Seasons Greetings!

It’s Winter break here at the Kill Zone. During oAWREATH3_thumb[1]ur 2-week hiatus, we’ll be spending time with our families and friends, and celebrating all the traditions that make this time of year so wonderful. We sincerely thank you for visiting our blog and commenting on our rants and raves. We wish you a truly blessed Holiday Season and a prosperous 2014. From Clare, Jodie, Kathryn, Kris, Joe M., Nancy, Jordan, Elaine, Joe H., Mark, and James to all our friends and visitors, Seasons Greeting from the Kill Zone. See you back here on Monday, January 6. Until then, check out our TKZ Resource Library partway down the sidebar, for listings of posts on The Kill Zone, categorized by topics.

Literary Fiction and Me: A Complicated Love Story


Last week’s dustup in the comments, begun by my good friend Porter Anderson, and continued by him on The Ether, may have left the impression that your humble correspondent is a dastardly assassin of literary fiction, ready to step out of the shadows with my sap and conk erudite authors on the head, stick them in the back of a sedan, and take them “for a ride.”

I plead not guilty, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, and thank you for this opportunity to set the record straight.
Let’s step back a moment: Just what is literary fiction anyway? I’m not going to attempt an all-encompassing definition. I’m not sure one exists. Sometimes it’s defined by what it is not: it is not genre fiction, for example. It is not “commercial.” Style and meaning are more prominent in literary fiction. It is “more complicated” and requires more “effort” to get into.
Whatever. My only point last week was to say that some (key word) highly lauded literary fiction seems to me to get in the way of story, not help it. I thought that was an innocent enough remark whose truth is all but self-evident. But then came the storm, and broad-brush asseverations that, even if unintentionally, splashed gooey residue upon your blameless observer.
I am thus compelled to offer evidence, which is why I now post the following. It is from a critically acclaimed literary novel. The author is highly regarded and many people love his work. My intent here is simply to point out that this is a type of writing that does not work for me.May I repeat that, please? For me. The broad brush is in the garage, unused.
It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A heraldic tree that the passing storm had left afire. The solitary pilgrim drawn up before it had traveled far to be here and he knelt in the hot sand and held his numbed hands out while all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog’s, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jeda, in Babylon. A constellation of ignited eyes that edged the ring of light all bound in a precarious truce before this torch whose brightness had set back the stars in their sockets.
There is just too much going on in this paragraph, at least the parts of it I could understand. How did we get from the desert to a place called Jeda, wherever Jeda is? I had to look it up. It’s a village in Iran. I’m still confused. And while I’m all for specific detail in fiction, overkill dulls the effect, especially if the vocabulary is esoteric. I started to get really tired somewhere between solpugas and vinegarroons and desert basilisks. And what the heck is a chowdog? I Googled it and it’s not even a word. The closest is “chow dog,” which is a reference to a Chow-Chow, a fluffy dog with, indeed, a little black mouth. But is that what is meant here? If it is, is the juxtaposition of a stereotypical rich dowager’s pet with a poisonous lizard meaningful in this context? 
Look, it could be that I’m just obtuse. But the effect, to me, is to overwhelm with sound. Maybe it’s supposed to be like a poem. But if I want to read poetry of this type, I can re-read Howl. If I’m reading a novel I want a narrative that doesn’t constantly push me into prolix potholes. This is not an isolated opinion, by the way. See, for example, the famous article “A Reader’s Manifesto.”
Now, what I alsomentioned in my post is that when style and story meet, I love it. Here are a few quick notes I jotted down as I thought about that:
Talk about your literary fiction! Talk about your bane of

high school students’ existences! But I absolutely love Moby-Dick. The style is like the ocean itself—undulating currents and crashing waves of narrative. Calms and storms and the occasional port. It’s also a whale of a story! And I love Ishmael from the start. Here’s part of page one:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.
Compare that to the excerpt I posted above. Which one is trying to tell an actual story?
To Kill a Mockingbird
Need I say more? This book gets better with each reading. Donald Maass, Christopher Vogler and I went through Mockingbird chapter by chapter for Story Masters this year, the second time we’ve done so. I found even more richness in the text this time than last. And here’s the thing: Harper Lee never intrudes with style. For her, it’s all in the service of the story.
The Catcher in the Rye
A novel about an inner journey, usually one of the marks of lit-fic. The storytelling key, however, is that we care about Holden Caulfield. Salinger gives him attitude and confusion (the two things adolescent boys have most of) and a prep school experience that increases our sympathy for him. Without such fiction technique from the storyteller’s toolbox, the novel wouldn’t have worked.
Of Mice and Men
I remember reading this in Junior High and weeping at the end. Steinbeck had captured me with his story, and the guy won the Nobel Prize for literature. It can be done! 
Ask the Dust

