When in doubt, bury someone alive.

By Joe Moore

“When in doubt, bury someone alive.” Edgar Allan Poe was purported to have said this as one of his five essentials for the betterment of a story. Although it’s never been confirmed, poe_cleanedeven if he didn’t really say it, he should have. So let’s figure out what Mr. Poe might have been suggesting. My interpretation is that there is always a solution to a writing issue. And one of the biggest issues new writers (and old) have is getting stuck without an idea what to do next. Poe suggests doing something drastic.

I don’t like to use the term writer’s block because I don’t believe it exists. But like most writers, now and then I wind up in a dark room with no doors. Usually this occurs in the infamous Sagging Middle as Clare so expertly discussed on Monday. Whether the idea you thought would work doesn’t or you hope the answer will emerge from the ether, you need a way to solve the problem.

So when you get stuck, what can you do? Here are some suggestions that I’ve used. Perhaps they’ll help you, too.

  • Change your writing environment. I have a home office with a desktop PC. I also have a laptop. Sometimes I need different surroundings so I grab my laptop and move to another room or outside. Just the act of breathing fresh air can fire up your brain.
  • Listen to music. Often I write to background music, usually a movie score (no distracting lyrics). But sometimes setting down in front of my stereo and rocking out to my favorite group can clear my head and refresh my thoughts.
  • Get rid of distractions. TV, email, instant and text messages, phone calls, pets, and the biggest offender of them all: the Internet. Get rid of them during your writing time.
  • Stop writing and start reading. Take a break from your writing and read one of your favorite authors. Or better yet, pick something totally out of your wheelhouse.
  • Don’t decide to stop until you’re “inspired”. I’ve tried this. It won’t work.
  • Open a blank document and write ANYTHING. It’s called “stream of consciousness”. It worked for James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust. It can work for you.
  • Write through it. Beginners sit around and hope for a solution to come to them in their dreams. Professionals keep writing. The solution will come.
  • Finally, do something drastic. Bury someone alive. Works every time.

Fellow Zoners, how do you get yourself out of a writer’s corner? What drastic measures have you taken to keep the story moving?

Saving the Sagging Middle

I thought today I would build upon an issue that came up with my last blog post on subplots. Someone asked in a comment whether a subplot could help with the infamous ‘sagging middle’ and my response was (basically) that an author needs to resolve why the middle is sagging before throwing in a subplot to try and ‘fix’ the issue. So today I thought I’d discuss the whole ‘middle’ of the novel issue, and see what processes or cures we might come up with that could help avoid the angst that comes with a middle that seems flat, meandering or just plain soggy…

Once again, I like to refer people to Jim Bell’s great book on Plot & Structure. His approach to the infamous middle focuses (and Jim I hope I’m not misquoting you here!) on two main areas: (1) stretching the tension; and (2) raising the stakes. I am particularly drawn to (2) as I like using the middle of a novel to up the ante for my protagonist. For me, the middle is where you really get to complicate and stir things up for your characters. As an outliner, I focus quite a lot on the middle and often find myself graphing out the tension levels in the novel I’m drafting. If I see a flat line in the middle then I know I’m in trouble. But, whether your an outliner or not – what do you do if, after the first draft is complete, you realize that the middle section just isn’t working? Here are some of my ideas:

(1) Reassess the premise of the novel and explore ways in which you can add complexity, drama and tension to this in the middle.

This could involve adding an additional obstacle for the protagonist, introducing a subplot to add more emotional resonance or tension, or it could be introducing an event that raises the stakes for your characters. Sometimes, the reason the middle of a novel is flat is because the author may not have sufficient depth (in either the premise of the book or its execution) and so the middle feels like ‘treading water’ until the resolution/final conflict occurs. Taking a step back and re-examining the premise might help you identify this and come up with some solutions.

(2) Map out the plot and brainstorm ways to raise the stake or add tension.

As an extremely visual person and a strong believer in outlining, I like to try and display the plot in a visual way that helps me identify places where I might need to add scenes that raise the stakes or add tension. I find once I can see the chapters that meander or sag, I can brainstorm ways in which I can alter the plot to add dramatic tension. This could be the place where an unexpected death occurs, a new character walks in to shake things up, or another obstacle is thrown in the protagonist’s way. Whatever you decide, it should all be aimed at keeping the reader turning the pages…

(3) Eliminate the boring bits!

Sometimes the middle gets bogged down with clues or details of an investigation, the mechanics of the plot or the protagonist going through the motions/actions necessary to progress the novel towards its denouement. One thing I like to bear in mind is that readers get bored…so when re-reading a draft I like to identify areas that even I am starting to glaze over. If, as the author, I’m not riveted, then it’s time to ditch those boring bits and think through how to maintain the tension rather than deflate it.

