First Page Critique:
‘Life-Line to a Killer’

By PJ Parrish

I’m up to my armpits in cardboard boxes this week, readying for our move to Tallahassee. I’m tryting to do so many things at once to make this move a success. I’n trying to pack up in time, trying to work out how I can move my Bazaar Velvet rug without staining it, trying to get my mail re-directed, I’m doing all these things so I’m not rushing closer to the time! I have 16 boxes of books under my piano, and I haven’t even started in on the books still on the shelves. We’re also trying to sort out adjustments to the staircase we need to make. We have been looking on Pear Stairs as we feel the new house could do with having a more space-conscious staircase. So yeah, it has been manic! What better time to stop and read another story to de-stress? This post might be a little long because I like the submission and think the premise has potential. A caveat, dear brave writer: The better you are, the harder I am on you! My comments follow with my Track Change edits, but please weigh in, TKZ folks! A tip of the hat to my sister Kelly who helped me with this via Skype. And thank you, writer, for allowing us all to learn from your work.

Life-Line to a Killer

Blake Ford grinned as he watched his wife on his laptop web cam from his motel room. His heart thumped in his chest with anticipation. Laura, the love of his life, unbuttoned her blouse and performed a tantalizing striptease dance. She slid the blouse off, let it drop to the floor and turned slowly to give him a full view of her black lace bra.

“Your turn,” she said.

“Is that how you’re going to play it tonight?” he said.

“Yes. I’ve changed the rules. If I lose a hand and have to strip, you have to remove a piece of clothing, too.”

“I like it. It’ll make the game go faster.”

She laughed. “I know. You’re impatient.”

She leaned toward her computer that he saw was set up on the desk in the living room of their home and pressed her lips on the screen. A kiss for him.

Blake stood up and performed his best rendition of a Chippendale dancer. He peeled off his shirt and exposed a strong toned physique. His wife whooped and clapped with delight. Encouraged, he whipped the shirt over his head and flung it across the motel room and struck a pose.

“I wish you were here,” she said.

“Maybe, next time you can tag along with me on the road.”

He saw her hesitation.

“We’ve talked about this. I have a career, too. I thought you were okay with our date nights?”

“I am. I was just saying.” What he didn’t say was how difficult it was for him to be away from her so often. “I could get a different job that would keep me home.”

Was that panic he saw on her face?

“Why would you do that? I mean…you love your work.”

“I love you more, Laura.”

Her face softened. “I love you.”

Blake touched her face on the computer screen and blew her a kiss.

“Ready to finish the game?”

“You better believe it, big guy.”

Laura lost the next hand of poker.

Blake leaned back in his chair and enjoyed her sexy moves as she unzipped her skirt, slid it over her hips, and took her sweet time doing it.

Something behind Laura caught his attention. He moved in close to his computer. She had left the living room lights off and it was hard to see. The glow of the computer illuminated her but didn’t cast enough light to see beyond her.


General comments: Well, I think this is a heck of a set-up. We are dropped into a scene at an intriguing moment (the writer didn’t arrive too early or too late) and while the idea of a married couple having cyber-sex isn’t original, what the writer does with it has some great potential. Why? It goes back to what James and others here preach as the essential ingredient to a great opening: SOMETHING HAS TO BE DISTURBED.

What is disturbed here? Two things, really. One disturbance is subtle but important to the character arc and the second disturbance is more conventionally dramatic to a crime fiction plot. The second one is the more obvious: Blake sees “something” odd in the background of his wife’s computer image. (More on that “something” later). The other disturbance is when Blake gets an uneasy feeling that there is something amiss with the “love of his life” wife and there might be crack in his marriage. This marital disturbance might be the more interesting one, actually. Because if there is a dark undercurrent in the relationship (disturbance), that makes a murder (disturbance) even more interesting. So kudos on roiling the water twice, writer.

I think we are entering the sub-genre of “domestic suspense” here. Harlan Coben has built a whole career around this, and this is the thematic backbone of our spate of “girl” thrillers. If this is what the writer is going for, then the writer should be aware that this soil is pretty plowed over lately, so whatever happens to Blake (plot) has to be fresh, and he has to be interesting enough to carry the load.

And while we’re on the subject of Blake: Because you filter through his point of view from word one, I have to assume he is going to be your protagonist. I don’t know what he does for a living (more on that in a moment!) and I’m guessing he is going to be an Everyman Hero. This kind of protag can be great fun for readers to follow because we love to root for an ordinary person who is thrust into extraordinary circumstances and must rise to the challenge to 1. Save the future human race (waitress Sara Conner). 2. Kill the man-eating shark (wimpy Chief Brody) 3. Find the real killer to prove his innocence (ad man Cary Grant in North by Northwest). I am guessing that Blake’s wife is going to be murdered or abducted and Blake will A. Be blamed and have to find the real killer to save himself or B. Find the real killer because no one will listen to him. Like I said, this can be fertile plot territory. Here’s Harlan Coben’s take on getting big thrills from “little” plots.

[In my books] there’s not a lot of violence, there’s not a lot of blood or anything like that. I’d rather the suspense come from something smaller. It’s a placid pool, and you drop a pebble in there and boom, it’s what you can make it. It’s not choppy waters, it’s that placid pool, and the small thing that can ripple. Normally what I try to do is take an ordinary situation and ask ‘what if?’ All fiction writing comes down to asking ‘what if?’ So for example, friends of mine told me that they were worried about their child’s online activities, and they decided to put a little spy camera on his laptop, a spyware on his laptop. And I said to myself ‘well what if? What if they get a message that changes their lives?’ and just keep asking the ‘what ifs’, turn them around a little bit, twist it, look at it a different way.

But back to Blake: He can be an ordinary as orange juice on first glance. But you must make us respect him and want to root for him. But as you have written him, he is a real cipher. Your style is so spare that we get no sense of what this man does, where he lives, what he is like, and most important, what he feels. Now, I don’t want a complete dossier in the first 400 words (that’s called a backstory info-dump and is a giant no-no). But I think you missed some chances to begin dribbling in some details about Blake (and his wife) that will ratchet up the intrigue and support your nice “disturbance.” I also think he is inching toward wimpy in a couple of his lines. Be careful there. It’s okay for an Everyman to start out wimpy-ish (Chief Brody couldn’t even swim!) but the reader must intuit that he will grow over the course of the story.

Regarding style. I love a clean style, with good lean dialogue, and spare description. Less is usually more, and one of the biggest lessons of writing fiction is learning what to leave out. But I think you’ve erred on the other side, to the point where your narrative is near-skeletal. This is, as I said, a set-up with great potential for mood and even a sense of dread. But there is no setting, no mood, no description at all. I appreciate what style you are going for here, but things feel tepid and detached, like you are holding the reader at arm’s length. I’d advise you to go back and look for a few well-chosen places to insert just a few telling details about BOTH your setting and your characters.

