One New Year’s Resolution

by Debbie Burke


Welcome back to another year in The Kill Zone!

Yesterday, Kay compiled a great collection of various new year’s resolutions.

Today, I’d like to share a different slant on resolutions, courtesy of bestselling author Eric Barker. For years, I’ve followed Eric’s “Barking Up the Wrong Tree” blog because of his witty, ironic take on human foibles.

Here’s Eric’s humorous perspective about New Year’s resolutions:

Cynically, you could see these resolutions as a yearly exercise in self-delusion. The tradition where we all collectively decide to lie to ourselves in a more structured format. Often, they’re like annual subscriptions we buy for a better version of ourselves… only to realize we’re more into the free trial.

Photo credit: Jon Tyson, Unsplash


Eric suggests we tackle this new year differently: Make ONLY ONE RESOLUTION.

That’s right. ONE RESOLUTION.

Eric kindly granted permission to share reasons why a single resolution can be effective and methods to keep that single resolution.

How can writers apply his advice? 


Photo credit: RDNE Stock Project, Pexels


Stop fantasizing: Year after year, we writers let our imaginations overload us with unrealistic fantasies. We waste energy dreaming about what we can’t possibly achieve.

I’m going to turn out as many books as James Patterson.

I’m going to score interviews on NPR, Good Morning America, and Drew’s TV book club.  

 Lofty goals but, for most of us, not likely.

Better to make one writing resolution that can you have a realistic chance of achieving.

My resolution: Publish the ninth book in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

For some writers, a goal like this is not ambitious enough; for others, it’s too much.

Before you decide on your resolution, examine your individual circumstances. Be honest. 

Do you work long hours at a stressful job? Do you have children and/or aging parents to care for?

Do you have limited physical or mental energy? Do you struggle to concentrate? Are you easily distracted?

Are you a procrastinator? Do you love the idea of writing more than you love actual writing?

After a realistic self-assessment, choose a resolution that’s not a fantasy.

Make a plan: Right now, I’m 170 pages into the above-mentioned ninth book. My goal is to release it for sale by March or April. Based on that timeline, here’s the plan:

  1. Complete the draft;
  2. Think of a title;
  3. Send the manuscript to beta readers then incorporate their suggestions;
  4. Edit;
  5. Have cover art designed;
  6. Format, upload, and proof;
  7. Do pre-release publicity.

Following a step-by-step plan means there’s a good chance I’ll achieve my resolution.

Whether your plan is three steps or 300, if you take one step at a time, you’ll eventually arrive at your destination.

Do the minimum: Eric says, “When we’re too ambitious we’re much more likely to give up altogether.”

After assessing your individual circumstances, set the bar so low, you can’t help but trip over it.

Say you’re a writer who works full-time, cares for family, and lives with long Covid. What is a realistic resolution? Write one paragraph a day. 

RDNE Stock Project, Pexels

Doesn’t sound like much until you add it up.

If a paragraph is 50 words, that’s 18,000+ words in a year. Not bad!

Most important, it’s a resolution that can be kept despite an overwhelmingly busy life. 

That doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to one paragraph. If the words are flowing, keep going. Write a page, a scene, a chapter.

At one page a day, by the end of 2024, that’s 365 pages.  


Make bad habits hard: Eric suggests erecting roadblocks to discourage bad habits. For instance, if you waste too much time on social media, delete distracting apps and shortcuts from your devices. You can still enjoy Instagram or goat yoga sites, but you’ll probably do it less often if you must first enter tedious login credentials every time.

Exception: Keep The Kill Zone readily accessible.

Make good habits easy: When Eric resolved to play his guitar more, he took it out of the closet and set it on a stand in the living room. Cutting time and effort made it easier to strum.

Make the habit of writing easy by keeping your tools accessible.

My laptop is on the dining table where I can’t possibly avoid it. If an idea occurs to me while cooking dinner, the computer is only steps away. HGTV decorators would shudder and our home won’t be featured in House Beautiful. But I get more work done than if it were in the office upstairs.

Leverage friends: Eric says, “Peer pressure can be a good thing.”

Hang out with people who encourage your resolution. Surround yourself with friends and family who will cheer you toward your goal. They pump you up when you doubt your ability or when your resolve falters. They help you over roadblocks.

Real life also includes negative peer pressure from snarky in-laws or jealous coworkers. But strive to spend less time with detractors and more time with positive influencers.

Commitment Devices: Eric’s suggestion below makes me smile because it sums up human nature so well. 

Give $100 to a trusted friend. If you stick to your resolution, you get your money back. Fail, and that money gets donated to the opposing political party’s reelection fund.

Photo credit: Jonathan Borba, Pexels

Instead of kicking off the new year with unrealistic fantasies that are doomed to fail, choose ONLY ONE RESOLUTION that you know you can keep.

Then keep it.

It’s that simple. Really.

Here’s a link to Eric’s full article.


TKZers: What is your SINGLE RESOLUTION for 2024?



