Category Archives: Allison Brennan

Anatomy of a Superficial Novel

Anatomy of a Superficial Novel

By Allison Brennan

Some writers sell their first completed manuscript. I wasn't one of them. I sold my fifth.

When I speak to non-writing groups (and, unfortunately, some writing groups) and share that fact, they're surprised. Why did it take me so many books? Why didn't I self-publish if NY didn't see my genius? Why didn't I rewrite my first book to make it better? My husband told me once that he would have rewritten and edited and tweaked his first book until it sold or he was dead.

If I had done that with HOT LATTE, I'd be dead before I found a publisher.

I told this story over drinks at the PASIC conference to Toni and Roxanne St. Claire–the talented writer of the Bulletcatchers romantic suspense series. Rocki stared at me, mouth open, and said, "YOU–YOU Allison Brennan–actually wrote a book called HOT LATTE?!?!"

I had a good reason. Every morning my heroine walked to the local coffeehouse and ordered a hot latte. Duh. 

HOT LATTE was a romantic suspense. It had all the elements of a romantic suspense novel–and then some. I wrote it in three months, edited it, proofread it, and thought it would certainly land me an agent and sell. Because, after all, FINISHING a book was certainly the hardest part of writing! (Stop laughing. Now. I mean it, Toni.)

I sent out over fifty queries to agents I'd "pre-qualified"–I didn't know anything about writers groups or critique groups. I was ignorant of most things, except I did know that I shouldn't pay to get my book read or published. I actually found the Preditors & Editors site before I heard of RWA! So my pre-qualifications were kind of limited–they couldn't charge fees, they couldn't be "not recommended" by P&E, and they needed to be looking for romantic suspense. (After this first set of queries, I greatly improved my querying system! But this was my first book.)

After I sent the queries, confident that I would get an offer, I started on my next book. I had a lot of rejections, but that was ok–already, I knew my new book was a better story. I wanted to have it done before I had that contract in hand, so I'd have another book all ready for my new publisher.

Oh, the joys of ignorance.

I ended up with one request for a full manuscript. I was elated. Certainly she loved my voice, and all it takes is one person (well, two if you count the editor who will buy it . . . )

I sent that puppy off, with a nice cover page, an SASE (though I suspected she'd call if she was offering representation, so we could chat), and hope. I mentioned in a new cover letter that she'd requested the manuscript, and I was almost done with my second novel–PROTECTING HART–(Dammit, Toni, if you don't stop laughing at me . . . ) and would she like to see that too?

A few weeks later, I received my SASE. The agent had enclosed my cover letter (attached to writers classes that she and her agenting partner offered–be wary, scams come in many shapes and sizes!) with one word double-underlined:


Fortunately, I have a pretty thick skin. While the scant criticism stung, I had already finished my second novel and had started querying that one. (And no, I never sent another query to that agent again. But recently, said agent asked if I could do her a favor by speaking at a small, regional writers conference because she was a great admirer of my work. Saying no felt really good. Is that petty?)

I have since analyzed my first completed manuscript and "superficial" is the last thing I'd call it. Convoluted, messy, poorly written–yes. But there was a plot–a whole lotta plot–that changed the boundaries of "six degrees of separation" theory to, I don't know, two degrees of separation . . .

If I were writing my logline for HOT LATTE today, I'd have something like this:

Seattle detective investigating a string of serial rapes that take a sudden deadly turn, he realizes that his new, sexy neighbor alarmingly fits the profile–and the web of attacks is getting closer to home.

Okay, that's rough, but it doesn't sound TOO bad, right?

Except that the book had so much . . . more. In fact, it had EVERYTHING.

Romantic Suspense–120,000 words
By Allison Brennan

Leah Cavanaugh is a virgin. (Dammit, I know that hysterical laugh is coming from Alex this time . . . )

Leah works from home, the top floor of a Victorian flat, for a Seattle-based computer company similar to Microsoft. Her primary job is computer security–monitoring the network, testing new security protocols, etc. (I know nothing about this, I made it all up–didn't even know enough to know I knew nothing.) She hears a noise in the vacant second floor apartment. Because even then I couldn't stand too-stupid-to-live females, I didn't have her investigate. She called the police. (Yeah!) Except then she remembered her first floor elderly neighbors, the owners of the building, and she feared they would be hurt or injured by the evil intruder. So grabbing a baseball bat, she ventures downstairs, not wanting to confront anyone, but to get to her neighbors so she could be with them until the police arrived. (Don't ask me why she didn't call.) The intruder is in the stairwell and she hits him; he attacks. Just to defend himself, mind you, because he is after all a cop and the new tenant.