John Fante’s novel of Los Angeles, published in 1939, holds up as a literary classic. The style pulsates with the heart and yearning of the young writer, Arturo Bandini, bleeding on the page:
Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town. A day and another day and the day before, and the library with the big boys in the shelves, old Dreiser, old Mencken, all the boys down there, and I went to see them, Hya Dreiser, Hya Mencken, Hya hya: there’s a place for me, too, and it begins with B, in the B shelf. Arturo Bandini, make way for Arturo Bandini, his slot for his book, and I sat at the table and just looked at the place where my book would be, right there close to Arnold Bennett, not much that Arnold Bennett, but I’d be there to sort of bolster up the B’s, old Arturo Bandini, one of the boys, until some girl came along, some scent of perfume through the fiction room, some click of high heels to break up the monotony of my fame. Gala day, gala dream!
This is so much grander than mixed metaphors offering up sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Raymond Carver
With whom I once took a writing workshop. His stories are powerful in their subtlety, and from him I learned the great value of the “telling detail.” See “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” for starters.
Joyce Carol Oates
It was during the Carver workshop that I read many literary short stories that have stayed with me, including “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. (Maybe I like literary short stories with question marks in the titles).
Ernest Hemingway
I consider Hemingway’s stories to be among the finest in the English language. “Hills Like White Elephants” is an absolute masterpiece. Another Nobel Prize winner who told stories. Imagine that.
William Saroyan
A somewhat forgotten writer now, but in the 30s and 40s he

was considered a comet of literary genius. He didn’t stop with short stories and novels. He also wrote plays and memoirs. He won (and famously turned down) the Pulitzer Prize. I think Saroyan’s My Name is Aram is one of the best collections of short stories ever put together. The first and last stories frame the entire work in a way that inspires pure wonder in me. My beloved high school English teacher, Mrs. Marjorie Bruce, introduced me to Saroyan.

Ken Kesey
The first two pages of Sometimes a Great Notion have some of the best writing I’ve ever read. Kesey also told a great story, as Notionand One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestattest.
Jack Kerouac
Even though Truman Capote famously dissed On the Road by saying it was “typing, not writing,” I do have a soft spot for Mr. Kerouac. His most famous novel has some beautiful riffs, as does The Dharma Bums. Kerouac called his literary style “Be-Bop Prose Rhapsody.” 
Joan Didion
For Play It As It Lays and that irresistible opening:
What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.
I could go on, but this post is already too long. Let me conclude that my love of fiction includes the literary side of the family, too—even though some of those family members are prone to wander off by themselves, leaving readers behind. But I will always be at the house if they want to come back and offer up . . . a story.
Ladies and gentlemen, I rest my case.
So what about you? What is literary fiction in your mind? Is it your cup of tea? Does it ever frustrate you? Who sends you soaring?

Talk it up, because this is the last Kill Zone post of the year! 

…and to all a good night…

I am sorry to see 2013 end. It wasn’t a wonderful year from beginning to end — what year is? — but the good things that happened outweighed the bad. The reason I’m sorry to see it go, however, is that like all of the other ones we’ve lived through we’ll never get it back, never have the opportunity to take a mulligan on it. Once that sand drops through the hourglass, you don’t get it back. We just keep moving through these years until they run out.

My age and station is such that I will not stress myself about things I cannot control. So far, I think that I have the holiday stress thing resolved. I am not always a fan of Jeff Bezos, but this year I bought every single Christmas present that I am giving anyone on Amazon. I didn’t stand in one line, not even to buy the fixings for Christmas dinner that I will be preparing for my ungrateful and unappreciative family (I did go to the store for that, but when I rolled my cart up to the registers, a new register lane opened and I was beckoned through like a contemporary Moses crossing the Red Sea).

I have been using the time I would have spent sitting in traffic (and needing a restroom. Soon.) or standing in line perusing the year-end Best Of lists. I love those lists. I always find at least a few books or CDs or what not that totally blew past me during the year. That for me is a Christmas present, the one I really want. And in a rare exhibition of chutzpah, it’s the present I am asking for from you! Please!

Actually, all I am asking for is your favorite novel, short story, and CD that was published or released in 2013. If you want to tell us why, please do, but don’t feel obligated. Of course, I’ll share:

Favorite novel— I had many that came close but when the dust settled and the smoke cleared it was NORWEGIAN BY NIGHT by Derek Miller. It involves Sheldon Horowitz, an elderly Jew in the throes of early stage dementia, who is transported from his comfortable New York environs to the alien frigidness of Norway by his well-meaning but somewhat clueless granddaughter and her affable husband. Things take off in a big way when Horowitz rescues a young boy from a murderous war criminal and takes off, with a number of disparate parties in hot pursuit. Funny in spots, tragic in others (and terrifying, if you are over sixty and suspect that your gene pool has Alzheimer swimming in it), this is the book that stayed with me all year.

