Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

by Michelle Gagnon pig

For the past few weeks I’ve been recovering from a cold. It was a nasty one- I rarely get sick, but when something manages to overcome my immune system, it’s generally a humdinger. On Monday night I was out to dinner with friends, still coughing.

At the first wheeze, the woman sitting next to me paled and slid away. “Have you been checked yet?”

“For what?” I asked innocently (I should clarify: I’ve been on a bit of a news blackout for the past few weeks. Between being ill and dealing with page proofs, current affairs fell by the wayside).

“Swine flu,” she said.

Now everyone slid a few inches away. I’d seen a headline about swine flu, guffawed at the bizarre name, and promptly forgot all about it. “It’s coming from Mexico, right? I haven’t been to Mexico.”

“Oh, it’s here now. Cases in Marin, the South Bay.”

“I heard they closed the airports overseas,” another friend interrupted. “A friend of mine was trying to fly out for their honeymoon, and the entire E.U. is refusing planes from the United States.”

“Really?” I said. At first, this had seemed funny. But now I was overly aware of the constant tickle in my throat. “But I’m not sick anymore, so even if I had it, it’s gone now, right?”

“Walking pneumonia.” My friend said solemnly. “You seem fine, then in a week you’re dead.”

And it’s killing healthy people our age,” another friend agreed. “They’re saying it could be the next Spanish flu.”

Now as you can imagine, all of this was very disconcerting. The SARS scare and avian flu had barely been blips on my radar: probably because at the time, I hadn’t been ill (and let’s be honest: avian flu sounds bad, but “swine flu” sounds positively vile, like you might suddenly sprout a snout).

Living in California, we’re frequently told that we’re ground zero for potential pandemics thanks to constant traffic from Mexico and Asia. But despite that, I always blithely assumed that me and mine would remain unaffected.

The mention of Spanish flu put it in a whole different league for me, however. My grandmother lost two siblings during that pandemic, and to her dying day discussed it in hushed tones.

So I ended up leaving dinner, heading home and going online to read everything I could about swine flu.

Good news: half of what was discussed at dinner was not true. Flights from the U.S. to Europe are continuing without pause (although a flight from Mexico to London resulted in all passengers being examined). Not only that, but U.S. citizens aren’t even being told to change travel plans to Mexico.

The whole incident got me thinking about fear, however, and the ways we sow panic amongst ourselves. 14 swine flu cases have been confirmed in the U.S. as of the time I’m writing this, with one fatality. The normal, run-of-the-mill flu kills about 36,000 Americans a year. So why this fear? Does the media create it to fill air time and drive up ratings? Why is the mere mention of a “pandemic” enough to send us heading for the hills? Some of my friends are debating keeping their children out of school. A local parent sent out an email detailing how we should be washing our produce in a diluted vinegar/bleach solution. One friend has even considered dropping everything and going to a relatively unpopulated area until sometime after May 6th, when apparently if all goes well, the worst of the danger will have passed.

Recently Philip Alcabes, the author of a book entitled, “Dread: How Fear and Fantasy have Fueled Epidemics,” was a guest on The Daily Show. He claimed that most of the threats we get all worked up over are meaningless in comparison to the much more real daily dangers we face. For example, in San Francisco it’s statistically far more likely that I’ll be hit by a car than die of swine flu (it’s not a great city for pedestrians. We’re working on it, but if you visit, look both ways before crossing the street. Even on one-way streets. Seriously.) Getting hit be a car doesn’t sound as scary as swine flu, though, does it?

So I made an appointment with the doctor to get checked out (if nothing else, this cough is driving me crazy). Fingers crossed, I won’t grow a snout.

So what do you think? Much ado about nothing, or should we head for the hills?

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.

I don’t like Twitter

By Joe Moore

I don’t like Twitter. I know, I know, it’s the latest craze in shorthand communication on the Internet and by cell phone. And a bazillion people are joining ever hour. And you can “follow” your family and friends and famous people instantly.

