The Doctor Will See Your Novel Now

by James Scott Bell

My doctor is a sharp young guy. He seems impressed that I’m a writer of fiction doctor-1299996_1280who manages to make a living that way. He once wistfully mentioned he would like one day to write a book.

I told him he should do it. Then I asked him if one day I could take out a gallbladder. He said, “Probably not.”

I guess the barriers to entry into the medical profession are a bit higher than it is for would-be scribes. Too bad. Just once I’d like to say to a surgical assistant, “Scalpel … Sponge … Junior Mint.”

In any event, I go in yearly to get checked, even if I feel in the pink. I talk to the doc, get my blood drawn, then wait for the reports. Every now and then he makes a suggestion and I try to follow it, unless it involves red meat.

Your novel needs a checkup, too. I like to schedule mine at around the 20k word mark. I’m not so far in that I can’t do some remedial work if necessary. There are some tests I like to run. Let me commend them to you.

Blood Test

Is your story’s lifeblood healthy? Here’s how you can tell: Your Lead is facing an issue of life and death –– physical, professional, or psychological. That raises the stakes to the highest level. That keeps the blood flowing and the reader reading. Even if you’re writing a comic novel, the characters have to believe the central question is of the utmost importance.

Heart Rate

Are you connected emotionally to the story? I don’t mean you have to end up like Joan Wilder finishing her book at the start of Romancing the Stone (for more on that, see Rob’s post from last Wednesday and especially P. J.’s comment.)

What it does mean is that you must have some connection to the characters that makes you, the author, care about what happens to them. If you haven’t got that, find it before you move on. Feel something before you write anything.

Character Endoscopy

Those little endoscopes (“viewing tubes”) enter your body via … through a … just take my word for it, in they go, to get a picture of what’s inside you.

You need something going on inside each main character, too, under the surface. We usually refer to this as motivation. Often that’s enough, but I like to know what’s behind it, what created it.

I don’t do extensive character biographies. Those never quite worked for me. But I do want to know a few key things, including a “wound” from a past trauma that haunts the character in the present (sometimes we call this “the ghost.”)

Joint Pain

Are your scenes working? They are the connections, the things that hold your story together. Having a dull scene is like having a knee go out on you. Everything stops. You can’t move forward.

Pain, the doc will tell you, is a good thing when it tells you Hey! You gotta take care of this, buddy!

And that’s what dull scenes are telling you.

Now, it’s true that you sometimes are too close to your story to know what’s dull. Often, it’s not until someone else looks at your manuscript that the pain is revealed to you.

I think it’s best if you know what to look for and fix it yourself, and soon.

First, do you have a feeling that a scene you wrote isn’t quite right? Go there and ask:

Do the characters in this scene have conflict, even if it’s subtle, with one another?

  • Is there anything surprising in the scene? Unexpected?
  • If the character is alone, is there some form of fear inside him? (From simple worry to outright terror?)
  • Does the scene drag on too long?

Second, if the scene still doesn’t work treat it like a tumor and cut it out.

Hearing Check

How does your dialogue sound?

If the characters sound too much alike, no good. Each character deserves a distinct voice.

If your dialogue is always in complete sentences, you’re missing the power of compression.

If your dialogue attributions (said, asked) are being propped up by adverbs (he said haltingly; she asked imploringly) you’re diluting, not adding to the emotion of the scene.

(I will modestly hype my book, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, because I believe dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript.)

Eye Exam

Do your descriptions paint a vivid picture that pulls a reader into the story world? We are a visual culture, so you need to think and write cinematically. Like this:

The sun that brief December day shone weakly through the west-facing window of Garrett Kingsley’s office. It made a thin yellow oblong splash on his Persian carpet and gave up. (Robert B. Parker, Pale Kings and Princes)

Sol Stein counsels, “Have something visual on every page.” We’re weaving a dream, after all, and dreams are movies in the mind.

So what about you? Is your manuscript in pain? Where does it hurt? The medical staff of TKZ is here to help!

A Dreamless Summer Night


Just to be blunt: I’m not a teacher. Unlike my goombahs here at TKZ most of what I offer every other Saturday is not going to help you to write your best seller or even your mid-list seller.  I’m still struggling with that myself. I will offer advice from time to time, but today isn’t one of those times. I have another unusual story for you today, and I hope that at the least you enjoy it and at the most it burrows under your brainstem for a few days and maybe inspires you to delve back into your own respective histories and spin some random thread from your past into gold.

A bit of housekeeping first: I have heard nothing further from the person who sent me the cryptic text two weeks ago, warning me not to play with their grandchild. I’ll advise if something occurs but for the moment it appears to be a case of mistexting or mistaken identity.