Ta-da. A classic romantic suspense set-up.

The opening chapter wasn't bad, which is probably why I got that request for a full and finaled in a contest.

It gets worse. A whole lot worse.

  • Det. Mark Travis, sex crimes, moved to the apartment because he was being stalked by his psychotic ex-girlfriend. He got a restraining order against her when she went all Fatal Attraction on him, and he's embarrassed by it.
  • Leah is a virgin. Mark is a womanizer.
  • Leah was engaged to a charming VP in her company, who she learned was having an affair. She broke off the engagement.
  • Leah's best friend is the kind VP colleague of her cheating ex.
  • The kind friend discovers someone is stealing secrets from the company, and Leah is tasked with figuring out who it is.
  • Meanwhile, Mark and his partner Dave are investigating a string of rapes. Now one of the victims is dead.
  • Leah goes to a coffeehouse every morning (remember: HOT LATTE. As if anyone could forget . . . ) The guy behind the counter is infatuated with her.
  • We learn soon that he's stalking her.
  • Mark and Leah start talking. They're attracted. They kiss. (This takes about 100 pages, there's a lot of other stuff going on! Corporate espionage, stalking, police work . . . ) 
  • Mark's ex-girlfriend tracks him down and sees him kiss Leah. She plans revenge.
  • Leah's ex-boyfriend turns out to be the one stealing secrets. She turns him in. He disappears.
  • Someone trashes Leah's apartment. (It's Mark's ex-girlfriend, but they don't know that.) 
  • Leah's stalker sees a confrontation between Mark and his ex. 
  • Leah moves into the rectory with her brother, an ex-Marine turned priest. (No one laugh–in SUDDEN DEATH I used this too, only he was ex-special operations turned priest. And it worked this time . . . ) 
  • Mark continues his investigation and begins to suspect that Leah is in danger because of the physical victimology and because the pattern of attacks is getting closer to her apartment, spiraling in. 
  • Her ex tracks her down with his two partners in crime. He's furious she foiled his plans and wants her to break into the payroll system and transfer payroll to his Swiss bank account before it's direct deposited into employee accounts. She refuses. He shoots her brother. Peter is dying and she's forced to help. 
  • Mark and his partner come in and rescue them, arrest the bad guys. 
  • Mark and Leah have sex. 
  • He tells her his theory. She doesn't believe him. He suspects her "kind" friend in the company. She's furious.
  • The stalker breaks into Mark's apartment and steals a knife. He kills Mark's ex-girlfriend and frames him.
  • Mark's arrested and put in jail. 
  • The stalker kidnaps Leah. Takes her to his house. She tries to escape, but fails. He returns, re-captures her, and takes her to a cabin in the Cascades because he learned the police had found his identity.
  • Mark's partner helps prove he couldn't have killed the ex. They learn Leah is missing. 
  • Because of the investigation that's been going on, Mark figures out the killer had to be the guy at the coffeehouse. They go to his house–no one is there. 
  • Except the killer's mother, who's long-dead in her bedroom. (Yeah, yeah, I know. Don't say it.) 
  • They have evidence Leah was there; through property records track down the cabin.
  • Surround it. 
  • The killer wants to get married. He sets up a fake wedding and makes Leah wear a wedding dress. 
  • Bedlam ensues. Mark rescues Leah, but I think Leah ends up killing the stalker–I don't remember. It's been seven years . . .   

Is it any surprise the book was 120K words? It had virtually every element that romantic suspense has–all in one book! No wonder I thought I was brilliant. ROFLOL.

And I didn't even tell you about the crime scenes. Suffice it to say . . . I had some timely memories from previous victims to help Mark figure out Leah was in jeopardy.

Murder, rape, stalking, corporate espionage, virgins, jilted lovers, sex–HOT LATTE had it all. And then some.

I've used many of these elements in future books: Seattle setting/sex crimes detective (THE KILL); stalker/rapist (SPEAK NO EVIL); psychotic ex-girlfriend (KILLING FEAR); ex-soldier priest (SUDDEN DEATH). They work much better solo . . .

