Saturday, May 31, 2014

Getting Inside the Mind of a Killer

One of the skills a thriller writer needs to master is getting inside the head of the villain. This can be hard to do if you’re not a villain yourself. I’ve never killed anyone or ordered an execution. I’ve never tortured an enemy or smuggled drugs across a border or hacked national-security secrets out of a Defense Department computer. The challenge isn’t describing how to do these things; you can read manuals to learn how to hack a computer, and there have been excellent newspaper stories detailing the mechanics of smuggling. (And if you want to learn how to torture someone, just read a book on the CIA’s recent history.) No, the problem is describing the why. Why is the villain doing all these awful things? Does he/she have a reason or an excuse? A traumatic childhood? A thirst for power or riches or revenge? A misguided idealism? Or just plain old psychopathic insanity?

Without a thorough understanding of your villain’s motives, you run the risk of defaulting to the Snidely Whiplash cliché, the evildoer who cackles and twirls the ends of his mustache as he reveals his foul plans. But how can you achieve this understanding without descending into villainy yourself? You have to employ your imagination, sure, but what can you use as a real-world guide?

One strategy is to read the memoirs of famous villains. Mein Kampf is a good example. The manifesto of the Unabomber is another. It’s definitely not pleasant reading, but it can be instructive. You learn that evil really does exist. And that we should take hateful people seriously and never underestimate them.

This past week, as a result of the horrible murders in Isla Vista, California, we have another manifesto to add to this sad genre. The 22-year-old berserker, Elliot Rodger (who killed himself after stabbing three people in his apartment and fatally shooting three more on a rampage across the college town), wrote a 140-page memoir titled “My Twisted World” and e-mailed it to two dozen people before he went on his spree. After reading about the killings in the New York Times, I clicked on the link to Rodger’s memoir and spent the next hour perusing it. Here are the things I learned about this kid’s particular strain of banal evil:
1) He was a pathetic creature full of grievances, both large and petty. One of his earliest memories was getting upset at his three-year-old birthday party because another kid got the first slice of cake. His background wasn’t extremely privileged, but he had some contact with the spoiled-brat Hollywood world, and its screwed-up values infected his mind. He expected everything to fall into his lap and threw tantrums when it didn’t happen. He played computer games for hours at a time and failed at school. He became obsessed with playing the lottery and freaked out when he didn’t win. And he grew enraged at all women because none of them would have sex with him. This was his primary grievance, the one he repeated ad nauseum throughout the manifesto. He was an “unkissed virgin” and he deserved better. It drove him mad to know that other people were having sex and he wasn’t. So he decided to take revenge.

2) Were there any mitigating circumstances? He was bullied in school. His parents divorced, and he had conflicts with his stepmother. And yet I got the sense that he was the main cause of his own misery. He wasn’t liked because he wasn’t likeable. It’s a vicious circle, I suppose.

3) I was shocked at how openly racist this kid was. He was a Eurasian obsessed with “hot blonde girls” and he shows vile scorn for any Asian, black or Latino man who has the nerve to date a white woman. I know there are millions of other racists who share these attitudes, but it’s rare to see them expressed in print like this. The newspaper reports didn’t emphasize this aspect of his personality, which seemed surprising given the fact that three of Rodger’s victims were his two Asian roommates and their Asian friend. In the manifesto, Rodger calls his roommates “repulsive.”

4) The kid was a world-class narcissist. Just listen to him: “Humanity has never accepted me among them, and now I know why. I am more than human. I am superior to them all. I am Elliot Rodger… Magnificent, glorious, supreme, eminent… Divine! I am the closest thing there is to a living god. Humanity is a disgusting, depraved, and evil species. It is my purpose to punish them all. I will purify the world of everything that is wrong with it. On the Day of Retribution, I will truly be a powerful god, punishing everyone I deem to be impure and depraved.” It’s hard to take this stuff seriously, right? And yet the kid kept his promise. He had his Day of Retribution.

No, it’s definitely not pleasant reading. But texts like this are windows on the world of evil, and getting a good view of the Adversary can be useful for both fiction and life.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Reader Friday: Your Literary Meal

If you could choose one author from the past to have dinner with, who would it be? Where would you want to dine with this person? What would you order? 

Most important, what questions would ask?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

For the Love of Horror & History

Jordan Dane

On Monday, my lovely TKZ blogmate Clare Langley-Hawthorne had a post called “Losing the Past” where she discussed the state of the historical. I must admit I’ve been intimidated from trying to write an historical. The research seemed daunting, not to mention the world building and dialogue challenges, but I’ve always loved classic literature set in a historical time period made into movies, like Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, David Copperfield, and Jane Eyre. There is something very compelling about taking a peek into the past to see the cultures, classes, location settings, and period clothing. Whether in a book or on screen, it’s a beautiful escape to a different time and place. Historicals aren’t dying out, they’ve become the new black if they’re reimagined into something fresh.