Onward. I was blessed mightily with a childhood in which I lived in an upper middle class suburban neighborhood. It was quiet, peaceful, and the police were primarily used to fill a few float spots in the annual Fourth of July parade. Cue the music to The Andy Griffith Show, move the show up north and triple the average household income, and you’ll get an idea of what it was like. Nothing ever happened. It was 1960, I was nine years old, and the only times my pulse really quickened was when the new comic books came out on Tuesday and Thursday. I happened to awaken very late on a warm and perfect summer night. I sat up in bed, listened to the sound of the attic fan — this was before air conditioning was as common as it is now — and got out of bed. Lassie, our collie — if you had a collie back then it was named Lassie — half-heartedly wagged its tail in the hallway  but otherwise didn’t stir as I walked past my parents’ room on the one side and my sister’s on the other. We had a spare bedroom that my dad used as sort of a half-assed office that had a back yard window and for some reason I headed back there to look out the window, but not for any particular reason that I can remember now.

There were three men standing at the far corner of our yard, looking at our house. They each wore coats, ties, and, for some odd reason, overcoats. I couldn’t hear them but they were gesturing at each other and toward the house. I could see them clearly in the moonlight and they frightened me like I have never been frightened before or since. The villain featured in the Dick Tracy newspaper comic strip at the time was a character named Rhodent (sic) and one of the men looked almost exactly like him. I was frozen in place; I would probably still be sitting there, but one of the men suddenly looked directly up at the window where I was watching. I turned around and ran back to my room, jumped into bed and laid there awake for the rest of the night.

The following morning brought what seemed to be clarification. I thought that maybe I had just dreamed what had happened, the result of a little too much Dick Tracy. The main thing was that Lassie, whose territorial domain consisted of a three block radius and which required that she bark at everything, never made a sound. I accordingly didn’t say anything to my parents. Later that day, however, I happened to run into a kid in the neighborhood who was what we would now call a backdoor neighbor. The kid, who we will call “B” and was my age, came up to me with uncharacteristic somberness. He said that during the night he had looked out of his bedroom window, which was in the back of his house, and had seen three men standing and gesturing in our backyard. B said he watched them for a few minutes until one of them pointed at one of our upstairs windows, at which point the three of them turned and walked away in between B’s house and his next door neighbors. B thought he was dreaming, too, but thought the dream was interesting. He never told his parents either. For my part, I didn’t look out of that back window for the remainder of the time that we lived in that house.

I hadn’t thought of that story until last night, when I happened to wake up at 2 AM and for some reason thought of it, and also thought of B, with whom I hadn’t seen or spoken in over fifty years. I wondered about it and fell back to sleep. This morning, I saw B’s obituary in the morning paper. He died early yesterday, unexpectedly.

If you have an odd story like this and would like to share it I would love to hear it. I don’t know how to describe how I feel. I’m wondering who those three men were and why they were standing in my backyard and what happened to B and how people drift apart for no good or bad reason. Talk to me.

READER FRIDAY – Five Most Inspirational Places for Authors to Write

Purchased from iStock by Jordan Dane

Purchased from iStock by Jordan Dane

An author can write anywhere with the help of a tablet or laptop or even a low-tech pad of paper and pen. But there are some places that can be more inspirational if you’ve hit a dry spell.

In no particular order, here are my five favorite places to write:

1.) Graveyard at Dusk – People watching would be interesting AFTER dusk but reading headstones or taking in the quiet at a cemetery during the dying light of the day can stir the storyteller in anyone.

2.) Hotel Lobby Bar – If you’re ever at a writers’ conference, the place to be is the hotel bar. Everyone turns up there, but there are stories in the many travelers’ faces, not to mention the fun of eavesdropping on dialogue inspirations.

3.) Coffee House – The faces and the dialogue might be different in a coffee house, but the caffeine keeps the creative juices flowing.

4.) Scenic Forest – Getting closer to nature can stir the imagination and get the blood moving. Try it.

5.) Swamp – I have to admit that I’ve never done this, but I really want to. The sounds and the potential for danger in a swamp could be titillating. Let the vastness swallow you whole.

What are YOUR five favorite inspirational places to write? When your creative juices run low, where do you go or what do you do?

Evocative Suspense Author Sue Coletta on VOICE

Jordan Dane


I’m proud to have longstanding TKZ member, Sue Coletta as my guest today. This is her first time here as a featured author. Not only is she usually one of the first to comment on each post, but I’ve seen her grow as a writer. I enjoyed her first book MARRED, with its strong voice and dark eerie tone, and I’m currently reading WINGS OF MAYHEM and thoroughly enjoying the voice of her protagonist, Shawnee Daniels. Take it away, Sue, and welcome!

Sue Coletta on VOICE

When we first begin our writing journey voice is one of things that’s nearly impossible to define, never mind discover. For years I kept hoping to find my writer’s voice, but I had no idea where to look. Deep within myself? Through hours and hours of practice would it suddenly appear? What was this mysterious “voice” everyone spoke about? And why didn’t I have one?

Perhaps what agents and editors were referring to was that perfect blend of style, rhythm, and cadence that make up the mysterious writer’s voice. Maybe it’s like trying to define the difference between graffiti and street art. I may not be able to put it into words, but I’ll know it when I see it.

