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.

Thriller Must-haves

By Joe Moore

Next week I head to NYC for ThrillerFest — what many consider summer camp for thriller writers. ThrillerFest is really 3 events bundled into one general heading: CraftFest, AgentFest and ThrillerFest. This year, in addition to the 27 bestselling CraftFest instructors including Doug Preston, Michael Palmer, David Morrell, and our own TKZ blogmate John Gilstrap, the great Ken Follett will be teaching a course called “How Thrillers Work”. Taking a class from a guy who has 130 million copies of his thrillers in print ain’t too shabby.

AgentFest has grown to over 60 top New York agents and editors waiting to hear book pitches and look for that next big seller.

And ThrillerFest boasts two days of panels and interviews by some of the biggest names in the genre. As an added bonus, representatives of the CIA will be on hand to answer all those spy novel questions. And the conference ends with the naming of the 2011 Thriller Awards winners and the celebration of R.L. Stine as this year’s ThrillerMaster. There’s still time to register if you can make it.

On Saturday (July 9), I’ll be on a panel called “Are there must-haves in Thrillers?” My fellow panelists include Karen Dionne, Mike Cooper, William Reed, Larry Thompson, Norb Vonnegut, and F. Paul Wilson. It should be a great discussion.

I believe, as I’ve discussed on this blog before, that there are a number of elements commonly found in most thrillers. So to get in the spirit of my ThrillerFest panel next week, here are 6 general must-haves that I think can and should be found in most contemporary thrillers.

First, let’s define a thriller and how it differs from a mystery?

Although thrillers are usually considered a sub-genre of mysteries, I believe there are some interesting differences. I look at a thriller as being a mystery in reverse. By that I mean that the typical murder mystery usually starts with the discovery of a crime. The rest of the book is an attempt to figure out who committed the crime.

I see a thriller as being just the opposite; the book often begins with a threat of some kind, and the rest of the story is trying to figure out how to prevent it from happening. And unlike the typical mystery where the antagonist may not be known until the end, with a thriller we pretty much know who the bad guy is right from the get-go.

So with that basic distinction in mind, let’s list a few of the most common elements found in thrillers.

1. The Ticking Clock. Without the ticking clock such as the doomsday deadline, suspense would be hard if not impossible to create. Even with a thriller like HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER which dealt with slow-moving submarines, Tom Clancy built in the ticking clock of the Soviets trying to find and destroy the Red October before it could make it to the safety of U.S. waters. He masterfully created tension and suspense with an ever-looming ticking clock.

2. High Concept. In Hollywood, the term high concept is the ability to describe a script in one or two sentences usually by comparing it to two previously known motion pictures. For instance, let’s say I’ve got a great idea for a movie. It’s a wacky, zany look at the lighter side of Middle Earth, sort of a ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST meets LORD OF THE RINGS. If you’ve seen both of those movies, you’ll get an immediate visual idea of what my movie is about. High concept Hollywood style.

But with thrillers, high concept is a bit different. A book with a high concept theme is one that contains a radical or somewhat outlandish premise. For example, what if Jesus actually married, had children, and his bloodline survived down to present day? And what if the Church knew it and kept it a secret? You can’t get more outlandish than the high concept of THE DA VINCI CODE.

What if a great white shark took on a maniacal persona and seemed to systematically terrorized a small New England resort island? That’s the outlandish concept of Benchley’s thriller JAWS.

What if someone managed to clone dinosaurs from the DNA found in fossilized mosquitoes and built a theme park that went terribly wrong? You get the idea.

3. High Stakes. Unlike the typical murder mystery, the stakes in a thriller are usually very high. Using Dan Brown’s example again, if the premise were proven to be true, it would undermine the very foundation of Christianity and shake the belief system of over a billion faithful. Those are high stakes by anyone’s standards.

4. Larger-Than-Life Characters. In most mysteries, the protagonist may play a huge role in the story, but that doesn’t make them larger than life. By contrast, Dirk Pitt, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, Jack Bauer, James Bond, Laura Craft, Indiana Jones, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and one that’s closest to my heart, Cotten Stone, are all larger-than-life characters in their respective worlds.

