“Can’t Put the Book Down”

Last weekend I once again had the privilege of being a panelist at Orycon, our local science fiction convention, and, among other things, moderated panels on writing and pacing your story. Creating a compelling story and keeping a reader turning the pages, to the point of missing sleep to read through to the end, are goals I believe all of us here at TKZ share.

Today’s Words of Wisdom considers three tools to help achieve those twin goals of creating a compelling story that is a page-turner. First off, Joe Moore looks at when and how to actual slow the pacing down. Then, Jordan Dane gives advice on managing narrative drive. Finally, Elaine Viets shares tips on creating cliffhangers.

Slow things down when you want to place emphasis on a particular event. In doing so, the reader naturally senses that the slower pace means there’s a great deal of importance in the information being imparted. And in many respects, the character(s) should sense it, too.

Another reason to slow the pacing is to give your readers a chance to catch their breath after an action or dramatic chapter or scene. Even on a real rollercoaster ride, there are moments when the car must climb to a higher level in order to take the thrill seeker back down the next exciting portion of the attraction. You may want to slow the pacing after a dramatic event so the reader has a break and the plot can start the process of building to the next peak of excitement or emotion. After all, an amusement ride that only goes up or down, or worse, stays level, would be either boring or frantic. The same goes for your story.

Another reason to slow the pace is to deal with emotions. Perhaps it’s a romantic love scene or one of deep internal reflection. Neither one would be appropriate if written with the same rapid-fire pacing of a car chase or shootout.

You might also want to slow the pacing during scenes of extreme drama. In real life, we often hear of a witness or victim of an accident describing it as if time slowed to a crawl and everything seemed to move in slow motion. The same technique can be used to describe a dramatic event in your book. Slow down and concentrate on each detail to enhance the drama.

What you want to avoid is to slow the scene beyond reason. One mistake new writers make is to slow the pacing of a dramatic scene, then somewhere in the middle throw in a flashback or a recalling of a previous event in the character’s life. In the middle of a head-on collision, no one stops to ponder a memory from childhood. Slow things down for a reason. The best reason is to enhance the drama.

A big element in controlling pacing is narration. Narrative always slows things down. It can be used quite effectively to do so or it can become boring and cumbersome. The former is always the choice.

When you intentionally slow the pace of your story, it doesn’t mean that you want to stretch out every action in every scene. It means that you want to take the time to embrace each detail and make it move the story forward. This involves skill, instinct and craft. Leave in the important stuff and delete the rest.

Joe Moore—March 18, 2015

Each author strives to create a compelling narrative drive (whether they understand what the term means or not) because they want readers eager to turn the page. That means the author MUST manipulate the world and the characters into the optimal story that involves mystery, suspense and intriguing relationships. This covers all genres of writing.

The author controls what is revealed to the reader and parses it out in the most optimal way by their judgement. They make choices on when to reveal things and how they are to be doled out. Natural born story tellers know how to do this instinctively.

The author is in control of EVERYTHING. He or she manipulates the reader with a titillating story and how that story is shared and how it affects the character relationships. Nothing should come as a surprise to the author.

To create MYSTERY elements, the author is guarded about what to share with the reader and when to share it. There’s misdirection with red herrings or through unreliable narrators, for example.

To create SUSPENSE, the author can have the reader follow along and reveal what they want the reader to know as the main characters discover things. This builds on suspense elements.

To give the reader an INSIDER VIEW, the author may reveal things to the reader that the characters don’t know. Let the readers play God from afar and watch the play that is told in the story.

KEEP A READER CURIOUS and/or WORRIED – Readers are naturally curious folks. Give them something to uncover. A wise author will let a reader’s minds be piqued by carefully placed clues. Or an author might make readers worry for the characters they’ve grown fond of. Make readers care and escalate the danger for the characters. Again, this post might sound geared for crime fiction, but it can apply to any genre. The threat does not have to involve life or death. It can involve the heart or the emotional survival of a family enduring a tragedy or a stigma.

1.) Backstory dumps and long boring expositions can kill a strong page turner.
2.) When one scene doesn’t lead to a cause and effect, the plot may drift without cohesion. The reader gets lost in the amble. Actions must have consequences for the reader to want to come along for the ride.
3.) Cheating at mystery elements, where the author creates intrigue, but the outcome is a let down or a head fake for the reader. That’s when a reader will throw a book against a wall and may never buy an author again.
4.) Cheap surprises without build up is the same type of disappointment. Don’t pull a killer or a bad actor or a story element from thin air to end the book.
5.) No coincidences. An author might get away with a coincidence in the first few pages of a story, but a coincidence should never end the book. Major No-No.

I believe that each scene in a book should be like a mini-story. It should have a compelling beginning, a journey through the scene with purpose, and an ending that foreshadows what’s to come to create a page turner. Each scene should move the plot forward by 1-3 plot points, making that scene impossible to delete without toppling your story (like the wood block-building game of Jenga.)

I endeavor to build as many of these scenes as possible, even with scenes that build on a relationship as a subplot. The subplot should have a journey through the book as well.

Jordan Dane—October 3, 2019

Cliffhangers are the hooks that make your readers keep turning the pages, pulling them into the next scene or chapter. Most cliffhangers come at the end of the chapter. If your readers are hooked, they’ll continue reading.

Here are some tips for good cliffhangers:

A cliffhanger should catch your readers by surprise.

Something unexpected has to happen: Someone threatens to jump off a bridge. Their car goes into a skid on a snowy curve. A door opens unexpectedly. Then, bam! The chapter ends.

Darkest Evening, Ann Cleeves’ new Vera Stanhope novel, has a perfect cliffhanger chapter ending. Vera follows a killer, who gets her alone and strangles her. I’ve edited out the killer’s name in this section, but you get the idea.

“As Vera began to lose consciousness, she thought that this was her fault. . . it was her pride again, making her think she was indestructible.

“Then the world went blank.”

I couldn’t wait to turn the page and see what happened to Vera. Not to mention the killer.

Someone unexpected arrives. A crook, an innocent person, a cop, just in time. This person is a surprise. They abruptly break up the scene.

Someone leaves.

A bride suddenly leaves the groom standing at the altar. A couple is fighting, and he walks out on her. She suddenly quits her job.

Sometimes, the cliffhanger is a new piece of information.

Your character learns something. She’s not married legally to her husband after all because he never divorced his first wife.

Or, he’s not the son of the man he called father: the DNA test proved it.

Your character notices something. The detective sees the scratches around the door lock and realizes the house had been broken into. A wife finds lipstick on her husband’s shirt – scarlet lipstick. She never wears that color.

Your character figures something out. She finally understands the key to the puzzle the dead man left behind. He finally knows why his dead father wanted him to listen to the CD he left in his desk drawer.

Your character decides something. She’s going to leave her abusive husband. He’s going to rob the store to get enough money to feed his family.

She’s going back to school.

Elaine Viets—May 14, 2020


  1. How much do you think about slowing your story’s pacing when writing or editing? Do you have a favorite technique?
  2. What does narrative drive mean to you? How important is it to you?
  3. Do you use cliff-hangers? If so, what sort and when?


