Sneak Peek into ThrillerFest 2018 with Mark Dawson
See which books won big in the ITW 2018 Awards via TheRealbookspy.com
Have you ever dreamed of an entire school reading your book?
Would you like to double (or more!) your writing income?
This book shows you how.
Drawing from his own first-hand experience, David H. Hendrickson leads you through every step of the process. He highlights the critical pitfalls to avoid, and points out ways to maximize your profit when a school adopts your book.
With advice and insights that are adaptable to getting your book in front of audiences ranging from middle grade to high school to college, and even to corporations, this book is for you!
“If you have a book you want to get into K-12 schools and sell in the thousands,
you MUST read this book.”
—Maggie Lynch, bestselling author, Career Author Secrets series
Cameron Poe (Barry Cameron Lindemann) is a student of classic literature. He earned his undergraduate degree from Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and his MBA from Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He is an observer of politics and the interplay between nation states. He has a keen interest in structural and mechanical engineering. He has three sons and resides in Las Vegas where he manages real estate portfolio financing.
The most sought after commodity in the world is power, and when money is no object, power is up for grabs. Desiring autonomy, one small nation develops an unlikely plan to procure a nuclear-powered submarine. If all goes as intended, the Middle East will destabilize and the OPEC Alliance will crumble. Yet as money might buy power, there’s no guarantee that it buys loyalty. So when the submarine breaks the ocean surface it doesn’t travel to the Middle East, it sails for Russia, in an attempt to return the nation to its Soviet roots.
Alerted to the possibility of the theft of a Russian sub, the CIA must foil the plan for acquisition without alarming the rest of the world. A step behind and suffering from department infighting, the CIA watches in disbelief as the single most powerful weapon in the world rises from the ocean floor. It doesn’t take long for them to realize that the commander of the vessel has no intention of honoring his contract.
Scrambling to prevent a world-wide disaster, CIA operatives in coordination with the US Navy launch a daring and risky plan to quietly thwart a rogue submarine captain before he can obliterate Moscow and take control of the country. Those who volunteer for this mission risk their lives. Those who don’t risk the safety of the entire world.
GETTING TO KNOW AUTHOR CAMERON POE
What was your journey like becoming a writer?
Very long! Most people talk about writing a book, but doing the first one takes forever. Approximately 25 years because back in the day you had to beg people to read it, and if they liked it then maybe they would talk to you about publishing. Needless to say, it was written and then collected a lot of dust.
What are your favorite pieces of classic literature?
The Homeric tales, The Iliad and The Odyssey. I have an appreciation for Tolstoy, especially The Death of Ivan Ilyich. That being said Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is always at the top of my list. The inverse would be Ulysses; not a fan of James Joyce and his supposed adaption.
Is Red Agenda your first novel?
Yes. The initial draft was back in the Clinton era. When editing and publishing became problematic (I couldn’t afford it) I shelved it. In late 2013 I resuscitated the book because the story still resonates today. All I did was upgrade the technology and lingo. It’s true, the more things change the more they stay the same. That being said I did write a screenplay (Supergrass, with co-writer Clem Connolly) and submitted it to Final Draft’s Screen Writers contest in 2007. Out of 3,200 submissions the screenplay place in the final 10. I heard later it was 6th. Still, it is Hollywood and no one had their story made.
What were some major hurdles while learning to write?
Convincing myself that my writing style worked. I don’t like input until I have a finished draft. It was a big risk for me to write it (yes, no one saw it for 20 plus years), have it edited, and then wait and see what the reviews say. It is very gratifying to see the positive comments on the pace and style of the book.
What’s the difference between good writing and telling a good story?
I would think they are too similar to separate. Word usage is key. Good writing demands tactile expressions and good story telling also requires such. On some level your story telling has to engage your writing ability. You become laser focused and your story gushes through your repertoire of words, down to your fingertips, and spills onto the page.
Take us through your plotting process for your book Red Agenda.
That is tough. I know I wanted a story where the Soviet Union rears it head, but I didn’t want it as simple as someone in the Russian government plotting the overthrow. I also like the confluence of unrelated events producing an outcome no one thinks about. The problem with that kind of plot is that it comes off as expansive with many character for the reader. So to keep them engaged you have to move the book fast to a point in the story where it all melds together. Then you can step off the gas and let them become engrossed. I also wanted to blow up a nuclear missile for grins. So I did.