I've never regretted writing this book, even though it never sold (and it never SHOULD sell.) I learned so much about story, about pacing, characters, and suspense. Writing HOT LATTE helped me develop my voice. There are some things in that book that are still true for me today:

  • I always develop a villains POV.
  • I usually have at least one law enforcement/investigator as a protagonist. 
  • I have a hero and heroine, they get to have sex, and they survive by the end of the book. (Really, the very basic frame of all romantic thrillers.) 
  • I love writing romantic suspense. 

I'm finishing my twelfth romantic thriller now. After, I'll be doing something a little different, but sometimes authors need to flex their writing muscle after writing similar books, or we get burned out. I don't want to be burned out, I want to love what I write, so this diversion into supernatural evil rather than human evil will be a welcome change.

I've been thinking a lot about debut novels. My debut was THE PREY (my fifth completed manuscript.) Because I enjoy being mentally tortured, I read my reviews. Most people think that my books have gotten better, with minor exceptions. (My mom is always honest with her opinion!) Some people love THE PREY and my first trilogy, and pretty much think everything I've written since is crap. But one review for THE PREY recently said something very interesting:

I have to be honest; If this had been the first Brennan novel I've read, I probably would have enjoyed it more. But because I've read her more recent work, I found this one lacking.

I don't regret writing and publishing THE PREY. I love the story. But I happen to agree with this reviewer. If I wrote that story today, there are some things I would have done different. Not major story points, but there are some scenes that didn't need to be in the book, and others I should have written. I would have limited the introspection more (during revisions, my editor asked for introspection in a variety of places. In hindsight, she didn't want them in EVERY space–she just wanted more depth. I went overboard.) And I would have made my heroine more sympathetic. She was too cold, I think. (But she had good reason!)

I'm proud of the book because it was my first publishable book. Not the first book I wrote, but the first book that was good enough to see print. But like HOT LATTE and PROTECTING HART where I learned about story elements and structure and pacing, I have learned a lot since writing my first trilogy. And I think most authors will agree that, with some exceptions, they've improved.

It's only when we get bored with our stories do they lose the spark that make our books appeal to their rightful audience.

What do you think? Have your favorite authors gotten better? Stayed about the same? Disintegrated into a pile of mush? Do others feel the same, or was it just you?

As an author, do you feel you've improved? Did you sell your first book? Tenth? If you didn't sell your first book, knowing what you know today about your voice and writing, be honest: is that book publishable? Could it be salvaged? Or is it a valuable lesson learned that helped you become the author you are today?

I didn't have my trailer up and ready for my last post, but this time I did something a little different: I advertised the entire trilogy in one trailer. (Yes, I know, book trailers don't sell books–but I still love doing them, so I tell myself it's because I want to give something back to my readers. But I do it for me first, just like I write.)

Dual Personalities

By Allison Brennan

Toni and I are at a writer's conference in New York (PASIC–the published author chapter of RWA) and one of the great things about this conference is that because we're all published authors, so we tend to talk about issues that we're all grappling with as published authors of all levels, from #1 New York Times Bestsellers to debut authors.

One discussion point that came up several times was writing in two or more genres: when can you do it, how should you do it, does it help or hurt and should you take a pen name.

There are as many opinions as their are authors.

When romance writers are talking about writing in a second genre, it's usually taking a second genre within the broader romance genre. For example, a historical author also writing contemporary romantic suspense. Sometimes, however, it's a contemporary romance writer who decides to write a mystery series.

One of the hurdles we face is the possibility of ticking off our core readers. If we venture too far off the reservation, we risk losing our base. If we lose our base without gaining new readers, we're toast. This is why many authors take a pen name–it's a way of distinguishing between the two "types" of books. Nora Roberts/JD Robb are one in the same, but Nora Roberts is associated with big, meaty, sweeping romances and  JD Robb is associated with futuristic romantic mysteries. Jayne Anne Krentz/Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle are all the same person, but Krentz writes romance/romantic suspense; Amanda Quick historical romance; and Jayne Castle paranormal romance. But we all know it's the same person.

Yet some authors write under one name. Julie Garwood, for example, writes both historical romance and contemporary romantic suspense. 

