Don’t Be Satisfied With Competence

by James Scott Bell

In reviewing Uncommon Type, a short story collection by Tom Hanks, the critic concluded that, with one exception, Hanks’s stories “are forgettable, middle-of-the-road and touched by the special banality of mere competence.”

Ouch, man.

I like Tom Hanks. I’ve liked him ever since Bosom Buddies. I haven’t read his stories, so this is not a pile-on. And critics have been known to be wrong (ya think?)

But I was struck by that phrase, the special banality of mere competence. That’s because when I teach workshops, I usually lead off with this quote from a former acquisitions editor for a major house:

As my first boss used to warn us green editorial assistants two decades ago, the type of submission that’s the toughest to spot—and the most essential to avoid—is the one that is skillful, competent, literate, and ultimately forgettable.

Over my two decades of teaching the craft and reading manuscripts submitted at conferences, I’ve seen a rise in the tide of competent fiction. A big reason is, I think, the internet, with great teaching blogs like **blush** this one, and so many others. There are **blush** online courses and podcasts. And we still have the tried-and-true teaching avenues, like critique groups (in person and via email), books and Writer’s Digest, panels of writers at conferences, freelance editors, and so on.

All of which I love. I still get excited about diving into a good article on writing, or revisiting one of the many craft books in my collection.

So yeah, there is a lot of competent fiction out there.

But that’s not good enough.

Let me amend that. What’s “good enough” is highly subjective. But the ministers of content within the walls of the Forbidden City (that is, traditional publishing) are always looking for that “extra” thing. Much of the time they call it voice, and treat it the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously approached obscenity. He couldn’t define it, he said, “But I know it when I see it.”

Of course, now it’s possible for writers outside the walls to publish whatever they like. And competent fiction may bring some return.

But for a long-lasting career, I say make it your goal to go higher.


Create a self-study plan.

There are seven critical success factors of fiction: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice (or style) and meaning (or theme). You can, in conjunction with others (trusted beta readers, a good editor, a critique group) assess your strengths and weaknesses in each of these areas. Try giving yourself scores on a 1-10 scale.

Then start with your weakest factor and design a six-week self-study program. Get a couple of books on the subject. Write some practice scenes. Get feedback.

Then move on to the next factor.

Just think about it. If you were to improve each of these areas just by 10%, the overall effect on your writing will be enormous. And you can get there in less than a year.

Of course, as you’re studying the craft, keep writing your current project and developing your next, and the one after that.

Is this work? Um, yeah. Like any pursuit of excellence.

Is it also fun? Oh, yes. When you see and feel your improvement, there’s nothing quite like it.

It took me a good two years to get to competent. And no buyers. Then one day I had a literal epiphany reading a certain chapter in a certain book (it was Writing Novels That Sell by Jack Bickham). Sirens went off in my head. The next thing I wrote got me a Hollywood agent.

A few years later, I got a book contract (this was seven years after I began to seriously study the craft). When I got another contract with another house, I had the privilege of working with one of the best editors in the business. His feedback took me to another level. When I started working with my agent, Donald Maass, there was another hike.

Each of these stages was a beautiful thing.

I wish you that same beauty, writer friend. It’s worth all the effort.

I’ll leave you with a quote I’ve always liked, from an old-time ad man named Leo Burnett: “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”

Are you reaching?


Listening to Your Book

by James Scott Bell

You know how sometimes you get home from a social gathering and think of the perfect line you didn’t say?

It’s like that episode of Seinfeld where George is in a meeting and is gorging on the shrimp tray. Another guy says, “Hey George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” Everyone laughs at George, who has no comeback.

So he spends the whole episode trying to come up with the perfect rejoinder, and to set up another meeting with the same guy. The line George settles on is, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called. They’re running out of you.”

This line fails to impress Jerry, Elaine, or Kramer. But George insists that’s the one!

Near the end he has his meeting, and has brought the shrimp himself. He stuffs his face until his rival once again says, “Hey George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.”

