Randall Wood

For Writers

One of the by-products of writing a few novels is frequent questions on how you did it. I’ve been writing for several years now, but I have only been putting my work out into the world for the past few, so I still consider myself a new writer. The majority of any advice I can give was first given to me by someone else, and the only reason it was remembered was that it proved itself valuable. I’ll try to pass on what has helped me, as well as what I’ve learned not to do, but it’s really up to the individual writer to find out what works for them. Advice for me is always free and worth every penny.


– Spoiler Alert! –
I may refer to my own books when providing an example from time to time!


Where do you get the ideas for your books?

For me, getting ideas for books is the easy part. If anything, I have too many ideas, and the problem becomes one of which of them to choose. I have science fiction ideas, military ideas, historical adventure ideas, you name it. They’re all in a computer file or in a stack of assorted cocktail napkins, somewhere on my desk. I’d love to be able to write them all. But my first choice has always been thrillers, and I prefer to keep my timelines in the present day or near future, so that tends to narrow the idea pile down quickly.

I’m a self-confessed information junky, and I usually start my day with some caffeine and several news websites. Most of the ideas I end up writing are based on current events. I believe the catch phrase is “ripped from the headlines.” I simply take an interesting story and stretch it to the limits of my twisted imagination. For example, the plot for Closure was inspired by the Maryland sniper shootings in October of 2002, and the cross country shooting spree of Andrew Cunanan in 1997. I changed the shooter’s motive and added the personal conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist and BOOM: story. From there, it’s just a matter of stretching the plot to the extremes, without going past the believable. Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy referred to it as “vaguely plausible,” which I think says it perfectly.

Write what you know is advice often heard by starting authors, and this worked for me on my first novel, as it has for many others. Some authors find a niche that works for them and never stray too far from it. John Grisham was, and still is, a lawyer who writes amazing legal thrillers. Robin Cook and Michael Palmer are both doctors and are the kings of the medical thriller. Dale Brown and Stephen Coonts were both military pilots and, as a result, write great aviation novels.  Writing what you are familiar with provides great detail, lessens your research, and gives the work an air of authenticity. It also makes you feel more confident in your work.

Stepping outside your comfort zone can also work, though. Sooner or later, we all have to do it, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do so. Sara Gruen admitted to have little knowledge of the circus, when she penned Water for Elephants. Yet, she researched well and wrote a best seller. Tom Clancy was an insurance salesman with a love for all things military, when he wrote The Hunt for Red October. By coincidence, my home in Florida is only a few miles away from Stephen King’s, so I certainly hope that he isn’t writing what he knows.

A writer’s mind is free to take any subject to the limits of its imagination. You may say, “I just don’t think like that,” but everyone has an amazing brain to work with. I can prove it with this simple question;

What was the population of Mongolia in 1742?

You probably laughed and said “I don’t know” and that’s fine, I don’t either. But think about this: if you were to ask the same question to a super-computer, one with the wealth of recorded history stored in its computer brain, it would have to search every file in its memory for the answer before it could reply. It may have the information, it may not. But you instantly knew that you didn’t know. If you take it a step further you also know the steps to take to find the answer, while the computer is stuck if it doesn’t know the answer as it has exhausted its only option. Your brain however has endless options. It has imagination.

All you need beyond that is something to write with.

How do you get started?

Once I have my idea, I need to decide what type of book fits it best (Thriller, Mystery, etc.) and come up with my “What if…” question. For Closure, it was “What if there was a cop in a bank that was suddenly being robbed by his best friend from high school?” By taking this one question to the extreme, the bank robber became a serial killer, the cop became a senior FBI agent, and the bank became the entire justice system. Everything just got bigger.

Once I have my “What if…?” question perfected, I can start outlining, which I’ve been told is fun to watch. Evidently, I become a sort of distracted bumbling idiot, walking around in a preoccupied daze. I don’t use a digital recorder, or any electronic device, as I don’t trust them. I’m afraid that it will A: erase my ideas for no reason, or B: get left somewhere by me and be lost forever. (the more likely of the two). So I instead distribute pens and small notepads everywhere. This includes the bathroom, the car, and the riding lawnmower. If you get anything from this section, please get this: Write your ideas down the minute you get them! The best ideas seem to come at the worst times. I’ve outlined whole chapters on cocktail napkins; I’ve stopped to write on the side of the highway, at halftime while the band is playing, and with the lawn half mowed. My family no longer questions, if I leave the movie half-way through, or if I sit in the driveway for an hour when I get home. Write your idea down immediately, or you may never get it back.

Initial outlines don’t need to be detailed. The initial outline for chapter one of Closure was three words: Sniper shoots lawyer. That’s it. The rest was written in the first draft. Sometimes a more detailed outline becomes necessary to keep the timeline of various subplots in line. Events in subplot A may take only minutes to happen, while events in subplot B may take much longer. A detailed outline can prevent you from getting one subplot too far ahead of the other. This keeps your story from traveling in time and confusing the reader. The more you outline the better your transitions will be, and the result is a smoother flow to your story.

