About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

First Page Critique: ALEXA

 

The Party Busload of Exposition (GoDaddy Stock photo)

 

Dearest Readers,

Step into the Kill Zone Critique Parlor, where today’s Brave Author has a tragic tale to tell. Pull up a tuffet, and buckle up. I have Thoughts.

 

ALEXA

Tom’s death changed everything.

I sat in my car, the engine idling, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian. I wasn’t cheered.

It was only twelve weeks past his funeral. When I wasn’t sobbing, I was frowning at the myriad details I’d had to deal with in the days following the end of life as we know it. That’s how I thought of it. I’d packed up the furnished rental, mailed out change-of-address forms and done my best to put on a brave face for TJ. I was exhausted from the long drive that brought us to Ohio.

We’d been planning the move before Tom…went away, but now I was making it alone. Well, with TJ. Tom inherited the yellow house from his grandmother when she passed away six months ago. He’d flown out to look it over and reported back that it needed some updating but had good bones. He said there were lots of rooms, which sounded like heaven in comparison to our tiny two-bedroom in the city. “It has a huge country kitchen,” he said with a grin, poking me in the side and causing me to jump and make a face at him. At the time I was chopping veggies in the postage-stamp that passed for our current kitchen. I leaned my head back against his shoulder and sighed, daydreaming of twirling around in our future house, giddy at all the space.

I’m so angry at the goddamn drunk driver who snuffed out my husband’s life on March 16, 2017. March 16, 2017…a day that will live in infamy. Oh, ha ha. Bitter much?
I guess I have a right to be. All that crap about forgiving. I will not forgive the one who stole his life…and my life and TJ’s.

Maybe with time. Everyone’s quick to say that holding on to the hate I feel for Mr. George Goddamn Daniels will only poison me and not bring Tom back. I feel the poison in me now, but I embrace the huge empty hole eaten away by the acid-generating hatred. I don’t want to feel good, because everything’s bad now. Maybe with time….

I glanced in the rearview mirror at TJ. His face was sad, like mine. He gazed at the yellow house, not moving to open the car door. Maybe the two of us could stare it into becoming our home.
“Ready, buddy?” I asked as I opened my door. My heart broke at his wan smile and “Sure, Mom.”

____________________________________________________

Let me say right off that I’m impressed with the voice of this story. The narrator’s voice is confident and mature. Believable. The sentences are tight and declarative–my favorite. Let’s talk story.

My understanding is that ALEXA is about a newly-widowed woman and her young son who are moving into the house her husband inherited from his grandmother before he was killed by a drunk driver named Mr. George Daniels. The new house is somewhere in Ohio and they’re coming from a bigger (?) city, where they’d lived in a two-bedroom, furnished rental apartment. She loved her husband Tom very much, and she and her son are very sad that he’s dead. She feels poisoned with hate, but doesn’t yet want to go of her consuming, awful feelings.

This opening telegraphs that this is a family or personal drama, and neither a thriller nor mystery. It could end up with a romantic story line, but it doesn’t feel like that will be a focus.

Title

This story is called ALEXA, and there’s no evidence that it has anything to do with Amazon’s AI, Alexa. I was confused right off the bat. I know young women named Alexa, and while I would never confuse any of them with the AI, it’s different when I run into the name as a title. Perhaps I’m being picky (“I’m not picky, I have standards.” –Mindy Kaling), but Amazon comes up first in my brain. Amazon has appropriated the name, and there’s no going back.

Is our narrator named Alexa? Was it the grandmother’s name? If so, somehow let us know asap so we’re not left hanging. This seems to me a sad and rather tender story. If I’m mistaken, and they walk into the beautiful country kitchen (What is considered a country kitchen these days? There are many, many online definitions, but my ancient understanding is that it is a large kitchen with maybe a seating area and perhaps a fireplace. I don’t know what image it suggests to others.) to discover that ALEXA has taken over the house and is programmed to terrorize them, then it’s a story that surely takes a shocking turn on Page 2.

Pacing

May I just say… WHOA THERE, NELLIE!

I was exhausted by the time I finished the first 400 words. I was even more exhausted the second and third and fourth times I read it. I worry because at this pace the novel will only be approximately 60 pages long.

It feels as though you’ve decided to get the backstory out of the way so you can move on and proceed with the action.

We start out very well: “Tom’s death changed everything.”

“I sat in my car, the engine idling, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian. I wasn’t cheered.”

It’s clean. It’s direct. It’s compelling. Though you might consider shifting to present tense with the second line to give the story immediacy and emotional punch.

“I sit in our idling Toyota, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian house. I’m not cheered.”

The third paragraph continues with our narrator relating the many, many things she’s been doing in the past twelve weeks besides staring: sobbing, frowning, dealing, packing, mailing, and putting on a brave face.

In the next paragraph we learn that the family was moving. Tom was also inheriting, looking over, flying, reporting, grinning, poking, and causing our narrator to jump. And she’s making a face, chopping veggies, leaning back, sighing, and daydreaming about twirling and being giddy.

In the fifth paragraph, we learn how Tom died.

In the sixth paragraph, we learn that she’s really, really pissed off at the guy who killed him, and won’t be forgiving.

The seventh identifies the drunk driver.

Then we finally get back to the boy in the car, and the yellow house.

Whew!

What we have here is a busload of exposition. Exposition–a chunk of narrative or backstory plunked in the middle of the action to give the action context (see what I did there?)–can be a useful tool in small doses. In large doses it distracts from the action of the story and slows it down. Note my second paragraph in the TITLE section above. I digress on what a country kitchen might be for such a long time that the reader probably had to go back and figure out what I said about a country kitchen before I opened the parentheses. Even I had to go back and look!

It’s tough to give the reader just enough information to get them interested, and keep them reading.

The thing to remember is that you’re writing scenes. Sentences build scenes. Scenes build chapters, chapters build books. A good way to start is to write one scene per chapter–even if it makes the chapter short. You’ll keep the reader focused, which is what you want to do. At the end of that scene, give the reader a reason to read on.

Here, you could continue this small scene with the boy bravely opening the car door. (I would discourage you from have her opening her door as she asks him if he’s ready. It’s a weighty moment that doesn’t need an activity.) The reader will naturally want to know what they do and see when they’re out of the car. Does she take his hand? Does he shrink back, used to the smallness of their previous home? Is there someone waiting on the porch?

“I’m so angry at the goddamn drunk driver who snuffed out my husband’s life on March 16, 2017. March 16, 2017…a day that will live in infamy. Oh, ha ha. Bitter much?
I guess I have a right to be. All that crap about forgiving. I will not forgive the one who stole his life…and my life and TJ’s.”

There are a lot of critical emotions here. We don’t need them all on the first page. She has a good, direct, confiding tone. But it’s too soon to jump into this. Sure, her feelings are complex. Right now, she’s just arrived at this house. Slow it down.

An aside– Mr. George Daniels is the drunk who caused the accident. It’s probably just me, but I couldn’t help but think of George Dickel and Jack Daniels as though the two whiskey brands had morphed into one drunk person.

“Maybe the two of us can stare it into becoming our home.” This is a beautiful line.

I don’t often suggest rewrites, but here’s a brief beginning. I can envision them getting out of the car, continuing, but you can too.

Tom’s death changed everything.

I sit in our idling Toyota, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian house we were supposed to move into together. I’m not cheered.

