Category Archives: J.D. Rhoades


by J.D. Rhoades

I just got back from the big city of Chicago, where I had the honor of helping two dear friends celebrate their wedding. When not participating in wedding merriment, I got a chance to see some more of one of my favorite towns.

There are quite a few downsides to being, as I put it, between publishers, but one of the ones that really gets me down is that I don’t get to travel as much to conferences and book festivals. Not only do I love seeing old friends, making new ones, and finally getting to know people I only know from online, I love seeing America’s cities. This may surprise some of you, since I’m pretty vocal about being  a small town boy. What can I say? Like Walt Whitman, I am large. I contain multitudes.

There’s just something about going walkabout in a city I’ve never been before, especially if it’s a place I’ve connected to through books. Or going back to one I’ve been to before to find that the taste I got the second or third time is different from the first.

Here are some of my favorites (by no means an exhaustive list):

Chicago: I love the  architecture. I know it makes me sound geeky as hell but I’m fascinated by those old buildings, especially the big ones like the Chicago Tribune building. Some of them are as ornate and filigreed as cathedrals.


Then there are the parks. For a big city, Chicago seems to be very much into green space and places to play outdoors.  Next time I go back, I’m going to take some time to just hang out there.

And the food, good lord, the food.


New York: I’ve often said I’d probably expire quickly if I lived in New York. Not from pining away for the South,  but  from lack of sleep.  No matter how late it might be, I look out into the street and I feel it pulling at me. I  just have to get out there and see what’s going on. And there’s always something going on. The people were very nice, too, which I didn’t expect after years of hearing how uptight and unfriendly New Yorkers were. (Except the bartenders in the Grand Hyatt. Those guys acted like they were doing me a favor selling me a 14 dollar cocktail.).

Which reminds me:  there are some cities I’ve been surprised by, because frankly, my pre-conceived image of them was so unfair. Like:

Boise: “Boise?” someone once asked when I told them I was going there for the Murder in the Grove conference. “Why the hell would anyone want to go to BOISE?” To be sure, I wondered that myself. I expected to be surrounded by potato-chomping whack job survivalists. Boise, I apologize. It’s really a very hip city, with great restaurants, coffeehouses, and one of the coolest guitar shops I’ve eve been in. And I got to actually wave hello to the new Governor in his office.


Omaha: I had the same prejudice against Omaha. I thought it was going to be a hick town writ large. But again, I apologize. No, corn does not actually grow in the streets there. No, cows do not roam free. The people do not all dress in overalls (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In fact, it was a very nice place,with great food, cool record shops, Irish pubs, blues bars, and some great steaks.

Some cities, alas, it’s hard to love. Like, for instance, Dallas. I hated Dallas. Hated it,  hated it, hated it. That may, however. have been because I was only there for a meeting that was part of a particularly  ugly and contentious lawsuit and my main view of the city was from the windows of a corporate boardroom full of assholes. 



  But even that dry brown city had its upside. It was there I first sang karaoke with a group of Japanese executives who were very appreciative of my sake-fueled rendition of “Travelin’ Band.”

Houston,  on the other hand, rocks, thanks to friends like David Thompson and the lovely  McKenna Jordan (both of Murder By the Book) as well as my old friend Celine (aka Lee Billings).  I’ll always remember Houston as the place where Ken Bruen read to a room full of late night partiers from a book that had just come out called THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND.  

One city I’d love to go back to: Baltimore. I’d read Laura Lippman. I’d seen every episode of THE WIRE. So I’m not sure what I expected from Baltimore. That may be why I never really felt like I got a handle on the place. But lunch at the Inner Harbor was nice.

Other places I’ve loved and would love to revisit: Boston. Miami. Madison.

Some cities where I’ve never been, but want very much to see: L.A. Seattle. Austin. New Orleans.

So, on to the discussion questions:  What’s your favorite city? What must I be sure to catch when I’m there?


Who Cares If It’s Well-Written?

by J.D. Rhoades

Does good writing even matter?

I’ve been  thinking about this question for a couple of weeks ever since our  discussion of the TWILIGHT books. You may remember that  commenter KarinNH mentioned that her students were reading the books and that:  

…one ventured that I wouldn’t like the series because “it is really poorly written.” Interestingly, the ones who were recommending the books all agreed. Emphatically. However, they were willing to look past that because they liked the story.

