C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

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Spooky weirdness and the books on my desk

A little story about writing and intuition

Once upon a time, as a healer, I engaged in counselling someone in a spiritual quest to free them from pain. It’s a long story I will not indulge today, but I will say that before each of those appointments, I meditated. I did that then. ow writing is the only meditation I seem to need. Before each of those appointments, I went to my bookshelves. I’ve collected books for years, so I have several thousand waiting to be rediscovered. Each time, one of those books would call to me. I felt a change in energy through my palm as I ran my hand along the shelves. I would then open the book at random…or seemingly at random. Something always arose in the client’s session that related to the passage from the chosen book. The woman I worked with used to be trapped in an electric wheelchair. She walks, drives, travels and lives a full life now. She became a healer and took my place. Make of that what you will.

When I’m stuck or need a nudge or a connection to an epiphany, I still go to my bookshelves. Call it inspiration, weird, or the hypnogogic state, pattern recognition, divine intervention or neural connection through confirmation bias. Call it nonsense if you want. I’m conflicted about it myself. Nevertheless, it worked. It still works. When I need it, that intuition can propel my narratives forward.

I’m now revising one book while writing another. As I survey my extra desk (spreading out is such luxury), there are several piles I either reference or keep close by just to stay on track. I thought you might be interested to know what I pulled from my bookshelves to draw from as I go through my process:

For my crime novel:

The Pool Bible by Nick Metcalfe (as in nine ball), Mobspeak, The Dictionary of Crime Terms (Sifakis), Writing the Private Eye Novel, Cause of Death A writer’s guide to death, murder & forensic medicine (Wilson), How to Write a Mystery (Larry Beinhart), New York City Day by Day and Frommer’s New York City.

For Editing:

The Artful Edit (Susan Bell), The Subversive Copy Editor (Carol Fisher Sailor).

For Inspiration:

Brother (William Goldman), Best American Crime Writing 2003, When the Women Come out to Dance  and The Hot Kid (Elmore Leonard), Small Town (Lawrence Block), This Year You Write Your Novel, (Walter Mosley).

NEXT POST: Pantsing versus Plotting

Filed under: ebooks, Editing, getting it done, My fiction, publishing, What about Chazz?, writing tips, , , , , , , ,

Write your thriller in chapters: 10 tips for greater productivity

There’s no one way to write a novel. I do, however, have ten suggestions to make it go easier and faster:

1. Outline. Have some idea where you’re going and what the destination might be. It’ll save you time doubling back from dead ends. Believe me, I’ve written myself into cul-de-sacs and it’s a time suck no one can afford. (No, you’re not married to the outline and you don’t have to go OCD with the Roman numeral outline you learned in grade eight. I’m trying to increase your productivity and enhance your creativity, not shackle it.)

2. If you outline, you don’t have to write your story in sequence. With an outline, you already have the beats, the bases you have to touch as you tell your story. If you’re not feeling very inspired one day, no big deal. Focus on the high points of your outline on the days you don’t start off “in the mood.” Bonus benefit: you’ll get all your sex scenes written first.

3. Write each chapter as if it’s a short story. Your novel has a beginning, middle and end. So should your chapters. I often see substandard chapters which finish without the pulls of intrigue, a cliffhanger or a bang. Some writers reason that if they make the larger story interesting, they can afford to have a chapter or two that isn’t compelling. It does sound reasonable. It’s also wrong. Tension has one direction: up. There are way too many great books to read (and a million other things to do) so, for many readers, you bore them, you lose them. Sure, you’ve made this sale, but they won’t be burnt again.

4. For each chapter, identify a purpose. If a chapter has no dramatic purpose, drop it. Too often I see manuscripts where the characters are up and moving around, but to no purpose. (When editing, purposeless activity is called “business” as in “busy-ness.” There’s movement, but nothing’s really happening.  A chapter without purpose signals self-indulgence, a writer who got lost for awhile, not enough editing or an author who insisted on a tangent at the expense of the book.

