2016 Top Ten Posts

“[Sparkler]”
Photo courtesy of Evan Long via Creative Commons

Personally, I won’t be sorry to see 2016 go. Good riddance, I say. Rather than dwell on all the bad news from the past year, though, I thought I would list my top ten articles instead. Here’s to a better 2017!

 

 

 

Damn You, Netflix—Another Distracted Writer
Fiction and Profanity—F-Bombs Away!
Free Fiction—Something to Hold
Free Fiction—The Traveler’s Tale
Getting Away with Murder
How to Write Better Dialogue ‘Schitt’s Creek’ Style
I Used to Write Poetry
Pulp or Poet?
What in the World Is “Family Fiction”?
Writers, Your Cell Phone Is out to Get You!

And if these aren’t enough to put you in a better mood, check out this Bruce Willis mashup. Seriously, the man just won’t die!

How to Write Better Dialogue ‘Schitt’s Creek’ Style

[Schitt’s Creek Poster]
Photo courtesy of IMDb

I’ve read a lot over the years—not as much as some of those insane speed readers who seem to devour a book a day, but a lot. In fiction, my tastes vary between pulp and literary. And I have to say, a lot of literary writers write dialogue that is wooden and boring. I mean, I know this stuff is supposed to be highbrow and all, but honestly! Sometimes, I want to reach in between the pages and strangle the writer with his typewriter ribbon while screaming, “Nobody talks like that in real life!”

If you are, like me, a modern writer, and you suspect your characters’ speech is less than scintillating, then I have a tip for you: watch more movies and television—especially TV. And I’m not talking about network sitcoms. There’s nothing worse than trying to pass off bad writing by adding a laugh track. ‘Schitt’s Creek’ is a Canadian show I had the pleasure of watching on Amazon Prime recently. At least two of the stars—Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara—you will recognize from their work in many of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries like ‘Best in Show’ and ‘A Mighty Wind.’ This outing, if you check the credits, seems to have required the entire Levy clan. Nevertheless…

It’s Not What You Say
Let me start by saying that the show is hilarious. Not so much the situation, though. Essentially, this production is a reimagining of the old fish-out-of-water series ‘Green Acres.’ You know, cultured, affluent people finding themselves in the middle of Armpit, USA. What’s funny is the dialogue, which is very well written and real. And it’s different from what you’d find in a David Mamet script (think ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’) where words are more weapons than communication, or in an Aaron Sorkin show (think ‘The Newsroom’) where everyone is super-smart and acts accordingly. (Both are outstanding, BTW.)

In ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ the way people speak is authentic. I mean, I’ve heard people in the street who carry on like this. I’m not going to go into the plot; you can watch the show for yourself. I want to focus on the dialogue. Now, I’ve identified four qualities I think writers will find useful:

  • Everyone is passive-aggressive.
  • People speak past each other.
  • Characters lie their ass off.
  • There’s a boatload of upspeak.

I Love You—I Hate You
Practically every time someone attempts to give a compliment, what comes out is laced with venom. But in a nice way! Here’s an example. Johnny, Moira, and their son, David, arrive at the Mayor’s house for dinner—a meal none of them are not looking forward to sharing with their hosts Roland and Jocelyn.

DAVID

You have a really lovely home. It’s really, um,

understated.

JOCELYN

Thank you. I get a lot of my ideas from magazines.

MOIRA

Don’t be modest. This is one hundred percent you

and only you.

In lesser hands, this scene would have been written broadly, with someone making a tasteless wisecrack about an ugly table lamp. (Cue laugh track.) In this scene, however, everyone knows what’s being said, and no one is fooled. But each character still manages to maintain a razor-thin veneer of social grace. Think about adding this layer of subtlety to one or more of your characters and see what happens to your scenes.

Hello? Is Anyone Listening?
There’s a wonderful exchange when the motel manager, Stevie, lets David know she’s going to a “sketchy” bar later. David immediately invites himself, but it’s clear she’s not comfortable with that.

DAVID

We’re going to be each other’s wing people tonight.

Um… Now, how diverse is the clientele at this local

drinkery?

STEVIE

I would say, very diverse.