Empowered: Agent, the first book in my Empowered series, is currently free at all major ebook retailers.

The world says those possessing superpowers are either heroes or villains. But what if you’re both? Mathilda Brandt isn’t the angry, out-of-control teenager she was before she got out of jail. She’s hungry for a chance at a normal life, but when a gang threatens her sisters, she has no choice but to use her illegal superpower to protect them. A secretive government agency gives her a choice: go back to prison for life, or infiltrate a notorious super-villain group in order to stop a psychotic Empowered. To save her city, her family, and herself, Mat must become the last thing she ever wanted to be again: a criminal.

First-Page Critique: A Mind Trap

By Elaine Viets

Another Brave Author has given us what looks like a spy thriller. First, let’s read the first page. Then I’ll offer my comments, and you can add yours.

A Mind Trap
Everything in the dimly lit warehouse of the aerospace company appeared
to be as it should. And for Edward Malver, crouching in the deeper shadows of
some packing crates, everything was as it should be. His digital wristwatch showed it
was midnight and every employee except one security guard had gone home many
hours earlier.
Widely spaced overhead lighting cast pools of weak light in a murky realm of lighter
and darker shades of black. Metal shipping containers and wooden packing crates of
all sizes were stacked in rows like giant tombstones in a netherworld. Malver stood up
and hurried toward the exit downstairs.
He didn’t want to remain any longer than was absolutely necessary. The risk of
discovery increased with every passing minute, and the dark made him uneasy. Malver
shuddered. If he stayed in it too long, he knew the terrible memories would resurface to
savage him.
Malver was relieved to see how well his black pullover sweater and slacks blended in
with the surrounding darkness, camouflaging his tall slender frame and rendering him
almost a part of the darkness. He checked his blue nitrile examination gloves to be sure
they were not torn, then pulled a dark beanie further down over his gray-peppered black
hair. Walking with the silence of a shadow, he glanced around while listening for any
out-of-place sounds. All was as quiet as the grave.
Malver’s lock picks, both manual and electronic, rested in his nylon shoulder pouch next to the photographs he’d just taken of the secret Raptor missile. The Raptor was a surface-to-air missile with a “smart” computer guidance system making it virtually
impossible to fool or escape from. Really bad news for any fighter or bomber pilot it
was fired at. The Raptor had taken dozens of scientists seventeen years to develop
and perfect. Malver could have targeted the minds of some of the key scientists but it
was so much easier to just steal what he needed; truly a rare opportunity too good to
pass up, he thought.
He’d be selling the photos of the technical specifications and schematic diagrams
three days from tonight. The photos would earn him good money. But in this instance,
the money was secondary. Malver was pleased at how smoothly this operation was
going, on schedule and with no glitches.
Then he saw the security guard approach the catwalk

Elaine’s Comments:
Our Brave Author gets this novel off to a creepy start, but we need someone to root for – or against. Is Malver a good guy or a bad one? Is he an operative for the United States, or an enemy spy? Why does he need these plans and who will he give them to?
It’s important that we know.
For the sake of this critique, let’s say he’s a villain. Then this  thriller can have a dramatic race to keep the Raptor plans from falling into enemy hands.
Also, the opening needs to ratchet up the tension. In the first paragraph, I’ve made some small cuts to move the pace along. I also had Malvern checking his wrist watch, getting rid of the passive voice “his wrist watch showed it was . . .” I left the second paragraph untouched.
In Paragraphs 3 and 4, I’ve done more tightening, getting rid of unnecessary words such as “in,” “just” and “so” I changed “darkness” to “gloom” to avoid repeating the word. Nitrile “examination” gloves is unnecessary. Your readers know what nitrile gloves are. I cut “as the grave.” It’s cliched.
The phrase that puts manual and electronic lock picks in apposition has been recast, so the sentence moves smoothly. Also, I cleaned up some other phrases. The last paragraph is fine, except it needs a period at the end.

PARAGRAPH 1 Everything in the dimly lit warehouse of the aerospace company appeared to be as it should. AndfFor Russian agent Edward Malver, crouching in the deeper shadows of some the packing crates, everything was as it should. be. His wristwatch showed it was He checked his digital wristwatch. Midnight. ed it was midnight and Every employee except one security guard had gone home. The lazy Americans didn’t stay late. The new Cold War had started when President Vladimir Putin offered to support the Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine. The clueless West called his actions an invasion, but what did they know? History was on Mother Russia’s side. manyhours earlier.
PARAGRAPH 2 Widely spaced overhead lighting cast pools of weak light in the murky blackness. Metal shipping containers and wooden packing crates were stacked in rows like giant tombstones. Malver stood up and hurried toward the downstairs exit.
PARAGRAPH 3 Malver’s black pullover sweater and slacks blended in with the darkness, camouflaging his tall slender frame, and rendering him almost a part of the gloom. darkness. He checked his blue nitrile examination gloves to be sure they were not torn, then pulled a dark beanie further down over his gray-peppered black hair. Walking silent ly as a shadow, he glanced around, while listening for anything out of place sounds. All was as quiet. as the grave.
PARAGRAPH 4 Malver’s lock picks, both manual and electronic lock picks rested in his nylon shoulder pouch next to the photographs he’d just taken of the secret Raptor missile. Developed by the US, the Raptor was a surface-to-air missile with a “smart” computer guidance system making it virtually impossible to fool or escape. from. Really Bad news for any fighter or bomber pilot in its path. it was fired at. The Raptor had taken dozens of scientists seventeen years to develop and perfect. Malver could have targeted the minds of some of the key scientists’s minds, but it was so much easier to just steal what he needed. This ; truly a rare opportunity was too good to pass up, he thought.
PARAGRAPH 5 He’d be selling the photos of the technical specifications and schematic diagrams three days from tonight. The photos would earn him good money. But in this instance,
the money was secondary. Malver was pleased at how smoothly this operation was
going, on schedule and with no glitches.
PARAGRAPH 6 Then he saw the security guard approach the catwalk.

Here’s a clean version:
Everything in the dimly lit warehouse of the aerospace company appeared as it should. For Edward Malver, crouching in the deeper shadows of the packing crates, everything was as it should. He checked his digital wristwatch. Midnight. Every employee except one security guard had gone home. The lazy Americans didn’t stay late. The new Cold War had started when President Vladimir Putin offered to support the Russian-speaking separatists in Eastern Ukraine. The clueless West called Putin’s actions an invasion, but what did they know? History was on Mother Russia’s side.

Widely spaced overhead lighting cast pools of weak light in the murky blackness. Metal shipping containers and wooden packing crates were stacked in rows like giant tombstones. Malver stood up and hurried toward the downstairs exit.

