Monday, November 30, 2009

Five gifts you don't want to unwrap this holiday season

We're coming off a pretty depressing month of November, so I thought I'd kick-start the holiday season with a few early reflections about gifts: Gifts given, gifts received. The Good, the Bad, and the Butt-ugly.

When it comes to worst-ever gifts, it's not the gift per se that counts. If you get a hideous Rudolf the Reindeer sweater from your Aunt Minnie, at least you know she meant well. (Unless she's like some of the Minnie-hahas around my tree).

The worst gifts are ones you know were chosen with malice aforethought; they reflect--badly--on you, or on the relationship between giver and givee.

Here, in no particular order, is my own Top 5 list of worst-ever gifts:
  • A set of Franklin Mint quarters, given to me by a buddy who kept borrowing money.
  • A refrigerator alarm that oinked, the year I put on a few holiday pounds.
  • A paper shredder, right after I announced my plan to become a professional writer. (I already had an organic paper shredder--my cat).
  • A set of candles that was regifted to me, from the person I'd given it to the previous year.
  • Any of the "For Dummies" books I've ever received. (And I hate to admit, there've been more than a few.)
To be fair, here are a few clunkers I've given over the years that didn't go over so well:
  • A Christmas card I regifted in the first grade. It had the original recipient's name erased, but still clearly legible.(I was only six, okay?)
  • An Epilady hair remover, for a hirsute friend.
  • A jumbo box of See's Candy, for someone who was on a diet.
  • A set of carving knives, for a soon-to-be ex.

Looking over that list, I'm...I'm ashamed. And I solemnly vow not to leave any passive-aggressive lumps of coal in any one's stocking this year.

So what are some of your worst-ever gifts given? Received?

Thanksgiving Day Bravery

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Having just spent a great Thanksgiving in LA (despite the horrible traffic) I have returned re-motivated. Why? Because my friend Charysse gave me a much needed boost. In a recent work evaluation she had to list the ten people she would most want to have at a dinner party and I was one of the chosen. While this was nice and all - it was her reason for choosing me that caused a lump to form in my throat. She said she had told her boss it was because I was one of the bravest people she knew. Now I'm no courageous Clare that's for sure - I'm terrified of heights, wimpy about woods (there's bears out there you know) and squeamish about virtually everything - but I was, in my friend's estimation, brave because I chose to 'lay it all out there' - abandoning my successful career in pursuit of a dream and risking all in the process. Her support brought tears to our eyes and it made me realize (as it was Thanksgiving after all) how thankful I am for so many things...Yes, here's where it gets soppy (and I have to admonish my fellow Killzoners - where was the obligatory 'what are we thankful for' post last week?! Hey, I adopted this country for these kinds of celebrations!)

So here's my top 5 things that I'm thankful for:

  1. My family (obviously) - you gotta love two five year old boys who manage to make it in the car to LA (and the three hour traffic jam we encountered Wednesday when we arrived) without watching even one DVD...

  2. That I still have an agent (he hasn't abandoned me yet, at least I don't think so...)

  3. That I still LOVE to write (despite the publishing industry's best efforts...)

  4. That I get such great support from friends, family, fellow writers and fans so that even in the bleakest of November moods I can see a glimmer of hope.

  5. That I finally had my hair cut.

Okay, the last one may seem trivial but believe me I needed it! I've been growing my hair all year (see New Year's resolution post) only to discover that (surprise, surprise) I hated it. Not only did my husband think it made me look older (yes, it's a miracle sometimes that we're still married) but I also never had the time to style it into any pseudo-Edwardian glory. I have to admit, as much as I might want to channel Ursula in my life, I need a maid to be able to do so...otherwise I'm just another boring old mum with her hair in a pony tail. Now, of course, post-hair cut, I'm the chic, youthful, cool mum with the gorgeous 1920's bob:)

But enough about me...what are you thankful for?

PS: In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I'd also like to invite all killzoners to help out Basil Sands in his quest to name his blog radio show. He's offering $25 if you suggest the name he ends up using, and for those of you who regularly read the comments you know he is hilarious (so his show is bound to be great!). You can visit his website: for more details.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bleak November

by James Scott Bell

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. – Moby-Dick (Rockwell Kent, Illustrator)

Why does November feel like the month the Earth stood still? Or imploded? Or got hit by that tsunami in the movie 2012?

It seems like this month all the upheavals in the publishing industry started to coalesce into one big flaming mess on the order of the Hindenburg. At least, that's how it sounded on various blogs and comment sections, where rhetoric sometimes reached conflagration levels.

All the anxiety over eBooks and eReaders, the move of some big publishers into the self-publishing market, the revelation of paltry incomes associated even with a New York Times bestselling book, and the apprehension of authors and agents over just how anybody is going make any kind of a buck as a novelist anymore – it all seemed to come to a head this month.

Why should this be so?

First, the very pace of change in our world is now such that major developments happen almost as fast as chair throwing incidents on Jerry Springer. And humans naturally feel anxious about change until we can catch up and figure out what's going on. But we always seem to feel a few steps behind these days.

How fast are things moving? Already there's talk that the Kindle is on the way out. Authors and publishers are even now embedding links to websites and YouTube for added content in digital novels, links which can be accessed on, say, an iPhone but not a Kindle. There's even a name for such digi-novels: Vooks.

Which leads to the technological changes that seem poised to alter the paradigms we've lived with for centuries, such as books on paper being paid for by readers. No one knows what a paradigm shift feels like until they've actually been through it, and we haven't been through it yet. We're inside it.

So as all this is happening, hands are being wrung throughout cyberspace. The only thing we know for certain is nothing is certain, and the landscape we see today will be very different tomorrow.

