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How to write about violence

If you’re going to write mysteries, thrillers, horror novels, or many other types of books, you’ll need to decide how to approach writing about violence and physical harm.

There are at least three ways to approach it:
1. Slow it down. Each step makes it clear just how bad it is.
2. Make the readers fill in the blank. Their solutions are usually far more affecting than yours, because they will think of the things that frighten them the most.
3. Underplay it. Use short, simple declarative sentences. Think Hemingway.
black eyes
A couple of years ago, I was running in my neighborhood when I fell, cracking the bridge of my nose, and scraping my face, hands and knees. I knew it was bad when I saw the expression of two guys I waved down to ask for help. Here are three ways to describe what happened.

Slow it down
“Running up 45th, April’s toe caught a crack in the sidewalk. The next thing she knew, she was in the air. Time slowed down, the way it did when you reached for a glass and knocked it over instead. She got her hands up in front of her as the sidewalk tilted at a crazy angle. Her palms skidded along the dirty concrete, but her momentum wasn't slowed.

Oh no, she thought, not her face! – then there was the solid surprise of her nose meeting the unmoving sidewalk.

And still April fell. Her front teeth hit the concrete, wavered, decided to stay put.

Finally she was still, face down, unmoving on the cool Sunday morning.

Make the reader fill in the blank
One minute April was running, mentally writing her next blog entry. The next thing she knew she was flat on the sidewalk. Something was terribly wrong. Her face felt wet.
The woman standing by the side of the road was frantically waving her arms. At least Josh thought it was a woman. Her face. Jesus Christ, what had happened to her face?

Underplay the prose
She ran up the hill. It was a Sunday morning. Her thoughts were elsewhere.

The sidewalk had lifted at an expansion joint. Her toe caught the crack. She fell very hard. She lay on the cement. Maybe she was okay. It was just a fall. She started to move but something grated inside. Her mouth tasted like rust.

Next to her was a bush with white flowers. She stared at it. Her vision was growing dark at the edges. The bush would look good in her garden.

She closed her eyes and was still.
More examples of fill-in-the-blank
I think the fill-in-the-blank idea can be the most powerful of the three. Here are two examples, one short and one long:

Five miles up the road, he opened the window and threw out the first of Karen Reid's teeth.
—The Intruders, Michael Marshall (the book does not say anything else about what he did to Karen Reid - but doesn't your mind supply a few details?)

She swam against the grain of the ocean, using a short and sharp stroke and a smooth kick.

She did not see the murky shape drifting toward her. It was more than half-submerged, and it had eyes. When she barged into it, the silent mass reared up.

Her scream was muted, most of it locked in her throat.

On the beach, her sons threw sand at each other and the man with the device unearthed a nickel. The lifeguard rearranged his legs in a way that the girls below could see the filled harness under his neon swim trunks. A stray cloud blotted some of the sun.
One of the boys pointed with his shovel. "Look at Mommy."
—Widow’s Walk, Andrew Coburn

How the writing process REALLY works

I used to write books just for me. No publisher was waiting for them (although I certainly had the fantasy that once publishers saw the finished book they would fight each other to publish it). And the books were done when they were done.

Now most of my books - I’ve had 17 published in 15 years - are written under contract, which means they have a fixed due date. (Although I still sneak off to work on a “spec” book now and then, like a married woman making out with some hot guy from her Body Pump class in the parking lot of the gym.)

My current writing process is:

  • One year before the book is due: I have plenty of time. And I deserve to relax after how hard I worked to get the last book done. I might make some notes and brainstorm a little. After I clean out the basement.

  • Nine months before: This plot idea is intriguing. The characters are starting to seem like real people. Maybe I should create a thorough outline instead of just plunking away at it.

  • Six months before: The outline is finished. This is going to be so easy. I should outline all the time! I’ll just take it step by step, like paint by numbers. The book is practically going to write itself now that I have all the hard work done. I think I’ll call my friend and go out for ice-cream to celebrate.

  • Three months before: Holy crap! This outline doesn’t work at all. And why do my characters keep doing things I never planned on them doing? This one guy was meant to be a secondary character, but for some reason he thinks he’s the real love interest. And my main character refuses to do this one dangerous thing the outline says she should do. She says it’s a bad idea.

  • Two months before: I will never be done in time. Never. The only way I can do it is to write two thousand words a day, every single day. Didn’t manage more than three hundred today? No problem, I’ll make it up tomorrow.

  • Two weeks before: There’s too much blood in my caffeine stream. I’m writing like a mad woman. But I can do it. If I just give up on this sleeping thing.

