What Does Bestseller Really Mean?

imagesA recent article (see link here) about the ease with which a reporter for the Observer uploaded a ‘book’ (which comprised, basically, a photograph of his foot) onto Amazon and became an instant ‘#1 bestseller’ – despite only selling three copies – got me thinking. It got me thinking, not just about the idea of scamming your way to bestsellerdom, but about the whole concept of being a ‘bestselling’ author and the kudos this  provides and implies.

Like any author, I would love to be able to claim such a title – although (perhaps not like every author) I only want to earn the title as a result of stellar book sales.  It seems, however, that through various manipulations (most often in how a book is categorized on Amazon) that the notion of being a ‘bestseller’ has become, well, let’s just say a little fuzzy. Now, this article does point out that they have always existed inherent biases within bestseller book lists and they have probably always been authors desperate enough to game the system (such as by buying their own books in bulk) in order to have the title ‘bestselling author’ bestowed upon them. However, the advent of Amazon and the plethora of ways an author can upload, market and sell their own ebooks seems to have increased the opportunities for gaming the system exponentially.

I don’t intend (in this blog post at least) to rake over all the ways and means authors manage to legitimately (or not) claim the ‘bestseller’ title but rather to consider what the word ‘bestselling’ means today (if, indeed, it means anything). As a reader, I can’t say I pay much attention to claims made to bestseller status on Amazon (especially now I now how easy it can be to claim such a title) – my eyes simply glaze over – and my decision whether to buy the book or not is far more dependent on reviews and recommendations than any ‘top selling’ status I might see on a website, book cover or author page. I do, however, take note of the bestseller lists in the NYT Book Review – to my mind this seems a better reflection of the popularity of any given book (even though I know the list probably has its own limitations). As a writer, becoming a NYT bestseller is also an obvious and much treasured goal…but, although I’d love to plop the word ‘bestselling author’ next to my name I wonder, given how many authors claim this (beyond the NYT list), how much meaning this term really has anymore.

So what about you – do you think the term ‘bestseller’ has lost a lot of its value through being bandied about so much? Do you pay any attention to Amazon’s designation of a book or author as a ‘bestseller’? As a writer, how do you view the issue? Do you think working the system is simply fair game (why not get the crown of bestseller any way you can?..) – or do you view the system as a broken one which holds little intrinsic value any more?  Which bestseller lists do you pay attention to as a writer, reader and book buyer?

The Exception That Proves the Rule About Opening With a Scene

by James Scott Bell


Writers and other artists are a touchy lot. We love our independence. We should all go around humming that song from Woody Allen’s Bananas, the one the guerilla leader sings:

Rebels are we!
Born to be free!
Just like the fish in the sea!

In short, we don’t like to hear the word rules. Don’t fence me in! Give me land, lots of land! Rules? We don’t need no stinking rules!

And yet, and yet … there are some things that are fundamental to storytelling and the fiction craft, so called because, guess what, THEY WORK! They help a writer weave a story that readers can actually relate to and get lost in. Imagine that!

Yeah, but So-and-so breaks the rules and writes bestsellers!

Sure, and how many So-and-sos are there? And maybe, just maybe, So-and-so compensates for the “rule breaking” by doing something absolutely astonishing somewhere else. Maybe So-and-so knows exactly what he’s doing when he breaks a rule.

In fact, I’d say good old So-and-so is actually the exception that proves the rule!

Let me show you what I mean.

I have a rule—or, if your hackles are starting to gather for a protest––a guideline or axiom: Act first, explain later. By this I mean it is much more engaging and compelling to begin your book with an actual scene in progress, with a character in motion, than it is to lard backstory and description and exposition all over the first couple of pages.

Is there an exception to this rule? Yes, one that proves it. The exception is this: a style that can enrapture you with the power of the writing alone. Almost always this is found in so-called literary fiction.

Example: here is the opening of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. (Note: The ellipses are Kesey’s):

Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range … come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River …

The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting … forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creeks, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce––and the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir––the actual river falls five hundred feet … and look: opens out upon the fields.

Metallic and first, seen from the highway down through the trees, like an aluminum rainbow, like a slice of alloy moon. Closer, becoming organic, a vast smile of water with broken and rotting pilings jagged along both gums, foam clinging to the lips. Closer still, it flattens into a river, flat as a street, cement-gray with a texture of rain. Flat as a rain-textured street even during flood season because of a channel so deep and a bed so smooth: no shallows to set up buckwater rapids, no rocks to rile the surface … nothing to indicate movement except the swirling clots of yellow foam skimming seaward with the wind, and the thrusting groves of flooded bam, bend taut and trembling by the pull of silent, dark momentum.

A river smooth and seeming calm, hiding the cruel file-edge of its current beneath a smooth and calm-seeming surface.

Kesey reaches out with his wrestler’s arms and lifts you off the mat. It works for me. It may not for others, but that’s the point. Kesey knows exactly what he’s doing here, eschewing act first, explain later. The exception that proves the rule is a dazzling literary style.