I have but two predictions:

1. People are still going to want good stories to read.

2. They're not going to pay as much money to get them.

As to #1, writers need to do what they've always done: write and write well. Over and over. That calls for commitment to the craft and resistance to the "easy way" of self-publishing.

Let's be blunt. We all know the overwhelming majority of self-published books aren't good enough to be published the traditional way. That doesn't mean there aren't exceptions. There are. But they are as rare as Susan Boyle.

Yes, I do believe authors will do more direct selling in the future. They will make their stuff available in digital form directly. But they still have to prove themselves to be good writers, or people won't buy.

Which leads to #2. Consumers are being trained to pay $10 or less for books. This means hardcovers are probably a dinosaur. The mastodons are in the tar pits.

But there will still be a market for books, because of #1. You know what it feels like? The mass market paperback boom post-World War II. Low price point, ease of use. The eBook revolution may be recreating this type of market. (According to Kelly Gallagher, VP of Publishing Services at RR Bowker, eBook consumption favors fiction over nonfiction at a rate disproportionate to print).

The cream will rise to the top. Those novelists who can deliver, book after book, are going to gain a following and have the chance to make some coin.

EBooks still represent only a small portion of the book market, by the way. I mean, let's not be hasty. The "early adopters" drove sales of eReaders over the last year. The curve is going to flatten in 2010 or 2011. It's not going to be like the personal computer boom. We're talking about a convenience rather than a necessity. (That may change somewhat as businesses find ways to use the ever improving devices. But will they become "little laptops"? I don't think so because we already have something called . . . a laptop).

How far eReaders will eventually reach is still a tough call. I know there are purveyors of pervasiveness out there, but hold the iPhone. I've pointedly spoken to several twenty-something readers over the past few weeks, and was gobsmacked when none of them liked eReaders. They were paper people! Astonishing.

So whenever I get to feeling like old Ishmael, with a "damp, drizzly November of the soul," and when I, too, want to go outside and knock some hats off, I remember that fiction writers will always be around. The world needs us.

Maybe now more than ever.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Has Superficiality Reached It’s Zenith Yet?

John Ramsey Miller

During my first six decades of life, I have learned know a lot about self-indulgence, image, illusion and self-delusion, and I’ve been trying to live a more honest, simpler, and more meaningful existence. I don’t mind telling you I am stunned and amazed by what I see on television. In the name of research I have been watching a few "reality" shows instead of my usual list of educational- purposes-only television shows: the CSIs, Law & Order, and its numerous spinoffs, Two and A Half Men, Big Bang Theory, and I started watching The Housewives of Orange County, New York City, and Atlanta, Bridezillas, Million-Dollar Deal, Flipping Out, and a couple whose names I can’t even recall. Anderson Cooper said he never misses Bridezillas, and I suspect a lot of otherwise serious people watch at least some of these reality shows. I have never watched So You Think You Can Be a Star, You Can Dance With the Stars, The Great Race for a Survivor, and Watch Ozzie Toddle and Drool. I think there may be substance to others, but I couldn’t say for sure. I only watch American Idol as long as they have the “unfortunate” talent performing. In fact I would watch “American Idol, The Painful Miserable Fail Tapes.”

A populace’s preoccupation with the superficial is a sure sign of a civilization in decline, (like we need another warning sign) and it appears that ours is on a super-slide toward an apocalyptical Mad Max existence. At that point the reality shows will take on a more life-and-death tone. Shooting Guns To Make The Stars Dance, Cooking Road Kill, and Beevis & Butthead re-runs. We’d still have Bridezillas, but each segment will end with the offensive and self-absorbed brides being bitch-slapped by show fans. If the delusional, hissy-fit-throwing brides I saw on that TV show had actual political power to go with an over-inflated self-importance they’d be what we call elected representatives.

What gets me is how superficial the lives of the people on these shows can be, and that watching it is funny, but it is also terribly sad. Who exactly are the producers catering to? The idea that there is such a demand for this kind of reality programming that targets unhappy, cloying, unbalanced, and emotionally cripple people is frightening. Yes, I laugh at the Housewives who spend their days sipping wine, attending daily parties and luncheons, building a delusional wall, purchasing clothes and accessories, gossiping, and biting each other’s backs. Lord, it’s a hell of a mess. And, I say this guiltily; it’s utterly fascinating. I think that watching other people behaving badly helps us feel better about ourselves, and superior to those who are mistreating their maids of honor, or buying twenty thousand dollar watches to toss in a drawer after they’ve worn them once or twice. I have to admit I feel dirty after watching most of these shows, but I'm giggling while I shower.

It makes you wonder what the American dream has become, what these people imagine it to be, or are the producers merely capturing the worst moments, perhaps egging the participants on to cater to the worst in each of us? And why we are more fascinated with the false reality shows on TV than what is happening in the actual world. Do we want to be treated like children after we’re grown, or do we want to be grownups and act like mature individuals and take responsibility for our actions? The worst is the thought that my own reality show would be so boring that nobody could watch it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Branding My Bad Self

By John Gilstrap
A few weeks ago, we enjoyed an interesting discussion here in The Killzone about branding. The consensus seemed to be that because books are products, they need to be marketed accordingly. That means a unified message across all avenues of communication. We said that the author’s website should invoke the cover. Ditto business cards, post cards, etc. As I recall, I was one hundred percent on board with the consensus.

At least in principle. Last week, reality invaded my theoretical agreement.

My editor sent me an email telling me that I should consider a new author photograph—one that more appropriately invokes the aura of a thriller. Specifically, she thought that I should get a photo that makes me look like more of a—and this is her word—badass.

Do me a favor and scroll over to the right, to the Killzone mug shots. The one of me is my current author photo. Now go to the dictionary and look up “white bread nice guy”. My picture is there, too.