Favorite short story— I didn’t read many short stories this year but of the ones I did — several of which were very good — I loved “Swingers Anonymous” by Jonathan Woods from the DALLAS NOIR collection edited by David Hale Smith. The premise is terrific: within minutes after a regularly scheduled swingers’ party ends, two people are dead and a third has a sudden and unexpected financial windfall. Top that. The story is so good, by the way, that I subsequently acquired and read Woods’ novel A DEATH IN MEXICO and his short story collection, BAD JUJU. Good juju, indeed.

Favorite CD — It was October before I heard a new music project that I could listen to all the way through. TALLY ALL THE THINGS THAT YOU BROKE by Parquet Courts is technically an EP — there are only five songs on it — but each and every one will make you fall in love with punk music all over again, even if you were never charmed with it to start. I listen to music for hours every day but I still hear all seven minutes of “He’s Seeing Paths” — an ode to bike messengers and running from the cops, among other things — playing in the background.

It’s your turn. Thank you in advance. And Merry Christmas!

Reader Friday: Creating A Literary Monster

In 1816, during an unusually cold season caused by volcanic eruptions and circulating ash,  19-year-old Mary Shelley wrote a story about a monster as she and some friends struggled to stay warm. FRANKENSTEIN was born.

If you were to create a literary monster sprung from our own modern era of extreme and changing weather patterns, what would that monster be called? Can you describe it? (Be advised though, that SHARKNADO is already in the lexicon!) 🙂

Villains Don’t Have to be Evil

Guest Post from: L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers
Jordan Dane

As my guest today, I have mystery thriller author L. J. Sellers writing about one of my favorite topics: Villains. LJ shares her thoughts and asks you to share your favorite villains at the end of her post. And be sure to check out the great giveaway contests below. Take it away, LJ!

The villains in thrillers are often extraordinary human beings. Super smart, physically indestructible, and/or incredibly powerful because of their money and influence. As a reader/consumer, those characters are fun for me too, especially in a visual medium where we get to watch them be amazing. But as an author, I like to write about antagonists who are everyday people—either caught up in extraordinary circumstances or so wedded to their own belief system and needs that they become delusional in how they see the world.
In my Detective Jackson stories, I rarely write from the POV of the antagonists. That would spoil the mystery! But in my thrillers, I get inside those characters’ heads so my readers can get to know them and fully understand their motives. I’ve heard readers complain about being subjected to the “bad guy POV,” but that’s typically when the antagonist is a serial killer or pure evil in some other way.
I share their pain. I don’t enjoy the serial-killer POV reading experience either. But when the villain in the story is a fully realized human being, who has good qualities as well as bad, and who’s suffered some type of victimization, and/or has great intentions, then I like see and feel all of that. And I think most readers do too.

Sellers The Trigger_med
In The Trigger, the antagonists are brothers, Spencer and Randall Clayton, founders of an isolated community of survivalists, or preppers, as they’re called today. As with most real-life isolationists/cult leaders, they are intelligent, successful professionals—with a vision for a better society. But these everyday characters decide to mold the world to suit their own objectives and see themselves as saviors—becoming villains in the process.

From a writer’s perspective, they were challenging to craft—likeable and believable enough for readers to identify with, yet edgy enough to be threatening on a grand scale. On the other hand, my protagonist Jamie Dallas, an FBI agent who specializes in undercover work, was such a joy to write that I’m launching a new series based on her.

The first book, The Trigger, releases January 1 in print and ebook formats, with an audiobook coming soon after. To celebrate the new series, the ebook will be on sale for $.99 on launch day. Everyone who buys a copy (print or digital) and forwards their Amazon receipt to will be entered to win a trip to Left Coast Crime 2015. For more details, check my website.
If that weren’t enough, I’m also giving away ten $50 Amazon gift certificates. So there’s a good chance of winning something. But the contest is only valid for January 1 purchases.
Who are your favorite villains? Supermen types? Everyday delusionals? Or something else?
Sellers LJSellers medL.J. Sellers writes the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery series—a two-time Readers Favorite Award winner—as well as provocative standalone thrillers. Her novels have been highly praised by reviewers, and her Jackson books are the highest-rated crime fiction on Amazon. L.J. resides in Eugene, Oregon where most of her novels are set and is an award-winning journalist who earned the Grand Neal. When not plotting murders, she enjoys standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes.
Other social media links for LJ: Website, Blog, Facebook

Three Stages of Writing

Nancy J. Cohen

In my view, story writing has three essential stages: Discovery, Writing, and Revision.