What happens when a writer doesn’t dazzle, but ignores the rule anyway? You end up with something like this:

The trip by jeep from the small village near Luena to Malanje in Angola, in southwest Africa, followed by a train ride to Luanda, the capital, had taken seven hours. The drive from Luena was long and arduous due to unexploded land mines in the area, which required extreme diligence and caution to avoid as they drove. After forty years of conflict and civil war, the country was still ravaged and in desperate need of all the help outside sources could provide, which was why Ginny Carter had been there, sent by SOS Human Rights. SOS/ HR was a private foundation based in New York that sent human rights workers around the globe. Her assignments were usually two or three months long in any given location, occasionally longer. She was sent in as part of a support team, to address whatever human rights issues were being violated or in question, typically to assist women and children, or even to address the most pressing physical needs in a trouble spot somewhere, like lack of food, water, medicine, or shelter. She frequently got involved in legal issues, visiting women in prisons, interfacing with attorneys, and trying to get the women fair trials. SOS took good care of their workers and was a responsible organization, but the work was dangerous at times. She had taken an in-depth training course before they sent her into the field initially, and had been taught about everything from digging ditches and purifying water, to extensive first aid, but nothing had prepared her for what she had seen since. She had learned a great deal about man’s cruelty to man and the plight of people in undeveloped countries and emerging nations since she’d started working for SOS/HR.

So help me, that is the first page and a half of a published novel. If it had not been written by an A-lister who could sell her parking tickets, no agent or editor would have let this through. (For the identity of the author and feedback about this passage, go here.)

I will note there are superb writers in familiar genres who sometimes begin with a literary style. Michael Connelly comes to mind (e.g., the opening of The Narrows). 

The point, gentle writer, is that no matter what you call them––rules, guidelines, fundamentals, axioms––they survive because they work every single time. That’s what I said. There is never a time when act first, explain later doesn’t work as an opening move.

But if you want to try something different, go for it. I’m all for spreading your writing wings. Just be aware of what you’re doing and why. Because if it doesn’t work out, guess what? You can always go back to the rules!

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

by TKZ Guest Blogger Toni McGee Causey

Toni - the saints of the lost and found

Note from Joe Hartlaub:  I am pleased to announce that I am relinquishing my blog post (but not my fedora) this Saturday morning to author, screenwriter, and certified wonderful person Toni McGee Causey. Toni initially grabbed the attention of the book world with her Bobbie Faye trilogy, a popular set of addictive books that defied genre classification. Her latest novel, the newly published The Saints of the Lost and Found, goes in a much darker direction, one which will please new and faithful fans alike. Toni has graciously consented to tell us two spellbinding and chilling real-world stories that describe how The Saints of the Lost and Found came to be, and to answer any comments and/or questions which you might have today as well. If you like the stories you read below, you should buy and read the book that they inspired. Please check with your local independent bookseller, and if they don’t have it, please ask them to order it.

Thank you so much, Toni, for sharing your talents with us this morning…SJ

Toni McGee Causey

One of the most dreaded questions a writer can field is the ‘Where do you get your ideas’ question, especially with regard to longer fiction. It’s the kind of query that has a million answers, and often the author has no real clue how they put this idea with that one, stowing them somewhere in the crannies of their minds where the random ideas may bump and roll around until they become so entangled, they form a completely new idea. Or mess. It can work both ways. What makes this one better than that one? What makes this one the thing you knew you would use for a book, when there were a thousand other notions that seemed just as viable shunted off to the side, where hoarders even feared to tread.

This is the one time I feel like the kid at the back of the class who finally has an answer, who raises her hand with an “oh oh oh PICK ME PICK ME, I KNOW!” squeal.

THE SAINTS OF THE LOST AND FOUND is the story of a woman, Avery Broussard, who sees lost things. Glimpses, like photo snapshots, of anything (or anyone) someone has lost bombard her as she moves through life and interacts with anyone. Lost keys, a phone, cameras, money, love. A child. Imagine having that ability to know the condition that lost thing is in, and see it, but not always be correct. She can see something lost in a wheat field, but may not know which wheat field.

Now imagine… you have that skill and you’re trying to find a lost child… before a killer can finish his task… and you fail. One of your rare failures.

Avery fails… and runs… and the story starts with just what happens when you cannot outrun your own abilities, or the vengeance someone will take for your mistakes.

So, where did that idea come from? Two odd-but-true events that took place probably fifty years apart. The first happened to my dad. The second, to me.

My dad told me his story… and he’s not one to believe in anything extra-sensory. He swears it’s true. He and my Paw Paw had been hunting. My dad’s family were very poor, and if they didn’t hunt, they didn’t eat. This was back in the days of the Great Depression, and my Paw Paw’s three hunting dogs were prized because they helped most of the hunts be successful.

On one such trip, two of the hunting dogs returned, but the best one did not. My Paw Paw and Dad searched everywhere, and couldn’t find her. Dad was about ten years old at the time, and after they’d been searching futilely for a while, Paw Paw told him to get in the truck. They drove for about an hour (once they were out of the woods), far south of the property they’d been hunting on, and my Paw Paw pulled up to a very old house where an even older black man sat on a rocker on his front porch. His eyes were milky-white, the cataracts were so thick, he could not have seen who it was who’d driven up, and he had no phone. When Paw Paw got out of the truck, Dad was surprised that the old man started talking first—and knew who they were. Without anyone having said a thing yet.

“You lost a dog a ways back,” the old man said by way of intro, and Dad said his hair stood straight up on his head.

“Yep,” Paw Paw said, but didn’t elaborate as the old man turned his head and sort of stared out into the trees. Trees he couldn’t see.

He hummed to himself for a few minutes, kinda nodded as if figuring something out, and then said to my Paw Paw, “You know that river where you were hunting?”


“Well, about two miles west of where you were, the river forks. You know it?”


“Take the right fork, and go on down a ways, ‘bout a mile or so, and your dog’s hung up there in the barbwire fence.”

