Upcoming event: Westbank Library Talk, October 21st


Next month I’ll be visiting Austin’s Westbank Library to discuss writing Phantom Instinct and talk with — well, with as many of you who turn up as possible.


Westbank Library Mysteries and More Book Club
Talk and Q&A
Wednesday, October 21st at 1:00 pm
Westbank Library
1309 Westbank Drive
Austin, Texas

Come on down if you’re in the neighborhood.

“It never lets up.”


Over the weekend, a neighbor mentioned to me that he had just read China Lake. I was thrilled. He said, “It never lets up.”

He sounded surprised. But I’m not. Readers often tell me they find my novels fast-paced. I want my novels to read as fast-paced. Action and accelerating momentum help put the thrill in thriller. But here’s the thing: my books do let up.

My novels include scenes where characters:

  1. Take a languid midnight swim in the ocean.
  2. Attend a Halloween party with Klingons and a miscreant monkey.
  3. Suffer through a bridal-shower/lingerie-show.
  4. Teach a teenager high performance driving as a girls’ day out.
  5. Play soccer on the beach. Play basketball on a city court. Go for a five mile run. Spend an hour in a climbing gym.
  6. Make love.

So what gives? Hang on while I put on my writing teacher’s hat.

My books don’t seem relentless because the pace is quick, or because the action is nonstop. They seem relentless because even when the action stops — as in all the scenes above — unanswered questions lurk in the background. That is: the pace might let up, but the suspense never does.

That’s something it took me twenty years to learn.

So yes, these scenes let the characters have a moment of zen, or ecstasy, or pie. But tensions and unsettled issues are churning away in the story, and in the reader’s mind and gut. Mysteries remain unsolved. Clocks tick down. Bad guys scheme, and get in their cars, and draw near.

And each of these lighter scenes end up feeding into the main plot. Evan Delaney’s midnight ocean skinny dip ends with state officials threatening to arrest her. The bridal shower ends with Evan being drugged and waking up in Las Vegas.

It never lets up.

Upcoming Events: Bouchercon in Raleigh


Next month I’m attending Bouchercon 2015, the world mystery convention, in Raleigh, North Carolina. The con runs October 8-11. Besides talking about mysteries and thrillers, taking part in the late night authors’ fight club, and eating Carolina barbecue, I’ll be on a couple of panels.

Crime and Mystery meet Conspiracy, Science and Medicine
8th October 2015
Meg Gardiner [Moderator]
Dirk Wyle
Ross Pennie
Patricia Gussin
Mike Tabor

Keeping it Moving / Maintaining Pace in the Narrative
10th October 2015
Alexandra Sokoloff [Moderator]
Meg Gardiner
Glen Erik Hamilton
Terrence McCauley
SJ Rozan

I hope to see some of you there.

X is for Excited

Version 2

Some days you get lucky. Sue Grafton came to Austin’s Book People last night. Like the star she is, she signed copies of her new novel, X, for several hours — and with tireless cheer.

She did the work. I got a photo with one of my writing heroes. And I got to go home with Kinsey Millhone.

A summer’s worth of photos

Plus a volcano.

If you want to know where I get my ideas, here’s a sampling. These photos have been taken over the past few months. Some are of found items or street scenes I’ve come across. They provide a snapshot into my life — especially what I find glorious and goofy.

And no: no more context for you. You’ll have to figure out what’s going on in all the photos. Though I will tell you the volcano is Mt. Hood.

Exposition in dialogue: Don’t let it go wrong

Earlier this week I posted some writing “don’ts.” These included exposition in dialogue. In the comments, pujagokarn161289 asked:

Could you explain the ‘exposition in dialogue’ point a bit more elaborately?

Happy to.

I’ll start you off with a definition of exposition, courtesy of Wikipedia: “Narrative exposition, or simply exposition, is the insertion of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters’ backstories, prior plot events, historical context, etc.”

