Category Archives: Allison Brennan

It Doesn’t Get Easier

By Allison Brennan

Two weeks ago I offered an ARC of SUDDEN DEATH to one commenter, and the winner is . . . 


Please email me at allison @ allisonbrennan . com (no spaces) with your snail mail address and I'll pop it out in the mail to you.

Writers get the same questions over and over again. Most non-writers usually ask, "Where do you get your ideas?" Aspiring writers ask many things, chief among them, "What do you know now that you wish you knew before you sold?"

I always HATED that question. Hated it. Because I didn't have an answer. It's sort of like the question, what decision did you make in your past that you wish you could do different? I say, nothing. Because even though I've made mistakes in my life, if I made a DIFFERENT choice, I may not be in this place. Even mistakes have silver linings.

But now I have an answer to the dreaded question.

Earlier this week at Murder She Writes, I blogged about hating my writing process. To summarize: I procrastinate and write and rewrite the first act (to use Alex's terminology!) of every book (over and over and over again) until I become panicked because my deadline nears, yet I seem to write better and faster when I'm in panic mode. The first act takes me twice as long to write as acts two and three combined. (And no, when I'm writing I don't think of them as acts, I didn't even realize I had a problem with the beginning of act two until I read Alex's essay on Act Two.)

I think I was writing my seventh book when I was chatting online with the incredible Mariah Stewart and I said something really dense, like, "I can't wait until like you I have twenty books under my belt and it's easier." I think she's STILL laughing at me. She said something like, "Honey, it never gets easier. No matter how well or poorly your last book did, you'll always keep pushing yourself to do better."

So now I have an answer to what I wish I had known then: "It doesn't get easier."

If only so I didn't embarrass myself in front of Mariah and look like a total amateur.

It not only doesn't get easier, it gets harder.

There's no doubt in my mind that I'm a better writer today than I was when I sold my first book in March of 2004. THE PREY was my fifth completed manuscript, and I knew it was better than the four that came before it. When I sold it, I thought that was the pinnacle, that I could never write another book as good as that one. That was it. When THE PREY hit the NYT extended list, I couldn't write for seven weeks. I was paralyzed. I was convinced it was a fluke, that when readers bought THE HUNT–which came out the following month–that they'd realize I was a novice and not worth the time or money. When THE HUNT hit the extended list, I convinced myself that it was only because people liked THE PREY so they bought my next book, but everyone was going to hate it and the last book of the trilogy would tank because reader would feel ripped off.

So until THE KILL hit, I couldn't write. It wasn't because I didn't have ideas–I never seem to lack for ideas (knock on wood)–but because I didn't think I could do any better.

Authors can't tread water and be successful. And when you're growing your career, treading water is the kiss of death. Especially in this market and economy and with all the changes in the industry.

Let's face it: if Stephen King or Nora Roberts or John Grisham writes a dud, their readers will still buy their next book because most of the time, they deliver and their fans trust them.

But what up those of us still crawling up the mountain? One dud and we're teetering on the edge. Worse, or confidence is shaken because we KNOW we're teetering and we KNOW we couldn't have done better, and if we couldn't have done better THEN, how can we do better NOW?

I think about this whenever I start a new book. Okay, "think" is the wrong word. I obsess about this whenever I type CHAPTER ONE.

I typed CHAPTER ONE on Wednesday night.

When I read the page proofs of my upcoming book (the one Renee won), I was thrilled. Why? Because I was shocked that I liked it. It didn't have any major flaws that I could see, nothing I would have done different, I liked my characters and the story and . . . then I panicked. Because I had just started another book and there was no way in hell that I would be able to write another book like that one. It couldn't be done. I didn't even know how I did it. How could the mess in my head turn out so good? It can't be done again.

And that was the first reason why I missed the deadline on the next book. Yes, my book was two weeks late. Why? Because I couldn't get beyond the fact that what I was writing sucked.

Now that book is off to production and I'm dreading getting back the copyedits and going through it again because I know I'm going to see every flaw and problem in the manuscript and just know my career is over.

Thus my problem with CHAPTER ONE.

When I type CHAPTER ONE, I expect to have learned something from the previous books I've written. Before I was published, I assumed that once I got the hang of things, that writing a book would be easier–after all, I have eleven books out there. It SHOULD be easier. Right? 

But it's harder. Much harder. Because now I have READER EXPECTATIONS. 

I don't expect to please all the readers all the time, but I DO expect to please MY readers all the time. And what if I can't do it? What if the last book was the last book I had in me, regardless of all the ideas that pop unbidden into my head. I'm paralyzed thinking that I'll disappoint them. I'll disappoint my editor. 

So it's harder and I stare at Chapter One. I can picture the story in my head–the characters, the opening scene. Because I'm visual, I see everything. I know it's there, somewhere, I just have to pull it out. But extracting the story isn't easier, and any aspiring writer out there needs to know that.

When you sell, you have a whole host of other things to deal with, in addition to being creative and writing stories like the one you sold. When you have readers, you have reader expectations and they'll let you know when you screw up. When you hit lists, you have people who tell you how lucky you are, when you feel like you're clinging to the side of a mountain without rope or a safety net. Yep, lucky. Sure. Did you see those cliffs down there? They're sharp. And there are sharks in the water, too, circling, and they smell fear as well as blood.

The book I'm writing now is the last romantic thriller I'm contracted for. Next up is the supernatural thriller series. I'm scared shitless. Though I'm getting burned out on the romantic thrillers (not because I don't love them, but after writing twelve in less than five years, I want to do something different) I'm scared to start something that isn't similar to what's come before. I wrote a proposal for my next romantic thriller trilogy and in some ways, I want to write it next because there is a comfort to going back to your roots and writing within a structure and to specific reader expectations. But if I get burned out, it will show, and I'll never want to
write another. So taking a break for a couple books is a good thing, I know that intellectually, my muse knows that (as she's been screaming at me about the supernaturals since I came up with the series idea in 2003–yep, before I sold), but in the back of my brain I hear that little naysayer bitch saying, "You're going to piss off your readers, you don't know what you're doing, how in the world do you think you can pull this off? Do you have delusions of grandeur or what?" 

But I also know me, and if I get bored I won't do a good job, and then my career really will be in the toilet. I'll be treading water, but in a toilet the suction pulls you down into the sewer. Not pleasant. So taking a break is a good thing. Unless, of course, I fall off that cliff, my body breaks on the rocks and the sharks chow down. (Now I'm mixing imagery. I really am losing it!)

Ironically, this is true in all other aspects of our lives. Take raising children. You think having a baby is hard. The panic of an infant and toddler and how precious and delicate they are–you think, this is hard, making sure they have what they need and taking care of them. You think, okay, it has to get easier. Then you have a teenager and realize she's so, so, so much harder than a baby and you wish you had that little one back . . . but in many ways, though harder, more satisfying because all your hard work has (hopefully) paid off.

Because I'm a professional (professional=someone is paying me to tell stories and, honestly, it doesn't get any better than that, warts and all), I will get beyond CHAPTER ONE and I will finish this book and I will do revisions, through all the pain and panic.

Here's my parting advice:

1) It gets harder. Accept it now and you won't be surprised.

2) Don't tell an author you think is successful that they're lucky. Sure, luck is involved in everything, but believe me, they don't feel lucky. They feel like they're about to fall off a damn high cliff and be eaten alive by sharks. There is nothing lucky about the writing itself. Every author has to put their ass in the chair and write one word after another.

3) Writers block is a figment of your imagination. Repeat often enough and it will come true. Honestly, professionals write even if they screw up. Amateurs use the crutch of writers block to avoid making mistakes. We all get stuck sometimes. But writers block is really fear, and you just have to accept you're scared to death, then write on.


It was a dark and stormy night . . . 

The Villain’s Journey

The problem with blogging after Alex is that I feel inferior. She knows so much
more than I do about story and story structure that I feel wholly inadequate.

But I wanted to talk about villains, because villains are near and dear to my
heart. So even though I’m practically dying to hear more about what Alex says
about villains, I’m going to put out my own theories about what works—and what
doesn’t—with I read villains.

I never realized that villains were so important in my writing until I received
my revision letter for my debut novel. My editor said that the scenes where I
went into my villain’s POV were so strong that she wanted more of them.

I was taken aback a bit because I had not consciously thought about the structure
of the story and the villain’s POV specifically. Since I write
organically—without an outline or plan—I tend to write whatever scene is
logically happening at that time in the story. So I went back and added a
couple scenes in logical places where my editor felt that either adding or expanding
on the villain’s POV would make the book stonger.

Then the marketing material came out about my debut trilogy. My publisher likened my
style to “Julie Garwood meets Thomas Harris.”

I have a confession to make. At that point (2005), I had never read Julie
Garwood OR Thomas Harris.

I thought then that Julie Garwood only wrote historicals. And while I had seen the movie
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, I’d never read the book.

What did I do next? Well, the obvious. I bought all the Julie Garwood romantic
suspense novels and all Thomas Harris novels (though I haven’t read HANNIBAL

I still don’t quite get the connection, but at least I have a glimmer
of understanding. The Julie Garwood connection was more to establish my romance
roots, while the Thomas Harris connection was to show how I was different than
a traditional romantic suspense. Because few romantic suspense novelists go
deep into the psyche of the killer. (My friend Karen Rose is one—if you haven’t
read her, you should.) But honestly, Garwood and Harris are so phenomenal as
storytellers that I knew the comparison was more a marketing gimmick than

I have another confession. I’m not a huge fan of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Yes, it’s a
brilliant movie and a great book. The primary villain, Hannibal, is alluring on
many different levels (largely due to Anthony Hopkins performance which in many
ways influenced my reading of the book, so I don’t have a good assessment of
the novel because it’s so intertwined with the movie.) But I’m not a fan because
of the heroine: I did not like Clarice Starling. I wanted her to succeed, and I
admired her overcoming her fears at the end of the book and going into the
lion’s den to rescue the girl in the pit from Buffalo Bill, the serial killer.
But as a heroine, I thought she made several TSTL mistakes.

First, she revealed far too much about herself to Hannibal. Second, when Hannibal
escaped, she didn’t fear for herself. What she says to her friend at Quantico
that he “won’t go after me” is just stupid. Okay, maybe she thinks he wouldn’t,
but good Lord! He just skinned a man and put the dead man’s face over his and
lay there waiting for someone to “save” him. He’s ruthless and vicious and a
genius. Alluring and repulsive at the same time. So yeah, she might have
intuitively known he wouldn’t go after her, but dammit, she should be scared
anyway—if not for herself, then for everyone else in the world.