Here is all we know from this opening: Blake is alone in a hotel room. You’ve missed some opportunities to use the setting to enhance the mood and shed some light on the character. Is it nighttime or morning? Is the hotel room lit only by the blue glow of his computer screen? Is rain pelting on the window? Is the TV on in the background, the sound muted? If it’s an expensive hotel, that says something about Blake — Is there a tray from room service with the remains of his lonely $25 hamburger dinner? Five little mini-bar Johnny Walker Red bottles laying on the nightstand, all empty? Ditto a cheap motel also tells us something about Blake — Does the room reek of Lysol? Does the cheap bedspread feel slippery from the sweat of a thousand tired travelers? Is the TV bolted to the cabinet?

Think of Hemingway, a master of spare writing yet you always got a sense of where his characters were, be it Havana, Africa or Key West.

Here’s another thing you need to work on, dear writer: Less telling and more showing. Cliches like “heart thumping in his chest” aren’t yours; too many others have pounded them into mush. Plus that is you the writer telling me how Blake feels. Ditto: “She was performing a tantalizing striptease dance.” SHOW us this via her motions and his reactions. We don’t need a whole paragraph on it but we need to see something. She is teasing him but we don’t feel teased. How do you do this? Maybe he clicks to go to full screen so he can see better. That action SHOWS us something instead of telling us “his heart thumps in anticipation.” Maybe he moves his chair closer to the screen. For a scene about sex, this feels oddly asexual. I’m not asking for Fifty Shades of Gray here, just a little color from this man. Stay in his head (and body).

Now let’s look at this in mark-up. My comments are in red:

Blake Ford grinned as he watched his wife on his laptop web cam from his motel room. This opening line is awkwardly constructed and feels rushed. You are packing so much into it, you’ve drained it of any tension. Go at it more obliquely! Try something like: She was just a blur of flesh and black lace. Blake impatiently jiggled the ethernet cord, cursing the motel’s cheap internet connection. But then the picture cleared and Laura, his beautiful nearly naked wife came into focus on his laptop. His heart thumped in his chest with anticipation. Laura, the love of his life, unbuttoned her blouse and performed a tantalizing striptease dance. She slid the blouse off, let it drop to the floor and turned slowly to give him a full view of her black lace bra.

“Your turn,” she said. This is confusing. Did something end?

“Is that how you’re going to play it tonight?” he said.

“Yes. I’ve changed the rules. Again, a little confusing. Don’t neglect the little details of “character choreography,” moving your people through time and space. Are they playing strip poker? Sounds like something I saw in a Tube videos sex video. Do they each have a deck of cards? Slow down a tad and make this clear; you won’t lose us!. And how did the rules change? you have to remove a piece of clothing, too.”

“I like it. It’ll make the game go faster.” why does he want it to go faster? I would think he’d want it to last. But then again, I’m a woman… 🙂

She laughed. “I know. You’re impatient.”

She leaned toward her computer that he saw was set up on the desk in the living room of their home and pressed her lips on the screen. A kiss for him. Like the first paragraph, this construction is a little clunky. Slow down, clean it up and SHOW us details rather than TELL us. She leaned closer toward her computer. The room was dark but he could make out the Matisse print that hung behind her desk, so he knew she was in the living room. And why do we care where the computer is set up? Make the fact its in the living room mean something.

Blake stood up and performed his best rendition of a Chippendale dancer. So he was sitting? Or laying on that ratty bedspead? You never told us. And this is important — Is he embarrassed by this? Totally into it? Make it say something about him. By inserting just one or two lines of SHOWING how he feels about this, you are illuminating his character and making me care about him. Chippendale dancer is sort of a cliche, unless you can make it SAY something about him — like he had once gone to a woman’s strip club? He peeled off his shirt and exposed a strong toned physique. This is a point of view lapse. He can’t see himself — that is you talking. Maybe “he peeled off his shirt, hoping she would say something about how good he looked. He had been practically living in hotel gyms during the month he had been away. This also dribbles in a detail of backstory about why he is away from home. His wife whooped and clapped with delight. You can do better. Make her response say something about HER, just as his reaction says something about him. The fact that he is “encouraged” implies something about their sex life and relationship. What it is? Drop a hint. Encouraged, he whipped the shirt over his head and flung it across the motel room and struck a pose. Of what? Bodybuilder? Rodin’s The Thinker?

“I wish you were here,” she said.

“Maybe, next time you can tag along with me on the road.” Again, I wish you gave him a quick thought before this line. Is he lonely? You can also give us a hint of why he is traveling, which starts the building process of creating a context and backstory for your characters.

He saw her hesitation. A hesitation happens when you are talking. Convey her reluctance or whatever is going on in her some physical way. Her smile fades. She sort of draws back from the computer.

“We’ve talked about this. I have a career, too. I thought you were okay with our date nights?” Again, a lost chance to drop in a detail about him. If you had hinted in his thoughts at the length and frequency of his trips, we would understand this situation better. Make your dialogue work harder!

“I am. I was just saying.” What he didn’t say was how difficult it was for him to be away from her so often. “I could get a different job that would keep me home.” This reads very young for your character. This could also be a way of inserting something about what he does. “I could ask for a transfer back to marketing.” “I could go back to my own law practice, if that’s what you want.” “We could move back to Kansas.” See, what I am suggesting? Whatever the backstory of this couple is, find places to start revealing it to us a little at a time.

Was that panic he saw on her face? Panic is pretty strong. We need a reaction/thought from him here. Something is cracking apart right in front of him. DISTURBANCE! Is he confused? Is he upset? Is he scared? This is the “love of his life” remember. The first moment you realize your marriage isn’t perfect, that there might be crack, even if you think you are imagining it, is very powerful.

Which is why the next line should come from him, not her.

“Why would you do that? I mean…you love your work.”

“I love you more, Laura.”

Her face softened. Since you didn’t really SHOW us what her face looked like from his POV, we can’t “read” that it has now “softened.” Did her face grow suddenly hard above? “I love you.”

Blake touched her face on the computer screen image and blew her a kiss. I’m feeling a little emotional whiplash here. A second ago he was worried about the “panic” he saw in her face. (Oh my God, she doesn’t love me any more.) It doesn’t feel believable that he went from that powerful emotional moment and now he blows a kiss and wants to go back to the game? It feels false. AND, more important, it drains out the great tension you were building on the marital disturbance front.

“Ready to finish the game?” You need attribution here.

“You better believe it, big guy.”

Laura lost the next hand of poker. You never told us they were playing cards. I know it feels unnecessary to explain this, but you can’t omit the “silly” details of moving your characters thru time and space logically.

