Friday, July 25, 2014

Reader Friday: Does Writing Get Easier or Harder?


"It's the whole getting started thing for me. I forget how to write a book. The first ten thousand words are like digging fossils from rocks." – J. T. Ellison

Reactions?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

First Page Critique–Brooklyn Nights

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane


iStock_000002398839Small
Purchased image from iStock by Jordan Dane/Novel Shout Media



Now time for another edition of FIRST PAGE CRITS, brought to you by TKZ. One intrepid author. One daring submission. My two pennies worth on the flip side. Care to play along? Read the opening 400 words to a courageous author’s work and give constructive criticism. Now for your consideration – Brooklyn Nights.



Brooklyn Nights
Chapter 1

The room glowed green in rhythm with the flashing neon of Gerry’s Irish bar across the road and two stories down. Frank Daley, fully dressed and lying on his back on the cheap bed, put a period on the light show with the red tip of his Chesterfield.

The sounds and smells of the Brooklyn neighborhood floated through the open window, Antonio’s Pizza Pies blending with the odors of cigarettes, sweat, and sex that filled the fleabag he had rented for the month. It’d have to do. He’d lose his security deposit anyway, once he robbed the joint.

The whore beside him stunk of cheap whiskey, her snores a discord of nasal wheezes that drowned out conversations of the restaurant patrons below as they came and went to an irritating bell dangling above the door. He leaned over and pinched her nose until she opened her mouth to breathe. What came out overwhelmed all other aromas, pleasant or otherwise.

She was naked except for a pair of black lace panties and a gold strapless sandal on her left foot, the heel worn on one side. He had noticed it earlier on their walk up the staircase. There was no significance to the worn heel, but it represented something he knew that no one else did. It was one of his better qualities, a keen sense of observation. It had kept him alive and out of jail since the war.

Her breasts rose and fell with her breathing, the air once again escaping through the clogged nostrils. Between the bell over Antonio’s door and her nose music it sounded like a bad Salvation Army band.


Feedback:

Overview: Well, Frank is a piece of work. Charming man. I think I used to work with this guy, but I’d never admit it. It cracked me up that he thought about his lost security deposit considering he planned to rob the flea bag. Stellar ethics. I do love the cesspool details of this scene. All the senses are triggered and the imagery is here. Frank’s got an attitude with a hint of dark humor. I would definitely want to read more to get a sense of Frank and where this story will lead. There’s no indication that he is a main character. He could be a mood setter, secondary character. I’ve opened more than a book or two with fun secondary characters who pave the way for my protagonist to make an entrance. For me, there needs to be more to Frank than what I’m reading here to carry my interest through a whole book of him, but I like the edgy writing style.



Suggestion 1: There appears to be much more to this story, considering Frank is fully dressed and waiting for something. That leads me to suggest a better, more gripping first line that would pull the reader into the mystery of Frank.  



Example: Like most people, Frank Daley had ambitions for a better life—money, a sweet ride, and respect—but the drunk hooker lying next to him, snoring and wheezing like a busted radiator, had become his upside.


I'm sure the author could come up with a better line, knowing the story, but this is an example of a first line focused on Frank.



Suggestion 2: The scene is set and the senses are triggered, but another way to begin this would be to focus on Frank more than setting the stage. Make the hooker and the cheap digs be the backdrop for what’s going through his mind and lure the reader in with his story. With only a scant 400 words, it’s hard to know what to suggest, but my instincts tell me there is more to Frank, even if he’s a secondary character. The hooker, the Irish bar, and the pizza joint are colorful, but I’m thinking they’re only window dressing for what’s about to play out with Frank. A better way to show Frank has keen observation is to show it, rather than tell it through the hooker’s sandal. Have Frank sitting in the dark and listening, smelling, sensing everything both in the room and outside on the street, as if he were a predatory animal. Again, the focus should be on him and not the room or the hooker or the street outside.



Suggestion 3: To introduce Frank to the reader, the author might have him do more in this opening scene. Have him interacting with another character in dialogue or in a conflict to see how he handles it. Encapsulate his personality in a defining scene that will show the reader what he’s all about. Creating a scene like this, it would be the difference between Johnny Depp making an entrance in Pirates of the Caribbean. You wouldn’t write him sitting in the dark, waiting. You’d make him come alive and do something, whether his character is intended to be funny or deadly serious. Maybe have him get up from the hooker, dress, then go down and rob the motel – but before he leaves the dump, he asks, “I guess this means I don’t get my deposit back?”


Suggestion 4: I had to reread the following two sentences. They were too long. They'd be more effective broken up.


