How Much Are You Willing to Share About Your Stories? Author Confessions Time

By Jordan Dane

I’ve been an avid reader since I was a kid in elementary school, but as I grew older, I wondered how authors concocted their stories and how much of their own experiences became a part of their fictional stories. Vivid scenes can put you into that moment with the characters. Exotic sights and smells can put you there, even if you’ve never been.
Now with each book that I write, I know the answer—at least for me. I feel like I’m treading on dangerous ground to reveal too much. I run the risk of pulling a reader out of my books because they may know where elements come from. But maybe telling some of my secrets might enrich a reader’s experience, like saying my stories are inspired by real headlines or true stories.
My first HarperCollins Sweet Justice series book, Evil Without A Face, had been inspired by a horrific near miss abduction by a young girl who had been virtually seduced online by a charming human trafficker. The girl had her computer only 6 months, a gift from her parents. The clever trafficker set up an elaborate scheme, involving innocent adults who he lied to, to trick this girl into leaving the US even when she didn’t have a passport. The FBI thwarted the abduction in Greece, minutes before the girl was to meet her kidnapper in a public market. The Echo of Violence (Sweet Justice #3) came from a real life terrorist plot to hold missionaries for ransom.
But those inspirations aren’t what I’m talking about. I’m referring to the small creative morsels that you pepper into your stories that are your secrets, no one else’s. So it’s confession time and I’ll start.
There’s a line in No One Heard Her Scream, my debut novel:
If she wanted to engage the only brain he had, all she had to do was unzip it and free willy.
I channeled that line through my character and didn’t even remember writing it, until one of my sisters asked about it. It came from one of my vacations when I visited Vancouver and took a day trip to see where they filmed “Free Willy.”
In my debut YA with Harlequin Teen, In the Arms of Stone Angels, I wrote about my 16-yr old Brenna Nash getting extra credit for dissecting a frog and earning extra credit for extracting the frog’s brain intact. Well, Brenna may have gotten the extra credit in the book, but I never did. I jabbed at that frog until it’s head was shredded. The brain popped out whole, so I asked for the credit. After my teacher saw the wreck I made, she only gave me a grimace and a heavy sigh. (There are quite a few more kid stories of mine in this book, but I’m stopping here.)
Sometimes I use real people that I know in my books as “fictional” characters. They know I’m doing it but they roll when they read what I wrote. I crack up too. The priest and Mrs Torres at the end of The Echo of Violence, for example. Yep, people I know. One of my favorite book reviewers for my YA novels entered a contest of mine and won being named a character in my upcoming release – Indigo Awakening. O’Dell shared some of his quirks in an email and after seeing that list, I thought he would make an odd villain. He can’t wait to read the book.
So now that I’ve given you a peek behind the curtain of Oz, is there anything you care to share about your own writing? If you’re a reader, have you ever heard or read stories about what elements have been connected to the real life of an author?

A Silent Society

Few people seem to make personal phone calls anymore just to say hello. In the old days, I would call my girlfriends and we’d spend hours chatting on the phone. But today, I’m lucky to get a terse email from my acquaintances asking if I want to meet for lunch.

What does this have to do with writing? Those of us who are full-time writers sit home alone all day. Our characters might keep us company, but it’s not the same as hearing a human voice. How long can you go without yearning to have a real conversation?


Despite having my retired husband at home, I still wonder why so few of my girlfriends pick up a phone anymore. Is it that they’re so involved with their busy lives? Is it because they’re afraid of interrupting my muse? Or do people nowadays consider it an inconvenience and a waste of time to talk on the phone? Our children are grown, so we don’t have to compare notes on child rearing. We’re not school kids, so we can’t moan about homework assignments or share high school angst. But in those days of starry-eyed youth, we would discuss the meaning of life, our knotty relationships with others, our fears and doubts. Do we writers just talk about them with our fingers on the keyboard now instead of our voices?


There’s great comfort in picking up the phone and hearing someone say, “I was just wondering how you’re doing.” Or, “I called to say hello.” What’s happened to those days? Is it my friends, or my attitude that’s off kilter? I still have intimate conversations with distant relatives on the phone. But that doesn’t apply to local friends. Is the telephone an outmoded device for social interaction? Are online social networks replacing real, live conversations? Texting and email are too impersonal and brief to count.