Lately I’ve become enthralled by TV period pieces, especially if the writing and storytelling are solid and the visuals and world building are memorable. Shows that have pulled me in are: Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, BBC’s Ripper Street, and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. I watch other shows for different elements towards my writing, but these shows have influenced me into crossing the line of my comfort zone. I firmly believe, for me, that I must seek out projects to push my perceived limits. I think I learn more about myself when I do it. The only limit to any writer is the limit of their own imagination.

So when I was recently asked to contribute to a time travel anthology (with an amazing group of authors), I accepted with great enthusiasm (even though it scared me). I accepted the challenge because of my love for these three shows and my desire to push my writer limits. I wanted to share these feature film quality shows with you to see if they stir your imaginings as writers for inventive plots, attention to detail on world building and research, and the fearlessness of the creative mind to combine ideas that may not connect easily.

Icabod with skullSLEEPY HOLLOW - The motto at Sleepy Hollow these days is “Embrace the Ridiculous.” Show creators and the talented writers have thrown together very unlikely elements to create what’s been called WTF TV. On paper, the pitch for the show would’ve sounded absurd – Washington Irving adaptations of Headless Horseman and Rip Van Winkle, mixed with Revelations in the Bible and the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse and historical conspiracies from the Revolutionary War. Icabod Crane is reimagined as a Revolutionary War hero and Revelations “witness” who arises from his secret grave at the same time as the Headless Horseman (aka Death) starts a killing rampage in the quiet town of Sleepy Hollow. The battle of good versus evil has found a home. Crazy, yet it works. The added touch of humor to this “man out of time” story makes Icabod a very endearing character. There’s tongue in cheek humor and the show is notably very ethnically blended. Sleepy Hollow is making history in more ways than its flashbacks.

Ripper SettingRIPPER STREET is set in Victorian London right after Jack the Ripper left his mark. Fear runs high that the monster will return. The shows are tightly written, very emotional, and there is great sensitivity to social issues of the time that reflect on those same issues today. Another thing I love about Ripper Street is the portrayal of early forensics and crime scene analysis. Many scenes are laughable (ie surgical operations done in the open without sterilization or proper care for infection) yet accurate for the time period. Costumes are stunning and the street settings are vivid with great care for detail.

Penny Dreadful BooksPENNY DREADFUL - The show title of Penny Dreadful comes from history, the name given to paper pamphlets filled with terrifying stories. Such stories (also known as Penny Blood, Penny Awful, & Penny Horrible) plus stage performances of the genre were the rage in London during the Victorian time period. They were printed on cheap pulp paper and aimed at working class adolescents. Fear abounded and made fertile ground for when Jack the Ripper wreaked havoc on the streets.

Cast 1Penny Dreadful is an homage to literary horror and classic monsters of the time: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, etc. What I love about Penny Dreadful is the intense world building in every scene. The details of lush sets and gorgeous costuming and the use of practical literary monsters (not animated computer generate imagery). The horror is visceral.

Dr VicHere is Dr Victor Frankenstein slaving over his “creature” in secret. The scene where Victor lays eyes on his living creature (and the creature sees his creator for the first time) is an unforgettable moment where the viewer holds a breath to watch the touching intimacy. Everything about this show speaks to me of good writing, solid storytelling, and memorable characters in classic conflict. Visually stunning. It’s a feast for the eyes, mind, and heart.

For Discussion: What shows stir your writer imaginings? Have they ever influenced you to write a genre you’ve never tried before?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

If it comes easy, it’s probably a cliché

By Joe Moore

It was a dark and stormy night.

If you were the first writer to have used that as an opening line, then it was brilliant. What a vivid way to create an immediate setting and mood. Congratulations on a fresh, original beginning. For everyone else, that line is a cliché. A language cliché to be exact. In addition to language clichés, there are character and plotting clichés. We all know not to use them, but sometimes they slip through when we’re not looking. So how do we avoid clichés like the plague and fix them in the blink of an eye?

First, let’s define the three types. As mentioned, language clichés are bits of speech that have been used so often they lose their original luster or charm. You’d have to be blind as a bat to not understand my crystal clear definition. It should hit you like a ton of bricks.

Character clichés are those we’ve seen too many times such as the prostitute with a heart of gold (includes a language cliché) or the disgraced, wrongly accused cop who winds up catching the killer.

Plotting clichés are well-worn storylines such as the farmer boy who turns out to be a king or the self-taught musician who eventually performs with the philharmonic. Two common plotting cliché examples that I’ve seen dozens of times are books and movies based on the “Bad News Bears” and “Death Wish” themes. The Bad News Bears theme usually deals with a group of outcasts or “losers” who reach the lowest point in their collective lives only to be pulled together by a strong, charismatic leader and wind up coming out winners. This theme does not have to deal with sports. Watch the movie THE HOUSE BUNNY as a good example.

The Death Wish theme is usually the story of a common “every man” who experiences a tragic event in his or her life. Seeking justice but not getting help from the police or government (or any authority group), he/she steps out of a normal existence, takes matters into his/her own hands and finds justice and revenge by becoming judge, jury and executioner. THE BRAVE ONE is a great example of the Death Wish theme. It’s only through unique characters or settings that these clichéd themes keep working. Try to avoid them at all costs.

