Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reflections on the "R" word

Note: Like Clare, I'm in a topsy-turvy environment this week--a beloved family member has come to live with us (my father-in-law, who is 93 years old). I'm entering a brave new world, trying to make sure we can successfully manage his needs in our hectic household. I'm not sure our rambunctious Lab puppy has gotten the memo--he's already torn up a pair of Dad's slippers.

Meanwhile, I've been thinking a lot recently about what rejection means to writers. At the writer's groups I attend, people frequently talk about rejection. Someone will mention that an editor, agent, or magazine has rejected a submission. When this happens, everyone at the table nods in sympathy. They make encouraging comments like, "Keep sending it out. You have to go through a lot of rejection to get published."

I've been sitting silently during some of these morale-boosting sessions. In these cases, I know that the submitted work wasn't  publishable quality. Yet I've watched the writer toil over it in our group  sessions, rewriting and revising the work, sometimes for years. And it just hasn't gotten to the level it needs to be.

Recently a member came to a meeting in tears. She's been working on a novel for years. After laboring over the story with us, she showed it to a friend who is a published author. The friend went ballistic in her comments.

"She sounded so angry about the writing," the woman said at our meeting. "Outraged, like how could I have been so stupid to think this was good?"

This woman felt blind-sided and abused by her friend, but I couldn't help agreeing with the critique. The novel isn't ready to submit--it's nowhere close. And yet in our group sessions, we have this polite way of focusing on the good, while regretfully, almost as a postscript, mentioning things that need  to be fixed.

I think we let each other down by doing that. We have let this writer spend years on her novel,  thinking that it's getting better, thinking that it's going to be published, when there's no chance whatsoever of that happening.

I don't know what the best approach is in these cases. What do you do when someone's writing doesn't improve no matter how hard they work at it? Should you continue to encourage, or hit them over the head with a sledgehammer like this woman's friend did? In the end, I think it was our group that let her down, not her critical friend (to whom she's no longer speaking, by the way). We should have been more honest with her all along.  The problem is, you can lose a lot of friends and critique group members that way.

If you've made every suggestion you can think of and the writing hasn't measurably improved, do you simply say, "This needs a page one rewrite--I'm afraid it's not working at all." I honestly don't know what the right approach is.

What do you think?

Monday, May 30, 2011

The perfect panel

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

While we continue to be in the midst of renovations (and eventually getting new floors from when we flooded earlier this year) I am trying to fit everything in while juggling workmen (not as sexy as it sounds), internet access and finding space to write (my office still contains most of the furniture moved in said flood), so blogging today was a bit of a challenge - and how can I possibly hope to follow on from Jim's procrastination exercise yesterday?! By continuing the fun of course...

I thought we could come up with fabulous and funny panel topics and panelists for an imaginary writers' conference entitled No, you really don't want to be a mystery writer!

My contribution is for a conversation between Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler on the topic 'The digital age apocalypse' and a panel comprising our own John Gilstrap, John Ramsey Miller, Michelle Gagnon and Joe Hartlaub on 'the bloodstained cozy rules' or 'why we secretly love mysteries involving fluffy kittens and little old lady detectives'.

So if you could, what panel title, and panelists would you chose?

Now back to those pesky renovations...be creative folks, I need a good laugh...sigh...

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Procrastination Day

James Scott Bell

It is my pleasure to introduce a new feature on TKZ, Procrastination Day. A time to get away from that novel you're writing, or that task around the house you've meaning to finish, and get down to some serious wasting of time.

Forget Spider Solitaire. Put away Endless Zombie Rampage. Let's use our literary lights instead.

Let's play the Less Interesting Books Game.

I found out about this one on Thursday, via Twitter. I was checking in and saw the hashtag #lessinterestingbooks. And it was exploding. I started in and couldn't stop. For an hour I was chugging out less interesting book titles along with what seemed like a million other procrastinators.

Here's how to play: You take a well known book title and tweak it a bit so it comes out as "less interesting" than the original. Here is a sampling of what I came up with in the heat of the moment:

Paradise Misplaced

The Puce Letter

The Naked and the Bruised

As You Consider It

The Seven Pillows of Wisdom

Kon Tiki Barber

Mein Kramp

Get the idea? 

Now it's your turn. The only rule is: One title per comment. If you want to leave another title, leave another comment. 

So what books sound a little less interesting to you?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Bad Idea

There is a saying in the military that there is no such thing as friendly fire. Just so; accordingly, I don’t quite know what to call, or how to classify, a recent story which is moving around literary circles; at least, I don’t know what to call it and remain polite. A “bad idea” doesn’t quite cover it.

J.A. Konrath has been one of the first authors to turn water into wine in the literal sense with respect to e-publishing. While I wouldn’t always entirely trust Joe with driving directions, he is always worth reading and yes, worth listening to, even if you don’t go along with every idea he has. Joe went from A to C without stopping first at B while figuring out how to use the new technology to not only keep his audience but also broaden it, and to make even more money while doing so. The result is that he has an almost overwhelming e-book and short story bibliography, under his own name, under pseudonyms, and in collaboration with others (most notably Blake Crouch, a master scribe in his own right). Konrath, notwithstanding his e-book success, also has an enviable backlist of physical books in print, and has also just signed a deal with a little outfit called amazon.com which is going to publish a new book of his, co-authored with Crouch, in both print (under their Thomas & Mercer imprint) and e-book format.

Now we get to the “bad idea” which I referenced above. The call has gone out on the bulletin board of one of those common interest groups for independent booksellers to 1) boycott the Thomas & Mercer imprint in general and 2) send their stocks of Konrath books back in particular. Whoever thought of this must be a descendent of the British general who during the American Revolutionary War insisted that the Redcoats attack while marching, bunched up together, in rows, the more easily to be mowed down by that aforementioned fire, friendly and otherwise. It would be foolish to do this to any author, barring evidence of the practice of pederasty or some similarly reprehensible activity; I mean, does an independent bookseller actually want to drive traffic to a local superstore by proudly announcing that they won’t be carrying a particular author’s books? It is doubly foolish to do this with Konrath, who has historically been one of the independent’s best friends. Konrath at one point in the not-so-distant-past generously laid out for one and all the manner in which he efficiently visited as many libraries and out of the way bookstores as he could on a book tour using his GPS. He also personally thanked what seemed to be thousands of librarians and booksellers, by name, at the conclusion of one of his recent novels. Booksellers, you’re gonna ban this guy? He turned one of his books into the equivalent of a sandwich board for you.

