Practicing Your Magic

My father once took me to a show in Hollywood called IT’S MAGIC.

There were about twenty magicians on the bill, one after another showing us their biggest and best tricks, sawing women in half, floating balls in the air and, yes, pulling rabbits out of hats.

I loved the show, and after it was over, my father took me to Bert Wheeler’s Magic Shop, where I picked up a trick called multiplying billiard balls.

I practiced that trick for months. And, if I do say so myself, I got pretty good at it. I still have a picture of me—at twelve years old—decked out in the homemade tux my mother made, showing off my sleight of hand dexterity with those Bert Wheeler multiplying balls.

Thing is, the mechanics of the trick weren’t very tough. I’m not going to spoil it for you by telling you how it was done, but let’s say that just about anyone could do the trick with a few minutes practice.

But I have a feeling it wouldn’t look much like magic. It would probably look like some guy ham-handedly struggling to multiply those billiard balls, and the gimmick behind the trick would be obvious to all but the dimmest of spectators.

Real magicians, you see, practice day in and out to make their sleight of hand smooth and undetectable, so that it looks like real magic. So that people watch and say, “Wow! Do that again!”

And that’s what writers try to do as well. We work very hard behind the scenes, manipulating words and phrases and characters and plot lines—while trying our best to make it all look seamless—in hopes that our readers will say, “Wow! Do that again!”

A lot of people think that all they need to know is how the trick is done and they, too, can be a magician. They’re unwilling to put in the real practice necessary, and the moment they learn the move, they’re ready to perform.

Writing, like magic, takes years of practice, and a willingness to fail again and again until we get it right, until what we do seems not like simple trickery, but real magic to those who read our work. Until our words draw them in and transport them to another time and place, a time and place filled with characters who are alive and breathing and the suspension of disbelief is so deep that we, as writers, can get away with almost anything. Can make them believe that a woman can be cut in half, that rabbits can materialize from nowhere, that those billiard balls can multiply between our fingers…

The great writers, like the great magicians, elevate craft to an art. And as we read their work, we can’t help but think, “How did he do that?”

But knowing the “how” is only a small part of the trick. It’s knowing what to do with that “how” that really counts.

Making the readers believe that what we do is magic.

A Question For All You “Tool Guys” (And Gals)

imageBy Kathryn Lilley

I’m in the market for new writing software these days, so I thought I’d seek the advice of my TKZ friends: what software or program do you use for composing and formatting your manuscripts? Preferably, I’m looking for one that can work with Word on IOS to properly format the title page, chapter headings, page counts, etc.

Note: I have tried using Scrivener (multiple times), and I just can’t get the hang of it. (I know that labels me a Luddite, but there it is.) In the past I used ProsePro, but the program no longer works with my new Apple laptop, and I haven’t been able to locate an updated version.

Any help or suggestions are much appreciated!

A Tale of Two Writers

By Larry Brooks

Adam and Brent (who go by A and B, respectively here in analogy-land). Both have a novel in their heads. Both have big dreams for their books. Both can write sentences that would make the ghosts of Hemingway and John Updike exchange high fives.

Which is why they became writers in the first place.  The reason many of us took up that sword.


Adam’s book is about a guy who loves a woman who doesn’t love him back. That’s all he knows about it when he sits down to write. It’ll come to him. He trusts his gut and the creative process, which is isn’t sure how to explain, because someone told him it is not describable. He’s not really sure why he trusts his gut, but he does.

He’s never read a craft book (other than that damn Story Engineering, which suggests there is actually a wrong way and a better way to structure a story, based on the forces of story that always apply, for better or worse, so screw that…) or been to a writing workshop. But he’s hung out on online forums full of writers who have, who sound like they know what’s up, none of whom have sold anything but are self-published because, as if they could be if they wanted to be, quoting all kinds of folks who say publishing is dead anyhow. These same folks have all read On Writing and hey, if Stephen King can write a novel out of the right side of his head, so can they. And him. Besides, he once saw a DVD based on a Nicholas Sparks novel and he;s pretty sure he can do better.

Adam believes that if you just write, no matter what you write, everything will turn out fine.

What could go wrong?


