A Criminal Obsession: Are You Guilty, Too?

I’m not sure what I was looking at the other day, but for some reason I suddenly realized (“suddenly realized” is a phrase I would warn you away from in your fiction) that my mind and life are consumed with the subject of crime.

I would make a lame criminal. While I’ve had my brushes with Johnny and Jane Law, I’ve only ever almost been arrested (juvenile offenses, and minor ones at that—let’s leave those to your imagination for now). I’m a terrible liar, meaning that I have a very hard time lying without immediately giving myself away. No poker face for me. I blush and stammer and can’t help but laugh nervously. I can feel my heart speed up and my blood pressure rise with the red in my face. Suffice it to say I would never bother to try to fool a polygraph. I’d like to say I can’t lie because of my ironclad moral code, but I suspect it’s more a lack of self-confidence.

Crime fascinates me. I know several people who have been victims of violent crimes, or have had loved ones injured or murdered. Crime is real, and I’m not a groupie of real crimes and criminals. But the stories that catch my attention first when I’m online or reading a newspaper are always crime stories: silly, sordid, violent, white-collar, rural, urban—they’re all fascinating. And I’ve never found the variety and true weirdness in fiction that I can find in the newspaper or online. (With the exception of Harry Crews, of course. Harry used to give me the vapors.)

I’m not sure when I stopped reading books that didn’t involve crime. Or watching non-crime television. Sure, I’ve read a few biographies or literary novels over the past decade, but they’ve been outnumbered by crime, suspense, and historical fiction by a factor of ten. That feels like a strange admission to come from a person who loves the classics and used to review books of all sorts for a living. (Well, even back then, it wasn’t exactly a living.)

Not long before I stopped reviewing professionally, I was a Best Novel judge for a major mystery fiction award. Talk about a baptism by crime fiction fire. I was given hundreds of mystery novels, and read a huge number of them. It felt like a whole new world to me. There were tropes and rules, and so many plots. Did I say I read them? In truth, I devoured them. In younger days, I’d read an Agatha Christie here and there, teethed on Poe, Patricia Highsmith, and Jim Thompson. And lord knows I watched Columbo, MacMillan and Wife, the Rockford Files, and David Suchet’s Poirot until my eyeballs dried out. But I never knew there was such variety in the form. So many crime/mystery niches. So much comfort and exercise for my brain in one genre.

Comfort and exercise. Now, there’s an odd combination.

I like to tell my workshops that all good works of fiction are essentially mysteries. The mystery is the unfolding of the story. Only the author is absolutely certain what will happen before the last page is turned (or in the case of a thriller, the why is more evident, and the how is the mystery). The reader is constantly imagining what might happen next, making up her own possible scenarios that might finish the story. A good book poses at least one question at its opening, and answers it by the end. The challenge for the reader is to try to get inside the writer’s head and know where she is going at least a heartbeat before the story takes her there. Why, why, why, why, why? The reader constantly asks. Every sentence has to have some kind of answer.

If you read enough mysteries or other crime novels, or if you watch mysteries on television, you will definitely be able to predict with some accuracy what the outcomes will be. That’s where the strange comfort comes in. There’s comfort in knowing a crime or mystery has been solved, or comfort in knowing it hasn’t, but that the truth rests with one of the characters we’ve met. Or that someone is punished. You can’t always get that kind of satisfaction in real life. Closure in real life can be protracted and painful, or non-existent.

Not long ago I gave an emerging writer a critique on a family drama novel. The writing was fine, and there was some decent tension in the story. But I found myself wanting to suggest heightened drama and perhaps the introduction of…a crime. Neither the writer nor her intended readers would have much liked that.

I fear I am ruined for everything but crime stories. I want high stakes. I want to live in the head of someone who looks at the world through a lens of twisted intensity. I want things to happen, frequently and with vigor and unintended consequences.

My husband has been teaching creative writing in various universities for three decades. If I were to crystalize his advice to his students, it would be: Don’t bore me.

That’s the thing about crime fiction. It’s rarely boring. If I want quiet intensity, I can read Louise Penny. Rhys Bowen and M.C. Beaton are available for deadly shenanigans. Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs are immersive. John Hart and John Connolly give us unforgettable characters. Reed Farrell Coleman and Cormac McCarthy are full of grit. Lindsay Faye and Susan Elia MacNeal offer historical secrets. I could go on all day.

Crime-centric television is my playground. In the past two years I’ve watched the entire Poirot, Midsomer Murders, Prime Suspect, Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis series. Also True Detective, The Fall, Vera, Worricker, Bosch, Blue Murder, Grantchester, Whitechapel, Touching Murder, Broadchurch, and a truly embarrassing amount of Nordic noir (not an exhaustive list).

We also watched The Detectorists (charming, not a crime series) and Galavant (musically charming), though I could barely sit through the Galavant songs. Almost no one dies!

I tell myself that all the combination death and destruction and darkness is a big part of my job. That living it and breathing it is okay as long as there are brief excursions into other realms. Realms I used to visit much more frequently. (On Thanksgiving we went to see Arrival, the new alien film. Meh.)


This coming year, I’m going to make a sincere effort to read more widely and watch with a mind open to non-crime possibilities. I thought I’d start with Silence by Shūsakū Endō. Martin Scorcese has directed a film adaptation of the novel, which is about two Jesuit priests who travel to 17th century Japan to find their missing mentor. Christianity has been outlawed, and its adherents are persecuted and tortured. It sounds plenty intense, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. But it at least can’t be categorized as crime fiction. Right?

What genres make up most of your reading and viewing? Are you single-minded, reading mostly in your chosen writing genres, or do you read and watch widely?

Laura Benedict’s latest novel is The Abandoned Heart. It’s full of crime and suspense.

The New “WestWorld”: A Show About Storytelling

fullsizerender8By Kathryn Lilley

I don’t watch many television shows, so I was surprised that I recently become addicted to a new HBO series: “Westworld”.

When I first heard that HBO was making a series based on the original concept of the Westworld film (the earlier version was written by sci-fi writer Michael Crichton), I’ll admit that I was skeptical. The original Westworld was one of the worst movies of all time, surpassed in its hideousness (despite a bravura performance by actor Yul Brynner) only by its lamentable sequel, “Futureworld”.

The premise is simple: “Westworld” is a recreation of a 19th century western town, staffed by android “hosts”, where vacationers can act out their fantasies about living in the old West. The paying guests of Westworld are told that they can live out their Wild West fantasies in complete safety. “Nothing can go wrong,” the tourists are told. Which means, of course, that everything certainly will go wrong, and fast.