But I don’t like it.

twitter Before I tell you why, let me explain what Twitter is for those that have been living in a mountain top monastery in Tibet and are excited that they are only now getting push button phones.

Twitter is a simple means of communicating between anyone and everyone. You type a description of what you’re doing right now such as what you had for breakfast, what color you painted your garage floor, what you thought of Adam on American Idol, whatever is on your mind, then share your tweet with your friends. Here’s the catch: you must deliver your message using 140 characters or less. The Twitter system sends your “tweet” to all your “followers” which are anyone that signed up on Twitter and then chose to “follow” you. And you get to see the tweets of those that you are following.

Twitter relies on cell phones for much of its interaction hence the 140-character rule. That’s about the limit of most mobile phone text messages. You also get your own special webpage to post your tweets and see the tweets of those you’re following.

The goal of Twitter is to make it easy for you and other tweeters to post and update their status from anywhere, anytime. So like their coffee in the morning, many tweeters post their first tweet while waiting for their Chock Full O’ Nuts to finish brewing. And there’s a lot of tweeters who make it a point to wish everyone goodnight as the head off to Dream Weaver Land. In between wakeup and lights out, you’re bound to read rants, raves, rehashes, relishes, and restaurant recommendations along with every other activity in a tweeter’s life.

There’s a Twitter-style shorthand—not quite as BFF-cryptic as cell phone text messaging, but almost. It takes a bit of getting used to, but you catch on quickly. And because you are limited to 140 characters, it’s created a cottage industry for long-character URL conversion to short-form at sites like TinyURL. That way, if you want to include a link in your tweet to some cool website, you can convert the address to a shorter form that saves on characters.

There are a couple of things you need to know before you start twittering. The system seems to crash often. This is because another bazillion members just signed up. So you’ll get errors and strange page configurations throughout the day. In order to see the latest tweets, you have to “refresh” your browser window. This gets old fast. And then there’s the question, If someone follows you, should you follow them back? If you don’t, is that considered an insult? You can also “unfollow” someone. This of course is the ultimate punch in the gut to your estranged followee. Tough love.

So, why do I not like Twitter? Because it’s usually more interesting than anything I’m doing at any given time, and I don’t have the willpower to turn it off and get back to what I do: write books. I don’t like Twitter or the people who invented it or the people who follow me or the people I follow or the people that I will start following today. I have a lot more to say on this subject but I have to run update my Twitter status. Happy tweets!

How about you. Do you love Twitter or, like me, hate it? It is a way to fill in the gaps of your life or is it a total waste of time? Please limit your answer to 140 characters (or more).

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.

How to write a bestseller

By Kathryn Lilley

“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

– W. Somerset Maugham
Bestseller. That’s why we’re all in the blogosphere, isn’t it? We all want to write (or read) a bestseller, we writer-reader-bloggers.

This blog is gifted with multiple bestselling (and modest) authors. Clare, for example, recently hit the IMBA Bestseller list with two of her books at the same time.

But I think everyone wants to learn the secret for vaulting onto the New York Times or USA Today bestseller’s list, and then stick there like Krazy Glue.

So today I set off on a hunt for the magic formula for writing a best seller. Is there one? What exactly does it take to write a breakout novel?

In his excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel, agent Donald Maass says to write a “breakout” book, you have to open up your story. Make it bigger. Give it higher stakes, a larger theme, one that impacts many more people than you’d find in, say, the population of Cabot Cove. So, I’m assuming that with a few exceptions, most cozy mysteries are not going to be bestsellers. If you do have a “small,” domestic family drama in your story, Maass says, you must find a way to amp up the stakes. Think Grapes of Wrath. It’s a family drama, but man, talk about major stakes.

I ran across an interesting article about how not to write a best seller in the New York Sun, which stated that positive reviews in major review outlets don’t guarantee best sellerdom. The author said that catchy titles do seem to be a plus, however.

