Long Distance Death

By Joe Moore

Dear friends and blogmates. Today I am retiring as a regular TKZ blogger. After 8 years of posting writing advice and tips, I have run out of things to say—you now know as much as I do about the mysterious black art of writing novels. It’s been a good run. I’m happy to announce that my friend and TKZ emeritus, John Gilstrap, will be returning to take over my slot every other Wednesday. John is a great thriller author with tons of advice and insight to share with all the Zoners out there. I wish John success and I thank all of you for the kind words over the years. Keep writing and keep coming to TKZ.


I’ve killed a lot of people. 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.

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. 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 Russian jet crashes and kills all on board.

Do 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.

I utilize long distant deaths in my books because I write high concept thrillers that span the globe–what some have called telescope stories rather than microscope stories. I 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.

First Page Critique – Inside Moves

Jordan Dane

Wikimedia Commons Image

Wikimedia Commons Image

Today we have an anonymous submission from a gutsy author, titled Inside Moves. Read and enjoy. I’ll be on the flip side with my feedback. Join in the discussion with constructive criticism for the author.

Chapter One

The ambulance screeched around the corner—its light bar flashing and siren screaming—toward Santa Barbara General Hospital’s emergency-room entrance.

An older couple sitting on the bus-shelter bench at the corner was startled by the sounds of the vehicle, along with the knowledge of what that meant.

The man looked to be in his midseventies. He took the woman’s hand in his; she had been startled more severely than he was. “Sweetheart, since we’ve lived in Santa Barbara nearly all our lives, I’d say there’s a very good chance we might know whoever’s in that ambulance.”

But they didn’t.

Desperate to keep the man alive, EMT David Ortega kept his eye on the heart-rate monitor for any changes to Bobby Wainwright’s vital signs.

“We’re losing him!” he yelled to his partner, Tom, who pushed the accelerator of the ambulance.

David felt the ambulance lunge forward. Tom liked to drive fast when the siren and flashers cleared his path. Regaining his balance, David prepared to do CPR while speaking to Dr. Richard Kiersten through his headset. The doctor was standing by in the OR, awaiting their arrival at SBGH.

“Give him Narcan IC,” he instructed David.

David hated giving intracardiac injections because they could produce complications. Besides that, just the idea of stabbing someone in the heart with a long needle was ugly. But he did it anyway. With nothing to do but watch the monitor and the patient, David read the notes Tom had taken at the accident site.

Bobby Wainwright. Just a few years older than me. Huh? Owner of Wainwright Erectors. Not from around here. Bet he makes a ton more than me. Accident on the job…Man, something really big fell on this dude. Goose bumps jumped out on his arms. No matter how much he makes, I sure don’t want to be him right now.

At the emergency entrance, David and Tom prepared Bobby for the operating room and Dr. Kiersten. As David jumped out of the ambulance, he saw an elderly couple at a bus shelter watching him. The old lady looked scared to death. Dear God, don’t let her suffer a heart attack before I get this guy into the OR.

The first responders had brought Bobby to the hospital closest to the construction site where he had been injured. Right now, it didn’t appear that this hospital was close enough.


There is nothing like a speedy ambulance ride to start an exciting action scene and get the blood pumping for a reader. This author’s instincts to begin the story there has merit, but the omniscient point of view (or author intrusion/head hopping) had me distracted.

A.) POINT OF VIEW – From the first line, I’m wondering who is watching this ambulance as it screeches around a corner. The older couple waiting for a bus seem almost caught off guard and startled by its sudden appearance. From their reaction, more author intrusion follows when an unknown narrator estimates the older man’s age. After his dialogue line, this unknown narrator answers his remark of “…we might know whoever’s in that ambulance” with the line – But they didn’t. The action and pace of this intro is diminished by the insertion of this couple too. They add nothing to the scene.

From the point where the older couple are left behind, the author tried to stay in the POV of David but veered out big time when David, the EMT riding in the ambulance, can somehow “see” the doctor he’s listening to on his headset with this next line – The doctor was standing by in the OR, awaiting their arrival at SBGH. I suspect that rather than this author deliberately using Omniscient Point of View, there is more “head hopping” going on here.

Recommended reading on POV – Here is an excellent prior post from TKZ’s Joe Moore on Narrative Voice that explains more about Point of View and the author’s voice.

B.) WHERE TO START – I would recommend this intro start with David the EMT and stay within his head, whether he’s a main character or not, at least until we get through the action and settle into the story. Begin with the line, “We’re losing him!” he yelled to his partner, Tom, who pushed the accelerator of the ambulance. Get the reader to feel the jostling ride as David is on his headset talking to a doctor at the hospital, as his patient is dying.