Our son T.J. sits in the backseat. In the rearview mirror, I see that he, too, is staring at the house. Maybe the two of us can stare it into becoming our home.

“Ready, buddy?” I ask. It’s been twelve weeks since we buried his father, my husband. My heart breaks at his wan smile, and the way his sad eyes meet mine in the mirror.

“Sure, Mom.”

Get to it, TKZers! I’ve left a couple things unaddressed because I want you to have some fun. What have I missed?

7+

Quit Trying to Write

 

You were expecting Yoda?

 

Having coffee this morning? Yum!

Now, try to pick up the cup. Go on… Are you touching the cup? No, no, no–that’s not allowed. You’re only allowed to try to pick it up.

Is your hand hanging uncertainly in the air?

This is not a trick. Okay, maybe it’s a little tricky, but it demonstrates something very important. Trying doesn’t get things done. It isn’t a thing. There is only doing. *insert Yoda here*

I think I read the phrase “I’m trying to write a (insert genre) novel” online five or six times a week. Although I empathize with struggling, beginning, and frustrated writers–as I’ve been them all–I want to gently shake these “trying” authors by the shoulders of their faded university sweatshirts and tell them to stop trying and just keep writing.

Either you’re writing a novel, or you’re not writing a novel. We can prepare ourselves to write. We can take a break from writing, or we can quit writing, or we can continue writing until we’re finished, and start the next one.

If you’re bogged down, or stuck, admit it. Don’t hide it. Ask for help, then quickly get back to your keyboard. Don’t worry: if you’re thinking constructively about your work, you’re still writing. But don’t think too long. Take an afternoon, or a day. Don’t lose your momentum, even if it’s the momentum of the  hundred words you wrote during the fifteen minutes before breakfast yesterday.

If you’re writing, you’re a writer.

Keep writing.

Help other writers.

Don’t bother trying. Make the choice to do, and not give up.

 

Are there things you find yourself “trying” to do, instead of doing them?

(for me it’s “trying” to lose weight)

 

14+

Hour of Fatality, First Page Critique

Licensed from Canva

 

Gentle Readers,

Gather ye ’round the hearth for the telling of a grand gothic nightmare from our latest anonymous Brave Author. I shall comment most profusely on said nightmare, and I entreat you to offer your own wisdom to our petitioner.

Your Faithful Friend, Laura

Hour of Fatality

I came to Thornfield Hall at the hour of twilight. My path wended among hay field and hawthorn, and when a bend in the road blocked my view of the house, I even ran in my haste. The battlements on the roof loomed darkly against the glimmering west. If I could touch them, the blackness would rub off on my skin like soot, and cling to me; such is the strange presentiment of dreams.

I reached the pavement near the door. It, too, was black, and I stepped cautiously, fearing the sound of my own tread in spite of the silence that lay on the dead air. I mounted the steps, their stone faces worn smooth in well-remembered grooves. The vaulted hall within was deep in shadow, but a blaze of light shone from the dining room, majestic and warm. Was I welcome there? Mr. Rochester entertained fine company in that room, gentlemen and ladies endowed with wealth and grace. No, I had no place in the dining room. I would see where else he might be found. I went to the library, but the grate was cold, the chair tenantless. I searched the long gallery; every door yielded to my hand, but the rooms were vacant shells to me. Where was Mr. Rochester?

I sought him in the passageways and on the stairs. The nursery was no haunt of his, yet I searched there too. With a reluctant step, I approached the dining room once more. A laugh: low, lugubrious, familiar in its stirring antipathy, came from behind the door. What a strange foreboding inhabited me! It wrapped round me like a smoke that no breeze could dispel. But I would stifle fear for his sake; I would find him out, though my soul shudder and my heart sink beneath the discovery.

A wisp of smoke flowed from the dining room, like a mist creeping along the ceiling. Down timidity! Revelations must be made. I suppressed the shaking in my limbs and threw open the door – a wreath of fire embroiled the room and heated my face. Brocaded curtains, purple cloth, rich damask, all writhed together in flame. A motionless form reclined in the chair, senseless and still, his head sagging to his breast.

“Mr. Rochester!” I called. “Mr. Rochester! Wake up!”

Mr. Rochester did not stir. Before I could come to his aid, a different being approached, hauntingly familiar in its ghastly shape. The flame did not touch her, yet her dark hair moved and lifted in the heat. Bertha Mason, black and menacing against the crimson light, barred the way. Her eyes burned, too, with a blue flame in their depths. It was her, Mr. Rochester’s wife, whom he had hid from my knowledge. In her madness, she raved and flung herself upon me, keeping me from my master.

“Mr. Rochester!”

“I am here, Jane, I am here.”

His voice dispelled the flames; his hand cooled my burning forehead.

*****************

Here is Jane Eyre, and yet not.

The Hour of Fatality excerpt is a fever dream sequence. Devotees of Charlotte Brontë’s magnificent gothic work, JANE EYRE, will be familiar with Mr. Rochester, Jane, and Bertha Mason (Rochester) as characters, and the house, Thornfield Hall. I confess that I was a little thrown when I first began reading, because the excerpt is unnerving. Have I read this scene before? In the novel, perhaps? Jane’s voice is recognizably modern and dissimilar from Brontë’s original Jane, yet eerily familiar at the same time.  Recreating a famous character is a real challenge, and I give Brave Author high marks for achieving laudable similarities in both voice and atmosphere.

This is a good time to bring up the subject of modeling, TKZers. We’ve talked about it before here. Don’t bother to look up “modeling writing” because you will be awash in barely-related education-speak. What I suggest is to take a bit of work from a writer whose style you admire and type it out word by word. Do it a paragraph at a time. Type a line, then imagine what thought process the writer might have gone through in order to produce the next line, and so forth. You needn’t do this all day, but it can give you the feel of how a story was written. It’s an odd, but useful exercise.

The other thing I’ll mention here (again and again!) is reading. It’s obvious that Brave Author knows the novel JANE EYRE well, and has spent time internalizing Brontë’s/Jane’s voice. If you’re trying to write—either in someone else’s style or simply in your own—you’d better be reading. A LOT. If you’re not, it’s like trying to drive a car without fuel. Or casting your fishing line into a dry lake. Or trying to spell metaphor without meta.

Before I forget, let’s all be mindful of how the page looks when we start three paragraphs in a row with “I.”

“I came to Thornfield Hall at the hour of twilight. My path wended among hay field and hawthorn, and when a bend in the road blocked my view of the house, I even ran in my haste. The battlements on the roof loomed darkly against the glimmering west. If I could touch them, the blackness would rub off on my skin like soot, and cling to me; such is the strange presentiment of dreams.”

I’m fond of this first paragraph. The setting is instantly spooky, even if the reader doesn’t already know Thornfield Hall as one of the most famous houses in classic literature. There are several passages in JANE EYRE where the manner of the house’s appearance is alternately terrifying and dear to Jane. Brave Author even gets Jane’s sense of wanting the house to stay in view right. Jane is occasionally forgetful of her manners, particularly when her emotions are roused, so her running is rather a big deal. And the presumed sootiness of the battlements is vivid and nicely suggests a dream image.

