So what are you planning to read this summer?
And if you’ve finished a particularly good beach read, let us know about it!
Note: In the past we’ve done First Page Critiques one Thursday per month. Going forward, the TKZ Admin (Yours Truly) will assign the anonymous first page submissions in batches to individual bloggers, to be scheduled for publication by them on their assigned blog post days. We hope this change will help us reduce the queue and publish your first page submissions more rapidly. Thank you!
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Cops: Woman, 26, Wielded Hatchet After Her Demands For Sex Were Repeatedly Rebuffed
EMS Ghouls Competed In “Selfie War”
Voodoo Client Made Threats, Man Tells Cops (Dissatisfied customer sought marital help)
Have you ever noticed how many truly bizarre news stories come out of Florida? As a kid and young adult, to me Florida was just the place I visited my grandfather and occasionally went on vacation to the beach. It seemed pretty tame except for all the alligators. (And my grandparents did give me one of those real stuffed ones wearing a sombrero. **shudders**) It wasn’t until the last five or six years that I noticed the news stories. Of course now everyone notices the Florida news stories. The Smoking Gun, whence I pulled the above headlines, even has a “Florida” section. As to the why, ridiculous theories abound: everything from “crazy old people” to the truly baffling “racism because it’s a melting pot.” A more logical explanation is that it has something to do with Florida’s open records laws. The gritty details are ostensibly out there for everyone to report. (Elaine? Do you happen to know if this is a true thing?) I don’t mean to pick on Florida. Weirdness abides in every corner of this country, but I think that it is no accident that the novelist Harry Crews found Florida to be very fertile ground for his darkly colorful stories.
I used to keep a file of weird news clips, or crime stories that piqued my interest. Now I just make notes in my journal or bookmark them in my browser.
The one big problem with using real life, over-the-top events is that they sound way too implausible for fiction. If you ever find yourself saying, “Wow. I couldn’t make that up,” about something, it’s probably because, well, you couldn’t.
I’m not sure why fiction and real life fight each other in this way. It might have something to do with the vast number of variables in real life that must come together to lead someone to do something like wrap his face in plastic wrap to rob convenience stores. In real life, there are coincidences. In real life, there is serious mental illness, and there are women who try to smuggle drugs into the country in burritos. Conversely, in real life, things can get dull awfully fast. Just try to imagine writing that (insurance, law, human resources, retail buyer) office novel that your cousin says will make you both a million bucks after she tells you about the crazy drama that happens where she works. (Don’t do it unless her name rhymes with Micky Fervais.)
Good fiction depends on competent, complete world building. Even if you don’t spend a lot of verbiage on a character’s backstory or personality, every action that character takes has to seem plausible within the world you’ve created. That created world is a finite place, and your reader will know right away if you throw in something that doesn’t work.
Real life is full of uninventable details. With practice, a good writer can make invented details seem uninvented. One of my favorite examples is the speech of a toddler or child anywhere under the age of seven. All the wild variables of the world go into their small heads, and what comes out is often bizarre beyond belief. It makes sense only to them.
It’s a good idea to take notes on real life. You’ll discover those uninventable details if you look closely enough. Try not to think: “How would I describe this person?” Simply observe. We’ve all read a lot of books, and often come up with the same old shorthand for describing our characters, their situations, and even their speech. Look. Really look, and just write down what you see. Chances are you’ll see something surprising. Then, when you do, figure out why it’s consistent with that person. What is it about their life that makes their surprising behavior reasonable?
Here’s one more story. It’s a real life example of a bizarre event that might actually work as fiction. A sixty-eight year-old man in Belleville, Illinois, repeatedly stuck sewing needles into packages of meat at his local grocery store. When asked why he did it, he said, “it was stupidity, I didn’t want to hurt nobody.” The uninventable detail? He rode around the store on a motorized scooter with his portable oxygen tank. I don’t know why I was so struck by this story. Tampering cases are diabolical. Fortunately no one was badly injured. Wanting to know more, I did a more thorough search on his story, and found his obituary. He died a little more than a year after he was caught tampering with the meat. His case had been postponed because his lawyers said he wasn’t mentally fit to stand trial when it came up. His obituary described a man who was productive in the world, and much-beloved by his family. Somewhere in between those two documents there is a complete story, waiting to be fleshed out and told. A place where real life and supposition live comfortably side-by-side.
