Archive for the ‘Writing Tips’ Category


The subject of serial killers is always interesting, and having both done a good deal of research on the topic, fellow horror novelist Tamara Thorne and I got into an in-depth back-and-forth e-mail conversation about it. After re-reading the e-mails, we thought it might be interesting to use as a blog post. Tamara and I have both written about killers and what follows is Part One of our own thoughts as well as what we learned along the way. 

Here is the first question I asked her. It got the ball rolling and turned into a more of a mountain than a ball, really…

JSA: Who is your favorite serial killer, and why?

TT: Let me look through my serial killer trading cards. . . Seriously, I have a lot of favorites. I’m more interested in the ones like Ted Bundy who easily pass for normal, than the creepier types like John Wayne Gacy. The triad of Jack the Ripper, H.H. Holmes and the less well known Austin Ripper (aka The Servant Girl Annihilator) intrigues me. Of the three, only H.H. Holmes was captured. Holmes was active between 1886 and 1894, when he was captured. He built a huge “murder hotel” and was most active during the Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1893. He is often referred to as America’s first serial killer.

But he was not America’s first, despite the title. That dubious honor more likely goes to the Austin Ripper, who was never captured. He was active from 1884 through 1885, and was named “The Servant Girl Annihilator” by writer H.H. Munro (Saki), who was living in Austin, Texas at the time.

There’s a reasonable chance that the Austin Ripper moved on and became Jack the Ripper, active in London in 1888. The crimes were similar. Some, including H.H. Holmes’s descendant, postulate that Holmes was the Ripper, but other than similar handwriting, there is currently a lack of compelling evidence.

I think these – particularly the two Rippers – fascinate me because of the mystery. There’s so much room for conjecture.

Jared, who is your favorite?

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JSA: If I had to choose a favorite, I’d also go with Jack the Ripper. Because his identity is unknown, we can fill in our own blanks about who he was. He murdered so openly it’s hard to imagine he was sane, and yet, whoever he was, he clearly didn’t stand out from the crowd so much that he gave himself away.

Another one who has always fascinated me is Jeffrey Dahmer. Whereas killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy exhibited a lot of typical sociopathic personality traits such as a firm conviction they’d done nothing wrong, a heightened sense of ego, etc., Dahmer never denied or tried to justify his actions. I find that fascinating. He simply admitted what he’d done, and accepted the consequences. I read a lot about Dahmer when I was researching, and I was surprised to find that a good number of researchers believe Dahmer’s conscience was intact. That’s hard to fathom considering the crimes he committed, but there’s just something different about him that makes him a bit of an anomaly.

TT:  That’s a very good point.  He’s worth further exploration!

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JSA: I also have a particular fascination for the killers who fit into society so well as to go unnoticed. When we think of serial killers, I think a part of us believes we’d know one when we saw one, and I don’t believe that’s entirely true. When I was researching serial killers, I would look at photographs or watch videos of certain killers, and try to determine if, in all honesty, I would be able to sense anything dangerous about them. While I have a hard time believing I wouldn’t have been a little creeped out by John Wayne Gacy, I have to admit that I probably wouldn’t have given killers such as Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer much notice. To me, these guys appeared to be perfectly normal, intelligent men.

I was intrigued though, while reading a book about Ted Bundy, by how many women who’d met him claimed they just felt something wasn’t “quite right” about him. Many of the women who evaded Bundy did so simply because some inner voice warned them against him. So, on that token, I wonder if there isn’t some kind of instinct inside all of us that tries to protect us. The question, though, is, would we heed that instinct, or just ignore it?

TT:  I think we all have an instinct, but defining it is difficult. The best explanation of our “knowing” I’ve ever read comes in Gavin DeBecker’s book, The Gift of Fear. People who listen to their instincts are much more likely to live longer, safer lives. The trouble is, we often tend to denigrate our feelings as silly nonsense. We go ahead and get on the elevator with the man in the business suit who looks entirely normal even though our instinct is to run. I wonder what Bundy’s “tell” was. Eye contact? Lack of it?