Blake leaned back in his chair and enjoyed her sexy moves if you’re going to write this kind of scene, go for it. Again, this is you the writer TELLING us what is going on, rather than the characters SHOWING us. as she unzipped her skirt, slid it over her hips, and took her sweet time doing it.

Something behind Laura caught his attention. Okay this is very important! You are entering the BIG DISTURBANCE moment of your opening. Yay!!! But this isn’t enough. Did something move? A shadow? If not movement, it has to be an object or something that normally isn’t there. This is his living room so he knows what it in it — and what shouldn’t be. There is no punch to this graph’s opening line and you need one because you are now introducing tension and intrigue. This is your dramatic high point but it feels flat because “something” is such a nothing word. He moved in close to his computer. She had left the living room lights off and it was hard to see. This is the closest you come to providing setting and mood. This should have been in the first paragraph, The glow of the computer illuminated her but didn’t cast enough light to see beyond her.

Me again…

Man, I wish you had given me one more paragraph on this submission, writer. Because despite the fact I just bled all over your pages, I like this. I wanted to read more. I want to know more about Blake and Laura. I want to hope that there ares all these terrific dark things swimming below the surface of this marriage. (And maybe there’s a girl on a train watching it? Just kidding…) I think you have a terrific set-up here and if you put some emotional meat on these bones, you have the makings of a great story.

The Power of Book Clubs (?)

When I lived in California I was a member of a book group/club for almost ten years and,  once I became a published author, it became apparent that tapping into the interest of book groups like ours was a great way of connecting with readers. Flash forward almost a decade and I’m wondering, in a world where social media is so overwhelming and influential, if book clubs across continue to be a powerful force for ‘word of mouth’ recommendations and publicity for authors (?).

I am currently a member of a book group, but our meeting schedule and commitment to actually reading the books selected is less ‘fixed’ than it used to be. In many ways this reflects the greater craziness of lives that now involve kids, work and a multitude of other interests all competing for our limited attention. Still, I love being part of the group as it  enables me to read books I would never have chosen on my own – and has thus exposed me to countless amazing books I would have otherwise never read. However, even I find myself stretched too thin to make it the group meetings or finish the book on time.

So I have a question for all you readers and writers out there – how important do you feel book groups are these days (in terms of generating interest in books and perhaps helping boost word of mouth recommendations). Are you in a book group at the moment? As an author, are you still making appearances or phoning in for calls to book groups (I spoke at  one in December and I have to say, it was awesome!). For those of you who have a book coming out soon, are you targeting book groups as part of your marketing plan or is social media outlets more important?

I’m hoping that book groups continue to be an amazing force for good – encouraging reading, book discussions, and a general interest in all things literary, but I have to wonder,  are book groups still as meaningful as they used to be (if, indeed, they were!).

My inquiring mind would love your input!

The Joy of Writing Whatever the Heck You Want

by James Scott Bell

One of the biggest influences on my desire to write was the late, great Ray Bradbury. I’ve written before about meeting him, and how The Illustrated Man blew me away in junior high. In high school I read Fahrenheit 451, which is of course a classic of the dystopian genre.

I love what Bradbury said in an interview about his reason for writing the book. “I wasn’t trying to predict the future. I was trying to prevent it.”

That, it seems to me, is the highest and best use of dystopian fiction. It’s a warning. It’s a prophet crying in the wilderness. And the nice thing is that the prophet can employ the steely voice of a John the Baptist, or the sly wink of a Jonathan Swift.

I don’t specialize in speculative fiction (though I suppose you could call my zombie legal thrillers, written as K. Bennett, speculative. At least I think most lawyers in Los Angeles are not zombies, but I need to check on that). But I recently found myself pounding out a short story and having a lot of fun doing it.

The story idea had its genesis in Rogue One, the new film in the Stars Wars milieu. The most striking part of the film is the meaty supporting performance by Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. Striking, of course, because Peter Cushing has been dead since 1994. In view of his deceased status, he really brings it Rogue One!

Of course, Mr. Cushing is actually realized courtesy of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI). The effect is stunningly effective. Which got me thinking about the possibilities here. What if, sometime in the future, someone wanted to make a film with Cary Grant, or Clark Gable, or Bette Davis? Future technologies will not only make this possible, but easy.

Then I thought about the discussions we’ve had here at TKZ recently about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the prospect of machines getting into the writing game.

So the idea came to me: in the not too distant future, a movie studio is working on a Western starring John Wayne and Lee Marvin, featuring Jane Russell, Andy Devine, Chill Wills, and Victor McLaglen. The technology provides holographic imagery along with AI functionality. What if …

Well, I’ll leave the What if for you readers, because that’s what my new Kindle short story, JOHN WAYNE’S REVENGE, is about. It’s FREE through Thursday. (For those who don’t have a Kindle device, remember you can download a free Kindle app to your phone or tablet or computer, and enjoy Kindle books that way.)

One of the nice things about short fiction is that you can get an idea and just start hitting the keys to see what happens. It’s fun. You can write whatever the heck you want to, without a huge expenditure of time.

That was Bradbury’s practice. He’d hop out of bed in the morning and just start capturing what was in that fertile imagination of his, whatever his writer’s mind had cooked up in the nightly dream world. Only later would he look at the pieces and figure out what was going on. He wrote with more pure joy than any other writer I know of.

So enjoy the story, on me. It’s an under ten-minute read, perfect for the waiting room at the doctor’s office, when you’re lunching by yourself, or after choosing the wrong line at the grocery store.

What if … 

So what have you written lately purely for the joy of it?   

Getting Your Homework Done

I have a friend who, even as he has achieved septuagenarian status, remains the master of the bon mot. We were talking about the finality of life and about people of our age group — primarily women we had, um, known in the past — who had already gone ahead. The conversation turned to health, and how fragile it gets as that unknown sell-by date approaches. He capped off the conversation by saying, “Gee! I better hurry up and get my homework done!”

Indeed. It seems as if we are stuck in a Lewis Carroll novel, where we must run faster to stay in place. And what happened with that technological helping hand? Technology was supposed to help us get more accomplished; instead it seems to have inadvertently created more tasks, providing us with a longer reach which is ill-suited to work with our increasingly arthritic grasp. This doesn’t just apply to those of us who are old enough to remember when television consisted of three channels, either. My ten year granddaughter was recently assigned to write a one-paragraph essay as a homework assignment. She turned in an extremely sub-standard effort — one at odds with her stratospheric IQ — which ended with the sentence: “I wrote this in the car on the way to school.” She earned a grade of “SEE ME” from the teacher. It developed that our darling had gotten caught up in a roleplaying game the night before, which was more interesting than a writing a paragraph could ever be, and then gave it her all, if you will, on the way to school the following morning. Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand that school is much harder now than it was when I was in school. I also understand why some teenagers look for several affordable essays to buy when they are behind on work because otherwise, school life would be too stressful for them. But for my 10-year-old granddaughter to not be bothered to write one paragraph… That’s just lazy more than anything.