Before: The sounds and smells of the Brooklyn neighborhood floated through the open window, Antonio’s Pizza Pies blending with the odors of cigarettes, sweat, and sex that filled the fleabag he had rented for the month.


After: The sounds and smells of the Brooklyn neighborhood floated through the open window. The aroma of Antonio’s Pizza Pies blended with the odors of cigarettes, sweat, and sex that filled the fleabag he had rented for the month.


Before: The whore beside him stunk of cheap whiskey, her snores a discord of nasal wheezes that drowned out conversations of the restaurant patrons below as they came and went to an irritating bell dangling above the door.


After: The whore beside him stunk of cheap whiskey. Her snores were a discord of nasal wheezes. The noise coming from the drunk hooker drowned out the conversations of restaurant patrons as they walked under an irritating bell that dangled above the door.



Summary: This author has an engaging style that I like. The writing basics are here, but the right scene selection, an intriguing first line, setting up a conflict or an evocative escalating situation that will keep the reader turning the page, is the challenge with every book.



What say you, TKZers? Please share your comments on Brooklyn Nights.



Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Top Five Greatest Prison Breaks in novels

Today I welcome back to TKZ, guest blogger J.H. Bogran. José is a fellow ITW member and also serves as ITW’s Thriller Roundtable Coordinator and a contributing editor to The Big Thrill. Enjoy his list of greatest prison breaks in novels.

Joe Moore

---------------------

By J. H. Bográn

As a thriller fan, the genre has rewarded me with plenty tall tales of threats that could destroy the entire world. I’ve lived through jh_4byw1bomb countdowns, assassins catching up with their marks, renegade terrorist factions on the verge of breaking hell loose on earth, among others scenarios.

But one of the more thrilling rides is when characters break out of prisons, some may even call them educational.

The following list is my top five of the greatest escapes found in books. At a later time I will make the equivalent list for movies, but for now, let’s concentrate on actions that can be found between bookends.

Number Five:

Let’s begin with a classic: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Edmund Dantés is wrongfully accused and sent to prison in the island of Château d'If. After a few years of solitary confinement, he meets a priest and they both agree to work on a tunnel as means to their ultimate salvation.

This story is not only notorious for the great escape of Dantés when he replaces the corpse of his mentor, but after the dust settles, you begin to wonder if all those years excavating the tunnel were a waste of time because—let’s face it—he didn’t escape through the tunnel now, did he?

Number Four:

In the world of prison breaks, no man can match the trick pulled by Sirius Black in J.K. Rowling’s third Harry Potter book, The Prisoner of Azkaban. And I mean it literally, for the title actually refers to him. (Am I the only one who at the end of Book 2 thought that the prisoner of Azkaban was the recently released Hagrid?)

Although the POV is always on Harry, we learn of Sirius’ ordeal from his own retelling of the tale.

After being incarcerated for over thirteen years, he simply transformed into a dog and squeezed through the cell bars, not even the demon guards could detect him. Now, that’s a shaggy escape. It sure does pay to be an unregistered animagi.

Number Three:

Even after twenty years of its publication, Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lamb remains a fixture in any top-ten list of suspense novels. A must-read which movie version grabbed the five most coveted Oscars (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Script and Best Picture).

Okay, the level of gruesomeness of this one may perhaps be in league with Master Stephen King’s, but the inventiveness alone is remarkable enough to snatch the number #3 position.

Using nothing but discarded—or rather stolen—office supplies, Hannibal Lecter picked his handcuffs. Then after a quick change of wardrobe he put on a face that allowed him to pass through the guards outside and end up in a low-security ambulance. The rest was easy.

Number Two:

This one is similar to number five, but with a darker twist. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a Stephen King story. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was a novella included in the collection Different Seasons.

It took Andy Dufrasne all of twenty seven years to dig a tunnel. Not too bad considering he went through two small rock hammer, and many lovely girl posters, in the process. The final leg of his trip out of Shawshank prison was through a sewerage pipe, as he crawled amidst the worst of human’s excrement. However, at this point I better come clean and say there was no pun intended when this escape artist landed on number two.

Number One:

Let’s go biblical, Acts of the Apostles.

Before people start emailing me that this book is not a work of fiction, but a true account, I admit that I agree, but Peter’s escape is so awesome I had to include it!

This divine intervention, the epitome of Deus ex machina, can be found in Acts 12: 1-11.

Peter was not only left in the deepest meanest cell with two guards by his side, he was also bound by chains. Then an angel materialized, freed Peter of his bound and led him the way out, walking through walls, no less.

