First Things First

When I search the archives for Words of Wisdom posts, I look for themes to unite our selections. Today the theme is First – First the Foundation, First Discovery, and First Meeting. Each selection has a link to the entire article. After reading, please tell us about your “firsts.” And please feel free to comment on other reader’s comments. Let’s have a lively discussion.

First Things First

Most writers know this business can be soul-crushing at times, even if we don’t like to talk about it. As can life. This past week, my husband and I secured a mortgage and were over-the-moon excited to close on Friday. The house we’ve been living in for almost 7 years would finally be ours. On Wednesday, we received a call that told us the house had been deemed unsellable. Briefly, 30 years ago a mobile home stood on the land. Rather than remove the old mobile in its entirety, the then-owner stripped it down to the steel beam and built a beautiful 1 ¾ story country contemporary on top of it, rendering the property unsound. Unpredictable. Unsellable, except to a cash buyer who doesn’t glance at the deed.

Because the previous owner cut corners with the foundation, it throws off the entire house. Same holds true for our stories. Without a solid foundation — key milestones, properly placed — the story won’t work, no matter how well-written. The pacing will drag. The story may sag in the middle. The ending might not even be satisfying. It all comes down to the foundation on which the story stands.

….Had we never moved into this house and stayed as long as we did, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to build our dream home now … a few house lots over on land we already love. We envision relaxing on the back deck, watching black bear, moose, and deer stroll through the yard. That’s the plan, anyway. If for some reason it doesn’t pan out, we’ll readjust again.

Give yourself permission to fail, in your writing as well as IRL. Then get back to the keyboard and move forward. Only you can make your dreams come true. Sue Coletta – 8/27/18


First discovery

Here’s the epiphany:

In crime fiction, the antagonist drives the plot. Unless a crime has been committed, or is about to be committed, there’s nothing for the protagonist to do. The antagonist acts, the protagonist re-acts.

I’d been following the wrong character around all these years!

My realization probably seems like a big DUH to many crime authors. But I’m sharing it in hopes of helping others like myself who overlooked the obvious.

It’s fun to think like a villain! When I started writing from the bad guy’s POV, a whole new world opened up—a world without conscience, constraints, or inhibitions. Debbie Burke – 9/28/17


First Meeting

All of this got me to wondering about all of you. I remember where and how I met Don, and most of my other friends, and my wife, business associates, etc. But those of us who contribute blog posts to The Kill Zone don’t know how you, our wonderful readers and commenters, got here. What brought you to The Kill Zone originally? How did you get here? Twitter? Facebook? Writer’s Digest? An author’s link? I’d love to know. And if you have any stories about reuniting with old friends and acquaintances that are unique and/or unusual, please share if you’re so inclined. Joe Hartlaub – 3/12/16


So, what thoughts do you have about the selections?

What comments do you have on the comments?

And what “firsts” would you like to share with us?

Also, please tell us how you first learned about The Kill Zone blog.

51 thoughts on “First Things First

  1. Good morning, Steve. Thank you for including me in your gathering of the ghosts of years past.

    Sue…that had to have heartbreaking, even devastating. Yet somehow you have never missed a step of your wonderfulness here. You came through it. That is an inspiration to us all.

    Debbie! It is absolutely fun to think like a villain. I speak from experience, but don’t tell anyone. The important thing is to never lose one’s soul and heart.

    Steve! How did I come to TKZ? Through John Ramsey Miller. I hope the rest of the questions I encounter today are that easy. They probably won’t be.

    Have a great weekend, Steve.

    • Good morning, Joe.

      I first learned of TKZ through another writer, who told me of all the wonderful people who blogged here. And when I learned that your law practice specialized in intellectual property, I asked you to review my first publishing contract for my first book. Not only were you kind enough to review the contract, but you also told me what action I should take when you learned the publisher was filing for bankruptcy. I will always appreciate that advice.

      It was also you who convinced the rest of the TKZ regulars to allow a wet-behind-the-ears newbie, with minimal literary education, in the back door to post crazy posts. I will always appreciate that. I hope I don’t embarrass you too often.

