The Most Important Tip About Setting Descriptions

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

san-francisco-989032_1280How should you approach describing a setting?

I wager most writers come to that point in their project and immediately turn to the imagination. They let pictures form in their minds, then start to write down what they see. Some writers Google around and find an image they can look at before they begin.

Then it becomes a matter of choosing the details they want to include. However, there’s a subtle trap here that new (and even vet) writers may fall into: the setting description can end up as a dry stack of details:

The conference room was large and cold. It had a big table in the middle, with black leather chairs all around. There was a bookcase on the far side of the room and a credenza with a coffee maker on the other. Floor-to-ceiling windows gave a view of the city.

Now, there’s nothing illegal about this. It does the job in a functional way. But it’s also an opportunity lost. A great setting description doesn’t just paint a picture; it draws the reader deeper into the marrow of the story and the heart of the character.

Which brings me to the most important tip you’ll ever get about writing setting descriptions: 

You describe a scene not so the reader can see it, but so the reader can feel it. And the way they feel it is by knowing how the point-of -view character feels about it.

That’s why I’ve developed a seven-step checklist for myself for writing a setting description. It takes a little extra time, but I’ve determined that the stylistic ROI (return on investment) is worth it. Here we go:

  1. How do you want your character to feel about the setting?

This is the crucial first step, and it’s a strategic one. You know where you are in your story and what the character’s attitudes and emotional landscape are. You know what’s going to happen in the scene (note to pantsers: you’ve at least got some idea). Now you’re going to set the scene through the character’s perceptions about it. Your decision can be as simple as: I want my character to feel intimidated.

Note that you don’t have to name the emotion when you write the scene. In fact, it’s better not to. Let the setting itself create the feeling.

  1. Using the sense of sight, describe the things the character notices.

The items that come into your mind will now be filtered through the POV character. If you want to locate a picture via the Internet, go ahead. But as you look at it, pretend you are the character and try to feel what she feels. Make a list of the items your character doesn’t just see, but notices. This is a crucial distinction. We focus on different things depending on our mood. If you’re unhappy and you walk into a sunny hotel foyer, you might ignore the fancy art and notice instead a droopy plant.

Do a little voice journaling. Have the character talk to you in her own voice, expressing her feelings about what she notices.

  1. Use the other senses to add to the feeling.

Imagine what the character might hear, smell, touch, or even in some cases taste. Make a list.

  1. Look at the items from Steps 2 & 3 and highlight the ones that work best.

That didn’t take long, did it? Five to ten minutes. But if you’re having fun, do more!

  1. Bonus Supercharger: What is the character’s personal interpretation of the place?

Here is a powerful technique used by some of our best writers: when the character offers his own interpretation of the setting, it not only creates a sense of place, but also deepens the character for the reader. Double score!

Here are a couple of examples. This is from Robert B. Parker’s first Spenser novel, The Godwulf Manuscript:

The Homicide Division was third floor rear, with a view of the Fryalator vent from the coffee shop in the alley and the soft perfume of griddle and grease mixing with the indigenous smell of cigar smoke and sweat and something else, maybe generations of scared people. 

Parker uses sight and smell, but also adds generations of scared people. That’s from inside Spenser. That’s his own impression of the place. It tells me as much about Spenser as it does the setting.

Here’s a longer impressionistic description from John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee mystery, The Quick Red Fox. These are McGee’s feelings about San Francisco. (I apologize to all my friends in the City by the Bay!)

And so we drove back to the heart of the city. San Francisco is the most depressing city in America. The comelatelys might not think so. They may be enchanted by the steep streets up Nob and Russian and Telegraph, by the sea mystery of the Bridge over to redwood country on a foggy night, by the urban compartmentalization of Chinese, Spanish, Greek, Japanese, by the smartness of the women and the city’s iron clutch on culture. It might look just fine to the new ones.

But there are too many of us who used to love her. She was like a wild classy kook of a gal, one of those rain-walkers, laughing gray eyes, tousle of dark hair –– sea misty, a little and lively lady, who could laugh at you or with you, and at herself when needs be. A sayer of strange and lovely things. A girl to be in love with, with love like a heady magic.

But she had lost it, boy. She used to give it away, and now she sells it to the tourists. She imitates herself … The things she says now are mechanical and memorized. She overcharges for cynical services.

I think it’s fair to say we know how McGee feels about San Francisco! One of the things that made this series so popular was passages like the above, where McGee riffs on such matters as setting, social mores and current events.

  1. Write the description using active verbs and concrete images.

At this point, let me advise you to overwrite the description. Don’t try to get this perfect the first time through. Feel it first.

  1. Let the scene rest, then edit.

I don’t do heavy edits as I’m writing a first draft. But I do go over my previous day’s work for style and obvious fixes. So come back to your scene the next day, or at least after a time away from it, and keep the following in mind as you edit:

Check all adverbs with a loaded pencil

If an adverb can be cut without losing anything (which is usually the case) cut it. Strive for a stronger verb instead. He shuffled across the room is better than He walked slowly across the room.

Check all adjectives

First, ask if they’re necessary. Test them. Sometimes cutting them makes the description more immediate.

But adjectives are in our language for a reason. If you keep them, see if you can make them more vivid. Icy may be better than cold, etc.

Beef up what’s soggy 

You may find a spot that needs more descriptive power. Here’s what I do in such a case. I write [MORE] in that spot then open up a blank TextEdit document. I like using TextEdit because it doesn’t feel “permanent” and I can play around. I’ll take several minutes to explore the moment, writing fast and loose, and then I’ll look it over and choose what I like. It may be just one line, or even one word. But if it’s the right line or word, the exercise is well worth it.

You don’t always have to describe a setting at the beginning of a scene

Vary where you put the description. At the top is fine, but sometimes get into the action first. Or start with dialogue. Then drop in the setting description. Readers won’t mind waiting if something interesting is going on.

You don’t have to describe everything at once

You can dribble in bits of description as you go along. This is especially effective as the intensity of the scene increases. Your POV character can notice something that wasn’t evident before, in keeping with the tone of the scene. Hemingway did this famously in his story “Soldier’s Home,” when the young man back home after World War I is feeling hectored at breakfast by his worried mother. Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

Know when less is more, and when more is more

Deciding how much description to use for a setting is not a matter of formula. But here’s a little tip that will help: the more intense the emotions inside the character, the more you include in description.

