When Should A Story End?

Vincent the Lost dog with dead friend

I suppose sequels are inevitable for a writer of a certain age. — John Updike

By PJ Parrish

We’re binge-watching Breaking Bad in my house lately. I know, I know…I am the last one to the party, but now I am hooked. Great characters (and a lesson in how writers can make even the most reprehensible people sympathetic). Great plotting (and a lesson on how writers should strive to make each plot point arise organically from character).  And each episode ends with a cliff-hanger.

We’re almost to the end. So the husband and I looked at each other last night and said, “how in the heck are they going to tie this up?” And the first thing I thought was:

Please, don’t let it be another Lost.

Do you remember Lost? The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 were 1,000 miles off course when they crashed on a lush mysterious island. Each person had a shocking secret, but so did the island — an underground group of violent survivalists that made The Time Machine’s Morlocks look like teletubbies.  I loved that show, grooving on its nerdy sci-fi cum mythology thing. But somewhere around season three, things started to get…dumb. I was mentally exhausted trying to make sense of it all (what’s with the polar bear? Who cares how Jack got his tattoos?) and finally, I gave up. Plus I was too worried that Vincent the Labrador Retriever would get killed. One by one, all his owners did.

I think what happened with Lost was that it was so hot that ABC got cynical and said, “Find any way to keep it going!” It felt like the writers were just winging it, with no real thoughtful end ever in sight. (This happened with season two of the original Twin Peaks, you remember). Apparently, I should have toughed it out with Lost. Rabid fans tell me the writers found their focus again and that I missed a great payoff. Today, the series is being reassessed as break-through serial television, giving TV bean-counters the guts to take chances on great stuff like Game of Thrones and yes, Breaking Bad.

All this was on my mind the other day because I read an intriguing article in the New York Times by Amanda Hess called “The Curse of the Never-Ending Story.” Click here to read it. Hess bemoans the trend of turning stories into franchises that trudge across Hulu and populate Amazon like zombies, always alive when they should be dead.

Today, the tradition of the novel has been supplanted by that of the comic book: Stories that extend indefinitely, their plot holes patched through superpower, magic and dreams. Or maybe every story is a soap opera now: Nobody is dead forever, not Dan Conner of Roseanne and definitely not the superhero genocide victims of Infinity War. To Hollywood’s bean-counters, sequels are mere brand extensions of intellectual property. The logic of the  internet is colonizing everything.

So far this decade, 17 of the top 20 top grossing movies were sequels. Television is eating itself alive with reboots (Lost in Space, Will & Grace, and egad, Murphy Brown wearing a “Nasty Woman” t-shirt). And apparently, there are second acts in American life: Harry Potter made it to Broadway.

I am not sure what this means for us novelists. For those of us who write series crime fiction, it can be a struggle to keep our plots fresh without straining credibility. How many times can our hero get shot or beat up? How many bodies can turn up in Cabot Cove, the apparent murder capital of the world? How deep do we dig into the brains of our hero without looking like that creepy family in Get Out?

But maybe this is really in my thoughts right now for a different reason. One that I don’t want to deal with.

Back in 2015, our stand alone SHE’S NOT THERE was published by Thomas & Mercer.  I loved writing this story about Amelia Brody, an amnesiac who is convinced her husband tried to kill her so she goes on the run. It is, at its thematic heart, about what happens to your soul when you try to live an inauthentic life. It is about a woman whose past is erased, so she must painfully reconstruct it before she can have a chance at a future. When I typed THE END, I was convinced I had nothing more to say.

The problem I don’t want to deal with? I think I might be wrong.

In SHE’S NOT THERE, there was a skip tracer named Clay Buchanan who was hired by Amelia’s husband to track her down and kill her. Buchanan was one of those characters who emerge from the ether of the imagination unbidden; he was supposed to be a cameo, but he became a second protagonist. Amelia is desperate to remember her past. Buchanan is desperate to forget his. His wife and infant son disappeared ten years ago and he was accused of murdering them. He was cleared but his life was broken, especially because he lost custody of his daughter. Like Amelia, he can’t move forward until he fully confronts his past. Throughout the book, I use a devise where his dead wife speaks to him — or, in his grief, he believe she does. In one scene, he is looking at a photograph of his wife:

Buchanan stared at the photo then he looked up, into the shadows of his bedroom.

“Are you here, Rayna?”

He heard nothing.

“I need to know something,” he said. “I need to know if it’s too late.”

Still, silence.

For the first time, she is gone. But in this “man in the mirror” moment, Buchanan makes the decision that he will find out the truth about what happened to her. Until he knows for certain, he can’t move forward. This happens on page 362, the second to last chapter. When we wrote this scene, we had no intention of revisiting Clay Buchanan. I believed just having him decide to take action was enough. But then readers weighed in — often and loudly.  They wanted to know what was going to happen. They want to hear Buchanan again. They weren’t content with silence.

