Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Holidays!

AWREATH3 It's Christmas break here at the Kill Zone blog. During our 2-week hiatus, we'll be spending time with our families and friends, and celebrating all the traditions that make this time of year so wonderful. We sincerely thank you for visiting our blog and contributing to our rants and raves. We wish you a truly blessed holiday season and a prosperous 2010. From Clare, Kathryn, Joe, Michelle, John G., John M., and Jim to all our friends and visitors, Seasons Greeting from the Kill Zone authors.

See you back here on Monday, January 4.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Greatest Dancer Who Ever Lived

by James Scott Bell

Tis the Season of Joy, and since this is the final post at Kill Zone for a couple of weeks, I thought I'd leave you with some of the purest joy I know. It comes from the world of dance.

If you ask the question, who is the greatest dancer who ever lived, you'll get several responses. No doubt Fred Astaire will get a huge number of votes. Maybe Gene Kelly, Rudolf Nureyev, Nijinsky, Margot Fonteyn, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, a few others.

But there's one name you're probably not all that familiar with that deserves to head the list. I'm talking about Eleanor Powell.

I met Miss Powell in the mid-70's when I was in film school. In the days before DVDs and TCM, we had to find our films at revival houses. One night I went with some buddies to see Born to Dance, the 1936 musical starring Powell and James Stewart. And she was there. She spoke, and afterwards we went up and met her. She couldn't have been classier.

I wrote her a thank you letter and she wrote back and we started corresponding. At some point I invited her to come speak to a film class, and she readily agreed. So I drove my Ford Pinto into Beverly Hills, picked up her and her secretary, and drove us up to Santa Barbara. She gave a lecture and then, to demonstrate a point, she stepped out from behind the podium and started to tap. She was around 64 at the time. And she was still poetry in motion.

Ellie retired fairly early, after marrying Glenn Ford (a matrimonial misstep as it turned out). After her divorce from Ford she mounted a successful night club act, and was rediscovered by millions via the That's Entertainment series. A quietly devout woman, she spent her latter years working with young people, inspiring them to a higher vision. "Who we are is God's gift to us," she used to say. "What we become is our gift to God."

Why do I call her the greatest dancer of all? Because not only was she the equal of Astaire in tap (he was in awe of her, and that's saying something); she was also a ballet dancer, a gymnast (she could kick to perpendicular, bend herself completely backward, and spin like a top) and, if modern dance had been in vogue, she would have been the equal of Cyd Charisse or Gwen Verdon.

In other words, she could do it all, and she does it all in the one film she made with Astaire, Broadway Melody of 1940. Here she dances ballet on point, taps, ballrooms, bends and spins, all with her singular grace. This film has what is, IMO, the greatest tap dance ever recorded, Begin the Beguine. You can watch the full number here. Give yourself nine minutes. You will not regret it. At about the 1:30 mark Ellie comes on and does some of her signature kicks and moves, then at 2:30 Fred joins her for an elegant tap-ballroom number. Then there's a short interlude (I love the old swing sound, a la the Andrews Sisters), and then, at about 6:10, comes the greatest tap number you'll ever see. Just look at how much fun they seem to be having. That's another mark of their greatness, because they rehearsed this number for weeks, to the point of exhaustion. It was worth it. It is, without question, my favorite three minutes of film of any kind.

There's also another great tap number from the film, the "Juke Box Dance." It's the first one they worked on together. So sit back and enjoy the two greatest dancers of all time, just diggin' it. A merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

UPDATE: Since the current state of dance has been brought up, you might want to take a look at the Juke Box Dance as if it were done with a little more up-to-date beat. I find this to be rather cool, and shows again how these two transcend time.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Christmas Gift

John Ramsey Miller

I was twelve years old, it was 1962, and the struggle for civil rights was gathering speed and the social fabric and traditions of the old South were undergoing enormous strains and stresses, and the threat of violence was thick in the air. My father was the minister of the First Methodist Church in Starkville, Mississippi. I remember that September on a warm evening standing on our front porch with my father and my brothers and watching a torch-lit parade of citizens came into view and marched past the church and parsonage en route to the courthouse where they hanged an effigy of James Merideth, a young black man who was registering at Ole Miss. My father was a Christian and spoke each Sunday in a loud voice from his pulpit, and during the week in softer tones, but always steadily on message. His message was that regardless of skin tone, all of God’s children deserved to live their lives as equals. It seems odd now that we lived under an established and traditional social and economic system of apartheid.

It was three months later, and the weather had turned cold enough so that there was ice on the ground. I remember that my brother, Rush, and I were passengers in the family station wagon that afternoon. We stopped at a light on the highway and watched as a group of black children, who had been standing on the corner, hurried across the highway in front of the car. I remember there were six or seven children and that they were shivering in the wind, and that they wore tattered clothes and that one of the children was shoeless, and I remember horns honking behind us and how my father stared at the group until they were on the porch of a hovel, and had gone inside.

