Saturday, December 18, 2010

Happy Holidays!

imageIt's Winter break here at the Kill Zone. 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 commenting on our rants and raves. We wish you a truly blessed Holiday Season and a prosperous 2011. From Clare, Kathryn, Joe M., Nancy, Michelle, Jordan, John G., Joe H., John M., and James to all our friends and visitors, Seasons Greeting from the Kill Zone.

See you back here on Monday, January 3.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Talent Will Out

By John Gilstrap
In my effort to maintain a digital footprint in the Worldwide Web, I participate on several writers' boards on Facebook and LinkedIn.  For the most part, those boards are filled with shameless self-promotion of self-published books, but every now and then, I find thread that piques my interest.  Recently, I found two: One dealt with authors' needs to brand themselves, and a second with the pricing of eBooks.  In my mind, the two topics are closely related, and I thought I'd nudge a discussion here in the Killzone.

As I see things, the act of writing a story is an art form that not everyone is cut out to do.  There's an X-factor to story creation that transends the mechanics of writing (which can be taught), and involves a certain clarity of vision which cannot be taught.  For lack of a better term, we'll call that X-factor talent. 

That said, the selling of one's art is 100% commerce, reducing the finished work to a product among other products that are seeking attention from the same customer base.  Like any product, a book needs to be noticed before it can be successful.

This brings me to the notion of branding.  Given the nature of our product, there are only two options that I can see: we can brand the book, or we can brand the author.  In a perfect world, we brand both.  As consumers become comfortable with the way a particular author tells a story, they'll start looking forward to the next release.

Branding presents a delicate mix.  Covers from an author should invoke some sense of the previous books, and the stories from book to book should take readers on the same kind of ride without becoming repetitious.  In my own case, I jealously guard my July 1 pub date, ever aware that readers are learning to look for the new releases at that time of year.  All of these little detals perpetuate the brand.

Branding can't be rushed.  Except for the occasional first-novel lightning strike, the common denominator I see among the mega-sellers in our industry is the regular production of books.  Year after year--more or less at the same place in the calendar--they produce yet another story for their readers.  Over time, they create a critical mass, and then they're off and running.  Huge marketing budgets and media campaigns aside--all of which are justified only by growing readership--bestsellers are born of word-of mouth.  I honestly don't think there's a way to force it.

Which brings me to the subject of pricing, whether you have control over your cover price, or if that is controlled by your publisher.  All too often in this business model, the production side of the business looks too hard at their own interests while turning a blind eye to their customers.  Here's the question that we and our publishers need to ask when it comes to pricing: What's the level that will give incentive to readers to read our book instead of a book by an author who's far better known in the genre?

There's a lot of noise on the other boards about authors disrespecting themselves by pricing their books too low.  This is nonsense.  Given all the entertainment alternatives, it's in our best interest to get people to read our works at virtually any price.  The fact that we need $X to make ends meet is irrelevant to a reader's decision to buy our work.  If they've never heard of us, but are intrigued by all the other things that have to go right for success to even be an option, we've got to make that a low-risk gamble.  Vince Flynn and I write in a similar genre, but he has many more fans than I do, who are clearly willing to shell out $28 every year for his next story.  God bless him.  If I want to tap into that reader base--and I do, as does my publisher--then we need to give readers a reason.  If their rationale for picking up their first Gilstrap book is, "What the heck, it's only $4.00," I'm okay with that.  I'm also confident that they'll feel they got a great ride for their investment.

With luck, that reader will share his perception of value with his friends, and come next summer--or the one after that--those friends will dare to take a chance on their own.  Do it enough times, and a critical mass is born.

So, what do y'all think?  Is it worth it to surrender some coin on per-copy compensation to increase the reader base?  Have you been driven to buy a book you otherwise wouldn't have because the price was right?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Can Your Character Go the Distance?

A strong trend in the publishing industry is the concept of a series—books that are linked through characters, plot, or world building—with a continuing story line. Many publishing houses read a concept or an author’s voice and like it so much that they want to buy more than one book. And linking the books can also build readership or sustain an author’s readers who are already familiar with their work.

In a blog post on Nov 13, 2010 “What makes a book publisher drool? Can you say series?” Alan Rinzler wrote:

If we smell a potential series in a promising new submission, we try to nail it down with a multiple book contract. That trend is apparent in the numbers of new multi-book deals listed in Publishers Marketplace over the past 12 months, with the greatest number in the following genres:

Top genres for multi-book deals in 2010
Romance – 108 deals
Mystery & Crime – 73
Young Adult – 56
Middle Grade – 53
Science Fiction – 31
Thrillers – 29
Paranormal – 27
(Note: Alan Rinzler is an Executive Editor at Jossey-Bass, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons with over 40+ years in the book business.)

So I thought it would be fun to examine ways to create a series character with enough juice to build or sustain a readership. Below are some of my thoughts, but I’d love to hear from you, too.

• Paint a large enough canvass. Create a world that’s big enough to allow a character to grow and surprise a reader with different plot scenarios.

• Give your main character(s) enough emotional baggage & personal conflicts that they can develop and grow from, to keep the series fresh.

• Make the plots in the series challenge your character’s weaknesses or flaws. Conflict is vital for any book.

• Tie each plot to the character’s emotional soft spots and allow the character to learn from what happens to them over the course of the series.

• Add a secondary cast of characters who add value. Make them fun, quirky, and definitely memorable, enough to bring a unique touch to your series. They are especially valuable if they add conflict or reflect on your main character’s strengths or weaknesses. If your secondary characters are effective enough, this can mean spin off potential.

• In any book, plant seeds for a spinoff story line. If the novel takes off, you can capitalize on your germinating ideas.

• Tell the reader enough in each book about the character’s back story to entice them to read your other books, but don’t go overboard with a dump of information that will slow the pace.

• Avoid the formula. If something worked in book #1 in order to successfully launch your series, don’t repeatedly recreate it. Surprise the reader with something new, which will keep your creative juices flowing too. Don’t be so tied into your own success that you’re afraid to surprise your readers.

• On the flip side, don’t “jump the shark.” Surprising leaps in character motivation—just to add shock value without substance or believable motivation—may stray too far from center to sustain your readership. Recognize your strengths and find new ways to hone them.

• Keep in mind that your character may have to age if the series becomes popular. Have a plan for that. Three books may wind up as twenty+.

• Don’t be afraid to dig deep inside yourself to fuel the motives or experiences of your character(s). Making them real is vital in order for a reader to connect with them, especially over a series.

I’d love to hear other ideas, so please comment. What tips can you share on how to create a successful series framework? Or what has worked well in other series books that you’ve enjoyed reading?

