Pushing Your Boundaries

 

By J.T. Ellison

To prepare for an upcoming meeting, I’ve been looking at a few of my earliest books. Last night I was reading my debut, and it was somewhat frustrating. Now, I can see all the mistakes: the thought inversions inside paragraphs, how things start slowly because I was setting up all the characters, dialogue interruptions—typical rookie mistakes. Throat clearing, as I like to call it.

Then, I didn’t know these things. I had passion and verve for storytelling, but I wasn’t the professional writer I am now, not at all. Yes, I’m being rather hard on my debut self, but I’d love to take apart that first book and make it more in line with my later ones. Happily, it remains a fan favorite. These are tiny details readers aren’t going to fuss over. It’s just me and my overdeveloped sense of perfectionism.

Nineteen books later, I am a much stronger writer. I know how vital it is to get the story started immediately instead of worrying about setting things up. My voice is the same, but the stylistic choices have changed. I go for the impact immediately, don’t write nearly as flowery, work out the plots beforehand to assure the greatest story impact.

That’s what two million words and ten years does for a writer.

But it’s not enough, is it? It’s never enough. We want to learn and grow, to push ourselves. And to do that, you have to get better at your craft.

I liken this struggle to baseball. You can’t win the World Series every year. But if you have all the right components, you can make it to the playoffs regularly. That’s what I try to do. I try so hard to make every book the best I’ve ever written. I push all the boundaries, pull out all the stops, tweak and caress my story and my characters. I want the World Series every time, damn it, though sometimes that is out of the writer’s control. Life, the market, the world get in the way.

But the playoffs are achievable, if you work hard and never give up.

Every once in a while, that World-Series-possible book comes along. You pull together something new and different. A book that stands apart. These are the books that nearly kill you, that break every rule you’ve ever learned, that keep you up late, that drive you to the page daily. They help you level up your writing.

I’ve had three of these books. Three out of nineteen. Three books that I knew were the best work I had in me at the time. That I’d left everything on the page. The old “open a vein and bleed” adage stands true. When you leave it all on the page, it will show.

One of these three books comes out September 5. It’s called LIE TO ME, and I pushed every boundary I could with it. From structure to setting to topics and POV, I forced myself to take chance after chance to make it work.

Will it? I don’t know. Only the readers can truly affirm that for us. I do wonder if ten years from now, I’ll look at it and cringe. If I’ll see the mistakes, see the paths less traveled I should have taken.

Here are some suggestions for ways to level-up your own writing:

  • Read widely, in and out of your genre
    Though I write almost exclusively in the thriller world, I get some of my best ideas from reading YA fantasy. Fantasy world-building is an incredible guide to developing solid crime fiction. It gives you a new landscape to think about, and for me, that tends to jar loose all kinds of ideas on how to expand my own concrete universe. I also keep up with several brilliant crime fiction writers whom I greatly respect, to see how they grow over the years. Karin Slaughter, Lisa Gardner, and Daniel Silva come to mind. These are writers at the top of their game, and still getting better with each book. They are utterly inspiring to me, living proof it’s possible to grow as a writer.

 

  • Travel to new and interesting locales
  • This is writing 101, really, but putting yourself in the shoes of other people will truly allow you to explore different story ideas and expand your realities. Whenever I have a foreign locale in my books, I make a point to travel there while the book is being constructed, or during editorial. I’ve saved myself from major mistakes by doing this. Sometimes, the Googles don’t give you the best information. Plus, it is my firm belief you have to smell a city, taste its food, walk its streets, to get to its heart. It’s something no one but you can process and extrapolate onto the page, almost as important as the concept of voice.

 

  • Do some hands-on research
  • One of my books that leveled-up did so because I finally plucked up the courage to attend several autopsies. I write a medical examiner, and while I’d done a ton of research to make her character real––virtual autopsies, reading autopsy reports, detailed conversations with medical examiners and death investigators—it wasn’t until I stuck my head inside a chest cavity that I got a real sense for what my character’s job entailed. Hearing the saws, dissecting tissues, taking vitreous fluids, discovering the cause of death, it all changed me, and as such, changed my writing. The book I was working on came alive in so many ways when I had that textural context to pull from, and I still draw on those experiences to explore my character’s world. For my co-written FBI series, I visited the FBI in New York. For my homicide squad series, I did ride-alongs. New experiences are the easiest way to take a step forward in your work.