Or maybe it’s that cell phones are not as comfortable to talk on for any length of time as a landline. When speaking with this device close to my ear, I’m aware of the invisible rays boring into my head and the possible link to brain tumors. Or can it be a matter of economics, that people don’t want to use up their precious cell phone minutes on a frivolous call?

I still like to hear another human voice. Maybe that relegates me to the age of the dinosaurs.


What about you? Do you still have conversations with friends on the telephone?

What Lucy taught me about writing

It’s three in the morning and I can’t sleep — again. My story is a giant hairball in my brain but it’s more than that. I am obsessing about the world of publishing and my little place within it. There is so much uncertainty in our business right now. Bookstores are closing, advances are shrinking, publishers are paring their lists, and we are all groping for something to grab onto as the eBook earthquake rumbles beneath our feet.
I retreat to the sofa, remote in hand, searching for something to quiet the questions in my head.
Have I used up all my good plot ideas?
Is it too late to switch to erotica? Which might be adapted into Nu Bay Videos?
Should I take out a loan to go to Thrillerfest?
How did that hack get a movie option?
What should I write about for my first Kill Zone blog?
Did I remember to feed the dogs?
In the darkness, the ceiling shimmers with fifty-seven channels of nothing on. Then, suddenly, there she is — Lucy Ricardo. My muse, my all, my Ambien.
Before I know it, eight episodes have passed and the sky is lightening with a new day. I have an epiphany! Everything I need to know about surviving in publishing today can be learned from “I Love Lucy.”

Speed it up!

When Lucy needed to make money she went to work in a chocolate factory but found out it wasn’t easy keeping up. Time was we could get by doing one book a year. Not anymore. Maybe we can blame James Patterson who is fond of comparing novels to real estate — i.e., the only thing that matters is how much room your books take up on the shelf (real or virtual). But the eBook age has accelerated the metabolism of publishing and many of us are pulling extra shifts, churning out novellas, short stories and even an extra book a year. (Lee Child just put out his second Reacher story “Deep Down” and I’m working on a novella prequel to our March 1012 Louis Kincaid book HEART OF ICE). Lisa Scottoline in this New York Times article, calls it “feeding the maw.”  What I call it can’t be printed here. Sigh. But I get it.

Reinvent yourself!

What did the artistically thwarted Lucy do when she wanted to be in the movie “Bitter Grapes?” She went to a vineyard and became Italian. Is your series on life support? Are you in midlist limbo? Maybe you just need a change of identity. If you write dark, try light. Leave your amateur sleuth and write a standalone thriller. Got the “bad numbers at B&N blues”? Adopt a pen name and start over. Or. . .go over to the dark side. I know, we aren’t supposed to like this eBook thing. But it has given new life to some authors, like my friend Christine Kling who put out Circle of Bones when no publisher would. It’s the Wild West and if you want to be a pony soldier you gotta mount up!

Make friends!

When Ricky and the Mertzes forgot her birthday, Lucy joined the Friends of the Friendless. (“We are friends of the friendless, yes we are! We are here for the downtrodden and we sober up the sodden!”). Truth is, publishers aren’t putting out anymore (publicity-wise). So we writers just need to get ourselves out there more! No, a pretty website isn’t enough. Now you need to be on Facebook, Quora, Writertopia, Writers Café, MySpace, Tumblr, Foursquare, Goodreads, Shelfari, Fictionaut, Broadcastr. You need to Tweet even if you’re a twit with nothing to say. Oh, and when you have couple free moments, post something on your blog and what do you mean you don’t have a book trailer on YouTube? It’s all about buzz, Bucky. Or is that branding? I don’t know…
I need a nap. Or maybe a glass of good Sancerre. Probably both. All this advice about what we should be doing to sell ourselves and our books. And you know whose voice I keep hearing? Neil Nyren. He’s the president of Penguin-Putnam books and a friend of mine. (Yeah, I’m namedropping.) At SleuthFest one year, Neil said, “all the time you’re doing that other stuff you could be writing a better book.”  I need to remember that.
That and what happened to Lucy. She tried too hard and ended up too sick to eat chocolate and dyed too blue to get in the movie. I think it’s time for a new muse. Maybe Wonder Woman is available.

