s not necessarily rational, and not necessarily human. It’s a slower, more erotic, and I’d also say more feminine kind of thrill – that you find in THE TURN OF THE SCREW and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and THE SHINING. So although I can learn some techniques from spy thrillers or giant actioners, studying that kind of book or movie for what I want to do is probably not going to get me where I want to go.

There’s also the classic mystery thrill of having to figure a puzzle out. Now that’s a thrill I can get behind. There’s a great pleasure in using your mind to unlock a particularly well-crafted puzzle. I love to add that element to my stories, so that even though the characters are dealing with the unknown, there is still a logical way to figure the mystery out.

But conversely, and this is one of my own more peculiar quirks - I also love the feeling of being slowly taken over by complete madness.

One of my very early discoveries as a voracious young reader was Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s terrifying short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, one of the greatest feminist horror stories ever written, in which a new young mother is confined to her bedroom by her physician husband and is not allowed to write because it would stress her. Instead she goes horribly and inexorably out of her mind.

Now, why the vicarious experience of going mad should be such a particular pleasure to me, I can’t tell you – clearly something to do with spending my formative years in Berkeley. Or, you know, all those Grateful Dead concerts. Or those San Francisco clubs where we…
Well, all right, never mind that.
But I have come to terms with the fact that madness is an experience I crave, and I’ve made a careful study of how authors I love (Shirley Jackson, Daphne Du Maurier, Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, Anne Rice, the Brontes) create that effect.

Another thing I know about myself, vis a vis the supernatural, is that I need to believe that it could really happen that way. So I’m a real sucker for the slow, atmospheric, psychological build, and I research obsessively to see what people who claim to have experienced the supernatural actually experienced, and I look for the patterns in the stories: what are the common elements? What has the ring of truth?

This was especially important to me while I was writing my new thriller, THE UNSEEN, because it’s a poltergeist story, and unlike with ghosts, there isn’t that much consensus about what a poltergeist really is. It’s a maddeningly elusive phenomenon.

But I love poltergeists! Just the word is thrilling to me. So I created a poltergeist which might be any or all of the things that researchers have postulated that poltergeists are: a psycho-sexual projection, a haunting, some extra-dimensional being, or very human fraud. Creating a story that explored all of those possibilities meant I got to structure in that mystery kind of thrill that I love - only the question was not only “Whodunit?” but also “Whatdunit?”

And that’s always the best for me – that mix of mystery, madness, and the unknown.
So, all you thrilling people – what kinds of thrills do it for you? What are your early influences that will give us an idea of just what twisted kicks you’re looking for in a book?
Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, and more.

I'm Not As Flexible As I Thought

By John Gilstrap

First things first: Thank you, John Miller, for swapping posting days with me. For those of you who showed up here today to read his words instead of mine (and who would not?), please scroll down . . .

I just returned from the worst week at the beach that I've ever endured. It all seemed like such a sure thing: I was with some of my favorite people, in Hilton Head, SC, one of the most beautiful resorts on the planet. I love Hilton Head. The plan was that we would arrive on Saturday evening and leave the following Saturday morning (that would be today). I would wake up early, as I always do at the beach (and only at the beach), get in an hour or so of writing in the early morning calm, and then we would head to the beach. After a few hours in the sun, occasionally visiting the outside bar, I would excuse myself from the group and log a few extra writing hours before cocktail time. It was going to be perfect.

Then the rain came. I don't mean drizzle, folks. No misting, spitting or fog. I mean rain. Go watch the movie Platoon or Singing in the Rain if you need perspective. Gulley-washers, we used to call them when I was a kid. As if the sky was one big water balloon and someone popped it.

For five days. That would be Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I have no idea what Friday was like because we pulled the plug on Thursday morning and drove home. Not until, however, we had the honor of experiencing the coldest temperatures ever recorded in Hilton Head in May. Ever. A high of 53 on Monday. (Hint: I did not pack for winter.)

So, when you take the sun out of the equation for a beach trip, you're left with movies (Angels & Demons was very good, I thought, as was State of Play. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past was exactly what you'd expect it to be, and Miller, before you get going, I'll remind you that I was not traveling alone.), shopping (there was a rush on anything that was a) waterproof, b) warm, or c) both.) or hanging around a two-bedroom condo while four adults stared at each other pretending that it would somehow get better.

I used to tell people that I could write anywhere. Airport departure lounges, coffee shops, hotels, just about anyplace is a fine place to sit and write. I discovered the exception this week. I cannot, in fact, do any meaningful work in a two-bedroom condo where the only desk-like bit of furniture is the dining table in the middle of everything. Those other three adults staring at each other pretending that things would get better didn't help a bit.

It's sort of poetic, I think, that Miller's post yesterday dealt so poetically with rain. I concur that it has its place. I like flowers and human survival as much as the next guy. But would a single day of sun have been too much to ask?

