Happy Holidays!

AWREATH3It’s Winter break here at the Kill Zone. During our 2-week hiatus, we’ll be spending time with our families and friends, and celebrating all the traditions that make this time of year so wonderful. We sincerely thank you for visiting our blog and commenting on our rants and raves. We wish you a truly blessed Holiday Season and a prosperous 2013. From Clare, Boyd, Kathryn, Kris, Joe M., Nancy, Michelle, Jordan, Joe H., Mark, and James to all our friends and visitors, Seasons Greeting from the Kill Zone. See you back here on Monday, January 7.


Yes! Yes! Yes!…Oh no

Ah yes, it’s in the air. Happens every December. All that joyous warbling. All that frantic pushing and shoving. All that delicious anticipation that leads up to that frenzied moment when you tear off the wrappings to get that lovely prize.
Yes, it’s the annual Bad Sex In Fiction Awards.
Don’t know about you, but this is the highlight of my year as a writer. Because I have been there, naked before the computer screen — well not literally but quite figuratively –- trying to put into words this most basic human act. And it is not easy to do without sounding like a fifth grader with a gland disorder.
Yes, I have sex. In my books. But I usually weasel out and fade to black, hoping my readers are old enough to remember when Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling in the surf was hot. And I have sat on enough sex panels at writers conventions to know that all my fellow authors struggle with this. Except maybe Barry Eisler but I once saw him take down a drunk in the bar at the Edgars so maybe his id is a little more out there than the rest of ours.
We crime dogs all know one truth about our genre: It is far easier to write the most evil serial killer than it is to write about the two-backed beast. And I, for one, really appreciate the fact that the editors at the Literary Review wade through all the big important novels to cull out the best examples of the worst sex committed on paper. Because I like knowing that people like Phillip Roth and Tom Wolfe can, when they really apply themselves, write worse crap than I can.
The bad sex prize was established by the Literary Review “to draw attention to the crude and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel and to discourage it”. There were so many good entries this year that even J. K. Rowling (The Casual Vacancy) and E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Gray) got nosed out.
So…do you want to read some excerpts from the finalists? I warn you, this is not for children or those with weak stomachs. Go ahead. Read ‘em. You know you want to. But you’ll hate yourself in the morning.

Next time can we just do it on the floor?

“Down, down, on to the eschatological bed. Pages chafed me; my blood wept onto them. My cheek nestled against the scratch of paper. My cock was barely a ghost, but I did not suffer panic.”
— The Quiddity of Wilf Self by Sam Mills.

We’re gonna need a bigger boat

“We got up from the chair and she led me to her elfin grot, getting amonst the pillows and cool sheets. We trawled each other’s bodies for every inch of history.” — Noughties by Ben Masters

If you wanna be a pony soldier you gotta act tough. Now mount up!


“Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw — all this without a word.” — Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe.

Good thing she didn’t raise cacti

“He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum, but missing — his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down.” — Rare Earth by Paul Mason.

Or maybe it was the Ben & Jerrys she dabbed behind her knees

“She smells of almonds, like a plump Bakewell pudding; and he is the spoon, the whipped cream, the helpless dollop of warm custard.” — The Yips by Nicola Barker.

I AM big, he said. It’s the pictures that got small

“This is when I take my picture, from deep inside the loving. The Canon is part of my body. I myself am the ultrasensitive film — capturing invisible reality, capturing heat.” — Infrared by Nancy Huston

Wouldn’t it be wubberly?

“And he came. Like a wubbering springboard. His ejaculate jumped the length of her arm. Eight diminishing gouts. The first too high for her to lick. Right on the shoulder.” — The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine


Mind the gap!

“In seconds the duke had lowered his trousers and boxers and positioned himself across a leather steamer trunk, emblazoned with the royal arms of Hohenzollern Castle. ‘Give me no quarter,’ he commanded. ‘Lay it on with all your might.’”– The Adventuress: The Irresistible Rise of Miss Cath Fox by Nicholas Coleridge
There. Now don’t you feel better?