Later that afternoon, or that night, I remember one of the few loud arguments I ever heard my parents have. After a while my mother came into the den and told us that Christmas was going to be a slim one because our father had spend our family’s main Christmas funds on the needy. I think we were not happy about it at the time, but we had Christmas as a family and if it was slimmer than usual I can’t say because I do not remember and it matters not at all. The only thing I can say is that there was a family that lived in a house where the wind found its way through the cracks, but that the family who lived there had new coats and shoes, and enough to eat that Christmas because my father made sure of it. I don’t know what other gifts I got that Christmas, but I have never forgotten the one Christmas gift that my father gave me that day. But for him I might not have understood what Christmas is really about. The spirit of Christmas is in showing our love and appreciation to our family, our friends and to reach out to touch as many of the people we can who are in need of our love, our understanding, and our compassion.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Friday, December 18, 2009

My Bad Self Redux

Well, dear readers, this is the last time we'll be chatting for the next couple of weeks, so I thought I'd finish the thread I started a while ago, when I wrote about needing a new bad-ass photo of myself for Hostage Zero, coming next summer.
There were a couple of other options that we rejected, and this is where we ended up. Frankly, I like this one. I think it looks authorly, but more importantly, I think it looks like me. I've given up on the thought that my photo might actually sell books, but at least this one should do no harm.
I hope you all take time to hug your families in the nexet couple of weeks, and for those who are separated from family for whatever reason, I wish you all a blessed peace and fulfilling reunion in the near future.
Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The eRights Grab

by Michelle Gagnon

So to end the year, I thought I'd close with yet another issue confronting the publishing industry: eBook rights. Ten years ago, these were rarely included in contracts, since the prospect of reading books in this format was still fairly far off on the horizon.

But we're about to enter a whole new decade, by the end of which I suspect at least half of all books will be enjoyed on some form of eReader (and that's a conservative estimate). Which makes the move by Random House last week pertinent to all of us, especially authors who have backlist books where eRights weren't spelled out.
Here's what happened, as detailed by the Author's Guild:

"On Friday, Random House CEO Markus Dohle sent a two-page letter to many literary agents regarding e-books. Much of the letter is devoted to Random House's efforts and investments to market traditional and electronic books.

On the second page, Mr. Dohle gets to the point. After noting that most of Random House's backlist titles grant the publisher electronic book rights (we agree, since most backlist titles are from the past ten years, a period in which authors have generally licensed electronic rights in tandem with their print rights), he writes that "there have been some misunderstandings concerning ebook rights in older backlist titles." He then proceeds to argue that older contracts granting rights to publish "in book form" or "in all editions" grant electronic rights to Random House.

The misunderstandings reside entirely with Random House. Random House quite famously changed its standard contract to include e-book rights in 1994. (We remember it well -- Random House tried to secure these rights for royalties of 5% of net proceeds, a pittance. We called it a "Land Grab on the Electronic Frontier" in our press release headline.) Random House felt the need to change its contract, quite plainly, because its authors did not grant those rights to it under Random House's standard contracts prior to 1994.

A fundamental principle of book contracts is that the grant of rights is limited. Publishers acquire only the rights that they bargain for; authors retain rights they have not expressly granted to publishers. E-book rights, under older book contracts, were retained by the authors.

There's no need to take our word for this, however. A federal court in 2001 examined this precise matter in Random House v. Rosetta Books. Judge Stein of the Southern District of New York was unequivocal in his 10-page decision: authors did not grant publishers the e-book rights in the old book contracts at issue. Judge Stein specifically dismissed notions, raised by Mr. Dohle in his letter to agents, that the non-compete clauses of these old contracts in some manner acted to grant Random House electronic rights to the works, saying that this "reasoning turns the analysis on its head." The court pointed out that the license of rights comes solely from the contract's grant language, not from the non-compete clause, and that non-competition clauses, to be enforceable, have to be narrowly construed. Using the non-compete clause to secure future rights is unsustainable. An appellate court affirmed Judge Stein's decision.

We are sympathetic with the difficult position the publishing industry is in at the moment. The recession has been tough on book publishing, as it has been on many industries. And everyone with knowledge of the dynamics of the industry properly fears that Amazon's dominance of the online markets for traditional and especially e-books will give it a chokehold on industry profits. Difficult times, however, do not justify this attempt at a retroactive rights grab.

It's regrettable and unhelpful that Random House has chosen to try to intimidate authors and agents over these old book contracts. With such a weak legal hand, it would be well advised to stick to its strength -- the advantages that its marketing muscle can provide owners of e-book rights. It should also start offering a fair royalty for those rights. Authors and publishers have traditionally split the proceeds from book sales. Most sublicenses, for example, provide for a 50/50 split of proceeds, and the standard trade book royalty of 15% of the hardcover retail price, back in the days that industry standard was established, represented about 50% of the net proceeds of the sale of the book. We're confident that the current practice of paying 25% of net on e-books will not, in the long run, prevail. Savvy agents are well aware of this. The only reason e-book royalty rates are so low right now is that so little attention has been paid to them: sales were simply too low to scrap over. That's beginning to change.

If you have an old book contract in which you haven't granted e-book rights, patience is likely to pay off. The e-book industry is still young -- there's no need to jump in. And we strongly suspect e-royalty rates are at a low-water mark."

I feel the same way- can a publisher really justify a 75/25 split when the costs involved with bringing an eBook to market are dramatically less than those incurred by a mass market paperback? The fact that initially 5% was offered is almost laughable- clearly someone saw the writing on the wall. The question is, with the entire market beginning to shift in this direction, how can authors protect themselves? How do you prevent your backlist from being exploited? Since eBooks tend to retail for $5-$15, a more equitable distribution of the royalties means that even with this seismic shift, writers could still manage to earn a living from their work.

It'll be interesting to see how this issue in particular shakes out. No matter what, I think that despite all the doom and gloom, this is an exciting time to be involved in the publishing industry. The world is changing rapidly, and the publishing industry is now being dragged into the modern millenium. It's impossible to foresee exactly what the future will bring, but no matter what, the times they are a changin'.

Happy holidays to all of you. Thanks for taking time out of your lives this year to rant, discuss, and debate with us. I'm looking forward to more of the same in 2010.



All I Want For Christmas . . .

By Joe Moore

Last week I posted a blog about listening to music while writing, particularly motion picture scores. It works for me, and judging by the comments, many others like to use music when they write, too. Music is an amazingly powerful force in the world and can add to your memories of special times—there’s that tune from your first date, or the one you danced to as a newlywed on your wedding day. And so many countless other occasions.