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New Beginnings

The beginning is the most important part of the work. –Plato

* * *

Happy New Year! I’m honored to be the first to welcome TKZers to 2024! I hope you had a wonderful holiday season, filled with family, food, and fun, Now that the turkey and dressing have all been eaten, the relatives and friends have left, and the decorations have been put away, let’s get back to business.

January 1 is a clear-cut marker, a notch in time for new beginnings. It’s the start of another trip around the sun. Another 365—366 this year—opportunities to imprint our written work on the human experience. So, naturally, we think about how we can best use our time in this new year. Many people choose to make resolutions.

resolution — noun — the act of resolving or determining upon an action, course of action, method, procedure, etc.

Since this first TKZ post of 2024 landed squarely on January 1, I thought it would be fun to see what resolutions are trending this year.

* * *

The following list of the most popular resolutions for 2024 was compiled at The list shows the percentage of people who mentioned each one.

  • Improved fitness (48%)
  • Improved finances (38%)
  • Improved mental health (36%)
  • Lose weight (34%)
  • Improved diet (32%)

Less popular resolutions include traveling more (6%), meditating regularly (5%), drinking less alcohol (3%) and performing better at work (3%).

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the five major resolutions all concerned health or money.

* * *

Although the Forbes list contains items with admirable intentions, I was more interested in resolutions targeted specifically at authors. So I looked around some more and found several sites that suggested resolutions for writers in 2024. I’ve included the major points from those sites here, but you should visit the sites to get more detail for the individual items.

This list comes from

  1. Read more
  2. Write more
  3. Write to the audience
  4. Paint a picture
  5. Write simpler
  6. Get an editor
  7. Share your writings
  8. Call yourself a “writer”
  9. Start making money
  10. Remain true to yourself

Jeff Goins had a 17-item list:

  1. Measure activity, not results.
  2. Tell the truth
  3. Write what scares you.
  4. Don’t take yourself so seriously.
  5. Try a new genre.
  6. Write when you don’t feel like it.
  7. Do your research.
  8. Rewrite until it hurts.
  9. Shut up.
  10. Read widely.
  11. Fast from social media.
  12. Break a rule.
  13. Publish something
  14. Make money.
  15. Start a blog.
  16. Meet other writers
  17. Quit stalling and get writing!

Did you notice that both lists of resolutions for writers include truth and money? I don’t know what conclusion to draw from that, but it’s interesting.

So resolutions are great. They represent a strong commitment to improvement. However, it’s important to measure progress, so while a resolution might be to “read more,” a goal sets an explicit target: “Read one novel each week in 2024.” Including measurable goals within each resolution gives the best chance for success.

But whether you prefer resolutions or goals, writing them down and posting them somewhere so that you’ll see them during the year is a good idea.

* * *

So TKZers: Did you come up with a list of New Year’s resolutions for writing? Did you see anything on the lists here that inspires you? What other resolutions and goals would you suggest for 2024?

* * *


“DiBianca’s plot is tightly woven, but her cast of quirky and lovable characters steals the spotlight.” –BookLife Reviews, Editor’s Pick

Buy at Amazon, Barnes & Noble. Apple Books, Kobo, or Google Play 

Writing Strategies

Writing Strategies: Breaking through writer’s block, keeping your butt in the writing chair, and rewiring your brain

The Kill Zone is a goldmine of advice and insight on all aspects of writing and publishing, from how to write and ways to publish, to creating characters, embracing story structure, and much more.

Getting to the keyboard to write, and once there, continuing to write is a challenge for many of us, especially with the internet ready to provide endless distractions. Today’s Words of Wisdom shares three excerpts from the KZB archives that provide ideas and strategies to help get past writer’s block and keeping motivated. You can read the full post for each excerpt via the date links. It’s also an entirely unintentional, serendipitous follow-on to James Scott Bell’s Reader Friday post yesterday entitled “Setting Yourself on Fire.”

So, the table has been set for today’s discussion. Feel free to comment and engage with other readers on any, or all, of these topics.

I was feeling uninspired in my writing (which probably explains why I was surfing the Internet and reading about placebo studies). So I wondered: If a placebo can cure cranky bowels, could it help me break through a minor case of writer’s block?

I decided to run my own unscientific study. I didn’t have any sugar pills on hand, so I reached for the next best thing: my daughter’s jelly beans.  I figured that labeling and ritual had to be part of the reason why placebos work, so I poured the jb’s into an empty prescription  container. (And I have to report that jelly beans look extremely potent when they’re staring up at you from a bottle of blood thinner medication.) Then I put a nice label on it marked “Creativity.”

As part of my morning ritual I started taking two “creativity pills” with my coffee. As I solemnly popped the beans, I paused to meditate for a few moments about my writing goals for the day.

And by God, it worked. I blasted right through that writer’s block. I wrote four pages that day, and haven’t looked back since.

