Monday, September 30, 2013

The End

By Boyd Morrison

It’s time. Sometimes you just know it. I’ve had a great twelve months being part of this Kill Zone crew of stellar writers, but I’ve decided to cede my spot to another blogger. I’ll still be following the fascinating blogs by my colleagues, so you won’t see the end of me around here.

Naturally, moving on like this has me thinking about endings in novels, particularly the ends of characters. Death is constant companion for us thriller writers. My wife is a doctor, so we often say that she saves people for a living, and I kill people for a living. In my stories I’ve slain many characters, and not just the bad guys.

In my book ROGUE WAVE, which is a disaster thriller, a key character dies at the end of the story. My editor strenuously argued for me to save the character, and we had an hour-long discussion about the ramifications of this death. In the end I convinced her that the character had to die, and I think the ending is more poignant for it. I’ve gotten many emails from readers who cried over the death. To me that was a compliment because it meant that the character had become real for them. Even if they hated that it happened, the readers almost unfailingly felt that the death fit within the story’s themes of love and selfless sacrifice.

I take great care in the decision of whether or not to kill off one of the good guys. I don’t think you can cavalierly flout the trust a reader has invested in you to deliver a satisfying story. On the other hand, to build suspense there has to be real jeopardy for the characters. If readers believe you’ll never kill off someone they’ve come to care for, where’s the tension in the story?

In my Tyler Locke series I do kill off someone who becomes a major character in one of the novels. It has a major impact on the other characters, even into subsequent installments of the series. Again, some readers didn’t like this death, but it also made them worry for all the other characters in future novels. If Boyd killed that person off, they might wonder, he’s just crazy enough to whack anyone. The tension level is automatically raised.

Obviously I didn’t kill Tyler Locke. He’s the star of the series. He can’t be killed off unless I’m doing away with the series altogether (Lee Child has proposed this very idea at several conferences when he has talked about someday ending the Jack Reacher series). For instance, no one even considers that James Bond is going to die at the end of the movie, so how can there possibly be any suspense?

If the writer might dispatch someone the main character loves or cares about, that concern is transferred to the reader. It conveys a personal stake in the outcome, which a reader will care about more than the end of the world as we know it. And if the reader knows you’ve done it before, an ending where all the good guys survive can be even sweeter, the relief more palpable.

A death of this kind can also make the story more believable. If every single good guy survives when bullets are spraying at him like they’re coming from a lawn sprinkler, while every single bad guy dies with a well-aimed headshot, the story becomes ridiculous. That kind of spectacular luck in a novel only emphasizes that you’re reading fiction. A key death, I think, confers some plausibility, even in an over-the-top action adventure. Movies have been doing this more commonly in the last few years. Think of The Dark Knight or Skyfall. Both of them were praised for a grittier, more realistic treatment of comic book and Bondian adventures, and both featured tragic deaths that had severe consequences for the plot and main characters.

Where I think authors get into trouble is when they make the deaths meaningless. As a reader, if I’ve spent hours getting to know a character, it’s deeply unsatisfying for him to die for no reason. It just seems like a mean or thoughtless gesture by the author, as if it were done for no other reason than to provoke shock. Some readers may appreciate that it makes the story seem more like real life, but unless it’s incredibly well-done, I find it off-putting.

Like my decision to move on from The Kill Zone, how you handle the characters has to come from your gut. I don’t take the decision to kill one of the good guys lightly, but when the end feels right, I know it.

Even though I won’t be a regular contributor, I'll still be hanging out in the comments section from time to time. Thanks to all my fellow KillZoners for giving me this opportunity and to all of you who taken the time to read and comment on my blogs. Take care.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Write What You Love

And it don't take money, don't take fame. Don't need no credit card to ride this train...That's the power of love.
       - Huey Lewis and the News

I have a lot of writer friends in various career stages, and therefore considering various career moves. The nice thing these days is that there are moves, more options than ever before. This requires that writers not only know and understand the choices (in terms of possibilities and pitfalls). It also requires that writers know themselves.

One friend who has been writing steadily for many years for traditional publishers is a case in point. After receiving news that her publisher was dropping the last book in a contract, she took a break from writing and looked inside. She wrote about what she saw, and gave me permission to share it:

After taking a much-needed break when I learned in May that my third book with ____ wouldn't be published (which was, perversely, good news for me, as I hated the story, the characters, and the obligation to write it---with 20k words and one month to deadline at the time), I finally got to the point at which I would literally get the shakes at night because I needed to be doing something creative (i.e., WRITING), but every time I pulled out a notebook or sat at the computer, I would feel even worse staring at that blank page because the only thing I could think of when trying to start something new was all of the pressure and pain (emotional and physical) of being under deadline to churn out two or three (usually three) books a year for the past four years.

But the urge to create something still existed and was driving me slightly batty. One day, when at my acupuncture appointment, I needed something to focus my mind on---something other than work, which I'd just left and had to go back to, since this was my lunch break. I decided that since I still love watching all the cooking shows on TV, I'd focus my mind on my chef character from my second contemporary. What would it be like if he were to go on Chopped or Top Chef? What if his restaurant (which he was in the process of opening at the end of his book) were featured on Anthony Bourdain's show? So I closed my eyes to allow my mind to "play" for a while.

Then something shocking happened. That character's sister-in-law, one of the main secondary characters in that series, stepped forward and reminded me that she, too, is a chef and restaurant owner, and has been for longer than her brother-in-law. Besides, he's already had his story. It's time for her to have hers. And she's right---I've had readers asking me for her story for years. By the time I got back to the office, I had the entire first scene fully formed in my head.

At a conference last week, I had a chance to talk to both my agent and former editor about the story and my ideas for things I can do with the uniqueness of the ebook format, and I realized, after walking away from my meeting, that for the first time in years, I was not only interested in a story idea but actually excited about writing it.