I found this interesting for a couple of reasons. One, my daughter, who’s read all the books and seen all the movies, says exactly  the same thing: the writing’s really bad, but you care about the story. Two, I felt the same way about the last book that everyone I know purported to despise, but which I found quite entertaining: Dan Brown’s THE DAVINCI CODE.

The prose in TDVC is, in a word, atrocious: clumsy sentences (starting with the first one); infodumps; word choices that leave you scratching your head. If you want more explanation, go here.

And yet, when I took it to the beach with me, I I couldn’t put it down. Neither, apparently could millions of other readers. Why? Because the story hooked me and dragged me along. Oh, I was rolling my eyes and occasionally wincing at the prose, but there’s no denying, it had me.

Just a couple of weeks ago I read another technothriller from another well-known author. The dialogue was  unbelievable, the hero was  just a little too perfect to get next to as a character, and sometimes the set-ups for the action scenes sounded like a catalog put out by the guys who manufacture military gear (when the hero and his buddies are getting ready to  kick bad-guy ass, do we really NEED to know who made their gloves?) But once again, I read it cover to cover, because the aforementioned  bad-guy asses were kicked, names were taken, and the story was just fun to read.

I think all of us can describe books we’ve read where the prose was gorgeous, but we eventually put the books aside, because nothing really happened to any of  those exquisitely described people in their gorgeously described setting. I once described a friend’s book to another friend thusly: “it’s literary fiction, but don’t worry, stuff actually happens.”

On the other hand, we can all reel off long lists of bestsellers, going back years, where the prose ranged from barely serviceable (early Tom Clancy) to  pretty much god-awful (VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and all  of Harold Robbins). And yet, we read them. Cover to cover and often more than once.

Which brings us back to our main question: does good prose even matter? Why do we bother? Why spend all that time looking for just the right word, paring down the adverbs, repeating to ourselves “show, don’t tell, show, don’t tell,” etc, if all the majority of readers care about is the story?

I‘ve thought about it quite a bit, and I know what my answer is. I’ll reveal it in the comments, after I hear some of your thoughts on the matter. And while we’re at it…share some of your favorite badly written novels you couldn’t put down.

It Go Up and Down and Round And Round…

by J.D. Rhoades


As some of you may have noticed, I am NOT Robert Gregory Browne. This is Rob’s usual week, but he is, as they say,  glutes-high in Alligator mississippiensis. Everyone else in the world seems to be at Thrillerfest. (Heavy sigh). So when Rob  sent out a cry for help, I agreed to take his week, because…well, because  I’m a hell of a guy. It was short notice, so if things seem a bit random and disjointed…well, it’s not like anyone can tell the difference from the way I usually post.


Anyway, here’s what’s on my mind recently:

Lately I keep seeing ads for a new Harry Potter-themed amusement park at Universal Studios in Orlando. “You can truly be part of Harry Potter’s World!” the ad promises breathlessly. I  don’t know about you, but my first reaction was “I’m not sure I actually want to be part of a  world where an immensely powerful magic user who looks like James Carville’s handsomer brother and who has a serious grudge against my family  spends most of his days trying to figure out how to kill me.” But it did get me thinking, which is always a dangerous proposition.

Now, J.K. Rowling seems like a nice lady, and hers is one of the great inspirational stories for writers: deprivation, determination,  rejection, perseverance, and finally riches beyond most people’s dreams of avarice (not beyond mine, but then I feed my dreams of avarice red meat, Wheaties,  and steroids).I’m glad to see her continuing to do well.

But, I  wondered, how is it fair that her characters get a theme park and others don’t? I mean, there are plenty of other writers who create vivid and intensely realized worlds. Why don’t we have them parks for them?

Imagine what forms some of these theme parks might take:

IAN RANKIN’S REBUSWORLD: Enter the world of Edinburgh’s most successful and  most surly detective! Have a drink in the famous Oxford Bar. Make the climb up the full-sized replica of Arthur’s Seat. Have another drink in the famous Oxford bar. Take a refreshing dip on the Firth of Forth waterslide before having another drink, maybe several, in the famous Oxford Bar. Management not responsible for liver damage.


