Mar 262014
Nancy J. Cohen

How do you drop hints for a sequel into your current story, not only to let readers know more books are coming but also to whet their appetite for the next installment?
You can (1) title your book as part of a series, (2) include an excerpt for the next book after the last chapter, (3) plant clues foreshadowing another problem to come, or (4) drop an overt hint toward the end of your story.

Number four is what I did in Hanging By A Hair, book #11 in my Bad Hair Day mysteries due out on April 18th. At the end of this story, I drop a hint that leads directly to the sequel, Peril by Ponytail. The mystery in Hanging By A Hair is solved, so readers go away satisfied, and the main character learns a lesson. But anticipation is half the fun, and I’m hoping fans will be eager for the next installment. I did the same thing in Killer Knots when Marla announces she and Dalton have set a date for their wedding. That leads into Shear Murder, the wedding story and #10 in my series.


But what if you haven’t plotted the sequel, written the first chapter for it, or even planned on one? And then suddenly readers are demanding the next book. What do you do?

Hopefully, you can still make additions in your current WIP. So here are some tips on how to drop in some subtle hints of what’s to come:
  • First plot your overall series story arc for the next few books.
  • Identify the main characters. Is this a series with a single protagonist in each volume, or are the stories spin-offs, wherein secondary characters in one story become the heroes in another? Either way, try to determine what personal issues will be driving these people in the next book.
  • Write the opening scene to get a feel for the story.
Now go back to the WIP and look for places where you can drop in hints of what’s to come.

In the Drift Lords series, a sweeping battle between good and evil is heralded. What happens after this battle when my heroes triumph? Is the series over? Not necessarily, because you all know that after one bad guy goes down, a worse one pops up to threaten humanity.

Spoiler Alert! I created an unusual situation by writing my first three books in chronological order because the story comes to its rightful conclusion in this trilogy. The next three books, as I’ve planned it, will take place in the same time period as books 2 and 3. I know it’s confusing, but bear with me. What will make this next set of books special, if fans know our main villains get vanquished in book 3? It appears our Drift Lords are not finished just because they’ve prevented disaster. A worse villain awaits them around the corner.


I created a new story arc for books 4 through 6. Look at Star Wars. George Lucas made a wildly popular trilogy. Then he did another 3 movies, calling them prequels. Now the series will continue with a new story line into the future.

I drop hints in Warrior Lord (Drift Lords book #3) for the next trilogy in my series. I see them as sets of three with the potential for a total of seven or more. And like Terry Goodkind’s excellent Sword of Truth series, just because one nasty bad guy is defeated doesn’t mean there aren’t more waiting in the wings. Is evil ever truly vanquished?

Sword Truth

Do you like hints of what’s to come in stories subsequent to what you are currently reading? I’m not talking cliffhanger endings here. I hate it when the main story isn’t finished, and you have to wait for the sequel. But personal issues can continue in the next installment, or new problems might arise that cause trouble. One has to be careful not to frustrate the reader by leaving too many threads loose, but it’s good storytelling to offer a teaser about what may be in store. Just make sure you bring the current story to a satisfying conclusion.

NOTE: This post originally appeared on my personal blog at

Mar 052014

By Joe Moore

Wouldn’t it be great if we could download a software program, input some general ideas about a book we want to write, click compose, and an 80k-word manuscript magically appears? That’s certainly the Holy Grail of writers everywhere. Let the application do the heavy lifting while we just sit back and think up more great ideas. As of today, that software program doesn’t exist.

Still, writers are always looking for a shortcut. A tool that can take some of the pain away. A tool that can make the journey through the 3-act novel a bit easier. There are some programs that can help, even just a little.

Granted, the only tools needed to write a novel are a sharp pencil and a pad of paper. And some writers still use that method while others have gone on to word processors like MS Word. I prefer the latter since I can’t read my own writing.

But for those who seek a little bit of help to assist in the process, I’ve assembled a list of applications that might. I’ve never tried any of them and endorse none. But if one Zoner out there benefits from one of these, then my work here is done.

Probably the most popular program for novelists is Scrivener. Bestselling novels have been written with it and those who use it love it. You can test drive it for free.

After Scrivener comes smaller programs that focus on particular aspects of the writing process. Here’s a list. Hope you find that magic bullet in the list somewhere.

Note Everything. The ultimate note pad.

