Friday, May 31, 2013

Reader Friday: Bookstores

What's the bookstore situation in your neck of the woods? There are reports that indie stores are making a comeback. Is there one near you? Do you, or did you, have a favorite store? What's your prediction of their future? What would you like it to be? 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

First Page Critique - Deliverance

Jordan Dane
For your pleasure, I have the first page submission for a project called – Deliverance. I’ll comment on the flip side. Enjoy!
Shelia Martin changed her outfit twice, from a flair-legged jumpsuit to a long black dress with a thigh high slit on the left side. She reapplied coral lipstick that had faded an hour earlier. She brushed her hair back with her hands and headed downstairs to check on Roger’s favorite dish—grilled chicken with garlic and butter sauce, roasted asparagus, and sage rice, which she had timed to perfection so the moment he walked in the door, removed his jacket, washed his hands, she could serve him a steamy hot dinner.

At the bottom of the staircase she surveyed the set up in the living room, sparkling fire, cozy blanket, oversize floor pillows, flute glasses, Moet and Chandon for Roger, and sparkling cider for herself. As of last week, she hadn’t had a drink in three years.

Her feathered slippers clacked across the shellacked floor.  She entered the kitchen with its fug of sage, garlic, onions, and vanilla. The moment Shelia heard about Roger’s new advertising contract —something he’d bid on three months earlier to help pull his business out of arrears—she decided to celebrate with a special dinner.

After twenty-three years of marriage, raising four children—two in medical school, one college freshman and a high school junior—and helping her husband launch an advertising firm, romantic rendezvous were few. Her heart pounded and butterflies knotted in her stomach, as if she were entertaining this man for the first time.

Tonight, Shelia baked a pecan pie torte, simple, easy, but his preference.

She swaddled the utensils in linen napkins, carried them into the living room and placed them on the blanket adjacent to the sweltering ice bucket. She looked at her watch wondering what was keeping Roger; their daughter Rose was expected home by ten, and Shelia was counting on a night with only her husband.

Shelia slipped off her slippers and paced the floor. The neighborhood lamppost flickered, the Maltese barked, indicating the arrival of her neighbor’s husband. She looked at her watch, ten o’clock. Rose would arrive fifteen minutes later than her curfew, her method of challenging authority.

Dinner was spoiled. She scooped up the ice bucket and took it into the kitchen.  She clicked off the oven. Her stomach growled, but she had lost her appetite.

“Wasted,” she said. “Where is he?” Scraping the food into the garbage disposal, she glanced at the microwave: ten thirty.
My Critique:
I loved the meticulous attention to detail in this submission. Without telling the reader what is going on, this author is showing the woman’s expectation of perfection or her intent to please her husband, her way. I would definitely keep reading.
I love the minimal back story, without embellishment. The fact that she’s having Apple Cider, suggests she’s a recovering alcoholic, for example. Her meticulous staging of her home and the dinner suggests she’s a stay at home wife and mom who likes a tight ship. It reflects her character in what she does, rather than the author “telling” the reader this. That’s the real strength behind this piece. Rather than me focusing on craft issues, I’m able to delve into character motivation and layering of emotional content, but only to the extent of adding a different dimension that the author may not have intended. Here’s what I mean by that caveat.
There is definitely a mystery about her husband not showing up when he’s expected. As a reader, I’m hooked as to why. I don’t find this woman particularly sympathetic or warm, however, but that could be the author’s intention. It’s like Shelia wants to show off her efforts, more than her husband’s accomplishment. This dinner is HER accomplishment. She has expectations for the evening and he’s messed them up, rather than her being worried about why he’s late.
She throws out the dinner, almost as if she’s punishing him for being late (or she doesn’t realize there are starving kids in Africa), when she doesn’t know the facts. If this happened to me, I’d be trying to reach him by cell phone and worried if he’s gotten into an accident. She’s more worried about her dinner being ruined and her plans upset. It sounds as if her husband is very reliable when it comes to his arrival time, if she can time her dinner to him walking in the door. So this would mean that if he’s late, it’s a big deal, right? (Okay, in reality, who can really do this? My husband is working in the yard and I can yell out the back door that dinner is in fifteen, and he’s still late.)
Roger could have a very good reason for being late for dinner.

If the author did NOT intend for this woman to read as cold, it would be an easy fix to add more tension when Shelia shifts from being irritated to worried. She could cover her worry by making him a plate (meticulously arranged) that she puts in the fridge, to mask how her nerves are fraying. (She could cut herself on the plastic wrap container. Lord knows I always do. The blood could be a foreshadowing of danger.) Roger’s never late. She loses her appetite from worry, not irritation that he’s messed her up. Ramp up the pacing, take off the earrings, wipe off the lipstick, look at the clock more.
But I find this writing compelling and I would definitely turn the page. Well done, mystery author! I also want to eat at Shelia’s house, except she’d probably make me dress up.
What about you, TKZers? Your comments?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Big Move North

By Joe Moore

In 1978, my wife and I along with our two boys, moved from our hometown in Northwest Florida to Miami so I could take on the job of VP, Production at a television production facility. Seven years later in 1985, we bought our current home in Coral Springs, about 35 cs-housemiles north of Miami. Here we raised our sons and watched them go on to become successful, handsome men. During our 27 years in this house, we also saw dozens of our neighbors’ children grow up and move on. Most of the parents eventually did, too. All good friends. All gone to someplace else now.

