My Muse

I truly believe that I would not have achieved anything I consider worthwhile in this life without my wife, Susan. I have never loved anyone or anything with the sincerity and intensity that I feel for her. She had a birthday on the 20th of May. I bought her this set of very expensive wheels, which she looks great in. She looks great in anything.

I know it’s like giving pots and pans for Mother’s Day, but wait… Here was my thinking. We have a large place. A small house, but a large garden, which is hers entirely, and she likes to move things like wood, stones, dirt, mulch, and other heavy things around on the property. We have a regular wheelbarrow with one wheel, which is hard to hold straight when its loaded. I have a five-horsepower motorized wheelbarrow that carts 1,000 lbs and dumps its load, but Susan has a hard time cranking it. I have to start it. This is a wheelbarrow that will allow her the independence to do more of what she enjoys without needing anyone’s help.

Susan is the most unselfish person I have ever known. She wants everything for others and only what she needs for herself. She has never once expressed any doubts that I would succeed at whatever I attempted. And she worked a job, made the meals, and raised my children while I sat in our bedroom day after day for several years typing. She never got discouraged as the 161 rejections stacked up, because she liked my manuscripts and honestly believed I would sell a book and then several more, which I did. My biggest regret is that she is still working while I sit and type day after day. I always wanted to give her the best the world has to offer, but she has always been satisfied with simple things. I have heard her say more than a few times, that our life together has been a lot of things, but never dull.

I know that if it were not for her I never would have found the author in me. And I would never have been happy, which I truly am. Every good female character I write is mostly made up of Susan, so strong, independent women are easy for me to write. Knowing how hard she works is what drives me to work as hard as I can. The world disappoints, but she never does.

My youngest son is getting married on June 4th and I have not been writing at all for the past few weeks. I’ve got too much on my plate to think about any story but our own. I hope each of you has a muse, an inspiration, and a reason to sit day after day and pound out your soul and take the blows we all have to take.

John Ramsey Miller


Fourteen months ago, I posted a blog entry here on The Killzone, in which I described a day of, shall we say, intestinal distress while in Islip, NY.  In that post, I wrote something kind of snarky about the Hilton Garden Inn where I was staying.  Specifically, I talked about my dismay that after hours of overnight dehydration, I couldn’t order room service to have that bland meal one needs after such an illness.

Among the comments generated by that post was this one: “My name is Adrian Kurre and I am the head of the Hilton Garden Inn brand. I read your post on your stay at the HGI Islip. I’m disappointed on a couple of levels. First that you became ill and could not make your presentation and second that we could not get a meal to you at lunch time when you were still feeling less than perfect. I know that you are not blaming the HGI for your illnes, but I sure wish we could have helped you feel better. If you’d like to email me at adrian.kurre at hilton dot com I’d love to hear more about your stay and what we could have done to make it better.”

I thought (and still think) that that was the coolest thing in the world.  I wrote to Adrian to tell him so.  Here’s a guy who no doubt has a bazillion things on his plate, and he took the time not only to stand up for his brand, but to reach out to a customer to show that he cares.  In an era when true customer service is hard to find, I really was very impressed.  So impressed, in fact, that wherever possible, I’ve become something of a Hilton purist in my travels.

It turns out that my effusive email arrived in Adrian’s box on a day when he needed to hear good things, and thus began a year-long correspondence through which I learned, among other things, that he’d become a fan of my work (how can you not love a man with such fine taste?).  As a gesture of thanks I asked and received permission to set a pivotal scene in Threat Warning at the Hilton Garden Inn in Arlington, Virginia.  (I promised Adrian that Jonathan and his team wouldn’t make a mess while they were there.)  I think stuff like this is very, very cool.  Fiction is rife with random events connecting to cause an unexpected outcome, and I’m always thrilled when happy randomness affects me. 

There’s actually a coda to this story that I’ll share when the time is appropriate, but for now, I just want to praise kindness, caring and serendipity.  You never know when the smallest gesture can make a big difference.  

By the way, here it is for the record: Even though the restaurant was closed at lunchtime at the HGI in Islip, someone from the staff would have gone out and picked up food for me if I’d asked.  It’s that kind of place.  I like those kinds of places.

9-Act Screenplay Structure – Novel Plotting Resource

The first step toward recovery is to admit I have a problem. So here it is. I’m NOT a plotter. I’m a complete “pantser.” There, I said it, but…

When I looked into plot structure for fiction—while I was still delusional about having the capability to actually plot—I found references to the Nine-Act Screenplay Structure. This is the basic framework of today’s blockbuster movies. You’ll see 3-Acts and 12-Acts, but I played with this version below as a format and had some success in conceptually plotting one or two of my earlier stories. Ah, the ambiguity…

It’s my belief that once your brain grasps the concept of this structure, you may automatically follow the idea whether you’re aware of it or not. As a visual learner, it helped me to draft this and embed it in my brain, like a time bomb triggered to go off when I sat in front of my computer.

