Cast of Characters

Nancy J. Cohen

Do you include a Cast of Characters in your mystery novel? Is this a helpful item to readers? In my experience, some readers like to have this directory. It serves as a refresher or helps to explain the relationships among the story people. Others may view a long list of characters with trepidation. In a mystery, they feel the tale might have too many suspects to remember. So who do we please?

The other thing to consider is placement. If you list your characters in the front of a book, potential new readers who click on “Look Inside” at Amazon will lose a page of text that you could have there instead. Same goes for a Table of Contents. While it may be good to put these in the front of a print book, for a digital copy the opposite might be true. Should we consider putting them in the back where they won’t interfere with that critical first look?

Some authors include entire family trees along with their sagas. This can be helpful if you are writing a series with multiple generations. But what about a single title? Is listing the cast a desirable item?

In my online files, I differentiate between Continuing/Recurrent Characters and the current Cast. The latter includes my main characters and the suspects for this story only. It does not include recurrent secondary characters that only make brief appearances. Those people go on my private list of Continuing Characters. I suppose if your series gets very lengthy, you could insert a guide to all the characters in this particular universe, whether they have blood ties or not. This type of guide should definitely be part of the back bonus materials.

The Cast List that I include for each story is as brief as possible. You can include a teasing question about each suspect or just describe their straightforward role. Be careful not to include spoilers that give away a character’s secrets. There is a short CoC in Peril by Ponytail. Click on the Look Inside feature.

What do readers think?

One reviewer recently said about Peril by Ponytail: “I really liked that at the beginning of the book there was a ‘List of Characters’ outlining everyone within the context of the series.”

Then I asked these questions on my Facebook Page: Do you like a Cast of Characters in a mystery novel? Is it helpful or intimidating? Does it matter if the list is up front or in the back material?

Negative Responses:

“I don’t usually look if it’s included. I like to discover the characters as I read the book.”

“No. It makes it seem too theatrical, like I’m being told right from the start that this isn’t real.”

“I won’t look at it unless I’m having a hard time keeping characters straight or am having long lag times between reading and need a refresher.”

Positive Responses:

“Up front! It’s especially helpful if you haven’t read the previous books in the series.”

“I like it because it gives me a sense of place, especially with a new series. Also, if I get confused, I can go back to the list to figure out who’s who.”

“I like it, and I usually refer back to it as I read and come across each character. I like to know how they relate to each other.”

“If the book is a part of a series, the cast of characters can be very helpful if you didn’t start at the first of the series.”

“I like it if there are a lot of characters, of if you have a character who only appears a few times, several chapters apart. And put it in the front.”

“Up front! I recently read two mystery books that involved several guests at parties and a quick cast of characters guide would have helped.”

“I think it can be helpful if there are a lot of characters or if they have similar/unusual names. Also, no spoilers in the list.”

“I like it in the front. Sometimes new characters are hard to keep straight.”

“I like it at the front. That way I know it’s there if I need to refer back to it. I also love maps!”

“Up front. I always read it and I go back to refresh my memory on who a character is.”

“I like a CoC and a floor plan of the main character’s home.”

And More! This question garnered over 960 people reached. View it here:

As you see, it’s a mixed bag of responses, but the majority appears to be overwhelming in favor of including a list of characters in the front of a book. What is YOUR opinion?

What a Critique Group Can…and Cannot…Do For You

Shutterstock photo purchased by Kathryn Lilley TKZ

Shutterstock photo purchased by Kathryn Lilley TKZ

Today, we’re pleased to welcome editor and writer Debbie Burke back to TKZ.

by Debbie Burke

Critique groups are invaluable, if not essential, to the serious author. But they may not provide all the answers a writer needs. First, though, let’s talk about their benefits.

What are critique group strengths?    

Support – A CG provides much-needed camaraderie in this oft-lonely business. They throw us a lifeline when we get discouraged, nag us when we’re slacking off, and lend a shoulder to cry on when we receive rejections. They serve as our cheerleaders, therapists, and comrades in the trenches. They’re the first ones to open champagne for our successes. CG members are not only writing colleagues, they often become close friends. We develop a high level of trust and respect for each other, both professionally and personally.

Brainstorming – Here, critique groups really shine. If two heads are better than one, six or eight heads are exponentially better at throwing out suggestions. Feeding off each others energies and ideas, CGs solve many dilemmas that stymy a writer. I can’t count the number of dead ends CGs helped me work through.

Accountability – CGs exert pressure, either subtle or overt, to produce a certain number of pages for each session. They act as a de facto deadline for writers who don’t yet have an editor or agent breathing down their neck. If you show up empty-handed, you’re not meeting your obligation. Dozens of times, I’ve heard writers say, “I wouldn’t have written anything this week, except I needed to submit to the group.”

