Monday, February 28, 2011

A Clean Desk Policy?

I seem doomed to have my writing environment in constant upheaval. Today we had workmen jackhammering up tile in the downstairs part of the house that got flooded and so I had no wifi, no room to get to my desk (because all the furniture is still stacked up in my study) and a whole lot of dust to clean up. Now, I am hardly the type to have a clean desk policy but this is getting ridiculous!

I remember the law firm I worked for in Melbourne many years ago tried to impose a strict clean desk policy. You were not supposed to have a scrap of work on your desk at the end of the day. Needless to say I failed miserably. I am a woman who works in 'piles' and if I don't have these prominent situated around my office I can't for the life of me remember what I am supposed to be doing. I was lucky that the partner who I worked for at the time, a very anally retentive lawyer with a spotless desk, took pity on me and let me continue in my dirty, piled up paper, working fashion. Apparently, he said, he couldn't really fault me as I managed to work just as efficiently despite the mess.
I was pleased to read that this phenomenon is borne out in a book called The Perfect Mess by Dave Freedman and Eric Abrahamson which contends that those with cluttered, messy desks are often more efficient and creative than their neatnik brethren. Since my desk always looks like a disaster zone I think I am going to stick with the Freedman/Abrahamson interpretation...but nonetheless I have to wonder whether most writers are like me - or whether I am just deluding myself that disorder is merely a sign of a great author in the making.

As it is, I am always surrounded by piles of research and printed out copies of the latest manuscript. Currently I have marked up copies of part one of my young adult WIP, a pile of articles on Orphic mythology, notebooks with scrawls for two new projects I am contemplating, an atlas of WWI with post it notes spilling forth, files relating to my sons' school stuff I need to attend to, and a messy pile of handwritten notes with a revised plot outline in progress.

So what about my fellow writers? Do you, like me, have a messy desk full of piles of paper or are you a neat freak with everything organized and de-cluttered for the sake of productivity and sanity? What do you think, is a messy desk a sign of creativity or just plain slovenliness?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Can Dark Shed Light?

I got my start in the Christian fiction market. It was a natural fit for me because I've always been interested in the great questions surrounding life, the universe, and everything––what theologian Paul Tillich called matters of "ultimate concern." (And what Douglas Adams called 42).

Basically, how do we figure out this journey we're all on?

In college I loved philosophy, though I didn't major in it. I took a much more practical major, film. But all through college and after, I continued to read philosophy and theology. Love Plato. Love Pascal. Love the Stoics. I tried reading Kant but my head exploded. Aquinas was tough but fair. I've tangled with Nietzsche and the existentialists.  

The point is, I guess, that I just find compelling the threads of great thoughts as they wind down through the centuries.

Even now, with a general market publisher (Hachette) for my Try series, I find my characters involved in the big questions. Ty Buchanan is a lawyer whose fiancée is killed on page one of the first book, sending him reeling spiritually and every other way. He is befriended by an African American priest and a basketball playing nun who have one view of things. He hangs out at a coffee place run by Barton C. "Pick" McNitt, a former philosophy professor at Cal State who went insane, recovered, and now pushes caffeine and raises butterflies for funerals. He's an atheist.

Buchanan finds himself bobbing and weaving between these characters even as he's trying to find out the truth behind his fiancée's death. 

And so it goes. The fiction I love best has characters going through inner as well as outer challenges, dealing with a dark world and trying to find their way around in it.

My recent release, Watch Your Back, has generated some responses from my established readers. One comment is that the tales seemed "dark" and unlike my previous work. This, I note, in spite of the fact that I do not use gratuitous elements in my fiction. I like to write in a style that would fit a 1940's film noir (noir, of course, is French for dark).

So here's why I chose the material I did for Watch Your Back: Dark tales can often be the most moral of all.

I believe in what John Gardner, the late novelist and writing teacher, said in an interview in Paris Review. Good art is about "creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life that is worth pursuing." He contrasted this with art that is just "staring, because it is fashionable, into the dark abyss." And staying in the abyss. That doesn't interest me.

As I look back at my work, the thread that seems to run through all of it is the pursuit of justice. Maybe that's in part because of how I was raised, by an L.A. lawyer who fought for justice for the indigent as well as for paying clients.

Now, a dark story, in my view, ought to explore the consequences of human actions. Indeed, isn't that what Greek tragedy was all about? By showing the audience the catastrophe of hubris, the theater was training citizens in virtue. There was a cosmic justice in the tragic fall.

Cut to: Stephen King. I would argue that King's "dark" fiction is highly moral. Much of it shows, for example, what happens when one trucks with evil, even with good motives. Pet Sematary is perhaps the most lucid example of this. He has many others. I would call your attention especially to the fabulous mini-series he wrote, Storm of the Century. I won't give away any spoilers, but you ought to watch it to see how this sort of thing is really done.

So, in my stories in this latest collection, you will find criminals, rip-off artists, adulterers and liars. But I believe you will also see I am not dwelling in the dark. When characters get it "wrong," that's another way of showing what's right.

On the other hand, I'm not being didactic. I'm not a professor. I'm a writer whose first job is to keep you turning the pages. My favorite writers of all time do that for me, and then leave me thinking about the book when it's over. I don't know if you can ask much more of a fiction writer than that.

And that's what I try to do in my fiction, including Watch Your Back.

So who are some of the writers who have taken you through a dark story with a candle in their hands?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Crippolater, Alligator

John Ramsey Miller

In October while converting a porch into a room in my home, I touched my left thumb to a moving table saw blade. Don't know how to describe the sensation except to say it was a sort of thrunk-thropping followed immediately by a realization that the anatomy of my left extremity would be forever altered to some degree. Then there was a serious infection and some necrosis of the tissue in the pad. To make a long story short, as I am typing with one finger on my right hand, I had surgery a few days ago to rebuild by flapping and grafting the disastered digit, and it's in a huge bulbous cast so I am going to apologize for a very brief blog this week as typing is hard enough when you aren't on painkillers. On March 3rd I'll get to see if the surgery was successful, and hopefully I can get back to writing again. I really miss my time at the keyboard.

Has anything ever happened to interrupt your schedule for more than a few days?

Friday, February 25, 2011

My Oscar Picks

By John Gilstrap

One really cool perk of belonging to the Writers Guild of America (WGA) is the gift that starts giving sometime in lat October, and runs fairly steadily through the end of the year: the flood of movie screeners for awards season.  Because none of the films I've been paid to write have ever been produced, I am not a member of the Academy, yet I do get to vote for the WGA Awards, and that in itself is pretty cool.

Some years, the flow of screeners is better than others, but 2010 brought a bumper crop.  Don't get me wrong, I still go to the theater periodically, but not nearly as often as I used to.  When watching in the privacy of my own home, I've never once had to shoot a dirty look to a rude teenager with a cell phone.  That alone greatly improves the movie-going experience.  (Plus, we can pause the movie for bathroom breaks.)

With the Oscars looming this coming Sunday (my birthday!), I thought I'd make my pitch for a few of the major categories, listing which contestants I think should win, and, in some cases, who I think will win, even if I disagree.

Best Supporting Actress.  This one is tough for me, as I think it's tough for anyone who watched some of the performaces that are competing with one another.  Hailee Steinfeld's portrayal of Mattie Ross in True Grit was spellbinding.  She commanded every scene she was in.  I couldn't take my eyes off of her.  If she won, I would not be disappointed.  But my vote goes to Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech.  Through facial expressions alone, she was able to project a love of her husband that tore at my heart.