One of the times of year I look forward to most is the Christmas season. And a big reason is, I love Christmas music. It must be playing throughout our house while we put up our decorations. And on Christmas day, it is nonstop in every room. There are so many great Holiday tunes to choose from; whether your tastes lean toward the traditional religious songs or the commercial pop hits, they all paint a warm and happy time of year.

My favorite has always been I’ll Be Home For Christmas, a poignant, emotional tune that never fails to bring back memories of a Christmas past with (hopefully) fond memories. It’s a short story with a surprise ending perfectly written for maximum impact.

From the Rock era, there are hundreds of great tunes, but few can get you smiling and moving like All I Want For Christmas Is You. And there’s no one that can belt it out better than the grand diva herself, Mariah Carey. So take a short break from what you’re doing, sit back and let Ms. C entertain you. If you’re not smiling by the time it’s over, check your pulse for vital signs.

Since TKZ will be on vacation from December 21 through January 3, let me take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you next year.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Christmas Carol

What really popped out about this book video for me is this:

" author found himself deep in debt, and wrote this story in six weeks."

A Christmas Carol, indeed!

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Santa List

Ah, the holiday season...time of looniness and mayhem... Today, being my last blog post for 2009, I'm going to channel the holiday spirit and write about conspicuous consumption (of books of course!) and my family's current wish list for Santa.

Now first up (appropriately enough) are my parents. Notoriously hard to buy for as they devour their favorite authors' latest books as soon as they come out, they have few books still on their list so I'm going for the audio book approach: I figure I can't go wrong with Good Omens by Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (my father is a huge fan of both) or The Screwtape Letters by C.S Lewis...only problem, not sure Santa's up on the whole 'bureaucracy of hell' or 'the end is nigh' stuff - might dampen the ho, ho, ho...but, bah humbug, that's what they're getting.

My twin boys are so much easier - I've already indoctrinated them into loving mystery books (the old fashioned, English kind, of course). Once again, Enid Blyton rules and my boys are already obsessed by the Secret Seven mystery series (seven kids, a dog named Scamper and lots of English village mysteries to solve) and are about to discover the Adventure series (four kids, a talking parrot and mysteries in exotic locations). Santa is fully up to speed on their book requirements though (sigh), Lego is still number one on their Santa list.

My husband is always a trickier proposition, book-wise. He barely has enough time to start a book let alone finish it, but I recently introduced him to a terrific Australian thriller writer, Michael Rowbotham, so I know he'll be trying to read him over the holidays. As for his list, well I'm going for non-fiction instead with Michael Chabon's latest, Manhood for Amateurs. I wasn't quite ready to put his wife's book, Bad Mother, on my Santa list (my fragile ego couldn't cope with unwrapping it on Christmas Day...) but I'd love to read it all the same.

I have a veritable library of titles on my list for Santa...and certainly not enough time to read them all...but my top three are: AS Byatt's Edwardian saga, The Children's Book; Cormac McCarthy's post apocalyptic, The Road, and Juliet Nicholson's non-fiction account of collective mourning in the aftermath of WW1, The Great Silence.

So what books are on your Santa list??

Sunday, December 13, 2009

10 Things I Think You Need to Know About Agents

by James Scott Bell

1. Before you approach an agent, make sure your concept is killer. That means a) not shopworn ("We've seen this before"); or b) not so far off the map that anyone with a profit motive will run screaming from the room. It has to be fresh but not too weird. The characters have to jump off the page. There has to be enough at stake. Your opening pages have too move. Easy, right? Of course not, because if it was your Aunt Sally would be writing New York Times bestsellers. But here's where you have to dig in if you want to interest an agent.

2. You are better off having no agent than having a bad agent. Anyone can print up business cards and call themselves "agent." But what do they know about the business? Find out. A reputable agent should have a website with a list of their clients. Start there. What's their background in the publishing biz? How long have they been agenting? There are some "watchdog" sites that issue warnings about certain names, so use your old pal Google.

3. You need to be businesslike about the relationship. Don't jump at the first bite. Talk to the agent by phone. Ask some questions, see how you click personally. Be objective about this. From the agent's side it's business; it should be from your side, too.

4. You are probably unrealistic about what an agent can do for you. Having an agent doesn't guarantee a contract. And just because an agent doesn't get you a sale doesn't mean he or she is the problem. It might be your writing, or your timing. A good agent will suggest ways to overcome market weaknesses, but ultimately you have to take charge of improving as a writer. And you'd better do it, because there are a bunch of other writers out there who are.

5. Your agent has many clients; you have only one agent. Don't expect all the attention. Don't expect immediate return of phone calls, unless it's a publishing emergency. Don't expect immediate return of emails unless it is an issue affecting your professional life, like, right now.

6. But agents aren't mind readers, either. If you have a question or issue, contact them. Don't let your frustrations build to the point where it affects your writing.

7. Agents are human beings. "Thank You" notes (real ones, made out of paper, sent with a stamp) do mean something. So do Starbucks cards and chocolate.

8. Agent Rachelle Gardner has a great post with her take on some "bad advice" she's read regarding agents. Read it.

9. Read blogs by agents, but don't let the plethora of information freak you out. Ultimately the most important thing is your writing, the thing you have most control over. Keep coming up with ideas and keep growing as a writer.

