Evolution of a Book Title and Cover

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

A good title and cover can make a book. A bad title and cover can break a book.

That’s a lot of pressure. No wonder authors struggle so hard to get it right.

If you’re with a traditional press, those decisions are usually made by the publisher.

But, if you’re an indie author, the task of both title and cover fall on YOU.

Are you cracking under the weight of those responsibilities? I know I am so I checked the TKZ Library for guidance.

Several TKZers have posts about revamping covers after getting their rights back from the original publisher. Please check out the excellent information shared by Jordan Dane, P.J. Parrish, and Laura Benedict.

TKZ emeritus Nancy J. Cohen explores how to use covers to establish a brand.

Jim Bell offers invaluable advice on choosing a title.

With my fourth book coming out this summer, right now I’m deep into working on title choice and cover creation. I want to share the steps I’ve taken, not because I’m an expert, but because they demonstrate the mysterious, murky process of creative evolution.

My first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, was traditionally published. They retained my title but nixed my cover idea. They offered several redesigns and, with my approval, decided on this:

I wasn’t in love with it but, hey, they paid me so they’re the boss.

Then, six months after publication, they shut down operations and I became an orphan.

I decided to go indie and published the second book, Stalking Midas, in August, 2019, and the third, Eyes in the Sky, in January, 2020.

 

 

Publishing those two books taught me a lot but there were more lessons to be learned while wrestling with the unruly gorilla that was book #4.

Here’s a quick story summary:

Investigator Tawny Lindholm’s plans for a romantic Florida vacation with attorney Tillman Rosenbaum vanish when they’re caught up in Hurricane Irma. Tillman’s beloved high school coach, Smoky Lido, disappears into the storm, along with a priceless baseball card. Is he dead or on the run from a shady sports memorabilia dealer with a murderous grudge? During a desperate search in snake-infested floodwaters, Tawny becomes the bargaining chip in a high-stakes gamble. The winner lives, the loser dies.

Here are the realizations and steps along the twisty paths I followed to find a title and cover:

#1: I can’t do it alone.

The author is too close to the story, too enmeshed with the subplots, relationships, and minute details. Objectivity and distance are close to impossible to achieve.

Fortunately, I’m surrounded by a smart, supportive community of writers. They provide that much-needed objectivity and distance.

First, I asked the gang for title ideas.

The working title was Lost in Irma, because the story is set in Florida during the 2017 hurricane that knocked out power to millions of people.

Lost in Irma was lame so I tried variations like Flight into Irma, Escape from Irma. Finally, a member of my critique group pointed out an obvious reason that “Irma” would never work for a thriller—it brings to mind the legendary humorist, Erma Bombeck. Well, duh, why didn’t I realize that? Because I lacked objectivity.

A title needs to convey the genre, main plot, subplots, and themes, all in a few select words. Pretty overwhelming, right? Let’s break the elements down, piece by piece, and see if any of them trigger ideas.

The genre is thriller. The main plot is the search for the missing man, Smoky. Subplots include difficulties caused by the hurricane, including power outages and cell phones that don’t work; gambling addiction; baseball; the troubled relationship between Tawny and Tillman; a teenager trying to teach her rambunctious pup how to be a search dog. The themes are friendship, loyalty and betrayal.

Now, how to combine them into a title?

Another critique buddy, an attorney, specializes in laser focus. She said: “Somehow you should convey there is a mystery to be solved and it happens in the middle of a hurricane.”

#2: Get out of the corner.

A five-day-long power outage underscored much of the story, resulting in these title ideas: The Long Darkness, Flight into Darkness, Time of Darkness.

Sometimes the mind gets stuck, fixated on a single idea, even if it’s a bad idea. I felt like a Roomba, trapped in a corner, bouncing off the same two walls, getting nowhere.

Another critique pal pointed out, while darkness is important to the story, it’s not relevant enough to include in the title.

She kicked my mental Roomba out of that corner and sent me in new directions.

More tries: Presumed Dead, Gamble in Paradise, No Escape. Still not there.

The McGuffin is a valuable stolen baseball card and another suggestion was to use the baseball motif: Foul Pitch, Curveball, Pinch Hitter. Still not there.

Another suggested using pivotal plot events, like the discovery of Smoky’s deserted, wrecked boat and the gruesome evidence the dog finds in the swamp. Those ideas didn’t yield good titles but merited consideration for cover art, described in #5 and #6 below.

#3: Many Brains are Better Than One.

Creativity feeds off imagination. The more imaginations at work, the more creativity thrives. It’s like shaking a bottle of carbonated beverage. Open that cap and watch what bubbles up.

My smart friends stimulated my imagination with their varied ideas. At last, a title bubbled up that says thriller and suggests the root of Smoky’s problems—gambling.