Interestingly, I found one reviewer in a British newspaper, The Guardian, who advised would-be best seller writers to avoid putting too much originality and sex into their work. That doesn’t sound right to me, but I don’t know. Is that a British thing? Here’s the article.

As I continued my web browsing, I found an article by Cliff Pickover called How to create an instant bestselling novel. It’s worth reading for the “Bestseller Plan” (You have to scroll down to see it). Pickover’s Bestseller plan refers to a NYT article called How to Manufacture a Best Seller by Michael Maxen. I couldn’t find Maxen’s original article at the NYT site (although I did find some crabby Letters to the Editor from authors who resented the article. Maxen must have skewered their books.). I did follow the link that claims to summarize the major points of Maxen’s article. That article offers up an actual 10-step formula for how to write a best-seller, by God. Generally, it seems to involve creating a hero-expert, a villain-expert, and a team of experts. When the action flags, you’re supposed to kill someone. See what you think.

I also read “Lester Dent’s magical recipe for writing a best seller.” It’s sort of interesting. It seems oriented more toward selling than best selling, though, and calls writers “pulpateers.” I loved his tip about how to fake local color and fool editors about murder weapons, though. That’s the kind of thing that most writers will never confess they do.

So I wish I could tell you I found the absolute formula for writing a best seller. Actually I’d like to hear from you. What do you think makes a book leap to the top of the NYT list? Is there a formula, or a secret? Do you think that to become a best seller, you simply write an excellent story, and accept the rest as a crapshoot? Or do you think that it is all a big fix–that publishers mostly decide who will become the Next Big Thing, by promoting certain books?

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.

How Technology Will Change The Way We Read And Write

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last week my husband forwarded me an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal ( on how e-books will change the way we read and write and it sparked a great deal of enthusiastic debate between us. The author of the article, Steven Johnson, basically had his ‘Aha’ moment when he bought, on sheer impulse, a copy of Zadie Smith’s book ‘On Beauty’ on his Kindle. His ideas about how technology can revolutionize not only the book publishing industry but the act of reading itself are, I think, intriguing as well as exciting.

There were three aspects of his article that immediately caught my attention:

The way that technology will transform the essentially solitary, linear act of reading into a community, interactive activity;

The possibilities that technology open up for the e-book-world from hypertextual, searchable books to global book groups;

The revolutionary way e-books will alter the way people buy books from pay per chapter options to the reemergence of ‘forgotten’ books that are now being rediscovered.

Imagine your home library transformed into a virtual, searchable repository of knowledge…

Imagine being able to drill down into the backstory of a book just by clicking on hypertext links embedded in the e-book (as a writer of historical fiction this opens up all manner of possibilities to help inform and deepen the reading experience for my books)…

Imagine being able to highlight a paragraph in the book you’re reading and make comments that will be accessible to both the author as well as the community of readers who are looking at the same e-book…

After reading this article, I was like, wow, the possibilities are endless…and when I look at my four year old boys I can’t help but wonder – what will the world of ideas and books be like for them in the future?

So what do you think about Steven Johnson’s take on the future of e-book technology? What do you imagine that future will be like? What excites you the most about the way technology can revolutionize both the way you read and/or the way you write?

Looking Backwards

by Tim Maleenytims author

Today TKZ is pleased to host author Tim Maleeny, whose Cape Weathers series not only has some of the coolest covers on the market, but also displays some of the best, funniest writing out there (think Chinatown meets Elmore Leonard). And for a feel of the real San Francisco, his books can’t be beat.

In the novel Downtown, a classic comedic thriller by Ed McBain, the hapless protagonist involved in the twisted storyline says glumly that it’s “a drug plot for sure.” It turns out to be much more than that, but the reference was an inside joke on the publishing industry, because at the time that novel was released, drugs were at the heart of every popular crime novel.

For the past few years vampires have been the drug of choice. The conventional wisdom has been, if you want to break into publishing, put a vampire in your book. Bookstore shelves are now crowded with romantic teen vampires, rural vampires, vampire detectives, gay vampires, bipolar vampires, vampire dentists, you name it.