When I look back on those days I wish someone would’ve told me, with a clear definition, how to develop my voice. And then one day something magical happened. I was reading the most amazing craft book I’d ever encountered, the book that transformed my writing life in an instant. I’m referring to Story Engineering by TKZ’s own Larry Brooks.

When I learned about the three dimensions of character I found my writer’s voice. I couldn’t believe it. Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?

Today, I would describe voice as the combination of syntax, diction, punctuation, dialogue, sentence rhythm, and character development within one story or across many novels. It’s unique to you. Just as a flute doesn’t sound like a clarinet, neither does one writer from another.

How awesome is that?

We all use the same 26 letters, and yet, no two authors will write the same scene the same way. One writer might use run-on sentences that go on for miles. Whereas another loads the story with short, punchy fragments. Neither is wrong; it’s a matter of personal style.

But style isn’t the only thing that makes up the writer’s voice.

By knowing our characters intimately, by understanding their hopes, their dreams, their backgrounds, scars, flaws, nervous ticks, religious beliefs, world views, what they fear, what they strive for, what they want more than anything else…we can slip into their skin and write using their voice. Not only in dialogue, but in the narrative as well—also known as narrative voice.

Take, for instance, my protagonist in Wings of Mayhem. Shawnee Daniels is a wise-cracking, snarky chic who was raised on the city streets. The way she views the world is much different than her librarian best friend, Nadine. Shawnee is overly cautious. She swears, has huge trust issues, and in a lot of ways, she’s her own worst enemy. Where Shawnee might see danger, Nadine, who was raised in a loving and often sheltered environment, would see an opportunity. Nadine never swears. Instead, she uses words like “ship” and “fleakin’”. She’s a glass-half-full type of girl. Shawnee’s glass barely has a drop in it.

Nadine’s dialogue is filled with words like “Woot!” She waves jazz hands and bounces on her toes when she’s excited. Shawnee is her polar opposite. She would never be caught dead waving a jazz hand in the air and she certainly would never use the word “Woot.” Because she’d never do these things in the dialogue, I can’t let her do it in the narrative, either, or the story would lose its narrative voice.

In Wings of Mayhem I alternated chapters between Shawnee, Detective Levaughn Samuels, and Jack Delsin, my antagonist. Each have their own way of viewing the world around them and, more importantly, the situation they’re in. I couldn’t write the narrative in the same way or it wouldn’t be unique to each character.

Where Shawnee believes everyone is after her, Detective Levaughn Samuels is more level-headed. In his narrative I used contractions like I did with Shawnee, but the tone is different. He views the world with a calm, rational, detective’s perspective. When he looks at a crime scene his stomach doesn’t scream in protest. But Shawnee’s does.

While examining a murder victim, Levaughn would narrate the facts, the wounds/injuries, his theory of the case, etc. Shawnee would be too distracted by the blowflies. She might gape at the victim’s smeared mascara, or narrow in on the thick, bluish film veiling the victim’s eyes. But Levaughn wouldn’t mention that because all corpses develop corneal clouding. It’s a natural occurrence that develops 2-3 days after death, depending on the environment in which the body is found.

By remaining true to our characters in dialogue as well as narrative we breathe life into the story. Thus, filling it with voice.

For Discussion:
Over to you, TKZers. What tips have helped you develop your writer’s voice?

Sue Coletta

Suspense Author Sue Coletta

BIOMember of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is always searching for new ways to commit murder…on the page. She’s the author of Wings of Mayhem, Marred, Crime Writer’s Research, and 60 Ways to Murder Your Characters. She’s published in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive, Murder, USA anthology, InSinC Quarterly, and in the upcoming dark fiction anthology, RUN. The founder of #ACrimeChat, which takes place every Wed. on Twitter, Sue also runs a popular crime resource blog, where she shares her love of research…forensics, police procedures, serial killers, and true crime stories. You can learn more about Sue and her books at:

Buy links:
Amazon Barnes & Noble  Apple iTunes  Smashwords  Google Play
Print and audio coming soon from Crossroad Press!

Social Media links:
Website/blog   Goodreads   Twitter   Facebook

Against the Wind

Imagine this scene from a story:

It’s 1983. A woman sits behind a typewriter, finishing up a page. When she’s done, she types THE END, pulls the page out and adds it to a large stack next to her on the desk.

She smiles, then goes to a liquor cabinet, pulls out a bottle, and pours a drink to toast a job well done.

All is good in her world.

Now imagine this one instead:

It’s 1983. A woman sits behind a typewriter, crying her eyes out as she finishes up a page and types THE END. She pulls the page out, adds it to the stack on her desk, but she’s crying so hard that she has to blow her nose. She reaches for a tissue, but the box is empty. So she gets up, still sobbing, and goes to the bathroom, looking for some toilet paper. The roll is empty.