Language clichés are fairly easy to spot and fix like the one in the previous sentence. They often appear in your first or second draft when you’re writing fast in order to get the story onto the page, and you don’t want to stop your momentum to think of an original description of a character or setting. There’s nothing wrong with that because you have every intention of going back and cleaning them up.

My first tip is to do your cliché hunting with a printed copy of your work, not on the computer screen. As you read along, use a color highlighter and mark everything that’s a cliché or even questionable. Then go back to the computer and take the time to consider each one and how you can improve them. In some cases, just substituting the real meaning in place of the cliché is enough. For instance, he’s as crazy as a loon could become he’s insane. Isn’t that what you really meant? How about, that kind of book is not my cup of tea could become I don’t enjoy that kind of book. Again, that’s the meaning you intended, so simply stating it could fix the problem better than relying on a cliché. Taken out of context, these might sound boring, but chances are that simplifying the meaning won’t stop the reader like a worn out phrase might. One caution though: it’s important to maintain and be true to your “voice” when using this simplifying technique.

One place where you can sometimes get away with clichés is in dialog. But that doesn’t mean you should. If a character uses a cliché, make sure it’s part of his or her “character” and not just an excuse for lazy writing.

Character clichés are a little harder to fix, but the sooner you do, the better off you’ll be, and the more original your story becomes. Here’s an example: the disgraced cop is an anti-hero. He’s got deep dark issues but we still pull for him because he’s fighting for what’s right. Maybe he’s an alcoholic because he can’t get over the murder of his family. Try removing one of the main elements that drive the character; the disgraced career, the alcohol addiction or the dead family. Does his character change in your mind? Does he become more interesting? Can you still tell his story? If taking away or substituting an element suddenly creates a fresher character, you’ve probably avoided a character cliché. Another tip: If your character's action shows a serious lack of common sense, treat it as a cliché. You should always be considering what you would do in the same situation as your character. Would you react the same as what you just made your character do? If not, it’s probably a cliché.

Plot clichés need to be fixed from the start. The further you are into the story, the more work it takes to backtrack and change major elements. So before you begin, try this. Write out a short description of your story. Approach it as if you were writing the story blurb to go on the back cover of your book. Once you’re done, ask yourself if sounds familiar. Let someone else read it and ask the same question. If you can remember the same situation occurring in numerous movies, TV shows or books, it’s probably a cliché.

There’s nothing wrong with a cliché as long as you’re the first person to use it. After that, it loses its luster fast. Not only that, it’s a sign of lazy writing. As a good friend of mine once said, a cliché is the sign of a mind at rest.

How do you perform a “seek and destroy” on clichés? And how do you feel when you come across one in a book. If the story is really great, do you overlook clichés or do they cause you to think less of the writer?


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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Writer quirks and superstitions

Speaking of learning about the past, as Clare did yesterday, I just received a blast from my family's past. A big truck arrived at Chez Kathryn on Sunday morning, bearing a treasure trove of inherited family artifacts. I use the word "artifacts" advisedly. Some of the items we just received, while interesting and beautiful, are also a tad...unusual.

For example: there's a Victorian-era bronze replica of the Farnese Bull  being wrestled to the ground by men wearing fig leaves. I  call this piece "The Creature," but it actually depicts the Roman myth of Dirce. According to the rather misogynistic tale, Dirce is tied to the bull as punishment for her "wrong" behavior. (I'm ashamed to admit to Clare that I had to look up that info on Google).

Then there's a pair of carved wooden busts picked up during Grand Tours undertaken by 19th-century kinfolk. I have reunited the couple for the moment on a fireplace mantel.

There's also a Civil War-era saber. The saber was discovered hidden inside the walls of the family home in Whistler, Alabama. (When I unpacked that little treasure, I of course swung it over my head and let loose with a Rebel Yell, in honor of my vanquished ancestor.)

And as interesting as that saber is, it can't hold a candle compared to the Crusader sword and Assyrian shield, which have yet to find placement on the walls of our extremely contemporary home.

Then there's a silver, wagon-wheel thingee. I can't figure out what the heck the thing is. It's very ornate, and obviously was wheeled out for some kind of formal purpose. A special wine presentation, perhaps? Anyone have a clue about this one? Clare? I'm thinking about calling it the Chariot of the Bacchus Gods. It'll come in handy during our housewarming party, I'm sure.

I was going to discuss writer quirks and superstitions today, really I was. But I think my rambling and these pictures give you an idea of the theme I had in mind: as writers, we all inherit our share of odd quirks. Some of those quirks inevitably find their way into our writing.  At the rate I'm going, I foresee writing a family saga spanning decades and generations--something very James Michener-ish. Or perhaps more torrid, like THE THORN BIRDS.

So my question for you today: what odd quirk have you inherited as a writer? Or what have you inherited from your ancestors that's bizarre or fascinating? 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Losing the Past

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

As a historical fiction writer, I was depressed to read the op-ed, Lost in the Past, in the New York Times last week, on how little people know of history today. Even more horrifying is the fact that this 'historical illiteracy' appears to infect leaders across our society - from politicians, to corporate leaders, media personalities and educators.