For example, in an opening scene where the character is not yet in the hot crucible of conflict, maybe the description is brief. The first scene in Lawrence Block’s story, “A Candle for the Bag Lady,” has Matthew Scudder sitting in Armstrong’s, a bar. He describes it this way:

The lunch crowd was gone except for a couple of stragglers in front whose voices were starting to thicken with alcohol.

Block leaves it at that, because this is “normal” Scudder. He’s not feeling anything intensely yet.

But later, as Scudder is trying to find out who brutally murdered Mary Alice Redfield –– the “shopping bag lady” who inexplicably left him a sum of money in her will –– he investigates her last known residence:

Mary Alice Redfield’s home for the last six or seven years of her life had started out as an old Rent Law tenement, built around the turn of the century, six stories tall, faced in red-brown brick, with four apartments to the floor. Now all of those little apartments had been carved into single rooms as if they were election districts gerrymandered by a maniac. There was a communal bathroom on each floor and you didn’t need a map to find it.

So there you have it, friends. With a little thought and planning, you can turn run-of-the-mill descriptions into moments of stylistic magic. That’s the kind of writing that gets rewarded with word-of-mouth and future purchases.

So what is your approach to description?

What authors do you admire who do it well?

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You wanna be a writer? Get real!

By P.J. Parrish

Way way back in the 1980s, when I was first starting out, I got asked by a local writers group to speak at their luncheon. The group had bagged some big-fish speakers in the past (I remember Les Standiford giving a particularly inspiring talk). But I guess they ran out of literary types so they asked me — a minnow of a romance writer at the time.

I gave a lot of thought to what I wanted to tell this group of as-yet unpubbed writers. I finally decided to focus on the marketing and business end of having your book published — the underbelly stuff like co-op advertising, how “bestseller” slots in drugstores were bought by publishers, how the New York Times bestseller list wasn’t really based on sales. I thought they needed to know what they were up against. (Remember, this was pre-Amazon days when if you self-published you were automatically assigned to the eleventh ring of hell).

Well, you’d thought I had brought a dog onto the podium and shot it there in front of them. During the Q&A, they turned on me like rabid bats, each one saying, in different words the same thing: We don’t need to hear this. We need encouragement. One guy actually stood up and said — I will never forget this — “If you are so bitter about writing, why do you even do it?”

Maybe things were different back in the 80s. Maybe writers could afford to be mushrooms — keep in the dark and fed a steady diet of manure. But not anymore. Today, if you want to survive, you have to be smart, tough and tenacious. All of you who are steady Kill Zone readers know this already. But sometimes we all — including me — need to hear it anew.

As the great western philosopher John Wayne once said: If you wanna be a pony soldier, you gotta act tough.

I still speak at alot of writers groups and on panels and such. And now that I am more battle-tested, I try hard to be kinder. But damn, if someone asks me for advice about getting published, I just can’t coddle him or her with empty platitudes and pat their hands. I believe every writer needs a Dr. Phil in their life. Someone who will tell you the truth about why your plot sucks, why your characters aren’t compelling and even why you should throw away your manuscript and start over. Someone who will read your stuff, stare you straight in the eye and say, “what WERE you thinking?”

So, as we start off into this fresh new year, let me be your Dr. Phil. Let’s start with The 15 Things You Should NEVER Do.

1. Don’t procrastinate. You must choose to write. That might mean giving up something else, like golf or sleep. Too bad. Don’t jump from idea to idea. Pick one and ride it to the end. Don’t let the first wind that blows through your life distract you. Don’t wait for inspiration to come. Inspiration comes only WHILE you’re writing. It’s so much more fun to HAVE WRITTEN a book than to actually write one. (believe me, I know…this is my worst sin.) Writing the actual book is hard. Deal with it.

2. Don’t talk your story away.  I am also guilty of this but not as much as I used to be. Writers love to yak about writing instead of actually doing it. I got this great idea about a cannibal serial killer, yada yada… Pretty soon all your yadas are used up and you can’t stand your book anymore. Talk is cheap…or in this case, costly. As Lawrence Block once said, don’t book Carnegie Hall if all you do is sing in the shower. Shut up and write.

3. Don’t try to hit a home run on your first at bat. Don’t sit down to write the Great American Novel or the next Chick Lit Bestseller. First you have a better chance of hitting the lottery than landing on the NYT’s list. Give yourself permission to write badly as you find your narrative legs. Don’t get hung up on the perfect beginning. That’s what rewriting is for. I am really struggling with this one right now because my WIP is a totally departure for me and I am sort of flailing in the dark and I think I am losing sight of the “fun” part of writing.

4. Don’t beat yourself up as you go along. Trying to craft the perfect sentence can create paralysis. If you keep going back over the stuff you’ve already written YOU WILL NEVER FINISH. Write a first draft THEN go back and rewrite. And get intimate with that delete key. It is your best friend.

5. Don’t lean on adjectives. Most of us know this mantra but it always bears repeating. Adjectives weaken writing, and a string of them is deadly. Don’t use crap like “tall dark and handsome.” Find one apt word. But the real strength in writing is found in verbs. You’re not Proust.

6. Don’t overcook your words. It’s so easy to slip into cliches and overworked words. Don’t say “white as snow.” It’s not yours. Neither is “thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock, overcome with grief.” Don’t make do with time-eroded words like “beautiful, wonderful, interesting, lovely.” Find your own words and voice. And for god’s sake, stay away from dialects. Few writers can pull it off without looking silly, y’all…. (I committed this sin in my first book).

7. Don’t over-punctuate. This is my pet peeve. Some writers use alot of exclamation marks, semi-colons and dashes. Maybe it’s because they LOOK so cool — active, even — on paper. But they are crutches to prop up weak action, poor narrative and badly organized thoughts. Worse, they are signposts demanding reactions from readers (Okay, reader, now here I want you to feel excited!) You can write a whole book with just periods, question marks, quotes and a couple commas. Try it! Make your words do the work!!!!

8. Don’t neglect your theme. Theme is WHY you are writing the book. Even genre novels — well, the best ones — have themes. Steinbeck said an author should be able to state his theme in one sentence. But don’t get didactic. Maybe your book is about a body found in the Everglades, but your theme is about environmental destruction. But if you get preachy, readers will turn off no matter how many bodies turn up in the sawgrass.

