The Kill Bell

Today TKZ is delighted to welcome guest blogger Brad Parks, whose latest release THE GIRL NEXT DOOR has been described as, “darkly humorous…a Sopranos-worthy ragout of high drama and low comedy,” by Publisher’s Weekly.

By Brad Parks

I hear it all the time, echoing in my head.It sounds like a ticking at first – high, soft and steady, like a baby bunny’s heartbeat. It’s there, but it’s not terribly insistent. At least not at first.

Then it starts getting louder. And more ominous. And harder to ignore. I begin feeling the reverberations in my chest.

Before long, it becomes absolutely incessant. And unrelenting. And undeniable. It’s down to my toes and in my ears and I can barely hear anything else.And then, brrrrrring! Off it goes:

The kill bell.

That malicious peeling noise that lets me know, as I’m drafting my latest book, that it’s time to drop a body.

That’s how it sounds to me, anyway. Maybe yours sounds different, but I’m guessing I’m not alone in having one. As a mystery/thriller writer, I know I have to kill, early and often. And since you’re on this blog – it is called The Kill Zone, for goodness sakes – you probably know it, too. Lord knows, no one here is writing cozies. I’m betting the Kill Zone authors alone traffic in more blood than your average Red Cross chapter.

But how much do we spill? And how do we know when the time is right?

That’s what the kill bell is for. I’ve come to value it, to know to listen for it, and even to anticipate it. It’s that little friend that tells me things have gotten a little too comfortable for the reader and I need to shake things up.

It’s not like it happens in predictable intervals – and thank goodness, since it would get a little too cookie-cutter if you whacked someone every 10,000 words. I can sometimes go 40,000 words without slashing so much as a single throat. Then I shoot someone and I think I’m okay for a while but, ding-a-ling, there’s the bell again. And, even if it’s a mere 2,000 words later, I’m puncturing someone’s temple with a nail gun.

I suspect every writer’s kill bell is set to a slightly different frequency, which is why we all write different books. The important thing is to respect it and, when you hear it ringing, to act. Even when it’s not clear how.

I’m thinking about one of the more recent times I heard my kill bell. I was in the midst of drafting my latest, the as-yet-unnamed Carter Ross No. 5 (No. 3, The Girl Next Door, is the one that hits next week). I was cruising along, roughly 70,000 words in, and I realized I hadn’t killed anyone since word 40,000. And that, suddenly, felt totally unacceptable.

So I gathered all my characters in a room – yes, I talk to my characters – and said, “Okay, which one of you am I going to kill?”

Naturally, they all started staring down at their feet, scuffing their shoes, shoving their hands in their pockets, that sort of thing. Can’t blame them. Who wants to die, even in spectacular literary fashion?

But at that point my kill bell was doing a full-on whoopwhoopwhoop. I knew someone had to go. So I started going through my characters one-by-one until I realized, wait a cotton-pickin’-frickin’ second, I couldn’t kill any of them! It was either someone integral to a later plot point; or people who were totally implausible to kill, because they weren’t a threat to anyone; or my protagonist, who I can’t kill (this is a series and my kids will need shoes next year, too); or my protagonist’s cat (the kill bell does not apply to animals – sorry, I just can’t deal with that much hate mail).

I was stuck. But the kill bell has to be heeded. So I went back and wrote a character into the plot at word 20,000 for the express purpose of killing her later. And it turned out be a good thing, because I actually went back and un-killed her – she had taken a double tap between the eyes, but no more! – and killed someone else instead (I burned him, if it matters). It ended up leading to a great plot twist at the end. And I had the kill bell to thank.

As I said, I know I’m not alone in this. So what about you? What tells you when to follow the impulse to kill? I look forward to a robust – if slightly disturbing – conversation on the topic…

Brad Parks is a winner of the Nero Award and the Shamus Award. His latest book, The Girl Next Door, releases from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books on March 13. For more Brad, sign up for his newsletter, like him on Facebook, or follow @Brad_Parks on Twitter.