Do you agree with my list? I can expand it to a Top-Ten list, so do send me your suggestions.

Oh, and thanks Joe for letting me hog the spotlight in TKZ today.

----------------------

J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish.

His debut novel TREASURE HUNT, which The Celebrity Café hails as an intriguing novel that provides interesting insight of architecture and the life of a fictional thief, has also been selected as the Top Ten in Preditors & Editor’s Reader Poll.

Firefall_Proof2FIREFALL, his second novel, was released in 2013 by Rebel ePublishers. Coffee Time Romance calls it “a taut, compelling mystery with a complex, well-drawn main character.”

He’s a member of The Crime Writers Association, the Short Fiction Writers Guild and the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator and contributor editor their official e-zine The Big Thrill.

Website at: www.jhbogran.com

Facebook profile: www.facebook.com/jhbogran

Twitter: @JHBogran

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Postscript on Thrillerfest

Thrillerfest manages to keep getting better, year after year. I did the whole shebang this year--the FBI workshop, MasterCraft,
John Sandford before his talk at Craftfest
CraftFest, and the conference. It was a treat participating in the inaugural session of MasterCraft. My group worked with the fabulous D.P. Lyle, who facilitated an intensive critique of the attendees' first ten pages.
Panel: Writers' quirks and superstitions

On Saturday I took part in a panel hosted by Brad Parks. Our topic was writers' quirks and superstitions. We had fun with the theme, and even got a bit rowdy at times. (I seem to be preparing to make a snarky riposte in the photo!)

A little later, I was interviewed by Jessica Mazo for MartiniProductionsNYC for their Author's Chair sequence.

Now I'm back, and already looking forward to Bouchercon, which will be in my neck of the woods this year. Will you be attending Bouchercon? And who did I miss seeing at Thrillerfest? I couldn't reset my west coast bio-clock and consequently faded early, so I didn't hang out at the bar gatherings as much as usual this year!
The hypnagogic Hyatt lobby face

Monday, July 21, 2014

London Calling

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


I'm on vacation this week in my favourite city - London. It's a place I love to visit and also a great place to get some research done:) 

I will have only sporadic Internet access but will report back when I return. 

In the meantime, I'd love it if you'd share the 'dream' city you want to visit to do research for your current (or future) WIP. Mine is St. Petersburg - one day I hope to visit and maybe even ride the Trans-Siberian railway...hey, a girl can dream!



Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Thrill Is On


Robert Benchley, the famous wit and charter member of the Algonquin Round Table, attended a Broadway premiere in 1926. The play was The Squall and took place in the South Seas. But the dialogue, especially the island dialect, was abysmal. At one point during the first act a native girl ran onstage and threw herself at the feet of a man, and cried, "Me Nubi. Nubi good girl. Me stay."

Benchley could take no more. He stood up and said aloud, "Me Bobby. Bobby bad boy. Me go." And he left the theater.

Which brings me to the thriller. What is the secret? It's writing something that gets the exact opposite reaction as Mr. Benchley's. It is a full-on, grab-you-by-the-shirt experience that doesn't let up until the end.

Not an easy thing to do. Not always an easy thing to find.

But what if you could find 8 of them? In one place? For less than a buck?


It's my great pleasure to announce this astounding deal for thriller fans. Thrill Ride: 8 Pulse-Pounding Novels is a "boxed set" of reading pleasure from tested veterans of the thrill.

And yes, for only 99¢ you get the following full-length thrillers:

Blind Justice  by James Scott Bell
Sidetracked by Brandilyn Collins
Double Vision by Randy Ingermanson
The Blade by Lynn Sholes and Joe Moore
The Roswell Conspiracy by Boyd Morrison
The Killing Rain by P.J. Parrish
Desecration by J. F. Penn
The Call by Kat Covelle

New York Times bestselling author Steve Berry wrote the introduction. It begins, "There’s a maxim in this business: a thriller must thrill. The story must make the pulse quicken, the eyes widen, the fingers continually turning pages. At the end of each chapter the only thought the reader should have is ‘I need to read just a little more.’ "

That's the kind of book you're going to find in this collection.

Some of you may already own one or two of these titles. Well, it's still a great deal, wouldn't you say? And that's the point: all of the authors here are into giving you, the reader, a great set at an amazing price.

It's a venture in cooperative marketing. That's what's so amazing about the ebook boom. We can do things like this, and it's the consumer who reaps the benefits. I'm on record as saying it's the best time on earth to be a writer. Well, let's add to that: it's the best time on earth to be a reader, too.