Obviously, the more you outline the easier the story will be to write. I personally prefer a vague outline. It may be my rebellious nature or just an urge to get started on the first draft; I don’t know, but I seem to do better with a less detail-oriented outline. I don’t like to adhere to a strict one too early in the process, as I feel it limits my creativity. I think it’s fun to discover what happens to your characters, as you write it!

It’s also much easier to make changes to an outline ,than it is to a finished first draft. So the question may be how far ahead do you want to outline? Most writers that I know outline the entire book before they start on a first draft, while others outline just a few chapters ahead of the actual writing. Each has figured out what works best for them, as you will need to do.

I’ve enclosed the final outline for Closure at the end of this page, as an example. This is very detailed for me. If you’re working with a publisher, they may want a much more detailed outline, before the check gets cut.

What tools do you use?

Tools? I look around my desk and I see a laptop computer that’s in serious need… of an upgrade. I use an older version of Word to type my novels as it’s what I’m comfortable with. A dictionary, vocabulary guide, and thesaurus. Textbooks on the subject I’m currently writing about. Maps. Newspaper articles and downloads off the internet. A calendar. Photos. Google maps is one of my favorite tools. (If you need to write about a certain area you can use street view and take a walk around. Great for adding those little details that even the locals will notice.) Medical journals. Pages and pages of notes. A marked-up outline. I also have two textbooks on Moral Philosophy. They help when I need to define the conflict I’m placing my characters in. I would recommend taking the course at your local college; it really helps. As far as the internet goes, be wary. Unless they cite a source, be careful where you get your information. You should NEVER knowingly put something on paper that is wrong. Keep your information factual to the best of your ability. You never know when someone will mistake what you wrote in your work of fiction for fact.
What else do I see? A coffee mug. Pretzels. Some junk mail. A Rubik’s cube. Occasionally a cat gets in the way. His name is Typo.

How do you do your research?

I find research to be the most interesting part of writing. It’s often difficult for me to avoid going beyond what I need for the book, when I find something that intrigues me.

I don’t recall ever being turned down when asking a professional for help. Most experts in any field love to talk about their work. I’ve had lunch with FBI agents, observed open heart surgery, and even operated a giant construction crane for a short time. All while doing research, and all for free. People love to help writers, and for this we should all be eternally grateful.

People are busy though, and some research requires a large number of questions. You don’t want to monopolize someone’s time too much, but if you’re like me, you really want to get what you need and move on to the writing. I try to learn as much as I can about the subject. before I talk to them, both to save time and ask better questions. But if you’re having a hard time finding a professional source that has enough time, there’s another source you can tap.

I live in Florida and that means I’m surrounded by retirees. They’re a valuable source for writers and they have all the time in the world to speak with you. A simple ad in the local paper or a posting on the wall at the local golf club can connect you with the person you need. Buy a few drinks at the local VFW, Moose Lodge, or casino and you’ll meet all kinds of experts on a variety of subjects. You’ll often come away with pages of notes and phone numbers for even more sources. For my second novel, I needed to know what the inside of a Bio Level-4 lab looked like, and I was sure no one was going to offer me a tour. It only took me three days to find someone locally who had the information I needed. He later proved to be an excellent editor, and we’re still friends to this day.

The reason I mention people first is that nothing beats first-hand knowledge of a subject. You can read about open heart surgery all you want, but until you actually see (and hear, and smell) it being done, you won’t be able to SHOW the reader the surgery, as opposed to TELLING them what’s happening in your story through narrative. Some things you simply just aren’t going to be able to see, and the next best option is the eyes of someone who has.

Most professions have a publication to go with them. When writing about medicine, visit the library of the local hospital. Your nearby community college most likely subscribes to a number of journals. The best thing about these types of publications is that sources are sighted and the information is factual.

Textbooks are another good source for detail and a basic understanding on any subject. Having the right nomenclature will help your story survive scrutiny by people who do the job for real everyday. Most readers don’t mind being educated about the proper names of things or how to perform a certain procedure, as long as it doesn’t interrupt their enjoyment of the story. It also adds credibility, which is never a bad thing.

No one will deny that the Internet is a great tool for research. I try to use it more as a way to find the sources I’ve mentioned already, more than anything else. The problem with the Internet is that you never really know who wrote what you’re reading, and most of the time it’s difficult to find a second or third source to confirm it. As I mentioned earlier, you should never knowingly write something that’s wrong, and the Internet, I find, takes too much time in that regard. Its speed and volume are its greatest strength, but that same strength can lead to an inadvertent inaccuracy.

Michael Crichton was known for his meticulous research. Despite being a writer of fiction, he would include a complete bibliography in the back of each of his novels. To get a good idea of the amount of research that goes into a novel before the writing even starts, his books offer an excellent example.

How do you pick your characters?

