Sunday, December 21, 2008

Happy Holidays!

AWREATH3 It's Christmas break here at the Kill Zone blog. During our 2-week hiatus, we'll be spending time with our families and friends, and celebrating all the traditions that make this time of year so wonderful. We sincerely thank you for visiting our blog and contributing to our rants and raves. We wish you a truly blessed holiday season and a prosperous New Year. From Michelle, John G, John M, Clare, Kathryn and Joe to all our friends and visitors, Seasons Greeting from the Kill Zone blog.

See you back here on Sunday, January 4.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Couple of Things

John Ramsey Miller

This past week I drove to Mississippi from North Carolina and returned a few days later. I did the same thing two weeks ago to hunt (if you are keeping up with this clap-trap). The round trip is roughly 1500 miles and I make it five or more times a year. I truly enjoy the eleven-hour drive through the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, but the trip would be mostly tedium were it not for the books I listen to. I sometimes get books from our library, but if I don’t make it to the library, I stop at Cracker Barrel. This past trip I listened to Dean Koontz’s THE HOUSE OF THUNDER, and for the most part I enjoyed the story even though I found it dated. In fairness it was written in 1991. Koontz is a master at setting up a nice box of normal and having something unsettling slip into it and it’s done convincingly. I also listed to SMALL FAVOR by Jim Butcher. That is the first of his books I’ve had the pleasure of reading (listening to) and I intend to go back and read them all in order. I often wonder how many great authors are out there that I haven’t had the pleasure of reading.

My pet peeve with audio books is how many of them don’t bother to add what I believe is a detail of great importance, and courtesy to the listener. How much trouble could it possibly be to add the words, “This is the end of disk one. To continue put in disk number two.” On each disk. I hate to be listening to a chapter and when it ends the narrator goes right back to the start of the disk I just listened to. My own unabridged CD set for SMOKE & MIRRORS doesn’t have those crucial words at the end of those disks either. “They” usually don’t ask my opinion on such matters. I like to think there wasn’t room at the end of the disk for all those words. But maybe those words are copywrite protected like LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE! in the first published audiotape and anyone using the words since has to pay.

I once wanted to use the e.e. cummings poem, BUFFALO BILL’s DEFUNCT, in my first book coming in dialog from my antagonist, and it turned out that e.e.’s estate wanted five thousand dollars to let me use it. The publisher and I agreed I could change the scene by omitting the poem, and the book suffered in my view. In fact, before I had to take that poem out I was a shoe-in for an Edgar, A Booker, A Penn Faulkner and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Christmas is coming and I'm ready to be with my family over the holidays. By the way, I have a new book out December the 30th. THE LAST DAY.

Here's the cover:

Friday, December 19, 2008

Lessons from the Corner Drug Dealer

By John Gilstrap

Every drug dealer on the planet knows the secret to success: Hook ’em when they’re young, and they’re yours forever. Even the tobacco companies learned the lesson and gave us Joe Camel a few years ago. Rumors continue to circulate among the high school set that smoking keeps you from gaining weight, and that’s like, um, the ga-reatest thing there is. Strategy, baby!

Someone needs to explain to me why, on the cusp of 2009, the publishing industry hasn’t yet caught on to what Bobby Two-fingers and his pals have known for decades. If we want the written word to compete with all the other flashy, passive forms of entertainment that are vying for our children’s attention, we need to make those words really relevant really early. We need to tune them in and turn them on to books when they’re most vulnerable so that we can keep them as customers forever.

In a very real way, then, we authors are desperately dependent upon the choices made by school librarians and curriculum planners. If they make the world of kiddie-lit interesting, there’s hope. If not, then we’re just marking time till we become as anachronistic as the buggy whip: a quaint memory from a simpler time.

On December 16, 2008, Washington Post Staff Writer Valerie Strauss posited that recent Newberry Medal winners—the Academy Award of young people’s literature—might be “so complicated and inaccessible to most children that they are effectively turning kids off reading.” The article goes on to explain that of the 25 winners and runners-up, four deal with death, six with parental abandonment, and another four with mental handicaps. Most, the article says, deal with “tough social issues.” Goodness gracious, I hope no children get trampled in the stampede to pull those stories off the shelves. What fifth-grader won’t walk away from his Wii to immerse himself in death and abandonment?

And what world did the judges grow up in that would make them believe that kids want to read that stuff? It’s literary broccoli with okra pudding on the side. Kids’ll choke it down because a grownup says they have to, but the pain of the experience will linger for years—perhaps for a lifetime.

When my son was in third and fourth grades, he devoured R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series. I’m talking dozens of books; yet one of his teachers made it very clear to him and me both that she did not approve of him reading such trash. I told her that there’s only one important word in the phrase, “reading such trash,” and then I reminded her that she didn’t get a vote in what he could and could not read. Today, my son is 22 years old, and when I had the honor to meet Bob Stein at Thrillerfest last year, I thanked him for the books that inspired my kid to become the voracious reader that he is today.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the preeminent school districts in the country, they have (or at least had, a few years ago) kids reading The Scarlet Letter in 8th grade. No kidding, The Scarlet letter! As if, in the pantheon of modern-day accessible literature, there’s not a book out there that might be of good enough quality to teach the same lessons without the burden of language patterns that haven’t been used in my lifetime times three. It’s infuriating.

