4 Techniques for Adding Depth to a Scene

shutterstock_187206578Have you ever wondered how to add emotional depth to a scene you’ve written? There are a number of techniques you can use to inject emotional depth and drama into a scene. Here are my top four techniques for scene deepening:

1. Ban the bland

Many writers create a bland main character surrounded by quirky, interesting secondary characters. Let your hero be the one who goes through emotional experiences in the scene. Secondary characters should play off/react to the main character’s emotions, not the other way around.

2. Heighten suspense through avoidance

Have your characters dance around an emotionally charged issue. By hinting at trouble to come rather than addressing it directly, you will avoid “on the nose” writing, plus you will create suspense for your readers.

3. One stimulus, two responses

You can inject some energy into a scene by giving your characters contrasting responses to the same situation in a scene. The following example is a bit of a cliche, but think of the veteran cop who doesn’t blink an eye at a gory murder scene, contrasted with his newbie partner who is quietly losing his lunch in the bushes.

4. The human touch

Seed your scenes with small, human moments. Think of the gruff cop who, after he throws his arrestee into the slammer, offers to buy him a bag of chips from the vending machine.

There are dozens of ways to deepen a story scene. Which techniques have you used, and can recommend?


Essential Answers the Mystery/Thriller Author Must Have

Put ten writers in a room, ask them about their creative process, and you’ll likely get ten different answers varying by approach and degree, and volume. The gamut includes planners, plotters, pantsers, hybrids, muse-followers and in some cases the prayerful, at least when you can get them to admit this as a last resort.

All of these methodologies work (okay, the last one is iffy), though with a diverse range of efficiency and the measure of Xanax consumed.

Some contend they are writing drafts.

And that this – their way – is the only way, it is what writing is at its core and at its best.

Others, while disagreeing, admit they are planning drafts, which is something other than – preliminary to – actually writing a draft.

A debate often ensues.

It is clarifying, as well as stupendously good news, to realize that all of us, in the early stages of story development, and no matter which process we sign up for, are doing exactly the same thing, at least when expressed as an objective. We are searching for our story, culling it from an original notion, trying out ideas, vetting others, seeing what fits, what works, and hopefully tossing what doesn’t.

Different approaches heading toward an identical destination, at least when – either way – it works.  Too often – also either way – it doesn’t.

Storytelling is not an exact science.

There is no math here. Opinion, imprecision, world view, comfort-level and a default do-whatever-Stephen-King-does ethos become the raw grist of the author’s choice.

The reason this is worth noting is that the criteria for – and the moment of – our rounding the corner toward actually writing the story, versus searching for it, is a milestone portending massive consequences.

Because if we haven’t actually completed the search for story – indeed, if we don’t possess the tools and story sensibilities to know when we’ve truly found the best possible story and its beats – then the search draft at hand cannot possibly be just that: the best possible story that awaits us down the storytelling road, the one where everything works.

Same goes for a story plan.  Story sensibility, rather than process, is the hallmark of creating a killer story.

The search for story is essentially a search for answers

… good answers, compelling answers, answers that trump more obvious answers, that when viewed in sum actually become the core elements and essences of the story itself.

But answers to what, specifically?

Answers to questions that define what it is we must discover, what we must know about our story before it can work.  Answers that become the raw grist of effective exposition.

This is often – usually – where experience counts, and mightily.

Rare is the newer author who nails these questions with consistency, regardless of their creative process.

Indeed, it is a dearth of compelling answers that explains the percentage of rejection that defines our avocation. It is why so many breakout first novelists have a drawer full of incomplete and rejected manuscripts that are rarely spoken about. It is evidence that the rumored degree of difficulty has not been elevated casually.

Story planners and plotters seek to find these answers before they write a draft, using them as components of the draft, and thus – in theory – reducing the number of drafts required to reach the Valhalla of “Final” in its highest form.

Pantsers, and to a lesser degree hybrid planners who quietly do a little planning on the sly, use the drafting process as the primary means of story search, which quickly separates that particular sub-demographic into three categories:

– pantsers who, within a draft somewhere down the line, finally do find the best possible answers, thus enabling their next draft to become a contextually solid story that embraces foreshadowing, context and nuance;

– or, pantsers who either believe they’ve found those answers, but have actually lowered the bar because, after all, writing draft after draft can be exhausting and life is short;

– or, pantsers who really do hit on that best possible story in the middle of a draft, which then (tragically) turns out to be the draft they submit, half of which is randomly context-free and the last half context-driven, rather than writing one more (at a minimum) fully-informed draft that has the more likely shot.

The latter is like a college student who, after three years of study, still doesn’t know what their major will be, but during one random night in their senior year bolts upright with an Epiphany that envisions their future, prompting him/her to change their major the very next day.

