Strategies for surviving the epublishing revolution

One of the perks of being Program Chair of MWA, SoCal  is that I get to do outreach to interesting, dynamic people. On Saturday we had a very cool panel at our chapter meeting, including Marci Baun, publisher of Wild Child Publishing, and our own Jim Bell. Author Gary Phillips moderated the program, which was called, “Epublishing: Will it help your career, or kill it?”

Gary opened the discussion by citing some statistics: Today, epublishing is still a relatively small slice of the publishing world, but it’s growing exponentially. Baun, whose company is an innovator in the epublishing market, started off by setting aside the “myth” that publishers see huge savings by publishing e-books instead of paper.  (Gary has since alerted us to a NYT article on the same topic, Math of Publishing Meets the E-book.) Jim also fielded some questions about TKZ’s new e-book anthology, Fresh Kills.

The panelists stressed that to be successful in any kind of publishing, especially epublishing, it’s important to do social networking. Blogging, Facebook, Twitter: You have to get your name out there and work your networks. At one point they asked for a show of hands from the people who are active social networkers; many hands went up, but not a majority. I was surprised by that–I would have assumed that almost everyone in that group would be active online.  Around the lunch table, I heard some people say that they find social networking to be confusing and intimidating.

A small but consistent networking effort can be very effective  according to Baun, who said she requires an author to make a successful online marketing effort before she’ll launch a print run for their book.

The panel discussed the do’s and don’ts of social networking, including the importance of adding value to the discussion, and avoiding endless BSP. Among the strategies discussed were What to Tweet, and using ebooks as a loss leader. After the meeting I followed Jim’s suggestion to use Tweetdeck, and to get more actively involved in forum discussions.

Other than doing my weekly blog posts, I’ve been hit or miss in my social networking efforts up until now. As a result of Saturday’s meeting  I’ve resolved to spend at least 15 minutes a day making the networking rounds.

What about you? How much time do you spend social networking every day, and are you consistent?

Short Stories Matter

James Scott Bell

As you know, we’ve been celebrating the release of Fresh Kills here on TKZ. It’s been a pleasure working with my blogmates, pros all, to bring you these new stories, at an attractive price. Look for Fresh Kills at amazon, scribd or smashwords.

My contribution to the anthology is “Laughing Matters,” a title that has more than one meaning, as you’ll find out. And that’s sort of what the best short stories do; they work on at least a couple of levels.

Certainly, the literary short story is like that. In college I got to take a writing workshop with Raymond Carver, and that’s what his stories are famous for. They have something going on up top, on the surface, but when you finish you realize there’s a rich layer underneath that you’ve missed (and I have to confess, I usually did, and would have to re-read each one a couple of times).

In the suspense or mystery category, you need to deliver a story that has a surprise in it somewhere, to keep the reader guessing. Jeffery Deaver has written two volumes of such tales in his Twisted series, and even challenges the reader to try to outguess him. It’s cool when it works, but it’s hard to do. Which is why this kind of story is every bit as challenging as the literary sort.

The germ of “Laughing Matters” came one day when I was thinking about all the standup comics in LA who never make it. I must have just seen some clip of a comedian doing post-Seinfeld observational humor (one of thousands) and just thought, this is dull. This is derivative. This guy’s not going to go very far.

Which reminded me of a time when I was living and acting in New York, and went to a comedy club for “open mike.” There were some funny guys, and then there was this one kid who was obviously onstage for the first time. The sort whose grandmother must have told him, “Sonny, you are so funny! You should go tell your jokes on television!”

Anyway, the kid comes out, he’s nervous, and tells a joke. It fell to the ground with a thud that echoed through the club. He got rattled. And you know what happens when you get rattled in front of the 11 p.m. crowd in New York City on open mike night? It was brutal. The kid made it through maybe two more jokes, neither of which worked, and then froze. As the crowd piled on with jeers and snorts, he stood there, choking the mike stand, unable to move or speak.

The emcee, noting what was going on, jumped in from the wings with his big smile, clapping his hands, shouting “Let’s hear it for _____ !” and then took the guy’s arm and guided him off the stage.

There must have been public hangings easier to watch.