(4) Use your beta readers!

Another set of eyes and an honest opinion can really help when it comes to working out why the middle of your novel may be meandering or sagging. I like to give my beta readers specific questions to bear in mind while they are reading and one of these is often ‘let me know where you start to lose interest’. Sometimes beta readers help you realize what isn’t working (and often this can come at surprising moments in the book) and can identify the moment they started to find their interest waning. The key, of course, is finding beta readers critical and honest enough to tell you this (rather than what they think you want to hear!).

These are just four options for trying to wrestle with the issue of the dreaded ‘middle’ –  TKZers do you have anything to add or feedback on your own experiences with the dealing with middle-of-the novel ‘sag’?

So Your Self-Published Novel is Just Sitting There

by James Scott Bell

Frank Gruber

Frank Gruber

Heard from a writer the other day who is frustrated that his two novels are sitting somewhere near the bottom of the Sea of Amazon, with nary a fish swimming by. He wondered if he should even bother writing another.

You know what I told him? Be thankful you’re not trying to break through back in 1934!

Yes, the Great Depression and the era of the pulps. You think you’ve got it hard? How about all those writers wearing out their fingers on manual typewriters, hoping to sell a story for a penny a word? How about the ones who pulled their life savings so they could move to New York for as long as the money lasted and make the rounds of the publishing offices?

Let me introduce you to one of them. His name was Frank Gruber. He was a successful pulp writer, then came out to Hollywood to write for the studios. In the 1950s he hit it big as a TV writer for Westerns. In1967 Gruber published The Pulp Jungle, a memoir of his time trying to break into that market. He moved to New York in July of 1934 with a plan to get published within six months.

My physical assets consisted of one portable Remington typewriter and my wardrobe which, aside from what I was wearing, fit very comfortably into one medium size suitcase. I had sixty dollars in cash, but paid out ten dollars and fifty cents of it for a week’s rent in advance at the Forty-fourth Street Hotel. I squandered another ten dollars over the long weekend, so that on Tuesday morning, when I went out to size up the pulp jungle I had approximately forty dollars.

I had one thing else … the will to succeed.

Because money was tight, Gruber ate a lot of “tomato soup” at the Automat (these were popular in the city, like cafeterias, where you put money in a slot to open a window that held a sandwich or whatever). Hot water for tea was free. So what a lot of people did back then was get a bowl for soup, fill it with hot water, pick up some cracker packs (free), sit down at a table and pour half a bottle of ketchup into the water. Voila! Tomato soup. There were days when this is all Gruber ate.

During his first five months Gruber completed forty stories.

All were rejected.

It was desperation time. Then Gruber got a call from an editor who liked him, but hadn’t bought his detective fiction. He asked Gruber to try a Western. So he wrote two stories and submitted them. Then he got a call from an editor he’d pestered, who knew Gruber was a fast writer. The editor said they needed an adventure story the next day to fill out the magazine. Could he do 5500 words overnight? Of course, Gruber said, without any idea of character or plot.

Twelve hours later, at eight in the morning on a Saturday (when the story was due) he had the 5500 words, but no time for corrections. He took the pages to the offices himself.

Then didn’t hear anything.

He went back on Tuesday to see if they had rejected it. The editor said, “Oh, sorry, we forgot to call you. We pay on Friday. Can you give me another story for next month?”

Then the two Westerns he’d submitted earlier sold for a grand total of $34.

He was in!

But this was just the beginning. Even a successful pulp writer (who was writing for a living) was usually just a step or two ahead of the landlord. They had to keep producing, keep selling.

I poured it on in 1940, producing more than eight hundred thousand words. The more I wrote, the more I had to write. I was making commitments all over town and I had to deliver.

This was a common theme among the pulpsters. Gruber tells about a writer named George Bruce who used to throw parties in his small Brooklyn apartment. One night the place was jammed with thirty-plus people. At ten o’clock Bruce announced he had a 12,000 word story due the following morning. He went to a corner where his typewriter was and pounded it for four hours, ignoring the party swirling around him. At two o’clock in the morning he announced he was finished and poured himself a glass of gin.

Gruber also got to know perhaps the most prolific author of all time. His name was Frederick Faust, but you know him by his most famous pen name, Max Brand. When Gruber met him they were in Hollywood working at Warner Bros. Studios. Faust had, by that time, written and published approximately forty-five million words.

Frederick Faust, aka Max Brand

Frederick Faust, aka Max Brand

When Gruber asked him how on earth he did it, Faust asked Gruber if he could write fourteen pages in one day. Gruber said he’d certainly done so (fourteen pages is about 4,000 words), but had also gone two or three weeks without writing a line.

That was the secret, Faust said. He wrote fourteen pages a day, every day, “come rain or shine, come mood or no.”