Folks, there is not a single cell of badass blood in my body. According to my wife, I barely have an ass at all; but I think she’ll agree that what’s there is definitely not bad—at least not in this context.

Having talked the talk, though, it’s time for me to walk the walk. I’ve scheduled the photo shoot for Monday, November 30. The photographer seems to have confidence that she can pull off this remarkable transformation, but can she do it in a way that will not trigger gales of laughter from people who know me? Lord, I hope so. I hang with a pretty unforgiving, ballbusting crowd.

Here’s my question for you folks: Does the author photo in any way enter into your purchase decision for a book? I think it’s clear that the front cover is an important part of the shopping experience, but what about the back cover?

If you go to an author event expecting to find a guy whose photo makes him look to be from the same mold as his badass character, and instead find Mr. Suburban America, will the surprise disappoint you? Anger you, maybe?

Or does everybody know that this is just the way the game is played?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Real Losers in the Harlequin Horizons Debate

by Michelle Gagnon

So for those of you who don’t know, last week Harlequin announced that they were linking up with a vanity publisher (although they called it “self-publishing." More on that in a bit).

The initial announcement promised that for $600, an aspiring author could publish their book with the “Harlequin Horizons” logo on it (although after weathering a week of criticism for including the Harlequin name in the new imprint, it was renamed “DellArte Press”). For another $342, that book would receive an “editorial review,” (which actually will only cover the first chapter, or roughly 1700 words). The packages spiral upwards in cost to the whole enchilada, including email blasts which come in at just under $12,000 (just for the email blast, mind you--that doesn’t include any of the other costs).

Whoa. That’s a lot of money. And should your manuscript actually sell a million copies, despite the fact that you paid for the publishing, marketing, and editing, you’ll still share profits with Harlequin—to the tune of 50% of the net (and there’s an excellent, and very funny, post about that on Jackie Kessler’s blog).

Which brings us to the difference between self-publishing and vanity-publishing. With self-publishing, an author keeps any and all profits made from sales of their book. With vanity publishing, those profits are split with the publisher--you pay them to print the book, then they take a cut of the earnings.
Hence, the new Harlequin venture is undoubtedly vanity publishing. As the MWA said:

“It is common for disreputable publishers to try to profit from aspiring writers by steering them to their own for-pay editorial, marketing, and publishing services. The implication is that by paying for those services, the writer is more likely to sell his manuscript to the publisher. Harlequin recommends the "eHarlequin Manuscript Critique Service" in the text of its manuscript submission guidelines for all of its imprints and include a link to "Harlequin Horizons," its new self-publishing arm, without any indication that these are advertisements. That, coupled with the fact that these businesses share the Harlequin name, may mislead writers into believing they can enhance their chances of being published by Harlequin by paying for these services.”

I’m guessing the executives didn’t anticipate the firestorm this would incite. Almost immediately, the RWA responded by saying that in the future, Harlequin would be treated as a vanity press, and would no longer be eligible for certain amenities at the annual conference that they’ve received in the past. They were shortly joined by the Mystery Writers of America and Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, who also officially demoted Harlequin’s standing to a vanity press.
Mind you, this is across the board, not just for authors published under the new imprint.

Harlequin was “surprised and dismayed” by the reaction (their words, not mine) and so they backtracked--a little. In the next announcement, they said, “we are changing the name of the self-publishing company from Harlequin Horizons to a designation that will not refer to Harlequin in any way.” (hence, DellArte Press). No word yet on whether or not this compromise will change anything in terms of their standing with the various author associations.

One thing that’s been lost in all this is the impact on authors who were already under contract with a Hq imprint (myself included, as MIRA is their thriller imprint. So consider me biased). When I received the initial press release announcing the new line, I honestly didn’t think much of it--after all, how could this possibly affect me?

Within a matter of days, I found out. First of all, any author who publishes with Harlequin will lose their standing with nearly every organization. That means that New York Times bestselling author Heather Graham will no longer be considered a published author. Neither will Debbie Macomber. Neither they, nor anyone else who signed a deal with Harlequin (myself included), will be eligible for any future Rita Awards, Edgars, or Nebula Awards.

Crazy, right? As one commenter said in a forum, “It must feel like they (Harlequin authors) showed up to work and found out that the boss had decided to open a bordello.”

I’ll admit I’m not thrilled with the way that Harlequin has handled this from the outset.
However, I’m equally offended by the way the organizations have responded. Groups that I’ve faithfully paid membership dues to for years, whose boards I’ve served on, were just as quick to kick me and my work to the curb. The Harlequin authors are getting it on both ends. We’re being penalized for a decision made by our publisher that we had absolutely nothing to do with. And we’ve also been summarily marginalized by organizations we considered ourselves to be an intrinsic part of.

So what happens now? Perhaps renaming the imprint will satisfy the concerns of the various organizations. If not, perhaps Harlequin will make another concession—or they won’t, which will force some tough choices down the line.

And I suspect that many Harlequin authors are reconsidering their relationship with their publisher. Should some of Harlequin’s bread-and-butter authors like Graham and Macomber jump ship once their contracts are up, I doubt the profits from the new vanity line will offset the loss.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Building a better robot

By Joe Moore

Along with plot, setting, dialog, theme, and premise, your story is made up of characters. Hopefully, they’re interesting and believable. If they’re not, here are a few tips on making them so.