Teachers and administrators of the world, please wake up! We change mathematics methodologies to the point where I can no longer teach a fourth-grader to subtract “the right way,” we change history to demonize founders we once thought of as heroes, we change curricula to reflect the political whims of the day. Is it too much to ask to give kids books that will inspire them to read more?

It doesn’t have to be literary chocolate and ice cream, but how about the occasional literary pizza? You could even put some broccoli on it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Story Logic—Spell It Out

by L.J. Sellersljsellerssmall

Today The Kill Zone is thrilled to host the lovely and talented L.J. Sellers, author of The Sex Club, which I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed. Without further ado...

For the last two days, I’ve been filling in the details of my outline, working out the timeline, and crafting a sizzling ending that brings it all together. I’m already 50 pages into writing Thrilled to Death, and it felt like to time to solidify some plot points. I know many writers don’t do this; they prefer to wing it and see where the story takes them. (Stephen King, for example) I rather envy that style.

But I write complex mystery/suspense novels, and the outline/timeline has become more critical with each novel. In a police procedural, so much happens in the first few days of a murder investigation that a timeline is essential. For complex, parallel plots with multiple points of view, mapping the story in detail is the best way to avoid writing yourself into a dead end or writing 48 hours worth of activity into a 10-hour time frame. I speak from experience.

TheSexClubThen yesterday for the first time, I put in writing what I termed story logic. I’ve always done this in my head to some degree, but this was the first time I put it on the page in summary form. In a mystery/suspense novel, some or much of what happens before and during the story timeline is off page — actions by the perpetrators that the detective and reader learn of after the fact. Many of these events and/or motives are not revealed until the end of the story. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to convey to readers how and why it all happened.

So I mapped it out—all the connections, events, and motivations that take place on and off the page. Bad guy Bob knows bad guy Ray from prison. Bob meets young girl at homeless shelter. Young girl tells Bob about the money she found . . .

It was an enlightening process, and I highly recommend it. Summarizing the story logic forces you to think specifically about character connections and motivations. It points out holes and inconsistencies and gives you an opportunity to tighten and improve your plot. It may even force you to rethink and rewrite your outline. But it also may keep readers from getting to the end of your novel and thinking, How did he know that? Where did that come from?

I mentioned the process on a Twitter/Facebook update, and another writer asked me about it. So I explained it to her (in 140 characters!). She got back to me with this message: “I wrote the foundation of my book and did the ‘story logic’ for the rest before writing thestorylogic book to fill in details. It led me in a completely different direction. I took some risks in the outline and a lot fell into place. I'm psyched!”

I admit, all of this takes some of the spontaneity out of the writing process. But for me, writing isn’t magic. It’s work, and it needs the same detailed planning as any other project. Of course, I’m flexible. If better ideas or connections come to me as I write, I will modify my outline and resummarize the story logic.

Do you map the story logic? Do you outline? Can any of you wing it with complex crime story?

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, novelist, and occasional standup comic based in Eugene, Oregon. She is the author of the highly praised mystery/suspense novel, The Sex Club, and has a second Detective Jackson story, Secrets to Die For, coming out next year. When not plotting murders, Sellers enjoys cycling through the Willamette Valley, hanging out with her extended family, and editing fiction manuscripts.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Rules for Writers

By Joe Moore

Who said there are no rules for writers? Of course there are:

1. Verbs HAS to agree with their subjects.
2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
3. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
4. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
5. Avoid clichés like the plague.
6. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.
7. Be more or less specific.
8. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
9. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
10. No sentence fragments.
11. Contractions aren't necessary and shouldn't be used.
12. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
13. Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it's highly superfluous.
14. One should NEVER generalize.
15. Comparisons are as bad as clichés.
16. Don't use no double negatives.
17. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc. . .
18. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
20. The passive voice is to be ignored.
21. Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.
22. Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice.
23. Kill all exclamation points!!!
24. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
25. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth shaking ideas.
26. Use the apostrophe in it's proper place and omit it when its not needed.
27. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."
28. If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times: Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly.
29. Puns are for children, not groan readers.
30. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
31. Even IF a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
32. Who needs rhetorical questions?
33. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
And finally...
34. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.

Did we miss any?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

We have a winnah!

We have a winner of last week's blog post: Male or female author? You vote!

We had a couple of people to post the correct genders, but JJ was the first person to post:

1: Male (Stephen White, In Harm's Way)

2: Female (Carla Damron, Keeping Silent)

3: Female (Jan Burke, Bones)

4: Male (James Crumley, Hostages)

5: Female (Joyce Carol Oates, The Skull)

6: Male (Robin Cook, Coma)

7: Female (Christa Faust, Money Shot)

So JJ, if you'll send me your mailing address, I'll send you the Indie tee shirt. I will send everyone who posted a bookmark, if you'll send me your mailing address to keslilley at yahoo dot com.

If I made any errors in the excerpts or entries, I blame deadline exhaustion!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Doom! Gloom! and Critique Groups

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I've been in the same critique group for over five years now and although it's been reconstituted in various forms there has been a constant core group of people who have provided me with considerable and (often) much needed support...But as 2008 draws to a close my writing group has started to feel decidedly disenchanted, jaded and (dare I say it) depressed...and I'm starting to fear it's partly due to me.