That works out to one and a half million words a year.

The really remarkable thing about Fred Faust’s output was that he was the “biggest drinker” Gruber ever met. Faust would put away a thermos of whiskey during his morning writing hours. His lunch would be washed down by several more drinks. “When he went home at five-thirty,” Gruber writes, “he had a light supper and then settled down to his serious drinking.”

Faust was one of those extremely rare individuals who could drink like that every night and still operate in the morning. I do not recommend this method.

I do, however, recommend Faust’s seriousness about a quota. I’m a piker compared to guys like Faust and Erle Stanley Gardner. I aim for 6,000 words a week! But I can tell you my yearly output for the last 15 years. I keep track on a spreadsheet. This is the most important writing advice I know. [My best year, by the way, was 2010 – 347,768 words.]

So here’s my message for you if you’re tempted to pull a woe-is-me:

  • Your pulp forbears would shake their heads at how good you’ve got it. You can publish yourself and to a virtually unlimited market! Without cost! They would have thought that possibility was science fiction back in ’34.
  • If you don’t write to a quota, they’d have no sympathy for you.
  • If you don’t pay at least some attention to the market, they’d think you were daft.
  • If you don’t try to get better at your craft, they’d tell you you’d be better off as a plumber, and the sooner the better.
  • If you want to make it, they’d tell you to keep working, because the work never stops.

I wrote a little book some time ago called Self-Publishing Attack! In it are my five “absolutely unbreakable laws” for self-publishing success. While some of the technical items have changed since I published it four years ago, the laws that make up my system remain unalterable.

And the last law is: Repeat over and over the rest of your life.

Are you prepared to do that?

If you are, then somewhere Frank Gruber is smiling.

[NOTE: Gruber would be pleased as pulp to know that his signature series character from the 1930s is still around, in both digital and print. I refer to Oliver Quade, the Human Encyclopedia.]

So what do you think of Frank Gruber’s Depression-era work ethic? Still valid today?

Poke-what?! by Joe Hartlaub

pokemon go

I vaguely remember my older daughter becoming briefly infatuated with something called “Pokemon” in the mid-1990s.  I bought packs of cards at toy and drug and grocery stores, and I think many of them are still around the house, languishing in  in a box mislabeled “silverware” or something under a bed or in a closet underneath some books. The internet wasn’t quite as pervasive back then as it is now; cell phones were the next generation of car phones, and an “app” was what you filled out when you heard about a job opening somewhere. Much has changed, and I thought that Pokemon had gone the way of eight track tapes, replaced by games that you played on your computer or phone called “Warcraft” or “Minecraft” (no, I don’t know what the difference is either).

Two weeks ago my nine-year old granddaughter mentioned Pokemon to me. I let it pass because she then started talking about reading BLACK BEAUTY and I wanted to encourage that over some role playing game. A few days later, however, I started hearing about something called “Pokemon Go.” It’s a smart phone application game that intersects with the real world and it seems to have taken over the minds of a segment of the population. People are breaking into buildings, jumping across rooftops, falling off of cliffs (Darwinism in action, perhaps?) and running through graveyards chasing the Pokemon. The news about it is all-pervasive. And that bothers the hell out of me.

jimmy books

Here is why. Did you know that James Patterson has launched two new book imprints? One is called “Jimmy,” and is aimed at getting younger people to read. The motto of this imprint is, “We want every kid who finishes a Jimmy Book to say: ‘PLEASE GIVE ME ANOTHER BOOK.’” Nice, huh? Patterson could have gone for the plug (notice how nicely “PLEASE GIVE ME ANOTHER JIMMY BOOK” would work) but he didn’t. Please give me another book. Like BLACK BEAUTY. Or The Hardy Boys, or Warriors. Or a Shell Scott… well, wait a few years on that. But give me anything but chasing some cyberworld construct around the city. Jimmy Books. Patterson launched this imprint about a year ago, and has been aided collaboratively by Chris Grabenstein, a fine and talented guy in his own right who has been fighting the fight for children’s literacy for awhile as well.  Did you know about this? No? Are there headlines all over about young folks reading these books? No? I know that a new book imprint for kids is not as exciting as falling into the ocean chasing some monster that doesn’t exist, but please. Patterson is tackling incipient illiteracy here. Isn’t that important too? And he’s pouring his share of the lucre back into reading programs. That sounds like dedication to me.

jim born

I said two imprints. The second was just launched a month or two ago and it’s aimed at adults who don’t read. It’s called Bookshots; each book features Patterson with collaborators such as Maxine Paetro or James O. Born (as well as a host of others) working across a number of genres. The books are around one hundred sixty pages apiece and and are priced at about four bucks. I know a lot of folks who have four bucks in Starbucks drive-through window change rolling around on the floor of their cars. They are designed to only require a few hours to read. And these books are entertaining. They’re not in the league of Cormac McCarthy or James Lee Burke, but your average adult who doesn’t read much anymore isn’t going to reflexively reach for a classic when the mood strikes them. Did you know about this? I just heard about it around a week ago. Where are the headlines? Patterson is launching this for the same reason he launched the Jimmy books: as he has indicated elsewhere, he wants people to exercise their brain muscle. God bless him. What he is doing may not be as glamorous or newsworthy as the fallout from a new phone app, but it’s certainly more important.