Discovery is the process by which you discover your story. Bits and pieces of character and plot swirl around in your subconscious before you put words to paper. Consider it creative energy at play rather than feeling guilty that you’re not being productive. This can be the break you need before starting the next novel. It’s time well spent to refill your creative pool and to gather ideas.

Doing a collage, watching movies, listening to music, working on a hobby, walking outdoors, or reading for pleasure are some of the ways you can stimulate your creativity. Cut out photos from magazines of celebrities who look like your characters and fill out your character development charts. Search for relevant articles to your storyline and sift through them. Thus begins your research. Often this prep time can take weeks or even a month or two. If you’re a seasoned writer, you’ll know how long you need. Be sure to factor this in when you determine your target goal of completion for your project.

When these ideas coalesce in your head and your characters begin to talk to you, you’re ready to start writing. This is when I sit down and write an entire synopsis. The synopsis acts as my writing guideline, so I always know where I’m going even if I don’t quite know how to get there. This still allows for the element of surprise. The plot may change as the story develops.


At this stage, set yourself a minimum daily quota. I have to write at least 5 pages a day or 25 pages a week. Beginning a book is the hardest task. It might take until the first third of the book for you to get to know your characters. Give yourself permission to write crap during this heated storytelling phase. Once the book is written, you can fix it. Just get those words down on paper and move forward until the draft is done.

When you finish the first round of storytelling, it’s a good idea to put your book aside so as to gain some distance from it. You’ll be better prepared for revisions with a fresh viewpoint. Use the time to plan your promo campaign, to jot down blog topic ideas, or to write reader discussion questions. When you find yourself eager to tackle the story again, move on to the next phase.


Now come the heavy revisions. This can get intense, because you need to keep a sense of the whole story in your head. You can’t stop, or you’ll lose your train of thought.  But you also shouldn’t rush this process if you want to produce what editors call a “clean” copy.

When you set deadlines, be sure to allow a month or so for revisions, because you’ll need to do several read-throughs. My first round of revisions focuses on line editing. Then I’ll read through for smoothness and consistency. The final reading is to catch any remaining errors, typos, or repetitions. You can run your material through one of the online editors like Smart-Edit software or Pro Writing Aid.

I guarantee you’ll always find things to correct, but at some point you’ll be too close to the material to see straight or too sick of the project to work on it any more. Then the book is ready to submit. But don’t worry, likely you’ll have a chance to fix things again when you hear from your editor.

Send it off, clean up your desk, file away your mounds of papers. By now you’re thinking about the next book and are getting ready to start the process anew. Force yourself away from the office and take some time off. You’ll return with fresh ideas and renewed energy.

Now I have to quit procrastinating and get back to the writing stage. After being away for a week, it’s hard to get back in the groove.

Is your book a Christmas sweater?

So there I was, standing in the corner at the Christmas party Friday, nursing my apple-tini and watching the crowd, when my friend Trent sidled up.
Trent’s dream job is to be Clinton Kelly on “What Not to Wear” so at the party he was mentally undressing the women and then re-dressing them. He is also a disciple of the Alice Roosevelt Longworth axiom “If you can’t say anything nice about somebody, come sit by me.” (Teddy’s daughter once described Calvin Coolidge as “looking like he was weaned on a pickle.”) And this being a Christmas party, you can imagine that Trent had a lot of material.
He says that there’s something about dressing up that just confounds some women down here in South Florida, particularly during the holidays. I have to agree with him. Women start out okay with maybe a little black dress. But then too many pile on every button and bow, every piece of bling they own. Trent calls it “the Full Boca.”
Okay, I’m picking on the women here, but men have it easy when it comes to formal wear; you have to try really hard to mess up a tux. But women? Some of them just don’t know when to leave well enough alone.
And standing there at the party with Trent, I realized a lot of writers have this same problem. Me, included. So let’s talk about description and how to keep your book from turning into an ugly Christmas sweater. 
Description is maybe the most potent tool in our narrative toolbox. It sets a mood, signposts a sense of place, and renders characters into flesh and blood. Description has the crucial function of letting the reader sense — see, hear, smell, feel and taste — what it going on in your story. If your description is truly compelling, it can make a reader believe in things that are otherwise incredible. Think of what Stephen King does with “Salem’s Lot.” By making his mythical Maine town come alive through description, we are willing to suspend disbelief when the vampires start showing up.

Speaking of King, here’s what he says in his book “On Writing”:

“Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It is far from easy. We’ve all heard someone say, ‘Man, it was so great (or horrible/ strange /funny)…I just can’t describe it!’ If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition. If you can do this well, you will be paid for your labors. If you can’t, you’re going to collect a lot of rejection slips.”

“Prickle with recognition.” Isn’t that a great way to put it?

