All Aboard!…

…well…not allaboard. Many are called, some will enter, and a few will be chosen. Am I talking about heaven? No. I’m talking about Amtrak. We all know what Amtrak is, but how many of us have ever taken a trip by passenger train? Not me; the closest I’ve ever gotten to a trip by train have been rides around the parks on the choo-choos at the Columbus Zoo and Hershey Park. Amtrak, however, is sponsoring an “Amtrak Residency for Writers,” believe it or not. It is happening right now; you can apply here until March 31, 2014. The application includes the submission of a writing sample which will give you the opportunity to strut your creative stuff as well. Amtrak representatives will start selecting winners on March 17 and keep doing so through March 31. Amtrak will choose twenty-four winners. The residency will be for six months…I’m kidding about the duration: if you are one of the very lucky winners, the terms of  the residency will be two to five days, and it appears that Amtrak will select your destination. You will be provided with a private sleeper car with a bed, a desk and a window. Gamblers need not apply (again, just kidding. I can’t resist. Hope you’re not, um, keeping track.). I do regret to note, however, that Brother Basil Sands is not eligible; please read the contest rules carefully to see why.
This contest looks as if it would be just the berries if you are looking to jump start your next (or even your current) writing project via exposure to inspiring scenery in an environment removed from your normal distractions of daily living. I have submitted an application, and while I would love to be one of the winners, I’d like to see at least one of you, our loyal and wonderful visitors to The Kill Zone, listed as a winner as well. Should you be selected, all I ask in return for alerting you to this wonderful possibility is that 1) you dedicate your completed novel to me and 2) you insist upon a clause in your ancillary rights agreement that I am to be given a featured role in the film version of your work. That’s all. Wink wink.
Good luck. And if one of you should be a winner, please let us know. For now, however, please tell us: if you are selected as one of the winners, where would you like to go? And how would you schedule your daily writing activity?


Success at Last

I bring you news of success, of dream achievement, of goal fulfillment. It’s not about me this time, but that’s okay. I will continue to plug away, old and feeble as I may be, until I either succeed (see below) or go face down on a keyboard, with my final words being psfdfkdadlfbldfbk. No, this week the fortune that comes from persistence and hard work was achieved by two people of my acquaintance: my friend John Gilstrap, and my younger daughter Annalisa.
Let me tell you about my friend first. John is a Kill Zone blogger emeritus, gone but hardly forgotten. John’s literary career over the course of ten extremely well written novels has waxed and waned, and is now very much waxing again, indeed. He had an itch to do just a bit more, however; and do it, he did. Yesterday John announced that for the first time a short story of his is being published in The Strand, the venerable mystery magazine which you should be reading issue to issue if you are not already. The name of the story is “In the After” and will be published in the Feb-May issue. Please join me in a tip of the hat and a toast of the beverage of your choice to John. It is John who on this very blog stated that “If failure is not an option, success is guaranteed.” Congratulations, John. We’re looking forward to reading that story.
Now we come to my daughter, who, by the way, quickly became sick of me quoting John’s truism to her when the going got rough. I think she feels differently now. Earlier this week, with less than an hour’s notice (lesson to be learned: check your e-mail hourly), Annalisa auditioned for a feature role in a production to be presented in a month or so by Shadowbox Live, the largest community theater in the United States. I asked her how she thought she did when she was finished.

 “I think it went fine,” she said. “I had to sing a song that I’d never heard before, but I thought I did okay.”