Fortunately for viewers, the new HBO series far surpasses the original film. It explores issues such as the nature of consciousness, the relationship between humans and robots, and the stories we invent about our lives.

Here is the trailer for the original 1973 movie:

And here is the trailer for the 2016 HBO series.

Same premise, much more effective execution. The HBO version of Westworld is a great show for writers to watch, in particular. At its heart, Westworld is a show about storytelling. Each episode explores an aspect of telling stories, positing the notion that our memories are nothing more than the narratives we select to anchor our identities as human beings. My favorite character in the show is the writer, Lee Sizemore, a profane, alcoholic hack who is charged with writing the “depraved little fantasies” that entertain the tourists at Westworld. Sizemore’s hapless, comedic character offers a refreshing contrast to the polished perfection of the androids and robotic-seeming humans of Westworld.

Have you been watching the Westworld series on HBO? Here is a New York Times article recapping this week’s penultimate show, Episode 9. But if you haven’t been watching the series, I wouldn’t jump into one of the later episodes. Multiple timelines and unreliable narrators abound in this ambitious show, so it’s essential to watch it from the beginning. Next Sunday is the finale, and fans of Westworld are eager to know: is Arnold really dead?

Fun aspect of the new Westworld: the integration of contemporary rock music as the musical score. Here’s a clip as an example (strong language, violence advisory).

The Most Important Aspect of Craft That Gets Almost Zero Airtime

By Larry Brooks

I bet you know a writer who isn’t shy about declaring how “bad” Dan Brown’s writing is. Or James Patterson’s. Or even John Grisham’s, among a roster of other A-list names with more readers that any of us should dare to dream.

Certainly, the shaded prose stylings of E.L. James, too.

I’m not here to argue that.

I could argue that, by the way (my guess is Ms. James is laughing all the way to the bank), at least for some of those names, but that’s not my intention here today.

Conversely, we hear much conversation about how wonderful the writing is in, say, a Raymond Chandler novel. Or in the novels of Michael Connelly, Nelson DeMille or Neil Gaiman.

Or in the novel Goldfinch, by Donna Taart, who has a Pulitzer on her mantle to show for it,  (though – perhaps ironically – I will say, I haven’t met a writer who will admit to being able to finish that one…) even though critics weren’t overly impressed.

Rather than stake a position on either end of any “good writing” estimation, my mission here is to put forth a counterpoint.

It is this: While you may insist you know writers who are better than these and other authors of homerun bestsellers… I’ll also wager that you’ve never met a writer who has had a better story idea—a premise—as thematically rich and dramatically-promising as, say, Dan Brown’s The Davinci Code.

Or even as commercially resonant as 50 Shades of Grey.

I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of authors at the writing conference aren’t seeking to become the next Raymond Chandler. That’s a rare dare-to-dream.

Rather, they are looking to unlock the key to breaking into the business.

And while there is a long list of such stuff on those agendas, perhaps the most important aspect of craft in that part of the equation gets almost no attention.

Which is: how to land on a better story idea. An idea that is truly good enough.

Tell me the last time you saw that one on the conference agenda.

I can hear the outrage now… but if that’s you, you may be missing the point.

Within the polite kumbaya of the writing conversation, the unspoken etiquette holds that nobody can—almost nobody will—tell you that your story idea is weak. That it actually sucks. The focus is on your execution… of whatever story idea you deem to bring to the party.

And yet, at least half the time, if the writing itself is good enough, it is that idea that will get you rejected. Nobody dares tell you that you can’t write your way out of a bland story idea (sort of like an average Joe auditioning for the lead role next to George Clooney)… without elevating the premise itself.

This imprecise corner of the writing conversation is always compartmentalized. Only one of those compartments has anything at all to do with glowing narrative prose, the very thing you are judging when you look down your nose at Dan Brown.

Rather, the conversation breaks down with a divide between: brand new writers… working apprentice-level writers… journeyman novelists… and A-list bestselling writers.

Look closely. Only that last group can get away with a novel that is built upon a less-then-stellar premise.

And yet, only the first three are overly-focused on the tactile sound and pitch of their writing voice.

And none of them–yes, you read that correctly–totally depends on the stellar writing chops of the John Updike variety.

Let’s take those compartments one-at-a-time.

Agents and editors like to say they are looking for the next great writer. The next great voice. But upon that closer look I just asked you to take is a clearer truth: they are actually looking for the next great story.

A story that will sell.

Truth be told, agents and editors are looking for the next great homerun.

Which means, if your story idea is remotely rote or familiar, anything smelling of vanilla or promising an overly-characterized narrative that is light on a conceptually-rich premise (which is code for that dirtiest of lit school words: plot), they will most likely pass.

No matter how lyrically rich or promising your prose. The world us full of brilliant lit majors with MFAs who can’t get arrested in the commercial marketplace.

In a game full of 90-plus-MPH fastballs, beginning at the high school level, the scouts are out there tracking down the next 98-MPH heater. And yet… all of those pitchers look pretty good on the mound.  And then–to morph this story analogy toward a prose analogy–the ball needs to come in at 102-plus on that count… something that happens about once a decade.

In other words (no pun intended there), the truly great story idea/premise is not remotely a commodity proposition, while pro-level prose (90-MPH back in our analogy) absolutely is. Think about it: at a conference with 800 writers in attendance, all of them seeking a spot on the bookshelf, how many are in possession of a story premise that would keep an agent awake all night? And how many realize that is precisely what is required to break in?

It isn’t going to be your beautiful sentences, you can pretty much be assured of that.

Maybe that’s why we spend almost no time at all talking about or describing what such premises are made of. Rather, we talk about how to hammer a middling premise–without ever really labeling it as such–into something that works… which is a tall order.

That’s the wall—the towering monolithic obstacle—that all three of those first four groups (the exception being the established author with a waiting readership and the sales data to prove it) must scale: you need an idea that lifts the agent or editor out of their seat.

A premise that makes their skin itch with excitement. Deliver that, and the prose bar falls quickly to eye level, from the ceiling where you once believed it to be.

That killer story idea is not remotely an easy task, because agents and editors have, literally, seen it all. They are not easily impressed.

And yet, that should be our goal. At least until your name is David Baldacci.

We share a venue here called The Kill Zone.

Which by definition means we are writing genre novels. Not The Great American Literary Novel, ala Ms. Taart’s Goldfinch.

The math, then, takes us to the other side of the = sign: you need a killer premise. A plot. Dramatic tension along a hero’s path arising from conflict driven in context to emotionally-resonant stakes.

Don’t hear me wrong, great characterization remains important.

To argue this as anything close to a counterpoint is like saying salt is critical to the work of a great chef.

