Good news for ebooks: the 82-year-old mother test

About this time last year, TKZ hosted a couple of spirited discussions about the merits of e-books, Kindles, and electronic publishing in general. After watching my 82-year-old mother become a devoted “Kindle convert” during the course of a recent cross-country road trip, I suspect that the technology battle is over. E-books have won.

My mother (nicknamed “Mimi” by friends and family) and I recently drove from South Carolina to Los Angeles in a cream puff of a car, a ’99 Mercedes sedan (it had only 17,000 miles on it when we hit the road). My sister had given Mimi a Kindle at the outset of our trip–and as we set off, my mother was a gracious but reluctant recipient. Thanks, she said, but I’ll never be able to hold it right for reading. It just won’t feel the same as a book. Will I have to keep it on a wire like the laptop I never use?

And then she plugged it in. Two days later, I couldn’t pull her away from the thing.

By the time we got to Phoenix, Mimi had already made her way through two Stieg Larsson books, and was downloading more. She was so enraptured by the reading experience that she was barely coming up for air.

Before she got her Kindle, Mimi was a voracious reader, but her buying habits wouldn’t have brought joy to publishers. Unable to make it out to the library anymore, she had become an avid reader of used books–we would send her box loads of second hand books. As a child of the Depression, Mimi thinks paying $26.95 for a brand new hardback is practically sinful, and she’d fuss at us if we splurged on any title we could have bought used from Amazon at a fraction of the price.(I tried to explain to her that buying new books helped ensure the future of her favorite authors, but try explaining that to someone who peeled the foil off the backs of gum sticks during World War II).

Mimi is so excited about her Kindle, it’s like we’ve given an addict her first hit.  She rhapsodizes about how you can increase the font size, and the long battery life.

After all the angst and anguish about what e-books will do to publishing, I think the future is bright–in the future, readers like Mimi will be downloading and paying full price for e-books. By being able to browse and read samples online, they’ll be exposed to new releases and other books they may never otherwise have read. And–did I mention? They’ll pay full price.

I think this is great news for writers and publishers. I call it the “82-year-old mother test.” Bottom line: If Mimi loves your product, you’ve got a great future. And boy, does Mimi love her new Kindle.

If my mother has joined the ranks of e-reader converts, I’m ready to declare an end to the debate (at least on Tuesdays, which is my blog day). The e-book era is officially here. May we all live long, e-read, and prosper.

What about you? Have you overcome previous doubts about e-books and joined the ranks of e-readers? Are you secretly hoping for an iPad, Nook, or Kindle this year?

The C-Bomb

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

After reading Jim’s post yesterday on dropping the F-bomb I started thinking about what (if anything) I found really off-putting in a novel…(apart from ellipses…)

So, swearing doesn’t really bother me…

Can’t say I’m all that keen on a whole lot of gore or horror, but in the right book I have no problem with either…

I admit I cry easily when animals (okay, dogs) get hurt but, if the book demands it, then I will still keep reading…

I’m not exactly crazy about thrillers involving child abuse/child endangerment, but that isn’t a deal breaker for me…

So what is something that really puts me off reading a book (apart from really, really, gross, sexually deviant violence) ?

Though I hardly consider myself a prude, the one thing that will make me flinch is an inappropriately graphic sex scene, especially when particular terminology is used…

Yes, for me, an author dropping the C-bomb is far more shocking than any F-bomb detonations.

Now, I am not talking about the use of the C-bomb in books like James Ellroy’s (though I have have to confess I can’t remember if he even used that word). As a swear word, it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as its use in anatomical description. Perhaps it’s my British parents but I just find it a little distasteful, and, for the most part, repugnant.

So why do I dislike use of the C-bomb? Like Jim wrote in his post yesterday – it is more often than not unnecessary, inappropriate, and likely to alienate readers. Like Jim, however, I certainly don’t advocate censoring authors. I think a writer should use whatever word/term they like but they do need to think through the consequences.
This is part and parcel of the decision made regarding the language used to describe a sexual scene. An author obviously makes a choice to describe such a scene in more or less graphic detail (more X-rated perhaps than fuzzy focus, PG material). For me, however, no matter how graphic the scene, nothing is more likely to take me out of the story than the sudden appearance of the C-bomb.