“Do you remember what the song was?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” she said. Annalisa then proceeded to favor me with a flawless rendition of the first verse of “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” by the Four Tops. I rendered it less flawless by attempting to harmonize with her. It was never one of my favorite songs — I preferred the Stax/Volt sound to Motown — anyone who listened to mid-1960s radio has that tune firmly ensconced in their memory. And now Annalisa does, as well.  A day later, she got the good news: she won the part. She’s been walking on air since. It was her dream to at some point be in a professional theater production and now she is on her way. Not bad for a fifteen year old high school sophomore whose prior acting experience consists of two high school plays, a high school performance review, work as an extra in a stage production and pretending that she doesn’t know me when I do the helicopter thing around a potential suitor. She sure doesn’t get it from me. I can perform for film, but I can’t do live theater acting. I’m okay in front of a digital camera, where I can forget lines or direction, but in front of a live audience?! Nope. So congratulations to Annalisa. May this be the first professional performance of many.

So my question to you is: what would success be to you, right now? For me…it would be to have a novel published and then adapted for film, where, in turn, I would have at least a supporting role. You? Yes, you. Step right up and tell us. Please.

First Page Critique: Erased

A first page critique by Nancy J. Cohen

ERASED by Anonymous
“I’ll kill her! I swear to God I’ll blow her brains out!”
Special Agent Brandy Jackson stood just inside the apartment, her body half-shielded by the outer living room wall. Omar, the heavily tattooed ex-con at the far end of the room held his strung-out blonde girlfriend in a headlock, with the barrel of his .44 revolver pressed up against her temple. What was her name? Jennifer? Brandy thought so. Jennifer sobbed hysterically.
Omar stood with his back against the inside wall where he had a clear view of the front door and the windows. His eyes were wild, frenzied, darting around the room. They were moving too fast. His naked chest rose and fell in quick pants. He was dripping with sweat.
The idiot was high. What was he on? Crack, maybe heroin? Brandy hoped it wasn’t heroin. That drug could turn thugs like Omar into supersoldiers. She’d seen a bank robber high on the stuff who’d taken almost thirty rounds before he finally collapsed and died of blood loss. That was the first robbery that Brandy had ever investigated. She would never forget it.
“Calm down,” Brandy said in the most reassuring tone she could muster. “We’re going to talk about this.”
“Nothing to talk about. You make one move and I’ll kill this bitch!”
Brandy kept her eyes focused on Omar but she concentrated on the area at the edges of her vision. The hallway was a tall, rectangular blob. If agent Smith was in there, she couldn’t see him.
“It doesn’t have to end like that,” Brandy said. “You’re holding the cards, Omar.” She moved slowly, sliding her .40 caliber Glock 23 into the holster at her side. She showed her empty hands. “See? I just want to talk. What do you want? Money? You want a plane ticket?”
Omar’s eyes flickered. He hadn’t even thought about that. His whole plan had been to go out in a blaze of glory. Good. Slow him down.
Keep him talking, Smith had said. Give me time to get in there.
Great first line! It’s gripping and immediately captured my interest. Now for some questions. Omar’s girlfriend is strung-out. What does this mean exactly? She’s hysterical or she’s on drugs?
“Omar’s eyes were wild, frenzied, darting around the room. They were moving too fast.”  You’ve already implied his eyes are moving fast by saying they’re darting. You can delete this second line. And it’s more like his gaze is darting about the room, not his eyeballs. So I’d change these two lines to: “His wild, frenzied gaze darted around the room.”
The next paragraph contains a flashback. Here a guy is about to blow someone’s brains out and she’s thinking about a past robbery? Just have her think how many more rounds she’ll have to use to take him down.
“Calm down,” Brandy said in the most reassuring tone she could muster. “We’re going to talk about this.”  I’d like to hear her motivation here. You bring it in later: Keep him talking, Smith had said. Give me time to get in there.
Maybe move these lines up, so it reads like this: “Calm down,” Brandy said in the most reassuring tone she could muster. “We’re going to talk about this.”  Give me time to get in there, Smith had said. Keep him talking. (This works better with the following lines, about Smith approaching from the hallway.)
Then you’d end this section with “Good, slow him down.” That works fine, because we’ve already seen that she’s waiting for Smith.
It’s a tense scene and a great beginning. Just do a little rearranging, and it’ll read smoother. I can sympathize with Brandy’s situation and the possible outcomes, and that adds to the suspense. Well done!