But taking two or more names is not limited to romance sub-genres. Thriller writer James Rollins wrote fantasy as James Clemens, publishing simultaneously (one Rollins book, one Clemens book) two books a year. Now, Jim is adding YA adventures (Indiana Jones) under his Rollins name.

Perennial bestseller Dean Koontz wrote under many pen names in multiple genres–romance, supernatural, horror, suspense, science fiction–before writing exclusively under his name and ultimately reissuing most of his previously published books under his own name.

Stephen King wrote books similar to Stephen King under the pen name Richard Bachman primarily because he was so prolific (another reason why Nora Roberts took a pen name–though she also did it because she was writing a series completely different from her trademark romances.) 

Janet Evanovich, however, writes both the Stephanie Plum mystery series and her romance/romantic comedy novels under her own name; and James Patterson writes both thrillers and YA supernatural thrillers under his own name. And our own Tess Gerritsen started in romantic suspense, moved into mainstream thrillers, and also wrote a historical mystery/suspense all under her own name.

When I'm done with my current WIP, I'll start my supernatural thriller series. We've already decided that I'll write the series under my name. I've considered the pros and cons of this:


1) I write romantic thrillers. My current readers may be upset because there is not as much romance in the books (those there will be a romance–but it'll be a multi-book romantic arc instead of resolved by the end of book one.)

2) It's a series with the same characters through all seven books (as opposed to creating new characters for each book.) Some readers might now want to get invested in a new series.

3) Some people don't like supernatural elements in their suspense novels–even when the books are grounding in the "real world."

4) Readers might pick up a book with my name thinking they're getting one thing, but disappointed because they get something different.


1) Writers, like readers, often get bored writing the same type of stories. They want to try something a little different (or a lot different) in order to keep themselves fresh and engaged and creative. I'm ready to write something different.

2) When you have a good-sized audience who trusts you to deliver a good-story, they'll mostly follow you anyplace you want to take them. I hope my readers will trust me enough to show them a slightly different world.

3) You already have  a name you've built–it would be almost starting at square one to write under a second name (including more time to market, another website, etc.) I don't have the time to manage two names!

One comment from agents and editors at the conference is that they cautioned us to writing a book "like" our last one. One editor said, "You need to deliver another book like the last and give your readers what they expect."

One argument is that you need to give them the same, but different, book. Another romantic suspense. Another cozy mystery. Another western-set historical. Another argument is that it's not the genre, but the feeling the reader has when they read your book that's important. Meaning, if you are known for delivering emotionally-driven stories, then you need to have emotionally-driven stories in all your subgenres. If you are known for your great puzzles in your mysteries, it doesn't matter if you set them in the future, the past, or any time in between.

I'll admit, I'm getting excited about embarking on this new adventure. It's an idea I've had for nearly six years, and I finally get to start writing it. But that doesn't mean I'm not scared of the potential pitfalls!

What about you? Are you willing to go with your favorite authors wherever they want to take you, even if it's a genre you haven't read before?

And because Toni said I had to, I just want to mention that my book SUDDEN DEATH comes out on Tuesday, March 24th. If you like romantic thrillers, I hope you run out to buy it this week. If you don't, I hope you run out and buy it this week . . . for your best friend, mom, dad, spouse, sister, brother, son and (I mean or!) daughter.

Where do you get your ideas? And other stupid questions . . .

I sat down to write this blog while my kids colored in my office after dinner. I procrastinated because I had no idea what to write. I had an idea earlier this week, but it disappeared. It wasn't any good (at least, that's what I tell myself when I lose and idea.)

I walked away from the computer for awhile–watched tv with the kids, read to them, put them to bed, worked on page proofs for awhile, then picked up my oldest daughter who'd gone to Arco Arena to watch the Division I basketball sectional championships with her team. (Brag moment: Said Daughter's team won the varsity girls sections, Div V, last night–and the boys team won their sections, too. Yeah!)

When I returned, I rotated the laundry, checked the doors, and made myself a margarita–after all, it was nearly midnight and I was wired on caffeine consumed earlier that evening. I wanted to finish the chapter I was on of my proofs and go to bed . . . I knew I'd lose an hour of sleep because of that damn daylight savings time. As I was running the lime on the rim of my glass, I heard the cat playing with a toy behind the table. I was actually kind of happy about it, because he's getting old and lazy. Then I heard this horrendous squeal and I thought, Oh, f*&#, Toulouse got a rat.