The “What if…?” question should go a long way toward picking your main characters. But if not, you’ll need to decide who the story is about. Every story needs a protagonist and an antagonist, and thrillers usually follow a series of events where the hero gets caught up in, due to his job, location, relationship, etc. These things all work to add characters to the story. If your story centers on a detective, for instance, he or she will need co-workers, a spouse, a boss, and an adversary to be up against. The storyline usually follows something that is set in motion before the protagonist gets involved, and the hero is pulled into the situation with no choice but to see it through. There are also always some outside issues that the protagonist has to deal with, which complicate things for him and serve to add conflict and adversity to the hero’s plight. These can be any number of things: a cranky wife, a difficult boss, a fear of heights, or a lack of skill in a needed area. The protagonist must be placed in situations that push his moral and ethical boundaries as well.  The writer will have to define all this, when he introduces a character to the reader. Having a cop appearing in the story can mean several things. Is he a good cop or is he corrupt? Is he skilled or incompetent?  Every character needs some information that defines him to the reader. For major characters, I will often write a detailed summary of who they are and how they got to be where they’re at. If you plan to use the character in other books, you should keep this summary and add to it as necessary.

Supporting characters should have the same type of attention given to them; they just require less of it. Each supporting character should add something to the story. A certain skill perhaps or maybe access to certain information the hero requires. If you need to educate the reader to get a point in the story across, it helps to have a “Watson” around to ask “Holmes” questions. This educates the reader by eavesdropping on their conversation, as apposed to just reading the explanation in the narrative.

Some authors use the trick of basing supporting characters on people they actually know, giving them the same mannerisms, looks, and way of speaking they have. This certainly helps give life to the character as well as keep them straight in the authors’ head as he’s writing. Just be sure to tell the person that it’s a character, and not your view of them, or you might loose a friend!

Try to avoid picturing a celebrity, when forming your characters, as this will often backfire when the reader pictures them instead of the character you’re trying to portray. They should not be perfect either, be sure to give them some flaws and make them believable. Be original, and make your character interesting, above all else. People read thrillers to see what happens to the characters, not to figure out the plot.

How do you structure your book?

The recipe for thrillers is well defined. I’m sure someone at a big publishing house somewhere in New York City did some research and came up with the formula that all books seem to fall into these days. Your standard thriller is around 35-45 chapters long and contains 110,000 to 130,000 words. This is the structure that publishers seem to prefer. In published form this translates into around 400 pages. Evidently, this is the length and volume that people like to read. Can you deviate from this? Sure, it’s not a set-in-stone rule. It’s merely a guideline which they would like you to follow. I would advise any first time author to follow this, as much as possible. It shows that you’ve done your homework, and anything to make the publishers’ job easier (and your book more attractive to them) only helps you.

But I’m way past that already you say? How far? 900 pages? 1000? Don’t sweat it. Complete your story. Books of this length are rarer to come by, but they’re still out there. Tom Clancy’s latest is waiting patiently on my desk and it comes in at just under 1000 pages. Will I ever read it? You bet! I just have to plan ahead. Its length didn’t discourage me from buying it for one second. But if you’re trying to break into the field, common sense says stick to the formula. If your book is on the long side, a good editor will help you whittle it down to fit the market, without taking away from the story.

I do have a soapbox to get on, for a moment. Don’t cheat. What I mean is this: don’t structure your book to fill up space just to make it longer. There are authors out there, some of them very big, who do this and it upsets me to the point that I no longer read them. When I pick up a book in a store and thumb through it, I hate to see 400 pages divided into 130 chapters. The first half of the chapter page is blank with only a number. The chapter itself is only three pages long, and the last page is never full. So you end up with a three-page chapter, with a third of it being blank paper. Multiply that by 130 chapters and over a third of the book is blank space. This is not a novel; this is a short story. I have to smile when I hear people say, “I read it in one sitting, it was a real page turner.” Well, of course you did; you had no choice. Off my soapbox.

A transition does not require a chapter break. Most authors and their publishers utilize three blank lines between transitions or divide the break with three asterisks (or some other kind of bullet point). The reader reads right past them, like they aren’t even there, but in their head, they know they are moving to another part of the story. Some use a combination; blank spaces for the character moving somewhere else, and asterisks for a change in the story.

Timestamps can also help make transitions and keep the reader on track. If you need to flashback to a prior event, adding the time and place in bold at the top of the page will let the reader know beforehand, so they don’t get confused. I used this once in Closure, when I took the main characters back several years to Panama. Without the timestamp, it would have been confusing for the first few paragraphs. If you have multiple characters and multiple plotlines, the timestamp can become a necessary thing. A good example of this would be Michael Crichton’s Airframe or Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising. Both make excellent use of the timestamps.

Some authors name their chapters. Some divide the book into parts. It’s entirely up to the author and, to some extent, to their editor and publisher. A chapter title can work much like a timestamp, if the wording sets the time and place. Dividing the book into parts should only be used for major changes in the story, such as the entire cast of characters moving to another country, or a major jump in time. Chapters should always highlight a dramatic event, if possible. Don’t try to shorten or end a scene abruptly, just because you’re over your usual chapter length. That’s what editors are for.