So all of that came to me as I wrote the opening lines:

He died.

Pete Harvey, “The Harv” as he billed himself, just flat out died in front of the 11 p.m. crowd at the Comedy Zone.

Then I have Pete sitting at the bar afterward, drowning his sorrows, when a most interesting gent sits down next to him. And the story came to me in a flash, twists and all. This is, I’d wager, how the best short stories usually appear. But then you write, re-write and polish, and hopefully come up with something that works.

I’ve reclaimed my love of the short story, and have decided to keep writing them. Maybe I’ll put out my own collection sometime. It’s nice to have a market for stories again. Because short stories matter, it seems to me. A good story can deliver a hugely satisfying reading experience in small span of time.

FWIW, here are some of my favorite short stories, based on the wallop I felt at the end:

“Hills Like White Elephants,” Ernest Hemingway

“Soldier’s Home,” Ernest Hemingway

“The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” William Saroyan

“A Word to Scoffers,” William Saroyan

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” J.D. Salinger

“The End of the Tiger,” John D. MacDonald

“Chapter and Verse,” Jeffery Deaver

Tomorrow, we return you to your regularly scheduled blog. It’s been a pleasure to offer you our wares in Fresh Kills. Thanks for taking us for a spin.

The Before That Led to “In the After”

by John Gilstrap

When I was a kid—actually all the way through high school—I churned out short stories by the dozens, sometimes on command to meet the requirements of English class, but mostly because I loved writing. For me, a short story assignment was as close to a guaranteed A as one could reasonably hope for. I read voraciously in those years, and thanks in large measure to The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and their ilk, I grew up steeped in short-form fiction.

I used to read Writers Market in the 1970s and mentally catalog all of the outlets for my stories, preparing myself for the day when I felt that my writing would evolve past high-school good and become professional-writer good. If I recall properly, Playboy was paying $1500 for short stories back then. Who knew that Playboy even had words? All of the big-format magazines carried short stories, too. I was in training to leave my mark on the world.

Unfortunately, when I got to college, my story production sagged precipitously, thanks to my libido and my love of a good party. My attentions were wildly diffused in directions that had nothing to do with academics, and when my grades started to nose dive, something had to go. After careful deliberation, I decided to stay with the dating and the academics and the booze (not necessarily in that order), and stopped my recreational writing.

Meanwhile, the market for short stories evaporated. That was just as well, because by the time I started writing again, my interests had shifted exclusively to long-form fiction. I never looked back—not until my editor at Kensington suggested that I write a short story for my website that would help promote my book, No Mercy, and its main character, Jonathan Grave. That story became “Discipline” and it introduces readers to Jonathan’s bizarre childhood. That was the first short story I’d written in something like thirty years, and I loved the experience.

Just a couple of months after I posted that story to my website, my blog mates came up with the idea of the anthology that became Fresh Kills: Tales from the Killzone (actually, I think it was James Scott Bell’s suggestion, but I can’t swear to it). My initial reaction was twofold: On one hand, I thought it was a great idea, but on the other, I confess that I bristled at the notion of joining the world of “self-published” authors. I worried that it would be read by some as a form of desperation. Let’s face it: self-publishing is not exactly held in the highest regard among my fellow authors, and the last thing I needed was for a good idea to inadvertently harm my career. Call me shallow, but the publishing business is scary these days.

I consulted with both my agent and my editor, and, to my relief, they were both very supportive of the idea. I think it was the uniqueness of the concept as much as anything else. I’m not aware of a similar project out there that combines the talents of established authors in a self-published book, and I think I can speak for the other Killzoners that we won’t complain if we get some positive buzz about this. So, with their approval in my pocket, I signed on.

And what a hoot it turned out to be! Initially, I thought I would do another story of Jonathan Grave in his youth, but that struck me as a conflict of interest—especially since “Discipline” is offered on my website free of charge–a pattern I want to continue. I went mining for ideas, tried a couple of them out, but remained largely uninspired. With our deadline approaching, I found myself with bupkis.