It’s important to think of your characters as having a life prior to the story starting, and unless you kill them off, also having a life beyond the last page. You need to know your character’s history. This doesn’t mean you have to explain every detail to the reader, but as the author, you must know it. Humans are creatures molded by our past lives. There’s no difference with your fictional characters. The more you know about them, the more you’ll know how they will react under different circumstances and levels of pressure.

robots The reader doesn’t need to know everyone’s resume and pedigree, but those things that happened to a character prior to the start of the story will help justify their actions and reactions. For instance, a child who fell down a mine shaft and remained in the darkness of that terrible place for days until rescued could, as an adult, harbor a deep fear of cramped dark places when it comes time to escape from one in your story. Why does Indiana Jones stare down into the ancient ruins and hesitate to proceed when he says, “I hate snakes.” We know because he had a frightening encounter with snakes as a youth. But the background info must be dished out to the reader in small doses in order to avoid the dreaded “info dump”. Keep the reader on a need-to-know basis.

Next, realize that your characters drive your plot. If a particular character was taken out of the story, how would the plot change? Does a character add conflict? Conflict is the fuel of the story. Without it, the fire goes out.

Also remember to allow the reader to do a lot of the heavy lifting by building the characters in their mind. Give just enough information to let them form a picture that’s consistent with your intentions. The character they build in their imagination will be much stronger that the one you tried to over-explain. Telling the reader how to think dilutes your story and its strength. Don’t explain a character’s motives or feelings. Let the reader come to their own conclusion based upon the character’s actions and reactions.

Avoid characters of convenience or messengers. By that I mean, don’t bring a character on stage purely to give out information. Make your characters earn their keep by taking part in the story, not just telling the story.

Challenge your characters. Push them just beyond their preset boundaries. Make them question their beliefs and judgment. There’s no place for warm and cozy in a compelling story. Never let them get in a comfort zone. Always keep it just out of their reach.

And finally, make your characters interesting. Place contradictions in their lives that show two sides to their personality such as a philosophy professor that loves soap operas or a minister with a secret gambling addiction. Turn them into multi-faceted human beings in whom the reader can relate. Without strong characters, a great plots fall flat.

So what has this all got to do with building a better robot? Even if you write science fiction or fantasy and your characters are robots or trolls, the memorable ones are those with strong human traits. Think r2d2 and C-3PO.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Setting the Pace

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I'm at the point in my current WIP where I'm checking the pacing of the story so far. I often do this when I feel that something just isn't clicking - either the story is starting to drag or I'm in danger of losing direction - and I find pacing is often at the crux of the problem. Being the anal outliner that I am, I have a number of steps which I undertake when I need, quite literally, to go through the paces. When I finished the first draft of my first novel, Consequences of Sin, my study was plastered with butcher paper graphs of the story - with different colors for all the critical aspects of the story - mystery, character development, romance etc. and with all the highs and lows (as well as lulls) represented. It was a visual way for me to gauge how well I was pacing the story (or not!).

Pacing is a tricky thing and one, I suspect, gets easier with practice (at least I bloody well hope so!) but when the pacing gets out of whack the story either dies a long, lingering death or seems to hurtle from scene to scene without stopping for air (leaving the reader a little winded and unsatisfied at the end). Somewhere between the two, the story sings.

So this is how I try and attack the pacing issue:

  • Chapter outlines - I know, I know, only an outliner would start with this anyway, but I actually redo these midway through the first draft, emphasizing what key tensions are involved, what key plot points are revealed, and how the relationships between the characters are unfolding. This type of outlining helps me visualize if there are places in the book where nothing seems to be propelling the story forward and also where they may be spots where too much seems to be happening all at once.
  • Graphing the book: Using the classic three act structure I map out the critical conflicts and plot points in the book. Being a visual person this helps me immediately see how the contours of the story are coming along: too many troughs and I know I'm in trouble; too many peaks early on and I know it's too much like 'Days of our Lives'...
  • Editing for pace: Midway through the first draft I often find myself in edit mode, not necessarily for the nitty-gritty writing elements but more the big picture pacing issues: How is it flowing? Does the book feel like it's building suspense or is it already starting to deflate?...This type of editing helps me focus attention on storyline structure as well as pacing. Many writers probably wait until the end of the first draft to undertake this but I find it helps to do this about half way through - helps me avoid getting bogged down in the saggy middle.
So how do you tackle the issue of pacing in your books? As a reader, who do you think has mastered this (for it is an art to do it well I think)? Any additional tips or pointers - because, let's face it, I could use all the help I can get at the moment!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

In Defense of How-To-Write Books

by James Scott Bell

It's shameless self-promotion day here at TKZ.

This week my third how-to book for Writers Digest releases. It's called The Art of War for Writers and I think, in my own unbiased fashion, that it's going to help a ton of writers, not only those fighting the battle get published, but also those who want to stay published.

But more on that in a bit. In order to keep this from being completely self-referential, I feel a need to say something in defense of how-to-write books.

Every now and again I hear some author putting down how-tos. "You can only learn to write by writing," they'll say. "Don't waste your time studying writing books. Just put a page in front of you and write!"

Which strikes me as making as much sense as saying, "You can only learn to do brain surgery by doing brain surgery. Don't waste your time studying brain surgery. Just cut open heads and go!"

Uh-huh. Excuse me if I show a preference for a sawbones who has studied under the tutelage of experienced surgeons.

Another trope is, "No one ever learned to write by reading about writing." Really? Isn't that a bit cheeky, unless you've interviewed every published writer out there?

The writer I know best – me – absolutely learned to write by reading how-tos. I had been fed the bunk that "writers are born, not made" while in college, and I bought it, in part because I took a course from Raymond Carver and couldn't do what he did. (I didn't know at the time that there was more than one way to "do" fiction. I thought everybody had to pass through the same tunnel.)

When I finally decided I had to try to learn to write, even if I never got published, I went after it with a club. I started gathering books on writing, read Writers Digest religiously (especially Lawrence Block's fiction column), took some classes, and wrote every day. Living in L.A. it was required that I try screenwriting first, so I wrote four complete screenplays in one year, giving them to a film school friend, who patiently read them and told me they weren't working. But he didn't know why.

