Getting Out of Rewrite Hell Alive

“I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” – Truman Capote

By PJ Parrish

I hate Lee Child.

Well, at least I got your attention.

Okay, I don’t really hate the guy. He’s actually one of the menschiest men in our business. But about once a year, right around the same time, I really really really hate the guy.
Why? He claims he never rewrites. He says he writes one draft and that is what makes it into print. Here is an excerpt from an interview he gave to a reporter for the Independent newspaper in Britain:

“This isn’t the first draft, you know.”

He’d only written two words. CHAPTER ONE.

“Oh,” I said. “What is it then?”

“It’s the only draft!”

Right then, he sounded more like Jack Reacher than Lee Child. More Reacher than writer.

“I don’t want to improve it. When I’ve written something, that is the way it has to stay. It’s like one of those old photos you come across. From the 1970s. And you have this terrible Seventies haircut and giant lapels on your jacket. It’s ridiculous – but it’s there. It is what it is. Leave it alone.”

Okay, let me try to qualify this a little. This week I am starting rewrites on our latest Louis Kincaid thriller. Now, we’re pretty clean writers. We write so slowly that things tend to fall in place as we go along. But this newest book was different. It didn’t chug nicely along, with a little lurch or two along the way. This one was a big Victorian locomotive that would speed ahead for three chapters, hit a hill, careen backwards, smack into a tree and then start groaning forward again, all the while belching out noxious clouds of purple smoke.

But at least it is done. And while we normally now would be going in with a light heart and an Allen wrench to fine-tune, this time we are going back into the manuscript with grim determination and a scalpel in one hand and sledgehammer in the other.

I know the story is solid. In fact, it might be the best book we’ve written. But I also know we have weeks of rewrite hell ahead. How did this happen? Partly because this book came when both Kelly and I had a lot of life stuff going on. For my part, I moved to a new city after living in the same place for 40 years, so I often had to break my vow of writing daily and thus I had to leave my imaginary world and live in the real world of closing statements and cardboard boxes. The main man in my life wasn’t my hero Louis Kincaid but Two Men and a Truck.

Writing tip of the day no. 1: Even when life intrudes, do everything you can to maintain daily contact with your novel. Visit your imaginary world every day, even if it’s just to go back and read what you already wrote.

But that wasn’t the only problem. The story we chose this time was very ambitious, both in plot, characterization and theme. This time out, for book no. 14, we weren’t just juggling with fire torches, we were juggling with chainsaws. And at times, we lost our way in both the arcs of the case (plot) and its people (character).

Writing tip of the day no. 2: Even if you’re a pantser like me, create a road map for your story. You don’t have to stick to the outline or template, but when you get distracted, it can be a path back to the main story road.

Sometimes, learning about how other writers do things – watching how someone else makes their sausage – can help you find your own process. So let me share some things I’m facing as I go into rewrites this week. It won’t be your tao, but it might spark a how.

First, we have to deal with the little stuff. Things like changing a character name or setting up the bread crumb trail of your clues better. Kelly and I deal with these small potatoes by creating Post-It notes. Here’s a typical Skype conversation for us:

Kelly: We need to beef up the FBI dossier on Steele that Emily gives Louis.

Me: Where do you think it should go?

Kelly: How about in the first restaurant scene where they first talk about the team?

Me: Good idea.

Kelly: Make a sticky note or you’ll forget it.

So I scribble out a note on a Post-It and slap it up on a board in my office. But as I packed up my office, I had to stuff all the “sticky notes” in an envelope .

Today, I got them out of the box and spread them on the glass door of my desk so at least now I can see what awaits me.

This is only part of them. I ran out of room. It gets worse. While we were in mid-move, we were still trying to work so I had to resort to making Microsoft sticky notes that I slapped onto my desk top:

Now do you understand why I hate Lee Child?

What’s weird about this is that normally I love rewriting.  At this point for me, the grunt work is done, the sweat has dried, and I am merely redecorating, pulling weeds, repainting, and repositioning the furniture. But this book needs a new entry door, a couple walls knocked down, a massive new support beam around chapter 25, and a new addition built onto the back.  It’s not Property Brothers; it’s This Old House.

Writing tip of the day no. 3: Sometimes you don’t see the real problems until you have finished the whole book.

It wasn’t until we got around page 400 that Kelly and I realized just how much big structural work was ahead of us. We couldn’t see these issues until we had traveled the entire course of the story. We had been in the PLOT trees for so long that it wasn’t until we emerged back out into the open that we could look back and clearly see the CHARACTER/THEME forest.

So what do we need to fix? Here’s just a few things:

Chapter 1: Yeah, I hear your groans. Because if you read our First Page Critiques here, you know how important the opening moments of your story are. Our story starts slowly, with Louis returning to his home state of Michigan to take a job with a new prestigious cold case squad led by the police captain who, eight years before (in book 2), had caused Louis to lose his job.  Okay, that’s a good obstacle for Louis but it’s not a sexy opening for a thriller. So we wrote a “prologue” in which two young boys are running for their lives from an unknown person who wants to seal them in a box.  Well, THAT’S attention-grabbing.  But as we neared the end of the book, we realized the scene felt artificial, like we were desperate to inject action into the opening. We were trying to gin up the story, but the scene was not organic to what came after — Louis on the first day of the job.