Moving about the house, she steps into the kitchen and grabs a post-it note off the refrigerator—one that says BUY TOILET PAPER—and uses it to blow her nose.

Then, moving back into her living room, she opens a cabinet, pulls out a tiny bottle of “airplane” liquor, intending to use it for a toast to celebrate finishing her book, but when she tries to get the cap off, it won’t budge. It takes all of her strength to get the cap loose and she finally makes her toast.

And despite this celebration, it’s quite obvious that this woman is a complete and utter mess.


Now, tell me, which of these scenes would you rather watch?

Me, I’ll go with the second one. In fact I have, in a wonderful movie from the eighties called Romancing the Stone. And I think most people would be much less inclined to fall asleep during version two than they would if subjected to version one.

Version one just sits there. Lays there, in fact.


Because it has no conflict.

Conflict is the cornerstone of good storytelling. Conflict is what grabs our interest, makes us want to continue reading. And this isn’t just limited to movies and novels.

How many of us would watch the news if all we saw were happy, feel-good stories? People thrive on conflict, and anyone who thinks a story doesn’t need it, is completely out of touch with what good, solid storytelling is all about.

Your basic plot line—no matter what kind of book you’re writing—always centers around characters in conflict. There’s usually both an internal conflict and an external one. And the external conflict should challenge or contribute to the character’s internal conflict (and probably vice versa).

If you give me a story about two people sailing through life without a care in the world, then I might as well watch paint dry. I need something in that story to grab me by the heart or the throat. To give rise to my emotions. To make me laugh and cry and root for the hero. And if all the hero is doing is contemplating his or her navel, then, please, get me the hell out of there.

Your characters must have a goal—no matter how trivial it might seem—and they must have strong opposition to that goal.

Even the simple act of searching for a way to blow her nose makes the second scenario above the more compelling one.

I can’t say this enough. Conflict is one of the most essential elements of telling a good story. And sharing that moment when a character overcomes conflict is what lifts us. What thrills us. What sends us soaring.

As Hamilton Mabie once said, “A kite rises against, not with, the wind.”

First-page Critique: UNTITLED

road in the mist

By Kathryn Lilley

Another brave author has submitted the first page of a work-in-progress anonymously for critique. Read and enjoy. See you on the far side with my comments. Then, please join us with your feedback.



March, seventeen years earlier.

The car ahead of Noah Webb vanished.

He eased to a stop on the shoulder and stared into the soup beyond his headlights. He had followed the car for twenty minutes, two lone drivers trying to negotiate the fog. This road lulled a driver to sleep for eleven miles of straight blacktop. Then it snaked through a series of wooded curves and deep ravines. Under a full moon, this road was a challenge. Tonight, it was deadly.

The other driver never saw the curve coming. Noah shut his eyes. Memories from another distant fog shrouded night, on another lonely road, washed over him. A tear oozed from the corner of his eye and crawled down his cheek. Why was I the one following him?

Webb exhaled, flicked at the tear and mustered the strength to move. He released his grip on the wheel and shook blood back into his fingers. He fished a flashlight from under the seat. As he opened the door, cold, damp air slithered in and licked his face. He pulled himself from the car and stood still, staring where the headlights dissolved into the fog. He dug his nails into his palms and called, “Anybody out there?”

No answer. As he crept around the car, gravel and frosted grass crunched under his feet. He turned and looked back into the glare of his headlights. He checked his watch. Almost midnight. His breath froze and shimmered in the light. He shivered, pulled up his collar and then faced the darkness before him and approached the curve.

He followed the gravel to where the ground spilled over an embankment into the woods. He searched the darkness then stopped. From the bottom of the ravine, two red lights glowed in the fog like squinting eyes. He aimed his light at the car, but the mist swallowed it. “Hang on, I’m coming.”

Webb dug his heels into the slope and sidestepped down. Halfway, his foot slipped. Groping for balance, he fumbled the flashlight and it clattered away. He crashed on his hip then slid over rock and wet grass until he thudded against the bumper of the car.

My Notes: 

I am impressed by the way the writer of this page quickly incorporates several important story components:

  1. An inciting incident takes place (the car in front of Webb’s vehicle careens off a fog-shrouded curve)
  2. Tension is introduced (Webb must decide to act in order to rescue the other driver)
  3. The tension level is raised  (Webb has to overcome a reluctance to act  due to a previous accident experience)

It’s hard to check off all those story points in just 400 words, and I think it was done quite deftly here. I was drawn in by the setup on this first page–kudos to the writer!

I have a few suggestions for edits.

Keep the focus on the fog

The fog in the second paragraph is such a strong element, and the offset  rhythm of the last two sentences is great.

Under a full moon, this road was a challenge. Tonight, it was deadly.

But before I reached the end of that paragraph, the focus had shifted from the fog to the road itself (lulling the driver to sleep, snaking around curves). I would suggest revising the paragraph slightly to maintain a constant sense of the menacing fog.

How do we know? 

When did Webb first become aware of the crash, exactly? In the first sentence?

