Friday, February 28, 2014

Reader Friday: Overcoming Adversity

Today's topic is inspired by a question we received from a TKZ reader:

"When you were at your lowest point and about to give up writing fiction, what pulled you through?"

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Do You Have a Writing Question for TKZ? Let Us Know!

It's time for something new! Do you have a question about writing, marketing, or your work in progress? We're collecting questions from readers over at our email address: 

killzoneblog at gmail dot com

One Thursday each month, we'll use some of the questions as a launch pad for discussion. 

Let's kick off this idea today in the Comments. If you have a question for one of our motley crew of bloggers, or for the TKZ community, go ahead and post it in the Comments. We want to hear from you!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

4 Giant Steps to Self-Publishing

Nancy J. Cohen

Recently I have released my first nonfiction title. This came about because numerous aspiring authors kept asking me how to write a mystery. So I compiled my teachings into an easy-to-read booklet with concise instructions on Writing the Cozy Mystery. Here is a distillation of the steps I followed to produce this work.


Please note that today I am en route to Orlando for SleuthFest, and I may not be able to reply to comments in a prompt manner. I will look at them later and do my best to respond in a timely fashion.

Hire a story development editor and a copy editor. Polish your work to perfection.
Insert front and back material into manuscript.
Write back cover copy.

Create a publisher name and register with your State as “Doing Business As” title. Or create an LLC if you prefer. Check with your accountant for more info.
Put a Legal Notice in your local newspaper if required by the State.
Apply for a county business license/tax receipt. Note: if you’re 65, you may be exempt from fees but you still have to apply. Renewal is annual.
Open a business bank account under DBA title. As sole proprietor, you don’t need an EIN number. Use your own SS number.
Order checks for new account.
Buy ten ISBNs from

Hire a cover designer for ebook cover and trade paperback cover.
Determine book price for digital edition.
Assign an ISBN number to the digital edition at (if you’ve bought them from Bowker). You will need to upload the cover and give the price.
Hire a formatter after inserting the ISBN into your copyright page. Note that the print edition will have a separate ISBN from the ebook edition so you’ll need to send the formatter two different files or pay for a correction later.
Upload your e-book to Amazon, Apple, BN, Kobo, Smashwords, AllRomanceEbooks/OmniLit. It may be easier to hire your formatter to upload to iBooks since I believe you need to own an Apple device to do this step.
*File for copyright now so you don’t have to send two print books to the copyright office.
Upload to Createspace for a print edition. If you use their ISBN, you can sell your CS book to libraries. If not, librarians will have to get your book through another source or buy it through normal channels. Consider Lightning Source and Espresso Machine as other print options.
Consider an audio edition via ACX with another ISBN assignment and a cover resized to this format.

Order print materials to promote your work, i.e. bookmarks, postcards, etc.
Consider doing a virtual blog tour.
If you set a particular release date, hold an online launch party.
Post your release news and book cover on all your sites.
Solicit Customer Reviews.
Run a Rafflecopter Contest.
Consider if you want to give away free copies or promote a bargain/sale price.
Join indie author forums online for more tips.

Obviously, marketing could be a whole other topic as could each one of these sections. I do plan to blog about this process in more detail at a later date on my personal blog. Meanwhile, these steps will get you started in the right direction. Those of you who have been through this journey might have more to add.


Writing the Cozy Mystery is a valuable guide on how to write a traditional whodunit. This concise tool will show you step-by-step how to develop your characters, establish the setting, plot the story, add suspense, plant clues and sustain your series. You’ll find everything you need to know in an easy-to-read, clear manner to write your own whodunit.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Sympathy For the Bedeviled

You're a crime writer. You see dead people. But are you listening to them? And are you letting them talk?

I had a real light bulb moment during my critique group session  last week. The five of us exchange pages ahead of our meeting and then offer input to each other. It’s always lively, constructive and fun. My peeps have given me some great guidance on my WIP.  But last week, while I was critiquing someone else’s work, I had an epiphany about character.

The manuscript I was critiquing, by an experienced published author, is very good. Compelling voice, great protagonist, and itt was rich with humor and a pretzeled plot. But something was off and I couldn’t figure out what the heck it was. Then it hit me what was missing:

The voices of the dead.

There were three murders in the first half of what is a serial killer plot. We were given only the sketchiest of details about them, that they are high school kids, and two didn’t even have names. Here’s the thing: I was so dazzled by the plot, the wit, and the well-rendered setting, and I so swept away by the charm of the heroine, that I didn’t realize I had no sense of the victims.

So I started to ask myself why did I care? They’re dead, they’re gone, and they’re really just catalysts to get the plot up and moving, right?

Oh, so wrong. Because if the reader is not forced to care about the dead, how can we believe that the heroine does?

When I got home from Starbucks that day, I went right to my bookshelf and pulled down Margaret Atwood’s book Negotiating With the Dead:  A Writer on Writing.

I was given this book years ago as a gift when I was first venturing into crime fiction, and to be honest, I sort of skim-read it, finding it a little flowery for my taste. It's a compilation of a series of lectures Atwood gave at Cambridge. It's not a book on how to write; it’s a book on what it is like to write. (I prefer Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life for this sort of thing). But one chapter in Atwood’s book that did stick with me was the final one titled “Descent: Negotiating with the dead. Who makes the trip to the Underworld, and why?”