DAVID

Do you remember what life was like before dating

apps? Both excited and terrified for tonight.

STEVIE

I don’t think I ever said you could come.

DAVID

Okay, so what time, though? Um… And is there a

dress code? ’Cause I want to come prepared.

For me, this scene illustrates so well that each character is determined to further their own agenda. So, even though these two are having a conversation, they are actually talking past each other toward the outcome they desire. Stevie doesn’t want David to go, and he wants to.

I Can See Why You Would Think That
Lying is a staple in television comedy, but these guys do it with elegance and grace. So much of it is used to cover something up, but sometimes, it’s to shield the other person from reality because, well, it’s just too much trouble being honest. In this exchange, David has reluctantly decided to find a job, and he’s asking for Stevie’s help:

STEVIE

Do you have any other skills or areas of expertise?

DAVID

Uh, I’ve been told I have really good taste?

STEVIE

Uh, well, that’s good. Um, let’s see… Oh! Bag boy at

the grocery store.

DAVID

I don’t know what that is.

STEVIE

You put groceries in bags so that people can carry

their groceries out of the grocery store.

DAVID

Okay. And how much do you think that would pay?

STEVIE

Mm… I’m gonna say minimum wage.

DAVID

Which is what, forty, forty-five something an hour?

STEVIE

Exactly.

This Is a Statement of Fact?
I’m not really sure where upspeak (or uptalk) came from. I want to say it all started with the movie ‘Valley Girl.’ But today, everyone does it—even me, sometimes. And if you don’t have at least one or two characters speaking that way in your book, you’re probably not trying hard enough to get some variety in your dialogue.

In ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ David and his sister, Alexis, do it a lot. In fact, most of the townies don’t speak that way, so there’s a nice contrast. I won’t provide any dialogue examples here because there are too many. But here’s a clip to get you started:

Wrapping Up
So, there you have it. For me, a big part of writing great dialogue is introducing variety. A good test is to switch the names of characters speaking and see if the scene still makes sense. If it does, you’ve got a problem. Getting back to literary fiction, as far as I’m concerned, many characters are interchangeable regarding speech. Some great authors have an incredible ear, though. Whether or not you like Charles Dickens, the man knew how to make each of his characters shine through dialogue. (I’m thinking in particular of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House.)

As writers, we spend so much time figuring out the plot and writing about a character’s inner life. But don’t forget, when someone reads your book, they are saying the words aloud in their head. And when they get to the dialogue, they hear your character’s voice. Make sure they can distinguish one person from another. Now, enjoy the trailer from Season 1, available for free at Amazon Prime.

Pulp or Poet?

[Size Mismatch]
Photo courtesy of Miguel Castaneda
via Creative Commons

A writer’s life is nothing, if not angst-filled. Each day, we struggle with dilemmas—most of our own making and many imagined. As for me, I like to battle my demons in private. The best course, I feel, is to put that kind of drama into my writing and let my characters live in Hell. But, frankly, I just can’t take it anymore, and I need to spill. So please, bear with me.

I’ve been writing for more years than I care to admit. In my twenties, I devoted my energy to screenwriting. Great idea, jefe. Get to the end of the line behind the thousands in LA already slaving away at what they hope will become the next ‘Captain America.’ Though I did manage to sell one screenplay and see it made into a movie, I never really enjoyed the success I was hoping for.

When indie publishing came along—mostly thanks to Amazon—everything changed for me, as it did for many other aspiring authors. For years, I had been amassing ideas for novel-length books, and the only thing stopping me from ordering my sport coat with the suede elbow patches was the terrifying thought of trying to secure a literary agent. Weak, I know. But enough about that.

My Eternal Dilemma
I’ve always aspired to write well—as opposed to banging stuff out fast for the money. And, believe me, if you’ve ever downloaded free books to your Kindle, you know what I’m talking about. There’s a lot of crap out there—a lot. And what frustrates me is the fact that this drivel sells—way better than anything I have written. Which brings me to my current dilemma—am I a poet who wants only to create beautiful things (that don’t sell), or a successful pulp writer who’s in it for the money?