9. Don’t get personal. This is a big mistake beginners make. Save your self-expression for your journal or blog. What’s wrong with self-expression? It is general, boring, trite, sentimental. NO ONE CARES about your years operating a bar in Queens. But they might care about a Queens man who loses his bar in a poker game and then kills to get it back. NO ONE CARES about your war experience. But they might care about an army unit sent to rescue the last member of the Ryan family. The trick of good fiction is taking your personal experience and making it universal.

10. Don’t be dishonest. Great fiction is always honest. Which is not the same as personal. You don’t have to “write what you know.” But you have to be able to tap into your powers of empathy to “know” the characters and world you create. To write honestly is also to take emotional risks. We’ve all read books where the characters don’t move us. Usually it is because the writer was holding back, unwilling to spill some blood on the keyboard.

11. Don’t get seduced by research. First, it is a time-killer (See no. 1). Do your homework but don’t let it get in the way. It is easy to get blogged down in research and then you feel obligated to use it in the book. The result: James Michener book bloat.  Now sometimes, research can open new doors in your plot but be careful you don’t use stuff just because you worked so hard to find it.

12. Don’t obsess about trivial stuff. 
Will a publisher steal my idea if I submit it?
Should I get Windows 9?
Do I need an agent?
What if they want me to change it?
Can I use White-Out on the manuscript?
Should I wait until I have better conditions at home to write?

You get the idea…
Answers:
No, if your book is good, they will buy it.
Work with what you already have.
Just write the damn book first.
They will…don’t sweat it.
You’re actually worried about this?
No. Poe was penniless and died in a sewer. He didn’t wait til he had the right desk lamp.

13. Don’t listen to your wife/husband/hairdresser/mother. Someday, when you are accepting the Edgar, you can thank all the folks who love you. But while you are trying to write, keep them at arms length. Sometimes, they can get inside your head in two disparate ways. First, they can criticize you and say you will never get published. Second, they can tell you everything you write is brilliant. Both are bad for you. Find feedback from someone who will be honest with you. (And yes, sometimes, that cold eye person IS someone who loves you!) But avoid writers group if all they do is sit around and bitch and moan about how its all a big conspiracy to keep them out.

14. Don’t be afraid to rewrite. The temptation is huge, after you type THE END, to ship that puppy out. Don’t. Let it bake in the thumb drive for at least a week, then go back and read it cold. The crap will jump out at you — huge gobs of smelly stuff. You must rewrite. As many times as it takes. The first draft is made with the heart. The second, fifth and tenth, are made with the head.

15. Don’t give up. Never up, never in. Not at the plate, no chance to hit. One of the main differences between the published and unpublished writer (besides talent — duh!) is that the latter packed it in. This is a cruel, difficult, god-awful business. There is no secret formula for what editors want. There is no big conspiracy to keep you out of the club. There are, however, overworked, badly paid people sitting behind desks in New York who are overwhelmed with manuscripts but are still willing to pay money for a well-told story. There are readers out there waiting to find a new author who has a great story to tell. The trick is to find them — through a combination of talent, craftsmanship, perseverance and luck. Especially luck.

This is Dr. Phil, signing off. Now get back to that computer before I come over there and cut off your fingers….

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How Important is Research and Authenticity in Fiction?


Our own Clare Langley-Hawthorne recently posted about getting professional (especially military) details right. She wrote a seemingly self-evident bit of wisdom:
In mysteries and thrillers we often have protagonists with a military or law enforcement background and, given that many of our readers will have similar backgrounds, we need to get the details right. As writers we have an obligation to do our research and try and paint as accurate a picture as possible.
And yet . . .
One of my favorite shows of all time is Law & Order, especially when Michael Moriarty was on it. As pure storytelling, it was an amazing achievement week after week. Using the same structural template, it managed to create compelling characterizations and unique plot details so that each episode seemed fresh.
But there is one thing about the show that drives me nuts. Well, two.
The first is when the detectives slap cuffs on a suspect. It may be on the street or in the workplace, but immediately they begin with their Miranda warnings: “You have the right to remain silent . . .anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law . . .you have the right to an attorney . . .” etc.
The only problem is that no detective (at least, no detective who knows what he’s doing) Mirandizes a suspect at the point of arrest. That’s because he wants the suspect to talk, to babble, to make statements, which they often do. And yes, those statements are admissible evidence, so long as they have not come as a result of accusatoryquestioning.   
Yet it is now a virtual cliché on cop shows and in fiction that at the moment of arrest the cops give the rights admonition. And because of that, the public largely believes that’s the way it should be done every time.
So you have the ironic situation that a reader could write to tell you your cop forgot to Mirandize a suspect, and why don’t you do simple research, fella?
Another item from Law & Order. They usually sit the suspect down in an interview room, separated by a table. Now thatis when you’d Mirandize, and have the suspect sign a written waiver.
Anyway, the questioning begins and it isn’t long before one of the cops (usually Chris Noth) loses his temper and starts screaming at or threatening the suspect.
But as my friend, interrogation expert and fellow author Paul Bishop, says, being aggressive like that only gets a suspect to clam up. Paul, a 35-year LAPD vet (30 of them in sex crimes) now teaches interrogation nationwide to law enforcement agencies. He says he raised his voice during an interrogation maybe five times in his career.
Another thing: Paul doesn’t want a table separating him and the suspect. The table cuts off his view of half the body language. Recently Paul gave a talk to some local SoCal writers on interrogation. He showed the way he did it, by putting his chair directly in front of the suspect, sitting so close their knees touched. He speaks calmly, asking strategic questions in order to get the suspect’s body to betray signs of anxiety.
I tell you, I was sitting in the audience as Paul demonstrated with the moderator, and I was ready to jump out of my seat and confess to something. It was awesome.
But is this ever shown in cop shows or fiction? More dramatic to have a cop throw a chair.
Which is why many writers, even longtime and bestselling veterans, choose the more dramatic alternative, even when it flouts real life. It is also well known that certain A-list writers don’t care much at all about research and flatly make up as much of it as they can.
Is anyone going to arrest them for it? Read them their rights?
So there may be a continuum here. For example, if you’re going to write about weapons, it’s my experience you better get that right, because there are too many gun aficionados out there who will rake you over the coals if you get a detail wrong.
But on the other side of the range, perhaps it’s not as crucial. I recall Lee Child talking about one of his books where Reacher is going through Georgia, a place Child has never  himself been. He received a detailed rejoinder about the impossibility of Reacher’s itinerary from someone who knew the particular roads in that part of the state. But as this error did not seem to impact sales, Child was more sanguine than disturbed by it.
Harlan Coben has also said he is of the “make it up” school of research. Doesn’t seem to have slowed down his sales, either.
Personally, I like to get things right. I’ll do on-site research here in LA, take pictures, walk the streets I’m writing about, feel the vibe of the neighborhood. When it comes to procedures and professional details, I also want to be accurate.
But I also recall something Lawrence Block wrote in the first book I ever read on the craft: Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print. Discussing research in general, and his Evan Tanner books (which take place in settings all over the world) in particular, Larry wrote, “Equipped with a decent atlas and a library of travel guides, it’s not all that difficult to do an acceptable job of faking a location. A few details and deft touches in the right places can do more to make your book appear authentic then you might manage via months of expensive and painstaking on-the-spot research.”
That’s really the point in fiction, isn’t it? We are all faking it, so the appearanceof authenticity is what we’re after. If a made-up detail can suffice for effect, why not?
Just don’t have your cops give Miranda warnings to your arrestees on the street, or I’ll send you an email.
So what’s your take on research in fiction? Are you a stickler? How important is it to you that bestselling writers get all the details right? (Note: I’m flying home today from Denver, so won’t be able to comment for a bit. Meanwhile, have at it!)