What are some CG limitations?

Diagnosis – CGs generally do a good job of homing in on a manuscript’s weak spots. If two or more people mark the same passage, you should pay attention. But while they recognize there is a problem, they can’t always diagnose exactly what it is or how to fix it. If CG suggestions don’t help enough, consultation with a developmental editor may be worthwhile.

Overlapping relationships – CG friendships may cloud our judgment of the story. A member of my group, psychologist Ann Minnett (author of Burden of Breath and Serita’s Shelf Life) recently offered a perceptive observation: “When I read A’s chapter, I hear her voice and accent. When I read B’s chapter, I think of her sense of humor, and can’t help but laugh.”

Which made me wonder…Does your CG like your story or do they like you?

When you’re face-to-face with your friends, you hear her charming British accent, see his playful wink. However, when a book is published, most readers will never meet the author, meaning the words must shoulder all the work. They need to be effective by themselves, without explanation or amplification.

Here is where online CGs might give a clearer, more “book-like” perspective. Without personal, visual, or auditory cues, their effort focuses entirely on the words.

Time constraints – My CG meets every two weeks, submitting 15-20 pages per session. At that rate, reviewing a novel-length manuscript takes six months to a year. By the time the group reaches the climactic chapter on page 365, no one remembers a subtle, but important, clue on page 48 that set up the surprise twist. This piecemeal approach is the most vexing limitation I’ve experienced with CGs.

Micro vs. Macro View – A corollary to the time constraint problem is the micro view by a CG. They examine your 20 pages per week and help polish each passage till it shines. When you string all these perfect chapters together, the resulting book should be excellent. Right?

Not necessarily. Close examination under the CG microscope may not adequately address global issues of plot development, pace, and momentum that require a macro view from an airplane.

At this point, beta readers or a professional editor may be more useful than a CG to determine how well the overall scope of your novel works.

Objectivity – Your CG works for months or years on a manuscript. They are mindful of the original draft and every subsequent rewrite. They help you build the story and become almost as vested as you are. But, like you, they’ve grown too close to the novel. Even if they beta-read the whole book, they may subconsciously insert things from earlier drafts that you later cut. They might not realize the missing part is missing.

At what point do you need to move beyond the critique group?

In my experience, CGs are probably most helpful for a work in progress. They provide invaluable suggestions to get you out of corners. They catch typos, misspellings, word choice goofs, and awkward phrasing. They tell you if characters are flat and boring or ridiculously over-the-top. They pull you out of the ditch and keep you moving forward.

After your CG has reviewed at least one complete draft, and you’ve incorporated their feedback, suggestions, and polishing, now it’s time to find beta readers and/or a professional editor. In fairness, you should submit a draft that’s as clean and error-free as possible. Beta readers or editors shouldn’t spend time line-editing when what you’re really seeking is the Big Picture. The cleaner the draft, the more their efforts can be focused on important issues.

Depending on how extensive the rewrite needs to be, you may want to run the revision draft through your CG one more time to ensure you’ve achieved improvements suggested by betas and/or editors.

Critique groups can be a writer’s best friend. By understanding both their strengths and limitations, you’ll receive maximum benefit from them.

How about you, TKZers? What is most helpful about your critique group?  What are the biggest limitations?

IMG_2585(1)Debbie Burke has participated in critique groups for more than twenty-five years. She credits critique buddies with keeping her sane (almost).

Deconstructing “The Martian”

Martian book cover for KZ

Here’s an amazing truth: perhaps the most illuminating, valuable, and directly transferable – to the act of writing itself – thing an author can do in the pursuit of an understanding of how stories are developed and implemented.  Which is… to tear apart – to deconstruct – a novel or film that is judged worthy of study, based either on critical or commercial acclaim.

Today’s deconstructed story is backed by both.

I mention film in the same breath as novels for two reasons: novelists can learn just as much from a good film as they can from a good movie (if you don’t buy that, then chances are you don’t believe in something called story structure, either, so never mind), at least relative to narrative flow and dramatic efficacy, and doing so only takes two hours, versus the 6 to 10 hours it takes (at least for me) to work my way through the latest Grisham.

Of course, just like doing exploratory surgery or trying to find the Titanic (back when that hadn’t been done), it helps when one knows what to look for.

When you do know what to look for, and you use that as context for a deep dive into successful stories, you have the means to send your learning curve vertical in short order.

If the principles of story structure and dramatic/character arcs are calling to you, or refusing to accept your rejection of them, or are already helping you but you’d like more… today’s post (and the links) are for you.