I wrote my first novel in a corner of our living room over a 3-year stretch, getting up before dawn and quietly typing away until it was time to shower and head off to the day job. I’ve written 6 more novels out of this house.

We’ve seen hurricanes and tornados come and go—watched huge trees fall over in what seemed like slow motion but were taken out by 100 mph winds.

We’ve swam a thousand times in our pool, many times with a margarita in hand and friends beside us as the BBQ smoke filled the air.

We’ve had Halloween parties on our front lawn while we showed spooky movies to a couple dozen kids on a 6-foot TV.

We’ve watched life end and life begin on this street—laughed and cried more than most people. We’ve been warmed by the Florida sun way more than chilled by the north wind. And more times than I can remember, we’ve said that we lived in paradise.

Three weeks ago, we sold our beloved home and are packing to move. My wife is retiring from teaching after years of devoting her life to children. I retired from my day job a number of years ago to write full time. So now we are moving north. Northwest Florida, that is. Back to our hometown and our roots where so many of our family members live. Back to a place that’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Where the beaches are whiter than sugar, the leaves turn colors in the fall, and the seafood is so fresh it slept in the Gulf last night.

Our new home is on the Blackwater River with a 100-foot pier that offers a perfect place to IMG-20130224-00014sip wine and stare across the water every evening until the only sounds are the breeze through the pines and an occasional mullet jumping.

My WiFi will reach to the end of the dock, and that’s where I’ll be everyday with my laptop writing my next thriller. If you’re ever in the area, come join us for a glass of red wine and a killer view.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Plotting visually:
You've got to see it to believe it

Writing a novel can drive you crazy. There are all these characters running around yakking their heads off and doing weird things. Sometimes I feel like I have no control over any of it.

It makes me think I need one of those big ugly organizational flow charts you might see on the wall of oh, I dunno, the IRS? 

Crazy, right? Well, if I’m nuts than so is J.K. Rowlings. And Norman Mailer. And Joseph Heller. And Henry Miller.

Because all of them, I found out this week, make drawings and charts and elaborate maps to help them find their ways through the thicket of plot and characters. Check this out:
This is J.K. Rowling’s spreadsheet plan for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. (Click to make image're gonna need it). And below is Norman Mailer's drawing for Harlot's Ghost. (To see other famous writer examples CLICK HERE.)
At first this made me think of that axiom about sausage-making and the law, that it's better not to see them being made. Don't we all -- readers and writers alike -- want to believe that novels arise from some deep mystic well of creativity? But then I realized that no, I really enjoy it when I get a glimpse of the architecture beneath a novel. And like I said, it also makes me feel less...nuts.

We talk alot here at The Kill Zone about the difference between plotters vs pantsers. (ie do you outline or do you wing it?). But we never talk about the picture makers. I am a picture maker. I can't keep control of my story, can't control its pacing and rhythms, can't really SEE where it's going, unless I draw it.

I used to think I was alone in this but I found out many authors use some kind of story boarding. Some even use software for it, Scrivner being a favorite. My dear late friend Barbara Parker had beautifully rendered storyboards on her office wall that would have made any Hollywood mogul proud.  My scribbles aren't nearly so neat but they do the job. It also something born of necessity because if you work with a collaborator, you both have to be literally on the same page.

My co-author sister Kelly and I happened upon our methodology by accident about nine books ago. She was visiting me here in Florida and one day I came home and saw this:

Kelly had written all our plot points down on scraps of paper and taped them to a board. (The wine is an optional but vital writing tool). We found this was a quick way to visualize our plot, move chapters or add things. It also acts as a chronology and time line, which is valuable during rewrites.We eventually graduated to Post-It notes. And the PLOT BOARD, as we call it, became more complicated as we refined our methods:
One Post-It per chapter, each with the salient plot points in that chapter. Usually, our Louis Kincaid books are written only from his POV so it's all yellow. EXCEPT: we sometimes use pink for what we call "personal" chapters. This is because as we mix "case/plot" chapters with character-development chapters (ie personal) we are constantly aware of the need to keep the main plot moving. Too many pinks in a row? That's death in a suspense novel so we find a way to distribute that extra pink stuff around. It's all about pacing. This board above, however, is for HEART OF ICE, which is a more complex plot. It has five POVS, so we use a different color for each. Again, it helps with pacing.  

But we do more than just plotting on boards. We often need some pretty elaborate drawings, maps, and charts to keep track of things.
This board above was for THE LITTLE DEATH. The plot concerns multiple bodies found in disparate locations in Florida's cattle country. Louis finds no connections between the murders until he digs deep into each victim's life. This board helped up keep the victims's backgrounds straight as well as where the bodies were found in relation to each other (an important clue).
Here is a board for A THOUSAND BONES. This book drove us nuts because the plot, about a serial killer operating over almost 20 years, was very complex. Its backstory begins in 1964 and the main plot moves to 1990. The killer left tree carvings with each victim but the carvings changed as he got older. We had to kept track of each girl's backstory, where the body was found (the color coding), what personal items were found with each, and what carving.
We do a lot of family trees. This one above was for SOUTH OF HELL. Almost none of these characters appear in the book but we had to know who begat who, mainly because Louis happens upon an old family Bible that helps him solve the case.  In another book, ISLAND OF BONES, there is a weird multi-generational family living on a remote island in the Florida gulf and Louis discovers a cemetery where the headstones give him major clues. The family tree was so tangled our publisher even put a diagram in the book.  