Write or Die 2. Helps to eliminate writer’s block.

yWriter5. Helps you to plan your novel.

Diaro. Advanced diary application.

Writer Pro. Professional writing suite.

FocusWriter. Gets rid of all distractions so you can concentrate on writing.

Writer. Helps you focus on your writing.

Hemingway. Helps you write bold and clear.

wikidPad. Helps you to link your ideas.

Wise Mapping. Online mind mapping tool.

MindNode. More mind mapping.

TreeSheets. Powerful note taking app. Brainstorm or create a map for your ideas.

Sigil. EPUB editor.

Vizual Einstein. Visually develop a project.

The Writers Store. Complete source for writing software and other stuff.

There are tons more out there. You can find them with a simple Google search. So, fellow Zoners, do you use any writer aids or are all you writing tools in your head? Any programs to recommend?


Coming this spring: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore
Einstein got it wrong!

Jan 082014

by Joe Moore

A huge Happy New Year to all my TKZ friends and blogmates. May 2014 be the best year ever for all of you.

Back in June of 2012, I posted a TKZ blog called Magic Words and how using them can be one of the best methods for kick starting your story ideas. The words are: “What If”. I’m sure that almost every story written probably started with those two words. What better way to get the juices flowing than to start with what if? I consider this a “story level” technique.

Today I want to suggest a “chapter level” exercise. Four words that can help create tension, suspense, conflict, and character-building. They are: “What Can Go Wrong?”

As you’re about to start a new chapter, even if you know what needs to happen, pause for a moment and ask yourself what can go wrong in this scene. Chances are, whatever answer you come up with will give you the opportunity to ratchet up the suspense and thereby keep the reader’s interest. Here’s a recent example of how I used this technique.

In my latest thriller THE SHIELD (co-written with Lynn Sholes) I was to draft a chapter in which my protagonist, her ex-husband, and a Russian colonel who had taken them prisoner, were flying in a 2-engine prop plane from Port Sudan inland across the Nubian Desert to a secret military facility. The outline which Lynn and I constructed about a year ago called for this journey from point A to point B. The only purpose of the chapter was to get to point B, the secret military facility. If I had drafted the chapter sticking strictly to the outline with the flight comprising of light banter between the three and the mention of a few landmarks passing below, it would have been short and dull, almost surely unneeded. The reader would have skipped through it to get to the “good stuff”.

So before I began, I asked myself what can go wrong in this scene that would lift the suspense and conflict, and even give me an opportunity to build character. My answer: what is the worst thing that can happen to an airplane? It crashes. Why would it crash? Well, that area of North Africa is known to be a dangerous place with anti-government rebel and al-Qaeda training camps. So what causes the crash? It’s shot down by shoulder-fired rockets from a rebel encampment.

Keep in mind that the outline calls for the three to get from point A to point B. This is the beauty of outlining: you can still reach your goal but taking an interesting detour can improve the story.

To increase the tension—although the three manage to survive the crash—the rebels are now coming after them. And how about the character-building aspect. My protagonist manages to save the life of her Russian captor when she could have easily left him behind to burn up in the wreckage.

In asking what can go wrong, I managed to turn one chapter into three, prolong the conflict, build character, and still fulfill the plot outline by getting all three to their destination.

As writers, whether we write by the seat of our pants or create a solid outline first, we must never pass up an opportunity to improve our stories. Asking what can go wrong often helps.

How about my friends at TKZ—ever use this or similar techniques in story building? After all, what can go wrong?

Sep 182013

By Joe Moore

Back in 1993, country singer Toby Keith had a hit with the song “A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action”. That was a great hook for a song, but the concept doesn’t always work for thrillers. I’ve found that one of the mistakes beginning writers often make is confusing action with suspense; they assume a thriller must be filled with action to create suspense. They load up their stories with endless gun battles, car chases, and daredevil stunts as the heroes are being chased across town or continents with a relentless batch of baddies hot in pursuit. The result can begin to look like the Perils of Pauline; jumping from one fire to another. What many beginning thriller writers don’t realize is that heavy-handed action usually produces boredom, not thrills.

When there’s too much action, you can wind up with a story that lacks tension and suspense. The reader becomes bored and never really cares about who lives or who wins. If they actually finish the book, it’s probably because they’re trapped on a coast-to-coast flight or inside a vacation hotel room while it’s pouring down rain outside.