Hannibal is the best of villains. Clarice Starling wasn’t worthy of him.

And that is the crux of the villain/hero conflict. To make a villain worthy of your villain. And, unfortunately, Clarice Starling wasn’t worthy of Hannibal—even though she got the bad guy in the end. Why? Because of her, Hannibal–an evil, brilliant,
maniacal, meticulous predator–escaped.

So I didn’t hate SILENCE OF THE LAMBS because honestly, it is the standard bearer
for all serial killer novels that followed. (And though it ticked me off, it's still a great movie in so many ways and I'm happy to watch it over and over again.) It is a classic. But RED DRAGON, the story that came before SILENCE, was, in my opinion, superior in every way to its sequel.

Perhaps I liked this book more because I read it before I saw the two film versions of
the book. Hands down, RED DRAGON was superior to MANHUNTER. IMO, though
MANHUNTER was fairly true to the book until the climax where they totally
deviated and cut off the movie before the end and I felt CHEATED, the movie was
also plodding; Will Graham’s conflict and introspection that worked fabulously
in the written story was slow and tedious as a verbal monologue; and the
villain was two-dimensional and hollow, the opposite of the depth of character
revealed in the book. RED DRAGON, though more violent on screen than its
predecessor, showed Will Graham’s conflict on screen rather than had him
verbally expound on it; the villain (played by Ralph Fiennes) showed the depth
of character as portrayed in the novel; and the ending was true to the book.

RED DRAGON is Will Graham’s story, the FBI Agent who caught Hannibal Lecter in the
first place. He almost died in the process. (And presumably, almost eaten.) But it's not about Will capturing Hannibal; it's about how will handles the aftermath of what happened, and how he can once again go after another sadistic killer. Will is tortured in so many ways, but he is truly one of the good guys. He has
many battles, including drinking, but he has so much empathy with the victims
that you, the reader, have empathy with the victims. You feel Will’s pain. If I
learned anything about storytelling from this book, it’s that how your
characters feel about their job, their duty, their honor, and the very real
conflicts that arise from such is just as important as the current case they’re working. We don’t live in a vacuum; we are the sum of our past, of our emotion and experiences. True heroes are not fearless; they are not without conflict or pain; they make
mistakes and they worry about their decisions. True heroes are you and me who
overcome or fears and limitations to do the right thing.

And a villain, to be a strong character, must be worthy of the hero. Francis
Dolarhyde is a superior villain. He is worthy of Will Graham in the same way
that Hannibal Lecter is worthy of Will Graham. In fact, Hannibal Lecter in many
ways created the person Will is today (i.e. in RED DRAGON.)

Reading RED DRAGON taught me that the villain’s backstory is as important—if not more
important—than what the villain is doing in the present.

In Christopher Vogler's THE WRITERS JOURNEY, he said that the villain is the hero
of his own journey. As soon as I read that, so many things clicked for me. Any
story must be fully fleshed out to avoid stereotypes or caricature. As we go
into our hero's head, so must we go into our villain's head. We must understand
his GMC (goals, motivation and conflict) perhaps even more so than the hero and

A killer who kills for the sake of killing isn’t interesting on any level; there
should be a reason that the reader can buy into. The reason doesn’t have to be
justifiable for the reader in the sense that the reader, in the same
circumstances, would kill; but the reason must be justifiable for the
villain—that based on the personality and backstory of the killer, under the
circumstances yes, we understand why he/she is committing just evil and violent

A three-dimensional villain, even if he doesn't see much page time, will always
make a story stronger. The stronger the villain, the stronger the conflict and
more important, the better your hero and heroine. Who cares if your hero
defeats some weak criminal? Your story villain should be equal to or stronger
than your hero. So that when the hero wins, we feel as if we’ve just been to
the pit of Hell and back.

Now you might think I’m contradicting myself (and I’m not surprised!) because I
earlier said that Clarice Starling wasn’t worthy of Hannibal. Hannibal was
certainly the stronger character, as it should be suspense. My problems had to
do with her thought processes. That she wasn’t scared when he escaped. That she
didn’t feel guilty of culpable in his escape. Giving him a reward for giving
her information is fine: that doesn’t bother me. Her idiocy in not being scared
of him bothered me.

One thing Thomas Harris does particularly well in RED DRAGON is to get into the
characters heads—both the villain and the hero. We see the battle within both
of them as they move toward the finale. Will Graham is battling not only the
unknown killer (Dolarhyde) but the psychologically destructive Hannibal Lecter.
Hannibal will say or do anything to destroy Will—on the surface he claims to
admire him because Will figured it out—that Hannibal was guilty—and put him in
prison (a mental hospital.) But underneath he is furious that Will—someone he
considered inferior in every way—stopped him and took away his freedom. Which
is why he does what he does in the book. (I don’t want to give it away—I think
anyone who writes serial killer novels should read this book.) Hannibal both
helps Will reach his goal, and he sets up Will so that Hannibal might attain his goal: destroying the man who denied him freedom.

But RED DRAGON is not Hannibal’s story, and in fact Hannibal plays a small but
important catalyst role. It’s truly Will and Francis Dolayhyde’s story.
Dolarhyde is a tragic villain. While I have always understood the sympathetic
villain, this was the first time I understood how the past truly shapes the villain, and in many
ways, the villain is still living in the past. By killing “happy families”
taking special care with the mother—Dolarhyde is returning to his childhood and
the rejections he faced early on by his mother. Dolarhyde would have been just
another monster with a so-sad childhood if he hadn’t been made human by his
affection for a blind colleague. In that relationship, we see how he wants so
badly to be loved for who he is, not only identified by his physical handicap.
That gives him depth of character that few villains achieve in fiction.

And it’s something I constantly strive for.

A villain has specific goals. Murder is not the goal. Murder is the means to an
end. Very few villains kill simply to kill. It's the feeling the murder gives
them, or how they felt before, during, or after the crime that is A goal, but
it may not be the ONLY goal. That Dolarhyde breaks the mirrors in his victim’s
homes; that he kills the children quickly and without pain (or little pain) but
makes the mother’s suffer, is all significant. But what is his goal? Revenge
for how his mother treated him? No. His goal was more a manifestation, from a
physical monster into a beautiful creature; the more “beautiful” he became in
his mind (i.e. turning into the Red Dragon) the more of a monster he became in
real life. But his goal was ultimately to be reborn. (Though again, that’s just
my opinion, and there are other valid commentaries on this story.) And there's also the cruel dead grandmother, and a bit of PSYCHO in the story, but in an even more twisted (and fantastic) way. So we are left with the question that if Dolarhyde's beautiful mother didn't leave him because of his physical deformity (which is actually quite minor) with his cruel grandmother, and if his cruel grandmother didn't abuse him physically and emotionally, would he have turned into a psychopath and killed complete families? Or was that his destiny? The ultimate question I could argue on both sides: is a killer born or made? Nature or nurture?

In KILLING FEAR, my villain's goal is not to kill, but to feel. He has never had a
real human emotion–he can't. He was born without empathy or feelings. He
learns early on that he receives a physical adrenalin rush when he causes pain
to others–either emotional pain or physical pain. Over time this escalates. He
attempts to satisfy his need for adrenalin by becoming involved in extreme
sports–and for a time that works. But over time, even those challenges are
lacking. That he kills is incidental. Yes, he enjoys it but not for the killing
part. He needs to kill to receive that physical rush—the adrenalin which is a
FEELING–by watching the terrified faces of his victims. He lives vicariously
through the emotions of others. (An example of NATURE creating a killer.)

In SUDDEN DEATH, I ended up challenging myself and trying something beyond what I believed I was capable of. I have two villains. (I’m not giving anything away because by the end of the first chapter you know that there are two villains), but one of the
villains is insane. In my first draft, I didn’t get into his head because, to
be honest, I was scared to. I’d never gone into the head of a villain who
really was not truly there. I had no idea how to do it. But my editor felt that
if I wrote the scenes from his POV rather than his killing partner’s POV they
would be more powerful. So I read up on certain disorders and how someone
“snaps” and why, and how they function on a day-to-day basis. I realized as I
got into his head that he would have killed himself before he killed anyone
else. I had to deal with that knowledge—so his partner ultimately stops him
from killing himself, and that changed everything. I could feel his pain and
conflict, why he killed and what he thought he’d get out of it, and what he
really got out of it. It was a difficult exercise for me because I’d never done
it before with that deranged a character. Most of my killers were logical (in
their mind) and because of that, I could understand them. Ethan is not logical.
His partner, however, is. (An example of NURTURE–or rather, unusual circumstances in Ethan's adulthood–that turned him into a killer.)

Of course, you'll want to know exactly why your villain is committing this particular crime.
What happened in the past? Had his mother cheated on his father? His father on
his mother? Or maybe his ex-wife cheated on him. Was he sexually abused as a child? Physically? Emotionally? Many kids are tragically abused and never grow up to be serial killers or predators; what makes your villain snap? Why him and not others? Most serial killers (but not all) were subjected to abuse by one or both parents (or step-parents.) Most (but not all) serial killers display some sadistic tendencies as children or young teens (setting fires, killing small animals, etc.) Another obvious conflict with
villains is that most of them don't want to be caught. Most villains want to
remain free to continue their dastardly deeds. That is an internal
conflict–their need for killing is greater than their need for freedom, but
their need for freedom will make them cautious and provide valuable tools for
the author to make them smart. Dumb criminals are caught. Dumb criminals do not
make interesting, or worthy, villains.

The Hero's Journey is a valuable tool for your writer’s tool chest. If you remember that the villain is the hero of his OWN journey, your bad guy will
be richer–and scarier–for it. But it's not just the "bad guy"–it's
any antagonist in your story. WHY characters do things, even minor characters,
is important to know, so if you can identify where they are on their personal
journey, it'll help enrich your story. This isn't to say every character needs
a backstory on the page, but every character needs a backstory in your mind.

Remember, Joseph Campbell said that the Hero has a Thousand Faces; don't forget that the
villain has a thousand faces, too.

Take chances and put yourself in ALL your character's shoes. You'll be surprised at
how much richer your story will be.

Some articles about the hero's journey:

Extract from the Writers Journey

On Wikipedia:
Steps of the Journey

Villains People Love to Hate
By Lee Masterson

Villains from
the Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy
— Some great stuff even if
you're not writing fantasy.

And THE WRITERS JOURNEY by Vogler is still, IMO, the single best condensed explanation
for The Hero’s Journey and universal storytelling in general. Campbell is the master, but his books are also dense and detailed and I've never been able to get through all of them. Vogler boils it all down to the key elements. And frankly, I'm lazy. I like Vogler's conversational tone. I don't have to think too hard :) 

So, other than Hannibal Lecter, who’s your favorite novel or movie villain and why?