      And I hope you will tell some of those stories of your DJ days, first, here at TKZ. Have a great weekend!

  2. My first visit to Killzoneblog:

    It took some detective work, but I found a reference to TKZ in an email to my workshop members dated May 27, 2021. I apparently discovered TKZ while searching for vella (KDP’s literary oubliette) info:

    A link to comments regarding vella:
    In particular, see Dale Ivan Smith’s comment at that page, above. NOTE: killzoneblog appears to be an excellent site for writers.

    In crime fiction, the antagonist drives the plot.

    I was told: “Shoot the sheriff on the first page.” I did that as a writing exercise, dispatching Sheriff Del Singletary in ~200 words. The book, Something Evil In Ichekaw,
    is on the back burner, approximately 80% complete. It rapidly turned into my first mystery/western/romance.

    • Thanks, JG, for telling us about some of your firsts. And thanks for being a regular here at TKZ.

      I hope that first mystery/western/romance gets published sometime. Let us know when you publish it.

      As for Vella, I wrote one story for Vella. But I don’t know how to sing and dance on TikTok, so was never able to market it.

      • The music still dances me, even at 79. Two years of no gym may have sent me over the hill, though. Singing is another story. Rodney Dillard once compared Bob Dylan’s voice to a “hound dog caught in a barbed wire fence.” My voice is not that good.

    • That’s a great writing exercise and one heck of an opening disturbance, JG. Keep us posted on the novel that has resulted. I also wound up here as the result of an internet search. I’m also glad my comment proved helpful.

  3. I came to this blog via Janet Reid’s blog. A reader there recommended it.

    I love reading mysteries, thrillers, and supernatural spookiness, but when I tried writing them my ghosts walked into walls instead of through them, I’m too tenderhearted to kill anyone, and I have no idea what I’m doing here other than y’all are great fun to hang out with.

    • We’re glad you’re here, Cynthia. And we’re glad you enjoy hanging out with us.

      There are at least a couple of us here that are also tenderhearted (hiding out with the wolves), so you’re not alone.

      And, you’ve probably noticed that you’re often the first to comment. That distinction used to belong to Joe Hartlaub. We’re trying to get him back here more regularly, so we can watch you and Joe (? and JG?) compete for the first comment.

      Thanks for participating, and for your comments. Let’s find some more tenderhearted writers to balance out the discussion.

    • I’m also glad you are here, Cynthia. I’m tenderhearted as well, but have learned to be tough on my characters. It wasn’t easy. I still have to remind myself that putting characters through the wringer is an in important part of the sort of fiction I write (mystery and fantasy).

  4. Good choices for getting the thinking machine in gear. Glad everything worked out for Sue. We thought about renting while we built when we left for Colorado, but were too impatient. We’re fortunate that our house worked out.
    As for antagonists driving the plot — that’s true BUT I’m a mystery buff. Cut my teeth on Sherlock Holmes. I DON’T want to see the villian’s pov. That’s suspense. I like mystery where I follow the investigation and don’t know anything until the detective does. It’s killing me as I’m writing my current book, because the cop knows who the bad guy is; saw him commit the crime, but he’s disappeared and all he knows about him is his name and an address (out of state). Sure, I could write from the bad guy’s POV, but that would change my genre, and I don’t want to do that. (Yes, I did it once, briefly, but not in my mystery series.)
    As for how I got here. I was in a writing chapter with a then TKZ member, Nancy Cohen, and I started hanging out here. I did a guest post for her years and years ago, but it wasn’t until Jordan Dane urged me to take her spot when she left that I became a member of the TKZ ‘immediate’ family. I still suffer from imposter syndrome every two weeks when it’s my turn to post.

    • Good morning, Terry

      Thanks for your comments describing mystery vs suspense. When you mentioned the tension between renting/building vs. buying a house, it reminded me that one of the biggest stresses in a marriage is building a house, second only to wallpapering a bathroom together. And as for imposter syndrome, I’m right there with you. I keep hoping all the expertise around here at TKZ will rub off.