Friday, May 22, 2009

When Roosters Sing

By John Ramsey Miller

It appears that our long-running drought is over, and we’re up for the year with rainfall. That could change, of course. I love dismal weather. I love rainy days and nights and thunder storms. We’ve had several weeks of the kind of weather I love and the old home place is bright green. In the winter I can see my neighbors’ homes through the trees, but when the leaves come out they are no longer in evidence. I work best when it is dreary. When it rains we sleep with the door open to the screened-in porch, but we have to close it around four AM when our roosters, Ti Ali and Joe Bryant, wake up and want to have loud discussions with each other. I suppose they are bragging about the number of hens they have and how many ground bugs they intend to rid the place of as soon as they are released in the late afternoon. I love the sound of roosters, but at four AM it can be annoying. I wish they had a repertoire of songs to sing, or a few stories to tell, but they are like stuck records with the same shrieking notes in their repertory. “Er er errrr Er.”

There are writers who write the same book over and over again, and their readers want to read the same old plot gathered up and thrown through a larger fan. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing another kind of book. I’d keep the violence, the battle between good and evil, but I wouldn’t have a ticking clock, or a race across the landscape with guns thundering, and I’d work on deepening the characters and their relationships. Maybe let them tell longer stories. It couldn’t drag, but it could take place over months or years instead of hours. The relationships would be more complex and be allowed to develop the way they need to without all of the urgency of situation forging them. It would be nice if the female/ male relationship was built on something other than dodging bullets, her ability to load his magazines under duress, or drive through a gauntlet of fire.

I think about my father, who died almost two years ago, and his stand on human rights and dignity for all men in the 60s in Mississippi. I think about how he somehow managed to earn the respect of his friends and enemies alike, and let love, his beliefs and his spiritualism rule his life. At Emory when he was in Theology school my father went to Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church some Sundays to hear a man he called the greatest preacher of his era, Martin Luther King Sr.. I think, as did my father, that the bravest known man in Mississippi history was Medgar Evers. That man walked into a lion’s den every time he left his house, and he did so driven by his belief in a just world. It was no surprise to anybody that he was murdered, just that he lived as long as he did with the quantity and caliber of enemies he made by standing for what he believed was right and just in an unjust world.

I didn’t know Mr. Evers, but I did meet Byron De La Beckwith, the man who murdered him in cold blood. My father admired and respected him, and later he tried to bring Beckwith into the light of love––a waste of time. The day I took my cameras and accompanied a reporter from New Orleans to interview Beckwith at Rick’s Tractors where he worked at the time. He had been arrested while driving a bomb to New Orleans while heading there to murder A.I. Botnick, director of the New Orleans based B'nai Brith Anti-Defamation League, and he was awaiting trial at the time. Beckwith told me he didn’t care for my father’s politics, but that he respected my father for being genuinely able to love a man while hating his sin. That stuck with me. I have long wanted write a book that goes into the social complexities in the South during the sixties, how change came about on a personal level, and the ultimate value of forgiveness. I know it’s been done and done, but I am egotistical enough to think I can put a new spin on it and make part of that time my own.

I just finished a Thriller, and whether or not it sells, I think I am going to write the book I always wanted to put on paper. I don’t have any idea what it will look like, whether there will be a publisher for it, or whether or not it will be well received if it is published, but that isn’t why I will write it. I will write it because I want to do so, and because I think my roosters really do want to be songbirds.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Never Look Back

by Michelle Gagnon

Yesterday, Joe discussed knowing where you're headed before getting started. I received an email from a college friend this week who's writing his firstnever look novel, and he asked me a few questions about my process. I thought I'd share some of what I said in reply. Of course, there is no one "right way" to write a book; everyone has to find his or her own path. But after hammering out four books, I've learned what works for me.

1) At what point do you seek formal feedback, rather than just cranking it out?

I don't show my work to anyone until I've completed two drafts. And then I send it to my "Beta readers," 5-7 people whose opinion I trust. What I've discovered, however, is that they'll all like different aspects of the story, and they'll all criticize different aspects. I always take that feedback with a grain of salt. If more than one person is saying the same thing, I know it's time to go back and figure out where I went wrong.

In Boneyard, one of my readers was so taken with a character in the initial chapter, she felt strongly he should be incorporated into the rest of the storyline. I had fleshed out that character fairly well, so that when something happened to him, you'd fear for his well-being. But ultimately, he was a device to kickstart the plot. Think of it as the garbage men who find a body in a dumpster in the first five minutes of Law and Order. You don't expect to see the garbage men help track down the killers, or try the accused--they're there to find the body, then they're gone. Same with this character. No one else had that comment, so I chose to limit him to that opening chapter.

2) Do you counsel quantity (ie, getting more on paper) over quality (tweaking sentences) early on?

In my opinion what separates published authors from people who have been working on a book for years without completing it is this: never look back. I don't start editing--at all--until the entire book is written. A lot of people get fifty pages in, then go back and start editing chapter one. The danger in this is that while you might end up with a perfect first fifty pages, by the time you finish those there's a good chance you've lost the thread of the story.

It's also discouraging to suddenly realize you've spent three months on fifty pages, and another three hundred and fifty remain to be written (of course, that's discouraging whether you've stopped or not--I call it the "interminable middle"). I never even re-read what I've written until I've finished the first draft. (I also spend most of that draft thinking that what I'm writing is the worst junk ever committed to page. But I forge ahead, because I know the next draft will be better.) And then when I do go back, the bones of the story are in place.