While I don't intend this blog post to be a rant against any of the more egregious offenders on this score, I do feel that on this Memorial Day weekend we should reflect on the importance of knowing and understanding history. As a writer, as much as I often have fun with historical facts in my stories (and sometimes even create alternate histories), I recognize I have an obligation to my readers to do my research thoroughly and to represent the past as honestly (and as correctly) as I can. It's frustrating to realize how much of history is ignored today (as the NYT article points out even the History Channel now does very little history!) and how easy it is for many people to forget the lessons of the past (and, sadly, doom history to repeat itself).

Is the reason we are becoming more ignorant of the past because people think history is boring? Is it too much effort to learn the real facts as to what happened? Is it because in the age of the Internet people find it easier to throw out terms like 'Nazi', 'fascist' or 'communist' without really understanding what they truly mean (or at least what they once meant)? 

As a fiction writer, I feel strongly that novels are one of the best ways to illuminate the past - using a story can enlighten and engage (and, hopefully, provide a little palatable history along the way). The popularity of Downton Abbey suggests to me that many people are still interested in how people lived in the past (albeit perhaps in a soap opera version) so why is it that so many young people don't even know what the 'Great War' was? 

When I read the newspaper each morning and my kids ask me about what is happening in the world, I am struck by how much my answer relies on me providing a historical background to what is occurring. The past illuminates and explains so much of what is going on in our world today, and I'm truly saddened at how little this seems to count anymore. 

So on this Memorial Day weekend, perhaps you can give me some more cheerful advice on how we can reinvigorate the study of history. How do you think, as readers and writers, this could occur? Do you find novels or non-fiction the most enjoyable way to 'learn' about the past? How can we get kids, particularly, to become enthusiastic about studying history? 

For my own children, there is always the awesome 'Horrible Histories' series of books and TV shows.  This clip is one of my absolute favourites - and I'm going to share it just because it goes to show that, even when 'bending' the facts for the sake of humor, history can be relevant, interesting and, dare I say, If only more people could see it this way.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

It's The Best Time On Earth To Be A Writer

Since 2009 or so, I've been saying to people it's the best time on earth to be a writer. We all know why. Digital self-publishing makes it possible for a writer to earn real income outside the walls of the Forbidden City. And writers within the walls can start a separate stream of income on their own (provided they've wisely worked out a fair non-compete clause).

We're far enough along now to know certain things about self-publishing. We know it is not a "gold rush." We know you have to provide quality product, which generally means highly entertaining (fiction) or useful and unique (non-fiction). We know that the more prolific you are the better your chances of increasing your flow of income.

Now comes another report from Author Earnings, the enterprise started by self-publishing star Hugh Howey. Some of the findings in this most recent report are startling.

Self-published authors are clearly earning as much as traditionally published authors on the largest e-book sales platform in the world.

Note, this is not taking print sales into consideration. But still, it's an astounding fact. Just think about how much the professional writing world has opened up in the six years or so since digital self-publishing began to take off.


[T]he parity we see in our author earnings charts between self-publishing and Big 5 publishing has a lot to do with the latter’s existing titles and not their new releases. How you decide to publish your manuscript today means looking at the difference in earnings due to recent works. Self-published authors are not just holding their ground with Big 5 authors when it comes to releases after 2011, they are out-earning Big 5 authors by a 27% margin.

This is huge, and comports with what I've found by both experiential and anecdotal evidence.

While the extreme outliers from both camps earn most of the income–similar to what we see in most entertainment industries–there is health and wealth down the long tail for self-published and Big 5 published authors alike. In fact, they almost perfectly map onto one another.

This is the real story. It is ever more possible to earn a living wage from writing IF––and this is key––you actually know how to write. This is a craft, after all. You can't sell a vacuum cleaner that doesn't suck (because if it doesn't, it sucks).

I mentioned that my experience and my acquaintance with several self-publishing authors doing extremely well (I'm talking five figures a month) demonstrate why this is the best time in history to be a writer.  

As I step back and look at these writers, I notice that all of them were previously published under the traditional system. This doesn't mean there aren't non-trads earning at that level. Far from it. But it does mean that the circle I'm acquainted with all proved their writing chops first within the walls of the Forbidden City.

Which validates another thing I've been saying ever since I started teaching self-publishing workshops: if you are a new writer, and you do hope for a career at this, you need to put your books through a grinder that replicates what an agent or publishing house would do with them.

You need to be objective and you need to be hard. Heck, you may even need to reject yourself. I mean it. How many first novels have ever sold? Or sold well? Or should have ever seen the light of day in the first place?

Most first novels are like that first waffle coming off a lukewarm griddle. Chuck it and start a new one. If the new one tastes right, then keep them coming. Pile them high and don't be stingy with the butter and syrup.

When I was first starting out as a writer, there was a stat I read somewhere that said the average yearly income generated by fiction writing was around $3000. This was sobering indeed. It wasn't going to stop me, because writing fiction is what I wanted to do with my life. But it did have me planning to keep on practicing law for forty years.

Now that stat seems quaint in its irrelevance. That was a traditional-only statistic when print books in bookstores were the only game in town.