Best Supporting Actor.  Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech.  'Nuff said.  I can't imagine the award going to anyone else this year.  Much is said of Christian Bale's performance in The Fighter, but while I thought he was terrific in the role, he engaged in a little bit too much scenery chewing for me.  Geoffrey Rush, on the other hand, merely lived his character.

Best Actress.  Okay, time for full disclosure here.  This is the category for which I saw the least number of films.  I'm going to default to Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right.  Her portrayal of a heartsick middle-aged lesbian was a memorable part of a very memorable movie.  That said, all the buzz says the Oscar is going to Natalie Portman for The Black Swan.  Having not seen the movie (yet), I defer to the opinions of others.

Best Actor.  Another tough call.  Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit was a force of nature.  I loved every minute of his screen time.  (Every minute of the film, for that matter.)  While Jesse Eisenberg was fantastic in The Social Network, I don't think the story was big enough to compete with some of its competition.  My choice for Best Actor is Colin Firth in The King's Speech.  He was, in a word, fantastic.

Best Adapted Screenplay.  Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network.  Reading a Sorkin screenplay is like taking a master class in writing action and dialogue.

Best Original Screenplay.  Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg for The Kids Are All Right.  Okay, that's my pick.  I don't think it will win, though.  The momentum all seems to be behind David Seidler for The King's Speech.

Best Picture.  For me, it's a tie between True Grit and The King's Speech.  If I were to place a bet, I think the smart money is on The King's Speech. 

So, Killzoners . . . What do you think?  Here's your chance to go on the record.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Book Trailers and Our Visual Society

I got a Droid phone for Christmas and went from practically the Stone Age into a vision of an amazing future. I can scan barcodes and shop for the best price in town, use my GPS to find the latest trendy restaurant available by voice command, and even read books off my phone using a kindle download app for free. But the reason I’m blogging about my phone and the latest book trailer I had made for my first Young Adult book – In the Arms of Stone Angels (Harlequin Teen, Apr 2011) – is a cool app that I want to share with you.

A QR code looks like a Rorschach test. It is square and you may have seen them on pages of magazines, on signs, busses, business cards, etc. It works like a barcode and can be scanned like the stores ID their inventory at cash registers, but this code can be made by ANYONE using the hyperlink I posted above. It can be scanned via smart phone, like the Droid, with the right reader app. You can insert a secret message in text, insert contact information, or it can make a connection to a wireless network or link to a web page that opens on the phone’s browser. You can make the QR image play the part of a secret code made available only to winners in a contest or the code can direct a reader to your latest book trailer. Instant gratification for our visual society and a cool app toy!

This QR Code can be downloaded into a jpeg file that can be printed onto your latest bookmarks or made into stickers, whatever floats your boat. Anyone with a smart phone and a QR Code scanner can read your message. And in one swipe off your bookmark (or any other promotional material), a reader can be looking at your trailer in an instant. How cool is that?!

My contact at “Trailer to the Stars,” Misty Taggert, gave me the heads up on this app. It’s hard to quantify if book trailers actually sell books, but I sure love making them. And using a professional company like Misty and crew really made this effortless for me. I’m on deadline and they made the collaboration easy and simple, for my part. For them, not so much. I’ve done trailers myself before. It takes time and way more skill than I possess to do a trailer like this.

It’s hard enough to encapsulate your story into a short film of a minute and a half. But add a script, voice over talent, production music and action videos that fit, and movie animation effects for mood, and the process can get very complicated. And way above my paygrade.

For Discussion:
1.) What do you think of book trailers as a promotional tool? I was particularly interested in doing a trailer for YA. My target age for this book is 13-18 years old. And since Amazon and Barnes & Noble host trailers on an author’s book page, it’s great to have the opportunity to post a trailer at the point of sale.

2.) Have a great phone app to share? If you have a new phone and a great app to share, I’d love to hear about it. Hearing about new technology really stirs the creativity in me when I think of writing new books. Imagine an app that gives you Bluetooth capability, but also sends subliminal and subversive messages to your brain. Or picture an app that protects and backs up the contacts on your phone, in case it’s lost or stolen, but all the information for loved ones and friends (addresses, photos, phone numbers) make them a target for a dangerous predator unless you do exactly as they say. No one is safe. Anything can turn into a conspiracy with the right dose of paranoia.

3.) Want someone to indulge you? Hmmmmm, Basil? If you’re like the always inventive Basil Sands, you may want someone to invent an app just for YOU. What kind of phone app would that be?

Playing Jenga with my book

By Joe Moore

There’s a great game called Jenga. It’s comprised of lots of wooden blocks from which you build a tower. Each player in turn removes one wooden block from anywhere within the tower. The object of the game is to game1not be the one to remove the block that tumbles the tower into a heap of rubble. After all, each block is connected, touches, or relies on the others. The tower must remain structurally stable and strong to keep from falling and breaking. It’s fun to play, but you know that if you pull the wrong block, you can cause a chain reaction that brings the tower down. Once it falls, the game is over.

This week, I’m deep into the editing of the galley proof for my upcoming thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES (June 8). It’s one of, if not the most critical stage of the novel writing process. Up until now, it’s been all fun and games: playing “what if”, outlining, researching, writing, discussing the plot with my agent/editor, sending out portions of the manuscript to my beta readers, rewriting, changing and shifting plot and characters, panicking that I won’t meet the deadline, turning in the manuscript on the deadline day, waiting for the initial feedback from my editor, strategizing with the publisher’s publicity department, seeing the cover art for the first time, worrying, and waiting. A treat arrives in the mail in the form of an ARC (advance reader copy) that my editor snagged for me. I get to see the mockup of the book and cover, and hold it in my hands, and show family and friends that there really will be another book, and I really am a writer, and the first four books weren’t just flukes. So up until now, it’s been tons of fun.

Suddenly, I get an email from the copy editor. The galley proof (the entire text printed as it will appear in the final version) will arrive on such and such a date, and she needs my corrections back on such and such a date to meet the “to-press” date. And she includes the statement that causes all warmth to drain from my body to be replaced with bone-crunching Arctic fear: this will be my final opportunity to make changes.

I’m about to play Jenga with my book.

OK, I can handle it. After all, everyone who read the manuscript loved it. Sure, there’s going to be a few typos that even the editor and proof reader missed. Hey, we’re all human, right? I’ll just whip through this baby, catch a few minor flaws, and get it back ahead of time.

Note: one big advantage here; I have a co-writer, and she’s got her own copy of the galley proof, and she’s going through the same exercise I am. So we figure it’ll be a quick read-through and we’re done. Then we can get back to the fun stuff, right?

So far, I have 5 pages of changes, mostly small items, but a couple of plot issues that need a great deal of thought before we commit to a change. The reason is, one small change, even a word, can break stuff all over the place. Pull the wrong block and the book comes tumbling down.

“This will be your final opportunity to make changes.”

Most of the changes going back to the copy editor are small stuff. But if I stumble across something that needs to be clarified and that clarification causes something else to be changed, and that change causes a major . . .

You get the idea. Editing the galley proof is like pulling blocks in the Jenga tower without it crumbling down around me. It’s not fun, and you don’t get a second chance. Who said writing a novel wasn’t dangerous?