But…dang it. We’re starting off this story/novel with a dream. Few things are riskier for an emerging writer to do, and are as irritating to many readers. Yes, it establishes the mood. Yes, it pays homage to a similar scene in the original novel, thus readers will recognize the connection between them. Unfortunately, I found myself distracted by the fact that the dream scene occurs in a dining room, and the referenced scene in the novel occurs in a bedroom. I started wondering if it really was supposed to be the same, or if the difference was significant. And why is the man reclining in a chair in the dining room? Is he actually reclining? Should he be perhaps slumped at the head of the table? This is only a problem for someone familiar with JANE EYRE, which is probably only half the over-thirty female population of the planet. Anyway, it was distracting.

“I reached the pavement near the door. It, too, was black, and I stepped cautiously, fearing the sound of my own tread in spite of the silence that lay on the dead air. I mounted the steps, their stone faces worn smooth in well-remembered grooves. The vaulted hall within was deep in shadow, but a blaze of light shone from the dining room, majestic and warm. Was I welcome there? Mr. Rochester entertained fine company in that room, gentlemen and ladies endowed with wealth and grace. No, I had no place in the dining room. I would see where else he might be found. I went to the library, but the grate was cold, the chair tenantless. I searched the long gallery; every door yielded to my hand, but the rooms were vacant shells to me. Where was Mr. Rochester?”

If we are truly concerned with pavement, I want to know what sort of pavement is near the door. And why we should care that it’s black–other than as a kind of floppy thought bridge from the previous paragraph? (Readers are smart. No floppy thought bridges required!) Does she open the door? Is the door already open? This feels like an important moment to me, and yet we are thrust immediately from the stone steps at the front door to the subject of the dining room. Jane is searching for her man, and yet doesn’t even peek into the room–the BLAZING dining room–showing the only sign of habitation in the entire house? And what’s wrong with her that she feels she can’t go into the dining room? (I know, but only because I already know Jane’s station in life.)

The word “tenantless” is such a Brontë word.

“…every door yielded to my hand, but the rooms were vacant shells to me.” Let’s lose “to me.” It strengthens the image.

I want a bit more information around the edges of this dream. As it is, it pre-supposes that the reader already has opinions about and knowledge of the characters.

“I sought him in the passageways and on the stairs. The nursery was no haunt of his, yet I searched there too. With a reluctant step, I approached the dining room once more. A laugh: low, lugubrious, familiar in its stirring antipathy, came from behind the door. What a strange foreboding inhabited me! It wrapped round me like a smoke that no breeze could dispel. But I would stifle fear for his sake; I would find him out, though my soul shudder and my heart sink beneath the discovery.”

Another strong paragraph.

“It wrapped round me like a smoke that no breeze could dispel.” Given that we find out quickly that an actual fire is happening, this is a bit much. Also, she is both inhabited and wrapped?

The final line of the paragraph is pure Jane, pure gothic.

“A wisp of smoke flowed from the dining room, like a mist creeping along the ceiling. Down timidity! Revelations must be made. I suppressed the shaking in my limbs and threw open the door – a wreath of fire embroiled the room and heated my face. Brocaded curtains, purple cloth, rich damask, all writhed together in flame. A motionless form reclined in the chair, senseless and still, his head sagging to his breast.

“Mr. Rochester!” I called. “Mr. Rochester! Wake up!”

Let us resume our examination of the dining room and its formerly elusive door. In an earlier paragraph, there’s a blaze of light emanating from the dining room, so we necessarily picture the door open. Yet there’s a wisp of smoke here which compels her to throw open the door! Also, a flowing and creeping wisp feels like a bit much. Perhaps: A wisp of smoke escaped the closed dining room door, creeping across the ceiling like a mist on the moor. And wouldn’t the door, or at least the handle, be hot when she opens it?

“Mr. Rochester!”

Bertha Mason Rochester has set the room on fire and is leering maliciously, like Carrie’s mother at home after the prom. Jane tries to wake her beloved, but he’s insensate. It’s fabulous that Bertha flings herself on Jane. BUT. If Jane must deal with Bertha, let’s have some grappling in the scene. This is Jane’s chance to scream good and loud, to be terribly afraid, or just really angry. She’s often outspoken and passionate, so she should be even more so in her dream. Let her go a little crazy, maybe even fight Bertha back. Simply calling Mr. Rochester’s name in her greatest physical crisis is unworthy of Jane. If this book is supposed to contain the same Jane, seasoned by pain and flame, that we saw at the end of JANE EYRE, she needs to react as though her whole life has already changed. This is the same young woman who must run the life of her blinded husband. Give Jane some spunk in her nightmares.

That said, opening the novel with this dream requires you to go back and quickly explain who and where she is, why she has a fever, that she’s married, who “Mr. Rochester” is, etc. It feels awkward when a writer has to cram in details and explanations right away.

An excellent example of a gothic novel opening with a dream is Daphne du Maurier’s REBECCA. She makes our heroine’s dream her entire first chapter, and afterwards goes back in time to tell the story from the beginning. You cannot go back and retell JANE EYRE. But I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try du Maurier’s approach. Try letting Jane tell the story of the dream with the distance of longer reflection. Draw it out and let her personality be more a part of it. Or not.

You have some remarkable prose here. Keep at it, Brave Author!

4+

Write Where You Know, or Not, and a New Release

 

 

I’m not comfortable setting stories in places I haven’t lived or visited. Years ago, I wrote what I thought was a pretty good little story about a girl who’s held captive by a mad piano tuner. Okay, I know. Maybe a piano tuner isn’t the first bad ‘un to come to mind  when you’re thinking of thriller villains. But have you ever read the late William Gay’s story, “The Paperhanger?” You should. It’s brilliant. And I have a surreal story called “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” that’s been anthologized and is taught in some university writing courses. (You would like it unless you have a phobia of spiders that extends as far as the written page.)

Anywho…I wrote the piano tuner story to submit to an industry anthology years ago. One of the requirements was that it had to be set in Prague. I know people who have been to Prague. It’s known for Dvorák and Mozart, and impressive architecture. Only about one tenth of my story took place outside the apartment, if that. It was not chosen for the anthology. In fact, I’ve submitted four stories over the years to two different industry anthologies, and none of them have been accepted. The fact that those competitions are often themed makes the stories hard to sell elsewhere, but whatever. Writing is practice never wasted.

My takeaway from the Prague disaster is that I should stick closer to home. (And that submitting to industry anthologies is a crap shoot I’m not destined to win.)

I’m perfectly happy to set a story nowhere. An isolated mansion. A suburban condo. A backyard in summer. A mid-range hotel room. It’s part of the beauty of our U.S. of A. There’s anonymity out there if you want it. Though, now that I think of it, I also set a story in a Hall of the Gods that was definitely nowhere in particular.

All of my novels are set in places I’ve lived: Virginia-3, Ohio-1, Kentucky-3, Missouri-1. The one I’m working on now is also Kentucky. The Virginia and Kentucky landscapes are similar, in parts. Devil’s Oven is the only one set on a mountain. I’ve never actually lived on a mountain, but I’ve lived in valleys surrounded by them, and hung around on a few. Close enough, I figure.

The Cincinnati book is the one most colored by childhood memories of the town’s geography. (There are demons in that book, but I didn’t know any.) As I wrote, the image in my mind was of a big, old city, full of great hills hung with layers of narrow houses that were kept from falling into the river by a bit of dirt, hillside stairs, and a few trees.