10. Fred Allen, the famous radio comedian, once said, "You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood and put it into a gnat's navel, and still have room for two caraway seeds and an agent's heart." I get to tell that joke because I'm a former lawyer and had to put up with lawyer jokes all the time. But now the truth. The overwhelming majority of agents I've met at conferences love books and authors and want the best for both. So approach agents professionally. They want to like you. Show them what you've got. Don’t be dull and don't be desperate. It's a tough business out there right now and it's not just writers feeling it, it's agents, too. Everybody in this profession has to keep slugging.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I Try To Not Complain

John Ramsey Miller

I have been so very fortunate in my careers and my personal life that when I realize I’m complaining, I feel like crap. I have been lucky, and my hard work has paid off in spades. True I’m not a Dan Brown, but I’ve made a very good living from my writing, and in fact I have not had to work at a non-writing job since the middle eighties. That may no longer be the case, but I’ve got few complaints about that.

I’m seriously considering looking for a day job after two decades of writing. I shudder to think about jobs that I would be qualified for and businesses that would have me. Every time I’ve been to Walmart, I see they have the same greeter, and standing at the doorway and the thought of saying, “Welcome to Walmart” thousands of times a day makes my feet and my throat hurt.

Realistically speaking I’m a dead man when it comes to a job application. And can you imagine how “Contemplative Storyteller or Professional Fiction Author from 1994-2009” will read to the HR people at the local Piggly Wiggly? Even bagboys need better creds than that.

I never finished college. I suck at math. I can’t dance. I couldn’t sell ice water in the Mojave. Most of my clothes as of late are Levis, T-shirts and flannel shirts and I’m shy unless I’ve had a couple of shots. Even if sixty is the new fifty, I’m middle aged.

I’m good with guns, so I could be a night watchman, except that I am usually asleep by eight-thirty. I have some other ideas, but I’m still writing books thinking if I don’t write, I might have to actually get a real job. If I did spend my days saying, “Welcome to Walmart” I might could steer shoppers to my books in the paperback section of the Literary department.

God, I need a vacation.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Go Ahead: Muster the Courage to Sing Along

By John Gilstrap

I understand that all too often, my hard-earned cynicism shows through, and that I can seem somewhat . . . harsh to people who don't know me very well. Come to think of it, I might come off as harsh to people who do know me well, also, but I like to think that they grant me the benefit of doubt.

Come Christmastime, though, I become all sappy and tingly. Cynicism makes way for childish optimism.

Our decorations go up the weekend after Thanksgiving, and they stay up through the New Year. The Gilstraps are not competitive decorators, but we're thorough decorators. In my world, there's never enough garland or lights. Our Christmas tree is adorned with ornaments from every family vacation, plus two generations of arts and crafts products. My parents' first treetop ornament has grown too fragile to actually serve atop the tree anymore, but it nonetheless has a prominent place on the kitchen mantle. My son's favorite Teddy bear from back in the day drives a sleigh that also transports our departed black Labrador retriever's favorite chew toy.

Are you getting the picture here? Christmas for me is a time for unabashed sentimentality. It's about loving the people who are in my life, and remembering those who have passed beyond my life. It's a time when I believe people are nicer to each other. It's the time of year when Disney-style happy endings always seem possible, if not particularly probable.

It's with this lightness of heart that I make my daily commute into Washington, DC from my outpost town of Fairfax, Virginia via the Orange Line of the Metro system. I've only been a day-job commuter for a little more than four years, but for each of those, I've witnessed a Christmas phenomenon that I've never seen reported in any of the local news: A nicely-dressed Asian man boards the train at one of the suburban stops, excuses himself, and then sings a Christmas carol to the commuters.

Maybe you need to understand the commuting rules of engagement in Washington, but no one--no one--speaks during the morning commute. We're very important people in DC, and interruptions are unheard of. Thus, when someone not only sings, but sings of Christmas--the most un-PC of holidays in DC--folks actually get a little nervous. If he had a gun, we'd know what to do; but when he brings a message of cheer, we get flummoxed.

I've done a fair amount of singing in my lifetime--both in the shower and out of it--and I know just about every Christmas carol by heart, but even though I'd love to sing along, deep down inside, I'm a coward. Many of my seat mates and aisle mates roll their eyes when they see this unnamed guy. A few giggle. In my gut, I want to go for the Disney Christmas scene where everyone lives inside a musical and no one is embarrassed to belt out the words, but I've never grown a big enough pair to give it a shot.

Until this morning.

The mysterious Asian man entered the subway car and started with one of my favorites, "O Little Town of Bethlehem", and I am proud to announce that I sang along with him. I didn't mumble, either. I sang full-voice, drawing an annoyed glance from the commuters sitting in front of me. I wish I could report that the entire car was united in song by the time we were finished, but alas, that was not the case. A few people were humming, though, and more than a few gave my guy a hearty "Merry Christmas" as he got off at the next stop.

I admire my mystery man. I appreciate his efforts to bring joy to the hearts of grumpy commuters. If only more people would sing, think how much better their days would become.

What do you think? Could you muster the courage to sing along?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Point of it All

by Michelle Gagnon

The last few weeks have easily been among the most challenging of my writing career. I've been on tour, which sounds like great fun until you actually have to spend the greater part of a month away from your family, surviving on granola bars and coffee since events invariably take place at dinnertime and I haven't yet figured out how to work meals around that.

Plus for the first time I had an event where no one-not one person- showed. I realize that happens to most authors at one point or another, and I'm not claiming to generally draw crowds. But still-it was disheartening.

My publisher announced a new vanity-publishing imprint that caused quite a bit of furor (more on that here). And the ensuing back and forth consumed time and energy that I really couldn't spare.

Especially since I've been juggling the marketing of THE GATEKEEPER while rushing to meet an extremely tight deadline for my next book.

And, for the first time in my writing career, I stalled out.