Malver’s black pullover sweater and slacks blended with the darkness, camouflaging his tall slender frame, rendering him almost part of the gloom. He checked his blue nitrile gloves to be sure they were not torn, then pulled a dark beanie further down over his gray-peppered black hair. Walking silent as a shadow, he glanced around, listening for anything out of place. All was quiet.
Malver’s manual and electronic lock picks rested in his nylon shoulder pouch next to the photographs he’d taken of the secret Raptor missile. Developed by the United States, the Raptor was a surface-to-air missile with a “smart” computer guidance system making it virtually impossible to fool or escape. Bad news for any fighter or bomber pilot in its path. The Raptor had taken scientists seventeen years to develop and perfect. Malver could have targeted some of the key scientists’s minds, but it was much easier to steal what he needed. This rare opportunity was too good to pass up, he thought.
He’d be selling the photos of the technical specifications and schematic diagrams three days from tonight. The photos would earn him good money. But in this instance, the money was secondary. Malver was pleased at how smoothly this operation was going, on schedule and with no glitches.
Then he saw the security guard approach the catwalk.

TWO MORE NOTES: Some of your manuscript was in purple ink, and some in black. Please be consistent when you show it to an editor.
And finally, I like the name of your villain.
Keep writing, Brave Author.

LATE FOR HIS OWN FUNERAL is “a fascinating exploration of sex workers, high society, and the ways in which they feed off of one another.” Enter to win a copy here:  https://kingsriverlife.com/08/06/late-for-his-own-funeral-by-elaine-viets/


First Page Critique

Admin note: Strong language, content advisory.

By Elaine Viets

Another brave writer has sent in this untitled first page for a critique. We’ll start with the page, then my comments.

Chapter One (Monday)
“I hate men.” Faith sat on the bed cross-legged, Indian style, naked, dipping pineapple chunks and strawberries into chocolate fondue.
“Well, you do have valid reasons to feel that way.” Bill stretched out along the side of the bed opposite the fruit and chocolate, naked.
“I only want to hate men that I knew before I was 24, so I can include Troy. But the list keeps growing.“
“I want you.”
“You’re trying to distract me.”
“Obviously, doesn’t change that I want you.”

“Why are you the only man I can stand to be around?”
“Because I want you for who you are. Because I respect the hell out of you. Because I accept all that you are, and all that you aren’t. Because I don’t want to change a single thing. Because I don’t want to control you. Because I don’t need to have power over you to feel like a real man. And some other things that nicely pass the eye-test.”
“Because you are the only man I have ever felt comfortable with.”

“Exactly what I said, just a bit more concisely. Pass me a strawberry. And you keep eating the pineapple.”
“Ha, you and your pineapple. That’s an old wives’ tale.”
“Not at all. I’ll let you taste my tongue next time.”
“I need to get to the office. Lots to do and I’m losing time here.”
“What? No session two? What the hell?”
“Not today. I owe you, rest up for a few days old man.”
“Fuck. OK. Go harass some men, make the world a better place, save some women, be the super-woman that you are. I will patiently await your blessing me with your presence again.” Bill stood up, picked-up the platter of fruit and fondue and turned toward the door. “Stay moist my friend.”
“Oh, you know I will. Someday I’ll understand how you make me wet and every other guy makes me grind my teeth.”

* * * * * * * * *******************************************************************
“Everyone, in the conference room please. Bring your creative and strategic minds and plenty of coffee. It’s time to change the world.” Faith skipped down the hall of her tiny set of offices and headed straight into their conference room, which was really just the largest of the tiny offices that she rented for her not-for-profit agency. “It’s time to rid the world of domestic violence. Are you WITH ME?”

Two naked people are in bed eating chocolate fondue. This is a bold start to a novel. Many writers are shy about writing sex scenes, or in this case, postcoital scenes. Congratulations for a beginning that grabs readers by the (eye) balls.
This first page has so many possibilities, but many are unfulfilled.
Most important, who are these chocolate lovers? They seem lost, ghostly figures adrift on this mattress like shipwreck survivors on a raft.
All we know is they are naked.
What do they look like?
How old are they? What color is their hair? This is the one time we will truly know if characters are natural blonds. Is her hair tousled from sex and sleep? What about his? Does he even have hair, or is he all the way bare? We don’t know.
They’re both wearing birthday suits. What color is their skin: flour white, deep chocolate, caramel? Are they fit and tan? Pale and flabby? Wrinkled? Or well-nourished and well-developed, as the pathologists say?
What about the lovers’ relationship: Is this a long-term romance? Is it a romance at all? Are they married or single? This appears to be a passionless encounter. Is this true? If there’s heat, we need to know it. If love is dying, we need that too.
Where are we? We know it’s Monday, but what month? What’s the weather? Is it a sunny morning? A chilly afternoon? Is the day as hot as the potential scene? And what about the room? Is this a poorly furnished apartment? A luxurious home? Again, that mattress is floating in space.
The scene is supposed to be sexy, but there’s a strong ick factor. Bill says, “I’ll let you taste my tongue next time.” No, thanks.
Why does Faith hate Troy? Give us a hint: did he beat her, abandon her, or betray her? A word or two would ratchet up the tension.
“I want you.” Bill says this twice. Are these three words said with a sensual smile, or simply a demand? Does Bill love Faith, is he obsessed with her, or does he just want more sex? What actions go with those words? Show us what he’s doing. Show us her reactions: Does she love Bill? Is she bored with him?
What’s he doing with that fruit while they’re talking? Is Bill still eating strawberries? Dipping them? Dripping chocolate on her body? Painting it on his? Does she want him to do that? How was the sex for him? Is he exhausted? Exhilarated? Satisfied? Or was it just a routine roll in the hay?
Bill says he wants her, but is there any physical evidence? Is he fully erect? Does he reach for her? In this version, he’s all talk. Is that intentional?
POV: What’s the point of view here? It needs to be stronger.
Fix that misplaced naked. This sentence reads better as: Bill stretched out naked along the side of the bed opposite the fruit and chocolate. Otherwise, it sounds like the fruit and chocolate are naked.
What old wives’ tale about pineapple?
The dialogue starts out interesting, but slips in to self-help cliches. Bill says, “Because I want you for who you are. Because I respect the hell out of you. Because I accept all that you are, and all that you aren’t. Because I don’t want to change a single thing. Because I don’t want to control you. Because I don’t need to have power over you to feel like a real man. And some other things that nicely pass the eye-test.”
Does he mean that? Or is he being ironic? We can’t tell.
The scene at the office is confusing: We don’t know it’s Faith talking until four sentences into the paragraph. Set the scene first, please. Tell us the time of day.
Now that we’re naked – what are we doing? What kind of story is this? What are we reading? Is this a mystery? A thriller? Crime fiction or adult fiction? A line or two, a little foreshadowing, can answer this questions: “Faith wanted rid of domestic abusers, and she knew the best way was to eliminate the men who hurt those women . . .” “Faith knew the best solution for domestic abusers was to stash them six feet under.” You can come up with better examples, but you know what I mean.
You’ve got the start of a fascinating first page here, Anonymous. Now make it live up to that potential.
What do you think, TKZers? Feel free to add your criticism – constructive criticism only, please. We writers have tender feelings.