With a smug smile, George stands and says, “Oh yeah? Well the jerk store called. They’re running out of you.”

But then his adversary immediately comes back at him: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time bestseller!” And once again, everyone laughs at George (which is really sort of the premise of the show, right?)

I thought about poor George the other day as I was considering how to take advantage of unbidden suggestions from our deep writer’s mind, as poised against “the best laid plans…” It’s a matter of three things, I think: awareness, craft and risk.

The best impromptu line I ever delivered came at one of the Men of Mystery gatherings. This is an annual event in SoCal which brings in fans of mysteries to listen to fifty authors pitch their books for one minute each—and then enjoy a nice lunch and a keynote.

This particular year the ballroom was packed.

As the microphone made its way down my row, the author two tables away spoke about his noir series and how it takes place in the “seamy underbelly of the city.”

The next author was a fine fellow named Mike Befeler, a senior citizen writer of what he calls “Geezer lit.” These are mysteries set in places like retirement homes. Mike made his amusing pitch.

Then the mic came to me. And I said, “Mike, I have one question. In your genre does seamy underbelly have a different connotation?”

The laughter was explosive. It’s probably my favorite moment as a public speaker. Everything just fell together. First, the conditions, of which I was acutely aware, because I was actually listening. Next, the craft of the English sentence, forming one for the best effect. Finally, taking a risk, for how many times have we heard a comedian tell a joke and get crickets in return?

Fortunately, it all worked out. It will in your writing, too, if you learn to listen to the book, respond to it with craft, and risk some writing time. Yes, it could turn out to actually be the wrong move. But sometimes you have to write to find out.

This applies whether you are a planner, a pantser or some sort of breed in between. When you’re into the actual writing, the book should start to take on life. It should whisper to you on occasion, and sometimes maybe make some demands.

It might be a character who talks back to you. I wrote a novel once with a fairly detailed outline. It was about a lawyer being stalked by an old enemy, putting both him and his wife in danger. I had planned to have the wife get out of town for awhile and stay with a relative.

But when I got to that scene, the wife refused to leave. I tried to get her out the door, but every move I attempted felt false. I finally had to accept the fact that the character was right.

Which meant, of course, adjusting my plans. As I recall, it took me a couple of hours to move around the pieces and account for the ripple effects. I made use of my novel journal. This is a free-form document where I “talk” to myself about the book. I usually do most of this in the pre-planning stages, getting to know the story and characters, setting down plot ideas and delving deeper into why I am drawn to this story.

But the novel journal is an extremely valuable tool during the writing itself. (For Scrivener users, the “Project Notes” pane is a great way to do it.)

Now, you pure pantsers are always doing a lot of listening. Your challenge is to know which voices to heed! Often you don’t find this out without a lot of wandering around in the woods, falling into bogs, retracing your steps and realizing that wasn’t such a good voice after all.

Plotters, on the other hand, often resist listening at all because their outline is a finely-honed edifice they are loathe to mess with.

In either case, the more craft you know, the better moves you will make. For example, if you’re aware of what needs to happen structurally, at the very least you’ll save yourself a lot of time and frustration. As I mentioned in a comment to Joe H. yesterday, it’s good to have a map of the signposts.

And then, finally, it comes down to risk. There should always be some risks in your writing, or you’re not pushing yourself far enough along. And you know what else? Taking risks is one of the great joys of writing, no matter how it turns out.

I experienced that just a few weeks ago. I was rolling along in the first act of my WIP. I had a map of my signpost scenes, and knew the “mirror moment.” Then suddenly, out of the blue, and I mean way out of the blue, one of my characters said something that was so shocking, so upside-down turning, that I literally sat back in my chair and stared at the screen.

I hadn’t planned it, I never anticipated it. This one line would completely change the trajectory of the novel. I had to think about it, and you know what I decided? It’s one of the best doggone twists I’ve ever come up with (or should I say my book came up with it and fed it to me?) So I’m keeping it, man. I went into my novel journal and started justifying the change and creating a whole new backstory.