C.) RESEARCH – There is no short cut for research. If the scene calls for medical knowledge, any reader knows some jargon and can discern what is believable. Leaving out the details only highlights that the author has not done the research.

1.) Get the medical right – I would advise giving more medical detail on what David sees. Are there broken bones, collapsed lung, patient in shock, etc? David is an EMT and would know more than is shown. His objective should be to stabilize the victim enough for the ride to the hospital. There appears to be an accident but a medical person would look at the injuries and not be focusing on the accident so vaguely. This is obviously an attempt to introduce backstory in a “telling” fashion. If these details are necessary, it would be best to include them in dialogue, maybe as the EMT speaks to the doctor. But focus on the resulting injuries. I’m no medical person, but I can’t imagine that CPR is how an EMT would describe resuscitation. They have drug remedies (medical therapy), airway management, or equipment to use, like defibrillators.

2.) Mystery elements draw readers in – I’d suggest revealing the patient’s condition through dialogue, with David being the POV character. (One POV per scene is highly recommended, otherwise it reads like head hopping and would be a red flag to editors and agents.) Is there conflict between the EMT and the doctor? Is David resentful of the man? Does David see ambiguity between the patient’s condition and “the accident” explanation? Readers can be drawn into a story by elements of mystery. Have patience with laying these out. Raising the mystery is enough and it will foreshadow things to come.

3.) Drama builds on the risky stakes and tension – Where is the drama when the heart stopped and flat lined? Too much is missing and it is apparent that the author has avoided the details needed for this scene to be believable.

4.) Suggestion – I would do the research and include some details in David’s dialogue to make this work, but if the author didn’t have a desire to do this, I would suggest having the POV be in the head of someone who is brought on the ambulance who is an unreliable narrator and doesn’t have a medical background. This could be a loved one or a co-worker, but if David is a main character, I wouldn’t make the first scene about a secondary character that won’t be important to the story.

D.) RESEARCH RESOURCES – Below are a couple of good resources sites for medical and crime scene research.

1.) Medical – Whenever I think of medical research, one name pops into my head and I have his books in my research library. Doug P. Lyle, author. He has written many non-fiction books on forensics and medical research for writers and he’s gracious with his replies on his website. Look for his books and contact info HERE.

2.) Crime Scenes – Another good resource link is Crime Scene Writer on Yahoo Groups. It is a group of professional crime scene people of various experiences – ie crime scene techs, law enforcement, FBI, EMTs, firemen, etc. HERE is the site for the group and this is the email to contact them and request to be subscribed as a member. Send an email to: crimescenewriter-subscribe@yahoogroups.com (Be sure to read their rules of etiquette for members.)


E.) WAINWRIGHT NOTES – With imminent resuscitation or a medical crisis happening, how would David have time to read any notes on the patient? Supposedly the patient is dying, yet David is reading over notes and casually thinking about the patient’s age, job, money status, as it relates to him, etc. Very unprofessional and inappropriate timing. given the action and urgency of the scene. (Side Note – EMTs have ice water running through their veins. They have ways of dealing with extreme injuries and distancing themselves to allow them to do their jobs.)

Bobby Wainwright. Just a few years older than me. Huh? Owner of Wainwright Erectors. Not from around here. Bet he makes a ton more than me. Accident on the job…Man, something really big fell on this dude. Goose bumps jumped out on his arms. No matter how much he makes, I sure don’t want to be him right now.

F.) FORCED UNREALISTIC DETAILS – Below is a sentence that ripped me from the reading. With the scene starting at the bus stop and the elderly couple, the end of the scene with a racing ambulance somehow comes back full circle, as if they spun their wheels in place? I don’t see the point in this, but more importantly, an EMT would be focused on his patient and not looking around and down the street to get a bead on a couple at a bus stop. The urgency of the medical situation is completely deflated. Here is the sentence:

As David jumped out of the ambulance, he saw an elderly couple at a bus shelter watching him. The old lady looked scared to death. Dear God, don’t let her suffer a heart attack before I get this guy into the OR.

The next and last line has the same feel to it – that the ambulance had spun its wheels in place. It drags the reader into backstory that is out of place to the present action. Plus the POV isn’t David anymore and the reader gets another dose of author intrusion. Here is the sentence:

The first responders had brought Bobby to the hospital closest to the construction site where he had been injured. Right now, it didn’t appear that this hospital was close enough.