And guess what? I got extra ARCs for SUDDEN DEATH. This is huge for me, because I usually get five or six; I have over 25. I'd love to send one to a Murderati friend, so please comment and I'll randomly pick a winner.

After Creating

By Allison Brennan

Writing a story is about creation. Writers write. We put to paper stories that play out in our heads. Some authors hear their stories, some authors see their stories. Some even feel the story and put that emotion to paper. I'm a visual author. I see the story unfold and write what I see through the viewpoint character.

When I first started writing, I didn't have a viewpoint character. The narrator was me, the author. Only through writing–practice, practice, practice!–and discovering my natural voice did I fall into my rhythm. I learned to become my viewpoint character. So if I'm in the heroine's POV, I see, think, and feel as the heroine. Ditto for the villain. Getting into character is part of creating the story. And since I don't plot, I learn a lot about my characters as the story unfolds, until the end of the book when I finally see them as complete, whole individuals with full backstories.

I love the creating part of writing–the discovery, the frantic typing, showing everything that's happening as I try to figure out what's going on within my imaginary world. This is the part of writing where errors don't matter, where the right word is the first word that comes to mind. It's meeting a new best friend, or a worst enemy, and learning everything about them and more. I see it all and do my best to get it down as clearly as possible.

I'm done with that part of FATAL SECRETS, my June book. A few days late, but done. The story is all out there, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Now comes revising.

Before I sold–well, to be honest, up through book five–I always edited before I sent the book to my editor. I had the time, and I didn't know how to do it any different. Dump the story out, then clean it up–finding those right words, cutting repetition, smoothing transitions, deleting subplots that went nowhere, adding scenes to better tell the story. But because my publication schedule was moved up for the No Evil trilogy, I had to write the last book of that trilogy on a tight deadline, giving me no time to edit. Essentially, I was forced to change my process.

I thought it would be hugely difficult for me to change. I contemplated plotting but the thought of plotting out a book before writing it causes me to break out in a sweat and all ideas quickly disappear. It was with that book, FEAR NO EVIL, that I started editing as I went.

I write a net 5-20 pages a day, five days a week (seven when in crunch time.) The next day, I edit what I wrote the day before–sometimes deleting huge chunks, sometimes just tweaking, sometimes adding in a complete scene. It can take an hour, it can take four hours. But the result is a tighter manuscript . . . which is important because I now only write one draft before I send the book to my editor.

I suppose one draft is a misnomer because I often write (and rewrite and rewrite) the first 100-125 pages (what Alex would call the First Act) three or four times before I can move to the rest of the story. (Damn that Road of Trials! It delays me every time.) The first quarter of the book takes me as long to write as the last three-quarters. Some people will claim it's because I haven't plotted my book out, but I'd argue that I'm simply trying to find my characters unique voices and backstory. Once I have a sense of character–essentially, once I've been in their shoes enough to truly know them as well as I know myself–the rest isn't as difficult. (I will never say "easy." It's never easy, and every book is in many ways harder than the previous book. I now see my weaknesses more clearly, but don't always know how to fix them.)

This is why after creating the story I'm comfortable sending it off, flawed, to my editor. She knows I don't have a critique partner or first reader–she's my first reader. It's tight, it's clean, but it's flawed. Some of the problems I can sense, but some of them I can't–I'm so invested in the story and the characters I can't even see that there is a problem.

I always do revisions. I WANT revisions. If my editor told me something I wrote was perfect or the problems so minor I could fix them in copyedits, I would panic and fear they were abandoning me. My stories are not perfect, I can always make them better. This is why I don't read my books after they are published–I know I would see flaws or want to change something or cringe at using the same adjective on two consecutive pages.

A good editor, in my opinion, will show you the problems in the story without telling you how to fix them. She will see the overall story, the direction, the characters, the feeling and then look at each scene and character in context and point out where the strengths of the story are and the weaknesses. Then let you, the author, fix the problems with your own voice and style and solutions. Often, editors are brilliant in seeing the problems but can't see the solution.

Case in point: during my editorial conversation on THE KILL, my third book, my editor commented that the climax was too short–that there was all this great build-up, but then they captured the bad guy too quickly. During the scene, my heroine is being held at gunpoint and forced to drive the car to help the bad guy escape. The hero and another cop are following. My editor suggested to prolong the scene, my heroine should go for the gun.

The thing is, my heroine would NEVER go for the gun. It's not in her character and to have her do so would, IMO, have be unrealistic. But I tried. I took a water pistol and role-played with my husband. Me driving, him holding the gun on me. No matter WHAT I did, I ended up dead (or soaked, since we were using a water pistol.) I fretted over this scene because now that my editor mentioned that it was anti-climatic, I saw the flaws as she saw them–but her solution wasn't working.

I played the scene over and over and put myself in Olivia's shoes and . . . it came to me. What was her goal? To escape. She was in the car with a psychopath and she knew that she would be dead. This man killed her sister and dozens of other girls over thirty years. He was disciplined and focused and he would kill her because she'd thwarted him. And she's not an FBI agent. She's a scientist, a lab technician, not a cop. 

So being Olivia, the thing she WOULD do is slam on the brakes to throw the bad guy off balance and jump from the car, planning on rolling away so that if he shoots at her there's less chance of being hit. And she knows that there are two cops in a car right behind her, so the chances that the bad guy would get away were slim to none.

So she slams on the brakes while opening her drivers side door. The bad guy is thrown against the dashboard. He drops the gun with the impact. She leaps from the car . . . and he grabs her, pulls her back inside, and has a knife in his hand. The knife goes to her throat and he nicks her, the sharp cut burning, her blood dripping down her chest, onto her white shirt. And the scene, instead of ending, has really just begun.

I've started my revisions for FATAL SECRETS, which are pretty straight-forward. But that doesn't mean they're easy. And, though the story is staying exactly the same, I'll need to touch every scene–from minor tweaks to major deletions and additions.

There are four primary problems I need to address: 1) my heroine's backstory is too dense and unclear. I need to lose some of the history and make the rest clear and focused and germane to the current story. As we discussed her character, I saw the flaws then everything clicked into place and I "got it." Ironically, it's all there in the story–I just need to bring it to the surface.
2) Sub-plots. There are three sub-plots, but only two tie in nicely with the main story. The third was going someplace, but it never got there . . . yet I didn't see it. My editor did. When she pointed it out, I had two choices–I could make it tie in (which would have been forced) or dump it. I'm choosing to dump it. For the other two sub-plots, they have all the elements there I just need to tie up the loose ends better. Since I tend to write much faster as I turn into the third act, I sometimes neglect wrapping up the subplots. It's a flaw of mine that I know exists, but I can't seem to see it even when I KNOW it's there somewhere. 3) Villain. My editor loves my villains and always wants more of them. She brought up a great point that this story really has two villains, and I did a "bait and switch" in the middle which she felt cheated her. She wants my bad guy's POV sooner. It's already "there" just off the page–I have the aftermath of a brutal double murder. She wants to see it from the killer's POV. And add in another scene if possible. As I've looked at the story, I see where I can cut and add to weave in his POV earlier. 4) Ending. Every book–EVERY book–no matter how good or bad I think my ending is (and I knew this one was rushed, so I expected this) she wants me to draw it out, expand it. Sort of like in THE KILL, I build up to a great confrontation, but in my excitement that I FINALLY have everything figured out, I often miss the details.

So there you have it, revisions. I honestly love revisions and believe that all stories are stronger under the tutelage of a good editor. Some writers hate revisions, or fight them. I have friends who never have revisions, and I wonder if they are just better writers than me. And that's fine, seriously. I happen to love the revising part of writing as much as the writing part of writing. After creating the characters and the story, going back and making them everything they can be . . . well, it's quite a heady experience. 

But the other thing about a good editor is that when you don't agree with a flaw–if she can't convince you that there is a problem–you can keep your original vision. In my acknowledgments for THE HUNT, my second book but the book that had the most revisions of all mine to date, I wrote:

"Football coach Ara Parseghian said: 'A good coach will make his players see what they can be rather than what they are.' I would be remiss if I did not first thank my editor, Charlotte Herscher, who not only showed me the potential of this story but let me find my own path to The End."

But my way doesn't work for everyone–I know some people would be apoplectic if they submitted material they knew wasn't the best they could make it. Before that crunch book #6, I had a process that worked very well for me. Because I have more time with the first two books of my Seven Deadly Sins series, I'm going back to this process after finishing the Sacramento FBI Trilogy.

1) Create. Write the book, dump it out, warts and all. (Because I have been editing as I go, I doubt I can completely give that up, but I'm going to do less of it.)

2) Sit on the book. Take at least a week away from the story and work on something completely different–a short story, an article, a proposal, or the first pages of the next book.

3) Revise on hard copy–edit, clean, hone, delete, add, tighten. 

4) Put all the changes into the computer copy and further tweak and tighten the story.

5) Send to my editor and eagerly await her editorial letter. Because I know that whatever I write can be stronger.

Some other editing tips:

1) Edit in a different format from how you created the story. If you type in 12 pt courier double-spaced, print it out in TNR and edit on hard copy. If you wrote long hand, edit on the computer. Sometimes just changing the font and leading on the computer screen helps when you're in editing mode.

2) Let time pass between creating and editing. This helps take you away from the story (writers tend to get really close to the story and characters and read things on the page that aren't actually there . . . ) and gives you the distance to edit with a more critical mind.

3) Read the book out loud. At the minimum, read the dialogue. In the page proof stage–the final time I see the book before it gets printed–I read the entire book out loud. Because I see the story more than hear the story, doing this final "listen" helps find flaws I'd never see otherwise. What "sounds" right might be different than what is technically right. This is also where I find slippage in character voice, repetitive word use, and awkward phrasing that I didn't catch in the copyedits (or inadvertently added during that process!)

4) Find your ideal reader. This may be your editor, your agent, your best friend who isn't a writer, or your closest writing buddy. Someone you trust, someone who will look at the overall story and tell you what works and what doesn't work for them. Even Stephen King sends his books out to a group of readers (all friends) . . . but he trusts one of them more than anyone else (his wife.) In the end, though, YOU, the author, must make the final decision, even if your reader(s) disagree. Because it's your name on the book and it's your story. Weigh the advice, but trust your instincts. 