So we’ve axed the boys scene and are writing a scene between Louis and his new boss that will play on the tension between the men and stress the high stakes for Louis.

Writing tip of the day no. 4: Don’t be afraid of the slow opening as long as it has tension, hints at a major conflict, or  conveys that something has been disturbed.  You don’t have to throw a boulder into a lake to make waves; sometimes a well-aimed rock creates ripples enough to make the reader want more.

Another thing we need to fix is our characters’s motivations. Okay, I’ve been married for 35 years and just when I think I know my husband, he does something that makes me think, blink or just laugh my ass off. So it should be with your characters. You won’t know everything about them when you start, so don’t expect to. Keep control of them, yes, but be open to their surprises and their growth.  Kelly and I found we didn’t know really know what drove our villain until he was vanquished around page 350.  Now we have to go back and build up his early scenes — putting in that crucial beam or two! — so his final actions make sense. Even the bad guys deserve this respect.

Then there’s the last thing we need to  fix — our theme. This one is maybe the hardest because theme is a slippery thing. I think theme is really important to good books. It is what your book is really about at its heart. It isn’t plot. Here’s Stephen King on the subject:

Writing and literature classes can be annoyingly preoccupied by (and pretentious about) theme, approaching it as the most sacred of sacred cows, but (don’t be shocked) it’s really no big deal. If you write a novel, spend weeks and then months catching it word by word, you owe it both to the book and to yourself to lean back (or take a long walk) when you’ve finished and ask yourself why you bothered–why you spent all that time, why it seemed so important. In other words, what’s it all about, Alfie?

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony, or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know), but it seems to me that every book–at least every one worth reading–is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft–one of them, anyway–is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story. It hardly ever fails

We weren’t sure what this book was about, to be honest. It is about the murder of a mega-church minister — and how that murder ties into the little boys who were nailed into a box and left to die. But that’s just plot. What does all this mean? We knew the theme was loosely about religion. But It wasn’t until Kelly wrote one line of dialogue in chapter 34 that we found the theme. The line came from an atheist whom Louis interviews:

What does a man do with his guilt if he doesn’t believe in God? 

That line made us realize our book’s heart was about how people who are damaged — and people who inflict damage on others — still find a reason to believe in something.  But now we have to go back and carefully calibrate each character, through their actions, thoughts and words, to reflect that main idea. And yes, there is an answer even for the villain.

So, if you’ll excuse me I have some heavy lifting to do. If you are about to finish your book — huzzah, huzzah! — let me leave you with a couple miscellaneous bullet points about surviving rewrite hell.

Don’t get caught in ego-trap that your first draft is great. Hemingway himself said the first draft is always crap. (well, he used a different word).

Sometimes to fix it, you have to break it.

Let your first draft bake. I call this the de-cheesing time. Finish the book, let it sit for at least two weeks, then print it out and read it. The bad parts will stink like bad Brie.

Be courageous but careful. Rewriting is like eating an elephant. It’s one bite at a time.

Take out all the dumb words. Figure out what your writer tic is — mine is an overuse of “then” and “suddenly.” Excise all the flabby physical movements like, “He nodded his head.” (He just nodded.) Don’t keep repeating physical attributes. Once you tell me the lady has sea foam green eyes, don’t tell me again.

Hire an editor if you need one. And most of us need one badly. There is nothing more valuable than a trained reader who will tell you the truth and whose only interest is the quality of your book.

Sometimes you have to add, not subtract. Contrary to what Truman Capote, not every rewrite needs scissors. Sometimes you need to put more meat on the plot bones or inject blood into anemic characters. Stop obsessing about word count. The book will be as long as it needs to be.

Have a plan going in. After you’ve let the draft bake and given it a fresh read, write down the things — big and small — that you have to deal with. Here’s Chuck Wendig on the subject in his usual colorful style:

You write your first draft however you want. Outline, no outline, finger-painted on the back of a Waffle House placemat in your own feces, I don’t care. But you go to attack a rewrite without a plan in mind, you might as well be a chimpanzee humping a football helmet. How do you know what to fix if you haven’t identified what’s broken? This isn’t the time for intuition. Have notes. Put a plan in place. Surgical strike.

And as you eat the elephant, keep an eye out for that theme. Or as Dorothy Parker put it in her book on writing:

I would write a book at least three times–once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.


But, after all this, after all this advice I’ve set out here, isn’t it fair to let the King of the Perfect Draft have the last word? Take it, Lee Child…

My honest answer is ignore advice because it’s got to be your product. It’s got to be an organic product with a vital, vivid integrity of its own and you’ll never get that if you’re worried about what other people are telling you to do.