Writers are faced with this time balance on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Life gets in the way of writing. Heck, life gets in the way of life. My way of dealing with this has never been perfect and is constantly evolving. I am accordingly going to share with you my current method for coping with the time crunch, which, as I approach the downhill slope of my life, actually works pretty well.

1) Eat the booger first. That got your attention, didn’t it? The “booger” in this case is the task you want to do least. It can be anything from emptying the dishwasher to drafting that letter that contains bad news for the recipient. Do that first. Do it as soon as you get the bad news that you have been appointed to pass on. Do it when the dishwasher light goes on, or it buzzes, or whatever. I have found in most cases that the freakin’ idea of whatever it is you need to do but don’t want to is often worse than actually doing it.

Here is but one example. I’ve been fighting the clutter monster, which for me consists of paper, paper, paper. I had reached the point where a home shredder wasn’t getting the job done. Lo and behold, I discovered that some UPS Store outlets have contracted with the Iron Mountain folks to shred paper at a reasonable price. Problem solved. Although I do get why some people need one as they are an essential part of their office supplies for obvious reasons. I started with the goal of going through one box a week to determine what I need (a closed file concerning a client that I still represent on other matters) to what I don’t (a receipt for a garage door repair done in…well, not this century). I am now enjoying it so much that I have to put a limit on the number of boxes I go through in a day, because I wasn’t getting other things done.

2) List your Big Four. List four things which you try to do every day, regardless of what else happens. Put them in your calendar (on daily repeat) at the beginning of your day. Assign one word to each task — Watch, Read, Write, and Listen, for example — and do each of those things for fifteen minutes each day. If you want to keep doing them, fine, but the first time that you start each one be sure to stop after fifteen minutes. Come back to each one later, if you wish and if you can, but again, in fifteen minute increments. Do it with tasks that you want or have to do regularly, and love or hate (or somewhere in between) , but do each for fifteen minutes at a time. You will be surprised at how long and how short a quarter-hour is, and how much you can get done in that time period. This is particularly true of writing. Depending on your typing speed, inspiration, and perspiration, you can get a couple of hundred words out of you and on the screen in fifteen minutes. What? You say that doesn’t sound like much? Count out two hundred Skittles and throw them around the living room. Now pick them up. See. Two hundred is a lot. Do that for ten days and you have two thousand words or more, where before you had nothing. And so it goes.

3) Schedule things realistically, and adjust your expectations accordingly. It isn’t going to take you fifteen minutes to prepare your income tax return, so don’t schedule that from 10:00 to 10:15 on the night of April 14. You’ll just be making an appointment to be kissed by the goddess of disappointment. Go ahead and block off fifteen minutes for it, across twenty different days, or block off an entire day, if you can do it. You have a pretty good idea how long it takes you, however, from past experience, which is usually a pretty good indicator of present performance. But be realistic in your estimates of how long it takes you and how long you can work on it at a stretch. Think of YOUR abilities and limitations. Mickey Spillane wrote I the Jury in nineteen days, and Georges Simenon could write a book in less time than that, but you or I aren’t going to do that (probably). Don’t get discouraged when it takes longer than you thought it would, and plan accordingly.

4) Stay the fu-heck off of the phone. And if you can’t, learn how to cut calls short. I am running over my scheduled time for writing this blog because my brother called me and I took the call, which he made to tell me a hysterically funny joke. One thing led to another and all of a sudden I found myself behind the eightball. Some calls you have to take, particularly if you have children who need you for whatever reason. I’m currently helping a guy who is struggling with the first steps of sobriety. He calls. I’m there. Period. End of story, and to heck with the schedule. When dealing with most other folks, however, I tell them upfront that I am busy and can either 1) give them five minutes before I have to leave or 2) call them back the next day. Make it stick. Be polite, and most people understand.

The great part of all of this is that it doesn’t take two hours out of each day to set up. I’ve worked with systems that used cards, diaries, etc. This doesn’t. You can make it up and set it up fairly quickly. In the case of my granddaughter, she could have eaten the booger first by writing the essay as soon as she got home, then played her computer game for fifteen minutes, done her other homework, then gone back to the games. She’ll learn, hopefully, though it took me long enough to do so. And I didn’t think this up by myself. I got the fifteen minute thing from a woman who calls herself “The Flylady” and the suggestion to “eat the booger first” from a friend in Louisiana. So use what you like and what works for you. Which brings us to the end of me and the beginning of you: what methods have you used and acquired to stay productive?

Reader Friday: Experience

“A writer need not devour a whole sheep in order to know what mutton tastes like, but he must at least eat a chop. Unless he gets his facts right, his imagination will lead him into all kinds of nonsense, and the facts he is most likely to get right are the facts of his own experience.”
— W. Somerset Maugham

How much of your writing comes from your experience? Do you tend to write what you know? Or do you write what you need to know?

Guest Post: Harking Back To The Golden Age Of Journalism

Today we welcome back to TKZ our friend and fellow ITW member, author Lisa Black. Enjoy!

By Lisa Black

Who hasn’t wanted to be a newspaper reporter at some point in their life? Chasing a big story, elbowing your way up to shady corporations, reluctant witnesses, crusading leaders? Living on coffee and take-out, your only uniform a pair of jeans and a worn leather jacket, with the ever-present notebook and pen in hand? Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable?
At least that used to sound glamorous to me. Now it just sounds exhausting.
But I still love newspapers. Reading the day’s edition, delivered to a box at the end of my driveway, over a cup of tea is my favorite part of the day. So when I decided to set the second Gardiner and Renner book around a large city newspaper, I knew it was the right decision.
I did a ton of research, but one book that was more fun than work is titled Gimme Rewrite, Sweetheart…. It is a compilation of memories of reporters for the two major Cleveland, Ohio newspapers from when Cleveland still had two papers. Like most cities it now has one and that one only provides home print delivery four days per week.
Reporters in a bygone era could be assigned to the police beat, and their schedule became dictated by the police radio which sat on a shelf for constant monitoring. Fires, traffic accidents, helpful dispatchers warning officers that they might need noseplugs for a week-old welfare check gave the reporters a quick summary of what the story might be. But of course they couldn’t really know until they got there.
Some other tidbits of information from this book:
You may wonder why stories are ‘buried’ near the obituaries. Editors have no way to know how many people will die on any particular day so they leave a little room open near the obituaries. Late-breaking stories are placed there because there is space, not because of any editorial decision.
A reporter got on the good side of some mobsters at their trial by stealing 20-30 year old photos of them from the newspaper’s archives. Giving each a photo and saying, “Look, this is you when you were, like, 22,” made him their new buddy and got them chatting.
Back in the heady days of large staffs, each paper had specialized writers. There were religion writers, aviation writers, medicine writers. At one point both papers had dog writers.
Game-changing stories don’t always have to be herculean, dramatic efforts. One reporter, with help from the hospital’s employees, simply wandered around a hellish psychiatric ward for a day. When the state governor read the story, he strengthened state regulations to improve conditions. Another reporter wrote a story on Savings & Loans soaking home buyer on fees (one of the practices which would cause the entire economy to crash in 2008) and wound up taking on the inimical Freddie Mac. But the local Congresswoman happened to be on the House Banking Committee and Freddie Mac happened to be asking the Committee to do an IPO. Freddie Mac wound up having to make information public and belatedly enforce its own rules.
Or smaller stories—a car dealership beloved in the area for its corny TV commercials ran a contest where they awarded a car to a worthy person. The college girl winner had a father recently disabled from a heart attack, but the car she won got two flats on the way home and the exhaust system fell off. A reporter wrote the truth. Luckily for the reporter the dealership didn’t advertise in the paper, so the paper ran the story anyway—the dealership sued, but the reporter won the lawsuit. The truth, it seemed, was still a valid defense.
Some things don’t change.