We all know how that turns out. Usually it means one or more extra, unexpected and unplanned for years of school, because worthy majors have prerequisites that begin back at Square One of one’s Freshman year (pre-med students and science majors: remember Chemistry 101?).

A good novel, regardless of how it got good, depends on context, foreshadowing, nuance and optimal pacing to work, all of it beginning at Page 1, and all of which are impossible if you don’t truly understand – and nail – these questions and their answers, including how the story ends.

I can’t squeeze all 54 of those questions into the space parameters of The Kill Zone.

But I will offer the more foundational questions among them, which experienced pros will recognize immediately, and newer writers and some MFA grads, especially those who are “all about character and theme,” might find daunting.

Here they are:

What is the core DRAMATIC story spine the emerges from your premise, and the DRAMATIC QUESTION it poses?

The key word (fragment) here is drama, not character.

In other words, what is your hero’s primary story problem or opportunity – a.k.a. the plot – expressed as a hero’s quest or journey, motivated by stakes and opposed by an antagonist?

Without a good answer to this one and you haven’t finished your story search.  Try to write this manuscript without that answer and you are virtually assured a rejection and a rewrite.

What is CONCEPTUAL about your premise?

Newsflash: concept and premise are different things. Most new writers don’t know or understand this, and a high percentage of practicing writers and their agents are confused by it. But it’s true. A premise infused with the notion of something conceptual makes a story more intriguing, beginning with the pitch itself.

Does your thriller unfold within the walls of the CIA, or the Herman Miller partitions of an accounting office in Sacramento? Is the hero playing for world peace and survival, or the keys to a stolen Buick? Is the femme fatale seeking to steal nuclear detonation codes, or palming a few lottery tickets when her shift at the 7-11 concludes?

What blocks your hero’s path, and what is the agenda of the antagonist?

In thrillers and mysteries, the worst possible answer sounds like this: “The hero never felt approval from his/her father, and has always felt low self confidence and self-esteem.”

Heroes who are their own primary villains rarely work, especially in mysteries and thriller.

That’s about as dramatic as someone crying as they watch The Bachelor. The degree of external drama – conflict leading to tension – defines thrillers and mysteries, and is necessary to some degree in each and every other genre, as well.

How do you set up your hero’s quest, prior to launching it?

This implies you know what a setup is, and how and where the hero’s quest hits the page for the first time in a fully-informed way (hint: it’s called the First Plot Point, and it happens 50 to 90 pages in, after the setup).

Blow this one and a narrative domino effect of Voldemortesque consequences will follow.

What is your First Plot Point, and how does it change/interrupt the hero’s life and thrust them down a sudden, new and urgent path?

It may or may not be big (thought it often is), but more important is what it means, how it causes the hero to drop everything to react and respond emotionally (fear is often involved), literally thrusting them into the core story.

How does the hero respond to that first encounter with their new mission/quest?

If your answer is they begin kicking butt immediately, then a lesson in classic story structure is required. Rather, the hero has to find their own answers, seeking more information, grasping the magnitude of the situation, enlisting help, or simply fleeing or hiding until they can hatch an informed plan.

Meanwhile, the threat looms and evolves.

How does your story change at the Midpoint, thus empowering the hero toward a more proactive attack on the problem?

New information needs to enter the story here, and it needs to change the story while empowering the hero. The Midpoint twist has its own unique context, pulling the curtain back to reveal a clearer understanding of what’s true and in play for either the reader, the hero, or both.

What does your hero do – decisions and actions – that shifts the odds their way, perhaps after playing catch-up until this point?

Stories should escalate in terms of dramatic tension. When the hero ups his/her game, the villain does the same. So the hero has to really ramp it up after the Midpoint, and it’ll have nothing to do with luck, a fortunate deus ex machina or the troops arriving in the nick of time.

How does your hero become the primary catalyst that brings about the resolution of the story?

Simply put, if someone else saves the day, then make that guy the protagonist in your next draft. Or better, put the ball back in your hero’s hands and call a play with his/her name on it.

To make it work, the author must have full awareness and command of your ending. No saving the hero, no having the hero observe the denouement from the cheap seats. This is where the hero gets his/her hands dirty and earns the name tag.

It’s natural not to know all these answers early in the process.

That’s why we call it the search phase of story development, however you choose to go about it. At first these questions work as criteria for the search, and then, when all the blanks are filled in, as a qualitative standard.

The writer’s sense of that defies process, it is what separates the good from the great, the published from the unpublished.

Pantsers need to know what to pants. Planners need to understand what to plan. Either way, answers emerge and the story progresses, for better or worse. And if you aren’t sure, you’ll know soon enough when you submit the work.