In my humble writer’s opinion, it is much better than what I started out with—because I listened to the book, am trusting my craft, and am taking the risk.

And loving it.

You will, too … if you listen.

Do you ever hear your books talking to you? How often do your characters wander off your chosen path? How does your craft serve you in those times?


Yes, You Can Learn To Write Better Fiction

by James Scott Bell

I love having Brother John Gilstrap back on TKZ. He doesn’t pull punches. He’s the Conor McGregor of writing bloggers. Witness his post last week, Tell the Damn Story. It’s a straight right to the chops.

John and I have gone around on this topic in the past, and I’m inspired by John’s post to do it again today. But rather than get all Floyd Mayweather about it, I’d like to start by looking at where we agree.

There is a lot of good packed into the simple admonition to tell the damn story. To me the gist of this advice is: You are a storyteller, and that is your first and greatest function. So don’t get tied up in “rules” and analysis when you are writing. I even wrote a post on that subject called Avoiding Writing Paralysis Due to Over-Analysis.

John and I agree that when you’re sitting at your typer, with the story in your heart and head yearning to get out, let it out! Get it on the page!

Where John and I part ways is on what to do to make the story better, both before and after the typing.

John says he holds this truth “dear”— “that no one can teach a person to write.” I could pounce on that, but I believe the disagreement may come down to what John means by “to write.” A few lines later John says:

I do believe that instruction and workshopping can hone and develop talent, but it cannot create talent where there is none. Some people are not wired for storytelling.

Ah! Then “to write” for John is tied up in that thing called “talent.” There’s where we could spend more time, talking about what talent really is and how it might be coaxed … or coached.

Further, what John calls “honing and developing” I would simply call “teaching.” So if we parse our terms precisely, I believe John and I would agree that in some measure you can teach a writer things that will make their fiction better.

I also agree that there are some people who are not, as John puts it, “wired” for storytelling. But you know what? In my twenty years of teaching and reading countless manuscripts, I have run across very few who fit this description. The overwhelming majority of writers I’ve taught do have story sense, because how can you avoid it? We grow up reading and watching story after story. We press our reality through the gauze of beginning, middle and end. And most people who come to a workshop do know how to string coherent sentences together. Part of my job as a teacher is to help them stack those sentences in the most effective way.

Which is what the craft is all about.

John further stated in a comment:

A gifted musician is first and foremost gifted. Studying with a master maestro will help him to greatness. For most of us, though, our piano lessons will only help us become really good amateurs. Ditto athletic prowess. Beyond that innate talent, though, there needs to be the drive and desire to work one’s butt off. That work for us writer’s includes not classroom time, but lots and lots of alone time with our imaginary friends.

I liked this up to and excluding the last sentence. We do agree on this basic point: someone with talent can be made better at what they do through lessons. The boy George Gershwin had monster talent, but he needed lesson after lesson for that talent to shine through.

Still, you only get a Gershwin once in a lifetime. But there are countless superb piano players who make good money in bars and restaurants and hotels. They please a lot of people with their music.

It’s the same with writers. There are not many Hemingways or Chandlers, but there are (now) thousands of fiction writers making bank writing entertaining, well-structured, satisfying novels and stories.

Many of them have been my students.

John and I also agree that “working one’s butt off” is a non-negotiable for anyone to make it as a writer. But I am puzzled by his disdain for the classroom. What’s wrong with listening to an experienced writer sharing techniques that make fiction better, stronger, more compelling, and deeper? Why isn’t that something an ambitious writer ought to be anxious to seek out?

At the very least it might save that writer years of frustration and rejection.

