Happy Holidays From TKZ!

It’s Winter break here at the Kill Zone. During our 2-week hiatus, we’ll be spending time with our families and friends, and celebrating all the traditions that make this time of year so wonderful. We sincerely thank you for visiting our blog and commenting on our rants and raves. We wish you a truly blessed Holiday Season and a prosperous 2018.

We look forward to ringing in the New Year with you upon our return on Monday, January 1st!

Writers Need to be Amphibious

by James Scott Bell

So here we are at the end of another Kill Zone year. (We’ll be taking our traditional two-week break starting tomorrow.) It’s been an amazing run for this blog, which began way back in August of 2008. I’m in awe of my colleagues, both present and emeriti, for the depth of their wisdom and generosity of spirit toward the writing community.

Emeriti, by the way, is the Latin plural of emeritus.

Aren’t you glad you stopped by?

Reminds me of my favorite Latin joke. Or I should say, only Latin joke.

Julius Caesar walks into a bar and orders a martinus.

The bartender says, “You mean a martini?”

And Caesar says, “If I wanted a double I would have asked for it!”

Speaking of which, 2017 was a year a lot of people ordered doubles. I seriously think we need to take a collective breath and, for a couple of weeks at least, imbibe the true spirit of this season: family, friends, generosity and gratitude.

And just plain old relaxation! So kick back and watch a couple holiday movies (Miracle on 34th Street and the 1951 Christmas Carol are always at the top of my list, though I would remind everyone that Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are Christmas movies, too!)

Don’t stress about things you can’t control (this is the wisdom of the Stoics, and what says holiday fun more than the Stoics?) As Epictetus (b. 50, d. 135) so succinctly put it, “There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

Changes in technology, Amazon algorithms, the size of advances … these are beyond the power of our will. Ditto the shrinking of slots in traditional publishing catalogues, the number of bookstores that are still open, and bestseller lists (unless, of course, one takes the nefarious road of buying one’s way onto the NYT list, in which case the power of will has been corrupted by the siren song of list-lust. Don’t go there).

Nor can we stuff a stopper in the flood of system gamers, sock puppets, nasty reviewers, and inveterate haters—except to the extent that we adamantly refuse to become one of them.

What is within our power?

Our writing, of course. Our dedication to it. Our determination. Our discipline.

The page we’re working on.

The goals we set and the plans we make.

Concentrate on those things. Chill about the rest.

This is still the greatest time on earth to be a writer. Remember, just ten short years ago there was only one way to get published and into bookstores. The walls of the Forbidden City were formidable indeed.

Then came the Kindle, just in time for Christmas 2007, and suddenly there was another way to get published and into the largest bookstore in the world (with your cover facing out, no less!)

During those heady first years of digital disruption, a few pioneering scribes jumped in and showed massive ebook sales at the 99¢ price point. This got the attention of writers inside (and formerly inside) the Forbidden City, and ushered in a “gold-rush” phase when good and productive writers began to make really serious money going directly to Amazon.

At the same time, traditional publishing began to stagger around like a boxer who gets clocked just before the bell rings to end the round. Many predicted that by 2013 or ’14, the whole traditional industry would be kissing canvas.

Instead, we have entered a new equilibrium where the wild highs in the indie world are leveling off, and the disruptive lows in the traditional world are bottoming out (as one trad insider put it to me, “Flat is the new up.”)

But change, albeit more slowly, continues. Thus, what both of these worlds demand are a new set of business practices. I’ve tried to provide these for the indie writer. I’m not sure who the Bigs are listening to, but I suspect they need more Sun Tzu than Peter Drucker these days.

However, here is one bottom-line truth that applies across the board and will always be apt: What wins out in the end, and perhaps the only thing that does, is quality plus time, which I define as steady fiction production providing a swath of readers with satisfying emotional experiences. This holds true for any genre. You can figure out and strive to do the things that create reader satisfaction.

And what are those things? They are matters of craft. The more you are conversant with the tools and techniques of fiction, the better your quality control. It’s like that inspirational quote from a college basketball player some years ago. During an interview he said, “I can go to my left or to my right. I’m completely amphibious.”

Writer, you have to be amphibious to make it in the swirling ocean and on the rocky shores of the book world today. So my end-of-the-year suggestion is this: Invest in your writing self. Spend a certain amount of money on writing-related improvement, like books and workshops. Go to a good conference and network with other writers. If you’re starting to realize a little income from your writing, set aside a portion of it for this type of ongoing investment.

And do take advantage of one of the best free writing resources around—Kill Zone! Traipse through our library and archives. Subscribe to our feed so you don’t miss a day. Leave comments! We love the writing conversation.

We’re on this journey together, so keep in mind something the great Stoic philosopher Yogi Berra once said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Let’s take it in 2018!

