Want to Talk to a Kill Zone Author?

Photo credit: Chris Montgomery – unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Have you ever wanted to chat with the Crime Dogs at The Kill Zone?

Now, your book club, reading or writing group can meet with TKZ authors via Zoom, Facetime, Google Meeting, or Splash.

To give you hints what they might talk about at a virtual meeting, I posed two questions to each member.

Joe Hartlaub:

#1 – When you’re invited to speak, what do you plan to say?

I accept!

Actually, I would discuss the steps that a writer goes through after finishing their manuscript and before being published. 

 

 

#2 – What would you like listeners to learn from you?

That they probably should have asked someone else! Seriously, I would hope they would come away encouraged, rather than discouraged. While the process of publishing seems overwhelming, people still do it. 

(BTW, we’ve asked Joe to leave his big knife at home when he zooms.)

~~~

Sue Coletta:

Most readers ask about the story behind the story, my characters or subjects (if nonfiction), research, and male vs. female serial killers. I also touch on forensic science (i.e. blood spatter analysis, decomposition, handwriting analysis, forensic psychology, the difference between a psychopath, sociopath, spree killer, etc. The seven stages of serial killing is a big hit, as it allows readers to peek into a killer’s mind. The psychology behind these monsters is a fascinating topic.

For writers: how to create believable characters, show vs. tell, understanding deep point of view, story structure, how to use research without slowing the pace. Also, my experience working with publishers.

Most of all, I want attendees to have fun. Laughter is good for the soul.

~~~

John Gilstrap:

I have several “canned” presentations that are fully described here, but I tailor every presentation to the individual audience. I’ve been doing this for over a quarter of a century, so I can discuss everything from character development to finding an agent to adapting stories for the screen. I’ve done full day seminars and I’ve done 20-minute chats.

I start every presentation by asking attendees what they want to take away from the seminar/meeting. In my experience, people who attend these kinds of presentations have one or two very specific itches that they’d like to have scratched, and my job is to scratch them.

~~~

Clare Langley-Hawthorne:

Most often my presentations start off with the history that inspired my stories and, depending on the audience, delve into my own personal connection to the events or characters in the book. Rarely do I go into the actual writing process but this is often a question I get asked so that’s when it comes up. I want listeners to come away inspired – either by history, reading, or to write their own stories.

~~~

James Scott Bell:

I speak on any of the 7 critical success factors of fiction: plot, structure, character, scenes, dialogue, voice, meaning.

Fiction writing can be learned, if one studies diligently and keeps practicing.

 

~~~

Terry Odell:

I’m flexible with what I’ll talk about. If it’s a writer’s group, I can talk about craft, including dialogue, point of view, voice, writing romantic suspense, or just the writing process. I can also share my experiences with small presses, digital presses, and independent publishing.

Book clubs are usually a whole different game, with them wanting to talk about specific books or series, or just general Q&A.

~~~


Garry Rodgers:

From my experience it’d be “talk about what you know.” Mine is crime, forensics, and death investigation and the worlds around them. My schtick would be about Joseph Wambaugh’s saying, “The best stories aren’t about how cops (and coroners) work on cases – it’s how the cases work on cops (and coroners).”

I see it from the reality human angle rather than the non-reality TV CSI stuff.

~~~

Steve Hooley:

My subject would be “Heritage, Writing, and Leaving a Legacy.” The discussion would center on the importance of passing on (in writing) to our descendants what we have learned from our ancestors – history, service, and values.

I would like to convince listeners that “passing the torch” is important, and maybe inspire some young people to become interested in writing.

I added a category: Who is my desired audience? Middle Grade Schools, High Schools, Parochial Schools, Christian Schools, Home School Groups, Senior Citizen Groups, and Writers’ Groups.

~~~

Elaine Viets:

My talks are tailored for the audience. If you want to be entertained, I talk about my light-hearted Dead-End Job mysteries. If the audience likes darker mysteries, I discuss my Angela Richman, Death Investigator mysteries. Death investigators are like paralegals for the medical examiner. They are in charge of the body and work for the ME.

I’ve also taught workshops and seminars for Sisters in Crime, MWA, and the Florida Writers Academy and other groups. Topics include: “Forensics for Mystery Writers.” “How to Murder Your Darlings — editing for writers.” “Who’s Talking? What voice is best for your novel?” and “Mystery Writing for Beginners.” All workshops come with handouts.