Before I wrote my new novel, THE STRANGER INSIDE, I’d only set a couple of short stories in St. Louis.

The Missouri side of the St. Louis Metro Area is made up of 79 neighborhoods within the city limits, and dozens of small municipalities in St. Louis County. No matter if you are in one of these smaller municipalities, residents are either from North County, South County, West County, or the Mid-County. When I lived in St. Louis throughout the 80s, I lived in Ballwin (far west), University City in the (in-) famous Loop near WashU. Kirkwood (also west but southwest, sort of) and Clayton. There’s not a lot of geographical variation. The differences tend to be starkly economic and racial–not so different from any major urban area.

In St. Louis, if someone asks you where you went to school, they mean high school. It’s midwestern in the sense that residents are generally friendly, no matter what part of town they’re from. If you’re from Ladue or Clayton or Glendale, people will assume that you’re wealthy, and if you’re from far South County you might as well be in the Ozarks, and if you’re from North County, well, let’s just say that if you live past or west of the airport, you might be looking at Iowa. Okay, I’m exaggerating. But the different areas do have distinct personalities. And if you look at the census data of the past couple decades you’ll see that it doesn’t change all that much.

Most of my characters are from Mid-County–Ladue and Richmond Heights, with a bit of Webster Groves and Kirkwood to give it an old-time, leafy, suburban flair. My protagonist’s ex lives with his new husband in historic Lafayette Square in the house they once shared. She’s good with that. And one significant character lives in a high-rise apartment in the city, overlooking Forest Park. I confess I did make up a state park. And there may be a few  fictional details at which a native St. Louisan may wrinkle their nose. So, apologies for that. What can I say? I plead fiction.

Of course, all of these geographic details will matter little to the casual readers of THE STRANGER INSIDE. Unless they’re from or know St. Louis well, they won’t much see the distinctions. But the distinctions made a huge difference for me as I was writing. It’s not that I’m resorting to stereotypes, but just using a kind of character shorthand. That shorthand is very handy.

I’m super excited about THE STRANGER INSIDE. It’s a psychological suspense novel. Sometimes it’s called a thriller. And there’s a murder mystery. The biggest difference between this novel and my first six is that there are zero ghosts or supernatural incidents. (My seventh was a cozy mystery.) It was a lot of fun to write.

What about you? Do you write about faraway places? Or do you stick to places you know? Why or why not?

Also, surprise! I’m going to give away a signed copy of THE STRANGER INSIDE at 9:00 p.m. (CST) to one random commenter. But definitely check back to see if you’ve won, because I can’t tell you how many books I haven’t been able to give away because the winner disappeared forever. The winner should reach out to me at l.benedict@laurabenedict.com

5+

Process, Schmocess

 

My trusty, late-night writing companion

I’m shy/not shy about discussing my writing “process.” I actually dislike the word “process” when it comes to writing because it makes writing sound both vaunted and ridiculously precious at the same time.

I’m often shy sharing mine here because the posts on TKZ are created by professional, grown-up writers. Most have regimented schedules, produce work, reward themselves, and move onto the next project. They support families and/or themselves. Writing is a job. They also have other jobs, whether they be at home, or working outside the home. They blow me away every day with their dedication, creativity, and professionalism.

Weirdly, I’m also a professional, grown up writer. Though I’m a professional writer who has resisted schedules all her life. The ADHD is an issue. My brain can truly hyper-focus, but when it’s not hyper-focusing, it’s constantly on fire. It can’t be still at all. It constantly searches for novelty and stimulation. ADHD meds clamp down my creativity like an empty yogurt carton trapping a spider in the front hallway. Oh, and the yogurt carton has the Complete Works of Shakespeare on top of it. No more web-spinning, fly-sucking, or terrorizing the kiddies for that spider! (Hmmm. That about describes my creativity, though I’ve never actually drained a fly. I found myself weirdly desirous of eating a dead one once–but that’s another blog.)

Every so often, I dive into schedules and calendars and self-help books and organization projects. They delight me! The future immediately looks so bright! I love the idea of not writing at two in the morning because I couldn’t settle down all day to the work. (I don’t enjoy overnight writing, but I often do it out of necessity.) Schedules discourage writing right up to deadline. What a brilliant concept.  I’ve actually done it a few times and it was AMAZING. Like Graeter’s Ice Cream amazing. First kiss amazing. (Actually, my first kiss was kind of awful. But that’s also another blog. Or not.) Finding six Hershey’s kisses from last Christmas at the back of the cabinet when you’ve been out of chocolate for an entire day amazing. Dang, that’s a great feeling, isn’t it?

I’ve been in next-book mode for months and have restarted it three times. We’re talking between 30 and 50 pages started. I just couldn’t figure out WHERE the book needed to start because it’s a story with a higher number than my usual amount of turning points. (Hey, I used one of those professional writer terms here. Woot.) This is a big book, a big story. It’s opened in different time periods and with different characters. Also different POVs. Many (more sensible) writers would’ve moved on to another idea by now. Another writer might have been at their desk daily at 8:30 a.m. and gone through the three restarts in a few weeks.

Did I mention I’m 56.5 years old? I’ve been writing for thirty years. Honestly, my meandering process has changed little. I’ve written ten novels (eight of which have been published, 2 will remain unseen), anthologies, short stories, essays, blogs, articles, book reviews. There were even several profitable copywriting gigs. Somehow I’ve produced a reasonably significant amount of work.

But I still hunger for the right schedule. The right way to work. The right amount of finished pieces. I still imagine there’s a Platonic Ideal of Laura’s Writing Career out there.

Perfectibility is the eternal illusion. A quest at least as old as the first cave artist who sketched an Ibex that came out looking like a prairie dog, scraped it off and tried again. And again. Funny how we look at so many of those cave paintings now and think them wondrous. Are they perfect? Who’s to say? By what standards can we judge ancient art? We can classify it. Trace developments over time by looking at similar work. Say one artist’s work is somehow better than another. But each effort stands alone. Human creations are imperfectible, just like humans. (My opinion, y’all. I’m not itching to argue religion or philosophy here…) Here’s the cool thing I’ve discovered about the desire for perfection, though: It keeps me striving. As long as I don’t constantly kick myself for not ever being perfect, I still get plenty of satisfaction.

I will probably die with the notion of the Platonic Ideal of Laura’s Writing Career in my head. Oh, well. It’s definitely far less difficult to live with than it used to be.

Every time I post on Facebook these days, I get some stupid message about how people really respond better to posts with pictures. “Posts with pictures are more popular than posts without pictures, Laura Benedict. Why don’t you include some pictures in this post? And, by the way, you can go ahead and add your photos to this post, and we will automatically remove any preview links you’ve already included in the post, thus completely destroying it. You may then add pictures to your new post.”

So I’m going to add some pictures here. This is what my life has been like over the past five days in which I was hyper-focusing on the third start on this novel. I’m pretty sure I got it almost right this time, in the tradition of horseshoes and hand grenades.

They’re not lovely pictures. But in my life, creation is messy, and occasionally people have to make their own dinner.

After the photos:  Tell us about your process. Or your quest for perfection. Or creativity/work habits that really work for you. We are always open to new ideas here!

Where I slept last night because it’s not fair to disturb a sleeping husband at 5:00 a.m. when he usually gets up at six.

Trust me. You don’t want to see the front.