Do you take your ideas based on world events or create your own?
I base them in world events and then put an unusual twist on it. I would assume today that what we don’t know about our government is 10x more scarier than what we can think about.
Is there a central protagonist?
Yes. Nicholas Shaw. I don’t introduce him until a third of the way through because he needs something to rescue. He is loyal, flawed, and scared most of the time. Most of written American hero characters seem to be able to solve any problem, no sweat. I don’t want a McGyver for my protagonist. I want a guy who needs a shot of bourbon to calm his nerves later.
Are there any authors you model yourself after?
Cussler and Clancy. That is the fiction in which I will fit. I have never read a Vince Flynn novel but I might have smattering of him in my style too judging from reviews on his books.
What are you working on next?
I am keeping some of the characters in Red Agenda to continue into the next book. I am thinking about a platform from which they all work and solve pressing problems to the US and the world. The plot will be about rare earth metals and China’s (or some antagonist) reason for purchasing all that is mined across the world. Am waiting for the antagonist to form. Title – Dyson Sphere. Which is a hypothetical megastructure that completely encompasses a star and captures a large percentage of its power output. Just kicking that around.
“People will forget what you said and did, but they won’t forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
Joanna Penn interviews Becca Puglisi on the Creative Penn Podcast
This podcast originally appears on The Creative Penn Feb. 12, 2018
Duration: 1 hr 7min
“This is far more than a brilliant, thorough, insightful and unique thesaurus, this is the best primer on story — and what REALLY hooks and holds readers– that I have ever read.” ~ Lisa Cron, bestselling author of Wired For Story & Story Genius
Readers connect to characters with depth, ones who have experienced life’s ups and downs. To deliver key players that are both realistic and compelling, writers must know them intimately—not only who they are in the present story, but also what made them that way. Of all the formative experiences in a character’s past, none are more destructive than emotional wounds. The aftershocks of trauma can change who they are, alter what they believe, and sabotage their ability to achieve meaningful goals, all of which will affect the trajectory of your story.
Identifying the backstory wound is crucial to understanding how it will shape your character’s behavior, and The Emotional Wound Thesaurus can help. Inside, you’ll find:
•A database of traumatic situations common to the human experience
•An in-depth study on a wound’s impact, including the fears, lies, personality shifts, and dysfunctional behaviors that can arise from different painful events
•An extensive analysis of character arc and how the wound and any resulting unmet needs fit into it
•Techniques on how to show the past experience to readers in a way that is both engaging and revelatory while avoiding the pitfalls of info dumps and telling
•A showcase of popular characters and how their traumatic experiences reshaped them, leading to very specific story goals
•A Backstory Wound Profile tool that will enable you to document your characters’ negative past experiences and the aftereffects
Root your characters in reality by giving them an authentic wound that causes difficulties and prompts them to strive for inner growth to overcome it. With its easy-to-read format and over 100 entries packed with information, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus is a crash course in psychology for creating characters that feel incredibly real to readers.
Becca Puglisi is a YA fantasy and historical fiction writer who enjoys slurping copious amounts of Mountain Dew and snarfing snacks that have no nutritional value. She has always enjoyed contemplating the What if? scenario, which served her well in south Florida during hurricane season and will come in handy now that she’s moved to New York and must somehow survive winter.
Becca Puglisi is a speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers website and via her newest endeavor: One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library like no other, filled with description and brain-storming tools to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
Conferences: Where to go? Which to Choose?
By Christina Hoag
For crime fiction authors, the good news is that there are plenty of writing conferences. The bad news is that there are plenty of writing conferences. It can be hard to choose the best investment for your money and time.
I decided not to choose. I just went to a slew of them, although not all by any means. Not only did I have a great time at every one, I found value in all of them. Each offers something different, and from each I took away things I didn’t know before, as well as a host of new friends. Frankly for me, networking is one of the best reasons for attending conferences. I love meeting other writers and discussing writing, publishing, reading. These are my peeps!