Dead Man’s Bluff

For now, I’m pleased with that unless something better comes along.

~~~

Finding the right cover image is every bit as hard as finding the right title.

Many authors hire a professional designer and that is often the wisest path. My experience with pros has been expensive and unsatisfying but that isn’t always the case. If I find an artist who’s the right match, great. For now, it’s DIY.

#4: The Author Can’t See the Obvious

 

I searched for images of Hurricane Irma. Here’s an early choice I sent to my critique group:

Several immediately shot back: “That looks like a breast with a nipple.” Just shows how blind an author can be, even when it’s right in front of her nose!

 

 

 

#5: Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment

 

There’s a lot of trial and error in this creative process. You need to learn what doesn’t work before you can recognize what does. Most experiments aren’t great.

Tried a color version here.

A bright, eye-catching picture but it did nothing to draw reader into the story. It was also too busy and hard to read.

 

 

 

Next, I searched for images with people or objects tied to important plot developments.

After Smoky disappears, Tawny and Tillman find his wrecked boat, indicating he might have drowned while trying to make a getaway by sea. This photo seemed promising.

 

#6: People are Happy to Help

A subplot involves a Lab pup in training to be a search dog. He eagerly plunges into the swamp to search for the missing Smoky. Although he finds crucial evidence, he also screws it up, adding more complications to the story.

The dog angle became another avenue to explore. A friend put out a call to Search and Rescue (SAR) colleagues for photos of a dog working in water. SAR responded with many great pictures. These good folks were happy to help out a complete stranger. They didn’t even want payment. If I used their photos, their only request was acknowledgement of the SAR group, the dog, and the handler.

Photo courtesy of Sean Carroll, Clackamas County Sheriff Search and Rescue, OR

 

Here are a few dog samples:

Photo courtesy of Steve Deutsch, Search One Rescue Team, Lewisville, TX

#7: Don’t Let Your Cover Mislead the Reader

I drafted several covers with dogs and sent them to the group. One woman made the astute observation that having a dog on the cover sent the message that it’s a dog story. She was dead on—while the subplot is important, it isn’t the main focus.

A cover shouldn’t mislead readers. If you raise their expectations for one type of book but it turns out to be another, they rightfully feel cheated.

Fortunately, that same woman sent a hurricane photo that caused bells to ring in my mind. More on that in a minute.

#8: Ask an Artist

Another writer pal is a gifted watercolor artist with an excellent eye. I sent her three samples. She patiently explained what worked and what didn’t and why.

 

 

The colorful wave and boat: “An image directly in the center of the frame is not as appealing as one off center; the imbalance creates a sense of movement or dynamics that a centered image does not.”

 

 

 

Photo courtesy of Kerrie Garges, Alpha K9 SAR, Bucks County, PA

 

 

She liked the offset title of the dog cover. However, the dog wasn’t a good choice as discussed in #7 above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The windswept beach: “A Left to Right orientation appeals to me better than the R to L orientation on the shore design.”

 

 

 

 

 

So, I flipped the photo to a mirror image of the original. Now the palm trees blew to the right. That required cropping a different area of the photo and rearranging the lettering. Yet, one subtle change of orientation made a big difference.

 

 

 

 

Then I remembered a different artist had made a similar suggestion about my third book, Eyes in the Sky. In the original photo, the cliff was to the left. She suggested flipping the image to put the cliff on the right to make it consistent with the design of the second book, Stalking Midas. Again, the objective outsider’s view looked past the author’s tunnel vision for a better solution.

Artists notice small details like photo orientation that authors may not. That might make the difference between a reader choosing your book or passing it by.

#9: Enlist a Focus Group

Once you have three or four polished contenders for cover finalists, it’s time to attract cold readers. How do you capture the interest of someone browsing in a bookstore (hope they reopen soon!) or scanning thumbnails of covers online?

Find a focus group. But how?

Seek out reading groups on social media. Become active and contribute to discussions in your genre. Then politely ask for their help. Post several sample covers and take a vote. Even better, connect the voting to a drawing for a free book when it’s published.

Locate avid readers among your friends, coworkers, neighbors, acquaintances from the gym, clubs, churches or temples, librarians, your kids’ teachers—anyone who loves to read.

Book clubs have been great supporters of my previous three books and are an ideal focus group. I sent emails to more than forty people with a brief plot summary and three sample covers–the boat, the dog, and the windswept beach–and asked them to vote for their favorite.

Votes came in overwhelmingly for the wind-swept palm trees on the beach—the same photo that had set off bells in my head. Their opinions confirmed my intuition that this hurricane photo captured the right mood and tone that accurately depicted the book.

An added benefit: the book club folks enjoyed being part of the creative process. “I love voting on the choices,” wrote one. Another said, “This is fun.” Several asked to be notified which cover won. I benefited from their valuable feedback and they’re eagerly anticipating the next book in the series. Win-win.

When people play a part in the mysterious, creative process of building a book, they become invested in the outcome.

Interested, engaged readers are treasures to an author.

#10: Embrace New Ideas. At this point, I’m satisfied the title and cover do a good job of conveying the genre, mood, and plot. But better ideas might still come along…maybe even from TKZers’ comments!

During the creative process, an author should remain open to suggestions, especially from readers. You don’t have to take them but always listen.

Control and autonomy are two major benefits of self-publishing. An indie author isn’t locked into anything until s/he hits the “Publish” button.

~~~

This sums up my process through the evolution of title and cover. When Dead Man’s Bluff is published this summer, readers will have the final vote.