As the only published writer in the group I used to at least provide a bit of hope and some inspiration but now, given all the doom and gloom in the publishing industry, the group is starting to view the road to becoming and staying a published author as an insurmountable obstacle course. Sure I may have cleared the first few hurdles but now, as they watch me continue to traverse the mine field they are starting to ask - when does it ever get to be easy? I confess that I suspect it never does...that the obstacle race is never over, the hurdles just change...and then the group sinks back into despair once more.

Some members have said jokingly it's time we started writing erotica (okay, I confess I was one of them!) because hey, maybe we'd actually make money if we did...but then we all give ourselves a reality check and realize we cannot change what we write. As for most writers we tell the stories that need to be told - that well up from within and pour on to the page. We can't write to the market or try and pretend to be a different kind of writer (damn, damn, damn!).

My writing group meets every second Friday and, up until June this year, people were battling on but upbeat and determined. Now the group is teetering on the edge of despondency. While ruminating on this week's blog I visited, thinking there might be some funny one-liners from their spoof on the inspirational posters we've all seen gracing corporate America's walls. But while lines such as "Limitations - until you spread your wings, you'll have no idea how far you can walk", raised a smile I realized that the LAST thing we needed was more 'demotivation' for our work!

I keep thinking of that hilarious sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest and I feel like I've turned into the Tim Allen character who cries "Never Give Up; Never Surrender!" from the bridge of his ridiculous spacecraft just as he faces probable annihilation...

So I'm turning to you all for advice. How can a writing and critique group support one another in these challenging times? What is the single best thing you have come away from this year, in terms of your writing, that might buoy the hopes of both the published and the unpublished writer?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

One Week of Life Has All the Raw Material I’ll Ever Need.

John Ramsey Miller

This week we learned that the Big 3 automakers bailout package included pay raises for Federal judges. I’m sure there’s lots of other pork in there as well. And it failed, and I’m not sure how I feel about it, but only because three million jobs are at stake. Everybody but the auto company’s executives knew where they’ve been screwing up for decades. All week long they pumped out cars by the thousands to ship out next week so they can sit rusting in lots across the country because nobody is buying. Less demand, fewer cars produced. Easy. Bad mileage, high gas prices, who wants them? High drama from the idiots we elected, as usual. There is NO leadership in DC. I pray that isn’t true after the 20th of January.

The governor of Illinois (a man who looks like Bob’s Big Boy) was arrested by the FBI for trying to sell Barak Obama’s Senate seat. Jesse Jackson’s son may or may not have been willing to buy it. He says he wasn’t going to buy it, but when has any politician admitted to doing anything on the first pass? Nothing ever changes in politics except the faces, and President elect Obama has so far made the campaigning-for-President Obama a pipe-dreamer at best and a skilled liar at worst. Not that there’s anything new in candidates lying, but a lot of people who are idealistic and believed the hype, are disappointed already, and they should be. I had an uncle who said the only thing under heaven worse than an attorney was a lawyer elected to an office.

A lady saw the Virgin Mary in an X-ray this week.

One of the pillars of Wall Street has been running a financial Ponzi scheme that cost his investors $50,000,000,000.00. Some of his clients were respected charities, and I suppose they’ll be bailed out along with the rich investors. Enron only lost a few billions more than this one guy.

In Greece thousands of Anarchists (mostly young people) burned the entire country, or large sections of it because some kid who’d been throwing Molotov cocktails at cops was killed by a ricocheting warning shot. The cop was put in to prison to placate the mobs, but yet they rage on and are still burning buildings and businesses. Call me old fashioned, but any kid who is threatening cops with death can catch a bullet and I won’t lead any riots. And it’s spreading across Europe like a plague. I’m not looking forward to the same here in the near future, but I smell it in the wind.

Caylee Antony’s corpse was found ½ mile from her home. Everybody in the United States, except the unfortunate child’s grandparents, knew the party gal killed her daughter, and that no mother who isn't in a coma waits a month after the babysitter fails to return a child to tell someone about it. Just don't happen.

Here’s a few headlines from this afternoon:
Canadian Man Builds Himself Robot Girlfriend, Clues found at Caylee kin home, Rapid-Fire Killer Robot Passes Flight Test, Muslim Scientists Prepare for Battle With Creationists, water vapor detected on distant planet, Who Needs the Big 3? Atlanta Company Plans New Police Car, Failing U.S. automakers popular in Europe, Teacher reveals Santa's identity, Woolies' facing bankruptcy, John Ramsey Miller's dog Buddah run over by a gas truck…

I’m sure I’ve missed something huge, but the point is the world is feeding us plots and sub-plots and characters. Could you have not spotted something this week to put into your newest project?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Between the Covers

John Gilstrap

With the publication of No Mercy looming in just six months, I finally saw the cover art for the first time last week. If I knew how to insert pictures here, this would be the perfect place to do so, but alas, there lies the limit of my technical ability. So, please indulge me and visit my website via the link above. You don’t have to linger, but the new cover is proudly displayed there.

Sure, now’s fine. We’ll wait.

Thanks for that. Welcome back. Pretty cool, huh? I love the creepiness of it. When you consider that the primary purpose of a cover is to get a potential reader to pick it up off the shelf, I think it accomplishes its goal.

But I haven’t always been so lucky. In fact, early in my career, my covers ran the gamut from kinda weird to just plain boring. At All Costs, for example, featured a cityscape in the background, which I probably would have liked better if the book had taken place in a city. As it was, it was mostly set in remote, rural America. When I asked my editor at the time why they did the city thing, he told me it was because they couldn’t come up with anything better. Does that breed confidence, or what?