I have mixed feelings about this because I’ve always believed that all stories have a logical end, that you shouldn’t over-explain. I’ve always believed in the power of ambiguity, even in unhappily ever after. (I blogged HERE about it a couple years back). I believe in leaving some space at the end of a story for readers to fill in the missing pieces themselves, to imagine what a character’s life is like after they close the book. I like the idea that readers can “write” their own epilogues.

But I think I might be wrong this time. I think I might have to write a sequel.

I’m having trouble getting moving on this book. Partly is it because I don’t want this to feel forced or derivative. I don’t want this to be a soap opera. Maybe I have seen too many bad movie sequels that felt cannibalized or read too many series thrillers that felt phoned in. Maybe I am just worried because, so far, Clay Buchanan isn’t talking to me. Or maybe it’s just that I’m not listening hard enough.

My sister Kelly keeps telling me, as she always does when I am blocked, to just have faith, that we will figure it out before we’ve been there before. But with this one, we haven’t. I don’t know how this is going to turn out. As they say in the serials, stay tuned…

0

Let’s Talk About the Skeleton in the Room

By SUE COLETTA

I’ve seen way too many medical professionals in the last six months (living with rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis isn’t always easy). As Joe pointed out Saturday—beautifully, I might add—life as we know it can change in an instant. In short, remember to have fun. Laughter really is the best medicine.

One way I’ve amused myself while waiting in the exam room is by analyzing the skeleton suspended by a metal pole. You know the one … the staff usually names it Fred, or something equally common, as though the name will somehow lessen the impact of bad news.

What I find fascinating is the fact that the vast majority of doctors and nurses don’t know the sex of their skeleton, evident by the female skeletons tagged with a male name.

Determining the Sex of a Skeleton

Many differences exist between the two sexes, and the variations run as deep as our bones. This becomes especially important for corpses found in an advanced stage of decomposition. All that might remain is the skeleton, perhaps teeth, and possibly some hair. Even if the pathologist has teeth and hair to work with, that doesn’t mean enough DNA material remains to identify the victim.

This is where the skeleton offers more information. The only exception would be that of a pre-adolescent, where sexual dimorphism is slight, making the task much more difficult. Need to buy time in your story? Murder an adolescent. (Oh, no, she didn’t just say that.) Or have the killer shatter the key areas of the skeleton.

The most common way to determine a skeleton’s sex is by bone size. Not the most accurate, but it’s a starting point. Male bones are generally larger than female bones because of the additional muscle that increases on the male through adolescence and into adulthood.

Another good inclination of sex is the pelvic area.

The sub-pubic angle (or pubic angle) is the angle formed at pubic arch by the convergence of the inferior rami of the ischium (loop bone at the base) and pubis (top of loop) on either side. Generally, the sub-pubic angle of 50-60 degrees indicates a male. Whereas an angle of 70-90 degrees indicates a female. Women have wider hips to allow for childbirth.

Female

Male

There are also distinctive differences between the pubic arches in males and females. A woman’s pubic arch is wider than a male’s as is the pelvic inlet to allow a baby’s head to pass through.

The pubic arch is also referred to as the ischiopubic arch. Incidentally, this difference is noticed in all species, not just humans.

 

 

The area around the pelvic inlet (middle of the pelvic bone) is larger in females than in males. A female skeleton who has given birth naturally will be identifiable because this space widens during childbirth. Even though it contracts afterward, it never fully returns to its original size. In the picture above notice the heart-shaped space.

 

If you don’t want the pathologist to easily ID the victim, perhaps the neighborhood bear takes off with the pelvis bone. You could also have him return for the rest of the body as the coroner is examining the corpse. Talk about adding conflict to the scene! Just remember, most black bears don’t eat human flesh (in my area, anyway). So, do your homework. Grizzly bear, anyone? How about a Kodiak brown bear?

Other Body Clues

The acetabulum—the socket where the femur (thigh bone) meets the pelvis—is larger in males. Also, the head and skull have several characteristics that help the pathologist (or crime writer) determine male from female.

  • In males, the chin is squarer. Females tend to have a slightly more pointed chin.
  • The forehead of males slant backward, where females have a slightly more rounded forehead.
  • Males tend to have brow ridges; females do not.

These differences and more tell the pathologist the sex of the deceased.

So, the next time you’re sitting in an exam room, get friendly with the skeleton in the room. Who knows? You may even sell a book or two when you educate the staff. Do it nicely, though. Some medical professionals don’t like to be schooled by a crime writer, as weird as that sounds. 🙂

Wishing you all a joyous Thanksgiving!

 

7+

Why We Write

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Those of us who teach as well as write are always glad to hear that something we suggested helped a fellow scribe. I got an email the other day that I have to share. With the kind permission of the sender, here it is:

Dear Mr. Bell

I want to thank you. You helped me find something that I had no idea I had in me.