I have no way of knowing what the average income of productive fiction writers (meaning at least one novel a year) is today. But for a self-starter who knows his craft and is willing to write for the rest of his life, the future is a heck of a lot brighter than 3k a year.

There is also good news for writers who write for other than commercial reasons. If you're into literary or experimental fiction, or if you have a subject you're passionate about, you can now give those books life without having to pay four thousand bucks for a print run (and then suffer the indignity of ten boxes of unsold tomes in your garage for the next twenty years, until you finally give up and donate them to the library, which won't take them because there are too many). 

Anyone can publish a book now and, if there's quality attached, you can generate a following. It may be small but it will be heck of a lot larger than when you were unpublished.

Today the acton is with what I call the ownlist writers.

And for those writers who still desire to enter the Forbidden City, the gates are not closed. They are guarded with more vigilance, however, owing to the high risk of the business these days. The purse strings are tightening and deal terms can be fraught with peril. So caveat scriptor. Work with a good agent and get to know contracts. As my grandfather used to recite:

A wise old owl
Sat in an oak.
The more he heard,
The less he spoke.
The less he spoke,
The more he heard.
Now wasn't he a wise old bird?

Keep your eyes and ears open, listen and learn about what's going on in the book world, what to avoid, what terms to walk away from. Don't leave your fate completely in the hands of another, ever again. Be a partner, not a patsy.

All writers should dip at least one of their quills in the rushing stream of self-publishing. As I said a couple of weeks ago, take risks and don't be afraid to fail.

Technologies and markets will ebb and flow. Godzilla and Mothra will sometimes duke it out. But the game has changed forever. The future is now. And now is the best time on earth to be a writer.

Carpe typem. Seize the keyboard!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Flash Fiction

What is called “flash fiction” is not new. The term “flash fiction” seems to have been around since at least 1992. If one accepts the definition of “flash fiction” as stories ranging from a few to three hundred (or one thousand) words, however, then flash fiction has existed since storytelling began. Aesop, for one, wrote flash fiction; so more recently did Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. among a number of others. The popularity of the shorter-than-short story has seemed to increase, proportionately and simultaneously with the ability of authors to self-publish their work as eBooks. The argument has been made that because people don’t want to invest the time in reading a novel they might be inclined to read much shorter works on a regular basis. There is some logic to that --- one baked potato versus a bag of tater tots comes to mind --- but I am not sure if the argument holds up.  I have read a number of flash fiction collections. Some are quite good, such as 420 CHARACTERS by Lou Beach (yes, it is based on a gimmick --- 420 characters, I am told, is the limit for a Facebook status post --- but what an interesting and disciplined gimmick it is); others bring to mind the observation that just because anyone can do something does not mean that everyone should.

Have you read any collections of short, short stories, otherwise known as flash fiction? Have you actually purchased any of those collections, as physical books or eBooks? Do you know of anyone who seeks out these collections and stories? And have you read any flash fiction you consider worthwhile, or do you consider flash fiction to be the eReader equivalent of bathroom books? And for our authors in the audience, whether not yet published or otherwise…have you turned your hand to short, short stories? Have you been happy with the result?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Reader Friday: The Agony of Defeat

What's an early memory of failure or defeat? How did you handle it? What did you learn, and how does it apply to your writing life? 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Discovering Story

Nancy J. Cohen

Part of the creative process is Discovery. I’m in this phase now, which is when the beginning of a plot swirls in my head. I have a title for my next mystery, so I have to work the murder around it. Thus I’ve made an appointment for a facial. I know, research can be tough but someone’s got to do it. And my Bad Hair Day series is centered around a beauty salon.

Often I’ll start the plotting process with the victim. As shown in my book, Writing the Cozy Mystery, I draw a circle in the center of a paper and put the victim’s name inside. Around that go spokes like on a wheel for each of the suspects. Then I connect the spokes together so it becomes more like a spider’s web, where the suspects relate to each other in some manner.

For now, I know my victim’s basic identity. Her job is what gets her into trouble, and so the suspects develop from among her business associates. Who might want her dead and why leads me to motives. At this point, preliminary research is in order. I need to look up the world surrounding her business and learn more about it.

beauty pageant

But that’s not all. I am driven to acquire new knowledge about a subject for each book. What will it be for this one? What issue interests me, or what news article have I filed among my clippings that I might want to pursue? This factor is what propels me forward and underlies the plot. It hasn’t come to me yet for this story.

My victim is co-sponsor of a beauty pageant. I search online and fine headlines like “Top 10 Beauty Pageant Scandals.” Bingo! Before looking these over, I realize I have a problem. Most pageants likely take place over a weekend. How can I get this group of people to stay in the Fort Lauderdale area for a week or two so my hairdresser sleuth, hired to do the contestants’ hairstyles, can ferret out clues?

I’ll deal with that problem later. Meanwhile, I look at the scandals online regarding beauty shows, and nothing strikes me in terms of issues I’d want to pursue. The problems encountered don’t seem worthy of murder. And do I really want to write a whodunit variation of Miss Congeniality?