Above might explain why, despite the fact I was an art major, I do not make my living that way. Seriously, it is a drawing I did for our book AN UNQUIET GRAVE. It is set in an abandoned insane asylum and because I was having trouble explaining to Kelly how I pictured the grounds and buildings, I drew this for her. The blue connecting lines? Those are the tunnels in which our hero Louis gets lost and almost killed.

One of the biggest problems I think many manuscripts have is that the reader can't VISUALIZE the physical action ie the moving around in physical space of the characters. Because the writer has not done an adequate job of describing places and actions, we are confused. And maybe it's simply because the writer did not take the time to "draw" things out in his own mind. It's important that a writer be able to clearly SEE a story so that the reader can as well.

Speaking of seeing stuff...
This is our character board. We started it about twelve years ago just for fun. One day, feeling burned out after a hard day writing, we started thumbing through magazines finding pictures of people we thought looked like our characters. On here you'll find Louis's foster father Phil (actor Michael Rennie), his old boss Chief Wainwright (coach Bill Parcells), his lover Joe Frye (a young Charlotte Rampling), his best friend Mel Landeta (fellow author Jon King) and Roland the serial killer (a random shot we found on the State of Florida Department of Corrections website of mug shots). We did this for fun but, again, when you have two brains creating characters, it helps it you can visualize a real face.

Postscript: A couple days after I wrote this, I met with my critique group. They were having problems with a scene I had written where a character gets thrown out of a car on I-75. My mates couldn't VISUALIZE what I had described and I found myself saying "Yeah but this is what I meant!" In frustration, I drew them a picture of the road and the swale, the car's position, a little stick man body, etc. They all looked at me, shaking their heads, and one said, "Well, that's not what you wrote."

Bingo. Once I drew it, I realized I had everything wrong, including what side of the highway they were on.

What about you guys? I know we've got pantsers and plotters out there. Any picture makers? Send me your examples and we'll do a follow up. Send them to killzoneblog at gmail dot com. (Sorry, gotta spell it out to avoid spammers) Show me your pictures!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Judging A Book

by Boyd Morrison

I honestly don’t know how important covers are in the ebook age. A print book facing out in a store is designed to catch your eye so that you’ll pick it up and peruse the back cover summary, maybe check out a few pages of the writing. You’ll be able to see tiny details on the cover, as well as possible blurb. Here’s what my cover for THE ARK looks like at full size:


Now here it is at the size you’ll see when browsing the genre lists on Amazon:

Other than my name and the title, which you’ll see anyway next to the cover, you have a hard time making anything out besides the general color scheme. It gets a bit bigger once you click on it to go to the book’s Amazon page, but even at that size you can’t read the blurb. It’s mainly eye candy, to make the brain go, “Oooh, pretty!”

Of course, I’m not advocating putting out a book with a nondescript white cover. The cover will be used for promotional purposes, you’ll want to have it on your website, and it has to hold its own against the other ebooks that have covers. It also has to look professional. An amateurish cover or a poorly worded description are the quickest ways to convey the message that the contents inside haven’t been created with any care, either.

What I don’t know is how often the cover influences buying behavior. It would be fascinating for Amazon to show a simple list of titles and authors with a one-line description and see if that made any difference in which books readers gravitated toward. In fact, it would be interesting for Amazon to let an author craft a Tweet-sized logline to list under the cover, title, and author name.

At the very least, you want a cover that catches the attention of a reader who would like your type of book and accurately represents the story that a reader will find inside. If you are traditionally published, the publisher will design it for you, and you might get consultation on it. They may even listen to you if you object strongly enough to the concept.

If you’re a self-published author, don’t do it yourself unless you are a graphic designer. Slapping something together with Powerpoint will scream amateur. I highly recommend you find someone to do it for you, and there are several options.

The first option is to hire a freelance designer. For my two self-published books, I hired Kim Killion at Hot Damn Designs to create covers that have a similar branding theme since they’re both in the Tyler Locke series. She’s easy to work with, quick, and charges very reasonable prices. Using stock photography, she has produced covers for Allison Brennan, T. Jefferson Parker, and Larry Bond, as well as scores of romance authors. Here are the two covers she designed for me on the left next to their UK counterparts on the right:





I think Kim’s covers are just as good as the British covers, and I highly recommend working with her. There are plenty of other cover designers out there, but make sure you check out their portfolios and get references before working with them.

Another option is a site called Designcrowd. The concept is interesting, although I haven’t tried it myself. You submit a project (such as a book cover) along with a price you are willing to pay and a deadline for submissions. Graphic designers from around the world then submit ideas to you on spec, and you can choose the best one (or none at all if you don’t like any of the choices). I’ve looked at some of the portfolios, and there are some very creative designs in the submissions. If you’re looking for a more unusual design or an illustration that doesn’t have photos in it, Designcrowd might be a good way to go.

I’m sure self-publishers would love to know what other choices are out there. Are there any additional recommended options for cover creators?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Of Miracles, Sacrifice and Story

The French had collapsed. The Dutch had been overwhelmed. The Belgians had surrendered. The British army, trapped, fought and fell back toward the Channel ports, converging on a little fishing village whose name was then spelled Dunkerque.

