Writers Need to be Amphibious

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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

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

Aren’t you glad you stopped by?

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

Julius Caesar walks into a bar and orders a martinus.

The bartender says, “You mean a martini?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is within our power?

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

The page we’re working on.

The goals we set and the plans we make.

Concentrate on those things. Chill about the rest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s take it in 2018!

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

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Santa Visits A Critique Group

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

[http://www.utexas.edu/features/2010/12/06/christmas_america/ 'Santa's Portrait' byThomas Nast, published in Harper's Weekly, 1881]

Portrait of Santa Claus, by Thomas Nast, published in Harper’s Weekly, 1881

’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the room

Was a feeling of sadness, an aura of gloom.

The entire critique group was ready to freak,

For all had rejections within the past week.

An agent told Stacey her writing was boring,

Another said Allison’s book left him snoring.

From Simon & Schuster Melissa got NO.

And betas agreed Arthur’s pacing was slow.

“Try plumbing,” a black-hearted agent told Todd,

And Richard’s own mother said he was a fraud.

So all ’round that room in a condo suburban

Sat writers––some crying, some knocking back bourbon.

When out in the hall there arose such a clatter,

That Heather jumped up to see what was the matter.

She threw the door open and stuck out her head

And saw there a fat man with white beard, who said,

“Is this the critique group that I’ve heard bemoaning?

That keeps up incessant and ill-tempered groaning?

If so, let me in, and do not look so haughty.

You don’t want your name on the list that’s marked Naughty!”

He was dressed all in red and he carried a sack.

As he pushed through the door he went on the attack:

“What the heck’s going on here? Why are you dejected?

Because you got criticized, hosed and rejected?

Well join the club! And take heart, I implore you,

And learn from the writers who suffered before you.

Like London and Chandler and Faulkner and Hammett,

Saroyan and King––they were all told to cram it.

And Grisham and Roberts, Baldacci and Steel:

They all got rejected, they all missed a deal.

But did they give up? Did they stew in their juices?

Or quit on their projects with flimsy excuses?”

“But Santa,” said Todd, with his voice upward ranging,

“You don’t understand how the industry’s changing!

There’s not enough slots! Lists are all in remission!

There’s too many writers, too much competition!

And if we self-publish that’s no guarantee

That readers will find us, or money we’ll see.

The system’s against us, it’s set up for losing!

Is it any surprise that we’re sobbing and boozing?”

“Oh no,” Santa said. “Your reaction is fitting.

So toss out your laptops and take up some knitting!

Don’t stick to the work like a Twain or a Dickens.

Move out to the country and start raising chickens!

But if you’re true writers, you’ll stop all this griping.

You’ll tamp down the doubting and ramp up the typing.

You’ll write out of love, out of dreams and desires,

From passions and joys, emotional fires!

You’ll dive into worlds, you’ll hang out with heroes.

You’ll live your lives deeply, you won’t end up zeroes!

And though you may whimper when frustration grinds you

There will come a day when an email finds you.

And it will say, Hi there, I just love suspense,

And I found you on Kindle for ninety-nine cents.

I just had to tell you, the tension kept rising

And didn’t let up till the ending surprising!

You have added a fan, and just so you know,

If you keep writing books I’ll keep shelling out dough!

So all of you cease with the angst and the sorrow,

And when you awaken to Christmas tomorrow,

Give thanks you’re a writer, for larger you live!

Now I’ve got to go, I’ve got presents to give.”

And laying a finger aside of his nose

And giving a nod, through the air vent he rose!

Outside in the courtyard he jumped on a sleigh

With eight reindeer waiting to take him away.

At the window they watched him, the writers, all seven,

As Santa and sleigh made a beeline toward Heaven.

But they heard him exclaim, ’ere he drove out of sight,

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good write!”

***

Yes, good writing to you, and may this season be full of joy for you and yours. We at TKZ have greatly appreciated your support and comments over the past year. We now begin our annual two-week break. See you back here on January 2, 2017!