Miss Congeniality

Hey, what if I do a fashion show instead of a beauty pageant? My last Bad Hair Day mystery, Peril by Ponytail, takes place in October. I could set the new story in December. I’ve done Thanksgiving in Dead Roots but never Hanukah or Christmas. So how about a charity holiday ball with a fashion show? Using a local designer would keep the action in town, and I’ve already done the preliminary research by going backstage at a designer showcase. This will give me the personal angle of Marla and Dalton dealing with the holidays while also picking a charity whose cause I can support. If Marla has a connection to the charitable organization through her friends or relatives, this would give her an added incentive to get involved in solving the murder.

I like this idea. It’s starting to get me excited, whether or not it pans out. At least, it’s a start in the right direction.

So what advice do I have for you based on this experience? When you begin to think about the next story, let ideas flow through your brain. Pick the one that excites you and do your preliminary research. If you find some meaty material, go with it. If not, let the idea float away but keep the story in your mind. Your subconscious will present the next idea. Or thumb through your files and see if one of your clippings or news pieces stimulates a train of thought.

Do you start story development with an issue, a character, or a setting?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Stealing From Other Writers

By P.J. Parrish

When I write, I don’t read. Because I know, from experience, what happens when I do.  I steal.

Now, don't get me wrong. All writers steal. At least, the smart ones do. Because this is partly how you learn to write a novel, by reading other novels, figuring out how the person structured the story, analyzing how the characters were layered, how the motivations were laid out, how the words were put together to elicit an emotional response. We learn by digesting the craftsmanship of others.

Here's the thing though:  You have to steal in the right frame of mind. And for me at least, that is NOT when I am working on my own book. If I see a way of structuring a scene or chapter that is clever, I will try to replicate it in my own book. If I read a passage that sings, I will try to mimic it even if it's not my style. When I am writing, I am in this weird fugue state and my brain is very porous and open. The temptation to take things that really don't belong to me is too great.

But something changes once I am done writing my own book. I binge read for pleasure. Freed from my own insecurities and writer ego, I hear other writers more clearly. And when that happens, I learn more about writing in general and the lessons sort of sit in my brain, baking and bubbling, until I need them.

So, yes, I steal from other writers. Here are some of the things I have taken and the people I took them from:

Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action. I stole this from Kurt Vonnegut. About ten years ago, I was struggling mightily to write my first short story.  I went back and read Cheever, Hemingway, Saki and O Henry. I discovered John D. MacDonald’s The Good Old Stuff.  But it wasn’t until I got to Vonnegut's Bagombo Snuff Box that I hit pay dirt. In the preface, Vonnegut laid out his eight rules for writing. (Click here to read them all.) His idea that every sentence must reveal character or advance plot was a light bulb moment for me. It now informs everything I write.  And when I teach, I try to impress on writers that every scene, every chapter, must work hard in service to the twin poles of character and plot.

Kill Your Darlings. Nope, I didn’t get this one from Faulkner. I stole this from E.B. White. And by “darlings” I mean good characters.  Charlotte’s Web is my favorite book, maybe the one that most influenced me as a writer. It has many great lessons but the most enduring is that a writer can – must – be brave enough to kill a good character. I’ve written about this before, so click here if you want to read more.

Fall in love with the sound of language.  Stole this one from Truman Capote after reading Music for Chameleons. This is a miscellany of stories and essays published in 1980 after a 14-year drought following Capote's brilliant In Cold Blood. It contains passages of exquisite beauty and it taught me, when I was just starting to write, to pay attention to what words sounded like. Like those chameleons in the lead story, I was mesmerized by the music, and have spent all the years since trying to make my own. (In his preface, Capote writes: “When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip for self-flagellation.” Ha!)

Don't be afraid! This one I got from Mike Connelly's The Poet. For most of our Louis Kincaid series, we have stayed mainly with a third-person intimate POV because we think filtering the story through our hero's consciousness enhances the reader's bond with him. But when we started our first stand alone thriller, The Killing Song, we realized our protag and villain were equally important. We needed something special to drive home their dichotomy of good and evil, so we decided to copy Connelly's The Poet and mix first and third POVs. Our first chapter was written in first-person from the killer's POV and the second chapter switched to third-person from the hero's POV. But it wasn't working. And we couldn't figure out why.  I ran into Mike at Bouchercon and told him I stole his idea. He smiled, shook his head and said, "But give the first-person to your hero. It's his story." We took his advice and the story took off. But I wouldn't have had the guts to try without reading The Poet. 

There have been other lessons learned from my life of crime. From Stephen King, who has tried everything from horror to westerns, from eBooks to novellas, I learned not to let expectations box me into one genre or style. This has given me the courage to use an unreliable narrator in my WIP. As E.B. White said, "Sometimes a writer, like an acrobat, must try a trick that is too much for him."

From Flaubert's Madame Bovary, I stole the idea that a protagonist can be deeply flawed. From Jane Austen's Emma I learned to pay attention to secondary characters because they might hold the key to the story (In the end, George Knightley won Emma's heart). From Pete Dexter's Paris Trout, I got the revelation that all good crime stories are not about the crime but rather its rippling effect on the people and the town. And last but not least, From Anne Lamott, I learned that my quest for perfectionism is death. She wrote in Bird by Bird: "The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts."  Which might be the best advice for writers I have ever heard.

