Question time: Do I worry about giving criminals ideas?

Continuing this round of Ask Me Anything…

Audrey Anderson writes:

Do you ever worry you might give criminals ideas?


The ideas for my novels come from current events and human nature. If you’re reading about a crime or conspiracy in one of my books, it’s most often because I heard about a similar crime or conspiracy being committed in the real world (identity theft, killer polygamous cults, courtroom hostage-taking) and wanted to tease that into fiction. Plus: the criminals in my novels are warped people — and they generally come to grief. They aren’t celebrated, and they almost never get away with their crimes.

Also, I don’t give how-to lessons on the best places to lie in wait to ambush somebody, or how to booby trap a home, or lists of untraceable poisons and instructions for administering them. I want my novels to be wildly creative, but I never want readers to think that my fictional criminals should be emulated. I try to write criminals in a way that lets us understand their motivation… and want them to lose. Big time.

One other reason: real life is far more audacious than fiction. This is the cruel truth. A couple of decades ago, two bestselling authors wrote novels that employ jetliners to commit acts of war and terrorism. [spoilers] Nelson DeMille’s 2000 thriller The Lion’s Game opens with a Libyan terrorist poisoning everybody aboard a 747 as it flies from Paris to New York. The plane lands at JFK on autopilot, with everybody dead. And Tom Clancy’s 1994 Jack Ryan thriller Debt of Honor ends with a crazed JAL pilot flying an empty 747 into the US Capitol during a joint session of Congress, killing nearly everybody in the government. Neither of these massively successful authors combined those two plotlines into a fictional terrorist attack. As fiction, it was beyond imagining. But Al Qaeda didn’t need to read the books to come up with its horrific plan for 9/11.

The bad guys don’t need my ideas.

My books are about the good guys finding the courage and resources to fight criminals and stop mayhem before it happens.

Question Time: The best concert I’ve ever attended?


Dan asks:

My question is somewhat unrelated to the craft of creative writing, but you have used music and musical artists to add to your characters’ depth and definition. What was the best live musical show/concert you ever attended and what made it so special?

I love this question. It lets me remember all the amazing shows I’ve been lucky to attend.

There was the Springsteen concert at Crystal Palace in London (Bruce truly did a handstand on a mike stand, kids — I did not make that up). There was the sing along Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall. And the New York Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Lincoln Center, when it didn’t matter that my mom and I walked out of the concert hall into a driving rainstorm and had to take a bus downtown, because anonymous New Yorkers paid our bus fare and we had just heard “Ode to Joy” and were full of happiness at being alive. There was Los Lobos at La Casa de la Raza in Santa Barbara, a raucous concert that was like the most crowded, jubilant high school dance in history. There was Jesus Christ Superstar, performed by the movie cast at the Santa Barbara Bowl, where the first chair guitarist was a guy I didn’t know yet, but ended up marrying.

But the best concert I ever attended was The Police at Twickenham Stadium, London, in September 2007.


It wasn’t the first time I saw The Police. That was at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, back when I was in law school, the Husband was still the Boyfriend, and a junior family member was too young to go unattended. That first concert turned me into a lifelong fan of the band. Seeing them again at Twickenham, on a perfect summer evening, with dear friends, family, and my youngest son… it was epic. The band was hot. Sting was hot. Andy Summers played mesmerizing, ringing guitar solos. Stewart Copeland owned the stadium. We sang ourselves hoarse and stumbled home exhausted.

And I now realize that none of my books reference The Police or their music. It’s time to correct that, pronto.

Question time: Ask me anything

A couple of times a year I open the blog to readers’ questions. I recently did a Q&A with students in the Creative Studies class at my high school, Dos Pueblos High in Goleta, California. The kids asked wanted to know how to fill plot holes, how to create interesting characters, and how to get past writers’ block. It was great fun talking to such engaged students.

So it’s your turn now. What do you want to know?

July 2016: Master CraftFest

MCF_2016_Bcon copy

Next summer, as part of ThrillerFest, I’ll be one of the teachers at Master CraftFest. I’m joining Steve Berry, Grant Blackwood, David Corbett, Heather Graham, Andrew Gross, and Gayle Lynds. I can’t wait.

If you’re interested in applying for the course, check out the link.

Writing a synopsis can help you revise your novel: Part II

Yesterday I talked about writing the synopsis for a novel, with an example from a hideous early synopsis I wrote for China Lake. If you want to cringe at its awfulness, click the link. Today I want to show how I revised that synopsis, and explain why writing one can help you understand your entire novel better.

To start, here’s my first revision of the synopsis’ opening paragraph.

Since Tabitha Delaney walked out on her husband, her family has been praying she’ll turn up, safe and sorry.

Funerals are tough enough when all the mourners feel sad. As Evan Delaney discovers one October day, they’re tougher when some folks celebrate the death. After a friend dies of AIDS, Evan is angered to find mourners confronted with shouts and pickets as they exit the funeral. The Remnant, a notorious religious sect, is protesting that AIDS is God’s retribution on sinners. She has braced herself for a week of farewells. She doesn’t know she’s getting a rude hello, to apocalyptic religion, the theft of military weapons, murder, and a violent game of keep-away with a little boy caught in the middle. She’s about to decide that whoever answers prayers these days is someone with very bad intentions.

Changes: less detail, more emotion. Fewer names to keep track of. A bit more imagery. Those are improvements. But it’s still pretty bad. It’s now too general — it reads like the thesis paragraph of a term paper. It’s too writerly. And it opens in the wrong place.