Paw Paw thanked him, promised him some food from the hunt, and he and Dad climbed back in the truck, heading the almost hour drive back to where they’d been hunting.

My dad’s not the kind of person who believes in woo-woo stuff, especially something like this, so he indicated he thought it was all a waste of time, but they found the fork in the river, veered to the right, and about a mile from the fork, the dog was hung up in the barbwire fence.

I probably would have dismissed the entire thing as completely far-fetched, except that it was my dad telling the story, he was sincere in his disbelief-until-he-saw-the-proof aspect, and I’d had enough oddball experiences finding things that other people had lost that I knew there could potentially be more at work than someone simply telling a tall tale.

For many years, I’d get flashes of where something was that I was looking for… I’d “see” it, and then sure enough, that’s where it was. I’d never thought much about it other than assuming I had simply probably memorized its location as I walked through a room—maybe something akin to a photographic memory—but I never assumed it was anything extraordinary beyond just memory, until one day, a friend was telling me about her mother’s lost high-heeled red stiletto shoe (her telling me was for a story reason), and as she talked about it, I “saw” the shoe underneath a very specific kind of porch.

I asked, “Does she live in a house that’s raised off the ground?”

My friend was a little surprised, and said yes.

I asked, “Is it a little higher off the ground than maybe normal… it has steps in the center of the front porch that lead up to the front door, and no railings?”

My friend was getting a little weirded out, because her mother lived in Nova Scotia, and I’d just completely described her home… Even though we both knew we’d never talked about where her mother lived, and I’d never been to Nova Scotia or to her mother’s.

Then I said, “Well, I have this weird image of that red shoe. If she faces the stairs and goes to the left, behind the third pylon, there’s a depression in the dirt. The shoe is lying there. But it’s been chewed on by a dog.

My friend laughed, because her mother didn’t have a dog, but she said she’d ask her to look anyway.

She called me right back. The shoe was where I described it, exactly. In the condition I described it.

How does that even happen? I have not a single clue.

That freaked me out. Plenty.

Not long after, a different friend, Julie, who lived in Arizona (and I lived in Baton Rouge at the time), was desperately looking for another friend, K, who’d left a suicide note. Many mutual friends had gone out searching, but K couldn’t be found. When Julie called me and told me what was happening, as she talked, I could see K… she was sitting by a large tree, eyes closed, having already died. Her white car (I didn’t know she had a white car) was parked nearby. I could sense water, but not see it, which was odd and I could also see a woman with a backpack leaning over K, not yet realizing that K had died.

I told Julie all of this. She was noticeably disappointed when she sighed and said, “Unfortunately, where we live, it’s a desert. There are no trees like that, and no water.”

And I completely understood–she was hoping for that magical solution, and I honestly couldn’t give it to her. It bothered me terribly to be so wrong, but it was a long shot anyway. I told Julie, “Ignore it then, it’s just an odd image.”

She called back four hours later, devastated. They’d found our K… two hundred miles north of where she lived, sitting on the bank of a dried river bed, leaning against a giant cottonwood tree. Her white car was parked nearby. A woman with a backpack who’d been hiking with friends had found her.

She’d only died about an hour earlier (Julie believed), based on a ticket she’d paid to enter the park. Witnesses would later confirm sightings of her when she’d parked and then gone and sat by the tree.

Aside from the shock and grief for the mutual friend, the entire conversation and ensuing discovery stunned me and if it hadn’t happened to me, I wouldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t blame anyone for not believing it. What was worse, I didn’t know what to do about it. Help people? How?

Not long after, I told a couple of people, and the first thing they did was ask me about something they’d lost. It was a near-instant reaction on their part, and sometimes it was something important, but sometimes it was something that had just eluded them and they were tired of being thwarted. Every time, I ‘got’ an ‘image’ that popped in my head. And I was almost always wrong about my guesses. I think my ratio of correct “images” to questions was so low, it probably needed multiple zeroes after a decimal point.

I didn’t mind being constantly wrong. It was a relief, actually, because the hope that people have when they are asking about something lost is palpable, and dashing those hopes, or seeing their disappointment, was equally brutal.

Which lead me to wondering… What if? What if you could do this for real… But you’re human, you’re not perfect, and you make mistakes? Would you go to the police? Would you volunteer? Where do you draw the line?

What if everyone wants your help? How do you have a life? Do you hide your ability?

What if a child’s life depends on it?

What if your own life does? Or someone you love?

Years after losing K, Avery was born, and I think she’d probably been there all along, from the first time I found something… or maybe even as far back as when my dad told me that story about the hunting dog.

And those what ifs kept piling up, pressing forward, begging to be answered until I could ignore the question no longer.

THE SAINTS OF THE LOST AND FOUND is not for the faint of heart. It’s a dark book, and it may break your heart, but it may also give you hope.

For me, it’s finally given me peace.



First Page Critique – What’s At Stake?


Kathryn Lilley, TKZ

Today we’re reviewing the first page of a story called THE CASE OF THE MISSING YACHT, submitted anonymously for critique. As usual, my comments follow the submission. Please add  your feedback and constructive criticism in the comments. Thanks!


The sign on the door of my Georgetown office said “Vic Jones, Finder of Lost Items.” You might say I’m the St Anthony of DC. I was logging the details of my last case and anticipating an early start on a liquid-refreshed weekend when Mr. Double-Breasted-with-Cravat flounced in blathering about his lost yacht. Gee, I was mildly impressed; until now I didn’t know anyone who owned a yacht.

He was an odd little man, heavy around the bottom, narrow shoulders, thinning hair, and a Groucho Marx-style mustache. He talked non-stop seemingly without taking a breath.