The 9-Act structure is similar to the classic Hero’s Journey that you may have seen, but I thought this would be interesting to talk about. See what you think. Would something like this work for writing a novel?

Word of Caution – Once you see this framework, you may not enjoy movies the same way again. Just sayin’…

Nine-Act Screenplay Structure

Act 0—During Opening Credits First 5 Minutes (film time)
What strikes the conflict—sets it up—event years earlier may plant the seed of conflict

Act 1—Opening Image—The Panoramic Crane Shot Next 5 Minutes

Act 2—Something Bad Happens 5 Minutes
In a crime story, it’s usually the murder—Reveal the bad front man, but hold off on the introduction of the bad head honcho until later

Act 3—Meet Hero/Protagonist 15 minutes
Meet hero—give him 3 plot nudges to push him to commit

Act 4—Commitment 5-10 Minutes
The push—Usually one scene that’s a door to Act 5—1-way door, no turning back

Act 5—Go for wrong goal – approx. 30 minutes est.
A series of 8-12 min. cycles called whammos or complications followed by a rest period of 5 minutes or so to uncover some of the backstory. End this act with the lowest point for the protagonist. The dark moment.

Act 6—Reversal 5-10 Minutes—Usually 70 Minutes into the Film
The last clue discovered—Now Act 2 makes sense—It is the low point, a history lesson usually revealed by the bad guy/honcho—but reveals the Achilles heel of the nemesis too.

Act 7—Go for New Goal 15-20 Minutes
The clock is ticking—Hero has a new plan. The action seesaws back and forth with nemesis and hero gaining & losing ground between each other—usually takes place in 24 hours within the context of the movie. Favors are repaid, magic, good luck happens. The new plan is kept secret. New goal is achieved.

Act 8—Wrap it Up 5 minutes
Back to where it all began—a feeling of accomplishment & rebirth—the world restored. Ahh!

Now having outlined this plotting structure, I’m not sure if following something like this (without deviation) would hamper creativity by providing too much framework. This would be like “the rules” of writing. Maybe rules are there to be understood, but we shouldn’t be afraid to break them either.

I tend to “think” about my book ahead of time and let my brain ponder what I call my “big ticket” plot movements—like what my black moment will be for my main character(s). I also develop my ideas on who the main cast of characters will be and maybe where I might set the story location(s).

Basically I’m impatient about writing. Plotting and outlining ahead of time would be like the San Antonio Spurs, Manu Ginobili, sitting injured on the sidelines of the NBA finals. The guy just wants to play, man. Let the dude play. (Of course by the time this post happens, the Memphis Grizzlies could put Ginobili on the bench until next season.)

What tips can you share on plotting…for those of us who are challenged by a heavy dose of impatience?

Rock What You’ve Got

My good friend and fellow thriller author Mark Terry is conducting a virtual book tour to launch his latest page-turner, THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS. Mark and I become friends 5 years ago when we shared a publisher. Over the years we’ve supported each other with advice and the exchange of ideas. We’ve also served as each other’s sounding boards and beta readers. Mark is a frequent visitor and friend of TKZ. Welcome, Mark.

By Mark Terry

Do you wish you could write like Lee Child? Or Stephen King? Or Nora Robert?

Mark Terry 3Not: Do you wish you had a writing career like them? Ha! Sure, we all do, I suppose, at least at some level.

But, do you wish you could write like them?

For a second, take your favorite writers and think about what makes them, well, them.

My favorite writers, if that’s possible to break down, are probably the late Robert B. Parker, John Sandford, Dick Francis, hmmm, probably Jonathan Kellerman. I could go on (and on, and on…), but let’s stop there for a moment.

I just listed, more or less off the top of my head, four very successful novelists (two dead) who have a lot in common and a lot different. Parker and Dick Francis, for the most part, wrote in the first person. Parker was all about sparkling dialogue, stripped down description and efficiency (in my opinion). Dick Francis, uh, horse racing, but aside from that, I think of the decency of his characters, his research, a kind of efficiency of prose. Sandford? Pace, man! A stripped-down prose that’s like a lightning rod to his characters’ hearts, and for me, I love the way he structures his third-person narratives. Kellerman? I think characterization, texture and description.