But it is not the primary mission, or even the point. Because voice alone, born on the wings of your angelic prose… will get you quickly rejected in our dark corner of the marketplace.

And therein we find the Great Abyss into which new and newer and even some frustrated experienced authors find themselves tumbling head over tookus: the premise-void, character-driven novel, sometimes fancifully described as a thriller. A book that, however beautifully narrated, isn’t driven by the same premise-on-steroids story ideas that has allowed Dan Brown to build a 55,000 square foot home with a view of the Pacific, and pay cash for it.

But what about those famous folk, you ask.

Many of which are indeed genuinely literary.

Fact is, they are held to a different standard. Which means their premises no longer must glow in the dark.

Rest assured, they too have a concept that propels their stories into the marketplace faster and deeper than a musketeer’s kill thrust. But what takes such writers to the mountain top may not be the originality and edge of their story idea.

Rather, their concept is their name.

On the benchmark for what constitutes a compelling concept, nothing says sign-me-up faster than a book with the words John Grisham on the cover. There isn’t an agent or an editor in the business who would look the other way if such a manuscript came their way (yeah, as if Grisham and Connelly are shopping for new representation) saying, “well, the writing just didn’t speak to me.”

Which leaves us with an opportunity to grow… through this realization.

As someone who trades in unpublished and unpublishable story ideas (in my role as a story coach and workshop presenter who hears pitches in the same context as the agents and editors in attendance), I can attest to the fact that a truly compelling, conceptually-rich concept is a rare and beautiful thing.

Take note: it is that hyphenated adjective—conceptually-rich—that will get you published.

Rather, too many new-ish authors are serving up middle-shelf, been-there-read-that yawns for story ideas, some of them rendered with legitimately terrific prose. Which doesn’t serve them in the least within their genre… at least until they finally do find their book in the B&N window, which will precisely because of the premise, not their voice.

Story conception and writing voice are separate core competencies. In much the same way that storytelling and self-promotion are the separate muscle groups of the successfully-self-published.

Or, rather than that commodity premises,  new writers are pitching plot-light (or void) character studies wrapped within episodic documentaries. Such as… “I spent a summer traveling the Far East just after grad school, and it changed me… my novel is about that.”

And the agent looking for the next genre-driven homerun says: “Pass.”

If you’re lucky, they might add: “Your writing is good. But you need a better story.”

But don’t hold your breath.

Note: Eat, Pray, Love was not a novel.

Too many new authors are shocked to hear this. Stop pitching stories with something similar as the premise of your novel if you want to break into the fiction business.

Learn what a novel is. Learn how, among the wide breadth of novels, literary novels are different than genre novels. And within the genres, each has certain tropes and expectations that define what readers are expecting.

The last thing an agent will do is represent a genre novel that doesn’t deliver what fans of that genre are expecting. And the last thing they are expecting is a “novel” that describes what you did on your summer vacation.

Understand that your writing voice is only one of the six categorical core competencies you need to play with the pros (the others being concept/premise, character, theme, structure, and scene development). Accept the paradox: among those six, voice presents the most reachable bar (because odds are you were decent at it from Day One, it was probably why you’ve hung out your Writer shingle in the first place), and yet, it remains a lofty bar, indeed.

And finally, stop trying to write the books that already-famous authors are already writing.

The trick, the ticket in, is to write within the expectations of your genre, or genre mash-up, but do it with something that constitutes a fresh twist, a twist on steroids, combined with massive layers of emotional resonance within a vicarious reading experience.

Learn the difference between a concept and a premise, and make sure your story idea leads deeply into both. That particular understanding is key to nailing consistently fresh story ideas that result in rich story premises. Because it is precisely that element—something conceptual—that makes the difference.

And then, pay attention to what is selling. Notice the stories that create break-in opportunities for writers you haven’t heard of, and notice the wider latitude more established authors have in this regard. The conceptual bar is lower, precisely because the name on the cover is bigger.

Do these things, and one day your prose might matter to the extent you wish it did.

Until then, your writing voice should play like fresh, unfettered air… clean and invigorating, with only a carefully-placed dash of irony or wit, uncluttered with anything that smells up the place (read: adjectives are largely toxic)… because one reader’s perfume may be another’s stench.

There is precious little out there that will lead you to a better story idea. The kind that makes agents and editors sweat. Our job is to understand what the means, and the stuff it is made of when it happens.

Better story ideas leading to stronger story premises are a product of an evolved story sensibility. That is the goal of the truly enlightened writer at any stage of the game.

Character will always be there. But mostly, giving the character something amazing and intense and emotionally-resonant to do—giving the reader something to root for, rather than simply observe—is the recipe you are looking for.

Build your sense of story around that truth, and your ticket may be destined to be punched.



Click HERE to opt-in to Larry’s mailing list announcing new video-based craft training programs and discounts. Enroll now to receive the first program — Essential Craft for Emerging Authors — FREE 

Heat Up Point of View for Greater Reader Empathy

by James Scott Bell

Today’s lesson comes via a first page submitted by an anonymous author. Here we go:

Mr. Who
And The Curious Case Of Fatal Flatulence

Chapter 1

Mr. Who had to face facts. Breaking the law was harder than it looked. Well, not so much the breaking part, he had no trouble doing that. But the getting arrested for it part, now that was proving to be a bugger.

This time, though, would be different, he thought. Robbing a bank, now that would definitely do the trick, right? Perfect for getting thrown into the hoosegow, the pokey, the big house. Hell, he’d settle for the little house if it meant getting his pinkies checked for their criminal history.

He’d have to do some time for it, of course, but convinced that his past was filled with who-knows-how-many bad deeds and broken laws, having done so much harm to so many innocent people, it would serve him right. Right?

Oh, yeah… Better start at the beginning so you got a chance to know what’s going on here.

The exact moment he lost all memory was one he’ll never forget.


Make that the moment right after his amnesia took hold.

It was strange enough not knowing who he was, or even simple facts about his life—talk about feeling like an idiot—but what happened after that… Well, that was stranger still.


The first thing he saw when he came to was… nothing. He was surrounded by complete and utter darkness.

Oh, no. His mind raced—but not in a homed in straight line, like a top fuel dragster. More like a bunch of lame bumper cars bouncing off each other in a ridiculous effort to come up with… something… anything… instead of the big fat zilch that did come forth.

His mind may have been empty, but his gut was talking to him loud and clear. And it was telling him the pitch-darkness was not his friend. Far from it. Feeling like it had him by the throat, he struggled to breathe. He couldn’t tell how many invisible hands it had, but it must have been at least three—enough to clutch his throat while also tying his stomach in knots.