Atwood sets up her idea in this essay with this: “Perhaps all writing is motivated, deep down, by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.”

She talks about how insistent the voices of the dead can be in the solving of a fictional crime and how writers must listen very carefully when the dead begin to talk: 
“All writers learn from the dead...because the dead control the past, they control the stories, and also certain kinds of truth. So if you are going to indulge in narration, you'll have to deal, sooner or later, with those from previous layers of time. The dead may guard the treasure, but it's useless treasure unless it can be brought back to the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more — which means to enter the realm of the audience, the realm of the readers, the realm of change.”
This, in a nutshell -- well, a lovely quote -- is what was off about my friend's story. Because she had not given her victims a voice in the book, we were missing a vital part of the narration. She needed to bring these victims back to life so there would be a reason for the heroine to solve their murders. Yes, the protag can be self-motivated (a cop looking for glory, husband bent on vengeance, a Poirot who wants to unravel the puzzle). But that is usually intellectual and protag-centered. It is not reader-centric and visceral. And the best crime fiction pulls readers in emotionally, thrusting them deep into the interior lives of the characters. So the victims must be a tangible presence in the story even though they are never "on camera."

How do you do this? Well, once I was able to articulate this to my friend, our critique group had plenty of suggestions. Maybe the other students hold a memorial service, as kids are wont to do. Perhaps the heroine needs to interview parents or friends who offer memories and mementos. Culling through a victim's possessions can be incredibly evocative and emotional, as any of us who has ever had to sort through a relative's things after a funeral knows. Yearbooks, photographs on a mantel, journals, letters, a Facebook can all be fodder for making a victim come back to life on a page.

Now that I think back on my critique session, I am surprised that this should have been such a revelation to me. My own series hero, Louis Kincaid, is one of those investigators who is drawn to cold cases and is compelled, at his core, to "speak for the dead."

In our third book, Thicker Than Water, he is trying to solve the rape and murder of Kitty Jagger. She has been dead for 20 years but Louis talks to her boss, her best friend, the detective who worked her case, anyone who remembers her. What slowly emerges is a Rashamon portrait of Kitty that sends the case in a new direction even as it builds sympathy for the dead girl.

The most moving scene, I think, is when Louis visits the girl's ailing father, who allows Louis to examine Kitty's bedroom, which has been untouched for 20 years. We give a full three pages of description to the room and its contents. The scene ends with:
He picked up one of the half dozen perfume bottles. It was called Heaven Scent. He brought it up to his nose and drew back. It was cloyingly sweet. It was the smell that still clung to the room after twenty years.
He set the perfume down, letting out a long breath.
Time had stopped. He could almost see her, jumping out of bed, late for school, coming back and dumping her books, changing into her uniform before hurrying off to work.
His eyes traveled slowly around the tiny room. They had just left everything. Why hadn't anyone packed her things away? And that old man sitting out there in his lounge chair, like he was still waiting for her to walk in the door and make him grilled cheese. 
Of course Louis is looking for clues here in the bedroom. But more to the point, he is letting Kitty tell her own story. He is letting her come back to life. He is forcing us, the reader, to care. And I hope, by the time the reader closes the book, we mourn the one who is gone.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Dangling Participles, Misplaced Modifiers, and Other Awkward Constructions

New title for Style That Sizzles
by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

Potential Problems to Avoid with Participles     

In my editing of fiction manuscripts, I find even my smartest, most talented authors sometimes inadvertently commit gaffes with participles, which can affect the meaning of the sentence. Some readers may notice these style blunders, and others may just feel subliminally confused or inexplicably mildly irritated.

Problems with participles, dangling or otherwise:

Participles are verbs that end in –ing (present participle) or –ed (past participle). According to the Chicago Manual of Style, “The present participle (-ing verb) denotes the verb’s action as in progress or incomplete at the time expressed by the sentence’s principal verb.” In other words, an –ing verb expresses an action that is still taking place when another action occurs.

For example, “As he was driving on the freeway, a police car whizzed past, lights flashing and sirens blaring.” Or “She escaped while the house was still burning.”

So –ing verbs are mainly used for ongoing actions or to indicate an action that is still taking place when another action occurs. Here are some examples of incorrect use of participles:

~ Logistical impossibilities

What’s wrong with these sentences?

Hurrying up the sidewalk, she ran into her office building.

Striding across the lobby, he jabbed the button for the elevator.

Tapping her toes impatiently, she dashed into a free elevator that stopped.

What’s the problem ? Logistics. The -ing verb indicates that the first action is still happening when the second one occurs, but it’s physically impossible. She can’t run into her office building while hurrying up the sidewalk – it’s physically impossible. And if he’s still striding across the lobby, he can’t be jabbing the elevator button. Nor can she tap her toes while dashing into an elevator!

~ Check those sentences starting with -ing verbs.

Newbie writers often start sentence after sentence with -ing verbs (participles). That’s another sign of amateurish writing, and causes logistic problems. Besides being repetitive and boring, this sentence construction usually ends up describing a physically impossible series of actions – sequential actions described as if they’re simultaneous, as in the examples above.