Booksellers should understand that Konrath is not the illness that threatens their business. He’s not even a symptom. He’s simply figured out a way to adapt. You should be inviting him in to sign his backlisted novels and yes, his new book with Thomas & Mercer when it is published, and to do readings (the man is enormously entertaining, even when, alas, unintentionally so) for your customers. He has the capacity to drive business into your store, not away from it. Who knows, your customers who come in to seeKonrath might buy some books by other authors as well. They’re not going to do that if you’re chasing off Konrath or any other author who has figured out a way to embrace this new medium. It’s an ancient saying, but still true: you draw more flies, and readers, with honey than with vinegar. Or boycotts.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Will Livable Advances Be the First Casualty of the Publishing Revolution?

By John Gilstrap

Before getting to the meat of this week’s blog entry, I wanted to share a bit of very cool news. As every TKZ regular knows, Basil Sands is a frequent and entertaining participant here. A year or so ago, when my fellow Killzoners and I published Fresh Kills: Tales From The Killzone, Basil volunteered to produce audio versions of the book and podcast them. If you’ve listened to his narration, you know that he’s very good at that sort of thing.

A few weeks ago, during a routine email exchange with the folks from Audible.com, the people who publish the audio versions of the Jonathan Grave series, I mentioned to them that they might consider adding Basil to their stable of narrators. I’m not sure of the details that transpired between Basil and Audible.com at that point, but I am thrilled to announce that Basil Sands will be the narrator for my next Jonathan Grave novel, Threat Warning, which will be released on July 1.

Having heard the great job he did with Fresh Kills, I can’t wait to hear his take on Threat Warning. For the second week in a row, then, here’s to serendipity! Way to go, Basil!

We now return to our original Blog programming:


New York publishing went Hollywood back in the mid nineties, throwing high six-figure and even seven-figure advances at first time authors. It’s a shame that so many of the authors who received such largesse didn’t know that the big money would ruin their writing careers.

A million dollar advance puts a writer in the position of having to sell something like 300,000 copies in hardcover for the publisher just to break even, and 350,000 for the writer to start earning a royalty check. Those are hard numbers to achieve even for established authors; for an unknown rookie, the odds are one in thousands. Whereas in a normal world, rookie sales of 75,000 or 80,000 copies would be the stuff of cork-popping and the terrific launch of a career, those same sales for the anointed and overpaid were a source of embarrassment for the team that forked over the cash.

But the big advance was only part of the problem. In order to have a chance at recovering their investment, publishers had to throw another couple hundred thousand bucks at marketing and promotion. Back then, when a “big book” failed, it failed big. If the disappointment was public enough, no other publisher would touch the author, who would forever join the ranks of one-hit wonders.

First lesson of New York publishing: The bad stuff is always the author’s fault.

Meanwhile, because all the marketing dollars were going to the big books, the midlist authors who were lucky to be pulling in $30,000 advances got squat in promotion. Their success (or failure) was driven largely by efforts of independent booksellers to hand-sell. Back then, even if a midlist title didn’t earn out, the independents would still order the next title of an author whose work they liked. There was a tacit agreement between publishers and booksellers to “grow” and author over time. That was before computers started running the business.

Now the indies are virtually all gone, and the hundred-year-old publishing business model is in turmoil. Virtually all of the legacy houses are stuck with bazillion-dollar contracts that have virtually no chance of earning out, and to cover their downside (backside?), many are establishing eBook lines that will provide a steady stream of revenue against greatly diminished costs. Among the diminished expenses are the size of authors’ advances.

This is a game-changer for writers who make their living exclusively through writing. A reasonable advance (pick your own number to define reasonable) keeps the lights on and the kids in shoes during the period after a book is bought and before it is published. The advance is what writers use to pay bills while writing the next book. If advances implode, I’m not sure how full-time writers will make ends meet.

Self publishing will become the solution for some, I suppose, but I continue to believe that the only writers who have even a remote chance for success via self publishing are those who have already established their names via traditional means. There’s just too much noise out there for newbies to have a real shot.

While my crystal ball is notoriously cloudy on all things, I’m confident that there’ll be a solution to all of this that will keep publishers in business, and will continue to make mega-selling authors mega-wealthy. But if publishers have a brain in their collective head, they’ll have to find a way to pay less up front in advances, and more in royalties that are distributed more frequently. That would be the everybody-wins solution, I think.

What about you, dear Killzoners? For those of you who dream of canning the day job and writing full time, do you see yourself rolling the dice on self-published sales, or on royalties alone, or is an advance a critical component of your plan?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I Spent the Day with John Cusack

“Wasn’t that the worst apocalypse…EVER?” I texted to my older brother the day after, who quickly replied, “I’ve seen better.”

All day long on Rapture day my siblings exchanged text messages. My other brother wrote, “No sense buying green bananas” and “I’m not flossing today.” And when my sister did her grocery shopping, she texted, “Everything I bought today is a lifetime supply.” I also called my mom to borrow money, telling her I’d pay her back on Monday. She totally fell for it. After the clock ticked down to THE END, I had an automatic message go out to anyone who texted me – “The person you tried to reach has ascended. Try again later.”

My husband and I celebrated our last day by watching the movie “2012” with John Cusack—no less—and ordered our first pizza in months. We ate dessert first and ran with scissors to work up an appetite, capping off our excitement with an exploding world tsunami flick. I thought the movie would blow, but the special effects kept us overlooking the fact that it was a John Cusack movie. After the film ended, I texted my family, saying, “We’re celebrating Christmas. Happy New Year!”