 

  • Get out of your comfort zone
  • If you only write first person POV, make a shift to close third. If your mired in past tense, switch to first. I literally just finished a novel draft that simply wasn’t working, because it was written in third close past tense. I shifted it to present tense and it was suddenly real, visceral, and lightning fast. Was it a lot of work to change 100k from past to present? Yes. But it was right for the story. Being lazy with your writing is a surefire way to get caught in a rut.

 

  • Move your series/standalone to a new locale, or spin off a character for a new storyline
  • My novels are mostly based in Nashville, Tennessee. There came a point, eight novels into the series, that it was getting rather hard to believe the characters were facing the same issues yet again. So I took the drastic step of spinning off a main character and moving her to another city. Bam! Immediately, the world grew larger, the canvas was broader, and I had a whole new set of people and locations to work with. This move probably saved my writing career, by the way… it breathed new life into a beloved but squarely mid-list series.

 

  • If you write series, try a standalone, and vice versa
  • When I got into publishing, series were all the rage. Now, standalones are wildly popular. The market shifts. Be willing to shift with it, and you could truly up your game. Now, this isn’t a recommendation to chase trends, not at all. You still need your own original, brilliant concepts. But if the market is clearly moving one way, and you stay put, you may see publishing stride ahead without you. Take a chance, and see what shakes out.

Have you written a book or story you feel elevated your craft? Do you have any leveling-up advice of your own? And for the readers, have you read one by a favorite author that’s a real standout?

So many thanks for having me on today! What an honor to speak to TKZ’s awesome audience!

J.T. Ellison is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of eighteen critically acclaimed novels, including LIE TO MENO ONE KNOWSWHAT LIES BEHIND, and ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, and is the coauthor of the “A Brit in the FBI” series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. J.T. also cohosts the EMMY® Award-winning television series A Word on Words.

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Writing Backwards: Sometimes It Works (Guest: Laura Benedict)

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

 

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Before Laura Benedict joined TKZ as a new member recently, I had lined her up for a guest spot when her new book would be launched. I hope you’ll indulge us in allowing me to keep my promise in featuring Laura and her work. Take it away, Laura.

***

When I decided that I wanted to write a series of suspense novels, I didn’t do what many writers do: plunge a character into earth-shattering change, see how they respond, rebuild their world, have a successful conclusion to the story (meaning they survive), and move on to the next book. No, I wrote a different sort of series.

My vision of the Bliss House novels came to me all at once: five novels set in the life of a grand house that was built in Virginia in 1878 by a Long Island carpetbagger named Randolph Bliss. I knew Randolph Bliss to be an evil sumbitch, but he couldn’t be my series protagonist because of the extended time period, 1876-2014,—though since the supernatural is involved, I guess he technically could have been the protagonist. But the stories that came to me weren’t primarily about Randolph, or any other human. Their common actor, the character that drives the stories, stirs up and engages in conflict, and even changes over the years, is Bliss House itself.

I wrote three Bliss House novels: Bliss House was published in 2014, Charlotte’s Story in 2015, and The Abandoned Heart comes out next week, on October 11th.

Rather than start the saga of Bliss House with the house’s initial construction, I wrote the last book, first. Bliss House is a contemporary novel, set around 2014. By starting at the end, I was able to jumpstart the series with a story in which my protagonist was at its most powerful. (To be clear, though, the series is actually more of a collection of novels than a series. They all work as standalones.)

Oh, did I mention that Bliss House is haunted?

I had long wanted to write a haunted house novel. My favorite gothics—Jane Eyre and Rebecca—are set in houses that heavily influence the novels’ action. And then there are the novels with actively haunted houses: The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining, Hell House, The Turn of the Screw. The Haunting of Hill House, and The Turn of the Screw appeal to me because it’s possible to imagine that their hauntings are psychological, rather than organic. One of the premises of the Bliss House novels is that a house can be imprinted with the personalities and acts of its inhabitants. Thus, by 2014, Bliss House is replete with acts of both evil and goodness. But imprinting can work both ways: a story’s characters can be heavily influenced and even changed—physically and emotionally—by a house’s personality.

Think about your own experience with houses or even other types of buildings. There are buildings that make us feel good, and energized. And then there are the places that seem to sap our energy—a house, a school, a garage, a basement—places where we’ve experienced trauma, or that signal that something is just not right. Sometimes it has to do with unsettling angles and corners. Architecture can be claustrophobic or unfriendly. Every building has a distinct personality.

