Skipping Killer Nashville conference a difficult choice

Some devious and cunning minds will gather in Franklin (TN) this week for the Killer Nashville writing conference. I wish I could be with them, but this whole Covid pandemic thing has convinced me otherwise.

I’m fully vaccinated (although apparently a third shot is in the cards), and KN organizer Clay Stafford promises the conference and hotel are taking precautions, but I’m not comfortable taking any chances. Heck, I’m still masking up everywhere I go and I’m still using Walmart’s pickup service for my groceries until this all blows over.

Killer Nashville founder Clay Stafford poses with guests Joyce Carol Oates and David Morrell.

Killer Nashville is one of my favorite events every year, which makes missing out so difficult.

The four-day event held each August (this is its 15th gathering after skipping last year because of the pandemic) attracts some of the best authors from across the globe for informative, educational, and entertaining panels on writing mystery, crime, and thrillers across a variety of mediums, including novels, short stories, and screenplays.

Anne Perry

The event is typically headlined by a few best-selling authors. Past guests have included Jeffery Deaver, William Kent Krueger, Joyce Carol Oates, Otto Penzler, Max Allen Collins, Anne Perry, and Janet Evanovich, to name just a few. This year’s conference honors guests Walter Mosley, Lisa Black, and Tennessee’s own J.T. Ellison.

In addition to a nonstop slate of panels presented by attending authors and other guests, the event features an awards banquet for best published and unpublished novel in numerous categories, a mock crime scene to test your deductive skills, and pitch meetings with agents and editors.

But perhaps one of the best aspects of the conference is just meeting and networking with folks. I’ve met numerous authors and am fortunate to call them friends. The writing community at Killer Nashville is just that – a community of writers who genuinely support and encourage each other in all phases of their writing journey.

Clay Stafford

The event, of course, wouldn’t be the success it is without the vision of KN founder Clay Stafford (there’s a great interview with him here) and dedication of his staff. I’ve been fortunate to work alongside each of them over recent years as a book reviewer, Claymore contest reviewer, and volunteer. I even served on a panel one year, which still blows my mind.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference.

Writing Week in Review

My co-writer Jay Wright and I finished some revisions to our crime feature script Kings of Mississippi and submitted it to the Finish Line Screenplay Contest. We got some excellent feedback on our first read through from one of their readers that strengthened some of the emotional elements of the script. Now we wait and see if the revised script makes the quarterfinals cut.

I also tweaked a short horror script I wrote called Kurupira and entered it in the Fresh Blood Selects contest.

My other short horror script Skin, which just narrowly missed the Finals stage in the Nashville Film Festival’s screenwriting competition, failed to even make it to the quarterfinals in The Script Lab’s Free Screenwriting Competition. Sigh. Of course, there were 13,000 entries overall and only the top 1,000 made the first round of cuts. I’m sure Skin must have been right there knocking on the door, though, probably at No. 1001. Yeah.

And I made a little more progress on my spec script episode of What We Do in the Shadows. If you’re familiar with the FX show, you know it’s about a trio of vampires living in Staten Island. In my episode, Nandor and his familiar Guillermo attend a “Vampires Anonymous” meeting, while Laszlo and Nadja go to a Little League baseball game. To coin a phrase, hilarity ensues.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, I had planned to start on my feature script Jerry Lonely, but I’m still outlining it. Hopefully, I’ll have all the major plot points worked out and be ready to do the actual writing in September. The title has piqued the interest of several readers who want to know more, but all I will say about it at this point is that I’ve been watching The Godfather movies as prep work.

Which brings me to: My writing calendar.

Every couple of months or so I revise and prioritize my list of ongoing writing projects. I have a list of screenplays (shorts, TV pilots, and features) and other writing projects (shorts stories and novels) that I try to juggle. I try to match it up with upcoming contest or submission deadlines and then go from there.

Often, my plans go to hell, and I find myself having to reconfigure them a couple months later. But at least I’m trying.

I plan to use these weekly blog posts in part to help hold myself accountable to my writing plans by posting updates on my progress each week. My goal in the week ahead is to finish the first draft of the What We Do in the Shadows script and outline a TV pilot script. Check back here next week and I’ll let you know how I did.

