Happy Holidays!

imageIt’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 2011. From Clare, Kathryn, Joe M., Nancy, Michelle, Jordan, John G., Joe H., John M., and James to all our friends and visitors, Seasons Greeting from the Kill Zone.

See you back here on Monday, January 3.

In the writing kitchen, what kind of cook are you?

Clare’s post yesterday about NaNoWriMo reminded me of something I wrote awhile back when I was blogging over at Killer Hobbies (KH is a great blog about mysteries that incorporate crafts, by the way). Back then I’d never heard of NaNoWriMo (maybe the contest hadn’t even been invented yet), but I’ve always known I could never survive a rapid writing marathon. Here’s a recap:

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Top Chef on TV this week, but my two obsessions in life—writing and food—have started to converge.

Because I’m on a killer deadline right now, I’ve been doing some stressed-out musing about my personal writing practices. And I’ve decided that as a writing “chef,” I am a slow cooker. You could even call me a crock-pot.

My forward progress through the first draft of a novel is chunky and irregular, like an ice cutter breaking its way across a packed-solid river. There’s the occasional hang-up on the ice as I stall for a few days, working and reworking difficult sections. My average forward progress rarely exceeds a page a day. Barely tugboat speed, in other words.

On the plus side, I write every day. Every day, at the same time of day: before dawn. Over the past year, I’ve missed only two days of writing—once when I was stuck in an airplane (when I fly, I can’t concentrate on anything more challenging than a Danielle Steel novel). And once when I was retching my guts into the toilet from a bout of stomach flu.

As a writer who produces at this relatively stately pace, I reel in shock and awe when I read that some writers can tap out thousands of words a day. In the great writing kitchen of life, these people must be the flash fryers .

My best friend from college is a flash fryer. As a student she redefined the time-honored, collegiate art of procrastination. She’d wait until well past midnight to start a paper that was due at eight a.m. the next morning. Finally, in a Selectric burst of typing and crumpled pages, she’d bang out her essay. And receive an A. One time she procrastinated so long on a paper about Chaka, King of the Zulus, that it endangered her graduation status. We still call it “Chaka time” when one of us is desperately behind on a deadline. (These days, my friend is an uber-successful sitcom writer. And still procrastinating, but man her shows are funny!)

I admire the flash fryers, but I am resigned to chugging along at my crock-pot writing pace. I have to go back (and back, and back) over sections, layering in changes, rethinking descriptors, building connections, to make the prose sing. Or at least, warble.

I figure that no matter what our cooking style, all writers are heading toward the same goal: to serve up sizzling prose to the reader’s table.

What about you? Are you a slow cooker, fast fryer, or something in-between?

Your writer’s brain on the Internet

Recently there’s been a lot of research and discussion about the impact of the Internet on brain function.

The reviews have been mixed. Some studies indicate that surfing the Internet can enhance brain function in older people. That’s a good thing.

On the other side of the argument is a recent article by Nicolas Carr in the Atlantic Monthly, Is Google Making Us Stupid?. In the article, Carr said that his ability to concentrate is evaporating–he said that it has become more difficult to read books or lengthy articles, material that used to be easy for him to digest. “Deep reading” has become a struggle, and he blames the change on the Internet. Citing some research as well as anecdotal cases, he asserts that we are becoming a generation of word skimmers rather than true readers. We are power browsers, not researchers.

I have to say I partially agree with Carr. I’m finding it harder to battle my way through lengthy prose unless it’s so well written and dramatic that it keeps me riveted. In my case, I can pin some of the blame on hydrocephalus, because concentration is supposed to be an issue with that condition. (The brain shunt surgery I’m having later this month should fix that problem). For other people, though, the question remains: Is the Internet altering our  brain circuitry in the area that controls deep, sustained attention? Is it enhancing our ability to multitask and “info jump” at the expense of more intense levels of thought and concentration?

The debate makes me wonder what the Internet might be doing to writers. After all, we’re the ones who are supposed to be creating the “lengthy, rich prose” and books for other people to read. If our brains are being rewired somehow by the Internet, what impact will that have on  our writing? Has this change already begun to happen? How would we even know? 

As a random check, I just browsed over to the New York Times Bestseller List. Topping the list at #1 this week for nonfiction hardback is a book called SH*T MY DAD SAYS.

The book is supposed to be funny, and it’s had great reviews. I’m sure it’s written in lengthy, rich prose, filled with merit. I’ve heard it was developed from, or inspired by, the author’s Twitter postings, at 140 characters each.


Readers, meet your future.

— KL

p.s. And here’s a question–did you make it to the end of this blog post without skipping off to one of the hyperlinks? If so, God bless your un-rewired brain. If not, no worries. We all do it, more and more all the time.