Some of these books are great, others are pale imitations of the novels that paved the way. They got bought by publishers who believe that in our marketing-driven world, the nature of the subject is more important than the quality of the story.

Now there’s been a lot of buzz about Dan Brown’s forthcoming follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, which is understandable given the wager the publishing industry is placing on the success of this book. And it will be a success because “the machine” will make it one — the hype has already begun, and the marketing expenditures behind the launch will dwarf the promotional budgets of nearly a hundred other top sellers combined. So whether it’s the best book of the year or not, it certainly will be the biggest.

greasing And much like Michelle, I fall into the camp of writers who enjoyed The Da Vinci Code a lot, despite its flaws. The story worked, the subject matter was fascinating, and it cooked along. (And because I’m a blood relative to the Merovingians and have seen nude photos of John the Baptist on the internet, the story had a particularly deep resonance for me.)

But after all the code-copycats —in books and film — all the variations on a theme, the coming of the new book does feel a bit like the return of the vampires.

Which is funny, because before The Da Vinci Code, I understand it was damn near impossible to sell a mystery featuring art history, because the subject matter was perceived as too academic and boring. After The Da Vinci Code hit, countless authors were told by their publishers they had to work a conspiracy involving ancient art into their books. (A novel with a professor of art history who happens to be a Southern vampire would certainly have started a bidding war.)

The machine has become its own self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather than invest in new authors, the pressure from the chains has become so severe, and the margins so thin, that the plan is to bet on a sure thing. The marketing guys look for safe bets and proven brands. But as a marketing guy from way back, I can tell you there are no safe bets, and if you solve for the short-term, it often costs you big-time in the long run.

Sure, you can keep selling an existing franchise for a long time, no doubt about it. But at the end of that push, when the books start to feel predictable, the cost of that approach is reader fatigue, and beyond that, a slippery slope indeed.

This is what happened to the music industry before Napster and then iTunes came onto the scene and opened the floodgates, allowinapsterng us to rediscover our love of music instead of listening to only the Top 40 being pushed by the big labels. The industry almost collapsed under its own weight because it threw all its money at artists who already had a fan base waiting for their next record, or even worse, over-invested in artists who had clearly jumped the shark and weren’t putting out anything fresh.

The same thing happened in Hollywood before independent film put some control back into the hands of directors. Check out some of the bombs from the eighties and imagine them getting funded today, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Movies with plots so thin that any movie-goer in the country could have told the studios they were going to suck before a single scene was filmed.whos that

If you talk to voracious readers, let alone other writers, they can tell which books to bet on, and if you listen carefully, you can tell which books have broad appeal and the potential to break out, if only the machine would get behind them. But with so much money at stake, in an industry of taste makers, are you really going to trust the readers, or, heaven forbid, the writers, when you can just sell the same thing you sold before.

the wire Same thing happened with TV, before cable tore down the walls protecting laugh-track sitcoms, canned plots and formulaic dramas. HBO broke all the rules and, to no one’s surprise except the big networks, it became a magnet for viewers starved for original programming.

For some reason, all these so-called “entertainment” industries forgot that for something to be truly entertaining it has to be unexpected, fresh, something new.

Push the boundaries, twist a familiar story into a new shape, take me somewhere I’ve never been before. Only then will I come back, instead of putting down the book and turning to cable, powering up my computer, or playing a video game. There are too many options on my entertainment menu for me to just sit there and eat the same thing you’ve been serving again and again, because frankly it’s getting stale.

I am told by friends in publishing that zombies are the next vampires. I kid you not, one very talented writer I know was told to rewrite her book to include the walking dead, because “zombies are the next big thing.” Maybe so, but why can’t the next big thing be a great story, one I haven’t heard before. Maybe it features a zombie, but maybe the big thing after that doesn’t. Mix it up a little and see what happens.