To Rant or Not to Rant

A few days ago I saw an author ‘rant’ posted on social media (for the sake of anonymity I won’t mention the author or the social media platform!). It was a full-blown tirade against insensitive publishers and their treatment of authors and their submissions. I don’t know the author personally but the post highlighted for me the dangers of airing grievances online. While I certainly have a great deal of sympathy – the whole process of writing and trying to get published is not for the fainthearted – but social media is definitely not the place to air your frustration or bitterness.This particular rant seemed to be aimed at the fact that certain publishers had not bothered to even respond to a full MS submission. Now, I know silence is horrible and the waiting to hear back on a submission is nerve-wracking, but unfortunately it’s all part and parcel of the (traditional) publishing process. The online post reminded me of the rules I try to follow when it comes to social media and dealing with the publishing process…because you never know who might read or share your online post. These rules include:

  • Maintain Professionalism:  This goes for all online posts related to employment, the publishing industry and the submission process. If you want to be taken seriously, you have present yourself as cool, calm and professional. No agent or editor wants to deal with an unprofessional author. They don’t want tantrums or drama. They want great quality work delivered on time. Equally well, I’ve never met anyone in the publishing industry who doesn’t love what they do and who doesn’t have the utmost respect for the work that goes into writing a novel. This is, however, an industry (hey, publishers want to make money) and, though it can be brutal, if you want to participate in it, you have to deal with rejection and frustration like a professional. Which leads to my next rule…
  • Never air your grievances: Even though the publishing process may drive you to drink/despair/chocolate bingeing…never resort to telling the world how awful such-and-such agent/editor/publisher is…unless you’ve encountered truly unethical behavior or a scam. Only then do I feel an author should legitimately alert the online community to what has happened.
  • Be careful of venting your frustration online: Not just because you never know who might read or share you post but also because it has a tendency to lead to a downward spiral of comments/reactions/flame ups that never end well. It may seem cathartic at first but I’m not sure it helps. While I admire honesty (I’m certainly not suggesting authors lie or present an unrealistic picture of the publishing process), I think restraint is usually the best policy. Cry, vent and scream all you want in private but don’t do it public.

So TKZers do you have ‘rules’ you follow when it comes to social media and discussing your experiences with publishing or the publishing process? How do you react when you see a post that rants and rails against the industry? Do you agree authors should keep their frustrations to themselves or would you prefer to see more venting for the sake of honesty?



The Random Dialogue Exercise

by James Scott Bell

Here’s a little exercise I teach in my workshops: take one of your dialogue-heavy scenes. Go to the middle and select a line at random. Now, pull down a random novel from your shelf. Open to a random page. Flip around until you find some dialogue. Pick one line of that dialogue.

NOW: substitute the line you just read for the line you selected in your scene. THEN: figure out how to justify it!

NEXT: Tweak the line so it fits the character. FINALLY: Rewrite the rest of the scene. Do this as a way to create or explore deeper levels of story or character. You may end up not using the dialogue line itself, but you will have opened up new vistas in your story and given your imagination a chance to play.

But if you do use the line, here is a big benefit: It creates a surprise for the reader. And surprise is the greatest page-turning prompt of all. Predictability is dull. So throw the reader off every now and then with something out of the blue.

Another benefit: you can use this exercise whenever you hit bad old writer’s block. Don’t know where your story is going? Having trouble plotting the next few scenes? Not sure who a character is? Try this exercise and get the mental pistons firing again.

Here’s a clip from my current WIP:

“Isn’t the view gorgeous?” she said.

“You better get right to it,” Dylan said, “because this is the last time we meet.”

“You can’t mean that.”

“I’m prepared to walk away.”

“I don’t think so, dear.”

“Watch me.”

“You haven’t even seen what I have.”

“I don’t care—”

“Or heard.”


“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”


“I know people. I can get you help.”

Now I perform the exercise. I’ll show you what I came up with using four very different novels off my shelf.

Using a line from An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1925):

“Or heard.”


“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Oh, it doesn’t amount to anything, really. We just quarrel, that’s all, once in awhile.”

From The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov (1972):

“Or heard.”


“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”


From The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929):

“Or heard.”


“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Yeah, she had it tucked under her arm when she paid me.”

From L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais (1999):

“Or heard.”


“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Well, we’re going to find out, but right now we’ve got a maniac to get off the street.”

Well now! Each one of these lines takes us in a different direction, doesn’t it?

The first one gets me thinking along the lines of Psycho, and multiple personalities.

The second one gives me a whole new aspect of character.

The third one is so obscure I have to do some more cogitating. I try to figure out why this woman would have been paid, and by whom. That’s a whole new plot point! That she could be working with someone. So I spend a few minutes jotting down ideas about that. Also, what did this mystery woman have tucked under her arm?

Since I’m writing a thriller, the last example really got my imagination scrambling. Which is, of course, the point of this exercise.

If I decide to use one of these lines, I’ll tweak it to make it consistent with the character’s voice.

But, after all this, I may just go back to the way I had it before. But wouldn’t that be wasted effort? Far from it! Because the writer’s mind is always stronger after this kind of workout—lithe, supple, and ready for action … hmm, maybe I should write a romance.