  • Due date: There. Finished. Is it any good? I’ve read it over, but to be honest, I have no idea. I hit the send key. I really should celebrate. Or work on that other book that’s due. But how long has it been since I swept behind the couch?

It bothers me when I read something in a book that I know is wrong. Wrong and Google-able. (I started writing before the Internet, or at least before a widely available Internet, when it was not quite so easy to check things out. Twenty years ago, I felt more comfortable just guessing or making stuff up. No longer.)

safety error

(Guess what doesn't have a safety? That was the end of this book for me.)

With a little bit of time, you can figure out nearly anything without having to step away from your computer.  Like:

  • Do red-tailed hawks eat road kill? (If fresh, yes).

  • Does Oregon pay for braces for kids in foster care? (No.)

  • What time are trial advocacy classes at the University of Washington. (Late afternoon.)

  • What testimony did the original grand jury hear in the Phoebe Prince case? (Actually, I couldn’t find that, which makes sense. Grand jury testimony is sealed. Still I would like to know more.)

One of the absolute best parts about my job as a mystery and thriller writer is doing research. In the past couple of years, I've:
Biting Plastic BagTaken a class in fighting in close quarters. At the end, someone sat behind you in your car and attacked you with a training gun, a training knife, a plastic bag, and a rope.

Under sinkPulled out everything from underneath my kitchen sink, crawled into the space, and taken a picture to prove to one of my editors that yes, a body would fit under there.

Asked my kajukenbo instructor to drag me across the room, his hands underneath my arms, so that together we could figure out how a character could fight and get away.

Fingerprint TonySpent a day with a criminalist at Forensics Division of the Portland Police.

Threat D hostageFaced down armed muggers, home invaders, crazy people, and robbers - all while armed with a modified Glock that uses lasers instead of real bullets. I did this at a firearms training simulator facility (the only one like it in the world that is open to civilians) which, lucky me, is just 20 minutes from my home. You interact with life-sized scenarios filmed in HD. The scenarios change depending on what you say (for example, “Hands in the air!”) and where your shots hit (a shot that disables versus one that injures). Meanwhile, the bad guys are shooting back. If you choose - and I do - you can wear a belt that gives you a 5000-volt shock if you’re shot. The facility even offers a simulation that is nearly 360 degrees, so you feel like you are standing in the middle of, say, the convenience store or the parking lot. This teaches you to look behind you for that second or third bad guy.

Every year, I go the Writers Police Academy, which is in North Carolina at a real police and fire academy. I also graduated from the FBI’s Citizen Academy, which is taught by real FBI agents and included a stint at a real gun range where I shot a submachine gun. I’m a member of Sisters in Crime, and my local chapter has experts speak every month (the blood spatter expert was particularly interesting). And I’m an online member of Crime Scene Writers, which has lots of retired or even active law enforcement personnel who answer questions.


My Six Editors

April and ChristyMy first book was published in 1999, so I've had a lot of experience working with editors. In fact, I have had six of them (at five different houses), plus an unknown number of copy editors and proof-readers. The amazing thing is that in my experience each editor has a different approach. What one editor is passionate about may not even be on another editor's radar screen.  And each editor tends to think that the way they do things is the only sensible way.
Editor 1
My first editor loved characters who were quirky, whacky, or eccentric - and if she felt they weren't quirky, whacky or eccentric enough, she often asked for them to be enhanced. Sometimes her comments were cryptic. I still remember staring at one notation scribbled in a margin. It said, "Pump up the mystery!" I had no idea how to do that. And I was too scared to call her. I've since learned that just as an email sometimes lacks the emotional nuance that would allow you to completely understand it, so too can editorial letters or hand-written notes. A simple phone call can go a long way toward making things clear for both writer and editor.

Editor 2
My second editor was a legend in the business. She was in her 80s, and everyone loved the idea that she was still working full-time and still danced and drank at mystery cons. Dozens of famous authors were edited by her over the course of her long career. I think she worked right up until she died. Her editing was much more broad-based, and she wasn’t nearly as much of a detail person as my first editor was.

Editor 3
My third editor was famous for being able to write an 11-page editorial letter for a 12-page picture book. He used brown stickies to mark changes he had pencilled in green pencil on the manuscript. One draft I got back bristled with so many stickies it looked like a porcupine. For Christmas that year, I gave him a brand new green pencil, figuring he had used one up on my manuscript. One thing I learned from him was that sometimes when an editor asks for a specific change, he or she may be right that something is wrong. However, the writer can often make a different fix than the editor requested and still come away with both parties happy.