What I’m Reading

Last week, I posted about the importance of reading and I’ve been making progress on my to be read pile.

I read the pilot script for the Emmy-nominated Hacks and listened to a streaming panel with the creators and actors, courtesy of Deadline’s Contenders series. There are more than a dozen other panels with the creators and stars of other Emmy-nominated shows on the platform, all free to view online.

I also finished reading a screenplay from one of my fellow Tennessee Screenwriting members and will be sending him some notes after I post this.

Meanwhile, I’m reading Lightning Strike by William Kent Krueger, which I should finish by the weekend. I’ll then start on The Good Death by S.D. Sykes. I’m reviewing both books for BookPage.

Until next time…

Books: Atlanta PD’s first black cops investigate murder amid racial prejudice

Thomas Mullen’s Darktown is a novel readers won’t soon forget—not just because of its thoroughly engrossing, suspense-filled plot, but because of the historical, moral complexity contained within its pages.

Read my interview with Mullen and my review, both at Bookpage.

Books: Pavone steps up the pace with intriguing spy thriller, The Travelers

By G. Robert Frazier

New York Times best-selling author Chris Pavone’s third outing, The Travelers (Crown Publishing, $27), is his best yet. Once again, Pavone mixes spies with seemingly ordinary people, throws in some exotic locales and intriguing situations, and yields a thrilling page-turner.

The TravelersUnlike his previous efforts – The Expats and The Accident – which were both good in their own ways, this one races along at an exciting clip. Pavone, who can get a bit wordy at times, sheds much of the literary style of writing he excels at to tell a more straightforward, tightly written novel.

Some may miss the lyricism, but as a thriller reader, the story is paramount.

The Travelers follows Will Rhodes, a globe-trotting travel writer by day who suddenly finds himself entangled in a complex web of deceit and subterfuge on an international scale. It is on one such routine assignment for his magazine when Will commits a transgression that he cannot so easily erase: he cheats on his wife by having sex with a beautiful woman, Elle Hardwick. Elle, as it turns out, is a CIA operative and basically blackmails Will into joining the ranks or risk his already tenuous marriage.

Will, who is somewhat overwhelmed at this point, acquiesces and so begins on a whirlwind training regimen in which he learns how to follow people, how to recognize if he’s being followed, and how to defend himself should the need arise, which it does. Pavone could have lingered over the training curve for quite a while, but fortunately doesn’t, opting instead to keep the story moving in new directions.

Soon enough, Will is officially on assignment, running missions for Elle even while trying to maintain his cover as a travel writer and caring husband. Even as Will plays a dual role, he doesn’t realize the duality of roles unfolding all around him. It seems that everyone in this story has something to hide, from his wife to his boss to Elle herself.

It all may seem a bit excessive and far-fetched, but the best thing to do here is just go with it. Enjoy this book for the twists and turns and the fun it offers in trying to figure out who’s who. If you give it too much thought, that would just ruin the fun.

All of it comes down to a rousing finale that will leave you hoping to see these characters again.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Books: Donaldson’s novel recreates flavor of Justified

The More They DisappearIf there’s anyone out there still lamenting the absence of Elmore Leonard’s “Justified” on TV, you can get your fix of small-town Kentucky criminals in Jesse Donaldson’s debut thriller, The More They Disappear.

The novel starts with the shocking assassination of longtime Kentucky Sheriff Lew Mattock at his own re-election campaign barbecue and quickly escalates into a thrilling manhunt for his killer.

Chief Deputy Harlan Dupee steps up as acting sheriff to investigate the shooting, following a trail of dark secrets amid the townsfolk he only thought he knew. Along the way he discovers his former boss wasn’t as upstanding a lawman as he believed. At the root of everything is a prescription drug trade that has its hooks in everyone, from the town’s most innocent children to even its most prominent citizens.

Read the full review now at BookPage.