But not now, because I’m in the middle of my WIP and I’ve got a maniac to get off the street.

There are innumerable fiction writing exercises and prompts to jump start your writing sessions. What are some of your favorites?


First Page Critique: Bringer of Chaos, Harvest of Blood


(Kirk Marsh, Getty Images. All rights reserved)

(Note from Sweet Joseph: Sorry that we are late this morning, TKZers! In absence of being able to determine why, I’ll chalk it up to a PICNIC (Problem In Chair Not In Computer) problem. Thanks for your patience.)

Greetings, TKZers, and join me today in welcoming Anon du jour who has submitted the first page of his work Bringer of Chaos, Harvest of Blood for examination:

 Bringer of Chaos, Harvest of Blood

At the end of Earth’s twenty-seventh century, genslaves, humanity’s genetic

creations, fulfilled man’s every desire. They rebounded from disease and injury as if

immortal. Bred to need no rest, labor-genslaves performed menial and repetitive tasks.

Mankind permitted enough intelligence to work, but not enough to aspire beyond their

station. Warrior genslaves possessed unmeasured strength and massive size. They

fought humanity’s wars, died so man didn’t have to suffer, and revived to fight again.

Healer-genslaves with skill in medicine designed cures for man’s diseases. Artists

created mankind’s beauty. Nurturers and teachers cared for humanity’s children.

Scientist-genslaves designed additional genslaves, to make man’s life even more

pleasant. All with genetic shackles of obedience, making them content to remain


While humanity relaxed, secure in a position of power, genslave-scientists created a

new order of beings with free will. Did their creation arise from faulty programming,

or a desire for freedom? Unhampered by genetic restraints, these new creatures

took the name Ultra. Brains and brawn, they solved every problem, survived every


Untouched by disease and unthwarted by starvation, they beat the shackles of death.

They were immortal.

Immortality changed everything.

When Ultras demanded freedom, humans claimed them soulless, inferior,

unworthy, and undeserving of equality. Humans tried to silence them, and when

that failed, punished them.

The Ultras seized liberty by force. Emboldened by the Ultras’ success,

other genslaves rebelled.

Power tilted. Ultras made slaves of their former captors.

Yet among Ultras, leadership arose that considered humans redeemable. They

advocated human freedom and their own government. They sought an end to

galaxy-wide conflict. They sought peace to halt senseless death and destruction,

foster growth, and increase trade.

In 4536 AD, after centuries of war, Ultras and humans met to discuss a truce.

At the peace talks, the Ultras suffered betrayal at the hand of their own kind.

Captured, forced into cryogenic sleep, transported across the galaxy, abandoned

on a planet whose name meant ever living, a half-million woke in their eternal prison.

Too far out on the rim to be worth developing, Sempervia possessed few

natural resources. The scant supplies humans left would have meant starvation and

lingering death for mortals, but the immortal Ultras had no such mercy.

They survived.

For this reason, the first few years in Sempervian history are remembered as the Harvest of Blood.

Anon, I’m going to focus primarily on substance and a bit on form here, sometimes intermingling the two, so I would appreciate it if you (and those of you who are kind enough to spend a portion of your Saturday with me) would bear with me to the end. I hope that it will be productive for you.

Let’s begin with the title, which reminds me of one of those Swedish death metal records that Jordan Dane probably has in her record collection. It infers that your book would fall into the sword-and-sorcery subgenre, something like Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian or Fritz Leiber’s Gray Mouser. I expected demons throwing fire, beheadings, supernatural disembowelment, and other things which I won’t get into here. After reading your submission, however, it looks like you are shooting for a speculative history novel and series — a very interesting one — with some military elements thrown in, a book that a publisher such Baen,to name but one, does so well. The title really doesn’t reflect that. It’s somewhat of a misdirection.    I would change the title to something a bit simpler which gets your idea across, such as GENSLAVES: Volume One — Rebellion.

The big issue here, however,  is that what you have sent isn’t as a practical matter  the first page of a Chapter One. It’s not even really the first page of a Prologue. It is more of an outline for a future history spanning hundreds years which will provide the spine for a novel, or maybe even several novels. I think you have a terrific idea, but you don’t have the beginning of a story or a book yet.  You have a whole book you can fill, my friend, a whole book where you can show us what you envision as a future history instead of telling us.

One suggestion — out of many possibilities — would be for you to start the first page of your novel on Sempervia, your exile planet.  Present it from the perspective of one of the Ultras on the planet who is either 1) hacking their way through a bunch of their fellow Ultras to get to something they need, 2) trying to stow away onto a rocket back to Earth or 3) escaping from a peril. Show us that Sempervia is a bad, lousy place to live, one where unicorns are eaten and recycled instead of worshipped. Show us that while dropping breadcrumbs of the history and the backstory through the narrative. Mix it up a bit, showing how the inhabitants of Sempervia survive on a day to day basis,  revealing what their short and long term plans are, and exploring how they got to be there in the first place, all the while sticking to that outline.