My personal belief as to why a lot of indie books sell has nothing to do with quality. Sure, they have to have some semblance of plot and structure. Of course, the cover shouldn’t make you puke. And the formatting has to be at least good enough for you to be able to read the thing without getting vertigo. But what these books have going for them, I feel, is that they are catering to a successful genre. Like Romance.

Now, before you get all huffy and threaten to take my lunch money, let me explain. I am not trying to say anything bad about Romance writers. In fact, sometimes I wish I were one so I could sell more books. What I am saying is, must I write in genres that sell, rather than what I am interested in? It’s a great question.

Romance Rules
So, why did I pick on the Romance category? Take a look at the May 2016 Author Earnings report, which you can find here. This is what they say about indie author earnings (bold text is mine):

Turns out there were 43 [invisible authors] lurking unseen in the dark spaces between Amazon’s bestseller lists, including one author invisibly earning more than $250,000 a year. Unsurprisingly, 30 of the 43 invisible six-figure earners — including the top earner — were self-published indie authors. Most were writing in the Romance Fiction genres, but there was also an indie author of editor’s-choice Cozy Mystery Fiction, and even more surprising, a traditional-award-winning indie writer of Literary Fiction. We happen to think that’s pretty cool.

Cool, indeed. I have a number of writer friends—many of whom publish Historical Romance, Regency Romance, Contemporary and New Adult Romance. It’s my sense that they are doing pretty well. But here’s the thing—from what I can tell, they actually enjoy writing Romance. So for them, this is the best of all worlds.

A Genre Comparison
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I would like to provide an illustration of what I am talking about. The following excerpt is from my horror thriller novel, Even The Dead Will Bleed: Book Three of Tell Me When I’m Dead. Notice that the writing is purposeful and dark—just the thing for pulp fiction:

The girl was pretty with long, light brown hair and frightened blue-grey eyes that were almond-shaped—slightly Asian—and ringed with dark circles. Her full lips were pink and moist, her skin fair and blemish free. She couldn’t have been more than nineteen or twenty. I looked at the back of her hand and noticed a red needle mark—probably from an IV.

“Are you in danger?” I said.

Still nothing. I glanced left and right to see who might be watching. Then I released her arm and took a step back, my open hands away from my pockets. I thought she would bolt, but she stood there unsure, looking at her bare feet, which were dirty. Her shoulders jerked up and down and I realized that she was crying. I remembered what Becky had said when the alarm went off—someone’s escaped.

I wasn’t sure what to do. She must’ve broken out of Hellborn, and now they were looking for her. I didn’t want to leave her there—not like this. She needed help. But I didn’t want to get mixed up with a kid. Griffin, the girl Holly and I had rescued in Tres Marias, had turned out well—and I thanked God for her—but I needed to be alone to complete my mission.

“I’m Dave,” I said. “What’s your name?”

She looked at me steadily. I didn’t know what new hell I was signing up for. It was pretty obvious that it would involve more than slipping her twenty bucks and wishing her good luck. When she spoke my blood went cold.

“Don’t let them find me!” she said.

 

Here is another excerpt—this time from my latest, unpublished Young Adult novel, Chainsaw Honeymoon: A Ruby Navarro Disaster. Not to brag, but this might even border on the literary. See if you agree:

A loud yawn startled me. It was Dad. How long had he been standing there?

“Come on, Rube, it’s late,” he said.

And by the way, when did he get all parental? Mom must’ve had a talk with him.

“No-uh,” I said. “I need to figure out this sequence.”

Between you and me, I was struggling to keep my eyes open.

Gently, he closed the laptop and guided me to my bed. As I dug through the duffel bag for my pajamas, I felt something foreign. Removing my hand, I saw Mr. Shivers. How had he gotten in there again? I thought I’d left him in the closet back home. Too exhausted to care, I tossed him into a chair, where he landed in a sitting position.

“Tomorrow, I could use your help setting up the Roku,” Dad said.

“Aghh, you’re so pathetic. Fine, I’ll see what I can do.”

I let go of a major yawn. Smiling, he gave me a bear hug, practically squeezing the air out of me.

“Ooh, I thought I heard a fart.”

“Dad, that’s so rude!”

“It used to make you laugh.”