One of my main characters was trapped in a very dark, hopeless place. And I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to extricate her from such a desperate situation. Not outlining had suddenly come back to haunt me for the first time. I was fairly certain I'd written myself into a corner.

As I dragged myself out of bed to catch a 6AM flight, it struck me as an apt metaphor. I'd spent years of my living striving to get to this point in my career, and for the first time since signing a writing contract, I wasn't enjoying it. I know that before I was published, listening to writers whine about their hardships always induced a snort- but there are occasional drawbacks to getting what you want. And as I shuffled through security yet again, it all seemed pointless. I felt trapped by deadlines, tour dates, and all of the ancillary nonsense that sometimes goes on in this industry. I was mired in the same place as my character.

Funny how life works sometimes. I opened my inbox to find this email:

My husband was a fan of yours. He entered one of your contests a year or so ago and won the book "Tunnels". You autographed the book and it meant a lot to him. He was reading the second book "Boneyard" when he was placed in hospice. He was very sick and he so desperately wanted to finish the book. I tried to read to him but he wanted to read it himself. He never got the chance to finish your book but I just wanted you to know how much he enjoyed them. Thank you for sending the autographed book. I, too, am reading your books and looking forward to next one's debut, Thank you for making the last months of his life just a bit happier.

I really can't express how much this email meant to me. It's easily the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my work-and it's absolutely more than it deserves. So the next time I find myself descending into that dark place, I have this lovely note to serve as my reminder. I am so very fortunate to be healthy and whole, doing what I'm doing.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Big Score

By Joe Moore

Over at Murderati, my friend Brett Battles  recently blogged about writing while listening to music. Since I’m a big believer in doing it, I thought I’d add my two cents to the topic.

Lets start by looking at the cinema. Arguably, a movie would lose its impact without music. Even in the days of silent movies, there was a live piano player in the theater whose job was to add drama to each scene. You can have the greatest photography, acting, direction, set design and script, but without music, the movie would probably fall flat. Not to be confused with what some call movie soundtracks--usually a collection contemporary tunes--movie scores are written and orchestrated pieces of original music specifically score designed for a particular scene. They enhance and  support the visual images. If you listen to a movie score isolated from the visuals, it can verge on being classical in nature. As a matter of fact, I consider names like Trevor Jones, Randy Edelman, Hans Zimmer, Ennio Morricone, James Horner, John Williams, Howard Shore, and many others to be our modern day classical composers.

I discovered many years ago that I could also use the element of music to help me write. Someone gave me the CD score to THE MISSION with Robert De Niro. It happened to be playing on my stereo as I started a new chapter, and I realized that the music set exactly the same mood as the scene on which I was working. So from then on, as I watched movies I would pay particular attention to the scores. If they evoked the type of mood I sought in my WIP, or just set a very cool, dramatic, romantic or spooky mood, I would order the CD and rip it to MP3.

I now have a huge collection of scores on my computer and rarely sit down to write without my MP3 player on “shuffle”. I don’t use any music with lyrics since I find that other people’s words distract me. That’s why scores work so well—in most cases they are instrumental.

So if you’d like to try writing dramatic scenes to music, here’s a short list of my favorite CDs that seem to have it all when it comes to creating a mood found in most mysteries and thrillers.

A Beautiful Mind, James Horner

The Bone Collector, Craig Armstrong

Breach, Mychael Danna

Burn After Reading, Carter Burwell

Crash, Howard Shore

Diabolique, Rand Edelman

A Very Long Engagement, Angelo Badalamenti

The Forgotten, James Horner

Gothika, John Ottman

House of Sand and Fog, James Horner

The Human Stain, Rachel Portman

The Illusionist, Philip Glass

The Lives of Others, Gabriel Yared

March of the Penguins, Alex Wurman

Munich, John Williams

One Hour Photo, Reinhold Heil

Passengers, Edward Shearmur

Premonition, Klaus Badelt

Runaway Jury, Christopher Young

The Sentinel, Christophe Beck

The Hours, Philip Glass

The Missing, James Horner

Unfaithful, Jan Kaczmarek

Amazon lets you sample the tracks before you purchase, so enjoy listening then find the one that fits your WIP.

Do you write to music? Lyrics or instrumental. What are your top five CDs for background music while you write?

Monday, December 7, 2009

A little inspiration is in order

If you're like me and could use a little inspiration, you should read this wonderful essay about becoming a writer by Alexander Chee. He writes eloquently about the experience of studying writing with novelist Annie Dillard.

After you read it, come back and tell us about your own most important writing teacher. In my case, a creative writing course I took from Robert Pinsky (who later became Poet Laureate) at Wellesley College changed my thinking about writing. I remember how one day he opened a classroom window (on an upper floor) and leaned way,
w-a-a-y out of it, to a point that made me nervous; he was showing us that we had to risk discomfort and break out of our Wellesley-refined shells, to dig deep enough to get the stories out. Even though I was focused back then on becoming a journalist (I didn't think of writing fiction as a "real" career), I still remember the impact that course had on me.

What about you? Which teacher had the most direct influence on you as a writer?

Here be Sharks...

Please join me in Welcoming guest blogger, BRAD PARKS, to the Killzone...though be warned, treacherous waters lie ahead...

Editor’s note: In this guest blog post, the author has indicated he will be employing an extended metaphor to explain how he writes. Metaphors are highly complex literary devices and should only be attempted with great care. Ask your doctor if you’re healthy enough to use metaphors. Do not use metaphors if you take nitrates for chest pain. If your metaphor lasts more than four hours, consult an editor immediately, as this could be a sign of rare but serious case of over-writing.