Working with a good editor is another way fiction writing is taught. Now, really good fiction editors are rare and always have been. I had the good fortune to work with one of them, Dave Lambert at Zondervan. He was the reason I chose Zondervan over three other publishers back in the day. Dave was famous for his “Dave letters” — multi-page, single-spaced documents of pure insight and instruction. I was a pretty good writer before Dave. He kicked me up several notches. Without his instruction, and my working hard to incorporate that into my pages, I don’t believe I’d be where I am today.

So to me the big disagreement with John comes down to his statement: “The breakthroughs—the true light bulb moments—can only come via self-discovery while pasting butt to chair.”

That’s like saying to a hacker killing gophers on the golf course to just keep hacking, you’ll find your way eventually. Meanwhile, year after year, he continues to stink and give gray hairs to the groundskeepers.

I react this way because my experience is the opposite of John’s axiom. I did write and write, to no avail and no “breakthroughs.” Indeed, I was told several times that “writing can’t be taught.” So I gave it up. For ten long years.

When I finally felt I had to try again, I decided not to listen to the naysayers and started studying the fiction column in Writer’s Digest every month (penned by Lawrence Block, followed by Nancy Kress). I bought writing books and joined the Writer’s Digest Book Club. One of the featured titles, Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell, gave me the biggest epiphany I’ve ever had in my writing life. It was a huge breakthrough, and led directly to my stuff starting to gain interest, and eventually to sell.

When I wrote, I wrote. But I also valued my study time. And as I tested things on the page, I began to formulate my own theories and techniques and then teach them to others, many of whom have written to thank me for helping them along the fiction journey.

Where would I be if my desire to write had stalled again at the man-made wall with the graffito Writing can’t be taught? In the introduction to Plot & Structure, which keeps selling, I went so far as to call that “The Big Lie.” Because it is.

And now let’s get this deal about “rules” straight. Artists hate that word, because they want to be free! So fine! Don’t use that word!

But do think in terms of fundamentals and guidelines, the tools and techniques that work, that have stood the test of time, and will work for any writer. They are there not only to help you as you try to figure out what to write next, but to help you understand why something you’ve written doesn’t work, and how to fix it.

Perhaps this will ease the conscience of my blog brother: The most important thing a writer can do is produce the words, to write his own stuff, every day if possible. To a quota. That’s always the first and most important thing a writer does. It’s the first advice I always give anyone who asks me what they need to do to become a successful writer.

But I also say this: the writers who have the best chance to make it, to have a career or a good part-time income, will also study their craft with diligence and desire, and without a chip on the shoulder. I’ve seen it happen time after time after time.

Here is my Exhibit A, the highly successful novelist Sarah Pekkanen:

I needed advice before I tried to write a novel. The usual axiom — write what you know — wasn’t helpful. I spend my days driving my older children to school and changing my younger one’s diaper — not exactly best-seller material.

So I turned to experts. Three books gave me invaluable writing advice. One, by a best-selling writer; one, by a top New York agent; and one, by a guy who struggled for years to learn how to write a book and wanted to make it easier for the rest of us.

The books Sarah mentions are Stephen King’s On Writing, Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, and my own Plot & Structure. And she explains exactly what she learned from each.

That was back in 2009, just before her debut novel came out. You can check out Sarah’s career trajectory here.

So leave us not speak in extremes. Don’t give us a blanket “writing can’t be taught,” because that is demonstrably false.

On the other side, don’t speak about iron-clad rules. There are critique-group commandos who will take a tip or suggestion and turn it into a law. Like the now infamous Don’t start with the weather. The real guideline should be Don’t start with the weather unless you know how to use it to hook the reader! (For further elucidation on these , see my post on Baloney Advice Writers Should Ignore.)

That’s my case. Fiction writing can be taught .. and learned … and practiced .. and made profitable. I know because I’ve got a huge email file of testimonials to prove it … and I’ve lived it myself.

The boxing ring is now open. Discuss!


I would be remiss if I did not mention that the best of my workshops has been put into a complete video course on the craft. It’s called Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down.


Writers and Competition

by James Scott Bell

Fearsome Foursome

The Fearsome Foursome

Being an L.A. boy, I grew up rooting for the Los Angeles Rams.