Elaine Viets is the author of the critically acclaimed Brain Storm, an Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery. “Brain Storm has everything I love in crime fiction – complexity, intelligence, pretzel-plotting, and a touch of dark humor.”– PJ Parrish, New York Times bestselling author of She’s Not There and the award-winning Louis Kincaid series.
Brain Storm is an e-book, a trade paperback and audio book. Buy it here: http://tinyurl.com/hr7b9hn


Seasons Greetings

AWREATH3It’s Winter break here at the Kill Zone. During our 2-week hiatus, we’ll be spending time with our families and friends, and celebrating all the traditions that make this time of year so wonderful. We sincerely thank you for visiting our blog and commenting on our rants and raves. We wish you a truly blessed Holiday Season and a prosperous 2015. From Clare, Jodie, Kathryn, Kris, Joe M., Nancy, Jordan, Elaine, Joe H., Mark, and James to all our friends and visitors, Seasons Greeting from the Kill Zone. See you back here on Monday, January 5. Until then, check out our TKZ Resource Library partway down the sidebar, for listings of posts on The Kill Zone, categorized by topics.

The Art of Writing Back Copy:Boiling Your Book to its Essence

By PJ Parrish

Congratulations! You finished your novel! You typed those two sweet words THE END. Right there on the bottom of  your Word doc is that magic line: Words: 96,788.

Okay, now the hard work begins. Now go back and write your book again – this time in 200 words.

Yes, I’m talking about back copy. I know. You don’t want to deal with it. It’s one of those tangential things like publicity, P&L statements, website algorhithms, or finding a good editor, that writers don’t want to think about but know they have to because that’s the way the book business is rolling these days. Writers have become one-man bands. We do it all or we die.

I can hear some of you out there saying, “I can skip this one today.” But you can’t really. Because being able to articulate what your book is about in 200 words or less is really valuable. Why? Here’s five reasons:

  1. If you are self-publishing with Amazon, you have to write your own back copy.
  2. If you are querying agents, you have to have compose a great hook for your book
  3. If you are going to a conference and meeting an agent, you have to be able to give a 30-second elevator pitch.
  4. If you’re doing a speech or a signing, you need to articulate what your book’s about in two or three sentences.
  5. And maybe most important: Being able to boil your story down to its very essence is a great exercise unto itself, one that will help you understand what, in your heart, you are really trying to communicate. 

Both of my traditional publishers, Kensington and Pocket, let us edit our back copy and a couple times we even wrote it. And we write all the descriptions that appear with our self-published backlist titles on Amazon.  I’ve written my share of query letters. I had an unnerving 10-minute pitch session with an editor from Harpers at a writer’s conference. And I’ve sat at card tables in malls trying to talk people into buying my books when all they really want is directions to the Piercing Pagoda.

I’m actually not bad at boiling down a story. I think it is because I made my living for years as a newspaper copy editor and once you get the hang of writing headlines that can be grasped by a guy driving by a newspaper box at 40 miles an hour, well, having 200 words to sum up a whole book doesn’t seem that hard.

But I know it actually is. One of the hardest things to do is to write with both brevity and verve.  As a reporter, I was always way over in my word count and my editor never bought into the Mark Twain quote that I would have written shorter if I had more time. So whenever I see back copy done well, I appreciate the care that goes into. Here’s two off my bookshelf that I really like:

A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones and when the snow falls it is gray. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food – and each other.

   * * *

More than a year ago, mild-mannered Jason Getty killed a man he wished he’d never met. Then he planted the problem a little too close to home. But just as he’s learning to live with the reality of what he’s done, police unearth two bodies on his property – neither of which is the one Jason buried. 

The first is from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s good because it captures not just the plot but also mimics style and mood of the novel. The second is from Jamie Mason’s Three Graves Full. I like it because it is short and very seductive.

On the flip side, I see a lot of bad back copy out there these days. In the New York Times book review today, I saw an ad for a print-on-demand publisher touting its books with the headline: UNFORGETTABLE STORIES. Here are some sample descriptions:

In the summer of 1863, an eighteen-year-old Amish farm boy feels trapped between his religious heritage and his fascination with the world outside his small Pennsylvania town. His solution is to leave home. And so begins his unforgettable adventure that will change his life forever.

[Title redacted] is a highly engrossing work of fiction, set in the north of England, extrapolated from the realities of the world of front line regional newspaper reporters and the sort of situations they they on a daily basis.

Abused and mistreated, Jane grew up in the field of restraints which she calls a prison. And she hopes there is still an ounce of sanity left in her which leaves her with the choice of breaking away from the [title redacted].

[Title redacted] is author [redacted] new novel that looks into the lives of the people who survived the 1998 Nairobi bombings and how they struggle to cope with the pain and loss.

[Name redacted] returns from the war minus a a leg and discovers that his wife has left him and his engineering business has shut down. Forced to re-invent his life, he and his family battle to overcome war’s damage.  

Now, these could be very good novels. But from the blurbs, there is no way to know. None of these entice readers or capture the tone or mood of the books. They are wordy (“feels trapped”), filled with cliches (“unforgettable adventure”) , vague on plot points, filled with generalities (“struggle to cope”), confusing, and devoid of any hint of conflict or suspense.

Writing great back copy is a fine art. It’s nearest kin might be advertising copy in that its form is short and specialized, and its purpose is to seduce, tease, and make us buy into something. It’s no accident that some pretty good novelists emerged from the advertising industry —  Don DeLillo, Fay Weldon,  Joseph Heller.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote streetcar sign slogans for $35 a week. Dorothy Sayers made a name for herself writing a mustard slogan before she got hot with crime novels. Salman Rushdie, who wrote ad copy while trying to finish his first novel, recalls taking a test for the J. Walter Thompson agency where, “they asked you to imagine that you met a Martian who mysteriously spoke English and you had to explain to them in less than 100 words how to make toast.” And then there was that guy who started out as a junior copywriter at  J. Walter Thompson, rose to CEO, and turned his ad experience into James Patterson Inc.

So what’s the secret? Our own Jodie Renner and James Bell laid out some great tips in a post here last year. CLICK HERE to read it.  And if you want some really helpful tips from a real agent on how to write good query letter hooks, CLICK HERE to go to the Miss Snark archives. But I’d also like to offer up some of my own tips, if I may.

Don’t give a plot regurgitation. Give just enough story to hook the reader’s interest while you also hint at the larger picture behind the book. Here’s a great tease:

From a helicopter high above the California desert, a man is sent free-falling into the night . . . and Jack Reacher is plunged into the heart of a conspiracy that is killing old friends.

Reacher has no phone, no address, no ties. But a woman from his former military unit has found him using a signal only the eight members of their elite team would know. Then she tells him about the brutal death of one of their own. Soon they learn of the sudden disappearance of two other comrades. But Reacher won’t give up—because in a world of bad luck and trouble, when someone targets Jack Reacher and his team, they’d better be ready for what comes right back at them.

Know your audience. Make sure the tone is right. Hit the high notes of your genre or the genre’s tropes. Romance or romantic suspense tends to stress the characters and relationships over plot. Thrillers tend toward the opposite. Just like your cover, you have to convey the exact mood of your story. Use language that appeals to the reader’s emotions. You won’t mistake Elaine Viet’s Shop Til You Drop for Lee Child:

Once on the fast track to success, Helen Hawthorne is going nowhere fast. Forced to trade in her chic life for a shabby one, she’s now on the run trying to stay one step ahead of her past. After two weeks as a new clerk at Juliana’s, Fort Lauderdale’s exclusive boutique, Helen still feels out of fashion. But in a shop where the customer’s collagen lips are bigger than their hips, who wouldn’t…

Start with a great headline. If you’re having trouble coming up with the perfect headline, write the body copy first. Later, go back and read what you wrote as if you were a consumer seeing it for the first time. Somewhere, buried in all that copy, you will find your headline. Here’s a sample you can find in our special Kill Zone Zone 99-cent Amazon offering Thrill Ride:


A deep freeze is bearing down on the Florida Everglades, the kind of brutal storm the locals call a killing rain. For Detective Louis Kincaid, the coldest night of the year has brought a terrifying new chill — a grisly murder that tightens his every nerve in warning. This is no routine case. It’s the start of a nightmare.