“You’re looking for a big boat, right?” I cut off his monologue; I couldn’t stand it another second. “Who has time to play with boats? A grown man like you ought to be working the mean streets making a decent living.”

“I do make a decent living, young lady,” he went all indignant. “How do you think I can afford a yacht?”

I reached over the desk and laid a stinger across that fat face of his. I don’t care much for back-talk.

His eyes went moist as uncertainty registered followed by a flash of terror. His hand covered the enforced blush spreading over his cheek. What do you think, too forward on our first encounter? He backed way and mumbled, “Perhaps another time.”

“Take a seat.” I said, and noted his hesitancy. “What’s the matter; did I muss your hair? You were saying something about a lost yak?”

“Yacht,” he corrected me. He settled into my wide leather chair, the one that gets clients to relax and unwind. I want folks to feel at home, you know?

“It’s not big as far as yachts go,” he continued, and produced a picture of a sixty-five foot Sea Ray. He stared longingly at his newly departed love while putting up a brave front for me.

“Whatever.” I got down to business with my usual services-and-expenses spiel. He didn’t blink for a full ten seconds as he weighed my fee against the loss of his new toy. Finally he swallowed and gave me a brief nod. I smiled demurely at my new client.

“Do I call you Ms. Jones?”

“Mizz? Only if you’re tired of chewing with teeth. Vic will do nicely.”

“Mitch Goldberg. Pleased to meet you, I’m sure.” We shook hands. I could tell he was warming to me.

My Comments: 

First Things First: the Title

I’m assuming that the title, THE CASE OF THE MISSING YACHT, is simply a working title that will be changed down the road. It rings a tad old-school cozy. But kudos to our brave author for using a placeholder that is more original than UNTITLED.

Pacing and Characterization

I immediately liked the bright, breezy voice of the narrator. The scene flowed along at a lively pace. One nit: The character’s name, “Vic,” made me visualize a male narrator at the beginning of this page. I had to revise my mental image of the main character at the end, when I read the reference to “Miss.” I would suggest reworking the first few paragraphs to avoid creating potential confusion in the reader’s mind.

Avoid Throwing Readers into Full Stop

When a reader has to slow down in order to understand something, he may stop reading. Minor example: some people might not have the background to understand the reference to Saint Anthony as written here. The writer might want to consider adding a clarifying phrase to avoid leaving those readers in the dark. (Even if most of your readers know full well who Saint Anthony was, there’s always someone who doesn’t and has to figure it out from context. Like me).

Another area of potential confusion: I came to a Full Stop when I read the following sentence:

I reached over the desk and laid a stinger across that fat face of his.

I wasn’t sure what “stinger” meant (although I assume it meant a face-slap). In any case, having the character slap the visitor’s face struck me as reaching and a bit over the top.

A Note About the Dialogue 

I had a couple of issues with the flow of dialogue between the two characters in this scene. I had to backtrack when I hit the following lines, to figure out which character was speaking.

He spoke nonstop without taking a breath.

“You’re looking for a big boat, right?”

Because the dialogue is interjected after a reference to the yacht owner being a motormouth, I first assumed it was the guy who was speaking. Every time a reader has to pause to sort out confusion or wrong assumptions, there’s a risk of losing the reader’s interest in continuing reading.

For great tips about handling dialogue and other gnarly, craft-related issues, I recommend that the writer read DON’T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY by Chris Roerden.

A Bland Setup Causes Readers to Jump Ship

Overall, I wasn’t drawn in by the scenario presented on this first page, primarily because the setup wasn’t sufficiently intriguing or compelling. When Vic said “Whatever” in response to hearing about the yacht-owner’s plight, I found myself nodding in agreement. A rich bozo’s smallish yacht has disappeared: why should I care? There needs to be something more intriguing at stake to engage the reader’s interest; this first page needs to give a hint of what’s to come. Otherwise the reader, like Vic, will simply jump ship with a shrug and a “Whatever.”

Thank you to our brave writer for submitting this page. What comments can you add for the writer of THE CASE OF THE MISSING YACHT?

Is Writer’s Block Real?

As you read this, I am on the road to Left Coast Crime. I’m tagging along with my buddy Brett Battles and am not officially attending, so you’ll find me wandering around the hotel bar or lobby, probably looking a bit lost. If you’re attending and you see me, please either hand me a dollar or buy me a donut. I may even have time to chat.

So, with that said, I won’t be around to respond to today’s post, but I invite you to fill the comments with some lively conversation in my absence.

Today’s topic is writer’s block, which I’m sure has been discussed many times here at the Kill Zone. But a couple weeks ago, I offered my take on the subject on everybody’s favorite time-suck, Facebook, and this is what I said:

If you haven’t noticed, I’m extremely opinionated. Some might call it a fault. I think it simply means I have convictions. But I’m perfectly willing to change my opinion if someone can present me with compelling evidence to the contrary.

So sometimes my opinions piss people off. Today I expressed this opinion and it ruffled some feathers:

There’s no such thing as writer’s block. It’s an invention. It’s not a reason, it’s an excuse.

When challenged, I responded thusly:

“So do we have lawyer’s block or doctor’s block or mechanic’s block or accountant’s block? People in all of these professions experience bad days, they all get burned out, they all get stuck at times, but do they take the unprofessional route and stop what they’re doing? No. Unless they’ve had a complete breakdown (which is something else entirely), they keep doing their jobs.