There are a lot of different writing methods out there, and – like a lot of you, I’m sure – I experimented with a number of them through the years. I tried outlining, but found it stifled my spontaneity. I tried starting with the end in mind, but found it made the end too predictable. I tried sketching out key scenes before I began, but found myself too impatient trying to get from once scene to the next. Finally, I found the method that works best for me. I call it, “Writing like an open-water distance swimmer.”

Editor’s note: Wait a tick, isn’t that actually a simile? You used “like” or “as.” That makes it a simile. You must be one of those kids who daydreamed through the section of eighth grade English where you were supposed to learn the difference.

I got into swimming a few years back when my surgically repaired knee kept making it difficult to continue jogging as much as I wanted. I enjoyed swimming, except for one thing: Pools are boring. You swim to the wall. You do a flip turn. You swim back. It’s the equivalent of writing by formula – it’s exercise, sure, but there’s not enough to keep it interesting.Then my wife and I moved to the tidewater part of Virginia, to a small cottage on a wide section of the Rappahannock River, not far from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The climate is fairly mild here, so I’m able to start swimming in April each year and, with the help of a wetsuit, can keep it up until the end of October.

Editor’s note: Yeah, yeah. You’re a freakin’ iron man. Get on with it, will you?

And here’s where, for me, writing is like open water distance swimming: Each day, I know where I’m starting (on the beach just down from our house). And I know I need to get back to dry land eventually. But I don’t know exactly what I’m going to encounter on the way. All I can do is plunge into the water and start stroking. Certainly, there are dangers involved in open water distance swimming. You can get swept away by strong currents. You can suffer a cramp. You can get attacked by a great white shark.

Editor’s Note: Hold on. A great white shark? C’mon. You already said you swim in a tributary of the Chesapeake Freakin’ Bay. Everyone knows great white sharks are ocean-going creatures. More importantly, Wikipedia knows it. Shape up, buster.

You can get stung by a jellyfish.

Editor’s Note: Better.

Yet that sense of danger is what keeps it fun and interesting. Between the tide, the wind and the waves, the river is never quite the same place from one swim to the next. I’ve found writing this way keeps things fresh – every day is a new adventure.

Plus, as a writer, you get the chance to edit what you’ve done and correct your mistakes. It’s the equivalent of going back over your swimming route in a row boat, being able to say, “Oh, that’s where the current got a little strong for me, I should have swum over here instead. That’s where I got attacked by that great white shark…”

Editor’s Note: You’re just testing me now.

“… that’s where I got stung by that jellyfish.”

Editor’s Note: Better. Hey, did you hear about the giant jellyfish that sunk a 10-ton Japanese fishing boat ( Honestly, how embarrassed were those guys when they went back to the dock and had to tell their fishing buddies, “Yeah, the Mary Jane gave it her all, but the jelly was just too much for her!”

And then you go back and fix it. But – and here’s perhaps the most important part of the metaphor – there’s really only one way to get from one side of the river to the other. You have to keep swimming.Unlike jogging, or working out on an elliptical machine or lifting weights, you can’t just stop when you get tired. Once you’ve thrown yourself out there in the river, in water over your head, you’ll drown if you let yourself stop. And maybe there are times when the shore looks like it’s an impossible distance away or you think you won’t be able to make it. The only way to get through it is to keep going, one stroke at a time. And you know from your previous swims – or your previous writing sessions – that if you just keep doing that, you’ll eventually get back to shore, with soft sand under your feet.Do you have a good metaphor for your writing? I’d love to hear it.

Editor’s Note: Just, please, no sharks.

BRAD PARKS is an escaped journalist, having done time at The Washington Post and The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger as a sportswriter and news feature writer. A graduate of Dartmouth College, he is a washed-up jock, a veteran of community theater and a terrible golfer. He lives in Virginia with an understanding wife and two adorable young children. To learn more about Brad or FACES OF THE GONE, visit You can also sign up for his newsletter (, become a fan of Brad Parks Books on Facebook ( or follow him on Twitter (

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What, Writers Worry?

by James Scott Bell

In light of last week's post about how "bleak" November seemed to many fiction writers, I thought I'd reflect a little on worry. Writers, after all, really have no cause to worry about anything, right?

I mean, putting aside anxiety over whether they'll ever get an agent, get published, sell enough to stay published, or if they do get published will they get stink bomb reviews; or wondering if they are real writers or only massive frauds, or if they are doing too little self-promotion, or too much; concerns over whether they're putting undue strain on their marriages or other close relationships; and getting migraines wondering what the future of publishing will look like – discounting all that, writers really have no reason to worry at all.

But, given that some do (I've actually met a few of them), I should like to offer two ways to deal with this mental malady: drugs and Bell's MO (not to be confused with Phillips MO, which offers relief of another kind entirely).

First, drugs. Luckily for writers, pharmaceutical companies have been on the job to develop several treatments for all manner of writerly concerns. Among the most popular are:

Damitol - relieves symptoms associated with wanting to chuck the whole writing thing. Side effects may include cursing, smashing things and inordinate sobbing. Should not be taken by nursing mothers and church deacons.

Agenex - Controls blood pressure when you have to fire your agent. Side effects may include obsession with the number 15.

Bombasic - makes you think you're charming when drunk (Hemingway reportedly was in a research group for this drug). Side effects may include social opprobrium, intense morning headaches and regret.

Tuborin - alerts you to long sections in your manuscript without conflict.

Promotia - help overcome depression when you discover how much your publisher is paying for marketing.

Noloft - take this if your book fails to make a bestseller list.

Paynaise - Prevents the onset of angst associated with two-figure royalty checks.

Ripitor - normalizes the nervous system after you've read a horrible review.