Blessings on you this holiday season, from all of us at TKZ to all of you.

…and to all…


(c) 2017, Soho Press. All rights reserved.

I don’t as a rule like holiday-themed works of art. There are exceptions. Christmas Is a Special Day, an album of Christmas songs by Fats Domino, remains a favorite (in part because it was gifted to me by The Man himself, but that’s another story). I also listen repeatedly to Come On Christmas to Dwight Yoakam, and read The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg and “The Gift of the  Magi”  by O Henry a few times as well. Those are the exceptions to the rule, however.

I added one more holiday item to the list this year. It can be found in a recently published anthology titled The Usual Santas which is published by Soho Crime. I was immediately struck by the concept of the collection, that being to take the imprint’s roster of authors and commission Christmas-themed crime and thriller stories from them. It’s a wonderful collection from beginning to end. There is one story that stands out, however, that being “Chalee’s Nativity” by Timothy Hallinan. Tim writes a memorable series about Poke Rafferty, an expatriate American living in Bangkok, which is where “Chalee’s Nativity” is set. Rafferty does not poke his nose under the story’s tent, but Hallinan’s ever-keen eye for observation is fully and accurately street-tuned in this story about two orphans swept up onto the rough and dangerous streets of Bangkok at Christmastime. I have read this story every single day since I first encountered it in October, and will probably continue to do so long after this Christmas has passed. I won’t say that I haven’t complained about anything since I first read it, but this account of mind-numbing poverty, ill fortune, and charity of spirit has renewed my appreciation for what I have, from the moment when I wake up in the morning to the time when I close my eyes in the evening. If you get a chance in the run-up to the holidays please find a copy The Usual Santas and read it (as well as the other stories in the collection). You will be thankful.

Since we are talking about appreciation for what we have, please know that as we wind down 2017 that I appreciate you, and you, and yes, you for coming by this page and spending a few minutes with us here at TKZ and, if you are so inclined, commenting. It means a lot, more than you probably realize. I hope that all of us will continue to make your visit worthwhile.

Best wishes. See you in 2018, if the Good Lord is willing and the creek don’t rise.


One Less Word


By Elaine Viets

There are 250,000 English words. Maybe. Even the Oxford English Dictionary isn’t sure.
There is definitely one word I can do without. I hate it. So far, no one’s spoken it around me. But just reading it sets me off.
Here goes.
Bildungsroman is a highfalutin word that simply means “a coming of age novel.”
My chief beef against bildungsroman is that it sounds ugly. It looks like a Frankenword cobbled together from other unwanted words: – “bil,” which is way too close to a four-letter word that means “to owe money.” The second syllable is “dung,” or excrement.
The other problem is this word sounds ugly. Bildungsroman is not pronounced trippingly on the tongue. It sounds like someone threw a bag of garbage down a trash chute. You can hear it hitting the smelly metal walls as it bounces down to the Dumpster:
Bil (thud), dungs (slam), until it finally lands in a squishy heap of other trash with a splat and a flabby roman.
Bildungsroman first showed up in print in 1906, Webster says. That vintage word year brought us such beauties as banana split. (Can’t you just see one, heaped with whipped cream and slathered with chocolate syrup?)

And useful words like bonehead. (Add a picture of your brother-in-law or boss here.)
Seriously, bildungsroman has German roots. I’m told – okay, I read it on the Internet, so it must be true – that the “German word Bildung refers to forming and shaping, and the first Bildungsromane in 18th-century Germany focused on the hero’s self-formation. Modernists such as Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf adopted and reinvigorated the Bildungsroman form as a means of telling stories about longing and transition.”

Okay, I get it. Bildungsroman allows the worst sort of academic to sound important. But the word is so darn pompous.
I’m not prejudiced against all German words. English has borrowed some fine examples, include schadenfreude. That means “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.” It’s how you feel when you see the snippy high school cheerleader who used to torment you now weighs 250 pounds and works at Walmart.
Bildungsroman has no business being used. Stick with coming of age, and let this word die a quiet death.
Okay, I showed you mine. Which words would you wipe out of the English language?


To celebrate the end of hurricane season, I’m giving away my fourth Dead-End Job mystery, Murder Between the Covers, set during a Cat 3 hurricane. To win this autographed hardcover, click Contests at www.elaineviets.com 

Let’s Murder Some Darlings, Darling



We all have precious darlings. Sometimes those beloved phrases or oh-so-eloquent descriptions that we’re absolutely certain make a story fabulous, really just need to be cut out with a  scalpel. While an editor or good friend may mention them before they get to the printing point of no return, there’s no guarantee that we’ll listen. After all, they’re called “darlings” for a reason.