MICHAEL CONNOLLY’S BOSCHLAND: Ride a replica of the Angel’s Flight inclined railway to get to this LA-themed attraction. Explore the scary storm drains of LA in the Black Echo Fun House. Ride the wet and wild Narrows log flume ride. Hope you like jazz, though, ‘cause that stuff’s playing ALL OVER THE FRIGGIN’ PARK.

LEE CHILD’S REACHER-RAMA: there are a lot of great, thrilling and  scary rides, but no matter how much cash or you take in or how many souvenirs you buy, you always walk out of the place with nothing on you but the clothes on your back and your toothbrush.

For you fantasy fans, there’s GEORGE R.R. MARTIN’S ICE N’ FIRE ISLAND: it’s going to be the most awesome thing ever if they can just  get the damn thing finished.


    Hmmm…okay. Maybe not such great ideas after all. But maybe some of you can pick your favorite fictional world (even your own)  and make it into a theme park. Give it a try, won’t you?


   Rob will be back in this spot next week.


As you may or may not have noticed, I wasn’t around much last week, I was on vacation in the lovely mountains of North Carolina (folks from out West are asked to hold their “you call THOSE mountains?” remarks for the time being).

It was a bit of a departure for me, since vacations for the Rhoades clan have traditionally involved a lazy week at the beach.  But we had a free place to  stay at my folks’ condo on Beech Mountain, so we decided to seize the opportunity.

I’ve often observed that there are marked differences between the type of folks who like to vacation in the mountains and those who vacation at the beach. As I wrote a few years ago:

  • Mountain people are on the move: up the trail, down the slope, across the rock face. Beach people have to be reminded to turn over periodically so that the sunburn is evenly distributed. When they do move, beach people prefer an aimless ramble along the shore rather than a brisk hike up a steep slope.
  • Mountain people are into gear: backpacks, boots, bikes, skis, etc. Beach people tend to regard shirts and shoes as an imposition.
  • Mountain people love the breathtaking vistas of peaks and valleys. The peaks and valleys that appeal to beach people are covered (barely) by Lycra and Spandex.
  • Mountain people experiment to get the right ratio of nuts to raisins in the trail mix. Beach people argue over the perfect Margarita recipe.
  • Mountain people like freshly caught trout grilled over an open campfire. Beach people like shrimp broiled in butter or deep fried, especially in Calabash, N.C. (aka Arteriosclerosis-by-the-Sea). And don’t forget the hushpuppies.
  • Mountain people are exhilarated by the smell of clean, crisp air. Beach people get all misty-eyed at the scent of Hawaiian Tropic or Banana Boat.
  • Mountain people throw logs on blazing fires. Beach people rub aloe vera on blazing sunburns.

This is not to say I didn’t have at least some time to be indolent. We spent a day lounging by (and swimming in)  lovely, cool Wildcat Lake in Banner Elk:

And I watched a few sunsets from the deck:


But there was also plenty of walking, to places like the Wilson’s Creek Overlook on the  Parkway, which you reach by a trail that closely resembles a stone staircase  3/4 of a mile long, but which rewards you with this view: 


Or the hike to Linville Gorge:

 All in all, though, it was a chance to live a little more slowly. I still did a lot of the things I do every day, like check e-mail, but with every one I made myself answer the question, “do I really need to respond to this today?” With a very few exceptions, the answer came back “nope,” as I closed the lid on the laptop. Very liberating, that. I recommend it.

I got less writing done than I’d planned. But that was okay. I wrote when I wanted, and I got a clearer vision of where I wanted the book to go in its last act. A long walk in the mountains  will do that, when you’re not gasping for breath and hoping those spots in front of your eyes don’t mean you’re about to have some sort of aneurysm.

I also got a lot less reading done than I usually do on vacation. I’m typically pretty cocky about the number of novels I can burn through while lying on the beach. This time, I got exactly two read (Brad Thor’s STATE OF THE UNION and Ian Rankin’s A QUESTION OF BLOOD, if you’re interested). But I thoroughly enjoyed them both.

Which caused me to reflect: what the heck is my hurry when it comes to reading, anyway? Even with books I like, I tend to be constantly checking where I am in relation to the last page, eager to get to the end and go on to the next book in the TBR pile. And why brag, as i’ve been known to do, about how many books I read in a week off? Since when did reading become competitive for me?