But it didn't sound like a rat.

I run down the hall to get my husband to put the poor rodent out of its misery. He flips on all the lights and discovers it's a baby bunny. It's not moving, but after I get a bucket and a rag he announces that it's not dead, it might be injured, but he thinks it's just scared (no shit) so he takes it out behind my office where I see the jackrabbits all the time and leaves it in the tall grass–with the rag covering it like a blanket because it's cold out. (We live in the country on a couple acres.)

I'm thinking, Thank God the little kids weren't awake to see it. It reminded us of the time our other cat, Neelix, brought us a dead bunny . . . on Easter morning. (And you thought Toni had all the fun!) We found it before the kids.

So I pour my margarita, chat with my husband who'd returned only five minutes before the bunny-meets-cat incident, learn he won not one but TWO guns at the NRA dinner, and then proceed to my office for an hour or two of proofs. 

Decide to check my email and see that Typepad is open and think, I almost forgot. Again. JT is going to kill me.

I put my hands on the keyboard and realized I had nothing to say.

I turned around, stared at my bookshelves, hoping inspiration would strike.

And remembered that Tess Gerritsen touched upon this last November in her post Curiosity and the Writer when she said:

"When story ideas come to me, it's seldom because I actively went looking for them.  More often, they arise out of some interest that's completely separate from my job as a writer."

When you're actively looking for a story idea, it does not come. Believe me, I'm the poster child of looking for inspiration.

But this reminded me that the number one question I get from readers is: Where do you get your ideas?

I hate that question.

Except now, because I suddenly have an idea. 

Perhaps I'm a bit harsh in the title to state that asking someone where they get their ideas is stupid. I suppose that it's an offshoot of what you ask someone when you don't know anything about their career.

Except, I kind of put it up there with the stupid questions cops get. A friend of mine said that more than once he's been asked, "Have you ever had to shoot someone?"

I can't say where my ideas come from specifically. And it kind of pains me to have to think about it, because depending on my mood or the day of the week, I'll have a different answer. I can say where details come from, however.

I used to write at a specific Starbucks in Elk Grove because it had a back room. I liked it because foot traffic didn't distract me. They played the music loud (this was before I had an iPod) and I had a great spot to write–in the corner where no one could come up behind me. 

The first sign that the new manager was going to be a problem was when the volume of the music dropped. I can't write with soft music. Either no music or loud, but if it's soft I find myself straining to hear, which is distracting. Then she rearranged the tables in the back room. If that wasn't annoying enough, when I finally got comfortable in a new spot, she rearranged them again

But the final straw wasn't really her fault. This particular Starbucks became the meeting ground for couples who were taking their internet relationship to the next level. Yep, the address must have been in the top ten of the safe list, because practically overnight my favorite writing spot was overrun with "
first meets."

As a writer, this was hugely distracting.

Perhaps if the music was turned up to a decent volume, it wouldn't have bothered me. But I was straining to listen to conversations, and worse, my eyes would glance up to observe body language. I could tell instantly if it was a mutual attraction (never saw one) or if one party liked the other, but it wasn't mutual (common) or if they both didn't like each other (majority.) 

But the verdict after about two weeks? I couldn't write at that Starbucks anymore. I went to Panera Bread–which had it's pros and cons–before finding what I call my "favorite" Starbucks 🙂

But I got to thinking about how safe it is to meet up with someone online. The safety rules suggest to meet in a public place, bring someone with you, etc. Makes sense. My cousin met someone through an online group of people who had the same interest. They ended up getting married and have a daughter and are past their 10 year anniversary. My personal trainer met his girlfriend of more than a year online. And they're both normal. (Well, he likes to torture people in the name of fitness, but some people consider that normal.) So obviously this works for people.

Yet . . . because my mind is wired this way . . . I tried to think of all the nefarious possibilities. And I realized that if you meet someone you've met online, you assume that they are honest. Or, if they've lied, it's about their weight, or their age, or the photoshopped their picture . . . or used one ten years old.

What if they used a different picture? What if they pretended to be someone they weren't? Like a 19 year old college student?

And suddenly I had the solution to a plot problem. I hadn't been able to get it straight in my head how someone as smart as Lucy Kincaid, in a family full of cops, could have put herself in a position to get kidnapped. But if the kidnapper knew what she looked like . . . but she didn't know what he looked like . . . he could grab her before she ever got into Starbucks.