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Gifts for Writers

Nancy J. Cohen

What should you buy for the writer on your gift list? Here are some ideas that may appeal to all in no particular order. Some of the more interesting gifts I’ve received have come from my writer pals or my kids, like the jar labeled Writer’s Remedy that holds little squares with different words for inspiration, or the figure holding a hammer to his computer with a plaque that says #1 Author & Mom, or the coffee mug with my book title. One year, my husband gave me a glass-blown Disney castle to represent my dreams coming true. Be imaginative or be simple. Whatever you give will be appreciated.

movies

1. Books and DVDs on their Wish List.
2. Gift Cards to Amazon, BN, Starbucks, Office Depot, iTunes or their favorite shopping site.
3. Office Supplies: Sticky notes, highlighters, Sharpie pens, a good quality ballpoint pen, paper clips, pocket notebooks. You name it, we can use it.
4. Personalized notepads or sticky notes.
5. Cute desk accessories like Brighton pens or desk clocks or magnetic paper clip holders.
6. Scented candles to make the office smell good.
7. Body lotions, hand cream, scented soaps. These are always useful.
8. A gift certificate to a day spa. A manicure or massage can go a long way toward relaxation.
9. Flash Drive. We can use several of these to back up our files and to keep in different locations.
10. Portable charging device for electronics.
11. Food baskets, chocolates, and wine. You can never go wrong here.
12. Decorative coasters for their desktop.
13. Collectible paperweights.
14. Restaurant gift cards so they don’t have to cook.
15. Cute novelty items for writers. Look in all those catalogs you get in the mail.
16. DVD movies about writers. Years ago, I gave my critique group pals each a DVD of Her Alibi. Starring Tom Selleck, this movie is a hilarious romantic crime caper about a mystery writer. Or get one of the many take-offs on Jane Austen (Austenland, Lost in Austen, plus the works themselves), English period murder mysteries or Downton Abbey, the latest season of Castle, or anything else your loved one might appreciate. Remember how we all loved Romancing the Stone? The classics never go out of date.
17. Did I already mention chocolate?

What else would you add to this list?

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Tis the Season for Music

By Joe Moore

A few years back I posted a blog about listening to music while writing, particularly motion picture scores. It works for me, and judging by the comments at the time, many others like to use music when they write, too. Music is an amazingly powerful force in the world and can add to your memories of special times—there’s that tune from your first date, or the one you danced to as a newlywed on your wedding day. And so many countless other occasions.

One of the times of year I look forward to most is the Christmas season. And a big reason is, I love Christmas music. It must be playing throughout our house while we put up our decorations. And on Christmas day, it is nonstop in every room. There are so many great Holiday tunes to choose from; whether your tastes lean toward the traditional religious songs or the commercial pop hits, they all paint a warm and happy time of year.

My favorite has always been I’ll Be Home For Christmas, a poignant, emotional tune that never fails to bring back memories of Christmas past. It’s a short story with a surprise ending perfectly written for maximum impact.

From the Rock era, there are hundreds of great tunes, but few can get you smiling and moving like All I Want For Christmas Is You. And there’s no one that can belt it out better than the grand diva herself, Mariah Carey, who by the way also wrote the song. So take a short break from what you’re doing, sit back and let Ms. C entertain you. If you’re not smiling by the time it’s over, check your pulse for vital signs. http://youtu.be/RengWX0P5KA

Since TKZ will be on vacation from December 22 through January 4, let me take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you next year.

————————-

“Cotton Stone is a heroine for the ages.” – Douglas Preston, #1 New York Times bestselling author.

3D-collection1Perfect Holiday gift: THE COTTEN STONE OMNIBUS. The collection includes the complete bestselling series: THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY, THE LAST SECRET, THE HADES PROJECT and THE 731 LEGACY. All 4 thrillers for only $7.99. Download now for yourself or gift it to a friend!

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…and to all a good night…

I am sorry to see 2013 end. It wasn’t a wonderful year from beginning to end — what year is? — but the good things that happened outweighed the bad. The reason I’m sorry to see it go, however, is that like all of the other ones we’ve lived through we’ll never get it back, never have the opportunity to take a mulligan on it. Once that sand drops through the hourglass, you don’t get it back. We just keep moving through these years until they run out.