Sustenance. All the food groups. Plus, I roasted those pecans on Sunday. No one can say I didn’t cook.

I think a dozen clementines, two apples, and a 1/2 grapefruit count as nutrition, yes?

Uniform. Or as I like to call them, Second Jammies.

Bonus: Sometimes if you take the dog out to pee at 1:30 in the morning, there’s a ring around the moon.

Husbands can feed themselves. Birds can too. But I can’t convince Husband to go out and hop around the pole to entertain me when I look out the window as I write.

13+

Creating Characters: You Can Always Start With the Car

 

Stock photo via GoDaddy

 

So. You’re ready to create a character.

What does your character look like? Eat? Worship?

Do they exercise? Do they jump up on boxes and grunt, or are they a mall walker?

What high school did they go to? Freak or geek, prom king/queen, or regular Jane?

Do they color their hair? Clip joint, or fancy salon?

Gluten-free? Dairy free? Pescatarian?

Do they eat creamed corn? Do they look at porn? (Obviously I went for the rhyme there.)

Shoplifter, despite having millions?

Boxers, briefs, thongs, or commando?

Tampons or pads?

401K or under the mattress?

Acid reflux, heart palpitations, heartbreak of psoriasis?

Wrist watch, pocket watch, no watch, sundial?

Fast talker?

Lousy lover?

De-canterer of wine before guests arrive to hide how cheap they are?

You figure out all this stuff before you sit down to write, right? If you do, congratulations are in order. You’re about a hundred steps ahead of most writers—Okay, when I say most writers, I mean me, at least.

I envy writers who spend lots of time defining their characters, then put them onstage with ready-made conflicts. You bought me briefs instead of boxers? Are you even my wife?!

Goodness knows I torture encourage my writing workshop participants with character-building exercises. It’s a lot of fun, especially when they begin to see their character as something more than a mannequin with brown eyes, curly dark hair, a cruel mouth, and wearing a nose ring and expensive jeans. You only have to look around you to see that there is no such thing as a generic human. Family members make excellent character models, and the nice thing is that they rarely recognize themselves—Particularly if the character is unlikable. And there’s nothing like taking revenge on a dreaded former coworker or high school frenemy by putting them in a book.

Sometimes all your imagining will be for naught when it comes time to get into writing the story. Thriller and other genre writers don’t necessarily have the luxury of languorous character development because the action tends to move fairly quickly. This is where series characters really shine. A series gives a writer many opportunities to grow and deepen their personalities and habits. At the moment I’m reading Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike novel, Lethal White. Strike is a solid, well-defined character whose enormous, damaged body looks amazing in a well-tailored suit. And I think he likes squash soup? Okay, maybe I made that part up, but he’s not too shy to engage in a bit of dress-up roleplaying behind closed doors with his current girlfriend. Seriously, I could not have made that up.

I rarely did even minimal character sketches before I started using Scrivener about six years ago. Its template is on the minimalist side, with blank spaces for a character’s role in the story, physical description, occupation, mannerisms, internal conflicts, external conflicts, and background. This approach gives you plenty of latitude, without driving you crazy. I confess, I don’t often even fill these templates out completely. BUT I am one to go back and fill them in as I write the book. I like for the character to surprise me. It’s also extremely useful to keep track of all those details, like when two of your characters hook up and you’re not sure what color your heroine’s eyes are.

If you ever get stuck, I have a simple fix. Decide what sort of cars (if any) your characters are driving. Americans often express their personalities via their cars, and we all have ideas about what kind of people drive a particular model.

The protagonist of The Stranger Inside, my suspense novel that’s coming out the first week of February, drives a Mini-Cooper. Kimber isn’t quite forty, and she likes the option of being able to drive away with speed when she wants to escape her problems.

There really is no wrong way to design your characters, as long as you’re telling the story they want to tell.

What’s your process for creating and defining characters? Tell us about a favorite character that you created.

3+

A Book In My Ear: Audiobooks, the Writer’s Take

My nineteen-year-old son always has his face in his phone. Drives me nuts, and I confess that when he’s around I nag him about it.

“Focus on what you’re doing,” I say.

“But I’m just rinsing off this dish to put it in the dishwasher,” says he. (Okay, at least he’s following House Rule #1–Zero dirty dishes on the counter or in the sink.)

“The phone is rewiring your brain. You need to pay attention to what you’re doing. I think you’re addicted.”

“It’s just a plate, and I’m putting it in the dishwasher! You know,” he says, after taking care of the plate. “You kind of nag me sometimes.” He puts one arm around my neck–coincidentally it’s the arm with the phone on the end of it. “What’s up with that?”

Yes, I do nag him. But I’m also a hypocrite of enormous proportions. We’re a lot alike, he and I. We both have attention issues–as in, we are both very easily distracted and desire almost constant mental stimulation. I say “desire” because I’ve spent many years working to get a handle on my distraction habit–a habit that can be both devastating and helpful to a writer.

My name is Laura, and my phone is near me at all times. Not necessarily because I want my family to be able to reach me 24/7, though that’s important, but because my AirPods might lose the audio signal of the book I’m listening to. I listen to 5-6 audiobooks a week, with a few podcasts in between.

In fact, I listened to the entire 6+ hours of the excellent true crime podcast, Bear Brook, on Monday, after talking about it with my editor around 2:00 p.m. And Monday was a pretty busy day for me.

Sometimes, when I’m cooking and have a book in my ear, my husband will come in and talk to me as he has a snack or peruses his own phone. I’ll turn a part of my attention to him and let the narrator’s voice drop into the background. Husband doesn’t necessarily know if I have a book or podcast going on, or if the pod is just there for phone convenience. If he appears to want to have a conversation, I’ll take the pod out of my ear and slip it in my pocket.  I’ve started to feel a bit icky about this scenario. I would almost always prefer to talk to him.

Last November–and I can’t believe it was so long ago–I posted about my attraction to audiobooks as a reader. The comments on that post are amazing and truly informative. I love reading about other folks’ reading habits. A rereading of that post also woke me up to the fact that I’ve since almost doubled my audio consumption. I knew it was getting out of hand, but seriously…

Audiobook overconsumption is, I’m afraid, messing with my writing. There. I’ve said it. (Took me about 500 words, but I’m fond of big intros outside of my fiction. Sorry.)

As with watching television, audiobook listening is primarily a passive experience that can happen while the listener does other things. Yet, surely there are people who listen to books and do absolutely nothing else while they’re doing it, giving the book one hundred percent of their attention. Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, writes about listening to music that way. She’s a huge proponent of doing one thing at a time. She protests that she would be very offended if someone came to one of her dance performances and read a book, so she wouldn’t read a book while listening to Beethoven. Which leads me to wonder if I would be offended if someone vacuumed or changed tires or gardened while listening to one of my books. Or if they read a paper copy or ebook while keeping an eye on a televised football game as my dad often does. My answer is an emphatic no, of course not.

For the two and a half decades before I started writing, books were entertainment and solace for me. I paid attention when I read because I was interested in the stories. When I started writing, I learned to actively read like a writer. Writers read for language, grammar, story shape, character development, story arcs, plot elements, point-of-view. We read to learn how to do it–it’s as simple as that. Some of us try modeling our work on more skilled writers (a marvelous exercise to step into another writer’s shoes). After a while, the reading-like-a-writer habit can get frustrating for writers at every level. Sometimes you just don’t want to know about the puppeteer behind the curtain, you just want to know what happens next.