That all important first line

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Call me Ishmael.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. 

That all important first line of a novel…the one I agonize over as a writer. The one that, when I pick up a book, I read to assess (along with the rest of the first page) whether I’m going to buy it or not. 

But how much does it really count?

In my current novel, I spent a long time deliberating over the first line – not because it was complicated or particularly awe-inspiring but because it needed to immediately draw the reader in and establish that things had already gone awry for one of the main protagonists. The first line is literally the hook to grab your reader and pull him/her in – but really, how much time should you spend on getting it right?

In my opinion, an ideal  first line should immediately establish one of the following:

  • Mood
  • Theme
  • Dissonance
  • Threat
  • Character
  • World 

It should neatly encapsulate the theme of the story to come and lead seamlessly into the first page that, as we have so often blogged about, is integral to creating a compelling (and ultimately saleable) novel.

And this the entry point can be unforgettable. I mean who can ignore the simplistic beauty of the opening to George Orwell’s 1984: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Immediately we get a sense of mood, a sense of foreboding, and a vision of a world quite different to our own – and all in one line. Or take Ray Bradbury’s first line of Fahrenheit 451: It was a pleasure to burn. and my personal favorite (maybe because this is so often true…) I have never begun a novel with more misgiving (W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge). 

But sometimes I wonder, is it worth all the agony? Do you think the first line of a book is really that important? Apart from the classics, what memorable first lines have you read recently?

I Believe I Am Really a Writer

I am not a number! I am a free man! 
– The Prisoner

Back when I was learning this stuff, this writing craft and business, I devoured books on writing and the contents of two magazines, The Writer and Writer’s Digest. I always plucked something useful out of all of them, every single one, and once I read something that was put in as magazine filler, written by the English novelist Malcolm Bradbury. I liked it so much I cut it out and pinned it to my bulletin board. It’s from his memoir, Unseen Letters: Irreverent Notes From a Literary Life:
I believe I am really a writer. I write everything.  I write novels and short stories and plays and playlets, interspersed with novellas and two-hander sketches. I write histories and biographies and introductions to the difficulties of modern science and cook books and books about the Loch Ness monster and travel books, mostly about East Grinstead….I write children’s books and school textbooks and works of abstruse philosophy…and scholarly articles on the Etruscans and works of sociology and anthropology. I write articles for the women’s page and send in stories about the most unforgettable characters I have ever met to Reader’s Digest….I write romantic novels under a female pseudonym and detective stories.…I write traffic signs and “this side up” instructions for cardboard boxes. I believe I am really a writer.
I thought of this quote the other day when I read a now infamous article wherein one Ewan Morrison laments the new paradigm of self-publishing, which he calls a “classic race to the bottom.”  To quote the article:
Many will cheer, Morrison admits, including the more than one million new authors who have outflanked traditional gatekeepers by “publishing” their work in Amazon’s online Kindle store. “All these people I’m sure are very happy to hear they’re demolishing the publishing business by creating a multiplicity of cheap choices for the reader,” Morrison says. “I beg to differ.”
I was more impressed with another writer quoted in the piece, Jake MacDonald. “My ecological model is the raccoon – a diversified survivor,” MacDonald said. “I’m always writing, but the survival plan continues to evolve. I’m surviving as well as I ever did, but in completely different ways.”
Hear, hear! MacDonald is a guy who gets it. It’s the Raccoon Way or the highway, my friends. Adapt or die.
Not long ago I was talking to a traditionally published author who saw what I was doing—stories, novellas, novelettes, non-fiction, backlist (all in addition to my trad books)and wondered if I might be spreading myself too thin. 
It’s precisely the opposite. I’m spreading myself thick. I’m making honest lettuce every month by writing what I want, finding readerships for each item (which makes for cross-over to my other works), adding to my platform and making business judgments accordingly. What is wrong with this picture? Nothing, ifyou are a writer who thinks it’s okay to make money off your writing.
So I, too, believe I am really a writer. I write full length thrillers and crime novellas. I write short stories about a boxer named Irish Jimmy Gallagher, and novelettes about a martial arts nun named Sister J. I write “how to” articles and books on the writing craft, and a treatise on law for California lawyers. I write historical romances and, in my spare time, zombie legal thrillers. I write blog posts and writing tweets, emails to my fans and journals to myself. I make up more stories than I’ll be able to write in my lifetime, and choose the ones that excite me most and write those.
Traditional publishing needs to embrace this model. It needs to understand that a self-publishing writer who follows “The 5 Laws” is building a solid platform because it’s based on readership. Publishers inside the Forbidden City should now see themselves less as potentates granting approbation, and more as “creative partners” with enterprising writers (see my Declaration of Indie-Pendence).
And any writer entering such a partnership must be willing to do what’s best to support the traditionally published books––by not competing with them and not being a ratfink to the publisher. This is all worked out in what is called negotiation. Which, I hasten to add, is supposed to be two-sided and win-win.
The bottom line is there is no bottom line. There is no one way to go about any of this. And even though that’s causing indigestion in Manhattan board rooms, the Alka-Seltzer of the new reality is just a plop plop, fizz fizz away. Drink of it!
I am a writer, so I write. And continue to read books on writing and review my binders of articles on the craft, because this is what I do. I’m never going to rest or just “mail it in.” I’m going to write as long as I can, as well as I can, until they find me with my cold, dead fingers poised over the keyboard, hopefully after I’ve just typed THE END.
I am a writer.
I believe it.
What do you believe?