In hindsight, if I had actually believed the end of the world would come on a damned weekend—Why not on Monday, for crying out loud?—I might have spent the time better. I blame John Cusack for this. I’m jaded. Cynical. Maybe I should have taken it more seriously and taken stock in all the things I have to be thankful for, but I didn’t want to crowd Thanksgiving. That day, turkey rules.

So tell us. How did you spend Rapture Day? What cracked you up? What made you think? What did you actually do as the clock ticked down? Or did you even KNOW about it? (Yeah, some of my friends didn’t buy a vowel or get a clue. [Insert eye roll here.])

The Void Between Books

I’m in between books, and normally, this makes me anxious. I feel lost, adrift without a goal. But this time I am enjoying the freedom. Maybe it’s because I’ve set other goals. I am revising my last backlist book so I can get it into e-book format. Now that I’m off my regular writing schedule, I can devote myself full-time to finishing the revision. It’s a long story, over 500 manuscript pages, so it’s been tedious. I have to compare the printed book to my Word file, which does not include the edited version. Besides making these editorial changes, I’m also tightening up the work. It’s amazing the difference a few years of experience makes. I’ll feel a sense of relief when I’m done, but then begins the confusing array of choices re book cover design, formatting, etc. One step at a time. 

Meanwhile, I’ve done a list of suspects for my next mystery. I have already turned in the first completed book in this series. I’m only dabbling at the synopsis for book two because the next couple of weeks will be a washout for creativity. Window installers are here this morning and they’ll be making noise and havoc for two days straight. Plus, we have other events going on that might prove to be too distracting. So it’s a good time for a break. Eventually I’ll just sit down and write the whole synopsis.

And then what? I’ll probably write the first three chapters of this next mystery and then move on to book three in my proposed paranormal romance trilogy. Or I could tackle Smashwords for the backlist book. Or…you see, there’s always something to do.

How do you feel about the void between books? Are you relieved to have reached the finish line and to be mentally free of your project, or does the freedom cause you anxiety until you plunge into the next story?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The “Rapture” and Book Reviews

By: Kathleen Pickering


I had a book deadline for yesterday, and given most of the hype leading up to Saturday’s expected “Rapture”, I kept looking out the window and wondering . . . so, if I’m gonna disintegrate at 6 p.m., do I really need to finish this final edit for Monday?

Now, stay with me here, you’ll see my point.

Since I knew the “Rapture” prediction was hype, and that the hype was unreal (Why would I have a deadline for Monday if it was real? My editor surely would have known!), it started me thinking about the power of opinions.

Which led me to the power of book reviews. (My point, entirely, which Clare Langley-Hawthorne tapped into with her blog from yesterday. I wonder if she was thinking Rapture, as well?) So, to continue Clare’s conversation, I ask: Will Internet reviews be as powerful as the tried and true print and media reviews?

I say, hell yes.

From all the Internet marketing classes and webinars I’ve attended, the magic words are “buzz’” and “viral”. While TV interviews are the ultimate for books sales, I believe (hallelujah!) that Internet book reviews are another rapid means to get word out about a hot, new novel. Believe me, brothers and sisters. I am taking full advantage of online reviews. (Feeding the bees to make a buzz, you might say.)

I just received a 5-Star review on my self-pubbed, urban fantasy, MYTHOLOGICAL SAM, and enjoyed a surge in my Amazon sales from this post. (Thank you, Melissa Cabrera!) So, I am taking Internet book reviews very seriously. Here’s the book. Feel free to check out the gratifying book review:



Now, granted, this is only one review, but I have posted this opinion on Facebook, Twitter, my email signature, other writer’s groups, and now here on this fabulous blog page. FOR FREE. That suddenly gives this review multiple opportunities for exposure.

Do I care if my reviewer is educated? Respected? Influential? Hell, no. Although I’m sure she is, what truly matters, is that she liked the book enough to give it 5-Stars and rave about it to everyone she knows. She’s starting a buzz for me, and that’s priceless. Word of mouth on the Internet is how ‘viral’ gets born.

So, while still courting radio, TV and print media for reviews, I’m putting my money (which isn’t requiring much, I might add) on Internet marketing, which includes free book review blog sites and interviews. Internet marketing is something I can actively target and control (until it happily and wishfully goes viral, of course). I will do the same with my book being released next year through my publisher, as well. I’ll keep you posted on whether or not my efforts prove profitable. It’ll make an interesting study.

Has anyone else seen a rise in sales from Internet book reviews? And if you are a reader, do you buy from the Internet reviews you read?

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Future of Book Reviews

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

We've had a number of blog posts about the future of publishing and the rise of the e-book, the impact of social networking, blogs and the plethora of book and author related websites filling our digital world...but one thing that struck me this weekend (as I perused the New York Time's book review online) was the future and influence of the mainstream book reviewer. Now I can't say I have any quantifiable data on the sales impact of a favourable book review in the NYT but I would hazard a guess that 10-15 years ago a good review in a venerable newspaper like the NYT or a great review in Publisher's Weekly (or, heaven help us, Kirkus) would have had a sizable impact on book sales. Today, I'm not so sure...

I do think good newspaper reviews and starred PW reviews encourage publishers to spend additional advertising and marketing money on an author's book - which would certainly help rather than hinder sales - but just how influential are they now? Would a critical mass of favourable Amazon reviews generate greater sales? Would a rave review from a popular online blogger garner more readers? It would be interesting to try and survey authors to see what they thought had the greatest impact on sales. No doubt a bestseller occurs due to the cumulative effect word of mouth and media exposure - but I wonder what role traditional reviewers play in influencing this?

I'm an old fashioned girl so a great NYT book review will get me out there searching for the title (either online or in a brick and mortar store). I will, however, also check out the Amazon reviews and Google the author/title to see what kind of buzz (or not) there is in the blogosphere. If a trusted friend raves about a book then I will also check it out but more often than not, I will hear about a new book from my mother (sadly, I sometimes think only her generation that still reads - my friends usually say they have no time...) who has read the review in The Times, the Financial Times or The Guardian (can you tell my mother is English?). Rarely will a blogger's recommendation be enough, simply because I find it hard to assess the reviewer's credentials and impartiality - of course, we could have another entire blog post in this regard (having heard some professional reviewers question 'amateur' reviewers' ability to meaningfully review!)