I'm taking it slowly---I've finished the first chapter and figured out how I'm going to incorporate the "viewpoints" of the four potential romantic interests for the heroine, without actually making any of them a main POV character. The most fun part, however, has been revisiting the first three books to gather all of the information about this character and to update the stories of all three of the couples from those books to "where they are now" six or seven years later. 

It's also been a great joy to return to the fictional city I "founded" and started building in 1992. As a writer who got completely burned out from having to write based on the need for money and not a passion for writing the stories I'd come up with, it's been so wonderful to return to this setting, to these characters I've known for years and years. It's a lot like going home after a long estrangement and being welcomed back with open arms and a fatted calf.

And the best part about this turn of events is that her writing will be the best it's ever been. She's a pro, she knows what she's doing—but now she's also recaptured the love.

We have to have that in our writing if we're going to keep doing this for the long term. You've only got so much time. Give that time to the stories
you're burning to tell. Do that first, and the money will follow. How much, no one can say. But joy tips the balance in your favor. For example, in addition to my novels and novellas, I'm writing short stories about a boxer in 1950s Los Angeles. I make some scratch every month on these. But more than that, I love writing them. It's a different voice and genre than I normally write in, which has the added benefit of keeping my writing chops sharp. 

If you love what you do you'll do more of it, and  you'll do it better, and that will increase the odds of making a decent buck at this—either through self-publishing or finding a traditional publisher who believes in your voice and vision. Or some combination of the two. 

So my question for you today is, do you love what you're writing? If not, why not?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Urban Wandering

I write this while sitting in a boutique hotel (it has fewer than thirty rooms and doesn’t have a pool) a block and a world away from St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. I’m here to attend a music law seminar, visit with friends and clients, and get new ideas for stories. Always with the new ideas.

I resolved that on this trip I would pay a visit to what might be one the most infamous address in New Orleans, that being 126 Exchange Place ( also known as “Exchange Alley”). The street was and is one of the less fashionable areas of the French Quarter; it runs “north” (that term doesn’t mean the same thing in New Orleans as it does everywhere else) off of Canal Street between Chartres and Royal Streets. In the first third of the Twentieth Century it was notorious as a gay cruising spot, and I suspect that such activity has not entirely absented itself from the area, for reasons that I need not go into here. From the 1940s through the late 1970s or so it was what real estate agents would optimistically refer to as a “mixed use” area, with gambling dens, gin joints, and rooming houses comprising the primary industries.  It was at one of these rooming houses, located over a pool hall at the same 126 Exchange Place, where a divorced woman named Marguerite Oswald lived between 1955 and 1956 with her teenage son, a lad named Lee Harvey. There is no plaque noting Oswald’s relatively brief residency there, or anything at all that would incline one to perhaps linger somberly for a moment and reflect how badly lives can turn and then  affect so many others, incidentally changing the course of history.  The minimal signage, in fact, pointedly discourages loitering while informing any potential loiterers that the property is under twenty-four hour surveillance and that loitering is forbidden. And yes, there are exterior surveillance cameras that track one’s progress. Another sign above one of the sets of freshly painted double doors on the property indicates that there is a “resort” business of some sort within, though there is no listing that I can find online under the name given. The property is not on the real estate tax records, either. ‘Tis passing strange, as a great detective once said.

I took a picture of myself --- what you young people like Jordan Dane would call a “selfie” --- in front of the property and waited for a moment to see if someone would come out and ask what the fu-heck I was doing, but nothing occurred.  Maybe I will wander by again at some point on my way to and from the seminar site, just for grins and giggles. This short brush with history, however, nudged my muse.  I got two pages from it. What occurrence, event, accident, or happenstance has nudged your creativity recently, for better or worse?

Friday, September 27, 2013

Reader Friday: Your Dinner With...

"By the mere fact that we bother to read a novel, thus expending time which might otherwise be passed in company with actual people, we are going out of our way to meet the characters to whom the novelist wishes to introduce us. He therefore owes us an assurance that they shall be even more worth our while than the average actual person." - Clayton Meeker Hamilton, A Manual of the Art of Fiction 

What fictional character would you most like to have dinner with? What would you talk about? 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

First Page Critique: A HARD MAN TO KILL

What follows is the first page of a work entitled A HARD MAN TO KILL, with my comments afterward. Hope you enjoy both --- Joe Hartlaub

When I heard the front door creak open, I rolled out of bed and snatched up the handgun that sat on my nightstand. My bare feet felt cold against the wood floor, but my body was taut and my aim steady. My wristwatch said it was six-fifty in the morning.
  I waited.
  A steady downpour of rain drummed against my windows, and the street lights slanted through my curtains and projected a small sliver of blurry yellow light.
  Footfalls came from the cramped living room outside the door. There were voices. It sounded like two people. Both of them sounded male, and both sounded as though they were moving around the house.
  They were having a quiet, whispered conversation, but behind the door I couldn’t make much out. I walked over to the closet, opened it quietly, and slid on my tennis shoes. Then I closed it and stopped.
  The footsteps were coming this way.
  I moved to the far end of the wall, behind the door, and waited.
  The door slowly creaked open and the footsteps came in slow and stopped.
  “No one’s here,” the guy said. “I think we’re okay.”
  Another voice replied, “Alright, yeah – sounds good. Just check the room for it, okay?”
  There were footsteps that clapped away from the room. The door closed and I could see the shadow of a guy making his way to my bed with his back to me. In the darkness I couldn’t make out much other than his scrawny build, but when he stepped into the watery light of the streetpoles I saw he was light haired and was wearing a dark, wet jacket and sodden jeans that clung to his legs. I also saw the glint of the small, silver handgun in his hand.
  He was glaring down at my bed, the twisted sheets and the comforter. He seemed to be studying it for a long time. You could almost hear the wheels turning in his head. 
  Slowly, I came up behind him.
  It would’ve gone smoother, but one of the floorboards creaked as I put down my right foot and the guy glanced over his shoulder. I kicked him in the back of his knee, grabbed a handful of his hair, and smashed it against the end of the nightstand. The guy fell to the floor.