A gift this Holiday Season

It’s that time of year when family and friends gather to celebrate the joys of Christmas and the hope of a New Year. Gifts are imageexchanged and toasts are proposed. And somewhere in between the excitement of family reunions, caroling and a general sharing of good cheer, us writers must still find time to research and write. I can’t do much to help you write, but I do have a Holiday gift for everyone when it comes to research. It contains many tips to help you formulate your plots, build your characters and visualize your settings. Here’s a sample:

Creating Names
How do you come up with names for your characters, especially the minor and walk-on characters? Pop in a DVD of any movie and skip to the credit roll. There’s hundreds of mix and match names to choose from. And if you need foreign names, just pick a movie that was shot in a particular country. Even the major Hollywood studies use local crews when they're on location and list their names in the credits.

Don't want to watch a movie? There are even fake name generators online, some for specific genres like SF and fantasy.

Character Bios
How about background info on your characters? Easy. Just check the obituaries in a local or national paper. You’re sure to find biographies you can modify for your needs. There’s even a national obituary website where you can find thousands of bios to review. And don’t forget searching the faculty bios at hundreds of colleges and universities for background info.

Location, location, location
What about creating a sense of place? This one is really fun. Let’s say you need to describe a house where your character lives in a particular town. Start with one of the many real estate websites. A quick search will show you what the houses look like in a particular neighborhood or area, many with virtual tours. Google maps gives you the names of the surrounding streets, highways and landmarks. And Google Earth shows you the surrounding territory in detail including the names of hotels, restaurants and other landmarks that can make your story more realistic. And the hotels and restaurants almost always have a website so you can choose what your character had for dinner or what the view is from his hotel room.

I’ve also found that there are many detailed accounts of personal vacations, walking tours and excursions, many with photos, that give great descriptions of cities, towns, parks, monuments, and other unique locations that can add a touch of realism.

Loads of Links
Your hero is in Mexico City reading the morning news. What’s the name of the leading Mexican newspaper? There are websites that list and monitor thousands of newspapers from around the world.

You need statistics? Visit the CIA World Factbook or the Bureau of Justice Statistics websites. Need info on the global terrorists attacks that happed this morning? How about military terms and technology? Or how stuff works? What about access to over 39,000 public record databases? Or finding out what time it is right now in Nigeria or Singapore? There are websites for these and so many more for writer’s research resources.

And the most intriguing treasure of all: The Hidden Web. It’s over 500 times larger than the Internet and hardly anyone knows about it or how to access it. Now you will when you visit my research page.

As promised, here’s the location of my Holiday gift to all who visit TKZ. You don’t even have to tear off the wrapping paper. It contains all the tips from above and a whole lot more. New links are added from time to time, so check back often. Enjoy!

Since TKZ will be on vacation from December 18 through January 2, let me take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you next year.

One more Christmas treat to get everyone into the Holiday spirit: The great Mariah Carey singing All I Want For Christmas Is You.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8, 2011.
"What do you get when you cross Indiana Jones with THE DA VINCI CODE? THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, a rollicking thrill ride." – Tess Gerritsen

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Doin' the writer rock

To become a successful writer in the new publishing era, you must channel your inner rock musician.

That was the take-away message I got from a post by Jason Boog over at Galleycat, "What publishers, authors and journalists can learn from Indie Rock and music blogs."

The publishing world is changing in many of the same ways as the music industry, according to Boog. To thrive in the new paradigm, authors will have to adopt strategies that have been successfully pioneered by Indie artists and music blogs.

Among Boog's music-biz inspired suggestions: Reach out to aspiring writers; Don't be exclusive; Create real-life events to drive revenue. 

My favorite tip was to "work for every fan, from blog interviews to hanging out after the show."

For writers, that should be an easy one--we love hanging out at the bar at conferences. And most of us are already trying to connect with readers and other writers by blogging, doing newsletters, and using Twitter and Facebook.

I did quibble with Boog's Lesson #1, which he got from a rock band manager, "Most successful indie rock stars earn a teacher’s salary through record sales, touring, and merchandise. For publishing, that means we have to adjust our expectations."

What adjustment? Most of us have already adjusted our monetary expectations--it happens the moment we get our first advance. When you divide the advance by the amount of time we spend writing, we're lucky to make a teacher's salary. And royalties? They're like the life of a spider, a very uncertain thing.

I shouldn't say this, but there's one possible problem with the idea of writers becoming like rock musicians: On the outside, most of us aren't exactly cool. We don't look hip. Most writer's conference attendees look like refugees from the Village of Middle-aged, Friendly People. 

Our imaginations, however, are extremely cool. That's the stuff that goes into our books. That's the stuff we can share with readers and the world.

I can't sing a note, but I'm eager to absorb these lessons of the rock world. I'm still a bit worried about the cool thing, though. At least TKZ has John's Bad Boy picture on the front page.

It's a start.

Do you agree that writers and publishers should become more like musicians? What would that entail?

Monday, December 13, 2010

The coin (or why truth is stranger than fiction)

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

As you know we have just moved into our new home here in Australia and last week, in the shipping container that arrived from America, an antique Victorian chest of drawers was delivered. Now this chest of drawers is one well-travelled piece of furniture, having been round the globe at least twice, but what is amazing is not that it has managed to survive those trips but that it 'chose' this moment to reveal a rather intriguing find.

It happened when I was cleaning out the drawers liners and dusting down the wood - something which, given how many times my family has moved, has been done multiple times before. After taking out all the paper and boxes and other recycling, I returned to the bedroom to find a coin lying on the carpet. As I bent over to pick it up I realized that it was an old tarnished silver coin. Closer inspection revealed it to be a six pence dated 1866.

Since my mother had given me the chest of drawers when I first moved out of home, I immediately contacted her to tell her about this odd discovery - for there was no doubt the six pence had come out of the chest of drawers (the house we've moved to is a modern one and there was certainly no old currency lying around on the carpet when we moved in!). She and my father were intrigued. Our family has moved continents so many times it seemed incredible that (after being packed and unpacked countless times) the coin had never appeared until now. Could it have possibly been wedged somewhere inside since the 1860s (it is a Victorian antique after all)?

Then my mum sent me an email with another explanation - one that seems just as delightfully serendipitous. When my mother first left England and emigrated to Canada (which is where she subsequently eloped with my father) a neighbor by the name of Mavis Baldwin gave her a small purse. In 1966 it was very common to give a purse with some money in it as good luck and, as the Lancashire version of the saying went, it was lucky to have "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue and a six pence in your shoe" when you got married. Could Mavis Baldwin's good luck gift have been an 1866 six pence? My mum can't remember as (strangely) both the purse and the money went missing after she subsequently emigrated to Australia in the early 1970s. She hasn't seen either since.