It begins with the kind of bizarre death that makes headlines—literally. A copy editor at the Cleveland Herald is found hanging above the grinding wheels of the newspaper assembly line. Forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner has her suspicions about this apparent suicide inside the tsunami of tensions that is the news industry today—and when the evidence suggests murder, Maggie has no choice but to place her trust in the one person she doesn’t trust at all….
Jack Renner is a killer with a conscience, a vigilante with his own code of honor. He has only one problem: Maggie knows his secret. She insists he enforce the law, not subvert it. But when more newspaper employees are slain, Jack may be the only person who can help Maggie unmask the killer–even if Jack is still checking names off his own private list.

UNPUNISHED available January 31 wherever books are sold!
Twitter: @LisaBlackAuthor

Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.

To Count or Not to Count (Words, that is)

Because* I’m a writer who is thisclose to completing the draft of her next novel, I was telling someone today about how many words I wrote when I went off on a writing retreat this past weekend. (I know, I know. Another writer talking about her book. You’re yawning already. But do try to stay awake, because I promise I do have a point. And a question for you.) It’s the second January in a row I ran away from home for a weekend to write, and while I can’t yet call it a tradition or habit, I think I shall make it both.

The person I was telling isn’t a writer, and so the numbers–2K words late Friday night, 9K on Saturday, and 2K Sunday morning for a total of 13K—meant nothing to him. But he did ask me a question that surprised me: “Why in the world do you keep track of the number of words you write? Are you in some kind of competition?”

I definitely did not see that coming.

One of my best friends, an enormously successful writer, has kept track of her words on spreadsheets for well over a decade. But I also know a writer who has been writing for a half-century and couldn’t tell you precisely how many stories she’s published, let alone the number of words.

The subject of word counts comes up frequently when you’re an emerging writer. Agents only want to see a certain number of pages, and competitions, magazines, and writing workshops all set limits. When you sell that novel, there will be a word count mentioned in the contract, and when it comes time for delivery, it better be close: if there aren’t enough, it won’t meet the contract; if there are too many, it could negatively impact the production schedule and projected costs. Word counts are relevant.

But should word counts have a place in your creative life? What do word counts mean to you?

This might sound a little crazy, but keeping track of my words satisfies the voice in my head that says, “use your time well.” Word counts are by nature quantifications. Proof that I’ve written. It doesn’t matter if I’ve written badly. It doesn’t matter if I throw them out later. It doesn’t matter if I don’t even like them. I’ve written. I’ve worked. It sounds a little cold, but sometimes you have to feed the voice. (Now, these are only my thoughts. If you don’t have that scary neurosis voice in your head telling you she’s watching how you use your time, good for you.)

The softer, more right-brained view is that the more words you write, the more practiced you become. A friend of mine is fond of saying, “Writing begets writing.” This is so true. When I write, I work things out on the page. The more words I get down on paper, the more room there is in my brain for birthing new ideas. My brain feels larger, happier when it’s planning new words.

At the end of December, I started tracking my word counts in my daily blog. The person who asked me why I tracked words wondered if I was in some kind of competition. The answer is yes. I am in competition with myself. I like to know how much I’ve written, and it keeps me motivated—not just to improve the numbers as I go along, but to have some markers along the way.

What about you?

(Oh, and I wanted to share a bit of news with you all: I’m excited to have a story, A Paler Shade of Death, nominated in the Best Short Story category for 2017 Edgar Awards. I’m thrilled and honored and a little freaked out to be nominated alongside four of my writing heroes!)

*Yes, I opened this blog with the forbidden word, “because.” Please don’t try this at home.

(Photo by George Hodan,

Laura Benedict’s latest dark suspense novel is The Abandoned HeartVisit her at and get a free ebook when you sign up for her newsletter.

When The Muse Needs A Kick In The Pants

Do you ever have one of those days when it feels like the “boys in the back room” have gone on strike? It’s those times when inspiration fades, and fresh, original  ideas seem to have taken a permanent vacay from your brain? To help kickstart the inner Muse, consider trying out these nifty little writing exercise programs, which include everything from a Random Plot Generator, What If? Scenarios, a Character Trait Generator, and a Random First Line Generator.  Happy Writing!

Speaking of Happy: We’re excited and pleased to announce that The Kill Zone has been recognized by Positive Writer in its “Best Writing Blogs for Writers Awards 2017″.

Thanks to our bloggers and TKZ readers and community contributors for making this another great year for writing and learning!

Story Critique: When Concept Doesn’t Play Nice With Premise

By Larry Brooks

(I’m sharing this from my website, because it has received some interesting feedback, much of it sent to me directly (via the Feedburner email distribution) rather than appearing in the online Comment thread. It’s a variation on the First Page Critique format we use here on KZ… more a Concept/Premise critique, which is bigger-picture than just a first page critique, which by definition is more scene, voice and style focused than it is a story-level focus. Both are useful. Feel free to chime in with feedback of your own.)

The traps that would compromise or even sabotage our best story intentions are everywhere.

Even when it all begins with a strong conceptual proposition… which is what’s up with today’s case study.

Notice how the premise really states a situation, without ever really defining a hero’s challenge and path and goal, which in a good story becomes the core dramatic question explored along a core dramatic arc.

Notice how the weight of the themes tend to overwhelm (this often happens when theme is the initial inspiration), isolating the circumstance (which contributes to the setup) from expository conflict arising from dramatic tension, which in a solid story is what elicits an empathetic response and emotional resonance from the reader.

Rather, in this story the reader ends up observing, rather than rooting, because there is little to root for.