A few minutes ago, while reading your book “Plot & Structure”, I completed Exercise 1. As per your instruction, I wrote from the gut. [JSB: This is a free-form, just let-er-rip exercise, no judging or stopping, asking yourself what kind of writer you wan to be.]

The result surprised me deeply. I never knew that I could write something like that 15 minutes ago, and I never realized the kind of author I want to be.

As a thank you, I am including in this email the text I wrote. It is exactly the way I first wrote it, and I haven’t even read it myself yet:

“When readers read my novels, I want them to feel that they have just been on a journey to a new world, a different universe. I want them to feel amazed, I want them to feel like they have never read anything like that before in their lives, I want them to feel that if they want to experience this kind of suspense again, they have to read my stories. I want them to think about what they read the next day, the next year, I want the story they read to mean so much to them that they will be planning to show it to their unborn children one day. And most important of all, I want them to keep wanting more at the end.

That’s because, to me, novels are a way for me to share my soul. Novels are the sum of all that is important in life, the sum of all of the things that make us smile, laugh, cry, scream, terrified, look over our shoulders on a dark alley, everything that we hope one day happens to us. They are our hopes, our fears, our dreams and nightmares, what elevates us to heaven one day and crushes us back to the earth with the might of a thousand heavens the next. A good story is a communion, it is something that a billion people who have never met each other share, it is a way for everyone to look up to the sky, or deep inside themselves, and recognize the same truth as any person might one day realize, no matter how far apart in space or time those people might live. It is a timeless truth, it is the very fabric of our souls, it is how we recognize each other and how we recognize ourselves in others. It is what makes us, us.”

It might be terrible in the end, but it meant a lot to me.

***

JSB: That is anything but terrible. It can’t be, for there is no wrong answer so long as it has come from your deepest self. Indeed, this young man got precisely the best result because it surprised him. Self-discovery is a crucial step toward writing unforgettable fiction.

This writer has taken that step.

And so I ask you, TKZers: Why do you write?

11+

Giving Thanks

(c) Copyright Uncooked Media UK. All rights reserved.

I am going to meander a bit today. Please bear with me. I’ll get to the point somewhere in here and probably veer off again, but I’m sure you’ll understand.

I received a bit of sinus-clearing news early Thursday morning a couple of weeks ago. Let me give it to you in the manner in which my older son gave it to me, via cell phone:

“Samantha (his daughter, my granddaughter) is fine. She got hit by a car on her way to school.”

Samantha and my son live three doors and a crosswalk away from her middle school. She was crossing said street — in the crosswalk, with the light, in a school zone  — when a woman turning left struck her from the side and rear. Samantha went up on the hood of the car, rolled off, and fell to the ground. She, fortunately, landed on her side (as opposed to on a joint or, God forbid, her head). I won’t go into detail with regard to the legalities of what happened afterward as that is still unwinding (I incidentally while questioning Samantha about what happened used some of the techniques which Sue Colletta noted in her wonderful TKZ post of November 5). What is important is that Samantha is okay so far (and yes, we are keeping an eye on her) but she picked herself up, submitted to medical examinations, and went to school the next day, where she basked (probably the wrong word) in the vague celebrity that shines on someone of her age (she’ll be 12 next week) who experiences a near catastrophe and comes out of it (relatively) unscathed.

Am I grateful or thankful that she was apparently uninjured? I’m not sure. “Thankful” and “grateful are appropriate but don’t quite cover it. I don’t think I have the words. I am considering, somewhat seriously, leaving all of my worldly goods behind and joining a monastery where I can devote every waking moment to prayer and good works as a small step toward balancing the scales that tipped so that Samantha could emerge intact. There is at any given moment only a hair’s breadth between a sigh of relief and the scream of anguish that herald’s the worst day of someone’s life. The birthday party we will be having on Thanksgiving might have been spent in a hospital waiting room. Or worse.

So. Flash forward to this past Tuesday. I had been trying to think of something, some minor gesture, to uplift Samantha a bit and tilt her world away from what happened and into the right direction. I happened to be in one of the local Half-Price Books stores and passed by the magazine section. There was a space jammed with a magazine called Weekly Shonen Jump which I quickly recognized as a manga magazine. For those of you over the age of forty — and what follows is a bit of an oversimplification — manga is the general name for a Japanese comic book. It is distinguished from anime, which is what we might characterize as a Japanese animated movie. The styles of both media are the same and very distinctive. I am not a fan — it gives me a headache to read/watch it — but Samantha is a huge follower. Weekly Shonen Jump runs upward to five hundred pages an issue and reprints previously published stories. Its nickname in both its American and Japanese incarnations is “phone book,” because of its thickness. The English language version (which is what I had found) goes for a cover price of five dollars an issue which isn’t a bad price at all. The bookstore was selling the issues for fifty cents each, which is, um, even better. An extremely helpful clerk who saw me looking at the magazines directed me to another stack of a publication titled Neo, a slick-paged magazine which concerns itself with manga, anime, and Japanese video games. I bought the entire kit and kaboodle of both, dropping around ten bucks for seventeen magazines that ultimately took up most of the room in the box I needed to transport them to my car.