JSA: I don’t know. No one I read about ever explained what it was exactly that made them uneasy. Just a “feeling.” It’s interesting. So why do you think, as a society, we’re so interested in serial killers?

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TT: They walk among us, they look like us, they sound like us, but they are not like us. I think the otherness is a big part of the fascination. If you’ve ever found yourself dealing with someone who does not react like ninety percent of the population, you already understand this. I knew a writer many years ago, not long after my first book came out, who wrote a first novel and sold it. He was overjoyed. But the book was very long and his editor suggested cutting one of the characters in order to shorten it. He asked me about it — I’d read the manuscript — and without a clue about what I was stepping into, I said I thought cutting was a great idea. This was a character that was non-essential and anything important he did could be moved to the main hero. I told the writer my thoughts.

Holy crap! The shit hit a dozen fans. My jaw dropped as I watched this guy go ballistic. He ranted and raved and said nobody understood. And then he screamed and cried. Okay, I knew none of this was normal, but I wouldn’t have called it insane behavior, just a tantrum. But then, I saw his insanity when he said the editor wanted him to kill his father. Evidently he’d named this character after the long-dead parent and somehow this brought Daddy Dearest back to life. At this point, I stopped answering his calls. It was my first brush with insanity and I didn’t like it.

However, it’s fascinating, isn’t it? Serial killers hide the insanity, but we know it’s there. Certainly not in the form I saw with the new writer, but they are even further removed from our emotions and morals than he was. They are foreign.

What kinds of experiences have you had with crazy?

JSA: I’ve met, and in a couple cases, known, people whom I’m certain totally lacked a conscience. The interesting thing is, the majority of sociopaths are not violent. To lack a conscience, and have a murderous temperament is a rare–and pretty unfortunate–blend of psychological problems. That’s not to say sociopaths who aren’t violent aren’t dangerous, they are. It’s just that most sociopaths are what are termed “blue collar” criminals, and are more likely to be found committing various–and usually very crafty–small crimes, rather than outright murdering folks. If you get the chance, read The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout. According to her and the studies she’s researched, one in every 25 people has no conscience. This book is a kind of if you think you’ve never met one, you’re wrong wake-up call.

I found when writing Sterling Bronson (in Beautiful Monster) that creating ways to make him sneaky and underhanded was actually harder than making him a killer. I never diagnosed Sterling in the book, because I wanted readers to be able to fill in their own blanks, so I’m not saying he was an outright sociopath, but in order to write him, I had to understand, to the best of my ability, the way these people think. It wasn’t easy, and in a lot of ways, it wasn’t fun, but overall, I’m pleased with his outcome.

You’ve written about serial killers a few times. What kind of research did you do, and what was your experience in the fictionalization of a monster?

TT: One of my serial killers is definitely not without conscience, but a prisoner of his own desires. The others are traditional psychopaths. In researching, I read everything I can about a multitude of serial killers and their pathology. I find interviews with sociopaths very interesting. I also like to talk with profilers, cops, and other experts and read books like Mindhunter, written from their expert perspective.

I rather enjoy writing from the killer’s perspective — I find it freeing and, sometimes, very therapeutic.  Certainly it’s a disturbing process, but I like it. A lot.  I tend to dream in character points of view while writing and those are more disturbing — and useful — than anything else.

JSA: Ha! Glad I’m not the only one who dreams of his characters… even the killers! Tell me one of your dreams and I’ll tell you one of mine.

There is more of this to come later. We don’t want to overwhelm you, so we’ve decided to post this in small installments! Next time, Tamara and I will discuss dreams and writing, as we’ve both utilized our dreams as a writing tool and, since dreaming of serial killers makes for great stories, we also got pretty heavily into that discussion. So…to be continued!

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Though I’ve been taught to never start writing a book without having my beginning, middle, and end in mind, I have continually insisted on sitting down and blindly tapping away at the keyboard, trusting the plot to work itself out as I go. And sometimes, the story does just that…but sometimes it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t, as I’ve recently learned the hard way, it’s a mess.

