Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hello, my name is...

by Michelle Gagnon

A confession:
You know those people who claim they never forget a face?
I'm not one of them.
In fact, I'm terrible with faces. Which wouldn't pose that much of a problem, but I also happen to be awful with names.
My current line of work has only exacerbated the problem. As a writer, I probably meet a few hundred new people a year. Dozens of other writers, readers, and booksellers introduce themselves to me at conferences, readings, events. I make a valiant effort to to commit their faces to memory, even use mnemonics to try to remember their names. And all I end up with is a nearly overpowering desire to shout out, "Mayonnaise!" whenever anyone looks vaguely familiar.

I have a private theory that if my brain wasn't completely clogged up with early eightie's song lyrics, I'd be better at this. You should be able to erase files from your mind as easily as you do from your computer (heck, my computer erases files all the time, on its own, without any help from me whatsoever). Gone would be Duran Duran, and the next time I sat at the bar at Left Coast Crime, the name "Anne" would pop into my head when a woman approached.

Alas, despite my best efforts, that hasn't happened.

Context is also problematic. Say I run into a former classmate at the grocery store. It doesn't matter how many fourth periods we suffered through together. Without a blackboard and erasers handy, my best guess will be that she goes to the same gym. (I run into people who claim they go to the same gym as I do on a regular basis. It's all the more puzzling since I rarely set foot in the place).

When I first dove into social networking sites, I was hoping they would prove the answer to my prayers. All those faces and names matched up to each other--perfect! I'd finally have a handy reference to skim before any major event.
And then what do people do? They post a picture of Bruce Lee next to their name. Or a photo of themselves taken in 1972. Or of their dog. Not helpful, people.

In two weeks I head to Bouchercon in Indianapolis. For those who don't know, it's one of the largest crime fiction conferences. Thousands of new faces and names to remember.
Some of the people I encounter I will have met before. Chances are I shared a drink with them at some point as well (I find that sadly, alcohol doesn't help my faculties. Shocking, I know.)

I'll arrive armed with a welcoming smile and jars full of gingko biloba, and will rummage frantically through my dusty memory files as they remind me that we sat next to each other at a banquet for two interminable hours a few years ago. I'll pretend to remember, when the truth is I probably don't (I've been to more than my fair share of interminable banquets). The name badges can be helpful, but at conferences they tend to function as de facto wallets/PR material holders, which means that nine times out of ten the person's name is obscured. I also have yet to master the art of reading the badge without being painfully obvious about it.

I have a friend who has a trick to compensate for this. He always exclaims, "How long has it been!" as soon as anyone approaches him. Generally, this induces said person to provide some helpful tips that narrow the field. He also has a charming Irish accent, which glosses over the discomfort when it turns out they actually have never met. I could try to fake an accent, but I'm not very good at those either.

So, I'm asking a favor. If we have met before, please don't take offense at the blank expression on my face. I really am doing my best to remember, but all I'm hearing is "Hungry Like a Wolf" on a steady loop.

Monday, September 28, 2009

How fresh are your second bananas?

By Kathryn Lilley

In any successful novel, the hero is the star of the story, but it's the lesser characters--the second bananas--who carry the show. As a reader I get annoyed by stories that feature secondary characters who are limp or cardboard: The "blond, leggy" girl who is tossed in for a smidgen of sexual tension; the "beefy cop" who turns up at a crime scene; the "tired-looking" hotel clerk. At these moments it's like the writer is screaming to the reader, "Hey, I need to include this character to move the scene forward, but don't bother paying attention to him."

All secondary characters, major or minor, need to live and breathe for the reader. In his book On Writing, Stephen King said that every character in a book thinks of himself or herself as the main character. Whenever that character is on stage, even briefly, he should be presented as if a spotlight is shining on him.

During a radio interview about my latest book, Makeovers Can Be Murder, the host asked me questions about a couple of the minor characters in the story. One of the characters had two walk-on appearances in the book; the other guy you never even saw, just heard him referred to. And yet the host had a sense of them, was drawn in enough to speculate about their motivations. I felt happy about that, like I'd done my job as a writer.

When I think of strong secondary characters, a few standouts come to mind: Dill in To Kill A Mockingbird; Melanie in Gone with the Wind; the wealthy, pompous Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice.

Which secondary characters are the most memorable for you in thrillers or mysteries? (Other than Dr. Watson--too easy.) Do you think most authors in the genre do a good job or a poor job or portraying second bananas?

Places that Resonate

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Watching the first episode of Ken Burns' new documentary series on America's National Parks I was struck not only by the beauty of the American wilderness but also its profound impact on people - and how that impact helped redefine a national consciousness. This got me thinking about the role of landscape and place in my own writing. I've blogged about this issue before but in my current WIP I'm interested in exploring the interaction between characters and the landscape portrayed.

I think evoking a landscape serves more that just decorative, thematic or descriptive purposes - I think it also helps reveal character. In my latest WIP when I considered the setting of my book I looked at a number of questions about such as:

How do my main characters feel about the landscape - are they at home or are they outsiders?

If one or more of them are at odds with the landscape - how can I use this to reveal inner depths or hidden aspects of my characters?

If landscape is to be a character - how will its mood evoke a sense of place and set the tone for the book?

How can I avoid cliches about the landscape and try and discover either a new perspective or a hidden sensibility that can add texture and dimensionality ( that even a word) to the book?

After watching the first part of Ken Burns' documentary (and after camping at the awe-inspiring Crater Lake a few weeks ago) I have a renewed respect for the joys of writing about the impact of landscape not just on our lives but on our souls. I'll be dusting off my copy of Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama and wrestling with all sorts of philosophical ruminations on the significance of landscape - but don't worry I haven't forgotten the most important maxim, never let landscape get in the way of a good story.
Some of the best thrillers and mysteries use a strong sense of place to establish mood, progress plot as well as reveal character. But what do you (as readers and writers) think should be some of the key considerations that an author should take into account regarding landscape and place? Are my questions on track or should I chuck my romantic sensibilities aside and consider something else?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Time for a Checkup?

by James Scott Bell

I have a new doctor.