There’s nothing special about being a writer. It’s a job. One I, and many of my friends, have been doing for more than a couple dozen years. None of us can AFFORD to get “blocked.” We write every day, seven days a week, no matter what.

Writer’s block is not a mental condition.

Stress, anxiety, etc.—real conditions that cause real problems—are good reasons for a writer, or any of the above professions, to stop working. But that’s not writer’s block, so let’s not pretend it is.

Nor is getting stuck.

Getting stuck is a natural part of the process, not a “block.” We get stuck simply because we haven’t thought our story—or our characters—through. Once we do, we get unstuck. It happens with nearly every story.

Sorry if I’m unsympathetic. But to my mind, you either do the job or you quit.

As for inspiration, if you need to wait for it in order to work, you might as well give it up.”

Now, you can imagine the response I got. Some positive, but one from a writer friend, who also happens to be a doctor, said I didn’t know what I was talking about. That writer’s block is a very real condition.

I respect this man’s opinion and value him as a friend, so I didn’t want to get too far into it with him. But my response to him was that there are certainly conditions that people suffer from—depression, anxiety, etc.—that can lead to writer’s block, but the block itself is merely a symptom of underlying problems. Unless you’re suffering from a mentally or physically debilitating disease, if you’re a writer, you should be writing. No excuses. So maybe the problem is defining what “writer’s block” is. How ever you define your writer’s block, if you truly do suffer from a lack of creative ideas and your “normal flow” seems to be ebbing you could have a look into consuming CBD products from sites such as cbdoilsuk.com as CBD in some users has been reported to increase their creativity and could help you get that “flow” back.

Since I don’t believe in it, however, I have a hard time defining it, but I can tell you what it isn’t.

If you are having problems with a story, if you’re stalled, if you’re staring at a blank page and nothing is coming that day, that’s not being blocked. That’s merely a setback. We all have them. We hit walls, we write ourselves into corners, we figure out solutions, and if we’re professionals, we press on.

And that’s true of anyone in any profession. If you want to get paid, you get to work.

Hell, I’m working right now and I’m NOT getting paid for it. And I had absolutely no idea what I’d be writing about today, but I sat down and did it anyway. As I’ve said, I can’t afford to be “blocked.”

Anyway, those are my rather inelegant and somewhat gruff—and yes, insensitive—views on the subject. Now, please, discuss amongst yourselves.

It’s quite possible it’s true what they say about me and I am crazy.

Now, does anyone have a donut?

5 Mistakes That Will Kill Your Query Letter

RejectionBy Kathryn Lilley, TKZ

Before there is an Agent and a Publishing Deal, there is every writer’s dreaded obstacle and Final Wall: the Query Letter. Here is  a list of the top five reasons a query letter is rejected by an agent.

1. Perilous Protocol

Manners and professionalism count. Your query letter will be met with an instant “No” if it doesn’t meet the minimum requirements of query letter protocol.

What is “protocol”?

It almost goes without saying, protocol requires you to pay close attention to an agent’s posted Submission Guidelines. Here are some links to excellent discussions about some other how-to basics of crafting a query letter.

The Complete Guide to Query Letters That  Get Manuscript Requests, by agent Jane Friedman.

How to Write a Query Letter by agent Rachelle Gardner.

Query Shark (a site where where you can post your query letter for review, discussion, and critique)

2. Misses and Misdirection

This point sounds obvious, but you must send your query letter to an agent who represents your manuscript’s genre. Do your homework. Research which agents are actively seeking new manuscripts in your chosen genre. (Genre-blending works are frequently problematic here–if you can’t pinpoint which genre your story belongs in, it makes it that much harder to attract an agent).image

3. “Good”, But Not Good Enough

The Truth: Agents aren’t looking for good writing. They’re looking for great writing. They’re looking for compelling, fresh writing that sizzles. “Good” (AKA amateur) writing simply won’t cut it in the current marketplace. So before you submit your query letter, make sure your writing meets that mark. You have to be brutally honest when judging the merits of your own writing. Compare your first chapter to some best sellers in your genre, and then ask yourself: am I there yet?

4 First Line Fails

No matter how well crafted your query letter is, you can lose an agent’s interest with a clunker first line in your story sample. For great discussions about crafting an effective first line, see the following links:

Finding The Right Door To Enter Your Story by PJ (Kris) Parrish

But First…. By Joe Moore

5 Spelling, Grammar, and Punctuation, Oh My!

It hurts me to say this, but many query letters fail due to the sender’s lack of paying attention to the basics of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and paragraph formatting.


How about you? Can you share your do’s and dont’s about writing an effective query letter?

A Kinder, Gentler Perspective on Story Structure

by Larry Brooks

When teachers teach, even within the realm of art, the essence of the learning is based on some form of undeniable, unassailable truth. Otherwise, it’s just some guy’s notion of how things are done.

Even finger-painting requires fingers, which are limited in what they can and can’t do. Which creates context for the processes and products of finger-painting.

We teach skydiving and dancing using techniques and proven principles. And even if it’s never mentioned, it is the undeniable and unassailable force of gravity that creates context for the entire proposition.

We teach cooking using techniques and principles and proven recipes. And even if it’s never mentioned, it is an undeniable and unassailable truth – that people don’t like to eat their meat raw unless the words sushi or tartare are within visual range – that creates context for the entire proposition.

I could go on.  If you’ve read my writing books you know I’m fond of analogies (and of going on), often to the extent I receive nasty personal notes from readers who, well, don’t appreciate them, or worse, aren’t capable of understanding what they mean.