Editor 4
My fourth editor writes thoughtful editorial letters that I dread. Why? Because she is skilled at finding flaws I haven't noticed. Flaws that require lots and lots of thought before I can fix them. She is also the most timely editor I have ever had. If she tells me something is due on a certain date, then I can expect an editorial letter back two or three weeks later.

Under sinkEditor 5
After sending the editorial letter, Editor 4 hands off the manuscript to Editor 5, who serves as both copy and line editor (usually those are two different people). A few times, she has questioned the veracity of things I write, asking if it’s really true or possible. I welcome that. So much fiction, especially mysteries and thrillers, is riddled with errors about police procedure, weapons, or investigative techniques. Once she asked if a woman's body really could be jammed under the kitchen sink - so I took everything out of mine and crawled in to prove it.

Editor 6
My fifth editor is both a big picture editor and someone who notices the smallest details. She's pointed out words I tend to overuse, words I wasn’t aware of until she had check-marked three or four uses of the same word in a single page.

All of my editors have been good - but in different ways.


I have been doing martial arts for close to five years now.  First it was kajukenbo and then for the last two and a half years, kung fu.

I love martial arts, an idea that would probably really surprise anyone I went to high school with, where PE was the only class where I ever got a C. (In my nightmares, I am still being taught a dance to Winchester Cathedral by Miss Fronk, who only shaved her lower legs.)

My gateway drug was a kickboxing class, where I found out I love hitting things as hard as I can. The teacher was also a kajukenbo instructor, and I ended up taking kajukenbo for about 18 months. I had an orange belt and was training for purple. My sifu even helped me figure out what moves my character could do in various situations in The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die.

When he stopped teaching, I started taking kung fu at the Westside Academy of Martial Arts (which also offers cross training, so our sifu often throws some in at the end of a session). I love sparring, learning techniques like the spinning back fist, and going up against guys who are a half-foot taller than me. I'm even getting better at grappling. I hold an orange belt and hope to test for purple soon.

What I've learned

Martial arts have helped me be a better writer (after all, mysteries and thrillers often contain an element of violence), as well as a stronger and more prepared person.

Women often deal with threats, even physical ones, with social behaviors. We ignore the people who threaten us or try to appease them. We try to ally ourselves with the person who made the threat by acting like we are really on their side.

But you know what? These skills won’t work on most predators. They won’t work on the person who sees your purse or phone as something they must have – and sees you as about as valuable as the packaging they originally came in. They especially won’t work on a predator who only wants to take you to someplace private so they can hurt, rape or kill you.

Sparring and grappling have taught me what it feels like to get hurt or simply experience the surprise of having someone attack you. Getting hit in the face or even having your hair pulled is shocking. In our culture, even close friends don’t touch our faces. Once you’re no longer a little child, no one even pats you on the head. Knowing a little something about surprise, pain and fighting back helps me write about them.

I can write authoritatively about fear, about how things blur, about the way people move and hold their bodies and eyes and mouths. I can tell when someone is about to hit me and where. The eyes focus, the breath catches and the shoulder drops or the hand goes back.

I also know how to hurt people – and that means my characters might be able to do it too.

A future book idea?

In a weird twist, a man who was looking for girls and woman to abduct was killed by police right outside my kung fu school a few months ago (you can even see my car in the top picture). He had already kidnapped a teenager from Paradise Tan.  She was only able to escape by jumping from his moving van while still bound with duct tape.  I am thinking there might be a book in there someplace.  Like what if he had taken a girl from the school?

gospel book of you

I own both these books - the approach is so similar.  I wonder if the designers are aware of the other book.  One's a mystery, one's a YA.  

Getting my life back!

I turned in a book February 19th, then February 20th I started a new book and wrote every day, evening and weekend.  Even when I was on "vacation" or doing school visits.

I turned that book in on June 1.  The editor has already given me edits (she's fast!) and she loves it.  For the first time in literally years, I've got some free time.  I want to take a step back and look at my my one wild and precious life (to paraphrase poet Mary Oliver).  I want to decide it's "okay" to read more for pleasure, or even to watch one of the many TV programs I've only heard about.  I want to get myself back in balance, instead of to always be working.

What things do you wish you were doing?  