How about you all – do you have any issue with the C-bomb? Are there other words/terms that you find make you flinch or distract you from an author’s work? Feel free to enter the fray (after all, I can always blame Jim or John G. for having started it:))

The Great F-Bomb Debate

In John G’s Friday post, he gave us clips of his most recent editorial letter. One of the admonitions in it was to lose the F bombs, because “some people will object to it.”
I happen to agree with his editor. We’ve had this discussion before, but this seems a good time to focus on it a bit more, and get specific. Yes, artistic license and the First Amendment allow for its use. We’ve had decades of rants and even lawsuits defending the F bomb. Well, maybe it’s time for some arguments against it. Here are three for your consideration:
1. It might affect your market share
I think it’s more than some who object to the F bomb. I think it’s a lot. In today’s culture, there’s enough that’s offensive, from the slacker at the counter to the boor cutting you off in traffic and delivering a one finger salute.
People are pummeled enough by life. How many want to get whacked with F bombs when reading for pleasure?
So purely from a mercenary standpoint, why shrink your audience? As John’s editor said, no one ever complains that there aren’t any F bombs in a book. (I note here that I do believe there is a valid distinction to be made between this word and “milder” swearing. It’s the same distinction George Carlin made in his famous routine about the seven words you can’t say on television. You may research that one at your own risk).
2. It’s not original
When Lenny Bruce started using the F word in performance, it had shock value. When novelists and filmmakers picked up the practice, same thing. When Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Bros. tried to make an art form out of it, the tide started turning. It’s been done. No one is going to marvel at the creative use of the F word anymore.
You want to know what’s original? Finding ways not to use it. That takes more skill, just as it takes more skill for a comic to get a laugh without resorting to the word.
3. It’s not necessary
But, the protest will come, I write about reality! The F word is real. How can I write about gangs or mafia types without it?
Well, let’s see. How did one of the best TV shows of all time, which ran, what, 20 years, do it? Watch the early seasons of Law & Order. You will get a lesson in how to do gritty without F bombs. (Without, in fact, using any of those infamous seven words you can’t say on TV).
Here’s the thing: fiction is not a re-creation of reality. We have documentaries and non-fiction for that. Fiction is a stylistic rendition of reality for emotional effect. You want readers caught up in a fictive dream, and to leave them with an emotional wallop. You do this by being creative with language. If you use the F word, however, you’re liable to take a lot of readers out of the dream.
Now, maybe you’re a writer who doesn’t care, because you are, by thunder, going to write the word if you think you need it. Fine. I’m just saying we are the masters of the language, not the other way around. Are we shaping our book or is our book running us? The great film noirs and crime novels of the 40s and 50s managed to be every bit as suspenseful (and, to be frank, were usually better written) than much modern fare. Did lack of the F bomb hurt them? Do we think, Ah, that Dashiell Hammett, what a bore? Chandler, what a rube? I didn’t think so.
So what’s your take on the whole F bomb thing? And please, no comments about “censorship” here. That’s not even close to what I’m talking about. I’m a First Amendment guy. You’re free to use it if you want to.
Do you want to? 

Reading Myself, Myself…

John Ramsey Miller

Last week I uploaded a completed manuscript I finished a year ago to my Kindle and started reading it. After having read it numerous times on the computer screen and on paper, I was amazed how on my Kindle I found myself reading it differently as it was more just book-like. It was easier for me to spot my typos, see the weaknesses and flaws that I missed on the other passes. Of course correcting on the Kindle is beyond my understanding and abilities, so I will have to go back to the lap box. It’s one of those novels with good bones, but it needs work. I know my strengths, but not as well as I know my weaknesses. My friend Phillip Hawley read it and made a lot of very valuable and insightful comments and suggestions. In fact he’d make a great editor. I’ve had four great editors, and they made my books what they were. No doubt about it. In fact, sometimes I feel like I am one of them singers who’s records are only great because of the producer’s mastery of soundboards and studio tricks that fool the ears of just about everybody.

Speaking of my Kindle, I noticed one of the novels I read by Ken Follett (A Dangerous Fortune) contained several typos–probably put there by the typesetter. Just made me wonder why they weren’t caught in the years since the book was published and lately transferred to Kindle format. There’s nothing more annoying than finding typos in your book that were put in after the final edits, or missed by the final set of checkers after everybody else missed them. Worse still is finding them early and then having them “not” be corrected.