Notice, in the final answers, how the whole thing changes lanes and becomes about something else entirely (a killer of stories), or at least seems as clear in the setup of a narrative as it is completely void of a third act (parts 3 and 4 of the four-part structure model), thus leaving us without an actionable story plan.

As an organic/pantsing, free-writing exercise… maybe this would work itself out. That’s the upside of organic writing, it is primarily a story discovery-centric process, but without the ability to sense when it isn’t working and vet what you believe is working, it can become portraiture via fingerpainting.

As a story plan, though, as it sits now… it is only half there, and even then, is problematic.

After reading the author’s statement of concept, take a moment and ask yourself what story you might cull from that proposition, and where that inspiration might take you.

This is a study in story sense that is unfocused and unsure, without ever reaching a cohesive destination.

All of it fixable, but only with a clear hero’s quest—one with a more empathetic and rootable vision—in mind.  What do you think?

Initial feedback shows in red.


Genre: YA, after an initial draft as Middle Grade

What is the CONCEPT of your story?

What if a kid looked white, grew up thinking he was white, and later found out he was black?” What would happen? How would he feel? How would his ideas of identity change? His view of race in general?”

Nice, especially in terms of one of the criteria for a strong concept: the notion that several stories—even many different stories—could be written from this singular conceptual idea or proposition.

There are other criteria (for concept) that apply as well, and this one works particularly well relative to the potential for dramatic tension, and the creation of an “arena” (racial tensions, in this case).

Of course, we still need a premise that works, but this is a good start.

Restate your concept using a “WHAT IF…?” proposition:

What if a blue-eyed, blonde-haired boy discovers he is black in 1960s Alabama?

Even  stronger, now that you added this placement in time (which is fraught with drama and tension, and – especially – emotional resonance). This thematic arena is what made “The Help” work as well as it did, and is a good example of concept in play. Because time/place/setting/arena can indeed be conceptual.

What is the PREMISE of your story?

Before I read your answer and comment, allow me share what I’m looking for in this answer.

I mention this because sometimes a strong thematic and setting-oriented concept (which is what you have) can lead the writer into a trap… they end up writing ABOUT this condition and circumstance and setting, but do so as a “series of things that happen, this is what it was like”… instead of what we need to see, which is a linear dramatic story.  A plot.  A hero with something specific he/she needs to do, or solve, or accomplish, or avoid/survive, driven by stakes, leading to an opportunity to become heroic… and with an opposing force (a villain, an antagonist; racism is NOT sufficient antagonism, it needs to have a face, be a character, be a villain… like Miss Hilly in The Help), all of it driven by emotionally-resonant stakes.

Concept doesn’t do all of that. This becomes the job of premise.

I see this so often, I feel the need to forewarn. Hopefully, I didn’t need to mention it, because you’re already there.  Let’s see.

I started with the premise of a 12-year-old boy (Mark) on a baseball team in Montgomery – a team that was beginning to integrate. Not by choice but by law. He and his teammates are not in favor of this and give the ‘colored’ kids a hard time. One colored kid (Bo) is a great pitcher and Mark tries to befriend him in secret. They get to know each other and then Mark gets a letter from school telling him he is expelled due to the discovery that he is colored (Mark’s dead father was mulatto).

Already an emotional button-pusher.

By the way, this could be (probably is) your First Plot Point moment (occurring from 20 to 25 percent into the narrative). Or – and this is why structure is not formulaic, because the writer needs to (gets to) make a call on this issue – it could be an inciting incident withing the first setup block of narrative (about 20 percent in, or so), leading toward and even more story-defining first plot point turn.

Mark refuses to believe he is colored and immediately assumes this is payback for befriending Bo (at this point, he does not listen to anything his mother tries to explain). She kept the secret, hoping he could ‘pass’. Now Mark wants nothing to do with Bo. Why? Because Mark’s goal is to get an afterschool job to help his single mother pay the bills, and most of the errand boy type jobs are with businesses owned by the Justice family, who are racists (in the book, I show that not all whites in AL were racist at that time).

So Mark has a problem, and a choice: “un-friend” Bo so he can help his mother… or, not bow to social pressure, even when there are consequences.

Good… and so far, a continuing setup. Now, you need to give Mark SOMETHING TO DO, rather than a situation merely to ponder, to exist within, however emotionally resonant. It’s a good/strong setup, too… but until you put Mark in motion (because is NOT a documentary about “what it was like to be him,” but rather, a DRAMA about him setting out to accomplish something specific, with stakes and opposition), it is not yet a strong novel. Add that hero’s quest for Mark, and it will be.

“The Help,” a story with similar historic and thematic raw grist, didn’t just depend on the situation of the maids working Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. The author created a hero with something that she must do and accomplish: Skeeter needs to convince the maids to help her write her book, which is her vehicle to launch her journalism career. Notice that originally Skeeter’s goal was not – at least not primarily – to solve the racism problem of that time and place. Rather, her goal was self-focused. But her character arc was the discovery of what it all meant, and what would come it within a bigger picture beyond herself. In doing that, the author turned the story from a documentary into a drama, and did so brilliantly.

Mark has been trying to get in good with his teammate Billy Justice in order to get the job (not really an admirable thing, to “use” the guise of friendship to advance one’s self; you shouldn’t place your bet on the reader rooting for this as his core quest). So the story follows Mark as he tries to overcome the obstacle of prejudice in order to reach his goal.  (That’s a bit of a rationalizing over-generalization which really doesn’t describe Mark’s problem. He’s facing some tough choices, created in the context of racism, but he still must be called to do the “right thing.”)

This is a yellow flag. What does this mean – “follows Mark?”  Can you see how this promises a bunch of stuff, an episodic series of moments and circumstances that show Mark in this frustrating, angry, unfair place?  But it isn’t moving forward toward something, along a dramatic spine (versus the episodic narrative this promises)… until you state what he does about it.

The story doesn’t work as a documentary, simply allowing us to observe a hero in a situation.  Rather, as readers we need to root for him to take action that leads to a satisfying outcome. Which is a different thing than simply watching, even if we marvel at it all.

The novel, as described here, is just that: about showing us this circumstance.  But it should be more about showing us what he DOES about it… how those efforts are opposed (antagonism from an external source; i.e., a villain), creating tension and conflict… how he ups his game to get to the goal (which must be much more succinct that “get the job” – because simply getting the job is NOT particularly heroic, even with these motives), and ultimately, within the context of this racial culture, courageously accepts the consequences of acting heroically, versus acting selfishly.

It’s not heroic, as his story is written thus far, because of the moral cost of his choices. Our stories need heroes, not people who buckle to weakness. At first… sure. But ultimately, Mark needs to triumph over this situation and do the right thing.

What are you asking your reader to root for? It can’t be to just “get the job.” It can’t be for him to escape his true color and that situation, through deception or cowardice. Rather, we need to root for Mark to CHANGE things, to create fairness and opportunity, not just for himself, but for Bo, as well. To step into the risk of doing the right thing. To show these people what is right, to show them how things must change.