Roman Gabriel, quarterback. The greatest defensive line in football history, the “Fearsome Foursome” – Lamar Lundy, Rosy Grier, Merlin Olson, Deacon Jones. Coach George Allen. Defensive end Jack Youngblood.

Jack Snow. Eric Dickerson. Hacksaw Reynolds. Fred Dryer.

Heck, even Joe Namath for three games before his knees gave out for good.

Yes, there was another pro team that showed up in L.A. And even though they had my man Marcus Allen, it was hard to adopt them. Although I did meet Al Davis once. He showed me his Super Bowl ring. It was as big as a Volkswagen.

But then, in 1995, the Rams skipped town and parked themselves in St. Louis.

I gradually lost my rooting interest in the team.

But now, now! The Rams are back home (yeah, I know, Cleveland fans, the Rams started out in your fair city. But cheer up. You have the Browns!)

And in the recently concluded NFL draft, the Rams made a bold move, trading away a whole bunch to get the #1 pick. They used it to snag, it is hoped, their franchise quarterback,––one Jared Goff of the University of California, Berkeley.

Now the question is, will Goff be the guy? Or will he be a bust? Or something in between? I’m pulling for him all the way, and initial reports on his leadership and work ethic are good.

But what caught my eye, and leads me to today’s post, is what one of his Cal teammates said about him.

Zach Kline is a senior at Cal, the quarterback who watched Goff from the bench. Here’s what he had to say about Goff but, more importantly, about himself:

“I knew as soon as we were competing … he was a great player. Like, look at him. He’s No. 1 for a reason. There are few guys that are ready to play their freshman year. … Competing with Jared is probably the most beneficial thing that’s ever happened to me in my career. He made me kind of assess my play and all that. Because I know I’m a good player, and to be able to compete with him, it helps you and encourages you. When you play with good guys, you raise your game.”

That makes me like Zach Kline (which I will continue to do except when Cal plays USC). Because Kline demonstrates the heart of a champion. You don’t look at your competition and fold; you let competition push you to get better.

Writers need to hear that. Because it’s quite easy for our ilk to fall into the pit of envy. You see someone from your critique group get a big contract. Or somebody you’ve met at a conference going indie and making crazy sales. You know you’re good, maybe you think you’re better than that person who just hit the jackpot. Envy may sneak up on you and grab the back of your brain. Ann Lamott talks about this in Bird by Bird:

If you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with [envy] because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you. You are going to feel awful beyond words. you are going to have a number of days in a row where you hate everyone and don’t believe in anything . . . If you do know the author whose turn it is, he or she will inevitably say that it will be your turn next, which is what the bride always says to you at each successive wedding, while you grow older and more decayed . . . It can wreak just the tiniest bit of havoc with your self-esteem to find that you are hoping for small bad things to happen to this friend—for, say, her head to blow up.

Don’t wish for heads to blow up. Up your own game instead.

The crucial thing is not to compare yourself to another writer, but to see what they do well and try to do the same with your own writing.

Elmore Leonard was a master of dialogue. You read his dialogue and you’re like a second-row cellist listening to Yo-Yo Ma. You give him is due. You nod in appreciation. Then you dig into your own technique and figure out how to improve it.

And how do you do that?

By self-study.

  1. Focus on the area you want to study, one of the seven critical success factors of fiction: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice and meaning.
  1. Select from your collection of writing books (What? You don’t have a collection of writing books, highlighted? Start collecting!) those that have chapters dealing with the area in question.
  1. Select from your favorite novels those that do well what you’re studying.
  1. Schedule concentrated study time for six weeks.
  1. Read and study, writing practice pages doing that thing. Many writers of old used to copy, word for word, examples they admired. It gets the technique into your head.
  1. Look at your WIP. Find places to improve, based on what you’ve learned.
  1. Measure your progress against your own standard. That’s your real competition – you.
  1. Go back to Step 1.