What’s the most outlandish thing you’ve ever included in a story? Did you make it up, and pull it off?
If you’re in the St. Louis area, stop by the Meshuggah Cafe on Delmar Blvd. on Saturday night, July 30, 7-10 pm. It’s a Noir at the Bar launch party for St. Louis Noir (Akashic Books, Scott Phillips, editor), and I’ll be reading with Scott and some of the other contributors.
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Note: I was already running behind writing today’s post due to the fact that I’m attending (what you might have heard described as) a very spirited national Convention in Philly. And then, on the return trip from the first night’s events, our train ride devolved into an episodic, comedic and occasionally harrowing journey that reminded me of an 80’s era movie with Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer called Into The Night. Our adventure included our being dropped off on an abandoned-looking street corner at the premature termination of a trolley line, surrounded by sketchy, somewhat inebriated-looking observers. Add a passing storm, several misdirections, and a long wait for a hotel shuttle that seemed incapable of locating us, and you have the perfect ingredients for Mr. Trolley Toad’s Wild Ride.
Eventually, the shuttle van did find us, and we made it back to the hotel uninjured, if somewhat unglued. One day perhaps I may be able to sort tonight’s experience into some kind of coherent, wry tale. But for now, I will simply offer a bit of advice to anyone traveling anywhere in Philadelphia after midnight: do not ever get on board Trolley Car 36. Call a cab. Or call Uber. Or rent a car. But never, ever, place one foot onto Trolley Car 36.
Do you have any chaotic, scary or funny travel anecdotes you can share? Anything to get my mind off Trolley Car 36.
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You’ve heard of William Goldman, right? If not, you really should have by now (being a writer working in the real world, and all)…
… two Best Screenplay Oscars (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and All The President’s Men), a little novel with a pretty good film (which he also wrote) called The Princess Bride… another (same double home run writing credit) called Marathon Man…
… and one of the best writing books ever written, Adventures in the Screen Trade, which should be mandatory reading for novelists, as well. Even if you haven’t heard of him.
While his salad days began in the late 60s, he’s still ranked in the 100 authors in five Amazon categories (Classics, Historical Fiction, Teens, Action Adventure, and Genre Fiction Historical; that last one isn’t a typo, either, he’s #51 in Historical Fiction, and #76 in Genre Fiction Historical… go figure).
And he’s still writing, too. Better than most.
Despite the fact that two of his novels become two of the most iconic films of the past 50 years (never mind he wrote those screenplays, as well), his accomplishments as a novelist go under-appreciated. Maybe because he’s still busy in Hollywood as the #1 script rewrite guy, billing out at—this one isn’t a typo, either—one million dollars per week.
Yeah, that guy.
It’s a lesser known fact that he wrote a 1984 novel entitled, The Color of Light.
Out of 17 Amazon reviews— face it, most of the people reviewing novels were in rest homes by the time Amazon came along—16 gave it 5-stars, several stating it is one of their favorite novels, ever. One guy gave it 1-star… this, too, falling into the category writing wisdom… for every great book written, there’s a schlub or two who just didn’t get it, or gets off slinging mud at the stuff everyone else does.
The Color of Light is about a once successful writer who loses his stuff and disappears into anonymity. There may or may not be some truth to the rumor he is now blogging for The Kill Zone, but that has not been confirmed.
He has a little brother who, like all little brothers, wants to impress and gain the respect of his big brother. And so, when the little brother finishes a novel, he nervously shows it to big brother, who responds—each and every time—with the words… “on to the next.”
And that’s the great advice for us today, to hold close for all our days as writers.
May they be as plentiful as Goldman’s.
There is very little we can completely control in this business, even with the advent of self-publishing. Which, while handing back control over such things as lead times, titles and the look of our covers (none of which we had a lick of input to in the past), remains a fact when it comes to what happens to our books once we kick them out of the crib and onto the street.
We control our stories. And for the most part, that’s about it.