Finally, the muse found me where she often does: in the shower, when my mind was in neutral. I thought it would be really cool to do a story of delayed revenge, a high-tension thriller presented on a tiny canvas. The “feel” of the story hit me before the plot points did. I wanted the reader to feel frightened, and claustrophobic as the victim learns his fate. I wanted the victim in this case to be the protagonist, and I wanted his sense of loss to be enormous.

And because it’s a short story, I wanted it to have a huge twist in the end.

I was on travel on the occasion of this particular inspiration, and because I didn’t know exactly where I wanted it to go, I resorted to pen and paper—ever the best way for me to work through plot points. Twenty-odd handwritten pages later, the story was done. I call it “In The After” because, well . . . Actually, I can’t tell you without giving too much away.

I can tell you this, though: I’m already looking forward to Volume Two.

The Chicken Guy

by Michelle Gagnon

Excerpt from THE TUNNELS:

“So what do you think?”

Kelly looked up from her notes to find Morrow watching her, rocking back and forth on his heels with a half-smile.

“Not our guy.” She rubbed her eyes with a thumb and forefinger and suppressed a yawn.

“Told you. Long day, huh? Where’d they pull you in from?”


“Oh, right, the chicken guy. Nice work on that one.”


In my debut thriller THE TUNNELS, I made this oblique reference to FBI Special Agent Kelly Jones’s previous case. Over the years I’ve received several emails from readers curious to hear more about “The Chicken Guy” (although as we here at The Kill Zone know, by all rights that title belongs to Mr. John Ramsey Miller, who is currently breeding a chicken army for world conquest).

So when it came time to submit a story for our anthology, I thought this would be great material to mine.

I’ve probably only composed a few dozen short stories total over the course of my writing career. With this one, I decided to focus on a single setting, the scene that would mark the climax if it were a full novel. I wanted to write something that was almost pure action, where you really got to see Kelly do what she does best.

I enjoyed exploring my heroine through a prequel. Part of the story laid the groundwork for crises she’d face down the line, tests of her moral code that over the course of my series have become increasingly challenge for her to pass. Hints of that popped up as I was writing The Chicken Guy. Knowing where she ends up made it much easier to figure out where she started.

As I was editing, I caught myself wondering if I would have written the story the same way if I’d tackled it immediately before writing THE TUNNELS. And as I’m putting the finishing touches on my fourth novel featuring the same characters, I was struck by how much Kelly in particular had been forced to change. What I love about writing a series (and about watching a well-made TV series, as opposed to a film) is that it enables a much greater story arc. A character grapples with different challenges in each book, challenges that shape how they’ll act when faced with new situations down the line. I’ve put Kelly through the wringer over the course of these four books. She’s emerged far more damaged than when she started, but in a way stronger than she was at the outset. It was interesting for me to look back on her through this lens, to see how far she’s come in so many ways.

We’re discussing assembling another anthology later in the year. For that one, I’m toying with the idea of delving further into the life of a more minor character from the series, one I haven’t had the opportunity to really explore. What I’ve discovered through this process is that short stories can be a great tool for character development, a chance to see how a tangential story line can have an impact. As Joe said, this is a great format to do that kind of exploration.

The anthology is available on Amazon and at Smashwords for the bargain price of $2.99.

Blood Remains: A ghost story

This week the Killers are blogging about The Kill Zone’s new e-collection of original short stories, Fresh Kills (available on Kindle, Smashwords, and Scribd). I’m excited and honored to have my short story, ‘Blood Remains,’ included in the anthology. At its heart, ‘Blood Remains’ is a ghost story. I was inspired to write it after reading a newspaper headline (it would be a spoiler if I told you what the headline was). When I read the article I started to wonder, “What if?” As in, what if this happened, and then that?  That thought process energized my creative “boys in the basement” (Jim discussed this creative process in his Sunday post). The end result was a paranormal story: A victim of childhood abuse returns home after many years  only to discover that while memories fade, blood remains. 

The story breaks ground for me in a couple of ways: It’s my first published short story; it’s also a new genre for my writing. A bit of background: I had been developing “Blood Remains” as a novel until Jim suggested that we publish an e-collection of short stories. I narrowed the focus down to what would have been the end of the novel, and reshaped it as a short story.

