TKZ – a Guide for the Writer’s Journey

by Tom Combs, physician-author, www.tom-combs.com tom_tkz-safety-chain-on-tricky-climb

In 2007, after twenty-five years as an emergency medicine specialist working in the ERs of busy inner-city level-one trauma centers, a personal health event ended my medical career. I’d worked briefly as a technical writer prior to medical school, but for the last eight years have been able to focus full-time on the study and creation of fiction.

The Kill Zone and its contributors have been a daily part of my writing life for years. I contacted Kathryn Lilley a few weeks back to share news of the release of the second book in my medical suspense-thriller series and mentioned my long-term involvement with TKZ. She suggested I guest blog and share how TKZ has influenced my writer’s journey. Specifically she mentioned that she believed my experience “would be inspiring to others, and spread cheer to my fellow bloggers!” I hope so.

Here are some ways TKZ has helped me on my journey from aspiring fiction writer to indie publisher of two well-received thrillers:

Instruction on craft

TKZ provides ongoing instruction on the craft of writing fiction that engages and sells.

James Scott Bell, Jodie Renner, PJ Parrish (Kris), Jordan Dane, Larry Brooks, and all the TKZ contributors regularly share the essence of their experience and hard-gained knowledge. I realize I’m preaching to the choir when I identify that the writing instruction presented on TKZ is ninja-level. The TKZ bloggers are the faculty of an online academy. Note: many of most useful posts are organized by topic in the TKZ Library (click HERE or on “TKZ Library” in the banner above).

Philosophy, support, and guidance

All readers here know the writer’s life can be tough at times. Self-doubt, frustration, discouragement, and disappointment are all part of the journey. I’m certain the honesty, humor, and sage counsel of TKZ’s “usual suspects” has assisted many a writer get over the rough spots. It has definitely helped me.

First page submission

By 2012, I’d been a TKZ follower for years and felt as if I knew the faculty and their personalities. I’d missed the submission deadline for the initial and subsequent “First Page” critiques and regretted having lost out on the great opportunity.

In 2012, I submitted on time. My mouth went dry on April 12, when I saw that TKZ emeritus John Ramsey Miller had rendered the critique of my work. JRM was a particular favorite of mine and, among his traits is a no-BS, flame-throwing honesty. I approached his critique with fear and trepidation. His favorable response to my submission gave me a lift unlike any I’d experienced in writing to that point. It is a treasured memory in my TKZ history.

The comments beneath the critique provided education on the varied and subjective nature of opinion/review – “dang excellent,” “this is brilliant,” “it’s not without problems,” “I’m hooked,” “wouldn’t have hooked me in any way,” etc. This provided additional education on the realities of writing.

Top-shelf editor

Years back, a TKZ guest blogger presented an article on craft that blew me away with its content and clarity. I learned that the writer, Jodie Renner, had edited two of Joe Moore’s novels. Jodie became a TKZ regular for a few years, and followers benefitted from her many outstanding articles on craft as well as her three writing guides. I did even better – after her guest piece, I was able to convince Jodie to work with me, and we have collaborated on both of the books in my series. She is amazing as both an editor and a friend – another major personal and professional benefit of my involvement with TKZ.

James Scott Bell and the TKZ faculty

I can’t recall if I discovered James Scott Bell first and it led to TKZ or the reverse. The discovery of both was definitely a boon to my writing development and career. JSB’s savvy, humor, enthusiasm, and guidance on both craft and the writer’s life is special and representative of the warmth, wisdom, and generosity of the TKZ faculty, both current and past. I attended Jim’s outstanding “Story Masters” seminar with his teaching partners, Donald Maass, and Chris Vogler, where I learned a great deal while laughing often (JSB could do stand-up comedy).

James Scott Bell’s enthusiasm, professionalism, and support of other writers is characteristic of my experience with TKZ.

I’m not certain I can inspire TKZ followers, but I can unequivocally recommend ongoing participation. The return on investment is astronomical – how can you beat free writing wisdom? TKZ is a writing travel guide that is updated daily for those who seek excellence.