It was so dark something terrible could be right in front of his face, like a crazed killer could be right there, and he’d never… Was that a growl?

Maybe a rabid pit bull was about to pounce. He cringed and braced for it.


In my last first-page critique, on the perils of author voice, I mentioned that the overt authorial voice is more fitting for a comic novel. Well, what can you say about a novel subtitled The Curious Case of Fatal Flatulence? It’s not going for an Anna Karenina vibe, now is it?

With that in mind, how does the voice work here? Okay, I’d say. The author chooses to set up the story with a jaunty intro which presents an intriguing mystery: why does this guy want his “pinkies checked” for criminal history?

That being said, I would counsel the author not to give any more away, leaving the readers with a mystery. That’s always a good way to get them to read further. Cut the last three lines of the intro, because you already have a wonderful last line hook: The exact moment he lost all memory was one he’d never forget.

Boom. (I changed he’ll to he’d for grammatical consistency.)

That opening would make me want to read the second part. Which, when you think about it, is the goal of any page of our fiction––get the reader to read the next page.

In this second section we move into Third Person POV. The comic author voice is not completely absent, but the more we get into the Lead’s head the better. Here are some notes:

1. Cut the line He was surrounded by complete and utter darkness.

It’s redundant. And it’s less immediate than the first line. Sol Stein has a little rule he calls 1 + 1 = 1/2. If you use two descriptive lines in a row for the same thing, it doesn’t add to the vividness, it dilutes it. Always go for one gem, not two nuggets.

2. Cut Oh no.

It doesn’t add anything to the rest of the paragraph.

3. Cut that did come forth.

It’s a little odd to think of “zilch” as “coming forth.” Zilch = nothingness, which by definition does not exist. Those four words don’t add anything, so cut them. In fact, this seems to be a point of style this author should be aware of from now on. Be zealous about cutting flab. Learn about RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain). Your writing will improve markedly.

4. Cut the first few words of the third paragraph.

So you don’t have two in a row that begin with His mind.

5. Logic problem: Does this guy still have voice and movement?

Instead of merely bracing himself for a pit bull attack, why isn’t he screaming? What position is he in? Why doesn’t he try to get up?

If speech and movement are not there, give us an indication before you end the page. If he does have speech an movement, use them!

6. Increase reader empathy with a hotter POV at the end.

Empathy is crucially important in an opening like this, where the character is alone and doing nothing else but thinking. We need to ramp up our identification with the character. (If you want to see how a master does it, read Stephen King’s short story “Autopsy Room Four” in his collection Everything’s Eventual.)

You can heat up the menace by going deeper into the Lead’s head and giving him more emotion. This is the part where you, the author, have a lot of freedom, but I’ve gone ahead and provided my own example for you. Emphasis on my own. Filter everything through your own vision and voice. The goal is to increase empathy, get that opening disturbance even more disturbing, and stretch the tension.

Here is my rewrite (in a comic novel, I allow for more exclamation points than usual!):

The first thing he saw when he came to was… nothing.

His mind raced—but not in a in straight line, like a top-fuel dragster. More like a bunch of lame bumper cars bouncing off each other in a ridiculous effort to come up with… something… anything… instead of a big fat zilch.

His gut was talking, though. Loud and clear. Darkness is not your friend! Get out!

He was on his back. A cold, hard slab under him. He tried to move but his arms and legs were dead weight. Uh-oh. Was this one of those caves serial killers love so much? Silence of the Lambs!

He opened his mouth to scream.

Nothing came out. The darkness had invisible hands clutching his throat and tying his stomach in knots.

Come on, think! You’ve got to move …

What was that? A growl?

Pit bull!


Author, I salute you for attempting a comic novel. They’re very hard to do, and the market for them has always been limited. But every now and then, with the right touch and bravura voice, one breaks through, a la Catch-22, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Portnoy’s Complaint.

Maybe yours will, too.

Now it’s your turn, Zoners. What did you think of this first page?

Happy Thanksgiving to Our TKZ Family

Jordan Dane


It’s hard to believe this year has flown by, but I don’t want to rush the holidays. As a writer, I’m often locked away in my office or in my head, living adventures only limited by my imagination. But with family and friends during the holidays, I want to be in the moment every day and take time with the people who truly matter in my life.

My TKZ family–the contributing writers on this blog as well as the wonderful people who follow our shenanigans and share their writing trials and tribulations–you all matter to me and I love the time we spend together during the year. I know my blog mates feel the same about the community and the camaraderie we’ve built over the years.

I hope after you read this post, you’ll share what you did for Thanksgiving and how it made you feel. I’ll go first.

It had been a tough year of transitioning my parents into a independent living facility that suited them. We had to move them twice, but they appear to be settling in and making friends and the food is great. But after selling our family home, the one we spent over 60 years carrying on family traditions, we’ve lost our anchor and have to make new traditions. Thanksgiving will be in my sister’s lovely home with her family. There will be 12 of us. Since not everyone can make it to Texas, we take pictures and videos to share with friends and family who live elsewhere and we text in the moment so they feel they are with us. The only thing we’re missing is an app for ‘Scratch & Sniff.’


We have two turkeys (one cooked in the oven with the other one smoked or fried), mashed potatoes, Cranberry Chutney, baby peas with mushrooms and green onions, sweet potato casserole, an unusual corn recipe, Caesar’s salad, pumpkin pies, and more. Thanksgiving is a time for slowing down to count our many blessings. I love the smells in the kitchen, watching my mom help my sister make a perfect gravy, the sound of football games on TV after dinner, and the feeling of home from the experience.

Here’s my family Cranberry Chutney recipe that I’m making. It’s really good and leftovers taste even better.



2 – 12 oz pkgs fresh cranberries

3 cups sugar (This can be cut down to taste or apple juice concentrate can cut down on sugar)

1.5 cups of water

2 Teas grated orange peel

1.5 cups orange juice

1.5 cups Golden Seedless Raisins

1.5 cups chopped walnuts

1.5 cups chopped celery

2 red apples peeled and chopped

1.5 Teas ground ginger

1-2 Teas cinnamon to taste


In 3 QT sauce pan over medium heat, combine sugar and cranberries and cook until boiling, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to low and simmer 15 minutes. Crush or pop some of the cranberries with large spoon.

Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients and refrigerate. This dish can be done a day or two before Thanksgiving. Leftovers can be made into cobbler. Enjoy!

Thanksgiving Funnies – because everyone needs a good laugh when they’re wearing fat pants.