5. Multiple POV. In mysteries, it’s common to have the story told through the eyes of a limited number of characters, sometimes only one. All that can change in a thriller. Most are made up of a large cast of characters, each telling a portion of the story through different angles. Some thrillers are so complex in their POVs that you really need a scorecard. But even with multiple POVs, it’s vital to never let the reader lose sight of whose story it is. There should be only one protagonist.

6. Exotic Settings. Again, in most murder mysteries, the location is usually limited to a particular city, town or locale. But a thriller can and usually is a globetrotting event. In my latest thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTES, co-written with Lynn Sholes, the story takes place in, amount other locations, the tomb of an Aztec emperor, Sao Paulo, Brazil, the sub-basement burial vaults of Westminster Abbey, Red Square, the Bahamas, a small island off the coast of Panama, and the Paris catacombs. Exotic locations are a mainstay of the thriller genre.

Like any generic list, there will always be exceptions and limitations. But in general, these are the elements you’ll usually find in mainstream commercial thrillers. But the biggest and most important element of all is that a thriller should thrill you. If it doesn’t increase your pulse rate, keep you up late, and leave you wanting more, it probably isn’t a thriller.

Are there any characteristics of a thriller not on my list? What do you look for in a good thriller?


THE PHOENIX APOSTLES is “awesome.” – Library Journal. Visit the Sholes & Moore Amazon Bookstore.

The Dan Brown flagship

By Joe Moore

tls-brown The waiting is over. THE LOST SYMBOL by Dan Brown hit the store shelves yesterday. Love him or hate him, this is a big deal in the world of publishing.

First there was the long 6-year delay. Then the street talk that Brown would never write another book. Then the possible title: THE SOLOMON KEY. Then the revealing of the anticipated cover. And now the day has come. It’s here—all 5 million, first-print-run copies. Now the big questions are: Will it sell as many copies as THE DA VINCI CODE(80 million)? How long will it sit in the number one slot of every bestselling list on the planet? And is it as good as TDC and ANGELS AND DEMONS? Here are two advance reviews:

The Los Angeles Times calls it “. . . like any roller coaster – thrilling, entertaining and then it’s over.”

The New York Times calls it “sexy” and “impossible to put down.”

So what does this publication mean for us thriller authors? The way I see it, if all of us are ships in a naval battle group, THE LOST SYMBOL is the admiral’s flagship aircraft carrier pulling us in its wake, setting the course, and identifying the potential destination. When TDC came along, it created a whole new cottage industry of thrillers that contained secret societies, lost treasures, relics, scientific and religious conflicts, and other like-minded themes. I know that for me, it helped build interest in four of my novels. But in the bigger picture, it created a hunger. Just like Indiana Jones movies renewed an interest in the dark side of the 1930s-1950s, the Nazi, religious antiquity, and archaeology, Dan Brown and his books have continued to feed that hunger. A hunger that will potentially spill over to other books and writers. Because, once readers finish THE LOST SYMBOL, hopefully they’ll be hungry for more. The void must be filled.

Here’s an example from Library Journal where one of my books is mentioned.

I’m excited not only for Dan Brown, but for all thriller authors. This guy is shooting full-court 3-pointers, but the thriller team is ultimately the winner.

Do you plan on reading THE LOST SYMBOL? Do you consider it a thriller genre-boosting event or just another high profile novel by a famous writer?

Food – More Frightening Than Any Thriller

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I literally just got home from seeing this incredible documentary Food Inc, and am still shuddering over much of what I saw. I tell you some of the behind-the-food-you-eat politics, processes and industrial intrigue is enough to put any thriller to shame.

Although I was already a proponent of organic and local foods, this movie opened my eyes to the food production industry in a way that I never expected – It scared me. From contamination of our food sources to horrific conditions (for workers as well as animals) and the unconscionable practices of companies that perpetuate the dangers in our current food production system – this movie affected me as viscerally as any horror film would.

I wept for the mother of 2 1/2 -year-old Kevin who died after eating a hamburger contaminated with the E. coli strain O157:H7 and I was sickened by images of chickens who are artificially bred so that their limbs cannot sustain their own weight anymore. I honestly thought I would vomit after seeing images of how meat is processed in this country – not because I am squeamish, but because I was so outraged at the chemical treatments that are now needed to prevent contamination – contamination due to the fact that we now feed corn rather than grass to our cattle. Don’t even get me started on immigrant worker issues or the practices of companies such as Monsanto…because my outrage would just be stirred anew.