Too much action becomes even more apparent in the movies. The James Bond film Quantum Of Solace is an example. The story was so buried in action that by the end, I simply didn’t care. All I wanted to happen was for it to be over. Don’t get me wrong, the action sequences were visually amazing, but special effects and outlandish stunts can only thrill for a short time. They can’t take the place of strong character development, crisp dialogue and clever plotting.

As far as thrillers are concerned, I’ve found that most action scenes just get in the way of the story. What I enjoy is the anticipation of action and danger, and the threat of something that has not happened yet. When it does happen, the action scene becomes the release valve.

I believe that writing an action scene can be fairly easy. What’s difficult is writing a suspenseful story without having to rely on tons of action. Doing so takes skill. Anyone can write a chase sequence or describe a shoot-out. The trick is not to confuse action with suspense. Guns, fast cars and rollercoaster-like chase scenes are fun, but do they really get the reader’s heart pumping. Or is it the lead-up to the chase, the anticipation of the kill, the breathless suspense of knowing that danger is waiting just around the corner? Always try for a little less action and a lot more thrills.

Aug 052013
thalo magazine: How was writing a novel different than a screenplay or short story?
David Guggenheim: It's painting and pottery. There are a lot of things you can get away with in a book that you can't in a movie—and vice versa. Inner monologue for example…But being a screenwriter, I did look at the book like a movie in many ways, especially in regards to the structure and the pacing—and knowing there was a chance I could get the opportunity to adapt it down the line, we made sure that the book was as cinematic as possible.
Nicholas Mennuti: Short stories basically need to start in the middle. But they use the middle as the beginning and thread it through to the end. So ironically, in a short story, there really isn’t much of a middle. That was the biggest challenge to me—the middle of the book.
Dec 292012

With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite posts from the past year!

SHAKE OFF‘s Michel Khoury is a veritable encyclopedia of the espionage tradecraft that is essential to his life as a spy, which Mischa Hiller gleaned from access to someone with direct knowledge of the tricks of the trade. Want to learn how to become a skilled agent? Here are a few of the tips from Mischa’s novel:

Concealing documents and cash? Use a newspaper.

“They are easy to ditch, and you can carry one under your arm even as your bags are being searched.”

Know your cover.

“If you can believe just a bit of your cover story then you can convince your listener (and even yourself) that it is all true.”

Incriminating evidence to ditch? Use the restroom.

“It is easier to flush soaked paper than dry.”

Disguise yourself.

“Hospitals have no security to speak of.  You can wander almost anywhere unchallenged, particularly if you don a white coat – best acquired from the doctors’ lounge in the A&E department.  Or go dressed in a suit carrying a briefcase and pretend you are a drugs salesman.”

Watch your back.

“You should always sit at the back of the bus when you get on, because surveillance like to sit at the back to get a good view of you embarking without having to turn around.”

Beware the honeytrap.

“It is easier to believe that a woman finds you irresistible than that she is trying to ensnare you.”

Tired of looking over your shoulder?

“Take a few days off, go to the cinema, sit in the park, stay at home and read a book….Make them bored. A bored surveillance team is a careless one.”

Blend in.

“Be gray, not colorful, my trainers in Moscow had said.  I always matched my shoes to my clothes.  I’d heard that immigration officers checked for illegal immigrants by looking at their shoes.”

Finish the job.

“To kill someone you need to shoot them at least four or five times in the head, just to make sure.  And it needs to be up close with a hand-held weapon.  You have to put it right up against the head or very close to it, otherwise you could miss; some weapons give a massive kick, and any shot following the first could go wild.  If you can’t get close enough to kill the target with your first shot, then you will need to incapacitate them with a body shot first and finish the deed close up, a coup de grâce.

Mischa Hiller is a winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the Best First Book category for South Asia and Europe. Raised in London, Beirut, and Dar El Salaam, he lives in Cambridge, England. Visit him at

SHAKE OFF, selected by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker as one of the best books of 2012 (“Hiller’s novel has the benefit of mining every trope of the thriller genre while being absolutely original at the same time. I will read anything by Hiller from now on”), is now available in bookstores everywhere.

Sep 042012
“The requirements of good horror are not different from the requirements of fiction in general. Fresh language, believable characters, and a story that operates on more than one level –a story that has a meaning outside of and beyond the mechanics of the plot.”