The book that took me the longest to write (a year) had the most revisions. Time isn't necessarily your friend because you CAN revise the heart and magic out of your story. You have to know when to let go, when to send the puppy off. It's not easy. You want to tweak, you want to make it perfect, you want your best shot. And no matter how many times you go through the manuscript, you worry and fear that it is a piece of shit. We all do. I panic every time I send my book in. It's not until I read the page proofs that I even THINK that it book isn't complete garbage. 

When you have a deadline, it's a lot easier to let the book go because, well, they're paying you to let go. But before you sell? Not so easy. Because there isn't a deadline, you're not being paid, and you're thinking . . . one more read through. There might be more typos, there might be a poor word choice . . . but you'll tweak and edit and tweak some more and the story will be so familiar to you that you may start cutting the heart out of it.

I revised my first manuscript completely six times. It was . . . pretty damn bad from the very beginning (stalker–TWO stalkers, one for the hero and one for the heroine– a rapist, espionage, a psychopath, a couple hostage situations, financial fraud, kidnapping, a frame, murder . . . it was really thee books in one, and then some!) But it was better after the first edit than it was after the sixth edit. I never sold that book, and I'll never go back to it. But I learned so much from that experience that it certainly wasn't a waste of time. 

Someone said, and I can't remember who, that "writing is rewriting." I completely agree.

I miss Veronica Mars

By Allison Brennan


Last year my young teen daughters and I watched all three
seasons of Veronica Mars on DVD. If you’re not familiar with the short-lived
television series, it’s essentially a smart, modern-day Nancy Drew with wry wit
and sharp dialogue. It’s one of the few shows that appeals to both adults and
teens and the single best series I’ve found to stimulate conversations with my
older kids about the real, everyday dangers they face as young people in the
world today. The cancellation of this show was truly sad-the stories were
fantastic, the acting terrific, and it tightened the generation gap.

From Wikipedia:

“Veronica Mars is . . . a balance of murder mystery,
high school and college drama . . . featur[ing] social commentary with sarcasm
and off-beat humor in a style often compared to film noir. Set in the fictional
town of Neptune, Veronica Mars starred Kristen Bell as the title character, a
student who progressed from high school to college during the series while
moonlighting as a private investigator under the wing of her detective father.
Episodes have a distinct structure: Veronica solves a different “case of
the week” while continually trying to solve a season-long mystery.”

The show didn’t sugarcoat conflict, though humor and
irony were often used. Topics like date rape, cheating, drugs, child
molestation and teen-age drinking were handled in both an entertaining and
thought-provoking way.

For example, part of Veronica’s backstory was that she
was drugged with GHB the year before the show began. She never told anyone
about it, because she didn’t remember anything-except that she was no longer a
virgin. As the story unfolded over the first season, we learned that someone slipped
the drug in her drink and handed it to her. At a big party, you often don’t
know where your drinks are coming from. My oldest daughter was floored, and
said she’d never accept a drink from anyone again-she’d open the can or bottle herself
and not let it out of her sight.

In one episode, Carmen comes to Veronica when her
ex-boyfriend Tad blackmails her with a video he took with his phone of her
sucking a popsicle in a sexually explicit manner. She’s terrified he’ll follow
through with his threats to post the video on the Internet. After watching this
episode, my oldest daughter finally got it. She was nearly 14 at the time, in
8th grade, and didn’t understand why I wouldn’t let her have a MySpace page or
a computer in her bedroom.

It’s not about trusting my daughter-who wants to be a
cop, is a dedicated athlete, and lives by the mantra: “my body is my temple”-it’s
about everyone else in the world. Even your friends. Because all it takes is
one pissed off friend to take an innocuous (or not so-innocuous but ‘fun’)
image or video and send it to everyone’s cell phone, or post it on the

As I told her, “Once it’s out there, you can never
get it back.”

They’re kids. We hope that we raise them with enough
common sense and street smarts so that when they’re eighteen they’ll make the
right decisions. They’ll screw up sometimes, but until they’re eighteen parents
need to establish some ground rules because some mistakes have
long-lasting and far-reaching consequences. And today, if it’s caught on camera, everyone in the world will know about it in eight seconds flat.

Kids don’t think parents know anything. We obviously know more than they think, but times
do change. When I was a teen, “date rape” was essentially pressuring and manipulating girls
to have sex–not drugging them into forced compliance. Alcohol, marijuana and
occasionally cocaine was the drug of choice in my high school, not heroin and
meth and eXtasy. I never had to walk through a metal detector at school; now more public high schools in major cities–and some in suburbia–have them than don’t. Even many younger grade schools. I had earthquake drills; my kids have lockdown drills.

This is why I miss Veronica Mars. It connected me with my
teens in a way no other television program has done. When we talked about
Carmen being caught on video, my oldest daughter finally understood why I didn’t
want her photos posted online. Why I didn’t want her to send her best friend a
completely innocuous picture on her cell phone of her in three different
bikinis when she couldn’t decide which one to buy. Do you want that picture
sent to every boy in your school? Forwarded to every friend with a cell
phone? Do you want people you’ve never met to see you at the movie theater or a
ballgame and know your name and how you look practically naked?

We have to take charge-parents and the teens of today. The
police have more than enough on their plate to not add to it teens voluntarily
meeting up with predators and being manipulated into sex, raped, murdered, or
trafficked. Honestly, they have to prioritize their cases and focus on the hard
core child pornography–kids under the age of 14 who have been sexually
exploited and abused. Even then, the caseload is staggering: an April 2008
Washington Post article
revealed the results of a thirty-month long sting in
Virginia where child pornography-explicit sexual material with minors under the
age of 14-was found on 20,000 private computers. Those computers were
responsible for over 200,000 individual transactions. In one state alone. And only the public files shared with undercover cops. These are a small percentage
of the hard-core child pornography out there being shared by pedophiles and
perverts, estimated at less than 20% in just this one operation. Extrapolate
that to fifty states and you can see there is an epidemic of such huge scope
it’s mind-blowing.

When you add in the sexual harassment of teens online,
the numbers are even more terrifying. Law enforcement can’t take care of it
all. If every cop in the country
worked 24/7 stopping online child pornography, they still wouldn’t be able to solve a
fraction of the hard core cases.

It’s up to parents and teachers and communities and
churches to educate our kids and hope that they get smart. Many of the assaults
that result from online chats or places like MySpace are because a victim
willingly agrees to meet their attacker-thinking that they’ll be safe. We have
to teach them to protect themselves and make smart choices.

The FBI produced two public service announcements. They
don’t have the money to pay for the advertising, so it’s up to individual
television stations to play them as PSAs-which is usually in the wee hours of
the morning. They’re each only 60 seconds. They’re worth watching. They’re worth sharing with your kids. (I posted the links in case I messed up the YouTube embedding thing.)

Everybody Knows Your Name

Bulletin Board

I’m not the strictest parent on the planet, but there are
some unbreakable rules in our house:

1) No computers, tvs or video games in the bedrooms. We
have two computers in the den which the kids can use, plus my computer and my
husband’s computer. It benefits parents to learn technology and learn how to track histories, even when kids learn how to delete history.

2) I get all passwords to all accounts, email or
otherwise. Cell phones are a privilege. Abuse of cell phone texting, i.e.
anything profane or sexually explicit, the phone will be disconnected. I don’t
check daily, but I spot check. Sort of “surprise inspection” time. I have taken away the cell phone before. And my kids know I will do it again.

3) No personal information on line. No chat rooms or IM with anyone they do not personally know from school or sports.

The last is actually the hardest to enforce. Even if your
kids obey, you have no control over what their friends post. This is why
education is so important. Even if your kids are being 100% safe, you can be
assured that either they’ll mess up (deliberately or by accident) or their friends
aren’t being safe. I have no qualms talking about these subjects with my kids’ friends. If their parents have a problem with me discussing it, they’re welcome to call me and I’ll be happy to share statistics and facts of which they’re likely not aware.

One last story . . . my oldest daughter accidentally switched two numbers when texting a friend of hers from school. Someone responded. They went back and forth 2 or 3 times, then she said, “Who’s this?” because she thought something was off. The other person teased back without telling her, so she typed, “I thought you were someone else. Don’t text me again.” He persisted. She ignored him. Then she gets a call from the number and doesn’t answer it. She’s scared. She has a voice message. She listens to the voice mail–it’s a mother yelling at her for texting a nine-year-old boy.

I called that mother. I explained what happened, and that my daughter is a minor in high school and didn’t know she’d typed a number in wrong. At first the mom was upset, then she calmed down. She didn’t cast any blame on her son, however; she was certain that his older step brother was somehow responsible.

I didn’t say what I wanted to say, which was, why does your NINE YEAR OLD have a cell phone with TEXTING??? Okay, maybe I’m being judgmental, but I don’t see the purpose. There are phones that you can program to call only a couple numbers if you’re really concerned about reaching your younger children. But seriously. Nine? And I thought my second grader was exaggerating when he said half the kids in his class had cell phones. Maybe he wasn’t.

Okay, now this really is the last story . . . when I was at the FBI Citizen’s Academy, the SSA in charge of child cybercrime said that if you let your daughter have a webcam on her computer, in less than six months there will be naked pictures of her on the internet. Predators are good at lying, manipulating, and convincing teens to do almost anything in the “privacy” of their own bedroom.

Talk, listen, and enforce. As I tell my kids–take everything you read online as a possible lie–if he says he’s a 17-year-old high school junior from Texas, it’s a 50/50 chance he’s not.

And maybe someday, a show like Veronica Mars will return. But until then, don’t wait to talk about the tough subjects with your teens.

Twilight Craze

Brennan #2, my seventh grade daughter, is a prolific reader. She's always been a good reader, but when she was eight-and-a-half, I gave her the first three SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS books for Christmas. She loved them. Why? Because "bad things happened." After pushing her, I finally understood what she meant. There wasn't a happy ending, per se–she couldn't predict how the story was going to go.

When you're young, every ending is a happy ending. Fairy tales end with the prince and princess riding off in the sunset, and your parents assure you that even though Nemo was flushed down the sink in the dentists office, he's going to be okay.

So for her ninth birthday I gave her the rest of the series, except the last two that hadn't come out at the time. She read them that summer. And thus began Brennan #2's lust for reading.

I buy a lot of books I intend to read, but never do. Two of them were A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY by Libba Bray and TWILIGHT by Stephanie Meyer.

I gave both books to Brennan #1. Okay, this was a mistake. I know that my oldest daughter, the serious athlete and social butterfly, doesn't care much for reading. Oh, when she finds something that grabs her, she'll sit down and read it straight through–she loved Gena Showalter's Teenage Alien Huntress series (Gena's coming out with another YA series from HQN in 09/10) and she devoured R.L. Stine's "Fear Street" series.