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What Is Your Spark?

“He lets down as it were a bucket into his subconscious and draws up something which is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this thing with his normal experience, and out of the mixture he makes a work of art… And when the process is over, when the…novel is complete, the artist, looking back on it, will wonder how on earth he did it. And indeed he did not do it on earth.”  — E.M. Forster
By P.J. Parrish

Where does it come from?

I’m talking about that original impulse, that first bud of creativity that eventually grows into a book. Can you remember? What was it that tickled your brain and set the synapses glowing? What the very first moment when you knew you were onto something?

I’m not talking about inspiration or muses or the “need” to write. I’m trying to focus way way down to that little thing that got you going on whatever it is you are now working so hard to bring to life. What was the spark?

Normally I don’t think much about stuff from the ether like this. Especially since we here at The Kill Zone tend to focus on practical stuff like building credible characters and sturdy plot structures. But sometimes it’s fun — and maybe even a little instructive — to turn the microscope to its finest setting and examine the beginnings of life.

Every writer starts a novel from a different impulse. Some start with a situation, many by asking “what if?” Many writers are character-led.  Often you can trace it back to something as small as an overheard conversation. Or an old man standing a corner glimpsed as you pass by in your car. It can be a line from a half-forgotten poem or the smell of dime store lipstick.

Sometimes that first impulse is too weak to sustain a novel. Sometimes that clot of embryonic cells never quite grows into a character. But sometimes, when you dip a bucket into the subconscious you draw up something special.

I got to thinking about this today because I was trolling the internet boning up on the history of the detective novel. I am going to be on a panel at the Edgar Symposium tomorrow that focuses on the future of the detective novel. And because I didn’t want my fellow panelists to wipe the floor with me I was, I admit, doing a little brushing up on my genre history.

That’s why I happened upon a lecture P.D. James gave in 1997 called Murder and Mystery: The Craft of the Detective Story. (Click here to read it). I’m a huge James fan; she and Georges Simenon were my guiding lights when I was trying to learn how to write detective novels. Jules Maigret and Adam Dalgliesh…those are the guys I’d want on the case when there’s a body on the slab.

So you can imagine how cool it was to read this paper of hers. It’s a great survey of the detective genre. But what I found really fascinating was the part where she talked about how she got her ideas. For James, it always starts with the setting.

I was gobsmacked when I read that. Because that’s what always gets me going. I can’t see a story until I can see the setting. Our books move between Michigan and Florida. Our settings have been, variously, an isolated island in the gulf, an abandoned insane asylum, an old family farm, a cattle pen overgrown with weeds, and an Everglades swamp way down south where the bottom of the state spreads out into the straits like a tattered flag.

Sometimes I almost feel like one of those weird psychics who claim they can see the place of death. When we are starting a new book, I can’t always tell you exactly where we are. But I can sort of feel it. And eventually the place materializes on the page, sort of like an old Polaroid.

Like right now, we working on a new Louis book that takes him back to Michigan. That’s all we knew when we started, that he had to go home. But where? Kelly insisted it had to be the Upper Peninsula (she went to college up there) and we eventually decided to take Louis as far north as we could — way up to the Keweenaw Peninsula, that strange spit of land that extends out into Lake Superior like a crooked finger pointing the way toward the Canadian wilderness. End of earth sort of idea.

But still, things weren’t gelling. There was a spark but it wasn’t catching. Then I saw a photograph someone had taken of a small abandoned cemetery. Its crumbling headstones are obscured by dense carpets of clover. It’s in the middle of nowhere. But it once the middle of somewhere — a lively town where the copper miners lived and worked in the 1800s.

P.D. James said that once she found her setting all she then had to do was begin talking to its inhabitants. Thus came her characters. So it has happened with us. We’re only ten chapters into this new book so we’re still meeting the natives, still learning their histories, still trying to develop an ear for their odd Yooper accents. (it’s somewhere between the nasal tones of Detroit and the lilt of Canada with some Finnish thrown in).

In a bit of synchronicity, I am the editor of the Edgar annual this year and months ago we decided on our theme — the sense of place in the crime novel. The essays are great — Lawrence Block on New York City, Peter Lovesey on Bath England, William Kent Kreuger on northern Minnesota, Cara Black on Paris — each writer talking about how place colors their stories.

Even as I read them it didn’t really occur to me how important setting was to me as a writer. But it is the thing from which everything else comes. If I don’t know where I am I can’t begin to tell you where my story is going. I need to know my place. It is my first spark.

What is yours?

p.s. Forgive me if I don’t respond right away but I am en route to NYC today. Will catch up when I get into Newark Airport. There’s wifi on the bus! 

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Living in the Past

I received a nice present in the mail this week from one of my best and oldest buds,  he being former radio personality extraordinaire, editor, movie critic and all around good guy Jeff Gelb. Jeff was and is a huge fan of popular culture, including detective fiction. He was at a Pulp Fiction Festival (the genre, not the film) in Los Angeles recently, visited the dealer room, and popped for a couple of old magazines from my past: Real Detective and For Men Only. Don’t tell anybody, but I got a little misty-eyed when I opened up that plain brown envelope and found those treasures.