I’d like all my audiences to come away entertained, and if they’re taking a workshop, to leave it energized and ready to write.

~~~

P.J. Parrish (Kris Montee): 

The need to learn your craft and have patience, especially if you self-publish. A book that’s put out in public before it’s professionally ready will fail.

Perseverance. I’ve run the full gamut of publishing with huge NY legacy publishers, paperback imprints, foreign publishers, and Amazon’s Thomas and Mercer. I changed genres from romance to mysteries, reinventing a stalled career. I regained backlist rights and self-published them, also self-published an original series. Lots of success (bestseller lists and awards) and plenty of failure, but you keep going! You have to have a hard shell, lots of drive, and you can’t let the suckers get you down!

Topics I like to talk about: The difference being showing and telling. Making your settings/locations come alive. Series vs standalones.

~~~

 

Debbie Burke:

For writing groups—how to edit your own writing, how to survive rejections and keep writing, traditional publication vs. self-publication, tapping the subconscious for stories, confessions of a pantser.

For book clubs—A peek inside the warped mind of a writer. Behind the scenes anecdotes. How does a nice girl like me write such nasty villains? What does an author do when characters won’t behave?

~~~

How do you set up a virtual meeting with a TKZ author? It’s easy!

At the top of the screen on the left side of the menu banner, click on “Request a TKZ Speaker.” Fill out the form and hit submit. We’ll be in touch.

 We look forward to “seeing” you for a virtual chat!

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Evolution of a Book Title and Cover

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

A good title and cover can make a book. A bad title and cover can break a book.

That’s a lot of pressure. No wonder authors struggle so hard to get it right.

If you’re with a traditional press, those decisions are usually made by the publisher.

But, if you’re an indie author, the task of both title and cover fall on YOU.

Are you cracking under the weight of those responsibilities? I know I am so I checked the TKZ Library for guidance.

Several TKZers have posts about revamping covers after getting their rights back from the original publisher. Please check out the excellent information shared by Jordan Dane, P.J. Parrish, and Laura Benedict.

TKZ emeritus Nancy J. Cohen explores how to use covers to establish a brand.

Jim Bell offers invaluable advice on choosing a title.

With my fourth book coming out this summer, right now I’m deep into working on title choice and cover creation. I want to share the steps I’ve taken, not because I’m an expert, but because they demonstrate the mysterious, murky process of creative evolution.

My first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, was traditionally published. They retained my title but nixed my cover idea. They offered several redesigns and, with my approval, decided on this:

I wasn’t in love with it but, hey, they paid me so they’re the boss.

Then, six months after publication, they shut down operations and I became an orphan.

I decided to go indie and published the second book, Stalking Midas, in August, 2019, and the third, Eyes in the Sky, in January, 2020.

 

 

Publishing those two books taught me a lot but there were more lessons to be learned while wrestling with the unruly gorilla that was book #4.

Here’s a quick story summary:

Investigator Tawny Lindholm’s plans for a romantic Florida vacation with attorney Tillman Rosenbaum vanish when they’re caught up in Hurricane Irma. Tillman’s beloved high school coach, Smoky Lido, disappears into the storm, along with a priceless baseball card. Is he dead or on the run from a shady sports memorabilia dealer with a murderous grudge? During a desperate search in snake-infested floodwaters, Tawny becomes the bargaining chip in a high-stakes gamble. The winner lives, the loser dies.

Here are the realizations and steps along the twisty paths I followed to find a title and cover:

#1: I can’t do it alone.

The author is too close to the story, too enmeshed with the subplots, relationships, and minute details. Objectivity and distance are close to impossible to achieve.

Fortunately, I’m surrounded by a smart, supportive community of writers. They provide that much-needed objectivity and distance.

First, I asked the gang for title ideas.

The working title was Lost in Irma, because the story is set in Florida during the 2017 hurricane that knocked out power to millions of people.

Lost in Irma was lame so I tried variations like Flight into Irma, Escape from Irma. Finally, a member of my critique group pointed out an obvious reason that “Irma” would never work for a thriller—it brings to mind the legendary humorist, Erma Bombeck. Well, duh, why didn’t I realize that? Because I lacked objectivity.

A title needs to convey the genre, main plot, subplots, and themes, all in a few select words. Pretty overwhelming, right? Let’s break the elements down, piece by piece, and see if any of them trigger ideas.

The genre is thriller. The main plot is the search for the missing man, Smoky. Subplots include difficulties caused by the hurricane, including power outages and cell phones that don’t work; gambling addiction; baseball; the troubled relationship between Tawny and Tillman; a teenager trying to teach her rambunctious pup how to be a search dog. The themes are friendship, loyalty and betrayal.

Now, how to combine them into a title?

Another critique buddy, an attorney, specializes in laser focus. She said: “Somehow you should convey there is a mystery to be solved and it happens in the middle of a hurricane.”

#2: Get out of the corner.

A five-day-long power outage underscored much of the story, resulting in these title ideas: The Long Darkness, Flight into Darkness, Time of Darkness.

Sometimes the mind gets stuck, fixated on a single idea, even if it’s a bad idea. I felt like a Roomba, trapped in a corner, bouncing off the same two walls, getting nowhere.

Another critique pal pointed out, while darkness is important to the story, it’s not relevant enough to include in the title.

She kicked my mental Roomba out of that corner and sent me in new directions.

More tries: Presumed Dead, Gamble in Paradise, No Escape. Still not there.

The McGuffin is a valuable stolen baseball card and another suggestion was to use the baseball motif: Foul Pitch, Curveball, Pinch Hitter. Still not there.

Another suggested using pivotal plot events, like the discovery of Smoky’s deserted, wrecked boat and the gruesome evidence the dog finds in the swamp. Those ideas didn’t yield good titles but merited consideration for cover art, described in #5 and #6 below.

#3: Many Brains are Better Than One.

Creativity feeds off imagination. The more imaginations at work, the more creativity thrives. It’s like shaking a bottle of carbonated beverage. Open that cap and watch what bubbles up.

My smart friends stimulated my imagination with their varied ideas. At last, a title bubbled up that says thriller and suggests the root of Smoky’s problems—gambling.

Dead Man’s Bluff

For now, I’m pleased with that unless something better comes along.