Then one day I read a chapter in a book by the great writing teacher Jack Bickham. And I had an epiphany. Literally. Light bulbs and fireworks went off inside my head, and I finally got it. Or at least a big part of it.

So I wrote another screenplay, and that was the one that my friend liked. The next one I wrote got optioned, and the one after that got me into one of the top agencies in town.

All because I finally got it from a how-to book.

That's not to say I might not have gotten it some other way (like trial and error over ten years), but at the very least this saved me time. And that's the reason I write my how-to books – to save writers time, and give them the nuts and bolts they need to make it in this racket. I want to write the sort of books I was looking for when I was wandering in the darkness.

"But you cannot learn to write fiction. . ."

So how did the writers of the past learn? Many of them had a great editor, like Max Perkins. Some had an older writer who read their stuff and suggested ways to make it better. Some, like the great writer-director Preston Sturges, learned from the how-to books available in his day. (In Sturges's case, it was the books of Brander Matthews.)

So a good how-to book is like an editor or teacher. Is there not some value in that?

Now it is quite true you can't just read how-tos and get better without practice. You have to write every day, and apply what you're learning. But if you write blindly, without correction and education, you're most likely going to be turning wheels like that rodent in the cage. A lot of effort but getting nowhere.

I am a firm believer in how-to books, and write them because I want to give back something to the craft I love. I know they've helped writers get published. Here's one testimonial from NPR.

Now the publisher's blurb about The Art of War for Writers:

Successfully starting and finishing a publishable novel is often like fighting a series of battles - against the page, against one's own self-doubt, against rebellious characters, etc. Featuring timeless, innovative, and concise writing strategies and focused exercises, this book is the ultimate battle plan and more - it's Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" for novelists. Tactics and exercises are provided on idea generation and development, character building, plotting, drafting, querying and submitting, dealing with rejection, coping with envy and unrealistic expectations, and much more.

So what about you? Have you ever been helped by a how-to book on writing? Or do you consider them a waste of time?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Tired of the Same Old Formulas?

John Ramsey Miller

A friend of mine recently said that like Westerns, Thriller plots and characters by totally different authors seem to be the same five pounds of words tossed through slightly different fans.

Okay, in Westerns there were only a handful of plots and they pretty much all fit into the Zane Gray/ Louis L’Amour formula. I read and love Westerns, and I always have. I like them because they take me back to a simpler time. The cussing was softer, the men were bad or good with the occasional shade of gray. You could see character arcs coming as soon as the characters were introduced. You know what to expect, like walking into a Burger King. I loved Appaloosa by Robert Parker, a new Western, but not really. The stories tend to be one of a few we’re all familiar with. A newly arrived stranger, a school teacher, a greedy cattle baron who assumes the teacher is going to marry him, and she is fooled into thinking he is a rich and a good guy and would have wed him except for the stranger gets to town who shows her what the baron is really like… Then there’s the trouble-hating stranger come to town (maybe from the Civil War) or to a ranch run by a beautiful woman who is being pushed off or who has a cattle baron wanting her land and perhaps even her hand in marriage… and the stranger is there to right a wrong because he made a battlefield promise to the woman’s dying husband (or her son) to do it… and although he has sworn not to use a gun never ever never again he has to use the dreaded gun once again to put the baron into the barren soil. Then there’s the bad guy (think army soldier sent to kill Indians) who through some sort of life-altering spiritual interaction with the not at all savage savages, just misunderstood, savages becomes a friend of the tribe, who are pure souls and helps fight the evil other just like he once was. That, with a few variations, about covers it. All that’s left are the obligatory shootouts, dialog, knife fights, innocent kisses, rescuing someone who is vulnerable from a terrible and hopeless situation… You all know the stories, and I never get tired of them. Louis and Zane are the undisputed masters of that genre.

Not only are there formulas to every genre, but publishers and editors are loathe to allow an author to stray very far from the formula of his or her genre. And even if the editor agrees, the marketing/sales department usually casts the deciding vote. Editors edit errant manuscripts back into the fold with strokes from a red pen. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, if an editor buys a thriller, the publisher expects a thriller to appear on the shelves, so… I’ve always been told, and I know this from my personal experience, that readers expect an author to give them a consistent series of offerings. They don’t want a Thriller followed by a Mystery, or anything too far off the track of what they’ve read from that author. I have fans that loved Winter Massey and have read the non-Massey books but I know they didn’t enjoy them as much.

File under “Nothing new under the sun.” According to George Ploti there are only 36 dramatic situations possible in the human condition. I have owned that book (a 1st Edition) since the early 1980s, and they are all in there. I suggest every serious author read through it as it is great reference and perhaps a creative stimulus. It’s a very short book and I think it’s still in print. I’ll save you a search and perhaps the cost of the book. The 36 Dramatic Situations are outlined there and it’s certainly worth checking out:

Okay, any thriller will have at least a loose adherence to the formula, but it’s the differences that separate forgettable Thrillers from the memorable. It’s the uniqueness of characters, how intriguing the story is, the surprises, and hopefully the reader will be trying to second guess the author––hopefully without too much success. A home run is a reader who “knows” they have it figured out, and the author sets off a bomb of a jerked rug. The truth is the novel genre formulas we writers adhere to are in place not merely because publishers demand it, but more because the readers who buy the books find familiarity comforting in an unsure world. You’re not likely to change the formulas, but if you aren’t comfortable with the formula for a say a Thriller, you can always change to a Mystery, Romance, or maybe even a Western.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What’s Your Business Plan?