The creative process is mysterious and highly individual. What I find helpful, you might find useless. There are no right or wrong ways, only ways that work for you.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you start the evolution as long as you start it.

Get ideas flowing, no matter where they come from. What starts as a trickle may turn into a torrent that carries you to your goal.

~~~

TKZers: What makes a book cover appeal to you?

Do you have a system for choosing titles and/or cover designs?

~~~

 

 

To read a sneak preview of Dead Man’s Bluff, visit this link.

5+

My Kind of Thriller

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m currently working on a new thriller titled The Girl in the Window Who Saw the Woman on the Train Before She Was Gone. I don’t believe in chasing trends, unless it’s this one.

Actually, I wanted to talk about a sub-genre known as the “domestic thriller.” I’m not sure when this was coined, but it’s quite popular now, especially after Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller, Gone Girl. More recently, A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window has kept readers flipping the pages.

My research didn’t uncover a hard-and-fast definition of the domestic thriller. It seems to be a cousin of the psychological thriller, but with a home setting and (usually) a woman as protagonist and (usually) a male as the villain. A title like It’s Always The Husband (Michele Campbell) will clue you into the vibe.

I don’t, however, consider this a new genre. It’s at least as old as Gaslight, the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton. You’ve probably seen the 1944 movie version for which Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award as Best Actress. (I actually like the British version better. Released in 1940, it stars Anton Walbrook and the absolutely amazing Diana Wynyard. Catch it if you can!)

Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) may rightly be deemed a domestic thriller.

I would classify many of Harlan Coben’s books as domestic thrillers. Suburban setting, ordinary person, crazily extraordinary circumstances.

Which is my favorite kind of thriller. I’ve always loved Hitchcock, and he was the master at the ordinary man or woman theme. My favorite example is the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much starring James Stewart and Doris Day. The idea, Hitchcock once explained, came from a scene he pictured in his mind. A foreign, dark-skinned man, with a knife in his back, is being chased, and falls dead in front of some strangers. When someone tries to help him, heavy makeup comes off the man’s face leaving finger streaks on his cheeks.

So Hitchcock did that very thing. He had Stewart and Day as tourists in Morocco, and in the marketplace one morning a man with a knife in his back falls at Stewart’s feet. Stewart gets the face makeup on his hands.

Of course, right before he kicks the bucket the dying man whispers a secret of international importance into Jimmy’s ear, and we’re off and running. The bad guys want to know what Jimmy knows and they’re willing to kidnap his son to find out.

Another example: Cary Grant as the ad executive in North by Northwest (1959). Because of a terrible coincidence, he’s taken to be a master spy by two thugs who kidnap him outside of the Plaza Hotel. Cary is going to spend the next two hours on the run. His only consolation is that he gets to meet Eva Marie Saint.

One more, and this one is chilling because it was based on a true story. In Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), Henry Fonda, a happily married musician, resembles a gun-toting holdup man. He’s arrested and put through the wringer. Will the real culprit be nabbed before they lock the prison doors on Hank?

So why does the “ordinary man/woman” or the “domestic” thriller resonate so well? Perhaps because 1) it’s easy to empathize with the main character; and 2) it helps us deal with one of our darkest fears—having evil show up at our doorstep.

We read these kinds of thrillers, in part, to reaffirm our hope that there’s a moral force in the universe, that justice will prevail, and that we can get through anything if we hang on with courage.

Plus, we all like getting lost in the fictive dream of a page-turner. Escapist entertainment, Dean Koontz once said, is a noble enterprise, considering what we have to put up with on this spinning orb.

So in that spirit, I offer you my latest thriller, Your Son Is Alive.

The idea for the book came from playing the first-line game. That’s where you just make up first lines that grab, not knowing anything else. One day I wrote this: “Your son is alive.”

Who says it? And why? And to whom?

I had to write the novel to find out.

So I did. The ebook is available from Amazon this week at the special launch price of $2.99:

AMAZON

AMAZON INTERNATIONAL STORES

(The print version will be available soon.)

As always, I have tried to write according to Hitchock’s Axiom: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” 

Do you have a favorite kind of thriller?

6+

The Trilogy Trick – Guest Spot with Michelle Gagnon

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I am very excited to have Michelle Gagnon as my guest, but she is definitely no stranger to TKZ. Many of you know Michelle was a former contributor extraordinaire to our blog and I’m excited to hear her thoughts on trilogies and her latest release. Welcome, Michelle!

Don't Look Now HC C

Hi folks, I’ve missed you! So good to be back on TKZ.

With the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Hunger Games, trilogies are all the rage these days. In fact, when I first pitched an idea for a young adult novel to my publisher, they specifically requested a trilogy. I agreed, because hey, what author wouldn’t want to guarantee the publication of three more books? Besides, I’d written a series before. How much harder could a trilogy be?

The first one, DON’T TURN AROUND, turned out to be the easiest book I’ve ever written. The rough draft flowed out of me in eight weeks; it was one of those magical manuscripts that seemed to write itself.

I sat back down at the computer, confident that the second and third would proceed just as smoothly; even (foolishly) harboring hopes that I’d knock the whole thing out in under six months.