Brent’s novel is about a wounded ex-Navy Seal who must step away from his MMA career to single-handedly rescue the widow of his Seal Team Six buddy killed by an IED in Iraq. She has been kidnapped by vengeful terrorists who have taken her in an act of jihad, with plans to post her beheading on YouTube if the US does not confess to being the Great Satan that it is. He must act alone because a coalition of CIA, FBI and military decision-makers, including the White House, refuses to acknowledge the incident that resulted in the terrorists’ thirst for revenge in the first place, in which the nephew of a Saudi oil baron, now an ISIS fighter recruited for his trust fund, was KIA.

Brent has studied the best craft books, including Story Engineering and Plot and Structure and the Snowflake Method. He’s been to workshops, had his work analyzed by professionals, subscribes to the best blogs and generally understands the breadth of things that an enlightened novelist needs to know.

He’s made his own decision on these counts, as we all must.  In his case, applying the discipline and focus he learned from his military training.  He’s studied and vetted with an open mind and seen the proof of his decision in the bestsellers he reads.

Two writers. Two stories. Two journeys of preparation and a resultant and divergent breadth of knowledge about the craft of storytelling

Cut to a year later.

Adam has his book up on Kindle. Bought a cool cover from a guy on Fiverr. The manuscript was 168 pages long, but nobody can tell that on Kindle, so he’s safe from judgment. After six months pimping it on social media and taking out pay-for-click ads on Amazon after a withdrawal from his IRA. After twenty-two four and five-star Amazon reviews from other writers with whom he’s made I’ll-review-your-book-if-you-review mine agreements, and a two-star from a guy who said the writing was fine but the story was sophomoric, he’s sold 122 copies and is hard at work on his next novel. Which is about a guy who goes back in time to meet Annie Oakley, because he’s had a thing for her since grade school. At night he washes down 10 milligrams of zolpidem with a jolt of ZZZ-Quill, because for some reason he doesn’t understand he doesn’t sleep well.

He has absolutely no idea how his path has differed from the growing body of self-published authors who reportedly are making massive money. He thinks it is unfair, and that his time will come.

Brent was turned down by nine agents before he met one at a major conference who invited him to submit a partial. The agent was blown away – “not only do you write sentences that would make the ghosts of Hemingway and John Updike bump fists, but your story moved me to tears while shining a light on the hidden agenda of our middle East military involvement, putting me right in the middle of it all alongside a hero that embodies the best of us, making it easy to root for a guy who will honor his promise to a dying fellow soldier to watch over his wife and kid” – and, within a week, had scored a two-book deal with Penguin and is getting inquiries from Will Smith’s production company.

Adam thinks Brent got lucky, too. Right time, right place.

He never thought to add: right story.

Brent has never heard of Adam. Nobody has. Except those guys online who proudly say “I don’t plan for plot, I just write from my heart, because doing it any other way takes the creative fun out of it, and hell, you end up changing everything anyway,” as if they know this to be true for all. Adam commiserates with them regularly.

Two writers, one with a well-developed sense of story, the other… not so much.  

An investigative journalist, if anybody cared, could dig into a comparative study of these two journeys, which exemplify two ends of the writing process continuum, and expose certain enlightenments and potholes that will serve any writer willing to let go of tired old belief paradigms and allow the truth of the writing craft, the principles that drive it, into their heads and process, or it will sink them like a book thrown into a canal.

Neither writes cops to being either or a planner or a pantser. After his study of craft, Brent realized it doesn’t matter, because the very same criteria for story excellence apply to both.

Other than knowing readers need to like his hero, Adam has no ability to recite that criteria. James Patterson didn’t tell him in his Master Class, Stephen King didn’t tell him in his book, either. Just write, they told him. Go out there and find your story.

Not every writer will choose the right path. Both end of the continuum will believe they’ve chosen the right path for them. Until, based on results, they no longer believe.

Craft will be waiting for them if that happens.

Such an investigative report would conclude that compelling, functional stories require two things:

  • a writer who understands all the nuances and realms of a novel, including the forces of story that cause readers to engage, such as emotional resonance, vicarious experience and dramatic tension rendered powerful because of stakes, empathetic motivations and the vividness of the reading experience; and
  • a story idea which has, at its very core, the raw grist, the open-ended potential, the intrinsic commercial appeal, to push our emotional buttons, wrest our attention away from the real world for a few hours, invite us into a vicarious story world full of drama and colliding philosophies and the promise of the unexpected and the delivery of ultimate resolution that rocks the reader’s world.