3) When does it help to have a literary guide (agent? editor? coach?)? How do you get a good one to take you seriously?
Start the agent search only when your manuscript is as absolutely perfect as it's ever going to be. That means a minimum of three drafts. And after completing each draft, put it away for a month before looking at it again. That gives you a fresh perspective.

Resign yourself to the fact that the agent search might take months- not always the case, but frequently enough that it's good to be prepared for it. And not hearing back right away doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be rejected. My first agent asked for an exclusive on the full manuscript right away--then three months passed. If I had to do it over, I'd probably call after a month and ask if it was all right for me to submit to other agents. In the end it worked out for me, but I was gnawing my nails to the quick that entire time. A month is more than enough time for an agent to have an exclusive.

Begin by querying your 3-5 top choice agents, always making sure that a) they're currently acquiring manuscripts, and b) they represent the kind of work you write (these seem like givens, but you'd be surprised). There are a lot of good books on querying an agent (my favorite is Noah Lukeman's "The First Five Pages"). Your query letter needs to be perfect, as do your first five pages, since that's what an agent reads to make a snap judgement on your work. I loved what people were saying yesterday about switching the second chapter with the first. About a year ago, I read a tremendous manuscript written by a friend. And the entire first chapter I was yawning-not good for a thriller. It was all back story: how the protagonist got his job, where he went to school, his mother's medical condition...then, scene two kicked in. The main character picked up a woman home at a bar, was accosted in his apartment by Russian mobsters, was threatened with blackmail and suddenly boom- we were off and running. Telling too much at the outset is a common mistake. Bear in mind you have 100,000 words to develop your characters, so there's no need to overdo it at the outset. (By the way, this excellent book- FREEFALL, by Reece Hirsch- found representation and will be published next year).

Your agent shops the manuscript to editors. Very few publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts these days.
Getting an agent is hard. My best advice would be to go to a writing conference that good agents are attending- a face to face meeting goes a long way toward getting you out of the slush pile. Incidentally, Thrillerfest is hands down one of the best for finding an agent for a thriller- I can't think of another conference that gathers forty top agents in one place to hear pitches. Well worth the investment if your manuscript is ready.

4) Not a question but an observation -- I can't seem to help harvesting the real lives and personalities of friends and acquaintances. Ringing in my ears is Elizabeth Gilbert: "Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Tell the truth."

I suppose my personal life infiltrates the storylines in some places--but it depends on what I'm writing. For the screenplay I'm working on right now, my co-writer and I are drawing heavily on our life experiences. But for my series, much of it is pure creation-I've never defused a dirty bomb, chased down a suspect, or done many of the other things my characters do. I just imagine what it would be like, basing it on research and discussions with people who do those sorts of things for a living. So the old, "write what you know" has never been something I strongly adhered to. Otherwise I'd write about sitting alone in a room typing day after day. And trust me, that is rarely exciting.

Start at the end

By Joe Moore

A topic I’ve mentioned here in the past is Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules of writing fiction. They’re worth reviewing and taking to heart. But his rule number 5 is the one that made the biggest impression on me. Rule number 5 is: Start your story as close to the end as possible. This is relevant for both the entire book or a single chapter. We often hear that the most common mistake of a new writer is starting the story in the wrong place.

Well, it happens to published writers, too. Lynn Sholes and I are guilty of writing whole chapters that either occurred in the wrong place, or worse, weren’t even needed. Usually they turn out to be backstory information for us, not the reader. We go to the trouble of writing a chapter only to find it’s to confirm what we need to know, not what the reader needs to know.

So if we apply Vonnegut’s rule number 5, how do we know if we’ve started close enough to the end? Easy: we must know the destination before we begin the journey. We must know the ending first. To me, this is critical. How can we get there if we don't know where we're going? And once we know how our story will end, we can then apply what I call my top of the mountain technique. In my former career in the television postproduction industry, it’s called backtiming—starting at the place where something ends and working your way to the place where you want it to begin.

7691695But before I explain top of the mountain, let’s look at the bottom of the mountain approach—the way most stories are written. You stand at the foot of an imposing mountain (the task of writing your next 100K-word novel), look up at the huge mass of what you are going to be faced with over the next 12 or so months, and wonder what it will take to get to the top (or end).

You start climbing, get tired, fall back, take a side trip, climb some more, hope inspiration strikes, get distracted, curse, fight fatigue, take the wrong route, fall again, paint yourself into a corner—and if you’re lucky, finally make it to the top. This method will work, but it’s a tough, painful way to go.

Now, let’s discuss the top of the mountain technique. As you begin to plan your book, even before you start your first draft, Imagine that you’re standing on 9944522the mountain peak looking out over a grand, breathtaking view feeling invigorated, strong, and fulfilled. Imagine that the journey is over, your book is done. Look down the side of the mountain at the massive task you have just accomplished and ask yourself what series of events took place to get you to the top? Start with the last event, make a general note as to how you envision it. Then imagine what the second to the last event was that led up to the end, then the third from the last . . . you get the idea. It’s sort of like outlining in reverse.