“I come from a family where gravy is a beverage.” Erma Bombeck

“Vegetables are a must on any good diet. I suggest carrot cake, zucchini bread, and pumpkin pie.” Jim Davis

“Most turkeys taste better the day after. My mother’s tasted better the day before.” Rita Rudner

“You can tell you ate too much for Thanksgiving when you have to let your bathrobe out.” Jay Leno

Happy Thanksgiving, TKZ! Please share your day with us.

Things That Go Boom (Not Bang)

Let’s talk a bit about explosives, shall we?  After such a warm reception to back-to-back posts on guns and bullets, it seems like a natural progression.  This post is going to address some of the technical concepts behind what explosions are, and why they do so much damage.  Two weeks from today, I’ll go into more detail on the proper applications of explosives.

Understanding the essentials of overpressure.  All day every day, each of us carries on our shoulders (and the rest of our bodies) the weight of our atmosphere.  All of that nitrogen and oxygen and water vapor has mass, after all, and it exerts a pressure at sea level of 14.5 pounds per square inch (psi) of surface area.  Take that number literally.  Every area of 10 square inches of surface area is carrying a pressure (think weight) of 145 pounds; every 1,000 inches of surface area is bearing the burden of 1,450 pounds.  Like that.  Scientists and engineers refer to the pressure of “one atmosphere” (14.5 psi) as 1 “bar”.  Twice that pressure would be called two bars, and so forth.  Any pressure that exceeds one bar is called “overpressure”.  The greater the magnitude, the greater the resulting damage.

One way we experience relatively harmless overpressure every day is sound.  When we speak or clap our hands, we send waves of pressure through the air that our ears register as sound.  The decibel scale, then, is actually a measure of overpressure, wherein every three-decibel increase represents a doubling of sound pressure.  When someone whispers, he crfeates an overpressure of about 13 decibels, which is measured in microbars (millionths of one bar).  As noise increases in intensity, the pressure increases geometrically.  We start seeing glass breakage at 163dB.  At 195 dB, we reach a one-bar overpressure the equivalent of an additional atmosphere of pressure.  Ear drums will almost certainly rupture at that level.  A Space Shuttle launch exerts about 215 dB at its surface.

My point here is that sound and pressure are the same thing.  It’s an important concept to keep in mind when we talk about explosions, because the practical definition of an explosion is the rapid expansion of gases that creates an audible boom.  A latex balloon goes pop when you stick a pin in it because the expanding flexible surface of the balloon has trapped gas under pressure.  As soon as the pressure vessel fails, the gas instantly reconverts to atmospheric pressure and the suddenness of it all creates a ripple of pressure that we register as an explosion.  If you stick a pin into a Mylar balloon, however, there’ll be no pop because there’s no expansion.

Still with me?  Okay, here we go.

A gunshot makes a loud boom because the combustion gases which propel the bullet down the barrel are under tremendous pressure until they get to the opening at the muzzle, at which point they instantly expand and reduce to atmospheric pressure, disturbing all the still air that was surrounding it.  A suppressor (“silencer”) works by dissipating those pressures through baffles in the barrel of the device to the point that they are nearly reduced to ambient pressure by the time they are released to the atmosphere.  Thus, no bang.

Why the Speed of Sound Matters.  The speed of sound (767 mph) is essentially the speed at which air molecules can move out of each other’s way.  When anything moves faster than 767 mph–whether it’s an airplane, a bullet or super-heated gases–air molecules stack up on the leading edge of the speeding mass because they can’t get out of the way and they create more pressure–sometimes a lot more pressure.  And as we discussed when talking about bullets, since nature abhors imbalance, as soon as the speeding mass passes by, it is followed by and equal yet opposite negative pressure (a “rarefaction” wave).  When this pressure fluctuation is caused by a speeding jet, the resulting explosion is called a sonic boom, and it is often powerful enough to shatter glass.  When it’s caused by munitions or certain other events, we call the resulting explosion a blast wave, and it is often powerful enough to reduce buildings and people to vapor–literally.

An explosion whose blast wave travels faster than the speed of sound is called a “detonation”.  If the blast wave travels at less than supersonic speed, it’s called a “deflagration”.  To put that in perspective, TNT detonates; napalm deflagrates.

The military and international community refer to detonable explosives as Class 1.1 explosives (“Class One, Division One), while the American civilian community refers to them as Class A explosives.  Deflagrable, or mass-fire, explosives are referred to as Class 1.3 (Class One, Division Three) or Class B explosives respectively.  Most fireworks are Class B.

Primary vs. Secondary Explosives.  Blowing stuff up requires trade-offs.  For example, you want it to go bang on time every time, yet you never want it to go off unexpectedly.  Given these constraints, how do you transport your boomers from here to there and not yourself become humidity in the process?

The solution is to make the main charge of deployable bombs relatively hard to set off.  For example, you can shoot a block of C-4 explosive with a bullet and it won’t explode, but you can cut off a chunk and use it to safely start a fire.  Similarly, if a bomber crashes on takeoff, the bombs it carries will not explode.  (Both of the above examples ignore the presence of gremlins, who so often prove us engineering types to be full of it.)  These main charges are called “secondary explosives” because in order to get them to explode you need to hit them with a “primary” detonation wave.  That’s what blasting caps, or detonators, or initiators, are all about.

Primary explosives are highly energetic, stupidly sensitive explosives that will go high-order (detonate) on impact or in response to a tickling charge of electricity.  The primer in the back end of a bullet is a primary explosive.  So is the active ingredient of a blasting cap.  When those babies go off, they send a supersonic wave of energy into the secondary explosive, thereby causing it to detonate.

We’ve all seen those old newsreels of a B17 squadron during World War Two dropping bombs out of their bellies, and then the flicker of explosions way down there on the ground.  What you don’t see is the progression of events that made those explosions possible.  On takeoff, none of the bombs is yet capable of exploding because the fuses have not yet been activated.  As they fall, however, a tiny propeller spins off the nose of the bomb and in the process arms the fuse.  When the fuse encounters the proper conditions–altitude, in the case of an air burst, or impact in the case of an impact or penetration explosion–the fuse triggers the primary charge which sends a blast of energy through the secondary charge and the bomb goes off.

Okay, that’s it for tonight.  By now, I figure you’re either bored to tears or totally jazzed.  Either way, I’ll be back with more explosive material in a couple of weeks.

First Page Critique:
The Dragon Within

Photo from Game of Thrones

Photo from Game of Thrones

By PJ Parrish

Top of the morning to you all.  I’m prepping to get out of town for turkey day up in Michigan so I am offering up a submission from one of our fellow writers. It’s titled The Dragon Within. Many thanks to our writer-submitter for letting us use his/her story for our learning purposes here. My comments follow, but please weigh in, fellow TKZers, with your input.