About the authors:

Joe, P.J. and I camp out right here on TKZ. Lynn, of course, is Joe's partner in thrills.

Boyd and Kat (pen name of Kathleen Pickering) are TKZ alums.

J. F. Penn is one of indie publishing's mega-stars.

Brandilyn and Randy are good friends of mine, award-winning writers who have proven their thriller bona fides over and over.

And now here we all are, together, for you––the fans of thrilling fiction.

I hope you'll pop over and buy a copy today. And let us hear from you, especially if we've kept you from sleeping...

Here are the links:







From all of the Thrill Ride authors, thank you for your wonderful support!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Eternal Fire...I Mean, Kindle Unlimited


The rumors started earlier this week, but it became official on Friday morning: Amazon’s home page trumpeted something new called “Kindle Unlimited.” It’s the Kindle version of Oyster and Scribd, or the book version of Netflix and Hulu Plus.  Kindle Unlimited is simple for the readers: pay $9.99 per month, and one can select from “over 600,000 books” (more on that in a minute) and thousands of audio books (not so much about that in a minute) as many times per month as one wishes. Are you one of those readers who like to have two or more books going at once? Step right up, my friend; you can have up to ten books at once from Kindle Unlimited on your reader and for as long as you want (so long as you keep forking over that $9.99 per month, of course). Finish a book, and you return it with a click or two and pick another book of you want, or finish up what you have and then select away again.  Do you read a book a day? Two books a day? Help yourself. The first month is free, and yes, I joined. Amazon makes it easy (is that a surprise?). Click on the sign up button, log into your account, and all of a sudden every book that is part of the Kindle Unlimited plan has a red button next to it that 1) indicates that it is part of the Kindle Unlimited plan and 2) announces that it can be read for free.

I was pleased to see that every book that Hachette has ever published is included in Kindle Unlimited. Just kidding, of course; THAT woke you up, didn’t it? Actually, none of the big five traditional publishers are represented on Kindle Unlimited. All of the Kindle imprints are present, as one might expect, and Open Road Media (mysteriouspress.com, anyone?), HMH, Algonquin, and Bloomsbury are there, as are authors’ works which are exclusive to Amazon. I also found a goodly portion of T. Jefferson Parker backlist to be part of it, and, if you are so inclined, The Hunger Games series, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Seven Habits…you get the idea. You know that business dispute between Hachette and Amazon? I am sure  that the participation of Hachette (and, down the road, the other major publishers) is an important element of it.

There is also an audiobook component to Kindle Unlimited through audible.com but at this point anecdotal reports indicate that there are only two thousand titles or so are included in Kindle Unlimited. This number will undoubtedly increase.  Further, if you borrow an eBook that has an audiobook version which is part of the program, the audiobook is included automatically. And, of course, there is also the whisper sync feature included with many books. So there is plenty for everyone.

Kindle Unlimited is not Amazon Prime. There’s no long-term commitment with Kindle Unlimited; it’s for books only; and if you are already an Amazon Prime member, Amazon apparently is not folding Kindle Unlimited into your Prime membership. The only elements both programs have in common are 1) uh, Amazon and 2) borrowing books. With regard to the latter, Prime lets you read a book per month for free and lend books you’ve purchased; Kindle Unlimited is, well, unlimited; but you can’t lend other books you’ve purchased.

There is an additional consideration, of course, for the authors among us: how are the royalties for those authors whose works are included in Kindle Unlimited get paid? I did some searching for the answer, and even made a few telephone calls. Responses ranged from “Amazon isn’t releasing that information” to “I don’t know.” One source told me that for an independent author to receive royalties the “borrower” has to read at least ten per cent (10%) of the book (and yes, as an aside, it kind of creeps me out that Amazon would have a way of knowing how much of a particular book I have, or haven’t read). Once the author has accomplished that threshold through the reader, royalties are calculated along the lines of an equation which looks something like 5(x)+3(y)-42+(-7)=zippideedoodah. To put it another way, no one who is talking is really sure at this point. Authors who are free to do so might want to seek further information before committing, which of course is a good idea before entering into any contract, agreement or commitment.

There will be more --- much more --- to be said about Kindle Unlimited in the coming weeks and months. For the moment, however…are you interested? Did you sign up for a free trial? Have you given it a test run? And what would you like to see? I’ve already answered all of the questions but the last. I’d like to be able to borrow…graphic novels. I think that will happen when we land a man on the sun, but I’ve been surprised, pleasantly and otherwise, before. One can always hope.


