A Legal Thriller to Die For

James Scott Bell

Last week I explained why my next book will bear a pseudonym. It’s really about brand distinction. Man, is it about brand distinction! Here’s why:

About a year and a half ago my agent, Donald Maass, and I are discussing ideas, and I say, “The whole zombie thing is hot now, but it’s all the same, zombies as slobbering, mindless monsters. What if the zombie was the hero? In fact, what if it was a lawyer practicing law in L.A.?”
Don laughed. I went with it. “I mean, how can you tell the difference between zombies and defense attorneys anyway? Most people think there IS no difference. And what if this lawyer specialized in defending outcasts like vampires, who never get a break?”
Don told me to write up a proposal. As with all my ideas for fiction, I had to see if I could get into the characters and the heart of the story. I can’t just write to a market. I know some can. But even with short stories, I have to connect to the material in some essential and emotional way.
So I started doing my pre-writing. I knew I wanted to write in the hard boiled tradition I love. I wanted it to be an actual legal thriller, where I would use my experiences in court (with a paranormal twist. Let me tell you, I’ve been in front of a few judges who I thought came from other planets). I wanted a first person narrator, and then I decided I wanted it to be a woman with a strong voice and attitude and wit.
All that started to emerge. Finally, I came up this concept:
In L.A., practicing law can be hell. Especially if you’re dead.
In an increasingly hellacious L.A., zombie lawyer Mallory Caine defends a vampire hooker accused of the crime Mallory herself committed, even as a zombie-killer closes in and the love of her former life comes back as the Deputy DA she must oppose. And as Lucifer himself begins setting up L.A. as his headquarters for a new attack on heaven and earth, Mallory slowly discovers she may be the one who has to stop him.
Well, doggone if Don didn’t go out and sell it to Kensington, in a deal that was everything I hoped it would be. I wanted the books to come out in mass market, with great cover art and the know-how of a terrific company behind it. I also wanted it priced right for you, the reader, both print and e-book.
It is all these things.
And as far as I know, this is the first zombie legal thriller series on the market. It’s not everyday you get to start a genre. Which, to my mind, makes it imperative that you jump on the bandwagon while it’s hot!
And so here it is, the first in the Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law series, PAY ME IN FLESH by the mysterious yet roguishly handsome K. Bennett.
Find it at your local bookstore or online. Official pub date is on Tuesday . . . just in time to deal with the debt ceiling blues!
You can also check with:
K. Bennett has a dedicated website that will post things from time to time. But right now, it’s all about the launch.
So there is really nothing left to say but Bon Appetit!

The Best Moments In My Career …So Far

John Ramsey Miller

Recently someone asked me what the highlight of my career (to date) was. I said it was when I sold my first novel. I’ve thought about that and the truth is there have been scores of “best” moments. Seeing my first book in a store. Writing with tears in my eyes. Seeing three of my books in one rack in an airport. And there was being nominated for peer awards on a couple of occasions. Didn’t win, didn’t much matter, still doesn’t. One of the best was having my wife toss me a line that “made” the scene and the book a lot better. The problem was why one character would allow himself to trust another after he felt betrayed by her. It was something that had perplexed the editor and my agent and myself. Finally I told my wife what the problem was and she gave me the line that made it all make sense. None of us could figure out what that needed to be, but Susan knew. Had I asked her weeks earlier, it would have never been a sleep loser. How had I assumed my wife wouldn’t know the power of love and trust, and how to put into a short sentence that was in perfect pitch for both of the characters.