Watch how it looks on the page. Is it too long? Are the sentences too long and hard to digest in one quick reading? Did you break it into paragraphs, if needed? Think about the best advertising copy you see. The block of copy must register in the eye as a fast read.

Tell us who your hero is and where we are. It’s a good idea to work in your protag’s name, profession, and the location(s) of your story. Readers want to be able to tell at a glance if the protag is male or female, what kind of person it is, and where you are going to take them. Geography is important to many readers. Here’s some effective copy from a Steve Hamilton book that does all this and gives us a little backstory:

Alex McKnight swore to serve and protect Detroit as a police officer, but a trip to Motown these days is a trip to a past he’d just as soon forget. The city will forever remind him of his partner’s death and of the bullet still lodged in his own chest. Then he gets a call from his old sergeant. A young man Alex helped put away—in the one big case that marked the high point of his career—will be getting out of prison. When the sergeant invites Alex to have a drink for old times’ sake, it’s an offer he would normally refuse. However, there’s a certain female FBI agent he can’t stop thinking about, so he gets in his truck and he goes back to Detroit.

Don’t give away too much. Good copy writing is a seduction. The back copy should make the reader want more. Think foreplay. One good tip is to pick a spot in the your plot, usually a quarter or a third of the way in, and don’t include anything that happens after that point.

TV reporter Candy Sloan has eyes the color of cornflowers and legs that stretch all the way to heaven. She also has somebody threatening to rearrange her lovely face if she keeps on snooping into charges of Hollywood racketeering. Spenser’s job is to keep Candy healthy until she breaks the biggest story of her career. But her star witness has just bowed out with three bullets in his chest, two tough guys have doubled up to test Spenser’s skill with his fists, and Candy is about to use her own sweet body as live bait in a deadly romantic game – a game that may cost Spenser his life.

Avoid passive voice and weasel words, clichés, twenty-dollar vocabulary. Don’t use big hard to grasp words. Again, back copy is like good advertising copy: It appeals to the senses and emotions. You can pile on the details and pretty writing inside the covers.

Hint at what’s at stake. Go back and read the bad examples I listed above. Each of them has the same core problem: There is no defining of the central conflict or what the stakes are. This is a complaint I hear often from agents about query letters. A successful hook in a good query letter works much the same way as back copy does — it makes the agent want to know more — NOT about plot points but what this all means for the protagonist.

End with a question.  We see this device a lot in back copy but for good reason. It works. It creates suspense.  (“What will John do when he discovers Jane’s deception?”) It hints at future complications (“When their investigation leads them to a city hall conspiracy, can their love stand the test?”) It sets up possible suspects, like in this back copy:

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

Go for the Big But. This  is a cliche construction in back copy writing, but hey, it works. First you set up a scenario of normality for your protagonist then you use a conjunction bridge to a new development in that person’s life (ie a crime) that has sent them on a new course. Go back and look for all the BUTS I have highlighted in blue and you’ll see how common this is. Here’s a sample from John Creasey’s Parson With a Punch:

The Reverend Ronald Kemp came to the East End of London with definite ideas of right and wrong, which was only fitting for a minister of God. But the people of the East End had a few ideas of their own and the Rev. Kemp quickly finds his world torn asunder…

From Michele Gagnon’s Bone Yard:

FBI agent Kelly Jones has worked on many disturbing cases in her career, but nothing like this. A mass grave site unearthed on the Appalachian Trail puts Kelly at the head of an investigation that crosses the line…Assisted by law enforcement from two states, Kelly searches for the killers. But as darkness falls, another victim is taken and Kelly must race to save him before he joins the rest…in the boneyard.

From Michael Connelly:

Mickey Haller gets the text, “Call me ASAP – 187,” and the California penal code for murder immediately gets his attention. Murder cases have the highest stakes and the biggest paydays, and they always mean Haller has to be at the top of his game. But when Mickey learns that the victim was his own former client, a prostitute he thought he had rescued and put on the straight and narrow path, he knows he is on the hook for this one.

Hyperbole? Heck, why not? It’s not uncommon for back copy prose to get a little purple, especially in crime fiction. We see a lot of this kind of stuff: “Time is running out…”  “As the nightmare increases…” “Even as danger mounts…”the shocking truth is revealed.” You can use this — but in small doses, please. Readers will turn on you if they sense you’re just throwing a bunch of adjectives at them like “dazzling” or “breathtaking.” CLICK HERE to read a bookseller’s take on how hyperventilating blurbs turn readers off.  And if you’re writing humor, please be careful tossing around stuff like “hilarious” and “side-splitting.”

Here’s back copy for Sherrilyn Kenyon that’s corny as all get out but hey, it works for me:

He is solitude. He is darkness. He is the ruler of the night. Yet Kyrian of Thrace has just woken up handcuffed to his worst nightmare: An accountant. Worse, she’s being hunted by one of the most lethal vampires out there. And if Amanda Devereaux goes down, then he does too. But it’s not just their lives that are hanging in the balance.  Kyrian and Amanda are all that stands between humanity and oblivion. Let’s hope they win.

A few final things to consider as you put together your back copy:

  • When you’re done, read your blurb out loud.  
  • Prune out all unnecessary words. See if you can cut out 30 percent.
  • Go into Amazon and read some blurbs in your genre for good books. Read the backs of paperbacks. Mimic the ones that work. 
  • Run your blurbs by beta readers and see if they salute.
Whew. Long post today. Sorry about that. I would have written shorter if I had had more time.

Seasons Greetings!

It’s Winter break here at the Kill Zone. During oAWREATH3_thumb[1]ur 2-week hiatus, we’ll be spending time with our families and friends, and celebrating all the traditions that make this time of year so wonderful. We sincerely thank you for visiting our blog and commenting on our rants and raves. We wish you a truly blessed Holiday Season and a prosperous 2014. From Clare, Jodie, Kathryn, Kris, Joe M., Nancy, Jordan, Elaine, Joe H., Mark, and James to all our friends and visitors, Seasons Greeting from the Kill Zone. See you back here on Monday, January 6. Until then, check out our TKZ Resource Library partway down the sidebar, for listings of posts on The Kill Zone, categorized by topics.