My old doctor was brilliant. He could tell me what was wrong just by examining my wallet.

My new doctor is young and aggressive. I met him the first time a couple of months ago and he said he wanted to put me through a battery of tests, including a look at my ticker.

I said, "But Doc, I'm the picture of health!"

He did not care what I thought of my own pictures. He went on looking at my records, telling me I needed an updated this and a new that, then ordered that I get probed, scanned, tested, stuck and bled.

And so I was.

Some time later I got a message to call his office.

Now, when you get such a message you have a moment of panic. You start hearing those movie lines, you know, where the doctor says, "You have six months, maybe a year."

Or you wonder if he's going to want you in for full on heart surgery, today. (My response is that, in lieu of surgery, I'd prefer he just touch up the X-Rays).

Well, the news was all good. A clean bill of health.

But it got me to thinking. There are times in a writer's life when the pallor of impending doom falls over a manuscript. You think, Man, this thing is having heart problems. It's struggling for breath. I hope it isn’t going to be DOA when it's finished!

I suggest in that instance you run some of your own tests. Like these:


Step back and analyze: Is the Lead's objective strong enough? Readers want to care about a character's quest. Unless it is of absolutely vital importance to her well being, the objective is not going to grab the reader as it should. And by vital importance I mean that death is on the line—physical, psychological or professional. It can even be all three. (I have a section on the importance of "Death Overhanging" in Revision & Self-Editing).


The living, breathing center of your novel is the Lead character. Is he original, complex and in some very real way, compelling? Readers want a character who is not just some retread out of previous movies and books. You have to personalize and truly fall in love with the Lead. Here are two questions to ask: Do you find yourself thinking about the Lead even when you're away from the manuscript? Can you imagine your Lead living a life outside the book? If your answers are no, you need to do some deepening.


What is the "passionate center" of this novel for you? Have you lost it? Is your daily writing a dry exercise? Stop and write yourself a letter. Pour out all your emotions. Be honest with yourself about the book. Here's the thing: you need to find out if you're writing only to sell. If so, you're more market driven than story driven. You're not being true to the tale trying to break out. And it will show. Manuscripts without heart are piled high in countless offices in New York.

Yes, selling is the goal and market considerations are wise. But they are not enough in today's competitive environment. What matters even more are the passion and individual voice you bring to the pages.

So give your story a check up in these areas and get your manuscript back to the health it so richly deserves.

Have you ever had to resuscitate a manuscript? How'd you manage it?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

It’s All About You

By John Ramsey Miller

No matter how subtly, we authors we can’t help but bring ourselves, or world view, our personalities, our loves and biases into our work, and open ourselves up to our readers. If someone criticizes our work, they might as well slap one of our children. But we wince, wonder what the hell’s wrong with the critic, and go on to do it one more time. It’s as much “write what you are” as what you know. You can learn subjects, research facts, imagine yourself into a scene, but as you write––just like trace evidence––you put some of yourself on the page.

Someone said to me recently that hunting was obsolete because of the availability of grocery stores. I bring this love of hunting and gathering by age-old means, rather than by gathering money so I can pay others to hunt and gather for me. The killing I, and most other hunters do, is humane. I take animals where they live, and up until they are felled as if by a bolt of lightning, they are content living a life they were designed to live. Game animals are not raised in pens, fed by machines or paid workers, and driven into slaughter rooms that reek of bleach. I don’t have to justify my gathering to anybody except myself. But it comes through in my writing. I do not enjoy killing, and I understand how it feels to do so. I write that into my characters and I like to think that the difference between doing and researching is there on the page. We can imagine what something is like, but unless we’ve been there, we can only go by what those who have been through it tell us, or what we can imagine. Some things we can’t do, and those we will have to imagine. Other things we will write more accurately or with feeling than can those who have never experienced that thing. Me, I’ll never write about having a baby from a mother’s perspective the way a mother can, but I can write what being the father who’s watching a birth is seeing and feeling. As I write that I will be drawing on what I saw and felt so I would infuse the story with a shot of me. There’s really no way around it.

When we write a scene, we put ourselves in it, and, no matter what we have the characters do, we’re consciously (or unconsciously) writing what we would or wouldn’t do, think, or feel. If we are identifying personally with the character, we do one thing, if not we do another, perhaps the opposite, and maybe what we wish we could do in the same situation, but couldn’t.

Most of the authors I know who write violence, are not at all violent people themselves. Jeffery Deaver is one of the most gentle men I know, but nobody writes pure evil like Jeffery. I think he writes it so well because it is the precise opposite of what he is, and therefore easy to imagine.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think a sociopath writes sociopaths as effectively because they don’t see or admit what they are to themselves, and they don’t feel empathy, so they can’t really write it convincingly. Of all of the writings of psychopaths that I’ve read, it was all about the acts of violence and the characters are cardboard, just moving around performing some heinous act in one dimension. Perhaps I’m not explaining it well, but if you read the fictional fantasies of psychopaths, you’ll see a definite lack of engagement, or understanding character. It shows a lack of self-reflection, just self-gratification and delusion. There’s nothing scientific about this, just my impression. Perhaps psychos can write in great emotional depth. So how many psychopathic authors do you know? I can think of several.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Perfect Lines

By Johngilstrap

My bachelor’s degree comes from the College of William and Mary in Virginia. As most graduates from prestigious schools, I am capable of being an academic snob when the occasion arises. It happens far less frequently now that I’ve become a gentleman of a certain age, but back in the day, my loyalty to the alma mater was pretty fierce.

