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Monday, November 15, 2010

I Believe in Instinct: An Interview with Jon Land

Jon Land will be appearing at the Love Is Murder Conference in Chicago, Feb. 4-6, 2011. For more information go to

1. Your books are very complex with multiple points of view and several story lines running through them. How do you plan them out? What strategies and techniques can you share?
Great question to start with—you’re challenging me right off the bat. And the simple answer I actually don’t plan them out. As a writer, I believe in instinct. You got by your feelings, let your gut tell you where to go. But the real thing is, and this goes to strategies and techniques, to never lose sight of the most important thing a thriller must have: pace. That’s what keeps readers turning the pages into the wee hours of the morning. You make it impossible for them to put the book down by never having any slow or dull parts. And its instinct, your own sense of entertainment as you write, that dictates when it’s time to stay with a sequence and when it’s time to cut. My experience in screenwriting has helped me out a lot here but generally it all comes down to telling a story.

2. For someone who has never written multiple points of view, can you give any pointers?

I may have already done that but let me summarize it this way: know your characters and know the story you’re trying to tell. John D. McDonald once said in answer in the question what is story, “Stuff happens to people you care about.” Well, the more you know your characters, the more they come alive, the more reader cares about them. The structure of thrillers harks back to old-fashioned quest stories. People are after something, what Hitchcock called the McGuffin. So in writing the multi-plotted thriller the question a writer needs to keeping asking themselves is What is my hero after and why? If you can’t answer that, something’s wrong.

3. From Israel to Mexico and many places in between, you move your characters around the globe. Please “talk” about settings. Do you chose a place you want to visit and then write your books or do you travel first and then develop your settings? How do you manage to portray places with so much gusto? You are very good at involving all the senses.

Oh boy, you had to ask me that! Okay, confession time: I’m a Goggle-natic. It’s impossible to visit all the places I write about, so the trick is find enough information out about a place to make it seem like I was there. My late great agent Toni Mendez also represented Milton Caniff, the cartoonist behind Terry and the Pirates. Milton described himself as an “armchair Marco Polo” and I think I’m following his example. Creating a strong sense of place has always been important to me but it’s reached new heights in my Caitlin Strong/Texas Ranger series because there’s so much available. The key, and this relates to my responses to your other questions, is to describe the scene from a character’s viewpoint instead of the narrator’s. In other words, give us the scene from the inside out, not the outside in. Do that and you’ll be describing what the character sees, what’s important to him or her, not you as the author.

4. You chose an unlikely pairing, a Jew and a Palestinian, Ben and Danielle, for Keepers of the Gate. Talk about why you selected such star-crossed lovers, and why you ended the book on such a poignant note. What sort of research did you do for the book? Were there really Nazis who passed themselves off as Holocaust survivors to escape prosecution?

That takes me back a ways since it’s been so long since I worked on a Ben and Danielle book. But that series was a culmination of two things: my growth process as a writer where I wanted to incorporate more emotion in my stories and, frankly, the fact that the sales of my more traditional action-adventure thrillers had bottomed out. I needed to do something more, both creatively and business-wise. As far as research, I have always refused to be a slave to it. In other words, I decided what I want to do and then I find a way to make it work. Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote that it doesn’t matter to me if you believe what I’m saying is true; all that matters is that you don’t disbelieve it. When I started the book I had no idea if there were Nazis who actually pretended to be Jews, but it turns out there are a number of stories just like this. And, I’ve gotta tell you, the great thing about writing about places few will ever see is that nobody knows when you mess things up! (laughs) Like my descriptions of Gaza and the West Bank. In the case of the Ben and Dan books, though, I’m amazed at how far my research into those places carried me in the compliments I’ve received over the years from people on both sides of the fence. Literally now, regrettably.

5. Your Caitlin Strong series also features two people from opposite ends of the spectrum. There’s third-generation Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong and Cort Wesley Masters, the killer. Why do such pairings appeal so much to you? Do you consciously design such friction to use to create tension? Your names seem to foreshadow the characters’ personalities. Please comment on that.

Well, you kind of answered that in your question. Story is all about conflict, putting forces in opposition to each other. When people interact, there has to be something tugging or pulling at them, something they’re trying to resolve. That’s easy when it’s a hero and a villain confronting each other, less so when two characters on the same side interact. The key is to create emotional conflict as opposed to physical conflict. In the course of the kind of scenes you’re alluding to, characters don’t just reveal truths about themselves, they’re forced to confront those truths. James Lee Burke is a master of this. As for names, well, in STRONG ENOUGH TO DIE giving the villain the name “Harm” might have pushing things a bit but go back to the books that helped create this genre: Ian Fleming’s Bond series. How about those names? Oddjob, Goldfinger, Rosa Klebb, Emilio Largo, Dr. No—I could go on forever. I’ve got a screenplay out now where the villain’s name is “Payne.” The hero of the same script, based on a short story I wrote for THRILLER 2 called Killing Time, is Fallon. No first name, as if part of his life is missing which it is.