The two biggies are Bouchercon, held in a different city every year, and Thrillerfest, held in New York City every year. Both get well over 1,000 attendees. I chose to attend Thrillerfest this year, leaving Bouchercon for 2018. Thrillerfest is the most expensive con of the bunch, plus Manhattan is a pricey destination, which is something to keep in mind. But this is the place for networking and there’s plenty of opportunity to mingle with the biggest names in the business from Lee Child to Lisa Gardner. Thrillerfest also hosts a separate event, Pitchfest, which attracts a ton of top agents and editors, a key advantage to being in the center of the publishing industry.
There are also a host of smaller regional conferences, usually sponsored by local chapters of the Mystery Writers of America and/or Sisters in Crime. These typically attract 200-300 attendees, including published and aspiring authors as well as fans, and cost in the range of $200 to $350. Most offer authors a chance to participate as panelists and to sell and sign their books in the con bookshop. This makes them great promotional vehicles if you’ve got a new book out or are simply seeking exposure.
However, cons have different requirements for panelists so that may affect where you choose to go if promotion is your goal. Sleuthfest, held around Florida, for example, requires panelists to be published by approved publishers. Killer Nashville is friendly to independent and pre-published writers while New England Crimebake in Boston does not allow authors to request panels and selects its own. Magna cum Murder in Indianapolis, California Crime Writers Conference, held biannually in Los Angeles, and Left Coast Crime, offered in a different western city every year, generally offer authors panel spots.
Another factor to look at is the con’s subgenre emphasis. Malice Domestic, held annually in Bethesda, Maryland, is geared to cozies and traditional mysteries while Thrillerfest is as its name suggests.
Finally, you may choose a particular conference simply because it’s in a place you want to visit or where you have friends or family. Whichever conference you choose, you can save by planning well in advance and taking advantage of early bird prices, which usually start the year before. Another cost-cutting tip: you can stay in less expensive hotels, or AirBnBs, or with friends and Uber back and forth. I’m already looking forward to my next conference in 2018!
Christina Hoag is a former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press who’s been threatened by a murderer’s girlfriend, had her laptop searched by Colombian guerrillas and phone tapped in Venezuela, hidden under a car to evade Guatemalan soldiers, posed as a nun to get inside a Caracas jail, interviewed gang members, bank robbers, thieves and thugs in prisons, shantytowns and slums, not to forget billionaires and presidents, some of whom fall into the previous categories. Her noir crime novel Skin of Tattoos (Martin Brown Publishing, 2016) was a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for suspense, while her thriller Girl on the Brink (Fire and Ice YA, 2016) was named to Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2016 YA list. She also writes nonfiction, co-authoring Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence (Turner Publishing, 2014. Christina makes her home in Los Angeles and lives on the web at www.christinahoag.com.
Her novel Skin of Tattoos is available at Amazon
When Cyco Lokos gang member Magdaleno (Mags) Argueta comes home to Los Angeles after serving prison time for a robbery, he wants nothing more than to start a new life. However, there’s one obstacle he has to overcome first…his old life.
Mags tries to let go of his bitterness–he was framed by Rico, the new leader of the Cyco Lokos–and stay out of gang life for the sake of his Salvadoran immigrant family and his girlfriend Paloma, but trying to integrate into society after a stint in prison doesn’t come easily. Faced with low job prospects and Rico’s demands to help the Cyco Lokos make money, a broke and disillusioned Mags makes the only choice he can. However, Mags soon discovers that loyalties have shifted, including his, and being a part of the Cyco Lokos with Rico in charge is far more dangerous and uncertain than it used to be. With his sister pregnant by a rival gang member and his own relationship with Paloma, his best friend’s sister, a violation of gang code, Mags becomes caught in a web of secrets, revenge, lies, and murder that might ultimately cost him everything.
Suspense arises from our readers anticipation of what’s about to occur. They worry, even fear, what will happen to the characters they love.
To build suspense, we need to raise our readers concern over how our POV characters’ plans can go array. Ever hear this comment when talking books with a friend? Nothing really happened so I stopped reading. I’ve put down numerous books for the same reason, and some by authors who are household names, authors who should know better. But that’s the thing about suspense. It’s not easy to hold our readers hostage for 300 pages. By employing the following techniques we have a better shot of grabbing them by the throat. Then it’s just a matter of not letting go.
