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The best writing advice I ever received was to plot from the point of view of the antagonist and write from the perspective of the protagonist. Simple, right? But it was an a-ha moment for me.
A bit of background. Like most writers, I have a couple of practice manuscripts currently occupying space in the bottom of a drawer. They both garnered decent feedback from agents, but the novels were episodic—most of the second act chapters could have been rearranged without affecting the story. I wasn’t building on prior events. Why? Because I didn’t know what my antagonist was doing behind the scenes.
I think most writers put a great deal of thought into the character development of their heroes, but they tend to give their antagonist short shrift. But think about it—the antagonist is the character that drives the story. It is his or her actions that the protagonist must address.
For most of my adult life, I was a police officer. Part of the job description involved investigating crimes. Most incidents began when someone called 9-1- 1. Upon arrival, I’d try to piece together what happened by observing the scene, obtaining witness statements, and collecting physical evidence. Armed with this information, I’d search databases, develop additional contacts, run down new leads.
I was a first responder—just like my protagonist.
Imagine how easy police work would be if an officer knew before being dispatched to the scene exactly how the criminal had planned the crime, what motivated the person to do such a nefarious deed, and what steps he’d taken to avoid detection.
As a writer, you can do that!
To combat my story-structure issues, I enrolled in a plotting course for mystery and thriller writers. During the course, the instructor assigned two exercises that I’ve since incorporated into the planning stage of every story I write.
The first exercise explains the antagonist’s motivation for doing what he did. I write it in first person and it essentially creates the backstory of the character. The first line of this exercise for Adrift, my debut novel reads:
Ishmael Styx is a man who knows what he wants, and he wants to be dead. All he has to do is figure out how to make it temporary.
I then wrote 1200 words explaining what had happened in his life to bring him to this
The second exercise explains how the antagonist pulled off his crime. Adrift had a complicated crime (more than one, actually, but that developed later in the story).
Drawing on my background, I hatched the plan. Knowing how the crime occurred gave me the insight I needed to identify the clues my protagonist had to notice, what other things could be misinterpreted, and how to follow the breadcrumb trail left by the antagonist. The exercise revealed some surprising options that prompted me to go deeper into my storytelling.
The structure of a mystery novel is such that the antagonist runs the show in the first act. His crime is the inciting incident that ensures the protagonist’s involvement. Roughly the first half of the story involves the hero reacting to the actions of the protagonist. After the midpoint, their roles change. Now your protagonist is hot on the trail, developing those leads, realizing her mistakes. Sure, she’ll have setbacks, but as she gets closer to solving the crime, the two characters are also nearing their final confrontation. Both exercises will help you determine how your cornered antagonist will lash out, try to escape, or outwit your sleuth.
Mapping out the crime allowed me to structure my storyline so that it built on the information learned in previous chapters. Actions had consequences. My writing was no longer episodic.
The first time I’d put this writing advice into action was during the writing of Adrift. The novel won both the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence and the Royal Palm Literary Award for mystery. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
I knew how to foil the crime because I had plotted it first.
An FBI National Academy graduate, Micki Browning worked in municipal law enforcement for more than two decades, retiring as a division commander. Now a full time writer, she won the 2015 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence and the Royal Palm Literary Award for her debut mystery, ADRIFT.
Micki also writes short stories and non-fiction. Her work has appeared in dive magazines, anthologies, mystery magazines and textbooks. She resides in Southern Florida with her partner in crime and a vast array of scuba equipment she uses for “research”
This is an occasional post I’m doing to give a sneak peek about the books I’ve been reading and listening too recently. It really should be a weekly or bi-weekly post, but I haven’t got my act together quite yet. *Sigh*
Here’s some notable books from this month that has caught my eye. Ready? Here it goes!
King Severn Argentine’s fearsome reputation precedes him: usurper of the throne, killer of rightful heirs, ruthless punisher of traitors. Attempting to depose him, the Duke of Kiskaddon gambles…and loses. Now the duke must atone by handing over his young son, Owen, as the king’s hostage. And should his loyalty falter again, the boy will pay with his life.