Years ago I saw a film called The Enchanted Cottage and was mesmerized by its plot: a disfigured WWII pilot played by Robert Young marries a homely young woman played by Dorothy McGuire. They settle in a charming honeymoon cottage in the English countryside, and soon after their marriage, they begin to see each other differently. Whole and attractive. They’re certain that the cottage has worked some magic on them, and they’re eager to surprise their loved ones with the happy results. Of course, it’s revealed to them that they have not physically changed, but now simply see each other through the eyes of love. It’s an unabashedly romantic story, originally written as a play produced just after WWI. I am no eager fan of romantic stories, but I am fond of fairy tales with hints of darkness. Perhaps I’m the only one who saw the possibilities of darkness in this story, of the house that might have manipulated these two people for its own reasons. Was it to trick them? To expose their deepest fears and wishes?

But back to the writing backwards thing. I knew from the moment I wrote the first lines in Chapter One of Bliss House that whatever was manipulating the house’s inhabitants was threaded through the very ground on which it was built:

“The blindfold kept Allison from seeing, but the chilly air around her smelled sweet and damp. There were flowers nearby—roses, she guessed—and the drip drip drip of water. They might be underground, even in a cave.
How thrilling!”

I knew Randolph Bliss and his two (consecutive) wives were at the heart of the story that began nearly a century and a half earlier. There are elements in Bliss House whose significance isn’t seen until they’re introduced in The Abandoned Heart. And there are many things in The Abandoned Heart that I couldn’t see clearly until I had written Charlotte’s Story, which takes place in the 1950s.

I remember thinking that it might be somewhat easier to write the Bliss House novels starting with the last one, rather than starting in 1878. It was not. When a book is written and published, the story is pretty much set in stone. Family lineage of the characters is already chosen and established, including numbers of siblings, and physical traits. The geography is set. The house’s reputation as a dangerous place has to be carefully constructed in order to make it reflect the first (last) book.

The one constant had to be the house, even though its appearance and bearing changes with each book. When Rainey Bliss Adams buys it in 2014, it’s in considerable disrepair because its incarnation as an inn that was the site of a brutal murder meant it was vacant for several years. Rainey makes it the showplace it was when it was first built. In the mid 1950s, in Charlotte’s Story, Bliss House bears the gothic heaviness of a house that’s seen three generations of devastating secrets. But Bliss House truly shines in The Abandoned Heart. It smells of new wood, and new gardens. It’s filled with paintings and exquisite rugs and European furniture. It is surrounded by newly-planted orchards and centuries-old woodlands. Most of its secrets are unborn, and the ones extant are fresh, and perhaps not yet dangerous.

If you read the Bliss House books, feel free to start with the last. Or the first. Or even the middle one. I don’t mind.

To move back in time the way I did seems a little crazy to me now. But the only way to be true to a story is to tell it the way it presents itself. Sometimes stories aren’t logical or easy. Here, backwards isn’t a gimmick. It’s just the way the story happened. I was lucky this time around to have a publisher who didn’t mind my doing something a bit unconventional.

I haven’t decided if The Abandoned Heart is the last you’ll hear of Bliss House. A hundred-plus year-old house has a lot of stories living inside it, and clamoring to be told. Ghosts are…noisy.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Have you ever tried writing a series backwards? Or did you find new inspiration for a series by discovering a great backstory to write about?

2.) Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever had experiences with the dead?

The Abandoned Heart is available for pre-order HERE, and will be in stores on Tuesday, October 11th. Laura will be touring throughout October and early November in Missouri, Southern Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia. Check her list of appearances HERE.

Charlotte’s Story, the second Bliss House Novel is out now.

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Website: http://www.laurabenedict.com/

Instagram https://www.instagram.com/laura_benedict/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurabenedict

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorLauraBenedict/

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First Page Critique of SANCTUARY

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Calico

We have another intrepid author who has submitted their first 400 words for critique. Enjoy the read. My feedback will be on the flip side. Join in the discussion with your constructive comments.

 

“Dr. Germano! I need you!”

Ray bolted to his feet, throwing the blood work report he was reading onto his desk. As he came out of his office, he nearly collided with one of his staff hurrying down the hall, carrying a box lid with a small bundle of fur huddled inside.

“Bring it into the common room, Mary Jo. Matt! You here?”

“On my way, Boss!” The answer came from the reception area.

Ray could hear the creature’s raspy breathing as he followed the woman to an exam table and winced when he saw the contents of the lid. A malnourished calico cat lay on its side, struggling for breath, eyes wide. A feathered shaft stuck out of its chest.