Which is why I ask myself, whenever I walk into one of the big chains, does the next big thing have to come in waves? Because personally, I’m getting a little seasick.

Tim Maleeny is the bestselling author of Greasing The Piñata, which recently won The Lefty Award for best humorous mystery of 2008, and the forthcoming standalone novel Jump that Publishers Weekly called “a perfectly blended cocktail of escapism, with or without the beach towel.”


Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, Alexandra Sokoloff, James Scott Bell, and more.

Location, Location, Location…

By John Ramsey Miller

Eudora Welty once said, “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?…”

A great story and solid characters mean nothing if they are walking around in a territory unknown to a reader. Successful authors know that setting is as important to a story as any of the characters. We have the characters, their conflicts and dilemmas, and all else is setting. Setting adds texture and our readers should feel as though they are right there with our characters. What are the characters seeing? What are they smelling? How does their environment feel? What are the characters hearing? Is the sun shining? Is it hot or cold, wet or muggy? Is the sun out, the light failing, or is it as dark out as six inches up a bull’s butt? Are the tall weeds these characters are running through infested with chiggers or poison ivy?

In James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels his bait shop is so real you can almost hear the air pump and smell the minnow tank. You can feel the thick heat in the Louisiana air and see the ceiling fan as it stirs it. When he is sitting in a bar, you can smell the bourbon and see the condensation on the glass in front of old Dave.

Settings influence action. Nothing gets a reader’s blood flowing like a chase in a place where there’s no chance of outside interference. When the pursuer knows the territory and the victim doesn’t it adds suspense.

Writers should know enough about a place to describe it accurately, even if it’s made up from whole cloth. A made-up location should be taken from a real one the writer knows intimately and can convey. If you can see it, and you had better have it in your mind so it is real to you, you have to make your reader see it as well. You should take the time to describe the book’s settings in enough detail for the readers to have a clear idea of where the characters are and what is going on. Many authors, depending on style, leave a lot of details up to the reader’s imagination, while others define the setting so there is no guessing or imagining.

Your settings should be of interest to the readers. I have set books in cities and in swamps and in each I bring the setting in so the reader will see how the setting affects the characters and the plot. I think of locations as characters, and the feel of them as texture. In the way the choice of a hat can say more about a character than two paragraphs of description, something a character says or feels about the environment can set a scene adequately in very few words.

I stick to locations I am familiar enough with to make them seem real. I do occasionally set a chapter in a place I’ve never been, like a jungle in South America, or most recently Route Irish in Baghdad, but those are isolated instances where I need an action to take place that impacts my story. A jungle is easy since I lived in Miami. Iraq was also easy since I’ve all seen it on my TV screen over and over for the past few years. That is okay for the way the place looks, but not good enough. Since my son was in Iraq with the Marine Corps, I talked to him to get his impressions––about how the country felt and smelled to him, especially at night when my scene took place.

The best writers place us right next to the characters. There are authors who can do a great job with the other elements necessary to a successful work of fiction, but fail to bring in the setting to their advantage. In order for a story to involve a reader effectively and to satisfy them, setting has to become one of the major characters.

Who among your favorite authors uses setting most effectively?

A Dialogue About Dialogue

By John Gilstrap

Miller looked up from the pistol he was cleaning and nodded to the chair on the opposite side of the table. “Just shoo the chickens away and have a seat,” he said. Pistol parts lay strewn on a greasy towel.

I’d known him for years, and sometimes it was hard to tell if he was angry. “Am I in trouble?” I asked.

“Nah, I just wanted to talk to you about something.” In his baritone drawl, “nah” and “I” rhymed.

I nudged the weird looking brown bird with the back of my hand and she landed on her feet on the floor. Careful to insult neither man nor bird, I sat without checking for bird shit. I crossed my legs and waited for him to say his piece.

“This blog thing,” he said. “They never talk about dialogue. What do you think about that?”

I shrugged. “I think ‘never’ overstates it.”