Lights, Camera…

Now it can be told.

Some of you may be aware of the fact that I am a jack of some trades though master of none. One of those trades is acting; I have a supporting role in the independent film LA-308 and am looking forward to appearing in another film which will begin shooting in November…though of what year, I’m not sure. In the interim, I co-starred this past April in a video project created to promote an e-book.

I have for the better part of my life been the friend of a gentleman named Michael Garrett. Michael, possessed of many talents, is perhaps most famously noted for being Stephen King’s first editor. He also, with another multi-talented fellow named Jeff Gelb, conceived and created the longstanding HOT BLOOD series of original horror fiction. Michael recently published DEADLY OBSESSIONS, a collection of his own short erotic horror fiction, and decided to use a video to make his particularly shiny needle stand out in the haystack known as Amazon. He explained the concept of the video, which he titled “Seducing the Shrink,” to me and asked if I would be interested in co-starring in it; I readily agreed. Michael proceeded to write the script, and after a few short weeks I found myself in suburban Birmingham, Alabama on a warm spring day, going over my lines and awaiting the arrival of Kimberly Heart, a talented and attractive Birmingham native who has been featured in publications such as Playboy and Maxim.

We filmed “Seducing the Shrink” in Michael’s home, using a quiet, sunlit family room which will undoubtedly never be the same for Michael. Since we all had some experience in such matters, things proceeded fairly quickly and smoothly, at least as such things go. In other words, it took us about three hours to shoot five minutes of video. Things go wrong, lines are missed, dogs whine out of tune off camera; maybe “this” camera angle looks better than “that” one, or the line of dialogue that rang so true the night before doesn’t work quite as well in the light of day and needs a change or two. I had the easy part, but the actors always do; it’s the people that are behind the cameras, getting the light right, directing,  editing, editing, editing, and writing, writing, writing, who do the heavy lifting that make five minutes of video or two hours at the local multiplex stand or fall on the merits.

Herewith is a link to the video (Rated ‘R’ for partial nudity):

 If you are not offended by such things please take a look, and by all means consider purchasing the wares which it advertises. And yes: in his weaker moments Michael is considering the scheduling of another session between Ms. Trott and Dr. Dillon.

Reader Friday: Stop It!

Welcome to Reader Friday, your chance to dive in and make your voices heard! Today we present an opportunity to share a pet peeve you see in novels and film. 

Here’s mine: I was watching a recent, and forgettable, movie via Netflix streaming the other day, and up came a line of dialogue I can just as well do without, thank you very much. There was a tense emotional exchange, then this:

“It’s not about ____! It’s about ____!” 

How many times have we heard this? I thought so! So I just want to say, Stop it!

What about you, dear reader? Here is your chance to tell filmmakers and novelists alike, Stop doing that! 

What’s your pet peeve?