The greatest thing about this movie, however, was not just that it lifted the veil on the food production industry in America but that it also made me feel empowered to make the changes that will hopefully, one day, alter the system forever. As a writer I want to delve deeper into some of the stories behind the reports in this film – because truth seems stranger and more terrifying than any plot I could have concocted. As a mother, I can make a difference to my family each day and with every meal – and have vowed to become a ‘mindful eater’. I have no excuse now not to eat organic, local produce that is in season and which comes from companies who respect their workers, their animals as well as the environment. Pretty easy in California but the film recognizes that for many struggling families it is cheaper to buy a cheeseburger than a head of broccoli (what kind of crazy system lets that occur?!)

I tell you, after seeing this film, if I do write a dark noirish thriller, it won’t be called “The Firm” or “The Chamber” it will be called “The Farm”.

It’s Smackdown Day and I need your vote!

By Joe Moore

It’s going to be a short post today because there’s little time to spare. Like any great thriller, the clock is ticking. My co-author Lynn Sholes and I are in a death match with none other than Dan-da-Vinci-Code-Brown. And we’re determined to win.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Dan Brown. At least I like his books. megalithI’ve never actually met him, but I’m sure he’s a great guy you’d want to have a beer with. But today there’s something called the May Madness Thriller Author Smackdown over at a website/blog called Megalith. So a potential Brown-Sholes-Moore warm & fuzzy beer fest is not in the cards right now. This is serious smackdown stuff.

Each day of this month, the Megalith blog is matching up two thriller authors (or teams) to go head to head. The final round and championship will be on May 31. But today, we need your votes.

I mean, when you get right down to it, aside from a small difference of 80 million or so copies in sales, just like Dan’s, our thrillers have secret societies, ancient religious relics, angels and demons, globe-trotting heroes and villains, secret codes, seat-of-the-pants action, inside the Vatican cool stuff, creepy tunnels, dusty tombs, scary castles, and apocalyptic threats galore.

So call your family and friends, use names off headstones and the Chicago voter rolls—whatever it takes. Just get over to Megalith blog and vote. It’s a smackdown, and the future of the thriller world is in your hands.

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill and more.

A Challenge from Across the Pond

Today we welcome our guest James Scott Bell to TKZ. Jim is the author of the Ty Buchanan thriller series – Try Dying, Try Darkness and Try Fear (July 09). His latest standalone, Deceived, was called a "heart-whamming read" by Publishers Weekly. He has taught novel writing at Pepperdine University in Malibu, and at numerous writers conferences. In July he’ll be conducting a workshop on suspense dialogue for the International Thriller Writers CraftFest portion of ThrillerFest in New York. Jim is also the author of two bestselling books in the Write Great Fiction series from Writers Digest Books: Plot & Structure and Revision & Self-Editing. A former trial lawyer, Jim lives and writes in L.A. His website is www.jamesscottbell.com

By James Scott Bell

jim-bell Perhaps you saw the challenge a group of British thriller writers laid down last month. In The Guardian (UK) , Jeffery Archer, Martin Baker, Matt Lynn and Alan Clements declared they are out to end "the reign of the production-line American thriller writers, such as James Patterson, John Grisham and Dan Brown" and return British thrillers to their "rightful prominence."

Talking a little English smack, Archer said, "The tradition of thriller writing should never be allowed to die. Not least because we are better at it than anyone else in the world."

My thought upon reading that was, We whipped ’em in 1781, and we can do it again.

But I set my musket aside and continued reading. Here’s a clip:

Lynn, author of the military thriller Death Force, said that authors such as James Patterson – who writes, with the aid of a team of co-authors, up to eight books a year – have "drained a lot of the life out of the market". "Look at Fleming, look at Len Deighton – they had a quirkiness to them. Yes they were very popular, and had elements of the formulaic, but there was an edge of originality to them," he said. "All the writers in this group believe in bringing that back … Too many of the American thrillers are just being churned out to a rigid formula. Good writing is never a production line."

"We’re trying to say ‘why would you want to read fairly cynical, ghost-written books which are being pumped out by publishers when there are a lot of good new British writers you could be reading?’" explained Lynn. "We feel the genre has been quite neglected in the last seven to eight years … There haven’t been any new writers coming through. It might be because there aren’t any very good writers, or maybe it’s because publishers and booksellers have been neglecting it – they’ve become obsessed with the big names, and because they’ve got a new James Patterson or John Grisham four to five times a year to put at the front of the bookshop, it crowds out all the new British authors who are coming through."