Structure and pacing go hand in hand. What do I mean by pacing? If you’re writing a thriller you’re not writing action, you’re not writing conflict, you’re not writing drama, what you’re writing is tension, and that tension needs to get steadily ratcheted up, as the story progresses. You need a dramatic opening; thrillers just don’t start slow. I was advised by a successful author to “kill somebody in the first chapter.” In my naivety, I asked, “What if I can’t do that?” His answer was, “Well then blow something up!” He was giving me the short version, but he was right. A dramatic opening sets the stage for the rest of the book. It should be that first domino, which once pushed sets the series of events in motion that engulf the main characters. If done right, dominos and chapters fall, until there are none left.

After your dramatic event starts things off, there’s a period of character development, as the hero gets involved. More characters come into play, as information is gathered. The villain progresses with his plans at the same time, and the tension mounts as the storylines move closer together. Sooner or later, you’ll come to the Macguffin. This is one of those writing terms that can be hard to define, so I’ll offer the definition from our good friend Wikipedia.

A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is “a plot element that catches the viewers’ attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction”. The defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is. In fact, the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be ambiguous, undefined, generic, left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot. Common examples are money, victory, glory, survival, a source of power, a potential threat, or it may simply be something entirely unexplained.

The MacGuffin is common in films, especially thrillers. Usually the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act, and then declines in importance as the struggles and motivations of characters play out. It may come back into play at the climax of the story, but sometimes the MacGuffin is actually forgotten by the end of the story. Multiple MacGuffins are sometimes—somewhat derisively—referred to as plot coupons.

Some good examples that I like are R2-D2 from the first (forth?) Star Wars movie. The briefcase in Pulp Fiction, and the suitcase in the movie Ronin were great. We never found out what was in them, yet they were the reason for much of what happened in the story. The pregnant woman in Children of Men. The brief written by the law student in the Pelican Brief. You get the idea.

Another way I’ve heard the MacGuffin defined is that it’s the “Ah ha!” moment of the story. Darth Vader is Luke’s father! The cop and the killer were once best friends! No way! Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze?! Tyler Durdin is make-believe! Bruce Willis is dead and the kid’s been talking to him for the whole movie! The list goes on and on.

Basically it’s the point where the story all comes together and it can happen early on, in the middle, or very late. The Usual Suspects was one of my favorites as a writer simply because the MacGuffin didn’t arrive until the last minute of the story. Brilliant. Most thrillers have the MacGuffin fall somewhere after the halfway mark. What follows is the hero dealing with the aftermath, or the fallout, of its discovery.

What did you say? That general is a traitor and sold the terrorist one of our nuclear warheads? I’ve only got ten chapters left to stop him!

Better get typing.

How do you write Dialogue?

If there’s a writer alive that doesn’t enjoy writing dialogue I have yet to meet them.

“How did the writing go today honey?”
“Great, I wrote forty-two pages!”
“Hmmm…sounds like a good conversation.”

She knows me very well.

My point is that dialogue is one of the writers’ best friends. Good dialogue fills pages at a rapid rate, moves the story along, informs the reader, and best of all: makes the writer feel very productive. Writing dialogue has few rules also, so it’s fairly easy to write.

A few tips on He said-She said: when the reader sees those, they jump right over them. There’s no rule on how many to use, and you can stick them anywhere in the sentence, front, back, or middle. I personally try to use them as sparingly as possible; just enough to keep who is speaking clear to the reader. Obviously, the more people involved in the conversation, the more identifiers you’ll need. Unless you can distinguish by gender, or from the dialogue itself, you’ll have to start using names.

Adverbs and modifiers. I’m not a big fan of either myself. I feel that if the dialogue is written correctly, then adverbs shouldn’t be needed. I prefer to re-write the dialogue than resort to using an adverb. But sometimes there’s no alternative, such as when a character whispers. It’s hard to convey that someone is whispering, so it may be easier to add “she whispered.”

Use contractions! American spoken English is full of them. We tend to take the short cut whenever we can and slur everything together. A good way to check your dialogue is to simply read it out loud to yourself, or better yet, with someone else. If it sounds unnatural, forced, or too proper, re-write it. You don’t want your characters speaking like Commander Data from StarTrek.

As much as writers love to write dialogue, it shouldn’t take place just to fill space. Dialogue should always DO something to either move the story forward, educate the reader, or increase the tension. Preferably all three. It has to be interesting as well. Enough so that if you were to overhear the conversation in public, you would continue to eavesdrop. If your dialogue doesn’t do any of those, then re-write it with the goal of hitting all three.

Try to avoid technical jargon that goes over the reader’s head. This is something my editor complains about often, and I am constantly re-writing to please her. I eventually found a solution. I have a good friend, who I like to run my first drafts by. Unknown to me, his teenage son (a senior in high school) was reading along right after him. Anything the teenager couldn’t figure out from context, my friend would draw a big red circle around and note “Simplify” next to it.