And so, we need to find our bliss accordingly. Sanity may reside in that understanding.
On to the next is the surest bet on reaching our goals as anything out there. And on that proposition, I’m sure William Goldman would agree.
Why do you want to be a writer?
It’s a question worth pondering deeply, because your answer may be the key to your chances for success.
Back in the old days, before 2007(!), if someone would have told me that they wanted to write fiction to make a lot of money, I would have advised them to become an electrician instead. Because when I started in this business in the early 1990s, I knew the chance to make a living wage from fiction was really low. You know, sort of like the Jim Carrey line in Dumb and Dumber. “So you’re telling me there is a chance!”
I think the statistic was that the median income from fiction writing was about $5,000 a year. Sure, there were the blockbusters––John Grisham, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Danielle Steel. But they were as rare as a sober wedding crasher.
Which is why I smiled at the advice Lawrence Block used to give. He’d say if you want to write a novel, take two aspirin and lie down and wait for the feeling to pass. Only if it persisted should you think about writing a novel.
In those days would-be writers huddled in the Dark Forest looking out with awe and fear at the impregnable walls of the Forbidden City. It was inside those walls that the New York publishing industry went about its business. There was also a massive, secured gate and a slew of gatekeepers guarding the place. These gatekeepers were called agents. To get invited inside the walls you first had to get one of those gatekeepers to take an interest in you. Writers would slink out of the Dark Forest and hand a gatekeeper some pages, then run back in and wait for a message of hope to arrive via carrier pigeon.
Which it rarely did.
But even if you got inside and became one of the favored few to be hired to push the grindstone of published fiction, there were no guarantees of long term monetary success. Many a writer whose product failed in the market was cast back over the walls, like that cow in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Then, in November of 2007, over in a distant part of the Dark Forest, a fire started. Fittingly, it was called the Kindle –– an e-reader for looking at books in digital form!
Behind the walls of the Forbidden City, with its printing presses churning, there was skepticism. Digital reading had been tried before, most notably by Sony, and had failed to catch on. People obviously preferred physical books, and always would!
What they didn’t realize was that this fire was spreading, and scores of writers in the Dark Forest were being warmed and fed. The digital self-publishing revolution had begun.
And proceeds apace, leaving open the question: Why do you want to be a writer?
Let me say this up front: there is nothing wrong with writing to try to make dough. That’s what many of the old-time writers did, especially during the pulp era. They saw a market and they wrote for that market, and if they were good they could eke out a living. See my recent post here.
But the ones who made it big, or lasted a long time in the game, were those who provided something more in their stories than just plot and character.
That more, I’ve been thinking of late, is love.
Now, before you put me down as a soft-soap, touchy-feely, pop-psych, flowered-shirt-wearing, encounter-session guru, let me explain.
I knew I had to try to become a writer one day back in 1988. I’d spent my first five years out of college trying to make it big as an actor. And I was good! You know how I know? I’ll tell you. I was in a small theater production of Hamlet in Hollywood. I played Rosencrantz (a little footnote: Laertes was played by an intense young actor named Ed Harris). So when the reviews came out in Drama-Logue, only one supporting player was singled out. The reviewer wrote, “James Scott Bell is nicely oily as Rosencrantz.”
Nicely oily! How did the major studios not pick up on that?
My acting did get me some commercials. I got paid. And then I got married. To a beautiful actress. And I decided we needed one steady income in the family. Since I was already nicely oily, I decided to become a lawyer.
Cut to that day in 1988 when my wife and I slipped out for an afternoon double feature. The movie I wanted to see was Wall Street. The other movie on the bill I knew very little about. Only that it starred Cher and was supposed to be pretty good.
That movie was Moonstruck. And it knocked me out. I wrote a bit about that in this post. The movie snuck up on me, pulled me in, made me laugh, but most important of all, it made me love the characters.
And I knew walking out of that theater that I wanted to make other people feel the way I was feeling. I wanted to be able to do that through writing.
So I went after it with everything I had. Because I knew now that I was in love with writing. As my training went on I also discovered that the best things I wrote had me feeling something akin to love, or longing, or deep connection.