Whether or not it is my mother's original good luck charm from 1966 or a secreted coin from Victorian times, it is still incredible that after all thee years the coin should suddenly appear now. If I wrote it in a story no doubt some readers would scoff at such a coincidence, but I like to think of it as a happy accident that the coin should 'chose' to reveal itself now. We're even thinking of naming our new home 'six penny house' in its honor.

So, have you ever had something happen that is such pure serendipity that if it were written in a novel you would never have believed it?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

10 Writing Tips from NaNoWriMo

Last week I reflected on my first time through the NaNoWriMo experience. One month to produce a novel. I enjoyed it. The discipline confirmed some lessons in the craft and gave me new insights on others. So here are my top 10 tips from NaNo. Useful, I think, whatever your normal pace.

1. Loosen Up

If we're not careful with our writing we can get too tentative about it. We write too carefully at times. The old "inner editor" gets bolder and louder. Writing fast under a looming deadline forces you to free yourself. Which is a good thing. Even now, after NaNo, I feel my normal daily writing is a little freer. For this reason alone, NaNo was worth it.

2. Study the Craft

I benefitted from having novel structure wired into me. For example, whenever I'd reach a point where I wasn't sure what to write, I'd take a moment and think about my Lead character's objective. Then I'd start a scene where the Lead takes steps to solve the problem. I'd find the material coming to me as I needed it.

Lesson: Keep studying the craft when you're not writing. Then when you start putting down the words, you'll be doing some of the right things by instinct. We don't tell somebody to just go out to the golf course and start swinging. You can kill somebody that way. We try to get them to practice and drill, and then try to have some fun when actually playing.

3. Bring in the Unexpected

When writing a scene, if things were slowing down or conflict was lagging, I'd ask the boys in the basement to send up something that was the equivalent of Raymond Chandler's admonition to just "bring in a guy with a gun."

Peter Dunne, author of Emotional Structure, gives similar advice. "If you think things are slowing down then throw something at your hero that forces him to run like hell."

I did this a number of times and it worked every time.

4. Don't Be Afraid to Skip Around in Your First Draft

I would sometimes leave one scene and jump to another scene and work on that. Then I'd go back to the previous scene and find my mind had been working on it subconsciously.

I had a special folder in Scrivener called "Random Scenes." This is where I'd start writing a scene that came to mind, but had no idea where it would go. Some of my best writing is there, and will find its way into the book.

5. Write Everywhere

I wrote mostly in my home office, but sometimes I'd strap my AlphaSmart to my back and walk or ride my bike to Starbucks and work there for awhile. I had a doctor's appointment, and tapped out 300 words in the waiting room. I wrote on the subway going downtown, and in my car waiting in a parking lot. And on the treadmill, of course.

I snatched time, rested, snatched more time. Taking breaks was important between intense spurts. I'd lie on the floor with my feet up for ten or fifteen minutes. Then I'd put on rock music or suspense soundtracks and pump up the volume and write.

Those of you who have trouble finding time to write, cut out some non-essentials. Do you really have to watch Dancing With the Stars? And then snatch time to write.

6. Like Voting in Chicago, Write Early and Often

Get as much writing done as you can, as early as you can. I tell writers to follow the "Nifty 350" or "Furious 500" plan. That is, get 350 or 500 words done the very first thing in morning. Get them out of the way, and your quota seems less daunting.

7. Don't Be Afraid

By its very design, NaNoWriMo forces you to let the story lead. You're not always going to be able to stick to a plan. Even if you're an outliner by nature, you have to be ready for organic rabbit trails to emerge in front of you, and have the courage to follow them. But if you do, you're liable to find gold at the end. This happened for me several times. 

8. Journal Daily

Keep a running journal. Sue Grafton does this for all her books. It's like a letter you type to yourself each day, asking where you are in the story, jotting down some ideas that have percolated in the night. Just five minutes of this is worth it. You stimulate something in your mind this way, and get ideas you don't get by just waiting around.

9. Let Things Cool Before You Revise

That's what I'm doing right now. I'll print out a full outline (again, something Scrivener lets you do) then do a read through of my full draft.

10. Enjoy Being a Writer

I said last week that I felt the joy of just pure writing again. That's one of the things I like best about NaNoWriMo. It celebrates the experience and discipline of writing. And we need all the joy we can get in this crazy racket.

My advice to you writers out there is this: start planning ahead for next November. Give NaNoWriMo a shot. Go to their website and sniff around. Read some of the "pep talks" given by well known authors.

Try it once. Even on the sly. No one will have to know but you.

But I'm betting you'll have fun and will come out of it a better writer.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Surviving Natural Selection.

John Ramsey Miller

In the 1970s and through the early 90s I was a professional photographer and although technology made yearly advances (improvements) to be kept up with, everything I captured was on film stock of one kind or another. I read the other day that Kodachrome (the most remarkably permanent color transparency stock) was no longer being sold or processed by Kodak. If you've seen color pictures from World War II they were made on Kodachrome or Kodacolor prints. My father used Kodachrome exclusively in the fifties and those chromes are as crisp and bright today as they were when he shot them. I read this news with a sense of sadness. Over the years I have seen so many of the tools I used, loved, and even mastered become obsolete. There's black & White silver based paper and film stock and the chemicals associated with them. (Well they are available for perfectionists, but expensive and increasingly harder to get). There were vibrant Dye Transfers and Cibachrome Prints, Polaroid 4x5 positive negative in B&W. I could go on and on, but we all know the drill. I had a friend in the late seventies whose custom color lab I used. He told me that one day in the not-to-distant future all pictures would be taken by means of circuitry and pictures would be stored on tape in digital form as was the case with video cameras. I said there would always be film based on what I knew about digital images and the problems with storage. Boy was he right.

An holographic scientist told me that by using holography lenses of any focal length––even zooms––could be created on paper thin sheets of clear plastic and function as well as a lens made by Zeiss.

I've gone with the flow. Today my old Crown Graphic is in a box somewhere in the shed. My Nikon is digital D-50 and I have about as much memory capacity in my computer and extra hard drives as MIT had in the seventies in their mainframes. (I'm just guessing here). I also read that digital point and shoot cameras are going the way of the rotary dial telephone because cell phone cameras are taking their place.

So, old things are made obsolete by new things that are better––or that are are accepted and used by more people than others. This is evolution at work, or natural selection. The marketplace dictates which technology is rules and for how long. So we see amazing changes. CDs are no more necessary to enjoy music than are LPs or reel-to reel-tapes. In fact with my iPod and iTunes my CDs are just wasting space.

We have discussed the future of paper books here a lot and as much as us old guys and gals are fighting the thought of a paperless library, our grandchildren's children will probably have no choice to make. As our children never used a rotary phone, theirs will not have bookshelves in their homes as we do.

Book stores are in trouble, especially the huge chains. This may mean that independent stores will have a profitable place in the market again. At least while our generation is reading and buying books.