The car ahead of Noah Webb vanished.


During my initial reading, I didn’t get a clear sense of the crash as it was supposed to be taking place. The first sentence is too nonspecific (The car vanishes–where? Into the fog? Over the side of the road?) I first assumed that the car had simply vanished into the fog. I later deduced that it had crashed from the narration and flashback. As the standard advice goes, it’s better to “show” the crash clearly as it takes place, rather than “tell” it after the fact.

Flashback note

I like the information about Webb’s previous crash because it raises his tension level, but the flashback device itself is a bit clunky. It slowed down the story, especially when we got to the part about the tears rolling down Webb’s face. I’d suggest trying to weave in the  information about the previous crash without bringing the present-day action to a full stop. Perhaps Webb could struggle with his memory and tears as he’s stumbling down the ravine toward the victim’s car. (At least he’d be moving.)

Speaking of flashbacks, the chapter frame puzzles me (in retrospect).

March, seventeen years earlier.

Is the entire scene supposed to be taking place in the past? In that case, it suggests something of a flashback within a flashback, doesn’t it?

Repeated words, format

As I was reading I felt like there were a few too many instances of the word “he”. Try to vary the sentence structures to pare down the repetition.

Also, at one point the name used to refer to the character changes from Noah to Webb. Once you settle on the name you want to use, keep using the same same name for consistency.


You can file all of my comments today under the “easy to fix” category. Overall, I think the page is a great start. Thanks to our writer today for submitting this first page!

TKZers, can you add more feedback for the writer in the Comments? And don’t be shy if you disagree with any of my notes. The more, the merrier!

The Secret Key to Breaking Big

by Larry Brooks

First off… it’s not a secret at all.

It’s just something that isn’t often talked about. It is rarely hit head-on in the vast oeuvre of fiction craft, where there exists a tacit assumption that anything you choose to write about is okay… that it’s how you write a story, rather than what your story might be in a conceptual, dramatic context.

This gets tricky, perhaps confusing, because that is half true.

Nobody will suggest your story idea isn’t strong enough. Even when they should. At least, not before you write it. No, they’ll wait until you’ve spent a year gushing 100,000 bloody words onto the page from the open wound of your best intentions…

… and then they’ll tell you: meh, I’ve read this before… or… well, it’s okay, good even, but we have enough good out there, give us something great, something that stops my heart.

The true half: how you write your story absolutely matters.

Because a killer idea, poorly written, will tank every bit as fast as a mediocre idea written really well.

There exists a list of qualitative criteria (what I call the six realms of story physics), applied to another list of six story elements and skills (what I refer to as the six core competencies) that you must do well. As in, really well.

As in, you need to go six-for-six.

That’s always been true. It’s truer than ever today, in a market that is orders of magnitude more crowded with titles vying for the same finite readership, and glutted with stories and authors that are good, but not quite great.

Great is reachable. But you have to find a special story, told in an especially competent way. The sum of those two high bars is… rare.  I can tell you, as a story coach who has read many hundreds of story summaries over the past few years, “rare” is the softest word I can come with here.  Unremarkable – even when it’s just fine — is everywhere.

That other half… determined by your choice of concept and premise (which are different things) is less emphasized in the writing conversation. Frankly, it is where the writing community has lost its balls. More polite conversation and acceptable workshop narrative steps right over the need for premises that are conceptually compelling and dramatically rich, rich enough to allow a well-drawn character to shine.

So let’s all wake up to this truth.

Often, perhaps as much as half the time, stories are either rejected or perform poorly, in spite of the author really writing the heck of out it, because the story isn’t amazing at its core conceit level. Writing the heck out of a vanilla, too-familiar idea will get you precisely… nowhere.

Or at least, wherever it takes you, it will be slow going.

Take a closer look at the stories that break-out.  At the bestsellers.

A huge percentage of them are from the same familiar names, the ones you’ve been seeing there for years. I just checked: of the current top-20 New York Times best sellers, thirteen come from writers you’ve heard of, who have been there before (one of whom created the TV hit Fargo, which disqualifies him from being a newbie). One is from an author you’ve heard of because her current title is the runaway breakout hit of the last two years (Paula Hawkins slid into that spot when Gone Girl faded a bit)…

… and the others are less known.

So how did they get there?  It’s not just because they can really write.  It’s because the premises they’ve written from are on fire with upside.

I promise you, as well, that it wasn’t because they tweeted and Facebooked and pimped themselves onto the list. It’s because of word-of-mouth, which is more often the outcome of reviews than it is from social media. It’s because of quality storytelling, sure, but it’s more because of… wait for it…

… amazing, fresh, conceptual rich story premises.

Among that list, from those seven new names, consider these concepts:

– A woman defies her controlling husband’s retirement plans for the both of them. (What woman doesn’t want to defy a controlling husband?)

– A spectacularly wealthy and dysfunctional family implodes, murder ensues. (A train wreck we cannot look away from.)