Maybe you have already done all of the above in pages two through six hundred of what you have written. That is all well and good; but you need to start the book off in a different manner, in order to pull a prospective agent, editor, or reader into it. Think of your first page — going to back to the spirit which your current title evokes — as the hook which pulls the eyeball of the reader into the story. Folks have short attention spans these days. You need to grab them and keep them before they pick up the television remote and start streaming the first season of Animal Kingdom.

If you want a relatively quick and excellent example of how to do something like this, see if you can get a reading copy of the Gold Key edition of the comic book MAGNUS, ROBOT FIGHTER 4000 AD by Russ Manning ( from the 1963 edition, NOT the relaunches that have been published since) in your local library’s graphic novel section. The first few panels of the story, if memory serves, quickly give the readers example of robots doing drudge work before Magnus suddenly shows up, and, after fleeing from the robot police,  uses martial arts to kick rivets and take serial numbers. Manning gradually informs the reader as to how people let robots take over more and more duties (like making coffee, checking people into  hotels, and taking orders at Panera Bread) to the point where robots are running things and human beings are becoming subservient without really realizing it. It isn’t your plot, but it does involve a future history, and Manning, bless his heart, shows us all how to tell a future history story effectively. If you want a longer example, check out E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen series, or Robert H. Heinlein’s future history series. The latter is particularly accessible.

I have a couple of other points of correction, applying to form:

— Science fiction readers love those new names for future objects. You should be consistent when you create and use them. You start off with “labor-genslaves” (hyphen) and then you mention “Warrior genslaves” (no hyphen) instead of “Warrior-genslaves” before returning to “healer-genslaves” and “scientist-genslaves,” the latter of which turn into “genslave-scientists.” Since you started with “(insert type of genslave here) – genslaves,” when naming your characters, follow that format throughout your first page, and indeed, your novels, and the ones that will come later in this ambitious future history.

— If the genslaves were genetically shackled to be obedient, thus making them content to be subservient, they aren’t going to be emboldened by the Ultras’ success. “Emboldened” wouldn’t be in their genetic programming any more than “obedience” is included in a cat’s genetic makeup, even as they watch the dog doing so and thus being allowed to stay another day, go for rides, etc. Just saying.

— The first time that you mention that the high-end genslaves “took the name Ultra,” set the name off, like so:  “Ultra” or Ultra. Just the first time.

I will now remain uncharacteristically quiet (for most of the day) while our TKZers offer their own invaluable insight. And thank you, Anon, for stepping up and giving us a reason to be here today!




Show Your Baddie R-E-S-P-E-C-T to Make Them Memorable

Jordan Dane

By Hasaw öztürk – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

It’s easy to focus on the main protagonists of our stories. Heroes and heroines usually pop up in our heads from the start, but have you ever been taken over by your bad guy or your femme fatale? In my latest series, Mercer’s War with Mr. January book 1, I’m obsessed with Keiko Kayakova. She is the devil personified, a remorseless killer, yet she constantly surprises me with her contradictions and what she truly cares about.

A great character is complicated and it can take time to develop them. Why not explore your antagonist with as much zeal as you would for your protagonists? You need to hear them in your head, maybe especially when they are their nastiest, or if they niggle your ear in the middle of the night. Flesh them out.

Questions to ask about your current work-in-progress:
1. What’s your villain’s back story?
2. Why did they turn out the way they did?
3. What motivates them in the present? What are their goals?
4. Have you explored gender for your antagonist? Would your bad guy be more frightening and unexpected as a woman?
5. Have you given them a chance at redemption in your story? Do they take it?
6. What makes them vulnerable? What are their flaws?
7. Have you created a bad guy or gal’s bible, like you did for your good guys and gals?
8. Does your bad guy/gal have virtues the reader might find it hard to argue against, like an extreme respect for the law or a need to establish order in a society he or she controls for the greater good?
9. Do they have an unexpected hobby?
10. In the vast sea of literary villains, what makes your antagonist stand out?

Villains want top billing and for their name to be first on the marquee. Have you shown them enough R-E-S-P-E-C-T? Even if you’ve already got a first draft, it’s never too late to add depth or bone chilling traits to your characters. A flat character on the page is never satisfying.

Don’t waste good villain potential by making your character a two dimensional cardboard cutout or a mere roadblock to your good guys. Dare to give them humor or a peculiar hobby or a back story that explains their motivation. Develop a conflict between your antagonist and protagonist that is deliciously enticing that makes it harder for the reader to choose sides.

Here are a few tips on how to get started:
1. The best villains are the heroes in their own stories. Make them real and worthy of their own story line. Develop them with the same care and don’t resort to making them obstacles in the way of your main characters. Even if they’re a train wreck, make the reader interested in what drives them or make them so diabolical that the reader will fear more for your good guys. Do they have a journey in your book? If they have a chance at redemption, do they take it? These types of questions can add depth.

2. Dare to make your villain an anti-hero in his or her own story, giving him or her solid motivation to perpetrate their crimes or cover their backsides. If your antagonist and protagonist are both thwarted by the same bad weather, for example, how do they each deal with it? Do their minds work the same? Of course not. Their reactions can shed light on how their mind works. Bend the norm. Think out of the box to surprise the reader, but that plot twist comes from knowing each of them as their creator.