Those magazines were a part of my childhood. I grew up in an era when gentlemen got haircuts every two to three weeks whether they needed it or not. The barber shops didn’t have all of the frou-frou crap that they have now. Amenities consisted of a barber pole in front, leather chairs to sit in while you waited for a barber, a gumball machine, and magazines. None of the barbers — not stylists, but barbers — would have been mistaken for Ru-Paul, either. Each and all would be squared away, wearing pressed black pants and white collarless button-up shirts, like they were interns or something, with their tools of the trade on a sink behind them. Hair tonics like Vitalis, Brylcreem and Wildroot were lined up with military precision, with different styles and lengths of scissors laying at the ready next to them. The big deal at the barbershop, however, was the reading material. There were comic books, sure, but there were also stacks and stacks of different magazines, such as the Field & Stream and Popular Mechanics.  And then there were the marginal publications that weren’t quite of the level of Playboy but were “gateway” literature, if you will. One or more of the barbers might frown if you were in short pants and busily thumbing through such lurid articles as “Babes, Brawls and Border Smashing” — many was the time I missed hearing my name called, so absorbed was I in the reading material — but the general rule was that if you were old enough to get your hair cut without mommy waiting with you then it was none of their business. The drugstore and supermarket didn’t consider their magazine sections to be the library, but at the barbershop you could read

 Stag and  Saga and the aforementioned For Men Only. The covers were always adventure-themed, with generic, very capable-looking Marlboro men rescuing women in danger of losing their lives or their underwear, in no particular order. The so-called “true detective” magazines ran a close second, with exciting article titles gracing lurid covers. A publication that met readers of both types of magazines was an irresistible piece of trashy wonder titled The National Police Gazette. The latter was an extremely popular periodical, though no one would admit it. When I was an altar boy (yes, I was) my school was selling magazine subscriptions as a fundraiser.  I asked a geriatric priest I knew if he would be interested in purchasing any subscriptions. He asked, with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, “Ya got Police Gazette?” I responded “I wish!” which brought a coughing fit on him so severe that I thought we were going to have to call the emergency squad.

Those magazines are long gone. Stag and the like reached a point where they had to, uh, up (or maybe down) their game to compete with such upstarts as Penthouse and such and just couldn’t meet the production quality (yeah, I know, I know).  The true detective magazines collapsed under their own weight; there were just too many of them. Still, I miss those magazines, and I didn’t have any of them (the “why” is a tale for another time), which is why my friend’s generous gift meant so much.  One of the many sad things about their absence is that they provided a good place for fledgling authors to hone their chops and make some money along the way. Lawrence Block, Stephen King, and Harlan Ellison all paid for electricity and food and diapers with stories in such magazines. The issue of For Men Only which I received contains an excerpt from a new (at the time) book by Alistair MacLean titled THE WOMEN TAKERS, which, we are helpfully informed, is a $5.95 bestseller (that is what a hardback book would set you back in 1968). The same issue contains some lurid but well-written short fiction written by Donald Horig, who would go on to become a well-respected and prominent baseball writer. Horig is still alive, probably cringing at the mention of the story, entitled “The Taming of Mona.” If he’s embarrassed,he should not be.  There are still a few avenues for writers to display their wares — the science fiction and mystery digests come immediately to mind — but  there aren’t many. They’ve gone the way of the traditional barber shop. I miss both.

I ask this question primarily of older readers, but you younger folks can absolutely join in the fun as well: what magazines do you miss, ones that you read during your childhood and teen years but are no longer published? It can be anything from Pageant  to  Humpty Dumpty to Photoplay to, yeah,  The National Police Gazette, but what do you miss? And why?

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How to Write a Short Story

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A novelist friend recently asked, What is it that defines a short story? What’s the key to writing one? How is it different from a novel or novella?
My “boys in the basement” have been working on it, and the other day sent up a message. It said, “A short story is about one shattering moment.”
I pondered that for awhile. Could it really be so? What about the different genres? There are literary short stories (e.g., Raymond Carver), but also horror (Stephen King), science fiction (Harlan Ellison), crime (Jeffery Deaver) and the like. They couldn’t all be about one shattering moment, could they?

I decided to have a cheeseburger and forget the whole thing.
But the boys would not let me drop it. And now I think they’re right (as usual). So let’s take it apart.
When I took a writing workshop with one of the recognized masters of the modern short story, Raymond Carver, I found his genius lay in the “telling detail,” a way to illuminate, with a minimalist image or line of dialogue, a shattering emotional moment in the life of a character.
The story we studied in his workshop was “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” A married couple, middle class with two young kids, have a conversation one night. The wife brings up an incident at a party a couple of years before. Slowly, we realize she needs to confess something, needs to be forgiven. She’d slept with another man that night. That is the shattering moment in the story, the husband’s realization of what his wife did.
This happens in the middle. The rest of the story is about the emotional aftermath of that moment. Thus, the structure of the story looks like this:
This is the same structure as Hemingway’s classic, “Hills Like White Elephants.” In this story about a couple conversing at a train station, the shattering emotional moment occurs inside the woman. It’s when she accedes to her boyfriend’s desire that she have an abortion (amazingly, the word abortion is never used in the story). We see what’s happened to her almost entirely via dialogue. In fact, she has a line much like the husband’s in the Carver story. She says, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
We know at the end of both these stories that the characters will never be the same, that life for them has been ineluctably altered. That’s what a shattering moment does.
Structurally, this moment can come at the end of the story. When it works, it’s like an emotional bomb going off. Two literary stories that do this are “The Swimmer” by John Cheever, and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. That structure looks like this:
Now let’s move to the genre short story. Here, the same idea applies. The shattering moment is usually one that is outside (i.e., a plot moment) as opposed to inside (i.e., a character moment). Often, that moment is a “twist” at the end of the story. The most famous example is, no doubt, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.”
Jeffery Deaver is a master of this type (see his collections Twistedand More Twisted.) Get your hands on his story “Chapter and Verse” (from More Twisted) to see what I mean.  It’s one of my all-time favorites.
My recent crime short story, “Autumnal,” follows this pattern as well. We think the story is going one way, but at the end it is quite another.
This is also the structure most often used in The Twilight Zone. Think about some of the classic episodes:
“To Serve Man.” Remember the shattering shout at the end? “It’s a cook book!”
“Time Enough at Last.” Always voted the most memorable episode, because of its heartbreaking twist at the end. This is the one where the loner with the thick glasses emerges after nuclear war has killed everyone, but now has time enough at last to read all the books he wants. And then…
“The Eye of the Beholder.” This one blew me away as a kid. It’s the one where the surgeons, in shadows all the way through, are working to save the disfigured face of a patient. One of the all time great twists.
This pattern is just like the one described above for literary short stories, only now it’s a shattering plot twist at the end:

And, you guessed it, you can also do a story with the shattering moment somewhere in the opening pages, and work out the aftermath in the rest of the tale. Lawrence Block’s “A Candle for the Bag Lady” is like that (You can find this story in Block’s collection, Enough Rope). The structure looks like this:

So there you have it. If you want to write a short story, find that moment that is emotionally life-changing, or craftily plot-twisting. Then write everything around that moment. Structurally, it’s simple to understand. But the short story is, in my view, the most difficult form of fiction to master. So why try? Two reasons: First, when it works, it can be one of the most powerful reading experiences there is. And second, with digital self-publishing, there’s an actual market for these works again. The short story form was pretty much dead outside of a few journals. Now, in digital, you can make some Starbucks money with them. That’s what the Force of Habit and Irish Jimmy Gallagher stories have done for me. And when I put together a collection, I expect to make even more.
And nothing will give your writing chops a workout like a short story. Why not make them part of your career plan?

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The Perils of Pure Pantsing

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


There are pansters. And then there are pure pantsers.

Pantsers (derived from the idiom “seat-of-the-pants,” as in performing an act solely by instinct) are those writers who do not plan (or plan very little) before they write. These folk love to frolic in the tulips of the imagination. “We get to fall in love with our words every day,” they say. “We are intuitive. Don’t rain your outlines on our parade!”
Okay, well, that’s one approach to writing a book, and there is nothing sinful about it. Get that? I am not saying to you that this is in any way an invalid method of finishing a manuscript—so long as you recognize the hard work that must follow to shape a readable novel out of this mass of pantsed material. But to any writer or teacher who says writing this way is not only best, but easy, feed them this phrase: Pants on fire!
Then there are the “pure pantsers,” a more radical ilk. These are the ones who want to throw away all thought of structure, whether at the beginning or the end of the process. They find structure formulaic and offensive to their artistic sensibilities. They stand on their tables and shout, Off with the shackles of what’s been taught all these years! Throw away the tools of the craft! We are the true writers around here! We laugh at you structurally imprisoned slaves! Join us! (Perhaps we should call this the Occupy Storytelling movement?)
So let’s have some plain talk about pantsing.
In The Liar’s Bible, Lawrence Block recalls writing one of his Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries. Larry wrote and wrote without an outline or even the thought of one, then looked up from his manuscript one day and observed:
I had incidents. I had plot elements. I had characters in search of a story. But all manner of things were happening in my book and I didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on. Why had a man named Onderdonk inveigled Bernie into appraising his library? What were hairs from a golden retriever doing in the cuffs of a corpse’s pants? Who was the young woman Bernie ran into in the Kroll apartment, and how did she fit into what was going on? Who had stolen Carolyn’s cat, and how, and why? What connected the Mondrian in Onderdonk’s apartment, which someone else had stolen, with the one in the Hewlett Museum, which Bernie was supposed to steal in order to ransom the cat? If I couldn’t answer any of these questions, who could? And if nobody could, how could I keep on writing the book?…
For a time I persisted, telling myself to Trust The Process, and feeling all the while like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis. Then, with 175 pages written and a maximum of 75 left in which to Wrap Things Up, I stopped writing and threw up my hands. And my lunch.
All pantsers face this at some point. They have to wade into that mass of verbiage and excreta and figure out what’s good, what’s dreck, what fits, what doesn’t, where the story is going and how to help it get there. But if they have been told to “forget about structure” they are lost at sea in a leaky boat with no navigation tools.
Sometimes I have to fire up my rescue dinghy and motor out there with a life jacket.
The other day I consulted with a #1 New York Times bestselling author. She called on me because she’s a fan of Plot & Structure and needed help getting a novel idea into shape. The book was fighting her and she had pages due her publisher.
So we sat down for three hours and hashed it out. It was easy duty for me because she gets structure. She’s studied it. She’s used it. She knows it. And her book is going to be killer because of it.
After that meeting I had another consultation, this with a new writer. He has a pantser’s mind, and it shows. He writes reams and reams, and his imagination soars . . . but he keeps going off on tangents (a fancy term for rabbit trails to hell). Ideas burst out of him, but he has no idea what to do with them, how to form them into a coherent story. When I sat down with him he said with obvious frustration, “I know I can write, but I don’t know where this story is going!”
So I walked him through some key questions, based on what I call “signpost scenes.” These are key scenes in a well-structured story, scenes you can write (even pants!) toward as you move along. After I prodded him with a few “What ifs,” he started to get it. He began to see the structure of the whole laid out in his mind. He was excited. He could feel the strength that structure gave him, and the direction: he now knows what kind of scenes to write so they are organic and related to the plot. He is not just spinning his scribal wheels. (And he really can write. His story is going to be killer, too).
So, dear friends, I am not telling you not to pants your way through a manuscript. I am telling you that at some point you’ve got to face structure because if you don’t, you’re going to end up with a novel that doesn’t sell, except by accident. (Yes, accidents happen, but that’s no way to build a career).
Sure, there are some writers who say they don’t ever think about structure and they do just fine. I believe about ten percent of them. The ones I believe are the lucky ones. They can intuit their way to a novel that works. Maybe even on the first draft (you can choose to hate Lee Child at this point). But the structure is always there, even if they don’t plan for it. They’ve simply got it in their writing bones.
But the overwhelming majority of authors need to study and utilize structure and technique. I recall a sad story about a talented writer (his prose was superb) who inked a deal for a three-book thriller series. The first book came out and bombed, and as a consequence the big publisher let the other two “die on the vine.”
I read that first book and my heart just sank for the guy, because his structure was off. He made some obvious craft mistakes up front which resulted in a dull first act (which you really want to avoid in the thriller genre). I wish I could have been his editor, because with a little help so much of the trouble could have been avoided.
Here’s the key to everything: you must put your original voice and vision and style and spice and characters and love and passion into a story that, structurally, helps readers feel what you want them to feel.
That’s what the craft of structure is about. It’s not to limit you, the artist. It’s to set free your story so an actual audience can enjoy it.
So go ahead and pants your way through a first draft if you like. But after that put on bib overalls and get your tools out and start working on the structure.
You may wish to ignore this advice. You may seek to pitch a tent in Occupy Storytelling Park, grow a beard, and rail at the passing pedestrians. But understand this: several of them will be writers who know structure and are on their way to the bank to cash their checks. 