                     *                                                *                                                    *

I like this. I like this very much. The author has been studying their Kill Zone Joe Moore, balancing nicely between suspense and action. The narration tells us quite a bit without slowing down the pace, and gets things rolling without diddle-fuddling around. Show, don’t tell? This piece does it. Our narrator hears a noise and but doesn’t seem particularly surprised; he just gets locked and loaded and ready to rock ‘n’ roll. He is expecting trouble. Why?  He also doesn’t call 911, which means that he either 1)knows that when seconds count, the police are there in minutes or 2)  doesn’t want the police in his house, at least until he has time to clean up. Which is it? Let’s not even mention what’s going to happen when the other burglar checks up on all of that activity in the bedroom. And what are these home invaders looking for? I’d like to see the next couple of pages to find out. If an author can keep that feeling going throughout the book, their job is done.

I have two and one-half minor criticisms before I turn things over to you all for comments: 1) In the first paragraph, our rough and ready protagonist has …”my aim steady.” The narrator is a few paragraphs too early to be aiming at anything. You don’t aim a gun until you have a target. Nobody is even in the room yet. I would submit that “hand steady” would be better; 2) the light comes from the streetpoles, rather than "of"; ½) what’s up with Beany and Cecil doing a burglary at 6:50 in the morning when neighbors are up and maybe walking the dog, leaving for work, going to pick up coffee and donuts, and the like, and thus able to witness a break-in? Roll the time back four hours and it’s a bit more realistic, in my opinion. Those are minor quibles that made me go “umm” but did not detract from my desire to keep reading. I want to see more and I believe at some point that we will all have that opportunity. Author: keep writing and keep up the good work.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Time Management for Writers

Nancy J. Cohen

How do you juggle between writing, marketing, and having a life?

Things used to be simpler when all we had to worry about was selling to a NY publishing house. When I wrote for Kensington, I turned in one book a year. Easy, right? I wrote my Bad Hair Day mysteries and nothing else. No blogs or Facebook posts. I didn’t have a second publisher to worry about making deadlines with double the work. Promotion consisted of mailing out packets of bookmarks to booksellers, letters to reader groups, and personal appearances.

blog speaker

It wasn’t until my option book was turned down that I started writing in other genres to see what would sell. Now it’s years later, and Wild Rose Press has picked up my romances while Five Star is publishing my ongoing mystery series. I am preparing to self-publish an original mystery and a few other items on my agenda as well. Currently, I have four books in various stages of the publishing process. This means edits and page proofs, along with research, plotting and promotion.


Never before have we had so many options. It’s an exciting era, but it’s also utterly time consuming. Who has free time when we can publish our entire body of works through various formats, and spend hours on the social networks promoting them?

Establishing priorities is paramount. When I’m in a writing phase, I set myself a daily quota of five pages a day. That’s my minimum, and I have to be at least halfway through before I’m permitted to peek at my email via Microsoft Outlook. I have to be finished before going online. This is the only way to get your writing done. Do it first before anything else intrudes.

When I’m in a revision phase, I also set limits. Maybe it’s one chapter per day to edit or 50 pages per day to proofread. Again, this work must get done.

As for the rest of the day, it’s spent on promotion and marketing, interspersed with errands, meeting friends for lunch, or whatever else is on my daily schedule. I’m fortunate that I can write full-time. My retired husband helps out with errands, freeing more of my time. Some of you may not have this luxury. In that case, you have to set your own limits.

How many pages can you reasonably write in one day? How many pages can you edit or proofread on a steady basis? How many days a week can you devote to your writing career?

Do you enjoy social networking and marketing, or would you rather watch paint dry? Does someone have to handcuff you to the keyboard to get you to participate?

Handcuffs (800x600) (2)

Where it comes to marketing, create a specific promotional campaign for each upcoming title. Follow this template so you’re not reaching blindly in the dark. As for the social nets, pick a select few and check in there often. Visit the other sites whenever you get to them. Schedule tweets ahead of time if you have a chance. I’ll visit Facebook several times a day because I feel this one is the most important.

Twitter comes next for me. I’ll pop in there every now and then and do a few posts. Pinterest isn’t on my daily role call. I’ll pin photos after I do a blog post with pictures I’ve uploaded. Goodreads is on my list but not on a daily basis, as is commenting on other people’s blogs and posts. You have to do what feels right for you.

I’m a big believer in lists. Write down your writing and business goals for the year. Each day, decide what you have to accomplish. These lists will give you a concrete path to follow. Write down the marketing plan for your next book. This will give you a specific focus, i.e. a blog tour or a book trailer. What you don’t want to do is flounder about, because that’s truly a time waster.

So what’s your plan for today? Mine included writing this blog. Marketing task number one is done. On to task number two.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Are we ready to hear good advice?

I have a theory about writers and writing advice: "No advice is good until we're ready to hear it."

Take me, for example. Years ago, having just read Anne Lamott's BIRD BY BIRD, I called up a writer friend to rave about it.
After burbling on about the book's awesomeness for about three or four minutes, I heard my friend give an audible sigh.

"I've been telling you about that book for years," she said (a tad ungraciously, I thought).

It was true. I'd heard my friend discuss BIRD BY BIRD before, but I'd never heard it. 

Over the years, different messages and bits of advice have bubbled to the surface of my awareness, depending on where I  was as a writer.