My beta reader, my generous sister-in-law, told me: “Focus on the important things. In a screenplay the structure is as follows: The setup (1st 10 pages). The inciting incident which starts the story. Plot points 1, 2, 3 send the story in a different direction. Finally resolution. When doing an outline all the above must be covered. And be very visual when you tell these essential elements.”

Taking that advice, I revised again:

Life has been kind to Evan Delaney lately. She has a novel on Santa Barbara bookshelves, cash in the bank, and the attention of her sometime lover, Jesse Blackburn. But life has also shaken her up. Though happily single, she has become temporary mom to her six-year-old nephew Luke. She took him in when his mother walked out on the family and his father, a Navy pilot, was deployed overseas. Luke is a spirited and tender kid, and she loves him like her own child. But her brother is returning to California, and Luke is going home over the upcoming Halloween weekend. She’ll be heartbroken when he leaves her.

Before then, she has another goodbye to face, the funeral for a friend who has died of AIDS.

Changes: The synopsis now starts with the setup — Evan’s life. Fewer details, more emotion. The writing is much more straightforward. And it launches the story in a way readers can easily follow.

As far as I can tell, that’s the final version of the synopsis. I wrote it before I finished the first draft of the novel. Back then the book wasn’t even called China Lake. The synopses are titled Fire Season and Flash Burn.

After I wrote it, there were a couple of twists in the tale.

First: when my agent got ready to submit the novel to publishers, I asked if he would send the synopsis along with the manuscript. He said: No. “Make them read the book. Not a summary. Give them no excuses.”

Second: though the synopsis never became a sales tool, writing it helped me understand how to structure and develop the book itself. My sister-in-law wrote:

“As I see it, the story is told through Evan, so I want to know Evan’s
motivation, and the drive that propels her to do the things she does. The setup is Evan in SB minding her own business, playing Auntie to her nephew, Luke. Life’s good, everyone’s fairly happy. Luke’s Mom vanished and his dad is deployed overseas, but Evan enjoys this motherly role.

Then the inciting incident: Luke’s Mom comes for him. This starts the story.
Evan reacts to this situation, fleeing to China Lake.

Plot Point #1 comes when Reverend Peter ends up murdered and Luke’s dad is arrested.

Plot Point #2 when Glory tells Evan of what the Remnant is really involved in.

Plot Point #3 Jesse is alive.”

Those points hit me like an anvil. Until then, I had not consciously considered the major turning points in the novel. I had written a rough draft that had all kinds of mystery, action, and suspense, but I had not thought deeply about the key events that drive the story and turn it in new directions. Once I saw what the major plot points were, I could pace the story to build up to them. I could ensure that they were major scenes, full of action and emotional consequence. I could plan how to send the narrative shooting in a clear direction afterward.

It was invaluable. And from then on, when my agent and editor asked for a synopsis or proposal, I knew how to write one. It’s still painful, but I’m glad I can do it.

Writing a synopsis can help you revise your novel: Part I

A new writer recently asked me if there’s any painless way to write the synopsis of a novel. Like many writers, he thinks it’s agony. How do you condense 80,000 words into one page? How can anyone? But if you’re going to send your work out into the world, it’s a skill you need.

On this topic, Jane Friedman offers solid advice:

[W]e need a clear idea of the core conflict for the protagonist, what’s driving that conflict, and how the protagonist succeeds or fails in dealing with that conflict.

Finally, we need to understand how that conflict is resolved and how the protagonist’s situation, both internally and externally, has changed.

I know this is good advice, because my first attempt at a synopsis lacked all these elements, and made the error Friedman warns against:

Don’t make the mistake of thinking the synopsis just details the plot. That will end up reading like a very mechanical account of your story, and won’t offer any depth or texture; it will read like a story without any emotion.

Want proof? Here’s the first paragraph of a terrible synopsis I wrote for China Lake, back before I was ever published.

A farewell turns into a violent game of keepaway for Evan Delaney and her young nephew, when the boy’s runaway mother reappears as the member of an apocalyptic religious sect. Evan, a freelance legal writer and novelist in Santa Barbara, California, has been caring for her brother’s son, six-year-old Luke. Her brother Brian, a naval aviator, has been at sea. His wife, Tabitha, abandoned the family three days before he shipped out. With Brian newly reassigned to duty at the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, California, Evan is facing a sad week: not only giving up a child who has become like her own son, but attending the funeral of a friend who has died of AIDS. Already down, Evan is alarmed to find mourners confronted with shouts and pickets as they exit the funeral. The Remnant, a notorious religious sect, is protesting that AIDS is God’s retribution on sinners, a sign of plagues yet to descend on the earth. And more shocking than the group’s hateful behavior is that their venomous literature has been written and illustrated by the newly converted Tabitha.

It’s an overstuffed bowl of names, places, backstory, and set-up, doused in purple prose. And it went on for five more pages. I read it to my writers’ group. Some stared. Some drooled. One member threatened to stab me with a pencil unless I shut up.

So I knew I needed help. I got it from my sister-in-law, who had just attended a seminar on writing screenplays. She told me: “Too much detail, not enough images. A lot of information on what they are doing, probably too little on what they are feeling.”

It took me weeks to revise the synopsis so that it was no longer a soggy mass of details. But as I worked on it, I came to understand how to revise the novel itself.

I’ll talk about that next time.

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.