My age and station is such that I will not stress myself about things I cannot control. So far, I think that I have the holiday stress thing resolved. I am not always a fan of Jeff Bezos, but this year I bought every single Christmas present that I am giving anyone on Amazon. I didn’t stand in one line, not even to buy the fixings for Christmas dinner that I will be preparing for my ungrateful and unappreciative family (I did go to the store for that, but when I rolled my cart up to the registers, a new register lane opened and I was beckoned through like a contemporary Moses crossing the Red Sea).

I have been using the time I would have spent sitting in traffic (and needing a restroom. Soon.) or standing in line perusing the year-end Best Of lists. I love those lists. I always find at least a few books or CDs or what not that totally blew past me during the year. That for me is a Christmas present, the one I really want. And in a rare exhibition of chutzpah, it’s the present I am asking for from you! Please!

Actually, all I am asking for is your favorite novel, short story, and CD that was published or released in 2013. If you want to tell us why, please do, but don’t feel obligated. Of course, I’ll share:

Favorite novel— I had many that came close but when the dust settled and the smoke cleared it was NORWEGIAN BY NIGHT by Derek Miller. It involves Sheldon Horowitz, an elderly Jew in the throes of early stage dementia, who is transported from his comfortable New York environs to the alien frigidness of Norway by his well-meaning but somewhat clueless granddaughter and her affable husband. Things take off in a big way when Horowitz rescues a young boy from a murderous war criminal and takes off, with a number of disparate parties in hot pursuit. Funny in spots, tragic in others (and terrifying, if you are over sixty and suspect that your gene pool has Alzheimer swimming in it), this is the book that stayed with me all year.

Favorite short story— I didn’t read many short stories this year but of the ones I did — several of which were very good — I loved “Swingers Anonymous” by Jonathan Woods from the DALLAS NOIR collection edited by David Hale Smith. The premise is terrific: within minutes after a regularly scheduled swingers’ party ends, two people are dead and a third has a sudden and unexpected financial windfall. Top that. The story is so good, by the way, that I subsequently acquired and read Woods’ novel A DEATH IN MEXICO and his short story collection, BAD JUJU. Good juju, indeed.

Favorite CD — It was October before I heard a new music project that I could listen to all the way through. TALLY ALL THE THINGS THAT YOU BROKE by Parquet Courts is technically an EP — there are only five songs on it — but each and every one will make you fall in love with punk music all over again, even if you were never charmed with it to start. I listen to music for hours every day but I still hear all seven minutes of “He’s Seeing Paths” — an ode to bike messengers and running from the cops, among other things — playing in the background.

It’s your turn. Thank you in advance. And Merry Christmas!

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The Christmas gifts all writers need

By P.J. Parrish

See that picture at left? That is my dog Bailey. The antlers are photoshopped on but I dress her up in Santa outfits every year and she’s a good sport about looking silly. Dogs can teach us writers something this holiday season. We need to lighten up.

This epiphany came after yet another of my sleepless nights. I was worrying about a plot pothole in our novella-in-progress, and about not finishing it, and then what if nobody downloads it from Kindle Select…you get the idea, right?

As usual, I retreated to the sofa and the remote. Nothing on except “The Da Vinci Code.” I know, bad movie, but I hadn’t seen it so I figured it would at least put me to sleep. And then that creepy Albino monk starts screwing barbed-wire anklets to his legs and beating himself bloody with cat ‘o nine tails. And I started thinking about all the pain we writers inflict on ourselves. Self-doubt, exhausting promotion tours, crippling envy, three-books-a-year contracts, flop-sweat fear. Hell, we don’t need Kirkus. We’re killing ourselves.

So I have some Christmas presents for you.  They are the exact things you probably won’t give to yourself. But you need them. My gifts to you are…

1. Permission to write badly. I give this to myself every year because I am one of those perfectionist nuts who gets paralyzed trying to make every word sing. It has taken me a decade to understand that to get to the good stuff, you have to well, poop out a lot of crap.