In the late ’70s, when I was in college, Virginia Tech (then known as VPI-Virginia Polytechnic Institute) had nothing of the reputation that it enjoys today. It was every good student’s “safety school,” the one you knew you could get into if W&M and UVA let you down. In the good spirit of interschool rivalry, I held it in low esteem. Thus, as a young safety engineer investigating an explosion at the explosives processing plant where I worked, I made multiple references to “Techie engineering” as the primary cause of the accident. It was my throw-away phrase to describe anything that was well-meaning yet substandard.

Remember that I was all of 28 years old at the time. Many minutes into my presentation to the seniormost members of management, after I had committed to this good-humored course of bashing my academic rival, Paul Lumbye, the vice president of all things that paid my salary, raised his hand and said, “John, I think it’s appropriate for me to tell you that I am a graduate of VPI.” Something seized inside my gut. Then he went on to point to a good thirty percent of my senior-executive audience, all of whom were likewise graduates of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and at least twice my age.

When Paul-the-VP was done, the room was silent, and I found myself facing a dozen smug smiles, all of them rejoicing that I had been so thoroughly put in my place. It was my moment to cower and apologize.

Alternatively, it was my moment to show the true depth of my loyalty. With all those eyes staring, I made a point to look Paul in the eye when I asked, “Does this mean I need to start over again and use smaller words?”

To this day, I look at that comment as a pivotal moment in my professional career. I learned that all reasonable people appreciate a great line well-delivered. I wish I could say that I continue to be that glib and fleet of tongue, but forever and ever, I will know that at least once, I delivered a killer rebuttal. It’s a great feeling.

Which brings me to the actual point of this week’s blog entry: great lines. More specifically, great movie lines—the ones that perfectly capture the emotion of the scene and stick with you long into the future.

A few that come to my mind:

“Fill your hands you son-of-a-bitch!” – Rooster Cogburn, True Grit.

“I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do those things to other people and I require the same of them.” -- J.B. Books, The Shootist

“Are you going to do something, or just stand there and bleed?” -- Wyatt Earp, Tombstone

“Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy.” – Josie Wales, The Outlaw Josie Wales

“I’m thirty years older than you are. I had my back broke once, and my hip twice. And on my worst day I could beat the hell out of you.” – Wil Andersen, The Cowboys

“The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.” – Rick, Casablanca

"You're gonna need a bigger boat." Chief Brody, Jaws

Each of these lines, at the moment they were delivered, slyed their respective audiences. Certainly, they slayed me. What about you? What are your favorite lines from the real world or the world of fiction? C’mon. You know you have one. Or five. Share.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Who needs to hang it up?

by Michelle Gagnon

This is an ongoing discussion on one of the message boards I frequent, and I thought it was an interesting one. How long can a series continue before it sinks under its own weight?

When readers have latched on to a character or series, and whatever book follows in the progression is guaranteed to make the bestsellers' lists, both publishers and authors are loathe to say Sayonara. But there are popular series out there th
at are starting to look a bit long in the tooth. And would those writers be better served by branching out into new territory? After all, if their name is established, wouldn't most of their fan base follow them on whatever new venture they chose?

I'll preface this by saying that I'm playing devil's advocate here. I'm a huge
John Sandford fan, and if he were to suddenly announce that Lucas Davenport was vanishing into the ether, I would be disappointed. Same with Jack Reacher, but for different reasons. What I like about Sandford's books is that he has managed to keep them freash and interesting by varying the plots: some are more like spy novels, other focus on heists or serial killers. Plus, Lucas Davenport is one of the rare series characters who has actually evolved. I liked him at the beginning, but by allowing him to age and learn from life experience, I'm far more invested in him than I would be otherwise.

Paradoxically, the opposite holds true for Jack Reacher. He never changes. Thirteen books in, he still travels with nothing but the clothing on his back and a fold up toothbrush. And apparently he's discovered that mythical fountain of youth, since he can still destroy pretty much anyone in a fight regardless of the fact that he must be approaching fifty by now. And yet, I don't care. (I will say, however, that I secretly hope Lee Child someday branches off into a side series featuring Frances Neagley. Particularly after Bad Luck and Trouble, I want to know more about her and that company she runs). It's the reason the Law and Order franchise is so consistently successful: you know what to expect, and Child always delivers it. He has the added liberty of being able to take Reacher anywhere in the world, from small towns to metropolises, and there's no reason for him not to be there since he's not locked into a job, tied to anyone or anything.

Others, however, have not been as fortunate. There are series whose books I dev
oured for five, ten, even fifteen books. But they gradually devolved into something that was either implausible or just plain silly. How long can you maintain a love triangle that never gets resolved? And for series set in small towns, how are we supposed to swallow the fact that their homicide rate rivals Detroit's? I loved Karin Slaughter's Grant County series, but after six books it was starting to suffer from Cabot Cove Syndrome: how could so many terrible things happen in a rural Georgia county? Who would ever move there with that level of crime? Property values must have been in the basement after the third serial killer in as many years passed through. Moving the series to Atlanta and combining it with her other series revitalized it for me.

So let's hear it: who needs to hang it up? And what series have defied the odds and held your interest?

It’s got that new season smell

by Joe Moore

It’s premiere season on TV and I’m excited. There’s a couple of returning shows that I really got into last year, and a few new ones that sound quite enticing. xfilesFirst, let me say that my tastes run toward drama. But not just any drama. I like stuff that’s outside the box. As an example, I was one of the original X-Files fans. I remember that Friday night in September 1993 when the show first appeared. I loved everything about it from the creepy music to the mysterious logo to the amazing anti-relationship between Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Their characters were strong from the start and stayed true to the end. I was also a big fan of Millennium, another of X-Files producer Chris Carter’s shows. Not as famous and successful as X-Files, but just as captivating.