Boy, was I wrong.

Here’s the thing: in a regular series, even though the characters carry through multiple books (and occasionally, plotlines do as well), they’re relatively self-contained. In the end, the villain is (usually) captured or killed; at the very least, his evil plan has been stymied.

Not so in a trilogy. For this series, I needed the bad guy—and the evil plot—to traverse all three books. Yet each installment had to be self-contained enough to satisfy readers. 

Suffice it to say that books 2 and 3 were a grueling enterprise. But along the way, I learned some important lessons on how to structure a satisfying trilogy:

  1. Each book has its own arc. Well, that’s obvious, right? But what this really means is that book 3 can’t feel like a mere continuation of book 2. Even if your villain/evil plot spans all three books, you need to provide resolution at the end of each installment. This is a good place to employ what I’ve dubbed, “The Henchman Rule.” At the end of each book, someone needs to be held accountable; otherwise your hero/heroine won’t seem to be making any headway. And the best solution for this? Get rid of the main baddie’s number 2, his right hand man. My favorite example is the stripping of Saruman’s powers at the end of The Two Towers. Sauron must wait to be dealt with in The Return of the King, but his main wizard is handily dispatched by Gandalf (suffice it to say, I didn’t have much of a social life in junior high school). 
  2. Avoid “Middle Book Syndrome.” What I discussed above is particularly challenging in the second book of any trilogy. This is the bridge book, the one where the characters need to move forward in their quest, but not too far forward. Traditionally, this is also the book that concludes with your main character (or characters) beaten down, exhausted, and uncertain of the possibility of success. Which can be a pretty depressing note to end on, unless you also provide them with a key: something that will help them surmount obstacles in book 3. That key can be any number of things: more information about the evil plan, the villain’s only vulnerability, etc. But the main goal is to set the stage for book 3, while still wrapping up enough threads to keep your readers happy.
  3. Character arcs need to span all three books. In a standalone, the main character faces some sort of incident that jettisons her into extreme circumstances (ie: Katniss’s sister losing the lottery). An escalation of events follows: the character is forced to confront her own weaknesses, and to discover her hidden strengths. At the end of Act 2, the character is usually at a low point, facing potential failure. Then, in the final act, the character rises to the occasion and ends up saving the day. In a trilogy, these same rules apply: but the conclusion of each book corresponds with the act breaks. Example: at the end of The Girl who Played with Fire (#2 in the trilogy), Lisbeth is horribly injured; she needs to overcome that incapacitation in order to finally vanquish her father in book 3.
  4. Avoid information dumps. Always a good rule, but trickier with trilogies. While working on the final installment, I kept butting up against this issue: when characters referred back to earlier events, how much background information was necessary to keep readers from becoming irrevocably lost? In the end, I provided very little. The truth is, it’s rare for people to start with the third book in a trilogy; I’m sure it happens, but it’s the exception, not the rule. So what you’re really doing is giving gentle reminders to people who might have read the last book months earlier. Provide enough information to jog their memory, without inundating them. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but I’d recommend erring on the side of giving less, not more.

So those are my tips, earned the hard way. Today’s question: what trilogies (aside from those I mentioned) did you love, and what about them kept you reading?


Michelle_Gagnon_color_09_optMichelle Gagnon is the international bestselling author of thrillers for teens and adults. Described as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets the Bourne Identity,” her YA technothriller DON’T TURN AROUND was nominated for a Thriller Award, and was selected as one of the best teen books of the year by Entertainment Weekly Magazine, Kirkus, Voya, and the Young Adult Library Services Association. The second installment, DON’T LOOK NOW, is on sale now (and hopefully doesn’t suffer from “middle book syndrome.”) She splits her time between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

0

Interface: A Critique

INTERFACE (a thriller)
First Page Critique

Tom Faraday awoke feeling like he had been sleeping forever, and immediately struggled to recall where he was, or how he had got there. Some nights, he reflected, you hope you remember. Others you hope you forget. Tom was not sure which category the previous night would crystallise under. Right now he was just feeling the after effects of what must have been an evening of extraordinary excess.

He rolled over in the hotel bed and blinked repeatedly. The alarm clock read 8:30 a.m. Next to the clock was his watch, and next to that an electronic card key for his room. Picking it up he saw he was at the Western Star Hotel, in Waterloo, central London. This seemed vaguely familiar, but a stabbing pain deep in his head was making it hard to think clearly. He slipped on his watch, a present from his mother, slid out of bed and padded across to where his suitcase lay open. From a small zipped compartment he retrieved paracetamol and swallowed them down with gulps from a bottle of mineral water. He then stumbled into the bathroom, and was greeted by a tired visage in the mirror. His eyes were bloodshot, hair unkempt, stubble unusually obvious. He stroked his chin distractedly, thinking he must have forgotten to shave the previous day.

Back on the desk he found an elegantly printed invitation, and as he read it his memories started to return. The card bore his name in calligraphic handwriting, and was to the launch party for CERUS Technologies’ new office building. Tom rubbed his eyes and thought hard. What did he know?
He knew his name. He knew his age: 26. He remembered his job. He was a lawyer at CERUS Technologies. And he remembered the party.