I share Kathryn’s hope that her fellow bloggers/faculty will feel cheered. These people deserve to feel good about themselves. The hours, effort, and imagination invested in creating the daily posts are considerable. Despite receiving little in return, they share their knowledge and support every day.

Thank you to TKZ faculty, current and past, for your continuous commitment to helping writers. Your efforts are, and have been, a special part of my writer’s journey. I’m certain there are many among the TKZ faithful who have benefitted as I have.

I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to share my appreciation today.

tom-c_nerve_damage_kindle_bestDo you have examples of how TKZ has helped you on your writer’s journey? Please share in the comments below.

Nerve Damage, the first book in my medical suspense-thriller series, was released in 2014. The response has been excellent, with more than 200 five-star Amazon reviews, wonderful personal comments from discriminating readers, and glowing independent book reviews.

Hard to Breathe, the second installment in the Drake Cody suspense-thriller series, is now available.

ER doctor and medical researcher Drake Cody has a past no physician is allowed to have. When an injured woman presents to the ER with a report of a fall, Drake reportstom-c_hard-to-breathe_best to police his suspicion that her powerful businessman husband is guilty of domestic violence. Within hours, Drake’s medical license and the rights to his breakthrough experimental drug are threatened.

Murder, billion-dollar intrigue, and corruption involving the most powerful elements in healthcare threaten Drake’s career, those he loves, and his life. Can the law deliver justice, or will it abandon him?

“Intense and highly entertaining. Combs’ writing grips you from the first chapter and never lets go. Very cinematic and intense. Speeds the reader from chapter to chapter at a breakneck pace. Hard to Breathe is a terrific book.” – Laura Childs, New York Times best-selling author

Nerve Damage and Hard to Breathe provide an insider’s exposure to the blast-furnace emotions of critical care medicine and the high-stakes “business” of healthcare and its mega-dollar temptations.

Both books are fast-paced, intense, twisting thrill rides involving individuals you care about and medical realities that affect us all.

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Cast of Characters

Nancy J. Cohen

Do you include a Cast of Characters in your mystery novel? Is this a helpful item to readers? In my experience, some readers like to have this directory. It serves as a refresher or helps to explain the relationships among the story people. Others may view a long list of characters with trepidation. In a mystery, they feel the tale might have too many suspects to remember. So who do we please?

The other thing to consider is placement. If you list your characters in the front of a book, potential new readers who click on “Look Inside” at Amazon will lose a page of text that you could have there instead. Same goes for a Table of Contents. While it may be good to put these in the front of a print book, for a digital copy the opposite might be true. Should we consider putting them in the back where they won’t interfere with that critical first look?

Some authors include entire family trees along with their sagas. This can be helpful if you are writing a series with multiple generations. But what about a single title? Is listing the cast a desirable item?

In my online files, I differentiate between Continuing/Recurrent Characters and the current Cast. The latter includes my main characters and the suspects for this story only. It does not include recurrent secondary characters that only make brief appearances. Those people go on my private list of Continuing Characters. I suppose if your series gets very lengthy, you could insert a guide to all the characters in this particular universe, whether they have blood ties or not. This type of guide should definitely be part of the back bonus materials.

The Cast List that I include for each story is as brief as possible. You can include a teasing question about each suspect or just describe their straightforward role. Be careful not to include spoilers that give away a character’s secrets. There is a short CoC in Peril by Ponytail. Click on the Look Inside feature.

What do readers think?

One reviewer recently said about Peril by Ponytail: “I really liked that at the beginning of the book there was a ‘List of Characters’ outlining everyone within the context of the series.”

Then I asked these questions on my Facebook Page: Do you like a Cast of Characters in a mystery novel? Is it helpful or intimidating? Does it matter if the list is up front or in the back material?

Negative Responses:

“I don’t usually look if it’s included. I like to discover the characters as I read the book.”

“No. It makes it seem too theatrical, like I’m being told right from the start that this isn’t real.”

“I won’t look at it unless I’m having a hard time keeping characters straight or am having long lag times between reading and need a refresher.”