  5. Happy Saturday, Steve.

    Sue is so right–we have to give ourselves permission to fail, otherwise we’ll never succeed. Especially when it comes to writing. We learn by “failing forward,” applying craft and practice. Her mindset in dealing with what would for many of us be a crushing disappointment in failing to buy a house is a model for responding to other real life and writing setbacks.

    I’m with Debbie on having followed the wrong character around for years. My first Empowered novel, Empowered : Agent gelled when I came up with the psychopathic rogue Empowered Kai Jones, who led the criminal cell my hero Mathilda Brandt infiltrated.

    An internet search on James Scott Bell led me to the Killzone years ago. I had read Jim’s Plot & Structure and The Art of War for Writers and wanted to learn more. I certainly did.

    This led to meeting you, and so many others here in the comments on KZB. Making new friends is one of the best things about the internet.

    My first would be the first novel I actually drafted, way back in 2003, about a pair of teenagers with paranormal abilities who get swept up in a psychic gestalt. I’d been struggling to write a novel for years, and while this one was a failure on many levels, it was a success in that I learned a lot from the process of writing it, and proving to myself that I could write a novel length narrative. The novel didn’t work, and is trunked, but it began my novel writing journey in earnest.

    Have a wonderful weekend!

    • Great answers, Dale. TKZ is certainly a place to make new friends and learn.

      Your story of your first novel set off the “what if” crazy questions (in my head) that writers are supposed to ask constantly. What if someone at TKZ put together a post with first paragraphs from all the “trunked” first novels of the TKZ community (without listing the writer), then everyone could guess who wrote each paragraph?

      We’re glad you’re part of the KZ community, and appreciate the knowledge you always bring to the table. And all the guest posts you have done.

      Hope your weekend is a good one, as well!

  6. I really like Deb’s comment about writing the POV of the bad guy. The books that give the villain their voice are my favorites. I’m a plotter but I’m also influence spontaneously as I put myself in the shoes of the antagonist. I’m not afraid to change things up and find 99% for the better.

    How I first came to the Killzone? I was searching for James Scott Bell on the web after reading a few of books on the craft and found the site. Now you can’t get rid of me.

    • We don’t want to get rid of you, Ben. Thanks for your participation! Your comments are always a good addition to the discussion.

      I like the way you discuss having a plan (plot), but still allowing for spontaneity. The more craft books I read, the more convinced I become that there is a continuous gradient between outlining and writing “organically.” And, in reality, we all work somewhere on that gradient.

      Good luck with your book!

  7. Steve, thanks for including me today’s post! And for sandwiching me in between Sue and Joe, two of my favorite online friends who are always teaching me new tricks.

    Ironically, the biggest problem I’m encountering in my WIP are the villains. Have to sit down with them for a looooong chat.

    Memory is fuzzy but I believe another writer recommended TKZ. Whoever they are, I’m eternally grateful, not only for what I learned here as a student but for the opportunity to become a regular. Best thing that’s ever happened in my writing career. Like Terry, Jordan Dane was my mentor/angel, along with Kathryn Lilley.

    That imposter syndrome–it never really goes away.

  8. I find that many fortunate events arrive in the cloak of disappointment and failure. It’s not what you were hoping for, but when you look back over hours, weeks or years, you discover that it was the event that launched everything good in your life or career. Rejections make us rethink our work–certainly our query letters.

    As for how I arrived at TKZ, I was one of the founding members, but for the life of me, I don’t remember what led to that. I want to guess that Michelle Gagnon was my vector into the group, but I’m really not sure.

    • Thanks for all your teaching and insight here at TKZ, John. I always study your comments carefully.

      Excellent thoughts on “many fortunate events arrive in the cloak of disappointment and failure.” How poetic and true. Some of the most successful people in all walks of life have arrived at their success after they have struggled to climb the mountain of adversity.

      Good luck with the guest host radio slot!

  9. Good morning, Debbie, and thanks for agreeing to let us steal a portion of your previous post. I guess I didn’t ask. Put me in the villain pigeon hole.