(Aside: I met R.L. Stine at Thrillerfest this past July and, being pushy, I introduced myself and told him my daughter–who is not a big reader–loved his Fear Street series. He blinked, astonished. Told me he wrote those so long ago he was surprised they were still for sale. Thought about it and nodded. "Right. I had teenagers then. That's why I killed a lot of them in those books.")

But Brennan #1 wants action–on the first page. If you don't grab her immediately, she's gone, grabbing her constantly vibrating cell phone to make sure she doesn't miss anything. This is very much like her personality–as an athlete, she thrives in action–she wants to be on the court, anticipating, jumping, working for the point. She plays volleyball and basketball and even though she's not the tallest on either team, she is one of the strongest players because she's dedicated and involved.

Brennan #2 has that same dedication and involvement with her books. Having read all the books on her shelves, she  came across A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY last summer and read it. In three days. It's a meaty book, over 400 pages. So I bought her the next one, REBEL ANGELS, which was 600 pages. She finished it in less than a week. She was practically dying for the third book . . . which came out a few months later and she said that A SWEET FAR THING is her favorite book of all time.

Now, I've never given up on #1. I mean, I'm a reader AND a writer, dammit, I expect all my kids to read. I kept pushing TWILIGHT on her. "All my friends say it's great," I would say. She'd look. "It about vampires. Yuck." This, from the teenager who, along with Brennan #2 and myself, loves the television series SUPERNATURAL. But I couldn't argue with her. To me, vampires are evil. Like . . . SALEM'S LOT by Stephen King. They're the bad guys. It's why I don't read vampire romances or any book where there's a good demon. Remember ANIMAL FARM? I just can't get it out of my head: two legs good, four legs bad. Demons and vampires–bad.

I digress.

So TWILIGHT makes the move, unread, from our old house to our new house. The movie is announced. #2 picks up the book. I ask her if she's going to read it. "No, everyone's already read it, I don't want to be the last person to read it. It's popular. I probably won't like it. I don't want to read it because everyone else is reading it."

But the movie is imminent. She really wants to see the movie. But she wants to read the book first. She goes back and forth. Then two weeks ago, she picks up the book and starts to read it.

She can not put it down. 

She's halfway finished and says, "Mom, please, please, please order me the next book because I'm almost done and I have to read it."

So being a good mom, I order her all three. #2 (NEW MOON) and #4 (BREAKING DAWN) come two days later from AMAZON, but #3 (ECLIPSE) is not in the box. It's being shipped separately.

Again, these are meaty books, but Brennan #2 is undaunted. She dives into NEW MOON and read it over the weekend. Then she panics. ECLIPSE has not arrived. She's going through withdrawl. She begs me to take her to Borders so she can buy it. But, I tell her, it's coming from Amazon. She makes me check the status. It's at the routing center. What if they lose it? What if it doesn't come tomorrow? What will she do because she has nothing to read tonight???

When the book came–on Tuesday before Thanksgiving–she sat down and started reading. Finished it on Thanksgiving. She was thrilled, because on Friday we planned to see the movie.

So, I haven't read the books and I was going to the movie because she's my daughter and she was excited. We brought one of her friends–who, like me, hadn't read the book. The friend and I both enjoyed the movie. It's a romance with a twist.

Bella Swan is a 17 year old girl who's never quite felt like she's fit in. She's quiet, down-to-earth, and hates the cold, dark and wet. When her mother remarries, she moves from Phoenix to Washington State to live with her dad, the Chief of Police–another quiet, down-to-earth person. She falls for Edward Cullen, a vampire 100+ years old. In this vampire legend, the vampires are essentially superheroes–they can run faster than a speeding bullet, leap tall trees with a single bound, and some of them can see the future or read people's thoughts. The Cullen's are vegetarians–they only drink animal blood. Not all vampires are so . . . healthy.


But from a story point of view, I enjoyed the conflict. Edward will never grow old. Bella will. It's a soulmate type story–Bella's scent attracts Edward, and she's the only person he can't read their thoughts. He's loyal, protective, and dedicated. He'll defend her to the death, always a nobel trait in a hero. Even better, he's tortured. Women love tortured heroes. Give me Joe Pike any day.

Bella's the consummate heroine, feeling safe and trusting him even when he tells her he doesn't know if he can stop himself from sucking her blood.

Okay, okay, I really have a problem with vampire stories, but seriously, the movie wasn't bad. I could buy into the myth because it was compelling and it was true to itself. Stephanie Meyer created a world with certain rules and those rules were met and in that meeting, there was great conflict. But all I could think about when Edward was staring at Bella was "STALKER! STALKER! RUN AWAY! RUN AWAY!" While Bella didn't commit any blatantly TSTL moves (until the end when she did the classic TSTL heroine move and agree to meet the bad guy without telling the hero . . . I really hate that) I still felt kind of creeped out by the whole falling in love with a vampire thing.


So the movie is over, and #2's friend and I are thinking it was pretty good (she loved it–it was a teenage romance!; I was thinking, okay, it wasn't a waste of $10.25.) I asked my daughter who had just read and loved
the books.

She was disappointed. So I pushed. Why? Though I knew–and I had warned her–that movies from well-loved books never (or rarely) met expectations.

So much was left out. She was expecting that, but . . . it left a hole for her. "They talked a lot more," she said. I pointed out that people didn't like to go to the movies just to hear two people talk. (I sure don't.) She understood that, but . . . while they didn't really change the story overall, they moved things around, the secondary characters played less of a role in the movie, and the villains (such as they were–the bad vampires) didn't really show up until near the end of the book. And apparently, someone dies in the movie who doesn't die until book #2, and he didn't die the same way.

She doesn't know if she was glad she saw it. But already, she started reading the last book and wants to finish it tomorrow before she has to go back to school.

It's hard for me to complain. She's read over 2,500 pages in the last two weeks and still managed to get a B on her math test. Even if she has been so quiet we forget she's around.

After she told me her disappointment and the differences (which I had to pull out of her because she was afraid she'd ruin the book for me, so I assured her I had no time to add the books to my towering TBR piles . . . ) I started thinking about books I'd read and whether I had seen the movies . . . or not. 

I realized that I shy away from movies if I've loved the book, unless it's something I read ages ago (such as reading I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER as a young teen and watching it as an adult.) It came down to THE SHINING with Jack Nicholson. I was pissed off at the ending of that movie. As a die hard Stephen King fan, I'd read the book and expected the story to go the same way. I understand that books are more detailed, you get more backstory, more STORY itself, but I expect the major points of the story to be the same.

And I HATE it when someone dies in the movie who didn't die in the book . . . and vice versa. And they did that in THE SHINING. Up until Act Three (see Alex? I can talk story structure too! Ha!) I could accept the minor story changes. But they tossed the book in Act Three leaving me angry and frustrated.

I've seen several movies where I haven't read the book–HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN 10 DAYS–or watched the movie THEN read the book–BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES–and enjoyed both. Because the movie is the shell, and the book is the meat. So to see the movie first, you can enrich the story with the book . . . but to read the book, you already have it all, and the movie is a pale imitation, hollow, and generally unsatisfying.

There are some exceptions. MISERY, for example. That was one book . . . and movie . . . where I enjoyed both. And THE PRINCESS BRIDE (though I did NOT like how the movie handle the Zoo of Death.) Another thing I've noticed, since I've read most of Stephen King's short stories, is that the shorter the book or story, the better the movie. Perhaps because there's less story and more room for the screenwriter and director to develop the characters while keeping the story true to the author's vision (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and 1408 come to mind as being equal to or superior on film than in written form.)

But in general, I just avoid all movies if I've read–and liked–the book. It's safer that way.

Brennan #2 learned that lesson. Books are books. Movies and movies. And it's a rare movie made from a novel that is as satisfying as the original story. 

Of course, if anyone in Hollywood wants to option any of my books . . . I'm listening. 😉

So what do you think? Any books-to-movies you loved? Hated? Refuse to see? What about TWILIGHT? Love it or hate it? And in case you didn't notice, books make GREAT gifts. You might turn a child into a life-time reader . . . with just the right book.

Is the New York Times Biased?

By Allison Brennan

I had debated against writing this blog two weeks ago because I didn’t want it to come across as sour grapes. I actually wrote another blog for today, one about smart women in fiction vs. stereotyped femme fatales and bimbos. But as I was preparing my next “lesson” for the online group I’m teaching this month, I put together some statistics about bestseller lists and something jumped out at me. I may be making a few enemies, but at this point, I think someone needs to publicly talk about bestseller lists in general, and the New York Times in particular.

Nothing I say here is proof of anything. It’s just a comparison of the major bestseller lists for October 2007 and October 2008 and something in them that I think is odd. Coupled with the fact that the New York Times does not share how they compile their bestseller lists makes the whole process shadowy. We know, for example, that USA Today gets their numbers from very specific places, and we know that Walmart does not report to USA Today, for example. USA Today rankings most closely resemble the Bookscan numbers which is compiled from point-of-sale (POS) transactions weekly. Bookscan claims to track about 70-80% of all book purchases, and that may be true, but they certainly don’t track 70% of mass market sales. If you are a mass market author selling at Walmart, Bookscan reflects closer to 20-25% of your sales for the first quarter, and over a twelve month period maybe 35-40% of sales. Plus or minus. Because every author and distribution plan is unique.

In addition, different books and authors are released every month and every year so to do a proper analysis of the lists someone with more time and resources than me should pull together every list for the last three years with an algorithm to give an average % of books by genre that are released each month and when in the month. I’m sure some sharp statistician would know what to do; that would not be me.

I’m just looking at raw numbers. And I wasn’t going to write the article not just because of sour grapes, but because I know that publishing is fluid: there may be a glut of romance novels one month, and fewer the next month. But when I looked at the NYT, PW and USAT, something jumped out that made me think that I’m right. And JT’s “genre wars” rant got me thinking that if there was no genre designation, my theory wouldn’t hold any water because there’d be no genre designation in the files.

My theory?

The New York Times and Publishers Weekly use roughly the same formula for figuring out bestsellers, and that formula is biased against romance.

Playing Dead is my second bestselling title based on the first eight weeks of sales (Killing Fear is the first.) Playing Dead (10/08) sold more than twice as many copies opening week as Fear No Evil (4/07) which debuted at #10 on the New York Times list.