Transitions: Building bridgesbetween your plot islands

Put on your waders because we’re going deep into the fiction-writing bulrushes today. I want to talk about one of my favorite micro-topics — transitions. Actually, maybe it’s quicksand we’re wading into, because if your book doesn’t have good transitions, it can sink faster than Janet Leigh’s ’57 Ford in Psycho.
We talk a lot here at TKZ about how important pacing is, and transitions go along way to creating that seamless narrative flow you need as your story shifts in time, location, or point-of view. But here’s the thing: Transitions look easy but they can be tricky to get right.
I think I dwell on transitions so much because I work with a co-author. Kelly and I write our books by talking out the plot then writing alternating chapters. So we don’t have the normal one-brain flow of a unified writing procedure. We always know the purpose of each chapter but often we write with no clear idea of what the links between the chapters will be. Sometimes we just leave red-ink pleas like this for each other —INSERT BETTER ENDING HERE — then we deal with links in rewrites.
I used to think this was nuts but then I read an interview with Katherine Anne Porter wherein she described her writing process as “creating scene islands” and “building bridges” between them. This gave me great comfort, knowing I could approach writing like a good engineer. Getting my chapters to flow became akin to making the long journey to Key West. 

It also made me think that maybe the island-bridge analogy is useful for those of you who work alone. Because the scene (and by extension chapter) is the terra firma of your plot structure and once you have that solid you can always go back and figure out the best ways to move between those plot clots. A consistent problem I see with critique manuscripts is that the writer often doesn’t know where to end a chapter for maximum impact. And that leads to not knowing where to pick up the next one. It is helpful, I think, for writers who struggle with this to concentrate on figuring out what the MAIN PURPOSE of each scene/chapter is, write that plot clot, and then fine tune the bridges later. I’ve often found that if I just keep telling the story — even if that means sticking in some really pedestrian transition just to keep moving forward — that when I go back later in rewrites the perfect transition jumps out at me.

So what exactly is a transition? Well, there are all kinds. Most are straightforward and literal; some are complex and sophisticated. But all good transitions do one thing: They strengthen the internal logic of your story by moving readers from idea to idea, scene to scene, and chapter to chapter with grace and ease. I’m going to move the lens out here and just talk about chapter transitions for now. Here’s some of the ones I’ve identified. Maybe you guys have some others?
Time Transition: This is when you want to move forward (or occasionally backward) in time with your story. These are pretty workmanlike but very useful in that they simply bridge time from your previous scene. (Unless noted, all examples here are from our latest book HEART OF ICE).

Chapter 4

It was nearly three by the time Louis met Flowers at the docks.

Chapter 7

Just over an hour later, Dagliesh had left the headland and was driving west along A1151. (P.D. James)

A word about time stamps. These are the tags you see at chapter beginnings ie “Sunday” or “November 1967” or even just “Later that day.” I have a slight bias against time stamps because too often they are a cop-out by a writer who can’t figure out how to gracefully weave time changes in the narrative. But sometimes you really need them, especially thriller writers who work on big canvases. If your story is happening at two different times, time stamps help the reader move between the threads, i.e. “New Orleans, 1855” or “Kabul 1999.” In his thriller The Phoenix Apostles, our own Joe Moore (with Lynn Sholes) pin-balls between Mexico, the Bahamas, Paris in present time and Reno, Washington D.C. and even 1899 Chicago. Without his time/location stamps we’d be lost!

Time/location tags can be pretty elaborate. In her complex novel about 9/11, Absent Friends, S.J. Rozan weaves multiple narratives together by using tags like so:

Chapter Six
The Invisible Man
Steps Between You and the Mirror

This is grad school stuff; Rozan knows what she’s doing. Another good use of time stamps is found in Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn must find a way to bring the missing wife Amy to life so Flynn alternates the husband Nick’s present-day narrative with his wife’s diary entries, all clearly marked with time/name stamps.

Point of View Transition: When you move between characters, you could just pick up with the new character’s voice. But the flow can be enhanced if you find a way to subtly link them. Here is Louis talking to a police chief about the abandoned hunting lodge where they just found old bones at the end of Chapter 6:

“Nobody comes here. It’s just a broken down old dump,” the chief said.
Louis shook his head. “No, it’s important. It’s his Room 101.”
“It’s from Orwell…1984.”
“Never read it.”
Flowers moved away and Louis looked back at the lodge. He could still recall the exact quote from the book – maybe because it reminded him of things in his foster homes he wanted to forget.
The thing in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.

Chapter 7

There were thousands of them. Small, black jelly-bean creatures crawling around the plastic bin, piggybacking one another to get to that one last shred of meat on the bone.
The beetle larvae were hungry today.
This skull would be ready by nightfall.
Danny Dancer made sure the lid was secure on the bin and left the room.

By using the Orwell “room” quote we tried to lead the reader to the horror of what they were about to see in Danny Dancer’s room. Change of POV but bridged with purpose.

Continued Narrative Transition: Here, the story simply continues from what came in previous chapter. The main artistic choice you makeis how much time elapses between scenes. It can be minutes, days or years. Here’s John Sandford ending Chapter 14:

“He tried to hang Spivak, for Christ’s sake,” Lucas said, exasperated.
“That was just part of the job,” Harmon said. “You can understand that.”

Chapter 15

Lucas couldn’t. He got off the phone, breathing hard for a few minutes, backed off the gas.

Sometimes, the continued narrative transition can be deep in a character’s pysche. Here’s a nice transition  from Jeff Lindsay’s Dearly Devoted Dexter at the end of chapter 10:

The only reason I ever thought about being human was to be more like him.

Chapter 11

And so I was patient. Not an easy thing, but it was the Harry thing.

The thing with this transition is that you the writer have to make calculated decisions on where to pick up the action  and what you can leave out in the lapse. Say you end a chapter with a cop getting a call at home to come to a  crime scene. Where do you pick up the thread? Do you show him strapping on the gun, getting in the car, walking up to the yellow tape? Or is it more effective to begin the next chapter with “As Nick took his first look at the woman’s body, he realized with a start he had seen her face before.” Here’s exactly such a passage from Val McDermid’s splendid A Place of Execution:

End of Chapter 11

The door to the caravan burst open and Grundy stood in the framed doorway, his face the bloodless grey of the Scardale crags. “They’ve found a body,” he said.

Chapter 12

Peter Crowther’s body was huddled in the lee of a dry-stone wall three miles due south of Scardale as the crow flies. It was curled in on itself in a fetal crouch, knees tucked up to the chin. The overnight frost that had turned the roads treacherous had given it a sugar coating of hoar.

Action/Reaction Transition: When you have a juicy action scene it can be very effective to break at just after the action peak and open next chapter with a character-focused reaction: Here is the end of our chapter 17, an ambush where Chief Flowers gets shot.

“Clear! We’re clear! Get the ambulance in here now!”
Louis’s heart was finally slowing but he still had to blink to clear his head. Joe was kneeling by Flowers, and from somewhere down the dirt road sirens wailed.
He heard a whimper and looked down at Danny Dancer. The bastard was crying. Curled up like a baby and crying.

 Chapter 18

How could he have been so stupid? He knew that anyone who showed an abnormal interest in a crime scene was someone who needed to be treated with suspicion.
Yet he had allowed Flowers, who was blind to the idea that anyone on his island could be a cold-blooded murderer, walk into a crazy man’s line of fire.