Just that. Easy peasy. Just open a vent in the right side of your head and let it all pour out, just like Stephen King and the army of advocates for leaning on nothing other than the seat of your pants, which will grow numb and weary for all the years spent planted in a chair in pursuit of the fruits of such a process. Which some will reap, and many others will continue to read about, and believe.

Or… you can dive in. Learn the substance and nuance of craft.

Own the principles of structure, rather than fight them off. Master the realms of story forces and the list of requisite core principles. Own the essence of structure, rather than fighting it off with a mistaken belief that it will restrict you. Master the realms of story forces and the list of essential core competencies, instead of trying to convince yourself that you either possess that mastery, or they aren’t important. Seek out multiple points of view from a short list of credible writing teachers, noticing how they are saying the same things using different models and approaches, not all of which are bestselling authors in their own right, because that is not the measure of a teacher any more than a .355 career batting average is the criteria for a successful major league manager.

And when you have all those principles lodged in your writer’s head, when you know them well enough to recognize them when you see them in play, go out and look for them in the novels you read. Test what you think you know. Let the real world of fiction convince you of the realities of the principals involved.

Come to understand that your story idea matters, every bit as much as your sentences and your ability to craft scenes. When your story sensibilities advance to a place where you can apply those criteria at that level, even before you write a word, then you’re not only in the game, you’re already ahead of a large percentage of authors who have chosen otherwise… because it was hard.

Which type of writer are you?

Are you Adam, with your fancy sentences and your refusal to buy into the cult of craft, believing the Great Lie that says you can get there without it, if you just write, writing the stories you want to write, the way you want to write them, in the naïve belief that just writing will somehow allow your number to be called?

Or are you Brent, with a killer story idea people will pay for, if done rigtht, and the depth of mastery of craft to pull it off?

You never know if your story idea is good enough. But if you just write with a base of craft in your quiver and a criteria-meeting, conceptually-driven story idea in mind, that story might just have a shot.

Short Fiction, Satisfying Endings and Reader Expectations

by James Scott Bell

This month a writer named James Patterson (who has had some lg-bookshots-cross-killsuccess and may break out soon) began a new enterprise. It’s called BookShots. These are to be what he calls “short novels” and what everyone else calls “novellas.”

Patterson, the former advertising man, is nothing if not strategic, even visionary. He is always looking for ways to expand his product line and this plan is brilliantly counterintuitive –– find new places for physical books. 

According to a story in the New York Times, Patterson “wants to sell books to people who have abandoned reading for television, video games, movies and social media.” He wants to write fiction that is “shorter, cheaper, more plot-driven and more widely available” than full-length books. But here’s the part that really intrigues me:

[E]ventually, Mr. Patterson and his publisher want to colonize retail chains that don’t normally sell books, like drugstores, grocery stores and other outlets. They envision having BookShots next to magazines in grocery store checkout lanes, or dangling from clip strips like a bag of gummy bears.

“Those venues are very inhospitable to traditional publishing, but we think this is a type of book that could work very well there,” said Michael Pietsch, the chief executive of Hachette Book Group, which publishes Mr. Patterson’s books in the United States through its Little, Brown imprint. “He has enough recognition that his name can make it work.”

In some ways, Mr. Patterson’s effort is a throwback to the dime novels and pulp fiction magazines that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, when commercial fiction was widely available in drugstores.

It’s an ambitious plan, and I doubt any writer except Patterson, backed by mega-publisher Hachette, could pull this off. Maybe Stephen King if he also branded his name as Patterson does. For that is part of the strategy as well:

Hachette is betting that Mr. Patterson is famous enough to overcome … obstacles. The company is planning to publish 21 BookShots in 2016, including thrillers, science fiction, mysteries and romances. The first two, out in June, are “Cross Kill,” a book by Mr. Patterson starring his popular recurring character Alex Cross, and “Zoo II,” a science-fiction thriller written by Mr. Patterson and Max DiLallo. All the books will be written or partially written by Mr. Patterson, except the romances, which will be labeled “James Patterson Presents.”

All well and good. This is a business, after all, and no one has been a more astute businessman than James Patterson. He provides a product. That product entertains. There is an exchange of money for perceived value. And everyone’s happy.