Behind them lay the sea.

It was England's greatest crisis since the Norman conquest, vaster than those precipitated by Philip II's Spanish Armada, Louis the XIV's triumphant armies, or Napoleon's invasion barges. This time Britain stood alone. If the Germans crossed the Channel and established uncontested beachheads, all would be lost, for it is a peculiarity of England's island that its southern region is indefensible against disciplined troops. . . .

Now the 220,000 Tommies at Dunkirk, Britain's only hope, seemed doomed. On the Flanders beaches they stood around like souls in purgatory,  awaiting disposition. There appeared to be no way to bring more than a handful of them home. The Royal Navy's vessels were inadequate. King George VI had been told they would be lucky to save 17,000. The House of Commons was warned to prepare for "hard and heavy tidings."

Then, from the streams and estuaries of Kent and Dover, a strange fleet appeared: trawlers and tugs, scows and fishing sloops, lifeboats and pleasure craft, smacks and coasters, the island ferry Gracie Fields; Tom Sopwith's America's cup challenger Endeavor; even the London fire brigade's fire-float Massey Shaw--all of them manned by civilian volunteers: English fathers, sailing to rescue England's exhausted and bleeding sons . . .

Thus begins the first volume of William Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion. This opening (which goes on for another page and a half) is my favorite of any book––fiction or non-fiction––I've ever read. The full three-volume biography, finished by a friend after Manchester's untimely death, is an uncontested masterpiece of the genre.

And the "Dunkirk miracle" is a historical masterpiece of human grit on a grand and inspiring scale.

It was on this very day, May 26, 1940, that the evacuation began. When it ended on June 4, this citizen's armada had not only rescued British soldiers, but French support troops as well: a total of 338,00 men!

I'll tell you the truth, no matter how many times I read Manchester's opening account, I cannot help tearing up. English fathers, sailing to rescue England's exhausted and bleeding sons. The courage, the devotion, the duty. If you want to know what it all felt like, I urge you to watch William Wyler's classic, Mrs. Miniver. In fact, please watch it with your sons and daughters, and talk to them afterward about what that world was like––when neighbor and village and town and country came together for common cause. Teach your children that there is such a thing as right, and good, and truth—and that fighting for those things is a worthy enterprise.

Then talk about sacrifice. Sacrifice is the most humanizing of our actions, for we must fight against our instinct for self-preservation to do it. Yet in such action we become more than the dust of the earth. Our search for meaning gains a foothold and we step upward toward "the better angels of our nature." 

It is no mystery, then, that some of the most enduring stories are about sacrifice. From "the greatest story ever told" to Casablanca. From Samson to Gran Torino. From The Lord of the Rings to Stella Dallas. On and on we go, because the power of sacrifice resonates in the deepest part of us, which also happens to be the part that makes us great.

And when it occurs in real life, as it did 73 years ago, it is transformational. As long as we remember it.

Which is why, on this Memorial Day weekend, I choose to remember our allies, the heroes of Dunkirk. May they rest in peace.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Foods That Jumpstart Your Creative Heart

It is Memorial Day weekend. I hope that you each and all have a safe and happy one. The weather in my neck of the woods is a bit cool for May, which has spoiled at least one picnic which I know of and no doubt will ruin several others. I don’t do picnics, which makes me a Memorial Day grinch of sorts. My wife, who is a closet germophobic, sees nothing inconsistent between her need to have GermX, wet wipes, and Puffs Plus within arms reach at all times, and her ability to eat potato salad that has sat out for hours in eighty degree weather on a picnic table that a Canadian goose nestled to its nether-regions but a few hours before. Different strokes. For me, the closest I get to a picnic is lunch on a French Quarter balcony. The emphasis on food, however, got me thinking about foods which inspire. Some time ago at this spot I wrote about what beverages aided the creative process. Coffee occupied six of the first five spots on my list. But foods? What foods feed the creative muse?

For me, it’s apples and bananas and peanut butter: fruit cut into sections, with peanut butter --- Planter’s smooth, if you would be so kind --- dolloped onto each piece. Three pieces of each, no more, no less. It’s a jump starter, and I don’t know why, I don’t even recall when I first acquired the habit. But it works. How goes with it with you? Are there any foods, or combination thereof, which jumpstart your inspiration? Or does fasting starvation do the trick? Either way, enjoy the weekend and the holiday.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Reader Friday: How Far From Yourself Can You Go?

This is a cartoon from a 1930s edition of Writer's Digest. What is it saying? Since it is not "writing what you know," it's something else entirely. 

Today, discuss how far you think a writer can reasonably go, away from his or her own life. What are the dangers? The rewards? 

How far away have you ever gone? How'd that work out for you?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

First page critique: ARCTIC FIRE

By Joe Moore

Here is today’s first page critique. My thoughts follow the text.


Ben was excited. It would be his first year as a full time counselor at scout camp, a hard to get position he’d dreamed of since first attending as a Tenderfoot four years earlier. His brother Ian, three years younger, was a First Class scout attending his second camp and seemed proud of his brother’s position.  Ian would only be at Gorsuch for a week while Ben would be there for two months. Ben hoped to give his brother something to attain to.

Ben was an exemplary scout, a member of the Order of Arrow. At fifteen he was within six months of earning his Eagle Scout rank. Only ten percent of all scouts complete the demanding path to Eagle. It had been hard work and he was going to complete it a full eighteen months ahead of schedule.