Who Created Writers? The Man With One Black Glove

by Matt Richtel
Today Pulitzer prize winning journalist Matt Richtel join us again for a fascinating real life story…read on to find out more…
It was one of those arid summer days where you can see heat rippling from the pavement. Air conditioning in the cranky Chevrolet up full blast. Kermit and the Muppets on the stereo singing about a rainbow.
And then the black car appeared. A Mercedes, tinted windows. One curve ahead of us. My father, driving, spied it first.
“It’s him.”
Strapped into the backseat, a determined 14-year-old, I strained to look over the tall gray back of the front seat.
“It’s him, Matthew. It’s Carlos.”
The Jackal.
“No way.” I paused. “Do you think he’s on to us?”
It was the summer of 1980. We were on a family car trip; me, dad, my younger sister and mom. I tell you the beginning of this all-too-true story to address the question: do thriller writers get born, or made? Do we start seeing conspiracy everywhere, imposing over-active imaginations, like covering the world with a transparency dotted with daggers and police tape?
That summer, I was traveling with Robert Ludlum, or, rather, his book, the Bourne Identity, one of the first hardbacks I mainlined, just after dad finished it. Carlos the Jackal, terrorist and Ludlum antagonist, had crept into our zealous imaginations.
Maybe dad was escaping a little bit too, maybe we all were. Mom and dad hadn’t been getting along so great. Nothing overt. A tear in the fabric.
With the Mercedes just ahead of us, we reached our destination, a local steakhouse at the top of a small hill. Dad and I were still in the thrall of imagination – is it Carlos in the car? Headed to an assassination? One we can prevent? — when out of the black car stepped three men.
Dark jackets, short haircuts. Stern. One wore a single black glove.
“Oh my God, Matthew. It’s really him.”
Unlike some people who write for a living, I never pictured myself becoming a writer. I knew I liked being swept away, teased by the promise of some terrific answer. But even after I became a journalist, I thought the idea of writing books seemed ambitious bordering on obnoxious. Who writes 90,000 words about anything?
Then, in 2002, processing the end of a long relationship with my college girlfriend, I wrote two pages of a story that starts with an explosion at a San Francisco café, in which the protagonist is saved by a beautiful and mysterious woman. Who is this woman, I had to know. Five months, and 90,000 words, later, my first thriller, Hooked.
I couldn’t stop writing. My third thriller, The Cloud, comes out in January. This week marked the release of my first short-story, Floodgate. It’s had me thinking about my chronic case of the muse. I fear my publisher, Harper Collins, will find out: He’ll do it for free!  
Is there a connection between the story of the Man With One Black Glove (stay tuned for the surprise ending) and the muse that haunts me?
Almost certainly. But not for the most obvious reason: that I learned some form of escape. That retreating into a fantasy was easier than, say, thinking about parents not getting along (they eventually, amicably, divorced) or directly processing the end of my relationship with a girlfriend. That may be part of it but not the lion’s share.
The biggie, for me, is that I was given permission. Permission to fantasize, tell stories, let my mind wander. My father facilitated that through his own playfulness, through the spy novels he read, the upholding of men and women of glory. My mother did so through her own love affair with fiction, character-based stories, novels, literary and close to it.
My folks didn’t read the same books but they read and read and put spines on a pedestal.
For many years, I didn’t give myself the permission they’d gifted me. I suspect I went into journalism because it let me write, but not whimsically; I wrote about ideas, “important” things. Then, as I got more comfortable with myself, I started hearing something. A voice. It would say: what if.
What if the café exploded? What if grandma knows a secret? What if they’re watching us?
I started to mix the maturity of a seasoned journalist, someone who had learned to knit a narrative, with the whimsy of a child? I got the hell out of my own way. I am rarely more peaceful than asking:
What if?
What if the clown is packing? What if a note falls from his pocket? What if that man with one black glove is Carlos?
The story did not ending the parking lot.
That balmy night on the car trip, we walked inside the restaurant. The three men were seated at a table in the middle. We got sat two tables away. Dad and I trying not to stare, staring. Overhearing.
“They’re talking in a foreign language,” I gasped and whispered.
My dad: “It’s German.”
I am not kidding you.
Oh, by this point, things go crazy inside our brains, and also get a bit conflated. Carlos the Jackal was, we think, Spanish. But these guys were German, which is, we decided, even crazier. Nazis, on our soil! We had to slightly redo the plot; who cared, it didn’t really matter. Sometimes easy resolutions and explanations fail you. Especially in thrillers. But sometimes, if the setup is great, if you ask the right questions, it doesn’t matter. The payoff is the telling.