When considering the question I came across this article on the “Slow Reading” movement. Seems that I’m not the only one to ask the question, “what’s your hurry?” when reading. “Mostly,” the article says, “the ‘movement’  is just a bunch of authors, schoolteachers, and college professors who think that just maybe we’re all reading too much too fast and that instead we should think more highly of those who take their time with a book or an article.” The idea goes all the way back to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “who in 1887 described himself as a ‘teacher of slow reading.” Slow reading, the theory goes, increases comprehension and enjoyment of the text. It’s hard to do in this high speed, hyperlinked world, but now that I’m back to that world  after a week of living slowly, I think I’ll try a little slow reading. I know life’s short and work often demands speed…. but what’s the use of hurrying through your pleasures?

‘Rati, what say you? Anyone for some slow reading? Or do you do that already?

Turn the Page

by J.D. Rhoades

 Warning: the following post has little or nothing to do with books or mystery writing. It happens. 

 This past Saturday, I sat on a metal bench in the blazing sun on a bright blue North Carolina morning. It was only 8 AM, but the wife and I and about a thousand other people were sitting shoulder to shoulder, fanning ourselves with flimsy programs that were far too small, and far too damp from sweat and humidity, to keep anyone cool. But there was no way we were going to miss this. Our son was graduating from High School. 

Over the past few days, I’ve been absorbed by memories. In my mind’s eye, they’re  like mirror fragments cascading to the floor, magically arranging themselves into a mosaic of the last eighteen years:  My first sight of him, at his delivery (“My God,” I thought, “he looks like Winston Churchill!”) The sweetness he exhibited towards his little sister when she was born, and the epic battles later (“Mom, I think Nina needs to go to the Emergency Room.”) Bringing home the new puppy (R.I.P. Clifford, we still miss you). The time when we were watching TV and some politician’s ad came on, and his little voice piped up from the big easy chair across the room: “Who is THIS idiot?” Cub Scout camping trips. Beach weeks. Christmas mornings that used to begin at the crack of dawn (or before) and now begin when we  roust him and his sister out of bed.   Apples to Apples. Trivial Pursuit. Clue (Junior Edition). Life. Legos, Beanie Babies, Nerf, GameBoy, and multi-sided dice.   Mechwarrior, Barney, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! Spongebob, the Simpsons, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Family Guy, Futurama, the Wire, Samurai Champloo, Samurai Jack, Ninja Warrior, Cops, AFV, Firefly and Buffy. Where the Wild Things Are, Harry Potter, the Dark Elf Trilogy, and The Song of Ice and Fire. Disney, Godzilla, Toy Story, Shrek, Star Wars, Pirates, Tarantino and Kurosawa flicks.  Engrish, webcomics,  DeviantArt, and Japanese TV on YouTube. Baseball, then soccer (including a brief flirtation with being an Arsenal fan), then PS2, Wii, PC games, D & D and a bunch of role playing games I never heard of. The same group of friends (who I affectionately refer to as “your dumb little buddies”) who he’s hung out with since Kindergarten and who now are scattering in all directions.

It seemed to take forever for him to grow up, but now I look back and think “how did it all happen so fast?” Seemingly overnight,  the baby who couldn’t sit up on his own is a brilliant, big-hearted, funny, sarcastic, kind, goofy,  passionate, cynical, opinionated, fiercely talented young man who’s a little like me, a lot like his mom, and a lot like…well, like someone entirely himself. He’s an artist whose work periodically makes me sit up and go “whoa,” and a writer who may, and I say this in all sincerity, kick my ass someday. 

In a couple of months, he’ll be moving out, gone off to a  college of his own choosing. It was a choice which surprised me at first , but which makes perfect sense for him. And that’s a thing that makes me both incredibly proud and a little sad: he’s making his own decisions, and they’re good ones.   Maybe not always what I would have done, but reasonable for him.

In the months and years ahead, he’ll make plenty more decisions: some good, some bad, some probably even incredibly boneheaded. But they’ll be his, not mine, and he’ll own the consequences, both good and bad. All we can do is hope we’ve given him the tools to make the right choices.