Samantha’s school was just letting out by then so I drove over to my son’s place and showed up at the front door with the box in hand. When Samantha got home from school, I handed the box over with the words, “For you.” She opened the box and started going through it, making exclamatory noises which were followed by the awe-struck statement, “This is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen in my life.”

(c) VIZ Media. All rights reserved.

Thankful? Grateful? Yes. My granddaughter is alive, well, and loves to read. Like I said earlier, however, I don’t quite have the words to express how I feel. I’m thankful for other things. I wake up in my own bed every morning and can put my own feet — I still have both of them. Many people don’t — on my own floor and can put on my own clothes without assistance. And I have clothes. I also have windows and doors that I can open and close at will in a house that I own free and clear in a neighborhood that is (for the most part) quiet and peaceful. If my reach occasionally (okay, frequently) exceeds my grasp, I have both arms, both hands, and ten digits with which to fail gloriously and otherwise. I also have an ungrateful and unappreciative cat who somehow still elicits the best out of me several times a day, every day. There’s food in the refrigerator and the water, heat and air conditioning works on demand. I can still work at my job and if I get tired of it I can go do something else. I have four wonderful children, who are each successful in their own way. And. I get to do this — communicate with you — which is what I am doing right now. I am thankful for you. But to have a granddaughter who loves to read and appreciates a small gift that elicits a response like the one she gave o me…as I keep saying, I don’t have the words.

Happy Thanksgiving. Please keep reading, and for those of you who fight the good writing fight, please continue to do so in order that Samantha and every child who loves to read will have great stories to enjoy for the rest of their lives. May they and you be safe for all of the remainder of their days and yours. Thank you.

10+

Reader Friday: What’s Your Favorite Emotion to Portray?

By SUE COLETTA

On TKZ, we’ve been known to beat the show-don’t-tell drum, because it makes the scene come alive. When a writer nails an emotion so perfectly, it’s easy to visualize the moment.

What’s your favorite emotion to portray?

What’s your crutch body cue that you edit out?

Care to share a favorite line or two from your WIP, published book, or from a story you’ve read that shows a vivid emotion?

Please also share the circumstances surrounding the character, so we can appreciate the emotion in the right setting.

6+

Key Ways to Give a Mystery Room to Breathe – First Page Critique – The Good Neighbor

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased by Jordan Dane

I can’t think of a better way to settle in for Thanksgiving and the holidays than with a little murder among neighbors. For your reading enjoyment–and for your constructive criticism–we have the first 400 words of THE GOOD NEIGHBOR, submitted anonymously by a gutsy author and follower of TKZ. Read and enjoy. My feedback will be on the flip side.

***

The unusual heat wave which persisted over parts of New England, long after forecasters had predicted an early end to summer, gave many of the residents an irritable disposition.

The nights didn’t bring much in the way relief to the sweltering New Englanders, who looked forward to the cooler winds from the North by this time and the promise of fishing for those by Maine’s coastline.

Tonight at 12 Rillington Lane, Kennebunk, Kaitlyn O’Donnell struggled with the heat. She tossed, turned, rolled over, then repeated it all once more.

The blending of the weather, the cicadas and that infernal scraping noise—what the hell is that, anyway?—guaranteed sleep would not come tonight.

Frustrated, she threw the thin cotton sheet back and jumped out of bed.
A half-moon in the cloudless sky enabled Kaitlyn to see without the aid of electricity and she shuffled over to the window of her bedroom on the second floor.

The scraping, it sounded like it came from…

The neighbor’s backyard.

From her vantage point Kaitlyn spotted a light in the neighbor’s yard. She assumed a battery-powered lamp.

Silhouetted against the low-light, a male figure busied himself with a shovel.

Next to the hole he dug were two oblong objects encased in a light-colored fabric.

They were the length of —

Oh, my God. Bodies, he’s burying someone!

Kaitlyn’s eyelids flared as she stared with disbelief into her neighbors yard.
The neighbor stopped digging moments later and stood erect. In a deliberate motion, he turned to face the O’Donnell home.

He’s staring at me, oh my… he’s staring…

Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins.

Kaitlyn threw a cotton nightgown over her head and ran barefooted to the hallway. “Dad, Dad,” she called.

Bursting into her parents bedroom at the end of the hallway seconds later she called again. “Dad, wake up, there’s something’s—”

The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty, the top blankets thrown on the floor but the light colored sheets were missing.