Here’s another one: “Pulling the car over to the curb, she ran up the sidewalk.” She can’t run up the walk while she’s pulling over to the curb. It should be something like, “She pulled the car over to the curb, parked, then ran up the sidewalk.” Or “After pulling the car over to the curb, she jumped out and ran up the sidewalk.”

So vary your sentence structure, and if you start a sentence or clause with an –ing verb, make sure it works.

~ Don't get caught with your participles dangling!

According to Merriam-Webster, a participle is a word having the characteristics of both verb and adjective. As mentioned above, participles are verb forms that end in –ing or –ed, like “buzzing” or “roaring”, or “satisfied” or “soaked.” A participial phrase modifies a noun, like “Climbing the mountain, the hikers soon grew tired.” The phrase is talking about the activity of the person or thing closest to it, in this case, the hikers, so it’s correct.

Here’s an example of a dangling participle: “Exploring the trails, the birds chirped merrily.” It’s not the birds that are exploring the trails, so it needs to be changed to something like “Exploring the trails, the hikers heard birds chirping around them.” Or “As they explored the trails, the hikers...”

A few more examples of dangling participles:

Dodging the traffic, his cell phone got dropped on the street.

It’s not the cell phone that’s dodging the traffic, so it needs to be:

Dodging the traffic, he dropped his cell phone on the street.
Or: As he dodged traffic, he dropped his cell phone.

Gazing out the window, the willow tree swayed in the breeze.

This sentence implies it’s the willow tree that’s gazing out the window. It would need to be changed to something like:

Gazing out the window, she saw the willow tree swaying in the breeze.
Or: As she gazed out the window, she saw...

~ Misplaced modifiers are a mistake.

Also, watch where you put your descriptive phrases in sentences, as they modify the words closest to them. For example,

Tall and rugged, the teenage girl gazed at the basketball star in admiration.

As it is phrased here, the “tall and rugged” refers to the teenage girl, when it’s supposed to be describing the basketball star. It should be rephrased to something like:

The teenage girl gazed at the tall, rugged basketball star in admiration.

Similarly with:

Tired and dirty, the lady of the house watched the farm workers trudge past at the end of the long day.

It’s not the lady of the house who’s tired and dirty, so this sentence needs fixing.

The lady of the house watched the tired, dirty farm workers trudge past...

Slathered in chocolate icing with sprinkles, the customers bought boxes of the sweet, decadent donuts.

It’s not the customers who are slathered in icing with sprinkles! This should be changed to something like,
The customers bought boxes of the sweet, decadent donuts slathered in chocolate icing with sprinkles.

And you wouldn’t want to write, “Soaked to the skin, she dried off the kids when they came in from the rain.” Unless the mom is soaked to the skin, too!

Readers and writers - have you seen or accidentally created some awkward sentences involving misuse of participles? Care to share any humorous ones?

I provide lots of tips, with examples, of these and all kinds of other style gaffes to avoid in my award-winning editor’s guide to writing compelling stories, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION.

Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller and her handy, clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website:

Sunday, February 23, 2014

On Author Earnings and Author Yearnings

The dust is far from settled in the writing-publishing-indie blogosphere. It was kicked up by Hugh Howey, the hugely successful indie author who has begun a data gathering project to help authors make more informed decisions about where to publish.

His Author Earnings Report was like a bomb going off in a pillow factory. Feathers flying all over the place. The gimlet-eyed Porter Anderson provides a nice overview of the math and the aftermath. Criticism of Howey's methodology came in furious bursts, notably here, here, and here.

The mildly opinionated Joe Konrath jumped in to defend Howey, by way of  "fisking" one of Howey's prominent critics, Mike Shatzkin.

Mark Coker, of Smashwords fame, took to PW with a "moderate" view of the "revolt." For an agent's perspective on matters, you can check out Chip MacGregor's post "Author Earnings, Amazon, and the Future of Ebooks." 

Howey himself has defended his research in various comment sections, including the one in the Shatzkin post referenced above.

Passive Guy had this to say about the blowback to Howey's data:

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the entire Author Earnings episode for PG has been the extraordinarily overwrought response it has engendered from traditional publishing and its assorted hangers-on.

Indie authors just can’t, can’t, can’t be selling more ebooks anywhere on Amazon than tradpub is. Indie bestsellers just can’t, can’t, can’t be making more money that tradpub authors are. They just can’t.

The vitriol and mathematical illiteracy have flowed like half-priced beer during Happy Hour.

What are we to make of all this? I'm no statistician, and all I really know about the field is that old saying: There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. In other words, it's easy to look at a survey and come to divergent conclusions, depending on whose ox is being fed or gored.

Hugh Howey has provided his own bottom line:

There’s no guarantee you’ll get rich from self-publishing. There’s less guarantee you’ll get rich from querying agents. My contention is this: Most people will be happier getting their works out in the wild and moving on to the next project than they will reading rejection letters.


The real choice is that 99% of you can write a novel, pour your heart into it, and watch as every agent you query rejects the thing. And then you can give up. Feel like a failure. Walk away from your dream.

Or you can self-publish, have the pride of having done so, hold a copy of a physical book you wrote in your hands, see your e-book up on Amazon, get a sale or two, hear from a reader, and want to write more.

It isn’t about getting rich. It’s about having the opportunity to feel pride of accomplishment.