The only thing is, now I’m afraid to stop taking the beans. I think I’m hooked. For my next batch I’m thinking of getting those special-order M&Ms–the ones you can order with little messages written on them. I’ll get them labeled with something like, “Writing is rewriting,” or whatever fits.

What about you? Do you have any silly rituals that help you get your creativity engine going?

–Joe Moore, January 11, 2011

I like to reexamine what tips I would give to aspiring authors, or even experienced authors, when I get a chance to speak to a group. Invariably the question comes up on advice and I’ve noticed that what helps me now is different than what I might have found useful when I started. Below are 8 tips I still find useful. Hope you do too, but please share your ideas. I’d love to hear from you.

1.) Plunge In & Give Yourself Permission to Write Badly  – Too many aspiring authors are daunted by the “I have to write perfectly” syndrome. If they do venture words onto a blank page, they don’t want to show anyone, for fear of being criticized. They are also afraid of letting anyone know they want to write. I joined writers organizations, took workshops, and read “how to” articles on different facets of the craft, but I also started in on a story.

2.) Write What You Are Passionate About – When I first started to write, I researched what was selling and found that to be romance. Romance still is a dominant force in the industry, but when I truly found my voice and my confidence came when I wrote what I loved to read, which was crime fiction and suspense. Look at what is on your reading shelves and start there.

3.) Finish What You Start –  Too many people give up halfway through and run out of gas and plot. Finish what you start. You will learn more from your mistakes and may even learn what it takes to get out of a dead end.

4.) Develop a Routine & Establish Discipline – Set up a routine for when you can write and set reasonable goals for your daily word count. I track my word counts on a spreadsheet. It helps me realize that I’m making progress on my overall project completion. Motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar, said that he wrote his non-fiction books doing it a page a day. Any progress is progress. It could also help you to stay offline and focused on your writing until you get your word count in. Don’t let emails and other distractions get you off track.

–Jordan Dane, August 7, 2014

Rewiring the brain

In an article published in WD in 2012, Mike Bechtle argued that mere willpower is not the most effective solution for breaking through writer’s block. He suggests that we rewire our brains to get back into the “flow”.

Here were my major takeaways from Bechtle’s article:

  • Write first thing in the morning, when alertness and energy levels are typically at their highest. (My note: If you can’t write first thing in the morning, try to write at the same time of day every day. Your brain will “learn” to kick into gear at its regular writing time)
  • Fuel your brain with a nourishing breakfast (Think eggs and fruit, not an apple fritter)
  • Limit distractions (Don’t check email or messages before writing, and don’t read a newspaper, turn on the TV, or listen to radio, either)
  • Keep writing sessions short (The brain can focus intensely for only short periods of time, according to Bechtle)
  • Apply glue to butt (Stay seated while writing, that is!)
  • Don’t set your expectations too high

Other strategies

In my first foray as a fiction writer back in the 90’s, I was a contract writer for the Nancy Drew series. The schedule for those books gave me little leeway for writer’s block. As soon as the chapter outline was approved, writers were given six weeks to complete the novel. Six weeks! I had to write those stories so fast, I felt as if I was hurling words at the word processor. Every project was a race to the finish line. “Writer’s block” was a foreign concept.

Then my editor left, and the publishing landscape changed. I stopped writing NDs and began to vaguely contemplate writing something on my own. Inertia quickly set in. Months became years, and I hadn’t written anything new.

15 minutes a day, that’s all we ask

I happened to read an article by Kate White, who is an author and former editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine. Her advice to getting started? Write 15 minutes per day, first thing in the morning. No. Matter. What.

To act on Kate’s suggestion, I had to set my alarm for five a.m. instead of six. That extra hour gave me enough time to down a cup of coffee and generate 15 minutes of quality writing time, before I headed off to my day job.

White’s advice worked for me. Fifteen minutes of writing daily eventually became an hour. Soon I was producing a minimum quota of a page a day.  (Yes, I know: a single page a day isn’t impressive as a quota. See the last bullet point of the previous list about lowering expectations.) A few months later, I had completed the first draft of my new novel.

Kathryn Lilley, June 16, 2015


Now it is your turn.

  1. Do you have tips for breaking through a minor writer’s block?
  2. How do you keep yourself writing?
  3. Do you have a routine you use, or a ritual?
  4. Any advice on keeping your keister in the writing chair?

Why You Don’t Feel Like Writing

by James Scott Bell

As Yogi Berra once observed, “90% of the game is half mental.” That’s why I wrote a book called The Mental Game of Writing. We have to master the space between in our ears in order to produce our best work on the page.

I’ve noticed many blog posts over the last five months talking about what a struggle it is to write in Virus World. These writers talk about a lack of energy, spark, interest, creativity. The feeling is described in a post by Peter Olson: “A frustrating sense of ‘molasses’ clogging your thoughts. A fatigue you just can’t seem to shake. Feeling ‘tired’ or ‘worn-out’ as you … journey through normal days that simply don’t feel as normal as they should.”