How does this stage of the process go for the rest of the writers out there? Do you love it or hate it? Do you play Jenga with your book?

THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8, 2011.
”Leaves the reader breathless and wanting more.”
– James Rollins

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Obsessions: The downside of working at home

As a full-time writer, I have the luxury of working at home. But recently  I've seen signs that I need to get out more.

I'm not a music person, but I like to have some kind of background noise when I'm working. I used to keep the TV on, but that became too distracting. So one day when I was browsing for online streams, I stumbled across the local police channel. I could actually listen to every back-and-forth between the dispatcher, police,  and emergency units.

A new distraction--make that an obsession--was born. It took me a few days to decipher the codes and garbled transmissions, but I finally got the hang of the official communications.  We live a few blocks away from the fire station, and we hear sirens several times a day. I used to pay them little attention. Now I'm like a duck on a June bug, hitting that police stream to find out what's going on in my little town.

And I have to say, it's been a bit unnerving. It's not reassuring to learn that your local PD is on the lookout for an armed and dangerous thug who just escaped a police perimeter in a neighboring town. Or that the gas station at the bottom of the hill was just  robbed by a masked bandit who has been attacking places all over the area.

My husband, who also works at home but who has a structured, self-disciplined routine, recently gave me a strange look when I peered fearfully out the window.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Looking for a silver Honda, driven by 5-foot nine guy who is possibly Asian," I reply. "He robbed the Chevron station. He has a gun, nine millimeter. "


My husband has learned not to probe my odd statements too deeply. I think he attributes my eccentricities to the fact that I'm a writer.

And truthfully, I rationalize many of my quirks as being a byproduct of a creative mind. For example, I figure I have to learn how cops really talk, so that helps me justify listening to the emergency channel for hours on end.

The truth is, it's just another one of my home-grown obsessions. I have others. I have an intense interest in volcanoes, for example. I monitor the status of volcanoes across the planet--I usually know when one's about to blow, long before you hear about it on the news. (News editors must not share my volcano obsession.)  Why? Well, for some reason I have this inner certainty that a major volcano is going to explode, a Krakatoa-level event that'll throw us back into another mini-Ice Age. (If it actually happens, it'll be hell on crops and the economy, but at least it'll take care of global warming.)

The reality is, I should probably get out of the house more. When I had a day job, I didn't indulge my obsessions nearly so much. I simply didn't have time. Maybe I should volunteer, do something useful. But I'd probably volunteer for something related to one of my obsessions, like becoming a Neighborhood Watch captain. Do they get to talk on the police radio, do you suppose?

But enough about my obsessions. Do you have any you can share?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Introducing Hamish

The timing could have probably been better (though who could have predicted the house flooding?!) but last Thursday we picked up our new collie puppy, Hamish. Followers of TKZ may recall that we had to put down our previous collie but now we have finally welcomed a new puppy into our hearts and home. It's been a while since we've done the whole puppy thing and I'd forgotten how much like having a baby it can be - crying in the middle of the night, potty training and, of course, all the delightful curiosity and playfulness.

Despite the potty training trials, Hamish is an lovely, friendly, mellow puppy and hopefully his presence will bring the same comfort our old dog, Benjamin, brought to our home. More importantly I hope he heralds the normalization of my writing schedule (finally!! Please!!) - Jim's post yesterday actually made me a bit depressed as I would love to type faster but life seems to be getting in the way lately (sigh!). In fact it feels rather like trying to walk up a slippery slide...but enough about me...back to Hamish...

I can't say I am a huge fan of pets in mysteries - especially not the pseudo-detective types - but I do believe pets can be excellent muses. My old dog was always happy to sit and listen to me talk about plot issues or offer me a ruff to hug when the middle of the books started to sag. I think pets provide writers with a myriad of support services - and besides who else would sit by hour after hour as you type, asking only for a small tummy rub now and again in return?

So do you have a pet 'muse'? Do you have a cat, dog, horse, guinea pig, chicken, fish or exotic pet that supports you as a writer?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Type Hard, Type Fast

First, I want to thank everyone for the launch of my new book last week. I spent most of Sunday chatting up the book in social media. A "virtual book tour" so to speak. Then I sort of watched to see what would happen. It's only been one week and one book, but the results have exceeded my expectations. 

And I have more of this material in my pipeline. A lot more. Because as I mentioned last week, I love the old pulp days when writers really wrote, fast, because they had to.

Fast does not mean hack work (it can, of course, but not necessarily). I'm not discussing the editing process, either. Concentrated effort is what I'm talking about. I contend that many young writers would actually improve their craft –– and chances of getting published –– if they would write faster, especially at the beginning of their learning curve.

First, a few facts. Some of the best novels of the past century were produced at a rapid clip by authors who found writing time each day, and went at their task with singular resolution:

-- William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, writing from midnight to 4 a.m., then sending it off to the publisher without changing a word.

-- Ernest Hemingway wrote what some consider his best novel, The Sun Also Rises, also in six weeks, part of it in Madrid, and the last of it in Paris, in 1925.

-- John D. MacDonald is now hailed as one of the best writers of the 50s and 60s. Within one stunning stretch (1953-1954) he brought out seven novels, at least two of them – The Neon Jungle and Cancel All Our Vows – brilliant (the others were merely splendid). Over the course of the decade he wrote many more excellent and bestselling novels, including the classic The End of the Night, which some mention in the same breath as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Also Cry Hard, Cry Fast, which is the basis for the title of this blog entry.

So prolific was MacDonald that he was needled by a fellow writer who, over martinis, sniffed that John should slow down, ignore “paperback drivel” and get to “a real novel.” John sniffed back that in 30 days he could write a novel that would be published in hardback, serialized in the magazines, selected by a book club and turned into a movie. The other writer laughed and bet him $50 that he couldn’t.

John went home and, in a month, wrote The Executioners. It was published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, and turned into the movie Cape Fear. Twice.

--Ray Bradbury famously wrote his classic Fahrenheit 451 in nine days, on a rented typewriter. “I had a newborn child at home,” he recalls, “and the house was loud with her cries of exaltation at being alive. I had no money for an office, and while wandering around UCLA I heard typing from the basement of Powell Library. I went to investigate and found a room with 12 typewriters that could be rented for 10 cents a half hour. So, exhilarated, I got a bag of dimes and settled into the room, and in nine days I spent $9.80 and wrote my story; in other words, it was a dime novel.”

I’ve counseled many writers at conferences who have come with a single manuscript yet haven’t got another project going. I tell them, “That’s wonderful. You’ve written a novel. That’s a great accomplishment. Now, get to work on the next one. And as you’re writing that next one, be developing an idea for the project after that.”

You see, publishers and agents are not looking for a book. They are looking for solid, dependable writers. They invest in careers. They want to know you can do this over and over again.

The best advice I ever got as a young writer was to write a quota of words on a regular basis. I break my commitment into week-long segments (anticipating those days when I ride a bike into a tree or some such). I believe this discipline has made all the difference in my career. The testimony of so many other professional writers attests to its value.

One such testimonial comes from Isaac Asimov, author/editor of 500+ books. He was once asked what he would do if were told he had only six months to live.

“Type faster,” he said.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Without Borders

Just in case you tuned in earlier and saw this post appear and disappear on Friday, we had a PICNIC (Problem In Chair Not In Computer) incident where this offering was posted prematurely. Sorry about the confusion, for which I am totally responsible.