- BREED author Chase Novak, Tip 1 of “Five Tips for Horror Writers”. BREED hits bookstores today
Jun 162012

I knew I wanted to be a writer in the 4th grade.

My first story (somehow never published) was the 15-page Curse Of The Mummy’s Belly Button. It was a hit with a few of my elementary school classmates in the suburbs of Detroit but no one else. I still take it out and read it every now and then. It’s still terrible. From there, I spent many years punching out short stories and reading books on writing.

And on writers.

My favorites concerned near-crazy characters of spectacular talent who somehow managed to get through life without working; they were paid princely sums for merely pouring out stories in their spare time. My all-time favorite was about the brilliant Terry Southern, who received a $20,000 advance from a book publisher, reportedly locked himself into a plush New York hotel suite for three months with multiple drugs, multiple hookers and many cases of booze, and emerged at the end of the 90 days without a single word written.

Inspirational? Maybe not.

In any case, when I first moved to Hollywood in the late 1970’s, I became aware of a book on writing that was more myth than reality: Writing To Sell, by Scott Meredith. I say ‘myth’ because (although it was considered by many to be the book on writing publishable fiction) it was virtually impossible to find. Written in 1950 by the great agent himself, it went in and out of print on a regular basis and at that time was not available in any bookstore I could find. It had last been published in 1967.

And, of course, the Internet (and Amazon and didn’t yet exist.

The book itself is a masterpiece of simple clarity, a step-by-step guide that surpassed (then and now) any book on writing (and the selling of same). It is, to this day, still revered as the book to get your hands on if you only have time to read one book on turning out salable prose.

A quick trip down the street to the Hollywood Public Library gave me some interesting information, mainly from the research librarian herself. She informed me that her husband had been a literary agent in New York for Scott Meredith and it was common knowledge in that office that the sci-fi genius James Blish had contributed greatly to the book. I didn’t find that surprising, although I’ve found no evidence of it anywhere since.

She checked the card file, then pointed me down the aisle. I could not find it. She walked down to assist me. Surprisingly, and even though it hadn’t been checked out, the book was gone. Stolen, it turned out, by a clearly motivated but unscrupulous would-be writer.

I headed to the library in Glendale. And then to Pasadena. And finally to Encino. And discovered the same thing in every case – Writing To Sell had been stolen from every library. I next got out the phone book (those were the days) and called many local libraries. In each case, I was told the book was in. In each case, when asked to check, the librarian informed me the book was gone.

At that point, I knew I had to have it. Could that many struggling (and thieving) writers be wrong?

A last phone call to the Los Angeles Public Library in a gang-driven section of downtown was finally rewarded with a librarian telling me it was in. And that he had the book in his hand. I asked him to hold it, drove there, checked it out, and then stole it.

Actually, I told them I lost it and paid $16.99 for it. A few years later, a friend borrowed Writing To Sell from me and then claimed he lost it. Right.

I knew he stole it.

May 162012

By Joe Moore

Here’s another submission to our first-page critiquing extravaganza. It’s called ARCTIC FIRE. Have a look. My thoughts follow.

Ben was excited. It would be his first year as a full time counselor at scout camp, a hard to get position he’d dreamed of since first attending as a Tenderfoot four years earlier. His brother Ian, three years younger, was a First Class scout attending his second camp and seemed proud of his brother’s position. Ian would only be at Gorsuch for a week while Ben would be there for two months. Ben hoped to give his brother something to attain to.

Ben was an exemplary scout, a member of the Order of Arrow. At fifteen he was within six months of earning his Eagle Scout rank. Only ten percent of all scouts complete the demanding path to Eagle. It had been hard work and he was going to complete it a full eighteen months ahead of schedule.

After two sessions of the National Youth Leadership Training School at Camp Denali he knew how to lead boys. He was aware of not only how to teach them the skills every scout should know, but knew how to prepare for any emergency he could think of, how to keep them safe on campouts and hikes, how to perform advanced first aid and wilderness survival.

And to top it all off, maybe most important for many of the scouts in his charge, Ben Sanders knew how to tell stories. It was a skill he had learned from his father whose skill at filling the boys imaginations with visions of mountain trolls, sea spirits and brave warriors was amazing. The only props his father used for his tales were a ratty old gray wool blanket and his story stick.