Nathan’s Run is a story about a 12-year-old boy on the run for murder, even as an assassin is on his heels to do him in. HarperCollins at the time saw fit to create a hardcover jacket that featured a sepia-colored image of a curve in the road. That’s it; just a road with stripes on it. It was certainly artistic, but I vastly preferred my British cover, which showed the image of a bad guy in whose sunglasses we could see the reflection of a boy running for his life.

The point where I am right now with No Mercy defines the stage of book-writing that I find most frustrating. From here forward, I am virtually powerless to affect the future of my labor of love. The manuscript is done, and with that final edit, I’ve handed the process over to the team of professionals who have to make all the other parts of the puzzle fit together. If the past is a predictor of the future, I’m in good hands; but it’s still hard to surrender control.

One of the great clich├ęs of all time is that you can’t judge a book by its cover, yet all of us do it every day. So, what do y’all think? We’ve talked gender bias and age bias. We’ve touched on genre bias. What about cover bias? I confess that I’m a practitioner. Are you?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Fear and Loathing in San Francisco

I've actually been dreading this post for a few days now. Not because I don't enjoy blogging, or the debates and discussions it fosters: those I love. But I'm rapidly approaching my least favorite part of the writing process: the deadline. And I am way, way behind.

I start each day optimistically. I've completed a rough draft. A very rough one, if I'm being honest, riddled with typos and writing of the lowest caliber imaginable. But hey, the bones of the story are there, right? And some of my research has been completed. Of course, not the parts that might actually change the bones of said story--those I'm still working on. So I have minor panic attacks periodically, terrified that one of my experts is going to answer a question with, "Oh no, that won't work at all. You'll have to change all that."

I mentioned this to a friend the other night, a "literary" writer, who scoffed and replied, "Deadlines?! Haven't met one yet. My last book was a year late." Lovely, if that's the sort of thing your publisher tolerates. Mine does not. And so here I am, with two weeks remaining until I have to hand something to my editor that she'll read without raising any alarms.

And therein lies the fear.

I realize this can seem like a shallow complaint. I'm lucky to even have a contract, and remain thrilled that my publisher accepted my proposal and wants to publish the book. It's hardly fair to look back on those days when I was writing The Tunnels, spending weeks on a single chapter, as halcyon days. Because now, at least, I labor under the certainty that I will actually see those chapters in print. But still--nostalgia has a way of seeping in, usually when I'm at this stage of the writing process. What a luxury that was. I really wish I'd appreciated it more at the time. It took me a little over two years to write that book. For this one, I had four months.

I'm trying to edit 30 pages a day. Doesn't sound like much, but I spent seven straight hours working on the manuscript today, and when I checked: 19 pages. Argh. Even if I work every night and through the weekend (a near impossibility with family commitments), I probably won't make it. And somewhere in there I'm supposed to tour preschools, shop for the holidays, and decorate a Christmas tree. Everything else has fallen by the wayside, which includes answering emails, exercising, preparing healthy meals (or any meals). Lately every night is pizza night in our house. Even my husband is starting to complain about it, disproving my theory that he would happily eat pizza daily for the rest of his natural life (note: harkening back to our recent gender discussions, this has not motivated him to actually cook a meal).

And if I don't meet the deadline? It won't be end of the world, but it means less time on the next, even more critical draft. Our turnaround window is already fairly tight, and losing another week or two would probably mean pulling a few all-nighters in February. I shudder at the thought.

So forgive me for the abbreviated post. I'm off to cry quietly in the corner.

Exposing myself is hard work

by Joe Moore

There are more places to expose yourself on the Internet than you can possibly keep up with. For me, it started a long time ago with a website, then another, then a blog, then another, and on and on. Sometimes it feels like a full-time job just to maintain and update all the blogs, forum profiles, and social networking sites where I have my profile and book news posted.

Most are available for public viewing while some are for those who register first. But when a news item or piece of info needs to be added such as a book launch or a signing, it can take hours just to update them all.

Did I change my Facebook status today? Did I post the newest version of the book trailer on YouTube?

Here’s a partial list of where I've exposed myself. As you can see, it can quickly get out of hand.

Kill Zone
Amazon Blog
Personal Website
Book Website
Thriller Website
Mystery Writers of America
Live Journal
Linked In (members only)

How many places do you expose yourself? Is it worth the time needed to keep everything updated? Do these sites generate books sales or just more busy work? Shouldn’t we all be writing rather than posting or updating or checking or commenting or . . .

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Male or female author? You vote!

Okay, so Clare's post about male versus female writing inspired me to put it to a vote--contest time! You vote whether the the authors of some writing snippets are male or female. You have to post a comment to win. The prize will be my favorite Indie Bookstore tee shirt:

If it's a tie, the tee shirt goes to the first person to guess the most correctly. Everyone who posts will get a Kill Zone bookmark, if you send me your address! I'll announce the winners next Tuesday. (Please--No spoilers if you know the author!)

A warm Friday night in April, the air still and perfumed by lilacs.
Emily had to pee. I fingered her leash as she circled and sniffed the ground for whatever peculiar scent would tell her she had found the right spot.
Peter was on his way out the lane. He slowed his old Volvo and thrust his left arm through the open window in greeting. “Hi, Em,” he called.
I returned his wave and watched the wagon’s lights trail away. Emily cocked her ears as she squatted in the dust.
She would have preferred that we continue on for a walk but I was eager to get back inside, where my wife waited for me with chilled pepper vodka, a video-cassette, and a cozy spot on the couch.