    And those villains with whom you’re going to have a long chat: Keep your hand on your gun. Your books contain some really nasty characters. I don’t think I would want to sit down with any of them unless I had an armed guard. Maybe that’s part of the problem you’re having with them; they’re just too evil.

    Thanks for all your teaching you do here, Debbie. I’ve learned a lot from you.

    Stay safe with those nasty villains. Maybe have them blindfolded and cuffed.

  10. In a murder mystery, the backstory drives the plot, but it isn’t the plot. The detective has to reconstruct the past by doing his thing in the present. Thrillers and suspense have much less to do with the back plot, and much more to do with stopping or escaping what’s happening at the present time.

    • Thanks for your comments/teaching on mystery vs. suspense, backstory vs the present, Marilynn. Your teaching moments and discussion are always a welcome addition to clarifying the subject.

      We appreciate your contributions to the discussion and your faithful participation here at TKZ. I hope you continue to keep us on track.

  11. “Give yourself permission to fail, in your writing as well as IRL. Then get back to the keyboard and move forward. Only you can make your dreams come true.”

    In the time of life I’m in right now, I HAVE to give myself permission to fail. It’s not even optional. I’m in the midst of writing one of the most haphazardly, chaotically written manuscripts I’ve done in my life. AND doing it in conjunction with someone else. Oye!

    With even less free time than usual plus world chaos (and subsequent hits to focus and attention), I am bound and determined to write a little each week, even if its garbage (i.e. those throat-clearing scenes you know will end up getting deleted upon revision). BUT I think I will benefit in the end. Writing scenes that flunk the critique AND having to expose them to a writing partner (who’s also strapped for time and thankfully understands) will strengthen me in the end.

    I can’t explain it, but I just have this gut instinct that as hard & frustrating as it seems right now, I’m heading for a long-awaited growth-spurt with my writing. I just need to be patient & keep plowing forward, chaos and all.

    RE: How I discovered TKZ – I’m pretty sure I discovered through membership in ACFW.

    Thanks to all contributors and commenters at TKZ for helping keep me steadfast in my slow but persistent pursuit of writing goals!

    • Wow, BK, you’ve set up quite the obstacle course for your writing, especially working with another writer. Some writers find that it works for them. I tried it once, and it didn’t work. Worse, it hurt a friendship. I hope it works for you!

      “Give yourself permission to fail…” is great advice from Sue. Your attitude and optimism sound like you’re heading in the right direction. Thanks for your faithful participation here at TKZ.

      • Steve,
        This is my 2nd attempt at writing collaboratively. The first attempt was quite a few years ago but in relation to script writing. It wasn’t the writing partnership that was the problem, I simply found I didn’t enjoy writing a script the way I enjoyed writing books. Somehow for me, most the fun is stripped out of a script because it is so sparse.

        Trying another collaboration is a result of a few things:
        1) I’m a control freak so it’s good for me to put myself to the ultimate test to see if I survive
        2) I have read numerous articles and books on writing collaboratively and have been dissastisfied with all of them because they paint writing collaboratively as a Pollyanna adventure and when I read that my first reaction is “You’re full of beans!” If we survive the collaborative experience, I plan to craft my own how to, minus the beans. 😎
        3) At this point in my life, I need a collaborator to help share the load for lack of time.

        It’s all part of my learning/growing phase right now.

        • I hope it works. My attempt and failure may have had something to do with one of us being a pantser, and one of us being an outliner. It helps when both writers approach the process in a similar fashion.

          Good luck!

  12. I came to TKZ as a result of meeting JSB at a writers conference up here in the PNW. Never looked back.

    Even though I’m not a “crime/thriller” writer, every story ever written is a cowboy story, and includes light and dark characters and moments. And I learn every time I lurk here.

    My first? The first time I ever came across the write scared maxim. What a teaching moment it was for me! I constantly try to scare myself now, even though I don’t have murder and mayhem in my WIPs like y’all.

    However . . . murder and mayhem are part of the fabric of human nature, whatever the story’s about. Sometimes the divided soul of a “good guy” is just as frightening as the bad person’s who has only one goal.

    • Thanks for joining the discussion today, Deb.