I find it difficult to track the writer’s journey in an audiobook. There are occasionally those moments when I think, “I see what she did there.” While I tend to recall plot details and my mental images of the characters in books I listen to, I retain little else besides the conclusion that I liked them or didn’t.

I have a similar problem with ebooks, oddly enough. As with audiobooks, I have a very hard time returning to a word or a scene I want to go over again. I can’t tell you the number of bookmarks I put into ebooks, and the audiobook screenshots I have in my phone so I can bookmark scenes that way. With a paper book, I usually remember where something I want to find appeared on its page, left or right, top or bottom, or middle. Also I can usually narrow it down to a half dozen pages with less than a minute of searching.

There’s something so concrete about watching a story unfold on the page and also following it in one’s mind. I feel like I can almost reach out and hold it. I remember very early on that my husband said of my short stories that they looked like short stories, but that they had little story in them. Yes, I’d read a ton of books, but I hadn’t yet read much as a writer. Still, shape is important, especially when you’re starting out.

Over the past year, most of the ebooks I’ve read have been friends’ or students’ manuscripts, or books to blurb. I’ve read some hardcovers and a couple of regretful paperback freebies I picked up at a conference. But I can say with confidence that the novels and books I’ve listened to outnumber the print/ebooks at least ten to one. That number feels pretty shocking.

I feel rather like a student who has been watching YouTube videos while sitting in a classroom as the teacher lectures. Ouch. That’s no way to learn. Content is important.

That said, I love all versions of books. Sometimes I think it’s not quite fair to the book I’m listening to if I’ve glossed over bits of it. I’ve missed something, and I hate missing out, especially on a story.

Today I ran across this interesting piece, 8 Science-Backed Reasons to Read (a Real) Book. It’s an eclectic list, focusing mainly on books themselves in place of other forms of entertainment.  But a lot of it make sense. I’m not surprised that turning pages helps one’s recall, and reading is like a workout for the brain. I’m much more likely to immediately look up a word when I’m reading, rather than when listening to a book.

Right now I have three books going: I’ve listened to the Twyla Tharp book, and have read the first fifty pages of the softcover version. The second is a ginormous hardcover, Robert Galbraith’s Lethal White. The third is, yes, an audiobook. Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land. Perhaps I should be reading the Heinlein on paper, and listening to Lethal White. Heinlein’s characters are wonderful, but Galbraith’s are deeper, especially given that they are series characters. But I’m sixty-five on the waitlist for Lethal White at Overdrive. And it costs a small fortune to buy on audio.

It feels good to sit down at the computer with some hands-on, eyes-on reading backing me up again.

What about you? Do you experience a difference in your writing if your reading habits change?

3+

SEVEN AT ODDS: First Page Critique

GoDaddy stock phot

Greetings, fellow travelers! Today we venture into a fantasy land of Rwothtyll trees and First Blood Ceremonies. Doesn’t that pique your curiosity? (It did mine.)

Buckle up. Off we go to meet our Brave Author with our First Page Critiques!

SEVEN AT ODDS

At first, Vo thought the faint ululating cries were animal mating calls. But it was the wrong time of year. The Goddess had Her own ways, many of them mysteries to him and his fellow villagers, and maybe these cries were just another riddle. He leaned out over the thick limb of the Rwothyll tree and rubbed the sweat out of his eyes with his shirt sleeve, the weather unusually warm for early autumn. Studying the clusters of silver-green Rwothyll leaves that hung from the limb, he shook one branch. The lemony scent of the leaves wafted up to him. He took a firm grip on his long harvest knife and sawed easily through the branch. The cluster tumbled down toward Alek and Jilly waiting twenty feet below. Alek, shaking his shock of jet black hair, made a show of catching the leaves in his harvest basket.

A peal of laughter erupted from Jilly. “Oh, Alek, you are such a clown.”

Alek grinned and waved up at Vo. From his perch, Vo returned the gesture, smiling at the antics of his friend who was just a year older than his own tally of sixteen summers. He cut off another branch and held the leafy bundle out. A sudden shadow fell over the leaves as a cloud passed overhead. He shivered, then brightened as the sun returned. “Hey, Jilly. Your turn!”

The girl grabbed the basket and swung it gracefully beneath the harvested leaves. She threw Alek a teasing smirk. She tossed the basket back to him and looked up. “You going to be up there all day, Vo?”

Vo shook his head and groaned, wishing he had not drunk so much of the miller’s home brew at Jilly’s First Blood celebration the night before. He gripped the climbing rope, ready to slither down, when he cocked his head, listening. The same cries, this time joined by a horn blast and an eerie low thrumming sound. Not animal sounds, then. He sat up straight, peering out through the leaves at the hillside that rose above the village. Terraced fields covered its lower elevations and beyond the golden spears of grain waving lazily in the light breeze, forested heights climbed ever higher, forming ridges and shoulders that buttressed the jagged peaks of the Eastern Wall.

——————————–

I like a good fantasy story, and I’m impressed by the author’s particularly close observation of the story’s idyllic setting and the detailed interactions of the characters. This is a vivid, lush world that offers up a number of compelling curiosities that I’d like to know more about. Plus, a Goddess!

Here at the Zone, we operate at a bit of a disadvantage when we do critiques. We have little information as to intended audience. But that’s part of the fun of it!

I’m going to say that SEVEN AT ODDS is a YA fantasy novel about Vo, Alek, Jilly, and–perhaps–four other characters who are at odds with some villain or god(dess) or invader? They feel a little like young superheroes who haven’t yet discovered they’re superheroes, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

I’ll get to edits in a moment, but I first want to say that–and maybe it’s just me–I wanted more tension, more action, a sense that something tense and important and dangerous is about to happen. As it stands, it simmers a bit too low, but can easily be pumped up. Thoughts:

At first, Vo thought the faint ululating cries were animal mating calls. But it was the wrong time of year. The Goddess had Her own ways, many of them mysteries to him and his fellow villagers, and maybe these cries were just another riddle. He leaned out over the thick limb of the Rwothyll tree and rubbed the sweat out of his eyes with his shirt sleeve, the weather unusually warm for early autumn. Studying the clusters of silver-green Rwothyll leaves that hung from the limb, he shook one branch. The lemony scent of the leaves wafted up to him. He took a firm grip on his long harvest knife and sawed easily through the branch. The cluster tumbled down toward Alek and Jilly waiting twenty feet below. Alek, shaking his shock of jet black hair, made a show of catching the leaves in his harvest basket. 

Stakes! Tension! Flow!

We have weird, spooky sounds. An unpredictable goddess. And our friend Vo doesn’t seem particularly alarmed, but goes on to harvest his lemony leaves…My curiosity was initially piqued, but I kind of lose interest when Vo does.

(Forgive me if my rewriting bits don’t track or you find repetitions–I took each paragraph and messed with it and didn’t go for a full rewrite.)

It’s not a bad idea to start with a mysterious sound. But NEVER start with a character thinking. Or wondering. *yawns” I believe this was mentioned on another recent critique. Give our hero something interesting to do, or at least have him reacting physically or psychologically. I was also bugged because I had to assume he was up a tree and didn’t get it until Alek and Jilly were positioned below.