With these questions and some stellar answers in your quiver, the story may exceed even your own highest expectations, especially if you don’t settle for the first idea that fits the moment in question. Rather, cultivate a better, fresher and more emotionally resonant answer that will make an agent, editor or reader leap from their chair and throw money at you.

That’s the real story, after all.


If you want to dive deeper into the middle of your novel, I have an ebook on this subject:

Middle cover

Also, TKZ’s James Scott Bell has a great ebook on this topic, as well.


Writing Blunder #14: No Push Through The Door

enter-27853_1280Structure is my beat.

My book Plot & Structure (Writers’ Digest Books) is the foundation. It was a labor of love from someone who was told you can’t learn to be a writer, that the ability to plot was something you had to have born into you, that you might as well sling hash if you think you can write for a living without “it” being in you from birth.

I believed that twaddle for a long time. I lost ten good years of a writing life because of the chuckleheads who said you can’t learn to write fiction.

When I sat down to try—because I wanted to be a writer more than anything, and just had to give it a go, even if I failed—I began by studying structure.

At the time, the big structure book was Screenplay by Syd Field. Field said there were three acts in a good movie, with Act I comprising the first quarter of the running time, Act II half the time, and Act III the last quarter. He then determined there were two “plot points” that occurred to move the action from Act I to Act II, and from Act II to Act III. His “paradigm” looked like this:

Field Paradigm

All well and good. But as I studied this out I got hung up on those plot points. What Field said they did was “spin the action around” in another direction. I could not figure out what that meant. Was it any random action? Because there are an infinite number of actions and an infinite number of directions a story can take.

Determined to find out what I was missing, I spent a year watching movies with a blank paradigm sheet in front of me. I divided the running time of a movie into quarters, and kept an eye on that first quarter, Act I, looking for the secret to the plot point.

I finally found it.

And dubbed it the “Doorway of No Return.” The key is this: Something pushes the Lead into the confrontation with death in Act II. The Lead has to be forced through, because no one wants to fight with death.

We want to stay in our nice, comfortable world and enjoy life as we know it.

We can’t let that happen to the Lead! A novel or movie does not become the story until the Lead is forced to fight death, which is what Act II is all about.

Not pushing the Lead through that first doorway is #14 of the 27 writing blunders I take on in my new book:

27 Blunders front cover.001

It’s a doorway of no return because the Lead can’t go back through the doorway to the old life. If he can, it’s not a true break into Act II.

When you do this right, the reader will go right along with you.

But if you don’t force entry into Act II, the story will feel weak. Unmotivated. Manipulative.

Note this, too. You must force that entry by the 1/5 mark of a novel or the 1/4 mark of a movie, or the story will start to drag.

Let’s look at some examples:

The Wizard of Oz. At the 1/4 mark, Dorothy is taken, physically, to the Land of Oz. She can’t go back through the Doorway. There is no return. She has to make it through the rest of the plot, and survive, in order to go back.

The Fugitive has the train wreck and escape in the first act. Then Tommy Lee Jones and his team of trackers show up. He immediately figures out Kimble has escaped. He orders roadblocks and a complete area search. “Your fugitive’s name is Dr. Richard Kimble,” he says. “Go get him.”

That line is exactly one quarter of the way into the film. See what’s happened? All the essential elements of the story are in place: escaped man and his opponent. They have competing agendas. Death is on the line. If Kimble is caught, he’s toast. Death Row will be his final stop.

The first doorway can be an emotional push if it is strong enough to motivate the character into the death struggle.

That’s what happens in Star Wars. Luke’s Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen are murdered by Imperial stormtroopers searching for the droids C-3PO and R2-D2. Up to this point, Luke has only dreamed of going off on adventures. His loyalty to his aunt and uncle kept him on his home planet.

Now, though, he is experiencing loss and the desire to fight. He will go off with Obi-Wan Kenobi and learn the ways of the Jedi and join the rebellion.

Ask yourself this: When does your Lead character get forced—by an action or strong emotion, or both—into the main conflict of your story?

Be clear in your own mind, and on the page so the reader will have no doubt.

Then place that scene before the 20% mark of your word count.

Do those two things, and your novel will not feel like a drag!

This post is adapted from 27 Fiction Writing Blunders – And How Not To Make Them! (Compendium Press). The book is available now:






First Page Critique: El Cuco

Purchased from Shutterstock by Kathryn Lilley

Photo via Shutterstock, purchased by Kathryn Lilley

Today we are doing a critique of an anonymous first-page submission. The title is EL CUCO (THE CUCKOO). After my comments, please add your thoughts and constructive criticism. (Note: Content contains strong language).