2. The ability to know when you are brilliant. And you are. Even if it is just for one page, one paragraph, one sentence. You know when you’ve hit that sweet spot. You can feel it. Cherish it. You’re not going to do it every time, but you don’t need to. Brilliance, like diamonds, shines best when you think quality not quantity.

3. A friend to celebrate the good news. Even if it’s as small as you finished chapter two. Even if it’s as big as a six-figure book deal and Ridley Scott on your speed dial. Success is nothing without someone to share it.

4. An honest critic. You need that one true friend who can tell you when you have lost your way. Your mother loves you too much to tell you the truth about your book. Treasure the one who can look you in the eye and say, “this sucks, you can do better.”

5. The courage to question your agent or editor. Blind loyalty is dangerous. In politics, love…and publishing. A great agent or editor can be your biggest ally. But it is YOUR responsibility to steer your career.

6. A week off. Leave the laptop. The cell can go to hell. Find someplace to which you can truly retreat, where the world cannot intrude. I recommend St. Barts if you can afford it. But your backyard deck will do. Drink good wine. Read trash. Eat too much. Make love. Dance in the snow. Breathe in pink…breathe out blue.

7. The courage to talk to a writer “bigger” than you and know you have something to offer. The first time I found myself standing next to Lee Child I turned into the third verse of Janis Ian’s song “At Seventeen.” Years later, I still cringe but now I can talk to Lee without blathering. I just picture him naked.

8. A few extra bucks to attend a conference so you know you’re not alone. You need to get periodic infusions and if you approach cons right, you come away replenished and eager to work.

9. A walk in the woods to clear your head. You’ve got to quiet those shouting voices of doubt in your brain. This happens only in quietude. Or maybe during a drive on I-95 with “Bohemian Rapsody” blaring.

10. The clarity to recognize the seed of inspiration in the smallest things. You’re stuck. You’ve painted yourself into a corner with the plot. Take a step back and look for small things. Open your brain and all your senses. You never know where the answer will come from.

11. Time to appreciate your family for appreciating how hard you work. Your people are important. Tell them. Often.

12. Kindness to reach down to someone who admires you. No matter where you believe you are on the writer food chain, no matter how low you think you are, someone is looking up to you. Be nice to them. Karma, baby, karma…

13. Permission to spend some of that advance money or Kindle royalty check on yourself. Buy a great bottle of Meursault. Rent a red convertible. Get botox. Splurge on Celtic tickets. A friend of mine just got a new agent, signed a six-book contract with a new publisher — this after years of bad luck. She bought herself a diamond ring.

14. Courage to venture out of your comfort zone. This is a tough one because sometimes you can get wacked alongside the head for your trouble. But there is no growth without chances taken. You just have to believe you are right. Even when everyone else — and maybe even the sales — are telling you otherwise.

15. And lastly, I give you the gift of faith. Faith that someone will love your book enough to buy it. That you have another good story still inside you. That no matter how tangled your book might feel, you will find the way home. That you are….brilliant.

Peace, dear friends.

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‘Twas Two Weeks ‘fore Thanksgiving…

Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away, but potential Christmas gifts are appearing on the shelves already. The one that most immediately comes to mind is a library-bound, digest-sized book entitled JACK REACHER’S RULES, which provides handy suggestions should you decide so far off the grid that you have to have sunlight shipped in, or want to set a building on fire; it’s great stuff, and just in time for the holidays for that Lee Child fan on your list who thinks they have everything.  I have made a good dent in my shopping already; of course, I want nothing for myself. I believe that I have commented elsewhere that at my somewhat advanced age I am no longer interested in acquiring more possessions; rather, I seek new experiences. Alas, those that I have suggested to my spouse have been, shall we say, shot down. I will leave it to your imagination what they might be, and why they won’t happen.
So, I am asking you, since Christmas is coming…what, as far as books are concerned, are going to be looking to find under the tree in about five or six weeks or so? What do you want Santamazon to leave for you? It can be anything from the grandiose — an entire library in the basement — to the simple — a new writing journal — to something that is somewhere in between, like that slip-cased copy of MY PRETTY PONY by Stephen King that you could have picked up in a bookstore twenty-three years ago for a song and dance. What about a new tablet, the better to read DC e-comics on? Or what if Santa finishes that new novel you’ve been working on, the one that seems to be missing a hundred pages or so in the middle? What would you like?
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All I Want For Christmas . . .