Not everyone is cut out for being a writer.

With all the prevailing kumbaya in the online writing and workshop conversations, it is easy to lose sight of this single and simple truth: writing a good novel is hard. Freaking hard. A command of the principles of the craft – including how a good story is structured – is an essential arrow in the writer’s quiver.

Don’t be the writer who squares off with this beast unarmed. Or kids themselves that, within the wide breadth of what the writer gets to make up for themselves, structure is one of those things.

Here’s where things go south in the writing conversation:

When a teacher begins to talk about limits and lanes and proportions and optimal placement of certain essential elements within a story, some writers shut down. This is supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be art, not architecture and certainly not math.

Others twist what they think they hear into what they fear they are hearing.

And thus the meaning is lost. And with it, the writer’s realistic hope of getting there.

Know this: any conversation about story structure is NOT a conversation about process

The presence of, the nature of, and the benefits of story structure are exactly equal and unequivocally unbiased when it comes to any writing process, whether it that of the most passionate free-form organic pantser or the most anal outlining mega-consumer of 3-by-5 cards in the history of office supplies.

The goals of both, and the criteria for the success of both, are without compromise or exception identical.

Here are a few of the outcomes of this disconnect between teachers who talk about story structure and writers who don’t like what they hear:

Writer says: there’s no such thing as story structure, I’ll write my story any damn way I please.  (And when she does, there will eventually be her very own version of story structure in place, thus disproving that initial assertion. Bad story structure is still structure, and it will probably tank your story… so it’s best to understand the difference between good and bad.)

Writer says: I don’t want to create my story within the confines of someone else’s story structure, I want it to flow organically from my head into my fingers and onto my pages.  (And when he does that, it may or may not work. When it does work, it will in no small part be because it landed on the page with some close proximity to the existing and universally-accepted – among professionals – principles of story structure, and if it doesn’t work, feedback will move the story in precisely that direction. Or, in the absence of a revision, it’ll simply fade away, unread.)

Writer says: Sounds like a pile of “rules” to me, and I hate rules. There are no rules in writing.  (Right. No rules. Check. Just like there are no rules in music, athletics, love, relationships, health, medicine, the legal system and generally staying alive. When such a belief system prevails, the writer is saying she depends on her own personal set of story sensibilities (just like those guys in Oregon holed up in a National Wildlife office are relying on their own legal sensibilities to… well, nobody is quite sure, other than they’re woefully out of touch and destined to fail, thus making this a killer analogy for today’s message) to determine what happens and when it happens within her story… and again, if it works, it will be in no small part because the structure resembles principles she did not invent, but rather, she simply aligned with.)

Writer says: There are infinite ways to structure a story. Another writer says: I’ve heard about 3-act models, 4-part models, 6-part paradigms… they all can’t be valid.  (Actually, they can all be right, because you could argue that a novel with 71 chapters has 71 facets of structure to it… which is like a political argument that spins something to serve one’s one beliefs. Doesn’t change the fact that, when the story works, even with 71 chapters, it likely has the functioning acts, which can also be described in 4-parts overlaying those 3-acts, and/or as many other takes on the model as you care to attempt to break down and defend.

None of that matters.

What does matter is the author getting the flow of the story right.

What you call it when it happens doesn’t matter. The bestseller lists are crowded with authors who have never heard of a First Plot Point (yet they execute one elegantly in every novel they write), and believe that the flow of their story is one of their own invention, when in fact, they are simply writing what has proven to work for the collective whole of fiction, thus validating their story sensibility, if not their ability to describe it.

In other words, what a writer says they believe about story structure doesn’t matter relative to the truth about story structure. Because story structure is very much like gravity in this regard… it simply IS.  It exists. It doesn’t care what you call it, or how many ways you slice and dice it… it simply IS.

And it’ll hurt you or kill you if you proceed without an awareness of it.

In today’s commercial, genre-defined fiction market, that universal (yet liberatingly flexible) structure ends up being very much the same in pretty much every novel and movie that works. Because if it doesn’t align, it probably doesn’t work, and thus it won’t find a publisher or readers beyond the family holiday card list.

It is flexible in the same way that an athlete is free to improvise and respond spontaneously, provided they don’t break the rules of their game or step outside of the lines within which they play. When they do that, a penalty ensues.

Of course, writers don’t want to hear this about their game.

And yet, they remain free and without restraint within those same contextual expectations (limits, boundaries, and a proven relationship between decisions and consequences; i.e, a story that violates the tenets of structure simply don’t work as well as those that honor them) for what, win or lose, they are attempting to accomplish.

Already some writers reading this will notice the hair on the back of their neck standing straight, because damn it, there can’t possibly be a single structural paradigm out there telling me how I need to organize my story. And/or, it shouldn’t be this complicated.

It’s an unwinnable argument, either way. Until you have the courage and wherewithal to actually break down a story that works (not yours, but one that is out there) and see the glowing infrastructure of it for yourself. If you are a reader as well as a writer – and you sure as hell better be – and you still deny this after seeing it… I recommend a career in politics instead.

Of course, in doing this you need to know what you’re looking for before you can see it. And there, to quote our friend Bill S., is the rub. To many writer’s don’t.

So let’s simplify that universal structural model…

… the one you’ll find in pretty much every piece of successful fiction, once you do know what you’re looking for. Let’s clear the air and end the debate.

Because there is a kinder, gentler way to introduce, define and embrace the core principles of story structure without resorting to percentages and math and specific target milestones (which remain available for those who want to master this essential storytelling skill), and it defies challenge from any writer high enough up the learning curve to be reading this with the expectation of actually writing publishable, readable fiction.