Okay, not everyone is into pharmaceuticals -- and recreational drugs are definitely off limits -- so I offer an alternative. Call this my own, personal modus operandi for dealing with writer worry. It will work for you if you follow these steps:

1. Take a moment to note the benefits of your worry. You are engaged. You are alive. You have blood coursing through your veins. You are not a chair.

2. Remind yourself of the truth handed down by a wise Jewish carpenter, who once said, "Who by worrying can add one cubit to his span of life?" IOW, worry does absolutely no good regarding future outcomes and you know that. Tell yourself over and over until it sinks in.

3. Now, figure out what's the worst thing that can happen if you don't get your desired result. Let's say you're waiting to hear about a submission to Penguin. What's the worst? You get rejected by Penguin. That's it. (Do not let your imagination run away with you. The very worst thing that can happen is that the acquisitions editor is so angry at your abuse of literature she hires a hit man to take you out. I mean, be reasonable).

4. Next, write down all the ways you can come back strong if the worst thing happens. You got rejected by Penguin. How do you come back from that? You can a) submit elsewhere; b) prepare another project; c) rework the current project according to feedback; d) schedule a talk with your agent; e) study some aspect of the craft you're weak on. And so forth.

5. After going through steps 3 and 4, tell yourself that you can live with the worst thing. If it happens, it's not going to debilitate you. It's not going to stop you. Determine to accept the worst if it happens.

Shameless bonus tip: Read chapters 15 & 16 of The Art of War for Writers, which has more about conquering writer's worry.

There is still one more step to go, to keep the worry from creeping back up on you. And that is – you know what's coming –write.

Writing is the best antidote to any worries about writing. When you're into the page, when the story is coming out, you haven't got space for any of that anxiety stuff.

Write a short story. Write an opening chapter that you make up on the spot – and see if you have something here that sparks a novel. Write an essay or a diatribe. Start your memoirs. Write a blog entry or well thought out comment for someone else's blog. Write a character biography.

Do writing exercises, like morning pages. Download Dr. Wicked's reasonably priced Write or Die program, and then . . . write or die.

Life is too short, and your window for writing too narrow, for you to let worries hang you up. So don’t let them.

Is worry a big problem for you? How do you handle it? Feel free to leave an anonymous comment if you wish to be more open than your public persona is comfortable with.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Small Change In Genre

By John Ramsey Miller

My oldest grandson, Elijah, started it seven years ago. He had issues with his hearing due to a chronic gathering of fluid in his ears and when he heard his father calling me Pops, it sounded like "Dots." Since then, each consecutive grand child added to the family has called me Dotz. My sole concession to having that tag for the remainder of my life was to butch up the name by replacing the "s" at the end with a "z." Now even my children and my wife refer to me as Dotz. I’ve never minded it at all. In fact I sort a like it. The other grandfather is called grandpa Ed, and I bet he’d kill for an actual nickname like Dotz. You can choose a self-aggrandizing nickname for yourself, but those rarely stick.

The grand children love coming out to the place because we have dogs, chickens, frogs, lizards, bugs, a large fire-pit, art supplies, a large field, woods, a motor-driven wheelbarrow, several wagons, a four-wheeler, computers, a toy closet, and their grandmother is always cooking something tasty, which Dotz won’t be allowed to eat because his doctor says so. They can run and play out here without having to worry about traffic, or a lot of the perceived dangers of town. We do have sharp tools, ropes, barbed wire, thorns, grass stains, nettles, exposed tree roots, holes, poison oak and ivy, falling satellite debris, and the possibility of an occasional Copperhead, Black Widow spiders, and rabid animals wandering onto the property.

My 4-year-old granddaughter spent the weekend at our ten-acre mini-farm. There are always chores to perform out in the boonies, and I had dropped some trees a few weeks back so it was time to cut them up for winter fires since cold weather was fast approaching. Sasha was complaining because all we do is work, so I piled my chainsaw and splitting tools into my motor-driven wheelbarrow, and put her up into the bed and took off through the woods.

When we got to the trees, I trimmed the limbs off and started cutting the trunks into sections that would fit into the stove. Sasha loved the ride and as I started cutting, she watched from the wheelbarrow.

Then my wife asked me to cut kindling and I cut the limbs up. Then while I was cutting the trunk, my wife had Sasha help her load the wheelbarrow with smaller logs, and Sasha accompanied the wheelbarrow to where we were stacking wood and helped her grandmother stack it. Sasha helped until we were done, smiling all the while. I realized that my grandchildren all get involved with chores like gathering eggs and feeding chickens and a million little things we have to do to stay above the water, so to speak. And I thought about how mush they enjoy being with us and what they are learning. It’s giving them a boost to their self-images, and perhaps even more important than playing video games or watching TV.

So I’ve been setting aside part of my days to work on children’s stories based on my personal experiences with my grandchildren and the lessons we learn on this mini-farm. These stories are a bit different that the usual stories for children. These are a few of the “Farm Fun With Dotz” titles:

“Gathering Eggs With Dotz” or “Eggs are not baseballs, Little Rush.”

“Wild Creatures On Dotz’s Farm” or “This is why we never pick up snakes.”

“Being Gentle With The Farm Babies” or “Dotz is going to teach you how to use a shovel.”

“The Rooster Has Spurs” or “First Aid on the Farm.”

I like writing simple sentences and books that are just a few pages long. But writing for children isn’t as uncomplicated as you’d think since the lessons have to be positive, and it’s so easy to warp young minds. Telling children stories isn’t nearly as easy as writing thrillers. Don’t take my word for it, give it a try. You might just write the next CHARLIE AND THE UNFORTUNATE CHAINSAW INCIDENT.

Ever thought about going cross-genre into something totally different?