What do our TKZ authors think? How do the traditional forms of newspaper or PW reviews impact sales do you think, when compared to say Amazon, Goodreads or online blogs? In a post-Oprah world who do you think is going to become the most influential word on books? How is the whole review thing going to pan out with the dramatic rise in e-book sales (many of which are self-published titles) - and, for all our TKZ readers out there - whose opinion or review matters to you as a reader?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Publishers Trying Stuff

We've been all over the e-book revolution here at TKZ. Last month I asked what the publishing industry would look like in six months. We're starting to see some things taking shape.

First, the news. The publishing industry's first quarter stats are in, and here's the headline:

E-book sales are up 159.8%. Adult hardcover and mass market paperback sales are down 23.4%.

If you were an American car manufacturer and you saw that sales of Japanese made cars were up 158.8% and sales of American cars were down 23.4% in the first quarter, what would you do? I'll tell you what you would do. You would run to the federal government and ask it to bail you out.

Traditional book publishers can't do that. (Well, I guess they could try, but it would be a tougher sell than a Charlie Sheen self-help book.)

So what should they do? Try stuff. Innovate. Move fast.

There's a problem, though. It's not easy for major industries to change. Publishers have been operating under a model that is a hundred years old. But the market does not care. It is merciless. So adapt or be left in the dust.

This week one of the major Christian book publishers, Tyndale, announced a "digital first" imprint. They are going to bring out four fiction titles in July that are e-book only, by new authors. Then they'll add non-fiction titles. If a title performs well, they will consider giving the author a print run.

Tyndale issued a press release that read, in part:

Lisa Jackson, Associate Publisher explains, “The world of publishing is shifting rapidly, and it’s important that we as publishers deliver content in as many ways as possible. The Digital First project allows us to get fresh, new voices into the marketplace more quickly and efficiently than ever before.”

“I am very excited about this new initiative,” says Ron Beers, Senior Vice President and Publisher. “Tyndale has always been known for its innovation. Now we are working hard to be at the leading edge of the digital publishing revolution and to use that creativity and expertise to most effectively launch new voices into the marketplace. We are one of the few houses that has invested heavily in in-house digital expertise and this has allowed us to be more nimble yet strategic in bringing digital content to market.”


Looking at this from a business angle, this seems like a solid move. Whether this will be a net positive for the bottom line cannot be predicted. There are too many variables and the landscape changes almost daily. But it's proactive and "outside the box," and that's what it's going to take to survive. Plus, it lowers the risk of finding new authors the old way, via advance and print runs and hoping to sell through. It's like a farm system.

Now, what about the writers? How is this deal for them? I have not seen an actual contract, but I have heard informally that we're talking very low advances with a higher percentage on the back end, between 30 – 50% royalty.  IOW, shared risk and reward.

Seems like a win-win.

Yet the stats above indicate that print is in a downward trajectory. So will being "in print" mean the same thing a year from now? Will there be enough shelves for the new writers to occupy?

What do you think? 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

My Muse

I truly believe that I would not have achieved anything I consider worthwhile in this life without my wife, Susan. I have never loved anyone or anything with the sincerity and intensity that I feel for her. She had a birthday on the 20th of May. I bought her this set of very expensive wheels, which she looks great in. She looks great in anything.

I know it's like giving pots and pans for Mother's Day, but wait... Here was my thinking. We have a large place. A small house, but a large garden, which is hers entirely, and she likes to move things like wood, stones, dirt, mulch, and other heavy things around on the property. We have a regular wheelbarrow with one wheel, which is hard to hold straight when its loaded. I have a five-horsepower motorized wheelbarrow that carts 1,000 lbs and dumps its load, but Susan has a hard time cranking it. I have to start it. This is a wheelbarrow that will allow her the independence to do more of what she enjoys without needing anyone's help.

Susan is the most unselfish person I have ever known. She wants everything for others and only what she needs for herself. She has never once expressed any doubts that I would succeed at whatever I attempted. And she worked a job, made the meals, and raised my children while I sat in our bedroom day after day for several years typing. She never got discouraged as the 161 rejections stacked up, because she liked my manuscripts and honestly believed I would sell a book and then several more, which I did. My biggest regret is that she is still working while I sit and type day after day. I always wanted to give her the best the world has to offer, but she has always been satisfied with simple things. I have heard her say more than a few times, that our life together has been a lot of things, but never dull.

I know that if it were not for her I never would have found the author in me. And I would never have been happy, which I truly am. Every good female character I write is mostly made up of Susan, so strong, independent women are easy for me to write. Knowing how hard she works is what drives me to work as hard as I can. The world disappoints, but she never does.

My youngest son is getting married on June 4th and I have not been writing at all for the past few weeks. I've got too much on my plate to think about any story but our own. I hope each of you has a muse, an inspiration, and a reason to sit day after day and pound out your soul and take the blows we all have to take.

John Ramsey Miller

Friday, May 20, 2011


Fourteen months ago, I posted a blog entry here on The Killzone, in which I described a day of, shall we say, intestinal distress while in Islip, NY.  In that post, I wrote something kind of snarky about the Hilton Garden Inn where I was staying.  Specifically, I talked about my dismay that after hours of overnight dehydration, I couldn't order room service to have that bland meal one needs after such an illness.

Among the comments generated by that post was this one: "My name is Adrian Kurre and I am the head of the Hilton Garden Inn brand. I read your post on your stay at the HGI Islip. I'm disappointed on a couple of levels. First that you became ill and could not make your presentation and second that we could not get a meal to you at lunch time when you were still feeling less than perfect. I know that you are not blaming the HGI for your illnes, but I sure wish we could have helped you feel better. If you'd like to email me at adrian.kurre at hilton dot com I'd love to hear more about your stay and what we could have done to make it better."