In fact, I can’t consider anything I write to be truly finished unless, as I type (or edit) the very last lines, I feel a resonant satisfaction that whispers, This is it. This is just so right.
The way I felt the night I met the future Mrs. Bell at a friend’s party. This is it. This is just so right.
This is my counsel, for any of you seeking to make a go of writing as a career or at least a part-time vocation: Don’t commit to any project unless you can identify why you love it. Don’t go through the motions. Feel something intensely. Because the readers will pick that up. They’ll know. And that makes all the difference.
So now I ask you––why do you want to be a writer?
NOTE: I’ve got a couple of exciting, writing-related announcements coming up. If you’d like to know when they happen, be sure to sign up for my email updates by going here. I’ll also put your name in a drawing for a free book. Carpe Typem!
By Mark Alpert
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: If you want to write fiction for a living, you have to set a quota for the number of words you write each day.
Right now, I’m working under a relatively lax quota, 5,000 words per week. That shouldn’t be so hard, right? When I told my kids I needed to write a thousand words every weekday, they were quite unimpressed. “Hey, that’s only four pages! That’s all you do for the whole day?”
Still, it adds up. I’m writing a Young Adult novel now, the third in a trilogy, and the total word count will be about 80,000 words. I started the book at the beginning of May and now I have 60,000 words, so I’m three-quarters done. At a rate of 5,000 words per week, you can knock off a YA book in four months and a regular-length novel in five.
The key to sticking to the quota, at least for me, is giving myself some margin for error. If I don’t finish the 5,000 words by Friday night, then I work on the book over the weekend until I hit the magic number. And if I’ve already hit the quota by Friday, I work a little over the weekend anyway to give myself a cushion for the following week. It’s a great feeling to be a thousand words ahead of schedule when I start work on Monday morning.
I also try to limit the interruptions, at least the ones I can control. I schedule fewer doctor appointments and lunch dates when I’m on deadline. I don’t exercise as much either. (It’s too hot to go jogging or biking in New York anyway. The city is sweltering under something called a Heat Dome, some kind of weird high-pressure system that’s trapping all the hot air over Manhattan. And yet the city is still jammed with tourists and Pokemon Go players.)
The quota is more than just a goal — it adds some badly needed structure to a writer’s life. It turns a nebulous hobby into a disciplined profession.
Some good news about THE SIEGE, the second book in my YA trilogy: the novel got a great review in School Library Journal. And Booklist recommended THE SIX, the first book in the trilogy, for all those Pokemon Go fans who might want to read about imaginary monsters instead of chasing them across Central Park.
Speaking of parks, I recently did an outdoor event in Isham Park in Manhattan, reading excerpts from THE SIEGE and THE ORION PLAN, my science thriller about an alien invasion of New York City (see photo above). Attending the event was my favorite geologist, Sidney Horenstein, who is famous for his lectures about the natural wonders of the New York area. Sixteen years ago, my wife and I went on a bus tour he led to an anthracite mine in Pennsylvania. We also visited the abandoned town of Centralia, where a coal-seam fire has been burning underground since 1962. (Another excellent subject for a science thriller!)
Not many things are more satisfying than finishing a book, seeing the final touches of cover copy and cover, and letting your baby go “into the wild.” Today is the release day for REDEMPTION FOR AVERY – part of the new Susan Stoker – Special Forces series with Amazon Kindle Worlds.
The challenges of this 31,000 word novella centered on crossing my Ryker Townsend FBI Profiler series into Susan’s Navy SEAL world, using one of her novels (Protecting Summer) and a key character, Sam “Mozart” Reed, from that book.
1.) Blending two worlds – My dark crime fiction world had to blend seamlessly into Susan’s romance action/adventure world of the military. That meant I had to bump up my romance and also deal with two very different kind of men. Ryker Townsend is an isolated loner by necessity, an intellectual with a mind like a computer, and hardly described as an alpha male. Navy SEAL Mozart Reed is definitely alpha male with a disciplined military demeanor and a fascinating puzzle. I wanted to create a situation to force these two different men into an investigation.