Who do you steal from? And what treasure did you get?

Monday, May 19, 2014

How to save a bundle on editing costs – without sacrificing quality

by Jodie Renner, freelance fiction editor & craft-of-writing author

If you’re relatively new at writing fiction for publication, whether you plan to publish your novel yourself or query agents, it’s a good idea (essential, really) to get your manuscript edited by a respected freelance fiction editor, preferably one who reads and edits your genre. Can’t afford it, you say? I say you can’t afford not to, but below you’ll find lots of advice for significantly reducing your editing costs, with additional links at the end to concrete tips for approaching the revision process and for reducing your word count without losing any of the good stuff. 

Editing fees vary hugely, depending on the length and quality of the manuscript, and how much work is needed to take it from "so-so" or "pretty good" to a real page-turner that sells and garners great reviews. Before approaching an editor, hone your skills and make sure your story is as tight and compelling as you can make it – and that it's under 100,000 words long. 70-90K is generally preferred for today's fiction.

Don’t be in a hurry to publish your book before it’s ready.
If you rush to publish an early draft, you could do your reputation as a writer a lot of damage. Once the book is out there and getting negative reviews, the bad publicity could sink your career before it has had a chance to take off. It’s important to open your mind to the very real possibility probability that your story could use clarification, revising, and amping up on several levels, areas that haven’t occurred to you because you’re too close to the story or are simply unaware of key techniques that bring fiction to life.

First, write freely, then step back, hone your skills, and evaluate.
First, get your ideas down as quickly as you can, with no editing – write with wild abandon and let your muse flow freely. But once you’ve gotten your story down, or as far as your initial surge of creativity will take you for now, it’s a good time to put it aside for a week or three and bone up on some current, well-respected craft advice, with your story in the back of your mind. Then you can re-attack your novel with knowledge and inspiration, and address any possible issues you weren’t aware of that could be considered amateurish, confusing, heavy-handed, or boring to today’s sophisticated, savvy readers.

Now’s the time to read a few books by the writing “gurus” (here’s an excellent list), and some of the great  craft-of-writing posts by The Kill Zone’s contributors in the TKZ Library (in the sidebar on the right), and maybe join a critique group (in-person or online) and/or attend some writing workshops.

Then, notes in hand, roll up your sleeves and start revising, based on what you’ve learned. If you then send your improved story, rather than your first or second draft, to a freelance editor, they will be able to concentrate on more advanced fine-tuning instead of just flagging basic weaknesses and issues, and will take your manuscript up several more levels. Not only that, you’ll “get” the editor's suggestions, so the whole process will go a lot smoother and be more enjoyable and beneficial.

A great book to start with is my short, sweet, to-the-point editor’s guide to writing compelling stories,  Fire up Your Fiction. And if you’re writing a thriller or other fast-paced story, check out my Writing a Killer Thriller for more great tips. Both are available in print or e-book, which you can also read on your computer, tablet, or smartphone.

And when it comes time to find a freelance editor, don’t shop for the cheapest one and insist that your manuscript only needs a quick final proofread or light edit. That approach will result in a cursory, superficial, even substandard job, like painting a house that’s falling over and needs rebuilding, and will actually end up costing you more money in the long run.

You could well be unaware of how many structural, content, and stylistic weaknesses your story may contain, which should be addressed and fixed before the final copyedit stage. Paying for a basic copyedit and proofread on a long, weak manuscript, only to find out later it needs a major overhaul, which will then require rewriting and another copyedit, is short-sighted -- and money down the drain.

Say, for example, your novel is a rambling 130,000 words long. It’s very likely you need to learn to focus your story, cut down on descriptions and explanations, eliminate or combine some characters, maybe delete a sub-plot or two, plug some plot holes, fix point-of-view issues, and turn those long, meandering sentences and paragraphs into lean, mean, to-the-point writing. Not only will this make your story much stronger and more captivating, but it will save you a bundle on editing costs, since freelance editors charge by the word, the page, or the hour, and editing your 80,000-word, tighter, self-edited and revised book will cost you a whole lot less than asking them to slug through 130,000 words written in rambling, convoluted sentences.

Your story may even need a structural or developmental edit.
If you’re at the stage where you know it's not great but you’re too close to your story to pinpoint the weaknesses, perhaps you should hire a developmental editor to stand back and take a look at the big picture for you and give you a professional assessment of your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses. Or if you can’t afford a developmental editor, try a critique group or beta readers – smart acquaintances who read a lot in your genre – to give you some advice on your story line and characters, and flag any spots where the story lags or is confusing or illogical. 

Enlist help to ferret out inconsistencies and inaccuracies.
You don’t want to lose reader trust and invite bad reviews by being careless about facts and time sequences, etc., either. Find an astute friend or two with an inquiring mind and an eye for detail and ask them to read your story purely for logistics. Do all the details make sense? How about the time sequences? Character motivations? Accuracy of information? For technical info, maybe try to find an expert or two in the field, and rather than asking them to plow through your whole novel, just send them the sections that are relevant to their area of expertise.