We all know that the month of release is hugely important: who is the competition? So to go up or down on the list is not a problem because one month might have a glut of bestsellers. For example, March 07 was a heavy-hitter month and I told my agent that if I was going to hit the print list, I had to do it with my Feb 07 book (Speak No Evil) because See No Evil in March had much more competition-both the number of releases and the heavy-hitter authors. Speak came out #14, See #20. And See had higher opening week numbers. So the ups and downs of the lists is no surprise to me and honestly doesn’t bother me: as long as my sales are doing well and my publisher is happy, I’m happy.

Walmart is hugely important for mass market authors. First, Walmart customers buy a lot of books, but because they are cost conscious, they buy mostly mass markets. Walmart offers very few hardcovers, and those on their shelves are the mega-sellers like King, Grisham, Roberts, Rowling, and Evanovich. Mass markets dominate their book aisle, discounted by a dollar or more. At some point at the end of 2007, Walmart stopped reporting sales to the New York Times. I don’t know if anyone knows why, but it happened and everyone in the business knows it. Around May of 2008, Walmart started reporting again.

But the lists were not the same.

The New York Times does not share with anyone how it compiles its bestseller lists. The general consensus is that they send out a list with pre-printed titles that are most likely to sell well. (How they come up with that list I have no idea.) They send it to a large sampling of booksellers and other retailers where books are a major item in the store. These people fill it out with sales information and return them. (This may be done online now-again, I have no idea . . . maybe a bookseller reader here knows more than I do?)

They do acknowledge that they adjust the numbers to represent a statistical sampling of all such stores.

I had always felt, as a mass market original author, that the NYT weighted their lists and gave more weight to books sold at independent stores than to books sold at mass merchandisers like Walmart. And that may very well be the case-we don’t know because they won’t say.

But whatever they did in the past, they changed it. In the past, the system may have been weighted slightly against romance novels, but since romance makes up 50% of mass market sales, and 39% of all fiction sales according to the RomStat report issued by Romance Writers of America we all know the genre is strong. (Note: The RWA research firm has changed and the last RomStat report is looking at other factors so there is no good comparison in numbers, though they reported that Romance is the leading fiction genre and is growing as a percent of market share even with the slowing economy.)

Playing Dead, which sold twice as many copies opening week as Fear No Evil eighteen months before, debuted at #26 on the NYT list and #37 on the USAT list. I could dismiss the poor NYT slot as being released in a competitive month (October.) And I would have, except that I’m really curious and did a comparison of publicly available information.

With the exception of my debut novel, The Prey, which had one week on the extended list, all my books have enjoyed 3-4 weeks on the NYT list. Until Playing Dead. It fell off after one week.

Week Two: Playing Dead was still in the Top 50 of USA Today (46), so I was optimistic that I’d stay on the NYT another week. Since USAT tracks point-of-sale I figured the book was doing well, even with the slight opening week drop from Killing Fear. (After all, our economy is in the tank.) But I fell off the list–and I’ll admit, I was surprised.

I think what really irked me is that the titles that bookended me on USAT (at numbers 45 and 47) were numbers 4 and 11 respectively on NYT. This was the first real clue that something wacky was going on. Full disclosure: #4 was a romance title that I know sells very well at the major chain bookstores and online. I don’t know if it was at Walmart-I sent my mom out to investigate and she didn’t see it at two Walmarts, but that doesn’t mean much because sometimes buys are regional, or it could have been sold out. I don’t know.

But just looking at the raw numbers told me that something was off. The following week, seven titles that were lower than me on USAT (I was at #55 that week) were on the print NYT list. I wasn’t even on the extended.

So, until tonight, this was all I had. And I looked at the facts and knew that it sounded like sour grapes and complaining. And it’s not. Seriously, every author that hit the NYT list deserves it and I’m honestly happy for them. It’s like entering a contest. All the finalists are great and deserve it-but we all know that there are other great books out there that didn’t make it for one reason or another that’s more subjective based on judging than anything else.

But the NYT claims to represent the bestselling books in the country. At the minimum they should tell their readers how they compile the list, and what has changed in the past year.

Why do I think something has changed?

In October 2007, romance novels (based on RWA membership-there could have been additional romance novels that hit who weren’t RWA members, such as Nicholas Sparks) enjoyed more weeks on the NYT and PW bestseller lists than in October of 2008:

1 – 24
2 – 28
3 – 26
4 – 22
TOTAL: 100


1 – 9
2 – 9
3 – 8
4 – 6
5 – 4*

1 – 16
2 – 14
3 – 21
4 – 16


1 – 3
2 – 6
3 – 8
4 – 6

* PW tabulates differently than the NYT and had five weeks for October. To make it as fair as possible, I didn’t count week 5 for PW in the numbers-but it doesn’t seem to affect the numbers. If I did include it, it proves my point even more.

* Also, these numbers reflect hardcover, trade, and mass market bestsellers-the NYT and PW lists tabulate book release formats separately; USAT has all books-fiction and non-fiction, hardcover and paper, adult and children-on the same list. To be fair, I included all formats tracked.

* FYI: The NYT list comprises their top 35 bestsellers by format in h/c, trade, and mass market; PW is top 15 by format; USAT is top 150 ranked across all formats and genres.

* While this may not include ALL romance titles, it’s comparing apples to apples, ie RWA members for all lists.

There was a 33% reduction in romance list weeks in the NYT and a nearly 30% reduction in PW (if I’m doing my math correctly. And if I add in the 5th PW week because they use different days, then it’s almost dead-on the same percentage as the NYT reduction.)

Looking at this means nothing, really, because like I said above the lists are compiled from books selling that week. If there are fewer new romance releases, then the numbers will go down.

But when we look at USA Today, we see something completely different:


1 – 24
2 – 15
3 – 10
4 – 13


1 – 25
2 – 25
3 – 21
4 – 20

This is a nearly a 25% increase in romance title weeks on the USAT bestseller lists in these same months.

All I want is to know how these lists are compiled. Is the USAT list a true POS comparison? Can it be if they don’t include Walmart? And is the NYT intentionally, or through their statistical methodology, discriminating against romance novels?

And does it matter?

I would argue it does matter, but perhaps not as much once you can use the NYT bestseller designation on your books. Most readers don’t know or care how the lists are compiled. My sales may continue to increase and I may never hit the print list again, but because I have hit it in the past I can use NYT on my books. Yet, the industry perception may be that my career has hit a stumbling block. It won’t matter that my sales are strong and increasing, I’m not hitting * the * list. It may down the road affect distribution with vendors and wholesalers who look at the stats and wonder what’s up.

Honestly, the only thing that really matters is the bottom line. I know many authors who have consistently sold well over a long period of time, outselling many of the bestselling authors while they themselves have never hit a list.

But who it really hurts are the midlist romance writers trying to breakout and touch the holy grail . . . to be able to call themselves a New York Times bestselling author.

I just want to know what that means.

Stop Talking to Yourself, Mom

By Allison Brennan

“He was up and down like a restless puppy, alternately snapping out directives and singing lyrics. She didn’t know how anyone could get any work done that way. But she also knew he not only could, he had to.”

If we were all the same, we’d all be very boring. We don’t all like the same movies, television shows, books, or people. We don’t agree about politics, religion, or who should win the World Series. If we did, life would be dull and we’d walk around like robots.

Writers don’t write the same way. Some of us don’t like outlines or plots or any sort of real organization. Some of us need to plan down to which characters will be in every scene. Most of us are somewhere in between.

Some writers love the words themselves, how words become phrases and phrases complete thoughts. The cadence of the words that make up the story is as important as the story itself. For others, the words mean nothing without the story behind them.

Some writers take a year-or more-to craft their novel. Others, a few weeks. In his book ON WRITING, Stephen King says, “I believe the first draft of a book-even a long one-should take no more than three months, the length of a season.” He goes on to say he writes every day, and likes to write ten pages (about 2,000 words) which is 180,000 words at the end of three months.

The point is, some brilliant writers write one book a year . . . or every five years. Some writers write one book a season. It doesn’t make the former too slow or the latter too fast. It means that is how the stories come out.

I write fast. Once I get going and the characters take over and I stop trying to play God, I write as fast as I can to get the story out there.

It’s not pretty.

My first draft can be a bit of a mess. I edit as I go, so it’s pretty clean, but I don’t labor over the details. My transitions are rough, my setting is minimal, and half the time I forget to describe my characters. (I know what they look like, I rarely think to put it on paper until my editor mentions it.) If I need to research something that isn’t plot critical, I’ll put in XXX and keep writing. I can’t be slowed down to look up the name of a military base in Texas when it’s a minor backstory detail because I know that the minute I google the information, I’ll be online for an hour. That’s what revisions are for-at least for me. My first draft may come fast, but revisions take me just as long.

I don’t plot. No outlines, no plans, and I rarely know how everything is going to come together. It’s not unusual for me to be on page 450 of my projected 500 page manuscript, panicked, because I don’t know how my hero is going to stay alive. Yet, I’m constantly thinking about the book 24/7. Even in my sleep. Especially in my sleep. When I have a plot problem, if I’m thinking about it when I go to bed, nine times out of ten I have the solution when I wake up. If I don’t, it means that I went in the wrong direction, so I backtrack and try to figure out where I screwed up in the story.

I didn’t realize I was talking to myself, though. Thank God for hands-free cell phones-now I hope people assume I’m talking to someone over Bluetooth, not that I’m talking to my characters (or arguing with them.)

My son was five when he first said, “Mommy, why are you talking to yourself?”

Of course I denied it. I wasn’t talking to myself. Don’t be silly. So I turned up the music and started whispering. He still caught me.

“Mommy, I can see your lips moving in the rearview mirror.”

Damn smart kid.

I may not plot, but I do think a book to death. My characters walk on the stage fully formed, or I have to drag them out kicking and screaming. I picture a dozen opening scenes, discarding some, keeping others. I go back and forth until it hits me the best starting place. Sometimes it’s easier than others-with PLAYING DEAD I knew the first chapter was Claire’s father, a fugitive, confronting her and asking for her help. Sometimes it’s harder-with TEMPTING EVIL I wrote a half-dozen opening chapters before I settled on the beginning . . . and THEN that ended up being Chapter Three after revisions . . . after the teaser was printed in the back of KILLING FEAR . . .

As I’ve said before on Alex’s brilliant blog posts, I always get stuck at the beginning of Act Two . . . I cross the threshold and then WHAM! Can’t seem to find the Road of Trials . . .