After two sessions of the National Youth Leadership Training School at Camp Denali he knew how to lead boys. He was aware of not only how to teach them the skills every scout should know, but knew how to prepare for any emergency he could think of, how to keep them safe on campouts and hikes, how to perform advanced first aid and wilderness survival.

And to top it all off, maybe most important for many of the scouts in his charge, Ben Sanders knew how to tell stories. It was a skill he had learned from his father whose skill at filling the boys imaginations with visions of mountain trolls, sea spirits and brave warriors was amazing.  The only props his father used for his tales were a ratty old gray wool blanket and his story stick.

The well-worn birch walking stick had been made about the time Ben was born. Carved images of bears, wolves and eagles decorated the shaft just below the handle, worn smooth and shiny by his father’s own grasp, the oil and sweat of his palm rubbing the white wood to a sheen as if it had been polished and rubbed with varnish.  And now, his father was handing the stick to him.

There’s not much to say about this. Unfortunately, it’s all backstory. Nothing happens. There is no story question, no tension, no suspense, no crisis (physical, mental or spiritual). I have no idea what the story is about other than a well-worn birch walking stick may be involved. Aside from instances of passive voice, the writing is clean, mature, and matter of fact. But there is no grab, no hook, no reason for me to keep reading.

Good luck to the author and thanks for submitting to TKZ.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On-Site Research

Nancy J. Cohen

On-site research enhances your novel with authenticity. It’s your chance to make the story come alive for readers when you write the scene that inspired your visit. To get started, have an idea of what you want to research before you leave home. Begin with either a quick pass-through tour or research on the Internet. This allows you to sketch the scene ahead of time, even writing it in your manuscript, while filling in the details later.

For example, I have a research trip planned to Arizona. I’ve already written the synopsis for this story, so that tells me I have to trek through a copper mine, stay overnight at a dude ranch, visit a ghost town, stay at a haunted hotel, note the terrain and plants and animal life, and in general, walk through the steps my sleuth will be taking.

For HIGHLIGHTS TO HEAVEN, book five in my Bad Hair Day mystery series, I included a scene in Mount Dora, Florida. We had driven through there one afternoon, spending a couple of hours shopping and eating lunch. That brief survey was enough for me to write the scene in the book where my hairdresser sleuth, Marla Shore, tracks down a suspect’s sister to interview her.

After writing the first draft of the Mount Dora scene, I knew I had to make a return trip to fill in details to my satisfaction. Equipped with a notebook, I headed back for an overnight stay. This brings to mind the two most important tools to bring with you: notepad and camera. You cannot possibly remember all the details you will explore. It’s best to document them so you can refer to your materials when you’re back home. If I hadn’t gone to this town to note these particulars, I might have missed the chirping bird sound at traffic intersections when the light turned red.

I did the same for Cassadaga, a spiritualist camp in Central Florida where Marla goes for a reading from a psychic. This was the first time I’d had a reading, and it was an eerie experience. Here I used a tape recorder as an additional tool so when I got home, I could transcribe the entire interview into my computer. This became the basis for Marla’s reading in DIED BLONDE after I changed my rendition to suit the story.

SHEAR MURDER, my latest title in this series, has a wedding scene in fictional Orchid Isle that’s based on Harry P. Leu Gardens in Winter Park. Again, I went there with camera and notebook to walk the trails as my heroine and scribble down the details.

You need to see things with your writer’s eye instead of the usual tourist experience, and our view is much more detail oriented.

1. Do preliminary research to sketch your scene.
2. Plan your trip to focus on the details you’ll need to acquire.
3. Bring a notebook and camera, possibly a digital recorder.
4. If you plan to interview people, bring one of your books, a supply of flyers, and business cards to present yourself as a professional writer. Compose a list of questions ahead of time. Direct the interview to the topics you need addressed. Write down quotes from your subject. Ask if you can run the scene by them for an accuracy check after it’s written. For informal interviews, chat up residents and get their take on things in their home town. Try to capture unique elements like favorite expressions, mannerisms, and speech patterns.
5. Once on site, walk the path of your protagonist.

Observe with your Five Senses. Take detailed notes and don’t mind the curious stares of pedestrians as you stop abruptly to scribble in your notepad. Just make sure you’re not in the middle of the street.

 A. Sight
Sight means looking at the world with a writer’s eye. Say you’re on a ship. What do you see when you stroll on deck: An outdoor clock? A crew member hosing down the deck? A coil of rope? What makes the scene unique? On a city street, what do the windows on a building bring to mind? Do they yawn like open mouths? Are they blank like vacant eyes? Note small details like overhead electric wires, stray dogs, chickens in a yard, tilted signs.

Imbue your observations with your character’s attitude. Always remember to stay in viewpoint. Then look for interesting ways to describe things, i.e. a reflective nature like water, glistening like a cobweb in sunlight, glossy like a polished piano. You’re not only writing about what you see, but also about its special characteristics or emotional associations.

B. Smell
What does your protagonist sniff: A lady’s floral perfume? Oak-aged burgundy? Beer and pretzels? Pine trees and wood smoke? Vanilla and nutmeg? Diesel fuel or rain-tinged ozone? What memories does this scent evoke?

C. Sounds
Close your eyes. What do you hear? Birds warbling, ducks quacking, construction hammering, engines whining, water dripping? See how many different sounds you can distinguish.