I have been watching the slow motion train wreck, otherwise known as the Borders bankruptcy, for over a year now, knowing that it was coming but hoping that it would not. It came this week and it is, not to mince words, a disaster, at least for the short term.

I am aware that the wiser among us say that other bookstores in the areas of the shuttered Borders will pick up the slack, and no doubt they will, to a greater and lesser extent. My immediate concern is for the good folks who worked at the closed stores, and who now join the ever-growing number of people looking for employment. Of longer range concern, however, is the amount of debt owed to publishers large and small, and by extension to authors. I have no idea whether the parent companies of the publishing houses that we deal with are large enough to absorb some of the losses I am hearing about, or even if they are inclined to do so. What I am worried about in the intermediate term, however, is the future of the printed, bound book. I thoroughly enjoy my Kindle, and I have managed to own it for almost one year without breaking it. But I haven’t given up books. I’m kind of like the guy in the (more-or-less) committed relationship who also has a friendship with privileges, and who isn’t sure who fills which need. I really don’t want to have to make the decision any time soon. But the Borders situation creates a giant bump in the road of physical commerce. There are a number of questions hanging out there. Will publishers ship new product to the remaining Borders stores? What happens to physical product in warehouses? Or to product remaining in the closed stores after this weekend’s G.O.B. sales in the stores which are closing? Someone will answer all of these questions fairly quickly, but the shift is going to be a pain in someone’s rear end. In any event, I am sure that someone in an office in midtown Manhattan has floated the idea to their underlings that if all books were e-books, no one would have to worry about all of this. The book isn’t printed and delivered until it’s ordered and paid for, so no inventory. Great, right?

Sure. In some ways. But I don’t think most of us are ready to give up books or the stores where we buy them. Which is why I am asking you to join me, and to ask others to join you, in a demonstration of faith: buy a new book, a physical book, from a brick and mortar establishment dedicated to that purpose, each month for the next twelve months. Many of us already do this, but many of us use libraries, and many of us borrow from friends. Nothing wrong with that, and bless you for reading. But I am asking you to move the budget around a bit, bite the bullet, and buy a book. At worst you’ll have several Christmas gifts to give by the time December comes. I am going to visit the wonderful and indispensable Foul Play Books in Westerville, Ohio for this month’s purchase, and maybe for all of the rest of them each month as well. If you like the bigger stores, go for it. If enough of us do this, the publishers may decide that its worth it to stay in the game, even if they have to move that god-awful inventory around. But please do it. Let’s counter that ripple effect, before someone gets a not-so-bright idea.


A get well soon to John Miller, whose operation on his hand is not preventing him from writing.

Friday, February 18, 2011

No Target Escaped Alive

By John Gilstrap

There are perks to writing in my little corner of the thriller genre.  Three or four weeks ago, I got an email from an active-duty U.S. Navy SEAL named Steve telling me how much he liked the Jonathan Grave books, and wondering how I did my research.  He said in his email that I was "spot on" the details.  Wow.  As compliments go, it doesn't get a lot better than that.

This started an ongoing correspondence, and after I told him about the tour I got of the First Special Forces Operational Detatchment-Delta compound at Fort Bragg (the Delta Force compound), he offered me a tour of the SEALs compound in Virginia Beach, a mere three and a half hour drive from my front door.  He learned not to make such offers lightly.  I said not just yes but hell yes, and the details all came together last week.


First a few details about this amazing community of heroes.  Steve is now preparing for his fourteenth deployment since 2001, having only recently returned from Afghanistan.  He's an E-9 (a master chief, the highest enlisted rank available), and he just won the Legion of Merit with Valor Device for an operation he's not allowed to talk about.  When I asked him about it, his first concern was how I knew that he had won the award.  He seemed almost embarrassed.  They don't do what they do for the glory of it; they do it for the honor of serving.  I know it sounds corny, but when you're with these elite Special Foces guys for more than ten minutes, you know that they're speaking from the heart.

Like the Unit compound at Bragg, the SEAL compound is the land of broad shoulders and no necks.  It's also where you're far more apt to see long hair and mustaches than the high-and-tight clean-shaven look.  Within minutes of checking into my hotel on Thursday afternoon, my cell phone rang.  It was Steve, asking me if I was in town yet (I was), and if I wanted to go watch a training exercise (I did).

He picked me up at the front door of my hotel and we drove into the hinterlands, through a couple of security chcekpoints, until finally we were in a simulated Iraqi village.  With snow on the ground--okay, there's a limit to simulation.  Within a few minutes we met George (all of these guys go by nicknames--remember Maverick and Iceman?--but I'm not sure what's appropriate to pass on, so none of the names are real), the guy in charge of running the training scenario.  George said, "Nice to meet you.  For the full training experience, do you want to be an insurgent?  We can get you the gear."

"Sure," I said.

"No, you don't," Steve said.  That brought a big laugh.  Turns out they use turbo-charged paint pellets, and it's never pleasant.  They also deploy the god-awful meanest dogs I've ever seen.  Muzzles notwithstanding, I would have needed a change of trousers.  Still, I got to watch the training, and I learned a lot--much of which will appear in future Jonathan Grave books.  And I had yet to begin the real tour.

Friday began at 8:30, with a tour of the administrative areas, and then the shooting range.  I got to see the squardron team room where Uday and Qusay Hussein's gold-plated weapons are on display.  There's also a very cool picture of a SEAL team in the prison yard of Carcel Modelo in Panama City, taken within 24 hours of the events I wrote about in Six Minutes to Freedom.  That was very, very cool.

But let's be honest.  The shooting range was the best of all.  My firearms instructor was a former SEAL who goes by Turbo.  A hero of the famed Roberts Ridge engagement in Afghanistan, he's the nicest guy in the world, and has the coolest toys on the planet.


The attached videos show me shooting the Heckler and Koch (HK) MP-7 (4.6 mm/17 caliber) and then the HK 417 (7.62 mm/.30 caliber).  I also shot the HK 416 (the 5.56 mm/.223 caliber carbine that is replacing the Colt M4, which replaced the venerated M16 as a soldier's best friend).  These are all very, very cool weapons.  The coolest weapon of all was one for which I have no video.  The .300 WinMag is a standard sniper rifle for the SEALs, and let me tell you it is a cannon.  It fires a .30 caliber magnum round that is deadly accurate at 1500 yards.  (I say with no small degree of pride that I shot the snot out of my target at 200 yards.)

Having never served in the military myself (no source of pride there, I assure you), whenever I visit those who do the nation's bidding, I always leave inspired.  Cool toys aside, my new friend Steve will be heading into harm's way in two weeks, and he won't be home for his family again for four months.  Modern technology lets him communicate every day--with live pictures, even--but nothing substitutes for the touch and smell of the people you love. 

They do what they do because it is a job for which there is no comparison.  The nature of their jobs requires violence, but the violence is not something they crave.  They take solace in being the best of the best, and they, more than anyone else, pray for peace.

I'm a better person for being able to call a few of these heroes my friend.  I pray that they succeed in their mission, but more than that, I pray that they all come home safely. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011


by Michelle Gagnon

I'm attempting to finish a draft of my current WIP by the end of the week, so this post will of necessity be brief. And in lieu of dispensing advice, today I'm hoping to receive some.

Here's my issue: timelines.