Well, almost everyone. I hopped over to Amazon to have a look at the first BookShot, Cross Kill. Some of the reviewers have a complaint: the ending is incomplete. As one reviewer put it: The story is good, typical Patterson but it ends with a huge cliffhanger and that is what I do not like. … I had expected a short book, like a short story and I liked the idea but now I must say I am disappointed. It would be good if it could be explained where in the Cross Universe these Bookshots fit.

Had the book been advertised as the first part of a serial, all would be well. That’s what Stephen King did back when he and his publisher released The Green Mile. It was done in six installments, and that’s how it was advertised. So readers knew when they purchased one of the short books there would be another to come.

So what does all this mean?

It’s a great new era for short fiction. Short stories (up to 7k words or so); novelettes (7k – 20k); novellas (20k – 50k); and short novels (50k – 70k). You can use these to hone your skills, establish a digital footprint, and make new readers. I’ve been pleased that my series of novelettes about a vigilante nun, Force of Habit, which I did purely for fun, has generated its own little fan base. That’s the pulp fiction idea, and I love that it’s available to us now via direct digital publishing.

But write your stories to completion! No matter the form, the ending has to satisfy the reader. They expect an ending, unless in your marketing you are absolutely clear that you are writing a serial.

I remember years ago when my wife was reading a thriller and kept telling me how good it was. I would say, “But what about mine, honey?” And she’d say, “Shh, I’m reading.”

Anyway, she got to the end and … there was no ending! She was at first confused, then ticked off. I had a look at the book. It was a bit shorter than a “big” novel. And it indeed left off right in the middle of a crucial moment.

Only later did I learn that the publisher had decided to take a “really big” thriller and divide it in two. Their thinking was, “Hey! This is a good novel, and we can double our money by making it two books! The readers will be panting for the rest!”

Only they did not pant. They punted.. They did not want to be “tricked” again. The second book went nowhere.

So don’t treat your short fiction as a throwaway. Over the last few years most of the A-list writers, at the behest of their publishers, have dashed off short ebooks to augment their series or help sell an upcoming release. In several instances these have been less than stellar efforts, garnering a spate of 1-star reviews from fans. Maybe the A-list can get away with it, but the rest of us can’t. We need, more than anything, to establish “trustability.”

So, kids, write the best short fiction you can, every time out. And that means –– unless it’s a serial and the readers know it –– that you give them a satisfying ending.

Have you ever been burned by a story you thought was going to end, but didn’t? Or ended in such a fashion that it ruined all the good stuff up to that point?

And what do you think of this new pulp fiction idea? Do you think there’s a market for it?


Speaking of thinking strategically, if you’d like to pick up a book on how a writer can do that very thing, here it is..

READER FRIDAY – Tell Us About a Book That Changed You

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Name a book & author that changed something in you:

1.) By broadening your perspective

2.) By exposing you to different ideas

3.) Or by introducing you to new parts of the world or cultures


Some books that touched me this way are:

White Oleander by Janet Fitch

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

First Page Critique of SANCTUARY

Jordan Dane


We have another intrepid author who has submitted their first 400 words for critique. Enjoy the read. My feedback will be on the flip side. Join in the discussion with your constructive comments.


“Dr. Germano! I need you!”

Ray bolted to his feet, throwing the blood work report he was reading onto his desk. As he came out of his office, he nearly collided with one of his staff hurrying down the hall, carrying a box lid with a small bundle of fur huddled inside.

“Bring it into the common room, Mary Jo. Matt! You here?”

“On my way, Boss!” The answer came from the reception area.

Ray could hear the creature’s raspy breathing as he followed the woman to an exam table and winced when he saw the contents of the lid. A malnourished calico cat lay on its side, struggling for breath, eyes wide. A feathered shaft stuck out of its chest.

“My God, is that an arrow? Smart of you to carry it flat,” Ray said, with a nod to the tearful woman. “If that thing shifts, it could do some damage. Is it one of your neighbor’s cats?”

“I don’t think so, Doctor. I’ve haven’t seen this one around before and I know most of the outdoor cats around my apartment. I found it in the alley when I was taking the trash out this morning.”