Here are some of the most useful nuggets that have stuck with me over the years.

  • Write every day at the same time.
I can't remember who was first with this classic piece of advice. The bottom line: You have to develop your brain's writing muscle the same way you develop other muscles--by repeatedly exercising it.

  • Slice the salami.
To get unstalled in her writing, Editor and writer Kate White says she had to learn how to break up large projects into small, manageable chunks. She calls it "slicing the salami." She began by writing for fifteen minutes on Saturday and Sunday. Months later, her first book was finished. This was the single most helpful piece of advice that helped me start writing back when I was a single mom with a high-pressure job.

  • Begin and end each paragraph with a short sentence.
This is a simple technique to build pacing and rhythm into your work. The short initial sentence eases the reader's entry into the paragraph, and the short line at the end provides a rhythmic "bounce" into the next paragraph. This advice came from Miss Snark, the literary agent; I've used the technique to good effect. (And if you haven't discovered Miss Snark, you should check out her archived blog. It's filled with tons of great writing advice)
  • Think of your writing as a camera. You're not successful until the reader "sees" the story that's filming in your head.
    I've noticed that there's often a disconnect between a scene that is playing in the writer's mind, and the one that is conveyed on the page. To locate   the reader in your story, you need to add context and positioning details. For example, if a minor character is standing behind the main character, about to do something interesting, you need to establish their positions relative to each other in the reader's mind. Otherwise, readers can quickly become disoriented and untethered from the story, like an astronaut floating in deep space. (See a related post, The Real Secret of Bestsellers.)

So, what nuggets of writing advice have been the most helpful to you, in your career as a writer? 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Successful Book Groups

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

When I lived in California I was a member of a book club that had been running for well over a decade. Now I'm in Colorado I'm seriously considering establishing one myself as I loved being exposed to books that I wouldn't otherwise have read, and I enjoyed the discussion and sense of camaraderie that came with being with a group of like-minded book lovers.

The only thing is - I'm not sure I want to be responsible for actually setting up a book group. In California, the group had evolved and changed composition over time but the balance seemed to be just right. There were enough strong opinions to go around but no obnoxious personalities to derail the discussion. There was also enough food and drink available to help the 'discussion' flourish. The thing is, I'm not sure I can ever recreate this and, to be honest, I'm not sure I should even try.

Successful book groups seem to involve an almost serendipitous arrangement of personalities, opinions and characters. Get the balance right and it's terrific - get the balance wrong and it's a horrible endurance test for all concerned. I've had offers to join other book groups too - but again, I'm wary about joining. I've also been reading about the emergence of online book groups which sound pretty cool - only I think I'd miss the personal interaction (not to mention the accountability - much easier to lie online about having read a book!).

So - some input from TKZers is required. Specifically I'm wondering:

  • Are you a member of a great book group?
  • If so, what do you think makes it great? (or if you've been a member of a dysfunctional group - what was the main problem or issue?)
  • What do you think makes a successful book group? 
  • And finally...with all the social media/online options do you think the 'in-person' book group is becoming (sadly!) redundant?

I'm also interested in whether you tend to favor a single sex book group (the one I was in was all-women) or a mixed group and whether you think focusing on a specific genre is helpful (we could chose basically anything, which I think made it much more interesting as I had to read books I wouldn't otherwise have read). All in all, it would be great to start up a new book group - but I know, after some 'interesting' experiences with writing group dynamics, just how carefully I need to tread... 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Why I Am Not Turning the Pages of This Novel

Recently I posted about why I found a novel to be a true page-turner. I'm gratified so many authors found it helpful.

So I thought I'd share today the opposite type of experience: reading a mediocre novel I will not finish. (See also Friday's question and comments). 

I'm not going to name the book, because I don't believe in running down fellow authors. Nor will I quote anything verbatim. But I do think there are some important lessons to be learned.

1. An Opening Without Disturbance

The first-person narrator of this crime novel is moving through a setting, describing it, and then getting in a car and moving some more, then getting to another location and getting out of the car, and then talking to some people. This is, by definition, action. But it does nothing to hook the reader. Why? Because there's no trouble, or even a portent of it.

What hooks a reader faster than anything else is when a character's "ordinary world" is disturbed in some fashion. It doesn't have to be big, like a gun fight or car chase. It just has to be something that sends ripples through the normal life of the character and makes us, the readers, wonder how the character is going to handle it. And that disturbance should happen on page one. I wrote more on the subject here.

2. A Voice Without Attitude

The key to narrative voice is attitude. This is especially true in the case of first-person POV. We have to feel we're in the hands of a character who has blood rushing through the veins, who is passionate about something, anything. The voice has to be unique, not plain vanilla. We need to sit up right away and take notice, because the narrator catches our attention:

When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants. On the outside, she’d look like the perfect lady. Tasteful plastic heels, tailored suit. But underneath, she was naked. I’m a bail enforcement agent now—also known as a fugitive apprehension agent, also known as a bounty hunter. I bring ‘em back dead or alive. At least I try. And being a bail enforcement agent is a little like being bare-bottom Barbie. It’s about having a secret. And it’s about wearing a lot of bravado on the outside when you’re really operating without underpants.

That's Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum in High Five. This is a voice I am interested in hearing from. I will note, too, that the second paragraph on page one is a disturbance. There's a reason Evanovich is so successful.

3. A Cast Without Distinction

The supporting characters in this novel are what they used to call "stock." There's the cop who seems like every other cop. There's a buddy who seems like every other buddy. And so on.

If your secondary characters are not what I call "spicy," you have missed one of the prime opportunities to make your novel a page-turner. You can avoid this by simply rejecting the first picture that comes to your mind, and making list of five, six or seven unique alternatives in terms of looks and speech patterns. 