~~~

Finding the right cover image is every bit as hard as finding the right title.

Many authors hire a professional designer and that is often the wisest path. My experience with pros has been expensive and unsatisfying but that isn’t always the case. If I find an artist who’s the right match, great. For now, it’s DIY.

#4: The Author Can’t See the Obvious

 

I searched for images of Hurricane Irma. Here’s an early choice I sent to my critique group:

Several immediately shot back: “That looks like a breast with a nipple.” Just shows how blind an author can be, even when it’s right in front of her nose!

 

 

 

#5: Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment

 

There’s a lot of trial and error in this creative process. You need to learn what doesn’t work before you can recognize what does. Most experiments aren’t great.

Tried a color version here.

A bright, eye-catching picture but it did nothing to draw reader into the story. It was also too busy and hard to read.

 

 

 

Next, I searched for images with people or objects tied to important plot developments.

After Smoky disappears, Tawny and Tillman find his wrecked boat, indicating he might have drowned while trying to make a getaway by sea. This photo seemed promising.

 

#6: People are Happy to Help

A subplot involves a Lab pup in training to be a search dog. He eagerly plunges into the swamp to search for the missing Smoky. Although he finds crucial evidence, he also screws it up, adding more complications to the story.

The dog angle became another avenue to explore. A friend put out a call to Search and Rescue (SAR) colleagues for photos of a dog working in water. SAR responded with many great pictures. These good folks were happy to help out a complete stranger. They didn’t even want payment. If I used their photos, their only request was acknowledgement of the SAR group, the dog, and the handler.

Photo courtesy of Sean Carroll, Clackamas County Sheriff Search and Rescue, OR

 

Here are a few dog samples:

Photo courtesy of Steve Deutsch, Search One Rescue Team, Lewisville, TX

#7: Don’t Let Your Cover Mislead the Reader

I drafted several covers with dogs and sent them to the group. One woman made the astute observation that having a dog on the cover sent the message that it’s a dog story. She was dead on—while the subplot is important, it isn’t the main focus.

A cover shouldn’t mislead readers. If you raise their expectations for one type of book but it turns out to be another, they rightfully feel cheated.

Fortunately, that same woman sent a hurricane photo that caused bells to ring in my mind. More on that in a minute.