For example, in SUDDEN DEATH (my April 09 book), I wrote crap for two months. 150 pages over and over because I couldn’t get past this one point. I was really worried because I actually had a lot of time to write this book, but now I was down to the wire . . . then I went off the Thrillerfest. I wrote on the plane, but it still wasn’t working. I tried to write during the conference, but was having too much fun (when I’m loving the story and it’s working, I can write anywhere, anytime-I wrote 60 pages at RT a couple years ago and they became the opening of SEE NO EVIL.) Then I got on the plane to go home and WHAM! It hit me. I knew what the problem was. I had a preconceived notion of backstory between Jack and Megan. I thought they’d known each other in the past. But every time I put them on the same page, it wasn’t working.

So I deleted everything but the first two chapters and wrote straight through for three weeks and finished the book before I left of RWA at the end of July.

Sure, there were some rough spots. And really, it wasn’t three weeks, because I was thinking about this dang story for three months before I even started writing. I also have a very kind, forgiving editor who just circles my XXX that I didn’t have time to research. And most important, I always expect a round of revisions. I want revisions. Why? Because no matter how good the story is-and the first two-thirds of SUDDEN DEATH was very tight when I sent it in-a good editor can help make a book better.

For example, in SUDDEN DEATH I have a killer who is truly mentally ill. He’s not right in the head. Therefore, I didn’t get into his head-I picked, instead, his partner who was sane. Much easier. My editor pointed out an obvious flaw-because the sane killer had her own covert plan, it wasn’t realistic that when I was in her head she wouldn’t be thinking about it.


But I was scared to go into the head of someone who was insane. I’d never done that before. I’m talking about someone who really sees things, who really is not all there. His memory is not reliable . . . but my editor pushed me to do it because she said (rightfully) that it would really take the story to the next level. So I did it. It wasn’t easy, but it worked (I hope.) It was a challenge, and I pushed myself. And no matter what happens with the book, I’m proud of how that character evolved from a two-dimensional stereotype to a real person.

I’m not afraid to revise. In fact, I thrive on it. I’m also not afraid to delete. I tell people I deleted nearly 150 pages and they look at me like I’m crazy, or they start to hyperventilate because they can’t imagine deleting so much work. It’s not fun, but I don’t sweat over it. I’ve deleted twice as much . . . before I sold, I was thinking about my next project after I wrote a science-fiction romantic suspense (that didn’t sell.) I read some of the beginnings I had stashed away and came across a story I had called THE COPYCAT KILLER. The opening chapter was good, and the second chapter wasn’t bad, then the book completely deteriorated . . . 300 pages of total crap. Yep, you read that right . . . it’s not a typo. Three Hundred Pages. I deleted them all. Started with the foundation of those two chapters and wrote a completely different story.

That book became THE PREY, my debut novel.

Every writer has a different process. We have to work at our own pace. If I was given a year to write a book, I’d think about it a lot, but I wouldn’t actually start writing it until about eight weeks before it was due. I know me. I’m the person who waits until April 12th to start inputting my receipts into Quickbooks, then stays up until 2 a.m. three nights in a row because I have far more receipts that I thought . . .

My supernatural thriller series that launches in 2010 . . . I had the idea in August of 2003. In fact, I wrote the first couple chapters then, and have been thinking about the story for more than five years. I wasn’t ready to write it then; now I’m itching to get to it because it’s all clicked in my head. Would you say the book took five years to write . . . or three months?

I may be able to write and revise a book in eight weeks, but I couldn’t write six books a year. Why? Because I need that thinking time. I need to talk to myself, I need to sleep on plot problems. I need to get into the heads of my characters and see what makes them tick. I need to write and delete, write and revise, then think some more. That takes time. Writing time? Not so much. Thinking time? Absolutely. And if with the thinking comes some solo verbal communication, so be it.

And if my kids think that I’m a bit strange because I talk to myself, that’s not my problem. I’m writing.

Sex and Violence

By Allison Brennan

Now that I have your attention . . .

When JT asked me to come up with a tagline for the Murderati site, I was at a loss. I simply couldn’t come up with something as witty as the pun comma sutra, or the cool double meaning of ghost writer. As the only romantic suspense writer here, I decided to simply tell it like it is: sex and violence.

My books have a little sex, a lot of violence, and bad stuff happens. My disclaimer is that they are “Rated R” whenever someone asks me about my books in a non-book related setting (for example, I’d never say this at RWA or Thrillerfest unless someone specifically asked.) But when I’m at my kids school, or at church, or even at the grocery store when my favorite checker tells everyone in line about my books (see why she’s my favorite?), I stick with my standard line.

This habit came about when a friend of mine, a woman a few years younger than my mom, was thrilled for me when I sold and wanted to read my book. She’s a huge fan of Nora Roberts, was so excited that I had written a romantic suspense novel, and told everyone about my books-she has a lot of friends. So of course I gave her an Advanced Reading Copy. She read it and emailed me a week later saying that while she enjoyed the book, but she had to skip the sex scenes which were more graphic than Nora wrote, and said “I think of you like a daughter. It made me uncomfortable.”

I appreciated that, but then I thought, wait-my mom reads ALL my books!

Mystery readers who like my books tell me they skip the sex scenes, too. I just smile and nod, but inside I’m scratching my head. The scenes are there for a reason-to show the emotional connection between two people, as well as to both resolve and create conflict in the story. Much like sex in real life. It’s not gratuitous, or there “just” to sell books, as I’ve been accused of (as if selling books is a bad thing!)

Then I get the emails from people who don’t like that bad things happen to good people. Sometimes, I want to say, “Bad stuff happens.” (Well, I really what to say sh*t happens but figure this is a PG blog.) Bad stuff happens because that’s the story. I’m really sorry that Lucy Kincaid was hurt in my book Fear No Evil. I’m thrilled that readers became so attached to her that they cared what happened to her and were worried about her. But if she didn’t get hurt, the story wouldn’t have been the same. It wasn’t the book I was writing.

And then the people who simply think I’m a closet psychopath because I can even conceive of such ideas in the first place. As if I have control over my imagination. If I actually had fantasies about killing people, I certainly wouldn’t put them in print first!

I try to maintain a balance. The sex scenes serve a purpose in the story to raise the stakes, add characterization, solve problems, and increase conflict. The violence . . . ditto. I show it because it happens and I want the reader to care about the resolution, to empathize with the victim. If I wanted to write a cozy mystery, then I’d write a cozy mystery. I’ve chosen to lay it all out there on the page because I like a solid dose of reality in my fiction. I like it when people email me and say that my characters feel like real people, that they come alive off the page. Well, sometimes these emails scare me, like those who ask me what my characters are like in REAL life. :/

There are some who feel that writing stories with sex and violence-and especially movies with sex and violence-spread said activities. That violent shows beget violent behavior. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that romance novels are fantasies that distort a woman’s perception of relationships. Yes, they are a fantasy, but to have a man love you for who you are and be faithful is a distortion? Well, sorry, I’ll cling to that fantasy as being ideal, thank you very much.

Human beings are violent. We are sexual creatures. Obviously, both activities can go to the extreme and be dangerous to ourselves or to others. But I don’t buy into the philosophy that sex and violence in media-television, movies, or books-has increased sex and violence in our culture. There’s been plenty of both, long before commercial books and movies existed. Cain slew Abel, after all; hordes of people watched gladiators fight to the death; and men have paid prostitutes for sex before there was online pornography.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a point where gratuitous sex and violence doesn’t have an impact on society. I do think that our acceptance threshold is higher-meaning, it takes a lot more to shock us. I believe strongly in keeping kids young and innocent for as long as possible . . . yet at the same time, to keep them safe we still have to warn them about bad people. In an episode of CSI that aired a few years ago, Catherine Willows young teenage daughter was making some bad choices in her life. A girl of the same age was murdered, and Catherine–who at first feared the victim was her own daughter–took Lindsay to the morgue to show her what could happen if she didn’t get her act together. Several characters on the show criticized Catherine for this action, but I applauded her. Damn straight–your kids start going down the wrong path, there’s nothing wrong with showing them what could happen. It’s the same philosophy as bringing a wrecked car to a high school before grad night–look kids, don’t drink and drive, you could have died in this car. Other kids did–kids who won’t be going on to college because of one stupid decision.

Well, I segued into a completely different topic! Back to commercial fiction. Sex and violence . . . there are lots of books out there-statistics vary depending on whether you include non-fiction or vanity press and others-but because of the marketplace, more publishers are trying to fill more niches. And I know not everyone wants to read books with sex and violence-I’m okay with that. In fact, when I need a break from writing and reading my favorite genre, I’ll pick up a romantic comedy, still one of my favorite genres to read . . . maybe because I can’t write it.

But my books are Rated R, and I have to forewarn people, at least in certain situations. My personal disclaimer so I don’t get any more emails from friends who were scared spitless at the violence or whose face turned scarlet during the sex.

I ask you: do you think that violence and sex in media (either books or movies) propagates violence and sex in society? Are we just so desensitized to it that to sell more books and tickets, writers and directors are upping the stakes to shock us?

Fear of Speeches

By Allison Brennan

I love public speaking. I’ve done it many times, not only as an author, but during my previous life in public policy.

But I’m scared to death of having to write a speech. The only thing I can attribute this fear to is my dislike of plotting.

I don’t plot. I don’t plot my books, I don’t plot out my life. I have a vague sense of my career goals just like I have a vague sense of what’s going to happen in my stories. Why plan it all out? As Stephen King says in his book ON WRITING, “Why be such a control freak?”

While I can appreciate and learn from Alex Sokoloff’s fabulous and informative presentations on story structure-and I really love reading craft-related writing books-when if comes to my own writing, I can’t shape it into a structure beforehand. The story comes out one word at a time, and I learn about my characters and what’s happening in the plot pretty much as I write.

Most writers are rather middle-of-the-road when it comes to plotting. They have a rough outline, maybe a few key plot points, perhaps a couple paragraphs about the main characters. They might not have a clear roadmap, but they know the general direction they’re headed and have all the major intersections and turns identified.

Extreme plotters need to start with a detailed outline. They can’t even get behind the wheel unless they know where they’re going, how they are going to get there, and every gas station, restaurant, and hotel on the way. They often have spreadsheets, a detailed scene-by-scene written outline, and sometimes even character charts. They’ll know not only where they are going, but where they’ve been. They can’t even type CHAPTER ONE until that map is complete, and they keep their GPS open and functioning all the time.

I jump into the car, turn the ignition and start driving. Sometimes I go too slow and push myself to speed up; other times I’m in a race for the finish line and have to force myself to slow down. Sometimes I go down the wrong road and have to make a 180; sometimes I go down the wrong side street and find myself in a dark alley with no way out – but then there’s a Dumpster and I jump on it. Pull myself up on a ledge, throw myself onto the fire escape, climb up, leap into an open window and I have no idea where I’m headed, but the journey is more fun than terrifying. (Though there’s a lot of fear as well.)