It was hot as hell.   Four-thirty in the morning and it was already a fucking nightmare in her apartment.  The ceiling fan pushed warm air around the room, and the feel of it against her skin reminded Silky of the hot, stale, breath of an ex-lover she almost killed back in ’72.

She slid into a light robe and slippers, tucked her big gun into the deep side pocket, and headed for her car, where she intended to blast the A/C and smoke a joint.

When Silky pushed through the broken screen door onto the porch, Steve was standing there smoking a cigarette, his painted toes tapping a private beat against the pealing gray floorboards.

“What the fuck are you doing up this early?” she said.  “You scared the shit out of me – I thought you were that lunatic running around.”

Steve blew a column of out of the side of his mouth.  “Christ,” he said.  “What are you doing up?”

“It’s hot as fish grease in my apartment.”

Steve’s manicured eyebrows climbed into his hairline.  “Wait – what are talking about, a lunatic?”

“Some nut,” she said, waving a dismissive hand. “He’s out there slashing throats.”

“Around here?”

Silky nodded.

Steve reflexively touched his throat.  “I haven’t heard anything about a throat-slasher.”

“He’s out there,” Silky said confidently.  “Believe me.”

“That’s awful.”

“There’s all kinds of fruitcakes out there.  That’s why you never see me without this.” Silky pulled the big gun from her robe and held it up.


“And I won’t hesitate to use this,” Silky said.  She discharged the clip and showed it to Steve.  “You see?  Loaded.  I don’t fuck around.”

Silky slowly lowered herself onto the top stoop, her knees cracking like microwave popcorn.  “And just think,” she said, “you almost got shot with this grizzly.”  She rested the gun beside her.   “Gimme a cigarette.”

Steve withdrew a cigarette from his pack and handed it to Silky.   He flicked the lighter for her.  “Me?” he said.

Silky held the cigarette against the flame until she got it going.  She leveled her gaze at Steve, raised a perfectly sharp eyebrow.

“Yeah, you ,” she said.

“I almost got shot?  When?”

“Are you high? Two minutes ago when I walked down here.  You think I was expecting to bump into someone this early in the morning?  Who else but the slasher is out this time of day?”


My comments:

This page has an engaging spirit to it. I think it could be much stronger after some issues are addressed. Let’s discuss the issues one at a time.

First, kill off all the adverbs

In general, it’s a good idea to be very sparing in the use of “ly” adverbs such as “Slowly,” and “confidently”. Adverbs are a weak way of conveying action.

Shorten sentence structure

Many of the sentences on this page are too long. The prose will be stronger and snappier once they are broken up. For example:

“The ceiling fan pushed warm air around the room, and the feel of it against her skin reminded Silky of the hot, stale, breath of an ex-lover she almost killed back in ’72.”

Break up as follows:

The ceiling fan pushed warm air around the room. The feel of it against her skin reminded Silky of the hot, stale, breath of an ex-lover she almost killed back in ’72.

And the following sentence:

“When Silky pushed through the broken screen door onto the porch, Steve was standing there smoking a cigarette, his painted toes tapping a private beat against the pealing gray floorboards.”

Can be broken up as follows:

“Silky pushed through the broken screen door onto the porch. She immediately felt a warm presence in the shadows. It was Steve. He stood in the shadows, smoking a cigarette, his painted toes tapping a private beat against the pealing peeling gray floorboards.”

Watch spelling

Spelling errors such as the one contained in the previous example are a death sentence for any first page submission. In addition to running spell check, the writer needs to make sure the spelling of the word is correct for its meaning in context. (“Pealing” is the sound of a bell. “Peeling” is how one removes the skin from an orange.)

Keep cause with effect

When Silky says, “I thought you were that lunatic running around,” Steve’s response to the statement should follow immediately. The way it’s currently written, he responds to the first part of her statement (regarding the hour of day) before he reacts to the important part of her speech (a lunatic running around).

Vary the language for impact

Silky says, “You scared the shit out of me – I thought you were that lunatic running around.”

Steve eventually responds by using identical language. ““Wait – what are talking about, a lunatic?”

Steve’s response should be revised to use wording that is different than hers.

Avoid repeating phrases

“Big gun” is repeated twice on the same page, which is one time too many.

Use specific language

“Big gun” is vague language. Indicate what type of gun is being used. Using specific language helps reveal character.

A note about similes

Similes and metaphors can be effective when used well. The simile in this page, “…her knees cracking like microwave popcorn” didn’t quite work for me. “Popping” might be a better gerund to use in this case, but I would still jettison the simile.

Strong language

I’m not a prude about the use of strong language in fiction, but in this instance, I don’t think the F-bomb and related terms add anything interesting to the characters or scene.