Consider this: you absolutely cannot argue that every story – that isn’t a short story – does not have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Guess what… that’s 3-act story for you, in a nutshell.  It simply IS.

When you look closer at those three acts, though, you’ll find there are actually four contextual essences (parts) to a story within them (to be more accurate, across them), that flow smoothly over that core 3-act model, thus becoming a more precise and usable 4-part model that is orders of magnitude more useful to writers than its 3-act better known twin brother.

Because it gives you a mission for all the scenes, contextually, within each of those four parts. It’s like having a map, telling you where the land ends and the sea begins, and where the mountains are. Carve your own path through the wilderness as you will, but this information will keep you alive.

So if you are a non-believer where structure is concerned, or a resister, a late adopter or a literary Luddite – or simply someone who hasn’t yet been exposed to these essential truths – let’s look at story structure in a completely new way, with a completely different and non-restrictive or polarizing vocabulary. One as accessible and uncontroversial as the beginning-middle-end model that you are hard pressed to deny.

By the way, beginning-middle-end is way too simplistic to be useful to a professional author. It’s like describing college as freshman, sophomore, junior and senior, when your goal is to get into med school.  You better understand what needs to happen, and when, far beyond that simplistic breakdown.

You need to know what happens, and when.

Think of your novel as a flow.

Now we’re talkin’. Because you know – you don’t resist – that your story is not, it is never, about one moment in time, that is doesn’t take a snapshot of something and describe it to death, that your story needs to move forward (and even backward if you like) in time, it needs to change, to evolve, that new information needs to come in to play, stuff happens, stuff changes… and eventually, things get resolved.

You don’t resist that.

When you realize you don’t resist that, you are also signing up to implementing some form of story structure.

Think of structure as the flow of your story… and understand that the flow of your story follows a natural, organic contextual essence, one that has arisen from any and all other possible flows because this is how human beings experience life (which also has a beginning, middle and end) and stories themselves.

This is how readers engage with our stories. We are writing, first and foremost, for them. If that’s not true for you, you have another issue besides structure that you will eventually need to confront.

Now think of that flow having four definable sub-sequences, each with its own unique narrative purpose. Just like life has infancy, youth, middle age and old age (a list you can expand as you wish, but these four always remain in place)… the context of those experiences is by definition different – everything about them is different – when we live through it.

So it is with your story.

A functioning story has four segments to it that are unique relative to each other, and to how the reader experiences your story. Here they are:

Setup… you need to introduce your hero, present a story world (time, place, culture, natural law), inject stakes and set up the mechanics of an impending launch of – or twist to – your core dramatic arc (the plot), which is what your hero will spend the rest of the story investigating and pursuing and wrestling, all in context to the pursuit of a goal that leads to resolution).

Response… after things have been setup, the story needs to settle into a lane that shows your hero responding to a new path – the core story path, also known as your plot – with stakes in play and some form of obstacle (antagonism) causing the hero to react to something they may not understand (pursue more knowledge) or, if they do, a need to deal with it in a way that keeps their ultimate goal on their horizon.

Attack… because if the hero is too heroic too soon there isn’t much drama for the reader to engage with (there needs to be), so we wait until this quartile to show your hero evolving from a seeker/wanderer/responder to become a more proactive attacker of their problem or goal, both relative to the goal itself and the presence of an equally-evolving obstacle (a villain or a storm or a disease or an approaching deadly meteor, whatever is the source of tension and drama in the story)… moving closer to a showdown and some form of…

Resolution… wherein all the moving parts of your story converge to put your hero face to face with their goal and whatever blocks their path toward getting what they need to get.

This is, by the way, the nature and essence of the most common form of story model, the 3-act structure embraced by screenwriters and a huge percentage of professional novelists… this is the very same flow, because those two middle segments comprise “Act 2” of that model, thus creating a 3-act whole.

The degree to which you depart from this accepted – and expected – story flow is the degree to which you are putting your story at risk. Either by not knowing this, or worse, by defying it.

Because the context of the scenes and chapters with each of these four eras of flow differ, each with its own contextual mission for the scenes and chapters within it, you are then empowered to create a different contextual experience for your hero from part to part.

For example, your hero’s true story-arc-challenge doesn’t fully launch in the first-part (roughly a quartile) setup, and once it does, everything else in the hero’s life is trumped by whatever it is you have placed before your hero as a problem or a need or a goal, with stakes and opposition in play.

There will be those who resist, even to this kinder, gentler flow of a story. There will be those who say, “but wait, my story does kick off on page two, not on page 62,” which is a statement of fact or intention rather than a valid defense. This is why stories get rejected, and why the author may not ever be clear about why it happened.

If that’s you, then I urge to you see a movie tonight, and notice how it flows over these four contextual essences.

Read a bestseller, notice how it sets up the core story before fully launching it, (even when something highly dramatic opens the story, trust me, things will change for the hero, and soon, all within the setup quartile).

Notice how the story shifts (at what is called The First Plot Point) to thrust the hero down a new or altered path, causing her/him to react, to respond, all in the face of stakes (motivation) and the presence an emerging threat (both of which were, in a properly structured story, introduced and/or foreshadowed in the Part 1 setup quartile) of an antagonist (a person or force or situation) that seeks to prevent the hero from reaching their goal (in a romance, for example that would be whatever – person or thing or situation – that keeps the two lovers apart)…

… and then, how the story again shifts in the middle and points your hero toward a more proactive attack on their problem…

… and then, after another twist at roughly the three-quarter mark (new information), where all paths and motives and strategies begin to converge, resulting in a confrontation or a catalytic series of decisions and actions by your hero (who cannot passively sit on the sidelines while someone else steps up to solve the problem), creating some form of resolution.