Of late I’ve been reading a lot more than I usually do. Maybe it’s the time of year and the gloomy days. I think I should be reading less, living and writing more.

I hope everybody reading this had a great Thanksgiving. Mine was Norman Rockwell perfect until the first shots were fired across the table. I’m looking forward to our annual Christmas fiasco.

The Art of the Editorial Letter

By John Gilstrap
I believe that the editorial letter is an art form unto itself. This is the missive that a writer’s editor sends ahead of the marked-up manuscript to give a general sense of direction, and to pass along thoughts for ironing out rough patches in a story.

I’ve had a lot of editors over the years. One in particular loved to hear himself write, producing a 9 page editorial letter for me, single-spaced in 10-point Times New Roman. These were the days when you received an actual letter—you know, the kind with an envelope and postage. It was excruciating to read, and a nightmare to decipher.

For an editor, I imagine that the letter is a balancing act.  It’s tough to offer enough input without being too bruising to the writer’s ego. It also means knowing how sensitive your author is to such bruising.

My current editor is Michaela Hamilton of Kensington Publishing—truly the best in the business—and she has granted permission for me to share her letter regarding my next novel, Threat Warning (July, 2011) with our dear Killzoners. Her text is italicized here only as a means to keep her comments separate from mine. (I have omitted sections of the letter that might serve as spoilers to the book.)

I think it’s interesting to note how much of her input to my work parrots what we’ve been discussing in this space over the past year. Here we go:

Dear John,

I have greatly enjoyed rereading the ms of THREAT WARNING. It is an outstanding thriller.

Note to the sensitive among you: This is the last purely positive statement in the letter, and that’s the way it should be. “Outstanding thriller” is plenty enough affirmation from a big honkin’ New York editor. Hearing what works is pleasing, but in this context, it’s a waste of time. This is a repair mission, not a teaching moment.

Cuts are needed for pace throughout. Don’t over-explain. Your action and dialogue speak brilliantly for themselves. Keep pace moving.

I can hear Jim Bell shouting, “You go, girl!” Like authors everywhere, I have a tendency to over-indulge on explanation. She’s not telling me anything I don’t know in principle, but I can’t wait to see the sections she’s talking about. I thought it was pretty damn tight already.

Jonathan’s dialogue and internal monologues sometimes sound pompous. I understand that he’s a thinking reader’s action hero, but I don’t think he should talk or think like a Ph. D. candidate, especially in the middle of an action scene.

Translation: Quit slowing down your own story, Gilstrap! The reader will get it!

Some names struck me as odd or inappropriate.

She goes on to list the names that she thought were difficult, but I cut that section because the discussion gives away too much. The bottom line is that names need to be pronounceable, even when they are read.

Don’t resort to overused gestures such as shrugged, nodded, sighed, shook his head. These are ok occasionally, but in general, seek more vivid gestures that tell more about a character, help set a mood, and create visual dimension in the scene.

Guilty as charged. My problem here is that the ones she notes are the only conversational gestures that I know of. I stipulate that I overuse them, but if anyone has other gesture arrows that I can add to the quiver, feel free to speak up.

You know how I feel about adverbs. I’ve crossed out enough for a small country. Keep them to a minimum.

Comments like this make me smile. They show that my editor likes me enough to make fun outright.

I am also something of a nut about “moment.” It should not be overused. “Long moment” hits the same raw nerve with me as “very unique.” Use it if you want, but not too often, ok?

Again, I know I do this. I just have a hard time stopping myself.

Scenes in . . . need to move much faster. I don’t think thriller fans will want to sit through . . .; and the static scenes of . . . need to be kept short and punchy.

I know that’s a lot of truncation, but there was a lot of spoiler material in there. Note the emphasis on pacing, pacing, pacing. In a thriller, the phrase “static scenes” is synonymous with “scenes that suck.” Also, Joe, note her use of the semicolon. I’m just sayin’ . . .

Some other scenes also got too preachy for my taste. I’ve marked suggestions for cuts.

Pacing again.