3. Match or counter the skills between your antagonist and your protag. Where one might have an intellect, make the other one have a diabolical brute force that can overpower your hero in confrontations that showcase their strengths. Make them worthy of each other.

4. Escalate the tension between your antagonist and protagonist by making them have a relationship that used to mean something. Imagine your adversary is your own father or someone in a foreign country with the same ideals as you (except they are your enemy). If under normal circumstances, your two characters might be friends, what horrible situation will keep them apart and what makes things worse between them?

5. Give your villain a face. Don’t hide behind a secret organization or an evil entity? The Hunger Games would not be the same without President Snow. Silence of the Lambs would be FBI’s Clarise hunting serial killer Buffalo Bill except for the memorable diversion of Hannibal Lecter, her white knight.

1. Who are some of your most memorable villains from your own work? Tell us how you made them memorable.

2. What literary villains have stood out in your reading and have those books influenced your writing?


A Bear Won’t Eat What A Bear Can’t Smell: When Real Life Provides the Dialogue


(purchased from IStock)

I’m currently living in the limbo that inspires fear and loathing in many writers, and drives others to query random Magic 8 Balls with the seriousness of a sugar-drunk eight-year-old at a slumber party: I have a manuscript on submission. For the sake of my sanity, let’s step away from the constant checking of email, the extra glass of wine after dinner, and the cold-sweat certainty that there should have been One More Edit before it went out.

So, tell me things, please. Specifically, I want you to think about the sayings you have in your family. They might be well-known sayings, or something you and your siblings picked up from a long lost television episode that stuck with you for whatever reason. Or it might be a saying whose origins are lost to history, but you still use it. These sayings don’t necessarily have the gravitas or moral spin of an aphorism, but when you use colorful or shocking or sweet sayings occasionally and appropriately in your dialogue, they immediately give your reader important information about your characters.

I’ll start. Here are some that show up again and again in the Benedict family, or came from my childhood:

People in hell want ice water. (my dad)

Smooth move, Ex-Lax. (also my dad)

Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite. (my mom)

We like the moon, because it’s close to us. (this video is at least 10 years old)

Biggie fries, biggie drink. (no comment)

Pretty makes up for bad. (this showed up around the time my daughter was five)

Pretty is as pretty does. (this one gives me the same hives it gave me when was five)

Does a bear poop in the woods? (dad, again)

Is the Pope Catholic? (yep, dad)

A bear won’t eat what a bear can’t smell. (from a Saran Wrap commercial–could only find the ad with a tiger)

Measure head size before ordering. (appropriate whenever, well, ordering something–I picked it up from an Elmore Leonard novel)

Same poop, different flies. (from husband’s family)

Cam down, Linwood. (MIL’s family–she said she has no idea where it came from)

Hold ‘er, Newt. She’s headed for the barn! (also from MIL’s family–she doesn’t know where this is from either. but I did find versions online)

Scratch your ass and get happy. (heard this at a family reunion–acquired it immediately)

These three came from workshop students:

It’s a poor ass rabbit that only has one hole. (meaning is fairly obvious)

You can’t look up a hog’s ass and tell the price of lard. (heh)

She’s a real Corinthian. (wish I’d written down the origin of this one–so many possible interpretations)

Your turn!


What The Heck Is “Theme”, Anyway?

If a plot could be compared to the body of a race car, the theme would be the engine turning its wheels“.

A story’s theme is the fundamental and universal idea behind its plot. In King Lear, for example, one of its main themes is “authority versus chaos”.

Sometimes people confuse a story’s subject with its theme. The subject of a story would be a one-word descriptor of its main idea. “War”, for example, would be the subject of many stories. A theme would be an opinion related to that subject, such as “In War, everyone loses.” (See Joe Moore’s excellent post on the difference between subject and theme)
Some writers approach theme almost as an afterthought–or worse, they forget to factor in a theme at all, which can result in a story that seems aimless or shallow at its core. Having  a well-crafted theme adds dimension, depth, and cohesion to stories.

Writers often use minor characters to explore a story’s underlying theme. I call this method the “360-degree” approach to developing theme. In this approach, the secondary characters represent various aspects of the main theme, and they act as foils to the main character’s experiences. For example, the theme of one of my stories was “Mean Girls Suffer The Last Blow.”  That theme was explored through the story arcs of several characters. One woman had been victimized by bullies in her youth; another was herself a bully. Another character was a protector of abused women.  Each of these characters explored different facets of the subject of bullying and  emotional abuse.

How do you explore theme? What’s the theme of your WIP? How are you working that theme into your narrative?


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Three Quick and Easy Tips That Will Make Your Novel Better

by Larry Brooks

If you’re a regular reader of this or any other writing blog (including mine), you may distrust today’s headline. Because you know for a fact that a good novel requires way more than three little added-on “tips,” which when you get beyond the circle of core craft (which is not composed of tips; core craft is way beyond tips) number in the hundreds.