I think about 16 year old Abby Sunderland, who was attempting to be the youngest person to sail around the world, and think, as many did after she was rescued from her damaged sailboat, “WTF were her parents thinking?” After all,  I thought, I still get the willies when The Boy takes the car to a friend’s house. Then I realized: I can’t do what I’ve done for years. At various times in the last eighteen years, I’ve been, with tongue in cheek, referring to my son as The Boy. But he’s not The Boy. He can now take it into his head  to do something crazy–sail around the world, hike off to Tibet, marry a Duke fan–and there’s not going to be much I can do except offer what advice I can and try not to say “I told you so” if things go sideways.  At least try not to say it too  much. 

A page is turning. Big changes are coming in all our lives. The Girl is ecstatic at finally getting a bathroom to herself, but I know she’ll miss her hanging-out buddy, her foil, her debate opponent, her (occasionally unasked for) advisor.  I’ll probably be moving my writing stuff into his room, but I know the house is going to seem bizarrely quiet without that booming voice that you can hear clear across the house as he mocks something particularly stupid on TV.  

I know I’ve made mistakes as a parent, and I know there are probably a thousand ways in which I’ve failed him, but I think despite it all, he’s turned into someone of whom we’re intensely proud.

Here’s to you, Nick. No matter how fast or how far away you sail, I hope sometimes you turn your face towards home and think of the people who love you. And remember you always have a safe harbor here. 

Let Me Take You To The Movies, Let Me Take You To the Show…

by J.D. Rhoades

It’s summer, and summer means big movies. A lot of us here at Murderati are big movie fans.Some have actually worked in show business. And some of us, to put it mildly, have really been through some bad stuff lately. I don’t know about you, but one of the things I can always count on to take my mind off the bad stuff for a little while is to zone out with a good movie. Or even a bad one.

 Here, therefore, is one ‘Rati’s far from comprehensive list of what looks good, what looks bad, and what looks mockably ugly at the movie house this summer. 

SEX AND THE CITY 2: I rather liked the HBO series when I first saw it, but by the time it stumbled to a close, I was getting weary of the characters, so I didn’t see the first movie. Nor do I plan to see the second. So why bring it up? Mostly because it gives me the chance to link to this  review, which I regard as the Best. Review. Ever. 

IRON MAN 2:  If you liked the first one, you’ll like this one. I did. Unfortunately, still no Black Sabbath on the soundtrack, but they make do with AC/DC. Robert Downey Jr. is funny, the battle suits are still way cool, Scarlett Johanssen kicks serious ass, and Gwyneth Paltrow really looks like she could use a decent meal. 


See what I mean? 
 WINTER’S BONE: Oh boy oh boy oh boy. I cannot wait for this movie. I don’t know anything about the director or any of the near-unknowns starring in it, but  Daniel Woodrell’s book was as dark and brutal a slice of redneck noir as you’ll find anywhere. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it as a light and frothy date movie. Still. 
THE KILLER INSIDE ME: Casey Affleck stars  as Jim Thompson’s sociopathic  sheriff Lou Ford. I didn’t think Affleck could pull off Patrick Kenzie in GONE BABY GONE, but damned if he didn’t do it, and I do love me some Jim Thompson. And it’s got Jessica Alba, apparently getting nekkid. So this one’s on my list. 
PREDATORS: Why? Why does this this movie exist? What was wrong with the original (the only movie to star two future state governors) that someone felt it needed to be remade? Is there any way Adrian Brody can pull off deathless lines like “If eet bleeds, ve can kill eet” and “GET TO DA CHOPPAAAH!” with the same panache as the Governator? We think not. 
GET HIM TO THE GREEK: Looks an awful lot like a rip-off of the 1982 film MY FAVORITE YEAR, another movie about a hapless underling trying to keep a wacked out, substance-abusing  star together long enough to make the big show. Russell Brand plays the Peter O’Toole role in the update, and while Brand’s no O’Toole, he’s still pretty damn funny, as is Jonah Hill. A definite maybe. 

JONAH HEX: Loved the comic. Love Josh Brolin. Love John Malkovich as a villain.  Hate Megan Fox’s “ain’t ah just the sexiest thang” drawl in the previews. Giving this one a miss. 