6. You are a master of short chapters that leave the reader with a cliffhanger. Do you plan these? Talk about that technique.

I do indeed plan that and it goes to writing in a format that is comfortable and easy for readers to follow. I used to write longer chapters and use scene breaks. Now, just about every time the scene breaks, I start a new chapter instead. I think it was Michael Crichton who first did that, followed by James Patterson. Comes down to helping the reader find his or her own comfort zone. As far as cliffhangers go, hey, that goes all the way back to Dickens whose novels were first serialized in magazines. He was paid by the word and a cliffhanger each installment was crucial so readers would buy the next one. My primary goal as a writer is to make it impossible for you to put my books down. Do that and everything else falls into place.

7. Obviously, Caitlin Strong is a woman. And so is Danielle. How does a man write from a woman’s point of view? Since Caitlin isn’t a girly-girl and Danielle is pretty tough, I imagine you can take some liberties, but did you have to make any mental adjustments? How do you make sure you get it right

I’m very much in touch with my feminine side! (Laughs) No, seriously, I’ve written about serial killers, human monsters, Palestinians, criminals, Russians and I’m none of those either. I don’t know if you’d call it a mental adjustment. It’s more about perspective, since all my scenes are written from the viewpoint of characters. That forces me to get inside their heads and let them drive the action instead of me driving it for them. I don’t write their dialogue, they recite it and I transcribe it. The fun in writing characters like Caitlin Strong is that she’s a woman trying to make it in a man’s world. So right away you have conflict, tension, something she must overcome. These books never would have worked had I written her as a man. Getting it right means staying true to the character I’ve created. My final edit is always done by my publisher, Tom Doherty. And after reading the next Caitlin Strong book (STRONG AT THE BREAK, Forge, June ’11), he said not only did Caitlin gun down too many bad guys, she was starting to enjoy it too much. That was a great note and I took it to heart since it I think it revealed that Caitlin was becoming desensitized to all the violence around her. My point is you have a strike a balance between traditional female qualities of love and nurturing and the gunfighter Caitlin is at her core. And that’s probably one of the greatest features of this series.

8. Where did you come up all that wonderful Texas Ranger lore?

Well, I’m happy to say for once this is all about research. There’s a wealth of books available on the history of the Rangers and I’ve read probably a dozen of them, always in search of those stories and parables that begin each section. I think I get as many compliments about them as I do anything else in the Caitlin Strong books!

8. Your books are so varied in the worlds they portray. Talk about that, please.

Let me answer that in terms of the “emotional” words they portray. Each character has his/her own quest, something they’re trying to attain. In my older work, the quest was always clear. But in the Caitlin books the characters aren’t always sure what it is they’re searching for. The difference, and what I strive for in this series, is to provide that motif for all characters, no matter how minor. I need to define all my characters, in other words, by detailing how they define themselves. The conflict lies in the fact that it’s dynamic, not fluid. Like Guillermo Paz, the assassin first assigned to kill Caitlin who ultimately becomes her protector. He’s the series’ most beloved character in large part because he is still evolving emotionally.

9. In the Strong Justice, you have a character say something to the effect that the United States worries too much about terrorism abroad and not enough about securing our own borders. Please comment. Is that just a character’s point of view, or do you share that concern?

I do share that concern but let me answer the question as it relates to my next Caitlin Strong book, STRONG AT THE BREAK, in which Caitlin takes on the right wing extremist militia movement. Homeland Security has already identified homegrown terrorists, not just Muslims either, as the greatest threat facing our country today. The level of hatred that has spread across this country since Obama became president is despicable. America at its absolute worst. I know I’m wearing my politics on my sleeve here but how can you now listen to these right-wing wackos calling for Second Amendment remedies, secession, and armed insurrection and not be both pissed off and scared? How long before the murder of an abortion doctor or Holocaust museum guard becomes a bomb in a temple or a courthouse or a black church, or gay and lesbian center? These people only respect the laws they agree with and they lack the intelligence and understanding to even consider opposing points of view. This same mentality was behind the burning of witches and the hanging of blacks in the South. And now we’re seeing it again at a much more pervasive and frightening level.

10. What do you think is really happening to the women of Juarez? Any ideas how to stop the drug warfare in Mexico? (That is, do you agree with some experts that legalizing marijuana in the U.S. would help, because right now we have what amounts to another Prohibition.)