So, my fellow readers and authors: how do we get the word out? It obviously takes more than Facebook and Twitter. What can publishers do? What can we do? I’m not interested in what the book industry has been doing wrong recently…I want to know what you think could be done right, to help make reading a valued activity again. Any takers? Or is it a lost cause?

Point of View: First versus Third

By Elaine Viets


When I wrote Brain Storm, the first novel in my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator series, I went through ten rewrites and a year-long debate: Should this novel of psychological suspense be first person or third person?
Brain Storm is a very personal story. Angela, my death investigator, had the same medical crisis that I did – six strokes, brain surgery and a coma, plus months of rehab. I thought first person would reflect that. But third person is better for conveying information, and this new, darker series has complex forensics that would be impossible in a first-person narrative.
I worked out a compromise: the first two chapters of Brain Storm were in first person, which I thought gave the novel a personal introduction. The rest of Brain Storm was in third. And that’s how I sold it.
When I sent out the manuscript for blurbs, thriller writer Jeff Abbott said, “Do you really want to switch POVs like that?” Jeff almost never – and I mean never – gives blurbs, and I admire his writing. After many emails, phone calls, and meetings with my editors, they decided I should recast the first and second chapters into third person, so the whole novel was in third person.

Here is the original first-person Chapter 1 of Brain Storm:


The doctor who nearly killed me was buried today. The Missouri medical establishment turned out to honor him. The eulogies were heartfelt: doctors, nurses and patients praised Dr. Porter Gravois s compassion and skill as a neurologist. Their tears were genuine. His funeral cortege was nearly a mile long on the road named after his powerful St. Louis family. Everyone called him by his nickname, Chip, as if they were all part of his inner circle. Chip made them feel that way.
I didn’t attend his funeral. I was still in the hospital, recovering from the damage he did to me. I’d been in there three months. But I was glad he was dead, and so were the people who knew the real Dr. Gravois. None of us called him Chip.
As I lay on the scratchy hospital sheets, I wondered how Dr. Gravois looked in his coffin. He had a long pale face and a knife blade nose, like a stone figure on a British tomb. Did the mortician manage to duplicate the fatherly smile that fooled so many? That smile didn’t quite reach Dr. Gravois s hard blue eyes, but those were closed forever.
Which suit was he buried in? Chip wore Savile Row suits from Kilgour in London. Chip pronounced it Kilgar, and said only parvenus called the tailor Kilgore. His Kilgour suits were lovely silk and light wool. It was a shame to put one in the ground. But I had no qualms about shoveling Dr. Gravois six feet under.
What about Dr. Gravois s bitter enemy, Dr. Jeb Travis Tritt?
He and his awful off the rack suits were barred from the funeral. No matter how much he paid for his suits, he still looked more like a small town insurance agent than a neurosurgeon.
His unwed mother had named him after her favorite country music star. Dr. Jeb was a country boy, from his badly cut hair to his thick-soled brown shoes.
Was he wearing a jail jumpsuit now? We’d all heard Dr. Jeb threaten Dr. Gravois. He called him a crook and a killer and said the best thing Porter Gravois could do for his patients was die.
The next day, Dr. Gravois was murdered.
That’s the voice of my protagonist, Angela Marie Richman. She was misdiagnosed by Dr. Gravois as “too young and healthy to have a stroke” and sent home, where she had the medical catastrophe that nearly killed her. Dr. Gravois, the man who misdiagnosed her, is the bitter enemy of the talented, gauche Dr. Tritt, who saved Angela’s life. Bald, crippled, and hallucinating after her surgery, Angela has to use to her death investigator skills to save the man who saved her life.