“Rarely, then.” He pulled a rag through the barrel tube and looked through it with one eye, like a first mate searching for shore. He scowled and stuffed the rag through again. “I just think it’s an important component of writing.”

“Of course it is,” I said.

“Let’s talk about it, then.”

“What, here?”

“You got someplace better to be?”

“Chicken shit and gun oil. How could I possibly want better?”

Finally, a laugh. “I’ve got some Maker’s Mark on the shelf over there.”

Maker’s Mark puts a happy edge on everything. “So talk,” I said. The chicken squawked as I stood and brushed it with my foot. “You want one?”

“The Pope’s still Catholic, right?” He finally saw the gleam he’d been looking for, I guess, because he placed the barrel tube on the towel and emptied his hands of tools. “I think a lot of writers get dialogue wrong.”

“Get it wrong?” I challenged. “You mean there’s a right way and a wrong way? I don’t remember seeing a rule book.” I found two glasses in the cabinet and put them to work. I’m very generous with other people’s booze.

“Take dialogue tags, for example: he said, he asked, he interjected, he postulated. Hell, in the last paragraph, you challenged. Why won’t a simple ‘said’ do it all the time?”

I handed him his drink and again dislodged the chicken from my chair. “I suppose it could,” I said. “Elmore Leonard made that one of his ten rules, right? I just happen to think that ‘challenged’ better clarified the purpose of my words up there. ‘Said’ would have been fine, but ‘challenged’ was better.”

“I disagree.”

“Good for you. It’s one of those—”

“Let’s talk about interruptions. You used an em dash right there. If you’d used ellipses . . .”

“It would have conveyed the wrong context. To me, ellipses indicate that my words just trailed off. But the em dash—”

“Is a hard abrupt interruption. Yeah, okay, I can see that. I still don’t agree about the tags, though.”

“They sure come in handy, though.”

“In what way?”

“Well, after long strings of dialogue, it’s easy for the reader to lose track of who’s talking.”

He weighed that. “You could always reestablish ownership of the speech by inserting a little action. For example, if you wrote—”

“ ‘He weighed that,’” I said. “Yeah, I did. Try to keep up.”

He took a long pull on his bourbon. “What do you think about exclamation points?”

“Hate ’em,” I said. “I used to overuse them like crazy. Now, if I use an exclamation point, it’s to communicate some loud friggin’ shouting.”

“You just said ‘friggin’.”

“Yeah, well, this is a family-friendly blog.”

He rolled his eyes. “I’m not talking about profanity,” he said. “I’m talking about the dialect stuff. Why not write frigging, complete with the ing?”

“I don’t have answer for you on that,” I confessed. (Yes, confessed. Get over it. In this context, it implies more than merely said.) “A little dialect goes a long way, though. After a while, I think it annoys the reader.”

“As annoying as a long blog post?” he asked.

“Even more, I think.” Point taken. I stood. “Can I take my drink with me?”

Miller laughed again. “I don’t think I can assemble the gun fast enough to stop you. But don’t you think you should ask them what they think?”

Them? Ah, the readers. The man might sound like Foghorn Leghorn, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders.

So, what do y’all think? What are tricks, triumphs and annoyances of writing or reading dialogue?

Yeah, I hear you in the back. “Trite little blog posts, har, har har.”

Seriously, let’s talk . . .

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, Alexandra Sokoloff, James Scott Bell, and more.

How do you top the “Bestselling Novel of All Time?”

by Michelle Gagnon

A few days ago, I saw this announcement on Shelf Awareness:dan brown

The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s long-anticipated follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, will be published September 15 by Knopf Doubleday. A first printing of five million copies is planned for the book. The New York Times noted that “fans and the publisher have been waiting a long time for Mr. Brown to finish the new book. It was originally scheduled for a 2005 delivery. The Lost Symbol will again feature Robert Langdon, the protagonist of The Da Vinci Code.”