He hesitated for a moment, weighing his options. The practice policy was clear on drop offs and found animals. No heroic efforts unless the animal was a pet, with a collar or microchip. He could almost hear Phil. We’re running a business, damn it, Ray, not a charity! He had heard that speech many times over the years.

This cat was obviously a stray, as scruffy and skinny as it was. It couldn’t weigh eight pounds soaking wet. No one was going to step forward and claim it. Still, it seemed young and strong. It was still breathing with an arrow in its chest after all. He hated not to give it a chance. Her, give her a chance. Calicos were usually female. Well, Phil was retired now and he’d make his own decisions on who to treat.

He reached out and stroked her head gently. To his surprise, she tried to butt his hand and even mustered a faint purr. Then his eyes widened and he barely resisted the urge to jerk his hand back.


Well, I don’t know about you, but I sure want to know why the good doctor wanted to jerk his hand back. Shades of Pet Sematary. (I hope Catfriend weighs in on this. Expurrrrrt) The intro starts with a “call to attention” dialogue line. For the most part, the writer sticks with the action, except where the intro “strays” (pun intended) into the former practice policy.

FIRST PARAGRAPH – Since the first paragraph establishes the scene, I would suggest stronger wording to set the stage and focus on the action. I’d also suggest clarification on where the action takes place.

SuggestionRay bolted to his feet and threw a blood work report onto his desk. He rushed from his office and nearly collided into Mary Jo, one of his staff. She raced by him carrying a box lid with a small bundle of fur huddled inside.

It’s not clear to me what this business is. Dr. Germano has a desk and there is a practice policy. I’m assuming it’s a veterinary hospital or practice, but that’s never stated. This can be fixed by using a tag line at the beginning, before the first dialogue line, or it can be inserted into the first paragraph – He rushed from his office at Pavlov’s Veterinary Hospital…

STICK WITH THE ACTION – In the paragraph starting with the sentence, “He hesitated for a moment, weighing his options.” Unless this is important, I would shorten to minimize it or delete this paragraph.

Tightening SuggestionHe hesitated and weighed his options. Drop off animals, with no owners, would cost the practice. Unless the animal had a collar or a microchip, the practice policy stated no heroic efforts were to be made.

Then focusing on the cat and what he sees (perhaps foreshadowing a hint of peculiar behavior) would ramp up the creep factor.

Tightening Suggestion – Scruffy and skinny, the stray couldn’t weigh eight pounds soaking wet. No one would claim it, but it still breathed with an arrow in its chest. He hated not to give such a young and strong animal a chance. Her, give her a chance. Calicos were usually female. 

PASSIVE VOICE – There are several uses of passive voice in this short intro. Easy to clean up in 400 words, but the author should learn how to catch it as the words are streaming. Here are a few:

Before – Ray could hear the creature’s raspy…

After – Ray heard the creature’s raspy…


Before – I found it in the alley when I was taking the trash out…

After – I found it in the alley when I took the trash out…


Before – No one was going to step forward and claim it.

After – No one would step forward and claim it.


Before – It was still breathing…

After – It still breathed…

NITPICKERS – There are always nit picky stuff that one person might notice, while other’s don’t. A good copy editor night catch these or reading your story aloud can help a great deal.

Boss – I would use lower case.

Around – used twice in same sentence, starting with line, “I don’t think so, Doctor.”

Who – The word “who” refers to people, not cats. See line, “…he’d make his own decisions on who to treat.”

Gently – use of adverb. “LY’ words raise a flag for me. Try to minimize or eliminate for stronger writing. In the line, “He reached out and stroked her head gently,” it’s strong enough and describes tenderness, that the word “gently” is not needed and is redundant. I might also focus on this action more, between the doctor and the cat. For example:

Suggestion – He reached out and stroked her head with an affection stray cats shunned from mistrust, but to his surprise, the tiny calico returned the tenderness with a head butt and a faint purr.

SUMMARY – I would definitely keep reading. I’m a pet lover and have had cats before. What cat owner hasn’t looked over their shoulder thinking someone is creeping up on them because their cat is staring at SOMETHING BEHIND YOU. This author, with a little clean up, would have me hooked.


Weight in, TKZers! Would you read on? What constructive comments would you make to help this author?