I'd like to offer my own take on the current landscape from the perspective of a professional writer. I've made my living from the clacking keyboard for almost twenty years. I believe in writers making money. I like that whole concept.

Professional writers know that striking it rich (as in Wool or Harry Potter or Hunger Games type rich) is out of their hands. If it happens, it's lightning striking. We'll take it if it comes, of course, but getting hot and bothered about it is pointless.

Professional writers pursue a steady and increasing income. That we can control, by being good and productive. "Pride of accomplishment" is fine for a first book, but after that I'd venture to say that 99% of those who yearn to write also yearn to earn.

The questions are how, where, and how long will it take to make bank as a writer? Let's answer all three:


By working hard at your craft. All consistent readers of TKZ know this is the drum I beat most often. I believe writers can get better and I have a library of material to help them. I also have hundreds of emails from writers, many of whom are now professional. I'm gratified my instruction has helped, but I know that these authors have added the most important ingredient themselves: a work ethic.

I don't care how badly you want to make money from writing. Unless you produce the words, on a regularly scheduled basis, you're going to stay stuck on yearning. 


Where should do you publish? Do you seek a traditional contract? Should you go right into self-publishing?

It does not have to be either/or. There is no longer a stigma attached to self-publishing. There used to be, big time. Now there is no reason a new author can't put out work independently while, at the same time, looking toward a possible traditional contract.

In fact, trad publishers are on the lookout for self-publishing successes. Why? Because it lowers their risk. The only question then is whether the writer would be better off staying exclusively on the self-publishing course. The answer to that will be in the terms of the deal being offered. Many have taken such a deal. Others have turned trad deals down, even when they run to seven figures.

I will state here what I say to audiences of writers, published and unpublished: Short-form work (like my Force of Habit series) is a great way to get your feet wet in self-publishing, and every single author working today should have at least one wet foot.


As long as it takes. A professional writer is not going to give up, ever. You have to love to write. It has to be a sort of compulsion. You have to have calluses on your forehead from banging it against various doors. There's plenty of rejection and dejection to go around. You take it for an hour or so, then get back to the keyboard.

The more and better you write, the better your chances of earning an income. It may not be enough to quit the old day job, but I've never been an advocate of doing that too soon. A day job keeps your feet on the ground and soup on the table. There may come a time when you've got this thing humming along and you can ditch the daily salt mine. But in the meantime, concentrate on producing a certain number of words every week. Doesn't matter how few. Just do it. And study the craft at least one hour each week, too.

So here's my take on the Author Earnings Report. I like Hugh Howey. I like his enthusiasm for, and support of, his fellow writers. There may be valid criticisms of how much you can extrapolate from his data. But professional writers don't spend much time extrapolating. They spend their time typing and making up more stories.

Wayne Gretzky used to say, "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."

So take your shots. And when the fur starts to fly and the blogosphere gets too noisy, pop on the headphones, cue up Steely Dan or DragonForce, and write some more. 

So what do you perceive to be the terrain out there in publishing land?  

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Classic Thrillers

Last month I read Anna Karenina for the first time. Truth to tell, I had mixed feelings about the novel. Many chapters were glacially slow. The descriptions of Russian rural politics couldn’t have been more boring. Worse, none of the main characters -- Anna, Vronsky, Levin -- was particularly likeable. Still, I got caught up in the soap-opera plot, the whole nineteenth-century aristocratic mating dance. And the book’s climax blew away. Every thriller writer can learn something from seeing how Leo Tolstoy handled Anna’s suicide.

It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that Anna kills herself, is it? It’s like the crucifixion in the New Testament -- everyone knows it’s coming. In fact, the only thing that kept me going through the boring chapters was the anticipation of seeing Anna throw herself under that train. And Tolstoy didn’t disappoint me. The chapter showing Anna’s nervous breakdown in the hours before her suicide is brilliant. I loved her nihilistic, stream-of-consciousness observations as she rides in her carriage through the Moscow streets: “There is nothing funny, nothing amusing, really. Everything’s hateful. They are ringing the bell for vespers -- how carefully that shopkeeper crosses himself, as if he were afraid of dropping something! Why these churches, the bells and the humbug? Just to hide the fact that we all hate each other.”

And then the fatal act itself, six pages later, described so pitilessly: “Exactly at the moment when the space between the wheels drew level with her she threw aside her red bag and drawing her head down between her shoulders dropped on her hands under the train car, and with a light movement, as though she would rise again at once, sank on to her knees. At that same instant she became horror-struck at what she was doing. ‘Where am I? What am I doing? Why?’ She tried to get up, to throw herself back; but something huge and relentless struck her on the head and dragged her down on her back.”

After finishing the book I tried to think of other classic novels that offer useful lessons for thriller writers. Here are four more canonical works that made a big impression on me:

Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Mr. Ringel, my sixth-grade teacher, read this book out loud to our class over a period of several weeks. Reading a Dickens novel to a class of unruly eleven-year-olds was a pretty ballsy thing to do. I remember several occasions when Mr. Ringel had to yell at the miscreants in the back of the classroom who were whispering insults at one another instead of listening to his narration. But no one whispered when he read the scene in which Charles Darnay and his family make their perilous escape from Paris. It’s the great-granddaddy of chase scenes, and thriller writers have been unashamedly imitating it for the past 150 years: "O pity us, kind Heaven, and help us! Look out, look out, and see if we are pursued! The wind is rushing after us, and the clouds are flying after us, and the moon is plunging after us, and the whole wild night is in pursuit of us; but, so far, we are pursued by nothing else.”