Friday, July 18, 2014

Reader Friday: First Line Game

Share the first line of your Work-in-Progress. Or, if you're not working on something at the moment, a first line you enjoyed from a novel.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Practice, Persistence, Professionalism

Nancy J. Cohen

Usually when I’m giving advice to aspiring authors, I name the 3 P’s as Practice, Persistence, and Professionalism. In his recent post, James Scott Bell mentioned his 3 P’s for writers: Passion, Precision and Productivity. These are all valid and equally important.

Practice
It helps if you set a daily word count or page quota and a weekly quota, then put yourself on a strict writing schedule. This gives you definitive goals. Keep moving forward. If you get stuck, either you haven’t laid the proper groundwork or you are letting outside distractions snag your attention. Don’t get hung up on self-edits until you finish your first draft. It’s easier to fix what’s on the page once the story is complete. The point here is to write on an ongoing basis. Then follow James’ advice about Precision by learning how to hone your skills. Attend writing conferences. Read Writer’s Digest. Enter contests with feedback. Join a critique group. Go to meetings of your local writing group and sign up for workshops. And keep writing.

editing

Persistence
Persevering at this career despite rejections, bad reviews, poor sales, and other setbacks is critical to success. If you drop out, you have only yourself to blame. Keep at it, and your skills will improve along with positive responses from readers, critique partners, and editors. “Never give up, never surrender.” That holds true for a writer same as for the crew of Galaxy Quest. Have faith in yourself. If you have the drive to write, you can improve your craft and learn marketable skills. The more books you have out there, the more chances you have to gain a following. Keep going despite the odds, and be versatile. At times, you may have to try something new and different. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Whichever route you take, quitting isn’t an option.

Professionalism
Always be polite and gracious, even when you get a bad review or a rejection. It’s hard not to take these personally, but they’re aimed toward your book and not you. You don’t want anyone saying you’re a gossip or you bad-mouthed your publisher or you made condescending remarks toward another author. It’s better to be known as someone who shares her knowledge, is helpful to her peers, and is a consummate professional in her dealings with editors and agents. If you need someone to hold your hand, turn to your critique group and not your publisher or agent. With their busy lives, these people don’t care to take on needy writers. They want career authors who will persistently turn in polished manuscripts, who establish and maintain a platform, who are active online, and who understand the publishing world. Act toward others as you’d wish to be treated. You never know when a writer friend from today might become your editor tomorrow, or an editor might become an agent, or a reviewer who raked your previous books over the coals might give you a rave review. The old adage, “Don’t burn your bridges,” holds true here, too. Be polite, courteous, and helpful at all times.

shaking hands

Follow the P’s along the track of your writing career. If you have to step off for a brief interval, be sure to hop back aboard the train before it gathers speed and steams ahead.

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Only 2 more days to enter the Booklover’s Bench July Contest to win a $25 Amazon/BN gift card or free books by our authors: http://bookloversbench.com/contest/

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Creating a Scene Outline for Your Novel

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

@JodieRennerEd

(This is a quick fill-in post for P.J. Parrish, who's been hit by a flu bug. Get well soon, Kris!)

First, what’s a scene?

Although most novels are divided up into chapters, the scene is the fundamental unit of fiction. Each scene is a mini-story, with a main character, a problem or challenge, and a beginning, middle, and end of its own. Every scene needs tension or conflict, and at the end of each scene, at least one of the main characters must have gone through some sort of change. Otherwise, the scene isn’t pulling its weight and needs to be revised or cut. Every scene needs a mission (goal), an obstacle, and an outcome (usually a disaster). For more on scenes, see Jodie’s article “Every Scene Needs Conflict and a Change.”

A modern novel normally has several dozen scenes. Each scene can range in length from a few paragraphs to a dozen pages or more. A chapter can contain one scene or several. Some authors like to use jump cuts, where they "cut away" in the middle of a scene to go to a different scene, then perhaps interrupt that one in the middle to go back to the first scene and resume where they left off. In this case, a scene can span several chapters, often with other scenes interspersed.

Using the Scene Outline:

The outline below will help you organize your scenes and decide if any of them need to be moved, revised, amped up, or cut.

This is a great tool for both plotters and pantsers. Plotters/outliners can use it to outline your scenes early on in the process, and those of you who prefer to just let the words flow and write “by the seat of your pants” can use it later, to make sure the timeline makes sense and that the scene has conflict/tension and a change.

Keep each scene description to a minimum. Don’t get carried away with too many details, or the task could become arduous. The most important thing is the POV (point of view) character’s goal for that scene, and what’s preventing him/her from reaching that goal, plus any new conflicts / problems / questions that arise.