By the end of a book, I always hit a point where I realize that the timeframe in which the story is taking place has become hopelessly jumbled and needs some sorting out. For example, my characters might have suffered through an extraordinarily long night (which is only helpful in vampire stories, really), or there's a sudden, jarring leap from dawn one day to dawn the next with little or no interlude.

Generally I spend a few days going back through the story and sorting that out. I mark on an Excel spreadsheet which day the story starts on (which is generally randomly chosen, ie: "Monday, March 6th"), and plot out scene by scene what approximate time and day everything is transpiring on.

But it occurs to me that there must be an easier way to track that during the writing process.

I'm using Scrivener for the first time with this manuscript, and it has in many ways transformed how I write. I find that my scenes tend to be longer. I have a much clearer sense of point of view shifts thanks to their handy color-coded virtual index cards. I love that I can shift scenes around with abandon.

But the one feature that appears to be lacking is some larger calendar on which I could keep track of WHEN the scenes are happening, not just where and to who.

So I thought I'd throw this out there: does anyone have a better system to recommend? A program that makes it easier to manage timelines during the writing process?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Coping with Visitors

Yesterday morning, we said goodbye to our visitors who’ve been in town for a week. No, I don’t mean visitors from outer space like on the TV show, “V”. These were close relatives and we were happy to see them. Although we offered them a room at our place, they chose to stay at a nearby hotel. We went to shopping malls, took a stroll down Las Olas Blvd, and ate lunch overlooking the beach. We ate out every night except for one when I cooked at home. My added weight attests to these good meals.  

Fortunately for me, our guests weren’t early risers so I had most of the mornings free to do my writing quota. It worked out well that I had guest bloggers scheduled on my site over that period of time, because I lost my afternoons when I usually work on marketing. It must be infinitely more disruptive when you have company staying in your house. So I am wondering what you do under those circumstances. Do you forsake writing completely and vacation along with your guests? Do you wake up early to get your pages done? How do you cope with the need for alone time that afflicts all writers, or don’t a few days of revelry bother you?

Sometimes it’s nice to get a break in your routine. Vacations and conferences bring a change of pace. Having company from out of town gives us a chance to act like a tourist in our home environment. It can be refreshing (or annoying) depending on the guests, if we have any work deadlines to meet, and how their daily habits coincide with ours. One thing is certain: it’s always nice to get the house back to normal after the company, no matter how desirable, leaves.                                   

Now that they’re gone, though, it’s quiet and lonely here. Can’t we have our cake and eat it, too?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Author Mentoring: The Art of Paying It Forward

By: Kathleen Pickering

I spent most of this past week at The Myrtles, a haunted plantation in Louisiana, with my mentor, the award winning, New York Times Best Selling author, Heather Graham. Luckily for me, Heather is not only my mentor, but my dear friend. (I don’t even know if she knows she’s mentoring me!)

I accompanied Heather and her family “on location” to shoot the new book trailer for her upcoming “Krewe of Hunters” series with Mira Books. As my mentor, Heather showed me how to set up a script, find a location, hire a videographer and assemble a cast of actors (with costumes) and work within a budget to accomplish in one afternoon what promises to be an exciting and entertaining introduction to her next book series.

Heather Graham on location at The Myrtles, St. Francisville, LA

I enjoyed all of this instruction while having fun. I came away realizing that while mentoring doesn’t always lead to friendship, friendship surely leads to mentoring. Mentoring is an organic essence of a writing community. Joining Florida Romance Writers, Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers and Thriller Writers has immersed me in conversations with other authors from which I have come away a better writer—just by sharing information. Many times, I’m lucky to make friends with some of my most favorite authors. In turn, when I meet new writers, I answer their questions, offer them help with works in progress, or point them in whatever direction I can to help further their career.

Mentoring is an author’s way to “pay it forward” or in other words, to do good for someone in advance of good happening for you. When we pay it forward, we take mega-leaps in our own careers, as well. Heather showed me how she uses her skills and years of experience to create media content. In turn, I followed the cast around the plantation, videoing behind the scenes. (With equipment I bought through more mentoring from Fred Rae, a member of Mystery Writers.) To thank Heather for the fun—and the lessons, I plan to create up to 20 (depending on the quality of my photography!) short “behind the scenes” videos for YouTube, Facebook and iTunes to help herald Heather’s upcoming series. (I’ll be sure to post them on my website, as well.)

Why? Because I am delighted to “pay it forward” for my friend---and not just because she's teaching me. It feels good inside to know I'm building my career on good intentions. Helping create an Internet buzz for Heather works in symbiosis with my learning how to create media. It's all good. After all, in the author’s world of mentoring, what are friends for?
So, let me ask you. How do you contribute as a mentor in your writing world?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Love and Murder

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

After a wee bit of drama last week and the flooding of the downstairs of our house, I am finally back to blogging - and I love that I get to blog on Valentine's Day! It's not just because I am a hopeless romantic, it's also because I think writing an emotion such as love is one of the trickiest things to do well.

In crime fiction 'love' can connote a whole range of things from sexual chemistry and romance to justification for murder. To make such a complex emotion believable can be a major challenge. I've lost count of the number of crime novels I've read that were great on action and suspense but a real let down when it came to love. Handled badly, it's an emotion that can be soppy and overwrought or just plain gag-worthy. Handled well and a reader can't turn the pages quickly enough. Love is compelling. Just look at the novel Twilight by Stephenie Meyer - for all it's flaws, it handles the emotional angst and pain of teenage love skillfully and readers have responded accordingly.

One crime author that I believe handles love exceptionally well is Tana French. I have read all three of her books, In the Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place. Each, I feel, really handles the facets of love to great effect. In her book Faithful Place, she captures the sweet yearning of young love and the devastation of loss - making the crime in the novel all the more poignant. I think that many mystery and thriller writers could take note of Tana's use of emotion to make their own books richer.
What does she do, that helps propel her evocation of love beyond the banal?

Well, in my mind it is her 'evocation' that is all important. She doesn't simply tell you about the emotions stirring within her characters, she shows you it in every observation and interaction.

So on this Valentine's Day, I thought I would offer just a few tips on writing about 'love' -

  • Make it unique to the characters. Avoid the cliches 'eyes like deep pools' or the stock standard 'hate at first sight' approach. Make the characters emotions uniquely their own. Think of the subtleties involved in falling in and out of love.

  • Be restrained - Crime fiction is not romance fiction and I truly think most mystery readers prefer 'love' to take a back seat to the crime aspects of the story. That being said I think a well-drawn relationship can add depth to a mystery and there's no doubt that love is one of the greatest motivations for crime as well:) Nonetheless, I do think that the standards are different and that emotions can be more heightened in a romance novel than in a mystery or a thriller. It's a fine line between 'heightened' and 'overblown' and I think to be successful in describing 'love', less is often more!

  • Evoke the sense of love- nothing indicates depth of emotion that heightened sensory awareness. I love reading novels that bring these senses to the forefront so the reader starts to suspect a character's emotions from their sensory appreciation of sight, sounds and smell;

  • Have realistic sex scenes. The most amazing sex ever starts to get a bit dull even in the best of books - far more interesting to make the event as realistic as possible (though not many readers probably want to read about truly boring, horrible sex!).

What other tips would you add to the list - which crime novelist do you think handles the emotion of 'love' best?

Oh, and Happy Valentine's Day!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Going E

James Scott Bell

Today I announce my first E book exclusive.