I ain’t any of them.

That isn’t to say that my own books might overlap somehow – I hope they do. Perhaps analyzing my own strengths is a fool’s game, but I would say pace for certain, efficient prose, dialogue, writing action.

It probably would not be a good idea if I decided to try and write like Jonathan Kellerman. My strengths are not his strengths. That isn’t to say that I don’t try to give the reader a sense of place, or that I don’t focus on characterization. I do. Hopefully all writers do. But the sort of stories I write and want to write – and have had some success with – focus on pace and action.

Where am I going with this?

Years ago, when I was sending novel after novel manuscript to a former agent, I sent him a manuscript for a novel about a consulting forensic toxicologist. He called me up almost immediately upon reading it, gushing, saying he loved it, it was original, it took the things that I was good at and used them. Then he went through some of my previous manuscripts and said something along the lines of, “With this manuscript you were doing Carl Hiaasen, and with this one you were doing Robert B. Parker, and with this one you were doing…”

Valley of the Shadows 8-23-10 1 Cover 3rd passThe point being, that perhaps for the first time I was being just Mark Terry. (Which all makes for an interesting story, except he couldn’t sell it).

But I think there’s something vital to writers in this. It’s a little bit of: What do you bring to the table? What is uniquely you? JUST YOU. Then exploit it. Rock what you got.

How about you? As a writer, what makes your books unique? Are you content with your own voice and style? Or would you like to write like someone else?

Mark Terry is the author of 13 books. The fourth Derek Stillwater thriller, THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS, will be released in hardcover and as an e-book on June 7, 2011. His previous Stillwater novels – as well as other standalones – are available as e-books and other formats. Visit his website at

Finding (and keeping) a writing group

For the past decade or so, I’ve been on a constant hunt for the perfect writing group. For those of you who haven’t tried a writing group (aka critique group), it’s a group of writers who get together regularly to submit pages and give feedback. 

My first group was a spin-off from a fiction-writing class at UCLA Extension. When that group fell apart, I started looking for another one. My search eventually became a sort of Holy Grail.

Sometimes I attended more than one writing group at a time. Each one had its strengths and weaknesses: One group gave better feedback, while the other seemed more stable. At one point I blended the two groups into one; like a merger acquisition specialist, I was hoping that the combined enterprise would become the Perfect Writing Group.

And for the most part, it has. We’ve watched each other grow as writers, sharing triumphs and rejections. Along the way we’ve shared personal highs and lows, as well. There have been illnesses and work crises. One of our members, a lovely older man who was writing a Civil War yarn, recently passed away. (Rest in peace, Harvey.)

When it comes to keeping a good writing group, structure counts. In most of the groups that have lasted for me, the writers read their work out loud. The group then goes around the table, providing feedback and making notes on copies. Writers are not allowed to “talk back” or defend their work. We have to sit silently and take it.

Personalities count when it comes to keeping a group together. I’ve seen good groups fall apart when a spoiler comes in–these are usually people who can’t tolerate constructive criticism, or who clash with other members.

I couldn’t live without my current writing group. We meet every other week, and the group has been meeting now for 15 years, long before I joined it.

How about you? Do you attend a writing group, and has it helped your writing? What format do you use?

Resolution, justice and happy endings

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

This weekend I attended Booktown the annual book festival held in the small Victorian town of Clunes, where I heard Peter Corris, Jean Bedford, and Michael Wilding speak on the topic of the long arm of crime fiction. One issue which prompted some discussion was the issue of whether readers still look for good to triumph over evil in a mystery novel. The panelist seem to think that far more ambiguity is now allowed. They noted that writers such as James Ellroy have already upended the traditional mystery form and felt that it was possible now to end on a note in which evil, while not triumphant, certainly hasn’t been bested by the forces of good.

This got me thinking about the need for a satisfying ending and how, in many books, I have been more disappointed by a trite or glib happy ending than I ever have by books in which evil doers get away (at least in part) with their misdeeds.

Nevertheless, I do think resolution is critical in any kind of novel, and by that I mean that all the critical plot elements have been explained and resolved. I wonder though if I don’t secretly yearn for justice at the end of a mystery or thriller. Would I be satisfied with a conclusion that allowed the crime to go totally unpunished? Would I feel let down if the protagonist failed to succeed in bringing the perpetrator to justice? To be honest I’m not sure.

What about you? What kind of resolution are you looking for in a crime novel? Do you need to see justice done?

Where Do You Write?

James Scott Bell

Here is a picture of the noted screenwriter and novelist, Dalton Trumbo. He’s in a nice bath, his pad and coffee at the ready. He looks like he’s enjoying the whole writer thing.