Since deciding that the book I’m currently working on might be stronger if it were written in the third person point of view (and I have to virtually start the book over anyway), I’ve refused to make that mistake again. Therefore, I’ve spent the majority of the past week or so working on an outline for the book.

Here’s what I’m learning:

1) My characters need a little structure. What I mean by that is, although I love the surprises my characters present to me as I write along, I need to keep them under control, to a point. As any writer knows, characters have a way of taking the story into their own fictitious little hands, and guiding the plot their own way. Sometimes, this is a blessing. Other times, it’s a curse. I’m finding that giving them freedom, but within the confines of the stories structure, works out well as long as the boundaries are set in place.

2) My outlines never go exactly as I plan them. Even with a solid outline, the characters bring their own attitudes and actions to the story, the same way actors do with their scripts, so for me, having an outline really doesn’t limit my creative freedom.

3) Outlining is a great way to know what comes next. Nothing sucks worse than getting 35,000 words into a story and suddenly wondering now what? I’m finding that having an outline in place eliminates this problem, and for me, that is awesome.

4) Outlining is hard, damn it. There seem to be two types of writers: those who excel and plot, and those whose strength lies in characterization. I am of the latter persuasion. I just kind of “get” characters. I understand how to make them move and speak, and I usually instinctively know “who” they are and what they want. Creating a strong plot to cast them in, however, isn’t so easy for me. I don’t know how other writers operate, but I see glimpses of story ~ small, seemingly unrelated flashes of action, dialogue, or events. It’s my job then to put these slices of plot into some kind of order, and to ultimately tell a solid and cohesive story. This, for me, is usually pretty challenging, but although it’s difficult (for me anyway), it saves me a lot of trouble in the long run.

5) Process is unique to every writer. I’ve talked to many writers about their process, and none of them use exactly the same methods. This is both a blessing and a curse for the beginning writer. On one hand, it’s great because the possibilities are endless, and the new writer doesn’t feel restrained by the advice of other writers. On the other hand, every writer needs to develop his or her own process, and that takes time, practice, and requires a few (or a lot of) dead-end attempts.

6) Process can change from book to book. For me, some stories work just fine without an outline. When I was writing Sterling Bronson for Beautiful Monster, I rarely referenced the outline, although we had one made up. Sterling just kind of did his own thing, and since he divided his time with Brenna, Mimi’s character, there wasn’t any room for dawdling. The book I’m currently working on now however, needed to be outlined. This one is a more layered storyline and I don’t think there’s any way I could finish the book without a solid knowledge of where I’m going with it.

7) Finally, what I’ve learned from outlining is that whether or not you map your stories out at all, the most important thing in writing anything is still to simply sit down and do it. It doesn’t matter how you do it…just that you do it. I’ve heard of writers who spend so much time working out convoluted character development sheets, learning every detail of each character to the point of what this character’s favorite kind of socks are, that very little actual writing gets done. My advice: outline, even if it’s very skeletal…but let the story come to life as it’s being written. Let the details fill themselves in as the characters and the plot invent or require them.

Until next time,

Happy writing!

(What a typical outline of mine looks like!)

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Of the many difficult aspects of writing that exist, none has surprised me more than the difficulty I’ve had with finding the right titles for my books. The title Beautiful Monster didn’t come into existence until the very last round revisions that Mimi and I did on the novel. First, we called it, very simply, An Evil Heart, deciding that would do just fine until something more powerful came along.

Then, for the longest time, we called the manuscript Gallery of Dolls, in reference to the abandoned mine shafts Sterling Bronson takes his victims to. I was never happy with that title, though, and probably drove Mimi crazy with my fixation on finding just the right name for this book. It sounded too much like The Valley of the Dolls to me.

Then, during the book’s final round of revisions, Mimi’s character, Brenna, said something about “the monster behind the beautiful mask…” and I knew that, somewhere in there, was our title. We played around with it a little before settling on Beautiful Monster. This kind of focus on the title of a book can be completely in vain though, as many publishers will change the title of the book if they don’t think it’s a marketable one. Still, my obsession doesn’t cease.