The other common problem? Too much world-building and not enough character. A writer once described to me in excruciating detail about the far out environment of his book. It was a very ethereal place in space with no points of reference between human readers and the gaseous clouds that were his characters. I had to shut him up. He was driving me crazy with exhaustive, pretty detail. “But what’s the story? How is your reader going to relate to that?” Science fiction is about people first. Fantasy is about people first. Stories are all, at their core, about people and the choices they make. Sift your world-building detail in amongst action and character development. Otherwise, it will be unreadable, confusing or the reader won’t care.

Chapters with purpose are compelling and propelling toward an conclusion the reader wants to discover. (But they also want to be fooled, too. So make them say, “Ah, I bet I know what happens next.” Then find a way to surprise them. Read any of William Goldman’s novels to really get this deep into the marrow.)

5. What are the scenes in your chapter and are they in the right sequence? Are you revealing too much early in the story? Are you being too coy with the reader in later chapters? Does the pace pick up as you reach the climax and solve the novel’s core problem? Is it really a surprise (and logical) when you get to that climax?

6. Are you taking shortcuts in logic or logistics? Somewhere in your book there’s a less favorite scene or something that requires more research that, frankly, you don’t want to do. If your heroine is in Paris and your hero is in New York, they can’t meet in the middle of the Atlantic on a train (unless your novel is set in the future or a past that never was, of course.)

Are you missing a bridge to get you from one event to another? This is a logistics problem. Your FBI investigators are in Virginia at Quantico. The kidnapping is in the Pacific Northwest. Do you need a scene of conflict within the team on the private or military jet to get to the crime scene? You may make that transition in just a single sentence or it might be a chapter, but without some acknowledgement of the travel issue, it will be jarring for the reader to have them materialize in Seattle. Time and space and placement of people in relation to each other is something to trip over if you don’t make the effort to handle it logically.

7. Do your chapters fit together? Suppose you have an entire book that takes place, A to B, sequentially over the course of the hottest August in a century. But there’s that one winter scene you’re slipping in with a flashback. Does this puzzle piece fit in with the tone of your other chapters? If not, is there a reason for it? For instance, if your hero needs a look back at an early Christmas morning for the one time he was happy to give him a clue or change of direction, it fits better than an odd chapter that seems plugged in.

8. Is each chapter satisfying? This is a little different from #3, and a larger, more esoteric editorial question. You’ve written each chapter as a short story. That’s fine and can help you face the challenge of writing an entire novel-length manuscript. Now I’m asking, does each chapter feel full? Is it contributing something more to the larger story arc? When all these short stories are cobbled together, will each contribute to a greater whole than the sum of the parts? Is there a richness in description, character and action that will leave the reader satisfied with the effort overall? Is the core problem big enough to bother with a full-length book? Do you force the reader through several hundred pages only to kill off the protagonist (can be done, but often iffy) or worse, find out said protagonist is a lummox they hate? Too often, authors make their obstacles too small, the villains too stupid, the stakes microscopic and the core problem not nearly big enough. You don’t have to save the world on every outing. Maybe you’re just saving one person, but make us care.

9. Does each chapter’s length make sense? When I say “make sense” here, I mean, do you achieve in the chapter what you need to accomplish at an appropriate pace? Chapters don’t have to have a uniform length. Mary Higgins Clarke’s chapters get progressively  shorter as she goes so it feels like a race to the finish. I find I like short chapters as a reader (and as an editor) because I feel like I’m making progress as I go through, marking up the milestones. Short chapters often feel like a breezy  read. As a writer, however, I find my chapters are longer so they have time and space to wind to their conclusion. However, some writers go so short they aren’t providing enough beats within each chapter. I sometimes see underwritten, choppy chapters where action isn’t happening and characters aren’t developing. When that happens, you don’t have a chapter yet. In that case, you probably have the components for scenes within one chapter.