THE A-TEAM: Looks dumb. Probably is dumb. But that’s the point. Waiting for the reviews on this one.  If I hear that it can pull off dumb with style, then I’ll check it out. Actually, I’ll probably just wait for the DVD. 

THE EXPENDABLES: Sylvester Stallone directs a who’s who of action movie stars: Himself,  Jason Statham, Jet Li, Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and–do my eyes deceive  me?-Arnold Schwarzenegger his own bad self, in a shoot ’em up, blow-em-up,  action movie about mercenaries trying to pull off a coup in a mythical South American country.  How could this possibly go wrong? Well, plenty of ways actually.  It could be a mess. It could also be the most brain-meltingly awesome movie ever. I have got to be there to find out. 

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE: No. Just no. And here’s why (clip NSFW): 

So  how about you guys? What’s on your must-see and must-miss lists this summer? 


by J.D. Rhoades

The other day, I was having an e-mail conversation with a friend. As we often do,  we got to talking about books.  She was deep into Hilary Mantel’s 2006 book, A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY. “It’s a commitment,” she said, alluding to the book’s 768-page length, “but you don’t care.”

Which got me to thinking. I’ve noticed recently that I have a much shorter attention span than I used to when it comes to books. I think twice before taking on a massive work, and will often pass it over in favor of something shorter. It took me forever, for example, to “commit” to Neal Stephenson’s CRYPTONOMICON, even though I loved it when I finally did read it. And the third volume of his Baroque Cycle  is sitting on the bookshelf, waiting for me to get up the gumption to take it on. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see it as a chore. I LOVE Neal Stephenson. I just get to about Page 300 of any book, see a few hundred pages to go,  and start feeling antsy. I feel the pressure of the TBR pile building up in the back of my head. And this is from someone who used to regularly sit down and devour the entire LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy every couple of years, and then finish off with a dessert of THE SILMARILLION.


It seems I’m not alone. In a recent article I read on Slate, writer Nicholas Carr notes:

Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

And the culprit, for Mr. Carr, is easy to find: that bad old Internet. The article, in fact, is titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and Carr  suggests that spending a lot of time on the Web is trashing our attention spans:

[W]hat the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

After all, the ‘net is the home of the acronym used to dismiss an overly verbose or lengthy article, comment, or blog post: “TL; DR”.


Which stands, in case you didn’t know,  for “Too Long; Didn’t Read.”

On the other hand, this article suggests that that worry is not only overblown, but cliched:

Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label…Socrates famously warned against writing because it would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.

So, maybe it’s not the tech. Maybe it’s the stuff I’ve gotten used to reading. For the past few years, my reading has skewed towards noir, pulp, and hardboiled. That’s the stuff I like, and it tends to be short, simple, and fast-moving. Not coincidentally, that’s how I like to write as well. So it takes some adjustment to settle down into something more long and discursive, something that takes its time getting to where it’s going.

Or maybe it’s just life in general. With a family, a day job, four pets, and an incurable writing habit, I’ve gotten used to a faster, more breakneck (almost literally) pace.

How about you? Are you finding it harder or more daunting to tackle long works? If so, why do you think it is? Any ideas for overcoming it?

The Valley of Despair

by J.D. Rhoades

Right now, I’ve just cracked 45,000 words in my current WIP. Given the length to which I usually write, this means I’m deep into the middle section, or, as I call it, “The Valley of Despair.”

If you ask around, I suspect you’ll find that a lot of unfinished projects died at around the 30-40,000 word mark. That’s the point at which you have your characters, you have your situation set up, you’ve reached your first crucial turning point, so everything should be a gallop, right? Except there are few things happening.

For one thing,  unless you write very quickly, you’ve been living day in and day out with these people as houseguests in your head for a month or more. Like most houseguests, you’re not as crazy about them as when they first moved in.

This is also the point where doubt creeps in. Do I really have enough story to make a novel out of this? Am I really a good enough writer to pull this off?

Doubt is followed by certainty: No, there really isn’t enough to make a novel out of this. If the first act is “chase your protagonist up a tree” and the second act is “throw rocks at him,” you see your pile of rocks diminishing, and you start to panic. That’s when the real fear begins: no, I’m not good enough to pull this off. I suck. I’m a fraud. I really should go back to the day job. 