This takes it a step further than Vonnegut’s rule number 5 by starting at the end and working your way to the beginning while you’re still in the planning stage. Guess what happens? By the time you are actually at the beginning, you will have started as close to the end as possible. And you will see the logic and benefit of rule number 5.

Naturally, your plan can and probably will change. Your ending will get tweaked and reshaped as you approach it for real. But wouldn’t it be great to have a general destination in mind even from the first word on page one of your first draft?

Do you know your ending before you start writing? Or do you have a general idea for the story and just wing it? Remember that there’s no right or wrong answer here. But what works for you?

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Alexandra Sokoloff, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, and more.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Scribd's new e-book store: A sea change in publishing?

I was still recovering from Sunday's 4.7 earthquake in LA when I heard the news that must have sent a shiver of apprehension through the publishing industry: scrbd, the publishing web site that gets around 60 million hits a day, began selling books online. Authors who upload their books will get an 80/20 split of the revenue from books sold on the site. That's 80 per cent to us, folks.

NPR’s Marketplace pointed out that the two-year-old scribd has an advantage over other e-book publishers because its e-books can be read over many different types of reading devices, including laptops and "smart" phones. By contrast, Amazon’s e-books can be read only on a pricey Kindle.

We've been talking quite a bit on this blog about e-books, and debating their merits. I think that scribd's move into selling books online, in a range of formats, at a price split that dramatically favors the author, has the potential to upend the publishing totem pole. The scribd platform could finally provide the grassroots publishing momentum that puts more revenue and power into the content creator's hands, rather than the distributor's.

In her farewell
Newsweek column this week, Anna Quindlen described how, in the journalism field, young people have "created online outlets from the ground up...they are quite properly part of the action, not because we made room for them, but because they made room for themselves."

Most novelists aren't all that young, but scribd's publishing model could provide the way for them to "make room" for themselves in the publishing paradigm. We'll now be able to publish our own ebooks on a site that reaches sixty million potential readers.
Sixty million!

But perhaps not all authors would consider taking hold of the reins of their publishing. I can imagine that even established authors might hesitate before taking the plunge into publishing on scribd. Would there still be a publishing contract, for example? Would uploaded works suffer from a stima from being "self-published"?

What do you think? Do you think the scribd book store has potential to change the publishing business paradigm?

Have you browsed through the new book store? Do you think it will become a morass of self-published drek as it develops, or is it going to become a juggernaut to be reckoned with?

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Alexandra Sokoloff, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, and more.

How much is a good read worth these days?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

An article in yesterday's New York Time's entitled "Steal this book (for $9.99)" caught my eye, especially the first line: "Just how much is a good read worth?" and the story of how readers were boycotting the Kindle version David Baldacci's latest thriller "First Family' for being priced around $15 (some $5 more than the majority of Kindle e-books were selling for). The article went on to discuss fears in the publishing industry that e-books cannibalize higher-price print sales (rather like the flood of cheap houses onto a real estate market) and that Amazon's low price point sets a precedent in the e-book market that may be unsustainable. Offsetting this is the evidence, however, that e-book purchasers are buying more books now than they ever did as print book buyers. This is because of the ease with which they can download the books and (presumably) by the lower price point.

This all got me thinking - what is a 'good read' worth these days? Should a bestselling author be able to command a premium e-book price? (though I'm guessing Baldacci's publisher may be regretting that decision!) Does Amazon's "loss leader' mentality in which it basically subsidizes the $9.99 Kindle book create the perception that e-books are only worth $10 or less? And what does that mean to consumer perceptions of the cost of trade paperbacks or hardbacks?

I remember talking to an English publisher last year who said the market in the UK had become horrendous because the majority of books were being sold in supermarkets very cheaply or at chain stores as part of "Buy three get one free" and "Buy two for the price of one" kind of deals. Her argument was that in the UK at least this marketing tactic had made many consumers question the original price of books (their reasoning being, well, if I get two for the price of one shouldn't they have been originally half the list price anyway?). It also created the perception that books were over priced (God forbid!). I wonder, in the e-book market, will Amazon's pricing have a similar effect?

So what are you willing to pay for a good read these days? Would you pay more than $9.99 for an author you loved on Kindle? Does the cost of an e-book make you less inclined to plunk down more money for the paper version? As e-books command more and more of the market what effect will their price have on us readers and (poor sods that we are) writers? Is it a slippery slope or just a storm in a teacup???

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Q & A with Oline H. Cogdill

ThCOGDILL20Ae Kill Zone is thrilled to have Oline H. Cogdill, Mystery Fiction Columnist for the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, joining us today. She also reviews for McClatchy Tribune Wire Services, Mystery Scene magazine and Publisher’s Weekly. Her reviews appear in about 250 newspapers and publications world wide. She is a judge for the 2009 and 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Oline also blogs about mysteries, the publishing industry or anything else that amuses her at and at

Q. What happens when you review a friend's book and you don't like it?
A. I don’t review friends’ books. I am often called a “friend” or a “friend of mysteries,” but that is like using the word “friend” as one does on Facebook. I genuinely like most of the mystery writers I meet or are on panels with. But I am not their friend. There is a difference between being friendly and a friend. I’ll have a drink with them, or even a meal, but that is as far as it goes. (And I pay my own way.) I completely put the identity of the author out of my mind when I am reading a novel to review. I am focused only on the work, not the book. If I felt I was really too close to an author, then I could not review their book. My husband is working on a mystery; I have read the first six chapters and I think he is onto something good. Naturally, I would never review that, although because we have different last names I probably could slip it by. But it would not be ethical.
I want people to respect what I do.