The Chicken Guy

by Michelle Gagnon

Excerpt from THE TUNNELS:

“So what do you think?”

Kelly looked up from her notes to find Morrow watching her, rocking back and forth on his heels with a half-smile.

“Not our guy.” She rubbed her eyes with a thumb and forefinger and suppressed a yawn.

“Told you. Long day, huh? Where’d they pull you in from?”


“Oh, right, the chicken guy. Nice work on that one.”


In my debut thriller THE TUNNELS, I made this oblique reference to FBI Special Agent Kelly Jones’s previous case. Over the years I’ve received several emails from readers curious to hear more about “The Chicken Guy” (although as we here at The Kill Zone know, by all rights that title belongs to Mr. John Ramsey Miller, who is currently breeding a chicken army for world conquest).

So when it came time to submit a story for our anthology, I thought this would be great material to mine.

I’ve probably only composed a few dozen short stories total over the course of my writing career. With this one, I decided to focus on a single setting, the scene that would mark the climax if it were a full novel. I wanted to write something that was almost pure action, where you really got to see Kelly do what she does best.

I enjoyed exploring my heroine through a prequel. Part of the story laid the groundwork for crises she’d face down the line, tests of her moral code that over the course of my series have become increasingly challenge for her to pass. Hints of that popped up as I was writing The Chicken Guy. Knowing where she ends up made it much easier to figure out where she started.

As I was editing, I caught myself wondering if I would have written the story the same way if I’d tackled it immediately before writing THE TUNNELS. And as I’m putting the finishing touches on my fourth novel featuring the same characters, I was struck by how much Kelly in particular had been forced to change. What I love about writing a series (and about watching a well-made TV series, as opposed to a film) is that it enables a much greater story arc. A character grapples with different challenges in each book, challenges that shape how they’ll act when faced with new situations down the line. I’ve put Kelly through the wringer over the course of these four books. She’s emerged far more damaged than when she started, but in a way stronger than she was at the outset. It was interesting for me to look back on her through this lens, to see how far she’s come in so many ways.

We’re discussing assembling another anthology later in the year. For that one, I’m toying with the idea of delving further into the life of a more minor character from the series, one I haven’t had the opportunity to really explore. What I’ve discovered through this process is that short stories can be a great tool for character development, a chance to see how a tangential story line can have an impact. As Joe said, this is a great format to do that kind of exploration.

The anthology is available on Amazon and at Smashwords for the bargain price of $2.99.

Finding inspiration far from home

My family and I are on vacation in Washington D.C. this week, tromping through all the major museums and monuments. Despite 95-degree heat and 100-percent humidity, I’m having fun seeing everything with my art-major daughter. The two of us–she with her sketch book, I with my notebook–have been recording our observations of the city. Most of my notes have little to do with the impressive sights all around us. They have more to do with the rhythm and flow of the city: The jazz quartets that seem to be playing on every street corner, the surprising curtness of the service people who work in this tourism-oriented town, the scary speed of a subway train as it rushes through a long, black tunnel. In the Natural History Museum, I spent an inordinate amount of time in an exhibit about forensic anthropology, taking notes about every aspect of how scientists can determine information about a person’s life from his bones, even hundreds of years after his death. Someday I’m sure, that information will come in handy in a story.

I love they way leaving home helps me jar loose a little creative inspiration. It seems so easy to see foreign locales with fresh eyes. How about you? Have you been anywhere this summer that has served as an inspiration for your writing? Have you ever gotten a story idea from a trip you’ve taken?