One of my favorites happened when my first book was making some noise. I was invited to Denver to speak about my process, etc… to between 1000 and 2000 people at a National Kidney Foundation fundraiser, which was one of those formalish deals. I was to speak just ahead of Clive Cussler. At the opening hob-nob I had three scotches. Clive Cussler reminded me that we were at 5,000 feet. Not to worry, I hadn’t made any notes on what I was going to say so I didn’t have to fret flubbing my lines. I have never planned out what I intend to say before I stand at the podium. I talked about my childhood, early influences, and (as I recall it) I had the crowd eating out of my hand. My opening line was about being a Native Son of Mississippi and about the tradition of porch sitting and storytelling. You told a story on my porch and there had better have been interesting descriptions, setting, character development, a build up, and a punch line to entertain or amaze. I said that my uncle was a Supreme Court justice and my aunt a hopeless hypochondriac who made up stories to keep me from going outside where I could be killed or carried away. I said, “Guess which one I spent my time with.” Somehow, everything I said brought the house down. I was well oiled and the stories just appeared to me. The best part of the story (I mean how hard is it to have too many drinks and say the right things to people who are also having drinks?) was when Mr. Cussler started his talk with the words, “I’ll never follow John Ramsey Miller again.” To have him say that made me feel very important indeed, and that is a great feeling.

My favorite part of my career has always been the time I have shared with other authors and their families followed by the time I’ve spent writing.

Writers Tackle the Future – Agents as Publishers?

Writers Tackle the FutureJust as publishing houses are trying to capitalize on the “new frontier” of ebook publishing and redefine their business models, so too are agents. Most recently, Bookends announced its intention to offer ebook services, following suit with Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. Undoubtedly more literary agencies will follow.
Can a literary agent who represents the author (in theory) also be that author’s publisher? Is there a conflict of interest in this arrangement? If you read Bookends and DGLM’s announcements (see links above), they present their case as simply a value added service their agency would offer. Existing clients who wish to navigate the new frontier (without doing it themselves) can delegate the details to their agency for their backlists, short stories to promote upcoming releases or epub works that might not be as marketable. They offer their expertise in editing, marketing, and packaging for their usual 15% fee.
Yes, that’s 15% of all book/unit sales. And since there is no “print run” on a digital novel, this could mean 15% forever if that’s not defined by contract. Authors who have looked into self-publishing know that an author can hire one or more contractors to coordinate the effort of packaging their book with formatting, editing, cover art, and uploading said book into the retail outlets who will offer the work online. They don’t have to do it themselves. (I’ve heard cost figures of $1000 – 2000 per book, but since some of you have gone through this process, please weigh in and share your experiences on costs, level of difficulty, and what you “farmed out.”) If advertising is involved, that’s something an author always has the ability to pay for and do on their own.
If that’s one alternative, that an author hires the work done by third parties, what specifically does the agent bring new to the table in this regard? Arguably, an author can hope their agency brings years of industry experience to package the best product, but beyond their opinion (which they would bring if they represented the author as agent anyway), what value can they add to improve sales without the promo dollars of a publisher’s budget (traditionally only offered to a select few authors or book projects)? What kind of promo is required for ebook sales outside what’s already made available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, etc.? Yes, it would be nice to have the promo budget of James Patterson, but how realistic is that for the average author?
On top of the question of value derived for an agent’s 15% fee, who retains the rights for the work? Yes, typically the publisher would retain rights for a specified time, but if the agent is the publisher, who would be the advocate for the author if the agent representing their interest is now the publisher? And with no print run to determine when an author can ask for their rights back, how will the author ever reclaim their work? Who is protecting the rights of a new author who may not be aware of the pitfalls? Normally that might be the agent, but if they are now the publisher, who then?
Anyone can have an opinion about this. Realtor’s have laws regarding their representation conduct, for example. I worked in the energy industry where third party energy marketing arms had to be totally separate on paper and physically housed apart from its affiliate, the regulated utility. Operating practices had to be auditable and employees had to sign ethics agreements annually that could be grounds for termination if this code of conduct was violated. Enron became the prime example of conflict of interest that defined many of the laws that are in place today.
If this trend continues where agents become publishers, I see much harder issues ahead on contract terms, sub-rights negotiations, fiduciary obligations, and better conflict of interest policies where ebooks are concerned—and AAR must weigh in with specifics since it’s obviously not clear. In the ever evolving world of ebooks, agents becoming publishers is another strange twist. Is this the shape of things to come—another nail in the coffin of traditional publishers—or merely literary agencies struggling to be relevant in a new age?
I’ve had talks with my agent and we’ve addressed strategies going forward. We both see ebooks as a new opportunity for authors, but we recognize that the way deals are negotiated now, that will most likely change. New questions must be explored open-mindedly—for example:

1.) What’s a fair ebook royalty rate? Is 50% a more acceptable industry standard or should it be subject to negotiation deal to deal?