Now I send them both a copy.

What do I do when I’m done?

Somehow you made it all happen, and now you have a freshly printed stack of paper lying in front of you. What now?

First things first: safeguard your work. Like it or not, people steal. You most likely typed your manuscript on your computer and there’s no such thing as a secure computer. Just ask the government. With a couple easy steps, you can ensure that your work remains yours. Start by burning three copies to disc. Keep one at home, keep another with someone you trust, and then do a poor mans copyright version 2.0. Fax the outline and a few chapters from your local copy/printing/shipping store. The date will be at the top of the fax. You can strengthen this further by getting the fax notarized while you’re there.
There’s some controversy over that last part. The common belief is that your work is automatically copyrighted the second it hits the page or screen and there’s no need to perform a “poor man’s copyright”. Fine, except for one thing: people steal. If you haven’t shown your work to anyone, how do you prove it’s yours when you need to?

Say you’re working on your book at Starbucks one day. You’re deep into an action scene when you suddenly notice the time. You’re late. You jump up, grab your things and bolt out the door, leaving your thumb-drive behind. It’s the next day until you notice it’s gone, and a phone call confirms that it’s gone forever. But you’re okay, because you have all your work safely stored on your hard-drive. You shrug it off and get back to work.

Two months later your book hits the market, a few days later some reviews pop up on Amazon. Nice book they say, but I already read it a month ago. It was called something else though, and they give you the title. You search for it and there it is: your book. Different title and different names for the characters, but it’s definitely yours.

Still feel safe about your auto-copyright?

But you showed it to your mom and your best friend right? I’m sure their statements will be plenty to sway a judge and prove that it’s yours.

What about the date on the computer file? Easily forged. What else you got?

You printed out a few chapters back when you got started? Great. Are they dated and notarized?

You get my point.

It takes a little more than just putting words on the page to safeguard your work. The poor man’s copyright (version 2.0) may not be much, but it’s something that locks down the time and date of when you produced it.

When you receive the fax, take it back to the shipping store. Send it certified mail to yourself. Have them seal the ends of the box. When it arrives, you will have to sign for it. Print and sign legibly and initial across the border of the address sticker. ***Don’t open the box*** Save any paperwork and (this is the 2.0 part) print off the tracking sheet from the USPS website. Store it all someplace safe, such as a safety deposit box. Should the ownership of your work ever come into question, you now have a sealed box containing it with proof of when it was shipped and received by a government agency. Don’t open the box without someone in attendance who can verify the contents in court. It’s simple, yet cheap and effective.

The old way didn’t really have any teeth, as there were too many ways to fake it. I.e.,  sending yourself the envelope, unsealed, and then filling it later, simply changing the date on your computer to forge when the documents were produced. Version 2.0 requires that you hack the public fax machine and the USPS computers and change the dates of the tracking software, as well as forge the stickers, barcodes and tracking numbers on the parcel itself. Obviously this is a little more difficult.

Both of these methods combined only provide a little more than doing nothing at all. Personally, I have never heard of anyone needing to use their PMCR in a legal dispute, but how can it hurt to have it? In the end, nothing beats a real copyright. It’ll cost you about $35, and take only a small amount of your time. But it can be worth hundreds of times that when you need it.

Now that your work is safe, it’s time to get some feedback. I try to keep the first drafts I send out to number six or less. Remember that you’re looking for constructive feedback; not praise and approval. The more red ink on the return copies, the better. I print and mail paper copies with return postage, doubled- spaced, and I include the red pen. If you send them by e-mail, you’re running a risk. You have no idea how secure your friend’s computer is. Your book is going to hit the internet sooner or later, that’s just a fact we all have to face, but you want to control when your book hits the internet. Once it does, there’s no going back.

I have a “First Draft Team” so-to-speak, commonly know as Beta readers. And each of them provides a different perspective and type of feedback. Together they have proven invaluable to me.

They are;

1-My wife…’cuz I ain’t stupid.
2-An expert on the subject that I’ve written about. (This is the only person that changes with every book, and it’s usually someone that I’ve met during the research phase.)
3-An avid reader of thrillers, someone who devours the type of books I write.
4-A young reader, preferably in their late teens.
5-A fellow writer.
6-A spelling and grammar expert.

Once the copies are out there, it’s time for a much deserved break. I try not to even think about the novel for at least a month, and I don’t look at the returns until they are all back. This is usually a weight-loss period as I ride my bike more, play with the kids, and hit the beach every day. I also make it a point to get lost in someone else’s work. I’m basically clearing my head, so I have a fresh perspective when all those copies find their way back to me.

When they do come back, you can expect the majority of the feedback to be along the same lines, and a lesser amount to be conflicting. That’s where my wife comes in. If one reader thinks that a scene should go one way while another thinks the opposite, I look to her for guidance. I’m very lucky as she’s a careful reader, who pays attention to the details. She’s usually the last person I go to, and since she’s close by, I don’t have to actually read her copy, unless she wants me to see something in particular. She understands that everyone on the list before her suggested changes ,and what I need her opinion on is how well the changes were made.