OVERVIEW – The fixes on POV and proper medical research can be done. That’s the good news. There are no shortcuts for solid research when the scene is a medical one. The author could find a non-medical character to insert one POV for the scene, but a better scenario would be to make the scene believable with the proper research. If the focus is on the emotion of an EMT about to lose a patient, the medical could be woven into the scene without going overboard. (Note: Less is more – a regurgitation of all your research can be tedious and boring to a reader. Moderation is key.) But get the lingo right and the sequence of events in proper order so the scene is believable. Show how the stakes are high and focus on the humanity of the EMT in a life or death situation and this author will have the reader turning the pages.


Anything to add, TKZers? What had the author done right? What would you recommend for improvements?

Scotty, I need more words!

By Joe Moore

Captain Kirk was always demanding more out of his Chief Engineer on Star Trek by saying, “Scotty, we need more power.” And his response was always, “But Captain, I’m doing the best I can.” Predictable and fun. But what if you’ve finished your manuscript and Scotty-Star-Trek-IV_cleanedsubmitted it to your agent or publisher, and were told you needed more words. You’re under contract to deliver a certain amount of words, and you’ve come up short. What do you do? Do you “pad” the writing—go in and add a lot of stuff just for the sake of word count. Padding usually involves “staging” or additional extraneous actions by your characters as they move around the “stage”. But doing it too much will call attention to the padding and wind up getting sliced out by your editor. Intentional padding is not the answer. But there are some legitimate ways to increase word count without bloating your story.

One suggestion is to build up your story’s “world” by conducting additional research and adding a few bits and pieces of atmosphere throughout. Let’s say your scene takes place in Miami Beach. Your character is having breakfast on the balcony of her hotel room overlooking the Atlantic. Without slowing down the story, add a few lines about the history of the hotel. Since most of the hotels on Miami Beach have been around for decades, certainly something might have happened years ago at the same local that could reflect on or be pertinent to the story’s plot or situation.

Another method is to utilize your character’s five senses. Are you making good use of them? Sitting on that balcony, your MC must be able to smell the fresh sea breeze and hear the gulls calling from overhead. Or she notices the ever-present container ships slipping along the horizon in the Gulf Stream. Could be that she can feel the film of salt coating the arms of her chair. How does her freshly squeezed OJ taste? You don’t want to use all 5 in every scene, but engaging the senses is a great way to expand the prose and take advantage of an opportunity to further develop your character.

The skill in expanding a manuscript is to do so without appearing to pad the writing. And you want to avoid going down a new rabbit hole and suddenly winding up with too many words such as introducing a new subplot. Always consider the two basic criteria for any additional words: they must either advance the plot or further develop the character. Otherwise, they don’t belong.

What about you? Have you ever come up short on contractual word count or just felt your story was too short? How did you expand the story without it becoming blotted or obviously padded?

Empathy is the Key to Emotion

By Joe Moore

If I asked you to name your all-time favorite fictional character, chances are it would be someone that you related to on a strong emotional level. It was a character you fell in love with or one that gave you night sweats, one that you cheered for or one that you cried with. It was the character’s emotions that grabbed you. You empathized with them. Why? Because you’ve felt the same real-life emotions they felt.

The dictionary defines empathy as the “ability to identify with another’s feelings.” I believe empathy is the key to creating memorable fictional characters. It’s not because they’re beautiful or handsome, fashionable or rugged, brave or risky. It’s that they have believable human emotions. Emotions that you have felt at some point in your life.

So if empathy is the key to your reader becoming attached to your characters, what is a proven method for creating emotions?

parking_cleanedLet’s say you want your character to be afraid—to experience fear. You could always just tell the reader that he or she is scared. That would mean little or nothing because not only is it telling, it paints an unclear picture in the mind of the reader. Scared could mean a 100 different things to a 100 different people. Now ask yourself what it felt like when you’ve experienced fear. Perhaps you were in a parking garage late at night. The sound of your high heels seemed as loud as hammer strikes. The shadows were darker than you remembered. You could see your car but it appeared miles away. Then you hear someone cough. But there’s no one around. You pick up the pace. Your heels become gunshots. You shift your gaze like a gazelle that sensed a stalking big cat as you hug your purse to your chest. Your pulse quickens. Breathing becomes shallow and frantic. Palms sweat cold. Legs shake. You press your key fob and your car’s lights flash but your vision blurs. You hear a strange cry escape your throat—a sound you’ve never made before. Your car is only yards away but you don’t feel like you’re getting closer. Were those your footfalls echoing off concrete walls or were they coming from the shadows? You reach for the door handle, your hand shaking, fear gripping you like a cloak of ice.