By John Gilstrap

Today’s Killzone entry is born directly of Michelle’s excellent post from yesterday, in which she shared an article by
Declan Burke. In his essay, this very talented writer declares that he can no longer afford to be a writer. He cites the opportunity cost of the hours redirected from the freelancing that pays his bills, and the emotional burden of time away from his family.

Man, I have so been there. Back in 1993, I was a division manager for a behemoth company in the hazardous waste business. It was a time of transition in the hazwaste industry, and after a solid five-year run, I took a hard look at the tea leaves and decided that the company had no choice but to dissolve my division. It wasn’t that we didn’t provide valuable service; rather, there was so much tumult within the organization that none of my rotating bosses had the inclination to pay me a lot of attention.

The details are too complicated for this space, but I realized that their inability to see the value of my group presented a unique opportunity. I hocked everything I owned (and then some) and bought my division away from the behemoth and started a new company, Compliance Services, Inc. It was a sweet deal. And I was terrified. When I say hocked everything, I mean everything. The house, the savings, the kid’s education money . . . everything. If I failed, I didn’t just fail for me, I failed for my entire family.

Failure was not an option. My job became my life, 24/7, and the company thrived.

The bet paid off. Except it never was a bet. A bet implies chance. Obviously, serendipity plays a role in everything, but before launching Compliance Services, I knew exactly what was at stake. I had a business plan. I understood the services I was providing, and I understood the market that purchased them. I knew how much revenue I needed to bring in every month to make payroll, service the debt and pay the bills, and I knew that every dollar beyond that number was mine to keep or reinvest. Truth be told, there weren’t a lot of those extra dollars, but we stayed afloat and comfortable.

I wonder how many writers—themselves by definition business owners—have business plans in place. I’m not talking recreational writers here, the ones who plink at their keyboards the way a duffer swings a club on the weekends; I’m talking about people who depend on their writing for the baby’s shoes and education. Do they know their break-even points and their overhead rates? Do they continuously study the marketplace and strive to serve it?

Do they have a contingency plan in place for the lean seasons? Do they even have a goal?

In business, goals are important. Without them, “success” is indefinable. So, what is your goal? Seriously. If it’s merely to be published, then success is only a Kinko’s away. If it’s to be #1 on the NYT Bestseller List (that’s mine, by the way), then a longer view is in order, and it might be worthwhile to have interim goals. Perhaps being the lead title for your slot at your publisher is a place to start. Maybe it’s just finishing the work in progress. Whatever it is, state it affirmatively.

Having a goal is only the beginning. The next step is to communicate the goal to others. My agent and editor both know where I want to go with my career, and that knowledge helps them shape a thousand different decisions. Being number one on the Times List means writing a Big Book. High concept. My team help me keep my eye on the prize that I’ve laid out for myself. We all know that it probably won’t happen with the next book, or maybe even the next three or six, but we’ve marked intermediate territory to keep us on track.

That brings us to the plan. How are my team and I going to get me to where I want to be? These are the details in which the devil lies and this is where information becomes confidential. Like all businesses, ours is a competitive one, and the microelements of strategy are, I believe, best played close to the vest. Suffice it to say that it’s in constant adjustment.

Finally, there’s the disaster plan. What happens if the bottom falls out of everything? What happens if my plans prove to be misguided? How do I recover? How do I hedge in the good times against the possibility of bad times? For me, the day job helps a lot. The financial cushion and slate of benefits is always welcome—especially now that I’ve crossed the half-century mark—but as I’ve written here before, I enjoy the daily intellectual distraction from things fictional.

Life deals unequal cards. Sometimes the royal flush is followed ten straight hands of garbage. You get knocked off your path, or the path itself becomes a tangle of weeds. These are the times when your goals feel most threatened, when achievement seems too daunting. I think that Declan Burke was in such a place when he wrote his essay. If so, my heart goes out to him.

I just hope he doesn’t give up. Regroup, yes. Change what he writes? Maybe. Who knows? Who am I to say?

I think that our most defining moments occur when our goals seem most threatened. I pray that I’ll always have the stamina to blaze whatever trails I need to keep the goals in sight. I worry that surrender would kill me.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pirates Ahoy

by Michelle Gagnon

I received a Google alert last week for a website called, "" I clicked on it, and lo and behold, it led to a file sharing site. And there were all three of my books, in their entirety, available for free download. Including THE GATEKEEPER, which was just released two weeks ago.

Obviously this is not a rarity, I know plenty of other authors who have been the victims of piracy. And to the site's credit, as soon as my publisher's legal department contacted them, the files were removed. But still--who knows how many free copies were downloaded during the few days that the files were posted? Ebook downloads still constitute a small portion of overall sales--but did the free files make a dent in my Kindle and/or Sony Reader sales? Impossible to say.

The publishing industry is entering a new phase. They're now confronting issues that the music industry has been wrestling with for the past decade. Year after year, total music sales have declined, and industry insiders attribute much of that loss to the continued popularity of pirated songs. According to a report issued in January by the IFPI, fully ninety-five percent of all online music downloads were unauthorized.
The statistics are much lower for pirated books, but it's only going to get worse. As eBook readers come down in price, chances are they'll become as ubiquitous as iPods. And when that happens, this type of piracy will become more and more prevalent.

Most authors who renewed contracts in the year since the financial meltdown saw their advances slashed by thirty percent or more. Combine piracy with the impact of the book price wars, and it'll become nearly impossible for most writers to eke out a living from their work.

Last week Declan Burke posted a poignant message about why he's decided it's no longer feasible to pursue a career as a writer. Unfortunately, there's a chance that more and more authors will be forced into making the same decision. Our own John Ramsey Miller recently posted about the difficulties writers face today, and how it only seems to be getting harder.