She remembered the two object wrapped in light cloth in the neighbor’s yard.

A heavy banging on the front door echoed through the O’Donnell home.

“Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…”

FEEDBACK:
Aspects of this author’s style are vivid and have set the stage for the creepiness of this introduction. The voice here has promise, but there is a feeling that the story is being rushed toward the end and the author resorts to “telling” what is happening, which diminishes the tension and pulls the reader out from inside the head of Kaitlyn. I promise you, anonymous author, that if you truly stay in the head of this horrified kid, your readers will feel the tension and may suffer a rash of goosebumps if you take your time to set up this scene through Kaitlyn’s senses.

Also, it is not recommended to start stories with the weather. Plus, the Point of View (POV) in the first line (and in other spots) is omniscient and not from the main character. This is most evident with the weather description “gave many residents an irritable disposition,” rather than focusing on Kaitlyn’s perspective of HER being irritable with the pervasive heat.

The next line is clearly not in Kaitlyn’s POV either.

“The nights didn’t bring much in the way relief to the sweltering New Englanders, who looked forward to the cooler winds from the North by this time and the promise of fishing for those by Maine’s coastline.”

But without a major rewrite, let’s take a look at how we can use the bones of the author’s story and shuffle sentences to allow the focus to start and remain with Kaitlyn.

STORY SHUFFLE:
In this intro, the author states the physical address of the house where Kaitlyn lives, but doesn’t include the State of Maine until later, after a reference to New England (a region of six states). The reader could be oriented with a quick tag line at the top of the scene to list the town and the time of day. I like using tag lines to anchor the story and reader reviews have mentioned that they like this. In a book by Tami Hoag, she used the dropping temperatures in Minnesota during the hunt for a child exposed to a deadly winter. The added tension of knowing the weather could kill the child became an effective use of tag lines that made an impression on me. So this story could start with the tag lines:

REWRITE INTRO SUGGESTION

Kennebunk, Maine
After Midnight

A full moon cast an eerie shadow of an Eastern White Pine through Kaitlyn O’Donnell’s open bedroom window that stretched onto her walls. The swaying gloom played tricks on her mind and teased her fertile imagination. When the hot night air gusted, the spindly branches of evergreen bristles scraped the side of her house like clawing fingernails, grating on her frayed nerves.

The sixteen year old girl struggled with the unusual heat that smothered her skin like a thick, dank quilt. She tossed and turned and fought her bed sheets, struggling for any comfort that would allow her to sleep. Even if she could doze off, the annoying rasp of cicadas rose and fell to keep her on edge.

Sleep would not come–not tonight. Not when something else carried on the night air.

With sweat beading her arms and face, Kaitlyn tossed the sheet off her body and sat up in bed. Without thinking, she slid off her mattress and wandered toward the open window, drawn by an odd sound that caused the cicadas to stop their incessant noise.

In this new opener, the point of view is clearly in Kaitlyn’s head and her senses show the story of her restlessness and how her mind plays tricks on her. In her current state, she could’ve imagined what comes next.

TELLING – In the action that follows, the descriptions seemed rushed to me and the author resorts to “telling” what is happening, rather than showing. The following sentences are examples of “telling” or POV issues or rushing the story.

She assumed a battery-powered lamp. (It’s not important that the lamp is battery operated. No one spying on their neighbor at night will wonder about batteries. Keep it real and stay with the mystery and tension.)

Oh, my God. Bodies, he’s burying someone! (Give time for her to see shapes and describe them. She’s only watching from the light of one lamp and the neighbor is in silhouette. How well could she see the bodies? But in this case, the author gets impatient and has Kaitlyn “tell” the reader what’s happening.

He’s staring at me, oh my… he’s staring… (Same issue of “telling” the reader. In the dark and shadows, Kaitlyn might only see his body turn toward her. She can’t possibly know that he’s staring at her. But the author should consider giving the neighbor a reason to turn, like the sound of Kaitlyn calling for her dad. Her voice and an open window could allow the sound to carry. Kaitlyn’s sense of urgency could get her into trouble before she realizes she’s alone in the house. Much scarier.)

Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins. (Kaitlyn might have a rush of chilling goosebumps caused by an adrenaline rush in the sweltering heat, but the cliched “ice water through her veins” isn’t the best word choice.)

The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty, the top blankets thrown on the floor but the light colored sheets were missing. (Would Kaitlyn notice in the shadowy room that her parents light colored sheets were missing? A scared kid would notice her parents were gone, but never do an inventory of their bed sheets.)

She remembered the two object wrapped in light cloth in the neighbor’s yard. (Here, Kaitlyn even makes a big deal of tying the light colored sheets to what she saw in her parent’s bedroom. Not remotely realistic. By rushing the ending, the author has given up details and mystery elements, like whether there is blood spatter on the walls and bed or signs of a struggle. Two people being accosted in the middle of the night by a neighbor would surely leave signs of a struggle. And–how did the neighbor get into the house? Why didn’t Kaitlyn HEAR anything if she couldn’t sleep? This intro needs work to make it more plausible.)