That, the reader will root for. Because it is so much more emotionally-resonant that him just “getting the job.”

In the interim, he rejects the colored school he must attend, tries to get back in Billy’s good graces, and refuses to fix his friendship with Bo.  (This is him buckling to social and peer pressure, without realizing or having the courage to do the right thing by Bo.  But the reader will root for NONE of this. These can’t be his goals – at least past the story’s mid-point – because this isn’t the story arc… the arc needs to be the exact opposite of this.)

(Reader note: this is example of the author’s story sense not serving the opportunity here. A good idea, rendered impotent because of the stated direction of the context of the hero’s arc, as described. It won’t work like this, unless there is some contrary resolution at the end, which hasn’t been hinted at yet.)

A better story requires rethinking:

The story should ultimately show Mark embracing his true race, fitting in at the new “colored” school (because that’s one inequity he can’t fix realistically), while STILL winning over Billy, and becoming friends with Bo because it’s WRONG and weak if he doesn’t. If he can show Billy a higher road in the process, all the better.

As told, Mark becomes part of the problem. A better story would show us Mark becoming part of the solution, a beacon of hope and courage. In other words, a hero.

If you head in that direction (perhaps in the next paragraph), then you’ll have a nice story arc. But if you don’t… you’ve sabotaged your own story. More clearly put, it’s not good enough yet, it’s off the mark (no pun), and needs further thought and development, toward what I’ve described here.

The ‘ah ha’ moment for him is when he is betrayed after trusting, and finds that his friendships were based on color and not on who he is as a person.  (Sounds like the midpoint context shift turn, to me; it also sounds like you might turn this around…)

In the end, he embraces both worlds in order to survive and make peace with himself.

That’s it? It’s a good statement of intention, but without any “plan” or description on what or how, specifically, he does to embrace both worlds. What happens that becomes a catalyst for him to “embace both worlds?” How does he do the right thing by Bo (better put: what does he do to create that pivot?)?

And there’s this: “making peace with himself” is an outcome, not the journey itself, or the plot or the story goal.  

You’ve SKIPPED the entire meat of the novel: what Mark DOES about this situation, to fix things, to make things right. He doesn’t have to earn the Nobel Prize by solving the race problem in that day and age (indeed, in “The Help” that problem isn’t even dented by the characters; rather, the characters we have come to know achieve resolution for themselves using courage and cleverness, and it changes them going forward).

You’re not done. You have a strong concept, but an incomplete premise.

You describe a story about a boy who is on the wrong path, who rejects and fears doing the right thing, who gives into fear and peer pressure. All of this is bad… all of this is what he must OVERCOME, not embrace.

Then you very briefly – too briefly – mention an “ah-ha” moment without coming anywhere near telling what it is, how it changes him, and what he does about it…

… which IS (or should be) the entire second half of the story. And it’s not here.

What are you asking the reader to root for and care about in this story?

Mark’s struggle both internal and external.

This is incomplete. We don’t root for the internal struggle, we simply observe it, note it, and see how it impacts his journey. Rather, we recognize it as a factor—an obstacle—conflicting the external struggle that we do root for.

As we watch the hero move through the arc of the story, we need to root for him/her in the moment… and we also root for an OUTCOME to it, which is rewarded by the author showing us how, courageously and cleverly, Mark embraces that higher road and gets it done.  In this case, for Mark to get it, to do the right thing, to step into risk with new courage… to do the right thing for the right reasons (not self-serving reasons).

It seems you want to write about the struggle as a primary focus. But is he really struggling, or just choosing?  Ultimately, the story should be about his victory within that inner struggle, manifesting as choices and actions in confronting his exterior antagonist. Which in this case is vague. There is virtually nothing at all hindering him along the path, he simply gets to choose. And when the consequence of his choice move him toward morally ambiguous and self-serving outcomes, that’s not heroic, nor is it something we are rewarded for watching.

The story you are describing reads as inherently episodic. The better story wouldn’t be.

You have some work to do on that front… because none of that “take the high road” context is described here, and for the most part, not even alluded to.

What do you believe will distinguish your story in a crowded marketplace, setting it apart from and above the competition to attract the attention of agents, editors and readers?

I put this concept out last year in a pitch party where six agents and four editors requested to see the manuscript.

My guess is, they asked to see it because the concept, at a glance, is compelling. It is rich conceptual fodder. They assumed the story would turn the corner and become about Mark’s fight to do the right thing, as an empathetic hero’s quest. That is what they were hoping for when they requested more pages, because that’s where the emotional resonance and payoff come from.

So the concept attracted attention, yet the premise (maybe even the writing) was off. A few agents asked that I re-engineer the book and re-submit.

Precisely what I’m recommending, as well, per these notes, for reasons herein explained.

You don’t have the best story yet, or even the right story, IMO. Or at least, the more complete and compelling story. Because ultimately you don’t have a story that brings us a hero to root for (versus what you do have, which is a kid in a tough spot that we observe, and within that observation, must endure a series of his bad choices). You have the setup for one, but you imply this is the whole narrative… and it doesn’t work because it’s incomplete. If this is all it is, then it isn’t working that way.

And to the extent you don’t imply it, you don’t actually describe a story path in the second half of the novel that brings out his heroism through courage and empathy.

Second, this is not a book about racism in the normal sense. This is more a story about how one wraps their head around a life-altering situation at a time when being ‘the wrong color’ in the wrong state, at the wrong time, had enormous consequences.

Which isn’t enough. You are saying here—this is a story about a situation. Which really only works for the setup portion of a story (the initial pre-FFP quartile).

What you’ve given us is a story about Mark’s attempt to avoid doing the right thing, to get what he wants by doing a work-around of some kind that serves him…. without the payoff of going with him (emotionally) as he pivots onto a higher path.

In its current state (as an MG in first person) I do not feel I can do it justice, mainly because I came to the realization that I cannot write the MG voice; it’s just not in me.

Voice isn’t the problem here. The context of the story as a hero’s journey and quest… that is the problem.

In the new version I am writing the boy as 14, he is off to baseball camp in Alabama where he was born but has not been since he was four. His mother has relocated him to Bridgeport, Illinois and has remarried. It is 1970. (Montgomery did not integrate schools until that year so prejudice was still very much alive in the attitudes of residents). His mother has not told Mark or his stepfather that he is black. She does not want him to go to Alabama and checks out the camp instructors thoroughly but never says why. So, the first line of chapter one is: When Mark told his mother that this year’s baseball camp was in Alabama, her rosy cheeks went pale.

Nice line. But… where is it taking the narrative from there? I sense a massive lane change here… but would need to know more about this new plan to comment on it.