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. This novel is long. It has a whole miscellany of odd things that got left on the cutting-room floor when the book was turned into a Broadway musical. There are learned disquisitions on medieval monastic orders, the sewers beneath Paris, and the nature of quicksand. And though I wasn’t terribly interested in these subjects, I didn’t mind wading through those chapters. I was so desperate to find out what was going to happen to Jean Valjean, there was no way I could stop reading. Hugo was a master of the cliffhanger.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. One of the most memorable battle scenes ever written is El Sordo’s hopeless stand against the Spanish Fascists. The Republican guerilla is badly outnumbered, but he holds off the Fascist soldiers by crouching behind dead horses and mounds of dirt. Then the enemy planes arrive and obliterate El Sordo and his comrades. But my favorite part of the book is Pilar’s description of the atrocities committed by her fellow Republicans when they killed the Fascists in her hometown:

“Then I went back inside the room and I sat there and I did not wish to think, for that was the worst day of my life, until one other day.”

“What was the other day?” Maria asked.

“Three days later when the Fascists took the town.”

Pilar doesn’t describe the even worse atrocities committed by the Fascists, but she doesn’t have to. Hemingway teaches us that less can be more. Some things are best left to the reader’s imagination.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. This novel is the ultimate political thriller. It has all the classic elements: a power-hungry antihero, a brassy seductress, a compromised journalist, a capital full of corruption. But it’s also a morality play of the highest order. Willie Stark, the book’s populist Southern governor, is determined to do some good for the people of his state, even if he has to resort to every evil trick to do it. And Warren’s writing is pure momentum from the book’s very first pages, in which he describes the governor’s car tearing across the impoverished countryside: “For this is the country where the age of the internal combustion engine has come into its own…Where the smell of gasoline and burning brake bands and red-eye is sweeter than myrrh. Where the eight-cylinder jobs come roaring around the curves in the red hills and scatter the gravel like spray, and if they ever get down to the flat country and hit the new slab, God have mercy on the mariner.”   

Friday, February 21, 2014

Reader Friday: What's On Page 69?

It's been a while since we played the Page 69 Game, which was introduced to us by Joe Moore. The idea is that you can tell whether a book is worth reading by turning to page 69 of the book, and reading that page. If you like that page, chances are you'll like the rest of the book.

So, let's share page 69 of our WIPs. Does it make the reader want to keep going? (And if you haven't gotten that far, turn to page 69 of the book you're reading, and tell us what's on it.)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Key Ways to Layer Depth Into Your Scenes

Jordan Dane

I’d been writing for awhile before I heard the term “layering.” It was a writer craft thing I was doing instinctively in my rolling edits, but I’d never heard it called something specific until I attended a writer’s craft workshop and saw examples.
Most scenes are written in a bare bones fashion, like erecting the framework of a house before the walls are finished. The general structure creates a flow of what is happening in the scene, but usually the depth is lacking in things like character development, setting, body language, action, and reaction. Since I had limited time at my former day job to think about my writing, I would break away for lunch on some days and focus solely on dialogue like a script. I wanted the voices of the characters and what they said to be strong and not be trite or too conversational. For scenes where there is conversation between characters, I found it easier to use the dialogue as my framework to hold the flow together.
The right amount of layering can enhance your voice, but there needs to be a balance. Every writer should come up with their own method for what works for them. Below are the highpoints to layering, from my experience. I’ve also included an example from my WIP, The Last Victim, with the layers added in highlights.
Key Ways to Layer Depth:

1.) Dialogue – Avoid chit chat lines. Even if you hear voices in your head (something you should talk to a doctor about), the lines should move the plot forward and mean more than talk about the weather.

2.) Setting & Senses – Dribble in a touch of setting to color the scene. (The scene below is sparse due to space for this post, but I’m a believer in an atmospheric setting. The mood was set in this scene earlier.) Be sure to utilize the senses of your characters to put the reader into the scene, triggering their senses.

3.) Body Language & Action – Frame the scene with key body movements and action to have the characters doing something. The scene below is tight for space purposes, but I am a fan of characters saying one thing, but their body language shows something else, like chess players not wanting to give away their next move. And with action, there is no time for too much internal monologue if bullets are flying. Stick with the action and explain later, in that case.

4.) Backstory – Backstory can be filtered into the book. A frequent mistake is the devilish “backstory dump” where the author expounds on details the reader doesn’t need to know all at once. Backstory dumps slow the pace. It’s best to sprinkle the backstory in throughout the story, sparingly. Give the essence, and even unravel it as a mystery, to enhance the telling of it when it’s necessary. Never underestimate the power of a good mystery.

5.) Introspection/Voice of Character – This is the fun part. Try to give your character an attitude about what he or she sees. That attitude will serve to reflect who they are, as well as the other people in the scene. Don’t waste a room description and make it seem like an inventory. Color the description by allowing the character to express what they think and make it fun or memorable.
Partial Scene – The Last Victim (WIP):
Below is basic dialogue lines to start a conversation between my FBI profiler and an Alaska State Trooper sent to help him:

“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine. Are you Special Agent Townsend?”