REDEMPTION FOR AVERY – A Ryker Townsend FBI profiler series – novella (31,000 words) $1.99 ebook, July 21, 2016 release with Susan Stoker’s Special Forces Amazon Kindle Worlds

Vonnegut’s Rule #5

By Joe Moore

A topic I’ve seen on forums and blogs is Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules of writing fiction. They’re worth reviewing and taking to heart. But his rule number 5 is the one that made the biggest impression on me. Rule number 5 is: Start your story as close to the end as possible. This is relevant for both the entire book and a single chapter. We often hear that the most common mistake of a new writer is starting the story in the wrong place.

Well, it happens to published writers, too. Lynn Sholes and I are guilty of drafting whole chapters that either occurred in the wrong place, or worse, weren’t even needed. Usually they turn out to be backstory information for us, not the reader. We go to the trouble of drafting a chapter only to find it’s to confirm what we need to know, not what the reader needs to know.

So if we apply Vonnegut’s rule number 5, how do we know if we’ve started close enough to the end? Easy: we must know the destination before we begin the journey. We must know the ending first.

To me, this is critical. How can we get there if we don’t know where we’re going? And once we know how our story will end, we can then apply what I call my top of the mountain technique. In my former career in the television postproduction industry, it’s called backtiming—starting at the place where something ends and working your way to the place where you want it to begin.

But before I explain top of the mountain, let’s look at the bottom of the mountain approach—the way most stories are written. You find yourself standing at the foot of an imposing mountain (the task of writing your next 100K-word novel), look up at the huge mass of what you are going to be faced with over the next 12 or so months, and wonder what it will take to get to the top (or end).

You start climbing, get tired, fall back, take a side trip, climb some more, hope inspiration strikes, get distracted, curse, fight fatigue, take the wrong route, fall again, paint yourself into a corner—and if you’re lucky, finally make it to the top. This method will work, but it’s a tough, painful way to go.

Now, let’s discuss the top of the mountain technique. As you begin to plan your book, even before you start your first draft, imagine that you’re standing on the mountain peak looking out over a grand, breathtaking view feeling invigorated, strong, and fulfilled. Imagine that the journey is over, your book is done. Look down the side of the mountain at the massive task you have just accomplished and ask yourself what series of events took place to get you to the top? Start with the last event—the grand finale— make a general note as to how you envision it. Then imagine what the second to the last event was that led up to the end, then the third from the last . . . you get the idea. It’s sort of like outlining in reverse.

This takes it a step further than Vonnegut’s rule number 5 by starting at the end and working your way to the beginning while you’re still in the planning stage. Guess what happens? By the time you’re actually at the beginning, you will have started as close to the end as possible. And you will see the logic and benefit of rule number 5.

Naturally, your plan can and probably will change. Your ending will get tweaked and reshaped as you approach it for real. But wouldn’t it be great to have a general destination in mind even from the first word on page one of your first draft?


tomb-cover-ISFor a limited time, download THE TOMB, #3 in the Maxine Decker thriller series for only 99¢.

What We Can Learn From
Ballet and ‘The Big Sleep’

“The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average — or only slightly above average — detective story does…. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. It is about entirely different things. But the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way.” — Raymond Chandler

By PJ Parrish

Okay, it’s time to talk about the F-word.

But before we do, I have to back up a little and first talk about ballet.

Back in my newspaper days, I spent 18 years as a dance critic. I was privileged to see every great ballet company in the world, and interview wonderful dancers. I also took a lot of classes, starting when I was a tubby little 12-year-old to around 35 when I finally hung up the toe shoes. I didn’t know it at the time, but ballet was really good training for becoming a crime novelist. Because both are based on finding magic within the formula.

A quick primer for all you ballet-adverse types out there. Bear with me, because you will need this when I get to Raymond Chandler:


Everything in ballet can be boiled down to five positions. There are only five ways to position your feet, five ways to hold your arms. But…

Everything in ballet -– from the classical precision of Swan Lake (1875) through the sassy sweep of Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs (1982) — flows out of this. Think about that for a second: Within one strict formula can be found myriad unique opportunities for self-expression.

One of my favorite ballets is George Balanchine’s Serenade. Balanchine was a genius. He sort of did for dance what Raymond Chandler did for the detective novel, building a bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries, finding new permutations within the old formula, and changing everything that came after forever. Serenade was the Rosetta Stone for a new kind of dancer. Philip Marlowe, likewise, held the DNA for a new kind of hero.