“My God, is that an arrow? Smart of you to carry it flat,” Ray said, with a nod to the tearful woman. “If that thing shifts, it could do some damage. Is it one of your neighbor’s cats?”

“I don’t think so, Doctor. I’ve haven’t seen this one around before and I know most of the outdoor cats around my apartment. I found it in the alley when I was taking the trash out this morning.”

He hesitated for a moment, weighing his options. The practice policy was clear on drop offs and found animals. No heroic efforts unless the animal was a pet, with a collar or microchip. He could almost hear Phil. We’re running a business, damn it, Ray, not a charity! He had heard that speech many times over the years.

This cat was obviously a stray, as scruffy and skinny as it was. It couldn’t weigh eight pounds soaking wet. No one was going to step forward and claim it. Still, it seemed young and strong. It was still breathing with an arrow in its chest after all. He hated not to give it a chance. Her, give her a chance. Calicos were usually female. Well, Phil was retired now and he’d make his own decisions on who to treat.

He reached out and stroked her head gently. To his surprise, she tried to butt his hand and even mustered a faint purr. Then his eyes widened and he barely resisted the urge to jerk his hand back.

FEEDBACK:

Well, I don’t know about you, but I sure want to know why the good doctor wanted to jerk his hand back. Shades of Pet Sematary. (I hope Catfriend weighs in on this. Expurrrrrt) The intro starts with a “call to attention” dialogue line. For the most part, the writer sticks with the action, except where the intro “strays” (pun intended) into the former practice policy.

FIRST PARAGRAPH – Since the first paragraph establishes the scene, I would suggest stronger wording to set the stage and focus on the action. I’d also suggest clarification on where the action takes place.

SuggestionRay bolted to his feet and threw a blood work report onto his desk. He rushed from his office and nearly collided into Mary Jo, one of his staff. She raced by him carrying a box lid with a small bundle of fur huddled inside.

It’s not clear to me what this business is. Dr. Germano has a desk and there is a practice policy. I’m assuming it’s a veterinary hospital or practice, but that’s never stated. This can be fixed by using a tag line at the beginning, before the first dialogue line, or it can be inserted into the first paragraph – He rushed from his office at Pavlov’s Veterinary Hospital…

STICK WITH THE ACTION – In the paragraph starting with the sentence, “He hesitated for a moment, weighing his options.” Unless this is important, I would shorten to minimize it or delete this paragraph.

Tightening SuggestionHe hesitated and weighed his options. Drop off animals, with no owners, would cost the practice. Unless the animal had a collar or a microchip, the practice policy stated no heroic efforts were to be made.

Then focusing on the cat and what he sees (perhaps foreshadowing a hint of peculiar behavior) would ramp up the creep factor.

Tightening Suggestion – Scruffy and skinny, the stray couldn’t weigh eight pounds soaking wet. No one would claim it, but it still breathed with an arrow in its chest. He hated not to give such a young and strong animal a chance. Her, give her a chance. Calicos were usually female. 

PASSIVE VOICE – There are several uses of passive voice in this short intro. Easy to clean up in 400 words, but the author should learn how to catch it as the words are streaming. Here are a few:

Before – Ray could hear the creature’s raspy…

After – Ray heard the creature’s raspy…

 

Before – I found it in the alley when I was taking the trash out…

After – I found it in the alley when I took the trash out…

 

Before – No one was going to step forward and claim it.

After – No one would step forward and claim it.

 

Before – It was still breathing…

After – It still breathed…

NITPICKERS – There are always nit picky stuff that one person might notice, while other’s don’t. A good copy editor night catch these or reading your story aloud can help a great deal.

Boss – I would use lower case.

Around – used twice in same sentence, starting with line, “I don’t think so, Doctor.”

Who – The word “who” refers to people, not cats. See line, “…he’d make his own decisions on who to treat.”

Gently – use of adverb. “LY’ words raise a flag for me. Try to minimize or eliminate for stronger writing. In the line, “He reached out and stroked her head gently,” it’s strong enough and describes tenderness, that the word “gently” is not needed and is redundant. I might also focus on this action more, between the doctor and the cat. For example:

Suggestion – He reached out and stroked her head with an affection stray cats shunned from mistrust, but to his surprise, the tiny calico returned the tenderness with a head butt and a faint purr.