One of the major little-guy-wins-big writing stories of the past few years is The Martian

… published by Andy Weir in 2009.  There’s a really rewarding writer’s backstory about how he took this from an unambitious series of blog posts to a free self-published Kindle to the best-selling 99-cent Kindle ever, leading (unsolicited) to an agent and a six-figure advance, and then (four days after that news hit) to a movie deal. The fruit of which is still playing at a theater near you.

If you’d like that backstory, click HERE (so I don’t have to repeat it… you’ll be taken to my website for a post that covers that ground). But…

… don’t stay there for long, unless you encounter the forthcoming link, there, before you get to the next sentence, here.  Because the real gold – the deconstruction itself, in exquisite structural and narrative detail – is in another Storyfix post… which you can read HERE.

As a student of the craft of writing fiction, I think you’ll find this a worthwhile exercise.  One that will nourish both your wellspring craft, but your continuing hunger for it.

Your Novel’s Greatest Danger

Bored catA TV show is about to be cancelled. Not exactly headline worthy, I know. Happens all the time. Only this time it was a series I was trying to get into, mainly because I’ve liked the lead actor in the past.

The ratings were okay for the opener, but have gradually declined. I am one of those decliners. After four episodes I stopped watching.

The show has a unique setting, a cast of beautiful people, and an ongoing criminal investigation. What went wrong?

I’ll tell you what went wrong: I just did not care about any of the characters. 

I didn’t care who was trying to cheat whom. I didn’t care who was hopping into who’s bed. I didn’t care who made money, lost money, was rich or poor or desperate or in love.

On the surface––and this must have impressed the network suits––the show had “everything.” Glam, glitz, beefcake, cheesecake, a star. But after four hour-long episodes there was not a single character I bonded with.

Which, dear writer, is the greatest danger to your own novel.

You simply must connect reader and character, and right out of the gate, too.

How? By knowing that this is all a function of two essential dynamics, which are … wait for it … plot and character.

Wow, earth shattering!

Ah, but so often missed because one is often emphasized at the expense of the other.

Character alone won’t do it. If it did, maybe I’d be able to get through more than twenty pages of A Confederacy of Dunces (I’ve tried three times and never made it).

Plot alone doesn’t do it, because events have to matter to a character who matters to the reader.

Now, there are lots of techniques professional fiction writers utilize to make a character someone we care about. In my 27 Fiction Writing Blunders I have no less than five chapters attacking the problem from different angles.

But today, I want to suggest a single, powerful question you should ask about all your main characters.

You need to set yourself up for this, because it’s a question not to be tossed out lightly.

So find a comfy spot. I like to use a corner table at my local coffee palace.

Have a notepad ready.

Spend ten minutes thinking about anything except your novel. Observe people, read some news or a blog, or watch “Charlie Bit Me” a couple of times.

Next, turn yourself (as much as possible) into a fully objective reader who is considering buying your book.

Here comes the question:

If I were at a party and someone told me about this character, what she’s like and what has happened to her, would I want to spend two hours listening to her tell me her story?  

Be merciless in your answer. Write down the exact reasons you would want to hear more. If you don’t come up with good ones, you’ve got work to do.

If someone described to me a selfish, flirty Southern belle, I wouldn’t want to spend two seconds with her. But when I hear that she is the only one in her family with the grit and guts to save her home during and after the Civil War, I think I’d want to hear more.

If someone tells me about an unsure FBI trainee, who came from poor circumstances, I’m mildly interested. But make her the only person in the entire bureau who can get the most devious, intelligent, and malevolent murderer in the annals of crime to talk, then I’m down for the whole story.

PIs are a dime a dozen. But if it’s Philip Marlowe narrating, I want that two hours just to listen to how he describes all the twists and turns.

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.

She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.

You have your assignment. Would you, as a perfect stranger, feel compelled to listen to the story your main character wants to tell?

If not, make it so.

If so, make it more so!

And then the greatest danger to your novel will be no more.

Reader Friday: Who Was The Best James Bond?

The buzz for the Oscars 2016 is just getting started (Will a blockbuster make the cut? Will Leonardo DiCaprio finally break his Curse?). Let’s set the mood by focusing on one of the  all-time great characters in cinema and popular literature: Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

Which actor gets your vote for “Best James Bond of All Time”?

Sean Connery

Starting with Dr. No in 1962, Connery established James Bond’s character in the public imagination. He played Bond in seven films overall.


David Niven

Niven was Ian Fleming’s first choice to play Bond. Niven played an aging  Bond in Casino Royale (after Sean Connery turned down the role).