So what do I look forward to this year? Fringe. It’s X-Files all over again, only in HD. Last week was the first show of the new season, and it had plenty of surprises and twists. There’s also a new show called Flash Forward. Here’s the premise: Suddenly, the entire world stands still for 2 minutes, 17 seconds. Chaos ensues. Cars crash, medical procedures are brought to a halt, and millions of other events are disrupted. A couple of FBI agents are assigned to investigate what happened and why. Advance reviews say the concept is fascinating and the story addictive.

Then there’s the return of Doll House on Friday nights. This one pulled me in last season and I’m looking forward to see if it can sustain imagemy interest a second time around. It involves a girl code-named “Echo” who is a member of an illegal underground group who have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas. They not only perform unusual and controversial roles, but they literally become whoever their clients want them to be. It’s hard to look away.

And when I do need a laugh or two, the Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men are hard to beat.

So how about you? Are there any shows you’re looking forward to? How about ones you intend to avoid? Is this the year you break the ties to 24 or American Idol?

Monday, September 21, 2009

You might never upload a photo to Facebook again

I'm a heavy Internet user, so I jumped at a chance last week to attend a Webinar (that's a Web seminar, for you non-heavy users). Its purpose was to teach investigators how to use online techniques to research suspects, gang members, deadbeat parents, etc.

I learned that it's possible to use online techniques to find out information about almost anyone. Here are a few of the tips we heard:

Look at pictures that are posted by your suspect on social media sites (such as
Facebook), and study the backgrounds of the pictures. Team logos, landmarks, or other things in the pictures can indicate where your subject is living. You might see drugs in the background, worth noting if you're trying to establish drug-related connections.

Note any other people in your subject's photos. That's one way to discover gang associations or other criminal connections. Even if your subject keeps most of his uploaded information private, you might be able to find out information from his friends' postings.

We were advised to always capture information as soon as we find it (
Snagit was a recommended tool for screen captures), because the Internet constantly changes.

We learned how to refine Google searches on the web to focus and narrow down results. Using boolean operators to do searches, trying different spellings and search engines, and using cache to get archived information were some of the suggestions.

Some of the techniques will come in handy for my writing. One thing is certain--going forward, I'll be much more selective when I upload personal information and photos. And I'm also happy that I use a pen name for my writing--there's less surfacing of personal data that way.

Do you have any favorite search tricks or online research techniques? Are there any rules that you follow for uploading personal information online?

You're Perfect. I'm Doomed!

I was listening to a radio interview with James Wood, literary critic for The New Yorker, discussing his book How Fiction Works when the topic of the role of the critic came around and I was struck by one of the quotes (to paraphrase) that the critic should be interested in identifying how the writer failed to meet an 'ideal'.

Now I'm sure all of us (as either readers or writers) have our list of top authors as well as books that we feel epitomize the 'perfect' novel - but the thought of constantly being measured against such an ideal is daunting. I started musing (and agonizing I have to confess) over how the concept of the 'ideal' affects how I write as well as how I read. My experience with book groups and writing groups has led me to suspect that while the concept of seeking perfection in the writing craft can be noble it can also be devastating. How many of us haven't been stymied by the inner critic while writing - the one that says 'this stuff is crap, it'll never be as good as [insert appropriate esteemed author name here]' or who hasn't, as a reader, felt a novel pale in comparison to another to the point where all possible merits of the first book disappear completely?

It's taken me a while to overcome that fear of failure and commit a first draft to the page but there's no way I could complete a manuscript if I thought about the critics - especially not if they have some mythical ideal in mind (which no doubt no author could ever meet all the time!).

So - do you have an 'ideal' author or book that you think sets the standard? Do you ever feel intimidated by that in your writing? Who do you use as your 'ideal' when you think about honing and (dare I say it) perfecting your craft?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Hanging Upside Down and Other Creative Moves

by James Scott Bell

Well, it is indeed Dan Brown week in the world of publishing, as our own Joe Moore and John Ramsey Miller have attested. And that's a good thing. The business needs a shot in the arm. We need to see hardcovers flying off the shelves again. We need people sitting around Starbucks talking fiction, getting caught up in a story world.

There's been a lot of chatter about the phenomenon of The Lost Symbol, as there was for The Da Vinci Code. But today I'd like to focus on another aspect of this event: the author himself.

This latest book was not easy for Mr. Brown. I mean, how do you follow a once-in-a-lifetime hit like TDVC? That book's particular mix of vast religious conspiracy, symbology and fast paced action went spinning around on the wheel of fortune and hit the jackpot.

Brown cops to the pressure of following up. Regarding the long lag time between TDVC and The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown was quoted in the L.A. Times as follows:

"The thing that happened to me and must happen to any writer who's had success is that I temporarily became very self-aware. Instead of writing and saying, 'This is what the character does,' you say, 'Wait, millions of people are going to read this.' ... You're temporarily crippled....[later] The furor died down, and I realized that none of it had any relevance to what I was doing. I'm just a guy who tells a story."

Writers, attend to this. What happened to Dan Brown on a mega level happens to most writers who publish more than one book. A lot of unpublished writers think things will be just swell once they're published, and they can produce book after book with nary a worry.

The truth is, writing fiction gets harder because we continue to raise the bar on ourselves. We do, that is, if we truly care about the craft. We know more about what we do with each book, and where we fall short. We hope we have a growing readership, and want to keep pleasing them, surprising them, delighting them with plot twists, great characters and a bit of stylistic flair.

But we can't stroll down the aisle of "Plots R Us" and choose something fresh, right out of the box. (Although Erle Stanley Gardner was known to use a complex "plot wheel." I guess he did okay. And, FWIW, Slate came up with its own plot generator for those truly desperate to cash in on the Dan Brown phenomenon). We are on a never ending quest for concepts, characters and plot. No matter how many books we've done, we keep aspiring to the next level.