These writers, who call themselves The Curzon Group, have come up with "five principles" for writing a thriller. They believe–

1. That the first duty of any book is to entertain.

2. That a book should reflect the world around it.

3. That thrilling, popular fiction doesn’t follow formulas.

4. That every story should be an adventure for both the writer and the reader.

5. That stylish, witty, and insightful writing can be combined with edge-of-the seat excitement.

Let’s take a closer look.

1. That the first duty of any book is to entertain.

Check. Without that, nothing else matters, because no one is reading you. And note that entertainment does not mean fluff. Being "caught up in the story" can happen in many ways and in myriad genres.

Our top thriller writers clearly entertain. Look at what’s being read on any given plane on any given day. For a read that gets you caught up in the fictive dream, we Americans are certainly holding our own, wouldn’t you say?

2. That a book should reflect the world around it.

TRY DARKNESS final cover I’m not sure what this means. Social comment? Message? Verisimilitude? You can take it a number of ways.

I do think a thriller has to "reflect" the world to the extent it establishes the feeling of reality, that the events in the story could happen. How well you do this is a matter of individual style, and avoiding things that could pull readers out of the story.

But this is SOP for any fiction writer, not just those who do thrillers. I’m not sure this principle moves the debate along.

What do you think it means?

3. That thrilling, popular fiction doesn’t follow formulas.

Here, I disagree a bit. There is a reason we have formulas in this world: they WORK. Try making nitroglycerin out of egg whites or lip balm out of sandpaper. We use formulas every day. We’re lost without them.

What most critics mean by this jab is "formulaic," which is a euphemism for "by the numbers" or otherwise without original content and style.

And we’d agree. Thrillers need formula, but should never be formulaic.

So what’s the formula?

For one thing, somebody has to be in danger of death. (I’ve talked elsewhere about the three types of death—physical, professional and psychological. For most thrillers, physical is on top).

Another ingredient: an opposition force that is stronger than the Lead. If not, the reader won’t care about the stakes.

And the Lead has to be a character we care about deeply. Not perfect, and not necessarily all good (think: Dirty Harry). We just have to care, and there are things you do and don’t do to forge that reader connection.

What keeps a thriller from being by-the-numbers is the freshness you bring to it by way of character, voice, style, and the arrangement of plot elements.

Take A Simple Plan by Scott Smith. A tried and true formula: innocent man finds forbidden treasure, succumbs to greed, disaster results (the death overhanging this novel is psychological death, which the Lead and his wife suffer by the end). That story’s been done over and over. But Smith brought to it compelling characters in complex relationships, and a style that drives you relentlessly from chapter to chapter.

Or the film The Fugitive. Innocent man on run from the law. Formula! But what they did with both Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) and especially Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) turned it into a classic thriller. We’ll never forget Sam’s line, "I don’t care!" Or the beat where Kimble, trying to get out of Cook County Hospital without being recognized, puts his own troubles on hold to help a kid in the emergency ward.

When the film was over, and Sam does care, we’ve been taken on an almost perfect thrill ride.

4. That every story should be an adventure for both the writer and the reader.

Check. For the writer of thrillers, that means taking a risk in each book, somehow. Stretching the muscles. For example, I love that Harlan Coben has taken Myron Bolitar international in his latest. I’m sure you have your favorite examples, too (what are they?)

No adventure in the writer, no adventure in the reader.

5. That stylish, witty, and insightful writing can be combined with edge-of-the seat excitement.

Who is going to argue with that?

deceived I’d aver, however, that style cannot overcome a weak story construct. So while I’m at it, let me put in a good word for Patterson, who has been castigated by so many. His concepts are terrific. He knows story at the fundamental level. His books wouldn’t do nearly so well without the solid scaffolding of the basic premise.

Before I can start outlining or writing, I have to have a logline that excites me, that calls up all sorts of possibilities in my mind. That’s something Patterson, Grisham and Brown also have as the baseline of their books. And so do all successful thriller scribes, as far as I can see.

Our team, the American thriller writers, do pretty well after all. So if the Brits want to have a contest, I say: Bring it.

I’m in.

Any other takers?

And what do you think of the five principles?


Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill and more.