He remembered getting there by taxi, late on Friday night. He remembered William Bern’s speech. And he remembered drinking a few beers. And then a few more. Perhaps a lot more. Of the trip back to the hotel, he remembered nothing. Friday night had come and gone.

He stretched slowly and looked for another bottle of water. Apart from the headache he did not feel too bad. Hopefully no harm done, and the rest of the weekend to recover. The noise of a mobile phone ringing broke him from his thoughts. His phone. He retrieved it from his pocket, noticing the battery was nearly dead.

<><><>

Critique by Nancy J. Cohen

The opening line is great. It immediately draws me in, wondering the same thing as the character. Where is he, and what is he doing there? I would delete “he reflected.” We’re in his viewpoint, and that qualifier is unnecessary.

Crystallize has a “z” not an “s”.

Delete the “just” before “just feeling.” This is one of those overused words. For more info in this regard, please see my review of a fabulous self-editing program at http://bit.ly/12iU9nZ. The Smart-Edit software points out all the words and phrase you overuse and much more.

What kind of drug is paracetamol?

I’d separate into a new paragraph, “The noise of a mobile phone…”

The cell phone is in his pocket? Is he still wearing his clothes from the night before? Or did he get dressed in them?

So the guy is hungover from a workplace party. I’m intrigued, but I am wondering where this is going. Hopefully the caller will inject more information. You do point of view very well, and I have no problems with the pacing especially if a dialogue ensues.

At first, I thought Tom had memory loss and couldn’t remember how he got where he is. But he does seem to recall everything, except maybe the cab ride back to the hotel. Then again, where does he normally live? My questions tell you I am hooked and would read more. I’d be hoping, though, that something happens to tell me all isn’t right and things are going to get hairier from here on in. Good job and Happy Fourth of July!

0

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye…

by Michelle Gagnon

Back in July of 2008, the lovely Kathryn Lilley first contacted me

about joining a group blog composed of like minded authors. Originally, there were six of us: Kathryn, John T. Gilstrap, Joe Moore, Clare, John Ramsey Miller, and myself. Sundays, we hosted guest bloggers, starting with Tim Maleeny, Alafair, Burke, and David Hewson. 

I confess to getting a little misty as I scrolled back through our early posts. Over the past nearly half a decade, we’ve held forth on everything from the craft of writing, our favorite books and films, and a multitude of other subjects (some more random than others). We’ve critiqued numerous fantastic works in progress, and gotten to know some of our regular commenters so well that frequently as I’m reading a post, I’m already anticipating how Basil Sands will weigh in on it (entertainingly, as always). This has become a family, in so many ways. 

Most of you haven’t seen behind the curtain. There has occasionally been controversy, when some of us disagreed on whether or not a particular post was right for TKZ (the debates were sometimes heated, although they always remained respectful). We’ve empathized and supported one another through illness and loss. We’ve become a community that I am so proud to be a part of.

And over the years we’ve added other wonderfully talented novelists to our ranks; each of them has brought something to the table, adding their own insights and thoughtful commentary. The addition of Boyd, Nancy, PJ, Joe Hartlaub, Mark, Jim, and of course my every-other-Thursday counterpart Jordan, has gone a long way toward making this daily shout into the wilderness required reading. Some of our posts have been referenced by The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Our average daily hits have grown from under a hundred at the outset to an average of a thousand a day, and we’ve passed the one million mark for all time pageviews. We were also recently recognized by Writer’s Digest as one of the “Top 101 sites for Writers,” which has been immensely satisfying. I’m humbled to have been part of something that has proven so successful, and that has hopefully helped other writers navigate the minefields of the publishing industry. And personally, I love that our all time most popular post was Clare‘s, “Top 5 Best Sex in Literature,” (14,252 hits) followed by Jim’s aptly entitled, “Rhino Skin” (13,113). For me, that pretty much sums up the vast range of topics that we’ve covered over the years.

So it’s with great sadness that I announce that this will be my final post for The Kill Zone. Over the past five years, I’ve gone through a series of personal struggles that have changed my life irrevocably (mostly for the better, but it was a long and winding road getting there!) My career has undergone tremendous turmoil. I went from fearing that I would never get another book contract, to suddenly finding myself committed to writing three books in a year (a good problem to have, but still–overwhelming). I’m the single parent of a young child, which is immensely rewarding, but also time consuming. My daily obligations are such that something invariably always seems to fall by the wayside; too many plates spinning simultaneously, as the saying goes. In order to stay true to the spirit of this blog, I want to make sure that TKZ does not become the plate that I drop. Which means that it’s time for me to step aside.

I’ll miss you all–but will be stopping by regularly, as a commenter this time. 

Side note: I released a Young Adult standalone thriller this past Tuesday with SoHo Press. It’s called STRANGELETS, and marks a departure for me. I credit TKZ with pushing me out of my comfort zone–so many of the posts here have expanded my horizons as a writer, and convinced me to challenge myself. So this is my first attempt at true world building, in a dystopian alternate universe. I hope you’ll consider giving it a read.