Watch Your Back is all new material, a novella and three stories of suspense. Page turning stuff. At least, that's my claim. For less than a Starbucks latte you can test that claim for yourself. I'd love to hear from you if I've done my job.

It's available for the Kindle and the Nook.

This is all an exciting development for me. While I'm still working under a traditional contract, I see this arena as a way to complement that work. I'll be growing new readers and giving my current readers more product. What's not to like about that?

But mostly it's about the writing. 

See, I always wanted to do one thing, since I was a kid: write stories. Write books. The kind of books I loved to read. Page turners. Twisty plots. Up all night stuff.

I had to work hard to get there, but I did. And I've appreciated every moment of the ride.

There were some years I put out two novels in a year (and once or twice with a non-fiction writing book thrown in). But that had to be it, because of publishing schedules, limited shelf space in the stores and so on.

Now I don't have to wait 18 months for a book see the light, or worry about getting more than spine-out shelf space once it does. I can have a book out there as soon as I think it's ready. And readers can have it in their hands in seconds.

I always admired the pulp writers of the golden age. The era of Black Mask and Chandler and Hammett and Cornell Woolrich, guys writing fast and furious for a penny a word, providing stories for a voracious public. Turning out some of the greatest examples of American suspense ever written.

I wanted to write in that tradition, and now I can.

It begins here, with Watch Your Back.

In the title novella, hotshot IT guy Cameron Cates seems to have it all. A secure job, a fiancée who loves him and the prospect of a steady life ahead. But then he sees her.  The new woman at work. And like watching a car crash in slow motion, Cam knows he can't turn away and is powerless to stop what happens next. A tale of lust and greed and corporate America––and what happens to dreams that become all too real.

Fore Play is the story of the world's top golfer and the trouble that follows his off the course activities. Let's put it this way: his game will never be the same.

In Rage Road, a nice young couple thinks they're out for a smooth ride through some lovely country. The truck behind them has a different idea.

Married man Frank Dabney has learned to listen to his wife, Susie. But in Heed the Wife he finds out he may have listened one too many times. 

For Watch Your Back I hired cover designer Jeff Gerke (if you're interested in his services you can contact him by going here. Tell him I sent you). I had beta readers read and edit the content, and hired out the text formatting.

But the stories are mine and it's an absolute thrill to be able to share them with you now. There's more to come.

Is this a golden age for writers or what?

So allow me to consider this a launch party of sorts, for Watch Your Back and my future e-books. I'm just sorry I can't offer you a glass of wine and some gourmet cheeses. But I'll hang out here today and read your comments and answer any questions you might want to sling my way.

And thanks for stopping by.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Anonymous, go suck a whirlwind

John Ramsey Miller

There's this new book, O, about President Obama that was written by an anonymous author, just as the book PRIMARY COLORS was published with the author being the anonymous columnist Joe Klein. I mean PC was supposed to be fiction, right? It wasn't actually about Bill Clinton, who was one of the best Republican presidents ever. I'm sure it's a marketing ploy (since who needs another book about a sitting president?) just as I'm sure the publisher will swear that the reason for the anonymous tag is to insure truthfulness. I'm sure that was done because Obama would have the NSA black-baggers disappear the author if they could somehow discover who he or she is. Because it's a huge secret on the order of who really killed JFK. I can think of lots of books that should have been written anonymously, like THE PROPHET by Kahlil Gibran or anything by Stephenie Meyer. Jus a' kidding Steph. Seriously, anonymous is a punk-out. Stand up and take your medicine.

When I was young, my father was a Methodist minister, so I was a hellion of the first order. (stop me if I've told you this before). I didn't get into trouble, I lived in trouble. I believed it was my calling. I got caught at it with amazing regularity due to my youth and inexperience, but I got better at evading detection as I grew older. Luckily I aged out of hell raising as an art form, having done no lasting damage to anyone, or to myself. The point of this confession is to say that after having done something actionable, someone sent my father a letter detailing my marauding one evening. It was perfectly written and should have convicted me to a severe grounding, except for the fact that they had signed the letter, "A concerned citizen". After reading it to me, my father tore up the letter and tossed it into the trash, saying that if the person didn't have the spine to sign the letter, he could not take it seriously. Being a liberal, I suspect he felt that I had the right to be confronted by my accuser. I also suspect that a Baptist minister would have, in similar circumstance, whipped his son, happy to take the word of a cowardly vigilante.

Another reason I'm talking about "anons" is because my daughter-in-law has a beauty salon and it's a first class operation, and she's a very talented hair stylist. She even does my hair with all my cowlicks––that's how good she is. She is listed on a local site that highlights commercial businesses of note, and there's a place for customer comments underneath, and you get stars just like an Amazon rating system. Well she was nominated for "Beauty Shop of the Year" and the next day someone wrote a nasty review saying that she smelled like cigarettes, dressed in trashy outfits, talked behind her customers backs, made lewd jokes about passersby, left "bleed marks" from a bad dye job, etc... It was signed anonymous. My son's wife, the most wonderful and hard working person I know, has fifteen excellent reviews below that one. She is sure the comment was left by her main competitor because some of the detractor's comments included beauty shop trade terms, too technical for a patron to use. There's this beautician who hates my daughter-in-law due to losing a huge wedding party of a bride and her bridesmaids gig--but that's another story involving my youngest son who's getting married in June. But she'll never know and she can't get the comment taken off even though it's totally a lie. And, it's a small southern town we live in.

I agree with my father, who died on my birthday three years ago. Anybody who won't sign their name and take responsibility for their words, is more than likely a coward and is probably just throwing monkey crap through the bars at the audience. If you can't use your name due to the fact that you might be fired or set upon, then I say keep your damned opinion to yourself and live with it.

I tend to say idiotic things that I shouldn't say and put my name on it. I once traded six columns to my local newspaper in exchange for an antique granite body slab that came out of a funeral home. What I wrote lit fires all over the community, but that's another story. My wife (and more than a few others) tell me that some of my critical social filters must be clogged with dust balls. I am cognizant of the fact that a lot of my opinions would be best left unshared, or anonymous, but I'm not apt to do anything at this point in my life that makes sense.

By the way, as of last week my first novel THE LAST FAMILY, published in 1996 is now an eBook, which means that all of my novels are available in electronic format from Bantam/Dell. And I don't have to worry about the pages yellowing.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Books and Movies: Forever Entwined

By John Gilstrap
NOTE: I'll not be much of an active participant in my own blog day today because I won't have access to a computer or even my iPhone.  Why, you ask?  Because I will be getting a VIP tour of the Navy SEALs compound in Virginia Beach, and they don't let you take cell phones with you.  For the record, that's not a moast.  That's a pure neener-neener outright brag.

Now, on to today's post:

Reading Joe Moore's excellent post on Wednesday about the importance of setting, it was interesting to see how many examples of setting were in fact taken from movies.  In the context of Kathryn Lilley's great post about Finding Your Voice, I got to thinking about how much movies have influenced books over the years.

As a writer of commercial novels (not to be confused with lit'rateur (read that word with a New England elite accent)), I am obsessive about pacing, imagery and snappy dialogue--the holy trinity of screenwriting.  I think in scenes, making every effort to begin and end on action.  I believe in jump cuts, taking the reader from one scene to another quickly.  Even my contribution to the voice discussion focused on "camera placement" as a means of keeping POV consistent.