Every now and then a scribe wonders if there’s something wrong with them. Do they really want to do this anymore? Is the joy gone for good?

Turns out there’s an understandable, biological reason you feel this way. Your brain is experiencing “culture shock.” From the above article:

When someone moves to a completely new culture, many of the ‘autopilots’ your brain uses for thousands of small decisions every day become ineffective. In a similar way, your current environment has likely changed sufficiently enough that many of your own ‘autopilots’ are no longer working. When this happens, the next remaining option for your brain is to use a second decision-making process that requires far more effort and energy (glucose) to operate. Your body can only supply glucose to your brain at a certain rate – a rate far below what would be required to use this kind of thinking continually. Thus, additional thinking about routine matters has likely left you with a chronically depleted level of glucose in your brain. All to say: You are experiencing “culture shock”.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, explains how our brains work in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Here is a summary:

  1. Your brain is a great decision-making engine.
  2. Your brain has two distinct processes it uses to make decisions.
  3. One of these systems operates quickly and automatically and does not require much energy.
  4. One of these systems operates slowly and deliberately and requires a lot more energy.

Kahneman gave names to the two processes your brain uses. He called one the “fast” system. This kind of thinking has also been called the “subconscious” system. The other he called our “slow” system. “Slow” thinking is what you are doing when you say that you are “thinking” about something.

What’s happening is that our brains have to do a lot more “slow” thinking these days. We used to just run out to the store for groceries with a simple routine: Park the car, get out (without fiddling with a mask), grab a cart, stroll around, thump a cantaloupe, look over the meats, etc. But now we have to think about masks, distance, touching, not touching, hand sanitizing, keeping an eye on that guy coming down the aisle and keeping our feet on the floor stickers in the checkout line. Thus, even this once innocuous little slice of your life drains your brain.

Think of “slow thinking” a bit like ‘turbo’ from the old video games. You need it to power through some parts of life. But use it all and you’ll need to wait for it to come back again. This is why you have perhaps said that your brain feels ‘tired’ after a long meeting, an intense discussion, or after much studying. That ‘tired’ feeling is your brain calling for a break so it can replenish the sugar it just used up.


Hundreds of times every day we are now facing moments where fast & cheap was handling your decisions for you … but can’t anymore. Last year greeting a friend didn’t require us to use the limited capacity of slow thinking. But now it may. With many of our autopilots disabled, we are facing a world where we are being forced to think in ways we are not accustomed to. And it’s draining your brain of capacity you used to have for other – more meaningful – things.

Meaningful things like writing!

Or maybe somewhere in your tired brain there’s a voice whispering that fiction is really not all that meaningful.

Shut that voice down! People need stories more than ever. We are the ones to lighten the load of our fellow citizens dealing with the stark, often irrational, and sometimes violent nature of current reality.

As Ray Bradbury once said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Share that dram with your readers!

To avoid slow-brain sluggishness, let me suggest the following:

  1. Prioritize morning writing

Awaken, get your morning beverage, then write something. I know some of you claim not be “morning people,” but it’s morning and you’re a person, right? Instead of immediately hopping onto Facebook or Instagram, play with words.

I don’t care what words. Maybe it’s a scene in your WIP, but not always. Try jotting in a journal, or starting a short story based on whatever is in your mind at the moment (the Ray Bradbury Method). Don’t judge the words, just produce them.

I like writing flash fiction (under 1,000 words) and often use early mornings to start stories…some of which I may not finish. But that’s okay. It gets me in the writing mood.

  1. Quarantine the news and social media 

Decide when and for how long you’ll glance at the news and social media. The news can get you sad, mad or both within seconds. Social media is, in the words of Cal Newport, “digital fast food.” The instant Dopamine rush you get leads to a crash later, which may result in a massive case of the blues.

Really. Set a timer. Do anything to limit the input of these two stimuli.

  1. Get together with real people

This is a bit difficult in the California compound, where I often feel like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. In L.A. you can’t have some people over to enjoy a backyard barbecue, but you can have 6 people at your table at a restaurant with outdoor dining. Go figure.

So do what you can under the rules of your locality to get real with real people. We need flesh and blood interactions more than  Zoom and Skype.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to look for wire cutters and a motorcycle.

So how is your energy to write these days? Any tips on staying motivated?

It’s Election Day! Choose Wisely
For the Sake of Your Novel

By PJ Parrish

Well, it’s time.  It’s Tuesday, Nov. 8 and you have to make a choice.

No…not that one. We here at The Kill Zone are fiercely apolitical, so what you do today in the privacy of your little curtain or cubbyhole is your business alone. I’m talking about more important choices today -– about your novel.

But first, let’s pause for a short break. I am PJ Parrish and I approve this message:

Shoot, I’d vote for this guy. He makes as much sense as anybody running today. Okay, back to regular programming.

When you sit down to write a novel, you may not realize it,  but you will be — for the next six months to six years it takes you to finish — constantly making choices. Some of these choices will be as big and strategic as picking your characters and plot. Others will be tactical choices like grammar, word choice, use of imagery, punctuation, chapter length, even book length. These latter choices are all really important and we’ve covered all of these topics here at TKZ. But today, let’s hone in on the big choices.