Some people argue that self-publishing ebooks will fill this void. To be honest, I have my doubts. First of all, the benefit of an advance is that it enables an author to pay the bills while writing the book. You also receive editorial assistance, marketing help, and distribution. I can say for a fact that without that editorial help, all of my books would have suffered. Sure, I could hire an outside editor--but that would involve more money out of pocket. Throw in cover design, formatting, marketing materials...and my ebook would enter the marketplace down a few thousand dollars. So I'd need to earn at least that to see a profit.

And if the marketplace is flooded with self-published books (which is already happening), how does an author stand out among the crowd? Even if you manage to claw out a niche for yourself, how do you sell enough books to earn a living? I know authors who are garnering a few thousand dollars a year from their ebooks, but that's clearly not enough to survive on. And it's only going to become more difficult.

Sorry to be all doom and gloom, but the truth was that seeing my work posted for free struck me as a harbinger of worse things to come. I spent a year of my life on each of those books. If you factor in the total hours worked on them, I earned less than minimum wage for their creation. And now someone was giving them away, completely disregarding all of that effort. Someone was basically saying that they were worthless, so people might as well have them for free.

I realize that "Rachell" probably didn't have all this in mind when she converted the files so they could be shared. But think of it this way. You can't leave a restaurant without paying for a meal, otherwise the next time you go, the restaurant will likely have closed since they couldn't pay their bills. A good meal costs money to produce; so does a good book. If you don't pay for things, down the road they won't be there for you. So if you love books, and want to continue enjoying the same wide selection down the line, for God's sake buy them. If you want to read them for free, get a library card. Anything else just makes you a thief, and in the end you'll be stuck eating mac and cheese.

The Adventures of Balloon Boy

By Joe Moore

I was listening to James Brown sing “It’s A Man’s World” while trying to decide on adding to the gender bias thread stitched so well into TKZ posts throughout the previous week. But since my fellow blogmates so thoroughly covered the SinC vs. PW dust-up and the related Venus and Mars writing debate, I chose instead to talk about Balloon Boy.

bb1 We all saw it on TV. The Jiffy Pop-shaped silver aircraft streaking over the Colorado landscape. It was mesmerizing watching the helicopters circled the makeshift flying machine like they were covering the arrival of visitors from another planet. The possibility of a 6-year-old boy being trapped inside with the chance that the craft might run out of air and crash or he could come tumbling out at any moment. And we would all witness him cartwheel through the air and slam into farmhouse tin roof or rusty 1950s Chevy pickup. It was drama at its finest. And no one could look away.

If this had been a novel, it would have shot past Dan Brown on the bestseller list with millions lined up to get their copy. As writers, we would have all been asking the same question: Why didn’t I write that? And as readers, we would have been curled up in our beds well into the late night turning those pages as we devoured the story to find out what happened next.

So what can we learn from Balloon Boy when it comes to writing novels? That his story had all the elements of a bestseller.

Initially, there was an immediate grab with extreme danger: Breaking News! A young child’s life was hanging by a thread. Like any great thriller, there was a ticking clock—how long would the craft be able to stay up? Then there was a growing mystery: was the child even in the balloon? The event was ripe with emotion—anyone with children knows the sickening feeling of helplessness as they watched. After all, it could have been their kid.

So we had danger, a young life at stake, time running out, mystery, and gut wrenching emotion. The protagonist was an innocent boy possibly frightened beyond belief and fighting for his life thousands of feet in the air—all in front of a captivated world. And he may only have minutes to live.

Now we all know that for every great protagonist, there should be an equally evil antagonist. In this case, an unlikely character emerged—the boy’s father. As the story progressed after our heavy sigh of relief at finding that the child had been home and save the whole time, the spotlight shifted to the parents, particularly the father. We soon found that he deceived us and caused everyone undue emotional stress. He forced his child to go along with the scheme to fulfill his own personal ambition of securing a family reality show. He even called the local network affiliate to report the runaway balloon before he dialed 911!

The mother was an equal co-conspirator willing to let the plan go forth with full knowledge of the deception. As fear for the child shifted to disgust for the parents and pity for the boy and his siblings, we were taken on a ride that saw our feelings shift from one grand emotion to another as distinctly as a color wheel spotlight shining on an old aluminum Christmas tree—fear, relief, suspicion, revulsion.

The conspiracy started to unravel when Balloon Boy let it slip on a national morning interview that they did it for the “show”. The dedicated local sheriff started digging deeper and finally was able to pull back the fa├žade and expose this despicable conspiracy for what it really was—a lie to capture the headlines and to make money even at the expense of a child.

How does any great story end? The villains get caught and must face their just rewards. The parents have now pleaded guilty and may have to serve jail time.

So what can we learn from Balloon Boy? That it was all there in plain view—the main ingredients for a solid, absorbing and captivating thriller. Boy, I wish I’d written that.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Trashed my post, and hangin' out on the web...


I was planning to comment today on the SinC/PW top ten book list brouhaha, but I think we raked those leaves pretty thoroughly with Clare's post yesterday and John's post on Saturday.

So this afternoon I abandoned my half-finished post and spent the rest of my free time trolling the 'Net for any other controversial literary topics that could get folks hot and bothered. A bit of juicy publishing gossip.

I came up blank. I got

About the only thing my web surfing did for me today is leave me stunned and slightly disoriented by the sheer abundance of information that's out there. Twitter,
Blogpulse, Google Trends, Wonder Wheel, Wikio...yikes!! Our global attention span is being chopped to 140-character bits.

Eventually I lost the energy even for reading on the web, and wound up...where else? YouTube.