2.) Can a book deal be done where an author retains ebook rights to be leveraged by an agent? Would 15% agent fee be warranted then?

3.) When can an author get rights back in a digital world—from a publisher or an agent?

4.) Should any publisher get only a limited time period to said rights? If so, what royalty value would that have and is the term of the arrangement variable and negotiable?

With the future changing as fast as it is, agents can still add value and provide a real service with regard to foreign sales, audio, film and negotiating print rights on ebooks. I’ve never been much of an advocate for an agent editing a book before an editor gets their input. I hire an agent to be my advocate and negotiator. I don’t want their attention focused on a multitude of revisions with their clients that dilutes their effectiveness in the marketplace, which should be their primary concern. Some agents give editing advice as part of their representation deal, without charging a fee. Below is article 8 of the Association of Author’s Representatives (AAR) Canon of Ethics.

“The AAR believes that the practice of literary agents charging clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works (including outlines, proposals, and partial or complete manuscripts) is subject to serious abuse that reflects adversely on our profession. For that reason, members may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works and may not benefit, directly or indirectly, from the charging for such services by any other person or entity. The term ‘charge’ in the previous sentence includes any request for payment other than to cover the actual cost of returning materials.”

According to their announcement, Bookends explains that their 15% fee provides their editing expertise as a part of the package. “For the work we are doing with them we are getting paid a 15% commission… we also provide revisions and edits for those books that might not have been published before.” How is this different than a vanity press? And how is this in keeping with AAR’s Canon of Ethics as stated above?

Bookends and DGLM’s announcements justify their 15% agent fee with a list of services that can easily be obtained elsewhere by third parties who aren’t also charged with advocacy on the author’s behalf. In an effort to sound forward thinking, these agencies are ignoring the potential for conflict of interest and undermining the relationships they already have with publishers by competing with them.
Another concern I have are the people querying agent/publishers who are desperate to be represented. If Bookends, DGLM or other agents, find a marginal book that would be a tough sale to a traditional house, they can “offer their services” and take money from people who don’t know better. The countless folks in a slush pile become a gold mine, the gift that keeps on giving. And if there is no a delineation in who offers these services—with a definitive separation of companies—an agent’s existing author clients could get ignored because an agent is too busy cashing in on people bent on being “represented” by a real agent.
On the subject of conflict of interest, agent Jessica Faust in a comment to her Bookends blog post stated, “My feeling is that whether or not it truly is a conflict of interest comes down to how a situation is handled by the agent, and in many ways, that’s for the agent and the agent’s clients to determine.”
What do you think? Should a conflict of interest be done by consensus between an agent and client? Or should more definitive guidelines be established by more objective parties, without a personal stake in the answer?

Your First Mystery

How did you get started writing mysteries or thrillers? Assuming you were an avid reader of the genre, did you outline the plots of your favorite stories? Study structure and pacing? Attend writing workshops by seasoned authors? Or did you use a how-to book?
Keeper of the Rings, my fourth sci fi romance now available in digital format, is the story wherein I learned how to plot a murder mystery. It has all the elements for a cozy: a limited number of suspects, most of whom know each other and who have a motive for the crime, a confined setting, and an amateur sleuth.
Here’s the story blurb:

Taurin is shrouded in black when Leena first meets him, his face shaded like the night. At first she believes him to be a simple farmer, but the man exhibits skills worthy of a warrior. With his commanding presence, he’s an obvious choice to be the lovely archaeologist’s protector on her quest for a stolen sacred artifact. Curious about his mysterious background, and increasingly tempted by his tantalizing touch, Leena prays their perilous journey will be a success. She must find the missing relic, or dangerous secrets will be revealed that may forever change her world.