Captain Frank Bentille leaned against the door jamb and stared at them. Gray and black tweed pants and a gray shirt hung loosely on his gangly frame, making him look like a greyhound long retired from the track. The striped tie had a red spot from some recent meal. His close-set eyes were dwarfed by the dense brows that nearly met each other over his nose.

The sound came at us like a prizefighter’s punch—a thundering, out-of-nowhere explosion tha shook the earth and nearly deafened us.
I stood frozen, unable to comprehend what had happened. A cloud of dust and debris suddenly billowed over the meadow as the echoes of the explosion continued to rattle and roar through the mountains, until soon the sound seemed to come from every side. There were other sounds too—screams and the quick crack of shots fired.


Mabel wanted to follow the sleepy kiss—even cupped Em’s tiny, pert breasts with the rosehip nipples—but she had business to take care of. Baby Emma was twenty but easily passed for ten or eleven. The girl-child seemed built of warm and creamy vanilla scoops, and the blond ringlets curling in a tangle around her face looked like thick caramel drippings. Mable touched her lips again, softly, not wanting to wake the young woman too quickly.


The hair! It was fair, sun-bleached brown with shades of red, still showing a distinct ripply wave. Six swaths had been gathered at the crime scene and brought to the his laboratory. Kyle placed them on a windowsill, where, when he glanced up from his exceedingly close work with tweezers and bits of bone, he could see them clearly. The longest swath was seven inches. The victim had worn her hair long, to her shoulders. From time to time, Kyle reached out to touch it.

Gerald Kelley was as Irish as one could be and still live in Boston and not Dublin. His hair was reddish blond and thick and curly despite the fact that he was fifty-four years old. His face had a ruddy hue, almost as if he wore theatrical makeup, especially over the crests of his cheekbones.
Kelley’s most notable feature and by far the dominant aspect of his profile was his enormous paunch. Every night three bottles of stout contributed to its awe-inspiring dimensions. For the last few years it had been pointed out that when Kelley was vertical, his belt buckle was horizontal.

So once I figured out I was in the trunk of a car, I remembered the blue Civic and from there it was a swift re-connect the dots to Jesse and Sam and the girl with the briefcase.
I also remembered that I had been shot, or thought I had. It obviously hadn't been by a very good shot, since I was still around to worry about it, but it did seem fairly pressing that get some sort of medical attention. I felt like someone was digging a fork around my right side just below the arm pit and it hurt like hell if I took a deep breath.

Examine your own writing for male vs. female "traits"

While I was looking for excerpts to try to trip you all up, I found a site where you can enter your writing and find out whether your writing is more "male" or "female." The site runs your writing through an algorithm of some sort to determine your score:

I ran a section of my own writing through it, and my score was slightly more "male" than "female." Who'd a thunk it? Try running your writing through it and let us know the results!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Do men and women write differently?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Inspired by Michelle’s blog post last week on gender bias I decided to tackle the question of whether women and men write differently and, if so, can authors write convincingly from the point of view of the opposite sex.

In my latest writing project I tackled the issue head on – having multiple ‘voices’ i
n the book including a male character. I have to confess I was worried initially as the female characters came very easily to me – their voices (though quite different to one another) rang true and clear. Once I was about a third of the way through my first draft however I found myself thinking that something was lacking and I realized I needed to get the perspective of my lead male character. I hesitated - would I really be able to write it convincingly? Would the voice sound authentically male?

Of course that question opens up a whole range of others but fundamentally my concern was whether I could write from the point of view of a man? Was that even possible? When I asked my husband he said he thought the whole issue was a non-issue. My female characters went far beyond my own experiences or personality so why would I not be capable of moving beyond gender? He didn't seem to think it mattered whether the writer was male or female and I admit that, as a reader, I thought many writers (both male and female) have managed to write from the opposite gender perspective - but it's always different when it's your own writing!

I was worried that I would make my male character too 'soft' - a feminized ideal of a man - capable of articulating his feelings and noticing elements that quite frankly a man would not - like the color of someone's eyes or their clothes. I got about half way through my second draft and had my writing group give me feedback and they told me that my male character seemed to be a bit of a bastard. I realized that in worrying about making him too idealized I had actually succeeded in making him sound like a shit. So back I went - refining and editing the voice until finally a real person began to take shape. It took a while but I found his voice emerging and then the writing flowed so much easier. I had the character in my head now and gender no longer mattered.

But the real question is should it matter at all?? Should the gender of a writer change the way a reader perceives the POV or character in a book? Do you think it makes a difference?

Have you ever read a book and been surprised to discover the writer was a man because you had assumed it was a woman (or vice versa)? In short, does gender even matter when it comes to writing effective characters?

Saturday, December 6, 2008


Photo of Jason Starr in Central ParkThe Kill Zone is thrilled to welcome author Jason Starr as our guest blogger today. Jason's book THE FOLLOWER was just re-released as a mass market paperback, and I can attest that it's a dark, funny story that absolutely everyone should read. Bret Easton Ellis said, "The Follower is Jason Starr's masterpiece," and The New York Times described it as "Extremely chilling." Think of it as a dating "how not-to."

Without further ado...

Our TV broke last week. It was an LCD set—an old model—and when the inverters go, that’s it, the set’s dead. We have a new TV now, but for several days we were forced to go TV-less. I know, the horror, the horror, right?