I thought (and still think) that that was the coolest thing in the world.  I wrote to Adrian to tell him so.  Here's a guy who no doubt has a bazillion things on his plate, and he took the time not only to stand up for his brand, but to reach out to a customer to show that he cares.  In an era when true customer service is hard to find, I really was very impressed.  So impressed, in fact, that wherever possible, I've become something of a Hilton purist in my travels.

It turns out that my effusive email arrived in Adrian's box on a day when he needed to hear good things, and thus began a year-long correspondence through which I learned, among other things, that he'd become a fan of my work (how can you not love a man with such fine taste?).  As a gesture of thanks I asked and received permission to set a pivotal scene in Threat Warning at the Hilton Garden Inn in Arlington, Virginia.  (I promised Adrian that Jonathan and his team wouldn't make a mess while they were there.)  I think stuff like this is very, very cool.  Fiction is rife with random events connecting to cause an unexpected outcome, and I'm always thrilled when happy randomness affects me. 

There's actually a coda to this story that I'll share when the time is appropriate, but for now, I just want to praise kindness, caring and serendipity.  You never know when the smallest gesture can make a big difference.  

By the way, here it is for the record: Even though the restaurant was closed at lunchtime at the HGI in Islip, someone from the staff would have gone out and picked up food for me if I'd asked.  It's that kind of place.  I like those kinds of places.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

9-Act Screenplay Structure - Novel Plotting Resource

The first step toward recovery is to admit I have a problem. So here it is. I’m NOT a plotter. I’m a complete “pantser.” There, I said it, but…

When I looked into plot structure for fiction—while I was still delusional about having the capability to actually plot—I found references to the Nine-Act Screenplay Structure. This is the basic framework of today's blockbuster movies. You'll see 3-Acts and 12-Acts, but I played with this version below as a format and had some success in conceptually plotting one or two of my earlier stories. Ah, the ambiguity…

It's my belief that once your brain grasps the concept of this structure, you may automatically follow the idea whether you’re aware of it or not. As a visual learner, it helped me to draft this and embed it in my brain, like a time bomb triggered to go off when I sat in front of my computer.

The 9-Act structure is similar to the classic Hero's Journey that you may have seen, but I thought this would be interesting to talk about. See what you think. Would something like this work for writing a novel?

Word of Caution – Once you see this framework, you may not enjoy movies the same way again. Just sayin’…

Nine-Act Screenplay Structure

Act 0—During Opening Credits First 5 Minutes (film time)
What strikes the conflict—sets it up—event years earlier may plant the seed of conflict

Act 1—Opening Image—The Panoramic Crane Shot Next 5 Minutes

Act 2—Something Bad Happens 5 Minutes
In a crime story, it's usually the murder—Reveal the bad front man, but hold off on the introduction of the bad head honcho until later

Act 3—Meet Hero/Protagonist 15 minutes
Meet hero—give him 3 plot nudges to push him to commit

Act 4—Commitment 5-10 Minutes
The push—Usually one scene that's a door to Act 5—1-way door, no turning back

Act 5—Go for wrong goal - approx. 30 minutes est.
A series of 8-12 min. cycles called whammos or complications followed by a rest period of 5 minutes or so to uncover some of the backstory. End this act with the lowest point for the protagonist. The dark moment.

Act 6—Reversal 5-10 Minutes—Usually 70 Minutes into the Film
The last clue discovered—Now Act 2 makes sense—It is the low point, a history lesson usually revealed by the bad guy/honcho—but reveals the Achilles heel of the nemesis too.

Act 7—Go for New Goal 15-20 Minutes
The clock is ticking—Hero has a new plan. The action seesaws back and forth with nemesis and hero gaining & losing ground between each other—usually takes place in 24 hours within the context of the movie. Favors are repaid, magic, good luck happens. The new plan is kept secret. New goal is achieved.

Act 8—Wrap it Up 5 minutes
Back to where it all began—a feeling of accomplishment & rebirth—the world restored. Ahh!

Now having outlined this plotting structure, I’m not sure if following something like this (without deviation) would hamper creativity by providing too much framework. This would be like “the rules” of writing. Maybe rules are there to be understood, but we shouldn’t be afraid to break them either.

I tend to “think” about my book ahead of time and let my brain ponder what I call my “big ticket” plot movements—like what my black moment will be for my main character(s). I also develop my ideas on who the main cast of characters will be and maybe where I might set the story location(s).

Basically I’m impatient about writing. Plotting and outlining ahead of time would be like the San Antonio Spurs, Manu Ginobili, sitting injured on the sidelines of the NBA finals. The guy just wants to play, man. Let the dude play. (Of course by the time this post happens, the Memphis Grizzlies could put Ginobili on the bench until next season.)

What tips can you share on plotting…for those of us who are challenged by a heavy dose of impatience?

Rock What You’ve Got

My good friend and fellow thriller author Mark Terry is conducting a virtual book tour to launch his latest page-turner, THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS. Mark and I become friends 5 years ago when we shared a publisher. Over the years we’ve supported each other with advice and the exchange of ideas. We’ve also served as each other’s sounding boards and beta readers. Mark is a frequent visitor and friend of TKZ. Welcome, Mark.

By Mark Terry

Do you wish you could write like Lee Child? Or Stephen King? Or Nora Robert?

Mark Terry 3Not: Do you wish you had a writing career like them? Ha! Sure, we all do, I suppose, at least at some level.

But, do you wish you could write like them?

For a second, take your favorite writers and think about what makes them, well, them.

My favorite writers, if that’s possible to break down, are probably the late Robert B. Parker, John Sandford, Dick Francis, hmmm, probably Jonathan Kellerman. I could go on (and on, and on…), but let’s stop there for a moment.