Seeking allies and eluding Severn’s spies, Owen learns to survive in the court of Kingfountain. But when new evidence of his father’s betrayal threatens to seal his fate, Owen must win the vengeful king’s favor by proving his worth—through extraordinary means. And only one person can aid his desperate cause: a mysterious woman, dwelling in secrecy, who truly wields power over life, death, and destiny.
I’m thoroughly enjoying this series. The Queen’s Poisoner, book one of the series was utterly mesmerizing. I switched back and forth between reading and listening to the audiobook performed by the talented Kate Rudd. I’ll post the narrator performance on my other site at AudioSpy. Currently reading/listening to the second book, The Thief’s Daughter and it’s just as good!
The Nowhere Man is a legendary figure spoken about only in whispers. It’s said that when he’s reached by the truly desperate and deserving, the Nowhere Man can and will do anything to protect and save them.
But he’s no legend.
Evan Smoak is a man with skills, resources, and a personal mission to help those with nowhere else to turn. He’s also a man with a dangerous past. Chosen as a child, he was raised and trained as part of the off-the-books black box Orphan program, designed to create the perfect deniable intelligence assets—i.e. assassins. He was Orphan X. Evan broke with the program, using everything he learned to disappear.
Now, however, someone is on his tail. Someone with similar skills and training. Someone who knows Orphan X. Someone who is getting closer and closer. And will exploit Evan’s weakness—his work as The Nowhere Man—to find him and eliminate him. Grabbing the reader from the very first page, Orphan X is a masterful thriller, the first in Gregg Hurwitz’s electrifying new series featuring Evan Smoak.
Holy mackerel!! Reading this was literally like watching a movie unfold in my head. My first Gregg Hurwitz book didn’t disappoint one bit. The next book in the series is a short, Buy a Bullet and now I”m currently reading The Nowwhere Man.
Everyone thinks Emmy Dockery is crazy. Obsessed with finding the link between hundreds of unsolved cases, Emmy has taken leave from her job as an FBI researcher. Now all she has are the newspaper clippings that wallpaper her bedroom, and her recurring nightmares of an all-consuming fire.
Not even Emmy’s ex-boyfriend, field agent Harrison “Books” Bookman, will believe her that hundreds of kidnappings, rapes, and murders are all connected. That is, until Emmy finds a piece of evidence he can’t afford to ignore. More murders are reported by the day–and they’re all inexplicable. No motives, no murder weapons, no suspects. Could one person really be responsible for these unthinkable crimes?
Invisible is James Patterson’s scariest, most chilling stand-alone thriller yet.
I found this to be a very creative book for crime fiction. An FBI analyst gets mixed up in a string of mysterious lethal fires which turn out to be the heinous work of a serial killer. Amazing! Really enjoyed the originality in this one. Quite different from the typical serial killer in crime fiction.
After a messy divorce, attractive young mother Sonia is struggling to provide for herself and keep custody of her son. With her back to the wall, she resorts to smuggling cocaine into Iceland, and finds herself caught up in a ruthless criminal world. As she desperately looks for a way out of trouble, she must pit her wits against her nemesis, Bragi, a customs officer, whose years of experience frustrate her new and evermore daring strategies. Things become even more complicated when Sonia embarks on a relationship with a woman, Agla. Once a high-level bank executive, Agla is currently being prosecuted in the aftermath of the Icelandic financial crash. Set in a Reykjavík still covered in the dust of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption, and with a dark, fast-paced and chilling plot and intriguing characters, Snare is an outstandingly original and sexy Nordic crime thriller, from one of the most exciting new names in crime fiction.
What’s it like living in Iceland?
It’s great living in Iceland! Except for the weather of course. It´s a rather big volcanic and geographically new Island with very few people on it. The whole Icelandic nation is only 330 thousand people. But we host over a million tourists each year so it is lively and fun. Every town in Iceland is close to nature so outdoorsy people love it there. I don’t consider myself outdoorsy but I still enjoy the occasional walk out in nature. We have a rather strong welfare system in line with the other Nordic countries and a mixed economy so people have a good living standard and are generally healthy with a long life expectancy. That’s why it seems odd that Nordic writers write so much crime fiction as the Nordic countries have a very low crime rate and Iceland especially so.
Can you share some pictures with us?
Is your creative process as an author and playwright different?