Not sure I’d like to write in the tub. I split my time between my home office and my branch offices all over the world, the ones with the round green sign.
Here is the table at my local Starbucks, where I wrote several books. 

I loved that table. But they recently remodeled the store, and my table is gone. The new tables are a tad smaller and the chairs have lower backs, not nearly as comfortable. No one got my permission to do this, by the way.
So I got to thinking, if I could design my perfect writing environment, what would it look like? I think I know. It would be at Dean Koontz’s house, in the guest room upstairs, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Dean would be kind enough to let me use it whenever I wanted to.

Then again, would that be too distracting? Would I spend more time gazing than writing? Maybe my home office, with the blinds closed and the familiar mess surrounding me, is still the better idea.
So where do you write?
If you could design your ideal writing spot, what would it look like?

Dark Humor…or…How To Embarrass Your Daughter Anywhere


Bad weeks seem to be in abundance around here. I have been fortunate. I have witnessed bad and wrong and sad things, but from a distance, from the periphery. I’ve done what a could, and can, to help, while silently giving thanks that the bullets of misfortune missed me, even as I feel badly that they hit someone else. This of course, does not prevent my penchant for inappropriate comments from rising to the fore.

The saddest of a series of events occurred two weeks ago when the son of a family in my wife’s prayer group was found dead at home. He was eleven years old. My thirteen year old daughter had seen him and talked with him just three hours previously. I cannot even begin to imagine what his family went through, what they continue to go through, but I hope to never experience it.

The wake was held a week later. We went to the funeral home, where I was reminded why I want no calling hours, no service, no memorial eulogies, no pictures projected onto a screen. Harvest my organs, burn me up, and scatter my ashes into the Mississippi in view of the Café du Monde. I hope it brought comfort to them; it just isn’t for me. As with such events, I was ready to go after paying my respects. My wife and daughter, however, wanted to stay, so I wandered around the facility while they visited with the family and acquaintances. It wasn’t long before they remembered why I am best left at home, preferably attached to an ankle restraint.

Those who know me are aware that I get into trouble when I am idle. My imagination runs wild. I start talking with attractive but unfamiliar women. And I get creative. So it is that I observed that there was a table laden with toys and a basket full of bags of skittles candy in the viewing room. It was fairly obvious that these were objects which had been important to the young man during his life, and that the family wanted to share his special interests with their friends. A half-hour or so later I observed my daughter talking with some other young people who were there. They were all eating candy. I motioned her over to me and asked, “Where did you get that candy?” She replied, “It was in the basket on the table in there.” I reared back in (pretend) shock and said, “No! You weren’t supposed to eat that!. The things on that table are going into the casket with him!” She turned green, put her hand to her mouth, and said, “Tell me you’re kidding!” I smiled and said, “Okay. I’m kidding!”

I am hoping that she will forgive me before she graduates from high school.

Shrugging and Pursing

by Michelle Gagnon

Kathleen’s hilarious post on Tuesday about bad metaphors reminded me of something.

I always hit a point about halfway through each novel where my characters start doing an inordinate amount of shrugging. Seriously, if I don’t catch it in time, they’re all running around jiggling their shoulders up and down a few times a page. For whatever reason, toward the end of Act 2, I draw a blank on anything other than my go-to physical mannerisms.

So a significant chunk of the editing process for me involves sitting there and trying to come up with things people do with their mouths aside from pursing their lips. Or frequently gesturing behind themselves. Or indiscriminately pointing at things like the cast of a Broadway musical (that one was for you, Kathleen).

So today’s challenge is to share your ringers, the default ways in which you describe your characters and how they behave: physical mannerisms, looks, etc.

Aside from the ones I’ve already mentioned, here’s my list:

  • She chewed her lip pensively
  • He grimaced.
  • She rolled her eyes (An overly literal reviewer once claimed that there was no such thing as “eye rolling,” unless you physically pulled out your eyes and rolled them across a table. I rolled my eyes at that).
  • He lunged for the door (lots o’ lunging in my rough drafts. My characters lunge for everything, from beer to bombs).
  • He gulped hard.
  • She polished her glasses on the hem of her shirt. (None of my characters carry tissues or handkerchiefs, and yet many of them wear glasses that require constant polishing. Odd).
  • He grinned. (Must find more synonyms for smiling. At the moment, my WIP is filled with Chesire Cats).

Mind you, many of these are fine if used sparingly. It only becomes a problem when the manuscript is riddled with the same types of description.

So let’s hear yours…and please feel free to add humor…