“When I was five.”

“Good night, Rube. Brush your teeth.”

He and Mom had definitely spoken. I wondered vaguely if he was going to go off and practice The Beggar’s Sideshow per Mom’s instructions. Before he left, I broke down and decided to spill. After all, the man deserved to know the truth. I picked Ed up and put him on my lap for moral support.

“Dad?”

“Yeah, baby?”

“She is moving on, you know.”

He was leaning against the doorframe, staring at me intently. I could almost see the man hormones keeping his emotions in check. Barely. His face was a mosaic of disappointment, anger and disbelief. He smiled sadly and, without another word, closed the door behind him. See, this is the difference between women and men. I would be throwing things at this point.

 

The point is, I didn’t research the markets for either of these works—I just sat down and wrote them because I felt like it. We’ll see if the charming and perspicacious Ruby is enough to help me sell some books.

Sage Advice
I am currently reading How to Make a Living as a Writer by the well-respected author and teacher James Scott Bell. His book offers clear, practical advice on how to actually pull off what he promised in the title. One thing he suggests is studying bestselling categories on Amazon and making a conscious decision to master that market, then cranking out your own novels. Here is what he has to say:

I believe a writer should love his genres. But you can learn to love a genre. Sort of like an arranged marriage.

Nicholas Sparks did this with his own career. He went into it like a businessman. He looked at the bestselling genres and discovered that each one had two big names that dominated. At the same time, a surprise book emerged called The Bridges of Madison County. It was a tear-jerking love story written by a male author. And it exploded.

Sparks decided he could be the second name on this unique subset — men who write tear-jerking love stories.

He’s done pretty well.

Now, from a business point of view, he’s absolutely right. But in the words of Jerry Seinfeld when asked to wear the puffy shirt, “But I don’t want to be a pirate!”

If I were more practical, I would begin immediately my own market research and get to writing that puffy shirt book. But to be frank, Romance isn’t really my thing—unless guns or time travel are involved. Besides horror, I am drawn to Thriller, Mystery and YA. Having said that, though, if I follow Mr. Bell’s advice, I am still going to have to research what sells within those categories. And I’m not sure I want to write a political thriller, for example. So, I am almost back where I started.

In On Writing, I seem to recall Stephen King referring to himself as a “journeyman writer.” Here is a guy who consistently cranks out solid work in a genre he loves—and who makes a very good living. But he is practical, too. He knows he is a business. I’m still working on that concept.

What to Do?
As I said, I have a new book coming out, written without the benefit of checking in on bestselling categories. I hope it does well. If it doesn’t, I may decide that my next novel needs to have the word “girl” in the title. It doesn’t take a ton of research to know that those seem to be doing very well lately.

Writers, Your Cell Phone Is out to Get You!

[Week 20: Writer’s Block]
Photo Courtesy of clocksforseeing via Creative Commons

I thought that title would get your attention. Look, this isn’t going to be some stupid rant about how we need to return to simpler times when people walked instead of drove cars, washed their own clothes in the river and churned their own butter. Technology can be beneficial when used wisely. But whoever the genius was who decided to cram an incredibly powerful computer that fits in your palm was clearly not thinking about the welfare of writers.

I mean, seriously. We’re talking about a demographic that will use any excuse not to write. Hypochondriacs who insist they are suffering from a painful medical condition known in most English-speaking countries as writer’s block (or bloqueo de escritor to our Spanish-speaking friends). Lollygaggers who have zero problem binge-watching every television show ever created because they are “doing research.” Yeah, let’s give those guys one more thing to distract them.

The Good Old Days
Back in the day when cell phones didn’t exist, writers were more observational. How do I know this? Well, because I used to be that way. It was not uncommon for me to sit in a public place for hours, watching people. And when in conversation, I used to give the other person my undivided attention. This was normal, people! It’s how we used to conduct ourselves in a civilized society. Later when I sat down to write, I recalled character traits and dialogue I had observed. It’s what, I feel, gave my work authenticity.

Of course, this is not to say there weren’t distractions. Television, for example. But you couldn’t very well schlep around a set around with you. Sure, portable TVs did exist, but they were used mostly by smiling seniors traveling the country in high-mileage campers.

