Getting to Jack Reacher, or Someone Like Him

reacher said nothing

I am reading an extremely interesting book which will see the light of day next week — Tuesday, November 24, 2015, to be exact — everywhere books are sold. It is titled REACHER SAID NOTHING: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. It is written by Andy Martin, who teaches at Cambridge but is nonetheless capable of writing a fun book, and more so, a fun book about the writing process. What occurred is that Martin approached Child via email in August 2014 about writing a book that would take the reader from the very beginning of the process by which Child does what he does so well to the very end. Martin’s timing was perfect, given that Child was about to start writing what ultimately became MAKE ME, his latest Jack Reacher novel.


I’m not going to present my review of REACHER SAID NOTHING now — you’ll have to go here next week over the Thanksgiving weekend to see that — but I can tell you that if you have ever thought of writing a novel you need to get a copy of REACHER SAID NOTHING and sit down and read it. You’ll feel better about the process, for sure. I can assure you that, whatever problem you may have had with completing your work, Child has had it as well, and yes, still has it and works to overcome it year in and year out. You will find within the pages of REACHER SAID NOTHING how he does it, as well as the very first thing that Child did when he started writing the very first Reacher book, lo those many years ago. Child utilizes many tools — copious amounts of coffee and cigarettes among them — but you don’t have to have move into Starbucks or have access to a secret stash of Chesterfield Kings to have similar results, with “similar results” being finishing your book, and then writing another, and another. And no, I’m not going to give away the specifics. Martin gave up a year of his life following Child around with  proximity and access that would make a proctologist jealous, and then compiled it all into something readable, so it would be neither fair nor right. I will tell you in one general word, however, how Child does what he does: discipline. That’s it. He sits down (among other things) and gets it done. The process of doing that is a part of Martin’s book, and so far, that book is an entertaining hodgepodge of an account consisting of emails, diary entries, and transcripts of conversations.


Will reading REACHER SAID NOTHING help you to write a bestseller or a critically acclaimed work? No. No. No. Life is not fair. Equity is not equal. If you want justice go to theology school and cross your fingers; maybe you’ll get it. But, if you model your work ethic after Child, you’ll finish your book, The rest is a combination of luck and ability and timing. As far as writing goes, remember that just because you like sausage doesn’t mean you want to make it. Have at it, by all means, but know what you are getting into. And if you still want to by the time you finish REACHER SAID NOTHING, by all means: start, and never stop until the job is done.


From my house to yours: Happy Thanksgiving! I’m old and grumpy and experiencing a health issue that is more an inconvenience than a herald of mortality but it’s a reminder that the sand is running, ever running, through the hourglass. Still, I have much to be thankful for, and you would be very high on that list, for stopping by The Kill Zone and spending a few minutes with us. Thank you.



Writing Down: Cultural Appropriation and the Fiction Writer’s Dilemma

9781631529603_fcPlease welcome Kate Raphael to TKZ as my guest today, continuing the discussion we started on diversity and cultural appropriation in fiction….

Where is the line between imagination and cultural appropriation?

Actors and musicians have faced that question for decades, but until recently, fiction writers seemed to have license to become, behind our pens, whoever we could convince readers we were. In the 1930s and 40s, Pearl Buck and James Michener won Pulitzer Prizes for their portrayals of Asian countries and the people who inhabited them. Tony Hillerman not only won several Edgars and a Nero, he received the Navajo Tribe’s Special Friends of the Dineh Award for his series starring Navajo policemen Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn.

In the last few years, however, cultural activists and writers of color have begun to raise the issue of who has a right to tell their stories. This conversation is a natural outgrowth of the public feuds between Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj, or Iggy Azalea and Azalea Banks, but it has certainly been helped along by episodes like Kathryn Stockett’s alleged misuse of stories told to her by her brother’s maid, and Michael Derrik Hudson’s admission that he put the name “Yi-Fen Chou” on his poem because it was more likely to be accepted that way. (Pearl Buck, incidentally, was sometimes known by her Chinese name, Sai Zhenzhu.)

The realization that all fiction is appropriation was the breakthrough that let me start writing fiction in the first place. Until my mid-thirties, I thought I couldn’t write fiction because I had no imagination. Then one day something crazy happened to a friend of mine and I thought, “That would make a great movie,” so I started a screenplay. The script was awful, but I had popped the cork on my storytelling juice. One of my friends had been a draft resister and gone underground. Others survived illegal abortions or helped sandbag Black Panther offices. A friend of a friend was killed during the contra war in Nicaragua. Steal! My own lackluster life fell away and I had a plethora of exciting stories to tell.

