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

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.