“Show that something terrible is about to happen, then postpone the resolution to sustain the suspense.” ~ Writer’s Digest
Every book makes a promise to the reader. The difference between concept and premise is, something happens to the main POV characters that disrupts their lives. If you’re not familiar with the difference between concept and premise, there’s no one better to learn from than Larry Brooks. He has several posts on the subject, including this 3-minute workshop video.
Rather than asking yourself, “What should happen next?” Try: “What can I promise that’ll go wrong? Problems that will bring my characters to their knees.”
The central dramatic story question promises an intriguing quest.
By making promise after promise, we keep our readers engaged. Don’t tell the reader, of course. Instead, hint at the trouble to come; tease the reader into ﬁnding out. Do it right away, too. We need to establish our CDSQ on page one. If we can accomplish it in the ﬁrst paragraph, all the better.
Every promise, no matter how minor, should either setup or pay off a future scene. Once a promise is paid, make another. The largest promises, like the central dramatic story question, should be paid off in the climax.
For an example of a CDSQ, let’s look at Wings of Mayhem.
After unknowingly stealing his trophy box, can Shawnee Daniels a forensic police hacker by day; cat burglar by night, stop the serial killer who’s destroying her life before he murders everyone she loves?
If your story drags, it’s often due to the lack of tension and/or suspense. In other words, you haven’t made your reader worry enough. How can we ﬁx a dragging plot? By making bigger, more important, promises. Promises that will devastate our hero and secondary characters. Promises they might never recover from.
Don’t Give Away Too Much Too Soon
This is a story killer. Don’t explain what’s happening, or why. Trust the reader to ﬁgure it out on their own. I realize it’s not always easy. After all, we know what will happen next (at least we should), and we can hardly wait for the reader to ﬁnd out.
Trust me on this. Keep it to yourself for as long as possible.
No info. dumps! Just because we know our characters’ backgrounds does not mean our readers need to know it. Share what’s relevant to the story, or enough about the POV characters so the reader canÂ empathize with them. Sprinkle the information throughout the story rather than dumping it all at once.
“To create powerful suspense, make your hero face her greatest fear, and risk losing the thing that matters most to her.” ~ Dan Brown
No matter how we try to build suspense, if our readers don’t care about our characters, we’re sunk. Contrary to belief, the reader doesn’t have to like our characters, but they do need to empathize with them. That’s the key word: empathy.
For three-dimensional characters, we need to know their backgrounds, ﬂaws, world views, religious beliefs, causes they support/protest, fears, concerns, mannerisms, dialect, profession, childhood, history with other characters, how they look, how they act in difﬁcult situations, how they dress, nervous tics, scars, tattoos, favorite music, food, I could go on and on. We don’t need to show all these things, but we do need to know our characters as well as ourselves in order to slip into their skin.
To build suspense the character must have goals that really matter to them. What does she want it, and why? What happens if she doesn’t get it? What’s standing in her way? A strong hero needs a strong opponent. If our character is more timid, then we better make sure she desperately needs to achieve her goal. If she doesn’t do X, then Y will happen. Y is bad. The reader doesn’t want Y to happen. Hence, they stiffen up and pay attention. Bam! You’ve just built suspense.
Violence, Where and When?
I love this quote from Brian Klems, because it’s so true. The act of violence isn’t suspenseful. The snapping of twigs as our character stumbles through the darkened forest, knowing the killer could attack at any moment is suspenseful. Or the squeaky ﬂoorboard on the second ﬂoor when the character is home alone. The phone ringing in the middle of the night. A knock at the one door the character never uses. Footfalls gaining on the character when they’ve wandered off the hiking trail. Tires screeching around the corner, the headlights appearing in the rear view mirror seconds later. The click of a shotgun in the deadly quiet milieu. A single ﬂame that shoots from the tip of a lighter in the dark. The possibilities are endless.
Our sentence rhythm should match the reader’s emotion. Many of us do this automatically. Ever notice when you’re writing a suspenseful scene how you’ll pound the keyboard? When you’re slowing the pace, your ﬁngers glide over the keys. Same holds true for sentence rhythm. Fragmented, staccato sentences quicken the pace. Long, run-on sentences tend to slow it down. As with most things in writing, though, there’s an exception. You can use run-ons to increase suspense if you vary the sentences with shorter ones.