ITW Thriller Awards

Posted by Joe Moore

Recently, my fellow Kill Zone blogmates John Gilstrap and Michelle Gagnon posted blogs that addressed the announcement of the 2009 ITW Thriller Awards nominees and the judging procedure. Both blogs raised questions and concerns, and generated a large number of comments. To address those issues, I asked ITW Vice President of Awards Vicki Hinze to comment on how the current judging was conducted and what the future holds for the Thriller Awards process.

I’ve been out of town and just returned and saw the threads, so I thought I’d add a little insight, though I think the subject’s been pretty well covered. Still, a little more insight into this might put some minds at ease, and I’m all for that. Also, please note that I’m speaking for myself and not as a member of the ITW Board.

hinze1 Last year, I chaired the ITW Awards, and we did have separate categories for Best Hard Cover, Best Paperback Original and Best First Novel. All three awards named Finalists and Winners.

In response to members’ comments, wishes and desires, we studied the market and discovered (no doubt many knew already, but we did study this) and determined that the format of a book is determined by readership and that varies publishing house to publishing house. In short, format is largely a marketing decision. The bottom line was that two categories, Best Novel and Best Paperback Original were combined for this year’s contest.

This year, when the scores came in, more analysis took place on the results. I’m serving as Awards VP, and I informed the Board that I would be asking that the awards again be separated. This will be on the agenda at the board meeting in July. If that vote goes as I hope it will, then the categories will be Best Hard Cover Novel, Best Paperback Original Novel, Best First Novel (which combines all debut novels–hard cover and paperback [mass and trade]). This year, we added an award for thriller Short Stories (which includes novellas) and next year we will continue it and we hope to add one for nonfiction.

One of ITW’s strengths, I believe–and it is this belief that got me to join and then to volunteer to judge and then to act as award’s chair and ultimately acted as a catalyst for me when it came to Board service–is that ITW remains open and flexible and seeks what is in the best interests of its members. That’s its top priority–and I say that as one who’s witnessed its workings and its methods of weighing potential programs and retaining or adjusting existing ones. (i.e. eliminating author membership dues)

ITW is a young organization and yet look at all it has accomplished for thriller writers. Has it been perfect since inception? No. No more so than any of us as individuals have been perfect. But ITW does strive to elevate potential for all involved, seeking win/win situations and solutions. I love that about the organization.

One reason, I think, for ITW’s success is its willingness to try different things and atypical approaches. Some have been enormously successful. Combining the categories for Best Novel and Best Paperback Original was not. I have no problem with saying an attempt made in good faith for logical reason on anything failed. Where I would have a problem would be in knowing it failed, in feeling confident it would continue to fail, and not doing anything to change it. That situation would be doing a disservice to members. Making changes that could benefit our members is a worthy goal.

So please understand that action is being taken on this matter. Can I say we won’t have future attempts that end up with results we find lacking? No, I can’t. I can tell you that we’ll continue to make every reasonable effort to create win/win situations for members. When a challenge is spotted, it’ll be addressed and hopefully resolved in a manner that best serves the majority of members.

Remember that we’re a progressive organization. We dare to try different things in different ways, seeking to do all we can to bring added benefits. Personally, I don’t see that as a flaw but as an asset. Change spurs growth; growth, productive change. It negates stagnation, and that’s a wonderful thing, in my opinion, because stagnant things die.

I do hope that this post eases minds. I’m not idealistic enough to believe that everyone will be satisfied with any program. But I do want you to know that we are trying to incorporate the desires and requests of members and to devise a program that satisfies the majority of members.

I don’t recall saying that the experiment of combining the two categories failed. But frankly, I am not satisfied with the outcome. It wasn’t good enough and I think we can do better. So that’s the goal. To do better.

This year, the structure of the program is behind us. Its benefits and drawbacks have been reviewed and we have a plan for a path with more benefits and fewer drawbacks to pursue–and we’re pursuing them. Please feel free to leave any comments on how to make the program better and stronger. I promise I’ll reply to all constructive suggestions.

Vicki Hinze
Vice President, Awards
International Thriller Writers

Vicki Hinze is the author of 21 novels. She holds a Master of Arts in Creative Writing and a Doctorate in Philosophy, Theocentric Business & Ethics. She actively lectures on writing craft and technique and philosophy.