And I do hope to stop in occasionally with guest posts, if they’ll still have me! 

Best,

Michelle

0

What Killed the Thriller Writer: Your Attention Span

by Matt Richtel

Today TKZ is delighted to host Pulitzer Prize winning NY Times reporter and thriller author Matt Richtel. His post today ties in nicely with a discussion Clare began on Monday: read her post here if you missed it, and let’s continue the debate…

Body counts are rising, blood spilling in buckets. It’s a conspiracy pandemic. Thriller writers entering an epic age of mayhem.

Credit the muse? Maybe.

For sure blame the Internet.

It is responsible for a fascinating new trend among, in particular, mystery and thriller writers. We are writing more than ever. No longer just a book ever year. In the last year, it has become au courant for us to also publish short stories at least once a year, between book releases.

Lee Child, Lisa Gardner, Steve Berry, go down the list of the heavyweights. They’ve all getting into the short-story game, creating a thriller wellspring, or, if you prefer, a bloodbath. I enter the fray myself this month with “Floodgate,” a political thriller, my first short story.

But as with any good plot twist, there is well more here than meets the eye, a backstory, and some troubling questions, including, chiefly: is this a good idea? Or are we at risk of murdering something truly dear: our craft?

First, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the facts:

It’s long been tradition for thriller writers to put out a book once a year to keep audiences attached to characters and authors and, bluntly, to their brands. This was not necessarily an easy schedule for writers, especially those who really invested in depth, but it was doable and simply understood as necessary.

I’ve had some big-name thriller-writer friends tell me that when they didn’t write a book one year – say, because of a divorce or contractual dispute – they’d see a material decline in their sales.

Then along came the Internet, with all its mixed blessings (see, duh: Amazon). More competition, less shelf space, less control for publishers on distribution (see: almost none). How did short stories become a response?

The publishers (and we writers, by extension), began to fear that we’d get lost in the white noise of competition. Make a reader wait a year for a new book? Heck, by then even loyal readers might’ve made for the nearest cat video. So part of this is an effort to keep our names in the LED lights.
       
There’s also a more direct marketing reason. The short stories are “e-pub,” electronic only. They are relatively cheap, 99 cents or so, so there’s little incentive for a reader not to at least give it a shot, particularly if written by a favorite author. At the back of the short story, there often is the first few chapters of the author’s next book, and a “click-to-buy” button.

If readers like the story, they pre-order the next book. Pre-orders are great because they build the so-called “first-week sales,” which, if those mount, can get the writer on the bestseller list. In short: the short story as loss leader.

Writers privately grumble: you mean I gotta write something else, for free, while I’m already on a breakneck cycle of write, edit, publicize, repeat? Oh, and did I mention blog, Facebook update, tweet, repeat?

How good can these stories be if we’re writing on a treadmill?

So it all sounds like marketing, and nothing more, right? Like: gag me with a spoon (and put police tape around my utensil-strangled body). Not so fast. There’s, potentially, a lot to like here.

First of all, short stories, when done well, can blow the mind. Swift movement, concision, detailed and fast character development, a flurry of clues. A short story can make every word count, the language itself pregnant with clues.

(One great short story making a lot of rounds is “Wool,” if you haven’t read it; I’m told it has been optioned by Ridley Scott).

The medium also is a chance to introduce or try on a new character, not your usual protagonist. In the case of Floodgate, my latest, I’d long been aching to write about Zach Coles, a bitter, hostile out-of-work journalist who once punched an editor for misplacing an adjective; he’s tall and awkward, moving like a drunken Ostrich but fighting like a Ninja.

One friend with a string of bestsellers urged me to weave into Floodgate my regular protagonist, create a bridge, if you will, between short story and my other books. And creating, in turn, for my regular readers, a bit of an Easter Egg.

In the end, it was extra work I hadn’t contracted for. More bodies piling up. Another conspiracy I hadn’t expected to execute this year. An experience driven in the first instance by marketing, not the muse.

But she did take over, the muse, wrestling away what might’ve been a very cynical process.  I gave a damn (unlike Zach Coles, whose venom makes it very hard to save the world). No wonder. We, thriller writers, don’t kill because we have to. It’s because we need to.

Meantime, Harper Collins is doing its part, meeting me more than halfway, putting out some swanky videos, radio spots (Don Imus!) and banner ads they hope will make it viral (fat chance but not less-than-zero). So blame the Internet for mass murder. But hopefully we can rely on the muse to spare us and make the killings artful.

Matt Richtel is a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter and bestselling thriller writer. His latest, Floodgate, a political conspiracy that puts Watergate to shame, comes out this month. He can be reached at mattrichtel at gmail dot com.

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Rock What You’ve Got

My good friend and fellow thriller author Mark Terry is conducting a virtual book tour to launch his latest page-turner, THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS. Mark and I become friends 5 years ago when we shared a publisher. Over the years we’ve supported each other with advice and the exchange of ideas. We’ve also served as each other’s sounding boards and beta readers. Mark is a frequent visitor and friend of TKZ. Welcome, Mark.

By Mark Terry

Do you wish you could write like Lee Child? Or Stephen King? Or Nora Robert?