“Animal mating calls” is a bit too general. And let us know immediately why it’s the wrong time of year.

Simplify actions and reactions. Keep dialogue natural. No need to repeat names. Please..no erupting peals. Keep it simple.

Perhaps:

High above the forest floor, Vo stilled his harvest knife in the middle of sawing a cluster of Rwothyll leaves from their branch, and turned his head to listen. Faint ululations, like animal cries, arose in the distance. He guessed they might be the mating calls of some mountain creature. Except it was autumn—a brutally hot autumn—not mating season. It was hard to know for certain what they were. They might even be some trick or riddle of the Goddess, whose ways were often a mystery to Vo and his fellow villagers. Turning back to the tree’s silver-green leaves, he finished sawing through the branch, sending the cluster tumbling down to where Alek and Jilly waited below.

Alek, shaking his shock of jet black hair out of his eyes, made a show of catching the leaves in his harvest basket. Jilly laughed and gave Alek a playful push. “You’re such a clown.”

Alek grinned and waved up at Vo. From his perch, Vo returned the gesture, smiling at the antics of his friend who was just a year older than his own tally of sixteen summers. He cut off another branch and held the leafy bundle out. A sudden shadow fell over the leaves as a cloud passed overhead. He shivered, then brightened as the sun returned. “Hey, Jilly. Your turn!”

Alek has a basket, so how is he waving? Vo returning the gesture is awkward as well. It’s all a bit too happy, happy.

Vo smiled down at his friends. But his smile faltered as a cloud suddenly dimmed the sunlight. Despite the heat, he shivered. Something’s wrong. Something’s coming, he thought. Or had he just had too much of the miller’s home brew at Jilly’s First Blood celebration the previous night? He tried to shake off the tension by cutting another cluster-filled branch. Focusing on the work. “Hey, Jilly. Your turn!”

Give Jilly and Alek more interaction. They are oblivious to what is going on with Vo.

The girl grabbed the basket and swung it gracefully to catch the falling bundle. She gave a little curtsy, and, smirking, she tossed the full basket back to Alek. “No big deal,” she said. Alek shrugged, obviously pretending to be unimpressed, and called up to Vo. “Come on down. We’ve got enough.” Jilly stuck out her tongue behind his back.

Vo shook his head and groaned, wishing he had not drunk so much of the miller’s home brew at Jilly’s First Blood celebration the night before. He gripped the climbing rope, ready to slither down, when he cocked his head, listening. The same cries, this time joined by a horn blast and an eerie low thrumming sound. Not animal sounds, then. He sat up straight, peering out through the leaves at the hillside that rose above the village. Terraced fields covered its lower elevations and beyond the golden spears of grain waving lazily in the light breeze, forested heights climbed ever higher, forming ridges and shoulders that buttressed the jagged peaks of the Eastern Wall. 

Oh, no, Vo! The head shaking and groaning is a bit much as a response to Jilly or Alek asking if he’s coming down soon. He has other more important stuff on his mind–establish earlier that he’s feeling like crap.

I love the description of the terraced hillside. But save it for a page or two because here it diminishes the occurrence of the new sounds. You’ve ramped up the tension, so keep it tense. You don’t have to deliver everything in the first page. Here’s what I would do with the last paragraph:

Vo sheathed the knife, and had just gripped the rope to shimmy down, when more haunting cries, louder now, floated down the hillside brooding over the village. This time they were accompanied by the blast of a [name a local type of horn here] horn, and what sounded like the thrumming of a thousand heartbeats. No. The cries definitely weren’t animal noises. He glanced down to see if Alek and Jilly had heard, too. They had. Their upturned faces were filled with fear.

Yes, I have had lots of opinions about this piece. But I definitely feel it was worth an edit. Good job, Brave Author. Hope this is useful.

TKZers! Thoughts?