George Lazenby

George Lazenby received mixed reviews for his one performance as James Bond.  The actor seemed to have second thoughts about the character as well. He quit the role before the release of the film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. 1George_Lazenby_London








Roger Moore

Roger Moore, played Bond as a somewhat comedic, debonair gentleman. Starting with Live and Let Die in 1973, Moore played Bond in seven films.








Timothy Dalton

As played by actor Timothy Dalton, the character of James Bond took on ruthless and dark characteristics. His version never caught fire with moviegoers, however. He played Bond in two films.1timJames_Bond_(Timothy_Dalton)_-_Profile








Pierce Brosnan

Pierce Brosnan’s Bond recaptured the elegance and wit of the Moore era. He played Bond in four films.








Daniel Craig

Daniel Craig is the current incarnation of James Bond; his is widely considered to be one of the most authentic portrayals of Ian Fleming’s characters–emphasizing strength over suaveness. 1danmen james bond actors daniel craig tuxedo 1920x1080 wallpaper_wallpaperswa.com_97





Your favorite Bond?

Which incarnation of Bond is your all-time favorite? Let us know in the Comments!

Every Word Is Gold


By Elaine Viets

1. “He felt like a panhandler who had just seen his first speck of gold.”

That lucky dog. Most panhandlers never see any gold. They’re lucky to scrounge pocket change.

But panners have a real chance of finding gold.

During National Novel Writing Month, aspiring writers, as well as hard-working pros, are pounding the keys. It’s easy to make mistakes when we’re cranking out copy at high speed. Here are few phrases that have tripped up good writers for major New York publishers. Don’t let them happen to you.

2. “I don’t believe it was money your mom squired away.”

I don’t believe it, either. Bet Mom squirreled it away, like this furry devil hid that acorn.


3. “There was something she couldn’t bare to look at.”

We couldn’t bear to look at the naked abuse of that word.


4. “His jaws were taught and clamped.”

The Terminator taught us what taut jaws look like.


5. “South Carolina was the first state to succeed.”

At what? Leaving the Union? In that cast, the state was the first to secede.

south carolina

 6. “This is why you should wear a helmut.”

A helmet would protect your head better.

german helmet

That’s a German Donald Duck holding up the winged golden helmet. According to the Wall Street Journal, in Deutschland the beaked Donald is a philosopher. “Germany, the land of Goethe, Thomas Mann and Beethoven, has an unlikely pop culture hero: Donald Duck,” says the paper. “Just as the French are obsessed with Jerry Lewis, the Germans see a richness and complexity to the Disney comic that isn’t always immediately evident to people in the cartoon duck’s homeland.”

7. Some phrases are impossibly twisted. Consider the police officer with deep seed suspicions.

I suspect the writer meant deep-seated suspicions and mixed up deep seeded plants


with the tennis term top seeded, planted at the top of the heap.


8. “He and his wife are strange.”

Possibly. But when they separated, they were estranged.

Hugh Hefner and Crystal Harris

Consider this couple. Hugh Hefner and Crystal Harris were engaged Christmas Eve, 2010. They were all set for a June wedding in 2011. But Crystal called off the wedding five days before Hugh walked down the aisle for the third time.

They were estranged. But the couple reconciled and were married New Year’s Eve, 2012. Hugh was 86 and Crystal was 26. Love is strange.


Suspense Magazine named Checked Out, my latest Dead-End mystery, a top cozies of 2015. I’m celebrating by giving away a large print Checked Out. To win, click Contests at


Back In a Flashback

By Joe Moore

Flashback is a writing technique that allows the author to convey backstory (events from the past) while remaining in the present. It usually involves a situation in which something in a current scene causes a character to reminisce or ponder a previous event. The reason to create a flashback is to build character or advance the plot, or both. The secret to successfully employing this technique is to construct a smooth transition into and out of the flashback so as not to confuse the reader.

One of the easiest ways to enter a flashback is with the word “had”.

As Jim walked through his old neighborhood, a distant dog barking reminded him of the day he and his friends had skipped school to . . .

In addition, you want to shift the time progression from simple past tense (As Jim walked) to the past perfect tense (his friends had decided). Once you’ve entered the flashback and established the “past”, you can then revert back to simple past tense. At the conclusion of the flashback, use “had” again to transition back to current time.

Jim climbed the steps of his childhood home knowing those summer days with his friends had been the best times of his life.

In addition to transitions in and out of the flashback, it’s also important that the timeframe in which the flashback covers somewhat matches the real-time in which it’s experienced by the character. For instance, a flashback that covers the highs and lows of a woman’s previous marriage cannot be experienced during her stroll from the kitchen to the bedroom. But it would be an acceptable timeframe if she poured a glass of wine, strolled out onto her back porch and experienced it while sitting and watching the sun set and night fall. The reader must accept that the past and present timeframes are not unreasonably out of sync.