Why do so many of us struggle with description? I think it’s because many writers don’t know how much description to use. Some don’t use enough. But usually, they have way too much. Description is narrative and narrative disrupts action. So a little goes a long way.
Which brings us back to the little black dress. When description is working well, it is concise and evocative. It also concentrates on a few well-chosen specific details that imply a host of other unspecific details. When Holly Golightly got dressed to go visit Uncle Sally in prison, she didn’t junk up her Givenchy. Just sunglasses and that great hat.
So how do you find your happy medium? How do you know when you’ve gone too far or haven’t gone far enough? How do you resist gilding the lily? There are no easy answers but here are a few things to think about:
Don’t generalize: Try to avoid abstractions. Be concrete in your descriptions. Instead of saying someone played a board game, say it’s Monopoly. Instead of a “bad smell” use the specific “like sour milk.” But again, don’t reach too hard or you look silly.
Don’t forget to compare and contrast. The secret to originality is the ability to see relationships. If you’re describing something green, it’s your job to come up with something fresher than “grass.” Here’s one of my faves from Steinbeck: “The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns.” And come to think of it, Alice’s description of Calvin Coolidge as “looking like he was weaned on a pickle” is pretty good. But again, don’t strain for originality or you just sound pretentious.
Don’t lean on adjectives: Just lining up a string of modifiers is lazy writing. (ie tall, dark and handsome). Try to find one vibrant adjective rather than several weak ones. But again, don’t strain or reach for the Thesaurus. Sometimes a lawn is just a lawn…not a “verdant sward.”
Don’t use cliches: It’s easy to slip into tired, flabby words. If you want to say something is white, you can’t use “white as snow.” It’s not yours! Neither is “thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock” or even “overcome with grief.” Time has eroded all those. It’s your job to find new ways of making your reader experience your fictional world.
Yeah, it’s tough to dress your writing for success. But don’t despair. Description is one of the things that you can get better at. Believe me, I know. I used to lard my paragraphs with lovingly crafted images that dammit, were going to stay in there because I worked so hard on them. But then my sister told me one day that I was — ahem — dressing to impress. I made every writer’s biggest mistake: I fell in love with the sound of my own voice and was trying to be “writerly.” 
Finding your style — be it writing or fashion — is a lifelong process. When I went to my prom, I looked like a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and a Kabuki dancer. Through practice, I look a little better these days. Likewise, in my writing, I have learned what to leave off, what to cut out. In fact, I have gone too far with my WIP so my critique group friends tell me I am now underwriting and they are advising me to add more description.

Here is Stephen King again: 

“Description is a learned skill, one of the reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It is not a question of how-to, you see; it is also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can only learn by doing. “

I’ll leave you with one final fashion icon as metaphor. If you try hard, you can get better at this. If she could go from this:

To this:

So can you.

Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude & Immediacy

Captivate_full_w_decalby Jodie Renner, editor & author

In my editing and blog posts, I often suggest techniques for bringing characters and the scene to life on the page. A big one I advise over and over is to show the protagonist’s immediate emotional, physical, and/or thought reactions to anything significant that has just happened. This glimpse into the POV character’s real feelings and thoughts increases readers’ emotional engagement, which keeps them eagerly reading. (See Show Your Characters’ Reactions to Bring Them Alive)

Showing your character’s immediate thought-reactions frequently is a great way to let the readers in on what your character is really thinking about what’s going on, how they’re reacting inside, often in contrast to what they’re saying or how they’re acting outwardly. And it helps reveal their personality.

Here are some examples of brief, immediate thought-reactions:

A scene in Breaking Bad



In your dreams.   

What the hell?

Give me a break!

These direct thoughts, the equivalent of direct speech in quotation marks, are silent, inner words the character can’t or doesn’t want to reveal. It’s most effective to italicize these quick, brief thought-reactions, both for emphasis and to show that it’s a direct thought, like the character talking to herself, not the slightly removed indirect thought.

Here are a few examples of indirect thoughts vs. the closer-in, higher-impact direct thoughts:

Indirect: She’d had enough. She really wanted to leave.

Direct speech: “I’ve had enough. I’m heading out.”

Direct thought: This sucks! I’m outta here.
(Or whatever. More personal, more unique voice, more attitude, less social veneer.)

Use present tense for direct thoughts.

If your story is in past tense, as most novels are, narration, indirect speech and thoughts will be in past tense, too. But it’s important to put direct, quoted speech and direct, italicized thoughts in present tense, and first-person (or sometimes second person), as they are the exact words the character is thinking.

Direct thoughts = internal dialogue.

Note: Never use quotation marks for thoughts. Quotation marks are for words spoken out loud.

A few more examples:

Indirect thought: He wondered where she was.