Yes and no. For me it always starts out with the characters. A character starts living in my head and then I have to imagine a setting for her or him and their drive and there I have the plot. This is the initial process whether I am writing a play or novel. But then when the writing process really starts the novel is easier to write because it gives more freedom, but the play has to reveal everything through the dialogue. With a novel you’re on your own right to the end, but when writing a play the final goal is production where you’ll work with a theatre group to help with polishing.
What was your response when your play Big Babies won play of the year?
I was very happy of course! It was great and I was grateful for the recognition. In hindsight a big red-carpet moment like this seems unreal but I have such warm memories of the theatre company that produced the play that they will live inside my heart forever. A written stageplay is one thing but it’s the theatre artists that make it alive.
Why did you choose Noir to tell your story?
The Noir genre has a strong element of storytelling so that is why it is so good for me, because I see myself as a storyteller. I believe that with crime-fiction or Noir the reader has very specific expectations and the success of a story depends largely on how the writer fulfills those expectations. The reader expects to be entertained, to experience tension or a thrill and to be told a story.
How did you get into crime writing?
In part it was a coincidence. I have always loved writing and liked crime-fiction, but then one day I saw an ad from an Icelandic publisher for a competition called: “the New Dan Brown”. So that was it. My fate was sealed. Since I have written five published novels and my writing career has really taken off.
Who is Sonia?
Sonia is a young attractive mother that experiences a collapse of her whole world when her husband walks in on her in bed with another woman. The divorce that follows and the custody battle, all taking place in the same dramatic months as the Icelandic financial crash result in her being in a desperate situation. In her desperation she resorts to smuggling drugs and thereby she has entered a world of drugs and crime that she wouldn’t have expected herself to be in just a few months before.
Does your story bear a theme for struggling single mothers?
Well, I don’t know. The theme I started out with was an exploration of what people do when they feel cornered. When ordinary people find them selves in extraordinary situations they can do things they would never have imagined themselves doing. Sonia, the single mother in the story is one of those people and she does everything she can to regain custody of her son.
What is Sonia a victim of?
First and foremost she is a victim of herself. Snare is the first of the Reykjavík Noir Trilogy and in the coming two books she will come to terms with her own part in creating her fate. But the drug business is international, and even in a small country like Iceland it has quite an impact. The people who have ensnared Sonia are not the nicest types. With all the violence, threats and coercion Sonia feels like a victim. At first.
What role does the financial crisis play in the series?
It’s the backdrop to the whole story. I’m interested in those moments in history when there’s huge changes to society. For Iceland the financial crash had devastating consequences. Many people lost their homes and all their savings and had to start anew. There was a lot of anger and desperation; and in Snare we see characters that are struggling with the consequences of this, although it’s in a very different way for each one of them.
What’s next for you after the Reykjavik trilogy?
I am currently starting on writing a new series that leans more into the political thriller. I hope it will do as good as the Reykjavík Noir Trilogy.
Jon Land is the USA Today bestselling author of the 38 novels, including seven titles in the critically acclaimed Caitlin Strong series: Strong Enough to Die, Strong Justice, Strong at the Break, Strong Vengeance, Strong Rain Falling (winner of the 2014 International Book Award and 2013 USA Best Book Award for Mystery-Suspense) and Strong Darkness (winner of the 2014 USA Books Best Book Award and the 2015 International Book Award for Thriller). Caitlin Strong returns this October in Strong Light of Day, to be followed by Darkness Rising, his sci-fi collaboration with Heather Graham coming from Forge in June of 2016. Jon is a 1979 graduate of Brown University, lives in Providence, Rhode Island and can be found on the Web at jonlandbooks.com or on Twitter @jondland.
Tell us about the decision to write a thriller with a female lead.
Well, confession time here, starting this series was as much a marketing decision as a creative one. I owe the whole concept to the head of mass market sales for Tor/Forge Publishing going back about a decade. At a meeting where we were discussing trends in publishing, he raised the point that thrillers were the most popular genre and 70% of books were bought by women. Yet nobody at the table could name a single female thriller hero. Mystery, yes. But a female Jack Reacher? Uh-uh. So then and there I piped in with “What about a female Texas Ranger?” And in that moment Caitlin was born.
What do you appreciate about the Texas Rangers?