I admit that I really love my Kindle (I'm presently reading something called VAMPIRE EMPIRE) on it. I would rather listen to a book than read it. I'm thinking out loud here that the future of mid-list authors may not lie with the publishers we have always depended on. We've been conditioned to think we can't be real authors without our work being produced by a house. We have been conditioned to believe that hard covers validate a work, that paperback originals are inferior to hard covers, and that the best work goes to the top of the market. Now those assumptions are looking like aging out illusions as the world changes we and publishers follow as best we can.

I appreciate the publisher of my novels and I love my editors. In the old days publishers nourished us mid-list authors, nurtured them, and were content to make their money on runs batted in and not focusing on home runs. As more and more people bought books, and more money was made by the houses, they were merged into a few huge houses, and bean counters took over and the which-authors'-books-were-bought decisions were made by marketing departments, and everything became bonuses and stockholder dividends and authors who weren't their best selling authors were ignored and cast aside. Okay, so business is business, and pigs is pigs and in the end we are seen as no more to a publisher than a parts producer is seen by an automobile company. We are either making an Edsel grill or a windshield wiper motor.

Okay, kids, it's extinction time. The dinosaurs will chew their cuds until they they discover there's no grass to eat, they'll drop on a barren landscape while the quick little guys who saw the sky turning yellow and got into caves live to eat another day.

I think a lot of authors are going to figure out how to live without publishers and their advances in lieu of a larger percentage of profits. Publishers have been expecting authors to do their own promoting and marketing for a while now. Most authors won't be needing the paper book distribution networks, or the cookie-cutter promotion departments that send out the same form-promo sheets to the same people. New and well-told stories will always be in demand, I'm just no longer sure publishers are going to be as necessary to the process as they have been. Amazon and the other fulfillment outlets will pay the author the lion's share of the sale price of the ebooks, where publishers pay far less, or split the profits after expenses or something.

There were something like a million books published last year, and there will be more (or a few less) published this year. The trick will be, as it always has been, to be able to produce a book that rises through the din and sells in sufficient numbers to pay the author for the effort.

I think what most of us authors will continue to need are the same quality of editors that publishers have on their payrolls, and little else they have to offer. Cover artists are easy to find. I hope editors are more appreciated and better paid than they have been, or they will find they can make a better living taking free-lance projects and a percentage of the profits. For the moment a lot of us still think its important, if not crucial, to be affiliated with a house for credibility or prestige or whatever, but I think individual authors can gain their own credibility and status by writing books that people enjoy and talk about. I doubt readers in the future will care who publishes the books they read. I truly believe that the future, though confusing and out of focus at the moment for a lot of us, is going to provide more opportunity and prove brighter than ever.

As I learned by watching what happened to my beloved and trusted film, the medium matters only as a transmission platform for the message. A story on paper hits me with the same impact that one on a screen or in words traveling into my ear.

Bullshit, smoke, money, and mirrors aside, it's always been and will always be about the stories. I'm pretty sure that much is impervious to natural selection.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Best Chases and Shootouts

By John Gilstrap
Following up on yesterday’s discussion of sex scenes in fiction, I thought I’d go the other way today and talk about violence, a fairly indispensible element of thrillers and mysteries.

Chases are staples of suspense fiction. Film is inherently better suited to chases than books are, but some books have left me gasping for breath at the end. Chases are hard to write. The secret, I think, lies with the pacing of the prose. Shorter, rapid-fire sentences give the writing a quicker pulse that passes on to the reader.
Another staple is the shoot-out, which I think is particularly difficult to pull off on the page. Movies have a decided edge here, simply because of the audio track.

All this thinking about violence and its fiction elements prompted me to cobble together my own one-voter Best List:

Most Off-Puttingly Violent Novel:
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. If you’ve read it, you know why. If you haven’t read it, know what you’re in for. Just awful.

Most Off-Puttingly Violent Movie:
This category is complicated by all of the Saw-esque stuff that rolls through the theaters. Since bloody violence and audience gross-outs are the very point of these films, I think it would be disingenuous to call them off-putting. If you’re wired that way, you shouldn’t go to spatter movies. To qualify for this category, the film needs to be a “real” movie that happens to turn my stomach. The winner, for the second category in a row, is American Psycho. (Why, one might ask, would one watch the movie after hating the book. Good question, for which I have no good answer.)

Best Chase Scene in a Novel:
This one's a slam-dunk for me: the final sequence in Frederick Forsythe's The Day of the Jackal, in which Claude Lebel is closing in on the shooter. I’ve written here before how TDOTJ is the book that made me want to write thrillers. The entire book is taut as an over-wound watch spring, but that final sequence—which, now that I think about it less of a chase than a will-he-get-there-in-time sequence—is amazing.

Best Chase Scene in a Movie:
Goodness gracious, where to start on this one? As part of my arbitrary ground rules, I decided that only serious car chases would count. That leaves out Smokey & the Bandit, and nearly every other movie Burt Reynolds made in the seventies. Even that restriction leaves a big plug of movies. The best I can do is pick a few of my favorites.

We’ll start with the obvious: Bullitt. I was 11 years old when that movie came out in 1968, so I wasn’t allowed to see it in the theater. In fact, to this day, I’ve never seen it on a screen bigger than the living room television. I really should oughta do that. Anyway, I can extrapolate from the small screen to the big, and I’m well aware that that San Francisco chase sequence between the 1968 Dodge Charger and the 1968 Mustang GT—two of the hottest cars ever—forever reset the bar for car chases.

Next up: The French Connection. We’re in 1971 now, and I saw this one live in the theater. Holy freaking cow! I had never had an experience like that in a theater. What makes it particularly interesting—and sets it apart from many other car chases—is the fact that it’s really about a car chasing a train. Rumors abound that the sequence was shot without permits or permission from the City of New York, but I find them hard to believe.

The next winner is also from 1971, and premiered on the small screen: Duel, Steven Spielberg’s first movie. Starring Dennis Weaver as a motorist terrorized by the faceless driver of a big rig, this could be one of the most unsettling, unnerving movies I’ve ever seen. Certainly, it was the most unnerving movie that I had seen until that time.

Okay, my last entry in the Chase Sweepstakes comes from 2002: The Bourne Identity. Having Franca Potente in the shotgun seat for this wild ride through Paris provided a lot of eye candy (and great acting). I consider this to be the best car chase since The French Connection, made better by the fact that it was done the old fashioned way, without benefit of computer graphics.

Best Shoot-out in a A Novel:
You know what? Nothing comes to mind.