The first person I read is the fellow writer, as he always writes me a great overall critique to go with his return copy. I’ll read the critique first, before settling in with the teenager’s copy. This is simply because his view results in the most overall changes. From there it’s the avid reader, the expert, the fellow writer, and last comes the spelling and grammar copy. My wife acts as a sounding board, while all this is going on, and the result has always been a solid second draft. If I feel I need further input, I’ll run it past the avid reader and/or the fellow writer a second time.

Once I have a manuscript that I feel is ready for my editor, I make a final outline, write a short proposal, and send the whole mess off to her with fingers crossed. From there on, it becomes a complicated process that’s better left for another time. See my blog posts.
That’s about it. If I think of any other tidbits, I’ll try to add them in down the road. What I’ve described is simply what’s worked best for me, and if it helps anyone even a little bit, then it was worth the time. Everyone needs to find their own process, so my advice is to pick out what works for you and discard the rest. I wish you all good luck.

There are a million books out there on how to write well. Some of my favorites are listed here;

On Writing by Stephen King
How to Write the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman
Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss
The Elements of Style by William Strunk




Chapter One: A sniper hiding at a wooded suburban intersection shoots and kills a prominent lawyer / He leaves behind an envelope, before evading the police, and calls his brother-in-law as he travels.

Chapter Two: FBI agent Jack Randall is called at home by his boss and dispatched to the scene of the shooting. / His wife does not approve. / Jack’s partner/subordinate/ex-girlfriend (Sydney) is sent to join him. / The shooter (Sam) arrives home and he’s picked up by his brother-in-law (Paul).

Chapter Three: Jack discusses the shooting with his team, as they travel to the site of the shooting. / Jack’s team is introduced. / Paul performs some tasks related to the shootings, while he waits for Sam to wake up.

Chapter Four: A full copy of the letter left by Sam at the site of the shooting.

Chapter Five: Jack investigates at the site of the shooting, while Sydney and her forensics team work on the body and the car. / Jack and the team all meet and put together what they know.

Chapter Six: A young and ambitious reporter (Danny) catches Jack at the site and gets some pictures. / Sam spends the night alone in his daughter’s bedroom. / Deputy Chief of staff Charlie Parker meets with an influential Senator regarding an upcoming crime bill introduced by the White House.

Chapter Seven: Danny meets the police chief’s secretary for breakfast and pumps her for information. / Sam and Paul depart the house and report to a doctor’s office, where Sam undergoes chemotherapy for his cancer.

Chapter Eight:  A world champion boxer contemplates his next and last bought in Las Vegas. / Sam flies the red-eye to Vegas. / A Los Angeles gang leader also heads for Vegas to watch the impending match / Sam visits a storage facility previously stocked by Paul and retrieves several deadly items.

Chapter Nine: Sam visits a hobby store for a missing item he needs. / The champion plans to throw the fight. / Sam shadows the gang leader around Vegas. / Sam uses a device to bug the gang leaders hotel room.

Chapter Ten:Sydney goes over the forensic evidence in her basement office at the FBI. / Jack reports to his boss on their progress. They discuss the killer’s possible motives and why he addressed the letter to Jack. / Paul conducts research, and he and Sam discuss their plans over the phone.

Chapter Eleven: Sam plants a tracking device, on the gang leader’s car. / Danny convinces his editor to let him follow Jack and his team around the country. / Sam listens and then follows some gang members in their car. He plants his newly assembled bomb under the car. / The fight commences, and Sam follows the gang leader. No opportunity presents for him to detonate the device without collateral damage.

Chapter Twelve: Sam follows the gang leader to the airport the next morning is able to detonate the bomb in a construction zone. He mails a copy of the letter to Jack by way of the gang leader’s hotel room / Jack is called in from his beach house and activates his team. /  His wife is not pleased. /Sydney is awakened from the couch in her basement office. She inventories her forensics gear in preparation for Vegas.

Chapter Thirteen: Jack,Sydney and the crew fly to Vegas. While enroute, Sydney theorizes from the police report that the killer may be a professional shooter, but it is an amateur bomber with a conscience. / Jack receives news that the letter was also sent to several major newspapers. / Paul records news coverage of the event before moving to the garage and constructing a silencer for Sam’s use.

Chapter Fourteen: Sydney and her team arrive at the forensics lab of the LVPD, where she meets an old friend and mentor. They begin work on the forensic evidence. / Sam travels through the remote desert. Finding a remote area he stops and zero’s three rifles he retrieved from the storage unit. He drives on toward California.

Chapter Fifteen: A serial killer prepares to leave his cell for the courthouse. / Jack investigates at the site of the bombing. He meets Eric, the computer wiz son of the local police chief. /Sydney and her friend autopsy the body’s from the car. They find a tracking device that wound up in one of the bodies.