Here is the rewrite of that same Brain Storm chapter in third person:

The doctor who nearly killed Angela Richman was buried today, and the Missouri medical establishment turned out to honor him. The eulogies were heartfelt: doctors, nurses, and patients praised Dr. Porter Gravois’s compassion and skill as a neurologist. Their tears were genuine. His funeral cortege was nearly a mile long on the road named after his powerful St. Louis family. Everyone called him by his nickname, Chip, as if they were all part of his inner circle. Chip made them feel that way.
Angela didn’t attend his funeral. She was still in the hospital, recovering from the damage he’d done to her. She’d been in there three months. Angela was glad Porter was dead, and so were the people who knew the real Dr. Gravois. They didn’t call him Chip.
As she lay on the scratchy hospital sheets, she wondered how Dr. Gravois looked in his coffin. He had a long, pale face and a knife-blade nose, like a stone figure on a British tomb. Had the mortician managed to duplicate the fatherly smile that fooled so many? That smile didn’t quite reach Gravois’s hard, blue eyes, but those were closed forever.
Which suit was he buried in? Chip wore Savile Row suits from Kilgour in London. Chip pronounced it Kilgar and said only parvenus called the tailor Kilgore. His bespoke suits were lovely silk and light wool. It was a shame to put one in the ground. But Angela had no qualms about shoveling Gravois six feet under.
What about Dr. Gravois’s bitter enemy, Dr. Jeb Travis Tritt?
He and his awful, off-the-rack suits were barred from the funeral. No matter how much he paid for his suits, he still looked more like a small-town insurance agent than a neurosurgeon.
His unwed mother had named him after her favorite country music star. Dr. Tritt was a country boy, from his badly cut hair to his thick-soled brown shoes.
Is he wearing a jail jumpsuit now? Angela wondered. Everyone heard Tritt threaten Gravois. He’d called him a crook and a killer and said the best thing Porter Gravois could do for his patients was die.
The next day Dr. Gravois was murdered.

My editor felt that writing those two chapters in first person, then changing them to third, gave the book a more intimate feel. What do you think? Is reversing the points of view a way to add depth to your writing?
PS: Jeff Abbott gave Brain Storm this blurb: “Elaine Viets’s newest is both a timely medical drama and a compelling mystery. Brain Storm gives us a detailed look at the shattered life of a determined death investigator. Readers will want more of Angela Richman’s adventures.”
TKZ’s PJ Parrish said, “I’m stoked to see Elaine venture into darker territory with Brain Storm, a multilayered mystery that is rich in its sense of place and character and propelled with medical intrigue. Brain Storm has everything I love in crime fiction – complexity, intelligence, pretzel plotting, and a touch of dark humor.”

Win Brain Storm, my new Angela Richman Death Investigator mystery. Thomas & Mercer is giving away 100 free Brain Storm e-books on Goodreads. Here’s the link: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/191474-brain-storm

New Kid In The Zone

by Laura Benedict

A few weeks ago, the incredibly generous Joe Moore invited me to blog here at TKZ on alternating Wednesdays. It was an easy “yes” for me because I’ve visited before, and I admire both TKZ’s reputation for excellence and its smart and talented contributors. I toyed with the idea of jumping right in with a specific writing topic, but then I decided it might be better to introduce myself first. So I’ve asked and answered a few questions that will help you get to know me. (Forgive the slightly snarky tone of the questions. Sometimes I’m a grouchy interviewer.)

Let’s start with an easy question. Where are you from?

I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, but grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. I graduated from college and worked in St. Louis, then moved to rural West Virginia where my husband’s family had a dairy farm. After a chilly two-year excursion to Holland, Michigan, we went back east to Roanoke, Virginia, for eight years. Now we live in Southern Illinois, which is an hour closer to Tupelo, Mississippi than it is to Chicago. Setting plays a big role in my fiction, and up to this point I’ve stuck pretty closely to those locations.

When did you start writing fiction?

As a child and young adult, I was always a reader, but I didn’t have the confidence to imagine I could be a writer—amateur or professional. It wasn’t until I was working for A Great Big Beer Company in St. Louis, and found myself tinkering with the professional copy I was buying for sales promotion projects, that I even considered writing fiction. (You’ll note the connection in my mind between ad copy and fiction.) By then I was in my mid-twenties. I didn’t publish my first novel until I was in my forties.

What kind of books do you write?

I’ve always been drawn to the darker side of fiction, and perhaps that’s why I can never find happiness writing about those quotidian epiphanies that are so popular in academic/literary circles. It wasn’t until I wrote my third novel that I really found my voice—and it was a supernatural story called Isabella Moon, about a woman who tries to solve the murder of a little girl while on the run from her psychotic husband. That novel was the first one I sold, as part of a two-book deal with Ballantine. My latest novels are a gothic trilogy set in a haunted house in a fictional Virginia town: Bliss House, Charlotte’s Story, and The Abandoned Heart (Pegasus Crime, October 2016). Despite their pretty covers, they are not quiet books for the faint of heart. As I mentioned, I write short stories as well. They show up in various places and run the gamut from straight mysteries to the horrific and surreal. In fact, my absurdly talented writer husband, Pinckney Benedict, and I edited an anthology series of southern surreal stories called Surreal South. You can take a peek at my website or author page to read more about all of my work.