Best Shootout in a Movie:
Time for more arbitrary rules. In this case, war movies don’t count. I know that one could argue that the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan was one long shootout, I’ll concede that it may be the best action sequence of all time, but for some reason in my mind, it does not qualify as a shootout. Feel free to disagree. Here’s my list, in no particular order:

True Grit. I so hope they don’t get this wrong in the Jeff Bridges edition of this Western classic. That scene as Rooster Cogburn charges across the field with the reins in his teeth, Colt in one hand, Winchester in the other always works for me. “I aim to kill you Ned, in one minute, or see you hang at Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s Convenience. Which’ll it be?”/ “I call that mighty bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!” / “Fill your hands, you sonofabitch!” Really. Does it get better than that?

Tombstone. Okay, I like Westerns, and I confess that this 1993 classic is as much about great mustaches as it is about plot, but it is hands-down Val Kilmer’s best performance. Among many gun-toting set pieces, my favorites are the unpleasantries at the OK Corral (“You know what, Sheriff? I don’t think I’ll let you arrest me today.”), and the 20-minute retribution sequence that peaks with Wyatt Earp wading into the stream without cover and taking care of business. Great stuff.

The Untouchables. I know in my heart that this is not a “good” movie, but it is one of my favorite guilty pleasures, and it is chock-a-block with outstanding shoot-em-up set pieces, including a shameless rip-off of Sergei Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence from the 1925 classic The Battleship Potemkin. This is Brian DePalma being Brian DePalma, with an utterly blind eye turned to history, but the movie really works for me. (“You got him?” / “Yeah, I got him.” / “Take him.” BANG!)

Heat. In many ways, this film is Michael Mann at his most self-indulgent. The movie is way too long, and way too talky, but the running shootout after the bank robbery might be the best gunfight ever filmed. Be sure to watch in with a good sound system.Wow, this is a long post. Okay, Killzoners, belly up to the bar. What have I missed?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Is There Such Thing as Bad Sex?

Most authors are happy to be recognized for their work, but how honored would you be if your book got picked as numero uno for the annual literary award - Bad Sex in Fiction?

A London magazine founded in 1979, Literary Review, has recognized “Bad Sex in Fiction” every year since the prize was initiated in 1993. And the “winner” in 2010 was Author Rowan Somerville for the use of disturbing insect imagery in his novel “The Shape of Her.” Judges for the annual prize noted many animal references throughout the book, but they were especially impressed by his passage “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he ****** himself into her.”

Somerville, who was born in Britain but now lives in Ireland, took his victory in good humor, saying, "there is nothing more English than bad sex." And he was honored to be shortlisted alongside American writer, Jonathan Franzen, who was nominated for passages within the best-selling book – “Freedom.” Prior winners include many literary heavyweights, such as Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and the late John Updike, who was awarded a lifetime achievement for Bad Sex prize in 2008.
(What’s worse than winning the annual prize for Bad Sex? Try the lifetime achievement award.)

And in case you’re curious, last year’s winner, American author Jonathan Littell in his book “The Kindly Ones,” described a sex act as "a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg."

So reading about this award, I had to ask myself. Are the judges selected for their literary expertise or are they an authority on bad sex? (And if they have earned both distinctions, maybe they should quit reading during sex.)

And if, as an author, you’re no good at writing bad sex, should you be upset? Being rejected for a prize like this, isn’t that a good thing? This award could shed a whole new light on the time-honored author phrase - a good rejection.

Keeping in mind that this is a public forum, please use your own good judgment in replying, but I’d love to hear from you. Do recognitions like this make you want to buy the book to see what all the fuss is about? Or have you ever written a sexy passage that didn’t make your own edit process because even YOU were disgusted?

Guilty Pleasures

Can you sit and read a magazine without feeling guilty? Do you berate yourself for loafing when you should be accomplishing something? For example, if you’re not writing, do you feel you should be working on your To Do List? How dare you sit idly by and read, play video games, watch TV, or talk to a friend on the phone! You’re wasting precious time. Every minute that ticks away is a minute gone from your life.

Is this purely a writer’s angst, or does it apply to all Type A personalities? Maybe the solution is to program a half hour or more per day into our schedule for pure relaxation. We schedule hair appointments and exercise routines, right? So why not a Time Out? The brain needs a diversion from all that intense activity. You’ll work better after a break. Consider it necessary to productivity.

When you’re on vacation, do you get bored and begin to lust after work? Are you happy lounging by the pool or does your mind drift to projects waiting for you? If this is the case, perhaps a more active vacation is what you need. You’ll be so busy, you won’t have time to think about things back home. Or if your mind needs a challenge, solve a Sudoku puzzle instead.

Assign yourself a book to read so you view reading as a task to complete and feel a sense of accomplishment while enjoying yourself.

It’s difficult for a multi-tasker to kick the habit. What do you do to relax without feeling guilty about it?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thoughts about the color purple, then and now

When I was a pre-teen, I had a stepmother who enforced a strict rule when it came to clothing: She wouldn't allow me to wear anything purple. This sartorial restriction never made sense to me. After all, I pointed out, purple is the traditional color of royalty. My arguments fell on deaf ears: Purple was out.  (I also wasn't allowed to pierce my ears--body piercing was only appropriate for Gypsies and "the French," according to the wisdom handed down to me.)  

I never understood the ban on purple. Was the color considered to be vulgar, or simply tacky? My adolescent speculations ran wild. I had visions of plum-skirted Gypsies and French women jitterbugging through the streets of Paris--in my imagination they'd be whirling in all their purple glory, pierced body parts jangling.

Finally came the day--I think it was the eighth grade--when I finally got to wear something purple. I've never felt more daring than the day I ventured down the hallway of junior high in my pale lavender miniskirt and matching vest.

I guess it wasn't only my stepmother who disdained the color purple. For example, here's a line from a poem written in the early 60's by  Jenny Joseph:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/And a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
I was reminded of the ancient purple prohibition when I ran across an article in the New York Times, Analyzing Literature by Words and Numbers. The article describes how statistical analysis is being used to gain insight into the minds of Victorians. Researchers are doing electronic searches for key words and phrases to study how the Victorians thought.

As I read the article, my first reaction was to question whether people of different eras think all that differently from each other. Then I thought of my old purple ban. Nowadays, people don't give a fig about wearing the color, although it's apt to be called something trendier like "eggplant" or "pomegranate."

Granted, thoughts about wearing a certain color is a minor thing. Can you think of any more significant ways that we have changed our ways of thinking over time? Are we really all that different in our thoughts than people of different eras? If so, how have you seen that reflected in literature or your own writing?

And by the way: What is the real deal about purple? Anyone know?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Moving Day

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

You will have to forgive my truncated blog post today as we are moving into our new house here in Melbourne. We haven't had all our own stuff or been in our own home since May so you can imagine the state of excitement round here. My boys are dying to have all the Lego back and I think my husband is as heartily sick as I am of wearing the same repertoire of clothes.