Dan Brown reportedly deals with all this by using gravity shoes. He hangs upside down, letting the blood rush to his head. Bats use the same method. But there are other options.

Whenever you are wondering if you've got the stuff to be published (or, if published, to stay that way), let me offer a few helps.

1. Write. This is the most important thing of all. Get "black on white," as Maupassant used to say. Even if you feel like pond scum as an artist, just start writing. If you can't possibly face a page of your project, write a free form journal about something in your past. Begin with "I remember . . ." Pretty soon, you'll feel like getting back to your novel.

2. Re-read. Pull out a favorite novel, one that really moved you. Read parts of it at random, or even the whole thing. Don't worry about feeling even worse because you think you can't write like that author. You're not supposed to. You never can. But guess what? He can't write like you, either.

3. Incubate. For half an hour think hard about your project, writing notes to yourself, asking questions. Back yourself into tight corners. Then put all that away for a day and do something else. Walk. Swim. Work your day job. Stuff will be bubbling in your "writer's brain." The next day, write.

4. Turn off your Internet browser for a whole day. By which I mean, of course, first read The Kill Zone, then turn off the Net and write. Forget emails, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, or anybody else's space. A bit of downtime from all the noise is good for focus.

Mental landmines abound for writers. The key is not to let any of them stop you from writing, even if you have to hang upside down to do it.

So how do you get yourself going when the going gets tough?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Does Dan Brown Impress You?

John Ramsey Miller

I am happy for Dan Brown, I’m happy for his publisher, Random House, and I’m happy for his broker. I think he deserves his success, even if I do not fully understand it. None of us knows what readers will hit on, but I do know that chasing a wildly successful book by taking the elements you feel are what struck the chord with the audience is usually a waste of good keystrokes. I don’t think most people can write what they don’t feel and hit home runs with an audience. You know what sells? Entertainment. I can break that down. Readers want to feel good, to know their dreams can be realized, that they can escape reality by getting involved, that good kicks evil’s wide ass, and that hope exists despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

Look at the how the lowly Vampire of a few years ago has suddenly been lifted to the heavens. We have vampires drinking synthetic blood, walking about in the daytime, flying like superman, fangs that open like switchblades, feeling emotions, being all sensitive, falling in love, and next we’ll have them procreating like the living, roasting garlic to sprinkle on their popcorn, and ordering scotch and Holy water on the rocks. And now werewolves, ghouls, witches, ghosts, zombies, voodoo priests, magical beasts of every description, are all lining up in the wings waiting their turn to elbow their way into the middle of the stream. Because readers want to feel fear from the safety of their armchairs, and triumph over it without breaking a sweat. They want to believe that there are things they don’t see in their own lives. They (we) want to imagine they can live forever, only if it’s just at night, and they want to believe in monsters, but want even their worst monsters to have a smidgen of goodness buried in there somewhere. And most people believe that animals in jeopardy are more important than people in the same fix. Seriously you can have a monster kill a child that toddles too close, but one that kills curious cats or protective dogs is beyond redemption.

Successful authors gravitate toward subjects, characters, and stories that attract them. I suppose I could write a convincing vampire novel, if I were interested in vampires it might even be interesting, but I’d rather write about gangsters. I’d love to write about the wild West. I’d like to back off to a time when there were no cell phones, few if any telephones, no TV sets and maybe just a radio here and there and newspapers instead of CNN.

The thing about Dan Brown is that his work isn’t a fluke. About anytime a writer is successful, critics pick at his style, impugn his accuracy, and generally rain poo-poo on his ability. Dan Brown is into his story, cares about his characters, and likes slaying giants. Brown is a great writer, and his financial rewards are well deserved because it is a gift to Mr. Brown for what he is offering them in exchange. Maybe Dan Brown won’t win an Edgar, or the ITW for best novel, or any other rewards his contemporaries can bestow. Like so many great commercially successful artists jealousy keeps those prizes away. But authors like Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, JK Rowling, John Grisham, James Patterson, Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer, and Dan Brown, the people are voting, and they are voting yes, yes, yes. When millions of people think you are a great writer, the Nobel, Pulitzer committee, and the critics are irrelevant and should be. Would you rather have a line of awards on your bookshelves, or some producer from the Today show begging you for the fifteenth time to make an appearance, or a Gulfstream V taking you and your family to Europe so you can watch your book being filmed. For most authors I know, it isn’t even close. Of course, all of the above would be heaven.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Point of Who?

By John Gilstrap

Those of us who choose to write in the third person limited point of view face a critical challenge after every space break: Who’s going to own the next scene? That choice affects virtually every sentence that follows it. It affects the action, the voice, the word choice . . . everything. Point of view selections even inform the direction that the plot is going to take.

Let’s say that we’re going to write a fictional account of the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. For the uninitiated, that engagement, fought in July of 1863, is widely considered the turning point in the war—the defeat from which the Confederate Army never fully recovered. More than 160,000 troops descended on a town of 2,400 residents, and at the end of three days of fighting, over 60,000 lay dead or dying, with many thousands more left wounded on the battlefield.

In our fictional account of the story, who will our POV characters be? If we choose to tell a story set among the commanders (George Meade for the Union, Robert E. Lee for the Confederates), it seems to me that it would be too limiting to assume the role of either commander, if only because their lives and decisions are so well documented. Instead, I would probably create a fictional aide de camp whose thoughts and observations I would record. I would imagine that this choice would have us writing battle scenes from a big-picture, strategic world view.