Positive Responses:

“Up front! It’s especially helpful if you haven’t read the previous books in the series.”

“I like it because it gives me a sense of place, especially with a new series. Also, if I get confused, I can go back to the list to figure out who’s who.”

“I like it, and I usually refer back to it as I read and come across each character. I like to know how they relate to each other.”

“If the book is a part of a series, the cast of characters can be very helpful if you didn’t start at the first of the series.”

“I like it if there are a lot of characters, of if you have a character who only appears a few times, several chapters apart. And put it in the front.”

“Up front! I recently read two mystery books that involved several guests at parties and a quick cast of characters guide would have helped.”

“I think it can be helpful if there are a lot of characters or if they have similar/unusual names. Also, no spoilers in the list.”

“I like it in the front. Sometimes new characters are hard to keep straight.”

“I like it at the front. That way I know it’s there if I need to refer back to it. I also love maps!”

“Up front. I always read it and I go back to refresh my memory on who a character is.”

“I like a CoC and a floor plan of the main character’s home.”

And More! This question garnered over 960 people reached. View it here: https://www.facebook.com/NancyJCohenAuthor

As you see, it’s a mixed bag of responses, but the majority appears to be overwhelming in favor of including a list of characters in the front of a book. What is YOUR opinion?

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You Have to Work Hard
To Write This Badly

 

dark-and-stormy-night

By PJ Parrish

It is a dark and stormy night. Really.

So in honor of the Erika remnant thunderstorm that is dumping its load on us down here in South Florida tonight, I got inspired and decided I had to go there…

Yes, we have to talk about bad novel openings. Now, we’ve had some really good posts lately about good openings. But it’s time to for me to get down and dirty and show you some examples of some really really really bad opening paragraphs. And for once, I am going to name names because these writers deserve the exposure.

Let’s start with this opening by a writer named Tom Billings, who lives in Minneapolis:

John thought of Kate and smiled – with any luck the tide would carry her body out to deeper water by nightfall.

And how about this gem by Belgian novelist Miriam Nys:

Walking through the northernmost souk of Marrakech, that storied and cosmopolitan city so beloved of voyagers wishing to shake the desert dust off their feet, Peter bought a French-language newspaper and realized, with dizzying dismay, that “Camille” can be a man’s name.

And then there’s this from Margo Coffman:

If Vicky Walters had known that ordering an extra shot of espresso in her grande non-fat one pump raspberry syrup soy latte that Wednesday would lead to her death and subsequent rebirth as a vampire, she probably would have at least gotten whipped cream.

What in the world were these people thinking? That they’d win an award or something?Well, they did. They are all winners or runners-up in this year’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

Edward_George_Earle_Lytton_Bulwer_Lytton,_1st_Baron_Lytton_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill

Surely, you remember Edward Bulwer-Lytton? He was an English novelist, poet, playwright, and politician (B: 1873). In his day, he was immensely popular with the reading public and got rich from a steady stream of bestselling novels. He coined the phrases “the great unwashed” “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and the infamous opening line “It was a dark and stormy night.” Here’s his infamous opening in full, by the way:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

{{{A moment of awed silence}}}

Back to our present winners. The contest has been going on for 33 years now, and as the website states, the rules are “childishly simple.” Just craft a really bad ONE SENTENCE opening line in one of many genres that include crime fiction, romance, fantasy and even kid lit. You’d think that after three decades of cheese, things might start turning stale. Wrongo, brie-breath. This year’s crop of winners is, as Spencer Tracy would say, cherse.

The grand prize winner of the 33rd edition of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is Dr. Joel Phillips of West Trenton, New Jersey. According to the contest website, Joel teaches music theory and composition at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. He lives in West Trenton with his wife and their three cats, gardens with gusto, and enjoys listening to his rock-star bassist son’s original songs. He can tell you when René Magritte painted “The Castle of the Pyrenees” but not when someone is off sides in soccer.He also purposefully viewed the film “Ishtar” more than once. Here is his winning entry:

Seeing how the victim’s body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT Officer “Dirk” Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase “sandwiched” to describe such a scene when there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.