Right now I’m editing two novels–not quite simultaneously, but at least sequentially, with only a few days in between. (I’m no role model for workflow, obviously.) So I have more than one editor on the line talking to me about how to make the respective novels sharper. But the brutal truth is that I’m good at sniffing out the darn things myself. I bet you are, too.

Are you feeling brave? Because I want you to share a discarded darling or two of your own. But I’ll go first.

“There were no mysteries to be solved in New Belford. The last disturbance was when two drunk brothers got in a fight about which of them should inherit their mother’s small cottage on the lake. The younger brother had shot the older brother, but when he was convicted he cried, saying that his brother being dead was a worse punishment than prison. It turned out there was a second mortgage on the house and neither one of them would’ve owned anything. No mystery there. Just Darwinism at work.”

Reasons to cut:

Unnecessary action, all is exposition, and it has little to do with the story. Plus, we never meet these characters again. The focus should stay on the story.

Now, it’s your turn.

Find a darling from something you’re working on (or have recently finished) and share it with us. Be sure to tell us why you think it’s a good idea to get rid of it–or not!


One Moment That Reveals Everything You Need To Know About A Character

Photo via ShutterStock

I’ve been revisiting(read: binge-watching) some favorite films recently, and started noticing how one moment or a single line of dialogue in a movie can reveal everything one needs to know about a character.

These were a couple of my favorite character-revealing moments in film:

Casablanca, Captain Louis Renault: “Round up the usual suspects.”

Captain Renault actually delivers variations of this line twice, and that repetition reveals two important aspects of this secondary character. Renault is speaking to newly arrived German Major Strasser the first time he refers to rounding up suspects, in a way that establishes the French Renault as a compliant bureaucrat who is implementing a foreign power’s bidding. He delivers the line again right after Major Strasser has been shot, simultaneously saving Rick Blaine and indicating that his character has broken away from his obeisance to the German/Vichy Regime.

Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif: “He is dead…(Y)ou are welcome.”

Between the long, slow cinematic entrance (during  which he emerges from a distant dust cloud on the horizon to filling the screen) and a couple of lines of terse dialogue, Omar Sharif makes an unforgettable impression as Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia.

In that scene we watch Sherif cut down a trespasser on his property, while simultaneously extending traditional courtesy to a visiting stranger.

Of course in literature, dialogue and prose must establish the essence of a character without any assistance from camera tricks and musical scores. In your own writing, can you think of a moment or a line of dialogue that revealed the true nature of one of your characters?

Our Brain and Creativity

By Sue Coletta

Creativity and the brainFirst, let’s define the word “muse.”

A muse is a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist. How amazing that we’re able to tap into her energy and translate our story to the page.

An alternate definition of “muse” is an ancient Greek word that means to be absorbed in thought or inspired. Amusement is the absence of thought or inspiration. Hence why social media can destroy our creative time. Over saturating ourselves with anything, including thoughts, outside and inner pressure, too many ideas, etc., can wound our muse. Ever notice that some of our best ideas come when we’re falling asleep or taking a shower or walk? That’s because our mind is relaxed. For those that struggle to structure themselves should consider using a matching worksheet maker to help them keep on track with educational tasks, they have laid out for themselves to improve their creativity.

What happens inside the brain?

Dr. Lotze from the University of Greifswald had always been fascinated by the creativity of writers, so he wondered how the brain reacted when they crafted stories. In a scientific study, he took novice writers who’d never completed a story and professional writers who’d authored published books. The results amazed him.

Did you know our brains react differently, depending on whether an author writes professionally or if they’re just beginning their writing journey?

First, Dr. Lotze built a custom-made writing desk. While lying supine, their head cocooned inside the scanner, the subject rested their arm on a wedged block. He positioned several mirrors which allowed the writers to see what they were writing.

Novice Writers

Dr. Lotze asked 28 volunteers to first only copy a block of text. This gave him a baseline of brain activity. Next, he gave them the first few lines of a short story and told them to continue on. Thus, triggering their muse. They were allowed to brainstorm for one minute, write for two.

Hippocampus in red.

The research showed certain parts of the brain became active during the creative process but not while copying text. During brainstorming, some vision-processing regions also came alive in some of the writers, as if they were seeing the scene unfold in their mind’s eye.

During the writing process, other regions activated, as well. Dr. Lotze theorized that the hippocampus was retrieving factual information for the subjects to use in their stories. Who says research isn’t important?

Another region of the brain, near the front — left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for storing several pieces of information at once — also activated. When writers juggle characters and plot lines we put special demands on that part of the brain.

The problem with this study was that he’d chosen all novice writers.

What happens inside the mind of a seasoned writer?