Maybe we’d want to tell the story of the battle from the POV of a rank-and-file soldier, in which case our story would be less about momentous command decisions than it would be about the everyday soldier’s life of unending boredom punctuated by blind terror. Our character’s view of the battle would not concern itself with troop movements on the grand scale, but rather from the very limited perspective of a man under fire choking on the stench of smoke and blood. If he could see anything, it would likely be the shoulders of the soldier in front of him.

Another option might be to tell the story of a Gettysburg resident, a civilian facing the horrors of war and its aftermath. Shall we choose a young woman who fears for the safety of her children? A middle aged man who feels guilt for not being part of the battle? Maybe the town doctor who is facing an unending stream of catastrophic traumatic injuries.

Whichever choice we make, the story will report on the same event, but the perspectives taken on that event will be wildly disparate depending upon our choice of POV.

Take the historical nature of the event out of play and the same challenges continue to exist. If we’re writing a divorce drama from the POVs of both husband and wife, we need to choose which perspective delivers the most drama for the scene where the lawyer reveals the investigator’s tapes of the wife cheating on hubby. If we’re writing a story about a kidnapping, we need to decide whether the actual snatching is best revealed to the reader through the point of view of the victim or the mother who sees him being spirited away.

These are really important decisions. How do you make them? Do you have to go back and rewrite your choices like I have had to do more times than I like to think about? For you first-person writers, do you face any kind of the same choices in your writing, or does the narrow window insulate you from them?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Reason to kill?

By P.D. Martin

Today TKZ is thrilled to have a tremendous writer from the land down under join us, author PD Martin. In her latest release, Fan Mail, Aussie FBI profiler Sophie Anderson is working a case where fiction has become fatal. A popular crime writer is murdered and posed just like the crime scene in the dead author’s last book.

Could crime fiction incite someone to kill? This is a question I’m often asked, and it’s one of the themes I explore in my third book, Fan Mail.

Having done lots of research on murder and criminal psychology, my belief is that if someone is going to take another human being’s life, reading fictional accounts of murder is not going to push them over the edge. Having said that, we do live in a world where we’re increasingly exposed to violence and graphic crime-scene depictions.

Take the many successful (and entertaining) shows on TV: CSI, Bones, Law & Order: SVU…and then, of course, there’s Dexter. But have we really been desensitized?

A few years ago, after lots of meticulous research into horrific and violent crimes, I honestly believed I was desensitized, almost in a similar way to a cop. I’d imagined some horrible situations and written about them in detail. I was tough!

Or so I thought, until I met Victoria Police’s profiler, who gave me a list of law-enforcement text books to help with my research. I ordered them online and was so excited when they arrived; and the timing couldn’t have been better because I was packing for a week-long writing retreat. I threw the books in my luggage and headed down to the beach.

The first thing I did when I arrived was to unpack the books and start flipping through one…and then I saw it. The first page the book opened to was a photo from a crime-scene in which a woman had been raped then murdered. The killer had tied her down and posed her in a disturbingly revealing way. Next photo: a dead woman with both of her breasts cut off. Next photo: a decomposing body. Next photo…I think you get the picture. In that instant I realised my so-called desensitization wasn’t real. They say a picture tells a thousand words and in the case of crime-scene photographs, it’s certainly true. The new set of books disturbed me, but they also made me understand my character, Aussie FBI profiler Sophie Anderson, so much more intensely – to be faced with these photos every day and go’s definitely one of the hardest jobs in the world.

I’m thankful that I write fiction because I can make stuff up and no matter how graphic and horrific, I know it’s not real. And this is also a large part of why I don’t think crime fiction can, or would, incite someone to kill. It is fiction, and no matter how descriptive or well written we know it’s not real. Law-enforcement text books on the other hand…they could be very scary in the wrong hands.
So I'm curious: what do you think? Could reading crime fiction serve as the catalyst for actual crimes?

PD Martin – Phillipa Deanne Martin – is an Australian author with a background in psychology. She has written four novels featuring Aussie FBI profiler Sophie Anderson, of which the first three are currently available in North America – Body Count, The Murderers’ Club and Fan Mail. See for more information.

The Dan Brown flagship

By Joe Moore

tls-brown The waiting is over. THE LOST SYMBOL by Dan Brown hit the store shelves yesterday. Love him or hate him, this is a big deal in the world of publishing.

First there was the long 6-year delay. Then the street talk that Brown would never write another book. Then the possible title: THE SOLOMON KEY. Then the revealing of the anticipated cover. And now the day has come. It’s here—all 5 million, first-print-run copies. Now the big questions are: Will it sell as many copies as THE DA VINCI CODE(80 million)? How long will it sit in the number one slot of every bestselling list on the planet? And is it as good as TDC and ANGELS AND DEMONS? Here are two advance reviews:

The Los Angeles Times calls it “. . . like any roller coaster – thrilling, entertaining and then it’s over.”

The New York Times calls it “sexy” and “impossible to put down.”

So what does this publication mean for us thriller authors? The way I see it, if all of us are ships in a naval battle group, THE LOST SYMBOL is the admiral’s flagship aircraft carrier pulling us in its wake, setting the course, and identifying the potential destination. When TDC came along, it created a whole new cottage industry of thrillers that contained secret societies, lost treasures, relics, scientific and religious conflicts, and other like-minded themes. I know that for me, it helped build interest in four of my novels. But in the bigger picture, it created a hunger. Just like Indiana Jones movies renewed an interest in the dark side of the 1930s-1950s, the Nazi, religious antiquity, and archaeology, Dan Brown and his books have continued to feed that hunger. A hunger that will potentially spill over to other books and writers. Because, once readers finish THE LOST SYMBOL, hopefully they’ll be hungry for more. The void must be filled.

Here’s an example from Library Journal where one of my books is mentioned.

I’m excited not only for Dan Brown, but for all thriller authors. This guy is shooting full-court 3-pointers, but the thriller team is ultimately the winner.