Or, there’s the danger of  getting distracted by what writer Lynn Cahoon, blogging over at Elizabeth Lynn Casey’s joint, called “The Bright and Shinies”: new ideas that pop into your head for something different. Ideas that make you think “maybe the problem is I’m writing the wrong book.  The science-fiction-vampire story is the one I really should be doing right now.”

So how do you get past this? How do you climb out of the Valley of Despair to reach the sweet, pure exhilarating  air of the  Mountains of Climax?

Well, first, go back to the basics. It’s very easy, in the Valley, to forget your fundamentals. Therefore, I  cannot recommend Our Alex’s “Story Elements Checklist” highly enough. Go back and look at it.   You don’t have to follow it (or any advice) blindly, but as a springboard for ideas, you can’t beat it.  Could the story use a “training sequence?” Maybe some new allies could be picked up? Is there a big reversal coming up and how do we lay the groundwork for it?

Another aspect of going back to basics is to remind yourself that the story is driven by want: the desire of the characters, and how, knowing them as you do, would they go about getting it? Make a list: What does the protagonist still want? What about the antagonist? The secondary characters?

Which leads us to a great idea I picked up from a lecture by top screenwriter Steven J. Cannell: turn around and be the bad guy.  “When you get to this place, go around and become the antagonist. You probably haven’t been paying much attention to him or her. Now you get in the antagonist’s head and you’re looking back at the story to date from that point of view.”

Oh, and that story you think maybe you should be writing? Make some notes, maybe write a scene or two to get it out of your system, then put it down. It’ll still be there. And you know darn well, if you drop what you’re doing and start the new, ‘bright and shiny” project, you’ll be right back at this same place with that one in a month.

So, most of all, keep going. And give yourself permission to suck. It’s the first draft. Push your way through the Valley. Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain, etc.


Anyone else have any tips for slogging through the Valley of Despair? Or does this just never happen to you?


I’m Asking the Questions Here: E-Book Edition

by J.D. Rhoades

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve recently followed the example of some other “traditionally” published writers: I’ve put one of my novels (one that never found another home) up as an e-book-only offering for Kindle and other e-readers. Both Joe Konrath and Lee Goldberg have reported some good results from their excursions, and Konrath seems to have become convinced he’s going to make more money this year at  e-pubbing than at the traditional kind.

So far, I haven’t quite gotten to the point that Joe has,  where he’s selling 180 e-books a day. But things are percolating right along for STORM SURGE (available for Kindle HERE and other formats HERE).

I have, during the course of this experiment,  had occasion to drop in and lurk on message boards and blogs and the like where the Kindlers and Nookies and their brethren of the little silver screen congregate. I’ve seen some issues raised there about which I’d like to get some feedback from our loyal readers.

One subject  that seems to get a lot of talk is “Why the hell hasn’t Big-Ass Publishing released the new Byron B. Blockbuster novel for Kindle?” Followed by the inevitable, “It must be corporate greed!” Sometimes, the author even gets the blame, although I don’t see as much of that lately.

It does seem true that  the standard practice for publishers is to release the hardcover first and the e-book later. This, IIRC, was one of the sticking points in the whole Macmillan/ Amazon kerfluffle a while back.

The strategy appears to be based on some assumptions, one of which is that e-book buyers also buy print books and  people who have e-book readers won’t buy the hardcover if there’s a cheaper alternative.

Which leads us to our first set of questions, which are oriented towards finding out  “is that necessarily so?”

1. How many of you read:

a) exclusively print?

b) exclusively e-books?

c) both, but mostly print?

d) both, but mostly e-books?

2. If your answer is “c” or “d” and the e-book and hardcover came out at the same time for the same price, which would you buy?

3. If the e-book came out later, and you knew it would be cheaper, would you wait? Does the answer depend on the book?

4. Are there circumstances under which you’d buy both? Have you done that?

Price is a big issue. I recognize the arguments that producing an e-book still entails the same editorial, design, etc. costs as a hardcover. Still, there are a lot of readers out there whose breaking point seems to be  $9.99. A thread on the Amazon message boards titled “Boycott Books Over $9.99” recently had to be restarted when it rolled over 10, 000 posts. In my own experience,   BREAKING COVER for Kindle was once $14.99 (it’s $12.99 now), and I got e-mails from people who were extremely pissed,  and not in the happy British sense of that word. 