– Viruses bent on wiping out humanity are vanquished… and then they return. (Some concepts never go away, they simply recycle.)

– Young girl comes to New York to make her way in the big bad city, and meets a “devastatingly handsome” bad-boy bartender. (Those two words – devastatingly handsome – will sell a million copies by themselves, in the right hands.)

Notice these aren’t end-of-the-world Hollywood blockbuster type concepts.  “High concepts” as they are know.  Rather — and this is a subtlety that will serve you, once you get it — it is because these concepts, and those like them, play into the dramatic evocation of emotional resonance from readers.

These concepts intrigue. They are vicarious, they suck us in, they push our buttons. They pose frightening, intriguing questions. They work before you know about the author or the characters, because they are conceptual.

If you need the premise itself to get someone excited, chances are you haven’t tapped into the full potential of something conceptual yet. Wife fakes her own death to avenge her crappy marriage to a man she loathes… that’s not a premise yet (no hero, no plot, no villain, no stakes… no premise), but it is a concept that will make an agent, editor or a reader sit up and take notice.

All of these books are on the list because, primarily, at least as much because the writer is really good, because they are well conceived.

The opportunity is right there: in the conceptual.  

Narrative skill is actually more an ante-in than it is a deal-maker these days. It is a commodity. Truth be told, there are people sitting in every writing conference you attend who can give those A-list brand name authors a run for their significant money.

We can take a page from Hollywood in this regard. Most of the movies we pay to see that aren’t based on novels come from the minds of producers, directors, and even actors. Those are the people with the story ideas — some of which they get from writers they quickly pay off to go away — at least the ones the industry will pay attention to.  After which they hire-out the writing itself, where anonymous craft brings those story ideas to life.

That’s not the business we are in as novelists. But don’t miss the gold in that model.

As authors, we need to function as producer, director, actor and writer of our stories. ANd we need to realize that we are selling an idea as much as we are selling our narrative skill, via a manuscript. Unless you are writing in literary fiction, the conceptual idea itself needs to glow in the dark, to show up in a dark sky chock-full of exquisitely well written mediocrity.

And then, of course, you need to write the hell out of it.

An example to show how obvious this is, once you look for it.

Let’s look at the romance/women’s fiction genre. One of those names on the NY Times list is Jo Jo Moyes, whose title After You is (at this writing) #5 on that list.

Now look closer. After You is the sequel to her bestseller, Me Before You, which in addition to selling five million copies, is currently a front-line motion picture tear-jerker, receiving good if not great reviews. This explains the sequel’s presence on the bestseller list: because a quality sequel to a legitimate bestseller — film or no film — will always be, at least for fifteen minutes, another bestseller.

Because a sequel to a bestseller IS the concept being sold.

Now let’s look deeper. Let’s look at the earlier novel (which came after ten previous Moyes titles, all successful, but none to this degree), Me Before You.


And therein we find the proof of the concept/premise pudding.

At a glance, Me Before You is a commodity tear-jerker. A doomed love story. A life-is-unfair, let’s-make-the-most-of-the-time-we-have vicarious ride through glorious, courageous heartbreak and the triumph of love itself.

Always a good bet. There have been, quite literally, thousands of such novels written.

So what made this one work?  Other than the quality of Jo Jo’s writing and storytelling?

It’s because something that resides at the core of the story idea itself. Something that is highly conceptual. Not earth-shakingly original, per se… no, that’s not always required (though it certainly can help). What made this particular love story work is the fact that the novel, in the words of Miami Herald reviewer Connie Ogle, has some bite to it. A “juicy, ripe red apple of a romance with a razor blade embedded under its skin.”

That razor blade is the concept.  The love story that covers it is the premise.

The bite of that novel is something conceptual that separates it from the crowd.

Here it is: What if the hero/protagonist, whom we love (because she’s from a working class family, and she deserves to be happy, damn it!) falls in love with a handsome, wealthy, yet bitter young man…

… so far, this is as familiar as a bagel for breakfast…

… a young man who is… wait for it… a quadriplegic.

Damn.  Didn’t see that coming, did you.

But here’s where Moyes demonstrates her conceptual chops. Instead of a trite HEA ending to an otherwise production line premise, she flips that on its dramatic ear and gives us… wait for it…

… a stunning, heart-wrenching didn’t-see-that-coming, take out her heart and stomp on it ending. A razor blade of a concept, hiding there under the skin, all along.

Concept is a framework for a story, within which premise is explored.  That framework, in Me Before You, is how it is all destined to end.

All of this, by the way, was solidly in her head before she sat down to actually write the manuscript (this I know, because Moyes is an avid if not completely confident outliner, she doesn’t move to the draft stage until she has the story nailed… a lesson there for us all). This is a highly conceptual story idea, because it grabs us even before we encounter the story.  Even before we meet these characters.