But stealing from friends, people basically “like me” is a different animal than telling stories of people with less social power than I have, people who have often been denied the right to tell their own stories.

As I honed my debut mystery novel, Murder Under the Bridge, and its sequel, Murder Under the Fig Tree, set in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I thought long and hard about whether it was fair for me, as a Jewish American, to write from the perspective of a Palestinian. The Palestinian people have fought long and hard for the right to control their narrative, a narrative which has been virtually eclipsed in mainstream U.S. media. Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa, author of the novel Mornings In Jenin, suggests that efforts to speak in the voice of people whose oppression we do not share “colonise our wounds and bring our pain under their purview.” I think it’s a valid position, and I didn’t want to do that.

At the same time, to write about Palestine and NOT put Palestinians at the center of the story seems worse. If I could not write from a Palestinian perspective, I couldn’t write these books. I needed to write about Palestine because I am a writer who lived in Palestine for several years, and my life was changed by that experience. So I had no choice but to try to inhabit the persona of a Palestinian protagonist, and hope that I could do it justice. I took some comfort from remembering that almost every Palestinian who gave me food, shelter, Arabic lessons or a badly needed ride around the checkpoints asked only one thing in return: “Go home and tell people our stories.” I took this as tacit permission to create characters who could live those stories.

I also took heart from my memory of reading Laurie King’s first Kate Martinelli novel, A Grave Talent. Kate Martinelli is a lesbian, as am I. I could tell immediately that King is not. Martinelli’s partner asks if she’s a lesbian and she answers, “We don’t know each other well enough for me to answer that.” A lesbian would never say that; she might as well say yes, because no straight woman would say it – especially in 1993, when that book came out. There were other things that also didn’t ring true. Nonetheless, I liked the book pretty well, and I was confident that the character’s voice would get better in future books, which it did. I could tell that though King was stretching, her intentions were good, so I was willing to give her a chance.

My friend Steve Masover, author of the recently released novel Consequence, says that writing about anyone other than oneself requires “an act of radical empathy.” I nurture the hope that radical empathy will shine through the mistakes I have no doubt made in portraying my Palestinian protagonist, Rania. And if it doesn’t, I’m sure people will let me know.

vivtoria secret my 07

Kate Raphael is the author of Murder Under The Bridge: A Palestine Mystery, and host of Women’s Magazine on KPFA Radio in Berkeley. Between 2002 and 2005, she spent eighteen months in Palestine as a member of the International Women’s Peace Service.


How to Be a Prolific Writer

Got an email the other day from a writer I met at Bouchercon. We’d chatted a bit about the craft, and he wanted to thank me. He’d just completed his first novel and was raring to go on his second. He wrote, “I’m amazed at how prolific you are.”

That was nice to hear, because when I started out that’s what I wanted to be—prolific. I was 34 years old and hadn’t written much of anything for ten years (I’d been told in college that you can’t learn how to write fiction, and since I couldn’t write fiction—fiction that was any good, anyway––I figured I just didn’t have it). So when I made the decision to finally go for it, even if I failed, I wanted to make up for lost time.

Now, according to traditional standards of the writing life, I am prolific. I’ve produced around fifty books, hundreds of articles, several stories and novellas. I’m happy with my output.

But I’m no Nora Roberts! Seriously, she is amazing. She may not be your cup o’ noodles, but as a highly successful professional writer, there is something awe inspiring about her production. And there are many other writers out there I could point to with the same wonder.

We all have our floors and our ceilings. The trick to the writing life is to get yourself up to the ceiling and stay there. Stay there long enough, and maybe you can blow out that ceiling and put in another story (wordplay intended).

I heard from a young writer recently who said he was having trouble getting started. He has a wife and young child at home, is working long hours, and when he gets some time to himself he is easily distracted by social media, and is too much of a perfectionist to get many words done.

For those who have these sorts of constraints, let me offer some advice on becoming more prolific, for it can be done!

1. Commit to a quota

Nothing has been as beneficial to me as a professional writer than writing to a quota. In the early part of my career it was a thousand words a day. Later on I made it a weekly quota: six thousand words a week, with one day off, usually Sunday, to recharge. I still aim for a thousand words a day, but I make it a weekly quota because if life intrudes one day, I can make up those words by upping my output on the other days.