Twenty authors volunteered this time. In the same position as the novice writers, Dr. Lotze gave seasoned writers the exact same instructions. Brainstorm for one minute, write for two. Like before, the first few lines had been written for them.

Dr. Lotze’s findings are as follows …

During creative writing, cerebral activation occurred in a predominantly left-hemispheric fronto-parieto-temporal network. When compared to inexperienced writers, researched proved increased left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex activation. In contrast, less experienced participants recruited increasingly bilateral visual areas. During creative writing, activation in the right cuneus showed positive association with the creativity index in expert writers.

High experience in creative writing seems to be associated with a network of prefrontal and basal ganglia (caudate) activation. In addition, the findings suggested that high verbal creativity specific to literary writing increased activation in the right cuneus associated with increased resources obtained for reading.

You can read the full report here.

Let’s break it down in easier terms.

The brains of seasoned writers worked differently than novice writers, even before they began to write. During the brainstorming, the novice writers showed more activity in the brain’s regions responsible for speech.

“I think both groups are using different strategies,” said Lotze. “It’s possible that the novice writers are watching their stories like a film inside their head while the professional authors are narrating it with an inner voice.”

He discovered more differences.

Deep inside the brain of seasoned writers, a region called the caudate nucleus, responsible for skills that require a lot of training and practice, also became active. In the novice writer, it didn’t. The caudate remained quiet. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that when we start learning a skill we’re more consciously trying to master it. With practice, those actions become largely automatic, and it’s inside the caudate nucleus where the shift occurs.

Skeptics like Dr. Pinker, another scientist, said the test wasn’t involved enough to make comparisons. He’d rather see tests between writing fiction vs. nonfiction or other factual information. Creativity might also cause differences from writer to writer. For example, some writers may activate the taste-perceiving regions in the brain when they write about food. Another writer might rely more on sound. Paul Dale Anderson wrote a fascinating post that touched on this difference in more depth.

What’s the best way to summon creativity?

Read a book, listen to music or audiobooks — any exercise that forces us to envision someone else’s story world. A passionate and focused writer can accomplish more in a few hours than an unfocused writer can in a full day.

Over to you TKZers. What do you think of this study? Are you an auditory or visual writer? While writing, can you taste the food?

Channeling Your Childhood Heroes

by James Scott Bell

When I was a kid the hero I most wanted to be was Zorro.

I never missed an episode of the Walt Disney series starring Guy Williams. What I loved about Zorro was … everything. Cool black mask, black outfit, cape, hat, horse. But most of all his sword. Man, Zorro could blade it with anybody. And whenever he carved a Z in a shirt or on a wall, I thought it the neatest calling card ever.

In second grade I went to Halloween dress-up day as Zorro. I even sang the theme song for the class. Zorro! The fox so cunning and free! Zorro! Who makes the sign of the Z …

I remember finishing the song and waving, just like Zorro does. Check it out:

Some years later I was enraptured by the classic Rouben Mamoulian version of the story, The Mark of Zorro (1940) starring Tyrone Power. (I was thrilled, as a film major at UCSB, that I got to chat with Mamoulian, who was our guest one fine day.)

Talk about a perfect adventure movie. First, you have Power at his most handsome (most people don’t know that he was a superb, stage-trained actor as well) poised against the quintessential villain, Basil Rathbone. Lovely Linda Darnell was the romantic interest, and frog-voiced Eugene Pallette played the padre (carrying over from Warner Bros. his Friar Tuck act in The Adventures of Robin Hood).  

Plus, it takes place in Los Angeles! What more could I ask for?

You know the basic story. A corrupt Alcalde has deposed Don Alejandro Vega. He levies heavy taxes on the peons, enforced by his militia. Vega’s son, Don Diego, arrives from Spain to find all this out. Posing as a dandy who dislikes violence, he secretly becomes Zorro to steal the tax money for return to the people, and eventually forces the corrupt Alcalde to leave Los Angeles and re-appoint his father.

It’s all great swashbuckling fun, and leads to what I consider the best swordfight ever filmed. And why was it so?

Because both Power and Rathbone were expert fencers. That was part of their theater training. So there are no doubles and no trick photography. These two really go at it in a choreographed masterpiece.

In fact, take four minutes to enjoy it:

Now, I have a theory that the heroes we loved as kids greatly influence what we write as adults. In my own novels I know I’m always looking for justice. I love characters with a moral code and who know how to fight—physically or mentally. Some wit helps, too.

Just like Zorro.

So … when you get stuck wondering what to write next—either in a WIP or in developing a new idea—go back to your childhood. Brainstorm with:

  • Who were your heroes?
  • What was it about them that you loved?
  • If they could talk to your protagonist and give advice, what would they say?

In fact, why not answer these questions in the comments about one of your childhood heroes?