Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Getting over the block

By Joe Moore

I don’t believe in writer’s block. The reason is twofold. First, I’m a professional writer; my job is to come up with ideas. I’ve never heard of a mechanic suffering from mechanic’s block or a doctor suffering from doctor’s block. When I’m faced with an issue in my story, I come up with a solution. That’s part of being a writer.

writers-blockSecond, when I do get writer’s block, I turn to my co-writer for the answer. OK, so the second reason is not something every writer has to fall back on. Lucky me.

I think that writer’s block is about being stuck with coming up with ideas, not words. If I can’t come up with the words, I’m in serious trouble. It’s like that mechanic saying he can’t come up with the correct wrench. A master mechanic has a kit full of tools (words); his job is to come up with the correct procedure to fix a problem.

So writer’s block is really a matter of a writer getting stuck for whatever reason. It’s frustrating but not a show-stopper.

First, you need to focus on why you’re stuck.

The most common form of writer’s block is not knowing what happens next. This is basically a plotting issue. The solution can be found in 5 words: What does the protagonist want? If you backtrack to the last point in the story that it was clear what motivated the protagonist’s actions and how it drove the story forward, the answer to what happens next will usually be revealed. Think about the story question. Did you stray from the process of answering it? Chances are you created a scene that does not contribute directly or indirectly in answering the main story question—the big conflict. Starting a rewrite from that point will usually get you back on track.

Another common issue that will derail your story is facing the dilemma of why anything matters. Who cares? This usually deals with the question: What’s at stake. Whether it’s an internal or external struggle, the protagonist must realize that fighting the fight is worth it. If she loses, what’s at stake? What does she stand to lose? If it’s a high concept thriller, what does the community, country, or civilization stand to lose? Reexamining the stakes can help to put you back on course.

A third issue in suffering from writer’s block is facing the crippling question: Is this story logical? In other words, why would it even happen? You might have a really cool idea, but the reality is that no sane person would follow the path laid out by the plot. It’s just not something the reader would buy into. If this is the case, rethink the story in terms of how it relates to HUMAN BEINGS. Don’t get me wrong. Even the most outrageous science fiction or horror stories still have to relate to human emotions and logic. Otherwise, they become 2-dimensional. If your story is so out there that the average reader can’t relate, try reexamining the human aspects of it. Many writers including me believe that there are only two emotions in the world: love and hate. If your story lacks either, then it becomes hard if not impossible to sell the reader on an outrageous, illogical plot. And writer’s block raises its ugly head.

How about you, my Zoner friends. How do you overcome writer’s block?


Coming soon: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore

“THE SHIELD rocks on all cylinders.” ~ James Rollins, NYT bestselling author of THE EYE OF GOD.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Overdoing the fear factor in real life?

As writers and readers, we love to experience a sense of fear. But it's a different story living in a culture of fear.

We recently moved into a new town, and I immediately noticed how security-conscious the people seem. The email welcoming us to the neighborhood included an attachment with an update on local crimes. There seemed to be a lot of property crime going on. In one incident, a young woman and her father had interrupted a burglary. The intruders tied them up and held them both at gunpoint for hours.

After reading that report, I started getting more interested in the notion of home security. First I made sure we'd covered all the the standard bases of crime prevention--keeping property lights on, having a dog, never leaving doors or windows unlocked. Our alarm system was obsolete, so I met with a series of security consultants from various alarm companies.

That's when I began to go overboard. We needed motion detectors, I decided, plus interior and exterior video surveillance. (If someone burgles our house, by golly I want to see the guy so I can identify him.) 

So now our house is bristling with cutting edge, high-tech security gear. We have a video monitor that lets us see various angles of the property. At night, the displays are infrared. (So far the only intruder we've caught is our male cat on the prowl for a midnight treat.) We even have panic buttons on our key fobs.

Now I'm thinking I went too far with the whole security thing. I've become a regular listener to the police scanner frequency. Then there are all the alerts. Our system lets me know whenever someone approaches our front gate. It also alerts me whenever a bird,  butterfly, or errant leaf passes by. I'm collecting an impressive video library of local wildlife.
MacGregor, fearsome watchdog.

Does the new system make us feel more secure? For me, it's had the opposite effect. Putting in all these security contraptions has actually made feel more vulnerable. It's illogical, but I felt safer in my previous state of uninformed bliss.  