Now
Things really are different today. I know everyone says that, but it’s true. It’s as if we are more distracted than ever. I blame technology. Think about it. We can spend hours consuming content on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. And, yes, we can also get lost in Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Pokémon GO. (Speaking of Netflix, check out my earlier post, “Damn You, Netflix—Another Distracted Writer.”)

Let me ask you something. When was the last time you went to a public place and watched real people interacting, rather than staring down at your phone every five seconds? I thought so. And I’m not claiming I’m any better. In fact, the main reason I decided to post this was to warn myself about the dangers of personal electronics.

So what happens when you don’t spend enough time thinking and observing? Well, you tend to rip off characters and dialogue from movies and television. Sure, you’re probably still reading but, come on. How many minutes a day do you spend looking at your phone instead of reading a book? Yeah …

Everything in Moderation
Things are only going to get worse. Cats and dogs living together. I am confident there will come a day when devices that can connect to the Internet will be embedded in our brains. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this article from 2013. It’s only a matter of time. What then? Do we, as writers, just give up? Oh, and haven’t you heard? Researchers have been programming AI machines to write novels without any need for human intervention. Take a look at this. I’ve already resigned myself to the possibility that this infernal machine will land a literary agent before I do.

Okay, this is starting to go sideways. Back to my original point. The key to the whole thing, in my view, is discipline. As I stated earlier, cell phones can offer a great advantage when used properly. if I’m in a conversation with someone and one of us happens to mention a fact the other feels is inaccurate, either of us can quickly Google the topic and correct the error right there and then—though I would advise you against trying that with your spouse. Trust me.

There is a time to use your cell phone and a time to put it the hell away. I suggest you remember that during meals, at parties and when attending church. Our brains are wired to observe, and it would be a shame if we let that higher function atrophy to the point where we evolve into a bunch of dumb, drooling spectators. Kind of like those clueless characters in ‘Idiocracy.’ Consider yourself warned.

Fiction and Profanity—F-Bombs Away!

[Slim Pickens Riding the Bomb]
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

Recently, I reread an autobiographical novel I had written a number of years ago, thinking I could tidy it up for publication. Though I enjoyed much of the writing style, I was horrified at the frequency of f-bombs. Why? Because I don’t write that way anymore. And I couldn’t even defend the use of these words as critical to the genre. This book is essentially a dramedy—Life, Love and the pursuit of sex.

Some time after, I read an interesting post by PJ Parrish, which is a pseudonym for sisters and writing partners Kristy Montee and Kelly Nichols (see “Profanity in Crime Fiction: Reality or Lazy Writing?”). In it, they state …

There are different reasons why readers dislike profanity in their fiction. It can [be] colored by religious conviction, personal morals or just plain old taste. Authors are guided by the same impulses. Mark Henshaw, a Mormon crime writer, wrote a blog “Why I Don’t Use Profanity,” saying, “My short answer to the question is: because my mother reads my books. My long answer is a bit more involved.”

A Religious Debate
There are any number of articles and blog posts about whether foul language belongs in good fiction. If you’d like to test that assertion, try a Google search on “fiction and profanity.” According to Montee and Nichols, some authors write blue because they feel it’s required to make their novels realistic. Others, like Mark Henshaw, leave it out because their mothers are reading their books.

Now, I am not a prude by any stretch of the imagination. I have been known to let go, using strings of colorful expletives the way Rumpelstiltskin spins straw into gold. And I don’t happen to think most good writers choose profanity out of laziness either. Nevertheless, I’ve chosen to leave that kind of language out of my writing. Not because I feel I am better than everyone else. It’s mainly a marketing decision. In other words, I don’t want to turn off any potential new readers because they can’t get past the swear words.

Being “Authentic”
Not to take sides, but I do want to address the question of authenticity in fiction. Apparently, some authors feel that in order to depict realistic worlds (e.g., war, crime, etc.), they need to use lots of swear words. Well, I don’t think that’s true. If it were, then why isn’t urban crime fiction littered with liberal doses of the N-word? I don’t care how “realistic” you think your fiction is. The fact that you are telling a story means you are creating a world that doesn’t exist. Sure, it can resemble the real world, but in the end, it’s fake. And thank goodness!