Who stole the sacred horn that must be blown to reset the annual cycles of Lothar, the god worshipped by the people of Xan? Only the members of the ruling priesthood, the Synod, had access to the holy artifact. Was it Zeroun, the ambitious Minister of Religion? Perhaps Karayan, a friend of Leena’s family and the Minister of Justice, is involved. Or maybe Sirvat is guilty. As Minister of Finance, she has something to hide. So does everyone on this twelve person council, including the Arch Nome himself.

While Leena’s brother is assigned the task of investigating the Synod members, her mission is to retrieve the artifact. Here the story becomes Indiana Jones meets Star Wars. Leena and Taurin survive one peril after another on a desperate quest that takes them around the globe and deep underground beneath the ruins of a holy temple. Do they find the horn before disaster ensues? Is the thief unmasked? Was he responsible for the accident that killed Leena’s mother?

Here’s an excerpt where Leena and Taurin discuss the suspects with her brother, Bendyk, and his assistant, Swill.

Swill tugged at the long sleeves of her burgundy blouse, tucked into a black skirt that hugged her hips. “Magar makes regular unexplained entries in his receipts, which Sirvat deposits into the Treasury. Magar refuses to elaborate on the source. Sirvat’s financial records are impeccable, but the odd thing about her is these trips she takes every so often, returning with a new piece of jewelry each time. The items are created with rare gemstones. Usually, she’s not one to adorn herself.”

“I’ll bet I know where she gets them.” Taurin related what he and Leena had learned about Grotus and Sirvat’s relationship.

“I don’t believe it.” Bendyk shook his head. “She seems so strait-laced.”

Leena gave a small smile. “Perhaps she hides a passionate nature. She certainly has a peculiar bent to fall for a man like Grotus.” Her face grimaced in disgust at the memory of the smuggler. “You know, some of those items I saw in Grotus’s mansion are similar to pieces in Karayan’s house.” She pursed her lips in thought. “Karayan has quite an extensive art collection.”

“Are you implying that he buys his art works from Grotus?” Bendyk asked with a horrified expression.

“Not really. They just share the same kind of artistic taste, although Karayan is a much better dresser.”

Beside her, Taurin snorted. “We’re not here to discuss anyone’s preference in art or clothes. Did you investigate Zeroun? As Minister of Religion, his department is responsible for administering the Black Lands. Someone there has granted the Chocola Company illegal rights.”

“We’ll check into it,” Swill assured him. “We’ve cleared most of the other Synod members but weren’t sure about Sirvat’s trips and Magar’s secretive dealings in his trade commissions. I still feel he’s withholding information from us.”

“You’re wasting your time with Magar,” Taurin snapped. “I suggest you check out Zeroun. The Minister of Religion would also be responsible for—” He held his tongue; he’d nearly said for excising any records of the Temple of Light. “—for the Black Lands,” he finished.

They could easily be discussing suspects in a murder. This was the last romance I wrote before switching to mysteries, but it taught me everything I need to know about plotting a whodunit. How did you learn the craft?

A Pick-Up, a Cold One, and You

Note: TKZ is delighted today to welcome guest blogger Camille Minichino, author of The Periodic Table Mysteries.

I grew up on the East Coast, about as far from cowboys as you could get. In my neighborhood the Columbus Day parade band played the march from Aida or the drinking song from La Traviata. So what if many of them were goons—they were goons with classical taste.

So how come the satellite radio system in my car is set to Willie’s Roadhouse, where Willie Nelson and his friends tell their sad, tragic stories with steel guitars and nasal tones?

I love country music.

How did that happen? I don’t drink. I’m too lame to get into a pick-up. I hate the outdoors, with all that dirt and creepy bugs. I barely tolerate living in San Francisco, too far west of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My first rodeo was also my last.

But I sing passionately along with Wynn Stewart: I bought the shoes that just walked out on me.

I’m often asked to explain it. My brother-in-law, a real life dude rancher in his youth, asks me often, as if he considers me unworthy to blend my voice with Patsy Cline’s.

I‘ve got your picture; she’s got you, I twang out.

There are limitless possibilities for backstory in that line, and in this early Willie hit: Hello, walls. How’d things go for you today?

It’s like flash fiction. And that’s it in a nutshell. Or cowboy hat. Country music lyrics have everything a writer could ask for. It’s grand opera without the libretto.