Exposition is writing or speech whose purpose is to explain something or convey information. It’s necessary in narrative fiction — at some point in a story, the characters’ relationships, their histories, their world, and what’s at stake will need to be revealed. And sometimes straight exposition is the simplest and most efficient way for the author to explain what’s going on. But it’s almost always more dramatic, and elegant, to immerse readers in the story, to show the characters and their world, than to explain background information through a long expository summary or a speech.

Exposition can come off as clunky, boring, and stupid when characters reveal information in dialogue — especially when one character explains something to another that they both know. The dialogue will convey information to the reader, but it will be unnatural and stilted.

“Well, if it isn’t my oldest brother, Joe. Did your wife, Gina, and your twin sons, Simon and Garfunkel, come with you on this surprise visit?”

“No, Wilfred. As I’m sure you remember, the last time my family came to this secret cabin on the shore of Loch Ness, we had that tragic fishing incident, and Gina swore never to return unless Nessie regurgitated the twins.”

Nobody talks like this. The characters are force-feeding information to the audience.

Instead of simply dumping information into dialogue, reveal it through conflict, humor, or moments of surprise.

“Joe. How the hell did you know I was here? Dammit, did Mom–”

“Yeah, she told me. I’m her favorite. You gonna invite me in, or just let me freeze in the wind coming off that loch? And stop looking over my shoulder. I’m alone. Gina wouldn’t come back here even if I speared Nessie and barbecued her with a flamethrower.”

Hope that helps.

Blast from the past — Writing: don’t, don’t, don’t


Because I’m deeply involved in an intellectual exercise — playing The Dictionary Game with my extended family — I’m going to re-run a post about writing from several years ago.


Writing: don’t, don’t, don’t

Susan Hill puts her finger on what makes bad writing bad.

Robert Harris, in his terrific thriller, GHOST WRITER, has something spot on to say about bad novels, through the mouth of his narrator. It explains in a modest number of words almost everything that is wrong with 99% of the manuscripts I read by aspiring writers.

‘All good books are different but all bad books are exactly the same….they don’t ring true. I don’t say that a good book is true, necessarily, just that it feels true for the time you’re reading it.’

Let me add my two bits. Here are a few things that make writing ring false — techniques guaranteed to leave readers cringing.

Exclamation points. They do not make dull work exciting, any more than banging cymbals together every four seconds makes Muzak exciting. No. They make you sound like you’ve overdosed on screaming pills. “Coffee, please!” “My God, you’re evil!” (Often accompanied by “she gasped.”) Listen to Elmore Leonard: restrict yourself to two or three exclamation points per 100,000 words.

Exposition in dialogue. “Finster! What are you doing at midnight on the banks of the Yangtze river, here in China? I haven’t seen you since we hijacked the space shuttle and buzzed NASA Mission Control in Houston!” “Wilhelm! Your wife, Sabine, told me you would be here. She says your son, Rannulf, who’s been fighting with the Foreign Legion, and your six-year-old triplets, who star in a reality television show, are planning a coup d’etat!”

Throat clearing. Also called announcing the cast. This means introducing the characters one at a time, in a static way, usually by having an omniscient narrator describe each person’s looks, habits, strengths, and failings. Sometimes accomplished by having a character recite his biography in a two-page block of dialogue. Frequently accompanied by lengthy flashbacks to a tragic event in the character’s past. Or a trivial yet formative event. I know, I know — you must introduce the characters. And you think that this is the only possible way to do it. You think that unless the author holds up the characters one at a time and tells readers who they are, nobody will understand the next 500 pages of the novel. You think that once readers memorize the characters’ CVs, then the story can begin. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Too late.

Fake mystery. Withholding information from the reader can create suspense. But withholding the identities of the people in a scene just creates frustration — if you do it in half your scenes. “Two men huddled at a corner table, speaking in low tones. ‘It’s time,’ one said.” By the thirty-fourth time you’ve used this technique, and it turns out yet again that the two men are the protagonist and his brother, the reader is ready to tear the story to shreds.

I could go on. But I need to return to my own rough draft to make sure I haven’t commmitted any of these sins.