All that happened before Chapter One of FEAR NO EVIL . . . but I had to have it worked out in my head before I could write the book. Because it was the first plot critical point.

But in all honesty, people don't want that answer. They want a bigger answer. The reason behind a small plot point, not matter how critical, doesn't matter. They want to hear that we're born with a special gene and the ideas "just come to us" or that we have a repository of ideas on a password-protected website.

How I came up with the Prison Break trilogy idea (earthquake under San Quentin) was even longer and more convoluted than the initial set-up for FEAR. I realized after I told that story a couple times that no one cared about the ten little steps that led me to the premise. It was too much.

But ultimately, that's how I get most of my ideas. I read this, that, and the other thing and two weeks later a friend calls out of the blue and says something odd and LIGHTBULB! I have a premise. Or a turning point.

I'll admit, the big ideas aren't my problem. Meaning, I can come up with the overarching story idea pretty quick. But it's all the little details that make it work–the who, the what, the why, the how–and if I don't have those, the story ain't going anywhere.

The other stupid question I get ALL the time, my husband gets even more than I do: "So, do you research (nudge) the romance (wink)?"

Of course I do, dipshit, just like I research the murders. Want to help? I need to know how long it takes to die if you're injected with blood thinners and subjected to a hundred shallow incisions.

And then there's the, "How much do they pay you for a book?"

I just stare. I want to say, "Are you seriously asking me how much money I make? Would you ask a brain surgeon? A trial lawyer? A plumber?"

Instead, I'm polite (because it's usually a reporter) and I say, "Eight percent." If they persist, I go into painstaking detail about contracts.

My husband was confronted by a former colleague who'd read THE HUNT. He asked, "Aren't you worried about Allison?"

Dan, befuddled, asked, "Why?"

"Well, her books are very violent."

My husband is pretty good on his feet. Better than me, for sure. He responded, "Actually, I am kind of worried. She cut off the dick of a guy in her last book."

And the reader who asked, "How can you write such violent stories? You're a mother!" (This, specifically, was in response to what happened to Lucy Kincaid in FEAR NO EVIL.)

Why are people so worried about the violence? What about the sex? 

(Well, dammit, I just remembered what I'd thought to write about earlier this week . . . it must not have been a stupid idea after all. It'll just have to keep. If I forget it, well, something else will pop up . . . I hope.)

Okay, don't feel stupid . . . what's one question you've always wanted to ask an author?

And authors, what's a stupid question YOU'VE fielded?

Better Late . . .

My fault, I'm late posting. All day yesterday I was thinking that I had to write this blog. I was up at 6:00 to get out of the house with my oldest daughter by 7:00 to drive an hour to a volleyball tournament. There, I wrote on my laptop while she wasn't playing (I have another deadline mid-March) and watched her play. Then we had to leave early to get her to basketball practice back home at 2:00. Then, because my other kids were cooped up all day, I took them to see HOTEL FOR DOGS (cute, good for little kids, but not as funny as BEDTIME STORIES which we saw last month.) Then, pick up oldest daughter from basketball practice at 4:30, go home so she could shower, then haul everyone over to meet my mom for dinner at six. We got home at eight–all the little kids went to bed. My older two and I were going to watch BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (we're in the middle of season three) and I planned on writing the blog while watching . . . except daughter #1 fell to sleep (surprise–Friday was a late day too–choir at seven a.m., basketball game at 6 p.m., and back to school for talent show where we didn't leave until 10 . . . )

Tangent: My daughter's varsity basketball team won their season undefeated and host playoffs next week. Another long week . . . but it'll be fun!

I sat in bed (first mistake) laptop on my night stand . . . and the next thing I know, it's four in the morning and my littlest Brennan is crawling into bed with me. I'm sweating because my husband turned up the heater sometime in the middle of the night (I usually am the last to bed, and I make sure the heater is low, but sometimes it's the battle of the temperatures throughout the night. I should win–you can always put on more blankets, but there's only so much you can take off . . . especially when you have little kids who crawl into bed with you in the middle of the night!)

Then I woke up and made coffee and sat down to read email and then clicked on my blogroll and saw Alex's post and realized, damn! I forgot my blog!