“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me. I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”

“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”

“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped. Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”
Layers added for Setting/Body Language/Backstory:

When a vehicle rumbled to a stop behind me, I glanced over my shoulder to see a white Ford Explorer with the Alaska State Trooper blue and gold logo on the door. The words ‘Loyalty, Integrity, Courage’ were painted on the rear panel. I locked eyes with the trooper and nudged my chin in greeting before I grabbed my bag. By the time I got to the truck, the driver had boots on the ground, showing me an ID badge.

“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine.” She grasped my hand. “Are you Special Agent Townsend?”

“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me.” I fished out my credentials and showed her.

Even off-duty and out of full uniform, Trooper Justine Peterson was clearly law enforcement. She carried a holstered weapon on her duty belt and had on jeans, well-worn hiking boots, and a navy polo with the Trooper’s emblem on it. Her windbreaker and cap bore the official logo, too. Clothes and weapon aside, the tall blonde had a no nonsense attitude and a slender body, lean with muscle. She had a penetrating stare that had sized me up.

“I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”

“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”

Justine had to know Applewhite. She’d called him Nate.

“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped. Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”

Layers Added for Character Voice/Introspection:

When a vehicle rumbled to a stop behind me, I glanced over my shoulder to see a white Ford Explorer with the Alaska State Trooper blue and gold logo on the door. The words ‘Loyalty, Integrity, Courage’ were painted on the rear panel. I locked eyes with the trooper and nudged my chin in greeting before I grabbed my bag. By the time I got to the truck, the driver had boots on the ground, showing me an ID badge.

“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine.” She grasped my hand. “Are you Special Agent Townsend?”

“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me.” I fished out my credentials and showed her.

Even off-duty and out of full uniform, Trooper Justine Peterson was clearly law enforcement. She carried a holstered weapon on her duty belt and had on jeans, well-worn hiking boots, and a navy polo with the Trooper’s emblem on it. Her windbreaker and cap bore the official logo, too. Clothes and weapon aside, the tall blonde had a no nonsense attitude and a slender body, lean with muscle. She had a penetrating stare that had sized me up.

If I were a fish in Alaskan waters, she might’ve tossed me back.

“I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”

The trooper’s expression turned harsh and unyielding.

“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”

The woman glared at me, without backing down. Although I hadn’t expected a show of hostility from someone in law enforcement, I didn’t take it personally. Hearing about a murder made it easy for those who knew the victim to lash out in frustration.

Justine had to know Applewhite. She’d called him Nate.

“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped.” Since I needed her cooperation, I let her show of attitude slide. “Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”

The woman let her eyes drift down my body and back to my eyes again. It had been a long time since a woman made me feel like a porterhouse steak.
Since we have so many wonderful writer followers at TKZ, I would love to hear examples from your WIP for my favorite layer: Voice. Show me some attitude, TKZers.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Who is your audience?

By Joe Moore

A few weeks back, I blogged about What, How and Why do You Write? Today I want to discuss who you write for—who is your audience. The more you know about your end-readers, the more you can focus on connecting with them, entertaining them and creating loyal fans.

The first thing I suggest is to focus on an individual reader as you write, not a group. By doing so, you can envision and predict the reader’s response. For instance, it can be a friend that enjoys your work. Picture that reader as you write. Someone that you have received feedback from so you know their likes and dislikes. If your focus-reader has told you what she really likes about your books, then there’s a good chance other readers will like the same things. Maybe she’s said that your stories are highly visual almost like seeing a movie in her head or your characters always seem so down to earth or she loves how your books are like a magic carpet ride taking her to so many exotic locations. And on the flip side, listen to her dislikes. They’re equally important. These comments are keys to keeping your readers happy and coming back for more.

Next, think about your agreement with your reader. Basically it goes like this: if you’re willing to pull money out of your pocket, buy my book, and commit to spending a portion of your valuable time reading it, then I agree to deliver a level of entertainment that is equal to or exceeds what you have experienced in the past. You agree to fulfill the reader’s expectations. Not doing so can be deadly because negative word-of-mouth can rarely be overcome. The person hearing negative comments will probably never give you the chance to redeem yourself.

Remember what genre you write in and deliver the elements that readers of that genre expect. The readers of a particular genre all like the same type of stuff. Give it to them, but in an original fashion with new twists and turns.

Next is the manner in which your focus-reader consumes your book. Hardcover, paperback, ebook? Does she travel a great deal and likes to pass the time reading on the plane? At the beach? At bedtime? Over the weekend but not during the workweek? In public places such as a coffee shop or only at home? Does she always have plenty of time to read or does she have to steal time during her lunch break? Knowing the reading habits of your focus-reader helps you deliver the product that fits her needs and those of your audience.

Once again, concentrate on that one specific focus-reader. Her group will fall in behind.

Finally, remember that you are establishing a one-on-one, intimate connection with your reader. No matter where your book is being read, it’s just you and her. No one else is around. You are communicating with someone, usually a reader you’ll never meet, and it’s always up close and personal. You’re in her head, and hopefully in her heart. Keep focused on that intimate connection. Never let go of her in your mind as you write. She is your target audience. She is your path to success.