We have made a huge lifestyle change in the house we've bought. Not only have we moved country but we have also moved from an essentially urban existence to a semi-rural one on the outskirts of Melbourne. Although we have quite a bit of renovating and landscaping to do, 'home' now comprises two acres, a pool, a chicken run and a fire-bunker...yes, we are in a high bushfire danger zone now, so I have to come to grips with a plethora of fire fighting stuff - from water tanks and generator pumps to roof sprinklers, ladders and fire department sized hoses. Let's hope we never need to use them (although my husband is thinking of volunteering at the local fire house so him in a fireman's uniform could be a definite upside!)

Part of our rationale for moving back to Australia was to give our boys the kind of childhood we had - free to roam and explore - and apart from, snakes, bushfire, poisonous spiders, heat exhaustion, sunburn and broken limbs what could there possibly be to worry about?!

I'm also looking forward to writing when my outlook will be this:

So, what would be your ideal 'outlook' for writing be? A beach? The mountains? Skyscrapers? Or can you write just about anywhere?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

I Wrote a Novel Last Month

In November, for the first time, I took the NaNoWriMo challenge. In case you still don't know, that's National Novel Writing Month, and it has been the subject of some controversy. See here for another rant.

Moderation, IOW, seems in short supply when NaNo comes up in conversation.

So why'd I do it?

For one thing, the timing was right. In October I turned in the first book in a new series. I was due to start outlining the second book anyway. So I thought, what the hey? Let's try it the NaNoWriMo way. My goal was simple: see what it is like to write this way, and expect that at worst I'd know my story better by the end.

Or, maybe I'd come up with something pretty close to the actual novel I wanted.

Also, some novelist friends of mine got in on the action. The small group included both "pantsers" and "outliners," all multi-published. I  thought it would be interesting to see how we all came out.

In the days before it began, I actually started to get jazzed, excited about just pure writing for awhile. I think the happiest days of my writing life were when I was unpublished. I was writing for the joy of it. Oh yeah, of course I wanted to be published. But there was something so free and easy about those early efforts. Maybe it was all just a delusion, but if so it was a happy one.

Over the years, writing with contracts and under deadlines, I lost a little of that joy. I never stopped loving writing. Still do. But I'm talking about the feeling I get when body surfing here in So Cal, caught up in a wave and letting it swoosh me all the way to shore.

I thought it would be cool to write with reckless abandon again, to just throw myself out there and take a risk. Usually I do a month or more of planning and outlining, and ease my way into that first draft. I finish a draft in four or five months.

NaNoWriMo was going to get one out of me in thirty days. I wanted to see what it would look like.

I made a few preparations. I looked at my daily schedule and decided to cut down on a bunch of time wasters: Net surfing, blog reading, movie watching, e-mail lingering, news shows. It's amazing how much time creep there is in these things.

Next, I gave myself a tentative schedule. I'd write my "nifty 350" words first thing in the morning. Just get up and let my subconscious provide the material. I would leave off the previous day's writing mid-sentence, a la Hemingway, so I could dive right in.

NaNoWriMo shoots for a 50,000 word novel.  My goal was to get to 60,000 words.

I would keep track of my novel by drafting in the stupendous program Scrivener. This would show me –– through color coding and synopses and an "outline view" –– where I was at every stage of the process. It would update me on my word count, and let me jot scene ideas wherever I wanted. And a lot of other things I won't go into. (Except one very cool feature is you can put your page on any background photo you have. I rigged it so I was writing with the interior of my favorite diner in L.A., Langer's, in the background. I could almost smell the hot pastrami.)

And so, on Monday, November 1, I began.

On Tuesday, November 30, I finished, with 61,587 words.

So how are those words? I don't know yet. I'm letting the thing cool, as I advocate in my revision book, and I will actually follow the process I lay down there (yes, he practices what he preaches). But I will tell you that the central plot element, the McGuffin as Hitchcock used to say, popped up spontaneously during one scene and said, "Here I am, pal!" It was awesome. It made the book.

I think there will be many scenes that will stay pretty much as is. I'll have some fleshing out to do, of course, but the skeleton feels solid.

Next week, I'll tell you some of the things I learned that may be helpful to writers. But let me say to those who took issue with NaNoWriMo, what's the beef? So long as people know they're not first drafting a publishable novel, why would anybody be against writers doing what they're supposed to do, write? It ain't that easy to do a fairly coherent 50,000 word story in a month. And my proverbial hat is off especially to those who hit 50k while also holding down a day job or family responsibilities or anything like that. I do this full time. It's quite another thing to complete the challenge with a packed schedule of other duties. To those of you who made it I say, well done!

I loved doing a novel in a month. I feel a sense of accomplishment, like I finished a 5k or endured the unedited version of Heaven's Gate.

So I'd love to hear from anyone who gave NaNoWriMo a shot this year. How was it for you?

And those of you who had a problem with it . . . You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

And a Ho Ho Ho!

I would like to follow John Gilstrap’s heartwarming blog (you wear that tux quite well, my friend) with a comment or two about gift giving, or to be more specific, giving books, in all of the permutations in which they are available in this Christmas season 2010. The planets aligned and it struck me, once again, that we live in a wondrous age. So many choices that it might drive a person mad. But what a way to go.

I have just finished reading Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1. It is the first of three planned volumes, the complete work presented as Samuel Clemens intended, right down to his request --- nay, demand! --- that it not see the light of day until one hundred years after his death. Dribs and drabs of it have been published before now but this is the mac daddy, right here. It is sharp, nasty, clever, astute, prescient --- Clemens predicted the e-book, believe it or not --- and really, really funny. There is a good laugh every paragraph or two. The folks at the U. of C. at Berkeley did a remarkable job of putting this together, especially when you consider that it was compiled from several feet of handwritten notes, transcriptions, and the like. Some reproductions of Clemens’ handwritten passages are included, and I assure you that if I had been assigned the task of herding this particular gang of cats I would be in a quiet room sipping tranquilizers and listening to Michael Hedges CDs until the end of my days. It is available for free online at, and in an ebook version, but hunt down a hardcover version and gift it to a bibliophile. This is a work that is meant, was born, to be held in hand (well, hands, actually,) and read the old-fashioned way.

You can gift ebooks now, in some formats, and a couple of interesting works which are ebook-only appeared this week. Marcus Wynne, long a favorite of the intelligence community which he has been a part of, has returned after too long an absence with a new stand-alone thriller entitled WITH A VENGEANCE. Wynne is painfully aware of the way in which the world works, away from the theories and hypothetical and think tanks. Marcus deals with front lines, hand to hand with the terrorists in the trenches; WITH A VENGEANCE will put you on the edge of your seat and keep you there for several hours. Some of those who read this book, pre-publication, said it was too powerful, too frightening, for the reading public. I read it two years ago and have never forgotten it, particularly the first third of it. Anyone you gift this work to will either love you forever or never forgive you. Or both.