Which begs the question: what is the difference between core craft and those hundreds of “tips” that become the frosting on that cake?

Core craft can be summed up (among many astute ways it can be summed up like this) as the commingled implementation of the following: Understanding what constitutes a compelling premise… dramatic theory (which, at its heart, gives the reader something to engage with)… structure… dialogue… setting… character/arc… a hero’s quest/journey… scene writing… and how to write professional-level paragraphs and sentences (voice).

All of which delivers what can be described as a singular outcome: a compelling, memorable, worthwhile reading experience.

Simple, right? Just grab an idea and sit down with it, see what happens.

Or not. That’s the long road, by more than a mile.

Rather, the more you know about those core competencies, and the more creative and fresh your premise, combined with the more you know about the story itself (through planning or drafting), the better your story will be.

Sometimes, though — too often, in fact — you can do a decent job with all of them and end up with… a good novel that doesn’t fly. Or a nice try that doesn’t.

Sometimes again… the difference in those outcomes can be the little things — things often conveyed via “tips” — that breath life into a story in more subtle ways. There are volumes full of storytelling and writing tips out there (take care to differentiate tips on storytelling and the writing process itself), many of which are fundamental to the work of continually successful authors.

Here are three of them, for your consideration.

1. Give your hero an interesting career.

Too many writers don’t take advantage of this one, even when it doesn’t divert them from their primary vision for the story.

With the exception of the detective genre, you get to plop your main character into any career you want. Sometimes that decision is driven by the content and context of your story… pathologist, politician, doctor, cop, etc.

Other times, when the job isn’t central to the story, you still have an opportunity to give them something interesting to do during the day. The key here is to make what they do interesting. Something that says volumes about who they are, where they’ve come from, and how it defines their world view and current state of mind. 

This tip opens the door to one of the most powerful techniques available to us: setting our plot and characters within an arena – cultural, economic, political, or more simply, time and place – that delivers a compelling vicarious experience to the reader.

Do that, and you’ve backed right into one of the core competencies that might just get you published.

2. Give your hero a distracting personal relationship.

It’s easy to get lost in a one-dimensional landscape of characterization as we thrust our protagonist into the heat of our story.  But real life isn’t like that. And while it isn’t always the best idea to make your story a mirror of real life, or even your life, it can be good to give your hero something else to think about than the pickle you’ve tossed at them.

Like, a relationship. A love affair, new or confounding or crumbling. A parent thing. A boss from hell. An IRS auditor at the door.

The idea here is to make this relationship distracting for the hero. Something that provides a reason to survive at the same time it may compromise that goal. Or at least a way to keep one foot in the here-and-now as they go about saving the world.

Welcome to your sub-plot.

Superman had Lois Lane. Otherwise he’s just another guy who, if we’re honest about it, we can’t really relate to.


3. Give your antagonist a noble goal.

Or at least a goal that began nobly, or if that’s a stretch, try one that springs from a sympathetic need.

One-dimensional villains are easy and tempting. But when you give them something that causes us to wonder what went wrong, compromising our full empathy, they become even more interesting.

Of course, if your antagonist is a tornado or a flood – a perfectly legit storytelling option, by the way – then never mind. Haven’t met a sympathetic natural disaster yet… so in that case seek to burden your hero with a pesky inner demon that must be conquered before the dike can be built.

The inner demon thing is a good idea for any hero, by the way, and sometimes it can actually be the primary antagonist (think Leaving Las Vegas… addiction is a worthy foe in any story). When that inner demon has a twist or an edge or a commonality that makes the going tougher for our hero, so much the better.

So there is it. Nothing much to this writing thing… just master six or seven core competencies… understand the relative core story physics that make readers pay attention… come up with a killer story idea that isn’t too derivative of something else yet delivers the tropes of what genre readers want and expect… and then slather it all with a thick layer of tip-driven strategy that brings it all alive.

Piece of cake, right? Just sit down and start writing… everything will turn out just fine.


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Write From the Side of the Nose

by James Scott Bell

Here is another in our series of first page critiques. This one presents an important craft issue which I’ll discuss on the flip side.

Crossing the Line

He stood with his back to the doors leading to the balcony overlooking Lake Waco. His eyes remained focused on the 9mm Glock in the hand of Deputy U. S. Marshal Seth Barkley.

“What do we do now?” asked the blond-haired man. “Is this the part where you handcuff me and cart me off to jail?”

“You’re not ever going to see the inside of a jail,” Barkley responded.

“So you’re my judge and jury?”

“I’m the closest you’re going to get.”

“You can’t shoot an unarmed man.”

“You’re unarmed?” Barkley smiled. “What’s that in your hand?”

The man glanced at the dagger he was holding. “You know the old line about bringing a knife to a gun fight. You would shoot me before I got within six feet of you.”

“That’s a better deal than the one you offered your victims, but you’re right. Let’s make this fair.” The marshal reached behind his back and pulled his backup pistol from the waist of his jeans. He stooped down, laid it on the floor, and then kicked it with his foot toward the man.

“Pick it up,” Barkley said.

