Killer Nashville: Mystery, suspense all about setting the pace

Killer Nashville logoby G. Robert Frazier

The pace with which you approach your work, as well as the pace of the work itself, emerged as a common theme at Day 2 of the Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference Friday.

Running through Sunday at the Omni Hotel in Downtown Nashville, the conference brings together hundreds of writers and book lovers for four days of educational seminars, lectures by best-selling crime authors, agent and editor roundtables, and social networking.

Today’s lineup for attendees includes Guest of Honor speakers John Gilstrap, M. William Phelps, and Robert K. Tanenbaum, culminating with Killer Nashville’s annual banquet and awards ceremony. The public can get in on some of the activities at no charge as part of the conference’s first-ever BookCon, where they can meet Gilstrap, Tanenbaum, Phelps and Murder She Wrote authors Donald Bain and Renee Paley-Bain. A full lineup of events is available online at www.KillerNashville.com

But remember to pace yourself, because you’ll want to stay all day.

Writers on hand Friday, including myself, learned firsthand about how pacing plays an important role in any novel. Panelists Ken Vanderpool, David Bell, Don Helin, and Sharon Marchisello provided tips on how to turn up the tension and keep readers turning the pages in your novel.

Shorter sentences and chapters, cliffhangers, rapid-fire dialogue, active voice, short hard-edged sentence fragments were just some of the tactics shared to create a quicker reading experience. The opposite techniques are useful in slowing down the pace of the novel, allowing your character, and readers, a chance to catch their breath.

But perhaps the most important element, Helin noted, is the emotional connection authors strive to create between their characters and readers. If the reader can be drawn to empathize with the character and his/her plight, then they’ll be swept along for the ride, experiencing each high and low the character experiences.

Pacing in the first few pages of any novel also emerged as a key component during editor-agent roundtables throughout the day. Publishers want to get hooked by writers right away, without a lot of boring and unnecessary backstory. There’s time enough for that later, but a quick jump out of the starting blocks is crucial. Anything less could be the difference between obtaining representation, book deals, and readers who want to come back for more.

Review: Devil’s Pocket offers YA action, intrigue

In today’s society where everyone gets a trophy no matter how you finish, it’s no wonder that kids get so excited about do-or-die worlds like The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, or The Maze Runner. The imaginary free-for-alls that make those books and movies so popular seem to provide kids with an outlet for their competitive spirit… At least in a literary kind of way.

Devil's PocketAuthor John Dixon’s latest young adult novel, Devil’s Pocket, rides that trend with its own kill-or-be-killed funeral games. The novel focuses on 16-year-old Carl Freeman, who has been technologically enhanced by a chip in his head, and hundreds more throughout his body, turning him into a lightning-quick, lethal super soldier. Along with two other members of Phoenix Force, he will be pitted in the squared circle against the best young fighters in the world in a deadly competition. At stake: $10 million, bragging rights, and their very lives.

But as the body count continues to grow, Carl becomes more and more disillusioned by the game he’s been forced to play. Barely able to keep his temper in check, he and former girlfriend Octavia, who represents an opposing team, begin to plot their escape and the demise of the Few, a collection of masked overlords who run the games for their own nefarious purposes. The tension boils over into an explosive climax reminiscent of a James Bond movie.

Read the full review at Killer Nashville.

Review: The Dead Student is exciting, psychological thriller

New York Times best-selling author John Katzenbach knows how to get into people’s heads, whether it’s in the psyche of his characters, or the minds of his readers. His newest novel, The Dead Student (The Mysterious Press, Oct. 6), is a perfect example.

KatzenbachThe Dead Student wastes no time shaking things up for his protagonist, Timothy Warner. A PhD student better known by his nickname “Moth”, Timothy is a recovering alcoholic who battles the temptation to sink into the depths of drink and despair every day. Even with ninety-nine days of sobriety behind him, Moth knows he is one glass away from falling into a devastating abyss.