The Dragon Within

“Are there dragons in the elven lands?” Matthew whispered, his gaze lingering on the wooden boat carrying their mother’s body towards Illethia.

Shael ignored their eldest brother’s derisive snort. With the tip of her thumb, she wiped a tear off Matthew’s cheek. “I don’t know,” she said. “But Mum’s in the arms of Zy’el now, and He’ll protect her.”

Shael glanced at the tiny group of neighbours and friends who had accompanied them to the beach to bid Joella farewell. She knew each one well, had known them since she was a child, but life had taught her the worse dragons were those posing as friends. She squeezed Matthew’s hand and drew him closer. He was only ten. With Mum’s passing, she had to be both sister and mother to him. And she had to keep him safe.

The boat with the eye of Zy’el painted on its bow, drifted towards the elven lands. Ripples expanded from the vessel and broke up on the sand by Shael’s feet.

The waves did not bring Mum back.

Why had Mum insisted on a traditional sea burial and wanted her remains sent towards Illethia, towards the land of the enemy? The brooding outline of Illethia, a mass of darkness against the early morning orange-grey horizon, was a constant reminder of what had been and what could return to threaten the Inner Lands. Mum’s choice of funeral was bound to give rise to talk. Talk led to questions. Mum had known more than anyone what the elven had done to their family. To Shael. She knew that mere suspicion could get the whole family executed.

Yet Mum had secretly continued to love and respect them, even after it became a crime punishable by death. If only Mum had told her more about the elven. It was too late to ask now. Not that she ever answered Shael’s questions about them.

Shael raised her hand to her headscarf. The wind was picking up, but practice had taught her the best way to tie the scarf tight around her head. The scarf was in place and their secret safe. For now.


First, a qualifier from me: I am guessing this story falls into the fantasy realm, given the “dragon” reference and what might be a nod to Tolkien’s “Elven lands.”  Full disclosure, this genre is not my main cup of tea. But that shouldn’t matter. A good story is a good story is a good story.  So let’s see if it works on that basis.

I like that the writer opened with a dramatic moment — a funeral that places our protagonist (I assume Shael is such) at the brink of a life-changing conjuncture. We get the sense that Shael is facing two challenges: the new responsibility of raising her young brother and that her mother, for unknown reasons, has left her in a fix by conspiring with the enemy elven. (at least I think that’s what’s going on here…more on that in a moment.)

I also like that the writer is using “dragons” on two levels.  Dragons are a real threat in the mind of the boy (he asks, do they even exist?). Dragons are also a metaphoric threat to Shael, who sees her neighbors as dangerous if they learn the truth about Mum. And there is even a richer, possible third meaning to “dragon.” More on that later..

But all of this is a bit cloudy in the telling. I am not totally certain of what is going on in this critical opening scene and I need to be.  The narrative tells me this:

Why had Mum insisted on a traditional sea burial and wanted her remains sent towards Illethia, towards the land of the enemy? The brooding outline of Illethia, a mass of darkness against the early morning orange-grey horizon, was a constant reminder of what had been and what could return to threaten the Inner Lands. Mum’s choice of funeral was bound to give rise to talk. Talk led to questions. Mum had known more than anyone what the elven had done to their family. To Shael. She knew that mere suspicion could get the whole family executed.

Yet Mum had secretly continued to love and respect them, even after it became a crime punishable by death. If only Mum had told her more about the elven. It was too late to ask now. Not that she ever answered Shael’s questions about them.

I am left to guess that this “viking” burial at sea is not usual, especially since the boat is apparently being cast off toward the enemy land across the bay. Why would Mum want this when apparently it was a betrayal of some kind since the elven had harmed Shael and the family at one time.  And Mum had apparently “secretly” loved the elven, even though it was a crime. This is all fine and good for establishing a sense of intrigue and potential conflict but I wish the writer wouldn’t be so obtuse in the telling.  We need a little more context and less confusion here.  Maybe this is just because I am not “versed” in fantasy, but don’t we need to know what the elven are? Is this a tribe? A different race? An adjective for elf? If the last one, are Shael and her ilk human? Those of you who are big fantasy readers out there please comment and let me know if I am just being dense here.

Another point: When you are creating an un-real world (heck even a real one!) you have to give us the context of setting. Outside of one image of what Illethia looks like across the water, I don’t know where the heck I am — or what era we are in. What does this place look like? What are the people wearing (one head scarf reference, that for a moment, sent me careening into the mid-east). Please don’t neglect your setting.  I call this the coma-victim-syndrome: Where am I? Who are these strange people? What year it is? Who am I? Which begs the important point…

I need a few more hints about our protagonist. How old is she? Can you drop some clues in that give us a picture? Also, we could use some more emotion from her. I don’t get a sense of what kind of person she is.

Before I go into my line edits, one last word on names. What you call your characters is so very important, as proper names help ground the reader in the world you are creating. If this protag were named Jackie Gilmore, well, we know we’re not in Elven land. So this writer, by choosing the odd names, signposts that we are in fantasy-land. That’s good! But I got hung up on the fact that both Matthew and Shael are Hebrew names. And “Mum” is straight out of England’s Cotwolds. Then we get the land names: Zy’el, which sort of sounds Hebrew or maybe sci-fi, and Illethia, which is also the name of a video game warlord.  Here’s my take on this: When you are conjuring up un-real worlds, when you are working in sci-fi or fantasy, you must be doubly cautious about your naming. You need to have a consistency in tone that acts as a bridge for the reader when he ventures from the real world to your un-real one.  These names sound a bit too magpie-picked to me.

Let’s go to the line edits…

“Are there dragons in the elven lands?” Matthew whispered, his gaze lingering on the wooden boat carrying their mother’s body towards Illethia. Yes, you can open your story with a quote and this one is pretty darn good — there be dragons! — because it works on several levels. But I think it is diluted in its impact by attaching that phrase afterward and by using the confusing elven reference too soon.  How about this:

“Are there dragons out there?”

Shael looked down to the source of the tiny voice, down to her brother Matthew standing at her side. He wasn’t looking at her. He was watching the small wooden boat drift away from shore, the boat that held the body of their mother.

She reached down and wiped a tear off Matthew’s cheek. “I don’t know,” she said. “But mother’s in the arms of Zy’el now. He will protect her.”

But even as she said it, Shael feared it wasn’t true. Through the orange-gray morning mist, she could just make out the brooding outline of Illethia across the bay. The boat bearing her mother’s body was heading toward the land of their enemies. And that was the way their mother had planned. It had been her last wish.