And you can use a different font color or highlight color for each main character, for a quick reference on who was the POV character for each scene. Also, you can print it up and cut them out to rearrange the scenes, or use a writing software for that.

If in doubt as to who should be the viewpoint character for that scene, most often it’s your protagonist. The point of view character can also, less often, be your antagonist or another main character. Almost never a minor character. If you can’t decide who should be the POV character for a particular scene, go with the character who has the most invested emotionally or the most to lose.

SCENE OUTLINE FORM:

Scene 1: Chapter:1 Place:

Date/Month/Season: Year (approx.):

POV character for this scene:

Other main characters here:

POV character’s goal here:

Motivation for their goal (why do they want that?):

Main problem / conflict – Who/What is preventing POV character from reaching his/her goal:

Outcome – Usually a setback / new problem:

(And/or new info, revelation, new question, or, rarely, the resolution of the problem):



Scene 2: Chapter: Place:

Date/Month/Season: Year (approx.):     

POV character:

Other main characters:

POV character’s goal:

Motivation for their goal:

Main problem/conflict/question:

Outcome (most often a setback):


Scene 3: Chapter: Place:

Date/Month/Season: Year (approx.):

POV character:

Other main characters:

POV character’s goal:

Motivation:

Main problem/conflict/question:

Outcome (most often a setback):


Scene 4:

Etc. Continue for as many scenes as you have.


Fiction writers - Do you have any tips to add to this scene outline?


Besides publishing her popular craft-of-writing books under the series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller  (and the upcoming Captivate Your Readers), Jodie Renner is a sought-after freelance fiction editor and author of numerous blog posts on writing captivating fiction. www.JodieRennerEditing.com ;  www.JodieRenner.com.

Monday, July 14, 2014

12 Tips for Writing Blog Posts That Get Noticed

Jodie Renner, editor, author, blogger

I don’t know about you, but I can’t possibly get to all the blogs I’d like to in any given day. We’re all busy people, so we want to know within seconds whether a blog post will offer anything of value to our hectic lives. And we might even get annoyed at time-wasters that meander or don’t deliver on their promises.

Blogging is a great way to build a community feeling, connect with readers and writers, and get your books noticed. I'm honored and proud to be a member of this award-winning group blog, The Kill Zone, where my fellow bloggers, all savvy, accomplished writers, offer daily value and entertainment to writers, and our community of eager participants enrich every post with insightful comments.

But if you're just getting started in the world of blogging and want to build a following, the most important thing to remember is that it's not about you. It's all about offering the readers value in an open, accessible style and format. A rambling, unclear, too formal, or overly long blog post can be irritating or boring – a turnoff. And can jeopardize your reputation or blog.

Here are some tips for engaging readers with your blog posts so they’ll share them with friends and on social media.

1. Offer value.

When you’re deciding what to write on, focus on what will benefit your readers, and make them come back the next time. Maybe it’s useful info that will help them in some way, or just some entertaining or humorous or uplifting writing for them to enjoy, for a break in their busy or stressful day. If it's a personal anecdote, show readers why your story or content could be relevant to their lives, how they can benefit from your experience.

2. Be clear about your topic right from the start.

The subject of your post should be evident by the title and the first few sentences. Readers are so busy these days, with long to-do lists and many other blogs competing for their scarce reading/browsing time, that if they have no idea what your post is about, they’ll probably just move on to the next one.

If you can’t describe your topic in one or two sentences, then it won’t be clear to readers, either. Work on that brief description of the post, then take out any digressions that don’t fit under the topic and would be best under another topic or as their own blog post.

3. Hook them in with a great headline.

Give readers a really good reason to stop and read your blog post. What’s in it for them? How will your article enrich their lives in some way? Your headline should clearly tell readers what your post is about, in an inviting way that makes them sit up and take notice.

4. Then follow it up with an enticing intro.

Again, how can readers gain from your article? Make sure it’s obvious right away what exactly you’re going to talk about and why/how it will benefit them.

5. Stick to one main topic per post.

Make sure your whole post is focused on the initial promise you made in your title and first sentences. If you’ve written a long, rambling blog post that covers several topics, even if they’re related, divide it up into several different posts. Then next time you need to submit a post, most of your work is already done!

6. Use a casual, chatty tone.

Blog posts are not the place for formal writing or lectures. Imagine you’re in a coffeehouse discussing a topic with friends. Keep your “voice” casual, open, and friendly.