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Now, I am re-writing the novel formerly known as The White Room, which I recently changed to Cadence, which now is simply known as untitled. I don’t know why having a title is so important to me. I somehow feel like I can’t fully envision the book without the title intact, and yet, I usually don’t come up with the titles until the end of the process.

It’s my hope that as I’m plugging along, the perfect title will present itself to me when the time is right. I’ve been told by many other authors that this is how it usually goes, and I believe it.

If anyone else has a problem finding titles for their work, I found a useful article on the Writer’s Digest website that addresses the issue. I plan to look it over and incorporate the information: http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/write-first-chapter-get-started/7-tips-to-nail-the-perfect-title

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Have a great weekend!

All best.


The actor Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs) once said that playing the crazy parts are easy…it’s the “normal” roles that are tough to pull off. At the time I saw that interview, I found the statement only moderately interesting, and, having no especial interest in acting, forgot about it. Recently however, that statement has made its way back into my awareness in relation to my writing.

When I wrote Sterling Bronson in Beautiful Monster, I had no trouble with him at all. I always found this a little worrisome…how could someone so heinous be so easy for me to write…what does that say about me and the workings of my mind? As I delve back into my previous novel, formerly known as The White Room though, I understand things a little differently.

When I’m writing an over-the-top character like Sterling Bronson, it’s easier for me and here’s why: he is extreme. When Sterling does something, he over-does it. If he wants something, he needs it. Whenever he reacts to something, he over-reacts to it. When I’m writing a “normal” person, though, it gets trickier.

I’m currently writing a semi-“normal” character named Cade Jacobi. He is a nineteen-year-old bookish type, with a naive, juvenile streak to him. What he wants more than anything is to be like his older brother. What he doesn’t see, of course, is that he is far better off than his brother, and that sometimes the greatest pain is wrapped in the prettiest packages. This is something Cade has to learn the hard way. Cade has his own personality and I’ve tried to keep him real, but unlike Sterling Bronson, I care if people like Cade. I worry that people need to like him, whereas, with Sterling, I never cared if he pissed people off. He was supposed to (and based on some of the letters we’ve received, he’s done a fine job! Ha!)

So while writing Cade, I find myself constantly toeing that thin line between keeping him real, and keeping him likable. Too often, in an attempt to write likable characters, writers populate their novels with cardboard cut-outs of real-life people who possess cookie-cutter kindness and whose only real flaws are that they trust too much, love too deeply, or give more than they can afford to. Just as no villain can be entirely without any soft spots, no hero is without his or her flaws, otherwise, it’s melodrama and it doesn’t feel real.

The solution, I’m finding out, is to simply “trust the process.” Let the character’s be themselves, likable or not, and just let them tell their story. As it is in the real world, no one can be liked by everyone. I believe this holds true for folks of the fictional persuasion as well. I hope people will like Cade, I really do, but if not, it’s not my business to worry about. I’m giving him my best effort and I’m maintaining his integrity; if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. The real trouble with “normal” people is that they are layered; they are human (or close to it anyway), and this is what makes them interesting. They’re just a hell of a lot harder to write.


Janet Evanovich is the New York Times bestselling author of the Stephanie Plum bounty hunter series, the Wicked series (Lizzy and Diesel), and the Barnaby and Hooker series, along with dozens of other novels in various genres. I know Janet is a very busy writer, and I was doubtful she’d have the time for an interview, so I kept the number of questions to a minimum. As it turned out, she met my request with a more-than-happy-to attitude, and I’m honored to have her as a guest on my blog.

Q: What was it like for you when you reached the New York Times bestsellers list?

A: It was fantastic, especially when you consider that, over my first ten years of writing, I wrote three novels and collected what seemed like reams of rejection letters.

Q: Of all your books, do you have a personal favorite, and why is it your favorite?

A: I used to wonder how I’d answer that question when I’d read interviews with other authors.  Most of them said something to the effect of “they are like my children, how could I choose?”  But, in all honesty, since most writers continue to improve their craft as they write, I’d have to say that my best book is usually my most recent.  I had a blast researching and writing Wicked Business.

Q: What do you think is the most fascinating part of your job as a writer?