Ugly Babies

By PJ Parrish
If you could go back and change things, would you?
Not your life. Your first book. That thing that burst from your heart and took flight and lifted you up there with it, making you feel on top of the world.
Until, maybe, you went back and read it again.
Did you still love it? Or did you see its little warts and uneven gait? Did it seem to maybe need a little grooming or a good flea-dip? If you had the chance, would you try to clean it up so it would be more…adoptable?
Our first book was DARK OF THE MOON. It’s a good story that we’re proud of. It got some great blurbs and reviews. But it got one bad review from Kirkus, which is the Life cereal of the publishing world. (“Give it to Mikey, he hates everything!”). Here is part of what Kirkus said:
“Clumsy prose, stereotyped people and a first novelist who has to learn that in plotting the twist is better than the wrench.”
I’ve submitted this review every year to Thrillerfest’s worst review contest but I keep losing to folks like John Gilstrap. The prize is fossilized poop. I really want that damn award.
Here’s the thing: We own the eBook rights to DARK OF THE MOON so my sister Kelly and I started formatting it for Kindle et al. As we were going along, we realized we could tweak things here and there if we wanted. So we started tweaking.
Then we realized it needed more than a tweak. It needed a full-bore heavy-muscle pipe refitting with one of those giant wrenches you see hairy men with butt cracks carrying out of Home Depot.
Here’s the second thing: As good as our freshman book is, it contains transgressions that now, twelve books later, we teach would-be writers in our workshops not to do.
It has heart but no head. That means we wrote with great passion, especially for our hero Louis, but we didn’t have complete control over our craft. What were our sins exactly?
STRUCTURE: We switched point of view in mid scenes. Our transitions between chapters had continuity lapses. We had too many unnecessary scenes “on camera” often showing things we had already covered. And our timeline was confusing. We now keep detailed chronologies and use big story boards to keep track of each “day” in our plot. See picture above of Kelly employing our two vital writing tools –- Post-Its and wine. 
CHARACTER: We veered into stereotypes, an easy thing to do when writing about the Deep South, and we used clunky dialect. Our fictitious Blackpool was also a one-dimensional character. Even the rattiest place on earth has something redeeming about it. We chose not to see it.
THEME: This might have been our biggest sin. We now believe that every good book has a theme, an underground railroad on which your plot progresses. Without a theme, you have nothing to say. Although we were writing about the effect of a 30-year-old lynching on a small southern town, we didn’t really connect this plot to the larger question of what this meant for our hero.
We didn’t ask ourselves the most important question we now ask of every character we create: What does Louis want? It wasn’t that he wanted to identify the lynching victim. It wasn’t even that he wanted to bring the murderers to justice. We didn’t realize that what Louis really wanted was to find his sense of home (and “home” meant his identity as a biracial man). Now this theme colors everything Louis does and every book we write.
So if this book is so awful, why are we putting it out in eBook?
It’s still a good book and readers like it. They forgive us our sins. But for now, we have put it aside and are readying our second book DEAD OF WINTER for eBook. See, we learned a lot by the time we started that one, just as parents learn a lot about babies by the time their second one comes along. DEAD OF WINTER must have been okay. It was an Edgar finalist.
But our first born? I remain undecided, reluctant to send this homely thing out into the world a second time. But my sister, who holds the book much closer to her heart than her writing brain, is not so sure about permanently closing the DOM yellow folder. It is, after all, the story that started a series and career, but also changed our relationship as sisters.
And when something is that special, as writers it’s had to let it just lay unloved and unread by our loyal readers. So, I am sure, one day when we are between books and novellas and conferences, Kelly will convince me to reopen DARK OF THE MOON and together, we will begin the necessary surgery. Maybe with a scalpel instead of a wrench.


“Heed this advice now!” she warned desperately

Note from Kris: I am in France this week so am handing over the reins to my co-author and sister. Take it away, Kelly!

By PJ Parrish

I was sitting in a restaurant the other day when my friend and fellow author, Tom Swift, happened to stop by and ask if he could join me.

“Yes,” I said cordially.

He sat down, his eyes slipping secretly to the paperback book lying wantonly near my wine glass. “I see,” he said insightfully, “that you are reading a popular author.”

“Yes,” I said affirmatively, nodding energetically.

“Do you like the book?” he asked inquiringly.

I wasn’t sure how to answer. Both of us had just returned from SleuthFest, which was geared for aspiring writers. There was a lot of good advice about plot structure, the differences between thrillers and mysteries, and character building.

My friend wisely picked up on my silence. “So,” he said flatly. “I take it you don’t like the book?”

“It was hard to read,” I said effortlessly.

“In what way?” he asked inquisitively.

“Well, I’m not sure what it was,” I said perplexedly.

“How was the plotting?” he asked ploddingly.

“The plot was okay. But it kind of fell apart toward the end,” I added brokenly.

“That’s too bad,” he said sympathetically. “Anything else?”

“The characters were okay but kind of cardboard,” I added woodenly.

“Really?” he said shockingly.

“Yes,” I acknowledged.

“But the book was a New York Times bestseller,” he interjected suddenly, jabbing at the book pointedly. “You are suppose to love the bestsellers. This one got great blurbs. And all the reviewers loved it.”

“Well,” I said deeply. “I just don’t know what it was about the book that I found tiresome but there was something.”

Tom Swift gave me a nod of his head, shaking it up and down, and then added a small, understanding smile, displaying his Hollywood teeth. “Well,” he said philosophically. “Some books are just like that.”

And with that, Tom sauntered away, slowly and casually disappearing into the misty dark inky black night.