Yes, we’ve covered these a lot here, too. But on this, ahem, really yuge election day, I think it’s a good time for review.

The Ten Most Important Choices You Make About Your Novel

1. Who’s story is this? This sounds simplistic, but you must be clear about who you are going to focus on for your readers to follow. Now usually (but not always), you want to chose a single protagonist, one main person who will be challenged, who will triumph (heroic) or fail (tragic), and who will be the central figure in the story’s plot arc.

Can you have more than one protag? Well, yes. But in my humble opinion, a dual (or multiple protag) book is harder to pull off. Why? Because unless you are really good at weaving the threads of plot and motivation, you will probably understand or even favor one protag over another — and readers will really miss that person when they are “off stage.”

I recently critiqued a manuscript whose author couldn’t make this choice. She had created four equal main characters, but none really captured my interest. I asked the writer why she had done this and she said that her “real” protag was her setting.  I advised her to go read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

The “region of supernatural wonder” can be the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry or a bar in Cleveland, if you want. But we must have someone to care about, someone we are willing to follow for 300 pages.

2. Where am I? It surprises me how often writers neglect this. Yes, all fiction takes place somewhere, but unless you make that your setting come alive in your reader’s imagination, you are just moving characters against a cardboard backdrop. Do you need to “write what you know?” Not really. You needn’t have lived in Belle Epoque Paris to be convincing, but you need to do your homework and create not reality but verisimilitude (the appearance or being real and convincing). Do your homework (Guest poster Barbara Nickless had a good take on this yesterday.)

And establish your setting very early in your story. Readers need to know where they are from the get-go, and while you don’t want to slow things down in your opening chapter(s) with too much description, you need to begin setting your scene early. And no, hanging one of those pitiful little taglines on chapter one — QUANTICO, VIRGINIA — won’t cut it.

Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth.

That’s one of my favorite opening lines from Thomas Harris. He didn’t need a tagline, just those fabulous final five words.

3. What’s your point of view? So who is going to be your narrator? Sometimes, this can be a secondary character. Jay Gatsby is the protagonist of Fitzgerald’s classic, but the story is related by Nick Carraway. Most likely, your narrator will be your protagonist. So do you use first person or third person? Your choice. First-person is more immediately intimate because having your protag relate everything via “I saw”  “I did” or “I thought” you establish a tight bond with the reader. But this is also very limiting as everything must be filtered through one prism. I think first is harder to write than third.  Why? Because if you whiff on motivation, if you don’t grasp every nuance of your protag’s psyche, your narrator will feel flat. And if he’s boring, well, shoot…there goes the reason to turn the page.

Having trouble with this? Switch from first to third or vice versa. You may discover the plot you are dealing with demands the richer variety and complexity of a third-person vantage point. Or you might need multiple third-person POVs. Your protag may be doing a Diana Ross but she might need Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard backing her up.

Time for another break. I’m PJ Parrish and I approve this message:

I’d vote for that guy, too. He’s crazy but at least he’s honest. Back to your book:

4. What’s the best entry point? Let’s start with a premise: A rich teenage girl disappears from in front of a nightclub in London, snatched by a man re-inacting Jack the Ripper murders. A disgraced female cop who’s trying to reconnect with her own estranged daughter gets the case. Where do you start this story?

Bad starts: From victim’s POV: She wakes up, eats breakfast, has testy phone call with mom and later that night goes to nightclub. Cop’s POV: She’s sitting at her desk, thinking about her bad job and her lost relationship with daughter.  From killer’s POV: he is watching girl exit the nightclub thinking about what he is going to do with her.

Why are these bad? The first is throat-clearing. Yes, you might want to establish sympathy for the victim but you can do this after she is gone or even in a few good tense ACTIVE moments in the nightclub. The second example is back story that should be dribbled in as the plot begins to unfold. The third example, while it sounds juicy, it has become a giant cliche.  If you open this way, it must really be original, and you will then need to go back to the killer’s POV at other times in the book or the opening scene feels tacked on and artificial.

When considering where to start:  Get in as late as possible but still be clear in what has already happened. Pick a moment where something is happening or about to happen, where a status quo is changing, where someone is about to be challenged.

Prologues? That’s a whole post in itself. I generally don’t like them because they are almost always mis-used. If you have one, cut it out and see if you can start your story in chapter 1. Betcha it works.