Stephen King entertains, scares Ryman audience

by G. Robert Frazier

NASHVILLE, TN — Stephen King doesn’t let his scary side out. Instead, when he hits the road to meet and greet fans or to talk about his newest book, End of Watch, it’s Public Steve who shows up.

photo by Shane Leonard

Stephen King / photo by Shane Leonard

Fans typically want to see Scary Steve, the mind behind such classic novels as It, Carrie, and Salem’s Lot. But Scary Steve doesn’t travel. He works three to four hours a day holed up somewhere in the wilds of Maine coming up with ways “to scare the shit out of you.” If you’re Scary Steve, it’s what you do.

Home Steve is just a regular joe, hanging out at the house, watching ballgames on TV, going to the market, or cleaning up after the dog. Home Steve, as you might surmise, stays at home.

Public Steve is far better suited to book signings and lectures. He’s surprisingly entertaining, light-hearted, and fun. As King puts it, “Public Steve does a lot of deflection so that you don’t look for Scary Steve.”

King talked about the “three faces of Steve” while making a stop at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on his End of Watch book tour in June. The venue – known as the church of country music and birthplace of the Grand Ole Opry – was crammed with 2,300-plus of his constant readers on a night when downtown Nashville was abuzz with the annual CMA (Country Music Association) Festival and nearby Manchester was overrun with ‘Roonies (short for Bonnaroo fans), a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the 68-year-old author.

“Everything is happening in Nashville this weekend,” he said, “and look at this place — full of people who read books.”

“If you have a gift, at some point it wakes up and it speaks to you and says this is what you’re supposed to do.”

— Stephen King

King received a standing O as he stepped on stage, remarking, “Well, it’s all downhill from here.”

In actuality, he was just getting started. Given the setting, King fittingly regaled the audience with stories about his own musical talent as part of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a group of authors able to play a  limited number of musical chords and sing a few cover songs.

“I’m going to talk about writing, but I’m in the Ryman so cut me some slack,” he joked.

King is a country music lover at heart.

“For me, country music was shit-kicking music,” he said about growing up. “There was nothing on the radio but country music and Rush Limbaugh, so I started listening to country music.”

Thankfully, he didn’t hop on a bus and come to Nashville all those years ago to pursue some dream of being a country music star. Instead, he found his calling in writing horror fiction. In a box. In the attic.

“If you have a gift, at some point it wakes up and it speaks to you and says this is what you’re supposed to do,” King said.

For King, the writing bug inside him awoke upon reading some of his dad’s pulp novels found in that attic, specifically H.P. Lovecraft’s The Thing From the Tomb. “Whatever it was, awoke in me.”

Over the course of 40-plus years since then, King’s writing has resulted in countless bestsellers and sleepless nights for avid readers. He knows what scares you, as the saying goes. The secret, he explained, boils down to two things: One, make readers care about the characters, and two, make it real.

To drive the point home, he let Scary Steve out of the box for just a moment. He noted that many people in the crowd were probably so excited about being there, they’d forgotten to lock the car door. That maybe while they were sitting listening to him, some stranger was trying the door to their car. That some stranger was perhaps slipping into the back seat of the car.

“I guarantee when you go to your car tonight, you’ll look in the back seat first,” he said. In order to scare people, “you have to plant the seed first.”

King admitted he sometimes even scares himself.

“People ask me if I ever scare myself,” he said. “I get scared, but when I’m writing I feel in control. I’m behind the scenes.”

That’s not to say writing is easy.

“The voice I have on most days is, this is great, keep going,” he said. “But you also have days where you feel like you’re wearing gloves and nothing has texture to it. The trick is to keep going. Writing a novel, it’s no job for sissies.”

Quotable Stephen King:

  • On fans: “People sometimes tell me, ‘you’re on my bucket list.’ That’s so goddamn weird.”
  • On critics: “The critics initially hated me. I decided, I’ll just keep writing and pretty soon they’ll all be fucking dead.”
  • On politicians: “Listen, you politicians, you oughtta thank God you can flush after you go to the bathroom.”
  • On TV: “TV is in a place it hasn’t been in in years. They are doing things that movies can’t.”
  • On what you should read next: The Fireman, written by his son Joe Hill
  • On what he’s writing next: King is working on a book with son Owen, Sleeping Beauties, due out in 2017. The book will be published by Scribner.
  • On advice to writers: Secrets to success
  • New short story: “Cookie Jar”
  • More from the tour: An entourage of one

 

Books: Dive into a summer of suspense

Readers looking for a great escape from the everyday routine during their vacation will find it in five of the most offbeat thrillers to hit bookshelves this summer. Whether it’s an alternate history in which slavery never ended or a television reality show turned survivor tale, these books will keep readers turning the pages on the plane or on the beach.