And that’s what a writer should do about competition.

What are you doing to up your game?

Oh, and one more thing: Go Rams!

Rams logo


Seven Questions You Must Answer Before Your Thriller Will Work

The playing field upon which writers wrestle their stories to the ground is defined by genre, confined by boundaries, littered with principles disguised as rules and complicated by waves of conventional wisdom colliding in workshop conference halls like peals of ominous literary thunder.

Established pros regard these questions as pillars of the novel, internalizing them to the extent they become second nature. They know that until those questions have compelling answers, the writing process isn’t over.

How one pursues these answers is up for grabs.

Answers to these questions may come prior to a first draft, or somewhere along the drafting process itself. Both are simply different paths toward the same destination, one that doesn’t care how you get there but will shred your story if you stamp the word “FINAL” onto the cover page before you do.

Here, then, are those seven questions in an introductory context. I’ll dive deeper into each in future Kill Zone posts.

1. What is conceptual about my story?

Every novel has a premise, for better or worse. But every premise does not necessarily have something conceptual within it. They are separate essences, and both are essential.

The goal is to infuse your premise with a conceptual notion, a proposition or setting that fuels the premise and its narrative with compelling energy.

The hallmark of a concept is this: even before you add a premise (i.e., a hero and a plot), something about the setup makes one say, “Wow, now that sounds like a story I’d like to read!”

2. Do I have an effective hook?

A good hook puts the concept into play early, posing a question so intriguing that the reader must stick around for an answer. It provides a glimpse of the darkness and urgency to come. It makes us feel, even before we’ve met a hero or comprehend the impending darkness in full.

3. Do you fully understand the catalytic news, unexpected event or course change that launches the hero down the path of his/her core story quest?

Despite how a story is set up, there is always an inevitable something that shows up after the setup that shifts the story into a higher, more focused pace. In three-act structure this is the transition between Act 1 (setup) and Act II (response/confrontation), also known as the First Plot Point, which launches the dramatic spine of the story.

Once that point in the story is reached there is no turning back, either for the hero or the reader.

In any genre it is easily argued that this is the most important moment in a story, appearing at roughly the 20th to 25th percentile mark within the narrative.

4. What are the stakes of your story?

Thrillers especially are almost entirely stakes-driven. If the hero succeeds then lives are saved and villains with dire agendas are thwarted. Good triumphs over evil and disaster. If the hero fails people die, countries crumble and evil wins.

The more dire the impending darkness, the higher the stakes.

5. What is your reader rooting for, rather than simply observing?

In any good novel the hero needs something to do – a goal – which can be expressed as an outcome (stop the villain, save the world) and a game plan (what must be done to get to that outcome).

A novel is always about the game plan, the hero’s journey.  The outcome of the quest is context for the journey.

Great thrillers invest the reader in the path toward that outcome by infusing each and every step along the way with stakes, threat, danger and obstacles the hero must overcome.

It is the degree of reader empathy and gripping intrigue at any given moment in the story that explains a bestseller versus an also-ran.

6. How does your story shift into a higher gear at the Midpoint?

In a novel, pace is synonymous with change, unexpected twists that the hero must confront. I’ve mentioned the First Plot Point already, but nearly as critical is the Midpoint context shift, which as the name implies occurs squarely in the middle of your narrative.

Here the astute author pulls back the curtain of the hero’s awareness, or if not, then at least the reader’s comprehension of what is really going on. It is a reveal, a true twist, because now we know that things weren’t quite what they seemed.

From here the hero proceeds with more proactive intention, rather than the previous phase of stumbling through the weeds of not knowing.

7. Do you have an ending?

Many organic (pantser) writers claim to not know how their novels will end as they begin to write. Fair enough, that’s a process, one that works for many who use their drafts to discover and vet possible ideas and outcomes.

But before a draft will work at a publishable level, the author must know how the story will resolve, which leads to yet another draft once the best possible ending becomes clear.