Language: I suggest deleting the F-word and “Jesus” when used as an exclamation. I was surprised at how often the F-word appears in the ms . . . My advice is not to use it. Some people will object to it. But no one will object if it does not appear in the book. I’ve never seen a reader letter or email saying the book would have been better if it had a few more F-words.

Truthfully, this one surprises me a little. First off, I’m surprised that the F-bomb appears as much as it apparently does, and secondly, Michaela has never objected to it before. I think it’s a point well-taken. Clearly, I’ve got some crossing out to do.

Thank you for taking these comments into consideration. After you’ve had a chance to think about them, and to review the edited ms, please send me a new Word document incorporating all changes. I look forward to turning it in for production as well as rights submissions.

Okay, here’s the thing: I don’t have to make any of these changes. My name is on the cover, after all, and the things we’re talking about in the editorial letter are not of the magnitude that would cause the manuscript to be rejected. I will make the changes, however, because they’re all valid comments. Folks, there is nothing more valuable to a professional writer than a professional editor.

If possible, I would love to receive the revised ms the week of Nov. 29.

Well . . . I’ll try.

It’s Thanksgiving. Why are you online?

Okay, guess we all need time away from the table. And maybe football isn’t for everyone. So you’re here with me on Thanksgiving. And like me, you’ve probably eaten waaaay too much, but in case you’re in doubt about that, you should look for the signs here:

Top Ten Signs You’ve Eaten Too Much at Thanksgiving Dinner

10. Hundreds of volunteers have started to stack sandbags around you.

9. Doctor tells you your weight would be perfect for a man 17 feet tall.

8. You are responsible for a slight but measurable shift in the earth’s axis.

7. Right this minute you’re laughing up pie on the carpet.

6. You decide to take a little nap and wake up in mid-July.

5. World’s fattest man sends you a telegram, warning you to “back off!”

4. CBS tells you to lose weight or else.

3. Getting off your couch requires help from the fire department.

2. Every escalator you step on immediately grinds to a halt.

1. You’re sweatin’ gravy.

My other blogger mates would have a thought provoking post about much more heady matters, but hey, that’s not me. With the tense novels I write, I need a good laugh. So I dug out my parachute pants and got into it with M. C. Hammer.

As we speak, I’m having Thanksgiving at my sister’s house. (I know. You thought I was online with you, but I hate to break it to you, I posted early. Sorry.) This year it was my responsibility to make a family classic, our traditional Cranberry Chutney, one of my dad’s contributions. But after seeing this video, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to eat cranberries again.

For the sake of discussion, I’d love to hear from you, as long as you’re here. What are your favorite things to do on Thanksgiving? And what dishes do you consider sacred MUST HAVE traditions?

On behalf of all of us at The Kill Zone, I hope you’re having a special day with your family and loved ones. We appreciate your visits to our site. It makes us feel like family, so thanks. Have a wonderful holiday season and don’t forget…

Books make wonderful gifts!

Romance in a Mystery Series

How do you develop a romantic relationship in a mystery series? Most importantly, keep things slow and subtle. You don’t want to resolve the romance by the end of book one. Build it step-by-step, advancing or retreating each stage per book.

Give your characters internal and external conflicts to keep them apart. The external conflict is your mystery. The internal conflict is the reason why they hesitate to get involved in a relationship. Maybe your heroine was hurt by a former lover and is afraid of getting burned again. Or she has a fierce need for independence because she has to prove herself worthy of respect. Why? What happened in her past to produce this need?

Keep asking questions to deepen the motivation. Maybe your hero doesn’t want a family because his own parents went through a bitter divorce; and secretly he feels he isn’t worthy of being loved. Or maybe he suppresses his emotions and doesn’t know how to give affection. Whatever the opposite sex character does appears to deepen or challenge this inner torment.

Your characters are immediately attracted to each other through physical chemistry. This pulls them together while the inner conflicts tear them apart. Yet for the relationship to succeed, it must advance. The benefits begin to outweigh the risks. As they become emotionally closer, your characters progress through the stages of intimacy.

Stages of Intimacy:

1. Physical awareness: Your characters notice each other with heightened sensitivity. For example, he is aware of her physical attributes; identifies her personal scent; feels a response in her presence. This may include a racing heartbeat, coiling warmth, tingling skin, etc.