“No, you’ll shoot as soon as my hand touches the weapon.”

“I’ll shoot you either way. At least this way you stand a chance of living.”

Sweat poured down the man’s face as he looked from Barkley to the gun laying on the floor in front of him.

“You can’t do this, damn it, you’re a United States Marshal.”

Barkley unclipped the badge from his belt and tossed it to the side. The clink of the metal on the tile floor reverberated throughout the room. He holstered his weapon.

“Feel better now?” he asked, his eyes never leaving the eyes of his opponent.

“I didn’t do anything to those women they didn’t deserve.”

“So, you’re telling me you’re innocent in all of this because the women you stalked, tortured, and murdered asked for it?” Barkley said. The man went silent and glared into Barkley’s eyes.

The time was upon him, and his darkest fear realized. Seth Barkley was stepping over that imaginary line that would make him like his old man. His life would never be the same after crossing over from good to evil.

Barkley pulled his weapon and slowly eased the trigger. “This is for Kaitlyn,” Barkley said. He was now a vigilante, no going back.


JSB: The main point I want to make is about this piece deals with “on the nose” dialogue. That’s an old Hollywood term which means dialogue that is direct and predictable. Predictability is what makes reading boring. So learning to write “from the side of the nose” will immediately increase interest and readability.

Another problem that often shows up in dialogue at the beginning of a novel is that it overstuffs exposition. The result is that the reader gets the impression it’s the author talking, feeding us information, and not the characters talking to each other. You need to ask these questions of all your dialogue:

  1. Would the character really say that, in that way? If not, rewrite it, and don’t be afraid to cut.
  2. Is the character telling the other character things they both already know? If so, you should err on the side of cutting it. (You’ll sometimes see this when characters use each others’ names: “Hello, Frank.” “Nice day, isn’t it, Audrey?”)

The dialogue in this piece is back and forth, direct response, on-the-nose, and states things for the benefit of the reader. Remember my axiom: act first, explain later. And since dialogue is a compression and extension of action, that axiom applies here.

Here is a quick rewrite of the first few lines of dialogue:

“What do we do now?” asked the blond-haired man.

“You’re not going to see the inside of a jail,” Barkley said.

The man glanced at the dagger he was holding.

What’s left unsaid, what’s “between the lines,” is in the reader’s head now, and creating interest.

Here’s another way:

“What do we do now?” asked the blond-haired man.

“You’re not going to see the inside of a jail,” Barkley said.

“Shooting an unarmed man?”

“Do you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?”


Some of you will recognize that last line of dialogue from the classic cop movie The French Connection. Based on the real-life NY cop Eddie “Popeye” Egan, this totally off-the-nose line was used by Egan (and by Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle in the movie) to completely throw off a suspect being interrogated. The suspect would get so rattled by this oddball question from the “bad cop” that he’d give up something to the “good cop.”

It works here because we, the audience, are also going, “What? What’d he just say? Why? Why is he saying that?”

Which means you have their interest!

Now, of course I’m not saying our writer should use that exact line. I am merely pointing out that “side-of-the-nose” dialogue works wonders. By side-of-the-nose I mean something that is not a direct response, and indeed at first hearing sounds like it doesn’t make sense!

Write, try it. Make up your own oddball line of dialogue. Even be random about it, and justify the line later!

Writing from the side of the nose is also helpful for avoiding exposition-heavy dialogue, like this: “You can’t do this, damn it, you’re a United States Marshal.”

They both know he’s a U.S. Marshal. You told the readers this in the first paragraph. Cut that line of dialogue and see how the action moves forward, faster.

Here’s another line you can cut:

“So, you’re telling me you’re innocent in all of this because the women you stalked, tortured, and murdered asked for it?” Barkley said. The man went silent and glared into Barkley’s eyes.

But, you protest, that explains this entire scene! To which I respond, act first, explain later. We don’t need to know why a U.S. Marshall is executing this guy at this moment in time. Leave a mystery!

Which brings us to the last two paragraphs, which are heavy with telling us what Barkley is becoming. As wth all exposition, ask: do we need to know that now? Here’s a shock: Almost always the answer will be no.

What if the scene ended this way:

“I didn’t do anything to those women they didn’t deserve.”

Barkley pulled his weapon. “This is for Kaitlyn,” he said.

What? End it there? Why not? The reader will be compelled to turn the page. And when he or she does, make them wait to find out what just happened. You could shift to another POV, or you could show us Barkley doing something, and through his actions we start to see what he’s becoming …

Bottom line: Check your dialogue and narrative for on-the-nose writing. Cut it. Surprise us with dialogue and details that are odd, surprising, mysterious, unpredictable.

Three other notes:

The first couple of lines give the impression we are in the “he” POV. But the scene ends in Barkley’s POV. Be strongly in Barkley’s head from the outset.

Barkley responded is redundant. Use said.

Barkley pulled his weapon and slowly eased the trigger. (You mean squeezed the trigger).

Okay, TKZers, your turn. I’m traveling today and probably won’t be able to comment. So take it away and help our brave writer.