7. Keep it brief – don’t go on and on.

Readers and writers are busy these days, so be respectful of their time. For most subjects, it’s best not to go over 1000 words – 1,500 max. An optimal guideline for word count is about 400 to 900 words, I think. If your post is long, like this one, I recommend subheadings to help the readers glean the info quickly.

8. Make your post reader-friendly.

There are hundreds of great blogs out there competing for your readers' time, so make the info readily apparent and easily accessible. Edit out all the extra wordiness, use short paragraphs and lots of white space, and if you’re offering several subtopics under your main topic, use bolded subheadings so they can quickly scan your article to see if it would be useful to them. Numbered lists or bullet points are good, too.

9. Include your readers and invite their opinions.

Use “you” or “we” wherever you can throughout your post to include your readers and make it relevant to them. End your article with a question or two that invites comments and participation by readers. I find I’ve learned a great deal from comments left by readers, which enrich my knowledge of the subject and future articles on that topic. Maybe even start your blog post with a question that will draw your readers in and invite their active participation. Keep your readers involved!

10. Start your blog post a few days in advance, so you have time to revise and tweak.

That gives you time to go back and reread and edit and smooth out your phrasing and think of more interesting word choices and examples. Maybe you’ll come up with some great additional ideas while you’re in the shower, driving somewhere, out for a walk, or just falling asleep or waking up.

Go through your article several times, at different sittings, looking for repetitions, rambling, off-topic sentences, typos, etc. Read it out loud to catch those little missing words and awkward phrasing. If you pause, put in a comma there, or maybe a period, dash, or semicolon. Then, if it’s on your own blog, after you’ve uploaded it, “view” it as it will appear on the blog, then make any final changes. I always find some areas for improvement after I see it as it will appear to the public. If it’s a guest post, use Windows Live Writer to see how it will look on the blog.

11. Pay attention to formatting.

If you have trouble with the formatting of your posts, with odd fonts or too much or too little space between paragraphs, you can fix that in two ways:

(1) While you’re still in Microsoft Word, do a Control All (Ctrl+A) to highlight the whole article, then click on the “Clear formatting” in the tool bar (Home tab, little whiteboard and eraser that looks like chalk).

(2) If you’ve already uploaded your post to the blog, fix the formatting by clearing it in the blog. In Blogger, Do the Ctrl+A thing or just highlight the whole post manually, then click on the Tx at the top right (“Remove formatting”). Then correct the spacing between paragraphs, and redo your bolding, italics, etc. Maybe make your subheads a larger font or a different color so they stand out.

12. To increase the SEO and get more traffic, add in key words.

To increase search engine optimization, so Google shows your article on the first pages, add key words about your topic in your heading and throughout your article, plus in the list of labels at the end. (See mine below.)

Finally, adding a related image or two (be sure they're yours or in the public domain or you have permission to use them) and some links to other related posts adds to the overall positive experience for readers.

Of course, for guest posting, be sure to read and follow all the guidelines of the host blog!

Bloggers, do you have any blogging tips to add? Or maybe you disagree with some of my points? Give us your opinion below!

Also, check out a related by one of my favorite bloggers, Anne R. Allen, called "How to Blog: A Guide for Authors" and another excellent one by Chuck Sambuchino called "7 Easy Things You Can Do Right Now to Get more Blog Traffic."

Besides publishing her popular craft-of-writing books under the series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller (and the upcoming Captivate Your Readers), Jodie Renner is a sought-after freelance fiction editor and author of numerous blog posts here and elsewhere on writing captivating fiction.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Writing Doesn't Make You a Better Writer


I was sitting contentedly at one of my branch offices (with the round green sign) when I overheard a curly-headed young man say, "The only way to learn how to write is to write!"

His female companion nodded with the reverential gaze of the weary pilgrim imbibing the grand secret of the universe from a wizened guru on a Himalayan summit. I dared not break the soporific spell. Even so, I was tempted to slide over and say, "And the only way to learn how to do brain surgery is to do brain surgery."

I would have gone on to explain that it is too simplistic to say "writing makes you a better writer." It might make you a better typist. But most writers want to produce prose that other people will actually buy. For that you need more than a clacking keyboard, as essential as that is to the career-minded writer.

Bobby Knight, the legendary basketball coach and tormenter of referees, had a wise saying: "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect."


That's so true. If what you ingrain in your muscle memory are bad habits, you are not moving toward competence in your sport. In point of fact, you're hurting your chances of getting to be the best you can be.