2. Intrusion of thoughts: Your character begins thinking of this other person often; he/she invades your character’s mind.

3. Touching: First, it may be an arm around the shoulder, lifting a chin, touching an elbow. They come closer until the desire to kiss is almost palpable. Rising sexual tension is the key to capturing your reader’s interest.

4. Kissing

5. Touching in more intimate places

6. Coupling: Focus on the emotional reactions of your character. Avoid clinical terms or use them sparingly if at all. This is lovemaking, not just sex. For it to be romantic, think "slow seduction", not "slam bam, thank you ma’am".

Throw a wrench into the relationship when all seems to be going well. His former wife appears on the scene; the heroine does something thoughtless and alienates him; he feels pressured and backs off. Finally, they both change and compromise to resolve their differences.

Here is how this work in my Bad Hair Day mystery series (spoiler alert):

PERMED TO DEATH: Hairstylist Marla Shore meets Detective Dalton Vail. [girl meets boy]. While instantly attracted to each other, they share a mutual distrust. Marla is the prime suspect in her client’s murder [external conflict]. Vail is suspicious of her, and rightfully so. Marla hides a secret that gives her a motive. Meanwhile, Marla is suspicious of Vail’s interest because she thinks it’s a pretense. He wants to get to know her in order to learn what she’s hiding.

Besides the external conflict, Marla and Dalton have several internal conflicts at the start of the series. Marla doesn’t want children because of a past tragedy, and Vail has a preteen daughter. Marla values her independence after divorcing a domineering attorney, and Vail tries to direct her behavior. Vail, having lost his wife to cancer, is afraid of losing Marla. He wants to protect her, but she keeps placing herself in jeopardy. She interprets his protective behavior as telling her what to do. Thus they have several issues to overcome before intimacy. At the story’s end, he asks her for a date and she decides to accept [relationship moves forward].

HAIR RAISER: Marla meets Vail’s daughter [forward]. Marla dates an accountant who earns her family’s approval but he may be a murder suspect [backward]. Marla and Vail share their First Kiss [forward].

MURDER BY MANICURE: Marla takes Vail’s daughter, Brianna, to dance class [forward]. Marla pretends to be her friend Arnie’s fiancé so he can rid himself of an amorous old flame. They bring Vail into the scheme to date this woman. Marla gets jealous of Vail when he pays the lady more attention than her [backward]. Marla earns his daughter’s regard [forward].

BODY WAVE: Marla’s ex-spouse, Stan, enters the picture when his third wife is a murder victim. Marla and Vail work together to solve the case [forward]. Stan stirs up feelings Marla would rather forget. Vail is jealous. Marla accuses him of wanting to pin the murder on Stan [backward].

HIGHLIGHTS TO HEAVEN: Marla and Vail argue over his restrictive rules for Brianna, and Marla feels she has no place in their life if he won’t listen to her advice [backward].

DIED BLONDE: Vail proposes [forward].

DEAD ROOTS: Vail meets Marla’s extended family; he presents her with engagement ring [forward].

PERISH BY PEDICURE: Marla meets parents of Vail’s dead wife. Vail takes their side [backward].

KILLER KNOTS: Marla meets Vail’s parents on a cruise. She and Dalton set a wedding date [forward].

And watch for SHEAR MURDER coming in January 2012 to see what happens next. Most of my fan mail is about Marla and Dalton. That should tell you something about what readers care about. Keep the conflict alive to keep your readers interested. Even if your couple gets married, nothing is perfect, is it?

Homeward bound

Note: I’m on the road in New Mexico–literally homeward bound–so I won’t be able to chat until late Tuesday night.  Catch you then!

Writers often have two types of homes: The first is the place where we live, and the second is our writer’s home.  The writer’s “home” is the place where we find inspiration, characters, setting–and especially, theme. Often it’s based on the place we grew up, or a time that was especially formative for us. Our writer’s home is the place we never leave behind in our imaginations.