I just listed, more or less off the top of my head, four very successful novelists (two dead) who have a lot in common and a lot different. Parker and Dick Francis, for the most part, wrote in the first person. Parker was all about sparkling dialogue, stripped down description and efficiency (in my opinion). Dick Francis, uh, horse racing, but aside from that, I think of the decency of his characters, his research, a kind of efficiency of prose. Sandford? Pace, man! A stripped-down prose that’s like a lightning rod to his characters’ hearts, and for me, I love the way he structures his third-person narratives. Kellerman? I think characterization, texture and description.

I ain’t any of them.

That isn’t to say that my own books might overlap somehow – I hope they do. Perhaps analyzing my own strengths is a fool’s game, but I would say pace for certain, efficient prose, dialogue, writing action.

It probably would not be a good idea if I decided to try and write like Jonathan Kellerman. My strengths are not his strengths. That isn’t to say that I don’t try to give the reader a sense of place, or that I don’t focus on characterization. I do. Hopefully all writers do. But the sort of stories I write and want to write – and have had some success with – focus on pace and action.

Where am I going with this?

Years ago, when I was sending novel after novel manuscript to a former agent, I sent him a manuscript for a novel about a consulting forensic toxicologist. He called me up almost immediately upon reading it, gushing, saying he loved it, it was original, it took the things that I was good at and used them. Then he went through some of my previous manuscripts and said something along the lines of, “With this manuscript you were doing Carl Hiaasen, and with this one you were doing Robert B. Parker, and with this one you were doing…”

Valley of the Shadows 8-23-10 1 Cover 3rd passThe point being, that perhaps for the first time I was being just Mark Terry. (Which all makes for an interesting story, except he couldn’t sell it).

But I think there’s something vital to writers in this. It’s a little bit of: What do you bring to the table? What is uniquely you? JUST YOU. Then exploit it. Rock what you got.

How about you? As a writer, what makes your books unique? Are you content with your own voice and style? Or would you like to write like someone else?

Mark Terry is the author of 13 books. The fourth Derek Stillwater thriller, THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS, will be released in hardcover and as an e-book on June 7, 2011. His previous Stillwater novels – as well as other standalones – are available as e-books and other formats. Visit his website at www.markterrybooks.com.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Finding (and keeping) a writing group

For the past decade or so, I've been on a constant hunt for the perfect writing group. For those of you who haven't tried a writing group (aka critique group), it's a group of writers who get together regularly to submit pages and give feedback. 

My first group was a spin-off from a fiction-writing class at UCLA Extension. When that group fell apart, I started looking for another one. My search eventually became a sort of Holy Grail.

Sometimes I attended more than one writing group at a time. Each one had its strengths and weaknesses: One group gave better feedback, while the other seemed more stable. At one point I blended the two groups into one; like a merger acquisition specialist, I was hoping that the combined enterprise would become the Perfect Writing Group.

And for the most part, it has. We've watched each other grow as writers, sharing triumphs and rejections. Along the way we've shared personal highs and lows, as well. There have been illnesses and work crises. One of our members, a lovely older man who was writing a Civil War yarn, recently passed away. (Rest in peace, Harvey.)

When it comes to keeping a good writing group, structure counts. In most of the groups that have lasted for me, the writers read their work out loud. The group then goes around the table, providing feedback and making notes on copies. Writers are not allowed to "talk back" or defend their work. We have to sit silently and take it.

Personalities count when it comes to keeping a group together. I've seen good groups fall apart when a spoiler comes in--these are usually people who can't tolerate constructive criticism, or who clash with other members.

I couldn't live without my current writing group. We meet every other week, and the group has been meeting now for 15 years, long before I joined it.

How about you? Do you attend a writing group, and has it helped your writing? What format do you use?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Resolution, justice and happy endings

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

This weekend I attended Booktown the annual book festival held in the small Victorian town of Clunes, where I heard Peter Corris, Jean Bedford, and Michael Wilding speak on the topic of the long arm of crime fiction. One issue which prompted some discussion was the issue of whether readers still look for good to triumph over evil in a mystery novel. The panelist seem to think that far more ambiguity is now allowed. They noted that writers such as James Ellroy have already upended the traditional mystery form and felt that it was possible now to end on a note in which evil, while not triumphant, certainly hasn't been bested by the forces of good.

This got me thinking about the need for a satisfying ending and how, in many books, I have been more disappointed by a trite or glib happy ending than I ever have by books in which evil doers get away (at least in part) with their misdeeds.

Nevertheless, I do think resolution is critical in any kind of novel, and by that I mean that all the critical plot elements have been explained and resolved. I wonder though if I don't secretly yearn for justice at the end of a mystery or thriller. Would I be satisfied with a conclusion that allowed the crime to go totally unpunished? Would I feel let down if the protagonist failed to succeed in bringing the perpetrator to justice? To be honest I'm not sure.

What about you? What kind of resolution are you looking for in a crime novel? Do you need to see justice done?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Where Do You Write?

James Scott Bell

Here is a picture of the noted screenwriter and novelist, Dalton Trumbo. He's in a nice bath, his pad and coffee at the ready. He looks like he's enjoying the whole writer thing.

Not sure I'd like to write in the tub. I split my time between my home office and my branch offices all over the world, the ones with the round green sign.

Here is the table at my local Starbucks, where I wrote several books. 

I loved that table. But they recently remodeled the store, and my table is gone. The new tables are a tad smaller and the chairs have lower backs, not nearly as comfortable. No one got my permission to do this, by the way.

So I got to thinking, if I could design my perfect writing environment, what would it look like? I think I know. It would be at Dean Koontz's house, in the guest room upstairs, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Dean would be kind enough to let me use it whenever I wanted to.

Then again, would that be too distracting? Would I spend more time gazing than writing? Maybe my home office, with the blinds closed and the familiar mess surrounding me, is still the better idea.

So where do you write?

If you could design your ideal writing spot, what would it look like?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Dark Humor...or...How To Embarrass Your Daughter Anywhere


Bad weeks seem to be in abundance around here. I have been fortunate. I have witnessed bad and wrong and sad things, but from a distance, from the periphery. I’ve done what a could, and can, to help, while silently giving thanks that the bullets of misfortune missed me, even as I feel badly that they hit someone else. This of course, does not prevent my penchant for inappropriate comments from rising to the fore.