I had wanted to write about character development because of an interesting thread on one of my writers loops that began lamenting the changes in books from leisurely openings to fast-paced, know everything about the protagonist opening as soon as possible. 

Because I don't have time to write the blog I'd been thinking–it's Sunday morning and we have church and then I promised my older girls a mall trip–I thought I'd beg forgiveness and simply ask about the last fiction book you enjoyed and would recommend to others. It can be any book, any genre and I'll ask you:

Why you recommend the book–what did you love most about it?
Then look at the first three pages. Did they start with action, backstory, dialogue, the protagonist, the villain, or what? Were you engaged by the content or the voice or both?


JD Robb
Another GREAT installment in the IN DEATH series. I swear, she's getting better with each book. (And yes, I know I'm a book behind. I've been busy.)
The books almost always start with a dead body (my favorite openings.) So I'd say it starts with action. There is no dialogue on the first page, but the protagonist, Lieutenant Eve Dallas, is recording her visual observations by page two. So we know the victim, the manner of death, the surroundings, and in that the mystery begins instantly.

Some of my favorite opening paragraphs come from the JD Robb books. This one:

"Murder harbored no bigotry, no bias. It subscribed to no class system. In its gleeful, deadly, and terminally judicious way, murder turned a blind eye on race, creed, gender, and social stratum. As Lieutenant Eve Dallas stood in the sumptuous bedroom of the recently departed Thomas A. Anders, she considered that."

The nice things about the Robb books is that I can sit down and read one in a night, a few hours were I completely immerse myself in another world and end it completely satisfied.

So what about you? Latest great read and why?

Next time, I promise a meatier post.

Passion and Sacrifice

I have long admired legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, an inspiration not only to his football players but to everyone. When I was assigned to write a biographical essay in junior high, I wrote about Coach Lombardi because he inspired me personally to always strive to be the best I could be at whatever I set out to do.

I learned pretty quick in life that I would never be the best at everything. I was competitive, but not athletic even after eight years of soccer–sure, I did pretty well and had fun, but once I hit high school sports, the stakes changed. It became harder. Longer practices, tougher competition, more work. I realized I didn't want to work that hard because the payoff of winning–or playing a good, losing game–was not worth it to me.

There were other things that mattered more. That's part of growing up, discovering personal strengths and weaknesses and figuring out what matters to you. What we have passion for. What we are willing to sacrifice for.

My oldest is now in high school. She's my athlete. She's intensely competitive, loves to play sports more than watch them, loves being part of a team with a common goal, and is willing to sacrifice to improve her skills. She's on Varsity basketball as a freshman–yes, it's a small school and she never played basketball in her life and will be lucky if she reaches my height of five foot seven, but there were others cut from the team but her coach must have seen something in her commitment and willingness to work hard to put her on.

Last night I went to her game and was sitting next to one of her classmates on the JV boys team. I said to him, "Did you watch K.'s first game? She was terrified. Now look at her!" She was coming into her own, playing point guard, blocking, passing, shooting, and scoring. She's not the best on the team (which is undefeated), but she's working her ass off to be one of the best. And she scored the final points in the game, making the score 62-27.

High school sports are not for everyone. They aren't for kids who want to "just have fun." It's hard work, but that hard work prepares them to work hard in everything in life. They learn to be part of a team. They learn to trust their teammates–in fact, there are specific exercises to build trust. They learn respect, they learn to take orders, and they learn to lead. 

I particularly am inspired by this Lombardi quote:

"The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand."

He also said that the "dictionary is the only place that success comes before hard work."

Last fall, my athlete was on JV Volleyball. (Now her goal is to make Varsity next year as a sophomore–more girls play on the Volleyball team than basketball so the school can field two teams–JV and Varsity.) One of other mom's asked me if K. got upset at the coach for yelling so much and pulling her from the game when she made "just one mistake." Her daughter was upset every day after practice. I often caught the end of practice, and yeah, the coach yells and pushes the girls (though nothing like in basketball!) and I said, "He pulled her from the game because she was mad at herself and copped an attitude." My oldest can not stand making what she calls a "stupid" mistake, and thus on mistake snowballs into more. He was right in pulling her. But even if I thought he was wrong, he's the coach. Which led me to my next comment, "She can quit anytime she wants. No one is forcing her to play. She vents in the car on the way home if she thinks the coach was unfair and then is determined to prove to him that she can do it the next day."