One final thought about flashbacks: it’s not a good idea to use one in the first couple of chapters. They can be quite confusing if thrown at the reader too soon. Wait until your reader has established at least a basic relationship with a character before taking them on a leap into the past. Flashbacks should be used sparingly. Better yet, use other techniques to relay backstory and avoid flashbacks altogether if possible.

Any additional advice on using or not using flashbacks?

Suspense: To Be Exciting,
You Need To Be A Little Dull


This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.– Oscar Wilde

By PJ Parrish

Sunday, I picked up the latest by a bestselling thriller writer and about halfway through, I realized it was sorta…unthrilling. So I put it aside and tuned into the Broncos-Colts game. I didn’t expect much in the way of entertainment here either because I knew this old story. I mean, Denver was 4-0 and Indianapolis was 3-5. Denver has Manning and Indy has, at best, a little Luck.

But lo and behold! The Colts were winning 17-0. Well, I thought, this is kinda interesting. So I stuck around. And then, Denver returned a punt 83 yards for TD.


Then Peyton Manning hit for a TD, Denver got a field goal and suddenly, we were all knotted up at 17-all. Early in the fourth quarter, Andrew Luck threw a TD but Manning answered with one of his own and we were tied again! Until Adam Vinatieri, who is 95-years-old and never misses despite having only seven toes, kicked a field goal putting the Colts ahead by three!

Six minutes left. But I was definitely not turning this one off now because Denver was driving. And how’s this for a twist? Peyton was only 30 yards away from becoming the leading passer of all time, surpassing Brett Favre!


OH MY GOD! Peyton is picked off!

Can the Colts hang on? There’s four minutes left and Frank Gore is running the ball but he’s 105-years-old and has a habit of putting the rock on the ground. Denver uses its last time out. But here is the back story that I already know about this drama: Peyton leads the league with 43 fourth-quarter comebacks.

Can he do it again? Will he break the passing record? Will the Broncos stay perfect? Will Frank cough up another hairball like he did last week?

The suspense was killing me.

Frank is tackled on third down. Ninety seconds left! Peyton’s going to get the ball back! Wait! Is that a flag? Some guy named Aqib Talib poked a Colt in the eye and Denver gets flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct!

It’s over. Colts win.


Now that was suspense. After that, I had no desire to go back to my book. Because despite the book’s stellar blurbs and the reputation of the author as the Master of the Twist, it wasn’t near as good as that football game.

The game was classic David and Goliath with a little Joseph Campbell The Hero’s Journey thrown in, yet it still went against my expectations. It had a good mix of pacing, with zip-fast passing attacks and slow grind-it-out running. It had setbacks and surprises. It had heroes and eye-gouging villains. And just enough twists to keep me guessing.

Think there’s a lesson here?

A good sports game has a lot in common with a good book or movie. Sitting on your barstool watching Daniel Murphy commit that error in game four and wondering if the Mets are doomed. Sitting in the triplex watching The Fugitive and wondering if Harrison Ford is going to jump off the dam. Or turning just one more page to find out if Amy is alive or is the girl gone for good. They are all related.

There’s the old Hitchcock formula: 1. A couple is sitting at a table talking. 2. The audience is shown a time bomb beneath the table and the amount of time left before it explodes. 3. The couple continues talking, unaware of the danger. 4. The audience eyes a clock in the background.

The surprise, Hitchcock said, didn’t come from the bomb itself; it came from the tension of not seeing it.

Speaking of formulas, there actually is one for suspense:

Suspense: t = (E t [(µ¿ t+1 – µ t)²])½

I didn’t make this up, believe me. It was created by Emir Kamenica and Alexander Frankel of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. It is basically an equation about time and expectations: “t” represents the period of time a moment of suspense is occurring, “E” is the expectations at that time, the Greek mu indicates your belief in the next thing to happen, the +1 is your belief in the future, the tilde represents uncertainty, and the subtracted mu is the belief you might have tomorrow.

That made your brain hurt, right? Mine, too. But hey, you sat through my football metaphor, so stay with me a little longer. The Chicago guys also developed a formula for surprise, which is easier to stomach for us math-challenged types. It boils down to this: what your beliefs are now minus what your beliefs were yesterday.

Their paper “Suspense and Surprise” (co-written with Northwestern University economics professor Jeffrey Ely) was published in the “Journal of Political Economy.” It was inspired by their observation that in various types of entertainment – gambling, watching sports, reading mysteries – people don’t really WANT to know the outcome.