By Joe Moore

Last week I posted a blog about listening to music while writing, particularly motion picture scores. It works for me, and judging by the comments, many others like to use music when they write, too. Music is an amazingly powerful force in the world and can add to your memories of special times—there’s that tune from your first date, or the one you danced to as a newlywed on your wedding day. And so many countless other occasions.

One of the times of year I look forward to most is the Christmas season. And a big reason is, I love Christmas music. It must be playing throughout our house while we put up our decorations. And on Christmas day, it is nonstop in every room. There are so many great Holiday tunes to choose from; whether your tastes lean toward the traditional religious songs or the commercial pop hits, they all paint a warm and happy time of year.

My favorite has always been I’ll Be Home For Christmas, a poignant, emotional tune that never fails to bring back memories of a Christmas past with (hopefully) fond memories. It’s a short story with a surprise ending perfectly written for maximum impact.

From the Rock era, there are hundreds of great tunes, but few can get you smiling and moving like All I Want For Christmas Is You. And there’s no one that can belt it out better than the grand diva herself, Mariah Carey. So take a short break from what you’re doing, sit back and let Ms. C entertain you. If you’re not smiling by the time it’s over, check your pulse for vital signs.

Since TKZ will be on vacation from December 21 through January 3, let me take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you next year.

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My Favorite Time of Year

By John Gilstrap
www.johngilstrap.com

It’s tradition in the Gilstrap house that Christmas decorations go up on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and come down on New Years Day. In the past 25 years, there have been no exceptions. And when I say decorations, I mean decorations. In my book, you can’t have enough lights or greenery or Santas or Nativity scenes. It’s never about impressing the neighbors, either; it’s about celebrating the season.

This is a time of year when I can get a little weepy—but in a good way. It’s a season of kindness and good deeds. As the decorations go up in DC, moods lighten palpably. People say hello and hold doors for others. More people wave with all their fingers instead of just one. For me, it’s the time of year when the impossible seems more plausible, where quiet moments bring more pleasure than usual.

I love the fact that the Christmas season celebrates ritual. The box in which we keep the treetop ornament of my youth is lined on the bottom with the New Years Day Atlantic City Press from 1964, the year my family moved into the first house I can remember as a child, and on the top with the New Years Day Washington Post from 1985, the first holiday my wife and I celebrated as spouses. The mantle ornament is one that my mother bought for us before she died. The tree ornaments include decorations made in childhood by my wife, my son and me. I still hang a stocking that was handmade by my grandmother, and still holds the silver dollars that Uncle Henny gave me when I was four or five years old.

Tree ornaments commemorate every trip our family has ever taken together, as well as other significant moments along the way. We all agree that some of the older ornaments are certifiably ugly, but they get places of honor as well.

Over the next four or five weeks, my son and I will watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, Home Alone, The Santa Clause and The Polar Express, because we love the movies, and because they each, in their own way, capture the essential heart of the season. It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story were dropped from the list a few years ago, but who knows? Maybe they’ll make a return.

As I write all of this down, it occurs to me that it all seems a bit regimented, and maybe it is, but I’ve always been a big believer in traditions, because within traditions there lies evidence of a family’s love for one another. If, one day, my son’s traditions include well-told stories about how over-the-top in love his old man was with all things Christmas, that can’t possibly be a bad thing.

I understand that the season brings dark feelings to some people, and I know that many of my artistic brethren look with cynicism on the commercialization of the Christmas season. To both groups I extend heartfelt condolences. Cynicism is only as deep as your next kind word, and as fragile as a charitable act for a stranger.

Truly, God bless us every one.

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