10. Set a schedule. If you use each suggestion here as a guideline, you also have an estimation for how long it will take you to write your novel based in real time.  Since you’re writing your novel as short stories, progressing at a fairly predictable pace, set an end date for the first draft. Make a schedule to get to that date and stick to it.

Follow these guidelines and you’ll make real progress toward your goals. 

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Filed under: Books, Editing, getting it done, publishing, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Writers: The Secret to Writing a Bestseller


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The only thing you can do to ensure

you come at all close to writing a bestseller is:

Write your book!

After that? I hate to disappoint you, but there is no secret.

There is information you should consider, however, like acting on the things you can affect (factors) and refraining from making yourself crazy trying to change things that have a negative effect on you (variables.) 

Don’t focus on variables.

Focus on factors you can control:

1. Write the best book you can.

2. Build your audience (Teach, review, tweet, blog, network, learn, connect etc.,…)

3. Get your book to market (trad or indie publishing—that’s a different post.)

4. Do it again.

You’re going to want to come back to and act on 1 – 4 again and again.

The rest is explication.

I can already hear howls of protest about the title of this post. However, if you get an email from someone claiming they have insider secrets to making your book an instant bestseller, you can safely move on. There are some wacky claims out there, so let’s unpack and debunk.

First off, there are far too many variables that are out of your hands for any one person to direct you to bestsellerdom. In the publishing process there are a lot of variables. All of them have to fall into place for your book to be sold, but even if that were to happen, there are no guarantees your book will climb the charts…even if it’s good.

There are a lot of good books. Sadly, that doesn’t mean we’ve heard of them.

Consider Chuck Palahniuk‘s Fight Club and Choke. They both became movies, but just before it was announced Brad Pitt was going to do the Fight Club movie, I saw it in the remainder bin. They got whipped out of there when his book got the movie deal and the newest hire had to peel off all those stickers that read: Marked Down. The author wrote a great book in Fight Club, but he was headed back to anonymity before the lucky break. (He’s proved his worth since over and over, too; he’s prolific and, weirdly, I even saw a major review that didn’t even mention Fight Club.)

His case is a perfect example of something falling into place that was totally out of the author’s control. If Antonio Sabato Junior had played the role instead of Tyler Durden and Lindsay Lohan had played Marla instead of Helena Bonham-Carter, you would never have heard of Palahniuk’s books (because that’s a lot of stink to overcome.) Antonio was good in the few minutes he was in The Big Hit, but generally, if you see a movie poster with Lindsay and Antonio, you don’t think,  “Ooh, gotta see that!”

The most important reason you can’t just follow set rules and write a bestseller is that what William Goldman said about Hollywood also applies to publishing. “Nobody knows anything.”

That’s why there are sleeper hits. I wandered into Fargo and Highlander, didn’t know what to expect, and was blown away. Margaret Atwood snuck up and surprised me with The Year of the Flood—okay, maybe other people expected great things from Atwood every time, but that’s the book that turned me around on that author. (Can’t wait for the third in the series!)

When manuscripts go up for auction to big publishing houses, acquiring editors bid because they want a hit. Even when books go for big money, that’s no guarantee of great success. In fact, if the author doesn’t earn out that big advance, it’s a very public failure. That blemish on their record hurts authors when they try to sell their next book.

It’s a subjective business. If agents and acquiring editors really knew much beyond their own taste, then every book they bought would sell very well. Look at the bestseller lists. There are only so many spots in the top ten lists. Then look at the book store shelves packed with midlist titles. That’s a lot of books, and those are just the books the stores stock. There are many more books published than ever make it to bookshelves, yet somebody thought each book would earn out its advance.

Nobody’s betting on losers on purpose. The bestsellers are the frontlist. The books that aren’t expected to do as well are the midlist. Midlist authors are still generally expected to earn out their advance, however. Remember: it’s business, not charity.