At beginning of Chapter 18, an hour has elapsed and Louis is waiting in the hospital as Flowers lays dying. We chose this transition because the “quiet” moment of Chapter 18 provides relief for the reader after the tension of the ambush, much like letting you catch your breath after the steep drop of a roller coaster. It’s all about pacing.

Descriptive Transition: This is another way to alter your pacing. Say you had a explaining-the-case chapter with heavy dialogue between investigators. It’s often effective then to go from staccato to legato and open the next chapter with a descriptive passage. And yes, you can use weather — in moderation!  It is also a good way of telling your readers where we are. I’m of the mind that description transitions should only be used early in your story because they can slow things down too much once your plot-engine gets really chugging. UNLESS, like Joe Moore, you are globe-hopping, and then a well-honed location description can be a sturdy bridge. Here’s Elaine Viets in Murder With Reservations, opening chapter 3 with a description that also slips in some protag’s backstory:

Helen grew up in St. Louis, where houses were redbrick boxes with forest green shutters. To her, the Coronado Tropic Apartments were wrapped in romance. The Art Deco building was painted a wildly impractical white and trimmed an exotic turquoise. The Corondado had sensuous curves. Palm trees whispered to purple waterfalls of bougainvillea. 

Echo Transition: This is a nifty little device wherein you end a chapter stressing a certain word then use that word again as your bridge to the next. It’s like a grace note in music. Lee Child is a master of this and here’s the end of his chapter 6:

“You have to do something.”
“I will do something. Believe it,” Reacher said. “You don’t throw my friends out of helicopters and live to tell the tale.”
Neagley said, “No, I want you to do something else.”
“Like what?”
“I want you to put the old unit back together.”

 Chapter 7

The old unit. It had been a typical Army intervention. About three years after the need for it had become blindingly obvious to everyone else, the Pentagon had started to think about it.

The Parallel Transition: This can be really cool but if you whiff on it, it just looks like you’re showing off. This is used when you are shifting POV’s. It is conscious repetition of an idea, image or symbol between two chapters. Like the Echo Transition, it creates an almost musical connection in the reader’s mind, like a good hook in pop music. And it doesn’t always come at the end/beginning of chapters. Here’s the first paragraph of Chapter 1 of our thriller A Killing Song. We are in the killer’s POV in Paris as he watches his next victim:

He couldn’t take his eyes off her. The last rays of the setting sun slanted through the stained glass window over her head, bathing her in a rainbow. He knew it was just a trick of light, that the ancient glass makers added copper oxide to make the green, cobalt to make the blue, and real gold to make the red. He knew all of this. But still, she was beautiful.

Here is the opening of chapter 2, from the protagonist’s POV as he watches his sister dancing in a Miami Beach nightclub:

I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Maybe it was because I hadn’t seen her in two years and in that time she had passed through the looking glass that separates girls from women. Whatever it was, Mandy was beautiful and I couldn’t stop staring.

This was a calculated thing for us because the book’s theme is partly about the two men whose lives spiral out of control and the fine line between violence that is driven inward and outward. (And yes, we mixed first and third POV but that’s a different post for another day.)

Two last thoughts about building bridges. First, transitions are just a tool, a part of your writer’s technique, and as such you can learn to use them with flair and confidence. Study writers you admire. Go grab a book and open to the blank spots between chapters. Then analyze how the writer has moved through time and space, how he has bridged the gaps between his chapters. You’ll find that most of the time, the best writers adhere to the golden rule: KISS. They keep it simple, stupid. Which leads me to my last thought:

 Don’t over-think this. Resist the urge to build this:

When all you need is this:

Your first job as storyteller is to just keep the reader moving between your islands. You don’t want them to stop and admire turrets, filigree and gargoyles. More often than not, a sturdy little span is the best way across.

You CAN tell an eBook by its cover

By P.J. Parrish

We really need to talk about bad eBook covers. We’re being inundated with them. It’s a tsunami of muddy colors, unreadable type and images that look like they were drawn by someone’s six-year-old kid.
Now, we’re all brilliant writers, that’s a given, right? But when it comes to eBook covers, few of us are graphic designers. This stuff is like a Mozart sonata to us. We know it’s good when we hear it but don’t ask us to sit down at the Steinway and try to play it.
Here’s the main point to take away here: Anything that reeks of amateur hour in your eBook will doom you. So yes, it pays to pay someone. But if you insist on designing your own cover, please do some research into what works. Troll through Amazon and look at the covers. Or CLICK HERE to see some really bad stuff. (Scroll down at least as far to my favorite “Lumberjack In Love.”)

If you hire someone, please don’t abdicate your power! Because YOU have final say on your cover and if your instincts say “it doesn’t quite work” go back to your artist and get a redo. I recently saw an author lament on a writer’s list that she “half-heartedly approved” her cover  because it “sort of conveyed the idea of the book and it was sort of okay.” She added it was too late before she noticed her name was so small and pale as to be unreadable. I looked at the cover. It’s clean, it’s professional looking, but it has no pop.

That author won’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.

I can hear you saying, “Huh, why should I listen to her?” Well, my professional resume on this is kinda thin. I’ve got a degree in art which included ad design classes, and I once made my living designing newspaper feature pages. And full disclaimer, my sister Kelly has a side business designing covers. But more important, I’ve studied this in preparation for our own eBook debuts. (Our backlist title DEAD OF WINTER came out last month and our novella CLAW BACK comes out this week. CLICK HERE to see them).

So here are my tips, with some sample covers I found at random on the Kindle site. First some general stuff.

KEEP IT SIMPLE BUT STRONG:  What works on a regular book cover usually doesn’t translate to eBook. One word: thumbnail. That’s the size your book comes up on most eBook lists. A paperback cover is about 64 square inches, a big canvas to display an image, title, author name and maybe a tagline and blurb. But an eBook cover is really just an icon, meant to be judged in the blink of an eye. So intricate detail, slender san-serif fonts, murky colors can put you at a disadvantage. Subtle isn’t always good in the Lilliputian world of e-bookstores. 

PICK A MOOD:  You need to convey the TONE of your book immediately. Is it amateur sleuth a la Elaine Viets or hardboiled realism a la Barry Eisler, or wacky stuff a la Tim Dorsey? Make sure the colors, illustrations and fonts work together to support the mood. Zoe Sharp tells us at a glance what kind of book she writes
I don’t think we’re going to confuse her with this author
While we’re at it, non-fiction should have a different feel than fiction. Here are covers my sister designed for an author who wrote two books about the Civil War.
You can tell at a glance which is the novel and which is non-fiction. And note the use of blue versus brown. The blue conveys an elegiac tone; the sepia brown historic. Now let’s talk specifics.
COLORS:  Bright, saturated colors catch the eye so stay away from anything muddy. Unless you’re Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) you probably can’t get away with a plain black cover. Also be aware of the psychology of colors. Red and yellow convey action (Ad guys know the seductive power of bright yellow on black, and there’s a good reason traffic signs are yellow and red). Other colors elicit different emotions: Blue is calming and confident but can also convey sadness and can be effectively noir-y. Political correctness be damned, pink and baby blue are girly and work good on lighter books. Orange is quirky (it’s a favorite for cookbooks!) Green, for me personally, misfires on fiction covers because, like purple, it is emotionally ambiguous. Exception: I think acid green and other neons can work great for some crime novels. Harlan Coben’s covers went from this

 to this
thanks to a good cover designer. Coben became visually branded via his striking neon covers. You, too, need to think about branding with your eBook covers, especially if you have a series. Before we settled on our final covers, Kelly and I came up with these for our first two Louis Kincaid novels.
Note the uniformity of the type, mood, colors and use of landscape imagery. We jettisoned these because another author, CJ Lyons, used the exact same stock photo at left on one of her books. Try to stay away from all the cliche images that are showing up on eBooks now — like blood dripping from a woman’s eyes like tears and bloody hand-prints on windows. I mean, c’mon, you can do better.
FONTS: I have a thing for typefaces. I love them. Within their simple designs lie, well, fonts of emotion and you can almost feel the glee of their inventors. Look at how different these are:

Each conveys a different mood. Fonts are fun to play around with. But fonts are like sex. The more exotic it is, the more trouble you can get into. Go for READABILITY. Stay away from the cliche correlations because they tend to look like you’re trying to hard, in other words: amateur hour. Don’t use Comic Sans on a comic novel (don’t use it for anything…it’s ugly). Don’t use Lithos if your setting is a Greek Isle. Don’t fall back on Papyrus if you’re writing about Egypt. Don’t use Old English for a book set in 1800s London. (It’s not only a visual cliche it’s unreadable!) Remember: The three elements — color, graphic, type — must complement each other, not fight each other for attention.

Use a limited font palate. Yes, you can combine different typefaces on a cover, but be careful. Again, they must be readable and complementary. Here’s a good basic article on FONT SELECTION. And I realize that this is probably inside baseball, but it you don’t know about kerning, weight and how to align type, please hire someone who does.

GRAPHIC ELEMENT:  You can use either a photograph or an illustration but make sure it is quality. There’s are some great sites for buying stock art and photos, some free. I read recently that publishers are using more people on crime novels because research indicates character-driven books are selling better of late. So we are getting more of this

And less of this

But those examples also say something about TONE. Lisa Scottoline has moved away from her old lawyer series (Killer Smile) and now writes “family-in-jeopardy” crime novels.  Likewise, you must find the right image for your mood. Other stuff: Don’t use the artwork of a relative unless your relative is a professional. Don’t photo-shop too many elements in an effort to convey EVERYTHING about your plot. This works:

So does this:
I like the way this cover blends a powerful image with the type and a touch of color:
This is not bad but to me it just misses:
Why? The blended images don’t make sense and the cover is a tad hard to read. And you be the judge of this one:
Here’s one last example that sort of summarizes everything I’m talking about. Terri Reid is an eBook author with some real success. Here’s one of her eBooks:
 All her books have the same gray background and similar type faces. She uses trees as her signature image, which is a good idea because she’s writing a series. They’re serviceable covers. Would they be better if they could be “read” more easily at the e-bookstore? Would they stimulate you to try them if they “said” more about the content? (I had to go to her website to find out she wrote ghost stories; I thought this was psychological suspense.) Would a touch of color help “pop” the cover? I think so. Compare it to this similar “tree” cover:
But Terri Reid apparently sold 60K books through Amazon last year (CLICK HERE) so maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe you CAN break the rules and get away with it.
Which leads us to this cover. You might have seen it.

Why did it work? It shouldn’t. It’s gray. It’s sort of dull. The font is sort of just “there.” At first glance, you can’t tell that’s a guy’s tie.
But it worked because it broke the OLD rules and went against the cliche of the erotic novel.  Here’s Romance Times editor Audrey Goodman: “What may have tipped the scale for the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy are the nondescript covers. The classic ‘clinch’ covers on a lot of romance novels tend to carry a stigma of being ‘old-fashioned,’ so the covers on ‘Fifty Shades’ may have made the books more approachable for a larger range or readers.”
By the time the Grey eBook (originally published by Writers Coffee Shop) was bought by Doubleday, the cover had become iconic. Doubleday wisely kept it for the hardcover editions and it’s now it is being copied for other erotic novels.
Whew. We could do this all day and this went on longer than I planned. I’m exhausted. I need a cigarette. Was it good for you?

The name game, and another first-page critique

Before we get to today’s critique (I’ll explain McGruff later too), check out this fun toy that I heard about from my friend Sheila Lowe—it’s a name generator. They claim to be able to come up with “billions” of name combinations. I tried it and came up with a couple of new ideas by combining their suggestions.

So, here’s today’s first-page critique. My comments are in the bullet points that follow.


     Shopping, taxis, suitcases, dogs, wine, antiques and Private Investigators don’t mix well together.  Separately, they’re okay; together they can lead to murder.  I know that now, but I had no clue on my first day.  You would have thought that I had a clue since I’m the Private Investigator mentioned above.  My name is Graff, Guy Graff.  I’m twenty-four years old, opened my own detective agency, Graff Investigations, and thought I was ready for anything; wrong again.  Let me start at the beginning. 
Detective Rule Number twenty-seven: Get to the point before something with a sharp point gets to you.
    It was Valentines Day.  Well it was for everyone else, not for me.  More about that later as I’m trying to get to the point.  
    I woke up that day with a bit of excitement in my stomach. Enthusiasm mixed with anxiety, like before a blind date when you haven’t been with a woman for a year.  I opened my agency two months ago and today was the start of my illustrious career.
    Pulling the handle of my small noisy refrigerator, I knew that I had made a complete break from my former opulent Philadelphian Mainline life.  We had money.  At least my parents did.  I turned my back on it. 

My critique:

  • This first page suffers from “back story blues”it’s heavy on  background information, light on drama. It’s a cozy mystery, judging by the writing and the title, but like its hard-boiled cousin, a cozy must grab the reader’s interest with some kind of compelling opening scene or disruption (See Jim’s Sunday post on that topic). The narrator in this first page is so busy giving his back story and wandering off point that the reader’s attention wanders away, as well. All the information about opening the agency, breaking away from Mainline society, etc., can be presented after the opening scene. Take a look at how Elaine Viets opens her shopping mysteriesshe’s an expert at setting up humorous opening scenes that draw in the reader.
  • I like your Detective Rule No. 27, but I would use it in a different way. I suggest putting a Detective Rule at  the head of each chapter as a framing device. Look at some cozy mystery series, and you’ll see that many of them use chapter-heading framing devices (such as Deb Baker’s Dolls to Die For mysteries, and my Fat City Mysteries). 
  • It’s refreshing to see a male character as the lead in a cozy. That will help distinguish this story from the cozy pack.
  • Speaking of name games, the name “Guy Graff” reminded me of McGruff. You might want to reconsider that name. You don’t want the reader to pause or get distracted.
  • I suggest that you locate the first scene  where the action or conflict starts for Graffthat will probably be the true opening of your book. Then weave in the background information contained on this first page. 
  • If you keep that first line in the story, I would rework the list–the list is too long, plus it sounds a tad awkward. The title could be stronger, too. 
  • Keep going! All the revisions that I’ve suggested can be easily fixed in the rewrite stage.

So how ’bout it, other readers? Do any of you read cozies? What suggestions would you make?