Down the rabbit hole…and back

I’m ba-a-ack

First of all, thanks so much to Joe and the rest of the Killers (and our wonderful blog readers) for doing a great job during my absence by holding Open Tuesdays
I’ve been on “medical hiatus” for a couple of months. Here’s what happened: Back in May, I received an unexpected diagnosis of hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain). When the MRI confirmed the disorder, I instantly reframed a number of gnarly symptoms that I’d been suffering for some time. Before the diagnosis, I thought I’d been going through a number of garden-variety ailments (mid-life malaise, vertigo, migraines, clumsy gait, plus being out of shape), so it was shocking to discover that many of the symptoms were being caused by a plumbing problem in the brain (well, except maybe for being out of shape). 
I reacted calmly at first, but then total panic set in. I froze. I stopped almost all activities–driving, the gym, reading, writing, walking the dog…you name it. I went into the hospital for tests, and surgery was indicated. Then a complication set in (the last thing you want to hear when it comes to your brain), and the next round of surgery has been postponed until late August.

So now, here it is late July, and I’ve decided to unfreeze. I can’t change the fact that recovery is going to be a long haul, but I’m now forcing myself to resume some regular activities. First and foremost, I have rededicated myself to writing every day. I went a long spell without writing a single word. Concentration and short term memory is an issue with hydrocephalus, and for a long time, even the weekly blog post seemed an overwhelming task.
But that changed slowly. Like tiny songbirds of spring returning to a tree, I began resuming certain interests and activities. The first bird to return was reading. After a while, for inspiration, I started doing “writer’s reading,” which is when a writer reads books of the type he or she would like to write. Then I started jotting down notes on index cards. Next, I started triangulating on the story I’d like to be writing. (What if this happened, and then that?). Then one day I opened up my laptop and typed an opening paragraph. And so it has gone from there. 
So things are getting somewhat back to normal. It’s been an interesting challenge, trying to recover both physical and creative equilibrium. On the physical side I still have a ways to go, but I’m holding my ground on the creative side, which for me means continuing to write.

So thanks again to you all, just for being here today. And I’m wondering: Has there ever been a time when you’ve had to really fight to keep writing, due to physical or mental challenges, or your circumstances?


Open Tuesdays

image It’s time for another Open Tuesday while our blogmate, Kathryn Lilley, is on medical hiatus. Bring us your questions, comments and discussions. If you have a question about writing, publishing or any other related topic, ask away in our comments section. We’ll do our best to get you an answer.

And don’t forget you can download a copy of FRESH KILLS, Tales from the Kill Zone to your Kindle or PC today.

Little things that add up to a big difference

Several years ago I did a post over at Killer Hobbies called “Stomping out your story killers,” in which I discussed how the frequent repetition of small errors  can kill your manuscript. As writers we tend to commit our own particular story killers, such as the overuse of certain words and constructions. Some of my most frequent offenders are are the overuse of dashes, and using italics for emphasis in dialogue. During rewrite, I do a global search for my story killers and winnow them down so that they they don’t occur as often.
Which brings me to today’s critique. I enjoyed today’s first page submission, but I do think it contains a couple of potential story killers that the writer may want to watch out for. My comments follow in the bullets. 
MYSTERY OF THE HEART
What could be so urgent as to have his old friend send for him so soon after their recent visit?
Witt entered the palace and a world of opulence greeted him and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. A wonderful place to visit, but not his kind of purposeful, long-term living. He much preferred the country.
A young page dressed in the red and gold finery of the Regent’s colors approached, a serious expression clouding his young features.
“Lord Witt.” The page bowed low. “The Regent awaits you. Follow me, please.”
Witt smiled. “Young Thomas, you are far too serious this evening. Why the frown? I enjoy the sound of your laughter much better than the stern look you wear.”
“You will know soon enough and you will understand.”
An edge of uneasiness rippled down his back as he followed the boy. He’d helped his old friend out of difficulties in the past, but those were around issues of war, but those days were past and he enjoyed his quiet life in the country now.
The page knocked on a heavy oak door and bowed out of the way as the door swung open. A dozen men occupied the room. All wore serious expressions.
“Who died?” he joked. But when the circle parted a man, pale and slack, lay across a chaise lounge, his face horribly disfigured.
“Charleton,” said the Regent, stepping from the circle: regal, robust and somber. “Murdered.”
“How?”
“We are not entirely sure…that’s why I sent for you. When word gets out.”
“Tell me what happened.”
Templar came forward. “It appears his face was torn to pieces.”
Comments:

  • I enjoyed this piece, especially the last line, “It appears his face was torn to pieces.” However, I got thrown as I encountered three instances of the word “serious” on the very first page, plus a similar word, “somber.”  Every word on the first page needs to have a purpose for being there. It needs to push the narrative forward in some way. I would suggest that the writer trim down the use of “serious” to one instance. Rather than simply repeating the fact that people seem serious, find another way to heighten the tension on the first page.
  • The description of the palace was too nonspecific to draw me into the setting. I would suggest highlighting one outstanding thing about the palace–something that’s familiar to the narrator, but that underscores its opulence–to bring it to life.