Q. How many pages of a book will you read before you decide it's not for you?

A. For me, the litmus test would be about 50 or 60 pages, but this actually seldom happens. Once I make the decision to review a book, I am committed to it: good, bad or indifferent. Since the books space at the Sun-Sentinel has been severely limited – and we have no idea what the future holds – the Books Editor and I made a conscious effort to try to publish reviews only on those books we liked. The idea being that we 'd rather steer readers toward something than away from it. However, that said, if I begin a novel that I have chosen or one I must review and it is dreadful, I am committed to that book.

But there are a lot of exceptions. For one, if I just really hate a novel and don’t want to spend another minute in those characters’ company, I would just move on. Another exception is if it is a local author published by a small publisher. If I hate that book, I would not be serving anyone. I would put the author’s book signings, info in my Local Book News column and move one. Another reason for me not to continue with that novel would be if the publication I am reviewing for doesn’t want negative reviews. When that happens, I call the editor and ask that the book be assigned to someone else.
I take no pleasure in writing negative reviews, and would rather spend my reading time enjoying myself.

Q. How do you decide which books you will review?
A. For Mystery Scene and Publishers’ Weekly, the novels are assigned to me. It is kind of interesting to have novels assigned, because since I started reviewing mysteries sixteen years ago, I have always chosen what I read. Mystery Scene and Publishers’ Weekly have assigned me novels I may not have selected otherwise, opening up my world further.

For the Sun Sentinel or MCT, I choose the books. First criteria: if the author is local. Any South Florida or Florida author gets priority. Second is if the author is coming for a book tour. I can’t do everyone who swings through South Florida, but I try. There are a few – for me – must review authors such as Michael Connelly (who also has a strong Florida connection), Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, Harlan Coben, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin and Val McDermid (those are not my only "must review" authors, but a sampling).

After that, I look for something new, something different. I tend to review a lot more hard boiled than cozy or traditional, but I also try to self check myself and maintain a balance. Whether an author is male or female, a minority, etc., shouldn’t matter. It is the work I focus on. On a larger plane, it matters a great deal because I want to give readers a balance. I also try to remember authors I meet at Bouchercon or Malice, anyone who might have something different to bring to the table. Last year at Bouchercon in Baltimore, my husband and I ended up talking to two newbies. They had no idea who I was until at the end of the conversation, when I gave them my card and told them to make sure their publisher contacted me. (I think they are both with St. Martin’s, but that is the only hint.) The books they were describing sounded interesting. Whether they will be or not remains to be seen.

Q. Does a book have to be published by an accepted house (think ITW and MWA members' books) for you to review it?

A. I don’t know what the accepted houses for MWA and ITW are. For me they have to be a legitimate publisher, not a glorified vanity press or a subsidized one (meaning the author pays part of the cost). I will not review novels from any publishers like that. No self published. There are so many books being published by legitimate houses, both large presses and small, that I can’t keep up with those. Cream rises to the top. If an author has to go the subsidized route, then I wonder why. Yes, I know there are some books that got their start that way, gaining a following and rising to a legitimate press; but those are the EXCEPTIONS, not the rule.

Q. Do you review mainly hardcovers, or does the format the book is printed in not make a difference?

A. It should not make a difference, but in reality it often does. I used to do a paperback a month but now with the cutbacks in space, I will often do a paperback or two a month and put the review on the blog at and then put it on the MCT wires. That way I can cover it. And those reviews on the wires get picked up a lot. Last year, the ones I did on the novels by Jeffrey Cohen and Julie Hyzy ended up in about 100 different spots.
For the newspaper, the editors prefer hardcover but sometimes I will slip in a trade paperback if I think it is really good. Or a paperback by a local writer such as P.J. Parrish. But as a rule, the novels that are reviewed for the Sun Sentinel are hard cover.
Let me add that I am a fan of paperback originals. A lot of excellent authors got their start in paperback originals. Sometimes the paperback original authors (Joel Goldman, Rick Mofina, Michelle Gagnon, P.J. Parrish) are as good if not better than many of the authors being published in hardcover.

Q. Do you agree with Dick Cavett that there are two ways to tell someone their book isn't good: A) You book was not my cup of tea, and B) I put down your book and just couldn't pick it back up?
A. Another thing to say would be “Your fans will love it.” But, ha!, no, I disagree with Dick Cavett. Those are kind of cocktail party responses, things you say to people to not hurt their feelings, though if you think about those responses they are hurtful in a way. I grew up watching Dick Cavett and realizing there was a whole world out there beyond my home town. But that is a milquetoast thing to do. I may try to soften a review, especially if I have liked everything else the author has written, but in the end I have to be frank.
Case in point, I reviewed a nationally known and admired author last year. I have followed this guy since his first paperback original, and have seen him get better and better until he now regularly lands on the best sellers list. But I did not like his latest one. It hurt me to not like it, but that was the reality. So I had to give it a negative review.
A book may not be my cup of tea, but it could be yours. However, I am the one writing the review.