Think about it. What if you were to write about real life exactly as it is? Wouldn’t it be kind of, I don’t know, boring? People don’t like to read fiction that depicts real life—they read to escape to a different life. And, yes, you should see things that are familiar. But a good writer is drawing you in with great characters and a powerful made-up story. So, if you agree that this is the case, then who is to say you have to include the f-word just to make things seem real?

Profanity and Violence
Very often, violent stories go hand-in-hand with profanity. Just watch any R-rated action movie. But this is not always the case. Take ‘The Conjuring,’ for example. This film received an R-rating from the MPAA. Why? Because it’s scary and violent. Yet, there is no hardcore swearing anywhere in the movie, according to the parents’ guide. So to those who think you need this kind of language to appear realistic, let me ask you this—What better time to let off a few f-bombs than when your mother is possessed by a demon? Yet, none are found in ‘The Conjuring,’ and the story still works.

Many of you know I wrote the horror thriller series TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD. At the time, I made a conscious decision not to use certain expletives. Sure, there is some mild cursing but nothing hardcore. And, again, if you’ve read the work, you’ll know that these books are violent as hell. Some may disagree, but I believe I have created a balance that works. In my fictional world, people can find themselves in horrible danger and not swear like merchant marines. And readers can still enjoy a powerful story.

So what are your thoughts?

Adapting a Screenplay—Fun Times

[Scream Poster]
Photo Courtesy of IMDb
Early in my writing career I focused entirely on writing screenplays—something I would not recommend to the foolhardy. You see, unlike novels, screenplays serve absolutely no purpose if you can’t sell them. They sit in a pile in the corner of your home office collecting dust, instead of appearing with nice covers on Amazon. That said, if you are lucky enough to have a written a screenplay that sold (I did that once), you might be on your way to an actual career in the movie business.

But enough about fairy tales.

Horror Comedy, Anyone?
I want to talk about a particular screenplay I wrote a few years back that had to do with a fourteen-year-old girl, a nasty marital breakup and a behind-the-scenes look at an indie horror film. Sounds fascinating, right? At the time I really thought I could make that thing sing. Now, from a technical perspective the work was professional. But I was never really able to generate enough interest. So … I tossed it into the corner and allowed it to gather a nice patina of dust.

Until recently.

I’d been toying with the idea of adapting some of my screenplays into novels. I mean, why let all that good writing go to waste? And I decided that, because I had just come off a heavy horror thriller trilogy with lots of bloodshed, I would tackle a fun horror comedy … with somewhat less bloodshed.

Novelization, Shmovelization
I’m just about finished with the “novelization”—something I’d never done before. And let me tell you, it’s hair-raising. In screenplays, each page is a combination of slug lines, short descriptions and dialogue. That’s it. Try turning that into beautiful prose that descends on the reader like the first gentle snowfall in a New England winter. The process is quite instructive, though, and I am learning more about voice than I ever thought I would.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress from time to time, but it’s my goal to turn this thing into an enjoyable book that captures some of the craziness of living in LA, from the POV of a precocious teenager. Wish me luck.

Getting Away with Murder

[American Psycho Poster]Spoiler Alert!
If you plan on reading the TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD series but haven’t gotten around to it yet, then stop right here! Go ahead—I’ll wait.

Okay, you know the title of this post is total clickbait, right? Admit it, though. It got your attention. Anyway, I want to talk about killing someone and actually getting away with it. Before you call 911, let me explain. I am a writer and I create characters. Many times the characters are expendable—bad guys, helpless bystanders … But sometimes I am forced to grapple with killing off a character who is not only central to the story but beloved.

This is what happened when writing my horror thriller trilogy TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD.

Plotters and Pantsers
Before I go any further, I must tell you there are two kinds of writers—plotters and pantsers. Plotters like to create vast, detailed-filled outlines before writing a single word of their novel. When they are finished, they know exactly where they are going and how they will get there. Good for them. I hate plotters. Which brings me to pantsers …

We pantsers like to fly by the seat of our pants. We have only the vaguest notion of where we are going, and we have no frickin’ idea how we will get there. Welcome to my world, by the way.