Fried catfish and grits

By Joe Moore

Grail_Conspiracy_coverFirst, some shameless promotion. This Friday, August 24, Amazon will feature two of my thrillers (co-written with Lynn Sholes) on their Kindle Daily Deal. For one day only, you can download THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY or THE PHOENIX APOSTLES for web-version-250only $1.99 each. Both ebooks were featured on the Daily Deal in 2011 and made it to #1 on the bestselling Kindle book list. If you didn’t take advantage of the reduced price before, be sure to do so on Friday. Enjoy!


I recently read THE LOST ONES by Ace Atkins, a terrific story about a local county sheriff dealing with gun runners in North Mississippi. In addition to being an excellent storyteller, Atkins has an enviable talent for creating a strong sense of place—a vivid setting. By the time I finished the novel, I felt like I was so familiar with the back roads of Tibbehah County that I probably should be paying property taxes. And it gave me a big hankering for fried catfish, buttermilk cornbread and grits at the local diner.

So today I want to build on Joe Hartlaub’s Saturday post on Location and offer a few tips on creating a strong setting in your book.

Setting is integral to any story. As a writer, you’ve developed a unique plot and a strong set of characters. Now you must consider the setting. You can’t split the plot and characters from the setting and expect to produce a believable piece of prose in which your readers can relate. Why? Because like real life, your characters don’t live in a vacuum. Just like all of us, your characters are constantly affected by and reacting to their surroundings. For instance, how would your night scene be different if it took place in broad daylight? Rather than the scene being hot and dry, what if it was pouring rain? Would the weather and other natural elements change the dramatic impact of a scene? How would the setting make a scene spooky or funny or dangerous or calming?

Think of some classic scenes in your favorite books or movies and imagine them in different settings. Would they be as strong? Would Indiana Jones being chased down the streets of New York City by a big truck be as powerful as being chased by a giant rolling boulder through a cobwebbed ancient tunnel deep in the jungle? Would Clarice Starling’s interviews with Dr. Lecter have worked as well if it had taken place in a bright, modern chrome and shinny white prison rather than in the bowels of a dark, dungeon-like mental hospital for the criminally insane?

Beyond what your characters say and do, you must consider how their actions and reactions contrast or blend with their surroundings. And the best way to do that is to consider your setting as another character playing a part in the story. Setting is not just walls and doors and sky and grass, it’s how their surroundings interact with your characters, and their inner and outer actions and reactions to it.

Another element of setting is how characters live within it. By that I mean how they manage the common functions of life such as eating, sleeping, and other natural human processes. Most of us are familiar with the highly successful TV series 24. Even within the twenty-four-hour premise of each season’s show, people still had to take a deep breath once in a while. While 24 was a rare exception, most novels span more than one day. So during the course of the story unfolding, writers must manage their human characters with time to eat or sleep or at least rest for a moment. If the pace is so intense that the characters never get a break, the reader will become fatigued. Thrillers and mysteries are often described as rollercoaster rides. But even the longest coaster ride has peaks and valleys. Give your reader and your characters a break now and then by using the elements of the story’s setting.

And don’t forget about the passage of time as being an element of the setting. How does time passing speed up or slow down the plot or pacing? Is your story’s passage of time realistic? Or is it too compressed or expanded to be believable. Remember, unless you’re H.G. Wells and your book is called THE TIME MACHINE, be sure to manage your story’s clock so that it doesn’t get in the way of the story and give the reader a reason to pause and question it.

Setting is more than the location in which your story takes place. It’s all the external elements that affect your characters and their goals and objectives. If you treat your setting as an additional character, chances are your story will be fully developed.

Now let’s all go out for some fried chicken and collard greens.

How about you? Do you plan your settings ahead of time? Or let them develop as the story progresses. And readers, what was the most memorable and realistic setting in your favorite book?