Here’s my point. It may not have been in a dark parking garage late at night but we’ve all felt it. Paralyzing, heart-stopping fear. In your story, you need to have your character feel the same. Describe it so that your reader will empathize. So that their hands will shake and their chest will tighten. Make them sweat, even if it’s only in their imagination. Approach every emotion your characters feel in the same manner. Use your life experience. How did you feel the first time you felt love, hate, jealousy, rejection. If you are honest in expressing true emotions through your characters, your reader will have empathy for them, and very possibly come to list them as their all-time favorite.

OK, Zoners. What technique do you use to impart believable emotions into your characters? How do you get your readers to feel empathy?

When in doubt, bury someone alive.

By Joe Moore

“When in doubt, bury someone alive.” Edgar Allan Poe was purported to have said this as one of his five essentials for the betterment of a story. Although it’s never been confirmed, poe_cleanedeven if he didn’t really say it, he should have. So let’s figure out what Mr. Poe might have been suggesting. My interpretation is that there is always a solution to a writing issue. And one of the biggest issues new writers (and old) have is getting stuck without an idea what to do next. Poe suggests doing something drastic.

I don’t like to use the term writer’s block because I don’t believe it exists. But like most writers, now and then I wind up in a dark room with no doors. Usually this occurs in the infamous Sagging Middle as Clare so expertly discussed on Monday. Whether the idea you thought would work doesn’t or you hope the answer will emerge from the ether, you need a way to solve the problem.

So when you get stuck, what can you do? Here are some suggestions that I’ve used. Perhaps they’ll help you, too.

  • Change your writing environment. I have a home office with a desktop PC. I also have a laptop. Sometimes I need different surroundings so I grab my laptop and move to another room or outside. Just the act of breathing fresh air can fire up your brain.
  • Listen to music. Often I write to background music, usually a movie score (no distracting lyrics). But sometimes setting down in front of my stereo and rocking out to my favorite group can clear my head and refresh my thoughts.
  • Get rid of distractions. TV, email, instant and text messages, phone calls, pets, and the biggest offender of them all: the Internet. Get rid of them during your writing time.
  • Stop writing and start reading. Take a break from your writing and read one of your favorite authors. Or better yet, pick something totally out of your wheelhouse.
  • Don’t decide to stop until you’re “inspired”. I’ve tried this. It won’t work.
  • Open a blank document and write ANYTHING. It’s called “stream of consciousness”. It worked for James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust. It can work for you.
  • Write through it. Beginners sit around and hope for a solution to come to them in their dreams. Professionals keep writing. The solution will come.
  • Finally, do something drastic. Bury someone alive. Works every time.

Fellow Zoners, how do you get yourself out of a writer’s corner? What drastic measures have you taken to keep the story moving?

Co-Writing Fiction, Part 1

By Joe Moore

Sue Coletta, a good friend of TKZ, recently responded to our call for blog topics by requesting some discussion on co-writing fiction. Since there are two of us here that collaborate with others—myself with co-author Lynn Sholes, and Kris Montee with her sister Kelly Nichols (PJ Parrish), Kris and I decided to take up the task. I have switched with Kris to start the discussion today, and she will take my slot tomorrow to deliver part 2.

Between Sholes & Moore, and PJ Parrish, we have produced 24 co-written works of fiction. We hope that today’s post and tomorrow’s will shed some light on what is considered by most of our fellow authors as an impossible task.

Collaborating on fiction was started in the mainstream a number of years ago by the great Clive Cussler, and soon followed by James Patterson. Their co-writers alone could fill a fancy cocktail party. Nowadays it seems to be growing in popularity. This week’s New York Times bestselling top 20 includes THE PURSUIT by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg, THE HOUSE OF SECRETS by Brad Meltzer and Tod Goldberg and THE EMPEROR’S REVENGE by Clive Cussler and Boyd Morrison. I’ve spoken to a couple of Cussler’s co-writers about their technique which I won’t reveal here. But I can assure you, it is NOT the panster approach. I also have my theory why co-writing fiction is really catching on—increased product means increased sales. But that’s just me.

The reason co-writing fiction is looked upon as impossible is because it’s hard. In the beginning nothing exists but an idea in an individual’s imagination. It might be inspired by facts or events, but only the individual has a specific vision of those events in his or her head. So how can two people have a similar enough vision to be able to write a novel?