I’ve heard some writers say they just can’t write to a quota, that it’s too much pressure, that it squeezes the creative juices right out of them. Look, if you want to be a pro, you produce like a pro. That means writing even when you don’t feel like it. Imagine a brain surgeon muttering, “I’m just not into my operation today. I can only operate when I’m inspired! Besides, this guy’s a lawyer. I don’t even want to operate.”

If you want to be prolific, you need a quota.

My advice for years has been this: figure out how many words you can comfortably write in a standard week. Maybe, because of job or other duties, you can only squeeze in half an hour a day during the week, with a two-hour chunk on Saturday. Whatever. How many words can you do without much effort?

Now, up that total by 10%. You need some slight pressure to become a prolific author. And ten percent more ain’t that much pressure!

Keep track of your word count on a spreadsheet. I can tell you how many words I wrote every day and week and year, and on what projects, since 2000.

I’ve not always hit my mark, but I’m batting about .880.  If you don’t make your quota one week, forget about it. Just start the new week fresh.

Periodically review your weekly quota and see if you can adjust it up. Only adjust it down if you have another child or join the Marine Corps.

2. Commit yourself to a Nifty 250 every morning

For most of my career I’ve used the Nifty 350 or Furious 500 as my standard morning practice. That is, before I do anything else (except make the coffee) I tap out 350 or 500 words of my daily goal. It’s amazing how much easier the writing day gets after that.

I’m going easy on you here in suggesting you aim for 250 words. Why? Because a Ficus tree can write 250 words in the morning. Do you want to be outclassed by a Ficus tree?

“But I’m just not a morning person!”

Oh really? You’re a person, right? And you get up in the morning, yes? And you find a way to get some coffee and hop on Facebook, don’t you?

I don’t want to hear that morning person jazz anymore. DO NOT OPEN ANY SOCIAL MEDIA, INTERNET BROWSER, OR EMAIL until you have written 250 words!

“But I’m so foggy, I just can’t think…”

Good! Don’t think at all. Just write! The discipline of writing your 250 will train your brain to get up and at ‘em.

This is where my young perfectionist will learn to let go. Don’t get it right, get it written is sage advice. Do not edit, spell check, correct, or otherwise stop your flow until the 250 is done. (Here’s a little secret. When you get to 250 you’re going to want to keep going. So go!)

You can also help your writing brain along by doing this:

3. Leave off your day’s writing mid-scene

This lets your subconscious cook during the night, and when you sit down to write on your WIP you’ll be back in the flow immediately. Hemingway even used to stop mid-sentence. I can imagine him writing:

He saw the fish and the fish was good. It was a good fish. It was a fish like the good bull in Spain that summer with Stein. Yes, and the beer was warm that summer, but it was good beer, it was

How easily he could continue the next day: beer that was brave and true.

4. Plan five or six projects ahead

Be like a movie studio. Have one greenlighted project going (your WIP) and have two or three “in development” and two or three “optioned.”

In development means you’re doing some planning, some notes, some character backstory, some plotting. If you’re a pure pantser, at least take some random notes about the plot and keep them in a file or notebook. If you’re wise, you’ll develop your idea into an elevator pitch that would make a reader lust after your book. That’s right, lust. See my post on that topic.

By optioned I mean having a simple What if premise that seems promising to you. I have a file with about 100 of these, and periodically I look them over and re-prioritize them. If one keeps sticking to the top of the heap, that’s the one I will move into development.

5. Don’t ever let rejection stop you

Not everything you write is going to turn out great. If you’re submitting to agents and editors, you’ll get the cold shoulder often. If you’re self-publishing, you’ll get the 1-star reviews. You may even give your first draft to your significant other and then endure a blank-eyed stare and the words, “I love you, but I just don’t get this.”

Know that this will happen.

But don’t ever let it stop you from producing more words.De Niro pillow

When a rejection hurts—and it will—try my sixty-minute-comeback.

Take thirty minutes to completely feel what you’re feeling––shout, talk to yourself, cry if you must, splash water on your face, eat a large bowl of ice cream, or shoot a pillow like Robert De Niro in Analyze This. Whatever it is, let yourself feel the feelings for thirty minutes.

Set a timer for this.

When the timer beeps, set it for another thirty minutes. During this second thirty minutes, you write. I mean it. Write! Write anything.

• Write the next scene of your WIP.
• Write in your journal.
• Write a song.
• Write something random.
• Write a letter to your future self explaining what just happened.
• Start an entirely new story or novel, not knowing what it will be (IOW, be a thirty-minute pantser!)

Whatever it is, give yourself fully to it. Write. Don’t stop, except to take a few breaths or refill the coffee.