Direct speech (dialogue): “Where is she?” he asked.

Direct thought: Where is she? Or: Where the hell is she, anyway?

Note how the italics take the place of quotation marks when it’s a direct thought, the character talking to himself. Also, the italics indicate direct thoughts, so no need to add “he thought” or “she thought.”

Indirect speech: She asked us what was going on.

Indirect thought: She wondered what was going on.

Direct speech: “What’s going on here?” she asked.

Direct thought-reaction: What on earth is going on?
(Or whatever, according to the voice of the POV character.)

To me, using these direct thought-reactions brings the character more to life by showing their innermost, uncensored thoughts and impulses.

In these cases, italics for thoughts take the place of the quotation marks that would be used if the words were spoken out loud. But I advise against putting several long thoughts in a row into italics. In fact, do we even think in complete sentences arranged in logical order to create paragraphs? I don’t think so. Thoughts are often disjointed fragments, as is casual dialogue.

Since italics are also used for emphasis, be sure not to overdo them, or they’ll lose their power.

But do use italics for those immediate thought-reactions, the equivalent of saying out loud, “What!” or “No way!” or “You wish.” Or “I don’t think so.” Or “Yeah, right.” Or “Great.” Or “Perfect.” Or “Oh my god.” Only, for thoughts, take off the quotation marks, of course, so you’ll write: What! or No way, etc.

To me, italics used in this way indicate a fast, sudden break in the social veneer, a revelation or peek into the psyche of the thinker.

So try to insert direct thought-reactions where appropriate to effectively show your character’s immediate internal reactions to events.

But don’t italicize indirect thoughts.

To me, italicizing indirect thoughts (in third-person, past tense) would be the same as putting quotation marks around indirect speech, like: He said, “He wished he could come, too.” (Should be: He said, “I wish I could come, too.”)

So don’t italicize phrases like: Why were they looking for her? She had to find a place to hide!

(“her” and “she” refer to the person thinking.) Keep it in normal font, or change it to a direct thought and italicize:

Why are they looking for me? Where can I hide?


Some bestselling authors use a lot of italicized thought-reactions, while others just use them sparingly or not at all. It seems to be a growing trend, though, and I think it’s a great technique for highlighting the character’s inner emotional reactions effectively, directly, and in the fewest possible words.

Lisa Scottoline, for example, uses italicized brief thought-reactions a lot in her novels. They provide a quick peek into the character’s immediate thoughts, without a lot of explaining. Like in Daddy’s Girl:

The heroine, Natalie, has a small cut on her face, and her father, on the phone, asks which hospital

she went to. She says she didn’t need to, “It’s just a little cut.”

  “On your face, no cut is too little. You don’t want a scar. You’re not one of the boys.”
   Oh please. “Dad, it won’t scar.”

Later, a good-looking guy, Angus, makes a suggestion about lunch while they’re working.

   Did he just ask me out?

Later, as they’re working together, Angus tries to protect her, but she isn’t having any of it. The thought-reaction shows the contrast between how she’s really feeling and how she wants him to think she’s going along with his plans.

“I’ll get you out of here in the morning, and you’ll be safe.”
   No way. “Okay, you’ve convinced me.”

Andrew Gross uses frequent thought-reactions in italics very effectively in his riveting thriller, Don’t Look Twice. Here’s one brief example:

A chill ran down her spine. … Don’t let him see you. Get the hell out of here, the tremor said.

And Dean Koontz uses this technique from time to time in his novel Intensity. For example:

Chyna is hesitating about opening a door, then decides to throw caution to the wind:

   Screw it.
   She put her hand on the knob, turned it cautiously, and…

Then later:

   He was coming forward, leisurely covering the same territory over which Chyna had just scuttled.
   What the hell is he doing?
   She wanted to take the photograph but didn’t dare. She put it on the floor where she’d found it.

Note that these intensified thoughts are often at the beginning of a paragraph or set off in their own line, for emphasis. Or sometimes they’re at the end of a paragraph, to leave us with something to think about, as in later in the same book.

Lee Child’s The Affair has lots of examples of Jack Reacher’s critical thoughts in italics. Here’s one of many I could have chosen:

   He asked “Was I on your list of things that might crawl out from under a rock?”
   You were the list, I thought.
   He said, “Was I?”
   “No,” I lied.

(Not to nit-pick with a huge bestselling author, but in my opinion, neither the “I thought” or the “I lied” are necessary above.)

Lee Child also uses this technique a lot in The Hard Way, especially to show Jack Reacher’s mind busily working away while he’s talking to or watching someone, or to emphasize the importance of a bit of info he’s just learned.