Q. Are there any standardized rules for reviewers, such as not quoting too directly from the book or tempering your praise/criticism?
A. My two main rules are not to give away a plot twist that will spoil the book for a reader and not to fall so in love with my own voice that I forget who the review is for. The first rule is pretty standard – I hate when a reviewer gives away a plot. I remember some review of a Michael Connelly novel (don’t remember the publication or the book title) that seemed to take glee in giving away everything twist and turn. As a reader, that made me mad.

The second rule: I think too often reviewers get so caught up that they go on too much and forget that they are writing that review for the reader, not to hear themselves be clever.
I think all reviewers should follow the rule ( I think it’s from Star Trek), “to do no harm.” That doesn’t mean you can’t and shouldn’t rip apart a book if it deserves it, but review the book, not the author.
Quote from the book as much as you want to – most of the time that is just padding out a review – but don’t give away those vital plot points.

Q. Now that many reviews/reviewers are moving online, do you worry that they won’t adhere to the same journalistic codes?
A. I absolutely worry about that. I believe I am an ethical reviewer and I hope others think that too. I see a lot of reviews on Dorothy L and on a lot of online sites and, for the most part, they seem to be OK. Some of them are not especially well written but they are from the heart. But I worry that people are basing their reviews on grudges, agendas, friendship or anything else. Everyone now seems to be a reviewer. The rise of food review blogs, etc., seems to give many people permission to give their opinion on everything. When certain ethics such as being as objective as you can, approaching each book with a blank slate and others are not followed, I worry that it cheapens all reviews.

Q. What’s your take on ebook readers? Pros, cons as a reviewer?
A. If you mean like a Kindle or a Sony or whatever, I think those are just fine. It is another means to read a book. I like holding a book, that invisible connection to an author conveyed by holding their work. But if you read the book on a device or via the printed page, does it matter? I don’t think so. I would not find that a pro or a con as a reviewer.
The convenience might even encourage more people to buy books and that would be a good thing!
Actually, I wish the
New York publishers would get together and put their advanced copies on a Sony or whatever for reviewers. That way I could take an unlimited amount of books on vacation rather than limiting myself to 10. The publishers would save a ton of money, too.

Q. Amazon book reviews: many people think that readers pay attention to those starred, "street" reviews of books. Do you think they're having a significant impact on book-buying decisions?
A. Lord, I hope not. Anyone can publish a review on Amazon. I know an author (self published) whose wife posted this glowing review on his Amazon site. Like me, she had kept her maiden name so no one else they knew the couple would know they were married. When they got divorced – and I bet you see this one coming – she posted a nasty, vicious review. Again, these reviews on Amazon are fraught with agendas, grudges, etc. I am sure some of the people posting their reviews are writing from the heart but others aren’t.

Sometimes You Get To Feel Optimistic About The Future

John Ramsey Miller

A friend of mine called me last week and said an old friend of his gave him a short story written by this friend’s 14-year-old son. He thought it was very good, and asked if I would read it and see if I agreed. Kids need encouragement, and I always try to offer an eye and encouragement if I can. We’ve all read drek by the bucket load, and since I have free time here and there, I said sure. We’ve all seen these stories written by young people, and mostly they don’t amount to much. I mean they show some glimmer of promise or they don’t, but judging the potential of a young person by a few pages doesn’t mean much. The 7 pages were single-spaced, and printed on both sides of the pages, and in blue ink. When I got them, I was working on building a structure on the place, so I folded the envelope and stuck in into my back pocket. I forgot about the pages, it was hot, I sweated, and the ink ran some.

Two days later, I finally unfolded the pages and read them, and they were excellent. This kid needs to mature, but I believe he has what it takes. Opens on a rainy night in an alley––a man with a freshly killed (huge) corpse lying on asphalt. Here’s an exert:

“He was here. It was done. Nothing left to do except run. He fumbled with the gun for a moment, wondering whether to dispose of it, or carry it with him. He shoved down in the pocket of his gray trench coat. As he pivoted away from the body and turned onto the sidewalk, he reached into his left coat pocket for his cigarettes. The pack was drenched, but inside there were dry ones left. He stepped underneath the awning in front of a closed-down pawnshop and fished his lighter out of his pants pocket, with some difficulty in maneuvering around his trench coat. He attempted to light the cigarette, but failed. He was out of lighter fluid. He reached into his other pockets looking for matches, but could find none. It was all right, because he was trying to cut back.”

I forget when I was reading that a fourteen-year old wrote it. The short story is well done and entertaining, but mostly it’s exciting to find a young person who thinks about something other than video games and who seems to have been called to tell stories. The kid is thoughtful and already understands character, economy of words, how to set a mood, and he plays his story play out like fishing line …with a nice sharp hook at the end. Yes, it is amateurish in many respects, but there’s a lot of talent there and I am sure this young man will evolve and mature and add something to the world that is hungry for new voices and stories.