Confessions of an Editor

We’re thrilled to welcome editor Kristen Weber as our guest-blogger today. Kristen has worked as an in-house editor for her entire book publishing career (except for a brief stint as a subsidiary rights assistant) before relocating to Los Angeles for her husband’s job. She’s currently freelance editing in between relearning to drive and hanging out with her pug. You can learn more about her services here:
Tackling my first freelance editorial project, I learned something quickly. You can get a lot more done as a book editor when you’re not actually working as one.
I hardly ever edited or even read a submission at my desk when I was working in-house. I was attending meetings, answering emails (you could lose a whole day right there), checking cover copy, catalog copy, and cover proofs, reviewing contracts, chatting with authors and agents, and just basically making sure every aspect of every book I worked on was perfect and making sure my authors were happy and agents remembered me for every good submission that they had.
I had lunch with a film person here in Los Angeles, and he said, “I picture you editors sitting in dark rooms with only one light on buried under papers and having no human contact.”
That just isn’t the case. The majority of my actual editing and reading (and I know this was true for almost all of my colleagues as well) happened at home in my “free” time. Otherwise we all had to be very personable and present in the office as we worked on many different projects at once.
But my favorite part of the job was always the editor / writer interactions. I’ve heard a lot of people say editors just don’t edit anymore, but I never found that to be the case. My authors will all attest to my carefully worded 6-10 page single spaced editorial letters and my colleagues were always working on letters like those as well.
As an editor, I feel like my job is to help authors push their own words and ideas out even further. They already have the spark of something great…editors are just trying to help them make it explode. And I’m rediscovering my joy for this now, in the quiet of my home or by the pool.
I think the most important thing you can do as a writer is collaborate with your editor. Even if you don’t agree with their suggestions, take time to think about them. Walk around the block. Because you just might be too close to see that there’s a problem…and even if you don’t like whatever solution your editor is suggesting.
I’m also a big fan of writing groups. But I often see projects that have been workshopped essentially to death. The writer received too many different opinions and tried to incorporate all of them into their manuscript, losing their own voice and vision in the process. My feeling on that is writing groups are great for friendship and support. They also can give you great help with revisions – but you need to make sure any changes you make based on their suggestions are true heart. You’re the writer. You don’t have to change anything you don’t want to…although you should probably revisit that if you’re getting multiple agent or editor rejections and they all focus on the same plot point that your writer’s group couldn’t get behind either.
So far I am having a great time freelance editing. I love seeing how a writer runs with my comments on their book. And I can’t wait to see what shape these projects I am working on end up taking as many don’t even have agent representation yet. I am coming in way earlier on the process than I ever did before. And I guess I kind of am now editing alone (although it isn’t dark – coming from a tiny New York City apartment, there is more light than I know what to do with) surrounded by papers…but I certainly don’t miss all of the meetings!


by James Scott Bell

Today is July 26, a day of celebration for me. For one thing, it marks my debut on The Kill Zone, and I couldn’t be more pleased to be included with six writers I admire. I’ve learned a lot from this august company, and am proud to be added to the mix.

This date also happens to be one that changed my life forever—for it was on July 26, 1980, that I met my wife.

I was at a birthday party for a friend. It had spilled out into the courtyard of his apartment building, where I sat at a table with a couple guys, yakking. I happened to look up and saw a blond vision of loveliness heading up the stairs to the apartment. I turned to my comrades and said, “I’ll see you later.”

I got to the apartment just as she was hugging my friend. Her back was to me. I silently motioned for my friend to introduce me. And that, as they say, was that. I fell like five tons of brick and mortar. It took me all of two-and-a-half weeks to ask her to marry me. (Perhaps this explains why I favor first page action in my books). Eight months later we were wed and my life has been richly blessed ever since (in no small part due to Cindy’s sharp editorial eye; she’s always my first reader).

When I think of these events, the word serendipity comes to mind. It’s a word derived from a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip (an ancient name for Sri Lanka). The story tells of an eminent trio making happy discoveries in their travels, through accident and observation. The English writer Horace Walpole coined the term serendipity to describe this combination of chance and mental discernment.

Which is a long way of saying that some of the best things that happen to us in life are “happy accidents” because we’ve shown up, and are aware.