Chapter Sixteen: Jack and the police chief walk through the airport. / Danny spots Jack and shadows him. Jack traps Danny in a meeting and they exchange contact information leaving Danny confused. / Jack and the team meet late that night and discuss their progress. Jack pushes the team hard for results.

Chapter Seventeen: Sam scouts locations around the courthouse before visiting a Home Depot for some needed supplies. / The serial killer is taken from his cell for another trip to the courthouse. Sam gains access to a building and makes preparations.

Chapter Eighteen: Jack and Sydney go over the information they have in their respected hotel rooms.

Chapter Nineteen: The serial killer arrives at the courthouse and Sam manages to kill him with an impossible rifle shot. / He leaves a letter in the room. / An escorting police officer is wounded. Sam escapes but is seen leaving the scene by a woman.

Chapter Twenty: Sam disposes of more evidence and drives out of town headed for Vegas. He talks to Paul and they discuss the witness. / Jack is awakened by his pager and learns of the shooting inLos Angeles. / Jack calls Danny and informs him they are moving toLos Angeles before leaving.

Chapter Twenty-One:Sydney wants to recruit Eric after seeing his computer skills. / Jack game-plans their approach while the team fly’s to LA. / Jack observes the shooters position while the team gathers what information they can. / Jack and Danny make eye contact at the scene. / Danny waits for Jacks next call.

Chapter Twenty-Two: Sam lays in his daughters bed in grief. He examines items that belonged to her and his wife before being called downstairs by Paul. / They discuss the news coverage and Danny’s reporting. They add him to the list of people receiving the letters.

Chapter Twenty-Three: Jack and the team meet and discuss what they have so far. Jack reluctantly informs his boss it is very little. Jack decides to return to DC. / Sam reports for another round of chemotherapy. / Danny writes another article before returning toOrlando.

Chapter Twenty-Four: Sam flies toFt. Myers,Florida in pursuit of an athlete who had killed his wife. / Sam attends a sports memorabilia event and learns of an auctioned prize that is a round of golf with his intended target. / Sam scouts the golf course community where the event will be held.

Chapter Twenty-Five: Sam, posing as a real estate buyer, gains access to the club community and picks a vacant house to shoot from. / He visits another pre-stocked storage facility and retrieves some items, stopping at a few stores for additional equipment. / Jack and his exhausted team fly back from Vegas. A fax comes in with important information but is pocketed by a member of the team without the others knowledge.

Chapter Twenty-Six: Jack calls the team in late and with the help of an FBI psychologist they form a new plan to catch the killer. / Sam gains access to the house early and shoots the athlete in his golf cart. / Jack is informed of the shooting.

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Jack meets with his boss to discuss the new approach he wishes to take. His boss approves. / Jack calls Danny and gives him a tip. / Sam calls Paul and they agree he’ll go straight to the next target. / At Sydney’s insistence, Jack agrees to recruit Eric.

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Sam travels toward and reviews information on his next target; a white supremacist leader. / Jack makes contact with a paranoid friend at the NSA who agrees to use some tracking software to assist Jack. / Eric experiences his first day at the FBI where Jack gives him a secret assignment.

Chapter Thirty: Sam scouts out the site of an impending Klan rally before constructing another explosive device in his hotel room. / Eric’s assignment produces results. / Jack mobilizes the team forMemphis. / Sam plants his bomb on the stage the night before the rally.

Chapter Thirty-One: Jack and the team fly to Memphis and Jack outlines his plan. / Sam watches the crowd as the rally progresses. He spots Jack and his team. /  Danny arrives, he watches and waits. / Jack gives Sydney and Eric a lesson on counter-sniping. / Sam detonates his bomb as the leader speaks on stage. / Danny gets a picture of Jack standing over the body of the Klan leader.

Chapter Thirty-Two: Sam cusses himself for not killing the Klansman. He looks for options to finish him off. Paul tries to calm him down. / Jack fumes as he knows they are close. He waits to talk to the Klan leader when he wakes up from surgery. / Sam enters the hospital in disguise and shoots the Klansman in his bed. / A security guard allows Sam to escape.

Chapter Thirty-Three:  Jack and Sydney pursue Sam out of the hospital. /Sydney mistakenly fires on Jack in a dark parking garage. / Sam escapes but is seen by Jack at a distance. / Jack talks to his boss about Danny’s article and the missing information. / Jack discovers a traitor on his team. / Jack combines the missing information with what they have.

Chapter Thirty-Four: Flashback: A much younger Jack is part of a sniper team led by Sam in the jungle of Panama. Jack shoots and kills a drug trafficker and secures a place on Sam’s team. / Jack admits to knowing Sam.

Chapter Thirty-Five: Jack and the team conduct a raid on Sam’s home. Paul is captured but refuses to talk. / Jack consults Sam’s doctor and learns of Sam’s cancer as well as the death of his wife and daughter at he hands of a habitual criminal.

Chapter Thirty-Six: Sam drives north out of Memphis before booking a hotel room. He awakes to find himself the leading story on television. He learns of Paul’s capture and changes his travel from north to east. / Danny sees the story and is sent to DC by his editor. / Sam tries to buy a van but it is given to him by a sympathetic veteran.