But for now, woe unto any Luna moth who strays across our portal after dark. He better smile for that camera.
"Do you feel lucky, Moth?"
Do you live in a culture of fear? Or do you still have that lovely sense of being immune from danger as you go about your daily life? I wish I had that back.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Agents - the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Recently Nathan Bransford posted a piece entitled "8 ways to know if you have a good agent" (if you want to read it, here's the link). Given Jodie's post last week on unethical freelance editors, I thought it might be timely to re-examine what makes a good (and bad) agent.

Nathan provides a list of things to consider when choosing an agent (or, if you have concerns about your current agent, a list to consider when evaluating whether these are justified). Basically he says that your agent should:

  • Have a proven track record of sales and/or works for a reputable agency
  • Be a good communicator (meaning he/she should reply in a reasonable time to emails and doesn't dodge or hide)
  • Either live in New York or visit on a regular basis
  • Be able to explain every question you have about your contract or your royalty statements
  • Be completely ethical in how they approach their job (and they should advise you to behave ethically)
  • Pay you on time and send you contracts in a timely fashion
  • Charge you a commission of 15% on domestic contracts, 20% on foreign contracts and deduct very transparently for reasonable expenses like postage and copying
  • Be someone you feel comfortable with (i.e. you should be able to trust and feel good about your agent - going with your gut is key).

Most of the items on the list are pretty self-explanatory (though I've included clarifications where needed) but they also underscore the need for writers to research an agent before agreeing to receive representation. Given the number of issues regarding unethical freelance editors highlighted by Jodie in her post last Monday, I wonder how many writers are now falling prey to more unethical agent behaviour. 

To the last item on Nathan's list (feeling comfortable with your agent), I would add that this doesn't necessarily mean feeling warm and fuzzy all the time. I feel like trusting and being comfortable with your agent means that you not only know that they will champion you and your work but that they will also be your  best (and sometimes harshest) critic. I don't want an agent who is happy to send out just any old material - I want someone who keeps me on the top of my game and who provides editorial input on how to make a manuscript the very best it can be, before it goes out to publishers.

Just as Jodie pointed out when looking for a freelance editor, there are similar pitfalls when searching for an agent. I can't stress enough that you have to do your homework. As with anything, there are many predators out there more than willing to take your money for very little in return (and who can easily hang out their shingle on the internet based on fraudulent claims/testimonials).

So what do you think of Nathan's list? Is there anything you would take issue with, or add? How have you approached the issue of researching agents? Have you discovered any further pitfalls that we may not have discussed?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Use Your Noggin To Get Lots of Ideas


Herein is another entry from the unpublished journal of legendary pulp writer William "Wild Bill" Armbrewster. For the previous entry, see here about his initial meeting with the young writer, Benny Wannabe.