What you’ve described here is the opening. But where’s Bo? Where’s Billy? Where is the prospect of the new job?  What you have is another flavor of a  situational opening setup. But if you dwell there, you risk setting up the wrong story entirely, rather than the one you describe earlier.

At the camp, one of the white instructors gets hurt and is replaced with a very fair-skinned black man who is an ex minor leaguer. This is significant to Mark’s goal because he has spent most of his young life trying to please the man he thought was his father – who does not like sports and gives his attention/affection to the younger brother who is his real son.

I already don’t recognize this from the previous answers. Lane change… a red flag. 

Therefore, the book unravels the reason for his mother’s deception/secret, the real father’s reaction/rejection to learning he has a son, the treatment by the kids on the team, and Mark’s discovery that his real father is dying of prostate cancer.

But the book isn’t about THAT. That’s an issue, yes, but as context for the story you promise in these answers. You seem less than clear what the dramatic spine of this story is, and needs to be.

So I’m wondering… it appears you have moved on to another story altogether. But if that’s true, what are we to make of those initial answers? Why are you submitted a trashed story for analysis, when you’ve already moved on to something else in terms of the core dramatic thread, the stakes and the hero’s quest within the story?

Is it a story about a boy and his father? Or his mother? Or his friend, Bo, and the racial issues that separate them? Can it be all of these? Perhaps, but only in context to a core dramatic thread that is clearly dominating the forward motion of the narrative… which isn’t clearly established here.

You need to rethink and expand on the concept as it informs a revised premise, to bring it around to the solutions-orientation I explain here.

Hope this helps you rethink this, beginning with a clearer understanding of why it isn’t working.


As part of what’s next, I recommended that this author study my new video, “The Beautiful Collision Between Concept and Premise” (91 minutes), which you can download HERE and HERE, as part of my new Storyfix Virtual Classroom series of hardcore craft training modules (there are five training modules posted thus far).  Killzoners can use this code –  Killzone25off – to get 25 percent off any/all of those titles).

Strengthening Your Fiction The Ben Franklin Way

by James Scott Bell

For those who advocate the free-form, no-study school of fiction writing, let me call from the grave an expert witness for the other side, one Benjamin Franklin. No slouch as a writer himself, Franklin was also a lifelong student of the art of living well.

In a letter to Lord Kames, dated May 3, 1760, Franklin wrote:

Most people have naturally some virtues, but none have naturally all the virtues. To acquire those that are wanting, and secure what we acquire, as well as those we have naturally, is the subject of an art. It is as properly an art as painting, navigation, or architecture. If a man would become a painter, navigator, or architect, it is not enough that he is advised to be one, that he is convinced by the arguments of his adviser, that it would be for his advantage to be one, and that he resolves to be one, but he must also be taught the principles of the art, be shewn all the methods of working, and how to acquire the habits of using properly all the instruments; and thus regularly and gradually he arrives, by practice, at some perfection in the art.

In Franklin’s autobiography, he sets out his method of moral improvement. He settled on thirteen virtues he wanted in his life: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity and Humility.

Next, Franklin printed up grids with the virtues in the left column, and rows of seven boxes, representing a week. He determined to concentrate on one virtue per week, and leave the other virtues to their “ordinary chance.” In the evening, he would look at the day’s page and assess how he did in the main virtue, while making a mark in those areas where he sensed he needed improvement. Here is what a page on Temperance looked like:

In this fashion, Franklin could go through all thirteen virtues four times a year. Business and sales folk have been using Franklin’s system for decades to improve their own performance. Not via Franklin’s virtues, but by determining their own areas of competence. These are called critical success factors (CSFs).

For fiction writers, I identify seven CSFs: Plot, Structure, Characters, Scenes, Dialogue, Voice and Meaning (Theme).

If you were to set up a self-study program, concentrating on one CSF for seven weeks, in one year you will have covered them all––with three weeks to spare!

Improving just one of the CSFs is going to kick your fiction up a notch. But what if you improved on all seven?

What if your goal was to get 10% better in each? (I know there’s no way to measure that, but you will be able to feel it. So will your readers). If you did that, your writing would improve not just a notch, but exponentially.

If this concept is new to you, let me suggest that you start by regularly investing in craft books.

For plot and structure, modesty prevents me from recommending certain books, like Plot & Structure and Write Your Novel From the Middle. Collegiality, however, would have me alert you to Story Engineering by TKZ’s own Larry Brooks.

My favorite book on characters is Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress.

The best book on dialogue is How to Write Dazzling Dialogue. Modesty prevents me from naming the author.

Scenes? Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld.

Voice? Voice (I’m over the modesty thing).

Meaning or Theme: Writing a Book That Makes a Difference by Philip Gerard.

There are, of course, many other texts you can add to the list. I love books on writing. I still read them. And Writer’s Digest. My philosophy is if I learn just one new thing (or a slightly different take on something I already know) that makes my writing better, it’s worth it.

We also have a stunningly good archive on the craft here at TKZ, too.

And if you feel like making in-depth investment in instruction on all of the above, I can sheepishly recommend the video course Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down.  

Now, add to all that some of your favorite novels and authors who do these CSFs well. For example, when I want a refresher on dialogue, I might turn to Elmore Leonard or Robert B. Parker. For an action scene, I can whip out any of the Jonathan Grave thrillers by a fellow named Gilstrap. For voice, give me some Raymond Chandler or Ray Bradbury. Theme? To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye. Scenes that end so you have to turn the page? Early Stephen King.

Make your own list. Read those books again, or for the first time, taking notes on what the author does well. In my bookshelf in the garage (moved there so I could have more room for books in my house) is a big collection of paperbacks I devoured in the early 90s as I was learning the craft. They are filled with my pencil underlines and marginal notes:

Character sympathy!

Read-on prompt.

Mystery dropped in.

You still have pencils, don’t you? Use them!

And don’t forget movies. I use film a lot when I teach because some of the most important CSFs are complementary twixt film and literature.

Want to see a perfectly structured movie? You can’t go wrong with The Fugitive. how about a big theme wrapped up in compelling characters? Casablanca. Dialogue? Double Indemnity. All About Eve. Sunset Boulevard. A lesson in tension? Eye in the Sky (a recent favorite). The whole history of movies awaits you.

Finally, do some writing exercises that incorporate what you’re learning. Write practice scenes, experiment with voice, do several pages of nothing but dialogue.

And yes, right alongside your study, be writing your novels. When you write, write. Be loose. Don’t think too much. Be very careful about the demon perfectionism. Write your first drafts as fast as you comfortably can, leaving the CSFs, as Franklin did with the virtues, to their “ordinary chance.”

Then, when you edit, think about and apply what you’ve learned.

Repeat over and over the rest of your life.

Do that, and Ben Franklin, flying his kite somewhere near Alpha Centauri, will look down and smile.