4. A Setting Without Menace

It's one thing to describe a setting. It's another to have the setting operate like another character, with potential conflict infused therein. In my book, Conflict & Suspense, I have a section on setting, and include this clip from Gregg Olsen’s Victim Six:

Even in the midst of a spring or summer’s day with a cloudless sky marred only by the contrails of a jet overhead, the woods of Kitsap County were always blindfold dark. It had been more than eighty years since the region was first logged by lumberjacks culling the forest for income; now it was developers who were clearing the land for new tracts of ticky-tacky homes. Quiet. Dark. Secluded.

Notice the words Olsen chooses: marred, blindfold dark. Quiet. Dark. Secluded. It's right after this that the killer comes on the scene, and then the cops, and then everybody dealing with a setting of menace.

City or country, rural or populated, every setting holds the possibility not just for conflict between characters, but for being part of the conflict itself.

5. A Narrative Without Surprises

I'm stressing this more and more in my workshops. As I consider the fiction that I can't put down, and that stays with me after I'm finished, it's this element of the unexpected that keeps popping up in my mind. If I keep guessing what's going to happen next, and it does, that's called predictability. And predictable equals dull.

The late Elmore Leonard said not to write the parts readers skip. This novel had too many of those parts. So I put it down.

One final note: This was a self-published novel. It wasn't terrible. The sentences were strung together so I could follow the story. But that's not enough in this brave, new world. In fact, it never has been. As one veteran editor at Penguin put it, the kind of manuscripts they really have to watch for––in order to reject them––are those that are "skillful, competent, literate, and ultimately forgettable."

Don't settle for competent.


I'll be teaching on how to get to unforgettable fiction at two major conferences coming up. This week it's in Los Angeles at the Writer's Digest national conference. I'm doing a 3-hour session on Friday called "Writing a Novel They Can't Put Down." Also a class on "Dazzling Dialogue" on Saturday.

In November, I'll once again be with Donald Maass and Christopher Vogler for the big, four-day Story Masters, Nov. 7-10, in Minneapolis. Hope to see some of you there!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Advance Reading Copy

By Mark Alpert

I just received a box of advance reading copies of my next novel, The Furies. This is a fun moment in the publication process. For the first time, the book actually looks like a book and not an unruly stack of manuscript pages. It’s also a fraught moment for me, because this is the point at which I will allow my wife to read the novel. She’s heard me complain about the book several thousand times, but until now she hasn’t read a word of it.
Why haven’t I let her read it until now? Because she’s a tough critic. And she’s pathologically honest. If she doesn’t like something, I can always see the disapproval on her face. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in constructive criticism. Just about every writer could use some help pointing out the flaws that he or she has failed to fix, either because of laziness or obliviousness or sheer pigheadedness. I eagerly solicit suggestions and advice from my agent, my editor and the members of my writing group. In other words, I can take criticism from anyone but my wife. That’s just the way it is.

I’m especially worried about her reaction to this new book, because it’s a little different from all my previous novels. It’s a science thriller, but it’s also about witches. I became fascinated with the subject after my son wrote a term paper about the Salem witch trials. He learned that the witch hunt in the Massachusetts Bay colony was just one episode in a horrible series of massacres. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, witch-hunters in Europe killed thousands of people. France, Germany and Switzerland were the worst. In the area surrounding the German city of Trier, 368 accused witches were burned alive between 1587 and 1593. The great majority of victims were women. Two villages in the area were left with only one woman each.
It’s incomprehensible. Scholars still argue over why the massacres happened. And because it’s so strange and horrible, it seemed like an interesting subject for a novel. I imagined a family that came to America in the 17th century after being nearly annihilated by the witch hunts in Europe. They settled in what was then the wilderness and lived in secrecy until…well, until the novel starts.

The book will be published in April, so you’ll have to wait till then to hear the rest of the story. Except for my wife, of course. She’ll have to endure several days of me saying, “What part are you reading? Why aren’t you reading it faster?” And all the while I’ll be studying her face, trying to figure out what she really thinks. It never gets any easier.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Reader Friday: I Wish I Had Not Read That

Dorothy Parker, the famous wit, once wrote, “This is not a novel to be thrown aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” Today's question, without naming the author or title (unless you simply cannot restrain yourself), what is a book you've read that you hated? Did you force yourself to finish it?  What was it about the book that made you want to throw it with "great force"?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Kill Zone Exclusive – The Show & Tell Book – Guest Photographer William Greiner

Jordan Dane

I am so happy to have photographer William Greiner as my guest today. I am one of the lucky authors who had an opportunity to contribute to his book – Show & Tell – a beautiful hardbound book that combines his photographs with short stories from authors with names you will recognize. The book comes from UL Press (University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press) and is available now at this LINK

Below is the page image of the photo I wrote about in my story – On Her Special Day. I wanted you to see the fine quality of this book. I've ordered some for Christmas gifts and can't wait to read what the other authors wrote. Welcome, William!

Show & Tell-show and tell, show & tell, william greiner
Cover - Show & Tell
photo (2)
On Her Special Day by Jordan Dane

So why is a book titled SHOW & TELL being blogged about on The Kill Zone?

First, the premise was to give a group of fiction writers (In this case 28 in total, including 6 TKZ writers), a photograph without any information about the image and ask each to make up a story about that image. The resulting stories are fascinating, entertaining and thrilling.

John Ramsey Miller, John Gilstrap, Joe Moore, Jordan Dane, Joe Hartlaub and James Scott Bell, amongst others, apply their writing skills to bring a story to every image.

“A Blur of Motion” by John Ramsey Miller

“The Touch” by John Gilstrap

The idea for this book came to me many years ago after doing a print trade with another photographer. In conversation, it somehow became apparent that this other photographer had a complete different take and understanding of my photograph than what it meant to me. It made me realize we all bring our own notions, expectations and experiences to what we view.