 Your thoughts? And while you’re at it, can you share some of your personal “story killers”?

Opening with action: Today’s critique

Today we have the first page of a story called CRYSTAL WHITE. My comments follow in the bullets.


PROLOGUE

Warehouse District

Ontario, California

Assistant Special-Agent-in-Charge Nick Lafferty swore at his vibrating cell phone, trapped in the breast pocket of his suit jacket, trapped under his DEA-issued body armor. He ripped open the top Velcro strap. The noise reverberated through the warehouse. Then he contorted to fish his hand under the vest trying to reach the damn thing before it rang again.
A passing police sergeant, in gray urban fatigues, body armor and carrying an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, let him know, “Sharp shooters are in position, Agent Lafferty. Ready when you are.”

He nodded thanks. With the cell phone firmly in hand, he flipped it open. “Lafferty here.”

“Lafferty here too,” his wife, Renee, said, mimicking his stern, gruff voice, then laughing. “Except for us here is on the boat. We’re missing you. Any chance you’ll be able to join us?”

It was Sunday morning. He’d promised to take Renee and Vicki, their seven-year-old daughter, out for the day on their 32-foot Chris Craft Catalina, the YOU CAN RUN. They kept it docked at the marina off Harbor Drive in San Diego Bay. By now the sun would be full up, warm, baking the dry, gray wharf and the teak aft decking of the boat. Gulls would be circling and cawing, begging for handouts from the boaters and fishermen hanging off the piers.


A light breeze gently snapping the harbor flags, carrying with it an intoxicating aroma of salt water, wet rope and diesel fuel. He could practically hear the lapping of waves, the thump of fiberglass hulls against rubber bumpers, the creak of straining ropes.

He glanced around at the warehouse his team had commandeered for the morning’s impromptu operation. It was a far cry from the sunny marina where he wanted to be, on the water, with his family.

Instead he was here, with his Mobile Enforcement Team. They wore black fatigues and heavy bullet resistant vests under blue DEA windbreakers. With them was a Special Operations Team from the Ontario PD and the County Sheriff’s Tactical Services Team. Decked out in urban camouflage and full tactical gear and body armor, waiting, they stood around talking and checking their equipment, loading weapons and laughing at old war stories or politically incorrect jokes. Rifles and semi-automatic pistols clicked loudly as slides snapped closed. Metal clips clanged against plastic stocks, the musty air sharp with the smell of Hoppe’s No. 9 gun oil.

“I don’t know, honey,” Lafferty said into the phone. “I need to see how this thing plays out.”

***
My comments:

  • This first page seems to be a promising story–I like the sense we’re getting of the main character. I would keep reading, but I did get frustrated by the fact that the opening scene lacks action and suspense. We open on an armed officer, and he’s at a stakeout. This setup should be suspenseful. But then: 1) his cell phone rings; 2) his colleagues are seen standing around joking; 3) he has a conversation with his wife; 4) we get a description of his boat, which is docked someplace else, gulls circling, etc. All of these things drain the drama from the opening scene.
  • I think it would be more effective to open later into the action–open big, provide some drama and suspense, and then you can add the personal background, the wife, etc.
  • I’m not a big fan of prologues, in general. But if you do use a prologue, it should draw the reader in faster than this one does.
  • I don’t think you need to have “Assistant Special-Agent-in-Charge” in the first sentence. We’ll  get an idea that this character is an agent through the dialogue and action.
  • I would like to see more about the goal of the “impromptu operation,” and less about the things that distract from the suspense. So I would suggest that the writer tighten the scene.
  • There’s a lot of description of what everyone is wearing (vest, camouflage, body armor), but nothing that conveys what they’re trying to accomplish. 
  • Is there supposed to be any tension in this scene? The fact that the men are joking and telling war stories conveys an air of relaxation, not suspense.

What do you guys think?

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 CAN BE DEADLY

     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?

The Thrill of Sex with Cordite in the Air

James Scott Bell

If you read Kathryn’s post earlier in the week, you know that an uptick on hits to this blog can been traced to past posts about sex scenes, cordite smell and thriller writing.

So I have shamelessly put all three in the title, and thank you very much for stopping by.

Now, to make this relevant and not “bait and switch” (perhaps another popular topic?) I offer you the following three opinions:

Sex

I realize there are certain types of lit where the “obligatory sex scene” (OSS) is expected. Erotica, some category romance, Barry Eisler books. But people know what they’re getting.