THE RUSHED ENDING – The ending is especially rushed. A vital part of suspense is the element of anticipation (something Hitchcock knew well). As an example of this – picture a teen babysitter creeping toward the front door with every movie goer screaming at the big screen “DON’T OPEN THE DOOR!” Once the door is open, the tension is deflated and everything becomes known. To keep the tension building, add some level of detail to build suspense.

A heavy banging on the front door echoed through the O’Donnell home. (The neighbor presumably invaded Kaitlyn’s house to attack her parents or take them to bury in his yard. Why is he knocking this time?)

“Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…” (I don’t believe it’s necessary to have the neighbor say “It’s your neighbor.” He doesn’t need to give his name, because she would know it. So the dialogue here is a bit cheesy and definitely “telling.” Another question – if the neighbor killed her parents, why stop at them? Why not take Kaitlyn too?)

KEY WAYS TO GIVE THIS MYSTERY ROOM TO BREATHE

There’s not enough plausible motivation for this rushed story. If this is a mystery, the details that are not addressed deflates the suspense in a big distracting way. How did the man take her parents from their bed? Why didn’t she hear any struggle? Are their signs of a struggle in the bedroom?

The author has a good deal of fixing that needs to occur to make this intro believable. Key ways to give this mystery room to breathe – suggestions for improving this introduction (besides the ones I wrote about above):

1.) Have Kaitlyn awaken from a drugged stupor – was she drugged or did she take cold medicine to help her sleep that could’ve distorted her take on reality or stopped her from being aware of a struggle?

2.) Had Kaitlyn’s parents been next door at a party with the neighbor and never returned home? Maybe the intro could take place the next morning when she realizes her parents never came home. Their bed is unmade. No breakfast. She rushes to the neighbor’s house and he’s not home or lies to her about when her folks left. “They went straight home, honey.”

3.) Have her file a police report with no clues on how her parents disappeared and the cops are skeptical. She begins spying on the neighbor – as in REAR WINDOW. This plot has been done before, but the idea is to create a compelling mystery that readers care about. A teen alone to deal with her missing parents.

4.) Give the girl a handicap where she is wheelchair bound and reliant on her parents for care. Who would she go to for help?

5.) Make Kaitlyn a suspect in the eyes of the police. Maybe she is a rebellious kid who’s been suspended from high school for fighting. What has given her a big chip on her shoulder?

6.) Grow the Suspect List – After this rushed intro, where would the rest of the book go? If the author made a bigger mystery of whether the neighbor is involved at all, there could be others who had motive to eliminating her parents. A fun way to create and sustain a mystery is to reveal others with motives as the story unfolds. Make a list of 4-5 individuals who are equally guilty looking. Maybe even the author doesn’t know who the real killer is until the last minute. I did this in my debut book NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM. I literally could’ve flipped a coin on which one of my 5 suspects could be guilty and I loved not knowing myself. But most importantly, having more than a crazy neighbor (who admits to guilt on the first page) allows the story plot to breathe and twist and build to a climax.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?

2.) Can you suggest other plot twists than the ones I listed in my summary?

