Happy Holidays!

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

See you back here on Sunday, January 4.

Couple of Things

John Ramsey Miller

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

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

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

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

Here’s the cover:

Lessons from the Corner Drug Dealer

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story Logic—Spell It Out

by L.J. Sellersljsellerssmall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rules for Writers

By Joe Moore

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

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

Did we miss any?

We have a winnah!

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

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

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

2: Female (Carla Damron, Keeping Silent)

3: Female (Jan Burke, Bones)

4: Male (James Crumley, Hostages)

5: Female (Joyce Carol Oates, The Skull)

6: Male (Robin Cook, Coma)

7: Female (Christa Faust, Money Shot)

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

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

Doom! Gloom! and Critique Groups

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

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

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

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

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

I keep thinking of that hilarious sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest and I feel like I’ve turned into the Tim Allen character who cries “Never Give Up; Never Surrender!” from the bridge of his ridiculous spacecraft just as he faces probable annihilation…
So I’m turning to you all for advice. How can a writing and critique group support one another in these challenging times? What is the single best thing you have come away from this year, in terms of your writing, that might buoy the hopes of both the published and the unpublished writer?

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

John Ramsey Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between the Covers

John Gilstrap

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

Sure, now’s fine. We’ll wait.

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

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

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

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

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

Fear and Loathing in San Francisco

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

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

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

And therein lies the fear.

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

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

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

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