What they DO want is a “slow reveal of information.” As one of them put it in an article in the Chicago Tribune: “To be exciting, we found that things need to get dull.”

Information revealed over time generates drama in two ways: suspense and surprise. Suspense is all about BEFORE, ie something is going to happen. (the ticking bomb under the chair). Surprise is about AFTER, ie you’re surprised that something unexpected happened. (the bomb didn’t go off!) If you are led to believe one thing is going to happen (Broncos will win!) but then are surprised by the unexpected (Colts prevail!) that can be pretty powerful.

So how do you translate this to your own writing?

I’ll let Kamenica explain. He goes back to the Hitchcock formula: “Let’s take that idea and ask a mathematical question: How much suspense can you possibly generate?’ Putting that bomb there generates suspense, but how long can you leave it there? Can you leave it the duration of the movie? Or is that boring? Once you put it there, when do you decide for it to go off? One-third of the way through? One-half? If I am invested, as a viewer, how frequently should uncertainty be resolved? You have a threat, information that (a bomb) will explode, then it gets resolved, the movie continues. But will these people survive the next danger? How often can you do that — change an audience view?”

He has the answer, of course: Three times.

“Say you are writing a mystery,” Kamenica goes on in the Chicago Tribune article, “Zero twists is bad. And one thousand twists is also bad — again, for something to be exciting, it must occasionally become boring. So, three. The math delivers surprisingly concrete prescriptions. That number is constrained to a stylized view, characteristic mystery novel: Is it the maid or butler who did it? Does the protagonist live or die? A novelist must lead you in one direction then …”

Added his colleague Frankel: “The thing is, we also found that you can’t really have a definite number of twists. Three is average. Yet if you know there are three twists, those twists are not actually twists — you are now waiting for the twist.”

And that, to me, is the major lesson here. Not that your book must conform to a three-twist formula. Because if your readers know you have three twists, you’ve lost the suspense. The lesson, to me, is less might just be more.

That’s why I gave up on that book I was reading. Its pacing was overly frenetic, with no slow moments for me to catch my breath. And the writer — excuse me, Master of the Twist — was so intent on forcing me through one more complication, one more bend in the road, one more plot gymnastic, that I began to anticipate his next move. I put the book down because the enjoyment was gone. The fun was leached away. The thrill was gone.

If your readers know you will have a dramatic unexpected twist at the end, then your book will no longer have a dramatic unexpected twist at the end.

So maybe it comes down to this: If you want to be thrilling, you also have to be willing to be boring very so often.



Writing Down: Cultural Appropriation and the Fiction Writer’s Dilemma

9781631529603_fcPlease welcome Kate Raphael to TKZ as my guest today, continuing the discussion we started on diversity and cultural appropriation in fiction….

Where is the line between imagination and cultural appropriation?

Actors and musicians have faced that question for decades, but until recently, fiction writers seemed to have license to become, behind our pens, whoever we could convince readers we were. In the 1930s and 40s, Pearl Buck and James Michener won Pulitzer Prizes for their portrayals of Asian countries and the people who inhabited them. Tony Hillerman not only won several Edgars and a Nero, he received the Navajo Tribe’s Special Friends of the Dineh Award for his series starring Navajo policemen Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn.

In the last few years, however, cultural activists and writers of color have begun to raise the issue of who has a right to tell their stories. This conversation is a natural outgrowth of the public feuds between Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj, or Iggy Azalea and Azalea Banks, but it has certainly been helped along by episodes like Kathryn Stockett’s alleged misuse of stories told to her by her brother’s maid, and Michael Derrik Hudson’s admission that he put the name “Yi-Fen Chou” on his poem because it was more likely to be accepted that way. (Pearl Buck, incidentally, was sometimes known by her Chinese name, Sai Zhenzhu.)

The realization that all fiction is appropriation was the breakthrough that let me start writing fiction in the first place. Until my mid-thirties, I thought I couldn’t write fiction because I had no imagination. Then one day something crazy happened to a friend of mine and I thought, “That would make a great movie,” so I started a screenplay. The script was awful, but I had popped the cork on my storytelling juice. One of my friends had been a draft resister and gone underground. Others survived illegal abortions or helped sandbag Black Panther offices. A friend of a friend was killed during the contra war in Nicaragua. Steal! My own lackluster life fell away and I had a plethora of exciting stories to tell.

But stealing from friends, people basically “like me” is a different animal than telling stories of people with less social power than I have, people who have often been denied the right to tell their own stories.