2.) Paying homage to Mozart & Susan’s World – I did my research on Susan’s writing and read the book that dealt the most with Mozart’s past, the way I would force these two worlds together. In Mozart’s childhood, when he was only 15, his younger sister was abducted and brutally murdered by a serial killer. Well, that’s right up my alley and that backstory worked well with my FBI profiler series.
3.) Portraying Someone Else’s Character While Doing Justice to Your Own – SEAL Mozart Reed is a strong character, fully capable of being a hero of his own book. But I had to be sure my character, Ryker Townsend, held his own with an ebb and flow to their dynamics. Each man became key and could easily dominate the story, but the blending of these two dynamic forces became a joy. I wrote them like Butch and Sundance.
4.) Getting the Facts Right – Sometimes a preceding book is a little vague on the facts, by design. An author may choose to write vague details about a character’s backstory or leave out scenes for the sake of plot. I was lucky to have Susan’s brain to pick. I’d send her a message and she’d write me back right away. I swear she lives online. I’d ask questions about where the body was finally buried or embellished on an unwritten scene, but I didn’t want rewrite her previous novel without paying respect to her original work. She was very gracious and we both poured through pages to make sure I could add details not contemplated in her originating novel. She also had books that came after and we compared timelines to be sure I didn’t leave out a baby, for example. When my project was done, she read REDEMPTION FOR AVERY and we tweaked a couple of nuances to make it the best collaboration we could. Susan Stoker is a very generous author.
Here is the synopsis of REDEMPTION FOR AVERY:
When he sleeps, the hunt begins.
FBI Profiler Ryker Townsend is a rising star in Quantico’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, but his dark secret could cost him his career. When he sleeps, he has visions of his next case. He sees through the eyes of the dead, the last images imprinted on their retinas. His nightmares are riddled with clues he must decipher to hunt humanity’s Great White Shark—the serial killer.
While he’s investigating the shocking slaughter of a seventeen-year-old girl at Big Bear Lake, the tormented soul of another dead child appears to him in broad daylight. Twelve-year-old Avery Reed reaches out to Ryker—a disheveled and haunted girl, unable to speak—held earthbound out of love for her grief-stricken brother, Sam. Avery’s presence draws Ryker into a sinister conspiracy and she has a desperate message for her brother, if she can make Ryker understand.
Navy SEAL Sam ‘Mozart’ Reed has been haunted by the brutal death of his little sister Avery when he was only fifteen-years old. He vowed to seek and destroy the killer who splintered his family, wiping out everything he’d ever known. Nineteen years later, his darkest wish came true when he found Hurst, her alleged killer, and stopped him from murdering one last time. But when Mozart learns the FBI has reopened Avery’s case, he fears the worst. His SEAL team may have ended the carnage of a serial killer years ago, but for the first time, Mozart has doubts that Hurst had been the man who took Avery’s life. A heartless predator is still butchering young girls. Mozart’s worst nightmare is back with a cruel vengeance.
To celebrate the launch of Susan Stoker’s Special Forces series with Amazon Kindle Worlds, we are having a Facebook Party on July 23 at this link:
I’ll be online 3:30-4pm EST. There will be lots of giveaways all day with other authors joining the party.
1.) Have you ever crossed over one of your worlds with another? Did this crossover involve another author’s work?
2.) How do you celebrate YOUR book birthdays?
“When in doubt, bury someone alive.” Edgar Allan Poe was purported to have said this as one of his five essentials for the betterment of a story. Although it’s never been confirmed, even if he didn’t really say it, he should have. So let’s figure out what Mr. Poe might have been suggesting. My interpretation is that there is always a solution to a writing issue. And one of the biggest issues new writers (and old) have is getting stuck without an idea what to do next. Poe suggests doing something drastic.
I don’t like to use the term writer’s block because I don’t believe it exists. But like most writers, now and then I wind up in a dark room with no doors. Usually this occurs in the infamous Sagging Middle as Clare so expertly discussed on Monday. Whether the idea you thought would work doesn’t or you hope the answer will emerge from the ether, you need a way to solve the problem.
So when you get stuck, what can you do? Here are some suggestions that I’ve used. Perhaps they’ll help you, too.
Fellow Zoners, how do you get yourself out of a writer’s corner? What drastic measures have you taken to keep the story moving?