I was left with my thoughts — and that bad book. I was thinking about all the good advice I had heard at SleuthFest. Really good stuff, even a great debate about talent versus technique. But one thing kept coming back to me — the thing all the good authors stressed. Robert Crais had said it best in his keynote speech: “Adverbs are not your friend.”

He didn’t say it lightly. He didn’t it dramatically. He didn’t even say it succinctly. He just said it.


The kid stays in the book

By PJ Parrish
Tell me if this ever happens to you:
You’re typing along, and you’re hearing the voices in your head. It’s a couple of your characters, chatting away. And you find your fingers flying just trying to keep up so you can record it all.
But sometimes — and this doesn’t happen very often — I am typing away and I actually SEE people come onto the screen in my head. These are people I have not summoned, characters I have not accounted for, and it’s like, wtf, who are you? You don’t belong in this story. Somebody throw this bum off my set!
But they don’t leave. They hang around. And they start whispering, “forget them, tell my story.”
The first time I got visited by one of them was during the writing of our third book, “Thicker Than Water.” This is a story about a dirtbag con who murdered a girl and twenty years later gets out of prison and kills his defense attorney. His son Ronnie hires our hero Louis Kincaid to clear his father’s name. I was writing a scene in which Ronnie was talking to Louis and suddenly, in my head I heard the screech of air brakes. My fingers froze over the keyboard, but I said, okay…

So I wrote that Louis heard a school bus braking outside. A second later, a boy was in my head, whispering to me. But he was so sullen and closed, I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I didn’t like him. I almost ignored him. But then I gave in and wrote him into the scene. Suddenly, Ronnie had a son named Eric.
The kid hung around for 300 pages, moving in and out of the plot like a small ghost. I didn’t have a friggin’ clue why he was there except to make the dirtbag con, his grandfather, look even meaner. I kept wondering if Eric was just what I call a clutter-character, and that I needed to heed Elmore Leonard’s famous advice to “cut out the stuff readers skip over.” But I let Eric stay. Then, on page 363, Eric said something to me that changed the whole book. He said:
“Can a kid get in trouble for something he knows?”
Damn. It came together in a blinding flash, the whole key to the book. This kid was it. We had to go back and redo the bread-crumb trail of clues to make it work. But this kid held the final great twist of the plot in his hands. And without realizing it, for hundreds of pages, I had been giving Eric motivation and layers that set up everything for the ending. Or maybe Eric had been giving them to me.
I now call this serendipity. I have learned to welcome these intruding wraiths. I have learned to trust them. Because they are the ones you didn’t build. They are the ones who came on their own. They are the ones that bring life to your story.

I just have to learn to listen more carefully when they come a callin’.

I get knocked down but I get up again

By PJ Parrish
Last week was a good one.
I finished a chapter of the novella, nudging it up past 17,000 words. I got a nice little royalty check that will keep my dogs in kibbles for three months. I turned in my edits for the next Louis Kincaid novel on time –- and the copy editor wrote this note on the last page: Great story! I’m so glad I was able to read it early. I truly enjoyed all the twist and turns. I haven’t read Louis Kincaid stories yet—but now I’m going to go back and do so!
This week…not so good.
Got some bad news about an upcoming project. Lost a foreign publisher. Can’t get any traction on the concept for the next book. The formatting on our Kindle eBook keeps screwing up the paragraphing. And some anonymous weasel-boy trashed us on Amazon.
You’d think after more than a decade at this writing biz, I’d be immune to the ups and downs. But I’m not. I still get discouraged and swing from ecstasy to agony. And like the cliché goes, I still go to bed some nights convinced I’ve used up all my good ideas and that the fraud police will cart me away in the morning.
I know I’m not alone. I know all writers are like crabs without shells, that the slightest kick, the smallest snub, sends us into spasms of self-doubt. I know this so well that it is part of every writing workshop I teach. Get out now, I tell those who wish to be published, if you can’t take criticism and rejection at every turn. Your queries will be ignored by agents. Your manuscripts will be turned down by editors. Your book will be snubbed by reviewers. Barnes and Noble won’t carry you. You won’t get a paperback reprint. You’ll be remaindered.
Jim Hall put it in perspective for me once. His newest book had just come out to glowing reviews. One day, riding high, he was in B&N and saw a woman reading the first pages of his book. He couldn’t resist and went over to her and said, “I wrote that.”
She said, “So?”
Rejection and dejection. How do you cope?
How do you keep your head above the waves as you tread water? How do you keep putting one word in front of the other every day until you’ve finished that lonely journey of eighty-thousand words? I don’t have the answer but I have learned this much:

You find support

I’m lucky; I have my sister and co-author. When one of us is on the ledge the other talks her off. If you’re alone, then you need to find others who understand what you’re going through. You need someone who knows that when you’re staring off into space yes, you really are writing. You need someone who will slap you upside the head when you’re whining, tell you the truth when you’ve lost control of your plot, and buy you two really strong martinis when you get dumped by your publisher. This someone is usually not your mom or spouse. They love you too much, poor dears.