I was thinking about the writer’s home as my mother and I have been on the road this week. We’re driving from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, stopping at various relative’s houses and historical spots. My mother is the family genealogist, so she insisted we stop in Monroeville, Alabama, where her side of the family has strong roots. I’d never been to Monroeville before, but I was thrilled to discover that this charming southern town is the place where Harper Lee, Truman Capote, and other notable writers grew up. It’s easy to see how the town inspired scenes in Lee’s wonderful novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. The original court house is still there where Atticus Finch–a character based on her own father, who was a lawyer and newspaper editor–thundered in defense of justice. 

I can’t claim Monroeville as my writer’s home because I didn’t grow up there, but I’m happy that my kinfolk did. It gives me a sense of literary pride by proxy. 

What about you? Do you have a spiritual writer’s home, a place that serves as a creative well for your fiction? Do you actively incorporate your “home” into your writing?

Letting Action Define Your Characters

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I just finished a book (which shall remain nameless) for my first Australian book club meeting and despite all its accolades and awards I couldn’t believe how totally uninvested I was in any of the characters. I’ve been mulling over the reasons for this ever since I skimmed my way to the finish yesterday and this morning I woke to find I knew exactly what the author’s problem was – she had failed to let her characters be defined by action.

In many ways this is a classic literary novel mistake because, lets face it, in a mystery or a thriller there’s no way an editor would let us get away with having passive characters who spent half their time engaged in inner monologues about how they felt!

We have blogged a lot on this topic but never has the reason been made so clear to me as it was after finishing this book. Although there were some dramatic moments and a terrific historical backdrop, none of these had any resonance as the characters seemed to be little more than distant, passive observers to all that was occurring in the book. So I compiled a short list for myself, as a reminder of what not to do, when I feel the literary urge coming on (and believe me, getting pseudo-literary is one of my many failings as a writer:)!)

1. Rein in those inner monologues and angst. While okay in small doses this book diluted the power of any angst-defining moments by having the main character ruminate ad nauseam. It would have been far better for the character to have been confronted by his past – in a direct and visceral way so the reader could have seen (rather than being told) how this impacted the character.

2. Cut the literary bull. Too much pondering, pretty metaphors and dream sequences drag a story down (and this book had enough of these to sink the Titanic). Far better to let the plot move the character through his or her emotions.

3. Let action/reactions tell the story not the author. In this book I felt that as a reader I was being told too much by the author – to the point where I didn’t see the characters as real. They became little more than a literary device for the author to tell me her clever observations on the societal issues of yesteryear (yikes!).

4. Insist the plot drive character development. As far as I could tell I didn’t witness any real character development or change, I was merely told that it had happened by the author.

5. Ensure each character is true to life not a literary contrivance. In this book almost all the character flaws were described but never actually witnessed. Once again, without action or plot points to reveal these I was never invested as a reader.

So if you had to do a list on using action to define characters what else would you add (or change on my list). Have you read any book recently that you have found similarly lacking? And why do authors of so-called literary books often forget the basics that we, in our field, would never be able to get away with?!

Pound the Keys and Drop the Pounds

James Scott Bell

I was presenting at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference last month, and a fellow writer told us about this doctor who’s invented a treadmill desk. His theory, this doctor, is that you have to move a little to lose a lot (thus the title of his book, yes, Move a Little, Lose a Lot). Our bodies at rest (like when we’re sitting and typing) slow down the metabolism and preserve our body fat, so we have enough energy to run away from a mastodon should it invade our cave.
So says this doctor. But if you work at your desk and walk at the same time, hey! Drop those ugly pounds while you’re answering emails or talking to clients!
Reminds me of that scene in Woody Allen’s Bananas, where product tester Fielding Mellish tries out a prototype exercise desk, with less than optimal results. Have a look:

Now Dr. James Levine, of the Mayo Clinic, seems to have ironed out all those bugs. The only problem is that his desk costs around five grand. Here’s a picture.
Always looking for a way to save a few bucks (or a few thousand), I figured out a cheapie alternative. As in zero dollars. I already have a treadmill. And I have an AlphaSmart Neo. I just stuffed a towel in the gap between the bar and console, and rested Alphie on top.
Walk at a steady 2.5 and . . . type!
Here is your intrepid correspondent, shedding pounds and creating art, under the watchful eye of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.

This must make me the very definition of a lean, mean writing machine.
Which leads to today’s question: where is the strangest place you’ve ever written?