So, Zoners, do you envision your target reader as you write? Do you know her likes and dislikes? Are you dedicated to delivering to your specific audience?


Coming this spring: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore
Einstein got it wrong!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Do Crime Writers Make Good Jurors?

Over the last few days, the news has been filled with reactions to another high-profile murder case out of Florida--the so-called "Loud Music" Murder Trial.  From the cable news bloviators to the Twitterverse, everyone seems eager to second-guess the jury's deliberations (at least, the ones that resulted in a mistrial).

Such passionate opinions! people shared. But here's the thing--few of these people, if any, would actually want to serve on a jury. Or even be willing to.

Dodging jury duty. It's an American tradition. We'll plead anything to get out of serving this civic duty--we'll claim job hassles, childcare responsibility, a passing gas attack--almost any excuse will do, as long as we can make it believable.

I remember the last time I got called up for jury duty. It was Wednesday, the week before Christmas. A robbery case. As a court official polled the rows of prospective jurors, people were practically diving under their seats to avoid being called. Meanwhile, I'd positioned myself in the front row. I was all but waving my hand like an overeager student: "Oh, oh! Choose me! Choose me!" As a writer. I'd been dying to experience a jury trial. This was my chance. 

I couldn't wait to hear the case, take copious notes, and start deliberating. 

The case itself was a bit anticlimactic.  The "robbery" we were judging turned out to be little more than a glorified shoplifting case. I was amazed at how lousy the defense attorney's arguments were. Partly because of her poor presentation, I drove everyone crazy once we reached the jury room. My fellow jurors seemed to want to take a vote and get out of there, but I insisted on dissecting all the evidence. I think the others were afraid I was going to prolong the deliberations until Christmas. Finally we found the defendant guilty of petty theft, a far lesser crime than robbery. The accused--a young male, he looked about 19 years old--collapsed his head to his knees with relief as we read the verdict.

The writer's part of my brain soaked up every drop of the jury experience. The next time I have to craft a court scene, I'll be able to draw on real memory, not something I learned second-hand. Or, worse! from the movies. The next time I get one of those summons in the mail, I'll be back in the front row, hoping to get called.

Am I the only person who gets excited about jury duty? Have any of your jury experiences been useful in your story-telling?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Building a World, Brick by Brick

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I saw the Lego Movie last week with my twin 9-year old boys and it was a terrific example of both what to do, and what not to do, when it comes to 'world building'. I will try to avoid spoilers but (spoiler alert! for any sensitive Lego souls out there in TKZ)  it was right near the end when let's just say a 'human element' entered the film that the key issue for world building really came to the fore. It struck me as soon as I heard both my sons inhale sharply...

That key issue in world building? 
Don't break down the bricks of your world.

It's like when you are suddenly told the entire story was 'just a dream' and the main protagonist wakes up....
Or when the curtains are pulled back to reveal the Great Oz...
In short, when the world or story that has been all encompassing is compromised and the mystery, the magic, 'the world' is thereby shattered.

For my sons the 'human element' in the Lego Movie came perilously close to doing just that. For them, the interior Lego world that has been created was all they wanted to see. The creators of the movie almost pulled the curtains back and neither of my boys was interested in seeing the 'great Oz' pulling the strings (or, in the case of the Lego movie, the 'man upstairs').

For any writer this example shows just how important it is not to jar the reader from the world you have created. Having seen my boys' reaction to the near-fatal 'world destruction' event in the Lego Movie, I thought I'd compile a list of world building Do's and 'Do- Nots'.

  • Do be consistent and reliable. When a reader enters your world they need to feel as though they can rely on you to see it through. Don't disrespect the reader by being inconsistent or unfair in terms of the narrative you have built.
  • Do create an authentic ending - don't cop out with the 'and then she woke up' kind of denouement. It takes considerable skill to weave plot and world-building elements together, so if a reader is going to invest the time and effort and stick with you on the journey, don't disappoint them in the end. Imagine if the next book by George RR Martin started with 'then the boys and girls put down the pieces of their fantasy game and went to McDonalds for dinner...", you'd be pretty miffed!
  • Do invest the time and energy in creating the 'interior' walls of your world. This means doing your research and background work effectively so you've answered all the key issues a reader might ask about the 'rules' of the world. In a thriller it might be making sure that you know the origins, beliefs and background to the terrorist group you historical fiction, it's making sure you know all the historical elements that come into play (from dress to speech, modes of transportation, etiquette etc.). a fantasy you have to do the same, and though obviously everything is invented, it still has to be internally consistent.

In many ways both my boys have just ignored the 'human element' that came into the Lego movie (and to be honest, for adults, it was cleverly done). All they focus on (and quote word for word!) is the interplay between the Lego characters and the humour and adventure that was so successfully created in the interior 'Lego' world that they inhabited. Overall, the Lego movie was really terrific - a great example of how to create a clever fun story - but it also contained a little reminder for me of the perils inherent in any type of 'world building'.