Happy Birthday to The Body in the Woods

TheBodyintheWoods high res cvrToday, June 17th, is the publishing birthday of The Body in the Woods. It's the first in my new mystery series for teens, called The Point Last Seen series.  I like mysteries and thrillers that are fiction with a big dose of reality.  For a long time, I’ve been looking for a good idea for a teen mystery series that was realistic.
Then just a little over two years ago, I was sitting with some old friends at a Kathleen Edwards concert. They told us their daughter Sarah was volunteering with Multnomah County’s Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue (MCSO SAR).
SAR kids respondingI thought I knew what SAR did: help find people who are lost in the wilderness. And while they do do that, it turns out that our local SAR has two things that set it apart.
The first is that while other SAR groups exist across the country, most are not made up of teens. And those few that are usually either associated with Boy Scouts and/or just have an observational role. By contrast, MCSO SAR is the Multnomah County Sheriff’s office primary search and rescue resource. While there are adult advisors and a Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputy is present at any operation, the team leaders are all teens, as are most of the members.
The second is that about 30% of what they do is crime scene evidence searches. If someone was murdered outside, or if they police suspect the weapon or other evidence was discarded outside, or if the police know a gun was fired and they need the bullet for evidence, or if a body is found outside and they aren’t sure of the cause of death, these kids will be there.

SAR evidence search gaitersThey form a line on their hands and knees, wearing painter’s padded kneelers and leather gloves and they crawl forward shoulder to shoulder.  They never touch what they find, so they don’t enter the chain of evidence.  They are taught to look directly in front of them, as well as above them and behind them, to make sure they don’t miss, say, a knife someone sunk into a tree trunk.  The rule is, if they can’t see through it, they have to go through it, because they know that often a bad guy will discard evidence in a place he thinks no one would ever go, such as a blackberry bush.
And when I heard about this, I knew that I was going to right a series based on our SAR.  Less than six months later, I had made a two-book deal in what we’re calling the Point Last Seen series, and I just accepted an offer for more books.

So this book is about three teens.  Alexis is tall, pretty, quiet, and poor. She joined SAR in the hopes that it will look good on college applications in a few years.  Alexis also has a secret:  her mom is bipolar. Ruby is a bit of an odd duck, who knows she’s different but doesn’t understand how to fit in.  She likes unusual gum flavors, continuity errors in movies, and true crime.  And then there’s Nick.  He’s a hyperactive daydreamer who dreams of joining the Army, just like his dad, who died in Iraq.
And in the book, they are hunting through Forest Park for a missing autistic man when instead they find the body of a murdered girl.  Ruby begins to believe that there’s a serial killer at work.

Teen TrackerThe real SAR
While the state requires only 30 hours of training for certification, all members of MCSO SAR receive about 300 hours of training in first aid, emergency survival skills, radio communications, land navigation, GPS orientation, crime scene evidence searches, search techniques, human tracking, helicopter safety, wilderness medicine, rope rescues, urban search and rescue, snow and avalanche safety, and how to respond to terrorist attacks as well as natural disasters.
Its members are the first response team for missing, lost, or injured persons in the county and are often called in by other counties to assist at large search sites or when resources are drained. MCSO SAR members perform crime scene evidence searches at major or outdoor crime scenes for agencies all over the state of Oregon, and have been credited with finding key evidence in dozens of cases.
To participate, teens must be 14 years of age or older, maintain a 2.0 GPA, pass a criminal background check, have up-to-date vaccinations, be able to hike for long periods of time, be on call 24/7, and have the permission of their parents/guardians as well as their schools.

Blog tour
Monday June 9
YA Book Nerd

Tuesday June 10
The Book Addict’s Guide

Wednesday June 11
A Reader’s Adventure

Thursday June 12
YAdult Review

Friday June 13

Monday June 16
Reading with ABC

Tuesday June 17
Novel Novice

Wednesday June 18
Paperback Princess

Thursday June 19
Tales of a Ravenous Reader

Friday June 20
Adventures of a Book Junkie

Cancer takes another Portland writer

Unknown This is how I'll always think of Jay Lake.  It's how he looked when I first met him, 10 or 12 years ago.  He died of colon cancer yesterday.  He fought so hard, up to and including getting gene sequencing.
me and Lisa Lisa Madigan (Lisa Wolfson) died from pancreatic cancer in February 2011, just 8 weeks after she was diagnosed.  She had had breast cancer 20 years earlier, and accepted more than most of us that life does not last forever.
Bridget and AprilAt 33,  Bridget Zinn was young enough to be my kid.  She died in May 2011, again from colon cancer. (Don't tell let anyone tell if you if there is blood in your stool that you are too young to have colon cancer.)  Her 2013 book, Poison, was just named a Oregon Spirt Honor book, as was The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die.  


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