So many things! First and foremost, they are the most famous and legendary lawmen in American history. The only frontier body out of the Old West to still be around today—and not just around, they’re still operating pretty much as they always have. They’re still gunfighters by reputation, even if they never have draw their weapon. They still command the same respect they always have and have built wondrously on the folklore of their forebears. All those great stories of the likes of Bill McDonald, Jack Hayes, Frank Hamer, Manuel “Lone Wolf” Gonzaulles, and so many more. You see so many male thriller heroes who are ex Special Forces, Navy SEALs, or something like that. Since women can’t service in active duty for special ops, making Caitlin Strong a Texas Ranger was the next best thing.
Did you do any travel related research?
You can never do enough. I get to Texas twice a year and base scenes on where I visit. So you’ll see a lot of Midland in STRONG LIGHT OF DAY, a lot of Houston in STRONG COLD DEAD, and a ton of Austin in STRONG TO THE BONE which comes out December 5. I’m a whiz when it comes to Google searches and, another confession, I write about a ton of places in Texas that I’ve never been to.
What’s your process with research? Is there a method to the madness?
That’s a great question because it comes down to process. The method to my madness is not really having a method. I don’t outline and am very spontaneous in my writing, figuring if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, the reader can’t possibly know. So I don’t necessarily know what research I need to do before I start a book. I’ll actually do the bulk of it in the midst of the writing. If I need to know something as specific as the kind of tree you might find a body under in Laramie. Or what that tree smells like. Or what diner Caitlin might in when she visits this town or that. Attention to detail is crucial but the real trick is knowing how much not to say so the reader is left with the impression that I’ve been there, mostly because I don’t give them enough to figure out that I haven’t.
How do you view Caitlin Strong among all the characters you’ve created over the years?
Easily the best and most fun I’ve ever written. I have so much faith in all of them, meaning I let them do the heavy lifting when it comes to figuring out the plot—or, better stated, my characters are also my collaborators. The reason I can take the risk of being so spontaneous, of literally not knowing exactly where I’m going or how I’m going to get there, is because I trust my character can sketch out the roadmap for me. They write their own dialogue, they make their own decisions, they make their own mistakes. Some of the best scenes I’ve written in this series, I can’t even tell you where they came from.
What are the stakes and do they affect Caitlin personally?
As far as STRONG TO THE BONE goes, it’s the most personal of any book in the series because we learn for the first time that Caitlin was raped 18 years before when she was in college. The man was never caught. He just disappeared. And now he’s back, his DNA showing up in another victim of sexual assault. So Caitlin, all grown up and a Texas Ranger now, has a chance to slay her greatest dragon. Which brings us to the question of whether she really wants to, because she’s afraid catching him will strip her of the edge that defines who she is. As you can see, there are often aren’t easy answers in this series!
Is it difficult writing a female lead?
Not really, because she’s so real to me, as are all of my characters. I’ve written serial killers and terrorists, when I’m not either of those. I’ve written Israelis, Palestinians, teenagers, along with blind, deaf and people suffering from other disabilities. And I’m none of those things either. Well, breaking news, you can add to that list the fat that I’m not a woman. Storytelling springs not from the conscious mind but from the imagination, where anything is possible. The key to being a great storyteller is to able to recapture the magic of role playing that children do. I think that’s why so many love books as a adults: because it makes them feel like kids again, the way I feel when I’m writing.
How have readers responded to her thus far?
Beyond anything I ever could have imagined. She doesn’t have the sales of the Jack Reacher books, but I honestly believe she compares very favorably to Lee Child’s iconic hero. The thing about those books, and the ones featuring Caitlin, is they’re both essentially modern day Westerns. The storytelling, at its heart, is very basic: Somebody good willing to do anything it takes to stop somebody bad from doing something really wrong. That’s the crucial element of this series and any great thriller, as well as why readers have responded to Caitlin as positively as they have: she isn’t just about solving crimes, she’s about preventing something much worse from happening. That’s what makes a true hero.
Where you a reader growing up?
Not so much. The main reason was because of the types of books that I was allowed to read. They weren’t very interesting, well-known, and almost all were religious. I dreaded reading because of this. It wasn’t until I was older that I discovered that not all books were dull and boring.