Example from MARRED:
Adrenaline masked my pain, and I sprinted from room to room, closed and secured all the windows and double-checked the locks on the front and back doors, bolted upstairs, and pressed my foot on the sliders’ security bar. Colt and Ruger watched me zip around the house, not knowing what was wrong. Ruger gave up and laid his head on crossed paws while Colt bounded over and stayed on my heels.
When I returned to the kitchen table, the phone rang again. My gaze locked on the handset, and I froze. Colt’s face ping-ponged between me and the phone. He put the pieces together in his mind, trotted over, and knocked the receiver off the cradle, gently clasped the handset in his lips and carried it to me. By using his training to aid me, he was trying to help, but at that moment, it was the last thing I wanted him to do.
I didn’t speak.
Mix staccato and fragmented sentences with longer sentences to create an overall effect of balance and maintain rhythm in your writing. Is every sentence in the scene the same length? The reader will fall asleep.
Scene and Sequel Structure and Motivation-Reaction Units
Start Late, End Early
Start each scene with a story question, intrigue, or conﬂict. Our goal is to arouse the curiosity of our reader. Keep them guessing. (Start late) If we make it easy on them, and answer all their questions at once, there’s no reason for them to keep reading.
We can’t wrap up our scene in a nice little bow, either. That’ll undo everything we’ve worked so hard to accomplish, to hook them in the ﬁrst place. Rather, end on a note of uncertainty, or with a new challenge. (End early)
Scene Cuts or Jump Cuts
This is a cinematic technique that can work in any genre. Create a series of short, unresolved incidents that occur in rapid succession. Stop at a critical point and jump to a different scene, maybe at a different time and place, maybe with different characters. For example, we could pick up a scene where we left off earlier. Or switch from protagonist to antagonist. Or from one tense scene to another. Rapid alternations keep the reader in a state of suspense.
Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment tension that keeps readers in suspense over what’ll happen in the next second. The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maas is a fantastic resource that discusses micro-tension. When the emotional friction between characters reaches a boiling point we’ve built suspense. Keep in mind, the characters don’t have to be enemies. Husband and wife. Tension between partners. Parent and child. Micro-tension is added in numerous ways. An easy way is with dialogue.
Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writer, Sue Coletta is a bestselling, award-winning author of psychological thriller/mysteries. In 2017, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Sue’s also the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project. She’s also a proud member of the Kill Zone, where she blogs every other Monday. Learn more about Sue and her books at
ON BECOMING JESSICA FLETCHER
I got the call from my agent on a Sunday afternoon last May.
“Don Bain isn’t well,” he said, referring to another client who’d penned all 46 titles in the Murder, She Wrote series. “He’s not going to be able to write the MURDER SHE WROTE books anymore. Would you be interested in taking the series over?”
It took me all of two seconds to respond. “Absolutely,” I said.
Of course, at that point I had no idea what I was in for because I’d never read a single book in the series, although I was a huge fan of the spectacularly successful television show on which they were based. I’d also never written in first person, much less from the viewpoint of a woman in her 60s. As a thriller author, I’d also never written a mystery, never mind a cozy.
Go figure, right?
But this isn’t a market to look a gift horse in the mouth. The opportunity was too great to pass up and I proceeded to craft a compelling argument to Don Bain, who I knew and greatly respected as a writer, that I was the right author to replace him, even though I couldn’t be sure at that point I was.
Fast forward almost a year . . . My first effort, A Date with Murder, will be published May 1 and response so far has been astoundingly positive. And I just turned in my second book writing as Jessica Fletcher, Manuscript for Murder, which is slated for publication in November. What’s happened in between has been among the best, and most fortuitous, experiences of my entire career.
How exactly, though, does a long-time, hardcore thriller author transition to softer mysteries with a far lower body count and when the country or even the world are not at stake?
Glad you asked! Fortunately, Don had worked with his grandson Zach, who’d become a crucial collaborator for me, on the first 60 or so pages of A Date with Murder. Enough to give me a notion as to the story and, more importantly, a direct link to Jessica’s voice. Finding that voice myself, in my own head, became the first challenge. But it was one that came to me with surprising ease and in true organic fashion. Getting into Jessica’s head became as simple as channeling Angela Lansbury from the classic TV show. I pictured her behind every page, speaking every line.