You look like such a nice lady. Why do you write creepy stories?

I look forward to talking about how I—and other writers—choose stories to write. But as to the why? Sorry. That’s between my therapist and me. As you get to know me better, you might hazard a guess or two—and I just may tell you if you’re right!

Why are the most ragged, dog-eared books on your bookshelf Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca? Talk about a peculiar pair.

I’ve never been one for chasing down celebrities, but I confess I’d love to have had dinner with Daphne and Cormac just to see what they’d make of each other. But—with apologies to every writer here—I’ve found that most writers aren’t so great at talking about or even understanding their own stories. It’s the books that are important. Besides being darned good reads, Blood Meridian and Rebecca both contain elements that appeal to me as both writer and reader: complex, disturbing crimes, unforgettable characters, and settings that are, themselves, active characters.

Pantser or Plotter?

I suspected this question was coming. To borrow a description from my friend, Jordan Dane, I’d say I’m a recovering pantser. Up until very recently, my mantra excuse was, “If I figure out the plot ahead of time, I’ll have told myself the story and I’ll be bored and won’t want to write it.” What I’ve learned—the hard way—is that there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in pondering plot and character before getting into the writing. And there’s much, much more to it than saying this needs to happen, then this, etc. The first inkling of each story nearly always comes to me as a vivid image—usually of a protagonist or a setting. But that’s not a heck of a lot to hang a novel on, and thus the plot often reveals itself with an agonizing slowness that undermines my production goals. I’ll get into this later, but for a long time I bought into the notion that the story was a sacred object, and if I manipulated it, it would become over determined and wouldn’t work.

Do you have an MFA? Have you been educated by highly trained writing professionals?

No, and let me think about that for a moment.

Approximately a hundred and fifty years ago, I got a B.S. in Business Administration with a major in finance. I didn’t take a single writing class until I was well into a promotions career with the subsidiary of A Great Big Beer Company in St. Louis. After I took a couple undergrad creative writing classes, I talked my way into a grad fiction workshop and was promptly and roundly mocked for my plot-heavy stories. The professor said they were too old-fashioned to be published. Ouch. But being a contrary sort, I decided to forge ahead. I understood that I wasn’t trained to write literary fiction (which I consider a genre, not an end-game—more on that later, too), and after the workshop experience, I wasn’t much interested to learn. So I read more than ever (classics, literary and commercial fiction and non-fiction) and wrote even more. I wrote short stories and entered many, many contests. In 2000, I discovered a Joyce Carol Oates story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and told myself that if she—one of my literary idols—wrote for EQMM, then I should give it a shot. They published my story, The Hollow Woman, in their Department of First Stories in 2001. (My third EQMM story, The Peter Rabbit Killers, is in the recent July issue. And you can listen to me read The Erstwhile Groom on their Podomatic website.)

When I decided to write novels, I swallowed my pride and took a couple of independent studies and workshops to give myself some deadlines. I know I learned at least as much from the other participants as I did from the teachers. Of course, the best teachers are always books themselves.

Do you know anything about independent publishing, or are you strictly about traditional publishing?

When the great publishing purge of 2009/2010 occurred (does anyone else remember that, or was it just my personal cataclysm?), I was dropped by my publisher. I panicked and pouted for two years, but I also kept writing and, after my next novel didn’t find a traditional home, I delved into the brave new world of independent publishing. My husband and I started our own small press and put out my third novel in ebook and paper. Since then I’ve published my backlist, a Bliss House short story, and a couple of anthologies. There’s more on the way.

I’m a big believer in using the right delivery system for the right story. And never giving up. I’m happy to share what I know, and am always anxious to learn from others in the business.

Do you have a day job, or do you just sit in your house and write all day?

For the past twenty-four years, parenting and writing have been my competing jobs. I homeschooled my daughter at various points up until high school, and am now partially homeschooling my sixteen year-old son. My mornings are for writing business, promotion, research, and/or social media. Homeschool is in the afternoon, then I write before dinner and into the wee hours. I have raging ADHD but can’t write on medication, so staying at my desk to write is a major act of will for me.

If you follow astrology profiles, you already know that my early July birthday makes me a Cancer, and Cancers are often introverted homebodies. Though I do like to get out and meet readers and socialize at conferences and book festivals. If you’re wondering what I’m currently up to, let’s get together on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and at my website.

Do you teach writing, or do you just write?

I’ve taught at many writing workshops over the years, including the residential Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop at Hollins University, and the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop. I’ve also done many smaller writing workshops for both children and adults.

What do you bring to The Kill Zone party?

I bring my love for the written word along with me, and my enthusiasm for sharing what I’ve learned with emerging writers. I bring my curiosity and hunger to learn and adapt. Also, I always have chocolate to share, and occasionally even a salad in my purse.