But that Jo Jo… she’s a clever one, indeed. In giving us that ending, she doubles down on the conceptual appeal of the story. Ever since Erich Segal broke our hearts in Love Story, readers have lined up to pay good money to have their emotions put through a wringer and then driven over by a funeral motorcade. Moyes actually one-ups Segal in that regard, never flinching at the ending she knew would work…

… and not backing down when Hollywood suggested she lighten up the ending of the film version. Moyes actually wrote the script for that, too, and in sticking to her original ending, the movie is doing big business precisely because of the Machiavellian manner in which it toys with our emotions before destroying them.

And now, she has the sequel on the Times bestseller list. All because of concept colliding with narrative talent. Separate those two parts of the craft puzzle, and these two home run novels don’t happen.

Dan Brown did it in The Davinci Code, and again in Inferno (the film of that novel hits theaters this summer). Gillian Flynn did it in Gone Girl. Paula Hawkins did it in The Girl On The Train. The list goes on and on in this regard.

Big ideas, delivered with big concepts, fueling big premises.

And then, written with stellar craft.

The latter, standing alone as your sole strategy, is a long and crowded road that rarely takes us where, in the quiet of our dreams, we truly want to be.

Look closely at what what’s in the literary news.  

Chances are, if there isn’t a famous author name on the cover, there’s an astoundingly conceptual idea at the heart of the story. If nothing else, than by virtue of the emotional buttons it pushes.

All that stuff… the learning, the principles, the examples of great technical execution across six realms of story physics and six realms of writing core competencies… they’re all as valuable and necessary as they’ve ever been.

But despite what you don’t often read or hear out here in craft-land all that much, they aren’t all that is needed to blast your career to another level, via a story that makes your bones in a graveyard full of well-crafted skeletons.

Don’t rush your story into being.  Nurse it at the conceptual level, ask more of it. Go deep into the dark and swirling well of human emotion and empathy to give us something that grabs us and won’t let go… even before we’ve read a word of it.

What is conceptual about your premise?  What will make someone say, “Wow, now THAT is a story I want to read,” even before you hit them with the premise itself.

Answer that one, and answer it well… and you may find you’ve dealt yourself a hand worth doubling down on, as well.


Letter to a Discouraged Writer

by James Scott Bell

My man,manwriting

Here’s the thing. You got yourself good enough to get a publishing contract back in the “old days” when you needed to impress an agent, get repped, get shopped, and then sign on with a house. Your books came out with nice covers, some marketing, some placement. You did book signings and conference appearances. Three books I think it was, right?

So what happened? Sales weren’t enough to earn back the advance. And not enough to get another contract from the publishing house.

There’s an author support group for that. It’s called “Practically Everyone” and they meet at the bar.

I don’t know the exact percentage, but most fiction authors who ever lived never caught on in a big way. Many used to manage a “midlist career” which meant at least enough sales to keep on publishing, though not enough buy a yacht.

So you went through a dry period. Your agent shopped you but without success. So you parted ways. That was a tough time for you. You wondered if you’d ever get published again.

A couple of your colleagues, myself included, suggested you ought to look into self-publishing. That was four or five years ago. You said you didn’t have the desire to learn “all that stuff.” You just wanted to write.

Then you found another agent, a newer one, and he thought you ought to start over with a pen name. So you did. And he got you a contract. (See? You are still good enough!) Yes, it was a smaller house, so the advance and marketing were minimal. You got some good reviews for the new book, which was to be the start of a series.

But the book went nowhere. And the publisher decided not to bring out the next book. (To hear more stories like this, go to the next Practically Everyone meeting at the bar).

Then your agent got out of the business.

You told people, That’s it. I’m done. Goodbye, writing. No use. Never again.

Your colleagues gave you a pass the first time you expressed this. We all understood. But when you did it again, I decided to write you this letter.

Look, bud, are you a writer or aren’t you? I’m not talking about someone who has a contract. I’m talking about someone who has this yearning to tell stories because you’ve been caught up in storytelling dreams and you want to do that for other people.You long to move them, entertain them. Is that you? Then you’re a writer.

And as such, you’re subject to the slings and arrows of this crazy business. The question is, what are you going to do when you get a few arrows in the keister?

You can give up. Or you can go see Miracle Max. (You’re only mostly dead!) And when you can sit comfortably again, self-publish.

Sure, it takes effort to learn what to do. But no more effort than it took you to learn how to write a good scene.

I know, I know. You’ve heard about that massive “sea of content” out there. Yes, you’ll be starting out as a minnow. But at least you’ll be alive and swimming. The beach, meanwhile, is covered with rotting kelp and flies and the bones of writers who gave up.

When you self publish, you’ll instantly be better off than you are now. Like the old prospector said, “A handful of somethin’ is better than a cartload of nothin’.”

It’s within your power to make it happen. Think about that. You’re not at the mercy of a corporation or committee, or the shrinking shelf space in bookstores. You are your own captain, your own boss.

You say you’re not a particularly fast writer. Well, fine, here’s my advice: write to a quota and stick to it. Find out how many words you can comfortably write per week. Then up that by 10%. You have to have extend yourself a little. Even the lowly oyster needs a bit of grit to make a pearl.