You started with a tough question and now you’re ending with an even tougher one. There is evidence that a very small number of people is behind the murders of the Women of Juarez, so the concept of a single serial killer holds water. I don’t believe there’s any way to stop drug warfare in Mexico because it’s systematic to their culture and political problems. The drug gangs are filling a vacuum and Mexico’s culture is essentially tribal to begin with. Would legalizing marijuana help? Just about every study insists that it indeed would.

For more information about Jon Land, visit him at

Suggestions for Being a More Productive Writer

Melva Gifford took these notes on a presentation by Kevin J. Anderson that was available through Dave Farland's website. I thought there were some great ideas here.

Presentation by Kevin J. Anderson on Nov. 10, 2010

1. Shut up and write. You can't wait to write until the muse hits. Think of your writing as a job. Brandon Anderson had a night job as a clerk at a hotel when he first started out as a writer.

2. Defy the empty page: If you can’t get through the first sentence
(stuck) then go to the second sentence/scene. Crash through words. Story will pick up its own momentum. If stuck on starting where you left off, then retype the last page of what you wrote before and that can get you going.

3. Dare to be bad: work on different projects at the same time. A. Research B. Outlining, breaking up chapters, C. Character development etc. D. Write the first draft of the manuscript. E. The editing phase. F. Proofreading part (grammar spelling) and G. Running around and do promotions. Kevin has about six projects in various stages of production. If swamped on one project than move to another. Your projects can becomes a horse race with five horses (books) running at a time. Maybe put something on the fire for a new idea if you don’t have other books currently in process.

4. Know the difference between writing and editing. The writing part is the creative part such as building characters and describing the adventure. Editing is the analytical part of the brain. This is where you A. study the sentences, b. determine why a sentence is flunky. Confirm details of the story. When you’re writing, turn off the editor in your head. If you get to a spot that needs research, then make a note on it and just continue with the draft and come back later for the fix or research.

While writing you need to keep focused. Save self criticism and editing of details for the second and later drafts. Be more productive by just concentrating on getting through that draft. Once that is done you can turn off the internal editor. Just concentrate on editing.

5. When you get time to write determine how to use every minute you write. Figure out how to use all that time economically. Even in half hour blocks a lot can be accomplished. Even a few sentences or paragraphs in a short time can move the story forward. John Grissom wrote one page a day on the first book he wrote. Everyone can find time to write one page a day. Even page or few sentences moves the story forward.

6. Set goals for yourself and stick to them. If you set goal to write 5 pages a day than you need to stick to it. It must be an inflexible part of your life even if you stay up to ensure that you write those 5 pages.
Set realistic goals that are challenging. If you set a goal of 5 pages but only consistently write two then modify your goal. Make sure the goal is realistic.

7. Some authors are productive when they think of their manuscripts as being in a race. Once Kevin and his writing group kept track of how many things they had in the mail at one time. Have a list of various markets and just send things out constantly. Have it be a challenge to each other.

Use deadlines for different markets, contests to submit to. Decide that there will be a new story for that deadline for each quarter of writes of the future. Find a way to create goals and write for them and submit to them. Give a reward for accomplishing different goals.

8. Create the best writing environment for yourself. See when you are the most productive. What makes you get inspired to do more work? Figure out what time of day you do your best work. Some authors work well in the morning or evening. See what works best for you. Maybe you need to get up early before you go to work. Some may need music to play in the background while writing. Some may require no sound at all. Some authors might like to go to places because it is busy but they don’t’ have to be involved, such as a coffee shop. Construct your writing environment to create the best environment for you. Look at your office setup. Is your equipment ergonomically correct for your health? Don't hunch. A bad posture/working environment can cause muscle or joint damage.

9. Think outside the keyboard. Your job is to capture words in your imagination. Doing this is not restricted to a keyboard. Some find long hand more useful in their first drafts. Some like to sit outside with a laptop. Some will dictate their story into a digital recorder, while they are hiking. Sometimes the outside environment can add to the creativity.

10. How to get inspired: The more stuff you know about or learn the more that goes into your writing. Learn stuff. Take trips and see things, learn ball room dancing. Take wood working or language. Different experiences can add to your knowledge database. Watch people and maybe make up stories that could give an explanation of why they might be doing what they do. Learn science, politics, other countries and cultures. Take a balloon ride or go pheasant hunting. Shot a gun or visit foreign countries. Learn about other cultures. Don’t just be a home body. Be a sponge you’ll never know where all those experiences and knowledge will fit into a story. Your experiences will be your toolkit for future stories.
11. Know when to stop. Once you’ve edited four or five times, stop and send it out and move on. Be careful of getting input from others. Don’t waste time talking about writing. Many authors waste time "talking" about writing rather than actually writing.