So, how does a writer fulfill the goals of pacing, imagery and snappy dialogue?  It's all about voice, baby.  And voice is inexorably linked to point of view.  Consider these two descriptions of the same scene:

1. Finally, he arrived at the desert.  He stepped out of the car, stretched his back and closed his eyes, letting the heat and the dry air soak into his skin.  If he used his imagination, he could smell the aroma of purple coneflower and Easter lilly cactus carried on the constant breeze.

2. He'd arrived.  There was no putting it off anymore.  He climbed out of his car into the blistering moonscape, somehow sensing that he'd stepped two rungs lower on the food chain.  Between rattlesnakes, scorpions and a climate that sucks the moisture from your bones, this was a place for the dead, not the living.  It’s no wonder that we tested nukes here.

To my eye and ear, those examples illustrate how an author's voice simultaneously drives action, imagery and characterization--in this case in the form of inner monologue.  At least, I think that's what it's called.  Through description alone, filtered through the voice of the POV character, we get a glimpse at two entirely different personality types.  In both examples we learn that we're in the desert, and that it's hot.  The rest is all characterization.

And for me, all else being equal, I have all I need to know about the setting for this moment in whatever story this would turn out to be.  I've given the reader enough to take it from here and develop it further in his or her imagination.  This is a stylistic thing for me, but once that scene is set, it's time for the character to do something, lest the pacing slow.

People are used to experiencing thrillers--my genre--on the screen.  In order to compete, I need to provide that same kinetic experience on the page, but with the addition of deeper character development.

What do you think? Do movies affect the way books are written?  Is our addiction to entertainment from the screen the reason why thrillers from the past feel sorta slow when we read them today?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Quirky Ramblings on E-Books, Self-Publishing and the Consumer

USA TODAY had an interesting article on authors who have struck it big with their self-published e-books. The article featured 26-yr old Amanda Hocking of Minnesota who got tired of being rejected by traditional publishers and self-published last year. In 2010, she sold 164,000 books, with most priced between $0.99 and $2.99 per digital download. And in January, 2011 (after many readers got e-readers for Christmas), she sold 450,000 copies of her 9 paranormal titles, with three of her titles making their debut on the USA TODAY’s Bestseller list.

Her percentage of that sales price range comes in at 30-70%, respectively, but she’s making money at it. And she promotes on Facebook, Twitter, and word of mouth—and credits the popularity of the paranormal genre for much of her success.

And another paranormal e-novelist, who sold 70,000 copies since July 2010, got noticed by Random House and just signed a three-book deal.

I bring this up because of a talk I had with a neighbor this week. She got me thinking about digital download books. My neighbor had received a Nook for Christmas and was downloading books online. She was feeling pretty tech savvy, for sure. And she wanted a trip down memory lane when she used to read simple sweet romance novels, easy reads that made her happy.

Instead, she bought erotica by mistake. Now her online booksellers are sending her recommendations for the same steamy stuff she just purchased. (I’m chuckling as I write this. If you knew my neighbor, you would too.) She actually had to call the online bookstore to see if they could stop sending those recommendations to her Nook, but since it was such a new product, they couldn’t help her. But she was willing to download a book that she knew nothing about other than it was a romance and she had virtually no knowledge of the plot. She only knew it was a bargain. And she’s not alone. I’ve heard on blog posts and other places that many readers are willing to try a new author for $0.99-$2.99/book.

Now I’ve resisted buying an e-reader so far. I’m not sure the technology is there yet and I like the feel of a book in my hands. Plus I spend way too much time in front of a computer writing that I think reading off a display might make my quirky eyesight worse. But I can see why a reader might like the option of downloading a book quickly, read it immediately without paying shipping, and maybe get it for a bargain. And I also have a couple of manuscripts “under my bed” that are only playthings for my cats. Maybe it’s time to do something with them and test the new marketplace of e-books.

I’d like to hear from anyone who has an e-reader. How do you like reading off it? Has owning one changed your book buying habits? Do you still buy print books? And is there a price point that might tempt you to try a new author?

And if you’re an author who has sold your e-books online through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, Barnes & Noble’s Pubit, Lulu, Smashwords, and other locations—how has that worked for you?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Finding your voice as a writer

Sometimes it's hard to find the right voice for a story.

During the two years it took me to write the first book in my series, I struggled mightily to find the narrator's voice.  My first writing efforts were dry and objective--the chapters sounded like they'd been written by a former journalist (which I was). In despair I hit the bookstores, looking for inspiration. Ultimately I came across a new (to me) genre called "chick lit". As I read the first few pages of a random book, I grew excited.

"I can write like that," I thought.

After going back to my manuscript, I injected it with the snappy, snarky rhythm of the chick-lit style, including (hopefully) lots of humor.  And voila! Dying to be Thin was born.

My new WIP is a thriller--and once again, it was a struggle to find the right voice. This time I  read Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, and Lincoln Child, among others, for inspiration. I studied the way they pull off their narrators' voices, trying to find techniques that would work for me. I visualized how how their various styles would work with the particular story I'm  writing.

In the end it was no one particular author, but an amalgam of techniques, that worked. 

Joe had some good technical tips about creating voice in his post, "Look who's talking," and Jim has more suggestions in his post, "How can I learn to write like...".

How about you? Do you struggle to find a voice in your stories? What are some of the techniques that you use?

Monday, February 7, 2011

No blog post today due to flooding

My apologies but there will be no blog post today. After over 4 inches of rain fell in 12 hours our house flooded so we are trying to get it all sorted out. Will be back next week with an update but, most importantly, my family and I are all fine.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Top Ten Writing Influences

A common interview question for writers is, Who were your literary influences? I've given it some thought over the years and have come up with a list of my top ten. Here they are, in no particular order:

Franklin W. Dixon

This was, of course, the cover name for the Hardy Boys series. Several authors did the actual work (a Canadian named Leslie McFarlane was the first). From The Hardy Boys I learned that you could make readers read on by ending a chapter with an exclamation point! Today I don't use the actual punctuation mark, but try to achieve the same feeling—so readers have to turn the page.

The Classics Illustrated comic books guys

I loved the old Classics Illustrated series. I got acquainted with much great literature that way. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Men of Iron and on and on. Beautifully illustrated and written. I learned pure storytelling from these little gems.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

My first "grown up" novel was Tarzan of the Apes. I loved the experience of being pulled into a big story and then not wanting it to end.

William Saroyan

My beloved high school creative writing teacher, Mrs. Marjorie Bruce, encouraged me to read more than sports biographies. At a book fair she got me to buy My Name is Aram, which is still one of my favorite collections of short stories. I love Saroyan's whimsical voice.

Ernest Hemingway

In college, Hemingway knocked me out. I think he is the greatest short story writer who ever lived. His style is easy to satirize, but no one has ever been able to do it better—not even the lionized "minimalists" of current fashion. I am very proud to have been a semi-finalist one year in the Imitation Hemingway Contest.

Jack Kerouac

I think most college guys who are into literature go through a Kerouac phase. I ate up On the Road and Kerouac's idea of  "be-bop prose rhapsody." Even now I try to follow some of his writing techniques, like:

-  Submissive to everything, open, listening

-  No time for poetry but exactly what is

-  Believe in the holy contour of life

Raymond Chandler

Oh man, when I discovered Chandler, I was in heaven. Still the best prose stylist of any hard boiled school you want to name. Nothing more needs to be said.