      “…every story ever written is a cowboy story, and includes light and dark characters and moments.” I like that. There’s good and bad in all of us.

      Write scared. Good advice. I’m still trying to learn how to mix in some humor without destroying the mood.

      Thanks for your faithful participation in the discussions here at TKZ. I hope you have a wonderful weekend!

    • Great topic suggestion, Marilynn. Let’s put that to the group tomorrow morning, early in the discussion. Maybe Jim will be interested in discussing that one.

      • Also, Jim’s great tips on How To Form Your Bestseller in Ten Days on 8/21 . . .

        Could someone write a post (Jim?) applying those tips to non-fiction? I’m working on a premise for a NF WIP right now.


  13. I don’t remember where, but I read that TKZ was one of the best writing blogs out there, offering plenty of craft and technique, lots of encouragement, and no snark or belittling comments. I have found all of this and more to be true. So, thanks to everyone here!

    • Thank- you, Becky, for joining us. If you read about TKZ being one of the best writing blogs, you probably read it in Writers Digest. The blog has been listed in the top 100 writers’ sites for more than a few years. And, surprisingly, they didn’t stop listing us when I joined.

      I hope you will continue to come back. We appreciate your participation.

  14. I thought your question was I easy. But thinking about it I really have absolutely no idea how I found TKZ, or how long ago that was. It’s been a very, very long time. Maybe even close to the beginning, but not all the way back. Dunno. Long enough that I’ve seen contributors (and regular commenters) come and go. Two of my favorites were the above mentioned Jordan Dane and Michelle Gagnon. They made me look forward to Thursday mornings. I haven’t seen Basil comment in ages. I was sad when John Gilstrap left, and happy when he returned. He has written some very interesting posts over the years. I remember when one of the columnists had her first page critique of her first novel here. I commented. I hope she didn’t think I was too harsh. I think one of the things that makes this blog successful is that there are so many different writers that do come and go, and that nobody is having to push content every day. I continue to look forward to it, although I don’t get to it as early as some people.

    • Thanks for your comments, catfriend. I apologize for the delay in my response. The grass needed mowing.

      And thanks for mentioning Jordan and Michelle. Jordan was on one of these Words of Wisdom posts 6/18/22, and even stopped by, if you want to go back and read the post. I’ll try to find posts from Jordan and Michelle for the next Words of Wisdom post (9/10/22). I always try to contact the writers and invite them to stop by. I’ll tell them that someone is asking for their wisdom.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  15. Sue’s post resonates as I’m stripping down my story to look at the foundations again, really looking at which chapters are necessary and where. Thank you for that long ago encouragement, which helps right now! It’ll be a better story for all this work.

    My serious writing began about 10 years ago, when I finally typed the end to one of my story starts. I started looking online for good resources to become better at this craft. Did I find TKZ through Writers Digest? Or Janet Reid? Or JSB?

    I’m not a crime or thriller writer either, but you all have so much good stuff here that applies across genres. So thank you!

    • Thanks, Lisa. We try to offer variety in our menu.

      Good luck with your inspection of your story’s foundation. Sue will appreciate the compliment. She amazes me with all the new and unusual material she finds and incorporates into her posts.

      Have a good weekend.

  16. I found this place because of one of JSB’s books about writing pulp fiction. It has been a great resource and as I said once before an MFA in a can.

    • We’re glad you found us, Robert. Reading and studying the posts here have been a large part of my education in fiction. Thanks for your participation.

  17. Sorry I’m late, folks! I was at one of my fairs/book signings all day yesterday. Fun, but exhausting.

    Thank you so much, Steve! Joe and Debbie are two of the sweetest people I know, and their top-notch advice always resonates with me, which made this post even more special.

    • Good morning, Sue. You’re never late. Like several have said here at TKZ, we’re always open.

      I hope your book signing was successful and you sold a ton of books. I’m currently enjoying Haloed. I must say that the emotion is so high I have to switch to nonfiction at bedtime or I won’t get to sleep. Great book!

      Thanks for checking in and seeing what readers are requesting. I hope you have a great remainder of the weekend!

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