So when was the last time you felt like the world a writer had created nearly came crashing down?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Writing Wisdom From An Old Pro


When I began studying writing in earnest it was with an eye to becoming a screenwriter. This was back in the day of the "screenwriting guru" explosion. Syd Field was the granddaddy. His Screenplay was my foundational book and led to my eventual breakthrough on structure. Soon, Robert McKee came on the scene, then John Truby and a few others. Acolytes of each would claim that their guy was the true originator of screenwriting knowledge for the unwashed mass of wannabes.

Only none of them were. The original guru was a veteran Hollywood screen and TV writer who started teaching for UCLA Extension in the 1950s. His book, Writing the Script, came out in 1980. Wells Root was his name and you can look up his credits on IMDB.

Wells Root directing Donna Reed in Mokey (1942)

The other day I turned on TCM and decided to watch a little of the upcoming flick, a B gangster picture from the 30s called Public Hero #1. I saw that it had Chester Morris in it, and I like his work. The credits rolled and lo and behold Wells Root was the screenwriter. Now I watched with added interest, and ended up taking in the whole thing. The plot moved, had twists and turns and original characters. A crisp 89 minutes. Nicely done, Wells!

So I went to my bookshelf and pulled down Writing the Script for a re-read.  

It's nice to make its acquaintance again. Writing the Script is filled with gems of wisdom for both fiction and screen writers. And Root's illustration of the three-act structure (as a raging river) is brilliant. He came up with this metaphor years before Syd Field's famous three-act "paradigm."

You see how the hero is in the river of story, being pulled by the current despite his best efforts with the oars. He gets thrust into the hazardous, rock-infested white water of Act 2. He fights all that only to hit a waterfall in Act 3. As he goes over the audience is asking, Will he drown or somehow make it to safe water?

I've always thought the best writing education would have been to be a young writer in Hollywood in the 30s. Then you could have hung out at Musso & Frank, listening to old scribes like Ben Hecht and Wells Root and John Howard Lawson. Over Martinis they would have provided a graduate course in the finer points of dramatic writing.

Since that era is long gone, Root's book will have to do. So pull up a chair and listen to some of his advice:

Ultramodern, unstructured story design has an erratic record bringing bodies to the barn.

Drama favors the great saint or the great sinner—heroes and rascals who are above the common run. But they must still be as welcome in the village pub as in the manor house.

If you have the guts to be totally honest, nobody can write a character exactly as you can.

An unmistakable mark of a master craftsman is that he individualizes all his characters. (In the margin of the book I had scribbled "Moonstruck.")

Although your heavy is a horror, make him or her also a vulnerable human being.

Write a man or woman or child who is everybody, but who becomes in your dramatic story an absorbing variation, a striking original.

The heights of emotional drama dwell in these scenes that plead truth from opposed points of view. Such conflicts, you will find, play with a special luminous power.

A story maker's urgent priority should be awareness. A writer is always in his working clothes.

Agents and producers are flooded with the commonplace. Routine work will get you nothing but routine indifference.

So there it is, an afternoon hanging out with Wells Root, the first of the great screenwriting gurus.

Is there a "wise old scribe" in your background? Somebody from whom you got much needed advice? Tell us about it. [NOTE: I'll be in travel mode today, so talk amongst yourselves and I'll try to catch up later]

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Untrue Romances

I am writing this on Valentine’s Day. Call me sappy (or, perhaps, unable to think of a better topic) if you wish; however, we should consider our favorite couples in fiction (as opposed to fictional couples, a plethora of which exist in the real world!) even though we will be a day late and dollars short of V-Day by the time you read this.

Please permit me to take the plunge first. No one comes close to Spenser, the world’s most self-satisfied detective, and Susan Silverman. Each installment of Robert B. Parker’s iconic series (which lives on through the immense talent of Ace Atkins) is propelled by dialogue, and Dr. Silverman’s ability to match her tough-guy boyfriend line-for-line makes for great reading indeed. I will confess that in my own day-to-day conversations (though never in my stories) I have with abandon misappropriated sentences (nay, paragraphs!) which originally sprung from the mouths of both of these characters. Naturally, my favorite book about their relationship is A CATSKILL EAGLE, where Susan and Spenser kind of, sort of break up for a book or so. This gives Spenser an excuse to get truly medieval, and he does.

How many Spenser books are there? Dozens, at least.  Accordingly, my second-favorite romantic pairing is an angst-laden one, played out over the course of but one book. The couple would be Johnny and Sarah; the book would be THE DEAD ZONE by Stephen King. It’s not necessarily one of King’s best books, but it is one of many favorites, and the relationship between these two very nice people is one reason why. Their courtship is cut short when an automobile accident puts Johnny in a seemingly eternal coma. Sarah, sort of understandably, moves on after a decent interval and marries a decent enough guy, though King indicates here and there that the gentleman’s ancestry just might include a sphincter (or two) and maybe even a plastic device for holding a certain vinegar and water concoction.  She is comfortably though not necessarily happily married when Johnny comes out of the coma. The book is not so much about their romance as it is about Johnny’s psychic powers, but the back and forth between Johnny and Sarah throughout the story as they look but can’t touch and then say what-the-heck, let’s touch anyway, is worth the price of admission all by itself. THE DEAD ZONE, by the by, was nominated for, but did not win, the 1980 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.
Now: your turn. Any romantically linked couple in fiction, in any media, is acceptable (though if you tell us Batman and Robin…), and please explain why. And Happy Valentine’s Day, wherever you are.