Friday, December 4, 2009

A New Cover For The New Year

by John Gilstrap

When my new book, Hostage Zero, is released next July, it will mark my 7th time going through this process, and I confess that it continues to amaze me every single time. I start with the nugget of an idea, and then nurture it into a concept and from there into an outline. When it looks like something that can sustain itself as a whole story, I take that deep breath and start filling up the page.

Man, those first few chapters really fly. Look, ma! I'm a real writer! I'm freaking brilliant! Jeeze, why isn't every book this easy? Then I read what I've written.

Uh-oh. Who the hell wrote those sentences? They suck. They're all clunky and awkward. Grammar, anyone?

So the rewrite of that first section begins, and as the layers of polish begin to show a shine, I begin to believe that maybe some smattering of talent remains. Sure, I can do this.

Then, halfway through the second act, I begin to think that I might have chosen the wrong story to write. Why would the characters do what I'm having them do? Jesus, nobody talks like that in real life. Oh, for crying out loud, that character needs to know how to shoot, but I've already mentioned three times that he's never held a gun. Time to re-rewrite the front of the book.

At last, there's the ending. I know it's the ending because I actually wrote those magic words, "The End." But I can't end it there. It's flat. Nobody wants to read a book with a flat ending. Time to re-rewrite the back of the book.

Meanwhile, my deadline has come and gone. I'm late on delivery. I read the book through, from beginning to end, making edits along the way, but you know what? It seems good now. But do think that because I really think it, or because I'm past my deadline and I have to think it? Only one way to know for sure. I attach it to an email to my editor and I click "Send."

Then I wait. And wait.

Then I get the call. The editor loves the book! I mean, really loves it. She tells me great things, and I relax, hoping--praying--that I end up with a cover that will actually help sell the book. (We've discussed here before that some covers kill books before they've had a chance to thrive.) My editor tells me that the art department is working on a great concept, but every art department tells every author that same thing. Please, Lord, get me a good cover.

Then I see it. Wow. I love it. But do I really love it, or is that torpedo already in the water and I have to love it. What do y'all think?

Thursday, December 3, 2009


by Simon Wood

Today TKZ is thrilled to welcome Simon Wood, a darn good writer who I was fortunate enough to tour with last summer (I can still recite his "one time I literally ran into an assassin" story by heart). He shares a unique take on what we've been discussing quite a bit lately, creative ways for authors to earn a living in the digital age.

The writing world is an odd industry, but no different from any other. I think writers sometimes forget that our stories are commodities. A writer’s body of work doesn’t lose its value. Therefore, stories should be worked for all they're worth.

I didn’t look at my work this way until I heard science fiction and fantasy legend Gene Wolfe speak at a convention a few years ago where he was the guest of honor. He was talking about how he's always made his stories work for him. A good story doesn’t have to end its life at its first printing. Like Halley’s Comet, it can keep coming back again and again for the enjoyment of a new audience. He'd calculated how much some of his stories had earned for him. A number of his stories had earned several dollars per word. Admittedly, it had taken a couple of decades to do that. Nevertheless, that was pretty amazing.

This was quite a revelation to me. I took to heart what Gene had said. I’d had a handful of stories published so far, most earning a couple of cents per word on average. I looked at my body of work and found ways of getting my stories published and re-published. Stories I sold to print markets I resold to webzines. I looked to foreign language markets where the story would be fresh. Within a couple of years, I’d resold some of my stories three times over.

While I still have a couple of stories reprinted every year, with print markets shrinking and most other markets looking for unpublished fiction, I turned to the internet. A few years ago, I discovered They were only interested in previously published fiction. They operate on a similar platform as iTunes where users downloaded stories like people do with songs. It’s worked out very nicely. My stories are still available and their popularity is determined by the readers.

I’m now taking this approach with my books that are going out of print. I like to think there's a demand for these books. Maybe not enough for a re-issue, but there's certainly more than enough for e-publishing. The likes of Amazon’s Kindle and have made it easy for me to keep my books out there and meet a demand. I've recently e-published DRAGGED INTO DARKNESS and WORKING STIFFS, two books of mine that I believe contain good work.

This is where a little discretion comes in too. I’m only republishing things that people ask about or that I can hand-on-heart say represent my best writing. There's no point in me putting out things that are subpar. And I’ll be honest. There's stories of mine that got published, especially in the early years, which I look upon as amateurish now and while I’m not ashamed of those stories I don’t feel they represent what I write now. I could be a total reprint slut and toss everything I’ve ever written at the eBook reader but it’s not worth it. There's a massive pinball effect with a writer’s work. Someone reads a story and like it, so they check out something else I’ve written. That only works if what is out there is good. If it’s bad, it has the converse effect and they're unlikely to seek out other works.

I view eBooks as another weapon in my publishing arsenal and not a threat to it. That’s why I’m also going to explore the e-publishing route for some stories that I’ve been sitting on that don’t fall into traditional print publishing options such as novellas and novelettes. There's certainly an opportunity for me to experiment.

So how has working my stories hard fared for me? Not as well as it has for Gene Wolfe, but I’m getting there. Several of my stories have been picked up for different anthologies and have earned me two and three times what I was originally paid for the piece. One story, TRAFFIC SCHOOL, was published three times, each time earning pro-rates, before I put it on Fictionwise and there, it has found a following. It’s by far my bestselling story by a factor of at least two to one. I think this creepy little short about bad driving habits will be my little goldmine. My work for Writer’s Digest has done well too. A couple of the pieces have been reused two and three times and have earned four-digit paydays. I’ve now placed them on and I’ll see how they work out there.

At the end of the day, as long as there are readers, stories are commodities that don’t diminish with age or time and the electronic option is helping there. And that’s all good as far as I’m concerned.

Learn more about Simon at and his work at:

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