#8: Ask an Artist

Another writer pal is a gifted watercolor artist with an excellent eye. I sent her three samples. She patiently explained what worked and what didn’t and why.

 

 

The colorful wave and boat: “An image directly in the center of the frame is not as appealing as one off center; the imbalance creates a sense of movement or dynamics that a centered image does not.”

 

 

 

Photo courtesy of Kerrie Garges, Alpha K9 SAR, Bucks County, PA

 

 

She liked the offset title of the dog cover. However, the dog wasn’t a good choice as discussed in #7 above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The windswept beach: “A Left to Right orientation appeals to me better than the R to L orientation on the shore design.”

 

 

 

 

 

So, I flipped the photo to a mirror image of the original. Now the palm trees blew to the right. That required cropping a different area of the photo and rearranging the lettering. Yet, one subtle change of orientation made a big difference.

 

 

 

 

Then I remembered a different artist had made a similar suggestion about my third book, Eyes in the Sky. In the original photo, the cliff was to the left. She suggested flipping the image to put the cliff on the right to make it consistent with the design of the second book, Stalking Midas. Again, the objective outsider’s view looked past the author’s tunnel vision for a better solution.

Artists notice small details like photo orientation that authors may not. That might make the difference between a reader choosing your book or passing it by.

#9: Enlist a Focus Group

Once you have three or four polished contenders for cover finalists, it’s time to attract cold readers. How do you capture the interest of someone browsing in a bookstore (hope they reopen soon!) or scanning thumbnails of covers online?

Find a focus group. But how?

Seek out reading groups on social media. Become active and contribute to discussions in your genre. Then politely ask for their help. Post several sample covers and take a vote. Even better, connect the voting to a drawing for a free book when it’s published.

Locate avid readers among your friends, coworkers, neighbors, acquaintances from the gym, clubs, churches or temples, librarians, your kids’ teachers—anyone who loves to read.

Book clubs have been great supporters of my previous three books and are an ideal focus group. I sent emails to more than forty people with a brief plot summary and three sample covers–the boat, the dog, and the windswept beach–and asked them to vote for their favorite.

Votes came in overwhelmingly for the wind-swept palm trees on the beach—the same photo that had set off bells in my head. Their opinions confirmed my intuition that this hurricane photo captured the right mood and tone that accurately depicted the book.

An added benefit: the book club folks enjoyed being part of the creative process. “I love voting on the choices,” wrote one. Another said, “This is fun.” Several asked to be notified which cover won. I benefited from their valuable feedback and they’re eagerly anticipating the next book in the series. Win-win.

When people play a part in the mysterious, creative process of building a book, they become invested in the outcome.

Interested, engaged readers are treasures to an author.

#10: Embrace New Ideas. At this point, I’m satisfied the title and cover do a good job of conveying the genre, mood, and plot. But better ideas might still come along…maybe even from TKZers’ comments!

During the creative process, an author should remain open to suggestions, especially from readers. You don’t have to take them but always listen.

Control and autonomy are two major benefits of self-publishing. An indie author isn’t locked into anything until s/he hits the “Publish” button.

~~~

This sums up my process through the evolution of title and cover. When Dead Man’s Bluff is published this summer, readers will have the final vote.

The creative process is mysterious and highly individual. What I find helpful, you might find useless. There are no right or wrong ways, only ways that work for you.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you start the evolution as long as you start it.

Get ideas flowing, no matter where they come from. What starts as a trickle may turn into a torrent that carries you to your goal.

~~~

TKZers: What makes a book cover appeal to you?