As I honed my debut mystery novel, Murder Under the Bridge, and its sequel, Murder Under the Fig Tree, set in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I thought long and hard about whether it was fair for me, as a Jewish American, to write from the perspective of a Palestinian. The Palestinian people have fought long and hard for the right to control their narrative, a narrative which has been virtually eclipsed in mainstream U.S. media. Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa, author of the novel Mornings In Jenin, suggests that efforts to speak in the voice of people whose oppression we do not share “colonise our wounds and bring our pain under their purview.” I think it’s a valid position, and I didn’t want to do that.

At the same time, to write about Palestine and NOT put Palestinians at the center of the story seems worse. If I could not write from a Palestinian perspective, I couldn’t write these books. I needed to write about Palestine because I am a writer who lived in Palestine for several years, and my life was changed by that experience. So I had no choice but to try to inhabit the persona of a Palestinian protagonist, and hope that I could do it justice. I took some comfort from remembering that almost every Palestinian who gave me food, shelter, Arabic lessons or a badly needed ride around the checkpoints asked only one thing in return: “Go home and tell people our stories.” I took this as tacit permission to create characters who could live those stories.

I also took heart from my memory of reading Laurie King’s first Kate Martinelli novel, A Grave Talent. Kate Martinelli is a lesbian, as am I. I could tell immediately that King is not. Martinelli’s partner asks if she’s a lesbian and she answers, “We don’t know each other well enough for me to answer that.” A lesbian would never say that; she might as well say yes, because no straight woman would say it – especially in 1993, when that book came out. There were other things that also didn’t ring true. Nonetheless, I liked the book pretty well, and I was confident that the character’s voice would get better in future books, which it did. I could tell that though King was stretching, her intentions were good, so I was willing to give her a chance.

My friend Steve Masover, author of the recently released novel Consequence, says that writing about anyone other than oneself requires “an act of radical empathy.” I nurture the hope that radical empathy will shine through the mistakes I have no doubt made in portraying my Palestinian protagonist, Rania. And if it doesn’t, I’m sure people will let me know.

vivtoria secret my 07

Kate Raphael is the author of Murder Under The Bridge: A Palestine Mystery, and host of Women’s Magazine on KPFA Radio in Berkeley. Between 2002 and 2005, she spent eighteen months in Palestine as a member of the International Women’s Peace Service.

How to Be a Prolific Writer

Got an email the other day from a writer I met at Bouchercon. We’d chatted a bit about the craft, and he wanted to thank me. He’d just completed his first novel and was raring to go on his second. He wrote, “I’m amazed at how prolific you are.”

That was nice to hear, because when I started out that’s what I wanted to be—prolific. I was 34 years old and hadn’t written much of anything for ten years (I’d been told in college that you can’t learn how to write fiction, and since I couldn’t write fiction—fiction that was any good, anyway––I figured I just didn’t have it). So when I made the decision to finally go for it, even if I failed, I wanted to make up for lost time.

Now, according to traditional standards of the writing life, I am prolific. I’ve produced around fifty books, hundreds of articles, several stories and novellas. I’m happy with my output.

But I’m no Nora Roberts! Seriously, she is amazing. She may not be your cup o’ noodles, but as a highly successful professional writer, there is something awe inspiring about her production. And there are many other writers out there I could point to with the same wonder.

We all have our floors and our ceilings. The trick to the writing life is to get yourself up to the ceiling and stay there. Stay there long enough, and maybe you can blow out that ceiling and put in another story (wordplay intended).

I heard from a young writer recently who said he was having trouble getting started. He has a wife and young child at home, is working long hours, and when he gets some time to himself he is easily distracted by social media, and is too much of a perfectionist to get many words done.

For those who have these sorts of constraints, let me offer some advice on becoming more prolific, for it can be done!

1. Commit to a quota

Nothing has been as beneficial to me as a professional writer than writing to a quota. In the early part of my career it was a thousand words a day. Later on I made it a weekly quota: six thousand words a week, with one day off, usually Sunday, to recharge. I still aim for a thousand words a day, but I make it a weekly quota because if life intrudes one day, I can make up those words by upping my output on the other days.

I’ve heard some writers say they just can’t write to a quota, that it’s too much pressure, that it squeezes the creative juices right out of them. Look, if you want to be a pro, you produce like a pro. That means writing even when you don’t feel like it. Imagine a brain surgeon muttering, “I’m just not into my operation today. I can only operate when I’m inspired! Besides, this guy’s a lawyer. I don’t even want to operate.”

If you want to be prolific, you need a quota.

My advice for years has been this: figure out how many words you can comfortably write in a standard week. Maybe, because of job or other duties, you can only squeeze in half an hour a day during the week, with a two-hour chunk on Saturday. Whatever. How many words can you do without much effort?