Much of the best writing we do is serendipitous, too. As Lawrence Block, the dean of American crime fiction, put it, “You look for something, find something else, and realize that what you’ve found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for.”

Doesn’t that describe some of the best moments in your writing? I once had a wife character who was supposed to move away for a time, to get out of danger. That’s what I’d outlined. But in the heat of a dialogue scene with her husband, she flat out refused to go. Turns out she was right and I was wrong, and the story was better for it.

Can we ramp up serendipity as we write? I think so. Here are a few suggestions.

Don’t just be about imposing your plans on the story to the detriment of happy surprises. Be ready to shift and move.

Write what you fear. Go where the risks are in the story. Challenge yourself.

Research. When you delve deeply into the areas you’re writing about – by reading, talking to experts, or doing something in the field – you inevitably come up with gems that will enliven your story or even change it into something other than what you had planned. And that’s not a bad thing.

Finally, write first, analyze later. It is in the heat of production that diamonds are formed – a striking image, a line of dialogue, a new character. But you have to be prepared to go with the flow, to play it out and see where things lead.

The way of serendipity is open to every writer, be you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pants type, or anything in between. It’s just a matter of showing up and being aware. And the more you write, the more you’ll recognize serendipitous moments when they arise.

Has serendipity played a role in your own writing? Tell us about it.

And thanks again to The Kill Zone for the invitation. A happy surprise indeed.

Does being a writer make you a lousy reader?

By Kathryn Lilley

I brought home many, many books from Thrillerfest. So many books that Delta charged me an extra fifty bucks for the sardine flight back to LA.

As soon as I settled into my seat, I opened the first thriller from my TBR bag. I was looking forward to it. The book had an eye-catching cover that was plastered with snippets of positive reviews, accompanied by blurbs from BNAs (Big Name Authors). Best of all, the story opened with a plane crash. I’m a nervous-Nelly flier, so I was ready to be terrified.

But ten pages into the book, I was yawning. Worse, I was getting irritated with the author.

As the pages dragged on, I started pulling apart each paragraph in my head, muttering things like, “This dialogue is way too symmetrical. You should have changed up the rhythm here, lost that attribution tag there. How the heck did you get those BNA blurbs?”

After a few more pages, my mental rewrite got too exhausting. Thriller #1 was a bust. I tossed it back into the bag.

Thriller #2 was a winner, but I still couldn’t get into it fully. Every time I hit a taut scene or a seamless transition, I detached and thought, “Okay, so how did this writer pull that off? What can I learn here?”

Unfortunately, being a writer has spoiled the reading experience for me. I can’t lose myself in books the way I used to. I’m like a nosy, jealous chef, sampling dishes and trying to figure out what spices were used.

My reading rut started about the time that I started writing my current series. I had no time to read due to a combination of deadline pressures and my day job. Now that I’m shifting gears to write in a new genre (and am sans day job, say hallelujah), I’m reading again. It’s like I’m mapping brand new waters, separating the sharks from the flounders. (I know: Block that metaphor!).

It’s good to be reading again. But darnit, the thrill is gone.

How about you? Does being a writer kill some of the joy of the reading experience?

Notes from Thrillerfest

I just returned from my first Thrillerfest–it was a fantastic conference! Fellow Killers John Gilstrap, Joe Moore, and James Scott Bell were there, and it was great to see them. Thanks to everyone here for holding down the blog-fort while we were in NYC.

A few notes from the Thriller front:

Drumroll, please!

As a former journalist I know better than to bury the lead. During the conference it was announced that our own Joe Moore is the incoming co-president of ITW!

Joe moved onto the board of directors last October as Vice President, Technology, and will officially take over the co-presidency on October 1st 2009. He replaces James Rollins as he steps down due to term limits. Joe’s fellow co-president is Steve Berry. Joe and Steve are in charge of setting the direction for the future of ITW as well as acting as executive directors.

Congratulations, Joe! You deserve the honor; we’re proud to be your blog-mates.