David Baldacci uses this technique frequently in Hell’s Corner to show the direct thoughts of his
protagonist, Oliver Stone. Here’s one example:

Burn in hell, Carter, thought Stone as the door closed behind him.
   And I’ll see you when I get there.

Brenda Novak, in her romantic suspense, In Close, uses italicized thoughts to show the contrast between what the character, Claire, is saying and what she’s really thinking:

   “Maybe I could get back to you in the morning after I’ve…I’ve had some sleep.” And a chance to prepare myself for what you might say….

Even TKZ’s James Scott Bell uses this technique in his delightful novellette, Force of Habit. The spunky, rebellious Sister J, a former actress and trained martial arts expert, is being confronted by someone obnoxious who has recognized her. Her internal dialogue shows her (unsuccessful) attempt at calming herself.

   “Can you still kick butt?”
   She could all right, and she felt like kicking something right now. His shin, if not the wall. Think of St. Francis, she told herself. Think of birds and flowers…

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at,, her blog,, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

First Be a Storyteller


I was a student in one of the best film studies programs in the country during the golden age of American movies. The 1970s saw an explosion of great independent films and directors, many of whom were picked up by major studios. Up at U.C. Santa Barbara, our intimate band of film majors got to sit around talking with exciting new directors like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Lina Wertmuller and Alan Rudolph.

But this was also the time when many of the great directors of the past were still alive, and they also came up for a visit. I got to chat with film giants like King Vidor, Rouben Mamoulian and one of my all-time favorite directors, Frank Capra. Also the legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe. Heady times indeed! (The photo below is of three film students chatting with Mr. Howe on the campus. The one on the right with all the hair is your humble correspondent).

Film studies at that time were heavily into the “auteur theory,” which had come to us from the French critics. The theory embraced directors with a marked style that was evident in movie after movie. You can always tell a film by Welles, Hitchcock, Josef von Sternberg, Chaplin, Keaton and so on. Visual and thematic consistency are the marks of the auteur.
Over the years, though, I have come to appreciate more and more a director who is usually left off the list of the greats. Yet I believe he belongs near the top, and for reasons auteur theorists often reject. He belongs because he may simply be the best storyteller of them all.
William Wyler (1902 – 1981) was a studio director who refused to get tied down to one genre (usually an auteur requirement). All he did was tell one mesmerizing story after another. If you step back and look at his output, you have to shake your head in wonder. Here are just a few of his titles:
Wuthering Heights
The Little Foxes
Mrs. Miniver
The Heiress
Classics, all. But look at what else:
A great Western, The Big Country. A great musical, Funny Girl. The greatest biblical epic, Ben-Hur.
Roman Holiday (a romance). The Desperate Hours (suspense). Friendly Persuasion(Americana).

Wyler’s films have won twice the number of Academy Awards as any other director’s. Of the 127 nominations, half of them were in the Best Picture, Director and Actor categories. No less a light than Bette Davis credited Wyler with deepening her art and turning her into a major star.
And right in the middle of Wyler’s amazing career is the film I consider the greatest ever produced in America, The Best Years of Our Lives. I re-watched it recently with my family and, once again, was knocked senseless by it. The mark of a classic is that it gets better every time you see it. Best Years is such a film.
Harold Russell, Dana Andrews and Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

So what was it about Wyler? He wasn’t hyperactive with his camera work (a lesson many of today’s filmmakers could benefit from). Why not? Because he didn’t want to get in the way of the story. Instead, what you’ll see in a Wyler film is a respect for the script, a superb direction of actors, and shots that are designed to tell the story, not shout out what a great director he is—even though those very virtues made him great. He was known for retake after retake, until he got just the shot and performance he wanted (many times to the consternation of his actors, who always thanked him after the film came out.)
What’s the lesson here for writers? Those who really make a dent, be it in the traditional world, indie or “blended,” are all about story.If I have to choose between a novel that has a “literary” style but a dull (and even, perhaps, a non-existent) plot, and a novel that has a killer concept and professional writing, I’ll go for the latter every time. While I can enjoy a bit of “style for style’s sake,” it can run out of steam quickly if that’s all there is. Indeed, I’ve read some highly lauded lit-fic that turned out to be, for me at least, the scribal equivalent of the emperor with no clothes.   
What really rocks for me is when a great plot meets with a style that has what John D. MacDonald called “unobtrusive poetry.” That’s how I would describe William Wyler’s films. His framing is masterful. His work on Best Years with the great cinematographer Gregg Toland has never been surpassed.
Above all, tell a great story. Give us characters we can’t resist, even the bad ones. Give us “death stakes”. Give us twists, turns and cliffhangers. Give us heart.
Find your style by getting excited about your tale. That’s the key to the elusive concept of “voice.” If readers get just as excited about your story as you are, you’ve done it. You’ve clanged the bell, nabbed the brass ring, knocked a four-bagger over the green monster at Fenway.