Now, up that total by 10%. You need some slight pressure to become a prolific author. And ten percent more ain’t that much pressure!

Keep track of your word count on a spreadsheet. I can tell you how many words I wrote every day and week and year, and on what projects, since 2000.

I’ve not always hit my mark, but I’m batting about .880.  If you don’t make your quota one week, forget about it. Just start the new week fresh.

Periodically review your weekly quota and see if you can adjust it up. Only adjust it down if you have another child or join the Marine Corps.

2. Commit yourself to a Nifty 250 every morning

For most of my career I’ve used the Nifty 350 or Furious 500 as my standard morning practice. That is, before I do anything else (except make the coffee) I tap out 350 or 500 words of my daily goal. It’s amazing how much easier the writing day gets after that.

I’m going easy on you here in suggesting you aim for 250 words. Why? Because a Ficus tree can write 250 words in the morning. Do you want to be outclassed by a Ficus tree?

“But I’m just not a morning person!”

Oh really? You’re a person, right? And you get up in the morning, yes? And you find a way to get some coffee and hop on Facebook, don’t you?

I don’t want to hear that morning person jazz anymore. DO NOT OPEN ANY SOCIAL MEDIA, INTERNET BROWSER, OR EMAIL until you have written 250 words!

“But I’m so foggy, I just can’t think…”

Good! Don’t think at all. Just write! The discipline of writing your 250 will train your brain to get up and at ‘em.

This is where my young perfectionist will learn to let go. Don’t get it right, get it written is sage advice. Do not edit, spell check, correct, or otherwise stop your flow until the 250 is done. (Here’s a little secret. When you get to 250 you’re going to want to keep going. So go!)

You can also help your writing brain along by doing this:

3. Leave off your day’s writing mid-scene

This lets your subconscious cook during the night, and when you sit down to write on your WIP you’ll be back in the flow immediately. Hemingway even used to stop mid-sentence. I can imagine him writing:

He saw the fish and the fish was good. It was a good fish. It was a fish like the good bull in Spain that summer with Stein. Yes, and the beer was warm that summer, but it was good beer, it was

How easily he could continue the next day: beer that was brave and true.

4. Plan five or six projects ahead

Be like a movie studio. Have one greenlighted project going (your WIP) and have two or three “in development” and two or three “optioned.”

In development means you’re doing some planning, some notes, some character backstory, some plotting. If you’re a pure pantser, at least take some random notes about the plot and keep them in a file or notebook. If you’re wise, you’ll develop your idea into an elevator pitch that would make a reader lust after your book. That’s right, lust. See my post on that topic.

By optioned I mean having a simple What if premise that seems promising to you. I have a file with about 100 of these, and periodically I look them over and re-prioritize them. If one keeps sticking to the top of the heap, that’s the one I will move into development.

5. Don’t ever let rejection stop you

Not everything you write is going to turn out great. If you’re submitting to agents and editors, you’ll get the cold shoulder often. If you’re self-publishing, you’ll get the 1-star reviews. You may even give your first draft to your significant other and then endure a blank-eyed stare and the words, “I love you, but I just don’t get this.”

Know that this will happen.

But don’t ever let it stop you from producing more words.De Niro pillow

When a rejection hurts—and it will—try my sixty-minute-comeback.

Take thirty minutes to completely feel what you’re feeling––shout, talk to yourself, cry if you must, splash water on your face, eat a large bowl of ice cream, or shoot a pillow like Robert De Niro in Analyze This. Whatever it is, let yourself feel the feelings for thirty minutes.

Set a timer for this.

When the timer beeps, set it for another thirty minutes. During this second thirty minutes, you write. I mean it. Write! Write anything.

• Write the next scene of your WIP.
• Write in your journal.
• Write a song.
• Write something random.
• Write a letter to your future self explaining what just happened.
• Start an entirely new story or novel, not knowing what it will be (IOW, be a thirty-minute pantser!)

Whatever it is, give yourself fully to it. Write. Don’t stop, except to take a few breaths or refill the coffee.

After this writing stint, something interesting will happen. The rejection will still hurt, but it won’t be as bad. I guarantee you it won’t.

And tomorrow, if it tries to come back in full force, head it off with more writing. Five, ten, thirty minutes.

Writing, you see, is the best medicine.


The most wonderful thing of all is this. A year from now you’ll look back at your production and be amazed at what’s there. Do this for ten years and you’ll be blown away.

You will be a prolific writer.

So how about you? Are you happy with your output? How have you gotten around the obstacles to continuous production?