The opening of Serenade is breathtaking in its simplicity and promise. Seventeen dancers stand motionless on stage, one arm raised, feet parallel. Then, slowly, their arms come down together in first position, and a beat later, their feet turn out. With that one motion, they mutate from mere women into dancers, standing in the first position from which all movement flows. Go watch it and come back. It will only take 53 seconds.

Now, here’s the opening of Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.


Like Serenade, this opening is breathtaking in its simplicity and promise. Right away, we know we are beginning a journey with a very special guide. And oh, those telling details. Who but a man who’s been on too many benders would point out that he was sober this time? And that last line? A lesser writer would have been content with: “I was going to see a rich guy.” Such delicious sarcasm and attitude!

Both Serenade and The Big Sleep are exemplars of two master artists working within the confines of their genres even as they explore and expand the formula.

So back to the F-word. Let’s talk about formula. I think it’s become a dirty word in our crime writing world, tossed around as a pejorative by folks who want to put us in our place. Some want to draw distinctions between genre fiction and literature. (“Her novel transcends the blah-blah-yada-yada.”) And some, even within our own circle, want to diminish writers who hew too closely to the bones. (“He’s working the tired old formula.”)

Years ago, I was on a panel about the future of the PI novel. There was a strange undercurrent to it, like it was put on the program almost as an apologia. It was like the conference organizers were accommodating the private eye novelist as the goofy cousin you seat at the kid’s table at Thanksgiving. Chandler himself, in a great interview with Ian Fleming put it this way: “In America, a thriller, a mystery writer as we call them, is slightly below the salt.” (Click here to hear the entire fascinating exchange.)

But I think the PI formula — and indeed, the entire crime fiction blueprint — has much to recommend it. Mainly because, as with ballet, once you master its fundamentals, once you understand the underlying structure and learn the basic “rules,” you are freed to swing for the fences.

I guess we should stop and take a hard look at that word “rules.” It’s a scary word because some of us think we don’t know the rules and others think the rules are there only to be broken. There have been a lot of rules doled out over the years regarding crime fiction. S.S. Van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” written in 1928, might be the most famous. Van Dine prefaced his rules thusly:

The detective story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more—it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws—unwritten, perhaps, but nonetheless binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them.

My favorite Van Dine-ism: “There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better.”

A year later,  Ronald Knox wrote “The Ten Rules of Detective Fiction” My favorite Knox sin: “No Chinaman must figure into the story.”

T.S. Eliot was a big fan of detective novels, and was compelled to publish his own set of rules, in 1927 in his literary magazine The Criterion:

  1. The story must not rely upon elaborate and incredible disguises.
  2. The criminal’s motives should be fairly predictable. “No theft, for instance, should be due to kleptomania (even if there is such a thing).”
  3. The solution should not involve the supernatural or “mysterious and preposterous discoveries made by lonely scientists.
  4. Elaborate and bizarre machinery is an irrelevance. Detective writers of austere and classical tendencies will abhor it.
  5. The detective should be highly intelligent but not superhuman. We should be able to follow his inferences and almost, but not quite, make them with him.

Even Raymond Chandler himself couldn’t resist laying some laws. Here are his Ten Commandments For the Detective Novel:

  1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
  2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
  3. It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
  4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
  5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
  6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
  7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
  8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
  9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law….If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
  10. It must be honest with the reader.

Now of course you can see that Chandler’s “rules” are more in tune with our own modern sensibilities. He, like ballet’s Balanchine, pointed the way to the future. He, like Balanchine, took the old formula and made it new. Which is why we still read him today and we don’t read S.S. Van Dine or Ronald Knox.

It’s often said that we writers only recycle the same plots over and over. There are, in fact, only seven stories in the world,  according to the writer Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch. Here they are:

  1. man against man
  2. man against nature
  3. man against himself
  4. man against God
  5. man against society
  6. man caught in the middle
  7. man and woman

So Romeo and Juliet is reborn as West Side Story.  Moby Dick resurfaces as Jaws. King Lear becomes A Thousand Acres in the hands of Jane Smiley. And don’t get me started on what Bram Stoker unleashed on us.