My mother was also a fan of the show and she plays a big part in all this too, thanks to her subscribing to the Mystery Guild, a book club that provided front list titles in special editions. So our bookshelves were full of classic titles by Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Earl Stanley Gardner, Ed McBain and many more, and in my early teens I devoured more of them than I can count. I can still remember some of those tales and I decided in writing the MURDER, SHE WROTE series that I’d try to recapture the same feeling I got in reading them.
No easy task, given the fact that Jessica Fletcher is almost without question America’s most famous (amateur) detective. More well-known than Hercule Poirot, Perry Mason and maybe even Sherlock Holmes, never mind the slew of wonderful modern-day sorts from Robert Parker’s Spenser to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone to Patricia Cornwall’s Kay Scarpetta. That’s a huge challenge for any writer, much less one used to penning only thrillers.
Meanwhile, finding Jessica’s voice might’ve been my first challenge, but the next one was blending it with my own. My style makes great use of hooks, cliff-hangars, and plot twists—often so many of them you have to stop to catch your breath. Almost overnight, A Date with Murder transformed into a hybrid mystery-thriller. A mystery because Jessica is trying to solve the murder of a trusted friend; thriller because she ends up risking her own life to expose a nefarious plot connected to a sinister Internet dating service. I wasn’t going too far out on a limb because Don Bain’s books had often cast her in the role of crusader, solving a murder that hits close to home.
I went into the series knowing that first and foremost I needed to capture the series’ core audience that loves the bucolic setting of Cabot Cove and the regular, established cast of characters Jessica interacts with and plays off of. For the dialogue, I relied on the quick, tart and witty exchanges between Angela Lansbury and the late, great Jerry Orbach as Harry McGraw or Ron Masak as Sheriff Mort Metzger. I wasn’t out to reinvent the wheel, you see, just make it churn a little faster. I’m not sure what was more amazing: How swiftly I took to the process or how naturally Jessica’s words and thoughts started to flow for me.
I wanted to make the series mine, put my stamp on it. But MURDER, SHE WROTE doesn’t belong to me and never will. It belongs to the tens of millions of readers and viewers who’ve come to cherish the stories, watching or reading them over and over again while trying to keep up with Jessica Fletcher. Like all great fictional heroes, she’s timeless, ageless, eternal. After me, someone else no doubt will take the reins of this series. While they’re in my hands, though, I’m grateful for the opportunity enjoy the ride at the same time I give you and all readers the best one I can.
So is A Date with Murder a cozy, a mystery, a thriller? You know, I’m not sure. I do know that I had a blast writing it and here’s hoping you have a blast reading it.
Since his first book was published in 1983, Jon Land has written twenty-eight novels, seventeen of which have appeared on national bestseller lists. He began writing technothrillers before Tom Clancy put them in vogue, and his strong prose, easy characterization, and commitment to technical accuracy have made him a pillar of the genre.
Land spent his college years at Brown University, where he convinced the faculty to let him attempt writing a thriller as his senior honors thesis. Four years later, his first novel, The Doomsday Spiral, appeared in print. In the last years of the Cold War, he found a place writing chilling portrayals of threats to the United States, and of the men and women who operated undercover and outside the law to maintain U.S. security. His most successful of those novels were the nine starring Blaine McCracken, a rogue CIA agent and former Green Beret with the skills of James Bond but none of the Englishman’s tact.
In 1998 Land published the first novel in his Ben and Danielle series, comprised of fast-paced thrillers whose heroes, a Detroit cop and an Israeli detective, work together to protect the Holy Land, falling in love in the process. He has written seven of these so far. The most recent, The Last Prophecy, was released in 2004.
Recently, RT Book Reviews gave Jon a special prize for pioneering genre fiction, and his short story “Killing Time” was shortlisted for the 2010 Dagger Award for best short fiction and included in 2010’s The Best American Mystery Stories. Land is currently writing Blood Strong, his fourth novel to feature Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong—a female hero in a genre which, Land has said, has too few of them. The second book in the series, Strong Justice (2010), was named a Top Thriller of the Year by Library Journal and runner-up for Best Novel of the Year by the New England Book Festival. The third, Strong at the Break, will be released this year, and the fourth, Blood Strong, will follow in 2012. His first nonfiction book, Betrayal, written with Robert Fitzpatrick, tells the behind-the-scenes story of a deputy FBI chief attempting to bring down Boston crime lord Whitey Bulger, and will also be released in 2011.