Lynn Sholes and I have written nine thrillers together because of the following reasons. First, we love the same kind of books—the ones we read are like the ones we write. Second, we have an unquestioning respect for each other’s writing skills and a deep belief that whatever one of us writes, the other can improve. Third, we believe that there’s always a better way to write something. Fourth, we never let our egos get in the way of a good story. This comes from spending over ten years in a weekly writers’ critique group. Fifth, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and are willing to admit them. Sixth, we agree on the same message in each book. Seventh, we believe that we are on the same level of expertise. And last, we believe that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Those points cover the mental portion. Now, how do we handle the mechanics of the job? We talk, and talk, and talk. Once a day we conference call, brainstorming and telling and retelling each other the story. Our two favorite words are: What if? Whether it’s global plot points or an individual scene or character motivation, we keep telling each other the story until that little imaginary movie in our minds becomes as in sync as possible. Then one of us will declare to have a “handle” on the scene or character or chapter, and create the first draft.

We write slowly because each chapter must go back and forth many times for revision. Years ago, when we first started, everyone could tell who wrote what as we tried to finish our first book. It took three years of hard work before we fused our voices. Now, because the process goes through so many revisions, most of the time neither of us can remember who wrote what. We rely on each other so much that we both wonder how it is possible for anyone to write a book on his own.

There are several advantages and disadvantages to collaborating. A disadvantage is that you split the money you make. So you’ll always make half of what you would as a single author. And like any relationship, there is always a chance of a falling out. And something could happen where an ego can become inflated and affect the process.

A giant plus is that we never experience writer’s block. One of us will always have an idea on how to get out of a jam or move the story forward. And unlike our family, friends, trusted beta readers, and everyone else, a co-writer has an intimate, vested interest in the success of the story that no one else could have.

We are approaching the mid-point of our tenth thriller together. We believe that the whole thing boils down to trust. Trust in each other and in the goals we both want to achieve with the story and with our careers. For us, two heads are better than one.

Here’s a list of points to consider when entering into collaboration.

Understand why you think collaboration would be beneficial and share that with your co-author. There are many reasons to collaborate on a story, and only the participants can say what these are. The ideal collaboration is one free of hidden agendas. If you desire something specific from the relationship, it’s best to state it straight out. This can avoid conflict and frustration on the part of one or both writers.

Know the co-writer and his or her work before entering into a collaborative arrangement. If you don’t get along with a writer or the two writing styles conflict, then collaboration may not be the best idea.

Come to the relationship with an open mind and flexible ideas. If you enter the project with set images and plot ideas, then you limit the other writer’s involvement. This can also lead to conflict. If your collaboration begins with something previously written, then there will be constraints, but still be flexible.

Respect your collaborator’s ideas and opinions. Leave your ego at the door. A partnership works because of input from both sides and a healthy respect for each other. There are no stupid ideas. If possible, state your biases up front so that each writer is aware of differences of opinion. For example, one of you might be opposed to first-person stories or present tense. Knowing this up front can help avoid conflicts.

Explore each writer’s strengths. If your specialty is plot and your partner’s specialty is description, then use those strengths to the story’s advantage. The ideal collaboration results in a story that neither writer could generate on his or her own.

Divide the workload and agree on it at the beginning. Perhaps one of you will write the first draft and the other will edit/revise the draft. Perhaps one will write the skeleton and the other will fill in the descriptions. There is no single method of collaboration. It is as unique as the two writers who come together to collaborate. But each writer wants to feel involved in the process.

Discuss differences of opinion and employ the art of compromise. Don’t make differences into impasses. Pose solutions with compromise as the goal. Don’t let the differences escalate into dissolution of the partnership.

Allow for an easy, clean way out. In case things don’t work out, and to avoid hard feelings, each writer should have a painless way out of the partnership. Make sure you have agreed on how to divide up the intellectual property before beginning collaboration. The escape clause should be agreed upon ahead of time.

Most important, have fun. Collaborations can and should be fun. If it is not, try something else.

Check back tomorrow for part 2 of co-writing fiction with PJ Parrish.

Vonnegut’s Rule #5

By Joe Moore

A topic I’ve seen on forums and blogs is Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules of writing fiction. They’re worth reviewing and taking to heart. But his rule number 5 is the one that made the biggest impression on me. Rule number 5 is: Start your story as close to the end as possible. This is relevant for both the entire book and a single chapter. We often hear that the most common mistake of a new writer is starting the story in the wrong place.

Well, it happens to published writers, too. Lynn Sholes and I are guilty of drafting whole chapters that either occurred in the wrong place, or worse, weren’t even needed. Usually they turn out to be backstory information for us, not the reader. We go to the trouble of drafting a chapter only to find it’s to confirm what we need to know, not what the reader needs to know.

So if we apply Vonnegut’s rule number 5, how do we know if we’ve started close enough to the end? Easy: we must know the destination before we begin the journey. We must know the ending first.