When I present a writing workshop, I never go in over-prepared. In fact, I rarely go in with more than a couple of bullet points. Every time I give a workshop, it’s completely different-even if it’s the same material I’ve discussed before. That keeps it fun and interesting for me.

Workshops are interactive. They’re personal. I can read expressions in the audience, their body language, figure out whether I’m failing dismally or they’re interested. I ask questions of the audience, try to gauge what they want, play off their questions to me. I’m spontaneous and go off on wild tangents with stories that somewhat relate to the subject. But in the end, they seem to go pretty well-so for me, it works. And they came to my workshop because they wanted to be there. It’s not like I chained them to their chair, right?

But a year ago, I committed to something I’ve never done before. I’m giving the closing speech at the Emerald City Writers Conference in Seattle on Sunday. Speech. Speech implies a plan, words written done on paper that I will read or memorize and quote. Right? This isn’t a toast at a wedding where everyone taps on their champagne glasses and shouts, “Speech! Speech!” and expect you to be spontaneous. This is more like being the pastor and reading correctly from the book otherwise the couple might not actually be married during the reception . . .

I wasn’t worried about this until recently. In fact, I had no intention of writing an actual speech. I figured sure, I needed more than five bullet points–maybe ten–and a couple writing quotes that I can extrapolate on and relate to the writing life. I said as much to my friend Margie Lawson, a fantastic speaker and terrific teacher.

She looked at me and said, “You need a theme.”

I stared blankly. “Theme? What’s a theme? I don’t have themes.”

She laughed. She thought I was joking. “Sure you do. All your books have themes. A speech is no different.”

My books have themes? Really? “They do?”

“Of course they do.” Her smile faltered. I knew that she’d read at least some of my books because she’s used them in her writing classes. So if she thought I had a theme, wow. She probably knew what a theme was. She probably knew what my theme was.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines theme as: 1 a: a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation

Well. Duh. Who needs a word for it? Of course I have a theme. Once I get to the end of the book, I know what it is. Sort of. If put on the spot. With a knife to my throat. Sure. I got it.

To me, theme is like branding. I have no idea what my “brand” is. I’ve taken FOUR online or workshop classes about branding and still have no idea how to define my brand. When told one instructor that my brand was dark romantic thrillers, she informed me that was my genre, not my brand.

Getting back to Margie . . . so I need a theme. She gave me one (thank you!) She said because I was the closing speaker, I should be motivational, to rally the troops so-to-speak, to send them forth into the world to write!

Great! I had a theme, I was done. I could motivate. I motivate my kids to clean their rooms.

“Clean your room and we’ll go out for ice cream.”


“Clean your room or no video games (or cell phone or television or computer, depending on the kid) for a week.”

The room gets clean. I know how to motivate!

But that wasn’t enough for Margie.

“You have to write a speech.”

“That sounds like plotting.”

“It’s not plotting. It’s writing a speech.”

“I don’t plot.”

“It’s a speech.”

A close version of this conversation took place in June. I’ve been stressed ever since.

Except for a short time during the RWA conference. I gave a speech to the Kiss of Death chapter (those of us writing romantic suspense.) It was a speech. I had five bullet points, no written or practiced speech. It went well, I’ve been told. (Unless they were being kind because I know 1001 ways to kill people. But I’ve never done it personally.)

Then I heard the incomparable Victoria Alexander speak at the luncheon and I knew I could never do that. She was funny, poignant, poised, perfect.

On the Levy bus tour I shared my fear with my good friend Roxanne St. Claire (at least, she was my good friend until she said . . . )

“You have to write a speech.”

“Define write.”

“What’s your theme?”

Aw! That I knew. Margie had given it to me in Colorado. “To motivate.”

She looked at me strangely. That was a theme, I assured her. Something positive and uplifting.

“Okay,” she said. “Write your motivational speech. Edit it. Read it out loud over and over and over until you know it so well you don’t even need to look at it. You’ll be great. Just practice, time it, and then print it out in large font in case you need to look down for a moment to figure out where you are. But you’ll know it so well you won’t even need to look down, as long as you practice.”

“I don’t have the time.” I wasn’t joking.

“I promise you’ll do great if you follow this formula. You’ll do as good as Victoria Alexander. Trust me. She wrote that speech and practiced it.”

And I knew that was true, because I talked to friends of hers who told me they listened to her read the speech over the phone the night before she gave it.

I began to stress again. Not a little tickle of doubt, but brain-numbing panic.

I started my June 09 book last week. It’s been slow going-I wrote and deleted the first chapter four times, but I think I have it down. At least, the opening paragraphs are strong and I’m finally starting in the right place. But I know that part of the reason I’ve been struggling is because I’m scared about the speech I haven’t written.

I need to write it.

I don’t want to write it.

I want to wing it.

Two people I like and trust told me I can’t wing it.

Ironically, I’m not scared of speaking. I stood up at Thrillerfest in July and winged my way through the Awards Ceremony with only the names of my judges that I had torn off a printed email. But I’m scared of writing a speech.

So I’ve decided to do something in between winging and rehearsing. It’s the only way I can keep my sanity, and finish my book by deadline. I spent yesterday pouring over my favorite craft books and pulling out quotes that are motivational and uplifting. I printed out all my motivational lectures from online workshops I’ve given over the last couple of years. I put everything into a folder, stuck it in my laptop case, and am forgetting about it. When I’m on the plane Friday afternoon, I’ll take everything out and (shiver) write talking points. I think I even have a theme, something a bit more focused than “to motivate.” I’m going to talk about fear. I think. At least, that’s the direction the quotes I’m pulling are sending me.

Might have something to do with the fact that I’m scared myself, but I’m still going to Seattle and speaking in front of 250 people.

Because that’s what professionals do. We acknowledge the fear, toss back a shot of tequila (or smoke or pray or all of the above), and perform.

How do you handle your fears?

Why I Love Romantic Suspense

by Allison Brennan

I’m on the road in Michigan, part of the Levy Home Entertainment Read This! Bus Tour. We’ve visited six Meijer stores in the last two days, and we have three more today (Sunday.) There’s a fantastic mix of 27 authors from memoir/true crime (Chip St. Clair) to humorous mysteries (Leslie Langley) to sexy paranormal (Gena Showalter) to historical romance (Kathryn Caskie) to romantic thrillers (Jordan Dane) to thrillers (Tom Grace.) There’s many more, you can go here to see the schedule and author list. So, please forgive me if I neglect responding to posts until I’m dumped at the airport later this evening.

I had considered writing about my experience with United losing my luggage, but decided everyone has a lost luggage story and I did get it, about thirty hours after my plane landed. So I’m going on with my previously scheduled topic: why I write romantic suspense.

Like most writers, I am an avid reader. I started light – Encyclopedia Brown, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew – but by the time I was eleven, I’d discovered my mom’s vast Agatha Christie and Ed McBain collections.

But two things happened on my way to becoming a mystery writer.

First, I discovered Stephen King. I was thirteen, the book was THE STAND. Two days later, I felt like I’d discovered the world. This was a book that had everything: suspense, mystery, great characters and the highest stakes of all: saving the world.

I devoured every King book I could find, but to this day, THE STAND remains my favorite. The second time I read it while in college (which is a feat for me because I rarely re-read books) I realized that it was more than the suspense and stakes that kept me enthralled, it was the relationships between the characters. Flawed and so real they walked off the page, I discovered that it wasn’t just saving the world that mattered; it was saving the ones your love. The relationship between Stu and Frannie was as important as any other plot point in the book, and without it, the story would have lost that personal connection with readers that takes a good book and makes it great.

It was after dropping out of college that I started reading romance. I came home to visit my mom and pulled a few books off her shelf. Who I discovered was Nora Roberts through her Bantam romantic suspense titles. HOT ICE, CARNAL INNOCENCE, and DIVINE EVIL, among others. I was hooked. These were the books I had been waiting for: romantic suspense. Character driven stories with a crime or suspense component. Books where bad things happened and you turned the pages as fast as you could, but in the end, the good guys always won, and the girl always gets the guy.

I read every romantic suspense or romance novel with even a hint of mystery that I could get my hands on. I also discovered lighter, humorous romances with quirky characters and found them so much fun to read: Jennifer Crusie and Susan Elizabeth Phillips come to mind.

I had fallen in love with romance . . . in danger. To me, romantic thrillers were the best of both worlds. Two people who both come together because of evil, and are almost torn apart by that evil.

I love romance because I want a happy ending. True love should win over adversity if the hero and heroine are worthy. They need to earn it, because nothing easily achieved is truly appreciated. But I also love thrillers because they are physical–fear causes pounding hearts and shaking hands.

Together romance plus suspense is a natural. It gives the satisfaction of seeing two worthy people triumph over a very real evil in order to live happily ever after, with themselves and with each other. In a romantic suspense there will be a happily ever after-that is the story promise-but the danger must be real. There should be doubt. There should be the belief that maybe-just maybe-evil will win. Until the very end, the reader should fear that the hero or heroine may fail. That they could die and the villain will succeed.

Romantic suspense is a vast genre. There’s something for everyone–heavy romance-driven RS to heavy suspense-driven RS and everything in between. You have light and fun mysteries all the way to dark and edgy thrillers; the romance may be a major plot point or a smaller plot point, but the relationship between the hero and heroine is always integral to the story.

If you don’t doubt, cringe, worry, fear, it’s not suspense. Suspense is personal. It could happen to you. When you’re in love, everything matters more. When the life of your loved one is in jeopardy, you will do things you never thought yourself capable of. Because the stakes are higher, the happily-ever-after is all the more sweet.

When I committed myself to pursue a writing career (in March 2002) and actually finish one of the over 100 novels I’d begun, I didn’t even question what I would write. Though I was told by more than one person that the romantic suspense market was "dead" or "difficult," it was all I wanted to write. It took me a couple books to find my voice, which was a lot darker and scarier than I thought. Hmm, perhaps influenced a bit by Stephen King and Dean Koontz . . . but fortunately, the villain gets what’s coming to him, the hero and heroine survive–and are together–at the end of the book, and while bad things happen, justice is always served. Because real life isn’t always so happy.

Okay, now for my news . . . the PLAYING DEAD book trailer is done and on my website–which has a new title page– and it’s also on YouTube. I figured out how to embed it in a blog. Isn’t that cool? Who’da thunk I was that proficient. (Boy, I hope this works . . . . )

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