About making the e-jump

Plunging into the e-book world can be as intimidating for authors as it is for readers (And for publishers, too: Here’s a recent update on the Amazon vs. Macmillan spat). I received a Kindle DX from Santa for Christmas, and I felt very tentative as I downloaded my first few books. I  soon discovered to my delight that some classic books are available on Kindle for free. Then I learned how to enlarge the text so I don’t need reading glasses. Now I’m an e-book convert, carrying my Kindle around with me everywhere. A Kindle application for PCs is available for free, by the way (Click here). Of course, Apple has now debuted the iPad, so the e-book war is officially on. It’s going to be like Rome versus the Barbarians. (Although I’m not sure which side is Rome, and which the Barbarians). It’ll be interesting to see what the e-book landscape is like a few years from now.

Have you made the e-book plunge? How’s the water?

TKZ Short Story Collection ‘Fresh Kills’ Debuts!

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Well, you’ve seen us discuss the e-book revolution, and now we at The Kill Zone have jumped right on in – producing our own e-book anthology of killer stories. All week we’re going to give you a sneak ‘behind the scenes’ insight into each of our stories – but the best thing you can do (of course!) is buy and download the anthology for yourself. Fresh Kills is available on Kindle at Amazon and in a variety of e-book formats at Smashwords.

The stories in Fresh Kills vary in mood and theme (as you can well imagine!) and I am just as intrigued, as you all are, to read my fellow bloggers‘ contributions. My own short story is entitled ‘The Angel in the Garden’ and it is, believe it or not, the first time I have written a story set in Australia. Here’s a brief description (it’s how I like to imagine the dust jacket would read):
When Constable Duff McManus is called out to investigate a body floating in an ornamental pond, he has to confront both the death of a childhood friend long considered a traitor, as well as his own war time memories. It may be a year since the Great War ended but for many in Australia, there are some wounds that will never heal and some secrets that will never be revealed, not even in death.

I was inspired to write this story after reading Juliet Nicholson’s book The Great Silence over the holidays. She deals with the immediate aftermath of the First World War, focusing specifically on the years 1918-1920, and incorporates first hand accounts from people across the social spectrum. The result is incredibly moving (I went through a whole box of tissues), especially when she deals with the decision to introduce a two minute silence to remember the dead (a hush literally fell across England as the 11th hour struck on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1919) and the return of the unknown soldier, who represented all the husbands, fathers, and sons who never made it home.
I don’t think many Americans realize the deep significance of the First World War for Australia. In many ways it was the event that defined and shaped our national identity and altered the way Australians perceived the British Empire forever. When war was declared in 1914 thousands of Australians rushed to enlist – it was considered every Australian’s duty to defend ‘King and Country’. The horrific debacle at Gallipoli and the slaughter of Australians on the Western Front, however, changed all that. The statistics are staggering: From a population of fewer than five million, almost 417,000 Australian men enlisted, and of those over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner. At the end of the war memorials were erected in nearly every town across Australia – you can still see them today – and it is clear from the names of the young men listed that no community or social strata were spared.
In writing ‘The Angel in the Garden’ I wanted to capture a sense of what it must have been like for those soldiers who did return and how they reintegrated (if indeed they ever did) into the shattered remnants of Australian society. In Constable Duff McManus, I hoped to evoke the deep sense of bitterness and anger that permeated post-war Australia. Oh, and I also wanted to kill off someone (always a good idea in a murder mystery!) and I thought who better to target than someone who represented the anti-conscription, trade union movement in Australia. See, even in a short story I cannot help but get caught up in the history books…

I’ve blogged before on the challenges I faced when confronting the medium of the short story and now I face a surprising dilemma – whether to consider writing a longer story about Constable Duff McManus. As a character I find him intriguing. There is no doubt he returned from the war a scarred, wounded man – but what I sensed, from the moment he appeared on the page, was that he had also lost his ‘moral compass’ as a result – and I was fascinated by where that might lead. So now I have a choice to make…do I finally write a novel set in Australia?…

In the meantime, I am content to have a short story out in the e-book world as my fellow bloggers and I dive into the uncharted e-book ocean (hoping to swim of course!). I also can’t wait to read all the stories!