How many of us have discovered a young voice and offered encouragement? And how many of these offerings have we had to trudge through to find one that makes it all worthwhile.

Friday, May 15, 2009


By John Gilstrap

Have you ever stopped to think about what the reading process really is? We process spots on the page as letters, which we then combine to form words. Each word has a precise meaning, and when we combine them in our heads, the words form images that can be every bit as vivid as an image projected onto a screen. When you sit down to read a "good book" (the phrase means different things to different people), the images become more real than the physical environment in which you are reading. The plight of the characters who are trying to survive become far more compelling than the reality of your reading chair.

When I teach writing classes, I refer to this process as the magical transference, and I try to get students to recognize just how fragile it is. As a reader, when you're in The Zone, it only takes a single word, or a single abberant act on the part of a single character to eject you out of the story. Once ejected, you may or may not return. For me, when I look back on a terrific read, my judgement has a lot to do with how thoroughly I have felt connected with the story.

As an author, I realize that none of that is coincidental. Just as my connection with the stories I love was intentionally engineered by the authors of the books I love, I bear the sole responsibility for providing that same experience to my readers.

It's about "voice."

People who know me tell me that when they read my books, they hear my voice telling the story in their heads, and it sort of creeps them out. From where I sit, it's the highest compliment. And it's not accidental.

When I write a scene I'm always keenly and consciously aware of what the scene is meant o convey. If it's a relationship scene, I can take my time. I can use longer sentences with more complicated structure. If it's an action scene, on the other hand--say a shootout--then rapid-fire staccatto sentences are the order of the day. And through it all, I strive to be invisible. I have no interest in impressing readers with my vocabulary (as if it were big enough to do that), and I have no plan for them to marvel at my turns of phrase. At the end of the day, I just want them to become lost in my stories.

My formula is to bond readers to my work through my characters. A friend of mine, whose books outsell mine by a factor of ten, freely admits that his chacaters are an afterthought--that plot twists drive his plots. At then end of the day, we both get to the same place--a good story well-told--but our routes of travel couldn't be more different.

What do you think? How important is the magic spell that defines reading? How aware are you at every moment when writing that every new word threatens the magical spell? How do you make it all work for you?

At the end of the day, is it all just pure f%$#ing magic?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Digital Revolution is Already Here

by Michelle GagnonKindle DX

During a press conference last Wednesday to celebrate the release of their latest Kindle reader (more on that in a bit), CEO Jeff Bezos made a startling announcement: for books available in Kindle format, more than 35% of their total sales were for the Kindle editions. Considering the fact that the Kindle is still in its nascency, introduced a little over a year ago, that's an astonishing statistic (especially since it was basically mentioned as an aside during the introduction of a new product).

Granted, there are still only around 275,000 books available in Kindle format (in addition to numerous newspapers and magazines, which the new "DX" model is supposed to ease the reading of). Major writers like J.K. Rowling have yet to jump on board the Kindle bandwagon, so you can't read their books on the device (not a legal version, at least). But it certainly shows the tide is turning.

I also have it on good authority that a major online publishing site which already has more than 50 million users a month (that's right: 50 million) is about to jump into the fiction game. They're hoping to recast themselves as the YouTube of online publishing. Authors will be able to release their own books directly to the public, and the split will be 80/20...for a change, that 80% will be going to the author, not the publisher. Some publishers have already begun releasing new books-for free-on the site. This could potentially open the flood gates, hopefully having an impact on how major houses split royalties. In my first contract, e-book royalties (which were still a blip on the horizon) were split 50/50 between me and my publisher. The last contract, it was down to 15% of the digital list price. As a friend of mine said recently, it's tough to fathom the reasoning behind that split when the bulk of the publishing costs will have been completely eliminated. And why would already established NY Times bestselling authors continue to hand over such a significant chunk of their profits when they could release a book online, for free, and take that 80%?

It was particularly interesting that Amazon announced this during the release of a pricier Kindle model, not the cheaper one I would have anticipated. It could be a brilliant move- college students are traditionally early adopters, and a e-reader that seems perfectly tailored to reading textbooks could be a huge seller, despite the price tag (you can buy a laptop for less than the $489 a new Amazon DX costs). But surely they have a more reasonably priced Kindle on the horizon.

kindle appRumor has it that Apple has an e-reader in the works that will likely be as elegant and user-friendly as their iPod line. I'm willing to bet that by the end of the year, we'll see e-readers in the $100-200 range, just in time for the holidays.

Getting back to Apple...what Bezos neglected to mention (again, surprising- clearly he needs to hire me for his marketing team) was a free application released in March that enables iPhone users to order and read Kindle books. Last October, an independent firm estimated that Apple had sold more than 10 million iPhone 3Gs; and that was before the Christmas rush. They have yet to say precisely how many Kindle units have sold, but when you start adding up those numbers, it's already a significant chunk of the market.

I have both a Kindle and an iPhone, and the really cool thing is that I can be reading a book on one device, switch to the other, and it updates to the page I was on. The backlit screen can be tough to read for long periods, but for the length of a subway or bus commute it works great. The font size is large enough to read comfortably, and the pages are even easier to turn than they are on the Kindle. (However, you can only download Kindle books to the iPhone, not manuscripts sent in pdf format. Or if you can, I haven't figured it out yet).