Hm. Somebody’s going to object that there are exceptions (and, of course, there always are. Can we say much at all without some generalizing?) So I must admit I did know a publisher who bet on losers pretty much exclusively. Maybe he was noble and doing it only for the art (and government grants) or maybe his judgement was just galactically poor. He’s out of business now so no more art. (Last parenthetical, I promise: And if you publish poetry, nothing is frontlist or midlist because no one pubishes poetry expecting to make money.)

Back to the book store: See all those dogs in the remainder bin? Somewhere, someone bet a lot that each one of those books would sell really well.

Some books aren’t a surprise when they do well, but for those books, that’s not the game anymore. When a publisher buys a Sarah Palin book, they aren’t so concerned whether it will sell. Their concern with a book like that is, how much and how fast will it meet higher expectations and sell more? When a book succeeds, the publisher has to time the next printing right and gauge how much promotional money should go into the publicity campaign to push it as far as it can profitably burn.

Publishers concentrate their limited resources on the few books they think will have a shot at bestsellerdom because they will take a loss on most of their catalogue. Some don’t believe it and authors lament it, but publishing is a business. And it’s a business with very small margins.  

Even when publishers get books on the shelf, it’s not even over then. The sell-through is what’s important. Unlike any other business, publishing’s tradition—blame Simon & Schuster—is that books that don’t sell may be returned for credit. It’s a tradition that may eventually be dropped, especially when there are fewer book stores around.

I’m dying here! Give me some good news, Chazz!

Okay. The good news is that when you get rejected, you can take comfort in the knowledge that nobody knows anything. Maybe the guy who rejected you also rejected JK Rowling, so what do they really know anyway? Maybe you are destined to be a sleeper hit.

Do better than that, Chazz! I said I’m dying!

Sorry. How about this? Contests, bestseller lists, critics and reviews might help an unknown author, but it’s really word of mouth that makes a book popular. (Or a big movie deal.) The antidote to your angst is to keep writing and pitching. Find your audience and put yourself out there to be found.


Go back to Factors 1 -4 at the top of this post.

Better? Now go write.

Filed under: authors, Books, Editors, getting it done, links, Poetry, publishing, Rant, Rejection, rules of writing, Writers, writing tips, , , , ,

Writers: Mickey Spillane’s Rule for Selling Books


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Mickey Spillane sold a lot of books. Here’s how:

“The first page sells the book,” he said. “The last page sells the next book.”

I was reminded of Spillane’s axiom as I finished the last page of Mr. Monster by Dan Wells. I’m not going to spoil it for you. You’re just going to have to go read it. That book, and his first in the series, I Am Not a Serial Killer, are sometimes harrowing reads. These are books where the author takes risks. John Cleaver is a protagonist you won’t like, but you feel for him, too.

Dan Wells has turned his protagonist, a young sociopath with a dangerous mind, into somebody I’ll follow. I’ll follow the series. Dan Wells is going to sell a lot of books off a character who will make you very uncomfortable.

It was the last line that got me. The really good ones stick with you. The end of Fight Club is a great scene with a neat twist. And William Goldman? He’s the master of the last line that stick a knife between your ribs and gives the blade a half-twist. Goldman’s trick is to make readers comfortable, letting them think they know what will happen next, and then sucker punching them. At the end of Goldman’s The Color of Light I actually threw the book across the room because just when I thought I was safely in the dénouement, he hit me again. 

Lots of writing advice is about baiting the hook on the first page. On the last page, make sure you get the barbs in deep for the next one, too.

Filed under: authors, book reviews, Horror, publishing, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , ,

Writers: The mire of conflicting advice & unfair criticism

The hierarchical structure of the autobiograph...

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When I got into the business, there was a criticism meant to shut writers down.

“Too autobiographical” was the kiss of death.

That’s ironic for several reasons:

Biographies and autobiographies are moneymaking books. Sarah Palin‘s ghosts have already published more books than you and possibly more books than she’s read. Okay, that was a cheap shot, but somewhat funny and it has the added bonus of being an Irish fact—that is, something that is a lie, but should be true.