Actually, going without a TV was a bit of a shock. My family and I live in a fairly small Manhattan apartment and the sudden quiet was startling. SuddenFollowerly I felt like I was back in the 1800’s, living in the Little House on the Prairie, and I had to entertain the family at night with my fiddle. I was able to read more, which was great, but it didn’t really fill the void.

I mainly watch sports and movies on TV, and cable series such as Entourage, Dexter, and Californication. Not so-long ago there was a big stigma among people, especially writers, about admitting to television watching at all. At parties, if the subject of television came up a writer would say proudly, “I’m too busy to watch TV.” Some went further and claimed, “I don’t watch TV at all.” Others—the really busy people—would boast, “I got rid of my TV.”

I always suspected that people who claimed they didn’t watch TV were closet TV- aholics. They probably sat with their asses glued to their couches four hours a night, watching the entire lineup of the dumbest sitcoms.

But something happened, I think around the time The Sopranos got popular. Suddenly it became socially acceptable to admit to TV watching, and a big stigma to not watch TV. If you didn’t watch The Sopranos, you were considered to be some kind of freak, and if you didn’t watch the finale--fuggedaboutit. I think there’s no doubt that the quality of television in general has improved greatly over the years, but there has been a change in our attitudes toward TV as well.

Now being TV-literate, especially cable TV-literate, is much more socially acceptable, even vital. I actually feel wiresorry for the writers who don’t watch TV because at parties and mystery conferences they’ll inevitably hear: “What, you haven’t seen every episode of The Wire? Oh my God, what’s wrong with you?...“What, you don’t watch Dexter? Really? You have no idea what you’re missing.”….“What, you’ve never seen Californication? You’re kidding me? Really?”....“You’ve never heard of The Shield?”

I’ve seen some television-deprived writers embellish their TV watching, smiling vaguely and nodding a lot, not wanting to feel left out when people start discussing the latest shows. That’s right, writers have now come full circle and they actually exaggerate the amount of television they watch.

So I’m wondering, how much television do you watch? And do you find that lately it’s more socially acceptable to admit it?


JASON STARR is the Barry and Anthony Award-winning nine crime novels which have been published in ten languages. His latest thriller from St. Martin’s Press, THE FOLLOWER, is on-sale this week in a new mass market paperback edition. Visit and sign up for Jason Starr’s newsletter for a chance to win a 50-dollar Amazon gift certificate, and other exciting prizes. Newsletter subscribers will also be eligible to win free advance copies of Jason Starr’s next thriller PANIC ATTACK, which will be on-sale in August, 2009.

Seeing Virgins and Smelling the Roses

By John Ramsey Miller

Last week some woman in California had salsa shoot out from her blender and the red stain on the wall looked to her to be a precise likeness of the actual Virgin Mary. I’m not talking about a Virgin Mary (tomato juice, Tabasco, pepper, celery stick, but hold the vodka either. What are the odds that this freak accident might just be a random stain caused by a blender lid failure and not the actual Virgin Mary communicating with this Catholic housewife? It might be the former were it not for the unexplainable odor of roses in a kitchen that ought by rights to smell like decaying salsa. Just to make sure people make the connection, this woman placed a portrait (available in any Catholic relic superstore) of the Virgin Mary on the stove and pinned up her rosary in to encircle the Salsa Virgin Mary so one’s eyes immediately zero in on her SVM. This Holy kitchen event (worthy of being covered by the world press in the time of terror attacks) got me to thinking once again about the nature of religions icon sightings. We’ve all seen coverage of the face of Jesus in the screen door in a trailer park, drawn in dirt on the side of an eighteen wheeler, in a rust stain in a shower, and in a glass window in an office building. We’ve all seen the Virgin Mary spotted in the oozing of water leaking from the concrete wall under a bridge, in a potato chip, the spot on a cat’s stomach and in various other unusual places. People flock to these sights to see Jesus or Mary in the flesh, or Salsa, for themselves. It’s hard for me to imagine Jesus or Mary planning these events, or taking place in them. You can see a better likeness of either or both in any church or cathedral in the world.

The thing I find fascinating about these iconic appearances (or mysterious apparitions) is that Protestants "always" see Jesus, while Catholics seem universally to spot Mother Mary. Likenesses of Buddah and Mohammed either never turn up on a kettle fry, in black mold on sheetrock or some other odd media or simply aren’t ever covered by the world media. Well, I suppose any appearances by Mohammed would be immediately erased by nearby Moslems since there can be no likeness of him ever created for any reason whatsoever. I wonder if that was his edict or some decision of his loyal followers due to the sorry state of portrait art in the Middle East at the time? Obviously Mary and Jesus have the whole appearing icon thing monopolized. Graven images have come a very long way since the days when Mohammed was spreading his religion by the sword. In fairness most (if not all) religions have been spread by the sword, the dunking chair, or a nice hot fire.

You know, I like religion and I'm not surprised that the latest research says that you will live longer if you attend to church regularly. In fact the more often you go to church, the longer you live. When I sit through a church service time does tend to stand still, and an hour often feels like ten. I suppose, if that is correct, that if you have a Salsa Virgin Mary in your kitchen, a screen door Jesus on your trailer, or another equally interesting Holy Relic you could just hang out a at home and live as long as you like.

Any thoughts on these sightings?