Read about Everything I Don’t Remember, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Underground Airlines, All Is Not Forgotten and The Last One now at Bookpage

 

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Around the Web: More advice and articles for writers and readers

by G. Robert Frazier

Every once in a while I like to share some of the stories and advice articles on writing I come across in my wanderings around the interwebs. So, for better or worse, here’s this month’s collection of links for your reading pleasure:

Columnist Riki Cleveland offers six habits of prolific writers and how to make them yours on litreactor.com.

“Writing is an act of thievery,” according to Khalid Hosseini, author of Kite Runner. “You adapt experiences and anecdotes for your own purposes.” For both the memoirist and the novelist are inevitably inspired by the people they have met, and will make use of them to suit their purposes. This may not strictly be plagiarism, but it is similar territory. Read more about how writers will steal your life and use it in this excerpt from How to Write Like Tolstoy (Random House) by Richard Cohen for fiction here.

Everyone’s heard of the self-publishing success by authors such as Andy Weir (The Martian) and Hugh Howey (Wool), so it’s also refreshing to see a literary agent like David Fugate taking note of self-publishing books. “I’m a huge fan of self-publishing (in all its myriad forms) and what it has done for both authors and readers. I think it’s amazing that it’s no longer a question of if your work will be published, but how,” he said in a recent interview with Reedsy. “My advice for anyone who wants to self-publish first is: do it well. And if you’re unsure about whether you want to traditionally publish or self-publish my advice is often to try traditional publishing first. If you approach it the right way, you can figure out very quickly if it will work with a traditional publisher. And if not, you can always self-publish and all you’ve lost is a little time. However, for anyone who wants to self-publish their book first, the key is to make sure you really go for it. Don’t just put it out there and hope that readers will somehow discover it. Have a marketing plan and pursue it with more of an entrepreneurial mindset. That can be difficult for some authors, but given the amount of noise out in the market, if you want to really give your work a chance to do well, you have to do what it takes to let readers know it’s out there.”

What Walt Disney knows about storytelling

The 2016 O. Henry Prize Stories are out. Some of these stories are available to read online (just follow the links), while others will have to wait for September’s publication of the annual O. Henry anthology. Speaking of the O. Henry Prize Stories, reader Kelly Luce shares some insights gained from reading every short story published in 2014-15 in search of the top twenty for the anthology.

Apparently, in New York, in the latest transgender equality law, you can be fined by not calling a person by the pronoun they wish to be called by. If a person wants to be called “ze,” for instance, instead of he or she, and an employer or business professional refuses to honor that wish, they can seek legal recourse. This could make for some interesting written exchanges in your stories and screenplays.

If you weren’t all that thrilled by Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and a lot of people apparently weren’t, you might want to seek out the books on this list of Superman comics you must read.

Author Matthew Norman posted a column that’s gotten a lot of attention from authors: What to do when no one shows up to your reading. I haven’t had the pleasure of that situation yet, but one thing I would do is try to work the bookstore crowd beforehand. Approach the book buyers and give them a bookmark and ask them to come to your reading. At least that’s better than just sitting in your car twiddling your thumbs hoping someone shows up.

The most enlightening article I’ve read on what makes fiction literary, as explained by author and literary agent Donald Maass (who else!).

And, just for a laugh, novelists warned about drug-resistant strain to writer’s block.

Lithub is now aggregating book reviews from across 70 sites into a sort of Rotten Tomatoes, called Book Marks. Here’s how it works.