When I was learning basketball, I made sure my shot was fundamentally sound: elbow in, hands properly placed, perfect spin on the ball. I became one of the great shooters of my generation (he says, humbly). That skill never left me. At my first Bouchercon I got in the pickup basketball game that S. J. Rozan put together. Nobody knew me yet, but as we were shooting around Reed Farrel Coleman saw my shot and said, "Wow. Look at that spin!" That was cool. (I should have said to Reed, "Look at that prose!")

But I had spent countless hours refining my shot with the proper fundamentals. By way of contrast, I'd play against kids who had goofy, elbow-out, sidespin shots that had never been corrected. They were never a long-term threat.

So, let's get a few things straight about getting better at this craft:

1. You learn to write by learning how to write

As a kid I'd check out basketball books from the library and study them. Then I'd practice what I studied on my driveway. I'd watch players like Jerry West and Rick Barry and observe their technique. Later on, I got coaching, and once went to John Wooden's basketball camp. I played in endless pickup games, and afterward I'd think about how I played and what I could do to improve.

Writers learn their craft by reading novels and picking up techniques.  Also by reading books on writing. Then they practice what they learn. They get coaching from editors and go to writers' conferences. They write every day and after they write they think about how they wrote and what they can do to improve.


2. Creativity and craft go together

Every now and then some contrarian will say a writer should forget about "rules" and just write, man. That's all you need to do! Rules only choke off your creativity. Burn all those Writer's Digest books!

It's a silly and strawman argument.

First, they use the word rules as if writing craft teachers (such as your humble correspondent) lay them out as law. But no one ever does that. We talk about the techniques that work because they have been proven to do so over and over again, in actual books that actually sell. And even if a technique is so rock solid someone calls it a rule, we always allow that rules can be broken if—and only if—you know why you're breaking them and why doing so works better for your story.

What should be said by creativity mavens is this: creativity and the "wild mind" (Natalie Goldberg's phrase) are the beginning but not the end of the whole creative enterprise. One of the skills the selling writer needs to develop is how to unleash the muse at the right time but then whip her material into shape for the greater needs of the story and the marketplace for that story.

That's why structure is so important. Structure enables story to get through to readers, you know, the ones who dish out the lettuce. That's why I call structure "translation software for your imagination." I know many writers would love to be able to simply wear a beret, sit at Starbucks all day, and have whatever they write go out to the world and bring in abundant bank and critical accolades.

Not going to happen.

Meanwhile, more and more writers who have taken the time to study the craft are happily selling their books in this new, open marketplace we have.


3. Passion, precision and productivity make for writing success

To gain traction in this game, you would do well to consider the three Ps: passion, precision and productivity.

Passion. You find the kind of stories you are burning to tell. For me, it's usually contemporary suspense. I love reading it, so that's mostly what I write. But I also believe a writer can pick a genre and learn to love it. Like an arranged marriage. The key is to find some emotional investment in what you write (usually that happens by way of heavy investment in the characters you create). But that's only the first step.

Precision. Eventually, the selling writers know precisely where the niche is for the books they write. They spend some time studying the market. That's how all the pulp writers and freelancers of the past made a living. Dean Koontz at one time wanted to be a comic novelist like Joseph Heller. But when his war farce didn't sell, he switched markets. He went all-in with thrillers. He's done pretty well at this.

Productivity. Finally, selling writers produce the words. Even so, not everything will sell as hoped, but the words won't be wasted. They will be making better writers, because they have studied the craft and keep on studying and never give up. 

Therefore, writing friends, don't be lulled into thinking all you have to do each day is traipse through the tulips of your fertile imaginings, fingers following along on the QWERTY tapper, recording every jot and tittle of your genius. That's the fun part of writing, being totally wild and writing in the zone. 

The work part of writing is sweating over the material so it has the best chance to connect with readers. 

That is what makes you a better writer. 



Saturday, July 12, 2014

An Interrogation Tip


This will be a brief post because I’m attending the ThrillerFest conference this weekend. I just wanted to share a tidbit I got from one of the FBI agents who spoke to the thriller writers assembled at the Grand Hyatt this morning. An agent who works out of the FBI’s New York City field office said he was investigating someone he suspected of stealing an extremely valuable vintage baseball card, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The agent went to the suspect’s house without any warning and the first thing the agent said was, “You know why I’m here?” The suspect looked stricken and said, “It’s about the children, right?” It turned out he was a child molester in addition to being a baseball-card thief.


The agent said he uses that opening line all the time, “You know why I’m here?” Contrary to popular belief, most criminals aren’t devious masterminds. Tormented and corrupted by their sins, most of them secretly want to talk about what they did, and will do so if you give them an opening.