D. Touch
Outside, is your skin pounded by the hot sun? Blasted by a ceaseless wind? Caressed by a warm breeze? When you walk, do you trip over the uneven pavement? Is the surface spongy like wet sand? How does your character react to the sensation?

E. Taste
The sense of taste is often related to your nose. If you smell sea air, you may taste salt on your tongue. If you smell ripe grapes, you may taste wine. Try to detect a taste where there may be none obvious. Is it a pleasing flavor or unpleasant to your protagonist?

Be Sure to Observe:
PEOPLE: Physical appearance, mode of dress, speech patterns, gestures
FOOD: Meals, restaurants, foods unique to the area
NATURE: Birds, trees, animals, bugs, flowers
ARCHITECTURE: residential housing, government buildings, commercial districts
EXPERIENCES: Adventurous, Funny, Scary

Be Sure to Bring Home: Maps, tourist brochures, books on locale, menus, postcards, photos

Now your notebook is filled with details describing what you’ve seen, smelled, tasted, touched, and heard during your research trip. Your job is to go home and transcribe this into your book so your reader feels she is there with your heroine, seeing from her eyes and living the story with her. This is your greatest gift to the reader, that you remove her from her own world and transport her to a new place for a few hours of escape. “I felt like I was there,” are sweet words from a fan to an author.

Make it happen.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Finding Inspiration in the Company of Others

I'm jet lagged and suffering the after effects of accepting too many cups of wine from the uber-cheery flight attendants of KLM's transatlantic service.  We 're halfway through a return trip from Vienna, where the family and I spent a couple of weeks celebrating my mother-in-law's 90th birthday. (I just hope I'm able to tromp all over cobblestone streets like Mama Cheng does when I'm 90. The woman is amazing.)

I fell madly in love with Vienna. Every corner we turned revealed some medieval-era nook that begged to be explored. There was one bad moment when my wallet got pick pocketed (shame on me for letting my tourist's guard down), but even that misfortune turned positive. We wound up meeting a charming member of the Austrian Polizei; the officer called the credit card companies for me, offered insights about crime and police work in the city, and invited us to tour an amazing military history museum. Our encounter was (almost) worth the pain of losing my driver's license.

Mama Cheng is a huge Mozart fan, so of course we made a pilgrammage to the composer's haunts. The home where he lived during his most successful years is now a museum; its walls are inscribed with his sayings. In one quote, Mozart describes being surrounded by neighbors who included a music teacher, a violinist, and a singer. To paraphrase Mozart: "Being surrounded by the music of other artists gives me many useful ideas for my own work."

As writer-artists, I think we've all experienced the creative boost that comes from the company of other writers. I always return from a writer's conference with new perspectives and a renewed enthusiasm for writing. And of course, TKZ's mission is to provide a virtual watering hole where we share experiences with the craft, hoping to inspire and be inspired.

But Mozart's quote got me thinking that it might be good to seek out even more intensive interaction, such as a writing retreat. I've never been on a retreat, but I visualize it as being peopled with the kind of folk you find at the bar at conferences. Only instead of a bar, we'll be hanging out at a cozy lodge overlooking some sylvan scene. There has to be a fireplace, of course, and great discussions. Other than that, I'm open to suggestions. Have any of you ever been on a writing retreat? How was the experience?

Monday, May 20, 2013

What's in a name?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

This weekend I saw Baz Luhrmann's sumptuous, over the top, movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby and was reminded, yet again, of the power certain fictional names have on the psyche. Gatsby. Not a name one easily forgets. Neither is Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester or those great detective names: Sam Spade, Nero Wolfe, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Even the most mundane sounding names can achieve prominence, simply because of their ordinariness (take Harry Potter for example). But naming a character is by no means an easy task. You have to balance the unusual with the commonplace and try to run the gauntlet between a cool, distinguished name and one that verges on being a soap-opera/porn name. So how do you come up with a memorable character name?

First and foremost it must reflect your character.  I find this is a critical first step - finding a character name that reflects the character's voice on the page. I've recently been revisiting an old WIP (finally having worked out the answer to a plot conundrum) and found myself weighing up two versions of the main protagonist's name, trying them on to see which fit best. It's a tricky process and one that has a cascading effect on other character names as well (as I can't exactly have a cast of characters all with names starting with 'M'!). But what other issues do authors need to pay attention to in naming characters? Here are a few:
  • Make sure the name is appropriate for the time and place of the story. For example, a story set in Victorian England is unlikely to have a female called Morgan Star. Equally well, it's hard to imagine a contemporary character in their 20s called Edna or Constance (unless there's a good back story or some degree of irony/humour going on!).
  • Check meanings/origins of names so you don't inadvertently use an offensive or inappropriate foreign word or name.  Also, sometimes the name can provide the reader with a hidden clue based on the origin or meaning of their name.
  • Make sure the name looks great on the page as well as when spoken aloud. On occasion, I have come up with a great name on paper but the pronunciation of it has caused a few tongue twisters (which is a bit embarrassing at book readings!). 
  • Don't try to be too clever, too cute or too obscure. The character's name should enhance, not detract from the story so don't make a reader work too hard to decipher  a name. Use the most common spellings unless there is a real reason (a reader will be taken out of a story by a name that they have to struggle to work out).
  • Finally avoid names which end in an 's'. I learned this the hard way...