I digress.

Back to the issue of unfair criticisms and misguided advice:

 The mind boggles at Augusten Burroughs work. How much childhood trauma can one man recycle into his fiction and non-fiction? He has enough monsters, addictions and insanity in his past that he’s set for several more books at least.

“Too autobiographical” is now a stale criticism when you consider the movement of the market toward tell-alls, whistleblowing and confessionals. There’s a lot of popular fiction that’s thinly veiled life story, too. In fact, if you’ve been a lion tamer-stripper-celebrity-prostitute, you’re a much easier sale than if you’re just another writer working away at your desk making stuff up.

Diablo Cody is a talented writer, but she had a lot more heat going into the fray because of her tattooed image and history as a stripper. I’m not saying she wouldn’t have sold the brilliant Juno script anyway, but really, how many celebrity screenwriters can you name besides her, McKee and William Goldman? If you came up with a few names, it’s probably because they are famous writer-directors, not just writers.

(And notice that irksome phrase “just writers.” I use it advisedly, as a synonym for “merely,” since that’s the stature writers generally have in film, television and publishing.)

“Too autobiographical” was once a stinging barb. It marked a talent that was undeveloped. It suggested teenage angst worthy of a diary, not of publishable quality.

The worm has turned. Now your tortured history as a brawler helps; Chuck Palahniuk brawled a bit and escorted sick people to support groups long before Fight Club. Your time in seedy bars lends authenticity to your writing and manuscript evaluators may well take you more seriously because of the stuff you don’t want your mom to know. A work can still be too autobiographical, but that criticism doesn’t carry the weight it once did.

Evaluators can be off the mark in what they think qualifies as authentic, anyway. One writer, for instance, was told that her dialogue didn’t ring true for how contemporary teenagers speak. She was advised to hang out with some kids to catch the flavor of the real thing. What the manuscript reader didn’t know was the writer was 17 at the time.

We’re a culture that worships celebrity, so “too autobiographical” isn’t a criticism that comes up as much (unless your life story is deadly dull.)

The true irony is that the same editors who would say “too autobiographical” would also routinely tell aspiring writers to “Write what you know.”

That’s bad, even egregious advice. Don’t write what you know. If you only write what you knew, there wouldn’t be much fantasy, science fiction…or much literature at all, come to think of it.

Instead, write what you care about.

 Your research and the knowledge

flows from caring, anyway.

Filed under: authors, book reviews, Books, Editors, links, manuscript evaluation, Rant, scriptwriting, Useful writing links, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Breaking Bad & Surprise Twists

Last night Breaking Bad’s ending exemplified one of the best aspects of a well-crafted story: surprise.

William Goldman (author of The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men among many others) is the master of the twisted plot. Just when you think you know what’s going to happen next, he suckerpunches you. In my favorite novel, The Color of Light, Goldman surprises the reader in the last few words, just when you thought you were safe from any more surprises. I love that.

And, for the same reasons, I love Breaking Bad, Sunday nights on AMC. Watch it.

BONUS: Read Ken Levine’s blog about the surprise ending of Newhart (and how they pulled it off.)

Filed under: Books, Writers, writing tips, , , , ,

Bestseller with over 1,000 reviews!
Winner of the North Street Book Prize, Reader's Favorite, the
Literary Titan Award, the Hollywood Book Festival, and the
New York Book Festival.


Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

The first 81 lessons to get your Buffy on

More lessons to help you survive Armageddon

"You will laugh your ass off!" ~ Maxwell Cynn, author of Cybergrrl

Available now!

Fast-paced terror, new threats, more twists.

An autistic boy versus our world in free fall

Suspense to melt your face and play with your brain.

Action like a Guy Ritchie film. Funny like Woody Allen when he was funny.

Jesus: Sexier and even more addicted to love.

You can pick this ebook up for free today at this link: http://bit.ly/TheNightMan

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