Thursday, April 25, 2013

Know What You Write

By Jon McGoran

One of the oldest, best known, and perhaps most discredited pieces of writing advice out there is “Write what you know.”

When I was younger, I took this to mean “write about your own life,” and decided early on it was advice to be disregarded.  I was sure no one wanted to read about my life, and I’ve still never read a bestseller — or any kind of seller — with a protagonist who spends every night writing while all the interesting characters are out doing things. (“Our hero sat at the computer and typed. Then he typed some more. After a slightly over-long break on Twitter, he resumed typing.”)

I decided it is more important to write who you know, or to write what you know about people. So I created characters informed by the people in my life as I wrote about things I didn’t know, things like forensics, which required massive amounts of research. That kind of research is a lot of work, but it’s immensely fun, a spark for creativity and a great source for ideas.

I might not have been writing what I knew, but I knew what I was writing. I got plenty of great feedback, including praise for the accuracy and detail of the forensics. But I was also frequently asked if I had a background in forensics, and met with unmistakable disappointment when I replied,  (betraying none of the indignation that I felt), “No, my background is in writing.”

Meanwhile, during the day, I continued to work as communications director for a food co-op in Philadelphia, editing and publishing a monthly newspaper, The Shuttle, and, in large part, writing about food and the systems that grow and produce it. My daytime activities were almost as boring as my evenings (“The next day, our hero sat at a different desk, on a different computer, and he typed. After sharing a hilarious cat picture on Facebook, he typed some more. …Then he went to a meeting.”) But the issues I was covering were fascinating and important, increasingly so in recent years. Food was being irradiated, cloned, and genetically engineered — bad news for people who eat food, but great news for a writer looking for a meaningful topic to write about. Ideas for thrillers jumped out at me every day.

As the news about GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, got crazier and crazier, I decided I had to get involved. I began working with groups like Just Label It and the Right to Know coalition, who were spearheading national efforts to label GMOs, and more recently with statewide groups in Pennsylvania.

I also started working on Drift, a thriller about GMO’s and the blurring line between food and pharmaceuticals, first because it was a great idea for a thriller, but also because fiction can be a very compelling way to explore important issues. I still had to do plenty of research (you always have to do lots of research), but I already had a nuanced understanding of the topic, and a certain level of credibility if someone was to ask about my background in this area. I’ve already gotten great feedback, support and enthusiasm from people in the GMO labeling community.

Drift doesn't come out until July, and I have no way of knowing how it will be received. But having benefited from the subtle grasp that comes with a deep understanding of a subject, the satisfaction of making a meaningful contribution to the discourse of an important topic, and, hopefully, the support of a broad community of people who share my concerns, if I had to offer one piece of advice it just might be, Write what you know.

BIO: JON McGORAN has written about food and sustainability for twenty years, as communication director at Weavers Way Co-op and editor of The Shuttle newspaper, and now as editor at Grid magazine. During that time he has also been an advocate for urban agriculture, cooperative development and labeling of genetically engineered foods. 

He is a member of the International Thriller Writers and the Mystery Writers of America, and a founding member of the Philadelphia Liars Club, a group of published authors dedicated to promotion, networking, and service work. In Drift, he combines his interest in the increasingly bizarre world of food today with his love of the thriller. Visit him at:

Drift is an ecological thriller about genetically-engineered foods, agro-pharmaceuticals and bio-tech threats to farming and food. After the death of his parents, Philadelphia narcotics Detective Doyle Carrick plans to spend a thirty-day suspension drinking alone in the country. 

But then a high-powered drug gang shows up in town and when Doyle busts their scheme to sell genetically altered heroin, he realizes they are up to something far more sinister. Soon, he must race to stop them from unleashing a deadly new plague that could kill millions, and earn billions for those who control the cure. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Hang In There, Baby, & You'll Find Your Story

By D.P. Lyle

“There’s a story in there somewhere, I just can’t find it.”

My agent Kimberley Cameron said that to me many years ago. She wasn’t my agent back then, but she is now and advice like this is one of the reasons. I had written what was without doubt the greatest piece of literature ever penned by mankind. Really, it was. It was destined to be a number one bestseller. I had no doubts.

After all, I’d done the work. I’d read hundreds of novels. I’d devoured scores of books on writing. I’d attended dozens of writing conferences. I did my homework. I’d written late into the night on countless occasions, struggling to get the story on the page. And two and half years later my “great American novel” was completed.

I had met Kimberley some years earlier at a conference and we instantly hit it off. At that time I told her I was working on my first book and she requested to see it once it was finished. So, I packaged it up and sent it off. A week later, I got a call from her and she delivered her pronouncement: “There’s a story in there somewhere, I just can’t find it.”

Along with her pronouncement on the quality of my masterpiece, she added an apology for being so blunt. She’s nice that way. She was also right on in her assessment.

The problem? The novel was 138,000 words of garbage. I didn’t know that at the time, but now through a retrospective lens it’s crystal clear. It was overwritten, poorly plotted, and slow. Painfully slow. Too much detail, not enough suspense. Too much description and inane activities. Too much boring dialog. In short, too much of everything.

Back to the drawing board.

Making a very long story short, over the next decade I wrote and published many other books, with Kimberley’s steady guiding hand, but that story wouldn’t let go. It kept creeping into my peripheral vision, nudging me in the dead of night when all writers awaken with a story in their head. It’s part of the process.