So what about you all - what advice would you give fellow writers about coming up with terrific character names? What are are your favorite characters names? What about character names that set you teeth on edge?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Two Power Questions Every Writer Should Ask

James Scott Bell

So you're writing along in your latest novel or novella, and you come to a screeching (or, at least squealing) halt. Your story seems stalled for some reason. You don't know what scene to write next.

You sigh, get up from your keyboard, and go to the refrigerator. You take out some of last night's meatloaf or scoop out some ice cream. Maybe you turn on the TV and watch a little TCM or whatever dismal talk show fills the late morning or early afternoon slot in the vast wasteland of visual media.

Finally, you slink back to your keyboard and . . still don't know what to write. You start to wonder, maybe the story itself is flawed. And if this is a novel under contract, and you have already cashed an advance check, and the deadline is, like, soon, you might also feel little trickles of sweat in the armpit area.

So what do you do? I have a suggestion. I call them the two writing power questions.

1. Is there enough at stake?

In my craft books, and workshops, I always stress that the stakes of a story must be DEATH. There are three kinds of death: physical, professional and psychological/spiritual. The core issue in your novel has to be one of these or the book will not be the best it can be.

For example, in a legal thriller—the kind where the story is about a trial––that case has to be a matter of professional life and death for the lawyer. In The Verdict with Paul Newman, he is a bottom-feeding lawyer (no, that's not redundant, thank you very much). He has lost all self-respect. He is drinking too much. His professional life is about over.

And then he gets this case. A family comes to him because one of their own has been rendered a vegetable by the negligence of a large hospital. Okay, maybe he'll get a quick settlement, take the money and stock up on booze. But he goes to the hospital to see her. And suddenly he cares again. He realizes he is this family's only hope. Facing huge odds, he takes the case to the limit. If he loses, it'll be like a little "death."  

That's how it's got to feel to your Lead. In a romance, the death is psychological. It's got to feel to the reader that if the two lovers don't get together, their lives will forever be damaged because they haven't completed themselves with their soul mate. If it doesn't feel that way, why read the book? Who cares?

Much literary or "character driven" fiction is of this kind. In Janet Fitch's White Oleander, for example, the issue is whether Astrid, tossed into the foster care system, will come out whole or irretrievably harmed.

So, make this your first power question: are the stakes death? If not, backup and make it so.

2. How can it get worse?

If you're stranded in a book, just ask yourself what is the next bad thing that can happen? What will make the character's situation worse?

In Scott Smith's classic, A Simple Plan, a normal guy falls into a scheme to score some drug money, maybe without anybody ever finding out. What makes the book so compelling is that it's like a slow motion car wreck. You keep saying to yourself, Don't do that. Please don't do that. And then the character does it, and descends further into a pit that will eventually close around him.

Brainstorm for awhile. Make a list of the bad things that can happen. Come up with ten. Then, finally, ask: What is the absolute worst thing that can happen?

Look at the list and select the best ideas. Then put them in descending order, from bad to worse to worst. That becomes a plan for writing the rest of your book!

Whether you're a pantser or an outliner, these two power questions can blast you through that wall, to the other side where completed novels grow.

How about you? What do you do when you're not sure what to write next?

Saturday, May 18, 2013


By Mark Alpert

I know I’m coming late to this party, but I love The Walking Dead. A few weeks ago my teenage son and I started watching the show on Netflix as a sort of after-school treat. After a long hard day of Latin and algebra (for him) and manuscript revisions (for me) we sit down together on the couch to enjoy an hour of zombie mayhem. Of course, if you’re a fan of the program you know that the title characters are never called zombies; when the dead come on the scene, the living alert one another with the cry, “Walkers!” And that’s how I greet my son when he comes home from school and drops his incredibly heavy backpack on the floor. I yell, “Walkers! It’s time for Walkers!” and we race toward the living-room couch.

Why do we like it so much? Well, we’ve always had a thing for zombies. I still read to my son before he goes to bed (awww, isn’t that cute, I hear you say) but now I read World War Z instead of Doctor Seuss (yikes, what kind of father are you?) And we both loved 28 Days Later, the movie that originated the man-wakes-up-from-coma-to-find-world-overrun-by-zombies trope that was so shamelessly stolen by The Walking Dead. But there’s something special about the TV show. First, there’s the soap-opera appeal, the affection you develop for characters simply because you see them every day. Second, there’s the sheer bleakness of the characters’ situation, and the blind relentlessness of the enemy they face. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. You can’t turn away.

But the most interesting aspect of the show, at least from a novelist’s point of view, is its narrative format. A television series like The Walking Dead doesn’t have the conventional beginning-middle-end structure of most novels and movies. It’s episodic (naturally), and that makes the story feel more like early works of fiction such as Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels and The Pilgrim’s Progress. The characters travel from one adventure to the next, and though the details are a little different each time -- in one episode, Don Quixote tilts at windmills, in the next he mistakes a pair of monks for enchanters -- the basic setup of each scene is the same. (Or, to use another example, Gulliver has unusual adventures in a kingdom of tiny people, then in a kingdom of giants, then in a kingdom that floats among the clouds, and so on.) The danger with this kind of format is that it can get repetitious. And in fact, that’s a problem some viewers have with The Walking Dead. Many of the episodes seem to follow a standard, timeworn formula: start with a flashback from the good ol’ pre-zombie days, followed by thirty minutes of dread and sniping among the characters, then someone does something phenomenally stupid or brave and the dead arrive en masse. And every episode ends with a cliffhanger, of course.