Mark Terry 3Not: Do you wish you had a writing career like them? Ha! Sure, we all do, I suppose, at least at some level.

But, do you wish you could write like them?

For a second, take your favorite writers and think about what makes them, well, them.

My favorite writers, if that’s possible to break down, are probably the late Robert B. Parker, John Sandford, Dick Francis, hmmm, probably Jonathan Kellerman. I could go on (and on, and on…), but let’s stop there for a moment.

I just listed, more or less off the top of my head, four very successful novelists (two dead) who have a lot in common and a lot different. Parker and Dick Francis, for the most part, wrote in the first person. Parker was all about sparkling dialogue, stripped down description and efficiency (in my opinion). Dick Francis, uh, horse racing, but aside from that, I think of the decency of his characters, his research, a kind of efficiency of prose. Sandford? Pace, man! A stripped-down prose that’s like a lightning rod to his characters’ hearts, and for me, I love the way he structures his third-person narratives. Kellerman? I think characterization, texture and description.

I ain’t any of them.

That isn’t to say that my own books might overlap somehow – I hope they do. Perhaps analyzing my own strengths is a fool’s game, but I would say pace for certain, efficient prose, dialogue, writing action.

It probably would not be a good idea if I decided to try and write like Jonathan Kellerman. My strengths are not his strengths. That isn’t to say that I don’t try to give the reader a sense of place, or that I don’t focus on characterization. I do. Hopefully all writers do. But the sort of stories I write and want to write – and have had some success with – focus on pace and action.

Where am I going with this?

Years ago, when I was sending novel after novel manuscript to a former agent, I sent him a manuscript for a novel about a consulting forensic toxicologist. He called me up almost immediately upon reading it, gushing, saying he loved it, it was original, it took the things that I was good at and used them. Then he went through some of my previous manuscripts and said something along the lines of, “With this manuscript you were doing Carl Hiaasen, and with this one you were doing Robert B. Parker, and with this one you were doing…”

Valley of the Shadows 8-23-10 1 Cover 3rd passThe point being, that perhaps for the first time I was being just Mark Terry. (Which all makes for an interesting story, except he couldn’t sell it).

But I think there’s something vital to writers in this. It’s a little bit of: What do you bring to the table? What is uniquely you? JUST YOU. Then exploit it. Rock what you got.

How about you? As a writer, what makes your books unique? Are you content with your own voice and style? Or would you like to write like someone else?

Mark Terry is the author of 13 books. The fourth Derek Stillwater thriller, THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS, will be released in hardcover and as an e-book on June 7, 2011. His previous Stillwater novels – as well as other standalones – are available as e-books and other formats. Visit his website at www.markterrybooks.com.

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The Return of Payne Harrison

By Joe Moore

Back in the 1980s, I was a huge fan of techno-thrillers. I loved Tom Clancy, Larry Bond, Dale Brown, Stephen Coonts and others, many of whom are still around and made the transition out of the Cold War into today’s military oriented thrillers. In 1989, a friend recommended STORMING INTREPID, and I quickly payne-harrison became a fan of a new writer by the name of Payne Harrison. Now we’ve all heard the cliché about a book being so good that you can’t put it down. That was the truth with STORMING INTREPID, the story of the U.S. using the space shuttle to deploy the Star Wars defense system and  how the Soviets manage to hijack the space craft. It was an intricate plot with a great deal of in-depth info on the technical side of things. Outrageous and totally fun.

Harrison landed on the New York Times bestseller list and followed up INTREPID with THUNDER OF EREBUS, a military thriller set in Antarctica, BLACK CIPHER, and FORBIDDEN SUMMIT. I read them all and eagerly waited for the next.

But a strange thing happed on the way to thriller #5. Harrison disappeared off the literary scene. I didn’t think much of it until one day many years later when I was going through my books looking for a particular novel and noticed all of Harrison’s books on my shelf. I realized it have been quite a long time since his last. I did an Internet search for his name and came up with very little info except notes about his previous books. Every so often, I would repeat the search with the same results. Thirteen years went by and I assumed the worst: perhaps Payne Harrison was no longer with us. After all, why would a bestselling author just disappear and quite writing thrillers?

eurostorm Then a couple of weeks ago, an Amazon promo pinged in my inbox promoting the return of Payne Harrison and his new thriller, EUROSTORM. I put in my advance order and eagerly waited for the notice that it shipped. The book arrived last Friday, and I finished it over the 4th of July weekend.

Despite the 13 years absence, he has not missed a beat. The style, voice, and plotting are exactly as he left off. Reading the book was like running into an old friend after a long time apart. And EUROSTORM is like a thriller on steroids. There’s his usual huge cast of characters, impeccable research, slingshot pacing, and heart-stopping, cliffhanger chapter endings.

EUROSTORM involves deadly engineered viruses, terror and bloodshed on the Bullet Train from England to France, the reanimation of the Third Reich hierarchy after they were frozen decades ago, and the coming together of French and U.K. military assault teams with a big helping hand from a Chicago detective to stop a diabolical plan to murder millions in the name of the new Fourth Reich.