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Inaugural Onslaught

By John Gilstrap

Forgive me for wandering from the topic of writing, per se, to something that's been bugging me.

Five days out of every week, I commute from the Virginia suburbs into Washington, DC via Metrorail. Generally, it’s a half-hour drive to the station in the morning, then a half hour on the train, topped by a three-block walk to my office, which is itself three blocks from the White House. Until I took my job with the trade association, I’d never worked downtown. Washington is a beautiful city, so there’s something attractively urban to me about the commute. Most days, it’s an opportunity to read in peace amidst a couple hundred strangers.

n its busiest, craziest days, Metro sets new records that top out somewhere south of 850,000 passengers. That includes commuters and tourists in the high season, along with Independence Day celebrations when about a million people flood the city for the fireworks. During those occasions, for security reasons, the Metro stations closet to the action are all closed off, forcing revelers to flood fewer stations located quite a few blocks away. Imagine thousands of people crammed onto an underground train platform, each of them wanting to get on the next subway. It’s actually scary when you’re in the middle of it. That’s why I never go downtown on the Fourth of July.

On January 20—Inauguration Day--DC government officials are reportedly anticipating a crowd of four million people to observe the festivities. That’s four times more people than Washington has ever seen for an event! Each of them needs to get in and out of the city, and, presumably, at some point during the festivities they’re going to have to eat. More than that, they’re going to have to pee—or, worse yet, make big potty. I don’t care how many porta-poops you import; there’s no way to support that much excrement.

Judging from the barricades that are already beginning to be staged around the city, huge swaths of preferred viewing real estate are going to be closed off to mere mortals to leave plenty of elbow space for the bigwigs. Widespread street closures will make parking garages inaccessible, which will in turn force hundreds of thousands of would-be drivers onto the subways for which access will be limited.

Now let’s throw in the security checkpoints that will search all purses and bags within X yards of the Capitol Building or the White House, along with the fact that a huge percentage of those being searched wouldn’t know which building was which without a picture to guide them. The mind boggles.

I personally don’t have any hard plans for that day, but I do know precisely where I will not be. What do y’all think? Is any historical event worth that much inconvenience?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Gender Bias

There was an interesting article in the Guardian this week asking whether or not young female writers are operating at a deficit when itmorrison comes to major literary awards. Not due to any shortcomings on their part, but because (as the author posits) "the literary industry as a whole – agents, editors, booksellers and critics – currently offer disproportionate encouragement to aspiring male writers to produce the kind of serious-minded, bookish work that gets on shortlists, compared to young female writers." The argument being that for whatever reason, publishers prefer discovering the next Norman Mailer to finding another Toni Morrison.

I'm not entirely certain I agree with this, but it's an interesting piece, particularly since it was written by a young male author. I also did a quick head count, and during the past two decades only five women have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Five mailerwomen won the Man Booker Prize. Only with the Pulitzer did women even approach parity, with eight out of twenty taking home the prize.

This got me thinking about gender bias in our own  neck of the woods. When my agent first called to sign me, she was noticeably taken aback. Toward the middle of our conversation she confessed that after reading THE TUNNELS, she'd thought I was a man (though the name "Michelle" was pretty straightforward, in my opinion). Since the subject matter was so dark, she felt it might appeal to more male readers than female ones. She recommended that I consider adopting a pseudonym, or shortening my name to just the initials (sadly, that would leave me "M.A.Gagnon," which doesn't exactly trip off the tongue, and sounds like something the Mayo Clinic might have a specialized treatment for).

In the end, I opted to stick with my full name. Partly because I didn't entirely believe that gender bias exists, partly because I'm just obstinate that way. But I do wonder. When I meet people at conferences who have read my books, the universal exclamation is, "but you seem like such a sweet girl." I suspect that very few male authors are referred to as "sweet" when they meet their fans, or hear that they seem "too happy to write these sorts of books."nobel

Impossible to say whether or not it affects my sales. Occasionally this question rears its head on one of the mystery discussion groups, and everyone gets up in arms. Most people declare that they will happily read any book regardless of who wrote it. But does that apply to the world at large? Especially since I don't write cozies (which are marketed more toward women), but thrillers, is my name working against me?

Where do you stand? Will you read anything by anyone? Or does gender bias sneak into your decision-making process, subconsciously or otherwise?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kindle Redux

By Joe Moore

kindle One of the most popular topics on the Kill Zone blog (besides the ongoing strength of the paranormal genre) has been the Amazon Kindle e-book reader. Kathryn wrote about it here and here; John G also had things to say here, and Michelle commented on it here.

After so much talk about the Kindle, I started asking myself if an electronic device could actually take the place of printed books anytime soon. The way I see it, the biggest hurdle that the Kindle and similar devices have to overcome is the technology itself. A book is probably the most ingenious storage device ever invented. Why? Because the basic format has not changed in thousands of years. And hundreds of years from now, someone can pick up a book printed today and read it. There’s no guarantee that the technology supporting the Kindle will last a decade, much less a millennium. What if batteries are suddenly no longer made to power the Kindle? What if the format is no longer efficient to archive the written word? What if a new device comes along that holds a thousand times more data at a fraction of the cost? What if it simply isn’t manufactured anymore and you still have one that needs servicing.