And if you’ve never seen The Best Years of Our Lives, get it on DVD and give yourself a good three hour stretch with no interruptions. Then sit back and marvel at the genius of William Wyler, storyteller.

Very Young Adult

By Mark Alpert

The drawbacks of the writing life are well-known. Long hours, low pay (if any). Frequent bouts of insecurity, hysteria, despair. And don’t forget the rejection letters and snarky reviews! But this profession has one wonderful benefit that almost makes up for all the pain and suffering. Writers are great at telling bedtime stories.

My kids are fourteen and twelve now, but we still do the bedtime reading ritual. My son prefers that I read out loud to him, usually from action-adventure young-adult novels. We’ve gone through the Maze Runner series, the Divergent series, and the I Am Number Four series. We’ve also read all the Lord of the Rings books and some adult sci-fi novels such as Wool. We recently finished Feed, an amazingly good YA novel about a dystopian future where all the teenagers’ brains are directly hooked to the Internet. I loved the teen lingo that the characters used in Feed. Whenever I finished one of the chapters, I’d start speaking to my son in that futuristic way. (“You are so null, Unit!”) Now we’re reading Ender’s Game, another great sci-fi novel. I can’t wait to see my son’s reaction to the surprise at the end of the book.

My daughter likes science fiction too — she loved Wrinkle in Time — but she usually goes for the more humorous books, such as Savvyand The True Meaning of Smekday, which features a lovably bone-headed alien who calls himself J. Lo. She also enjoys the earnest, realistic, middle-grade family-drama books, the kind I would never read if I didn’t have a twelve-year-old daughter. I have to admit, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how good some of those books are. I loved The Romeo and Juliet Code, a novel about a British girl sent to coastal Maine during World War II. And I was choking back tears at the end of Eight Keys. (I couldn’t help it. The girl’s parents are dead but they left her a bunch of letters. Believe me, you would cry too if you were reading the book to your kid.)

Lately, though, my daughter has been asking me to invent my own bedtime stories rather than read books to her. This can be a challenge at the end of a long, trying day, but I’ve had a few successes. After we read Animal Farm last year, I concocted a similar story involving rebellious, talking pigs and sheep, but instead of taking over the farm and creating an allegorical Communist society my animals ran off to Atlantic City. The pigs played blackjack, the chickens crapped on the craps tables, the horses bet on the horse races and the sheep invaded a luxury clothing boutique and carried off a bunch of winter coats that they claimed were made from their father’s wool. Then the animals commandeered a cruise ship and set off for Europe, chased by the drunken farmer and the one animal that remained loyal to him, a homicidal goat.

Another popular bedtime story features a headless girl named Headless Hattie. Her parents have even stranger deformities: her father (Pantsy) is just a pair of pants, and her mother (Susan) is nothing but a brunette wig and a pair of sunglasses. Pantsy’s dream is to become a police officer, but when he goes to the precinct house to apply for a job, the desk sergeant laughs at him. “How are you going to shoot a gun, you don’t have any hands!” But Pantsy learns how to carry the gun in his pocket and pull the trigger by swinging his hips. He arrests a gang of bank robbers and becomes a hero. And so on and so forth. I keep making up new adventures until I run out of ideas. When I get desperate I try to work President Obama into the plot. (For an example, consider the recent episode “Pantsy Joins the Secret Service.”) In my stories, Obama is an amusing figure, easily exasperated by Headless Hattie and her truncated father. As if he doesn’t have enough problems already!

A few days ago my daughter informed me that the Headless Hattie series of stories had “jumped the shark” and I needed to invent something new. So I started a new series featuring a girl named Peggy who has a very small man living inside her belly button. His name is Herman and he’s barely visible, only an eighth of an inch tall. He was a normal-size man two thousand years ago, during the heyday of the Roman Empire, but he wandered into some Italian cave and ate a weird mushroom. The fungus stopped him from aging but also started the slow shrinking process that gradually miniaturized him. For the past few hundred years he’s been living inside belly buttons, jumping from one person to another whenever he gets the chance, but he’s starting to tire of this nomadic life. He convinces Peggy to fly to Italy so they can find that mushroom-growing cave and try to undo the effects of the fungus.

Here’s the latest installment of the story that I told my daughter earlier tonight: Peggy is on the plane to Rome, trying to surreptitiously talk to the tiny man in her belly button, when the passenger sitting next to her overhears their conversation. Peggy claims she’s just talking to herself, but the passenger — a kindly old woman — winks at her. “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me,” she says. Then she lifts her shirt and points at her own belly button. “I’ve got a man in there too.”

Good cliffhanger, right? But I have no idea what will happen next.