After this writing stint, something interesting will happen. The rejection will still hurt, but it won’t be as bad. I guarantee you it won’t.

And tomorrow, if it tries to come back in full force, head it off with more writing. Five, ten, thirty minutes.

Writing, you see, is the best medicine.


The most wonderful thing of all is this. A year from now you’ll look back at your production and be amazed at what’s there. Do this for ten years and you’ll be blown away.

You will be a prolific writer.

So how about you? Are you happy with your output? How have you gotten around the obstacles to continuous production?


In the Produce Aisle


Stories can be found everywhere. You don’t have to look for them; they come to you. Richard Matheson wrote the immortal short story “Duel” after a highway encounter — what we would now call “road rage” — with the driver of a tractor-trailer. I read another great short story, decades ago (and I wish I could remember the author) about a guy who brought his Sunday paper in from the front porch and there was a gawdawful bug on the inside of the newspaper bag which tried its best to kill him and almost succeeded. The author in his Afterward noted that the story was born as the result of a spider catching a ride into his house in the manner presented in the story. And so it goes.

I got the spark — and I mean the SPARK — yesterday in the produce aisle of a local supermarket. I was looking over the carrots and such when I heard a male voice, coming from close behind me, saying, “Hey, old man.” I ignored it —I mean, surely the guy could not be talking to me — yet the person persisted. “You,” he said, using a low voice. “With the concealed carry.” As it happens, I do have a concealed carry permit, and at the time had in my possession a .38 in a pocket holster. It’s very unobtrusive, so that it is not easy to tell when or if I’m carrying, unless someone is specifically looking for it. I turned around to find a stranger of about my height and age, wearing sunglasses and a gimme cap, smiling somewhat strangely at me. “You a fast draw?” he asked. I just shook my head and asked, “What do you mean?” He answered, while moving a step closer to me. “You got a gun. Think you can outdraw me?”

I was thinking at that point that I was dealing with someone who was very foolish at best or mentally unbalanced at worst. My primary concern, however, was that the store was busy. The produce department in this particular store is located close to the entrance and exit doors and everyone  from retirees in golf shirts to moms in yoga pants were making cross patterns near us. I needed to move this encounter elsewhere, and quickly. I said to him, keeping my voice level, “This isn’t a conversation we should be having in here. Let’s go outside and talk about it.” My plan was to wait until we got into the store vestibule or just out to the parking lot where I planned to suddenly trip him, immobilize him, and have someone call 911.

This all changed when the stranger, instead of answering me, smiled, took off his sunglasses and cap, and said, “Hi, Joe.” The stranger turned out to be  a friend of mine, someone I have known for decades and with whom I speak frequently but rarely see. He is retired from a very elite government agency where he was renowned for being able to substantially change his appearance with just a hat or glasses a talent which he demonstrably still possessed (and yes, the passage of time helped him, too). He was pranking me. Some might regard what he did to be foolish, but he knew exactly how I would react, or intended to react — much of what I have learned about such matters, I’ve learned from him — and thus inferred that I would not take action beyond that which would reasonably be called for at any particular point in the situation. As for myself, it took a few minutes to get my heart rate back to normal, as I went through the stuttering motions of keeping up a conversation  and then completing my shopping. In addition to carrots, I suddenly needed to buy some bleach.

After I arrived home and got the groceries unpacked (note to the gentlemen out there: no husband was ever murdered by his wife while he was unpacking the groceries, no matter how egregious his sins) and started some laundry I realized that I had the opening hook of a domestic thriller which I’ve been toying with for months handed to me. Actually, I had several different beginnings handed to me. All of them involve a supermarket, a shopper seeming minding their own business, and an unexpected intervention which sets the plot for the rest of the book careening into a number of individuals’ lives like a bee bee in a box car.

So, tell us, please: have you been pranked recently (after all, it is the Halloween season)? Did it have a short or long-term effect on you? And does it have a potential as the springboard — a spark — for a story? If the answer to any of those questions is a yes, please share if you wish, but hold close if you must.



READER FRIDAY: Tell Us About Your Writing Rituals

Flickr: IMG_4240.jpg By Sebastian Wallroth per Wikipedia

Flickr: IMG_4240.jpg By Sebastian Wallroth per Wikipedia

Hemingway wrote standing up. Capote called himself a “horizontal author” preferring his bed or couch to write. Victor Hugo (Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) wrote in the nude. He had servants hide his clothes to insure he wouldn’t leave his residence.

What about you? Do you have any MUST DO rituals when you start your writing day or when you start or end a book?