John D. MacDonald

Storyteller supreme. Great stylist of "unobtrusive poetry." I'm thinking mainly of his 50s stand alone novels. The Travis McGees are enjoyable on their own and have much to commend them. But his output before that was amazing and the top quality of the paperback writers of the day.

Dean Koontz

I learned a lot from Koontz about how to write a flat-out page turner. Koontz also wrote a superb book on the craft, How to Write Bestselling Fiction. It's out of print and goes for about $200 on the open market. I got mine off a library giveaway shelf and still refer to it.

Stephen King

King puts it all together. A great stylist, plotter and character creator. I read King and sometimes just shake my head at how good he is. Please don't bring up the fact that he also sometimes seems to be the king of F-bombs. He succeeds in spite of, not because of, that little fact.

So writers out there, who are some of your writing influences? What is it about them you like?

If you're primarily a reader, what writer would you pick as someone you'd recommend to a writer to learn from?

Saturday, February 5, 2011


It has been an extremely interesting week, one of highs and lows. I had a wonderful professional and personal high that is still playing itself out, a circumstance where I was able to help a kind and decent person at a time when they needed it. You can read about that elsewhere if you wish. But let’s talk about the “low” here, at length. I have sometimes forgotten in the course of my postings that this blog is called The Kill Zone, so I will get back on track here and now.

I read crime fiction because I am fascinated with the battle between good and evil. I know that the lines are often blurred, but not necessarily to the extent that they are indistinguishable. Yet every bad guy, if you will, represents a failure on some level, perhaps unavoidable, perhaps otherwise, but a failure and a tragedy still. We all know a number of folks who for one reason or another --- or for perhaps no discernable reason at all --- fall off of the rails.

My younger son, who is now in his late 20s, had a childhood friend who I will call “Todd” for purposes of this discussion. Todd, when he was attending grade school with my son, gave little indication that he would have troubles later in life. He was raised in an intact family with loving parents, and if he occasionally experienced some impulse control problems, they never reached the stage that would portend the disaster his adult life has become. My son and Todd lost touch when we moved to a different school district in the area, even though I kept in contact with Todd’s parents as they intermittently relayed tales of what was turning into a slow-motion train wreck. Todd was barely into his teens when he was arrested for shoplifting. Other troubles followed. He began to have trouble with drug use; his folks placed him a tough rehab program which, to all outward appearances, he successfully completed. They took him to South Carolina over a Christmas weekend to celebrate his success. They had been there for two days when Todd‘s father called me, almost hysterical. Todd had gone out with some friends to walk the beach and within a half-hour had been arrested for armed robbery. Charged as an adult, he spent six months in a jail awaiting trial. By the time Todd finally returned home, his course seemed to be set. Trouble seemed to dip and swirl around him. When Todd’s father died of cancer, Todd could not attend the funeral because he was sitting in an Ohio prison, having been convicted of yet another offense. His mother, a sweet and kind person who devoted her life to her son and husband, had the appearance and demeanor of someone who had been shell-shocked. Just so.

Todd was in the news again this week. The area had been plagued by a period of gas station robberies and Todd was charged as the alleged perpetrator. In his booking photo, wearing a dirty wife beater and a scripted tattoo across his left arm and chest, he bears but a faint resemblance to the little boy who with my younger son played with Transformers and shared respective bedrooms like brothers. In the picture it is Todd who looks shell-shocked this time, vaguely dazed, perhaps by the state of his life at this point, perhaps wondering how and why he wound up on the downhill road he is on. Or perhaps I am projecting my own questions, wondering why him, and not my own son, since they were so alike in so many ways. The chill I have felt since seeing his picture, however, has nothing to do with the weather. And I doubt that there is a book that I could read that would conclusively answer my questions.

Friday, February 4, 2011

I Hate Unsolicited Phone Calls

By John Gilstrap
I pen this week's post from Bakersfield, California, where I'm teaching a two-day seminar on safety and health issues in the recycling industry.  It's a great class so far, packed with a lot of motivated and enthusiastic students.  The fact that it took me 17 hours to get here, thanks to Mama Nature doesn't take away from my enjoyment of the process, but it does mean that I'm tired.  With tired comes cranky.

And nothing spins me up quite like unsolicited recorded phone calls.
I felt my pocket buzzing while I was in the middle of my lecture and of course ignored it because, well, I was in the middle of my lecture.  During the break, I looked at my phone and found an 866 number, identified as "unknown."

I called the number back and reached a recorded greeting that told me, "be aware that we are a debt collector."  I suspected that it was either a scam or a wrong number, so after a minute or two on hold, I hung up and went back to work.

Then I got to thinking.  This has been the year of compromised credit cards for us.  It's happened at least four times.  While we're current on all our bills, was it possible that something slipped through?  There's also the matter of a denied medical claim that we're still negotiating with the insurance company.  Could that be the problem?

They called back when I could actually take the call, and it turns out that a Mr. and Mrs. Ngyuen are behind on their house payments.  The call goes like this:

"If this is Mr. or Mrs. Ngyuen, press one.  If not, press two."

I press two.

"If you need a moment to bring them to the phone, press one.  If this is the wrong number, press two."

I press two.

"If you want to stop receiving these phone calls, press one."

I press one.  (Really.  Does anyone NOT want to stop receiving these calls?)

"To be removed from the call list, you must talk to a customer service representative.  Please hold."

I hold.  For six minutes, being told regularly how important my phone call is.

Finally, a young man answers, "Hello?"

"Hello?" I say.  "Really?  That's it?  Hello?"

"Who is this?" he asks.

"You called me," I say.

"Are you looking for the modification department?"

"I don't know what a modification department is.  I'm calling to be taken off your list."

"What list?"

"The one you called me from."

"I'm sorry, sir, I think you have the wrong number."

"It can't be the wrong number," I say.  "I pressed one."

"One what?"

"The number one.  You called me.  Your recording told me to press one to get taken off the list.  I can't have called a wrong number."

"Oh," he says.  "Let me pass you to someone who can take you off the list."

"What list?" I ask.


"I few seconds ago, you didn't know what the list is.  How are you going to take me off of it if you don't know what it is?"

"I'll transfer you to someone."

"Let me talk to your supervisor."

"I'll transfer you to someone."

"You're not listening.  I'm already talking to someone.  Another someone doesn't do me any good.  I want to talk to your supervisor."

"He's not available."

"I'll talk to his supervisor, then."

"Please hold."

I endure three more minutes of assurances that my call is important.

"Um, sir?  They weren't available."

"Your supervisor's supervisor?"

"No sir.  Someone else."

"So if someone's not there, that means no one's there.  Are you in a room by yourself?"

"No, sir."

"Then someone must be there."

"Sir, if you can just give me your phone number, we can take you off the list."

"The right list?  The one I want to be taken off of?"

"Yes, sir."

"The list you don't know."

"Yes, sir."

"And you can guarantee that I'll be removed."

"I think so."

I give him the number.  "And what about the Ngyuens?" I ask.

"Excuse me?"

"The Ngyuens.  The ones who are behind on their payments.  Someone should call them and let them know."


"They're not at this number.  I think we've established that."

"They must have had that number before you."

"This is a cell phone.  I've had this number for over ten years."

"Sir, I'll tell the right person, and they'll take the number off the list."

"Okay," I say.  "I don't want to have this conversation again."

"I understand, sir.  Neither do I."