Chapter Thirty-Seven: A New York mobster prepares for court. He sits in a wheelchair and fakes a stroke before leaving the house with his lawyer. / Sam waits outside the courthouse in the van waiting for his chance. / The mobster is found guilty to Sam’s surprise and he leaves the city with mixed emotions. / Sam drives to a remote farm in the Virginia mountains and meets his old First Sergeant. He confesses everything.

Chapter Thirty-Eight: Jack interrogates Paul until Paul makes a slip and stops talking. / Jack believes Sam may be targeting the President. / Sam’s First Sergeant drops him off in Baltimore and Sam takes a cab into DC.

Chapter Thirty-Nine: Jack and Sydney return to DC with a pile of evidence from Sam’s house. They sift through it looking for any clue to Sam’s plan for the President. / Jack phones his boss and makes arrangements for the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team to be ready. / Sam arrives and checks into two rooms at the Holiday Inn DC on the hill. He then walks the Mall, leaving a package in a convenient trashcan.

Chapter Forty: Jack informs the Secret Service of the threat but the President dismisses it and plans to go forward with the State of the Union address. / Sydney and the crew continue to sift through the mountain of paper. / Eric works at cracking Paul’s computer. / Charlie Parker cuts a deal with Senator Harper for passage of the crime bill. / Sam looks down on the Capital building from his hotel room.

Chapter Forty-One: The team continues to work on the evidence and the computers. / The President travels to the Capitol building without incident. / Eric cracks the computer safeguards and gains total access.

Chapter Forty-Two: The speech ends and the President leaves to return to the White House. / Sam remotely triggers the explosive in the trash can. / Senator Harper and his staff are locked out of the Capitol building and they head for the Senate Office building next door. /Sydney discovers that Senator Harper is the real target. / Jack joins HRT as they helicopter to the Capitol building in search of Senator Harper. / Sam watches for the Senator through his scope, he spots Jack as he repells from the helicopter.

Chapter Forty-Three: The President makes it to the White House safely. / Sam continues to scan the crowd around the Capitol building for the Senator. His pain distracts him. / An ambulance crew waits for the event to be over. / Jack gets a call from Sydney and heads for Sam’s hotel.

Chapter Forty-Four: Jack enters the hotel and loses contact with Sydney. / Jack races upstairs till he is outside the room designated by the HRT snipers. / Sydney and the team look for possible escape routes. / Jack screams Sam’s name just as he fires on the Senator. / Jack begins kicking at the hotel room door. / Sam leaves by the adjacent room door and descends by way of the stairs. / Jack kicks open the adjoining room door to find an empty room and is fired on by HRT. He is forced to stop until he can call off the snipers before pursuing Sam down the stairs. / Sam enters the hotel basement and finds a service tunnel leading to the subway. / The medics respond to the shooting.

Chapter Forty-Five: Jack enters the lobby and briefly interrogates the desk girl. /Sydney calls and informs him of the service tunnel. / The medics work to save Senator Harper. / Jack finds the tunnel and follows Sam.

Chapter Forty-Six: Sam enters a subway line and moves on to Union Station. / The medics start for the hospital with a badly wounded Senator. / Jack reaches the station and meets some DC police. He makes contact with Sydney who gives him possible destinations from Paul’s computer. / Sam changes his appearance and heads for the New York shuttle.

Chapter Forty-Seven: Sam waits for the train as Jack arrives at the top of the stairs. He scans the crowd looking for Sam. The doors open and people begin to board. / The medics continue to work to save the Senator. / Jack spots Sam as he enters the train and sprints down the stairs to catch it as it pulls away. He jumps and makes it, but loses his radio.

Chapter Forty-Eight: Sam moves through the cars to the front of the train. He sits right behind the driver and fights the pain in his gut. / A short conversation with an elderly couple clears his mind. / Jack moves forward clearing the cars of people as he goes. / HRT moves to intercept the train. / The Senator’s heart stops.

Chapter Forty-Nine: Jack reaches the first car and makes eye contact with Sam. He refuses to go and Jack clears the car until they are alone with the driver. They talk. / Sam fires through the front glass and orders the train to stop. / The train stops and the panicked driver holds the transmit button on her radio down. / The medic works to re-start the Senators heart

Chapter Fifty: Sam and Jack talk as Sydney and the team listen in. / HRT surrounds the train. / The medics re-start the Senators heart and arrive at the hospital. / Sam vomits blood in severe pain. / Sam empty’s his pistol out of Jacks view. / The medics bring the Senator into the trauma room where his heart stops again. / Jack continues to try to talk Sam down. / The trauma team cannot save the Senator and he dies on the table. / Sam stands and thanks Jack before pointing the empty pistol at him. The HRT snipers kill Sam before Jack can stop them. Sam dies.

Epilogue: With help from Jack Danny enters a maximum security prison and visits Paul. After some thought, Paul finally agrees to tell Sam’s story.