Columnist Jane Friedman puts recent news about declining ebooks sales in favor of print into perspective with this column. Buyers who are shunning higher ebook prices from traditional publishers, an increase in adult coloring books, and the rise of indie publishers and self-publishers are the keys to the fluctuating numbers, she says. Nielsen reports that about 12 million coloring books were sold in 2015. Compare that to just 1 million in 2014. The increase is so dramatic that coloring books alone can account for the increase in print sales in 2015.

The WGA (Writers Guild of America) has unveiled a new diversity database. Writers can opt to identify themselves by race, sex, age, languages they are fluent in, and, of course, sexual preference. There’s even an opt in to identify whether they have a disability. Producers or filmmakers in turn can search the database to find writers matching their needs. The whole idea is in response to the continuing outcry over the lack of diversity in Hollywood, both on screen and off screen. Not everyone is rushing to embrace the “list,” however. TV comedy writer Susan Hurwitz Arneson tells ScreenwritingU Magazine that she’s not about to “out myself on something that may be perceived as a negative, or might prevent me from getting staffed.”

The first books in James Patterson’s new Bookshots series of shorter, more digestible books are hitting stores and available to purchase online now.

Author Erik Larson recounts how he looks for fascinating, complex real-life characters to bring his historical books to life.

The Atlantic published an interesting article this week on why women are writing the best crime novels.

Feel free to add any links to writing and reading articles you may have come across in the comments section.

Never-Open Desert Diner evokes mystery, suspense

by G. Robert Frazier

Hidden in plain sight, in the wide open expanse that is the Utah desert, lie mysteries best left alone.

DThe Never Open Desert Dinerelivery truck driver Ben Jones, for the most part, heeds that warning and largely respects the privacy of the desert’s oddball collection of characters on his route near Price, Utah. That is, until he encounters and becomes enamored by the mysterious woman hiding in an abandoned model home.

That’s the setup for James Anderson’s suspenseful debut novel, The Never-Open Desert Diner (Crown, $26).

The colorful cast—including a roadside Jesus, a motorcycle-loving hermit, and a pair of brothers lying low the law—are as unique as the setting itself. Each has a past and secrets to keep as they eke out their existence under a hot desert sun, far removed from internet and TV and other modern conveniences of life.

Ben typically keeps to himself as much as his customers, but his infatuation with the new woman on his route, Claire, changes everything.

Part love story, part suspense-mystery, Ben is drawn to Claire like no one else in his life. Everything about her mystifies and entices him to learn more about her, despite his better judgment.

Naturally, her past—an overbearing husband and her role in the theft of a priceless cello—threaten to catch up to her. Before long, Ben is swept up in a dangerous game of hide and seek.

Anderson crafts simple yet eloquent prose as he delves into Ben and Claire’s growing relationship and slowly ramps up the suspense as Claire’s husband closes in. A few subtle twists take the novel in a surprising new direction and ups the ante for the misanthropic cast.

Somewhere along the way, the story gains some of its intrigue from a terrifying secret at a once famous desert diner, now closed, and the lonely hermit who lives there.

The book evokes a powerful sense of place that echoes the loneliness and loss of the main players. Sometimes lyrical, sometimes brutal, Anderson recounts events with color and verve, making this a unique and largely satisfying page-turner.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Book Review: McGorin ‘Dusts Up’ more trouble for Detective Carrick

by G. Robert Frazier

Detective Doyle Carrick is a magnet for trouble. The hero of Jon McGoran’s latest novel, Dust Up (Forge Books), Carrick is at home with his girlfriend when a complete stranger appears frantically pounding on his front door, only to be shot down in cold blood.

Dust-Up_Cover-copy-200x291Homicide Detective Mike Warren embraces the easy way out by wanting to peg the crime on the victim’s wife, Miriam Hartwell, whom Carrick saw driving away from the scene. Fortunately for readers, the truth is a lot more complicated, as is often the case with Carrick’s adventures.

Carrick is urged to back off the investigation and let Warren handle things, but it’s not that simple. Miriam seeks him out again and fills him in on a biotech cover-up of a tainted food program in Haiti.

McGoran keeps the action moving at a frantic pace in a series of tautly written chapters that will have you turning the pages long into the night.