To me, this is critical. How can we get there if we don’t know where we’re going? And once we know how our story will end, we can then apply what I call my top of the mountain technique. In my former career in the television postproduction industry, it’s called backtiming—starting at the place where something ends and working your way to the place where you want it to begin.

But before I explain top of the mountain, let’s look at the bottom of the mountain approach—the way most stories are written. You find yourself standing at the foot of an imposing mountain (the task of writing your next 100K-word novel), look up at the huge mass of what you are going to be faced with over the next 12 or so months, and wonder what it will take to get to the top (or end).

You start climbing, get tired, fall back, take a side trip, climb some more, hope inspiration strikes, get distracted, curse, fight fatigue, take the wrong route, fall again, paint yourself into a corner—and if you’re lucky, finally make it to the top. This method will work, but it’s a tough, painful way to go.

Now, let’s discuss the top of the mountain technique. As you begin to plan your book, even before you start your first draft, imagine that you’re standing on the mountain peak looking out over a grand, breathtaking view feeling invigorated, strong, and fulfilled. Imagine that the journey is over, your book is done. Look down the side of the mountain at the massive task you have just accomplished and ask yourself what series of events took place to get you to the top? Start with the last event—the grand finale— make a general note as to how you envision it. Then imagine what the second to the last event was that led up to the end, then the third from the last . . . you get the idea. It’s sort of like outlining in reverse.

This takes it a step further than Vonnegut’s rule number 5 by starting at the end and working your way to the beginning while you’re still in the planning stage. Guess what happens? By the time you’re actually at the beginning, you will have started as close to the end as possible. And you will see the logic and benefit of rule number 5.

Naturally, your plan can and probably will change. Your ending will get tweaked and reshaped as you approach it for real. But wouldn’t it be great to have a general destination in mind even from the first word on page one of your first draft?


tomb-cover-ISFor a limited time, download THE TOMB, #3 in the Maxine Decker thriller series for only 99¢.

First Page Critique of MOONSTONE

Jordan Dane

Cry baby Truss ZF-9327-85193-1-001


Another courageous author has submitted the first 400 words of a work-in-progress anonymously for critique. Read and enjoy. See you on the flip side with my comments, then join me with yours.


Waterford, MN
June 4, 1994

By the light of the moon you can catch fireflies, or sit by a campfire watching the embers drift upward toward the stars. By the light of the moon you can stroll down a dirt road, or just sit on a back porch with a tall glass of iced tea. By the light of the moon you can propose marriage, or just leave your lover.

And by the light of the moon, if you have a shovel, you can try to bury your past.

That’s exactly what Jack Cicero had in mind, on this night in early June. The sun had already dipped below the horizon, and the full moon was threatening to make an early appearance. As he ducked under the oak trees, darkness shrouded him, causing him to have to use his flashlight which lit up the area like a beacon. All of his senses went into high alert. He pushed his thick eye glasses tighter on his nose. He strained his ears to listen for the sounds of approaching cars. The night was silent except for sounds of the Snake River choking itself on the rocks in its path; and the pounding of his own blood in his head.

He pushed on not willing to test his luck. He spied a large rock under the trees, and set the flashlight down in such a way as to shield its light from the road. If he heard anything, he could grab it in an instant and kill it.

He picked up his shovel, and cursed and groaned as he stabbed the soft earth at the base of the rock. He had to hurry, because this moon was a reluctant, silent witness rising higher in the sky, threatening to expose him. Although she tried, the full moon failed to penetrate the thick oaks overhead. But that didn’t make Jack feel any better. Despite the cool night air, he was breaking a sweat. He swore and picked up the pace. He was in a race to put everything behind him, closing one chapter so that he could open another.

With a groan, he hefted one final shovelful. Then he patted the dirt down and scraped some of last fall’s dead leaves over his handiwork. For a moment he thought that he might actually vomit. He dropped to his knees, leaning against the large rock and bent his head. A single tear rolled down his cheek, soaking into the sandy soil below. A final act of contrition. He wiped his face with his sleeve, pushed off of the rock and stood up. It was done. But Jack knew that no matter how much he could try to hide the past, it could come back to haunt him. He’d always be looking over his shoulder for someone to figure out his secret and expose him. Considering he knew just about everyone in Waterford, the list of possibilities was longer than the river itself.


OVERVIEW: At first reading, I liked this introduction because it stuck to the action (for the most part) and did not slow the pace with back story or explanation. That takes discipline for an author to do this. The narrative is simple and pulls the reader into the story with its mystery. Well done. But as I got into this on a 2nd and 3rd read, I found things I would edit if this were mine. This author shows promise and if the following items are addressed, I would keep reading.