Monitor tics and jerks

For some reason, many writers, including professionals, love to use eyebrows and other tics to convey a character’s reaction. This page has a little too much eyebrow action going on.

“Steve’s manicured eyebrows climbed into his hairline.”

She…raised a perfectly sharp eyebrow.

Convey action before dialogue

In this scene, Silky tells Steve that she almost shot him, but I didn’t get a sense of that during the action that leads up to their dialogue. Before she says to Steve, “I almost shot you,” the reader needs to see her going onto the porch, feeling a presence in the shadows, raising the gun barrel, etc.

Title note

I had to look up the title, EL CUCO, on a translator to verify what it meant. That’s not good. The story title is the  first opportunity to engage a reader. If the reader doesn’t understand what the title means, that opportunity is lost.


Even though I’ve called out quite a few issues with this page, I still felt engaged by the story, and found myself liking the characters. That’s half the battle right there–everything else is fixable with careful editing.

Thank you to the writer for submitting this page for discussion.

What do you think of this first page, TKZ’ers? Any comments to add?

Series vs. Standalone

By Joe Moore

My wife and I watched the first episode of TRUE DETECTIVE the other night (HBO original). The new series stars Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn. We were captivated with last year’s show by the same name, the one starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. It was unique, moody and unnerving. We looked forward to every installment of the back-bayou, gritty Louisiana crime story. Great writing, acting, photography and setting. I haven’t formed a solid opinion of the new one yet, but I can tell you one thing: it is TOTALLY different from season one. I mean, other than the title, there is no resemblance to the first TRUE DETECTIVE. In fact, you could change the title to ANYTHING else and it would make no difference.

Don’t get me wrong. Farrell and Vaughn are great actors. In fact, they’re really movie stars that someone convinced to be on TV. And their acting is top drawer. I always enjoy it when a comic actor takes on a dramatic role and excels in it. Vince Vaughn does just that. And Colin Farrell has never let me down.

But watching the opening episode of TRUE DETECTIVE, season two got me thinking. As an author of thrillers, what’s the best choice for me—writing a series or a standalone? TRUE DETECTIVE is a series—that’s why there are two seasons with the same name. If it were the equivalent of a standalone, it would be called a movie. So as a writer, should I be writing a series or single novel? What are the pros and cons of series vs. standalone?

First let’s look at genre fiction (thriller, mystery, fantasy, supernatural, paranormal, police procedural, horror, romance, etc.). Genre fiction gives us both series and standalones. Which should I write?

tgcTruth is, I’ve done both. My first published novel was THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (co-written with Lynn Sholes), the first of a 4-book series. Our fifth book was a standalone called THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. Both TGC and TPA went to #1 on the Amazon Kindle bestseller list. Now we’re finishing up THE TOMB, the last of a 3-book series. Next up will be a standalone. I believe both work for us.

But it’s important to see the pros and cons of the two. Feedback from our readers helped me put together these points.

phoenix-apostles-webProbably the single biggest advantage to a series, for the reader and writer, is that it’s comfort food for the imagination. Even though the story is a new one, it’s a chance to revisit an old friend(s)—the protagonist and repeat characters. For years, picking up a Clive Cussler or Terry Brooks novel always gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling that I was back with my buddies. I knew those guys, trusted them, and couldn’t wait to see what they had gotten into this time. It was like meeting up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in a year and catching up on the latest news.

Of course, every pro comes with a con. Writing a series means that every installment must be as good as or better than the last. No rehashing of a theme. No cookie cutter plots. No formulas. Readers must come away feeling their appetite for the the next adventure was satisfied, and they can’t wait for the next in the series.

Another con to writing a series is backstory. Can the reader pick up a book in the middle of the series and get enough backstory for it to make sense? Or do they have to start with book one? How much backstory does the author include in subsequent books without boring the dedicated series fan or confusing the mid-series pick-up reader?

Finally, what if a series goes too long? What if the protagonist keeps falling into the same old danger (formula) time after time? This can result in the B word: boring. You don’t want to go there.

The advantage of writing a standalone, especially if you are known as a series author, is it can bring on a breath of fresh air for you and the reader. You get to stretch your legs without the confines of your established characters, and your reader gets to see a new side of your talents. You get to try new bankid stuff, experiment with voice, tense, POV, etc. A standalone for a series author is an experimental science lab. Just don’t blow the place up and go too far over the line that your fans won’t even recognize you.

One interesting technique is to touch on something in your new book that appeared in a previous series. In THE SHIELD, book 2 of our Maxine Decker series, the OSI agent was interviewed by Cotten Stone, the heroine journalist from our first series. It can bring an unexpected smile to your reader’s face or produce enough intrigue that they will seek out the other books.