On the other hand, the strength of this format is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As you watch episode after episode (my son and I have set a strict limit of no more than one per day) you get the feeling that you’re watching more than the struggles of a small band of survivors. You start to think, “If these people can’t make it, then no one can. If they die, the whole human race is doomed.” The perils and travails come so fast and furious that you can’t help but think of Job and how God killed his family and took away all his possessions just to make a point. The religious theme is made explicit in the first episode of Season 2 when Rick the sheriff’s deputy prays aloud in the country church (after killing the zombies who were sitting in the pews).

Although the show’s format may not resemble a novel’s, The Walking Dead offers lots of good lessons for thriller writers. In too many thrillers (including my own), the heroes are unrealistically resilient; in The Walking Dead, the constant fear and tension chew up the living characters almost as relentlessly as the zombies do. And nearly every character on the show has a mix of good and bad in his or her soul. Many of their actions are heroic and heinous at the same time. I don’t plan to write about zombies anytime soon (I’m too damn scientific -- I just don’t understand how the dead can walk without a working circulatory system) but I’d like to write about the same kind of desperation, the furious battle between hope and despair. Something to think about for the next book!


Friday, May 17, 2013

How Much Does Style Matter?

You may have heard of a fellow named Dan Brown. He's written a few novels. He may break out soon. His latest,
Infeno, just hit with a 4 million hardcover first printing. So yeah, the kid may make some dough.

His writing style has been attacked and parodied, as in this from The Telegraph:

The critics said his writing was clumsy, ungrammatical, repetitive and repetitive...They said his prose was swamped in a sea of mixed metaphors.

So here is today's Reader Friday question: How much does style matter? Dan Brown weaves the kind of story that people absolutely lap up on the beach or at Starbucks, or while listening to their iPods as they jog. Sure, his style is not going to win any awards, but so what? 

Or is there a what to consider? 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Writer Apps for Your Phone

Jordan Dane

I recently upgraded my cell phone and I love being as connected as I am. It feels as if I could exist on my phone and not be so tied to my desk, work-wise. I get all my emails forwarded to my phone. Even when I am traveling on business, I can stay plugged in, but I’ve discovered new things on my cell phone that I’ve converted to my writer tools. Here are a few:

1.) Camera - I love my camera. When I research locations for my books or look at specific settings, I can take a photo easily and save it to create an image board, for world building. Or I can use the image for a feature I sometimes do on certain books, like my debut book - No One Heard Her Scream - My Story Within a Story. I post a pic on my website and tell something about the location, and include an excerpt, so readers can see the setting I used in the book.

2.) Pinterest - I have a Pinterest app where I can create image boards on characters or setting or evocative imagery that reminds me of the feeling of my book. This is usually something I like to do as I get started with a new book, but this Pinterest app is on my phone and I can add to my boards anywhere I am. This means no camera, just searching the internet and pinning any image to my boards.
3.) GPS - So I don’t get lost getting to locations I want to research, I love my GPS/Navigation app. I used to have a GAMIN navigator, but you had to buy updates. It’s amazing that there are better navigation apps on your phone for free and they are automatically updated. I can also do voice searches. I feel so Star Trek.
4.) Texting - I also love texting now. Who knew? I used to make fun of my niece, telling her that her fingers would fall off from lack of use and she’d only have thumbs if evolution is real. Now my family plays this “GUESS WHERE I AM” game where we send pics of strange places and we all try to guess where the sibs are. It’s like Find Waldo, without the little guy in stripes. As a writer, I can sharpen my “one liner” skills too. Win-win.
5.) Tweetcaster – I love this app, or some version of this. It allows me to set up tweets on a schedule in advance so I’m not tied to Twitter to get posts out. I mainly broadcast post links from the few blogs I belong to, so I can promote my friends blogs and interesting articles for my followers or fellow writers. It’s a great app.

6.) Voice Recorder - This app is NOT to be used while you are driving, but it is great to record quick thoughts to save for later. I have one on my phone, but there is also iTalkRecorder and it is a free app.

7.) Dictionary.Com - What is a writer without his dictionary or Thesaurus?
8.) NameShake - This is an app I've heard of but have never used. It allows you to research a name, along with any special meanings or history. 

9.) Stanza is a popular ebook reading app that can download off Fictionwise as well as other sites. There are several free apps to download digital content from Amazon, B&N, and others.

10.) GAMES - But where is the FUN, people? When I am waiting for my dentist, Lord knows I need a distraction. I have a very boring Solitaire and I just added Bejeweled Blitz, both free. Okay, no lie. This is a total time suck. Not recommended for serious authors. 

What are your favorite apps that you have on your phone? For all you writers on TKZ, what apps have you discovered have become an asset to your writing, rather than a time drain?
PS – I am the Simon & Schuster media escort for John Lescroart this weekend when he signs his latest book – The Ophelia Cut – at the local B&N in San Antonio at the LaCantera shopping center at 7:00 PM on Saturday, May 18. If any of you know John, I’d appreciate a shout out to pass along to him or a funny story. If you are in the area, please stop by and see John. Maybe he'll bring his guitar and sing, too.