The saddest of a series of events occurred two weeks ago when the son of a family in my wife’s prayer group was found dead at home. He was eleven years old. My thirteen year old daughter had seen him and talked with him just three hours previously. I cannot even begin to imagine what his family went through, what they continue to go through, but I hope to never experience it.

The wake was held a week later. We went to the funeral home, where I was reminded why I want no calling hours, no service, no memorial eulogies, no pictures projected onto a screen. Harvest my organs, burn me up, and scatter my ashes into the Mississippi in view of the CafĂ© du Monde. I hope it brought comfort to them; it just isn’t for me. As with such events, I was ready to go after paying my respects. My wife and daughter, however, wanted to stay, so I wandered around the facility while they visited with the family and acquaintances. It wasn’t long before they remembered why I am best left at home, preferably attached to an ankle restraint.

Those who know me are aware that I get into trouble when I am idle. My imagination runs wild. I start talking with attractive but unfamiliar women. And I get creative. So it is that I observed that there was a table laden with toys and a basket full of bags of skittles candy in the viewing room. It was fairly obvious that these were objects which had been important to the young man during his life, and that the family wanted to share his special interests with their friends. A half-hour or so later I observed my daughter talking with some other young people who were there. They were all eating candy. I motioned her over to me and asked, “Where did you get that candy?” She replied, “It was in the basket on the table in there.” I reared back in (pretend) shock and said, “No! You weren’t supposed to eat that!. The things on that table are going into the casket with him!” She turned green, put her hand to her mouth, and said, “Tell me you’re kidding!” I smiled and said, “Okay. I’m kidding!”

I am hoping that she will forgive me before she graduates from high school.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Oh, My, But It's Been A Week

One day I'll have to blog about it.

This week, though, I'm afraid I'm simply derelict in my duties here on The Killzone.  Sorry, folks.  Next week, I'll be here for sure.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Shrugging and Pursing

by Michelle Gagnon

Kathleen's hilarious post on Tuesday about bad metaphors reminded me of something.

I always hit a point about halfway through each novel where my characters start doing an inordinate amount of shrugging. Seriously, if I don't catch it in time, they're all running around jiggling their shoulders up and down a few times a page. For whatever reason, toward the end of Act 2, I draw a blank on anything other than my go-to physical mannerisms.

So a significant chunk of the editing process for me involves sitting there and trying to come up with things people do with their mouths aside from pursing their lips. Or frequently gesturing behind themselves. Or indiscriminately pointing at things like the cast of a Broadway musical (that one was for you, Kathleen).

So today's challenge is to share your ringers, the default ways in which you describe your characters and how they behave: physical mannerisms, looks, etc.

Aside from the ones I've already mentioned, here's my list:

  • She chewed her lip pensively
  • He grimaced.
  • She rolled her eyes (An overly literal reviewer once claimed that there was no such thing as "eye rolling," unless you physically pulled out your eyes and rolled them across a table. I rolled my eyes at that).
  • He lunged for the door (lots o' lunging in my rough drafts. My characters lunge for everything, from beer to bombs).
  • He gulped hard.
  • She polished her glasses on the hem of her shirt. (None of my characters carry tissues or handkerchiefs, and yet many of them wear glasses that require constant polishing. Odd).
  • He grinned. (Must find more synonyms for smiling. At the moment, my WIP is filled with Chesire Cats).
Mind you, many of these are fine if used sparingly. It only becomes a problem when the manuscript is riddled with the same types of description.

So let's hear yours...and please feel free to add humor...

Prison Letters

I had the dubious honor of receiving my first fan letter from a guy in prison. Normally I treasure fan mail, especially letters from people who take the time to write in longhand these days, but not this time. I was creeped out that a man in jail wrote to me, especially when he said I’m attractive based on my author photo. He doesn’t realize it, but from the age he stated, I’m old enough to be his mother. I wouldn’t mind compliments about my books, but let’s not make the remarks personal, okay?

It must be terribly boring to be incarcerated. I mean, what else do prisoners have to do besides read? Do prisons have libraries? If not, prisoners would have to rely on friends and relatives to send books.

My fan mentioned that he has pictures of himself on MySpace if I want to look at them, plus he commented on one of my blog posts. That means he has computer access. Are prison inmates really allowed to participate in social networks? Should I be worried that he’s checking out the photos I post on my blog? I don’t get personal, showing photos from research trips, conferences, cruises, and other excursions. But still…someone is watching.     

I’m curious about what your response would be in this situation. I have no intention of writing back. What would you do?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


By: Kathleen Pickering

200px-George_Spanky_McFarland[1]Today’s blog will make you laugh. So, you’ll forgive me for reposting an email I received from one of my California writing buddies. Since the content is writing-related, I believe the post is relevant. Besides, it’s so damned funny, I want you all to enjoy a laugh on this lovely Tuesday.

Listed below are actual analogies and metaphors written by high school students who had the great sense to entertain their teachers by submitting these fanciful descriptors in their essays. Enjoy!

The 2010 winners (and I dare say, future writers of America) wrote:

1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

3. He spoke  with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli, and he was room-temperature beef.

5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws  up.

6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

7. He  was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn't.

10. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.

11. From the attic  came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal  quality, like when you're on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

12. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

13. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field  toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

14. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan's teeth.

15. John and Mary had never met.  They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

16. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East River.

17.  Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted  shut.

18. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

19. The  plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil.  But unlike Phil, this  plan just might work.

20. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

21. He was as  lame as a duck.  Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real  duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

22. The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

23. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

24. He was deeply in love.  When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.


I know. Get their names. We have agents waiting! When you stop laughing, please feel free to add your own analogy or metaphor.  Here’s mine:

He tickled her with hands like a gangster, making it hurt to laugh, so she punched him.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Feeling Bookish?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

News that three major publishing houses, Simon & Schuster, Penguin group and Hachette) have combined forces to create a new online retail and 'social' website, Bookish.com, comes at an interesting time for the industry. Clearly publishers, worried about being marginalized in the ebook revolution are trying to gain some ground - but is a website like this really the answer?