If the writer does not do that next draft, and if they stamp FINAL onto the draft that finally nails an ending… well, this explains a great many of the rejections that befall otherwise excellent authors.

Because the ending becomes context for a draft that works, beginning at page one.  Foreshadowing, setup and pace become impossible to optimize without knowing how it all ends.

Story planners develop an ending before they start, allowing them to pepper the narrative with foreshadowing and on-point exposition that avoids side trips and pace-strangling narrative lulls, as well as fewer exploratory drafts. Drafters use their story sense to discover their end game, then go back in and cut out the fat, adding tasty bits of foreshadowing and necessary setup as required.

Seven questions… leading to a novel that works.

When you read about an author who went though 22 drafts to finish (sometimes bragging about it), know that, for 21 of those drafts, having less-than-stellar answers to one or more of these questions is the reason.

Just as amazing are authors who, armed with a keen understanding of these questions and an even keener sense of what works and what doesn’t, nail their novel in two or three drafts.

Your process is your process.  When these questions drive the criteria you apply, how you get to “final” no longer matters.

Now your process, whatever it is, has a checklist to work from in this regard.


This is Larry Brooks’ first Kill Zone post.  He’ll be posting here every other Monday.  See the About TKZ page for some backstory on his writing books and his novels.


Events, Schmevents: aka “Yes, we’re open to suggestions”

by Michelle Gagnon

The Illustrious MWA Board

As of last weekend, I’m the newly minted president of the Northern California MWA chapter (please, hold your applause). On the plus side, I was privileged to spend a few days in New York with such luminaries as Charlaine Harris, Greg Herren, Bill Cameron, Harley Jane Kozak, and Jess Lourey; aka, the current MWA board.
However, I also suddenly find myself in charge of organizing between 6-8 events this year that will appeal to both crime fiction writers and fans of their work. And let’s just say that all things considered, I’m not much of a planner. Heck, I never even plot out my books.

So frankly, I’m at a bit of a loss. I spent the past few days trying to remember all the local MWA meetings that I’ve attended–and honestly, only a few stick out in my mind (which is probably my fault. I also have a lot of difficulty remembering my parents’ birthdays, and when the cat’s teeth are supposed to be brushed. Which lately has turned out to be: pretty much never. Sorry, Mr. Slippers. I’m sure that someday soon they’ll invent feline dentures.)

Ted Kaczynski

The most memorable meeting for me happened a few years ago, when a retired FBI agent who had been on the Unabomber case from the beginning outlined the entire manhunt for us in the world’s most dramatic and fascinating Powerpoint presentation. In the end, he was also one of the three agents who entered the cabin to arrest Ted Kaczynski. His talk went on for hours, yet I could have sat through it all over again immediately after it ended.

We’ve also done “State of the Industry” panels, featuring an agent, librarian, editor, and bookseller. They always offer frank (and occasionally terrifying) insights into…you guessed it…the state of the publishing industry. That will be a repeat this year for sure.

DO NOT eat here. Seriously.

I’d like to shake things up a bit, though. Maybe have some “field trip” meetings–I have an in with the SFPD Bomb Squad, so possibly a tour of their facility. Or a trip to the morgue (which ironically, former chapter meetings almost sent me to, twice.  For years we held meetings at John’s Grill, which has a really cool Maltese Falcon display, and a really terrible kitchen. I contracted food poisoning not once, but twice, during chapter luncheons. And the second time I had only consumed coffee. I still cringe when I remember their club sandwich.)

But who better to ask than the vast community of mystery readers and writers here? In the interest of that, I’m turning the matter over to you. What are the most memorable local mystery events you’ve attended, author appearances aside? And what kind of dream events do you wish your chapter would hold? (within reason, of course. I’m pretty sure my budget won’t allow for a Bruce Springsteen performance, or anything in that range). Ideally, I want to achieve a balance, so that they’re not all focused on the writing craft. I’d also like to continue avoiding food poisoning, if possible.