You want PLOT? Country music gives you revenge, big time. What better inspiration for a crime fiction writer?

Take Waylon Jennings: Well, I hope that the train,
 From Caribou Maine, 
runs over your new love affair. And Miranda Lambert: His fist is big, but my gun’s bigger; He’ll find out when I pull the trigger.

You want CHARACTERS? Country music has the saddest of the sad, the meanest of the mean—ornery sheriffs, jailbirds, a busted-flat girl named Bobby McGee, and a boy named Sue. 

Country characters can be the cruel: How Can I Miss You if You Won’t Go Away? Who doesn’t need Travis Tritt at least once a day: Here’s a quarter, call someone who cares.

The Oak Ridge Boys give us an expansive image: Gonna take the Mississippi, the Monongahela, and the Ohio; gonna take a lot of river to wash these blues away.

You want more METAPHORS? Here’s a gosh durn winner, my favorite, from Johnny Cash’s Flushed from the Bathroom of your Heart:

On the river of your plans I’m up the creek;
Up the elevator of your future I’ve been shafted;
On the calendar of your events I’m last week.

Ouch! My poor achey breaky heart!

Unlike the popular music when I was growing up, country music isn’t slave to cliché rhymes, like moon-June-spoon, or true-blue-you.

Instead, country gives us Conway Twitty’s tongue-twister, When we said I do, we really did, but now you don’t.

Okay, it’s not all lyrical.

Do you get inspired by music? Is your taste classier than mine?

Camille Minichino is a retired physicist turned writer, the author of The Periodic Table Mysteries. Her akas are Margaret Grace (The Miniature Mysteries) and Ada Madison (The Professor Sophie Knowles Mysteries). The first chapter of ‘The Square Root of Murder,” debuting July 2011 is on her website: http://www.minichino.com

Writing Software

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I feel sure we have probably addressed this issue before but I need some input on writing software options. Being an old fashioned gal, I just use Microsoft Word to write my novels and tend to compile my research in manila folders, exercise books and on post it notes:) A friend of mine recently purchased Scrivener, however, and she is now totally sold on it as a fabulous writing tool. She loves how it helps manage research, set word limits and formats everything.

I am in the process of getting a new laptop as my old one has started having those glitches that suggest PC dementia is setting in and so, before my hard drive totally dies, I am looking into a new computer…which has started me thinking about upgrading my old fashioned research and writing methods for an easier, and frankly more efficient, software tool.

So my questions to you are:
  • Do you use a specific writing software package like Scrivener?
  • Do you use a Mac or PC with it (I use a PC but have recently switched everything else in the house to Mac…so I am also tossing up a Mac vs. PC laptop as well)
  • If you do – do you love it? What are the coolest features…and what doesn’t work so well (or drives you mad) about it?
  • Have you found it helps compile and store your research for the book? Or, do you find yourself using other (pen and paper) methods too?
  • Would you recommend the software package…and if not, why not?
  • How long did it take you to master using the program? (One thing I fear is I spend just as long working out how to use the software as I do writing the book!)
Thanks in anticipation for all your feedback and help!

I Feel Like a New Man

James Scott Bell

My next print book will be issued under a pseudonym.