So whether you’re interested in writing a series or a standalone, think ahead to what might be the pros and cons once you’re done. And give the new season of TRUE DETECTIVE a try. It’s good if not different from its predecessor.

What do you think, Zoners? Do you prefer reading or writing a series or standalones?

Everything I Ever Learned
I Learned From Potboilers

My signed first edition of Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers.

My signed first edition of Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” — William Styron

By PJ Parrish
We moved around a lot when I was a kid, and like a plant with shallow roots, I was always sending out feelers toward solid ground. I found it in libraries. I couldn’t always count on having the same address every year, the same classroom or even the same friends for very long. But I always could count on finding old faces and familiar places in the local library.

Paradoxically, it was in libraries where my love of exotic places and travel was born. No matter what was going on in my little life, I could escape to somewhere else by opening a book. My library card was my first passport.

Novels took me around the world, but they also taught me things — about history, religion, politics, philosophy, human psychology, medicine, outer space – filling in the gaps left by my spotty education. Even after I went to college, made my own money and settled down, novels remained my autodidact keys.

I learned about the American Revolution through John Jake’s Kent Family Chronicles. I studied medieval Japan through James Clavell’s Shogun. I was able to wrap my brain around the complex politics of Israel and Ireland after reading Leon Uris. James Michener taught me about Hawaii and Edna Ferber took me to Texas. Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series sorted out the Church of England for me. Ayn Rand made me want to be an architect for a while, or maybe a lady reporter who wore good suits. (I skimmed over the political stuff.)

And Arthur Hailey taught me to never buy a car that was made on a Monday.

I got to thinking about Hailey and all the others this week for two reasons: First, was an article I read in the New York Times about the Common Core teaching controversy (more on that later). The second reason was that while pruning my bookshelves, I found an old copy of The Moneychangers. This was one of Hailey’s last books, written after he had become famous for Hotel, Wheels, and that quintessential airport book Airport. I interviewed Hailey in 1975 when he was touring for The Moneychangers. I remember him as sweet and patient with a cub reporter and he signed my book “To Kristy Montee, Memento of a Pleasant Meeting.”

I had read all his other books, especially devouring Wheels, which was set in the auto industry of my Detroit hometown. Hailey, like Michener, Clavell, Uris et al, wrote long, research-dense novels that moved huge, often multi-generation casts of characters across sprawling stages of exotic locales (Yes, Texas qualifies). Hawaii, which spans hundreds of years, starts with this primordial belch:

Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principle features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others.

How could you not read on after that? But the main reason I loved these books was for their bright promise of cracking open the door on something secret. Here’s some cover copy from Hailey’s The Moneychangers:

Money. People. Banking. This fast-paced, exciting novel is the “inside” story of all three. As timely as today’s headlines, as revealing as a full-scale investigation.

Shoot, that could be copy written for Joseph Finder now.

Many of these books were sniffed off as potboilers in their day. (Though Michener and Ferber both won Pulitzer Prizes). But the writers were, to a one, known for their meticulous research techniques. Hailey spent a full year researching his subject (he read 27 books about the hotel industry), then six months reviewing his notes and, finally, about 18 months writing the book. Michener lived in each of his locales, read and interviewed voraciously, and collected documents, music, photographs, maps, recipes, and notebooks filled with facts. He would paste pages from the small notebooks, along with clippings, photos and other things he had collected into larger notebooks. Sort of an early version of Scrivener.


For my money, these books were a potent blend of entertainment and information, and they endure today as solid examples for novelists on how to marry research with storytelling. In his fascinating non-fiction book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, James W. Hall analyzes what commonalities can be found in mega-selling books. One of the criteria is large doses of information that make readers believe they are getting the inside scoop, especially of a “secret” society. The Firm peeks into the boardrooms of Harvard lawyers. The Da Vinci Code draws back the curtain on the Catholic Church. Those and all the books I cited delivered one thing in spades — the feeling we are learning something while being entertained.

Which brings me to Common Core.

This is an educational initiative, sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers that details what K–12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. I read this week that as part of the Common Core mandate, English teachers must balance each novel they teach with “fact” material –news articles, textbooks, documentaries, maps and such.

So ninth graders reading The Odyssey must also read the G.I. Bill of Rights. Eight graders reading Tom Sawyer also get an op-ed article on teen unemployment. The standards stipulate that in elementary and middle school, at least half of what English students read must be supplemental non-fiction, and by 12th grade, that goes up to 70 percent.

Now, I’m not going to dig into the politics of this. (You can read the Times article here.) And I applaud anything that gets kids reading at all. What concerns me is that in an effort to stuff as much information and facts into kids’ heads, we might not be leaving room for the imagination to roam free. As one mom (whose fifth-grade son came home in tears after having to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), put it, “If you look at the standards and what they say, nowhere in there does it say, ‘kill the love of reading.’”