If you want to see seven or eight parts in that, you can. They may indeed be present, but almost always as subsets and supporting dynamics within these four parts of the flow.

Here’s something that’s true, even if you are the most ardent resister to anything that smacks of story structure: your novel is not a snapshot. Not a dissection of a singular moment in time. A story needs to move forward. Things need to change.

Your hero needs something to do.

Every time.  In every story that works.

If you think of that change over the arc of your story, then you are embracing the context of flow.

Don’t call it structure if that offends or frightens you. But that’s precisely what it is, and that’s all it intends to do: make your story flow.

Call it what you will, but once you get this and begin to either pants or plan your story with this in mind – because it is like gravity itself, if you deny or ignore it, it can kill you – you’ll find the story not only works better, but your experience in creating it will be orders of magnitude more blissful.

Sort of like soaring on the wind.

You always need some form of wings to stay aloft, and alive.

The flow, fueled by your character’s journey, becomes your story’s wings. You are the pilot in command, trained and skilled at what works and what will result in a fiery crash, fully mindful of how far you will fall if you don’t honor the physics of story, forces that will either elevate you or send you spiraling to the ground.

We all get to choose. For professional authors of stories that work – no matter what their writing process – there really is no choice at all.

They go with the flow, every time.

When the Research Comes to You

by James Scott Bell

So the other day I was sitting in my living room, taking a short break from the keyboard. I think I was putting on some shoes. I don’t wear shoes if I can avoid it. For me, flip flops are a form of dressing up.

And then boom. 

I mean, a literal boom, contemporaneous with a slight shaking of the house.

Having grown up in L.A., and been shaken and stirred many times, my immediate thought was that we were having a small earthquake. But what was that boom? It sounded like an over-caffeinated UPS guy trying to get me to the front door.

I sat and listened and waited. No more shakes. No more booms. A quick look out the window. No UPS guy.

Back to work. Half an hour later my wife comes home and says that the major street near us is completely blocked off, with cop cars and fire trucks all over the place. She asked me if I knew what happened.

Vanowen fire trucks

I reported the boom and said, “Let’s go see.”

We walked around the corner and found yellow police tape across the intersection and a traffic cop diverting cars. We walked to the opposite side of the street and down to where all the action was. Somebody said a house had caught on fire.

I went up to an LAPD officer and told him about the boom. He took my statement. Then a news van pulled up at the corner and a reporter with her camera guy comes striding toward me.

“Do you know what’s going on?” she says.

I told her about the boom and the shake.

“Can I put you on camera?” she asked.

Twist my arm. It took her camera guy about fifteen seconds to set up. And then it was a go. She asked, “Tell me what you heard.”

I said, “Well, I was sitting at home working on my latest James Scott Bell bestselling thriller, when …”

Uh, no. I let that opportunity slip away. I merely reported the facts.

What had happened was that a detached garage blew up and caught on fire. They pulled out two charred bodies. Which had me thinking meth lab or some other illicit activity gone bad. But there were no immediate answers.

That evening I was on the news. You can catch my five seconds of fame here:

Two days later Cindy and I decided to walk past the scene from the alley, where the garage door faced. There we encountered a man in boots and heavy gloves, raking the debris. We introduced ourselves to Tom Pierce, an independent fire investigator with about forty years experience. He was most friendly, and when I subtly mentioned I was a thriller writer, he gave us a little seminar on his investigatory techniques.

With Fire Investigator Tom Pierce

Turns out the victims were a mother and son, Guatemalan. She was in her seventies, he in his thirties. The arson team didn’t find enough butane or propane for a drug lab, but there was a heavy smell of gasoline. One theory is that the guy was cleaning something with gasoline and the fumes built up and someone struck a match. Whatever it was, there was instant conflagration, and the two residents didn’t have a chance.

This sad scenario is obviously fodder for the thriller mind. So were the details that Mr. Pierce shared with me—burn patterns, how he breaks up the scene into quadrants, the possible sources of ignition. All now safely packed away in my mental filing cabinet.

Because, for a writer, all of life is material. And it doesn’t have to be something as big as an explosion in your own neighborhood. It could be as small as a bit of snagged conversation, or the curious way one person is looking at another.

So remember:

  1. Waste nothing

Everything you encounter can lead to ideas, plots, characters, scenes, bits, beginnings, endings. Keeping your mind in an open and unlocked position is easy once you get into the habit.

  1. Add What if to anything that sparks

When you see something that lights a little fire in your imagination, add some wood to it (I can’t seem to get away from fire metaphors). The wood is What if? Let it burn.

  1. Have no fear

When you’re in this creative state, let yourself go. Turn off your “inner editor.” Even more, push yourself off a cliff and grow wings on your way down (a favorite recipe of the late, great Ray Bradbury). Some of your best stuff will be found on that marvelous trajectory.

Finally, remember this bit of advice from Ann Lamott: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

So what about you? How often does “real life” play into your fiction? Your creativity?

Reader Friday: Best Political Thrillers?

It’s a Presidential Election Year–aka “Silly Season”–again. What are some of your favorite political thriller books or films?

Update: We’re truly sad to learn of the passing of Harper Lee, who wrote perhaps the best “political” story (as told through the highly personal story of a child) in American history, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.