To see what your favorite TKZ author sees & tells, order SHOW & TELL from UL Press, hardbound, 28 photographs accompanied by 28 stories, 183 pages, $35. To order: click this LINK.

William Greiner is a photographer and artist, living in Baton Rouge , LA. For more on our guest, click HERE.

For Discussion: Have you ever seen a photograph that inspired you to write about it? Tell us about it.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Suspense vs. Action

By Joe Moore

Back in 1993, country singer Toby Keith had a hit with the song “A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action”. That was a great hook for a song, but the concept doesn’t always work for thrillers. I’ve found that one of the mistakes beginning writers often make is confusing action with suspense; they assume a thriller must be filled with action to create suspense. They load up their stories with endless gun battles, car chases, and daredevil stunts as the heroes are being chased across town or continents with a relentless batch of baddies hot in pursuit. The result can begin to look like the Perils of Pauline; jumping from one fire to another. What many beginning thriller writers don’t realize is that heavy-handed action usually produces boredom, not thrills.

When there’s too much action, you can wind up with a story that lacks tension and suspense. The reader becomes bored and never really cares about who lives or who wins. If they actually finish the book, it’s probably because they’re trapped on a coast-to-coast flight or inside a vacation hotel room while it’s pouring down rain outside.

Too much action becomes even more apparent in the movies. The James Bond film Quantum Of Solace is an example. The story was so buried in action that by the end, I simply didn’t care. All I wanted to happen was for it to be over. Don’t get me wrong, the action sequences were visually amazing, but special effects and outlandish stunts can only thrill for a short time. They can’t take the place of strong character development, crisp dialogue and clever plotting.

As far as thrillers are concerned, I’ve found that most action scenes just get in the way of the story. What I enjoy is the anticipation of action and danger, and the threat of something that has not happened yet. When it does happen, the action scene becomes the release valve.

I believe that writing an action scene can be fairly easy. What’s difficult is writing a suspenseful story without having to rely on tons of action. Doing so takes skill. Anyone can write a chase sequence or describe a shoot-out. The trick is not to confuse action with suspense. Guns, fast cars and rollercoaster-like chase scenes are fun, but do they really get the reader’s heart pumping. Or is it the lead-up to the chase, the anticipation of the kill, the breathless suspense of knowing that danger is waiting just around the corner? Always try for a little less action and a lot more thrills.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Awards Season: A Survival Guide

By. P.J. Parrish

So I am doing my usual warm-up before hitting the computer yesterday morning: folding laundry and watching "Frazier" reruns. I love Frazier because beneath his smooth surface is a roiling bog of neediness and insecurity.

Yesterday was the episode where Frazier and his producer Roz are nominated for the Seebee Award, given out to Seattle's best broadcasters. Frazier tries to be above it all, but he just can't. He wants to win, dammit! But at the banquet, he finds out he is up against the aging icon Fletcher Grey. Fletcher has been nominated 11 times in a row and lost 10. Fletcher's date is his 84-year-old mother who has flown in from Scottsdale -- for the 11th straight year. Fletcher is also retiring. Frazier tells Roz, "if we win, they'll string us up." Roz says, "I don't care. I'd crawl over his mother to win this award!"

Frazier loses, of course. His agent Beebee deserts him. Roz gets drunk on Pink Ladies.

Sounds like a couple award banquets I've been to. A couple I have chaired, in fact. My sister Kelly and I are the chairs of the Edgar Banquet. (That's me in the photo above unpacking Edgar programs in the Grand Hyatt ballroom. I also do windows). We've been doing this chairman gig for about five years now. It's a lot of work and a lot of fun. You get to meet a lot of nervous but sweet debut authors, a few movie stars (I did an embarrassing fan-stalk of Richard "Munch" Belzer one year) and some really classy dames. (That's Kelly and me below with Mary Higgins Clark.)
We also been judges for the Shamus Awards, the Mystery Writer of America St. Martin's Best First Novel contest, and  the International Thriller Awards. So we've seen how the sausage is made.

The stories I could tell...

But I won't. And not just because sometimes they make judges sign confidentiality agreements. Mainly it's because ours is a very small community and I believe in author Karma. If you make a fool of yourself in public, it will come around and bite you on the butt. You can put good money on that.

Also, I've been on the other side of the whole awards thing. We've been lucky enough to be nominated for some awards over the past twelve years. Yes, it is an honor to be nominated. But it bites to lose. I can't lie and tell you otherwise. Our second book "Dead of Winter" was nominated for an Edgar. We were wide-eyed newbies in those days -- didn't even know what Mystery Writers of America was -- and we went to New York with our new gowns, got our nails done and gathered with spouses, son, and agent in the Grand Hyatt bar before the banquet to calm our nerves. Not a drop of alcohol because if we DID win, we didn't want to go up on stage three sheets to the wind and say something stupid. (As I said, I now have stories I could tell...)

Well, when our name wasn't announced, we all grabbed for the wine bottle in the middle of the table. The rest of the night is a blur. So is the rest of the decade, as far as awards go. Because as I said, although we got nominated for a couple, we never won. Which brings me to July 2008.

Our book "An Unquiet Grave" was nominated for the International Thriller Writers Award. Back to New York City we went, back to the Grand Hyatt. No expectations this time. My sister couldn't make it so I sat between my husband and Ali Karem. My friend the late Elaine Flinn kept saying it was our night. Doug Lyle wished me luck. Without Kelly at my side, I sat there feeling alone and sort of empty. We might write hardboiled, but I am not. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. I bolted for the lobby.

Jim Fusilli was standing there and barred my way, putting an arm around my shoulders. Each nominee was announced by reading the first line of their book. Ours is "The Christmas lights were already up." I remember thinking, "God, that sucks."