One more thing, I then I’ll shut up:

There was a study done at Emory University last year that looked at what happens to the brain when you read a novel. At night, volunteers read 30-page segments of Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii then the next morning got MRIs. After 19 days of finishing the novel and morning MRIs, the results revealed that reading the novel heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with receptivity for language. Reading the novel also heightened connectivity in “embodied semantics,” which means the readers thought about the action they were reading about. For example, thinking about swimming can trigger the some of the same neural connections as physical swimming.

“The neural changes that we found…suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said Gregory Berns, the lead author of the study. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Maybe those poor eighth graders just need to crack open some Jean Auel, SE Hinton or Cassandra Clare.

What’s Your Writing Tic?

We all have them – those dreaded tics, quirks and habits that creep into our work, worm their way onto the page and serve to drive us (and beta readers) crazy during the editing process. I confess that each new manuscript I seem to manage to create a new set of ‘tics’ – involuntary mannerisms that I seem oblivious to until I start revising or (even worse) until one of my beta readers pick up on them.

In my first book, my husband pointed out the number of times my main character shivered or drank a cup of tea (way too much…), while my agent highlighted that many of my secondary characters appeared to have similar sounding names to the nickname my main character had for her father’s Rolls Royce. Suddenly I found myself looking over my work and realizing that deep within I had developed some involuntary writing habits and quirks that I hadn’t even noticed. In my second manuscript I seemed to develop a weird tic for dropping prepositions – suddenly I kept forgetting ‘little words’ such as ‘at’ and ‘on’…and at the same time I developed a penchant for character names ending in ‘s’ which created a nightmare for editing. I guess at least poor old Ursula wasn’t shivering or drinking tea all the time.

For me, each new manuscript seems to create its own new set of unconscious writing tics: Whether it be eye rolling or darkness falling, characters whose names all begin with ‘M’, or the repetition of a word like ‘hesitantly’…each time I finish a new draft, I have a whole new set of peculiarities to watch out for in my writing. (I guess at least I should be thankful I catch most of them during the revision process!).  I spend at least one round of editing looking out for these ‘tics’  and trying to weed out whatever strange repetition my brain may have chosen to insert this time round.

What about you? Are you aware of any habits, mannerisms or ‘tics’ (as I like to call them) that tend to show up or infect your writing? How do you weed them out?

Earn Your Writing Success The Old-Fashioned Way

Back in the 70s there was an effective ad campaign for the investment firm Smith Barney. It featured John Houseman in his Professor Kingsfield garb (if you don’t know who John Houseman is, or Professor Kingsfield, go watch The Paper Chase, a movie about Harvard Law School that won Houseman an Oscar). Here’s one of the ads:

That tag line became famous. They make money the old-fashioned way—they EARN it.

It was great alternative advertising, countering the young, fast, Maserati-driving, Rolex-wearing rah-rah hype of the day. The ads reminded people that you don’t make money for long with get-rich-quick schemes. The only lasting value comes from hard work. (Let’s put aside for our purposes here the fact that Smith Barney itself seems not to have listened to its own spokesman.)

I thought of that ad the other day as I read a post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch about writers trying to “game the system.” I recommend you read the whole thing, but here are a few reflections that track with my own thinking on the issue.

Kris’s post was prompted by an announced change in the Kindle Unlimited program on Amazon. Currently, writers in KU are paid from a common fund, triggered when 10% of a downloaded piece is read. Which means a payout happens when 500 words of a 5000 word short story are clicked through by a KU borrower. And the same amount when a 100,000 word novel gets to the 10,000 word mark.

Theoretically, then, a writer can put out a ton of short work, or serialize a full-length novel, and increase his or her payouts. Bloggers have been dispensing strategic ideas to get the most out of the program.

When that happens to their business, Amazon tends to shift things around.

As they have now. Starting next month Amazon brings a new formula to KU. Payout will be on a pages-read basis. So that 5000 word short story is only going to be making a fraction of what it once did. Not everyone is happy about this. See here for further details.

The new plan does reward full-length novels that people want to read all the way through.

Imagine that. Just like when writers had to earn money the old-fashioned way. They had to EARN it!

These changes are still going to bring out strategies to use digital output and SEO tricks and algorithmic ping pong to squeeze money out of readers and their discretionary income. Note, I’m not talking about wise marketing and the fundamentals of digital commerce. This is about trying to make bank from chicanery rather than superb storytelling.

Kris Rusch is having none of it:

In the beginning, I tolerated gaming the system. I used to think that writers would get by it. Some writers do get past that idea that they can game their way to success. Some writers do game their way to success. But I have learned that every writer who games his way to success has short-term success.