CAUTION: If you are a Victor Hugo admirer, DO NOT post photos.)


Want a book review? Try these tips

Jordan Dane

The Oklahoman newspaper

The Oklahoman newspaper

It’s my pleasure to introduce someone I’ve known for a long time, an Okie friend. I first knew Ken Raymond of The Oklahoman newspaper as a crime beat and features reporter. He is a talented author as well. After he graced me with a glimpse of his work, I’ve been trying to coerce him to write a novel ever since and hope he does one day. Very talented guy. Now he’s the book review editor at the paper, a man of many hats. Please chat Ken up, TKZers.

P S – I will be traveling and in remote spots this week. I may not have access to the internet, but I will try to check in on post day.

Ken Raymond’s Post:

Last year I interviewed David Sedaris, the humorist renowned for essays such as “Santaland Diaries,” a hilarious chronicle of his days working as an elf at Macy’s one holiday season.

We didn’t have much in common, aside from our mutual appreciation of his work, but we both love books … and we share a similar problem.

Whenever Sedaris makes a public appearance, would-be authors thrust their manuscripts at him. He’s not sure why, but he thinks they hope he will read all the books, pass them on to his editors and launch the writers’ book careers.That never happens. Sometimes he says no to the manuscripts; other times he takes them out of a sense of politeness and civility.

Even if he wanted, he could never find time to read them all.

I’m not famous. I don’t make many public appearances, and when I do, they’re usually at writing conferences or classrooms. But I do get buried in books, most of them unsolicited. Dozens pile up outside my front door each week, and more still find their way to what used to be my office.

Who am I? I’m just the book editor for The Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City. Book editor sounds important, but really I’m just one guy who reads and reviews books and tries to convince other people to do the same. My staff, such as it is, consists of volunteer newsroom staffers and a handful of stringers, whose only recompense is a byline and a free book. I interview authors, write about industry trends and work hard to deliver the best possible product, but I’m also a columnist and senior feature writer. There are only so many hours in the day.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my job. I’m among the fortunate few in this world who are paid to read books. The problem is that there are just so many of them, good and bad, in all genres and styles.

Given all that competition, how can you make your book stand out — to me and to the countless other reviewers out there?

There’s no guarantee of success, but these tips may help:

Be honest.

For some reason, no one wants to come across as a beginner in the writing business. I guess everyone assumes that if they’re not all polished and shiny, they won’t stand out.

Me, I’m sick of flashy. I get hundreds of emails a week from authors or publicists, and sometimes from authors pretending to be publicists. The messages are so flashy they look like old Geocities websites, with weasel words thrown in to make it seem as if the books they’re pitching are the biggest thing to hit literature since the Gutenberg Bible. Read them closely, though, and they’re largely unappealing campaigns of self-aggrandizement.

I prefer a simpler approach: the truth. Don’t try to impress me; your book should do that. Your emails should tell me who you are, what you’ve written and why you think it stands out. Talk to me like we’re eating lunch together, and I’ll listen.

I’ll also tell you what I tell everyone these days. I can never promise coverage, but I’ll give you the same chance at a review that every other author gets, including the famous ones. I’ll look at your book, and if it’s not for me, then I’ll offer it up to my review team. If anyone picks it and thinks it’s pretty good, I’ll run a review. If they don’t like it, I probably won’t run a review.

Follow up.

If you apply for a job, odds are you won’t sit by the phone for two weeks, hoping it’ll ring. Instead, you’ll follow up a few days after the interview, letting the company know you’re interested and making sure you’re remembered. You may follow up again a week later.

The same goes for book promotion. Often someone will pitch a book to me, and I’ll ask for a review copy. By the time the book arrives in the mail, I may not remember it at all; I’ve dealt with a bunch of other books in the interval.

A simple follow-up email reminds me that we communicated about the book. It tells me that I was interested enough to request it. It’ll make me take a closer look.

Don’t take it personally.

Nothing turns me against a book more than an argumentative author. Earlier this year, a guy blitzed me with phone calls and emails, demanding that I review his minor book about his favorite subject: himself.

Somehow he had browbeaten other news organizations into writing reviews, none of which were particularly flattering. When his berserk behavior persisted, I told him I wasn’t interested in interviewing him or reading his book. He promptly called my boss eight times in a two-hour period and drowned him in email.

He seemed shocked, absolutely shocked, that he couldn’t force his way into the paper.