At long last, a little more than six years after the publication of The Da Vinci Code, Brown is back. “Waiting a long time” is understating it a bit, don’t you think?

I remember first hearing about the next installment in the series shortly after DVC sales rocketed into the stratosphere. The story (last I heard) was to be set in Washington DC, involving the founding fathers and the Freemasons (can you just imagine the expression on Brown’s face when the film National Treasure came out?)

DVCAnd then the years passed…and as they did, to be honest, I started to feel for the guy.

Granted, he’s insanely wealthy and successful, one of those few among us who became a household name. He managed to write a thriller that captured the public imagination so completely, there are actually plaques mounted on famous Parisian landmarks rebutting some of the claims in the book (it’s fiction, people. Fiction). And sure, without ever penning another sentence he could still probably buy an island in Fiji every year without worrying about eating dog food in his dotage.

But just for a second, put all that aside. Imagine the pressure. Brown could not possibly have known how successful his book would become (sure, he probably hoped–let’s be honest, we all hope. In my dreams I’ve whiled away many an hour on Oprah’s couch). And when it became the bestselling novel of all time, spawning a torrent not just of similar thrillers but tie-in products and books, charter tours, specials on the History Channel, a film with a horribly miscast Tom Hanks wearing what appears to be an otter on his head…wow. Sure, he’s no longer under the same deadline pressure as the rest of us, his editor isn’t sending nasty emails asking where the draft is (although I’m guessing some fairly pleading/begging missives have passed between them). tom hands

But how do you follow up on that level of success? You know the critics are out there, sharpening their knives. The fans have huge expectations, and a significant number of them are bound to be disappointed. And with every passing year, those knives have just gotten sharper.

For the past few years I’ve envisioned Dan Brown holed up somewhere, naked and filthy à la Howard Hughes, pacing and muttering to himself while a laptop blinks relentlessly from a dark corner. Typing a chapter, erasing it the next day. Worrying over every plot twist, every word choice. After all, deep down nearly every writer is a bundle of insecurity; it’s impossible to have distance from your own work, and I’m guessing we’ve all had that, “this is the worst crap ever written” moment as we review our latest manuscript.

Would the stress be worth it?

Hell, yeah.

But come September 15th, I figure Brown will be sitting alone somewhere, drink in his hand, heart pounding, stomach churning, waiting for the verdict. And I’ll most likely be sitting somewhere else, responding to a chiding email about a missed deadline. And I’ll feel a little sorry for him. Then I’ll pick up a copy of The Lost Symbol, snort, and say, “Not nearly as good as his last book.”

On principle. You know.


Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, Alexandra Sokoloff, James Scott Bell, and more.

Slice and Dice your work

by Joe Moore

The writing process is made up of many layers including outlining, research, first drafts, rewriting, copy editing, proofing, more editing and more proofing. One of the functions that sometimes gets the least amount of attention in discussions on writing techniques is editing.

There are a number of stages in the  editing process. Starting with the completion of your first draft, they involve reading and re-reading the entire manuscript many times over and making numerous changes during the process. It’s in this phase that you need to make sure your plot is seamless, your story is on track, your character development is consistent, and you didn’t leave out some major point of importance that could confuse the reader. Pay close attention to content. Does the story have a beginning, middle and end? Does it make sense? Is the flow of the story smooth and liquid? Do your scene and chapter transitions work? Is everything resolved at the end?

Check for clarity. This is where beta readers come in handy. If it’s not clear to them, it won’t be clear to others. Don’t assume that everyone knows what you know or understands what you understand. Make it clear what’s going on in your story. Suspense cannot be created by confusing the reader.

Once you’ve finished this first pass searching for global plotting problems, it’s time to move on to the nuts and bolts of editing. Here you must tighten up your work by deleting all the extra words that don’t add to the reading experience or contribute to the story. Remember that every word counts. If a word doesn’t move the plot forward or help develop the characters, it should be considered for the slicer-dicer.