3+

The More The Merrier: J.T. Ellison on Publishing Anthologies

photo by krista lee photography

Author J.T. Ellison doesn’t just write USA Today and New York Times bestselling novels, and short stories. She’s also co-host of an Emmy-winning literary television series called A Word on Words, and is the owner of the independent Two Tales Press.
She’s wearing her publisher/editor hat on her visit here today. In addition to publishing a large number of her own new and backlist short stories at Two Tales Press, she’s edited and published two themed, multi-author, short fiction anthologies–DEAD ENDS and A THOUSAND DOORSthat contain the work of some pretty incredible writers.
J.T. and I debuted at ITW’s Thrillerfest together about a million years ago, and haven’t lost touch since.
Welcome, J.T.!
Given that you’re widely and prolifically published with traditional publishers, what led you to start your own press?
Honestly, you did! I loved what you and your husband, Pinckney Benedict, were doing with your small press anthologies. I was honored to participate in 2 of them, and I saw just how cool the process was. I had a number of short stories, published and unpublished, that I had the rights to. I pulled them together in a small collection, made a cover, and published it on Amazon. It was never really meant to turn into a side project, it was simply a way to monetize some creative. I was surprised by how easy it was, and how quickly it sold. I fear I am an impatient sort, and I greatly dislike rejection, so instead of submitting subsequent stories to the normal channels, I just started popping them up for sale.
Then, I had a standalone novel that didn’t sell, and I had to think long and hard about this process. Indie publishing was taking off, and since I’m the entrepreneurial sort, I decided to publish it myself.  I also began the process of revising my first, unpublished novel to appear in a bundle put together by the divine Brenda Novak, with the express thought that I would eventually publish it myself as a prequel to the Taylor Jackson series. I hired an assistant, knowing it was going to take a lot of effort to put out two novels myself. We started building the major and necessary infrastructure — accounts with Ingram and Baker & Taylor for printing and distribution, online accounts with all the channels, establishing library contacts, finding editors and artists.
Of course, the universe is a funny place. During this process, the standalone received interest from a traditional publisher, then my publisher expressed an interest in the series prequel. I am always going to default to traditional publishing for novels, and so I accepted both offers.
But I had an infrastructure built, and nothing to publish. I debated opening Two Tales for submissions, and quickly walked away from that idea. I know there is awesome work out there that deserves a home, but I want to be a writer, not a publisher.
Anthologies, though, don’t pose the same commitment as being responsible for someone’s livelihood. I knew I could raise awareness for some underrepresented voices as well as share the stage with some major talent. It felt like a good fit, a win-win for all involved.
It’s not about making money for me. It’s about how I can help raise awareness for a multitude of voices at once. It’s my way of giving back.
You’ve done two anthologies, DEAD ENDS and the newly-released A THOUSAND DOORS. Tell us where the ideas for each came from.
DEAD ENDS came out of a class I taught several years ago. I gave my students several photographs as writing prompts, and one was this über creepy house. And I’ve always said you can give ten writers the same concept or photo to write about and get ten different stories. I set out to prove my thesis. Every writer was given the same photo, and there were two rules — the house had to be in the story (the story didn’t have to be in the house) and it had to be set in the south. No story was alike; it was absolutely perfect!
A THOUSAND DOORS was different. Since 2007, I’ve been carrying around the concept of a young woman who is murdered, and as she dies, experiences all the lives she could have led. I’d planned on writing it myself, but something always got in the way. I finally realized I needed help, and the idea for the anthology — which is really a novel — was born.  The structure of the main character living multiple lives lent itself perfectly to having multiple authors on the project. It’s like a TV show — I was the show runner, and the authors my writing room.
I built some parameters for each story (specifically that the character, Mia Jensen, was a certain height, a certain natural hair and eye color, that she had to make a choice in the story, hear a loud noise, and have a ringing phone, all of which tied specifically to the real life she was living), shared the series of lives I’d envisioned but also opened the door to other ideas, and boom goes the dynamite.
Did you consider a traditional route for your anthologies?
For DEAD ENDS, no. It was meant to be a jumping off point for Two Tales, especially if I changed my mind and decided to publish other authors (which I’ve considered several times, but see being responsible for livelihoods, above.)
For A THOUSAND DOORS, I debated it. My assistant had moved to another position and I was left to do all the heavy lifting myself. In retrospect, I probably should have all-stopped and given it to my agent to try and sell, but I’m stubborn, and I thought I could do it. I didn’t realize just how much work it would entail, because the scope of this one is bigger than anything I’ve ever attempted myself, but every time I see the book reviewed, every time I see it on a shelf, every time it pops up in a Twitter feed, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction that I truly made something from scratch. It’s a very powerful feeling.
How did you select contributors for each of your anthologies?
I am blessed to be surrounded by incredibly talented friends. I’m also a big reader, and there are writers I absolutely love who I wanted to participate. For DEAD ENDS, I reached out to some people who’d given me a break when I was first starting out, begged some friends whose profiles were high enough to make an impact, and asked for stories from a couple of new to me authors, too.
For A THOUSAND DOORS, I went top shelf, all the way. It’s such a high concept, I knew I needed exceptional authors  who were also bestsellers to help me realize the goals. The story was so close to my heart, and I wanted it to feel as real and organic as possible. I tapped an all-female team of powerhouse writers and upcoming stars, and I felt like the voices all meshed perfectly.
What do you enjoy about editing anthologies?
Having a concept executed by authors much more talented than I. But it’s more. There is nothing I love more than a reviewer who says they’re going to go try the authors in the anthology, or they hadn’t ever heard of this writer or that one before but plan to fix that. I love introducing my readers to new books by great writers — these are the ultimate sampler albums.
You’ve done audio for both anthologies. How did that work?
I actually wasn’t planning to do audio for DEAD ENDS,  but a narrator who’d read it reached out and offered to work with me on it. She even went so far as to record two stories for me as a sample of her work. We then worked in ACX to get the entire manuscript recorded. It was a lot of fun. I did another project with her through ACX, too. Only one problem. Audio is expensive! Really, really expensive. And ACX sets your price, so the controls you might have with another format are gone. It makes it less-than-cost effective.
Knowing I was going to have a hard time putting together an audio budget that would work for A THOUSAND DOORS, I opened the door with my agent to a traditional audio sale. Happily, Brilliance Audio bought the rights and we will be releasing early next year. I can’t wait to hear Mia come to life.
What is the most challenging part of being a small publisher?
The time it takes to make sure all the details are handled. Every day, something pops up that I need to handle. When there’s a full publishing team, each division has its responsibilities and you can manage those aspects easily. When you’re the publisher, and you’re a one-woman shop, like I am, it’s all up to you. You are all the departments — editing, marketing, advertising, art, sales, distribution, PR, oh, and writer, too. To do this properly–and I refuse to do anything less–means sinking a lot of time and money into the project. I love the control, but I don’t love how much time it takes away from my work.
*Since you’ve been in the driver’s seat on anthologies before, Laura, I’d love to hear your side of this process as well. What do you think worked well for A THOUSAND DOORS? What advice would you give to authors who want to try putting together anthologies?
Thank you for having me back to THE KILL ZONE! It’s always a pleasure.
TKZers! I’ll address J.T.’s question in the comments. Have you contributed to, edited, or published anthologies? What was your experience? As a reader, do you enjoy sampling stories by many writers in one book?
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author J.T. Ellison writes standalone domestic noir and psychological thriller series, the latter starring Nashville Homicide Lt. Taylor Jackson and medical examiner Dr. Samantha Owens, and pens the international thriller series “A Brit in the FBI” with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Cohost of the EMMY Award-winning literary television series A Word on Words, Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens.
4+