Dave Zeltserman is one of those thriller and noir crime writers who has slowly but steadily moved from the “critically acclaimed” list the “must-read” list of mystery and thriller fans. His literary thriller The Caretaker of Lorne Field transcended genres, and will undoubtedly receive several “best of” nominations when the various and sundry literary awards start to rev up next year. Zeltserman has a new, ebook only work just out entitled Vampire Crimes, in which he cuts across genres yet again, a crime tale of the undead in which Natural Born Killers meets Near Dawn. Don’t give this one to your niece with all of the Twilight posters in her room. You could give it to her dad, however.

One of the most interesting projects of all that came across my desk last week, however, wasn’t an ebook or a hardcover, but an audio book by Jim Fusilli. It has been far too long since I’ve seen a book-length work from Fusilli, and Narrows Gate is book length, but not available as a book. It is an original work commissioned for audio by, the first to my knowledge by a single author (The Chopin Manuscript, of course, was an collaboration of many). It is part novel, part performance piece; I remember when radio dramas were still available, and if they were still in existence, they might sound something like this dark and gritty mob tale set on the mean streets of Hoboken, New Jersey in the 1940s. I don’t normally listen to audio books as I can read faster than I can listen, but this is worth making the exception for; and if you have someone who loves crime novels and audio books, they will be in your debt if you present them with this.

Your turn now. What are you giving, book-wise? And what do you wish to receive?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Christmas Traditions

By John Gilstrap

The season has begun. Forget about my "badass" photo and the thrillers I write--okay, don't forget about the thrillers entirely--I am a softie for all things Christmas.  This is the season for giving and forgiving.  It's the season of beautiful music, lovely sights, and for me, above all, family tradition.

Both of my parents are gone now, and I'm sorry to report that much of my extended family has become estranged over time.  Thus, it falls upon me to instill a sense of tradition upon my own son, even as the three of us build new traditions of our own.

It starts with the decorations.  They go up on the day after Thanksgiving, and they come down on New Year's Day.  Actually, in recent years, the going up part has spilled over to the following day.  The cache of ornaments has grown over the decades, but each one of them has meaning within the family.  My wife, Joy, and I both have a sampling of ornaments from our childhoods, a few of those having been passed on to us from our parents' childhoods.  The treetop ornament from my earliest Christmas trees is now too fragile to risk at the top of the tree, and is now displayed from a candle stick.  The box we store it in is older than I am, having once carried a favorite pair of my mother's shoes, and it's lined on the bottom with the front pages of newspapers dated January 1 from momentous years in our family's history.

It's like that with more than a few decorations.  Christmastime is a journey into family lore.
It's also a time for entertaining.  Every other year or so, we throw a black tie dinner for a few friends at our home.  This is an "on" year, in fact, and tomorrow is the big day.  I can't wait.  We are blessed with many friends, and between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, we will host or attend as many as ten different holiday celebrations, from pot luck at a neighbor's house to cocktail parties to sit-down dinners.  If I can escape the season with fewer than five pounds added to my waistline, I consider myself a model of restraint. 

Then there are the movies that must be viewed with my son.  Tonight we watched The Santa Clause starring Tim Allen.  Before the end of the season, we'll carve out time to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, Home Alone, and, newest to the list, The Polar Express.  The common trait shared by these films is a huge heart.  They're all about people who love each.  Even after seeing it well over a dozen times, I still cry at the scene in Home Alone where Kevin finally talks to the old man in the church on Christmas Eve.

So, what about you, dear Killzoners?  What are your favorite Christmas traditons?  Beyond It's A Wonderful Life (from which I need to take a continued break), am I missing any important Christmas films?  Can we all agree that George C. Scott made the best Ebeneezer Scrooge?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"Stupid Writer Tricks"

or, "How far would you go to market your book?"

by Michelle Gagnon

A few weeks ago, author Tawni O'Dell wrote a very funny essay about some of the, oh, let's call them "interesting," experiences she had when marketing her first book. The article incited a rabid response on the Sisters in Crime listserv, where the debate centered on whether or not Tawni was taken advantage of because she was female, if she was a fool to go along with the absurd things that were asked of her, or if any author (gender be damned) would do the same.

Here's what kicked off the uproar:
Tawni O'Dell's debut, "Back Roads" is a dark, gritty portrayal of a family in crisis told entirely in the male first-person voice of 19-year-old Harley Altmyer. Entertainment Weekly offered to write a brief piece on O'Dell to coincide with the release.
Now, you can just imagine how excited her PR team was. A feature article, including photos, in a major periodical? Barring an Oprah appearance (more on that later), it doesn't get much better.
So here's how it went down, in O'Dell's own words:

I was busily signing books at a table set up in the middle of the mall when I happened to look up and saw an anxious, overcaffeinated little troupe of petite Ray-Banned androgyny and ethnic ambiguity all dressed entirely in black and all clutching cups of Dunkin' Donuts coffee coming toward me. (We didn't have a Starbucks.) As they did so the wide-eyed, whispering herd of extra-large Steelers sweatshirts and camouflage hunting jackets milling around me split decisively in two to let them pass. The parting of the Red Sea couldn't have been any more dramatic.

They turned out to be my photographer, Nathan (pronounced the French way, Nat-on,) his assistant, his other assistant, a makeup artist and a stylist.

One of the assistants informed me that Nathan would like to shoot me outside in some authentic Pennsylvania woods because his favorite scenes in my book had taken place in the woods and he envisioned me there. I told the assistant to tell Nathan, who was standing right beside us but apparently didn't like to participate in his own conversations, that it was January and it was snowing. The assistant then told me not to worry, they would keep Nathan warm.

They then loaded me into their van like I was a kidnapping victim and off we drove in search of some authentic Pennsylvania woods. We didn't have to go far. We found some behind the mall. A bunch of my family and friends that had been in attendance at the signing also came along. Nothing in the world was going to keep them from seeing this.

Nathan was thrilled with the woods. He found his voice and began barking orders in an accent I was never able to place. It was sort of a cross between Desi Arnaz and Kazu, the meddlesome martian on the Flintstone's.

I stood by blowing on my hands and stomping my feet to keep warm when suddenly he turned to me, eyed me up and down, and proclaimed, "We need to tease her hair. I want glitter. Lots of glitter, and the clothes will have to go."

"You want me to be naked?" I spluttered.

"Do we have some fabric?" he went on, ignoring my question and my obvious distress. "I see swaths of tulle billowing out behind her and hanging in the tree branches like a morning mist."

"You want me to be naked?" I repeated.

Before I could do or say anything else, I was ushered back into the van where I was stripped down to my underwear and sprayed in glitter.