I heard the title of our book announced as the winner. I started crying. I don't remember what I said on stage. Many authors, when they are up for awards, have the sense of jot down a few notes beforehand so they are gracious, and  their clever speeches are quoted in the blogs the next morning.

This is what SHOULD have been in my head as I went up there:

"Thank you so much for this great honor. First, I want to thank the ITW judges who put their careers on hold for months. Their job is doubly hard in that they first must read hundreds of books but then, they must decide on just one when any of the five finalists would be worthy. Second, I want to thank my fellow nominees. I am honored to have my book mentioned among their fine works. Third, I want to thank my agent and editor who...."

This is what was REALLY in my head:

"God, I can't believe I am crying! How pathetic and needy! Where's the friggin' stairs? I can't see! Who is that man at the podium? Shit, I forget his name! THE LIGHTS! I CAN'T SEE ANYTHING! Do I have lettuce on my teeth? My bra is showing, I just know it. DON'T PULL AT YOUR BRA!! He's handing it to me. Jesus, it's heavy...don't drop it...don't drop it...don't drop it. Say something nice about the other nominees! Can't...can't...can't remember their names. YOU TWIT! You just sat on a panel with TWO of them this morning! Wait, it Paul LeVEEN or Paul LeVINE??? Forget him a drink later. I should have gone to the hairdresser before I left home. My roots are showing. Shit, did I thank my agent? JESUS! THE LIGHTS! Stop talking're rambling, you ass...stop now and just go sit down. Okay, leaving now. TAKE THE AWARD! Don't drop it...don't drop it...don't drop it. Good grief...I'm here in New York City wearing Nine West because I was too cheap to spring for those black Blahniks at Off Fifth. Dear God, just let me just off this stage so I can get to the john and pull up my Spanx and get a glass of wine..."

Well, we're entering award season soon. So here's a few reminders. Entries are due for ITW's International Thriller Awards. CLICK HERE for the link. There is also time to still enter the Edgars and you, the author, can do it yourself if you wish. CLICK HERE.

A few more final reminders about this awards thing from an old veteran:

If you don't get nominated, don't go to Amazon, read the samples and obsess about what hacks the writers are or whine that nobody has HEARD of these books and the judges don't appreciate commercial fiction.

If you never get nominated for anything in your life, remember that many great and successful authors haven't either. Vonnegut lost the Nebuba Best Novel award. Nabokov whiffed on seven National Book Awards AND lost the Nobel to some guy named Eyvind Johnson. And do you think guys like Lee Child go to sleep at night worrying about not winning an Edgar?

If you DO get nominated, have the sense to write out a little speech and try not to use it to give the finger to everyone who has slighted you in the past. (I told you...I have stories I can tell.)

If you lose, don't get drunk, sling a woman over your shoulder and drag her into the the hotel elevator (Yeah, I saw that one too).

If you win, be thankful and gracious then get right back to writing.

Winning an award is nice but it won't get the laundry folded.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Touring Test

By Boyd Morrison

This week at Bouchercon I’ll be on a panel called “State of Grace: How not to go crazy on tour,” and my first answer will be that you should sell a couple million copies of each new book. Nothing helps preserve your sanity like flying by private jet, staying in ritzy hotels, and eating gourmet meals. I know of several major authors who travel in that kind of luxury, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard them complain about touring.

Most of us, though, sell a few copies short of a million, so we have all the hassles of any other business road warrior when we go on book tour: unpredictable flight delays, hotel snafus, fast food caught on the run, and early wake-up calls to get to the next city so you can save money by spending only one night in each hotel.

To non-writers a book tour is the ultimate sign that you’re a real author and sounds glamorous. Those of us who’ve been through tours know they can be both exciting and a tedious grind, often on the same day.

The reason for going on tour initially seems self-evident: to meet readers and sign books for them. But for a new or up-and-coming author, recruiting fans outside your friends and family can be difficult without a unique angle or significant publicity from a publisher. The true reasons for touring are two-fold. First, you’re building relationships with bookstores that can hand-sell your novel, resulting in sales long after you’ve left and loyal fans eager for the next book. Second, you try to schedule appearances on radio and TV in the cities you visit, which gets your book in front of a lot more people.

A book tour should be considered an investment, because the truth is you will never sell enough books on tour to cover the cost. If you have a publisher paying the freight, I say go for it. The in-house publicity staff can make connections with stores and media that would be hard for you to get for yourself. But if you’re thinking about paying for a tour on your own, I’d advise against it unless you can drive your own car and stay with family.

I liked touring, but I only went to five or six cities when I did it, and even that many was taxing. I’m just not a fan of cramming myself into coach seats and packing and unpacking on a daily basis. The key is to have everything organized before you leave, down to planning what clothes you’re going to wear each day. One nice thing if a publisher organizes the tour is that they often provide an escort who will pick you up and drive you to all the places you need to be.

What made my second tour go even more smoothly than the first was that my wife went with me. We were visiting cities where we knew people, so it was a great tax-deductable way to see friends and family. Even though she’s a doctor by day, she could have an excellent career as a PR rep. Not only did she help keep me on track (and keep me company), she also is a big part of my publishing story. In Milwaukee she was on NPR with me, and in Denver the talk show host even brought her on set to participate in the interview. She definitely made me look good.

I guess the main way to not go crazy is to have fun, even when you have the inevitable one-person book signing, (it happened to me several times, including in Milwaukee). Remember that lone person may be a perfect stranger who came to see you because you wrote a book, which is pretty incredible when you think about it.

What advice do you have for making a book tour more bearable?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

10 Ways to Goose the Muse

Calliope, the muse of epic poetry and story, is a fickle goddess. She drops in depending on her mood, tickles the imagination, and then takes off to party with Aphrodite. Homer famously called on the muse at the beginning of The Illiad and The Odyssey, and she deigned to answer the blind poet. But many another author, cold and alone in his garret, has cursed her for not showing up at all.