Read the full review at Killer Nashville.

Coben, Robotham, Laukkanen, Leslie present summer of thrills

By G. Robert Frazier

I’ve been a bit remiss in posting reviews to this site, though I’ve been actively posting on other sites. So, let’s catch up on some of my latest book reviews, shall we?

Fool Me Once – Harlan Coben

Maya Stern was a firsthand witness to her husband’s brutal murder by a pair of thieves, so how is it possible that he would be seen days later, playing with her two-year-old daughter, on footage captured by a nanny cam? Finding the answer, and perhaps even her husband, propels the riveting narrative of Harlan Coben’s new thriller, Fool Me Once (Dutton, $28).

Fool Me OnceWhen the picture card inside the nanny cam goes missing, Maya has no evidence to back up what she saw, and anyone she tells is more than reluctant to believe her. But Maya, a former Army captain with plenty of command experience, isn’t one to just let things go.

She naturally takes it upon herself to get to the truth, following a trail of clues past and present, uncovering new twists in the puzzle along the way.

Fool Me Once is the first of Coben’s 25 novels to be told entirely from the perspective of a female protagonist, resulting in a new experience for longtime fans and an excellent jumping-on point for new readers.

Read the full review at Bookpage.com

Close Your Eyes – Michael Robotham

You won’t want to close the book on this one. The new thriller by Michael Robotham, Close Your Eyes (Mulholland, $26), is reason to stay up late.

Close Your EyesClinical psychologist Joseph O’Laughlin is reluctant to once again take on the role of detective—after seven previous adventures, he thought he’d given it up to live out a peaceful retirement—but when a former student, Milo Coleman, calling himself “the Mindhunter,” begins to jeopardize the police investigation, he can no longer stand by idly. With his reputation in danger, Joe sets out to smooth over the ruffled feathers of the police and to calm a groundswell of public anger over the brutal unsolved murders of a mother and her teenage daughter.

The mystery and suspense is reason enough to keep reading, but Robotham ups the ante with a rousing family drama that adds an emotional complication to his lead’s life.

Read the full review at Bookpage.com

The Watcher in the Wall – Owen Laukkanen

Words can hurt, and in the case of Owen Laukkanen’s compelling, thought-provoking new thriller, The Watcher in the Wall (Putnam, $26.95), they can be enough to kill.

The Watcher in the WallsLaukkenen’s recurring FBI agents Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere pursue an Internet troll who encourages fragile teenagers to commit suicide, while recording their final moments via webcam for a black market on the dark web. The case takes on a deeper meaning for Windermere, who continues to berate herself over a past mistake in which she stood by as a fellow classmate was bullied in school to the point she one day never came back. Catching the predator in this case serves as a chance, however slight, for redemption.

Laukkenen’s fast-paced prose and short chapters pull readers along on a cross-country pursuit to identify the predator behind the online suicide forum and stop him before he can rack up more victims.

Interestingly, in the acknowledgements, Laukkanen admits he also dealt with depression and suicidal thoughts as a teenager, making the book even more deeply personal.

Read the full review at Bookpage.com

Cracked – Barbra Leslie

If it weren’t for the unexpected death of her twin sister, Ginger, Danny Cleary—the heroine of Barbra Leslie’s new novel Cracked (Titan Books)—might still be holed up in her apartment mindlessly wasting away on crack cocaine. Sadly, her sister’s death is just the shot in the arm Danny needs to kick the habit—at least for a chapter or two—and seek vengeance on the person who killed her.

CrackedLeslie has created an anti-hero to root for in the vein of Walt White from Breaking Bad: a tormented, down-on-herself woman who would much rather seek solace from the fumes of her crack pipe than deal with people face-to-face, or with life in general. But when her sister’s own twin sons are kidnapped as well, Cleary abandons the relatively safe confines of her half-life to embark on a trippy, vigilante-styled quest for vengeance that takes her from the streets of LA to Toronto to a family cabin in the Maine wilderness.

Leslie piles on enough twists and turns and action-packed shoot-‘em-ups to keep readers turning pages late into the night.

Read the full review at KillerNashville.com