Ultimately, the choice rests with my daughter: I'm not forcing her to play. I love that she's athletic, but this is her decision. My rule is: you make the commitment with your eyes open, and you stick to it. 

My artistic daughter is in 7th grade. She is exceptionally talented. She can draw people that actually look like people. My stick figures don't even look like stick figures. I would love to scan in a history of her art to show how she's developed, so someday I'll post a link for fun. But she's a perfectionist. She constantly frets that it's not good enough. She entered a contest that Libba Bray (author of A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY) had for fan art (the prize: signed advanced copies of her next book) and was near tears because when she scanned her sketch it didn't look like she wanted it to. But OMG, she is incredible. I tell her that all the time and she rolls her eyes and says of course I think that, I'm her mother. See it here, I know you'll agree. 

She almost didn't post it because it wasn't perfect. But she tried, and as Lombardi said, "Perfection is not attainable. But if you chase perfection, you can catch excellence." 

What does this have to do with writing or books? Far more than some people realize.

There are two things that make a successful writer: passion and hard work. You have to want it, love it even with all the headaches and deadlines and frustration. By "it" I mean your goal, whatever it is, from writing greeting cards to news articles to novels to screenplays. You have to love doing it, even though some of the tasks are damn hard–so hard you don't know if you can do it. If you WANT to do it.

When K. first started basketball, she hated running. Her first couple games she was only in maybe half a quarter and she was winded. But her coach is tough–your grades drop? You run. Get a detention? You run. Cop an attitude? You run. Twice. You don't try your hardest and do the best you can? Everyone runs. Now she can play without fear of panting from exhaustion. She told me she doesn't hate running anymore, but she loves the feeling after she runs. (Great, I've created an adrenaline junkie!)

She knows that running hard and fast helps her become a better player. Just like a writer knows that by writing and writing pages and pages of garbage we learn to eventually tell a good story. Both my oldest kids are hardest on themselves when they don't do something as well as they think they can. Hmm, they might have learned that from me, too . . . 

But they both put themselves out there, risking failure, because they are passionate for the end goal. They sacrifice time and energy to . I can not tell you how proud I am of my artistic daughter for posting her art–she hates to show anything to anyone because it's not "perfect." (Again, like me–I never let anyone read anything I wrote until I was, ahem, about thirty-two . . . )

There are so many aspiring authors out there who won't submit their work for fear of rejection. Or they convince themselves that they write garbage. Or they can't handle criticism. Criticism is nothing from an editor compared to some of the readers posting on amazon, or bloggers posting in the blogosphere!

To pull out another Lombardi quote: "It's not whether you get knocked down, it's whether you get up." 

It doesn't matter WHAT it is you want. You can want the best garden in the neighborhood ala Mr. Wilson, or to get an A on your final exam, or finish a book when you've never finished writing anything in your life. It's having the passion for it, and be will
ing to make sacrifices to achieve it.

Nothing worth having is easily attained. 

I'm really proud of my kids for finding the passion in something and working hard for success. They are learning what it takes to be a productive citizen as well as happy, fulfilled human beings. 

Writing is the hardest job I've ever had. I stress, bang my head, sacrifice sleep, drink too much caffeine, and fret constantly that I'll never get better while doing everything I can to write the best book I can. But my oldest daughter told me after I quit my job in the legislature and was truly a full-time writer, "I've never seen you so happy."

I admire many people who have shown passion, worked hard and made sacrifices to achieve their goals. Vince Lombardi is just one. My oldest daughters are two more. I love that my agent loves being an agent, and my editor loves being an editor. Neither job is easy, but they both work hard and are passionate in their positions. My daughter's coach is at the school from eight in the morning and is the last to leave at night, staying for multiple practices and late games. He drives kids home if their parents can't pick them up after a late away game. He commands respect because he never asks anything that he's not willing to do himself.

Is there someone– a friend, a colleague, a relative, someone you read about — who exemplifies the attitude of Lombardi and others who know that hard work comes before success? Someone who inspires you to chase perfection? Acknowledge them here . . . 

NOTE: RENEE won an ARC of SUDDEN DEATH last month . . . and I haven't heard from her! Renee, please email me (you can fill out the contact form on my website here.) If Renee doesn't email me by midnight Monday, I'll pick another winner from today's comments.

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.
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