God, that’s good.

I love this contest. Almost as much as I love the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. (Sorry, you’ll have to wait until December for me to weigh in on that one). Because you know, you really have to be a good writer to write badly on purpose. It’s like Lucille Ball. In I Love Lucy, she was infamously tone-deaf. But in real life, she was a pretty decent singer.

I sort of understand this. I can’t sing a lick, but for teaching purposes, I often show “before and after” writing examples because it’s easier to see your mistakes if you can see different ways to fix things. The problem is, I will never embarrass another writer in public, so Kelly and I often have to make up “before” examples for our workshops. And you know something? It’s not as easy as you would think.

For example, here is a “before” sample from one of our PowerPoints on the subject of Show Not Tell, that Kelly made up:

She looked at Louis. He was twenty-nine and bi-racial, his father white, his mother black. She knew he had grown up as a foster child and had made peace with his mother toward the end of her life, but that his father had deserted him.

It’s okay, adequate. But here is the “after” version, as it actually appears in one of our books.

She turned toward him. God, she loved his face. Forceful, high-cheekboned, black brows sitting like emphatic accents over his gray eyes, the left one arching into an exclamation mark when he was amused or surprised. And his skin, smooth and buff-colored, a gift from his beautiful black mother whose picture he had once shown her and his white father, whom he had never mentioned.

Here’s another example of bad writing we wrote:

“Hello Joe,” he said. “Long time no see.”
“Yeah, it’s been about two months.”
“That long, eh?”
“Yeah.”
“What you been up to?” he asked.
“I was carving fishing lures, but the then the wife left me and I found myself living alone and eating and drinking too much. Then I met Sally.”
“Oh really?”

The point we were trying to teach here is to not waste dialogue on dumb stuff, that even though we are told that dialogue is the lifeblood of good writing, sometimes, simple narrative is more effective. Here is the “after” version:

He hadn’t seen Joe for two months. He looked terrible, like he had been living on Big Macs and Jim Beam. Talk around the station was that his wife had left him and he was going crazy sitting at home making fish lures.

But enough serious stuff. let’s go back to our contest winners. I’d like to share some of my favorites. You can find the whole list of winners by clicking HERE. Take a bow, good bad writers!

Grand Prize Runner up Grey Harlowe of Salem, OR

“We can’t let the dastards win,” said Piper Bogdonovich to her fellow gardener, Mr. Sidney Beckworth Hammerstein, as she clenched her gloved hands into gnarly fists, “because if I have to endure another year after which my Royal Puffin buttercups come in second place to Marsha Engelstrom’s Fainting Dove Tear Drop peonies, I will find a machine gun and leave my humanity card in the Volvo.”

Crime Fiction Runner Up from Laura Ruth Loomis:

When the corpse showed up in the swimming pool, her dead bosoms bobbing up and down like twin poached eggs in hollandaise sauce, Randy decided to call the police as soon as he finished taking pictures of his breakfast and posting them on Facebook.

Here’s my personal favorite in the crime fiction category, from E. David Moulton:

The janitor’s body lay just within the door, a small puncture wound below his right ear made with a long thin screwdriver, the kind electricians use and can often be found in the bargain bin at the hardware store and come with a pair of cheap wire cutters that you never use because they won’t cut wire worth a damn and at best will only put a small indent in the wire so you at least bend it back and forth until it breaks.

And because I have never met a bad pun I didn’t love, I will end with my favorite from the Bad Pun Category. God bless you Matthew Pfeifer of Beaman Iowa, you made my day.

Old man Dracula forgot to put his teeth in one night, so had to come home hungry, with a sort of “nothing dentured, nothing veined” look on his face.

Postscript!  I just realized that Friday marked my third anniversary here at TKZ. Time has whizzed by!  So thank you, Kathryn and Joe for inviting me in, thank you to my fellow bloggers for the camaraderie and really thank you to all you crime dogs out there who keep us going and contribute to our conversation.  Even you lurkers. Take it away, Lucy!

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