Her articles have appeared many respected publications and e-zines (Novelists, Inc., Romantic Times, Romance Writers’ Report, The Outreacher, The Rock and others) and have been extensively reprinted in as many as sixty-three foreign markets. She has coordinated and/or judged national and international writing competitions, served on various writers’ association committees, has been honored by Romance Writers of America with their National Service Award and in 2004 was named PRO Mentor of the Year.

Vicki is a charter sponsor of International Thriller Writers and serves on its Board of Directors. She’s a member of The Authors Guild, American Christian Fiction Writers, Novelists Inc., Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Published Authors Network, Emerald Coast Writers, ACRA, Deep South Christian Writers and other writing organizations.

Judging a book by its cover

By Joe Moore

My co-writer Lynn Sholes and I have been very fortunate to have our books published in different languages. Although most of the foreign covers are similar to the domestic versions, we’ve had some interesting surprises along the way. Inside the book, it’s the same story just translated into another language, but outside is a different story altogether. It’s obvious that each publisher must know and market to their unique audience. And in many cases, there’s a huge difference in the visual presentation and interpretation of our stories. Here are a few unique examples:

Our first book in the Cotten Stone series is THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (2005) with a central theme of human cloning. The original cover is on the left followed by Spanish (Latin American), Russian and Bulgarian.






The main object on the English cover is the ancient symbol of the Knights Templar whose descendents are the bad guys in the book. The Spanish version looks like a space ship taking off while the upside down skull chalice is very cool in the Russian cover. I have no idea what’s going on in the Bulgarian version.

Our second in the series is THE LAST SECRET (2006). It deals with quantum mechanics and the ability to be in two places at once. The English cover is followed by Greek, Estonian and Czech.






On the English cover is the emblem of the Venatori, the secret intelligence gathering arm of the Vatican and the oldest spy organization in the world. On the Greek version are a lot of sinister looking people standing around in front of the Venatori shield. Not sure what they’re doing but it appears serious. The Estonian cover is kind of vague, and the symbol on the Czech cover looks Aztec or Mayan but your guess is as good as mine as to what it means.

Number three is THE HADES PROJECT (2007) about a plot to use a quantum computer to wreak havoc on the world’s infrastructure. The domestic cover is followed by the Lithuanian, Bulgarian and Slovakian versions.






The symbol on the English cover is a pentagram because there’s a lot of devilish stuff going on inside. I think the Lithuanian cover is just plain weird like a strange Southwestern fire god, while the Bulgarian is spooky, and the Slovakian looks conservative and regal. Not sure why there’s a compass in the picture.

Number four is THE 731 LEGACY (2008), a scary story about state-sponsored terrorism and the reassembling of an ancient retrovirus that is carried in all human DNA. Here’s the English cover followed by Greek and Dutch (a bestseller in the Netherlands).





The domestic cover shows a modified Japanese war flag since Unit 731 was a WWII Japanese organization that performed terrible atrocities against their enemies. The Greek cover looks like "Stairway to Heaven" and the Dutch publisher decided to change the title to THE KYOTO VIRUS, although they did keep the Japanese flag in the background.

So can we judge a book by its cover? Each publisher must understand their market and audience, and know what kind of visual impression is needed to make a customer pick up a book. I like all the versions of our covers for different reasons and I think it’s really interesting to see how our stories are interpreted in various languages and cultures with the cover art. But most of all, I really like that Russian skull chalice.

If you’ve had foreign language versions of your books published, was the art work similar to your domestic version or did the artist take off into La-La-Land? What was your reaction when you saw the covers?

Story Logic—Spell It Out

by L.J. Sellersljsellerssmall

Today The Kill Zone is thrilled to host the lovely and talented L.J. Sellers, author of The Sex Club, which I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed. Without further ado…

For the last two days, I’ve been filling in the details of my outline, working out the timeline, and crafting a sizzling ending that brings it all together. I’m already 50 pages into writing Thrilled to Death, and it felt like to time to solidify some plot points. I know many writers don’t do this; they prefer to wing it and see where the story takes them. (Stephen King, for example) I rather envy that style.

But I write complex mystery/suspense novels, and the outline/timeline has become more critical with each novel. In a police procedural, so much happens in the first few days of a murder investigation that a timeline is essential. For complex, parallel plots with multiple points of view, mapping the story in detail is the best way to avoid writing yourself into a dead end or writing 48 hours worth of activity into a 10-hour time frame. I speak from experience.