A: It has to be creating a world and populating it with characters you like.  While writing, I live seven days a week with the characters, so it’s important to enjoy their company.

Q: What aspect of being a writer are you most disappointed in?

A: That I can’t write as quickly as people can read. I get letters all the time from readers begging me to write faster. I wish I could, but it takes me six months to write and edit a book.

Q: How did your character Stephanie Plum come into existence?

A: In 1992, my husband and I went to see the Robert DeNiro movie, Midnight Run.  It was a hilarious story about a bounty hunter who has to transport a former mob accountant across the country.  I was writing romances at that time and the movie got me thinking… what about a book with a female bounty hunter?  I did some research on the subject and then took a lot of bounty hunters and law enforcement types out for a beer.  Their stories were fascinating and led me to write the first Stephanie Plum novel, One For the Money.

Q: Was getting published a long and arduous road for you, or was it relatively easy?

A: After ten years of beating my head on my desk, I was an overnight sensation.


Of the many totally awesome benefits to getting your book published, probably nothing is as cool as getting letters from your readers, and in the short time since Beautiful Monster has been published, I’ve discovered there are three basic types of mail that readers will send an author: fan mail, hate mail, and just plain-strange-mail.

Each of these types of mail are important to the author who is interested in knowing his or her audience and/or learning more about his or her own strengths and weaknesses as a writer. It’s always great to get mail from readers, however, you have to be careful not to get too caught up in anyone’s take on your work. There’s something to be said about writing for one’s self.

I believe that anyone who writes a novel and gives it to the world has already got nerves of steel. Putting your work out there leaves you vulnerable, it makes you raw, and it is absolutely terrifying…but when you start getting feedback from readers, the good, the bad, and the ugly, that’s when things get real interesting. That being said, here are the types of mail you can expect to receive from your readers once your manuscript is published…based on my experience…

The first and best kind of mail is, of course, fan mail. This is the stuff that reminds you of why you wanted to do this in the first place. The writer’s of fan mail are always very excited about your characters and the world you’ve created. Many of these guys even share insights into your story and your characters that make you see your novel from an entirely new perspective. The writer’s of fan mail are your most important readers. These guys like you. They support you and they want more from you. Be very nice to these folks.

Another form of mail you’re likely to receive is the kind no one likes to get: hate mail. Before assuming that this kind of mail is limited only to writers of sex, violence and sensitive social subjects, be warned that receiving hate mail is almost inevitable. I know writers of the most delightfully sweet children’s books who have received their fair share. Realize that in a time when people are looking for reasons to be offended, there are no safe books to be written. The writer’s of hate mail like to tell you that you have no business writing. Sometimes, it’s your writing style that has set their vicious pens a-scribble. Other times, it’s the content. Too much sex, too much violence…not enough sex, not enough violence…these are all just a few of the triggers that get hate mailers in a dither of wrath. It’s best not to respond at all to these guys as any correspondence from you is only likely perpetuate the hate and increase the chances of them telling their friends and families what a prick you are…on top of being a lousy writer. That being said, don’t forget that even the hate mailers are important, though. As Oscar Wilde said, “there is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.”

Finally, of the three kinds of mail, the just-plain-strange mail is far and beyond the most interesting. These folks like to confess deep things to you. I suppose they figure that (if you’re a horror writer) you somehow understand their darkest, secret fancies. (These folks also tend to get the idea that your characters are real people with whom they would get along famously with, but that is neither here nor there.) There is not, in most cases, anything wrong with getting these kinds of letters. These guys are reading your books, and that makes them cool as hell. That being said, there have, however, been a few letters that have given me pause, and I would caution readers against revealing too much to a stranger, even one who seems to let his freak flag fly. There are just some things that need to be kept under the toupee.

And that is, as far as I can tell, the three types of letters that readers like to send to authors. As I said, all letters from readers are important, and the fact that I’m getting any letters at all is wonderful. I am still in the beginning of all this, but for what it’s worth, this is what I’m learning: don’t let the fan mail go to your head, don’t let the hate mail go to your heart, and… well, as for the just-plain-strange mail, I’m still not sure what to do with that…


Anyone who has ever been job hunting knows how companies love to boast about their benefits packages. This is their way of appealing to potential candidates and maintaining a competitive edge in the market. It has recently come to my attention though that I’ve never heard of any kind of benefits program for employment as an author, and yet, being a writer has some of the best benefits ever! Thus, I have taken it upon myself to divulge the benefits of being a novelist here.