Q & A:
1. Pacing suggestions. Different scenes can accomplish multiple
things simultaneously. Mix world development in with the action. If you have a scene of two charters talking have that scene take place in an interesting place. An example may be of a relationship breaking up while they are at the horse races and they’re betting on an important race that they must win. Or there may be a dialog in a spot where the world building can take place. Scenes don’t have to be an "either/or"
situation. Have scenes do doable or triple duty.

2. What shouldn’t you do as a writer? Don’t get involved in too
many distractions. Turn off your email program. Don’t play games during writing. Try to have your writing computer be a distraction free zone. You may want to check email every hour on the hour. Maybe set time goals for yourself when you meet the daily goal then you give yourself the reward such as playing your favorite Facebook game.

3. How to find professional editing help. Most charge thousands of
dollars to read a manuscript. But many books don’t need it. The book may be ready to send out. When choosing a reviewer, look for their references so you can contact those authors who have used them and see how they did.

For more information, see Kevin Anderson’s website.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Of Mice and Men and Pigs

A couple of weeks ago I visited the local family-owned hardware store for mouse traps. It's not that I saw any mice, but I saw a few droppings and I heard the chewing in the walls. We've learned the hard way that mice travel in troops, and when the weather changes, they find their way indoors for shelter. David is a masterful mouse-trap setter, but he has one type of trap he prefers, so I'm a picky buyer. While I hate killing the little rodents, they do carry fleas and ticks that harbor Lime Disease, so I feel I must keep my family and my dogs safe. Spring loaded traps kill quickly and humanely, whereas poison can be eaten by dogs or kids. For a week thereafter, we caught a mouse a day.

I love hardware stores, and this one is particularly wondrous, full of nuts, bolts, tools, small appliances, fertilizer, and most delightfully, an indoor farmers' market. That day there was a special treat: the owner brought his pet pot-belly pig. I've never "met" a pig before, so I asked permission to scratch her behind her ears. When I did, she had a surprise for me--she fell over on her side as if dead.

Of course, I was appalled. I thought I'd killed her. Turns out she just loves to be scratched and that's her way of showing her enthusiasm. Her owner explained that she is very smart, smarter than a dog, and very clean.

Which brings to mind another neighborhood pig. This one is made of concrete. The story is that one brother gave the other a silly gift. The second brother, wishing to "get back" at his sibling, retaliated with this concrete pig, thinking that he was really "pimping" his brother by giving him something so hard to move. But the second brother had a playful streak, so instead of moving the pig and getting rid of it, he set it out in his front yard. Now he changes the pig's wardrobe and setting to match the seasons.

I love this pig. I've forgotten it's name, but I take my dogs on daily walks around the pig to see its seasonal changes. I've told the family how much joy they have given me.

That's something I love, the unintended positive consequences of living an interesting life. I'm sure that Brother #2 wasn't thinking, "Boy, will I make Joanna Slan's day." He was just doing this thing. But he has made my day. I enjoy his sense of humor.

As they say in the South, "I'm with the pig."

Monday, November 8, 2010

Lessons Learned Judging Contests

Right now, all my spare time goes to reading manuscripts for a contest. This isn't the first contest I've judged, nor is it likely to be the last. Although the effort is certainly time-consuming, it's also a great education. I thought I'd share some of the lessons learned, lessons that apply to any contest you enter.

1. Read the directions. I know you're probably thinking, well, duh! But I can't tell you how many people goof this up. They misread the word count or the number of layouts or the sizes or word length or whatever. They don't include everything that's requested. I suggest you print out the rules and highlight them as you check them off. Ask someone to double-check your efforts. It's easy to get confused when you are nervous, and all of us get nervous when we enter c0mpetitions.

2. Don't annoy the judges. Another, duh! However, one person in this contest sent me a testy email demanding to know why I hadn't acknowledged receipt of his manuscript. I hadn't acknowledged it because I was out of town doing booksignings, and I hadn't seen it. I gave his work a fair reading, but another judge might not have been so forgiving. The rules said not to send anything that required a signature for receipt, which is a pretty clear indication that they didn't want the judges to be bothered. (Yep, that's what that means.)

3. Do put your name on everything you send in. When I judged the Best of British Scrapbooking and Card Contest, I was shocked at how many entries were not properly labelled. When a judge is comparing a lot of entries, it's easy for your work to get separated from your cover letter. Make it clear what's yours. (Of course, if the contest is a blind contest, ignore this.)