When I re-emerged, my chattering entourage became deathly silent. Jaws dropped open and I heard a few gasps as I crunched barefoot through the snow, wrapped in yards of sparkling gauze, with my butt hanging out, and wondering to myself, Did John Irving ever have to do this?

Nathan positioned me and began snapping away with his camera.

"You're a wood nymph!" he cried. "Yes, you're a wood nymph! You're an ethereal spirit. You're an incarnation of the sky. You're real yet you're not real at all."

So. Should O'Dell have objected? Absolutely. Can I empathize with the fact that as an overwhelmed and inexperienced young author, she participated in the shoot without thinking it through first? Certainly. Have I done things in the course of hawking my books that I regret? Without question (although nudity has never been involved. Yet.)

The sad truth is that in a time of severely limited marketing budgets, when authors are must rely largely on their own resources with very little guidance, the results can occasionally be quite ugly.

Here are some of the more bizarre and extraordinary things writers have done in an attempt to sell their books:

* In 2008, an Indonesian writer threw $10,700 in cash from an airplane to promote his book. His editor probably should have clarified that when she told him to throw his entire advance into marketing, she didn't mean it literally.
* This past spring, the aptly named Paul Story pitched a tent outside the cottage where his book was set and camped there for two months, selling copies to passing hikers (although I believe the book was mainly about isolation, so I question how many potential buyers he actually encountered).
* Remember when someone threw a book at Obama a few weeks ago? Turns out that was no political protest, but a misguided attempt by author Michael Lohan (who I can only hope is not related to Lindsay) to promote his work. No, I'm not kidding. The best part? The Secret Service released him without pressing charges.

So...I almost shudder to ask, but where would you draw the line on promotion? (Basil, I can practically hear you sharpening your quill in the wilds of Alaska.)

Oh, and don't feel too sorry for poor Tawni. Turns out the EW article never went to print- because Oprah called and invited O'Dell to appear on her show fully clothed.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Page 69-Bomb

By Joe Moore

Over the last week we’ve had a noticeable increase in traffic and comments. This was due to the discussion of a few controversial topics including the use of the F-bomb and the C-bomb in novels. Some of the reactions were interesting, some downright shocking. John G. and I have a phone chat about it and our end conclusion: it’s a big world out there. You can never predict an individual’s reaction, especially when it comes to the use of profanity in the pages of novels.

I must admit I’ve never stopped reading a book because of the use of a single word. Most of the time, when I do stop it’s because the writing sucks. Either the plot was cliché or the characters were two-dimensional or the writing was weak and lazy, or all the other countless reasons people jump ship before the end. But for all the visitors that have visited our cozy little blog lately to comment on these subjects, thank you. Your patronage is appreciated.

So what is the page 69-bomb? Actually, it should say, the page 69 test. I used the word “bomb”as a cheap way to keep your attention. Sorry. The page 69 test is the real topic of my blog today. What is it? A trick to help everyone in choosing a book to read.

Picture yourself standing at the new release table in your local bookstore. You see a bunch of new arrivals. Some authors you’ve heard of, some names are new. How do you choose? According to John Sutherland, author of How to read a novel, you don’t judge a book by its cover.

Dust jackets, blurbs, shoutlines, critics' commendations ("quote whores", as they are called in the video/DVD business) all jostle for the browser's attention. But I recommend ignoring the hucksters' shouts and applying instead the McLuhan test.

Marshall McLuhan, the guru of The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), recommends that the browser turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book. It works. Rule One, then: browse powerfully and read page 69.

I tried it with a few books on my shelf to see if I was attracted to a book by what I found on page 69. Of course, these were books I’d already read. I was highly skeptical. It sounded more like a gimmick or parlor trick that a true test of a book’s worth. What I wanted to see is if page 69 reflected the story or style or voice of the book. Was it a good sample of things to come? In theory, page 69 should be far enough into a story that it exemplifies the heart of the tale. What I found was that, in just about all cases, the page 69 test worked.

After a few of these test cases, I worked up enough courage to do the test on my own books. I started with my current WIP (written with Lynn Sholes). Here’s what’s on page 69 of The Blade Of Abraham:

“Maybe I’ll do it,” I said, immediately thinking I would regret the commitment.

“I’m not going to hold you to it yet.” He nodded toward the half-empty Johnnie Walker bottle sitting on the railing. “I can’t let you make a decision while under the influence.”

“It never stopped you before.” I realized that was uncalled for. “Sorry.” I took a bite of the eggs. “You always were a good omelet maker.”

We sat in silence eating. After the last bite, I was full and totally mellowed out. Of all the people in the world, Kenny was the only one who knew me so well—all my secrets, all my vulnerabilities and fears.

He extended his hand. “Give me your plate. I’ve got a pan of hot soapy water waiting. I’ll drop them in and we can worry about it in the morning.”

I didn’t have much resistance left so I handed over the bare plate. Kenny disappeared for a couple of seconds before rejoining me on the swing. His arm slid around me and it seemed so natural.

“Tired?” he asked.

“Pleasantly.” I leaned my head on his shoulder.

“I’ve missed you, Max.” He lifted my chin and kissed me. Not hard. Just soft and affectionate. Cautiously, as if he might hurt or offend me. And that felt natural, too. “It should have worked out,” I said. “We screwed up.”

“What’s done is done.”

I looked at him. “There were times you made a damn good husband.”

Not exactly a knock-down, drag-out scene from a thriller is it? After all, The Blade Of Abraham is about an attempted detonation of a nuclear device in a major American city and the race to prevent it. Page 69 is the end of a chapter. It involves two people: my main character Maxine and her former husband. Max is a retired federal agent who got shot up pretty bad while on a mission and chose to leave after 20 years as a civilian federal agent with the OSI. Her ex has shown up to ask her to come back to work for the government, something she has no desire to do. It’s only when he tells her why they need her back that she must face the choice of risking all that she has left in life or remain safe and secure in her cozy Colorado mountain hideaway.

The basis of this quiet, serine scene is in fact the basic structure of the entire book. A woman is intrigued by a challenge, decides to take it on only to have her life wrecked down to her emotional bedrock. She has to pull herself back up from the depths, meet the challenge, and overcome everything thrown in her way to save not only her own emotional life but the very real lives of millions of innocent people.

Now that I’ve taken the page 69 challenge, how about the rest of you writers out there. Got the guts to show us your page 69 and determine if it exemplifies the heart of your story? Naturally, if page 69 falls on a page with just a couple of lines, you have permission to post page 68 or 70. But the point I’m trying to determine is, does the page 69 test work on your manuscript or published book? If someone picked up your book and only read page 69, would they want to buy it?

And for the readers out there, how about your favorite (or not so favorite) book. Does the page 69 test work for you? Remember, this is only a test. No actual books will be harmed in the writing of this blog.

THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 2011
"A compelling page-turner." – Carla Neggers