I’m thrilled and delighted to be here, but that’s enough about me. Tell me a bit about yourself and what brings you here.

Silly Season and Political Thrillers


imageWe’re heading into the hot zone of national election season this month–and the consequences of  silly season 2016 are going to start having serious consequences for the US, and the world. All this puts me in the mood to stock up on some nail-biting, high stakes political thrillers to put at the top of my summer reading list. Suggestions? What are some of the best political thrillers you’ve ever read?




Four Major Stumbles by Newer Writers

by Larry Brooks

These four nasty little traps would still be weaknesses if they appeared in the novels of more experienced professional writers. But for the most part, those writers don’t commit these mistakes. Which defines the window of opportunity for newer writers – to understand what they’re doing and how they do it.

And how that differs from where your story is, at any given moment. Especially when you believe you are done.

It is important to remember that when you read a novel from a proven professional, you’re reading a polished, pounded upon, tested and fortified final draft. The story may have been riddled with problems in the early stages, draft after draft, so don’t assume these pitfalls are unique to the newer writer.

Established authors have agents and editors for this purpose, newer writers don’t. And they bring their 10,000 hours of apprenticeship to the task, which probably exceeds your resume by orders of magnitude.

A few workshops won’t get you there. Those 10,000 hours, along with the criteria-driven, modeled craft held up as the target, just might.

If I wanted to read fully realized, polished stories all day long, I’d be a book reviewer instead.

I do read a lot of work from folks who are terrific writers… if the composition of sentences and paragraphs is the benchmark for that description.

But the thing is, it isn’t.

Where writing novels is concerned, a terrific writer is judged by the story more than the prose. And because they are two different skill sets, one doesn’t necessarily beget the other.

A story is so much more than a sequence of paragraphs composed of sentences. In the same way that a house is composed of so much more than a bunch of wood planks nailed together. Really strong, beautiful two-by-fours do not a functional, aesthetically-pleasing house make. There is more to is than the wood itself, and much of it isn’t visible to the eye, because it resides in the infrastructure of the building.

Such is the story sensibility the new writer often lacks.

Allow me to summarize what too often comes up short:

One: The writer doesn’t understand what a premise is.They confuse it with other story essences, like concept and theme and backstory.

The project I worked on this morning answered the question, What is your premise? with this:

Here is my copy for the back cover of the paperback for my story.

A red flag, this. The author has the back cover copy done, but the novel itself is still in the incubator.

Rarely is what we read on the back cover a premise. It’s marketing copy.

In the name of offering a solution today, here is the definition of premise, which becomes a sort of checklist for the entire story itself:

A protagonist/hero whose current life (which we get a glimpse of, and perhaps a bit of background for) is interrupted, disrupted or leads into… a specific problem, need or opportunity… launching a hero’s quest with a mission and a specific desired outcome, beginning with a response to the need or problem… for reasons (stakes) that compel the character to respond… in the presence of opposition from an antagonistic force or person(s) with opposing goals and their own motivations… calling for higher and stronger responses and course of action, often with those stakes evolving into something darker or more urgent… leading toward brilliant and courageous resolution resulting from the Hero’s decisions and actions… leading toward a specific outcome, returning the hero to a life that is contextually different than where the story began.

Two: While the story is deeply rooted in genre, the writer is more focused – too focused – on characterization and theme and backstory than the forward-facing dramatic arc and tropes of that genre.

In other words, the story is either episodic or completely void of a hero’s quest/mission, undertaken because of what is at stake and a sense of urgency. It links to genre only by virtue of setting and context, rather than actionable drama and stakes.

In yet more other words… there is no compelling plot. A dramatic question in play. Which is what the premise, when done properly, describes.

“Finding his true self,” or “forgiving the past” are both really bad, really lame hero’s quests. Those are character arc goals and outcomes, but they are not the raw grist of a story. Because in genre, a story is about more than the arc of the character. Rather, it is about what the hero does to reach those goals, decisions and actions and confrontations that are dramatic and full of risk and conflict.

This is the stuff of premise. The meat and potatoes of narrative.

From a dramatic standpoint (rather than thematic), was The Hunger Games about Katniss finding true love? No. It was about getting out of that arena without someone planting an ax  blade in her skull.

In genre fiction, story lives and dies by its drama, driven by conflict. Leave the thematic analysis and character depth to the reviewers, all of that is an outcome of how the character responds to the drama into which you’ve dropped them. It’s your job to make it work, that’s true, but without a compelling dramatic arc in play, all of itwill be lost on your reader.

If you are writing in a genre – thriller, mystery, romance, fantasy, including mash-ups between them – the need for plot is non-negotiable. And a plot is subject to certain expectations and criteria – an author doesn’t get to redefine what the word “plot” means – which is what the new writer too often misses.