In the past, there were various reasons writers chose to publish with pen names. Evan Hunter (The Blackboard Jungle; Strangers When We Meet) always considered himself a “literary writer.” To earn some extra dough he wrote police procedurals under an alias so the critics would not look at his “serious” work with a jaundiced eye. But as Ed McBain he produced a remarkable run of noir that made him a multi-millionaire. The truth came out eventually, though Evan was probably always a little jealous of Ed.
Some writers wanted to have more books published per year than a single contract would allow. Dean Koontz at one time was writing under nine or ten pseudonyms, including a female guise. He wisely got the rights back to those early works and re-released many of them under his own name after he became a mega-bestseller.
Stephen King wrote some novels under the name Richard Bachman. He says his reason was to see if he could “do it again,” by which he meant find success from the ground floor. He wanted to show that his status as a bestselling author was not the product of pure luck. His experiment was starting to show some results until a suspicious bookstore clerk outed him. So King “killed” Bachman, which was a pretty funny way to end the line.
Then there is protection of a “brand.” Agatha Christie was hugely popular as a mystery writer. Her name on a book meant clues and suspects and sleuths. So when she wanted to do romances she adopted the name Mary Westmacott to keep readers from confusion or frustration.
My own reason for taking on a pseudonym is quite simple: I don’t want the heads of my established readership to explode.
You see, my new book is different from my brand. Boy Howdy, is it different. Imagine Hemingway deciding to write for Madmagazine––that sort of different.
But this is a book, and series, I wanted to write. Plus, I now have this added authorial benefit: I get to write as two people, which I find very cool. I will be issuing books under two names, not one.
See, I loved those old pulp days when writers like Erle Stanley Gardner (aka A. A. Faire) were turning out the work, pounding their typewriters long into the night. I always thought I’d have fit in perfectly in the 1930s writing for Black Mask and Dime Detective and then putting out novels and getting called to Hollywood and hanging out at Musso’s with Chandler and Faulkner and Ben Hecht, writing legendary dialogue for Billy Wilder and Jacques Tourneur, and talking back to Harry Cohn and getting fired, then getting re-discovered in the 60s and going legend, writing into my nineties while college kids tracked me down for interviews.
Or something along those lines. One dreams.
But this is now and I am here, and I’m just thankful I get to play in a new genre.
So what is my new name, and what is the book that will have it on the cover? Well, I write suspense so . . .
 . . .I will reveal all next week.
Meantime, would you ever consider using a pseudonym? For what purpose?


I recently jumped into something called “Google+.” I still haven’t figured Twitter out and don’t really know if I want to; as far as Twitter goes, I feel like that proverbial farmer who is watching the south end of his prized possession galloping down the road just as he is getting around to closing the barn door. I accordingly figure that if I jump onto every other platform or whatever its called that becomes the “next big thing” in social networking, I’ll be ahead of the game.

As far as Google+ is concerned, however, I don’t think I’ve quite jumped on entirely; I’m hanging on for dear life to the boxcar door, but the toes of my shoes are dragging along on the tracks, squeezing out sparks.
I don’t quite know what Google+ is, or what it does, or how the heck to use it. I only know that it’s pretty easy to set up once you have a Google account and involves adding people to your circles of friends, colleagues, and associates. It looks to be some sort of cross between Facebook and LinkedIn. I have been added to some peoples’ circles and have added some people to my circles and I already feel inadequate because I have fewer people in my circle than other people I know, like anyone under the age of twenty. I did find a post in the excellent “My Name Is Not Bob” blog by Robert Lee Brewer which is titled “11 Google+ Tips for Writers”
http://robertleebrewer.blogspot.com/2011/07/11-google-tips-for-writers.html?et_mid=511511&rid=3005603 and I cannot understand even half of them. And that’s not the fault of Bo…er, I mean, Robert, either. No, my lack of understanding is due to what I call a PICNIC problem. Problem In Chair, Not In Computer.

The question is: from a professional stanpoint, should I bother? I made a new year’s resolution in 2010 to post to my face book page daily and to read the comments of all my friends, but I quit doing so by March of that year. Part of it was time; at one point I was spending hours reading, commenting and the like, and it became a time bandit. I didn’t really need to know every intimate aspect of the lives of everyone I know and/or care about. And trust me, you DON’T want to know mine. I thought that was what e-mail or the phone was for. But is it worth it for a writer to jump on this new bandwagon? Is anyone paying attention, honestly? Or are there already too many social networks contributing to the chatter? I think it is too early to tell. Accordingly I am circling my friends, but circling the wagons as well. What do you think?

Ten Rules For Manuscript Evaluations

By John Gilstrap

If you’ve been visiting my little corner of The Killzone for any time at all, you probably know that my rules for writing are limited to only one: There are no rules. There are really good suggestions, but at the end of the day, if you can make something work on the page, it doesn’t matter if there’s a widely accepted “rule” against it. This game is all about originality.