You focus in not out

It is easy to get eaten up with envy in our business over who got the big contract, who got the award, who got the prime Saturday panel at Bourcheron when you got the 9 a.m. Sunday slot. You have to tune out all this noise. When I was just starting out, one of the best pieces of advice I got was from Jan Burke. “Keep your head down and just write your books,” she said.


You have faith

You have faith that you love the process and that you would probably do it even if no one paid you another dime and had to stand out on the Kindle corner and give it away. You have faith that some agent out there will read your proposal and take you on. That some editor will feel the same way about life that you do and buy your manuscript. You have faith that, despite all the bad things going on in publishing right now, that readers still need good stories. You have faith that you can still write them.
And if that doesn’t work? I will personally buy you that martini. And remember: There’s always the wise words of that great eastern philosopher Chumba Wamba:

What Lucy taught me about writing

It’s three in the morning and I can’t sleep — again. My story is a giant hairball in my brain but it’s more than that. I am obsessing about the world of publishing and my little place within it. There is so much uncertainty in our business right now. Bookstores are closing, advances are shrinking, publishers are paring their lists, and we are all groping for something to grab onto as the eBook earthquake rumbles beneath our feet.
I retreat to the sofa, remote in hand, searching for something to quiet the questions in my head.
Have I used up all my good plot ideas?
Is it too late to switch to erotica? Which might be adapted into Nu Bay Videos?
Should I take out a loan to go to Thrillerfest?
How did that hack get a movie option?
What should I write about for my first Kill Zone blog?
Did I remember to feed the dogs?
In the darkness, the ceiling shimmers with fifty-seven channels of nothing on. Then, suddenly, there she is — Lucy Ricardo. My muse, my all, my Ambien.
Before I know it, eight episodes have passed and the sky is lightening with a new day. I have an epiphany! Everything I need to know about surviving in publishing today can be learned from “I Love Lucy.”

Speed it up!

When Lucy needed to make money she went to work in a chocolate factory but found out it wasn’t easy keeping up. Time was we could get by doing one book a year. Not anymore. Maybe we can blame James Patterson who is fond of comparing novels to real estate — i.e., the only thing that matters is how much room your books take up on the shelf (real or virtual). But the eBook age has accelerated the metabolism of publishing and many of us are pulling extra shifts, churning out novellas, short stories and even an extra book a year. (Lee Child just put out his second Reacher story “Deep Down” and I’m working on a novella prequel to our March 1012 Louis Kincaid book HEART OF ICE). Lisa Scottoline in this New York Times article, calls it “feeding the maw.”  What I call it can’t be printed here. Sigh. But I get it.

Reinvent yourself!

What did the artistically thwarted Lucy do when she wanted to be in the movie “Bitter Grapes?” She went to a vineyard and became Italian. Is your series on life support? Are you in midlist limbo? Maybe you just need a change of identity. If you write dark, try light. Leave your amateur sleuth and write a standalone thriller. Got the “bad numbers at B&N blues”? Adopt a pen name and start over. Or. . .go over to the dark side. I know, we aren’t supposed to like this eBook thing. But it has given new life to some authors, like my friend Christine Kling who put out Circle of Bones when no publisher would. It’s the Wild West and if you want to be a pony soldier you gotta mount up!

Make friends!

When Ricky and the Mertzes forgot her birthday, Lucy joined the Friends of the Friendless. (“We are friends of the friendless, yes we are! We are here for the downtrodden and we sober up the sodden!”). Truth is, publishers aren’t putting out anymore (publicity-wise). So we writers just need to get ourselves out there more! No, a pretty website isn’t enough. Now you need to be on Facebook, Quora, Writertopia, Writers Café, MySpace, Tumblr, Foursquare, Goodreads, Shelfari, Fictionaut, Broadcastr. You need to Tweet even if you’re a twit with nothing to say. Oh, and when you have couple free moments, post something on your blog and what do you mean you don’t have a book trailer on YouTube? It’s all about buzz, Bucky. Or is that branding? I don’t know…
I need a nap. Or maybe a glass of good Sancerre. Probably both. All this advice about what we should be doing to sell ourselves and our books. And you know whose voice I keep hearing? Neil Nyren. He’s the president of Penguin-Putnam books and a friend of mine. (Yeah, I’m namedropping.) At SleuthFest one year, Neil said, “all the time you’re doing that other stuff you could be writing a better book.”  I need to remember that.
That and what happened to Lucy. She tried too hard and ended up too sick to eat chocolate and dyed too blue to get in the movie. I think it’s time for a new muse. Maybe Wonder Woman is available.