5. What does your hero want? Ray Bradbury said all you have to do is figure out what your hero wants then just follow him. Easy for him to say! Plumbing the depths of motivation is the key to creating characters who live on the page. I’ve written about this often because I think that once you, the writer, can answer this question, everything falls into place. It’s helpful to think of “want” as having many levels.  In Silence of the Lambs, what does Clarise Starling want? Easy — to catch Buffalo Bill.  But go deeper into her psychological basement:

  1. To catch Buffalo Bill
  2. To save Kathryn
  3. To prove she can make it among the boys of the FBI academy
  4. To impress her boss Bill Crawford
  5. To make her dead father proud
  6. To silence the lambs (her demons over being orphaned as an innocent girl)

Do this for your protag, then for your villain and everyone in your book if you can. Remember what Kurt Vonnegut said: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

6. What happened? This is simplistic, too, but needs to restated: Something has to go south fast. As you concentrate on character, don’t neglect story. Your hero needs an obstacle to overcome. As Stephen King says in On Writing: “In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”  You must create obstacles for your hero to overcome (Sheriff Brody in Jaws has not just a killer shark to hunt down but he has to deal with a dumb mayor, a rift in his team (Quint and Hooper) and he can’t swim. I love what sci-fi fantasy author Nancy Kress says about plot: “Fiction is about stuff that’s screwed up.”

Uh-oh…we gotta break again. I’m PJ Parrish and I approve this message:

I’d definitely vote for that guy, but I think Ted Cruz might gnaw him down to bones. Back to your choices:

7. What are you trying to say? Samuel Goldwyn famously said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Well, yeah, I sorta of agree with that. Especially since I just finished a mystery that was about meth addiction in Appalachia. It was good but after a while I just thinking, “enough with the drug thing. Who killed that old man?”  The writer was so enamored with his message, it let the story go flaccid.  However…

Great books are always about a theme. Herman Melville said, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” So Moby Dick is not just a fish tale. It is about man’s inability to know God. But merely good books also have something to say. You can hear the theme humming soft and steady beneath the clanging machinery of the plot.  At its best, a theme has some sort of meaning to your protagonist, even in genre fiction. Which brings to mind Joseph Wambaugh’s quote, “It’s not how the detective works the case but how the case works on the detective.”  This is a little facile, but here’s an interesting list of common fiction themes — everything from abuse of power to xenophobia.

8. What do I call this? Let’s talk about titles. I know, I know…you don’t want to because titles are hard. And if I know you, you’ve probably slapped something gawd- awful on your work in progress just so you can find it in your computer. But here’s the thing: A good title can make or break your chances out there. I’d go so far to say it’s the single biggest marketing decision you will make. A good title is a neon sign to your readers, not just luring them in but signaling in shorthand what your story is about. And maybe most important, a good title helps you, the writer, understand at a very basic level what your book is about. You need to think about this until your brain hurts. You need to wake up in a cold sweat at night over this.  Don’t settle.

What makes for a great title? It’s pithy, it has promise. It’s a tease and a tell. It’s memorable, original, and easy to say. It boils your entire story down its essence and conveys its heart. This topic needs its own post to do it justice, so for now, just Google and read up on the good advice out there. Good titles: Hunger Games. The Last of the Mohicans. To Kill a Mockingbird. Bad: I can’t print most of them here. Click here.

Another break? Geez. I’m PJ Parrish and I’m getting tired of approving messages.

It’s all a blur but I am pretty sure I voted for that guy. I like his wife. Maybe she’ll run someday…

Back to your own choices:

9. What is my tone? This is important but sort of slippery to grasp. It’s important, however, because if the tone of your book is off, you’re going to have trouble selling it to agents and editors or, if publishing it yourself, finding your target audience. The tone is your attitude or feelings toward your subject matter. You convey this through your style, word choice, and through the personalities of your characters.  If you’re writing for a genre audience, getting your tone right is important because readers have certain expectations. A reader looking for light romance suspense doesn’t want to open your book and discover halfway through that you’ve started out light and descended to a darker place. Likewise, if like me, you prefer darker fare, you don’t want to be misled in the opposite direction.

Your chosen tone can be whimsical, humorous, gloomy, ironic, hardboiled, neo-noir, …you pick it. But you must be honest and consistent.  Years ago, I wrote an amateur sleuth novel that I thought was peachy.  It was roundly rejected, despite the fact I had a good track record with my current series. What happened? My tone started out light and wacky but veered toward the dark about halfway through. Two editors even used the same words in their rejection letters: “Loved the writing but it’s neither fish nor fowl.”  I learned a lesson — I can’t maintain soprano when my true voice is contralto.

10. Do I finish this book or start over? No one can help you with this, but it’s something you have to ask yourself as you move along.  Not every book needs to be finished. Some are exercises of sorts to help you learn. Others might be short stories instead of novels. And then there is the question of stamina and confidence. If you do believe in your story, then yes, you need to finish it. Even if it never gets published, it won’t be wasted effort.  Every successful writer out there has unpublished manuscripts moldering in bottom desk drawers or lurking on old thumb drives. You need to finish something. Just for the knowledge that you can do it.

I’ll leave you with a telling quote from Erica Jong: “I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.”

Yes, you will. Don’t be afraid of it. It’s called being a professional writer.