I think a down-and-dirty summary of the central conflict needs to be stated quickly and up high. Then you can move on and flesh in some details. Moving on…

Shael ignored their eldest brother’s derisive snort. I find the insertion of this other brother intrusive in the nice moment between Shael and Matt. Bring him in later. With the tip of her thumb, she wiped a tear off Matthew’s cheek. “I don’t know,” she said. “But Mum’s in the arms of Zy’el now, and He’ll protect her.”

Shael glanced at the tiny group of neighbours and friends who had accompanied them to the beach to bid Joella farewell. She knew each one well, had known them since she was a child, but this line about neighors being dragons it important. Set it off in its own sentence! She had known them since she was a child. But life had taught her that the real dragons were those posing as friends. life had taught her the worse dragons were those posing as friends. She squeezed Matthew’s hand and drew him closer. He was only ten. With Mum’s passing, she had to be both sister and mother to him. And she had to keep him safe.

The boat with the eye of Zy’el painted on its bow, drifted towards the elven lands. Ripples expanded from the vessel and broke up on the sand by Shael’s feet. Here’s a place to drop in a hint about setting and culture: Is she wearing sandals, fur winter boots, barefoot?  The waves did not bring Mum back. Nice ripple image above but what does this line mean? Of course they can’t. Turn it around maybe, and say, the waves were pushing mother ever farther away?  And maybe that can work as a segue to Shael’s next thought — that maybe something else, an even stronger force, had been pushing her mother away long before now? Pushing her away from even Shael? Make your imagery mean something!

And we really need something to break up the backstory it’s-all-in-her-head narrative section that comes next. Show me this, don’t tell me. How about having one of people in the crowd come up and say something to Shael about this odd funeral? That could more gracefully illicit her thoughts. How about…

An old man came up to stand next to them. Matthew backed away but Shael held her ground. 

“Why did she do this?” the old man muttered.

Shael tensed. There was no way he could know what mother had done, how she had really loved the Elven. But the anger in the old man’s eyes was real.

“Why did your mother insist on this old sea burial?” the old man pressed.

Then go into Shael thoughts about it.  Find a way to break up the backstory. And slowly build the tension in it. Maybe she gives a vague answer to the old man and then she can try to analyze this situation in her head. Mother knew this ritual funeral would make people talk. People had always been suspicious of her anyway. And maybe hint that Shael herself might harbor some suspicions about her dead mother like, why would she do this, why would she love the enemy, even after what it did to our family. Even after what it did to ME.  Again, by setting that ME on its own, you give Shael’s personal conflict weight.  You must make the story be about your protag’s journey, whether it is back to Illethia to fight the enemy, or find out the truth about her mother. WHAT DOES SHAEL WANT? At a superficial level, to protect her family. But what about the deeper levels — why did mother betray me and love the enemy that hurt me? 

Why had Mum insisted on a traditional sea burial and wanted her remains sent towards Illethia, towards the land of the enemy? The brooding outline of Illethia, a mass of darkness against the early morning orange-grey horizon, Lovely image here but what is lacking? We have no sense of what our surroundings look like. Are we in a fjord? English countryside? It is summer? How about the people dressed? We have no sense of setting at all here, alas, and I sense this is an interesting place geographically. was a constant reminder of what had been and what could return to threaten the Inner Lands. Is this the name of her country? Mum’s choice of funeral was bound to give rise to talk. Talk led to questions. Do more with this? Questions about the past? Mum had known more than anyone what the elven had done to their family. To Shael. She knew that mere suspicion could get the whole family executed.  This is very important and you need to set this apart so we understand it.  In newspaper talk, this is called burying your lead. When you are listing a litany of ills like this, put your most important one, the one that impacts your protag most, LAST.  Try this…

The people in the town, the people Shael had known all her life, they had only suspicions about what had happened. But Mother knew. She knew what the elven had done. She knew what the elven had done to their family.

Shael looked out at the water, to the boat that was now just a small dark smudge in the mist.

Mother knew what they did to me.  

Yet Mum had secretly continued to love and respect the Elven, even after it became a crime punishable by death. If only Mum had told her more about the elven. It was too late to ask now. Not that she ever answered Shael’s questions about them. Again, you are being a tad too obtuse about this central important conflict between mother and daughter. Ask yourself: What is my story about?  I suspect, at its heart, it is about family secrets and how a daughter comes to grips with something bad her mother did. Great stuff!

Shael raised her hand to her headscarf. The wind was picking up, but practice had taught her the best way to tie the scarf tight around her head. The scarf was in place and their secret safe. For now.  I’m not sure what this means. The simple act of tying a scarf tight keeps a lid on things? The metaphor is a bit too spot-on.  Find a way to SHOW me this thought, rather than tell me.  Maybe it works better if the scarf flies away? And maybe that draws a reaction from the old man or crowd?  Make things happen in your narrative that illuminate the interior actions (thoughts and backstory). 

Well, that’s it. In summary, brave writer, I like where you are going with this. I love that you open with a funeral that sets up the conflict. But I sense that you might not yet know your protagonist well enough YET to articulate what she wants, what her essential inner struggle and journey will be.  As James always asks, what will be her “woman in the mirror” moment deep in your book? What will she face that will change her in some fundamental way? What is your story about? It’s not about war between Illethia and the Inner Lands. It’s not even about a young woman protecting her family. It’s about something deep inside the woman herself.  Find that truth and you will find your story’s heart. It’s never about the action; it is about character. It is always about the DRAGON WITHIN.

Thanks for submitting and keep moving onward!


Marathon Effort

unknownA couple of weeks ago the boys and I were in New York City to watch hubby run the New York City marathon. It’s been almost twelve years since he last ran a marathon(!) and, to be honest, we just wanted him to finish without injury, incident, or trauma…Thankfully, he finished well and was even able to board a flight to India the next day(!)

Naturally, the whole marathon thing (coupled with November being NaNoWriMo month) made me think of the similarities between writing a novel and running a marathon. When people ask me for advice, I usually say writing and getting published is like a war of attrition where the last one still seated and writing usually wins, but running a marathon is a more apt metaphor (and one closer to my heart, having seen my husband train for five of them!)

Like a marathon, writing a book requires training. Just as my husband had to build up the miles, so too do writers. There are very few of us who can sit down for the very first time and pump out a novel or two – the majority of us have had to spend a number of years honing our skills, enduring false starts, half-written attempts, lousy drafts as well as set-backs. The key, just as in marathon training, is to keep going.