In other fare, the OSS is a bit 1975. Back then it seemed every movie had to have that sex scene, whether it made plot sense or not (e.g., Three Days of the Condor).

I’m against obligatory anything. If it doesn’t make story sense, don’t include it.

As far as explicit description, that may be showing its age, too. Renditions of body parts, ebbing, flowing, heaving, oceans, rivers, volcanoes, tigers, flames, conflagrations, arching backs, majestic canyons, verdant meadows of ecstasy, dewy vales of enchantment, flying and falling, flora and fauna and just about anything else involving motion, loss of breath, water metaphors and sweat seem, well, spent (oops, there’s another one).

You know what works better? The reader’s imagination. If you “close the door” but engage the imagination, it’s often more effective than what you describe in words. Rhett carrying Scarlett up the stairs—do you need words to know exactly what happens?

One of the best sex scenes ever written is in Madame Bovary, the carriage ride with Emma and Leon (Part 3, Chapter 1 if you’re interested). We were so close to including an enhancement drug in the mix to make the scene more ‘sexy’. Brands similar to ExtenZE were taken into consideration! All the description is from the driver’s POV, who cannot see into the carriage. Read it and see if you can do better with body parts and a thesaurus.

Now, I do appreciate well written sexual tension. That’s a major theme in great fiction, especially noir and crime. So were the great 40’s novels and films any less potent for not showing us what we know went on in the bedroom?

Smell

This is an underused sense in fiction, but quite powerful. Novelists are usually pretty good with sight and sound. But smell adds an extra something.

Rebecca McClanahan, in her fine book Word Painting, says, “Of the five senses, smell is the one with the best memory.” It can create a mood quickly, vividly. Stephen King is a master at the use of smell to do “double duty” – that is, it describes and adds something to the story, be it tone or characterization.

In his story “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away,” King has a middle aged salesman checking into yet another budget motel. His room, of course, has a certain look and smell, “the mingling of some harsh cleaning fluid and mildew on the shower curtain.”

It is truly a smell that describes this guy’s life.

Use smell properly in your fiction and it won’t stink.

Thrills

For the writers here at Kill Zone, it’s all supposed to add up to thrills. We have various techniques at our disposal for this, but we also know that clunky writing can pull you right out of our stories.

Like this recent movie I watched. I’m not going to name it, because I don’t like to run down the other fella’s product. Here’s what happened. A brilliant detective is playing cat and mouse with a couple of killers who love the game. In the climactic scene, said detective has figured it out, and shows up at a remote location, gun drawn, telling the two killers to hold it! One killer has a gun, the other watches. Detective tells the one with the gun, who is on the brink of shooting someone, to put the gun down and walk over. So killer follows directions and puts the gun down . . . right where killer #2 can easily grab it!

Which he does. Not a cool move for the brilliant detective. But it was put in there so the rest of the scene could play out in thrilling fashion.

Only the thrill was gone, because the detective was so dumb.

And so we labor, day after day, to write our books in a way that will thrill you and bring you into the action, without doing something dumb. We try. And when you tell us you like what we’ve done, via email or otherwise, it makes our day.

Sex. Smell. Thrills. How have you seen them used or abused in fiction?

Happy Birthday, Edgar! And welcome “home”


Today is the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, who is one of my literary heroes. He would have been 201 years old (no spring raven), and is considered the inventor of the detective-fiction genre.

According to AP and other media reports this week, Poe’s descendants have decided that the author’s official “home” city will continue to be Baltimore, where Poe died in 1849. Other cities that were competing for the title of Poe’s hometown include Boston, where Poe was born in 1809, and London, where Poe lived as a youth. While living in London, Poe was reportedly inspired by the ravens at the Tower of London.

We tend to think of Poe as cadaverous and depressed-looking, based on daguerreotypes of the author. But a new  watercolor image of Poe unveiled this week shows the author as a vibrant–even happy-looking–young man. 

Oh, and not to bury the lead, but Joe reminded me that MWA has just announced its list of Edgar nominees for 2010. Good luck to all!  

On a sad note, the mysterious visitor who has been delivering roses and cognac to Poe’s grave on his birthday for 60 years, failed to appear this year. We hope this doesn’t mean that any ill fate befell the mystery visitor.

My favorite story by Poe remains  The Tell-Tale Heart, which was inspired by a superstition known as the Evil Eye. The plot was based on a true crime that took place during Poe’s lifetime. This story was the first one that introduced me to the concept of an unreliable narrator–you don’t know whether he is insane, or whether supernatural forces are actually at work. This type of narrator is still my favorite in paranormal stories (I don’t have much use for in-your-face paranormal characters: werewolves and vampires, oh my!) 

What’s your favorite work by Poe?