Konrath’s Hypothesis holds that people buy cheap e-books: if they’re cheaper, they’ll sell more and make more money for the author. (STORM SURGE, by the way, sells for $1.99)

So our second set of questions  has to do with price.

5. If you have an e-reader, was it the promise of cheap books that lured you to it?

6. What’s your  “breaking point” price for an e-book?

7. Do you resent an e-book priced nearly as high as a print book?

One thing that I’ve noticed about e-publishing is how easy it would be to market non-standard length works, such as the hard-to-sell novellas (17,500 to 40,000 words) and novelettes (7500 to 17,499 words). It’s just not practical for a traditional publisher to print and  sell those , unless they’re part of a collection, and how often does THAT come along?  So:

8. Would you buy a shorter work for an e-reader? Have you?

9. What would you consider a fair price for a novella or novelette, as defined above?

So let me hear it, cats n’ kittens. Lay some of that sweet knowledge on me.

The Big Fear

    First, a bit of BSP: I recently decided to try an experiment in electronic publishing. My friends J.A. Konrath and Lee Goldberg have had some success putting stuff up on Kindle and other e-pub formats. So I thought I’d stick my own  toe in the digital water, so to speak,  and put my novel STORM SURGE on line, for those of you who are electronically enabled. In keeping with the idea that e-pubbing should be cheap, it’s only $1.99. 

     You can find the Kindle version HERE, and Smashwords has other formats HERE. Let me know how you like it. I’ll report back,  as Joe and Lee have done, on my experience with the experiment.

     Now, on with the show:

It’s spring again. Gorgeous outside, despite the yellow clouds of pollen hanging so thick in the air that it looks like we’re under some sort of chemical warfare attack. It’s warm, the trees are blooming, it’s a great time to be alive. 

So naturally, perverse critter that I am, I’m thinking about fear.

Recently, while looking for something else,  I stumbled across the work of photographer Joshua Hoffine, who’s done a stunning series on childhood fears:


  If you click through (and I recommend that you do), be warned that some of these images are extremely disturbing and some are definitely NSFW.


 (All images used with the permission of the photographer, who also invites you to visit his blog).



     A short time later, I was having a conversation with my wife, who’s currently reading a Nevada Barr book that features spelunkers–people who explore caves for fun.  As she described passages about exploring narrow passages deep in the earth, crawling along chutes too narrow to even sit up or turn around in, I recalled one of my own childhood terrors.

   When I was growing up, there were a number of storm drains and drainage pipes in my neighborhood:  long, narrow concrete tubes to divert storm run-off away from the roads and people’s yards. I remember looking down one of those pipes and wondering what it would be like to be crawling  through one of those and get stuck halfway through, unable to go forward or back, where no one could reach you or hear your cries, where the only thing to do would be die a long slow horrible death, alone in the dark….

    I was a lot of fun as a kid, believe me. But you will never,  EVER get me into one  of those chutes underground.

    It  started me thinking about how everyone’s afraid of something:

    I was talking to my girlfriend the other day, and I asked her, “what are you afraid of?” And she said, “I’m afraid we’re growing apart, that you’ll leave me some day and that I’ll die alone. What are you afraid of?” and I said “Bears.” -Mike Birbiglia

    And how, despite the fact we hold many fears in common, each of us has, locked within us, the one Big Fear, the one thing we just can’t abide: 

The worst thing in the world,’ said O’Brien, ‘varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.’ George Orwell, 1984.

  And then I started thinking about my current WIP. One of the antagonists is a former military specialist in PSYWAR–psychological warfare. His specialty involved things like this. His job was to scare the enemy, literally, to death. And now, he’s come home, bringing his private war with him, wielding his favorite weapon: stark terror. 

   And so,  in the interest of research, I want to hear what it is that scares other people. So tell me….what are you most afraid of? I’m not talking angst here, or worry. I’m talking about the one thing on earth that even thinking about makes you cold. The thing that can send you skitttering backwards across a room to get away. What’s your “worst thing in the world”?

    Sharing time, boys and girls…