But a little clarification is in order. When I say no rules, I really mean no universal rules. I have rules for my own writing because they work for me. I would never presume to suggest that the same rules would work for any other writer.

Every now and then, though—usually in the context of a writers’ conference involving manuscript evaluations—other writers’ rules collide with mine, and then things can get awkward.

Over the years, then, I have developed a list of Gilstrap’s Ten Rules for Manuscript Evaluation:

1. Number your pages and put your name or project title on every page. The reality is that I will lose your paper clip and I will drop your papers on the floor at least once. I don’t do this on purpose; it just always happens. Sometimes the pages get separated in my briefcase. However it happens, jumbled papers are jumbled papers. It helps to know which ones belong to whom, and in what order.

2. Have confidence in Times New Roman 12-point type. Reducing the font size to sneak in more story does not slip past unnoticed. I recently participated in a conference where someone actually gave me 15 pages of double-spaced 8-point type. Ignoring the fact that it pissed me off, I literally could not read the text. While I like to think of myself as young, my eyes are marching toward old age.

3. For me to believe that your story has any hope of success, something must happen in the first two hundred words. That’s the length of my interest fuse. Billowing clouds, pouring rain and beautiful flowers are not action. Characters interacting with each other or with their environment is action.

4. If you insist on walking into the whirling propeller that is a prologue, check first to make sure that your prologue is in fact not your first chapter in disguise. Next check to verify that your prologue is truly for the benefit of the reader, and not a crutch for the writer who needs to dump a bunch of backstory so that the first chapter will make sense.

5. Ten pages are plenty. Actually, five pages are plenty, but I understand that conference organizers can tout the larger number more easily. In my experience, unless dealing with a journeyman writer, the sins committed in the first few pages are replicated throughout. It’s rare that I discover a new issue on page thirteen or fifteen that hasn’t been noted several times previously.

6. Understand that I write thrillers. That’s really the only genre I understand—and at that, my understanding is tenuous. If you submit a romance or historical fiction manuscript to me, understand that it will be evaluated through the lens of a thriller writer. I’m not being obstinate here; I’m just not that intellectually nimble.

7. I write manuscripts, I don’t buy them. I am a terrible resource for determining what is and is not marketable. If I knew what the public was going to be clamoring for in two years, I would write those stories myself and sit atop the bestseller lists year after year.

8. Since you asked my opinion, I owe you honesty—as filtered through the prejudices and preferences of a self-taught writer of commercial fiction. I don’t demand that you agree with my opinion, but please don’t try to talk me out of it. Right or wrong, mine is the only opinion I have, and I can’t do much about it.

9. Understand that I do the evaluation exercise to be helpful. I can tell you what works and doesn’t work for me, and I can explain why. At the end of the day, though, your story is yours, and you are the only one who can fix it.

10. Unless you submit your best effort for evaluation—fully vetted, fact-checked and spell-checked—you’re wasting everybody’s time.

Joy and Insomnia, or How to Bring a Novel to Life, Kicking and Screaming

Meg Gardiner

TKZ is thrilled to welcome Edgar Award-winning author Meg Gardiner, whose latest thriller The Nightmare Thief was just released today!

Some writers love first drafts. To them, starting a novel feels like hitting the highway for a summer road trip. They toss the map out the window, crank up the tunes, let their characters take the wheel, and sit back to see where the story goes. To them a first draft means freedom: blue skies, unlimited potential.

I’m not one of those writers.

I love the part before the first draft. Brainstorming is terrific. Brainstorming means flinging ideas at the wall like spaghetti, to see what sticks. And when an idea gets under my skin—stings like a hornet, itches, keeps me up nights—I know I’m on track. I have the fuel that will drive a thriller.

That’s how I felt with The Nightmare Thief. An “urban reality game” goes wrong and traps a group of college
kids in the Sierra Nevada wilderness, fighting for survival along with series heroine Jo Beckett. That idea did it. Yep, brainstorming, and then sketching a synopsis—Jo and the kids are trapped, bad people are closing in on them, and my other series heroine, Evan Delaney, has only hours to find them—that’s fun.

But then I have to actually write the thing. And for me, writing a first draft is like pulling my own teeth with pliers: slow, painful, and messy.