This post was inspired by Larry Brook’s post here last week on concept vs premise. Go back and read it if you haven’t already. As I said in my comment there, the current hit movie The Martian is really just an old plot, one Sir Arthur himself would recognize as Man vs Nature but transported to Mars.  Before The Martian, we had Robinson CrusoeThe Swiss Family Robinson, PD James’s Children of Men,  Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Richard Matheson’s  I Am Legend,  which was recycled into the cheesy Charleston Heston movie Omega Man.

Formulas are not, in themselves, bad things. And given the long and glorious history of the crime novel, it is something we should honor, not disdain. The “trick” for us is to find within the universal human experience, fresh things to say about our own times and situations.


The ballet Serenade ends on a mournful note, a man borne off by a female dancer who, to my mind, is a symbolic angel.

And then, there is the equally elegiac ending paragraphs of The Big Sleep.

I went quickly away from her down the room and out and down the tiled staircase to the front hall. I didn’t see anybody when I left. I found my hat alone this time. Outside, the bright gardens had a haunted look, as though small wild eyes were watching me from behind the bushes, as though the sunshine itself had a mysterious something in its light. I got into my car and drove off down the hill.


What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.


On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver Wig, and I never saw her again.

There is nothing new. Just new ways of making us feel.

Social Media Etiquette

Internet joke

When it comes to social media, as a general rule, I try to avoid the contentious issues of politics and religion, but, amid the relentless (and often horrific news) these days it seems increasingly hard to find a way of navigating  the online world without encountering (for me at least only third hand) a polarizing level of animosity and aggression on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve I seen people posting that they have to ‘disconnect’ for a while, simply to avoid the online fray which shows no sign of abating.

Even relatively innocuous posts in support of a victim or sharing a news item, can seem to provoke prolonged, overly aggressive – even (dare I say it) crazed responses in the comment section. Flame wars erupt and, as far as I can tell, people who (I assume) are rational, reasonably tolerant people in person, engage in public brawls and name-calling with a level of belligerence that belies all hope of reasonable discourse. So how is someone supposed to navigate the social media minefield in an online culture  where anyone and everything is fair game?

As an author, I try to follow what I thought was basic social media etiquette. Beyond avoid religion and politics, I try not to be overtly self-promoting, self-aggrandizing or generally annoying. My main aim is to present myself as an authentic person who readers find accessible and (hopefully) engaging. When it comes to my personal online persona, I follow pretty much the same rules – just with photos and fun (I hope) added into the mix. But now I feel stymied in many respects – increasingly uncertain and unwilling to post items that could inflame some kind of inadvertent comment war. All too often I read the comments on friend’s posts with a growing sense of alarm and incredulity as people rip into one another and engage in behavior that (I hope) they never display in real life. I’m not sure how we got to this place, but it’s certainly one in which I tread very, very carefully…

In light of this, I feel like we need to create some new rules for online etiquette – rules which others may not adopt but ones which I feel balance common sense, good manners and basic norms of rationality. Here’s my list so far and I’d love to get TKZers input and feedback

  1. Remember you’re a grown up. Act accordingly.
  2. Pretend the online world is the real world. If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, then don’t say it in an online comment.
  3. When posting on a potentially contentious issue, recognize it might have a polarizing effect (so think first!) and be prepared. If commenting on an issue be respectful and follow rule number 1 or 2 especially if you feel your passions getting the better of you…
  4. When posting about TV, movies, books etc. be mindful of spoiler alerts but also, if commenting on these posts, don’t go crazy. If someone inadvertently tells you the ending of a show that began five years ago and you have yet to binge watch on Netflix, give them a break.
  5. Don’t be a troll.
  6. Don’t be a stalker.
  7. If posting a review, make it a genuine review. Don’t pretend to be someone other than who you are.
  8. If posting something that promotes your work/book do it a way that engages as well as markets you as an author.
  9. Think of marketing as connecting with readers rather than selling. Don’t post 100 times something that screams ‘buy my book!’ – it’s annoying. If in doubt, follow rule 2 – would you promote or market like this in real life? If not, then don’t do it online. And finally…
  10. If in doubt, don’t tweet it, post it, or make the comment.

So that’s my list so far. How about you? What would you add? How do you feel about online etiquette (or lack thereof) these days? How do you currently navigate the social media minefield?