Do you plan on reading THE LOST SYMBOL? Do you consider it a thriller genre-boosting event or just another high profile novel by a famous writer?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


This week's post will be brief because I woke up this morning with flu-like symptoms that have been making me feel achy-breaky most of the day. Authorities tell us that any flu this season can be assumed to be H1N1, formerly known as swine. The good news is that most cases are going to be relatively mild. But don't take that for granted--the husband of a close friend of mine (who suffers from asthma), spent three weeks in St. James Hospital here, and it was touch and go for a while after it it settled into his lungs as pneumonia. If you have any type of lung or pulmonary issues, and you come down with flu, don't wait before getting treatment. Do it right away.

The flu has fallen out of the media spotlight, but it has spread to just about everywhere by now. Here's the CDC flu map, in case you haven't been following the story lately.

Muscle aches aside, I do want to pull the topic back to writing, so I'll list some of my favorite stories involving viruses: The Andromeda Strain, The Hot Zone (nonfiction and not well written, but it did scare the hell out of me). And now I'm putting Robin Cook's Contagion on my TBR list. I saw Mr. Cook speak at Thrillerfest, and it's amazing how brilliant and prolific as an author he is.

What are your favorite medical thrillers? Did any scare the bejeezus out of you?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Are You Ready for Your Close-Up?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

First - forgive me but after nearly 7 hours in the car driving back from Oregon my brain is incapable of functioning...hence a short (possibly garbled) blog post for Monday.

I have been MIA this last week - camping near Crater Lake in Oregon (I know - unbelievable for me!) and then going on to Ashland where I had the great pleasure of being invited by the Ashland Mystery Readers Group to participate in a number of events. The highlight for me was meeting a group of excited readers that made me feel, albeit briefly, like I was a superstar:)
I also had my first TV experience (on RVTV noir) which was terrific and not as nerve wracking as I feared...until...they asked me to take a look at the raw footage. I soon discovered that I cannot bear to watch or listen to myself on camera. Pathetic really - but from the snippets I did see (between my fingers) I gained some useful insights in case one day I get that call from Oprah...

Here they are (for what they are worth):

1. Do wear the bright red jacket. I was thankful that I had chosen something vibrant as (being the pale Celt that I am) it looked terrific on camera. I tastefully also avoided any kind of pattern that might either flare on screen or make me look fat (I am so vain!)

2. Ignore the cameras - insofar as you want to look as natural as possible...but also make sure you engage the imaginary audience out there so there is some eye contact. As I couldn't bear to watch myself I'm not sure how successful I was on this front...but the kind camera crew said it looked good.

3. Record yourself to hear how you actually sound reading from your work. This is not something I did but when I heard myself on the footage I realized that this would have been a great tool to use - perhaps then I wouldn't have cringed when I heard my accent:)

4. Relax. I did this and the interview went by so fast I hardly knew I'd had one. I think this helped make the show feel like a natural extension of a one-on-one conversation rather than a stilted 'in front of the camera' interview.

I'm now excited about the possibility of using video/TV for marketing...though I guess I have to get over my embarrassment of watching myself first. I also have to give a huge thank you to everyone who came to my events in Ashland and Klamath Falls and to Maureen who organized it all:)

If you go to the Ashland Mystery Readers Group website and click on RVTV noir you'll also be able to see some of the other RVTV noir readings (mine will be up once it's edited - have no fear, I'll warn you when it's there:)).

So have any of you have experience with TV? Any belated advice or feedback on what works/doesn't work? Have any of you used the video/TV option in your marketing and, if so, what was your experience like?

Now I know I'm starting to ramble...It's late and I need my beauty sleep (badly!) just in case I get the call this week for you network TV debut:)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

How to Write Action Scenes

by James Scott Bell

Recently I participated in a panel discussion with some fellow thriller writers. During the Q & A we got this question from the floor: How can I learn to write a good action scene?

I answered first. I told the questioner to take advantage of all the elements of fiction writing ­­–- dialogue, internal thoughts, description and action -- and use them to show us what's happening inside and outside the viewpoint character.

I recommended he read how Dean Koontz does it, especially in what is considered his breakout bestseller, Whispers (1980). There Koontz has an action scene (an attempted rape) that lasts 17 pages (that's right, 17 pages!) all taking place within the close confines of a house.

Another panelist protested (in a good natured and professional manner). He said action needs to be "realistic." For instance, when a gunshot is fired nobody has time to think. It all happens too fast. If they're shot, the pain comes, and they will not be reflecting on anything. They'll just be in pain.

This was grist for a great discussion. I licked my chops but, unfortunately, we were at the end of the panel and time was called. I never got a chance to respond. Now I do.

I would have said, first, that a gunshot does not cover the wide spectrum of action. In the Koontz scene from Whispers we have someone stalking the Lead. No guns. So that example is of limited value.

But further, and even more important: fiction is not reality! Fiction is the stylized rendition of reality for an emotional effect.

That's so important I'll say it again: Fiction is the stylized rendition of reality for an emotional effect.

Reality is boring. Reality is not drama. Reality is to be avoided at all costs ("We must stay drunk on writing," Ray Bradbury once said, "so reality does not destroy us.")

Hitchcock's Axiom holds that a great story is life with the dull parts taken out. Reality has dull parts. Lots of them. Fiction, if it works, does not.

A thriller writer wants the reader to believe he or she is vicariously experiencing the story. We use techniques to engage the reader's emotions all along the way. If there is no emotional hook, there is no thrill, no matter how "real" the writing seems.

Let's have a look at a couple of clips from Whispers. Hilary Thomas, a successful screenwriter, comes home to discover that Bruno Frye, someone she'd met once, is waiting for her, and not for a game of cribbage.

She cleared her throat nervously. "What are you doing here?"

"Came to see you."


"Just had to see you again."

"About what?"