In order to avoid injury, part of any marathon training should involve something other than just running (cross-training, weight training, Pilates, yoga etc.). Similarly, writers need to read widely as well as write. Depending on the type of fiction you want to write, you should explore different writers in your genre, learn the implicit ‘rules’ that function within that genre and then also read outside that genre to become a more ‘well-rounded’ writer.

Just like in a marathon, a key aspect to writing a novel is pacing. You have to keep churning through the miles, but still understand how your writing process works so you keep a steady pace, don’t burnout, and have the strength to finish. As with any long race (and let’s face it that’s what completing a novel can feel like!), it also always helps to have someone cheering you on, especially when you hit the wall at mile 21… All too often I meet people who claim to want to write a novel but fail to understand the sheer stamina required to complete and revise (and revise again) a novel until it’s the very best it can be.

And finally, just as with any marathon, all your skills need constant refinement. While in running you usually focus on issues of technique, breathing and pacing – in writing the focus is more on honing skills (characterization, plotting, dialogue etc.) as well as editing and revision. When aiming to complete a novel that is publication worthy, there’s no place for sloppy skills.  I usually find those final miles of revision feel just as long (if not longer) as the ‘completing-the-first-draft’ marathon (perhaps I should tell my husband that writing a novel is worth running at least two marathons…!)

So what do you think? If you were to describe writing a novel as an endurance sport, what would it be?




Crystallize Your Novel

by James Scott Bell

When I teach workshops based on my book Write Your Novel From the Middle, I usually say that finding your “mirror moment” illuminates the entire book for you. It shows you what the story is really all about, from beginning to end––even if the novel is largely unwritten. So be ye planner or pantser, whenever you find your mirror moment, the path to your completed novel becomes a whole lot clearer.

autumn-imagoThere’s another word to describe what’s going on, and it came to me in an email from writer Bryan Wiggins. Bryan is a serious student of the craft (via Brother Larry Brooks, myself and others). His novel, Autumn Imago, was recently selected as one of only three books to launch Harper Legend, a new imprint of Harper One, a member of the HarperCollins family.

Bryan wrote:

In my story, my protagonist, Paul Strand, is a ranger in Maine’s remote Baxter State Park. Paul has turned his back on his nuclear family after it was shattered by the death of his sister, years before. Circumstances conspire to bring them to the park where Paul struggles between the isolation that has protected him from the wounds of the past and the intimacy that stands as his only chance for the healing that can make him whole. Paul battles those opposing forces throughout the book, but Middle provided me with a way to look at the central turning point in the story that helped me shape the “before and after” of his spiritual catharsis for maximum effect. That scene takes place during a rainstorm in a lean-to at the top of a mountain. There, Paul must decide whether or not to abandon his recovering addict-brother, or to give him the second chance that Paul doesn’t believe he deserves. The Mirror Moment helped me crystallize not only that crisis for Paul, but also helped me sharpen my larger narrative with the clear focus that helped earn the book a publishing contract with one of the “Big 5.”

I like that word, crystallize. It means to assume a definite shape. When Bryan’s character reached that decision point, he was looking at himself (as if in a mirror) and asking, What kind of person am I going to be? The shape of the story became discernable. That’s always a great feeling.

Bryan went on to say:

For a story structure freak like myself, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is to simply surrender to the organic power of writing when the muse begins to sing. But as an analytical writer at heart, I’m always looking for a sharp instrument that I can also apply more directly to my work. Your book has proven to be such a tool.

I love story structure freaks. But I also tell writers that when they write they shouldn’t think about “rules” or “guidelines.” Just write! (“…simply surrender to the organic power…”) But then, afterward, put on the analytical hat. Fix what you can, learn how to fix what you can’t (via craft books, workshops, editors, teachers) and absorb. I always come back to the golf analogy. Don’t think of the 22 most important tips about your golf swing as you swing! Just play! Do your thinking after the round. And if you keep messing something up, go visit a teaching pro.

What will happen is this: you’ll get all those lessons into your “muscle memory,” and they’ll be there for you next time you play (or write!) Bryan went on in his email about writing the second book in his planned trilogy:

As I’ve been outlining, free-writing, and scene-writing my way to the middle of this sequel, I’ve been conscious again of “the magical midpoint moment” of my tale that Middle illustrates. My goal in this novel is to craft a character who demonstrates the drive for success meant to resonate with my readers, but to also show how that force can corrode the compassion for others that should always temper such ambition. Middle has again pointed to a critical mid-manuscript turning point between two opposing forces in my story. In this case, it’s a critical choice Wolf must make about whether or not to propose marriage to his lifelong friend (the girl next door) not for love, but to advance his career. As Middle suggests, that vantage point is providing me not only with one of the big, dramatic beats of my plot, but a perspective for tuning the entire thrust of my story before and after that point for maximum dramatic effect.

Let me add that if you know you’re writing a trilogy, you can have mirror moments for each book, and one for the entire series. There are mirror moments in each of the Hunger Games books, and one big one for the trilogy (hint: it involves Katniss’ inner argument about whether to bring a child into the world).

So I thank Bryan for his email, and the chance to share some of his writing process. You might also be interested in an early blog post by Bryan when he felt “lost” writing his first novel, and how he fought through. It’s called “Eighty Thousand Mistakes.”

To sum up about crystallizing your novel:

  1. When you write, write.
  1. At some point, brainstorm your mirror moment. It’s subject to change, of course, but I think you’ll find one that feels right. Let it be your guide.
  1. Visit the Lead’s pre-story psychology in light of the mirror moment. Flesh out the moral flaw. Why is it there? What happened in the Lead’s backstory that made him this way? (E.g., Rick at the beginning of Casablanca. Why doesn’t he stick his neck out for anybody? Because he was betrayed (he thinks) by the only woman he ever truly loved.)
  1. Brainstorm the transformation at the end (wherein the character overcomes the moral flaw, or has grown stronger). Come up with a visual that proves the transformation. (One of my favorites is in the film Lethal Weapon. Riggs is suicidal, has been carrying around a hollow-point bullet to blow his brains out. At the end, he shows up at Murtaugh’s house on Christmas and presents the bullet—with a ribbon on it—to Murtaugh’s daughter. “Give it to your dad, okay? It’s a present for him. Tell him I won’t be needing it anymore.”)
  1. Finish the novel, let it sit for a few weeks, then start the editing process. What you’ll find is that the issues you have in re-write are not with the central story, but in how you tell it. In other words, because you went to the mirror, the story will have a definite shape. It will be crystallized. Now smooth out edges, deepen characters, sharpen dialogue, tighten scenes.

Then let people read it. Then fix it some more.

This is called growing as a writer.

Which, as the Geico commercials say, is what you do!