I don’t want to be a puppet. Most people don’t seek out needless confrontation. If we all act professionally, we should get along fine, even if I can’t get to your book or publish a review. I bear you no ill will; without you, I couldn’t do my job.

Play the odds.

Major publishers release fewer books during the cold weather months. The spring, summer and fall are all pretty hectic, so those winter months are your best opportunity to contact me. You simply won’t have as much competition.

At the same time, I scramble for content around that time of year. I suspect others in my position do, too. I start pushing gift books on Black Friday and continue every week until Christmas. Even if your book came out much earlier in the year, I may use it in one of my gift guides. I generally offer a range of books in different genres.

But winter isn’t your only window. Whenever possible, people like me prefer to publish reviews proximate in time to book release dates. If I could, I would limit most of my reviews to books that are about to come out in a couple days.

In order for that to happen, I need your book about a month in advance. Some critics prefer digital copies; I like physical books, even if they’re uncorrected page proofs.

Because I am in Oklahoma, I take special interest in books with some sort of Oklahoma ties. If you live here, went to college here, set your book here, whatever, that’ll up your odds of getting reviewed. The same applies to other regional newspapers. If you’re in Alaska, pitch your book hard to Alaskan publications.

Set up book signings, too. You probably won’t get rich at a book signing, since stores take part of the haul, but I always mention local book signings in print. Many other papers do the same. It may not be as good as a full review, but at least it gets your name out there.

Best of luck, and please contact me about your upcoming books. The best way to reach me is via email at Follow me on Twitter at @kosar1969.

Discussion: Any questions for a book review editor, TKZers? You ever wonder what a crime beat reporter sees on the job? Or maybe you want to know what was the strangest features article Ken ever wrote? Ask away!

Ken Raymond - Book Editor & writer for The Oklahoman newspaper

Ken Raymond – Book Editor & writer for The Oklahoman newspaper

Ken Raymond is the book editor and a senior writer at The Oklahoman. He publishes a monthly column called “Purely Subjective.” A Fulbright scholar and Pennsylvania native, he covered crime for much of his career, bringing dramatic stories to life through literary nonfiction. He has won numerous national, regional and state awards. Three times he has been named Oklahoma’s best writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. He lives in Edmond with his wife, three Italian greyhounds and a Chihuahua.


How long does it it really take?

I’ve been poring over my calendar this week, trying to assess what is realistic for me to achieve for the rest of this year (so far it’s gone WAY too fast!) – I’m half way through one WIP and have just the first few initial chapters and a draft proposal for another – so I’m trying to decide whether I can complete one or both of these projects and keep my sanity (that last bit is optional!).

Going through this process has made me realize just how little I keep track of the time it takes me to actually complete a novel – from initial research and drafts to the final version that is ready to be sent out on submission. My first book  probably took about a year and a half, the second a year…the third about the same (although it took much longer before it saw the light of day). One project, however, took almost two years to complete with a great deal of interaction and revision on the question of mythology and backstory with my agent and beta readers. However, beyond this, I can’t say I really know in quantitative terms how much time it takes me to finish a novel.

One of my author friends records her writing time in hour and minute increments so she can quantify just how much time it takes to finish her novels. I’m (sadly) nowhere near as organized and so my estimates are based on little more than cumulative time taken rather than hours actually spent (and let’s face it some days are way more productive than others!).

I know that when under pressure or deadline I can write efficiently and effectively (fear and panic are great motivators )- otherwise, I  find (at least at the beginning of a project) a great deal of dithering and second guessing especially over whether I’ve chosen the right book to pursue next (though don’t we always doubt this when we start a project?!). This year, in particular, has involved a lot of uncertainty and second guessing but now (I think) I’ve selected the projects to be finished. The question is, can I do it? Which led me to wonder, how long does it actually take most people to complete a novel? (I guess I’ve only just realized how few people I’ve asked this question).

So this means over to you TKZers…How long on average does it take you to go from the start (rough and horrid) to the end (polished and ready for publication)? Do you keep track of your writing time so you actually know how many hours it takes? And if so, do you then know how this time is divided into drafting that first draft, versus research or revisions and editing?  For someone like me, who has frankly never even considered using a time sheet or evaluating how I spend (or don’t spend) my writing time, do you recommend using any time management tools that enable you to (realistically) answer the question – just how long does it really take you to complete a novel?



READER FRIDAY: Write Like Sybil

Camille and Kennerly Kitt, also known as The Harp Twins (Free image Wikipedia Commons)

Camille and Kennerly Kitt, also known as The Harp Twins (Free image Wikipedia Commons)

Have you ever tried working on more than one WIP (Work in Progress) manuscript at a time? If so, what benefits did you notice? Did you double up on your word count or write half-speed on each?