That nagging led me to 27 re-writes, 4 changes in title, 4 changes in location, and an entirely new protagonist. The only things that remained the same were the bad guy and the basic premise of the story. And after all that ripping and tearing and writing, writing, writing, ten years later it became STRESS FRACTURE, my first Dub Walker thriller.

What’s the take home message in all this?

Writing is hard. Writing well takes time and repetition. Writing well requires copious reading, learning the craft, giving attention to detail, and practice, practice, practice. Or as Bryce Courtney (The Power of One) often says: “Writing requires one thing. Bum glue. Glue you bum to the chair and write.”

So true.

Becoming a successful novelist also requires that you absorb criticism you’d rather not hear. But hear you must.

“There’s a story in there somewhere, I just can’t find it.”

Don’t fear such criticism. Embrace it. Use it to improve your skills and to motivate you to write a better story. Authors who get it right the first time around the block are rare indeed. You know the stories. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and even the great James Lee Burke struggled to get their words in print. Rejections were common. But give up? Not an option.

About RUN TO GROUND, a Dub Walker thriller:
What if a forensic evidence and criminal behavior expert must track down a seemingly average, very religious couple who murdered the killer of their only child, dumped their entire lives, and disappeared.

What would you do if someone brutally murdered your only child, got off on a technicality, serving only months for a minor infraction, and continually taunted and threatened you from behind bars? Could you hide your growing rage from family and friends? Could you gun the killer down? Could you change your ID and leave behind your entire life---family, friends, jobs, home---and disappear?

For Tim and Martha Foster the answer to each of these questions is yes.

This is the scenario that faces Dub Walker in RUN TO GROUND.

Connect with DP Lyle, MD:

Bio: D. P. Lyle is the Macavity Award winning and Edgar, Agatha, Scribe, and USA Best Book Award nominated author of the non-fiction books FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES; FORENSICS & FICTION; MORE FORENSICS & FICTION; and HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS; the Samantha Cody and Dub Walker Thriller series; and the ROYAL PAINS media tie-in novels. His short story “Even Steven” appears in ITW’s anthology THRILLER 3: LOVE IS MURDER.

He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Going Pro by NY Times bestelling author Jonathan Maberry

When I was a newbie writer, before I was established or even professionally published I used to believe that ‘the writing life’ was exactly how I saw it on TV or in movies. You know, where the author is a tortured artist who craves a midnight visit from the muse; then he gets drunk, strips to his wife-beater undershirt, and hammers out an incredible book that leaps to the top of the bestseller list. His agent and editors treat him like royalty and he buys a big house, a sports car, and is the darling of the social scene.

Then I became an author. I won some awards, had some bestsellers, even wound up on TV.

But, kiddo, the real world ain’t like it is in the movies.

Shocker, I know.

The truth is, however, more interesting because it’s more real.

First and most important thing to know is that, while writing is an art, publishing is a business. Writing is an intimate conversation between author and reader; even if it’s a conversation repeated many times with many readers. Both writer and reader are there for the story, for the art.

Publishing is about selling copies of art. It’s not about art itself. If you grasp that truth, if you understand it and accept the reality and practicality of it, then you won’t get your feelings hurt. And you’ll probably do better as a working writer.

It’s not that everyone in publishing is a cold and heartless whore. That’s as propagandized a view as the movie version of author as tortured artist. The individual people in publishing–from agents to editors, from book salesmen to booksellers—may have been drawn to their vocation out of a love of books. But their job is to sell them. 

They are not the enemy, as many writers seem to think. They are not backstabbing cheats, as too many frustrated writers suggest in their blogs. They are in a business whose product is copies of written works. To accomplish this end, they need to make decisions about whom to publish, how many copies and in what format to publish, who to promote, and who to gamble on. Viewed from a distance, there’s no villainy. They are not trying to hurt the feelings or stifle the career of fledgling writers.

Are they always right?  Of course not. If anyone actually knew the absolutely right way to publish every book so it would be a guaranteed hit, we’d all be gazillionaires. Like any business it’s largely trial and error, learn from experience, guesswork and statistics.

It is not, however, about art. It’s not about supporting the artist.  It’s not about making guarantees that each work will be successful. That business model does not, and could not, exist.

Given this, it’s important for all writers–especially newbies—to work with the system. Doing so does not require that you sacrifice even a drop of your artistic integrity. It does, however, require that you step away from the propaganda and mythology about being an artiste and act like a professional, working writer.

That doorway opens onto success.


EXTINCTION MACHINE by Jonathan Maberry (St. Martin’s Griffin) The President of the United States vanishes from the White House. A top-secret prototype stealth fighter is destroyed during a test flight.  Witnesses on the ground say that it was shot down by a craft that immediately vanished at impossible speeds. All over the world reports of UFOs are increasing at an alarming rate. And in a remote fossil dig in China dinosaur hunters have found something that is definitely not of this earth. There are rumors of alien-human hybrids living among us. Joe Ledger and the Department of Military Sciences  rush headlong into the heat of the world’s strangest and deadliest arms race, because the global race to recover and retro-engineer alien technologies has just hit a snag. Someone—or somethingwants that technology back.

Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, and freelancer for Marvel Comics. His novels include EXTINCTION MACHINE, FIRE & ASH, PATIENT ZERO and many others. His award-winning teen novel, ROT & RUIN, is now in development for film. He is the editor of V-WARS, an award-winning vampire anthology. Since 1978 he’s sold more than 1200 magazine feature articles, 3000 columns, plays, greeting cards, song lyrics, and poetry. He is the founder of the Writers Coffeehouse, and co-founder of The Liars Club. Jonathan lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his wife, Sara Jo.