A newer writer’s story might play as “the adventures of…” which doesn’t work in genre. Michael Connelly’s novels are not the adventures of Harry Bosch. Rather, there is a case to solve, a single pursuit of a perp and of justice, complicated by other pressuring layers of subplot and subtext, including an antagonist/villain.

All of it defining character, by giving your hero something to do.

The life story of a fictional character may work in literary fiction, but not here.

Three: There isn’t sufficient emotional resonance that gives the reader something to root for.

I read a time travel story recently (when I say story, I mean a narrative plan submitted to me for analysis) in which two girls go back in time (never mind how) to… wait for it… ogle men wearing kilts. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.

This was a romance, which the author argued licensed any lack of thematic weight. I disagreed. The difference is like an episode of Ray Donovan versus an episode of The Housewives of New Jersey.

The dramatic stakes were fine – one of the girls goes missing back in time – and it seemed like everybody was falling in lustful love with everyone else as they looked for her. The hero sister trying to find her lost sibling was really more interested in the butt of the plantation owner’s son.

The question remained unclear, and unanswered: Why? Who cares? Especially when, after one sister finds the other, they both decide to remain stuck in 16th century Scotland. Because those guys in kilts, they’re freaking hot.

Not something a more experienced writer would have chosen.

Four: The story lacks a compelling conceptual core.

The key word here is compelling.

The story idea is flat. The premise seems to be searching for something compelling, hoping to land there – as if the writer, when alerted to the fact that the story is flat, would say, “But when I write it you’ll see, it’ll all come alive when you read it on the page” – rather than stemming from something compelling. Like a killer story arena, or a character we’ve never seen before.

I just finished coaching a story that basically read like this: a normal guy lives in an ancient town, next to another ancient town full of bad people. The bad people want to attack his town because they are located closer to the water, which provides access to trade and sustenance. That’s the setup. So our guy, the hero, organizes a militia of other every day guys, and when the bad people attack, he leads them to victory, battle after battle after… many more battles. Meanwhile, there is a magic stone that only he can understand, which turns him into a great warrior. After the victory, they name him as their king, and everyone lives happily ever after.

I told him it doesn’t really work, at least at the pitch level. There isn’t an agent in the business that would say to this, “Dude, I’ve been waiting all year for a story like this, you’ve got to send it to me!” More likely they’d say, “I’ve seen twelve of these this week alone. Nothing special here, this is generic. Been there, read that, didn’t like then, either.”

It doesn’t glow in the dark. There’s nothing conceptual. Nothing that makes a reader say, “Holy cow, this is the type of story I’ve been waiting for, I can’t wait to read this!”

Which is one of the benchmarks of a great concept, and a premise built from it.

The story idea isn’t strong enough. At least not yet. The writer has committed to it too soon, perhaps without fully understanding what does make a story idea glow in the dark.

The whole point — the difference between the newer writer and the successful more experienced one — is story sense. The ability to recognize what works and what doesn’t, based on criteria that never change.

Don’t depend on your writing to make it glow in the dark. Because chances are, while you’re really good and your sentences make your Aunt Mabel rave about your emails, that talent is a dime-a-dozen in the universe of writers who are trying to do what you’re trying to do.

Make no mistake, such stories can work. But when they do, there is more going on than the thin shell of a story that this example describes.

Game of Thrones is compelling because of the characters and the setting. Which on paper, is rarely enough. Which renders it an exception, not the thing you should set out to emulate. It’s like telling young athletes to be like Mike. Do what Mike does.

Michael Jordan, that is.

In the story described, there is nothing conceptual about that guy in the town with the magic stone, or anyone else in the cast (swap out compelling for conceptual, which will help clarify). No Mother of Dragons. No White Walkers. No John Snow. No ruthless, seductive Queen. Nothing with the vividly drawn landscape of Westeros. No sex. No violence. No OMG! moments. Nothing like the other 45 characters that leap off the G.O.T. pages and scream, I am conceptual and you will learn to love me, even if you hate me!

Writing a saga is tough work, advanced work. Harry Potter was not a saga, it was a series, which is different. Newer writers not only need to understand the difference, but also the depth of craft and structure required to make such a story work.

There is a line you cross, somewhere among those 10,000 hours, when you know you’re no longer a newer writer.

That you’re in the game for real, and that you have a real shot, because you understand the game itself in a way that you didn’t before.

It’s all there, in that definition of premise. When you own it, completely and thoroughly, including what resides between those lines, it will propel you to the finish line. Because owning it doesn’t mean simply executing on it, but doing so with power and flair, with dramatic weight, conceptual appeal and thematic substance.

All beginning with a truly killer story idea. Which will look different to you – the bar will be higher – once you’ve crossed that line.