TheSexClubThen yesterday for the first time, I put in writing what I termed story logic. I’ve always done this in my head to some degree, but this was the first time I put it on the page in summary form. In a mystery/suspense novel, some or much of what happens before and during the story timeline is off page — actions by the perpetrators that the detective and reader learn of after the fact. Many of these events and/or motives are not revealed until the end of the story. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to convey to readers how and why it all happened.

So I mapped it out—all the connections, events, and motivations that take place on and off the page. Bad guy Bob knows bad guy Ray from prison. Bob meets young girl at homeless shelter. Young girl tells Bob about the money she found . . .

It was an enlightening process, and I highly recommend it. Summarizing the story logic forces you to think specifically about character connections and motivations. It points out holes and inconsistencies and gives you an opportunity to tighten and improve your plot. It may even force you to rethink and rewrite your outline. But it also may keep readers from getting to the end of your novel and thinking, How did he know that? Where did that come from?

I mentioned the process on a Twitter/Facebook update, and another writer asked me about it. So I explained it to her (in 140 characters!). She got back to me with this message: “I wrote the foundation of my book and did the ‘story logic’ for the rest before writing thestorylogic book to fill in details. It led me in a completely different direction. I took some risks in the outline and a lot fell into place. I’m psyched!”

I admit, all of this takes some of the spontaneity out of the writing process. But for me, writing isn’t magic. It’s work, and it needs the same detailed planning as any other project. Of course, I’m flexible. If better ideas or connections come to me as I write, I will modify my outline and resummarize the story logic.

Do you map the story logic? Do you outline? Can any of you wing it with complex crime story?

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, novelist, and occasional standup comic based in Eugene, Oregon. She is the author of the highly praised mystery/suspense novel, The Sex Club, and has a second Detective Jackson story, Secrets to Die For, coming out next year. When not plotting murders, Sellers enjoys cycling through the Willamette Valley, hanging out with her extended family, and editing fiction manuscripts.

A Killer Confession

By Joe Moore

missile2 I’ve killed a lot of people. Along with my accomplice co-author, Lynn Sholes, I’ve shot down a fully loaded commercial airliner, set Moscow on fire, infected thousands with an ancient retrovirus, massacred an archeological dig team in the Peruvian Andes, assassinated a Venatori agent, killed a senior cardinal along with a Vatican diplomatic delegation, murdered the British royal family, and even brought down the International Space Station. I know I’m responsible for more deaths–I just can’t remember them all.

kremlin1 So I confess, I’m a killer.

It’s not always easy. Some of these people I really cared about. The dig team members were likable folks except for the chief archeologist who got on my nerves. I didn’t mind seeing him bite the dust. I really grew to like the Venatori agent, but he wasn’t doing what I wanted him to do, so he “slipped in the shower”. And the British Royals? Well, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. peru But being a killer comes with the territory when writing suspense thrillers.

In real life, death is serious. Whether it’s by natural causes or violence, it’s not to be taken lightly. If the deceased is a loved one or friend, the emotional impact can be staggering, even debilitating.

But there’s a different level of death that we all come in contact with every day that rarely causes us a second thought: Long distance death.

Several hundred passengers drown in a ferry accident off the coast of India. Thousands are trapped in an earthquake in China. Millions starve in Darfur. A Columbian jet crash kills all on board.

buckinghamDo we care? Of course we do, but unless those victims were family or friends–unless we have an emotional connection with them–we only care for as long as it takes to turn the page of the morning paper or switch channels.

In developing our main fictional characters, it’s vital that the reader care about them enough to show emotion. Whether they’re heroes or villains, the reader must love or hate them. Neutral is no good.

And that’s a problem I see all too often in books, movies and TV shows. Sometimes I just give up reading or watching because I don’t care enough to care. The characters may be interesting but they get buried in the plot (or CGI effects) to the point that it doesn’t matter to me if they win or lose, live or die. And that’s the kiss of death for a writer. The wheels come off the story and the book winds up in the ditch.

We utilize long distant deaths in our books because we write high concept thrillers that span the globe–what my buddy David Hewson calls telescope stories rather than microscope stories like his. We need long distance deaths to support the big threat. But when it comes to the main characters, they better be worth caring about or the wheels just might come off.