4. Use your head when you package your entry. One of the Best of British entrants copied six of her layouts onto one sheet of paper, then folded that paper into itsy bits and stuffed it all into a tiny envelope. It came out looking like an origami project gone wrong. Two of the manuscripts I received were packaged in stuff that caused a huge mess, with stuff falling out, sticking to everything, and generally causing havoc. Another chose a box so big that I might have to add an addition to my home to store it. Another taped and bound her manuscript with such gusto that I spent twenty minutes trying to release the papers and a half an hour prepping the packing materials for the recycling bin. One person three-hole punched his manuscript and put it in a binder. Most readers prefer loose pages. That means we can slip them into a bag and haul them around with us easily. The binder was definitely overkill, although I appreciated that he was trying to make it easier on me, it wasn't.

5. Be honest but not stupid. Don't tell the judges you just whipped this project out in your spare time for a lark. Look at it from a judges' point of view. Here we are giving these entries our best, spending our time on them, ignoring our own work, and a person who didn't give this much effort is basically dissing our craft! If you don't care, don't enter. Leave the field open for people to whom the contest matters. Also, don't tell me how many contests you've entered and lost. That does not inspire confidence!

6. Tell me about yourself, but don't go overboard. One entrant in the Best of British did ten layouts all featuring photos of her. She was sprawled over a sofa with a rose in her teeth and the header was "BEAUTY." She was posed in a half shadow of a doorway with her head cocked back and her eyes closed. That one was called, "MYSTERY." By the time the other judges and I got to the fourth entry--"SEDUCTIVE"--we were rolling on the floor laughing. Needless to say, she didn't make it to the finals. By the same token, tell me your background, but twenty pages of stuff or a page that looks like it came from a publicity kit are not going to help you. They'll just make my eyes glaze over.

7. Make sure you mail your entry in plenty of time. It's really sad when an entry shows up after the deadline. Mail delivery can be unpredictable, and usually if you ask, the folks at the post office or at Fed Ex or wherever will give you the broadest range of arrival times. So do yourself a favor and mail/send your entry in early.

Then move on.

Yes, move on.

Don't fret about this contest. You learned something by getting ready for it. You completed something important. You grew. So you've already benefited, you see. And someone, somewhere saw your work and formed an opinion of you. If you don't make it to the winners' circle in this contest, you might still advance somewhere, somehow in another.

Yes, it's hard. Yes, you are nervous. And yes, we've all been through this. Remember that the judges know what this feels like. And we're rooting for you. We sincerely hope you'll do well, because we enjoy seeing good work.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

How to Talk Like They Do in the Lou

Last week I took my niece Lexie, my sister Jane, and Lexie's son Skyler to lunch down in Florida. Since Skyler is only two, the nice greeter at Chili's gave him the kid's menu and a couple of crayons. I helped a little with the coloring, and then Skyler turned over the menu and there it was...the St. Louis Arch.

That's a photo I took of the Arch this summer looking straight up at it. It's an amazing piece of sculpture. In one way, it's like the pyramids in Egypt. You have no idea how big they are until you get right up next to them. The Arch is huge, the stainless steel panels are huge, and the way it soars up in the sky is breath-taking.

Of all the emblems of Mound City (a nickname for St. Louis), that's probably the most iconic.

I miss St. Louis now and again. I miss my neighbor Kathy and her husband, John, and their dog Bogey. I miss the colors of fall there. I miss knowing where everything was, and oh, a dozen small conveniences like Dierbergs and Annie Gunn's and having a Target right around the corner. For the most part, Northern Virginia feels like home now. It's funny that it only took me a year to be able to travel ANYWHERE confidently without the GPS. Today I dropped David off at the Amtrak Station in downtown DC and realized, "Hey, I know where I am!"

So if you get the chance to visit St. Louis, by all means go. Here's an article I wrote for AOL that will help you talk like a native.

Be sure to take the time to visit the Arch. It's just magnificent. You'll want to go underneath where the museum is and see the film on how the Arch was made. A friend who was living in St. Louis at the time told me that the two sides were not going to meet, but somehow they obviously worked that out.

There's a lesson there, I think. Even when stuff doesn't look like it's going to work out, don't give up too easily. I know that my husband is the most tenacious person I've ever met. A lot of times, I'll think, "This is the end of the road." But David will just keep on keeping on. And you know, he usually gets what he wants.

I hope I can emulate that quality more and more as life goes on.

This photo gives you an idea of the scale of the Arch. At night, the ambient light bounces off it, making a watery swirl of colors, a sort of metallic reflection of the water in the Mississippi River. And of course, the Arch is on the banks of the Mississippi, so that's very fitting.