Pantsers manage to move the story along through intuition and serendipity. When we are inspired, we happily travel in a westerly direction. When we are stuck, we curse and throw things and gain fifteen pounds. But here’s the dirty little secret—and it’s why no one in the history of writing has ever proven once and for all that plotters are better at writing than pantsers, or vice versa. Why?

Because we all end up in the same place.

Now, you could argue that plotters write faster because they already have the story down pat. But that’s not entirely true, since they must spend a fair amount of time creating their outline—a step pantsers like me happily skip.

So what does all this have to do with murder?

Death in Venice
I made the decision to kill off a main character in Book Two. And I did it after discovering she needed to be dead in order for the protagonist Dave Pulaski to fulfill his destiny in Book Three. For those of you who read Books One and Two, you’ll know I’m talking about Dave’s wife, Holly. And this was no easy task. Here’s the pivotal scene …

Holly stood there on the platform, paralyzed. Her slender body trembled. She couldn’t even cry. Next to her, Griffin and Fabian stood mutely, his fingers reaching for her hand and gripping it. I wanted to will myself to Holly’s side and made a move to reach her. The cop standing next to O’Brien pointed his rifle at my head. Warnick gripped my shoulder. Balls of red light streaked across my eyes. My heart raced. I wanted to rip out the throats of everyone who meant to harm my family.

“You took away everything from me!” the mayor said. “My wife, my sons … my future!”

“We didn’t kill your family,” Warnick said. “Someone attacked our convoy.”

The mayor let out a pitiful wail that echoed throughout the cavern. O’Brien eyed him uncomfortably. His voice softer, he said, “If you hadn’t come after me, they’d still be alive.”

Warnick wasn’t finished with him. “Why did you leave them behind? You could have saved them.”

“You don’t understand. This was supposed to be my ticket …” Choking up, he forced himself to go on. “It’s bigger than you can imagine. They got me out of there, they …”

“You abandoned your wife and children,” Warnick said, unafraid.

“They promised me,” the mayor said, weeping.

Overlapping voices echoed in the cavern, and I struggled to make sense of them. Sweat dripped into my eyes, and the vague forms of Holly, Griffin and Fabian wavered in front of me like ghosts in the harsh orange light, pleading with me to do something. I wiped my eyes, and Holly screamed. When I looked up I found her on her knees in front of the mayor.

“Dave!”

The mayor tore the weapon from O’Brien’s hand and pointed it at Holly’s head. My heart thudded—I couldn’t breathe.

“Dave, I love you! I’ll always love you!”

“Please,” I said. “Please don’t.” I wept, unable to control myself. I was completely helpless—at the mercy of a madman. There was nothing I could do.

“I lost everything,” the mayor said, his voice a monotone. “Let me show you what that feels like.”

It was a dream. The bullet—a .45, I think—left the chamber so slowly. I could see it spinning as it raced home to its target. Every thought in my brain vanished, my mind laser-focused on the deadly projectile. And when it struck my wife in the head, exploding out the other side in a burst of blood, brains and bone, I died for a little while. That picture—that memory of Holly—the impact of the bullet twisting her sideways and down into the dirt—that photograph is burned in my memory forever like a cattle brand. And it’s always accompanied by the sound of screaming—Griffin maybe—and Greta’s desperate, urgent barking.

It was a dream—I knew it was. Not real. A nightmare. But if it was, why couldn’t I wake up?

Because it was real. There was no escaping it—not this time. If I’d been holding my weapon I would have used it to join Holly. There wasn’t any point in going on. She was all I had lived for. Nothing else mattered. And the baby. So blessed to be conceived but not to be born. I fell to my knees and could only remain there, sobbing.

I’m sure you’ve heard of writers who weep when their characters die. After I wrote that scene, I cried like a baby. Really. I loved Holly deeply, and I wanted with all my heart to let her live. But she couldn’t. She had to die in order to give Dave the hate he needed to exact his revenge in Book Three.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I wanted you to know that writers do care deeply about our characters. When they suffer, we suffer. And when you think about it, doesn’t that make for a better reading experience?