He was still grinning. He had a tense, predatory look. His was the smile of the wolf just before it closed its hungry jaws on the cornered rabbit.

Koontz breaks into the dialogue exchange for some description. The effect is like slow motion, which is another key to a good action scene. In essence, you slow down "real time" to create the feeling and tone you desire.

He took a step toward her.

She knew then, beyond doubt, what he wanted. But it was crazy, unthinkable. Why would a wealthy man of his high social position travel hundreds of miles to risk his fortune, reputation, and freedom for one brief violent moment of forced sex?

Now Koontz inserts a thought. In real time, when a rapist takes a step toward a victim, there would probably be no reflection, no pondering. But fiction enhances moments like this. Koontz is stretching the tension. He wants the reader taut while furiously flipping pages.

But 17 of them? Is Koontz insane? Or is he one of the best selling writers in history for a reason?

In fact, Koontz is a consummate pro who knows exactly what he's doing. He even names it a couple of pages in:

Abruptly, the world was a slow-motion movie. Each second seemed like a minute. She watched him approach as if he were a creature in a nightmare, as if the atmosphere had suddenly become thick as syrup.

That, my friends, is stylization for emotional effect. If you'd like to grumble about that –– complain that it isn't "like reality" –– you may send your objections directly to Dean Koontz, who gives his address in the back of his books.

Let me know what he says.

Meanwhile, if you're looking to sell your fiction, learn to use the tools. Especially in actions scenes.

So what about you? Any writers you think do action particularly well? What makes an action scene work for you?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Let's Leave JD Sleeping...

John Ramsey Miller

This week I was reading about a famous photographer with serious financial problems and I was thinking about how her dilemma is really nobody’s business but hers and the people she owes the money to. She collateralized a loan with the copyrights of every photograph she’s ever taken or will take. Other than the fact that it’s a cautionary tale of reversal, it’s just another story about someone who got in over their head. Why do we thrive on other people’s problems and especially their failures? There’s a German word for it that I can never remember how to spell and have to look up. It’s Schadenfreude. I don’t know why we don’t have a word in English for it. We watch fascinated like we’re getting paid for every Icarus that flies too close the media’s headlights. This incident with the photographer got me thinking about copyrights. It’s something authors should think about, become familiar with. I checked on the Net.

How long does a copyright last?
The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. Of course it's complicated, and I don't really know much about it. I guess we might all do to know where we stand legally speaking.

How familiar are we with the laws that protect us. And do you understand the Google Settlement? How pissed are we to get if our copyright is violated?

I started a new work this week and I'm excited about it because I've been doing a mental dance with the protagonist for a couple of months getting to know him, his cadence, his backstory. It's not a thriller, it's a story and I want to tell a story that isn't a chase against the ticking clock. I don't want my characters wearing their shoes out twice from the front cover to the back. I just want to once be able to peel an onion layer by layer and build suspense differently. I wonder how I would feel if somebody took this character after I am dead or have wandered off into the woods or am living with my chickens and dogs and put him in a book they wrote. I think I'd be weirded out.

A question comes to mind from a recent lawsuit. If I want to write a book that includes characters from Salinger’s book, CATCHER IN THE RYE, can I do it? Say you want to write a book that takes Holden Caufield thirty or forty years beyond where Salinger left him, can you do it? Why pick up something Salinger dropped? Can you do it if you get Salinger’s permission? Why would anybody write a book, spending a couple of years laboring at it using someone else’s character or characters?

Friday, September 11, 2009

We Have To Remember

By John Gilstrap

I know that people read blogs for entertainment, and that as a writer, it’s my professional obligation to put fans’ needs ahead of my own. This week, though, I beg your forgiveness, because that’s not going to happen. This blog entry comes from a dark, dark place.

Eight years ago today, 2,980 people were murdered on a beautiful morning. According to, 247 passengers were killed on hijacked airplanes, 2,595 workers were killed in the World Trade Centers, and 125 civilians and military personnel were murdered in the Pentagon. Officials estimate that 1,609 people lost their spouse or partner, and over 3,000 children lost parents. Nearly 6,000 mothers and fathers lost sons and daughters.

Ever stop to think about how horrible it must have been for the victims who’d been sentenced to death that day? Well, here’s a peek (be warned that it’s tough to listen to):

Does the video make you as angry as it makes me? Good God, those bastards bitch-slapped the most powerful nation on the planet. We should be acrimonious--shouldn’t we?

Well, apparently not. It seems that anger’s no longer cool. I recently heard a late night talk show host use 9/11 as a punch line in his monologue. Not this week, of course, because this is too near the anniversary, and that would be in bad taste. He didn’t mean to make light of the murders, I’m sure, but merely to score a cheap laugh by sticking a rhetorical finger in the eye of a politician. Sorry, some things will never be funny.

But humor eases pain, right?

I understand from educators and psychologists that the images of September 11 are too traumatic to be shown on television anymore. It’s not healthy to think about so much suffering, they say. I’ll defer to their expertise, but I don’t understand how we’re supposed to remember the dead if we don’t think about the plot and the people who murdered them.

And if we don’t remember the victims, how can we possibly remain vigilant? It depresses me that today’s seventh-graders likely have no concept of the trauma that the world endured on September 11, and it angers me that the world seems comfortable with that. Our children are not taught in school that bad people continue to lurk in terrorist cells planning their deaths, and yours, and mine. We teach them to fear garden-variety strangers, but not terrorists.

Is it possible that we’re just lazy? Anger is exhausting, after all, and fear is even more exhausting, so maybe it’s just human nature that we move on and try our best to forget; to let time do its thing to heal wounds. We can always remind ourselves of what it feels like if another attack comes, and then we can be angry again. We can even wave a few flags for a while.

You know, until it’s okay again to turn the tragedy into a punch line on late night television.