(This question doesn’t apply to editing a completed draft while starting something new.)


A Secret Formula for Creating a Short Synopsis

I came across this post recently and found it exceptional advice for all those struggling to construct a synopsis. So I contacted the author, Mike Wells, and invited him to guest blog today and share his insight into what some writers feel is one of the hardest tasks an author must address. Join me in welcoming Mike. Read on, learn and enjoy. Joe Moore


If you’re like most authors, summarizing your book in a couple of sentences is a daunting task.  However, if you’re going to sell your book, it’s simply something you have to do. If you choose to go the traditional route, agents and editors alike are bombarded wells3with so many queries that if they find themselves having to do much mental work to understand the gist of your book, they will simply pass on to the next one. The same goes for self-publishing–all the retailers and distributors require short descriptions of your book. For example, Smashwords requires a description that can be no more than 400 characters, including spaces!  That’s short, folks!

To help you do this, I want to share a formula I learned a long time ago, one that was created in Hollywood. I can tell you from my dealings with the people in the movie industry that when it comes to stories and story structure, they really know their stuff.

Each and every story is composed of the same five basic elements. If you can identify them in their purest, simplest forms, you will be well on your way to writing a good two-sentence synopsis of your book, regardless of its length or complexity.

The five elements are: a (1) hero who finds himself stuck in a (2) situation from which he wants to free himself by achieving a (3) goal. However, there is a (4) villain who wants to stop him from this, and if he’s successful, will cause the hero to experience a (5) disaster.

Actually, what I’ve just written above IS the two sentence synopsis which will work for any story, no matter how complex the plot or characters may seem.

Before I go further, I want to stop for a moment and address the “Is this a formula?” question that will undoubtedly come up in many writers’ minds. Anyone with any experience in writing (or painting or composing music, etc.) knows that formulas do not work when creating a new piece of art, that the most you can hope for is a cookie-cutter type result that will be mediocre, at best.

However, what we are doing here is summarizing a piece of art that has already been created. Because we know that each and every story must contain these five elements, if we can step back from our own story and identify them, it makes the job of summarizing the story much easier.

The only thing formulaic about this approach is the order in which the information is presented, and the structure of the sentences. You can change this around later and make the synopsis appear as original and unique as you desire.

So, back to the method. Another way to write this compressed synopsis is to move the goal into the second sentence into the form of a question, as follows:

Hero finds herself stuck in situation from which she wants to free herself. Can she achieve goal, or will villain stop her and cause her to experience disaster?

All you have to do is identify the elements and plug them in to create the most basic two sentence synopsis for your own story. By the way, you don’t have to put the second sentence in the form of a question–you could write, She must achieve goal, or villain will stop her and cause her to experience disaster. I posed it as a question only because it emphasizes the main narrative question in the story–discovering the answer to that sticky issue is what keeps readers turning the pages until (hopefully) they reach the very end of your book.

The best way to demonstrate the process of creating a two-sentence synopsis is with a real example. As virtually everyone knows the story of The Wizard of Oz, let’s use that.  The five elements are:

HERO Dorothy, a Kansas farm girl

SITUATION Finds herself transported to faraway land called Oz.

GOAL To find her way back to Kansas

VILLAIN The witch

DISASTER To be stuck in Oz forever

Plugging the elements into the two-sentence structure, we have:

Dorothy, a farm girl, finds herself transported to a faraway land called Oz. Will the witch kill her before she can find her way back to Kansas?

Now, before you begin to think that this sounds too simplistic for your story, or if you don’t believe your book contains one on more of these elements, or that they seem too melodramatic, etc.–you’re wrong. Your story has all five elements, or it would not be a story.

Your story must have a hero, even if that hero happens to be a cat. And your hero must be stuck in an untenable situation and develop a goal to escape that situation, or you have nothing but a character study, not a story. The untenable situation could be something as mundane as boredom or as abstract as a blocked unconscious need to act out rebelliousness. But that untenable situation is there, and the hero must have a goal to escape it. Furthermore, if there is nothing to stop the hero from achieving her goal (i.e., a villain), then you have no conflict. No conflict, no story.

Granted, some of your story elements may require some thought to identify. For example, your villain might be society as a whole, Mother Nature, or even your hero’s self-doubt.  Similarly, your disaster could be little more than your hero having to live with an unbearable self-concept or overwhelming guilt. It’s also important to remember that the “disaster” is  seen through the eyes of the hero. This is usually the worst possible scenario he or she can envision at the beginning of the story, but may in fact be the just outcome, or the outcome that does the hero the most good in the long run.