As an author, your benefits include, but are by no means limited to:

1. Direct Deposit. You simply open a PayPal account, and money mysteriously appears!

2. You can get to work at whatever time you want. As a writer, there’s no one waiting for you, looking pointedly at the clock when you arrive at your computer to write for the day…even if you don’t show up till noon.

3. You can go to work in your pajamas. Perhaps the greatest benefit of all! You can roll out of bed, get some coffee, and go to work looking like absolute hell, and no one cares.

4. It’s up to you whether or not you can have food or drink at your work station. If you’re in the middle of an especially intense writing session when you’re suddenly struck by a craving for a pot roast and a Slurpee from 7-11, it’s perfectly fine, as long as you say it’s okay.

5. You can pee without having to explain yourself to anyone. Oh, yeah…I said it. We’ve all had those jobs where urinating is not treated as the natural function it is, but rather as a stick in the ever-spinning spokes of the machine that was our “jobs.” As an author, if you need to pee, then pee. Really, no one will even have to know.

6. You can drink on the job. For those of you with a weakness for the drink (and we know who you are), you may feel inclined to get hammered at your desk. So long as your deadlines are met, no one cares if you’ve got a pint, a fifth or even an Opium hookah in your top drawer. Hey, Hemingway did it… as did Poe… and King… and…

7. Your boss wants you to succeed. As an author, you have two bosses: your publisher and your audience. Neither of these guys want you to write crappy books. In fact, they want you to excel at your job and both are wonderful at supporting you. Your publisher is not going to feel threatened by you and fire you if you end up writing a better book than him or her, and your audience is not going to call you a suck-up because your book hit the New York Times bestseller list.

8. If you get tired of your office, you can leave. There are no rules about where your job is done, so long as it’s done. If you feel like packing up your computer and writing a few scenes in the corner bar, no one is going to question your whereabouts. Unless you happen to be on house arrest.

9. There are no tattling co-workers. As a writer, if you feel like playing on Facebook at work, there’s no one to tattle on you for it. Angry Birds, Vampire Wars, Soduku, hell, even Pac-Man if that’s your thing. Again… no one cares. As an added plus to this particular benefit, you can lock yourself into a room, rearrange the furniture in your YoVille character’s apartment, and emerge several hours (or days) later looking exhausted, and claiming to have written an especially taxing series of scenes. No one’s going to question you. Unless you have a pet or child you’ve neglected to water and feed.

10. Sexual harassment is perfectly okay in the workplace. Need I say more?

11. You never have to call in sick. Don’t feel like writing today? No biggie. As a writer, you will never have to wake up, decide you just can’t do it today, and, using your weakest, scratchiest voice, call some a**hole and explain your medical history to them only to spend the rest of the day feeling guilty and wishing you’d just gone in after all.

12. There are no pesky safety programs. If, as a writer, you happen to see a two-by-four with a rusty nail sticking out of it in your work place, who cares? If some dumb ass is stupid enough to step on the damn thing, they probably deserve the pain, right?

13. Research is a tax write-off. Let’s say I’m writing a novel about a stripper with a crack-cocaine problem. Common sense tells me I need to understand the ins and outs of the life of said stripper in order to write an effective story about her. My time spent at the girly shows? Just part of my job, ma’am… and hence, a tax write-off! I’m not sure I’d be able to write off the crack-cocaine I’d need to experiment with in order to believably portray the drug’s effects on the human body, but hey, it’s worth a shot.

14. You never have to feign interest in your co-workers personal lives ever again. We’ve all been there. “Yes, Sally, I love the baby blanket you knitted for your grandson…”

As you can see, there are many benefits to being a writer, and it’s no wonder it’s such a sought-after profession. It’s just sad that they don’t advertise their benefits program a little more.