4+

The More The Merrier: J.T. Ellison on Publishing Anthologies

photo by krista lee photography

Author J.T. Ellison doesn’t just write USA Today and New York Times bestselling novels, and short stories. She’s also co-host of an Emmy-winning literary television series called A Word on Words, and is the owner of the independent Two Tales Press.
She’s wearing her publisher/editor hat on her visit here today. In addition to publishing a large number of her own new and backlist short stories at Two Tales Press, she’s edited and published two themed, multi-author, short fiction anthologies–DEAD ENDS and A THOUSAND DOORSthat contain the work of some pretty incredible writers.
J.T. and I debuted at ITW’s Thrillerfest together about a million years ago, and haven’t lost touch since.
Welcome, J.T.!
Given that you’re widely and prolifically published with traditional publishers, what led you to start your own press?
Honestly, you did! I loved what you and your husband, Pinckney Benedict, were doing with your small press anthologies. I was honored to participate in 2 of them, and I saw just how cool the process was. I had a number of short stories, published and unpublished, that I had the rights to. I pulled them together in a small collection, made a cover, and published it on Amazon. It was never really meant to turn into a side project, it was simply a way to monetize some creative. I was surprised by how easy it was, and how quickly it sold. I fear I am an impatient sort, and I greatly dislike rejection, so instead of submitting subsequent stories to the normal channels, I just started popping them up for sale.
Then, I had a standalone novel that didn’t sell, and I had to think long and hard about this process. Indie publishing was taking off, and since I’m the entrepreneurial sort, I decided to publish it myself.  I also began the process of revising my first, unpublished novel to appear in a bundle put together by the divine Brenda Novak, with the express thought that I would eventually publish it myself as a prequel to the Taylor Jackson series. I hired an assistant, knowing it was going to take a lot of effort to put out two novels myself. We started building the major and necessary infrastructure — accounts with Ingram and Baker & Taylor for printing and distribution, online accounts with all the channels, establishing library contacts, finding editors and artists.
Of course, the universe is a funny place. During this process, the standalone received interest from a traditional publisher, then my publisher expressed an interest in the series prequel. I am always going to default to traditional publishing for novels, and so I accepted both offers.
But I had an infrastructure built, and nothing to publish. I debated opening Two Tales for submissions, and quickly walked away from that idea. I know there is awesome work out there that deserves a home, but I want to be a writer, not a publisher.
Anthologies, though, don’t pose the same commitment as being responsible for someone’s livelihood. I knew I could raise awareness for some underrepresented voices as well as share the stage with some major talent. It felt like a good fit, a win-win for all involved.
It’s not about making money for me. It’s about how I can help raise awareness for a multitude of voices at once. It’s my way of giving back.
You’ve done two anthologies, DEAD ENDS and the newly-released A THOUSAND DOORS. Tell us where the ideas for each came from.
DEAD ENDS came out of a class I taught several years ago. I gave my students several photographs as writing prompts, and one was this über creepy house. And I’ve always said you can give ten writers the same concept or photo to write about and get ten different stories. I set out to prove my thesis. Every writer was given the same photo, and there were two rules — the house had to be in the story (the story didn’t have to be in the house) and it had to be set in the south. No story was alike; it was absolutely perfect!
A THOUSAND DOORS was different. Since 2007, I’ve been carrying around the concept of a young woman who is murdered, and as she dies, experiences all the lives she could have led. I’d planned on writing it myself, but something always got in the way. I finally realized I needed help, and the idea for the anthology — which is really a novel — was born.  The structure of the main character living multiple lives lent itself perfectly to having multiple authors on the project. It’s like a TV show — I was the show runner, and the authors my writing room.
I built some parameters for each story (specifically that the character, Mia Jensen, was a certain height, a certain natural hair and eye color, that she had to make a choice in the story, hear a loud noise, and have a ringing phone, all of which tied specifically to the real life she was living), shared the series of lives I’d envisioned but also opened the door to other ideas, and boom goes the dynamite.
Did you consider a traditional route for your anthologies?
For DEAD ENDS, no. It was meant to be a jumping off point for Two Tales, especially if I changed my mind and decided to publish other authors (which I’ve considered several times, but see being responsible for livelihoods, above.)
For A THOUSAND DOORS, I debated it. My assistant had moved to another position and I was left to do all the heavy lifting myself. In retrospect, I probably should have all-stopped and given it to my agent to try and sell, but I’m stubborn, and I thought I could do it. I didn’t realize just how much work it would entail, because the scope of this one is bigger than anything I’ve ever attempted myself, but every time I see the book reviewed, every time I see it on a shelf, every time it pops up in a Twitter feed, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction that I truly made something from scratch. It’s a very powerful feeling.
How did you select contributors for each of your anthologies?
I am blessed to be surrounded by incredibly talented friends. I’m also a big reader, and there are writers I absolutely love who I wanted to participate. For DEAD ENDS, I reached out to some people who’d given me a break when I was first starting out, begged some friends whose profiles were high enough to make an impact, and asked for stories from a couple of new to me authors, too.
For A THOUSAND DOORS, I went top shelf, all the way. It’s such a high concept, I knew I needed exceptional authors  who were also bestsellers to help me realize the goals. The story was so close to my heart, and I wanted it to feel as real and organic as possible. I tapped an all-female team of powerhouse writers and upcoming stars, and I felt like the voices all meshed perfectly.
What do you enjoy about editing anthologies?
Having a concept executed by authors much more talented than I. But it’s more. There is nothing I love more than a reviewer who says they’re going to go try the authors in the anthology, or they hadn’t ever heard of this writer or that one before but plan to fix that. I love introducing my readers to new books by great writers — these are the ultimate sampler albums.
You’ve done audio for both anthologies. How did that work?
I actually wasn’t planning to do audio for DEAD ENDS,  but a narrator who’d read it reached out and offered to work with me on it. She even went so far as to record two stories for me as a sample of her work. We then worked in ACX to get the entire manuscript recorded. It was a lot of fun. I did another project with her through ACX, too. Only one problem. Audio is expensive! Really, really expensive. And ACX sets your price, so the controls you might have with another format are gone. It makes it less-than-cost effective.
Knowing I was going to have a hard time putting together an audio budget that would work for A THOUSAND DOORS, I opened the door with my agent to a traditional audio sale. Happily, Brilliance Audio bought the rights and we will be releasing early next year. I can’t wait to hear Mia come to life.
What is the most challenging part of being a small publisher?
The time it takes to make sure all the details are handled. Every day, something pops up that I need to handle. When there’s a full publishing team, each division has its responsibilities and you can manage those aspects easily. When you’re the publisher, and you’re a one-woman shop, like I am, it’s all up to you. You are all the departments — editing, marketing, advertising, art, sales, distribution, PR, oh, and writer, too. To do this properly–and I refuse to do anything less–means sinking a lot of time and money into the project. I love the control, but I don’t love how much time it takes away from my work.
*Since you’ve been in the driver’s seat on anthologies before, Laura, I’d love to hear your side of this process as well. What do you think worked well for A THOUSAND DOORS? What advice would you give to authors who want to try putting together anthologies?
Thank you for having me back to THE KILL ZONE! It’s always a pleasure.
TKZers! I’ll address J.T.’s question in the comments. Have you contributed to, edited, or published anthologies? What was your experience? As a reader, do you enjoy sampling stories by many writers in one book?
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author J.T. Ellison writes standalone domestic noir and psychological thriller series, the latter starring Nashville Homicide Lt. Taylor Jackson and medical examiner Dr. Samantha Owens, and pens the international thriller series “A Brit in the FBI” with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Cohost of the EMMY Award-winning literary television series A Word on Words, Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens.
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Hill House and Adaptations: Happy Halloween ’18!

 

I’m not sure when October became Halloween month, but I’ve decided it’s not such a bad thing. Over the past few weeks I’ve gotten lots of good recommendations for scary books and films. My husband and I made it a point to watch some beloved old-school scary films together, including The Haunting (based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House), The Sentinel, and Rosemary’s Baby.

We also watched the television series, The Haunting of Hill House, the Netflix adaptation *cough cough* of Jackson’s novel. Ahem…

Have you read the 1959 novel? If you haven’t, then I’ll wait here while you do. Don’t worry. It’s long, but I promise you’ll speed right through it. But if you’re too busy, here’s the premise: University professor studying psychic phenomena gains access to a reputedly haunted house called Hill House, and brings along a presumed psychic (Theo), a disturbed young woman (Eleanor) who ostensibly caused rocks to rain on her house, and a young man (Luke) who is a descendent of the ill-fated family who built the house. They investigate over a period of a few days, and Many Scary Things happen. Someone dies.

I LOVE THIS BOOK. It’s also beloved by legions of fans. It’s nuanced and original, yet also and comfortingly familiar, with its haunting tropes like creepy statuary, darkness, unidentified banging, unsettling architecture, mysterious writing on the walls, a harrowing origin story, and bizarre servants who won’t stay after dark. But the true strength of the novel is that it is less a horror story than a tale of psychological suspense and festering fears and tensions. In fact, it was nominated for the National Book Award.

The 1963 black-and-white film adaptation adheres pretty closely to the book, and Julie Harris is brilliant as the fragile virgin, Eleanor.

We only speak in hushed, abashed tones about the 1999 Catherine Zeta Jones remake.

Husband and I began watching the Netflix series set in both the present and the 90s with heightened expectations. Then we almost didn’t make it through the first hour. I confess, we were pretty angry. Nothing felt right, and very little felt familiar. For openers, the house is ostensibly being renovated in order to be flipped by the Crain family. Um, what? There are five children in the family, and Timothy Hutton and Carla Gugino play the Crain parents. The children are named Steven, Luke, Nell, Theo, and Shirley. Again, what? The adult Steven Crain is a bestselling writer who made a bajillion dollars telling the family’s darkest stories in his novels. Shirley is an undertaker, Luke, a heroin addict, Theo, a psychotherapist, and Nell–well I can’t remember, but it was something innocuous. They’re estranged from their father, and their mother is dead.

Thank goodness for terrific child actors–the kids who play the young Crains were very, very good.

The two story lines eventually bear each other out. We discover why the mother died, and how she was killed. We learn what’s truly wrong with the house. But very, very little of this plot has anything to do with the book or the 1963 film. It’s as though the creator were a magpie who took all the sparkly bits of the novel and sprinkled them through an entirely new story.

Forgive my being vague, but I want to avoid spoilers in case you want to watch it. Which you should! It’s very good if you simply dismiss any notions you have about the book or the 1963 film. It does stand on its own beautifully. And, in my opinion, it should just be called The Forever House. But no one asked me, darn it.

So, has anyone else seen the series? Read the book? Seen the 1963 or 1979 films? If so, what do you think of them?

Something else to consider: What adaptations of your favorite novels elicit strong opinions from you, either way.

 

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