Some of the words that can be edited out are superfluous qualifiers such as “very” and “really.” This is always an area where less is more. For instance, you might describe a woman as being beautiful or being very beautiful. But when you think about it, what’s the difference? If she’s already beautiful, a word that is considered a definitive description, how can she exceed beautiful to become very beautiful? She can’t. So I suggest you search for and delete instances of “very” or “really”. They add nothing to the writing.

Next, scrutinize any word that ends in “ly”. Chances are, most adverbs can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence or your thought. In most cases, cutting them clarifies and makes your writing crisper.

Next, go hunting for clichés and overused phrases. There’s an old saying that if it comes easy, it’s probably a cliché. Avoiding clichés makes for fresher writing. There’s another saying that the only person allowed to use a cliché is the first one to use it.

Overused phrases are often found at the beginning of a sentence with words like “suddenly,” “so” and “now”. I find myself guilty of doing this, but they don’t add anything of value to my writing or yours. Slice and dice them.

The next type of editing is called line or copy editing. This covers making sure you used the right word. Relying on your word processor’s spell checker can be dangerous since it won’t alert you to wrong words when they are spelled correctly. It takes a sharp eye to catch these types of mistakes. Once you’ve gone through your manuscript and performed a line edit, have someone else check it behind you. A fresh set of eyes never hurts.

On-the-fly cut and paste editing while you were working on your first draft can get you into trouble if you weren’t paying attention. Leftover words and phrases from a previous edit or version can still be lurking around, and because all the words might be spelled correctly or the punctuation might be correct, you’ll only catch the mistake by paying close attention during the copy edit phase.

Line editing also covers grammar and punctuation. Watch for incorrect use of the apostrophe, hyphen, dash and semicolon. Did you end all your character’s dialogs with a closed quote? Did you forget to use a question mark at the end of a question?

The many stages of editing are a vital part of the writing process. Editing your manuscript should not be rushed or taken for granted. Familiarity breeds mistakes—you’ve read that page or chapter so many times that your eyes skim over it. And yet, there could be a mistake that you’ve missed every time because you’re bored with the old stuff and anxious to review the new.

Spend the time needed to tighten and clarify your writing until there is not one ounce of fat or bloat. And once you’ve finished the entire editing process, put the manuscript away for awhile. Let it rest for a week or even a month if your schedule permits while you work on something else. Then bring it back out into the light of day and make one more pass. You’ll be surprised at what you missed.

One more piece of advice. Edit on hardcopy, not on your monitor. There’s something about dots of ink on the printed page that is much less forgiving than the glow of pixels.

Any other editing tips or techniques out there? How do you approach editing; on the fly or after the first draft is complete?


Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, Alexandra Sokoloff, James Scott Bell, and more.

Developing a theme through characters

Before there was story structure–before there were even novels—there was theme. A story’s theme is the fundamental and universal idea behind its plot. In King Lear, for example, one of its themes is authority versus chaos.

But to me, a novel’s theme is not merely the abstract principle behind the plot; I believe that you have to bring a story’s theme to life through its characters. Ideally, several of the major characters should portray a variation on the underlying ideas that inform the story. Those characters will reflect the light and depths of your theme, the way the facets of a diamond show off its hidden fire.

In A Killer Workout, the second installment in the Fat City Mysteries, I created a “Mean Girls” theme. I wrote several different characters to illustrate that underlying idea. One character had been victimized by bullies in her youth–another was herself a bully. Still another character had grown up to become a protector of abused young women. Through each of these women’s stories and backgrounds, I explored the ideas of bullying, emotional abuse, and “mean girls” in various ways.

I use my characters to do a “360” exploration of the theme of each of my novels. The secondary characters’ experiences in terms of the theme are usually more intense and extreme than my protagonist’s. They act as “theme foils,” and they also propel her journey through the plot.

What about you? How do you develop the theme for your stories? Do you create your theme at the beginning of your writing, or does it emerge slowly as you write? And how do you illustrate your theme?
Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, Steve Berry, and more.