I'm going to argue, once again, that all of this is a good thing. I find that I buy more books now that I own a Kindle, not fewer-the Kindle editions are cheaper, and so easy to download, I make impulse purchases that I would never make in a store. Especially now that my bookshelves are threatening to overtake the house, Kindle editions are a guilt-free option that go a long way toward maintaining domestic harmony. And that's always a good thing.

It’s Smackdown Day and I need your vote!

By Joe Moore

It’s going to be a short post today because there’s little time to spare. Like any great thriller, the clock is ticking. My co-author Lynn Sholes and I are in a death match with none other than Dan-da-Vinci-Code-Brown. And we’re determined to win.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Dan Brown. At least I like his books. megalithI’ve never actually met him, but I’m sure he’s a great guy you’d want to have a beer with. But today there’s something called the May Madness Thriller Author Smackdown over at a website/blog called Megalith. So a potential Brown-Sholes-Moore warm & fuzzy beer fest is not in the cards right now. This is serious smackdown stuff.

Each day of this month, the Megalith blog is matching up two thriller authors (or teams) to go head to head. The final round and championship will be on May 31. But today, we need your votes.

I mean, when you get right down to it, aside from a small difference of 80 million or so copies in sales, just like Dan’s, our thrillers have secret societies, ancient religious relics, angels and demons, globe-trotting heroes and villains, secret codes, seat-of-the-pants action, inside the Vatican cool stuff, creepy tunnels, dusty tombs, scary castles, and apocalyptic threats galore.

So call your family and friends, use names off headstones and the Chicago voter rolls—whatever it takes. Just get over to Megalith blog and vote. It’s a smackdown, and the future of the thriller world is in your hands.

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill and more.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Does your story have a "wobble"?

Sometimes your story may get unbalanced in some areas, like a tire that's gone out of alignment. Severe story wobble can kill the pacing and reading experience, so it pays to recognize the symptoms, and take remedial action to push your narrative back into shape.

When you're doing any of the following in your writing, it's likely that your story is getting off kilter:

  • Over describing the actions of the main character.

  • Over describing background information that you think the main character needs to know.

  • Under describing (or losing track of altogether) the actions of secondary characters in a scene.

  • Using repetitive sentence structure.

It's easy to fix most cases of story wobble. Here are some remedies:

  • Use only minimal actions to show the actions of the main character.

  • When you have some background information that the main character needs to know, sprinkle it in, or create an SME (Subject Matter Expert) for your story.

  • If it's been a while since you've mentioned a secondary character in a scene, be sure to "establish" the character in the reader's mind before giving him dialogue or action. Otherwise the reader won't know who the re-introduced character is.

  • Do search-and-destroy missions on repetitive sentence structure. It's easy to fall into using the same sentence patterns repeatedly throughout a book, so make sure you change things up in every paragraph. This is also known as varying the sentence rhythm.

What are some of your story wobbles that you have to search for and destroy when you're rewriting? Has there ever been one that has caused you embarrassment?

How much do awards matter?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I was on a Yahoo! discussion group the other day and we were discussing a recent book choice when the question was posed - how much do awards influence what you buy and read? This got me thinking of the bigger issue about how much mystery awards matter - for readers, writers and the publishing industry in general.

My theory (and feel free to disagree!) is that while awards are influential in terms of industry perceptions and in terms of making authors feel great, they have only minimal overall influence on readers. Now, I'm not talking about the mystery reading community but rather the wider reading community in general. I have to confess before I had my first book published I had never heard of most of the mystery book awards - and I was an avid reader! (though not, to my shame, a huge mystery reader - I have subsequently rectified this, at least a bit!). I vaguely knew about the Edgars but that was it - so while I had heard of the Booker prize I had no idea about the Lefty, Agatha, Macavity or Anthony - so for me (obviously!) awards didn't have much of an influence on my book buying. In fact, many awards (Booker for instance) often reflected rather strange selections so I was more inclined to be influenced by reviews and recommendations than the seal-of-award approval. But that's just me...

I do think awards recognize excellence and that the publishing industry certainly takes notice. I think (although I have no personal evidence...) that being nominated or winning an award may help an author secure the next publishing contract and perhaps garner a higher advance than would otherwise be the case. I also think, though, that an author's track record in terms of sales is what really counts for publishers...There have been many terrific authors who have been nominated and who have even won awards who have still been subsequently dropped by their publisher on the basis of sales.

The consensus on the Yahoo! group appeared to be that awards were nice but not really influential. Most people preferred to rely on recommendations made by friends or reviewers they trusted. Many on the listserv also noted that in the mystery field there were so many awards that some readers felt the impact was diluted as many 'popular' choices went on to dominate - some people felt the awards lost their significance as a result. Many of the mystery awards are nominated and won on the basis of votes from members or registered conference attendees so overlaps are probably only to be expected - but I'm not sure whether this means in terms of the awards themselves or their significance to readers.

So what about you? How much do you think awards matter? Do awards influence what you buy and read? If so, which ones are the most influential and if not, why not??
Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill and more.