THE START: I understand what the author intended with the first paragraph – to set the stage with a light and breezy beginning of harmless imagery before the reader is shocked once they realize the story will take a dark turn. Who’s POV is this? No one’s. It’s omniscient before the POV becomes that of Jack. This tactic–and the use of YOU–pulled me out. If the story is set up properly, where we see Jack in the dark with a shovel, he could be doing ANYTHING until we learn what’s happening and the mystery begins. The shock factor would be presented in another way, without the need for the faux lead-in.

THE ACTION: What is Jack doing? He’s got a shovel and a flashlight, but it doesn’t appear as if he’s burying a body because he’s not carrying anything else. Is he digging something up? He starts by digging into the ground with his shovel but ends by patting down a mound of dirt and pushing leaves over the pile to hide what he did. The transition from start to finish didn’t describe enough for me to understand what he’s actually doing. With the vagueness, the reader might make an assumption that would prove false later on, and the author takes a chance of alienating the reader if this is not made clearer. I also wondered why Jack would pick a spot by a road where he can be seen with his flashlight. If he’s got a choice and wants to be secretive, why risk a location where he can potentially be seen? I know the risk of getting caught adds to the tension, but maybe there would be a way for the author to explain why Jack picked the spot (even if it meant risk of discovery) and still leave an element of mystery.

WORD CHOICES: In 3rd paragraph, “The night was silent, except for the sounds of….” If there are sounds, the night can’t be silent. The night might be “still” or “quiet,” but not silent if noise is heard.

In 5th paragraph, calling the moon “she” pulled me out and made me wonder if another character had stepped into the scene.

In 5th paragraph, the moon can’t be a “reluctant” witness to anything, but in one line the moon is shining on him, threatening to expose him, then in the next sentence, that description is contradicted by this – “the moon failed to penetrate the thick oaks overhead.” (Oaks are usually ‘overhead’ too. Directional words like up, down, overhead should be scrutinized during the edit process. They can usually be deleted.)

I’m not a fan of the word THAT. It’s often unnecessary and can be eliminated.

DESCRIPTIONS: This might be nit picky, but this phrase pulled me out of the narrative and made me wonder if there would be a better way of describing what is happening. This comes across as TELLING to me and could be more effective.

As he ducked under the oak trees, darkness shrouded him, causing him to have to use his flashlight which lit up the area like a beacon. 

“The area” is actually the ground but what’s on the ground? How does the light play across it? it might be a more effective line if the author could get the reader to actually see the effect of the light, rather than merely saying it “lit the area.” Do the shadows of spindly grasses elongate and move as the light passes over it? The effect could add a creep factor. What sound do they make in the wind…for a guy who is already nervous?

PASSIVE VOICE: One of my favorite TKZ posts of all time came from Joe Moore in Jan 2012 – Writing is Rewriting. A great overview of the draft and edit process. Below are some examples of passive writing. My first pass at editing is to delete and tighten my sentences into succinct and clearer writing. Many readers might not pick up on the passive voice, but authors should strive to hone their craft and challenge themselves with each new project.

3rd paragraph: “was threatening” should be ‘threatened.’

5th paragraph: “was breaking” should be ‘broke.’

Last paragraph: “could try” should be ‘tried.’

PARAGRAPH LENGTH: I prefer to give the reader some white space so the paragraphs don’t appear laden and heavy as they look ahead. A heavy paragraph could encourage a reader to skim. As Elmore Leonard (RIP) once said – “Try to leave out the part readers tend to skip.” I often break up longer paragraphs into 3-4 sentences and change the length of those sentences to create a natural cadence if the words were spoken aloud.


What about you TKZers? What constructive criticism would you give this author?


HotTarget (3)

HOT TARGET – AMAZON Kindle World $0.99 – DISCOUNTED (Book 1 of 2)

Rafael Matero stands in the crosshairs of a vicious Cuban drug cartel—powerless to stop his fate—and his secret could put his sister Athena and her Omega Team in the middle of a drug war.

Croco Designs

Croco Designs

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When a massive hurricane hits land, SEAL Sam Rafferty is trapped in the everglades with a cartel hit squad in hot pursuit—forcing him to take a terrible risk that could jeopardize the lives of his wounded mother and Kate, a woman who branded him with her love.

Zoning in the Zone

By Joe Moore

Someone once asked: “I’ve heard writers talk of being ‘in the zone’ regarding their writing, which I take to mean being in an altered state of extreme creativity. But how, without drugs or other stimulus, do they get into that state?”

In fact, we hear the term in the zone used often, not only with writers, but athletes, artists, and just about any activity that requires skill, creativity and especially concentration.