So what do you do, scribe? Wait around for a visit? Implore Zeus to flex some muscle and order his daughter to your office or Starbucks?

No! You haven't got time to waste. You've got books to write. So I suggest you take the initiative and set about to prod the capricious nymph out of her scornful lethargy. 

How? Play games. Set aside a regular time (at least one half hour per week) just to play. And the most important rule is: do not censor yourself in any way. Leave your editorial mind out of the loop and record the ideas just as they come. Only later, with some distance, do you go back and assess what you have.  

Here are ten of my favorite muse-goosing games:

1. The "What if" Game

This game can be played at any stage of the writing process, but it is especially useful for finding ideas. Train your mind to think in What if terms about everything you read, watch or happen to see on the street. I'm always doing that when waiting at a stop light and looking at people on the corner. What if she is a hit-woman? What if he is the deposed president of Venezuela?
Read the news asking "What if" about every article. What if Tim Tebow is a robot? What if that Montana newlywed who shoved her husband off a cliff eight days into their marriage is a serial husband-killer? Or a talk show host?

2. Titles

Make up a cool title then think about a book to go with it. Sound wacky? It isn't. A title can set your imagination zooming, looking for a story.
Titles can come from a variety of sources. Go through a book of quotations, like Bartlett's, and jot down interesting phrases. Make a list of several words randomly drawn from the dictionary and combine them. 

3. The List

Early in his career, Ray Bradbury made a list of nouns that flew out of his memory and subconscious. These became fodder for his stories, often drawn from his childhood. 

Start your own list.  Let your mind comb through the mental pictures of your past and quickly write one- or two-word reminders. I did this once and my own list of over 100 items includes:

THE DRAPES (a memory about a pet puppy who tore my Mom's new drapes, so she gave him away the next day. I climbed a tree in protest and refused to come down).

THE HILL (that I once accidentally set fire to).

THE FIREPLACE (in front of which we had many a family gathering).

Each of these is the germ of a possible story or novel. They are what resonate from my past. I can take one of these items and brainstorm a whole host of possibilities that come straight from the heart.

4. See it

Let your imagination play you a movie.  Close your eyes. Sit back and "watch." What do you see? If something is interesting, don't try to control it. Give it a nudge if you want to, but try as much as possible to let the pictures do their own thing. Do this for as long as you want.

5. Hear it

Music is a shortcut to the heart. (Calliope has a sister, Euterpe, goddess of music. Put the whole family to work).
Listen to music that moves you. Choose different styles--classical, movie scores, rock, jazz, whatever lights your fuse--and as you listen, close your eyes and record what pictures, scenes or characters appear.

6. Steal it

If Shakespeare could do it, you can too. Steal your plots. Yes, the Bard of Avon rarely came up with an original story. He took old plots and weaved his own particular magic with them.

So did Dean Koontz. He amusingly winks at us in Midnight about combining Invasion of the Body Snatchers with The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Listen: this is not plagiarism! I once had a well-meaning but misinformed correspondent wax indignant about my tongue-in-cheek use of the word steal. There are only about twenty plots (more or less depending on who you talk to) and they are all public domain. You combine, re-work, re-imagine them. You don't lift exact characters and setting and phrases. That's not kosher. Reworking old plots is.

In Hollywood, they do this all the time. Die Hard on a boat becomes Under Siege. Die Hard on a mountain becomes Cliffhanger. 

7. Cross a Genre

All genres have conventions. We expect certain beats and movements in genre stories. Why not combine expectations and turn them into fresh plots?
It's very easy to take a Western tale, for example, and set it in outer space. Star Wars  had many Western themes (remember the bar scene?). The feel of Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man  characters transferred into the future in Robert A. Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. The classic TV series The Wild, Wild West  was simply James Bond in the old West. 

When zombies got hot a few years ago, I pitched my agent the idea of a legal thriller series with a zombie as the lawyer-hero. I figured most people think lawyers and zombies are the same anyway. Kensington bought it and it became the Mallory Caine series under my pen name, K. Bennett.

8. Research

James Michener began "writing" a book four or five years in advance. When he "felt something coming on" he would start reading, as many as 150 to 200 books on a subject. He browsed, read, checked things. He kept it all in his head and then, finally, he began to write. All the material gave him plenty of ideas to draw upon.
Today, the Internet makes research easier than ever. But don't ignore the classic routes. Books are still here, and you can always find people with specialized knowledge to interview. And if the pocketbook permits, travel to a location and drink it in. Rich veins of material abound.

9. Obsession

By its nature an obsession controls the deepest emotions of a character. It pushes the character, prompts her to action. As such, it is a great springboard for ideas. What sorts of things obsess people?


Create a character. Give her an obsession. Watch where she runs.

10. Opening Lines

Dean Koontz wrote The Voice of the Night  based on an opening line he wrote while just "playing around"--

"You ever killed anything?" Roy asked.

Only after the line was written did Koontz decide Roy would be a boy of fourteen. He then went on to write two pages of dialogue which opened the book. But it all started with one line that reached out and grabbed him by the throat.
Joseph Heller was famous for using first lines to suggest novels. In desperation one day, needing to start a novel but having no ideas, these opening lines came to Heller: In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.
These two lines immediately suggested what Heller calls "a whole explosion of possibilities and choices." The result was his novel, Something Happened.
Well, I could go on, but this post is already too long. If
you're interested, I have 10 more of these games in my book, Plot & Structure (from which this post is adapted).

The main lesson: don't let the inconstant Calliope rest on her mythic derriere. She's a muse, after all. This is what she's supposed to do. 

So what do you do to get creative?