Bookish is not up and running as yet but it is being touted as a place where readers can buy books and recommend them to others. Hmmm...so what's new about that? There are already a myriad on online sources for purchasing physical books and ebooks as well as social networking and book related sites that enable people to make recommendations and connect with like minded readers...so what will make Bookish any different? Is a website like this really the answer to publishers' woes? Until the website is up it is difficult to know how it will be different to what is currently available, or whether it will be able to draw in the audience the publishers are obviously eager to embrace.

In the publicity materials for the upcoming site a lot is being promised including 'real time conversations around content', but will these promises be enough? If there is a strong emphasis on recommendations (which is what the press release suggested) how will the site differ from something like
Goodreads.com? How will the publishers ensure editorial independence in the face of potentially negative reviews for their authors? (and there have been enough flame wars to know that there are sensitivities on all sides when it comes to online reviews and their authenticity/validity.) Bookish also hopes to become the destination for purchasing physical and digital books...but why will people go there rather than Amazon? Will the publishers try to undercut Amazon's prices? How else will they convince people to buy from Bookish rather than other sites?

So what do you think? Will a website like Bookish really have any impact? More importantly, is it the kind of website publishers should be investing in?

Me, I suspect that publishers need to regain an upper hand here in terms of content and access. As a reader I am unlikely to bother going to Bookish unless there is a really compelling reason. For me that reason would be exclusive content I can't get anywhere else (this could include author interviews, essays, short stories etc.) or that connects me with readers in a way other social networking sites cannot (if I could participate in a really cool book group session that combines video links with authors maybe). Until the website is launched it's hard to know if all the hype surrounding it will live up to expectations, Unfortunately, I suspect Bookish won't contain anything very novel or exciting and I doubt the Internet is hungry for yet another online bookseller.

What do you think?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, May 8, 2011


James Scott Bell

What makes a winner?

Is it going on a web cam and shouting Winning?

Is it having a lot of money?

Is it owning a lot of things?

Let me contrast a couple of writers for you. (These writers are composites, BTW, so don't ask me to name names).

The first writer has had a couple dozen New York Times bestsellers in her career. She is not shy in saying she found a formula that sells a lot of books. And she keeps cranking them out, two or three a year now. Her publisher is very happy about this.

But her readers are beginning to feel like she's just "mailing it in." And in secret she'll tell you she can virtually sneeze out a book, and does. She spends a few hours a week writing and never edits her stuff. She just turns it in and lets the publisher do the rest. Which gives her plenty of time to travel to her chateau in Gstaad. Or to go to conference appearances, where she plays the diva in a way that even Joan Crawford would have applauded.

She has money. She owns things.

But is she a winner?

The other writer is someone you probably haven't heard of yet, but those who have read her books have not been able to forget them. While she writes in a certain genre, and is prolific, her novels never have a cranked out feel. That's because she cares about the writing too much. She cares about her readers too much. She could mail it in, but there's something inside her that makes her constitutionally incapable of putting out junk.

She doesn't have as much money as the first writer. Nor does she own as many things.

Is she a winner?

I'll tell you what, you can't get away from ancient wisdom. Buddha, Confucius, The Bible, the great philosophers . . . they have all been telling us that just having money and owning things does not make you a winner. In fact, if you're not careful, they can shrivel you up into a thing that blows away like dried grass in a windstorm.

But this second writer, she can feel things the first writer no longer does (or perhaps never did). She feels the intense pleasure of working and caring and crying and laughing over her writing, of seeing things happen on the page that she knows are worth more than a million cranked out passages that exist just to earn more money so the author can own more things.

Is she a winner? Oh yes. And so is any writer in any genre who does more than just mail it in.

I'm talking about a writer who is courageous enough to have some skin in the game, and who isn't in this business just to make money and own things. If the money comes, that's great, that's awesome. We're not turning that down. But this kind of writer will never let it go to her head or her keyboard. She will refuse to do that to her readers.

In one of my favorite movies, The Hustler, Paul Newman plays Fast Eddie Felson, a pool shark from Oakland who wants to be the best in the world. To do that he'll have to beat Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), who hasn’t lost a match in fifteen years.

At the beginning of the film Eddie does play Fats, and is winning. But some hubris on his part leads to carelessness. At this point Fats's manager, Bert Gordon (played with Faustian precision by George C. Scott), tells Fats, "Stay with this kid. He's a loser."

Well, Eddie does lose, and he's back to the bottom of the heap. In a bus station he meets a woman named Sarah (Piper Laurie), who is also at the bottom. She drinks. She's been abused. Yet she and Eddie forge a relationship and he moves in with her.

One day he asks her, "Do you think I’m a loser?" He tells her about Bert Gordon's remark. Sarah asks if Gordon is a "winner." Eddie says, "Well, he owns things."

"Is that what makes a winner?" Sarah asks.

Then Eddie tells her how it feels to play pool. How anything can be great, even bricklaying, if a guy knows what he's doing and can pull it off. "When I'm goin', I mean when I'm really goin', I feel like a jockey must feel. He's sitting on his horse, he's got all that speed and that power underneath him, he's coming into the stretch, the pressure's on him, and he knows. He just feels when to let it go and how much. 'Cause he's got everything working for him––timing, touch. It's a great feeling, boy, it's a really great feeling when you're right and you know you're right. It's like all of a sudden I've got oil in my arm. The pool cue's part of me. You feel the roll of those balls and you don't have to look, you just know. You make shots nobody's ever made before. I can play that game the way nobody's ever played it before."

Sarah looks at him and says, "You're not a loser, Eddie, you're a winner. Some men never get to feel that way about anything."

What makes a winner? It's not money and it's not owning things. It's feeling that way about something.

Like your writing. Have you ever shed a tear over it? Have you got some skin in this game?