Do you want to be outclassed by an oyster?

Get out of your shell, man. Start by putting out short stories and novellas. Get them out there and in the Kindle Select program. Use the free promotion to move units. Set up an email list with a service like MailChimp or Vertical Response, and make it easy for readers to sign up on your website. Put a sign-up link in the back of your books.

This is your foundation. Meanwhile, work on a full-length novel. Continue your series if you like. Or write that book that’s been tugging at your heart. Keep at it—quota, steady pace. The pages mount up like magic.

You will make some money. How much? It depends. The formula is quality + production + time. Do your best every time out. Keep on doing it.

For the rest of your life.

That’s what I said. Because you’re a writer.

Am I right?

You’re bloody well right I’m right.

So write! You’ve come too far to give it all up now.

Your pal,

P. S. You still owe me that ten spot, but if you write a thousand words tomorrow, we’ll call it even. Deal?

READER FRIDAY – Share Your Favorite Character Driven Novel

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green


“I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.” Stephen King – On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Some of the recent character-driven novels I’ve read lately are:
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Give an example of a book you’ve read with a memorable character-driven story – Author & Title – and tease us with why the character story was special.

As You Know, Bob

By Elaine Viets

As you know, writing dialogue is not for sissies. It has to sound believable, yet be informative and move your story’s plot forward.
This is hard to do. Recently, my editor called me on a clunky section of dialogue in Fire and Ashes, my second Angela Richman, Death Investigator novel. Angela works for the medical examiner in mythical, ultra-wealthy Chouteau Forest, Missouri. At a homicide, the death investigator is in charge of the body and the police handle the crime scene.
In my new novel’s first chapter, I tried to slip some important information into what was supposed to be casual dinner conversation between Angela and her colleague, Katie.
My editor caught me. She wrote: “Angela has lived in the Forest her whole life, right? This conversation with Katie seems a bit unnatural, like it’s only for the reader’s benefit (an ‘as you know, Bob’ conversation).”
Never mind what Angela said. It’s gone for good. But “as you know, Bob” dialogue – commonly called AYKB – is everywhere. It pops up on TV daily, and is especially popular in soap operas and medical dramas. Here’s an example:
Surgeon 1: “As you know, Bob, the patient is turning blue and choking, which could result in brain death unless the obstruction is removed from his mouth immediately.”
Surgeon 2: “Okay, I’ll take out his foot and he’ll still be able to run for election.”

surgeonIn novels, AYKB results in clunky dialogue like this:
Dude 1: “Bunny is engaged to Esmeralda Gotrocks.”
Dude 2: “You mean the Massachusetts Gotrocks, who came over on the Mayflower?”
Dude 1: “The very same. Their great-grandfather owned Gotrocks Railroads, and in 1898 he married Adelaide Overbite, sole heir of the powerful oil family. Esmeralda’s father is Senator Gotrocks.”
Dude 2: “Good old Bunny. When’s the wedding?”

engagementHuh? There’s no need for those middle sentences about Esmeralda’s family. Everyone in those circles already knows it. That dialogue is there to let the readers know Bunny’s fiancee is rich and connected. AYKB dialogue states the obvious. It tells your readers what they need to know, but has nothing to do with what the characters need to know.
Our own James Scott Bell in his book, Revision and Self-Editing (Write Great Fiction), warns about awkward information dumps. The key is to make your dialogue sound natural.
wild fireI like the technique Nelson DeMille used in his thriller, Wild Fire, to deliver a lot of information. Detective James Corey and his wife, FBI Agent Kate Mayfield, are working to unravel a terrorism plot in the Adirondacks. They are city people and know nothing about this vast, wild area in the mountains.
DeMille has Corey driving on a nearly deserted mountain road, while Agent Mayfield reads him information they need to know about the park and the private land where the Custer Hill Club may be plotting to start nuclear Armageddon.
DeMille writes: “Kate had picked up a few brochures from the airport and was perusing them. She does this wherever we go so she can enhance her experience; then, she regurgitates this stuff back to me, like a tour guide.
landscape-mountains-nature-clouds-large“She informed me that Saranac Lake, the town and the airport and this road, was actually within the boundaries of Adirondack State Park. She also informed me that this area was known as the North Country, a name she found romantic.
“I commented, ‘You could freeze to death here in April.’
“She went on, ‘Large parts of the park have been designated forever wild.’
“‘That’s pretty depressing.’
“The area designated as parkland is as big as the state of New Hampshire.”
You get the idea. DeMille is smart enough to make this a habit of FBI Agent Kate Mayfield. He delivered the brochure information without sounding like a brochure. You’ll have to read Wild Fire to find out if Mayfield and Corey save the world, but DeMille saved us from the dreaded AYKB.

VIETS-BRAINSTORM-smallBrain Storm, the first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, debuts August 2. Pre-order at