And finally, one last break. I’m PJ Parrish, and I think this candidate speaks for all of us very weary voters out there:

Plot Motivators

By Joe Moore

For most novelists, one of the easiest things to come up with is an idea for a story. It seems that intriguing ideas swirl around us like cell phone conversations—we just use our writer’s instinct to pull them out of the air and act upon them.

The next step is to develop characters and stitch together the quilt of a plot that will sustain the story for 100k words. And right up front, we must consider what plot motivation will drive the story and subsequently the characters. Fortunately, there are many to choose from.

So what is a plot motivator? It’s the key ingredient that provides drama to a story as it helps move the plot along. Without it, the story becomes static. And without forward motion, there’s little reason to read on. Here is a list of what I consider the most common plot motivators.

Ambition: Can you say Rocky Balboa.

Vengeance: Usually an all-encompassing obsession for revenge such as in THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK.

The Quest: LORD OF THE RINGS is a great example as is JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.

Catastrophe: A series of events that proves disastrous like in THE TOWERING INFERNO.

Rivalry: Often powered by jealousy. Remember CAMELOT?

Love/Hate: Probably the most powerful motivators in any story.

Survival: The alternative is not desirable. Think ALIEN.

The Chase: A key element in numerous thrillers including THE FUGITIVE.

Grief: Usually starts with a death and goes downhill from there.

Persecution: This one has started wars and created new nations.

Rebellion: There’s talk of mutiny among the HMS Bounty crew.

Betrayal: BASIC INSTINCT. Is that boiled rabbit I smell?

There are many other sub-motivators that are strong enough to drive a scene or section or secondary character of a book, but I don’t consider them global motivators. Examples include fear, pleasure, knowledge, lust, sacrifice, thrills, and others.

You can easily find a combination of these in most books especially with a protagonist and antagonist being empowered for totally different reasons. But the global plot motivator is usually the one that kick starts the book and moves it forward.

What plot motivators are you using in your WIP or latest novel? Did I miss any?

Death Wish motivation

By Joe Moore

How often do you watch a movie with the sound turned off? Not too often, I’ll bet. Not only would you be missing a key sensory ingredient of the story, but you would have to guess at what is motivating the characters actions. Without the sound or dialogue, motivation is vague, ambiguous, and downright impossible to determine. And without motivation, there’s little or no story to enjoy.

Motivation directs a character’s actions and reactions. When someone reads a book, they rarely go digging for motivation, but they know when it’s missing, or worse, when it’s present but farfetched or forced. For instance, motivation becomes unbelievable when it’s cliché such as the old, worn out white hat-black hat characterization. The bad guy must be bad because his appearance is that of a stereotypical villain.

Another stumbling point is when the protagonist’s actions go beyond the realm of reality to the point of stopping the reader cold. The motivation didn’t provide the justification on why a character acts in a certain manner. This is critical when a character, especially the hero, deliberately risks his own life. If the motivation hasn’t been sold to the readers in a convincing manner prior to the protagonist taking a dangerous risk, they won’t buy into the scene and will consider it manufactured. That’s where they stop reading and put the book down.

A character’s motivation can be an obvious goal that must be achieved in order for survival or it can be a series of ever-building events that propel her forward into an inevitable conflict. It’s the writer’s job to develop motivation to a point that the reader won’t question the character’s actions, especially by the time they reach the climax of the book.

First, let’s talk about external motivation: incidental versus major.

Incidental motivators are the events that occur in and around the character at the scene or setting level of the story. He’s late for work. She’s annoyed by the neighbor’s barking dog. He spills his coffee on his business report. She has an argument with her mother. He gets cut off in traffic. She loses her earring. In and of themselves, these incidental events don’t motivate the hero to run into a burning building to save a stranger or the heroine to spend years tracking down the murderer of her child. But they all add up—or at least they should. They are the bricks and cement of character-building that must augment and support the grand motivation that kicks off the story—the major motivation.

Major motivation is the biggie. A great example is the Death Wish scenario—the classic 1974 Charles Bronson movie. An ordinary guy becomes a one-man vigilante deathwishsquad after he witnesses his wife murdered by hoodlums. The major motivation—the brutal crime and ensuing obsession for vengeance—shapes and forces the character into taking action outside his comfort zone. And because he’s such a “Mr. Everyman”, the reader will probably consider what he or she would do in the same situation. The protagonist gets sympathy and support from the reader even though he’s committing acts of violence just as extreme as the original major motivation.

Another factor in believable character motivation is matching the actions of the protagonist with his personality—an internal motivation. A 95-pound, soft-spoken computer geek shouldn’t try to physically take on the 330-pound former linebacker henchman in a fist fight. But he can use his fine-tuned intellect and problem solving abilities to bring down the bad guy in the arena of the brain, not brawn. The actions of the character fueled by motivation must be consistent with his personality. This is not to say that an ordinary guy can’t take on an extraordinary situation and win, only that it must be consistent with his makeup and therefore believable in the mind of the reader.