SUMMARY – I would definitely keep reading. I’m a pet lover and have had cats before. What cat owner hasn’t looked over their shoulder thinking someone is creeping up on them because their cat is staring at SOMETHING BEHIND YOU. This author, with a little clean up, would have me hooked.

DISCUSSION:

Weight in, TKZers! Would you read on? What constructive comments would you make to help this author?

REDEMPTION FOR AVERY – A Ryker Townsend FBI profiler series – novella (31,000 words) $1.99 ebook, July 21, 2016 release with Susan Stoker’s Special Forces Amazon Kindle Worlds

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Series vs. Standalone

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

My wife and I watched the first episode of TRUE DETECTIVE the other night (HBO original). The new series stars Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn. We were captivated with last year’s show by the same name, the one starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. It was unique, moody and unnerving. We looked forward to every installment of the back-bayou, gritty Louisiana crime story. Great writing, acting, photography and setting. I haven’t formed a solid opinion of the new one yet, but I can tell you one thing: it is TOTALLY different from season one. I mean, other than the title, there is no resemblance to the first TRUE DETECTIVE. In fact, you could change the title to ANYTHING else and it would make no difference.

Don’t get me wrong. Farrell and Vaughn are great actors. In fact, they’re really movie stars that someone convinced to be on TV. And their acting is top drawer. I always enjoy it when a comic actor takes on a dramatic role and excels in it. Vince Vaughn does just that. And Colin Farrell has never let me down.

But watching the opening episode of TRUE DETECTIVE, season two got me thinking. As an author of thrillers, what’s the best choice for me—writing a series or a standalone? TRUE DETECTIVE is a series—that’s why there are two seasons with the same name. If it were the equivalent of a standalone, it would be called a movie. So as a writer, should I be writing a series or single novel? What are the pros and cons of series vs. standalone?

First let’s look at genre fiction (thriller, mystery, fantasy, supernatural, paranormal, police procedural, horror, romance, etc.). Genre fiction gives us both series and standalones. Which should I write?

tgcTruth is, I’ve done both. My first published novel was THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (co-written with Lynn Sholes), the first of a 4-book series. Our fifth book was a standalone called THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. Both TGC and TPA went to #1 on the Amazon Kindle bestseller list. Now we’re finishing up THE TOMB, the last of a 3-book series. Next up will be a standalone. I believe both work for us.

But it’s important to see the pros and cons of the two. Feedback from our readers helped me put together these points.

phoenix-apostles-webProbably the single biggest advantage to a series, for the reader and writer, is that it’s comfort food for the imagination. Even though the story is a new one, it’s a chance to revisit an old friend(s)—the protagonist and repeat characters. For years, picking up a Clive Cussler or Terry Brooks novel always gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling that I was back with my buddies. I knew those guys, trusted them, and couldn’t wait to see what they had gotten into this time. It was like meeting up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in a year and catching up on the latest news.

Of course, every pro comes with a con. Writing a series means that every installment must be as good as or better than the last. No rehashing of a theme. No cookie cutter plots. No formulas. Readers must come away feeling their appetite for the the next adventure was satisfied, and they can’t wait for the next in the series.

Another con to writing a series is backstory. Can the reader pick up a book in the middle of the series and get enough backstory for it to make sense? Or do they have to start with book one? How much backstory does the author include in subsequent books without boring the dedicated series fan or confusing the mid-series pick-up reader?

Finally, what if a series goes too long? What if the protagonist keeps falling into the same old danger (formula) time after time? This can result in the B word: boring. You don’t want to go there.

The advantage of writing a standalone, especially if you are known as a series author, is it can bring on a breath of fresh air for you and the reader. You get to stretch your legs without the confines of your established characters, and your reader gets to see a new side of your talents. You get to try new stuff, experiment with voice, tense, POV, etc. A standalone for a series author is an experimental science lab. Just don’t blow the place up and go too far over the line that your fans won’t even recognize you.

One interesting technique is to touch on something in your new book that appeared in a previous series. In THE SHIELD, book 2 of our Maxine Decker series, the OSI agent was interviewed by Cotten Stone, the heroine journalist from our first series. It can bring an unexpected smile to your reader’s face or produce enough intrigue that they will seek out the other books.

So whether you’re interested in writing a series or a standalone, think ahead to what might be the pros and cons once you’re done. And give the new season of TRUE DETECTIVE a try. It’s good if not different from its predecessor.

What do you think, Zoners? Do you prefer reading or writing a series or standalones?

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