The kid came in all freshly scrubbed and smelling of Brylcreem. He had a big stupid smile on his face, like he'd just kissed a cheerleader.
"Well, I'm here, Mr. Armbrewster," he said.
"Don't state the obvious," I said. "You want to be a writer, don't state the obvious. Let the reader figure out things for himself."
I was typing at my usual table at Musso & Frank on Hollywood Boulevard. This was the first "official" meeting between Benny Wannabe, kid writer, and yours truly, William "Wild Bill" Armbrewster, professional scribe.
"Go get me a usual, and a Coke for yourself," I said, handing Benny a fin. I took that time to type out a line for my tough guy, Cliff Hanlon, to say to an embezzling bank president.  "Money may not grow on trees, but it certainly sprouts on your girlfriend's ring finger."
When Benny got back with the liquid, I said, "Where's your notebook?"
"You know, that thing? With pages? To take notes?"
"I don't have one."
I slapped my forehead. "You want to be a writer, don't you?"
"More than anything."
"Then you have to write things down. You've got to observe, and record what you see. Look around the room. Tell me what you observe."
He turned his head like Charlie McCarthy and gave Musso's a quick gander. "People eating," he said.
"Wrong," I said.
He frowned.
"You've got to see more than you see, see?"
He shook his head.
I sighed. "Look over there. See that couple?"
He looked.
"Who are they?" I asked.
"Why, I don't know. I never met them."
"I'll tell you who they are. She's a cigarette girl from the Trocadero. He's a bigshot lawyer from downtown. He's also married. And not to the cigarette girl."
"You know them?" Benny said.
"Never saw 'em before in my life, but that's what I see. And in an hour I can type a story that'll sell to Dime Detective."
"But how?"
I tapped my noggin. "Up here, boy. You've got a muscle between those big pink ears of yours. A brain, with an imagination already included. But you've got to work your imagination, like it was training for a distance race. You've got to run it around the track, every day. Do that, and it'll get stronger."
"Now look at the corner over there. What do you see?"
He looked at the big man with a napkin stuffed in his shirt, giving the business to a steak.
"A big man eating a steak," Benny said.
"Try again."
"Try, Benny, try. Look at him. What do you see?"
Little furrows appeared on Benny's forehead. He kept looking. That gave me time to give the business to my Martini.
Finally, he said, "Maybe he's a policeman."
"Good, Benny, good! Keep going."
"What kind of cop?"
"A...big one?"
"Think! Why is here?"
"Because he's hungry?"
"I'm going to need another drink."
"Wait...let me see...he's off duty."
"That would explain the suit. But why here, at Musso's?"
"He likes the food?"
"Come on, kid, don't make me despair of life! What's strange about a cop, on a cop's salary, eating a steak at Musso & Frank?"
"It's expensive!"
"Ah ha! And what kind of cop can afford an expensive steak?"
"A cop who..."
"Come on, you can do it."
"A cop who is..."
"Getting money on the side?"
I slapped the table. "That's it! Benny, my lad, you've done it! Now keep that imagination whirling. Where would side money come from?"
"Why, from...bribes."
"Yes! What else?"
"Benny, I think I'm gonna cry. You see what you're doing? You're starting from absolute scratch, and you're thinking up a character and several possible story situations. You know what that's called?"
"Making stuff up! And that's all this writing game is, boy. We make stuff up, and we jot down the ideas, and then we pick the best ideas and make a story out of 'em. And we do that over and over and over again, until we die."
"In fact, I take half an hour every week just to let my imagination run free. I make up opening lines without knowing anything else. I write down as many ways as I can think of for people to get murdered. I can look at the front page of a newspaper and come up with five or ten great plot ideas on the spot."
"I write 'em all down, without judging any or them. Only later do I look at the ideas and pick out the most promising ones. I put these in a file for further development. In short, my lad, I am never without something to write."
"Benny, you've become positively monosyllabic. So here's what you do. Run over to Newberry's and get a notebook and some pencils. I want you to spend half an hour every day writing down ideas. I want you to go down to Pershing Square and watch people. Make up situations on a dozen people you see there. Go to Echo Park and the Santa Monica Pier. Look at the people in your rooming house. Each one of 'em is a story waiting to be told. You fill up that notebook and come back here in a week."
"Okay, Mr. Arbrewster!" He stood up. "What are you going to do?"
"Me?" I took the page I was working on out of the typer and set it aside. Then I rolled in a fresh sheet. "I'm going to write about a crooked cop tailing a shyster lawyer who's making time with a cigarette girl."
Benny just stood there, smiling.
"Who deep sixes a kid without a notebook. Now get going!"

Are you intentional about getting ideas? Do you have a regular creativity time? Do you have a file for all your ideas, and another file where you develop the best ones?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Movie Was Okay, but the Book...

My wife went to the movies with a church group last week and saw Noah. When asked how it was, she responded, “Not bad. But the book was better!” How many times have those of us who love to read told someone that? I can remember the first time I did. I was in third grade, in 1959, and a film version of Jules Verne’s JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH was all the rage. It starred Pat Boone as Alec (who, in the book, was named, uh, “Axel”) and was great. It wasn’t however, as good as the book. And so it usually goes. Reading requires that the reader use their imagination, even when the character is described to a crossed-t. My idea of what Jack Reacher looks like isn’t going to match yours, or, apparently, Christopher McQuarrie’s. That’s fine; it’s neither the best nor the worst example. Sometimes the reader --- me, in this case --- is wrong; I never imagined Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark and thought casting him in Iron Man would cause the film to be a dud. Wrong. He was perfect.
I’ve been thinking about this because my younger daughter is in the middle of a short film project for her Photography class and has chosen to adapt a Kurt Vonnegut short story.  She is soldiering on in spite of all sorts of difficulties: the weather isn’t cooperating; her original choice for the male lead had a hissy fit and backed out (D.R., you’re on a Father’s List. Just so you know); she couldn’t quite get the equipment she wanted. She’ll get it done, and it will be good --- great actually --- but she is shooting as close to the story, word for word, as the medium will permit. We’ll see how it all works out.
All of this leads to my question for you, which is: what is your favorite film adaptation of a novel? I have a few: my friends might be surprised when I list the adaptation of Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, but and might not be when I mention Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. The one that really did it for me, however, was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep --- the first one, directed by Howard Hawks --- which I watched one summer morning on television when I was six years old and which planted the seed of love of detective fiction in my brain, long before I discovered The Hardy Boys or ever saw the knowing leer of Shell Scott on the cover of a Gold Medal paperback.  What’s yours? And if you wish, please tell us why.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Reader Friday: Your Favorite Thriller Sub-genre?