The plot takes form, and it’s fat. The characters sit around a lot, thinking. When they do speak, the dialogue needs spice. Worse, everybody on the page sounds exactly the same and, worst of all, exactly like me. And all those plot twists that were so exciting to sketch (“Evan discovers a deadly betrayal”) stare back at me from the synopsis, going: Well, how?

I cringe. I couldn’t show this stinking mess to my dog, much less my editor, and oh, sweet Lord, I still have three hundred pages to write.

And I need to write them at a rate of 2,000 words a day, because I have a deadline.

That’s when I remind myself:

  1. My critique group has a rule for reading out loud: We all think our rough drafts are crap. It’s stipulated. So don’t waste time quailing that your piece sucks. Just read. Well, the same goes for actually drafting the crap. Just write.
  2. My job does not involve cleaning a deep fryer. I should stop being an ungrateful moaner. Just write.
  3. If I spew all these wondrously awful first-draft words onto the page, they will at least exist. And words that exist can be fixed. Words in my head cannot. Just write.

So I keep going, for months, until I reach the end. Then I run through the house with my fists overhead like Rocky, while the stereo blasts the Foo Fighters’ DOA. “I’m finished, I’m getting you off my chest…”

In the five-stage writing cycle (excitement, delusions of grandeur, panic, compulsive eating, delivery) this is known as the False Ending. Because now it’s time to rewrite.


I can hear some of you shouting, Rewrite? Don’t make me. Stab me with a fondue fork instead. Repeatedly. Please. B
ut I mean it: Joy. As I recently heard Ken Follett explain, revising means making a book better—and who wouldn’t want the chance to make something better?

And, to be serious, I have a method. Tackle the big issues first.

This is a technique I picked up from Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing, and it has turned my editing inside out. It’s saved me months of wasted work. Stein calls it triage: Fix the life-and-death issues in a manuscript first.
  • Is the conflict stark enough?

  • Is the protagonist strong enough?

  • Does he or she face a worthy antagonist?

In other words, when rewriting, don’t simply start at page one and go through the manuscript fixing every problem as you spot it. It’s counterproductive to spend a morning fussing over sentence structure if the entire scene needs to be cut.

So I identify all the triage issues and outline a plan to address them. Then I return to my miserable first draft. I attack those fat, introspective scenes. I build in unexpected twists. I obstruct the protagonist’s path. Throw down impediments that are by turns physical and psychological, accidental and deliberate. Breakdowns. A monkeywrench. A landslide—literal or emotional. I cut endless swaths of verbiage, like so much kudzu. It’s gratifying.

Admittedly, revision isn’t all fun. I’ll wake up worrying that I’ve done insufficient research. Maybe some howlers have slipped through. (Anybody seen Lord of War? An Interpol agent strafes Nicolas Cage from a fighter jet. That kind of howler.) So I hit the reference books, and contact some experts, and revise again. And I have a fail-safe plan: write a rip-roaring story, so that if all else fails readers will miss any mistakes. Put the pedal down and nobody can see the errors as they blast through the novel.

Meanwhile the deadline continues to loom. Eventually I reach the stage known as Revise! Or! Die! It comes down to a cage fight between me and my story. With major revisions on The Nightmare Thief, I’m happy to say I won—which is to say, the story won. The lumpen first draft was flick-knifed into a sharp revision. Or sledgehammered, where necessary.

When I finished, I sent it to my editor and pitched face down on my desk. Then I sprang back up like a jack-in-the-box, thinking of all the changes I still wanted to make. Then I pitched forward on my desk again.

Eventually I sat up, picked off all the paperclips that had stuck to my face, and staggered to bed, where visions of Jo Beckett and Evan Delaney danced in my head. Well, they didn’t dance—they opened a couple of beers, clinked bottles, and put their feet up, waiting to see what I would do to them next.

I love this job.

Meg Gardiner was born in Oklahoma and raised in Santa Barbara, California. She graduated from Stanford University and Stanford law school. She practiced law in Los Angeles and taught writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She lives with her family near London. The Nightmare Thief is her ninth novel.