So what is “the zone” and how do we enter it? Why is it so hard to remain there for extended periods of time?

zone_cleanedBeing in the zone can last for a few minutes, a couple of hours or a whole day. For those that never seem to enter the zone, it might be because they try too hard to do so. Sort of like when we stop trying to solve a problem, the solution suddenly comes to us through our subconscious—what Jim Bell calls the boys in the basement.

Let’s try to define what being in the zone means, especially when it relates to writing. For me, it’s a mental state where time seems to disappear and my productivity greatly exceeds normal output. It might start after I’ve finished lunch and sat down at my PC to work on a new chapter. Without any feeling of the passage of time, I suddenly realize a couple of hours have gone by and I’ve produced 1000 words or more. I don’t remember the passage of time or anything that deals with my surroundings. I only remember “living” or becoming immersed in the story’s moment, having the words flow from a deeper source, and “awakening” from the writing zone as if only a few moments have passed.

I’ve never been hypnotized, but I can assume that being in the zone is somewhat like self-hypnosis. My body remains in the here-and-now, but my creative senses somehow find a hidden room inside my mind, a place normally under lock and key. And I’m able to enter it for a short time to let what’s there emerge into the light of day.

It can also feel like driving down the Interstate on a long trip deep in thought and suddenly realize I can’t remember the past few miles.

I’ve also never been athletic, but I bet it’s a similar scenario: a pro golfer is able to tune out the surrounding crowd of tournament spectators, the dozens of network cameras, the worldwide audience, the cheers from the distant gallery as his opponents make a great putt, and he’s able to enter a place where only his game stretches out before him. The rest slips by in a blur. Personal mind control.

So what is a good method for getting into the zone? Some writers use the “running start” technique by reading the previous day’s work or chapter. It gets them back into the story and hopefully the new words start to flow.

Others listen to music. This is something I often do. Nothing with lyrics, though. I listen to movie scores or piano and guitar solos. I find that it can help set a mood or become background “white noise” that blocks out other audible distractions. That’s because, for me, the biggest obstacle is distractions. It’s important to reduce interruptions and distractions by creating an environment where they are minimized. This means shutting my home office door, closing the drapes on the windows, unplugging the phone, disconnecting Internet access, and most of all, choosing a time to write when those things can be fully managed. Doing away with distractions is no guarantee that I will enter the zone at will, but it does give me a fighting chance to at least knock on the door to one of those dark, hidden rooms upstairs and let my story flow out.

So, my fellow zoners, have you ever entered the zone? Do you have a secret method that you’ll share with us?

Give your manuscript a running start

By Joe Moore

Whenever I disclose to someone that I’m an author, the response is pretty much the same: “I’ve always wanted to write a book.” Or “I’ve got a great idea for a novel.” Despite all the would-be authors out there, not every potential novelist actually gets to the writing stage. And even fewer produce a finished product. But for the ones who not only have an idea but are burning up with a desire to put pen to paper, I’ve put together a basic outlining technique that might help get things started—a simple list of questions to kick start a book. Answering them can give writers direction and focus, and help keep them going when the wheels sometimes come off the cart along the way. To continue my Writing 101 series, here goes:

  • What distinguishes your protagonist from everyone else?
  • Does she have an essential strength or ability?
  • How could her strength cause her to get into trouble?
  • Most stories start with the protagonist about to do something? What is that “something” in your story, and what does it mean to her?
  • Is that “something” interrupted? By what?
  • Is there an external event or force that she must deal with throughout the length of the story?
  • How is it different from the original event?
  • How will the two events contrast and create tension?
  • Does she have a goal that she is trying to achieve during the course of the story?
  • Is it tied into the external event?
  • Why does she want or need to obtain the goal?
  • What obstacle does the external event place in her path?
  • What must she do to overcome the obstacle?
  • Does she have external AND internal obstacles and conflicts to overcome?
  • How will she grow by overcoming the obstacles?
  • What do you want to happen at the end of your story?
  • How do you want the reader to feel at the end?
  • What actions or events must take place to make the ending occur the way you envision?

This outline technique has less to do with plot and more to do with character development. Building strong characters around a unique plot idea is the secret to a great book. Once you’ve answered the questions about your protagonist, use the same technique on your antagonist and other central characters. It works for everyone in the story.

These are general questions that could apply to any genre from an action-adventure thriller to a romance to a tale of horror. Answering them up front can help to get you started and keep you on track. Armed with just the basic knowledge supplied by the answers, you will never be at a loss for words because you will always know what your protagonist (and others) must do next.

Can you think of any other questions that should be asked before taking that great idea and turning it into a novel?