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Writing for Money is a Good Thing: The K. Bennett Interview


It’s my pleasure to welcome K. Bennett to TKZ. K’s third Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law book, I ATE THE SHERIFF, is releasing this week. I caught up with K. Bennett at Duke’s in Malibu, where he was eating fish tacos and counting the pelicans outside the window.
JSB: What was the inspiration for your series about a zombie lawyer?
KB: Money.
JSB: Could you be a bit more specific?
KB: A publisher offered me money for the concept and my agent and I thought it would be a good idea to a) accept the money; and b) write the books.
JSB: When publishers give you money they usually like you to write the books, right?
KB: That’s been the standard, yes. But I also loved the idea. Zombies were hot at the time, but only as monsters. I thought it was high time a zombie got to be the hero.
JSB: So you’re saying it’s okay to write for the money?
KB: You’re an odd person.
JSB: Excuse me?
KB: Is it okay for a plumber to work for money?
JSB: Mine certainly does.
KB: Okay then. If he’s a good plumber, you don’t mind paying him. If someone’s a good writer, readers don’t mind paying for the books. And the authors get a piece of that transaction. Writing for money is a good thing, because the only way to make money, generally speaking, is to create value. For a writer, that means writing a great book. The two things—money and excellence—go together.
JSB: How did you happen to make your zombie character a lawyer?
KB: Many people think there really is no difference.
JSB: You say you sold the concept. How did you do that?
KB: I put together a précis and the first few chapters.
JSB: Précis?
KB: Basically a tagline, logline and summary. The tagline was: In L.A. practicing law can be hell. Especially if you’re dead.
The logline was based on the first novel, PAY ME IN FLESH: A zombie criminal lawyer defends a vampire hooker accused of the crime the lawyer herself has committed, even as a zombie-killer closes in and the love of her former life comes back as the Deputy DA she must oppose.
The series summary was a few paragraphs, and included world building: all sorts of demonic and paranormal activity is breaking out in Los Angeles, leading to the theory that Satan is setting up a war headquarters here for a new assault on heaven and earth.
JSB: You’ve chosen to use a pseudonym for this series. Can I ask why?
KB: Sure.
[Silence]
JSB: Um, why?
KB: No comment.
JSB: I’ll pick up the tab on your fish tacos if  you tell me.
KB: Done. I have another name that is an established brand. These books are so different I wanted an easy way for readers to see the distinction. The covers and the pen name do that.
JSB: Can you tell us your real name?
KB: I prefer not to.
JSB: Then tell us about this new book, I ATE THE SHERIFF.


KB: Well, as the title so subtly implies, Mallory Caine, my zombie lawyer, has occasion to eat the Sheriff of the County of Los Angeles. How and why is in the book. Suffice to say that things are not going well in the city. Mallory is representing a werewolf whose ex-wife is trying to take custody of his kids. Her father is in jail. And Satan is on the move.
JSB: What are you working on now?
KB: My third fish taco.
JSB: I mean in your writing.
KB: Ah. I am working on a Mallory Caine short story and, under my other name, several novel, novella and non-fiction projects.
JSB: How about advice for young writers?
KB: I’m all for it.
JSB: I mean, do you have any?

KB: Ah. Well, first off I’d repeat something Lawrence Block once said. “If you want to write fiction, the best thing you can do is take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass. If it persists, you probably ought to write a novel.”
What Larry is getting at here is that it takes more than a minor desire to make it as a writer. You’ve got to be in the grip of it, have a burning desire to do it well.
JSB: Let’s say someone has that. What should they do with it?
KB: Keep it burning. Find a way to stay inspired and motivated. But above all else, produce the words. Set a writing quota. Find out what you can comfortably do each week, up that by 10%, and make that your weekly goal. Add to that the systematic study of the craft.
JSB: You are really talking my language now.
KB: Si finis bonus est, totum bonum erit.
JSB: What’s that?
KB: Another language.
JSB: Oh.
KB: It’s Latin. It means, If the end is good, the rest will be good. The hardest part of the fiction craft is the ending. But you have to nail it. Your last chapter sells your next book, or doesn’t.
JSB: Outside of the Kardashians, you and Tommy Lee Jones are the most famous Ks in America today. How does that feel?
KB: Could you pass the hot sauce, please?
JSB: By the way, what does the K stand for?
KB: Fine writing, I hope.
JSB: Are you going to tell us what the K stands for or not?
KB: It has yet to be revealed. I will someday.
JSB: Just so long as it’s not Korky.
KB: I promise.
JSB: Any last words?
KB: Et tu, Brute?
JSB: No, I mean from you.
KB: Ah. Well, it’s good to reflect on death. You’re not going to be around forever. Your books, most likely, will not be read a hundred years from now, except by accident. What is it besides being a writer that you’ll be remembered for? How do you treat other people? How do you reach out and help those less fortunate than yourself? What will they say about you at your funeral?
JSB: That’s a good way to end this interview. What is it you, K. Bennett, would like someone to say about you as your coffin lies open at the front of the church?
KB: I would like them to say, “Look! He’s moving!”
If you have any questions for K. Bennett today, I’m sure he’ll be pleased to answer them.
K. Bennett will be signing copies of all three of the Mallory Caine books at Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach, Friday, August 24, 7:30 – 8:30 p.m. Go HERE for more information. 
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What You Can’t Do with an e-Book