Star power
Thrillerfest ’09 featured some of the brightest lights in the thriller-writing cosmos: Sandra Brown, Clive Cussler. Robin Cook, David Baldacci, David Morrell, and many more! We got to ask them lots of questions during the breakout sessions. I brought home many writing tips that I’m already putting into practice.

Panel fun

I was on a panel with NYT bestselling author Peter De Jonge and Kathleen Sharp, where we shared stories about what it’s like to jump from journalism to a career in fiction. I got a lot out of all the panels I attended, especially “Can you cross genres?” with James Rollins and Jon Land. I hate to miss anything, so I brought home CDs of many of the panels I was not able to attend.

Goin’ to the dogs

There was a dramatic K9 demonstration of “tactical” dogs (the preferred term instead of attack dogs) and explosives detection. The very brave Panel Master, Andrew Peterson, put on a padded sleeve to demonstrate how the tactical dog takes down a suspect. An ATF officer explained that the dogs think they’re playing a game when they attack. But this is one game that the criminals are bound to lose!

To sum up, Thrillerfest ’09 was indeed a thriller–I can’t wait until next year!

Getting unstuck: Dealing with writer’s block

I thought about titling this post Coming unstuck, which lets you know how I feel about today’s topic: Writer’s block.

I never used to understand what people meant by “writer’s block.” I ‘d always felt immune to that scribe’s disease. When I wrote the first two books in my current series, I had a machine-like discipline. I’d get up at four a.m. every morning and write for at least two hours. No. Matter. What. My progress was always slow but steady. I wrote almost the same number of pages every day. My writing group members were in awe of me.

But then along came Book Three, and I went into a bit of a slump. Actually it felt more like an avalanche. Even though I loved the story I was working on, sometimes I’d find that days would pass without any progress at all. I eventually had to ask for–gasp!–an extension from my editor, who graciously granted it to me. But even then I kept running behind. Ultimately I made the new deadline, but barely. Now I have a recurring nightmare about missing the deadline, which has replaced my old nightmare about discovering that I’ve missed an entire semester of a class, just before the final exam.

So what exactly is writer’s block? I think the term is a bit misleading. It implies that the writer doesn’t know what to write about — such as a lack of inspiration, perhaps. In my case I knew the story I wanted to write, but I seemed to have lost the daily writing rhythm along the way. Maybe what I had was actually energy block. Or focus block.

So here were a few of my cures for The Block. All of them proved to be helpful at times:

  • Write 15 minutes a day
    You can write for at least 15 minutes today, even if you’re the busiest person on the planet. Doing that small amount per day helps you get the habit and rhythm back. Over time, your progress will add up.
  • Write at the same time each day.
    I think this is the single most helpful habit that will enable you to break through writer’s block. If you sit your butt down in a chair at the same time every day, your body starts to learn that this is the time for writing. Your writing flow will start to kick in at that time.
  • Free writing
    This technique is where you grab a couple of random words and “free write” them into your WIP for a set amount of time. Actually, this one has never worked that well for me. Whenever I try free writing, I get stuck at the same damned spot that I’m stuck in my regular writing. And then I get even more depressed about my writer’s block. But I know that free writing works wonders for some people. For great tips about free writing and other ways to break through The Block, I recommend Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s book, Pen On Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide To Igniting The Writer Within. (Guys can pick up a few tips too!)
  • Put your writing first
    I have many acquaintances who have endless reasons for not writing. Anniversaries, birthdays, conflicting deadlines, vacations, relatives visiting…you get the idea. Unsurprisingly, these people are frequently blocked writers. Your writing needs to be a first priority in your life, or you’ll be doin’ time inside The Block.

What about you? Have you ever wrangled with writer’s block, or energy block? Any solutions you can share?
Coming Sunday, June 21, Paul Kemprecos tells us what it’s like to collaborate with Clive Cussler. And future Sunday guest bloggers include Robert Liparulo, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.