When his AA sponsor Uncle Ed is found dead, that yawning pit opens beneath Moth. It is only through a concerted effort, and the help of his AA group, Redeemer One, that he sobers up long enough to realize that his uncle would never kill himself. But gut feelings like his aren’t proof enough for police, who appear more than comfortable with their suicide theory.

Read the full review
 at Killer Nashville.

Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines are a steal

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I only occasionally purchase Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines. Not because I don’t want to, mind you, but because I’ve got so much other material to read already (including back issues I still haven’t finished yet.) But, obsessed with reading as I am, when I saw a recent online offer for a dozen double-sized magazines for a measly $16, I couldn’t resist. If you’ve never tried either magazine, and you love a good mystery story, you can’t go wrong with either publication. Some of today’s top authors are featured routinely in the pages of either magazine, and I’ve set my sites  on both magazines for my own short stories to appear one day. (Hey, to be among the best, you have to read the best!).

Do you read short stories? What are your favorite sources for new short stories? Share in the comments section below…

Review: ‘Unknown Sender’ builds suspense in tight 23 pages

Unknown Sender” by Ryan Lanz starts as a somewhat predictable tale of a young college student haunted by a series of text messages from an anonymous source. The texter seems to know everything about our protagonist, Jessica, from the clothes she’s wearing to what she’s doing at a specific moment.

Unknown Sender (427x640)Jessica, naturally, goes through a gamut of emotions, from curiosity to straight-on fear. Her suspicions grow as the texts continue to the point she starts lashing out at anyone who might be her mysterious texter. Her roommate tries to calm her down and offers a getaway for the weekend to a secluded cabin, where no one can bother her. Of course, the unknown sender somehow still manages to get his messages through, even though there is no cell signal.

It all leads up to a surprising plot twist and a shocking ending that can’t be shared here or the story itself would be ruined.

Lanz does a good job of building tension and suspense as the story unravels. The reader can easily sympathize with Jessica in the face of this unusual cyber attack.

At just 23 pages, the story is a quick, entertaining read. Given all its buildup, however, the ending felt somewhat rushed and left me wanting something more. Perhaps there’s sequel in the making?

Review: What You Left Behind sometimes thrills, sometimes frustrates

Just when you think you’ve got a handle on events in What You Left Behind, the new novel by Samantha Hayes, she throws you a curve. That’s normally a good thing in a mystery-suspense novel. The twists and turns should be enough to keep readers glued to the pages, but in this case it backfires.

What You Left BehindThe book ($25, Crown Publishers) starts on a thrilling note as a pair of thieves out for a midnight joyride on a stolen motorcycle lose control and careen into a tree. The female passenger, who narrates the chapter but is never identified, manages to slip away into the night. The male rider is killed. A suicide note found in his belongings, the fact that he wasn’t wearing a helmet, and the lack of skid marks at the scene, lead police to conclude that the wreck was a suicide.

Rather than follow the story of the rider who walked away, and why she didn’t come forward, the novel takes the first of many turns. Instead, we are introduced to detective inspector Lorraine Fisher and her daughter Stella as they spend their vacation visiting with Lorraine’s sister, Jo, in the rural village of Radcote. After a second apparent suicide, Jo and others in the community worry that the death may be another in a spate of suicides of its young people, similar to one that occurred there two years ago. Lorraine eventually begins to suspect otherwise and begins a plodding investigation that really doesn’t go anywhere. She pesters the local police, particularly a former associate she despises, to reopen the investigation.

But even this plotline gets shuffled to the background. Hayes begins another tangent involving Freddie, the depressed teenage son of Jo, who is the victim of cyber bullying. Freddie keeps it all to himself and eventually runs off with a stolen laptop. The laptop contains compromising photos of a pair of locals. Freddie witnesses the murder of another teenager, who, you guessed it, police determine died as a result of a suicide. Lorraine thinks otherwise and her investigation is back on again.

Meanwhile, there’s an autistic man, Gil, in town who sometimes jumps to the fore of the story by narrating several chapters. The reader is led to suspect him of being behind the rash of foul deeds in another red herring from Hayes. Gil even holds Freddie against his will in the latter stages of the book. I won’t give everything away, but Freddie’s life is put on the line in an exciting series of chapters near the end, leading to the eventual truth behind things. Or, so we think, until the epilogue where Hayes adds one final twist.