EUROSTORM is not perfect as no book ever is. In order to cover an immense amount of territory involving dozens of characters, Harrison must utilize omniscient third person POV. The camera is always at a distance so it’s hard to really “feel” for most of the characters. But this technique won’t stop you from rooting for the good guys and wishing nasty stuff on the baddies.

If you enjoy extremely fast-paced thrillers that cover a huge amount of ground and information while keeping you on the edge of your barstool, read EUROSTORM by Payne Harrison. I only hope I don’t have to wait another 13 years for his next one.

How about you? Have you ever had to wait what seemed like forever to read the next book by a favorite author? How long did you wait, and was it worth it?

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Learning the Hard Way

by Reece Hirsch

A few years ago, I was fortunate to read a copy of Reece Hirsch’s thriller THE INSIDER before it found a home. Now, I usually don’t read unpublished manuscripts, because my agent warned me against it. But I knew Reece from a critique group, so I made an exception. And boy, am I glad I did. THE INSIDER is a heck of a debut, everything a good thriller should be. I recommend picking up a copy before they sell out, you won’t regret it. -Michelle

My debut legal thriller The Insider was published by Berkley Books this month as a mass-market paperback, marking the end of the first phase of my education in how to, and how not to, write a thriller. While I am but a humble newbie writer, I learned a few things in my six-year struggle to complete a novel and get it published. I make no claims to the wisdom and experience of your regular Kill Zone authors – they’ve all written many more books than I have. But here are a few lessons that I think I’ve learned, most of them the hard way.

  • The All-Important First Page. I’ve been enjoying the Kill Zone’s recent series of first-page critiques because the importance of the first page, and the first chapter, cannot be overstated. Take it from someone who sent his manuscript out to agents the first time with a less-than-gripping opening. The competition for the attention of agents and, later, publishers, is so intense that if the first chapter doesn’t grab them, they often won’t read further. I tried out several different openings for my book, in response to the urging of a couple of knowledgeable readers that it needed to be “bigger” and “grabbier.” They were right.

  • Write What You Know – Then Make Stuff Up. Despite the number of legal thrillers lining the bookstore shelves, I found that, as a practicing lawyer, there were still many aspects of the legal profession and law firm life that were relatively fresh ground for the genre. If readers recognize authoritative details drawn from life (in my case, the world of lawyers and law firms), then they’re more likely to follow you when you venture into areas where you’re working from research or sheer fabrication (in my case, the Russian mob). For example, in The Insider, I touch upon the tussles over billing credit among partners that can sometimes define a legal career. In another scene, I try to show the drama that can be found in the gamesmanship of an M&A negotiation. I also drew upon my knowledge of privacy and security law in developing one of the novel’s key plot elements involving government domestic surveillance and an actual National Security Agency program from the mid-Nineties known as the Clipper Chip. However, a little legal verisimilitude goes a long way with most readers, and I soon figured out that if I painted too accurate a picture of the life of a young corporate attorney like my protagonist Will Connelly, my book would be about as exciting as a day spent reviewing contracts in a due diligence room.

  • Embrace the Process. Many of the debut authors that I’ve met recently have a first, unpublished manuscript in the drawer, their “learner book.” Instead of scrapping my first attempt and starting over on a second book, I chose, perhaps from sheer stubbornness, to laboriously rework and rework my first book until it was publishable. Whichever route you take, there seems to be no getting around the fact that, unless you are some sort of literary prodigy, writing a publishable novel often takes years of painstaking revision and refinement. Find a reader or two that you trust and listen to their comments. If you hear a suggestion that you know will make your book better, don’t fight it – even if means discarding a chapter or character that you love or doing a page-one rewrite.

  • There Are Rules. This is a corollary to my point about revisions. There are certain rules and reader expectations that apply to thrillers. For example, your protagonist can’t be passive. And it’s always nice to kill someone early on. Read widely in your genre of choice, try to get a sense of the rules, and ignore them at your peril. If you’re violating a rule, make sure that you’re doing it knowingly and for a good reason, like subverting reader expectations.

  • BlurbQuest. One thing that surprised me was how early the success of a book is evaluated by publishers. Before a single reader has purchased your book, its fate will to a certain extent be decided by how many copies are ordered by booksellers. And how do booksellers evaluate a book by a debut author? They judge the book by its cover, the blurbs and the degree of push that the publisher is giving the book, as reflected in how highly it is placed on the list in the publisher’s catalogue.As a writer, you can’t control how good your cover art is (but I was really pleased with mine) or where a publisher slots you on their list, but you can be the master of your own fate when it comes to obtaining blurbs. And if your blurbs are really good, it may influence how your publisher views your book (and thus where you end up on their list and how much effort goes into the cover art). Start your BlurbQuest early, and don’t be afraid to approach established authors. One of the great, pleasant surprises of my debut author experience has been learning how generous fellow writers, even very successful ones, can be when it comes to reading and blurbing a new writer’s work. And Kill Zone author Michelle Gagnon takes the prize because she actually read my manuscript and blurbed me before I even had an agent!
  • Reece Hirsch is a partner in the San Francisco office of Morgan, Lewis, Bockius LLP.

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