Writer’s Block: Can You Use it as a Tool?
Writing is both fulfilling and frustrating. There are days, that no matter how much I want and need to make progress on a book, I am unable to put words on the page. Or, if I do force myself to write, every word feels wrong. I know I’ll be deleting most of them the next day.
When I first starting writing, this terrified me. But over the past ten years, I’ve learned that writer’s block is my subconscious telling me that something has gone wrong in my book. There a plot hole issue or a problem with a character arc. I need to back up and reassess.
I often will go back to the beginning and read the entire manuscript. So that I don’t feel as if I’m wasting time, I use this time to edit. When I return to the stopping point, sometimes I’ve recognized the problem and put the book back on track. If I’m still stuck, I reach out to a writer friend and talk through the issue.
So next time you’re struggling with writer’s block, give your WIP a good edit. Reassess your plot, make sure your characters are following their arcs, and then reach out to a friend to talk about why you’re having trouble. It’s possible your story has wandered off course and needs to be redirected.
Amazon Charts and Wall Street Journal bestselling author Melinda Leigh is a fully recovered banker. A life-long lover of books, she started writing as a way to preserve her sanity while raising her kids. Over the next few years, she learned a few things about writing a book. The process was much more fun than analyzing financial statements, and she decided to turn her hobby into a career. Melinda’s debut novel, SHE CAN RUN, was nominated for Best First Novel by the International Thriller Writers. She is a RITA® Award Finalist and has earned three Daphne du Maurier Award nominations, Two Silver Falchion Awards, and Two Golden Leaf Awards.
Melinda holds a 2nd degree belt in Kenpo Karate. She’s dabbled in Arnis stick fighting, studied Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and taught women’s self-defense. She lives in a messy house in the suburbs with her husband, two kids, a couple of shelter dogs and two rescue cats who clearly run the show. With such a pleasant life, she has no explanation for the sometimes dark and disturbing nature of her imagination. Find out more about Melinda by visiting melindaleigh.com.
Writing, Rewriting, and Craft
By Elena Hartwell
As a novelist and playwright, I’m often asked where I get my ideas. Almost every writer I know gets this question, and I think we all feel the same. Ideas are never the problem. That’s the easy part. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The hard part, the magic part, is turning the idea into a polished, final manuscript.
The writing process varies wildly from author to author. Some write extensive, detailed outlines. Others sit down with an idea and write scenes on the fly. A number of writers fall somewhere in between, while they may not outline, neither do they sit down and write completely organically. They might write a synopsis or outline a chapter in advance.
The various combinations of these methods all work, depending on the writer and the project. There is no “wrong” way to write a novel. The “how” a writer works isn’t why their manuscript sells or doesn’t sell. The primary reason an author’s work has not yet sold is a lack of craft.
People who lack craft skills rarely sit down to write a novel. Or if they do, they can start, but never finish. Or if they do finish, they don’t rewrite. Or if they do rewrite, they quit after a single pass. Or, if they do continue to rewrite, they aren’t aware enough of craft to recognize the flaws in their own work. You get the picture. The problem is the writer stops too soon.
As a writing coach—I do one-on- one manuscript critiques as well as teaching workshops—there are some fundamental issues I see repeated in early drafts, over and over. These same issues show up in my own work, and probably on some level, in the early drafts of every writer out there. So the first thing aspiring writers can do to increase their chances of writing a successful manuscript, is learn how to identify these problems.
The first is a lack of clear objectives, obstacles, and stakes. It’s not enough to have a dead body to write a mystery. Someone has to investigate the murder. The person investigating the murder has to need to solve the crime. If they don’t need to solve the crime (objective) there’s no tension about the investigation. If the solution doesn’t matter to the investigator, it won’t matter to the reader.
The sleuth also can’t solve the crime easily, that’s not dramatic. Various impediments (obstacles) have to appear, one after the other, to prevent the protagonist from catching the killer. The more the investigator has to overcome, the more satisfying to the reader when they do.
Lastly, it has to matter (stakes). For example, the protagonist with an internal struggle, coinciding with their investigation, is far more interesting than someone who simply goes through the motions of solving a crime.