I recently received a box in the mail. It was from a life-long friend, a gent named Bill Plant who is responsible (or maybe irresponsible) for shaping much of my taste in literature. While Bill and I remain close friends, we aren’t in the habit of sending each other gifts on the spur of the moment, so I had no idea what was in the box. It could have been anything from a head to…well, anything. After making sure that it wasn’t ticking, crying, or leaking, I commenced to open it, a formidable task since Bill apparently used three rolls of scotch tape to seal it. After some effort, I folded the flaps back, pulled out some newspaper packing, and…well, I’ll confess, The Kid got just a little misty-eyed.
The box was full of books. Paperback books. From the 1950s. They were marked up and in one case a little chewed up and some of them had the binding falling loose and they all had that sweet scent of slow but inevitable decomposition. In other words, every one was a little treasure. These were USED, used books. Bill deals in antiques, and will buy items such as books in inexpensive lots in the hope of finding an acorn or two among the Buena Sierra. Collectors, alas, aren’t much interested in paperbacks that are dog-eared, or have had a crayon taken to them, or that have been labeled, using an indelible marker, with a five cent price tag.  took a bunch of such and sent them to me. I don’t think I’ve had a better present in quite a while. It reminded me of one Christmas, some fifty years ago, when my mother ordered a bunch of science fiction paperbacks for me from the gone but not forgotten S & SF Bookstore in New York. It was a laborious procedure back then — check books off an order list, write a check, send the whole kit and  caboodle off in the mail and wait six weeks for delivery — since the only “Amazon” most folks knew then was either 1) a river in South America or 2) Irish McCalla. But when that box arrived, it was special. And so was this one.
So what would I possibly want with such a litter of mutts? The idea of it, pure and simple. These were books that had been read and re-read before being consigned to a cellar or an attic or the back shelves of a used bookstore.  Most of it was science fiction. There were Ace Doubles in that box. Ace doubles. These consisted of two covers and two novels bound into one; read one, flip it over, and there was another novel waiting for you.  Hard Case Crime is going to publish two Lawrence Block novels in the doubles format in May 2012, and I can’t wait. But these were the original thing. A few short story collections were in that box, and included forgotten stories by famous authors (“Death of the Senator,” by Arthur C. Clarke, for one). There were a couple of early and forgotten novels by authors who have gone onto better things (Robert Silverberg’s THE PLANET KILLERS); and some soft core science fiction porn (are porn paperbacks even published anymore?). Then there was a copy of GALACTIC DERELICT by Andre Norton, one of the first science fiction books I ever read.
Yes, there were a couple of mysteries and thrillers as well. I was six years old when Marjorie Carlton wrote ONE NIGHT OF TERROR. It got past me the first time but I’m going to read it this year. And there were a couple of Carter Brown novels in that box.  Most of the ladies who contribute to The Kill Zone are probably too young to remember Carter Brown. but gentlemen, certainly most of you do.  “Carter Brown” was the pseudonym for Alan Geoffrey Yates, and there was a time when he ruled the revolving wire paperback racks. Who could forget those Signet covers? I fogged up my eyeglasses in many a drugstore perusing the wares of those gaudy damsels while pretending to look for Mad Magazine paperback collections. I have discovered, belatedly, that the stories aren’t bad either.  It occurred to me a couple of nights ago, while reading   NO BLONDE IS AN ISLAND, that I had never actually read a Carter Brown book until now. I had committed many a cover to memory, however.
Some of the older paperbacks are now appearing in e-book format.  I discovered recently that all of those Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books which I purchased with my allowance a half-century ago are available in Kindle format, and for free; and there are even three Carter Brown books up for sale. It just isn’t the same, however. The smell and the small, non-adjustable print and the feel of paper and ink aren’t there. It’s like having a rabbit and a hat that sit next to each other without any involvement or relationship: there’s no magic. That may sound strange — if pressing a couple of buttons and having an entire book appear in a wafer thin tool that you can slip in a coat pocket isn’t magic, then what is? — but it’s true. We get something, true, but also we give something up.
So. If you had a friend as good as mine (and Bill, I know you read these posts, and you remain the best), and that friend sent you a box such as I received, what books would you want to find in it? What would bring a smile to your face, and a tear (or five) to your eye?

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Going Deeper With a Series Character


Today’s post is brought to you by my new boxing story, “King Crush,” now available for 99¢ exclusively for Kindle. And, as a special inducement, for a limited time the first story, “Iron Hands,” is available FREE. 
Today I have a question: What do you like to see in a series character? The same “feel” over and over, or deepening and changing?
There are two schools of thought on this.
Lee Child once remarked that he loves Dom Perignon champagne and wants each bottle to be the same. He’s not looking for a different taste each time out. So it is with his Jack Reacher novels. And millions of fans are tracking right along with him.
There are other enduring series where the character remains roughly static. Phillip Marlowe didn’t change all that much until The Long Goodbye. James Bond? Not a whole lot of change going on inside 007.
At the other end of the spectrum are those characters who undergo significant transformation as the series moves along. The best contemporary example of this is, IMO, the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly. What he’s done with Bosch from book to book is nothing short of astonishing.
Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder was traipsing along as a pretty standard PI until Block made a conscious decision to kick it up a notch. He did that with Eight Million Ways to Die, a book that knocked me out. Here we have Scudder not just on a new case, but also battling his alcoholism and the existential angst of life in New York City in the early 1980s. By going deeper Block created one of the classics of the genre.
In my Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law series (written as K. Bennett) I have a lead character who is a zombie hungering (you’ll pardon the phrase) for change. She doesn’t want to be what she is. The just released Book 2,The Year of Eating Dangerously, begins with Mallory in the hills looking down at a motorcycle gang and thinking, Lunch.And then reflecting on her damaged soul.
Book 3, due out later this year, begins with Mallory at a ZA meeting—Zombies Anonymous. She is trying to stay off human flesh (substituting calves’ brains) but it’s not easy. And I say without hesitation that I was inspired by the above mentioned Eight Million Ways to Die.
So here’s my series about boxer Irish Jimmy Gallagher. These are short stories, and I’m going for “revealing” more of Jimmy in each one. “Iron Hands” was the intro, giving us Jimmy’s world and basic personality. Now comes “King Crush.”
The new story takes place in 1955 and revolves around an old carnival attraction they used to have in America, the carny fighter who would take on locals. If the locals stayed with him long enough, they might earn back their five bucks and some more besides. But these carny pugs knew all the dirty tricks, and it was usually the hayseeds who ended up on the canvas.
Jimmy just wants to have a good time at the carnival with his girl, Ruby, and his bulldog, Steve. He’s not looking for trouble. But sometimes trouble finds Jimmy Gallagher.
I started writing these stories because there’s something in me that wants to know Jimmy Gallagher, what makes him tick. And that’s my preference as a writer and a reader of series. I want to go a little deeper each time.
So who is your favorite series character? Is this character basically the same from book to book? Or is there significant change going on?

If you’re writing a series, do you have a plan for the development of your character over time? Or is it more a book-to-book thing?
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