It’s even possible that you’ve based your whole story premise on something that doesn’t actually make sense or is just too far-fetched, and the sooner you find that out the better! 

Read it aloud.
Read your whole story out loud to check for a natural, easy flow of ideas, in the characters' vernacular and voice, and suit the tone, mood, and situation. This should also help you cut down on wordiness, which is your enemy, as it could put your readers to sleep.

The more you're aware and the more advance work you do, the less you'll pay for editing.
So, to save money and increase your sales and royalties, after writing your first draft, it’s critical to hone your skills and revise your manuscript before sending it out. Also, be sure to find an editor who specializes in fiction and edits your genre, and get them to send you a sample edit of at least four pages. (See my article, "Looking for an editor? Check them out very carefully!") And don't seek out the cheapest editor you can find, as they may be just starting out and unaware of important fiction-writing issues that should be addressed, like point of view and showing instead of telling, etc. And whatever you do, don’t tie the editor's hands by insisting your manuscript only needs a light edit, because that’s cheaper. You could well end up paying for that “cheap” light edit on an overlong, weak manuscript, then discovering that the story has big issues that need to be addressed and requires major revisions, including slashing and rewriting. Then you'll have to pay for another complete edit of the new version! $$ multiplied!

Check out these other articles by Jodie for lots of concrete tips on revising and tightening your novel (Click on the titles below):

~ REVISE FOR SUCCESS - A Stress-Free, Concrete Plan of Action for Revising, Editing, and Polishing Your Novel

~ How to Slash Your Word Count by 20-40% …and tighten up your story without losing any of the good stuff!

Jodie's editing website. Jodie's author website. Jodie's Amazon Author Page. Friend Jodie on Facebook. Follow Jodie on Twitter. Google+.   Jodie's blog.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Why Marketing Is Like Motherhood


This past Mother's Day I was reflecting upon this most honorable role and, suffused as I am with the writing life, my brain related the whole thing to marketing.

My lovely daughter-in-law is on the verge of bringing another Bell into the world. I find myself thinking back to my own first born. When Mrs. B and I were awaiting the appearance of our son, we set about to become the best parents ever. This is the pull of nature. It is as old as civilization, as robust as ocean tides.

Law student that I was at the time, I got into studying books. Today, there is a virtual mountain—nay, a mountain range of Himalayan proportions—of printed and digital advice on the art of parenting. It can seem as daunting as a view of Everest as you stare up into the clouds with only a rucksack and a walking stick.

So I remember well the day my wife and I took up the classic Baby and Child Care by Dr. Spock. Though some of it was controversial at the time (and perhaps remains so), there was a famous axiom that begins the book, one that has comforted many an anxious parent facing the world's toughest job:

"Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do."

It was a call to not stress about what every "expert" has to say, so much of it conflicting. In such cases you have a gut instinct that is, if motivated by love and tempered by wisdom, highly reliable.

And that's the marketing lesson I want to mention today. There is a flood of material out there on what you must do to bring a book to the public. There are countless options, so many more than the "old days" of bookstore signings, talks at your local library, and sitting despondently next to Mary Higgins Clark at a conference.

The explosion of digital options—everything from paid ads to social media madness—can make choosing what to do seem as daunting as trying to solve the Hodge Conjecture with a hangover.

Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.

First of all, use common sense. Don't go into hock to market your book. The single biggest determinant of writing success is....wait for it....the writing itself. You know this. You know that you have to concentrate most on writing good stuff, getting better at it and keeping it coming, if you want a long-term career.

Second, we are starting to see that a few marketing methods are better than others. Paid placement with BookBub, for example, is always good. Other email services, like BookGorilla and eBookSoda, will make you new readers. And that's what you need to build an email list of fans. No matter how small it might be, it's always good to be able to communicate with people who've bought from you before and have shown a willingness to do so again.

As for social media, it's easy to get the ROI (return on investment) completely bollixed. If you spend the majority of your Twitter or Facebook time begging people to buy your books, you've done more harm than good. If your spend more time socializing than you do producing, your calculus is all mixed up.

Here's a suggestion: Your time on social media ought to be one-tenth the time you spend writing on an average day. If you write for two hours, you get twelve minutes on social media.

There, I said it.

I think this is all stuff you really do know, even though you might have lost that native wisdom in the clamor of Do this! and Do that!

My suggestion is to pick up the book marketing analogue of Dr. Spock: Joanna Penn's How to Market a Book. Use it as a reference, not to try to do every single thing in it at once, but to consider the options and choose wisely.

Mothers bring babies into the world. Writers bring books. Love what you write, nurture your books, care enough about them to discipline them when they need it (that's called editing) and then let them leave the nest.

And as they fly to market, don't stress. Your love goes a long way. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that if you miss doing one thing, you've ruined your book's chances forever. (You know, like if you don't get your child into that expensive pre-school he will never get into Harvard. His life is ruined, and he's only three!)

Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.

Keep writing the best stuff you can, choose a few marketing things to do, and it will all pretty much work out as it should. Adding stress doesn't help a bit. 

So do you get anxious about marketing? Do you realize that's not doing you any good?