Can that happen? Remember 8-track audio cassette tapes? Betamax? 78 RPM phonograph records? VHS? It's even getting hard to find a CD anymore now that iPods and MP3 has come along. How about CRT video monitors? Anyone you know still have one now that the cost of LCD flat monitors are approaching the price of a tank of gas? Seen any standard definition, 4x3 aspect ratio TVs in the stores the last time you shopped? If the device that's needed to play the media is not preserved along with the media, you're out of luck. There's no chance of that happening with books because they are their own storage device.

But before we cast judgement on e-book readers like Kindle and say they're a passing fancy that will quickly go the way of the rotary dial phone, let's revisit a few pieces of innovation from the past that didn't catch on at first.

"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."
-- Western Union internal memo, 1876

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
-- Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

"640K ought to be enough for anybody."
-- Bill Gates, 1981

"But what ... is it good for?"
-- Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
-- Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?"
-- David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s

"The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C,' the idea must be feasible."
-- A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp)

"So we went to Atari and said, 'Hey, we've got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we'll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we'll come work for you.' And they said, 'No.' So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, 'Hey, we don't need you. You haven't got through college yet.'"
-- Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and HP interested in his and Steve Wozniak's personal computer

"Everything that can be invented has been invented."
-- Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899

Can you recall something from your past that you rushed out to buy only to outlive its function and usefulness?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Take Two: Ghost brides, aka "The Bride Wore Bones"

Note: I'm inspired by Clare's post on the paranormal yesterday (that, plus the fact that I'm way behind on a deadline) to repost my thoughts about the strange things that people do with dead bodies. Including, it turns out, the ancient art of marrying corpses.

The original post appeared over at our sister mystery blog, Killer Hobbies.

Call me morbid (which you kinda have to be when you’re a mystery writer), but I was fascinated to read an article put out by CNN, which describes all the strange things people do with dead bodies.

Corpse brides and ghost marriages

In China, there is an old practice of providing “ghost marriages” between women and deceased bachelors. I gather the practice got started so that no woman would have to die as a spinster (no way to verify the rumor that some women preferred to marry dead guys so that they’d escape a fate of faked headaches and arguments over the dinner table with breathing spouses.).

After nearly dying out during the cultural revolution, "ghost marriages" have recently come back into vogue--but evidently with a new, more prurient purpose. In a country that’s chronically short of women in a patriarchal society (Thank you, one-family, one-child policy), the ghost-marriage practice is now aimed at making sure that dead bachelors are…ahem…satisfied in the afterlife.

Tales have been told of people killing prostitutes and other unfortunate women so that these men will get some nooky in the netherworld.

Got some cold cream for that freezer burn?

The much-ballyhooed experiments into cryogenics have evidently run into a snag—frozen bodies are developing wicked cases of freezer burn. I mean, seriously--who wants to be revived in 200 years if you’re doomed to walk around looking like Night of the Shriveled-green Dead?

Here’s a link to the article on CNN, for further reading on the strange things that people do with dead bodies:

I've worked one of these macabre practices into my third book, MAKEOVERS CAN BE MURDER. (Won’t reveal which one, though—stay tuned for the book in ’09).

Now I’m getting obsessed with the subject of ghost marriages and corpse brides. The practice sounds so macabre. But it makes for a killer subplot, doesn't it?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Why is the paranormal still hot?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

On the New York Time's bestseller list for mass market fiction, ten of the top 20 are novels that deal with the paranormal - looks like (despite predictions that it's heyday was on the wane) that paranormal is still hot. The mega-success of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series and recent movie certainly confirms it and I have to confess, caught up in the wave of interest, I spent most of Thanksgiving week reading the Twilight series. Seems as though the angst ridden teenager inside me has not yet disappeared...and that got me and my good friend Charysse talking. What is it about the paranormal - particularly the vampire novel - that continues to intrigue us?

After some wine and way too much food our respective husbands disappeared into the other room and we talked some more. I was particularly interested as a YA idea had been percolating in my brain and while I didn't see any paranormal bent to it as yet - it did have some of the Gothic hallmarks of the fantasy and paranormal YA books that seem to be popular today. I'm not one to write to the market but the question was undeniable - why do we continue to be fascinated, as children, young adults and adults by the paranormal. What draws us to the mythology of the 'other-world'? Why continue to explore the question of whether vampires, werewolves or other demonic forms walk amongst us?

We decided that sex was one of the first reasons - hey, in the romance world, sex with vampires is pretty darn hot. Maybe the lure of the paranormal is the lure of out-of-this-world sex...or not?...One of the main attractions I think for the Twilight series was the fact that sex was too damn dangerous between mortal and vampire. That somehow made the repressed, tortured emotions and desire of young adulthood all the more fraught. And here was a guy who said no...the ultimate in teenage girl fantasies perhaps? Gorgeous, brooding, dangerous, immortal but also the quintessential gentleman...At this point my friend and I both shook our heads and asked WTF???!

So if sex (or the lack of it) isn't the allure - is it the bloodlust? Is it the fact that paranormal explanations for truly horrific crimes make them somehow easier for our human minds to digest? Does it provide us with some kind of reassurance that there are demons that are not human (as opposed to only those who are?)

I confess I'm happy to read paranormal novels as much (if not more) than the next girl. I was a huge Buffy fan and am someone willing to drink in (if you'll pardon the pun) many a vampire novel. I love Gothic tales and revel in an imaginative story that conjures up another world.

Nonetheless the continued appeal of the paranormal intrigues me - what do you think drives the continued demand for these types of books? Do you think interest is on the wane and if it is...what is likely to replace it?