The well-worn birch walking stick had been made about the time Ben was born. Carved images of bears, wolves and eagles decorated the shaft just below the handle, worn smooth and shiny by his father’s own grasp, the oil and sweat of his palm rubbing the white wood to a sheen as if it had been polished and rubbed with varnish. And now, his father was handing the stick to him.

I’m not going to get into any nitpicking here even though there are a couple of punctuation errors. Despite the fact that this is decent writing, the major problem is that nothing happens. It is 100% narrative backstory. After reading it, I have no idea what the story is about, what’s at stake, what the story question is, and why I would want to read page 2.

I’ve spoken many times on this blog about the pitfalls of starting a story in the wrong place. And I along with my blog mates have tried to emphasize that there’s really no need for backstory at the beginning. This first page contains important information, but we don’t need to know any of it yet.

My advice to the writer: find a point in the story where something happens that jolts Ben Sanders out of his “ordinary” life into an extraordinary situation because of physical, mental or emotional stress. Delete everything that’s written up to that point. That’s where the story should start.

Thanks to the author for submitting this first page and good luck.

May 092012
By Steve Weddle

I get up from the barstool and walk to the back of the room, past the mirror so that I can describe myself to you, the reader, in a completely natural manner that you totally fall for.

I rub my scalp the way one might palm a basketball, which is my way of telling you that I am bald because basketballs do not have hair. I like to think of my baldness as a choice. It would not be a lie to say that age had caused me to have less hair than I once had, but what of it? The parcel of scalp once reserved for hair had, years ago, given itself over to emptiness. If I were clever I would perhaps say something about my hair deserting me about the time my wife did and provide a little more depth to my character, which should interest you. Instead, I will probably make a joke to you about my hair deserting me, leaving a desert of skin on my head. As you can tell, I am not terribly clever. I could, I suppose, devote a few hours of the afternoon -- what might amount to a parenthetical for you, the reader -- to researching desert people. Bedouins or whatever they are so that I could layer my descriptions like a $100 haircut. But I cannot. I do not have that luxury. For this story, as you have noted, is told in the present tense. Were I in a position to know what will transpire, what will have transpired by the time you are reading this, will have read this, I could luxuriate in cleverness. But as it is, I can only pause here at the mirror for a moment, palm my head to show you that I am bald, and linger for a moment on my face. Let’s do the eyes first.

They’re a rather dullish brown. But I would like for them to be blue. So let’s pretend that they are blue. Also, let’s imagine that I have a scar above my eye. Don’t ask what it is from. I won’t reveal that until a hundred pages in, though I’ll drop hints about some sort of darkness in my past.


Did you make it this far? Did all the nonsense send you running?

I've been giving some thought to what pulls a reader out of a story. I think it might be different stuff for each of us.

I hate that "look at myself in a passing car window so I can describe myself to you, the reader" stuff. Some folks don't care. Some folks find other stuff pretentious. I don't mind pretentious writing, as long as it doesn't pull me out of the story. 

The self-description stuff is tough, tough, tough to pull off. I'm not sure how you do it in first-person and make it seem real. Maybe you work it into the story so that it means something other than saying what color your hair is. I mean, I get that folks want the reader to have a picture of the character. I just don't know that it matters. Do I care that your main character is 5'10" instead of 6'? I dunno. Does it come up later? Is there A Clue that only a 6'5" person could reach? A half-eaten, top-shelf donut with teeth impressions?

I'm not a big fan of physical descriptions, I guess, unless it matters. So those, especially when they seem forced, pull me out of the story. Do I care that your character is bald? Are you trying to sell action figures? Do I care about your eye color? Should I?

A description of the character that first appears 100 pages after the character appears also bugs me. Um, he has three arms? No, he doesn't.

Forced description pulls me out.

Bogus historical details will kick my lovely bride out of a book. I'm not a fan of any old crap, so I don't have any examples here. But like some Victorian card game in a Regency-period novel. Or a "dance card" 100 years too early.

Poor proofreading will send us both to another book. Even the best books suffer from "it's/its" sometimes.

Awful figurative language. "The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant." or "She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up."

I'm talking about stories that I like, stories I want to read, not terrible stories I don't care about. 

Don't knock me out of your story for something trivial. Please.

What pulls you folks out of stories?