And then that writer gets caught or the system changes or the bottom falls out. Most writers quit at that point. Last summer’s Kindle Unlimited Apocalypse took out hundreds, maybe thousands, of writers who had some success. Many of them left writing altogether.

Some of them found a new way to game the system, still with Kindle Unlimited, figuring out the new algorithms and what those writers “should” be writing in order to win the big prize—which is, either, some imagined (unprovable) bonus to their bestseller rankings or part of the Prize Pool. Ooops. I mean the Select Global Fund. Or none of the above. Honestly, I haven’t made much of a study of it, because, as you can tell from my tone, I don’t think it important.

The remaining writers who were gaming the system and got nailed did the cliché thing and turned lemons into lemonade. They learned that they were approaching their business wrong, and they took the collapse as an opportunity to build a foundation underneath their writing career.

What “bugs” her about all this is “the contempt these writers show for the craft of writing.”

In other words, gaming a system, like Kindle Unlimited or the New York Times bestseller list is extremely disrespectful. It doesn’t require the writer to get better, to become a better storyteller or to build a fan base. It only means that the goal—whatever that goal is—means more to the writer than having readers does….

They disrespect readers. These writers want people to buy their books (or borrow them for a fee, as in KU), but these writers don’t care if the readers read the book.

They want a reader’s money and they want to give the reader very little in return for it.

I hope this sentiment reaches writers coming up who are tempted to concentrate more and more of their time and effort on gaming, and less and less on the hard work of learning the craft.

I’ll always maintain that the most satisfying writing career, and the one most likely to last, is the one that EARNS its place at the table.

Yes, the old-fashioned way.

Do you agree?

Have to vs. Get to

smoking car

(Photo by Stevan Sheets)

I don’t have any words of wisdom or otherwise for you today about writing. I’m sorry for that; as the deadline approaches I have for the last couple of days been ferrying my younger daughter to THE Ohio State University for orientation. She is in a unique position, given that she completed her high school credits in two years and has acquired enough college credits that she is midway through her sophomore year of higher learning. Because of her tender age (17), however, she must go through orientation, stay in a dorm for a year, etc. I have been thinking in terms of “Well, we have to do this” and “we have to do that” in association with jumping through the many hoops that college enrollment involves. And it is totally wrong. We don’t HAVE to do it; we GET to do it. If I might, please let me explain.

What I am about to relate to you occurred some two decades ago. “Cell phones” were known as car phones and while I had one not everyone did. I was driving into downtown Columbus on the freeway one morning and saw a disabled vehicle on the side of the road, smoking like a jazz musician. I slowed down and as I passed it I saw a younger Asian man standing in front of it, peering at the engine, which was all but on fire. I pulled over, backed up a bit, and walked back to the car. I looked at the engine, which appeared to be a total wreck, and asked him if I could call someone for him. He replied, “No…but could you please drive me to school?” I laughed and replied, “Sure! Why not?”

I learned that the young man, who introduced himself as “Jack,” was a student at Columbus State Community College, which offers two year associate degrees. Jack had quite a story to tell. His parents were from South Vietnam, part of the horde of the poor souls who watched from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy as the helicopters took off without them. When the new government took over, the punishment meted out to those who collaborated with the United States was swift and sure: their children were not permitted to go to school. That’s no education at all, my friends: no reading, no writing, no arithmetic. Jack’s parents taught their children in secret how to do these subversive things while waiting their turn to emigrate from Vietnam and legally immigrate to the United States. Newly landed in Columbus, Jack was working two jobs while pursuing a degree in engineering, and his brother was doing the same thing. Their parents worked at three jobs — each — to keep things together. They were all happy to be somewhere where they could work and make money and be allowed to go to school. In Jack’s mind, he didn’t have to go to school; he got to go school. And he got to work not just one but two jobs. His cup wasn’t half full; it was overflowing with good and wonderful things. I wound up not only taking Jack to school but also driving him to work later that day and then picking him up and driving him around for the next few days until his car somehow got fixed. I didn’t have to; I got to. It was a privilege to help him.

I haven’t seen Jack since then, but I have never forgotten him. I especially remember him when confronted with a task that is frustrating or tedious or time-consuming, such as mowing the lawn with someone similar to a Reel Rollers which I hear are high-quality from a friend or maintaining the car or shopping for groceries, or struggling to come up with new writing ideas or, yeah, writing a king size check for college tuition. It’s easy to forget that there are folks who don’t have a yard to mow, or a car to take care of, or a place where they can shop for ANYTHING, or were on the wrong side of a war and don’t get to learn. I don’t have to do anything; I’m lucky. I GET to do them.

Thank you for the life lesson, Jack. I hope you are well.