Back to The Wizard of Oz. While the two sentence synopsis we wrote is accurate, it is also painfully dull. This because we started with the five story elements distilled into their absolute minimal forms (done intentionally by me for the purpose of this exercise). To jazz it up, let’s go through the list and expand each element:

HERO – Dorothy isn’t just a farm girl, she’s a lonely, wistful farm girl

SITUATION – Dorothy isn’t merely transported to Oz, but is whisked away by a tornado and dropped there. Also, Oz is far more than a faraway land, it’s a magical but frightening place, full of strange characters, little people call Munchkins and witches, both “good” and “bad.”

GOAL – Dorothy’s main goal is to get back to Kansas, but she soon learns that only the  great and powerful Wizard of Oz can help her do that, and he lives in Emerald City, a long and dangerous journey from her starting point (You’ll note that in any story, the hero’s main goal breaks down into a series of sub-goals).

VILLAIN – The witch is more than “just a witch”–she is the Wicked Witch of the West.

DISASTER – Dorothy’s possible fate is actually worse than being stuck in Oz forever–the Wicked Witch of the West is determined to kill her.

So, let’s plug these expanded elements into the original formula.

Dorothy, a lonely, wistful farm girl, is whisked away by a tornado and dropped into in a faraway land called Oz,  a magical but frightening place, filled with strange and wonderful characters–little people called Munchkins, and witches that are both good and bad. Can Dorothy make the long and dangerous journey to Emerald City to see the Wizard, the only one who can help her return to Kansas, or will the Wicked Witch of the West kill her first?

Note that we still have exactly the same structure as before which does make the synopsis read a bit clumsily. But you have to admit it’s a lot more colorful and engaging.  For better reading flow, the first sentence can be rearranged as follows:

When a tornado strikes her home in Kansas, a lonely, wistful farm girl named Dorothy finds herself transported to a faraway land called Oz, a magical but frightening place, filled with strange and wonderful characters–little people called Munchkins, and witches that are both good and bad. Can Dorothy make the long and dangerous journey to Emerald City to see the Wizard, the only one who can help her return to Kansas, or will the Wicked Witch of the West kill her first?

Once you have this much, you can keep expanding, rearranging, and enriching the synopsis to make it as long and original-sounding as you like. You can pull in more information–for example, that Dorothy’s house fell on the Wicked Witch of the East (which sets up the motivation of why the Wicked which of the West loathes Dorothy, as the two witches were sisters), and you can break the main goal down into sub-goals (for example, that Dorothy is only told that she must “follow the Yellow Brick Road” to reach Emerald City, and that once she does manage to see the Wizard, he tells her she must bring him the Wicked Witch’s broom in order to prove her worthiness, and so on)

In my query letters, I always include a two sentence synopsis similar to that above in terms of detail, then usually expand on it in another paragraph and introduce more subtle elements. In this second paragraph, I always try to point out the villain’s motivation to stop the hero (as above) and also the most important character conflict. Although I did not do this above for The Wizard of Oz, the most important character conflict in that story might be between Dorothy and the wizard–after she does manage to return with the witch’s broom, he gives her the runaround, and she must find the courage within herself to stand up to him and demand that he deliver on his promise.

The two-sentence synopsis method takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, you will find the task of writing synopses–of any length–much easier. In fact, now I often write this type of two-sentence synopsis as soon as my story idea has jelled, because the “top down” approach helps me stay focused as I begin the actual process of putting it into words.

One word of caution: if you are having trouble generating interest in your book, resist the urge to “reposition” the story to make it more appealing to agents who represent other genres. For example, if you had written The Wizard of Oz and could not get any fantasy genre agents to read it, you could compose the following short synopsis to make it into an edgy thriller:

Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets, then teams up with three total strangers to kill again.

I’m joking, of course, but you get the idea. Such repositioning misleads agents and wastes their time.

To see the two-sentence synopsis method applied to ten different well-known stories from literature and film, go to Story Synopsis Quiz. All ten of these synopses are written in exactly the same form as I have outlined here. To practice, you might try writing up a few from your favorite books, plays and films.


With 30 years experience as an author. I strive to create the most engaging, entertaining, well-written novels that I can. My goal is to take you to places you have never been, and to keep you anxiously turning the pages, always asking for more. I hope you enjoy my books! Be sure to visit my blog at