It wouldn’t be a mystery without a false lead or two and several twists, so in this arena Hayes succeeds. Where she goes astray is in maintaining a constant thread tying everything together. On several occasions it seemed like certain plotlines were simply forgotten for long stretches of time. Lorraine’s so-called investigation pales in interest to Freddie’s story, but Lorraine is supposed to be our protagonist of the tale. By the time everything is tied together at the end, it seemed rushed and somewhat contrived.

And, what’s more, one of the most fascinating plot elements – the cyberbullying of Freddie – is completely ignored. It has nothing to do with anything. I don’t know if that’s a red herring or just a blatant mistake. In either case, I was dissatisfied with the outcome of that plot element and its relation to the rest of the book, especially considering how much time was devoted to the cyberbullying.

Hayes demonstrates she can write with power and authority. The scenes where Freddie’s life hangs in the balance – literally – are top-notch. Unfortunately, the many plotlines, subplots and rabbit trails in the rest of the book complicate and muddle an otherwise entertaining read. Sometimes, simple is better.

I received this book for review from Blogging for Books.

Review: Paranoia runs deep in The Expats, leading to Poirot-like finish

It took me a little while to finish reading The Expats by Chris Pavone.

That, of course, is one of the worst things an author wants to hear after the hours, days, weeks, months – maybe even years – of laboring over his or her novel. But, on a bright note, I’m glad I saw the book through to its end.

The Expats - coverI started reading the book in late February soon after it arrived in the mail from Blogging for Books. I quickly read to about the halfway point – and something happened. One day, I picked up a different book and started reading it. I not only read that book all the way to its finish, I then picked up another book and read it from start to finish.

The Expats, meanwhile, sat unfinished. A lone bookmark sitting on page 150.

This past week, I decided I should finish what I started. (I sometimes have difficulty in that regard, so I don’t lay all of the blame on the author. I have lots of unfinished projects around the house. I am easily distracted by other chores and things I’d rather be doing. The Expats simply fell victim to my own impatience.)

The Expats follows the story of Kate Moore, a former CIA operative who resigns to be a mom to her kid and wife in Luxembourg, where she meets other Americans living abroad like herself. After years of seeing spies everywhere and trusting no one, it’s not easy for Kate to live the simple life. It’s not long before she begins to sense deception at every turn, from the new couple she befriends to her own husband.

Her paranoia runs deep and she soon starts spying on her husband and sneaking into his office to find out just what he does for a living and whether he is being honest with her. At the same time, her newfound friends start turning up everywhere she goes, leading her to suspect that they are either spying on her or on her husband.

She’s not wrong, as it turns out.

It sounds like an intriguing story, and it is, for the most part. It just takes a while for things to start happening. The second half of the book certainly flowed a lot quicker as all her fears began to manifest and the puzzles presented in the first half of the book became clear. Pavone’s prose certainly puts the reader into the head of his main character. We hear and think every thought with Kate, however irrational those thoughts appear on the surface. As a reader, you have to wonder if her paranoia is just that, or if she is really on to something, and if she’s right, what then? How will she handle the news that her husband isn’t who he says he is or is doing something he shouldn’t be doing? Can she turn in her own husband to the CIA?

It’s a fascinating moral dilemma.

That’s what this book is more than anything else, and that may be why I had to put it down midway through. I like more action in the stories I read, and this one seemed lacking. Even her final showdown with the FBI agent/former friend following her was only a page or two. Everything else took place over long talks at dinner. The entire final reveal was more akin to a Hercule Poirot finale where he regales the reader with a recap of the events and his deductions.

I like a good mystery – I love Hercule Poirot novels. But when you are reading about spies, the CIA and FBI following the trail of a possible international crime, I expect more action.

Available from Broadway Books, The Expats is a New York Times Bestseller and has received rave reviews. I’m not raving over this one, but it’s a good mystery and I’m glad I finished reading it.

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