There’s also the internal issue of motivational growth. The protagonist should grow or change in some manner over the course of the story. And this growth must be the result of internal forces in opposition. For example, greed and generosity, anger and patience, or caution and boldness. The protagonist is a highly cautious individual and shows it while reacting to a number of incidental events. But when the major event comes along—perhaps a direct threat to his family’s safety—he steps forward to become a bold defender of what he treasures most.

When dealing with motivation, we can’t forget that the antagonist needs his share, too. It’s a given that conflict and tension are what keeps a reader turning pages. So not only does the protagonist need the appropriate amount of convincing motivation to be propelled through the story, but the antagonist must meet the challenge with an equal amount of motivation to push back. It’s not good enough to say that the bad guy is insane or wants to rule the world. There has to be motivation that is undeniable in the mind of the reader.

Finally, to create strong, believable motivation for your characters, remember to always ask yourself, How would I react in a similar situation?

THE BLADE, coming in February from Sholes & Moore
"An epic thriller." – Douglas Preston
"An absolute thrill ride." – Lisa Gardner
”Full-throttle thriller writing.” – David Morrell
"Another razor-sharp thriller from one of my favorite writing teams." – Brad Thor
"History and suspense entangle from page one." – Steve Berry

Are You Motivated?

By Joe Moore

For most novelists, one of the easiest things to come up with is an idea for a story. It seems that intriguing ideas swirl around us like cell phone conversations—we just use our writer’s instinct to pull them out of the air and act upon them.

The next step is to develop our characters and stitch together the quilt of a plot that will sustain our story for 100k words. And right up front, we must consider what plot motivation will drive the story and subsequently the characters. Fortunately, there are many to choose from.

So what is a plot motivator? It’s the key ingredient that provides drama to a story as it helps move the plot along. Without it, the story becomes static. And without forward motion, there’s little reason to read on.

Here is a list of what’s considered the most common plot motivators.

Ambition: Can you say Rocky Balboa.

Vengeance: Usually an all-encompassing obsession for revenge such as in The Man In The Iron Mask.

The Quest: Lord Of The Rings is a great example as is Journey To The Center Of The Earth.

Catastrophe: A disaster or series of events that proves disastrous like in The Towering Inferno.

Rivalry: Often powered by jealousy. Remember Camelot?

Love/Hate: Probably the most powerful motivator in any story.

Survival: The alternative is not desirable. Think Alien.

The Chase: A key element in numerous thrillers including The Fugitive.

Grief: Usually starts with a death and goes downhill from there.

Persecution: This one has started wars and created new nations.

Rebellion: There’s talk of mutiny among the HMS Bounty crew.

Betrayal: Basic Instinct. Is that boiled rabbit I smell?

You can easily find a combination of these in most books especially with a protagonist and antagonist being empowered for totally different reasons. But the global plot motivator is usually the one that kick starts the book and moves it forward. Which ones have you used in your books? Which are your favorites? Are there any you avoid and why?

Coming Wednesday, September 9: Forensic specialist and thriller author Lisa Black will be our guest.

Character Motivation Redux

By John Gilstrap

The writing process fascinates me. Reading Joe Moore’s excellent post about the Nemo family got me to thinking how I would answer the question about motivating characters. Even as I write this, I’m still not sure. Fact is, I’ve never thought of the process that way. Interview my characters? I can’t imagine doing that. As I’ve posted before in this space, my characters have the annoying habit of staring back at me until I tell them what to do.

For me, I think, plot is character is motivation is drama. The various elements of storytelling are so interwoven and interdependent that I don’t know how to break them into their separate component parts. When a character’s child is stolen, the motivations are inevitably cast. The kidnapped child is motivated to survive and/or get away. The parent is motivated to get him back. The kidnapper is motivated to see his plan through to the end. Maybe it would be more nuanced for me if I wrote love stories; but as a thriller writer the whole motivation thing has never been a problem for me.

Sometimes I think the best advice we can give to struggling new writers is to think less and imagine more. Given the set of circumstances you’ve conjured, put yourself in your character’s position and start pretending. It was easy when we were kids, after all, before we attended creative writing classes and people started putting labels on the things that came naturally. When I was a boy and I played with my friends, the non-sports games were always of the role play variety, and nearly always involved imagined gunplay. (I cleared the neighborhood of marauding Apaches when I was very young, and then kept the Nazi threat at bay as I approached adolescence.) But here’s the thing: I became the character I was pretending to be. My bike was a motorcycle, and the pine cones were grenades.

When I started writing stories in elementary school, that reality transference continued. The reality of the imagined world trumped the reality of my actual surroundings. It still happens to me when I’m really in the zone—it’s the great thrill of writing. I don’t have to think about motivating my characters because all I have to do is report on what I’m seeing, hearing and feeling through their senses.

Being a big fan of Inside the Actor’s Studio, I’ve often thought that the Method, as described by the guests on that show, has a lot in common with my writing process. Once I create a premise that feels real, I don the emotional garb of the character from whose head I’m writing, and I embark on a great pretend.