I remember that when I got my license, I regularly drove to Barnes & Noble to buy books (most in secret). Classics, poetry, non-fiction—I devoured all of them with enthusiasm.
Although I would have loved to read Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia growing up, I think being deprived of good books has made me that much more appreciative of them today. I can’t imagine my life without reading now.
Same here. I’m glad you had a wonderful discovery later in life. Too many great books!
Was there anything in your background that influenced you to write later in life?
Reading the book Chocolat in college. It was the first time I had ever read a book that was filled with magic and whimsy. This launched my obsession with magical realism books, which led to my obsession with books about witches, which led to my obsession with fantasy books.
Nice. Once you read something you like, you’re hooked.
Why did you choose fantasy for a debut novel?
Fantasy is my favorite genre to read because of the limitless possibilities. I love visiting other worlds. I love magic and supernatural entities. I love exploring things that I am afraid of. It seemed only fitting to write in the genre I love most.
Great! Limitless possibilities is fascinating!
What made you move from California to Pennsylvania?
My husband teaches philosophy and got a position at a local university. Prior to PA, we lived in Florida and Colorado.
PA is my favorite place I’ve lived so far though. I absolutely love the seasons, especially fall. I also prefer living in a small country town versus a big bustling city.
Nice. There’s a certain kind of peace out in the countryside.
Describe the decision to write a book after other job opportunities.
Creative writing was my favorite subject in grade school, but once I went to college and began to explore various job opportunities, writing fell by the wayside.
I eventually went on to work in corporate America and was miserable, so I started writing stories again as a way for me to relax from the grind.
It didn’t take me long to spark the passion I had lost for writing. I looked forward to my hobby at every opportunity. After I published my first book, Strange Luck, I knew that I wanted to dedicate my life to writing. Just as Chocolat inspired me, I can only hope that my books will do the same for my readers.
Ohhh. I can totally relate to this.
Who is Daisy Darling and how do you relate to her?
Daisy Darling is a stubborn, quirky girl who wants to be a writer, but things keep getting in the way. She inherits her family’s antique shop, ends up in a mysterious world where her memories are stolen, and then accidentally becomes ringleader for an ancient and evil theater.
Many of Daisy’s quirks are similar to mine, and some of her experiences are based on things that have happened to me.
You can learn more here:
Does she have a mentor that she confides in?
In each book, Daisy has a mentor that helps guide her. In Strange Luck, it was a time-traveling wizard. In The Nightmare Birds, it was a beautiful and immortal performer, but in A Darling Secret, Daisy finally learns how to harness her own strengths and therefore relies only on herself.
I like the progression here.
Tell us about the upcoming release of A Darling Secret.
A Darling Secret is the conclusion to the series, where you’ll learn the fate of your favorite heroes and love-to- hate foes. It’s a little darker than The Nightmare Birds, with lots of occult themes, magic, and psychological games. My favorite! ��
I wanted this book to answer remaining questions and leave the reader with a satisfying sense of completion. I spent a lot of time talking to my readers to find out what they wanted to see happen, which characters they wanted to see more of, and what they liked most about the previous books. I hope my readers will enjoy the result.
Awesome. I love that you seek out feedback from your readers.
What have you learned after writing your third book?
The more you write, the better you become at writing.
Amen to that. It’s simple yet profound.
Do you outline or construct character arcs?
When I write, I don’t plot everything out in advance. I have a very general idea of what I’m going to do and the rest I come up with as I go. For example, I wanted to write a book about a world built using stolen memories. That was the general idea I had for Strange Luck. The rest took form as I wrote. A lot of the time I don’t even know what is going to happen in the story or to my characters, but that’s part of the fun. All the themes I discuss in my books are important to me and are largely based on my own experiences/thoughts, like how we are our memories.
Exploring the plot as you go does sound interesting.
What’s next after the Strange Luck series?
I plan to write a standalone psychological horror novel. Details to come.
Oh, do share when available.
Amie Irene Winters was born and raised in California but now lives and writes in western Pennsylvania. She is the author of the award-winning Strange Luck series.
When not writing, she can be found hiking with her dog, baking desserts, or breaking a sweat in kickboxing class.
To learn more about Amie and her books, visit amieirenewinters.com.
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