I was going to entertain you with some videos of funny cats (some of them really
are gosh-darned cute), but then I started gravitating to book videos and author interviews. And I remembered that Stephen King has a big release this week, UNDER THE DOME. It clocks in at 1088 pages. That's got to be 1.5 pages for every character in your average small town in Maine. The story has an interesting premise: A small town gets cut off from the rest of the world and finds itself, literally, under a dome. It reminds me a bit of a short story I read recently by King called THE MIST. I liked that story (even though I wasn't sold on the monster in it), so I'll probably give UNDER THE DOME a try.

Here's Stephen King talking about story, followed by a reading:

What do you think? Will you run out and buy the book? If you're a writer, have you ever gone back an resurrected a story you abandoned in previous years, as Stephen did?

Where Angels Fear to Tread...The PW Top 10 List

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I seriously considered entitling this post 'Gender Blind My Arse' but was worried it might be too...ambiguous...and I wisely held off from commenting on John's Saturday post for fear that I might come across as some half crazed loony, or worse...a feminist...that's right, that terrible eight letter word (I know, it's amazing, I can count!)

But before I start pissing everyone off already, let me say that the PW top 10 list doesn't bother me all that much. Why not? Because it's not surprising. Because all lists are subjective. Because at least on the extended list women are (sort of) represented. So why, do you ask, am I pissed off? I'm angered by the reaction it has garnered - because it feels like we've been down this road so many times before and it's always a dead-end. Reviewers will always say they were gender-blind, that they tried their very best not to be influenced by anything other than the writing itself (what lies beneath the covers, not what lies between the legs to paraphrase from John's post). To this, groups like Sister-In-Crime will always counter by saying that gender bias is systemic in the publishing industry - from the books selected for review, the level of critical 'gravitas' bestowed, and in the awards handed out. As far as I'm concerned it's a no-win situation and this is what drives me nuts - I mean, after all that we have fought for, I can't believe we're still having this debate.

What I don't get is how women, who buy the overwhelming majority of novels and dominate the publishing industry (at least in terms of editors), don't just proudly denounce all the nonsensical crap that comes up around the gender issue:

  1. Women do not write 'small' 'domesticated' books. So what if the traditional cozy doesn't have zombie dismemberment, it can still be well-written and it can still deal with important 'universal' issues surrounding the human condition. Just because there's a picture of a cat with a ball of yarn on the front does not mean the book has to be marginalized as 'chick-mystery-lit'.

  2. Romance does not equal brainlessness or crappy writing.

  3. There are no inherent gender traits in writing. Just because I'm a woman doesn't mean I write emotions well and action scenes badly. I may write a traditional historical mystery but that doesn't mean that (as a woman) I couldn't write a gruesome, psychologically disturbing book (Val McDermid, anyone?) .

  4. White men don't write better books...

The final point seems spurious to me...but in light of PW's list...I guess I had to say it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

First Person Boring

by James Scott Bell

I love a good First Person POV novel. I love writing FP myself. But there are perils, and if you're thinking of trying your hand at it you're going to need be aware of them.

One of these is the "I'm so interesting" opening that is anything but.

Recently I read a couple of novels in FP that had this problem. They began with the narrator telling us his name and giving us a chapter of backstory. By the time I finished the opening chapter I was thinking, Why am I even listening to you?

Let me illustrate. You go to a party and see a guy standing off to the side, you nod and introduce yourself, and he says, "Hi. My name is Chaddington Flesch. Most people call me Cutty, because my grandfather, Bill Flesch, refused to call me anything else. He liked Cutty Sark, you see, and thought this name would make a man out of me. All through school I had to explain why I was called Cutty. Growing up in Brooklyn, that wasn't always easy. Even today, at my job, which happens to be as an accountant, I . . ."

Yadda yadda yadda. And you're standing there at this party thinking, Dude, I'm sorry, but I don't especially care about your history. I have a history, everybody at this party has a history. Nice meeting you, but . . .

But what if you introduce yourself to the guy and he says, "Did you avoid the cops outside?"

You look confused.

"Because I got stopped by a cop right out there on the street. He tells me to hit the sidewalk, face down, and then proceeds to kick me in the ribs. I say, 'There's been a mistake.' He gets down in my face and says, 'You're the mistake. I'm the correction.'"

What are you thinking then? Either: Am I talking to a criminal? Or, What happened to this poor guy?

What your reaction isn't is bored.

You are hooked on what happened to him. And that's the key to opening with FP. Open with the narrator describing action and not dumping a pile of backstory.

Save that stuff for later.

Open with movement, with action.

I got off the plane at Maguire, and sent a telegram to my dad from the terminal before they loaded us into buses. Two days later, the Air Force made me a civilian, and I walked toward the gate in my own clothes, a suitcase in each hand.

I was a mess.

[361 by Donald Westlake]

The girl's name was Jean Dahl. That was all the information Miss Dennison had been able to pry out of her. Miss Dennison had finally come back to my office and advised me to talk to her. "She's very determined," my secretary said. "I just can't seem to get rid of her."

Then Miss Dennison winked. It was a dry, spinsterish, somewhat evil wink.

[Blackmailer by George Axelrod]

The nun hit me in the mouth and said, "Get out of my house."

[Try Darkness by James Scott Bell]

Now I realize I've used hardboiled examples here, and some of you favor more literary writing. There's a lot of debate on just how you define "literary," but let me suggest that literary does not have to mean leisurely. You can still open with a character in motion in a literary novel, and I guarantee you your chances of hooking an agent or editor, not to mention a reader, will go way up without any other effort at all.

One of my biggest tips to new writers is the "Chapter 2 Switcheroo." I can't tell you how many times I've looked at a manuscript and suggested that Chapter 1 be thrown out and Chapter 2 take over as the new opening. I would say, conservatively, that 90% of the time it makes all the difference, because the characters are moving. There's action. Something is happening. And truly important backstory can be dribbled in later. Readers will always wait patiently for backstory if your frontstory is moving.

Try it and see.