The more important solving the case is to the protagonist, the more dangerous or difficult the journey, and the greater the importance to find the guilty party, the more invested a reader will be. That’s what keeps a reader turning pages.
Complex protagonists will also have personal objectives, obstacles, and stakes to go along with their investigation. For example, a crumbling marriage, a child in danger, or overcoming an addiction are common tropes within the genre. When we know an investigator has to choose between catching a killer and saving their marriage, the stakes are high and we breathlessly turn each page waiting to see what the character chooses.
Another common error I find is a lack of structure. All stories have an underpinning structure. While there are variations to that structure, for the most part, especially in crime fiction, we start with the world as we know it, which is disrupted by a specific event, followed by rising action, where events pile one on top the other, each more important than the one that went before. This ends with a climactic scene, with the maximum danger to our hero or heroine, followed by a glimpse into the new world order for our characters.
If any of these parts are missing, the story can feel unfinished. For example, if we don’t have some sense of what the character’s life was before the intrusion, we don’t know what they are putting at risk. The “world before” can often be well hidden, it might not appear in the first chapter, but later in reflections the character makes as the story progresses, but usually a reader can identify it if they look for it.
The middle of a manuscript might falter if a lot of exciting things happen at the beginning, then nothing exciting follows. Rising action is important, because it builds dramatic tension, making it impossible to put the book down.
Lastly, an ending can feel unsatisfying if we have no sense of the outcome. Readers don’t need everything tied up in a bow, but they do want the primary threads to be resolved enough to know what the character’s lives will be like after they read “the end.”
Dialogue can also be difficult to master. One of the most common problems I see is when authors have their characters say exactly what they feel and exactly what they mean. That doesn’t ring true. People lie all the time. We lie because it’s expedient, it benefits us in some way, it keeps us from hurting others, or we don’t want to get in trouble. We rarely say what we mean, we obfuscate, we dither, we agree out loud when disagreeing feels like a mistake. Dialogue works best when each character speaks distinctly from the others, through word choice, sentence length, grammatical accuracy, and the use of slang.
If a writer can identify just these specific problem areas in their own writing, their next draft will be a much tighter, more polished manuscript. It can feel overwhelming to try to identify and fix all the issues I’ve outlined at one time. My recommendation for writers is to choose one aspect and rewrite just for that. Heighten the stakes in one rewrite. Focus solely on dialogue for the next. Breaking down the process into smaller chunks can make each rewrite a more successful venture. This will help the writer get through a series of rewrites rather than attempting one and feeling like the mountain is too high to climb. My final piece of advice. Don’t give up. That’s the only difference between a published author and an unpublished one.
Elena Hartwell was born in Bogota, Colombia, while her parents were in the Peace Corps. Her first word was “cuidado.” At the age of nine months, she told two men carrying a heavy table to be careful in their native tongue. She’s been telling people what to do ever since. After almost twenty years in the theater, Elena turned her playwriting skills to novels and the result is her first book “One Dead, Two to Go,” followed by “Two Heads Are Deader Than One.” “Three Strikes, You’re Dead.” For more information on Elena, please visit elenahartwell.com or like her Facebook Page ElenaHartwell/Author. You may get to see cute pictures of her dog and her horses.
I had opportunity to ask a few questions from one of my favorite authors and storytellers, Steven James. If you haven’t heard of Steve yet; he’s the critically acclaimed author of the Patrick Bowers Files, the Blur Trilogy, the Jevin Banks series, as well as books on the writing craft.
Steven James also teams up with another Bestselling author, Robert Dugoni, who both are instructors at the Novel Writing Intensive Retreat.
From your recent interviews on the Storyblender which things have stood out to you? Or what have you learned?
A couple of moments pop to mind. When I was interviewing Sandra Brown, she mentioned asking herself the question “What do I know that readers don’t?” and, I believe, in her book she tries only to reveal this on the last page. I thought that was a great question to ask. When I spoke with Hollywood producer Steve La Rue, I asked him who was the main character in the X Files, one of the shows that he championed. He told me that it was Scully because she’s the one who’s transformed throughout the series. This is something that I had believed myself and it was informative to have him confirm it. It’s hard to choose, as our guests have been wonderful, and the interviews are always informative, not just to listeners but also to me.