What is your favorite thriller sub-genre? Legal thriller? Female in jeopardy?  Psychological or techno thriller? What would be the best example of your favorite sub-genre?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Kill Thoughtfully

By Elaine Viets   

    In my first mystery, “Backstab,” I had a character named Lee the Rehabber. I killed him. In fact, in that book I slaughtered folks like a serial killer on a rampage.
    Then I had to write the second book in the series. That’s when I discovered I needed Lee again. He was smart, funny and city savvy.
    Too bad he was dead. Not only dead but autopsied. I had to come up with another character, and he wasn’t as good as Lee.  
    That taught me a lesson about writing a series – kill wisely and with restraint.
    I also learned not to nail down the family details. In my Dead-End Job series, Helen’s father is dead. She has a disapproving mother and a younger sister. But how many uncles, aunts and cousins does she have?
    I’m not sure. I just finished my 13th Dead-End Job mystery and I may need a long-lost relative.

    One of my friends discovered she had a half sister. Her mother – a homemaker –  confessed that she’d had an unwanted teenage pregnancy and given the baby up for adoption. Forty years later, Mom broke the news to her bewildered daughter. My friend went to meet her half-sister at her mother’s insistence. She decided the woman was nice enough, but the only thing they have in common is DNA. They may exchange Christmas cards, but they’re not going to be best pals.

    I tucked away that tidbit for future reference.
    I was equally vague with Phil Sagemont’s past. He’s Helen’s PI husband, and he has an ex-wife named Kendra, but that’s all we know about him. Phil’s extended family could be useful for future mysteries.
    I was really glad I never made up my mind whether Margery Flax, Helen and Phil’s seventy-six year old landlady at the Coronado Tropic Apartments, was married or divorced and if her husband was dead or alive. Helen and Phil weren’t sure either. The two private eyes noticed Margery never displayed any photos of her husband, but felt they had no right to investigate a friend.
    Good thing I kept Margery’s marital status vague. In “Catnapped!,” my 13th Dead-End Job mystery, Margery’s husband walks back into her life. Here’s the scene.

    Helen and Phil barely passed the umbrella table when an older man appeared at the back gate. He didn’t walk up. He seemed to materialize.
Helen stared at him. He was Margery’s match in every way: dramatically handsome with an unconventional edge. Six feet tall, slender, with broad shoulders and thick hair like fine white silk. Blue eyes. So blue Helen could see the color from this distance. He wore Florida dressy casual: crisp, blue fitted shirt, rolled at the forearms, white linen slacks and boat shoes.
    His bouquet of purple flowers belonged in an Impressionist painting.
    “Margery!” he said, striding toward her with the flowers. “Margery, my darling, I’m back.” He knelt at her feet.
    Margery jumped back as if she’d been attacked, and knocked over her chair. Her lit cigarette rolled across the concrete. “You!” she said. Her eyes were fierce with rage.
    “I love you, Margery,” he said. “I always have. I know purple is your favorite color and brought you these.” He held out the bouquet. Helen could see velvety lavender roses, pale fragrant lilacs and star-shaped asters.
    “I don’t want your damned flowers, Zach!” Margery said. She hit him in the face with the heavy bouquet.
    “Get out!” she said. “Get out and don’t come back!”


    But Zach does come back, until he’s murdered and Margery is jailed for killing him. The man’s definitely dead. But this time, I’d killed thoughtfully.

Check out the book trailer for “Catnapped!” here

Enter my contest to win a free Dead-End Job mystery at Just click on Contests.