Do you have a system for choosing titles and/or cover designs?

~~~

 

 

To read a sneak preview of Dead Man’s Bluff, visit this link.

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Successful Book Groups

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

When I lived in California I was a member of a book club that had been running for well over a decade. Now I’m in Colorado I’m seriously considering establishing one myself as I loved being exposed to books that I wouldn’t otherwise have read, and I enjoyed the discussion and sense of camaraderie that came with being with a group of like-minded book lovers.

The only thing is – I’m not sure I want to be responsible for actually setting up a book group. In California, the group had evolved and changed composition over time but the balance seemed to be just right. There were enough strong opinions to go around but no obnoxious personalities to derail the discussion. There was also enough food and drink available to help the ‘discussion’ flourish. The thing is, I’m not sure I can ever recreate this and, to be honest, I’m not sure I should even try.

Successful book groups seem to involve an almost serendipitous arrangement of personalities, opinions and characters. Get the balance right and it’s terrific – get the balance wrong and it’s a horrible endurance test for all concerned. I’ve had offers to join other book groups too – but again, I’m wary about joining. I’ve also been reading about the emergence of online book groups which sound pretty cool – only I think I’d miss the personal interaction (not to mention the accountability – much easier to lie online about having read a book!).

So – some input from TKZers is required. Specifically I’m wondering:

  • Are you a member of a great book group?
  • If so, what do you think makes it great? (or if you’ve been a member of a dysfunctional group – what was the main problem or issue?)
  • What do you think makes a successful book group? 
  • And finally…with all the social media/online options do you think the ‘in-person’ book group is becoming (sadly!) redundant?

I’m also interested in whether you tend to favor a single sex book group (the one I was in was all-women) or a mixed group and whether you think focusing on a specific genre is helpful (we could chose basically anything, which I think made it much more interesting as I had to read books I wouldn’t otherwise have read). All in all, it would be great to start up a new book group – but I know, after some ‘interesting’ experiences with writing group dynamics, just how carefully I need to tread… 

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Book Group Etiquette


My mother-in-law’s book group has kindly asked me to come visit next year which has prompted me to think about authors and book group etiquette. Thus far, I have been incredibly lucky that the book groups I have visited have loved my books (or at least pretended to!) so I have never faced that awkward moment of realization that someone found my books…er…’lacking’.

As a member of a book group myself I have, however, been known to initiate some pretty ‘lively’ (and negative) debates over the merits of a particular book. So what is the etiquette for author visits to book groups? How do participants and authors handle the fact that not everyone is going to like a book?

When I visit a book group I usually focus on the inspiration for my books and the writing process or writing life itself. Very rarely do I enter into a debate over the merits (or otherwise) of my writing. I wonder, however, have I just been lucky? Is the day of reckoning going to come when I have to face the hard questions? And how, assuming that day does come, should I react?

So here are some questions for authors and readers alike:
  • Have you ever had an author visit to a book group that ended badly?
  • How should book groups handle an author visit when not everyone likes the books (which, lets face it, is 99.9% of the time)?
Now obviously we all expect a modicum of decency and respect…but apart from that what should the etiquette be (for book groups and authors alike)?



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The Book Group Experience

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’ve had many terrific experiences speaking to book groups and, as a member of a book group, I’ve spent many hours debating and (let’s face it) dissecting other people’s novels. While my mother-in-law is visiting, she and I have been talking about the role of book groups and how difficult it is to please many book group attendees. In my mother-in-law’s group it’s rare that any book passes muster – and this got me thinking about the power of book groups and their evolving dynamics.
There’s no denying the power of book groups today – they are the fuel that can propel a literary book to bestsellerdom (think of books like The Kite Runner or The Memory Keeper’s Daughter). I think many publishers are eager to please the ‘book group’ demographic (women aged 35-65) because without the book group ‘word of mouth’ few literary books would probably achieve commercial success.

As an author I love speaking with book groups but there is always the fear that someone will hate the book or tear it to pieces in front of me. Before I was published I never thought twice about ripping into a book I felt was unworthy – now, I confess, my criticism of novels is more tempered (as I know just how bloody difficult it can be to write the darn things!). Still, I cannot help but be impressed by the influence book groups can wield – and I’ve been mulling over just how certain books end up being the perfect ‘book group’ read.

So here are my questions:
  1. Are you in a book group, and if so, how do you select the books you read? Are the bestseller lists influential or is it mainly word-of-mouth (in my groups it’s all word-of-mouth)
  2. How critical are you and other members of the group – are fewer and fewer books these days meeting your standards?
  3. Do you have authors visit – and if so, how do you deal with the thorny problem of members not liking the book? What do you like authors to cover or discuss with the group?
  4. How much notice do you take of the reading group guides publishers provide (either on-line or in the back of the book)?
  5. For all you authors out there – what have your experiences been like with book groups? (…any horror stories you’d like to share?)
  6. And – for God’s sake – tell me, are there any men in book groups these days????

Now I’d better get to reading my next book group read, and sharpening my claws for the inevitable discussion:) on our next read – Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier.
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