SATURDAY EVENING POST – 200 Years of American History

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

When I was a tot in the 1950s, my grandmother lived with us. She smoked Raleigh cigarettes and saved the coupons in her top dresser drawer.

Raleigh cigarette coupons could be redeemed for gifts, keeping smokers loyal and addicted.

The scent of tobacco and Yardley’s English Lavender mingled in a rustic perfume that belonged uniquely to her.

Looking back, I realize how much she influenced me to become a writer. In her clipped British accent, she read Mary Poppins and Dr. Doolitle to me, awakening a love of books. She introduced me to the romance of storytelling as she related her own exciting teenage adventures, like the time she stole a boat and sailed from England to Spain

She also subscribed to the Saturday Evening Post, which she used to teach me to read.

Each week when the magazine arrived by mail, we’d sit in her bedroom and giggle over the cartoons. Hazel was my favorite and became the basis for a popular 1960s TV sit-com starring Shirley Booth as the wise-cracking maid who was smarter than her bosses.

Today, the Saturday Evening Post has endured when most print magazines have disappeared.

Recently the Post unveiled their new website that includes every issue all the way back to 1821. The task of scanning and digitizing tens of thousands of pages took nine years.

For $15/year, subscribers receive six current issues plus access to nearly two hundred years of history. I just subscribed as a fond trip down memory lane because of my grandmother.

However, the deeper I delved into the Post’s archives, the more I realized what a valuable resource this could be for writers of historical fiction. Nearly two hundred years of American life are collected in one convenient location. I soon got lost in bygone eras.

Below are a few ideas how the Post archives can enliven your historical fiction:

Language: Reading prose written during your chosen era helps you better capture the particular phrasing, jargon, and speech rhythms of the time.

In an example from 1821, a fanciful story features a talking mirror warning readers about vanity with this snippet of dialogue:

“How many charming creatures have I spoiled, and made beauty the greatest misfortune that could befal [sic] them! . . . Alas, why was I made a Looking glass?”

Contrast that flowery style with the terse dialogue from Alastair MacLean’s 1960 short story, Night Without End:

“From now on, Zagero, you and Levin ride with a gun trained on you!” Mason snapped.

Setting details: Illustrations for architecture, building styles, and period home furnishings add authenticity to your story world.

Creative Commons

 

I was drawn to advertisements for home appliances from the 1950s, recalling brands like Kelvinator and Hotpoint, and refrigerators in a choice of colors like pink and turquoise.

 

 

Employment: In the 1910s and ’20s, many ads featured motor oil, tires, and batteries, reflecting industrialization as society changed from carriages to automobiles. A character living in Ohio then might work at the Timken Roller Bearing Company in Canton or manufacture Grande Cord tires at the Republic Rubber Corporation in Youngstown.

Styles: Fashion illustrations in the Post showcase clothing, shoes, and hairstyles of each era. In 1927, a female character might straighten the seam lines on her Realsilk hosiery while her husband shines his stylish Selz shoes.

1929 Ford 5AT Tri-Motor N9651-Wikimedia Commons

Transportation: In the span of two hundred years, horse-drawn carriages and stagecoaches were replaced by trains and steamships which gave way to airlines like Pan American and Trans World Airways. Automobile ads from the early twentieth century feature now-forgotten brands your characters might drive, like Hupmobile, DeSoto, and LaSalle. Or they might fly on a Ford Tri-Motor.

Health/Medical: In the 1960s, ads for Chesterfield, Pall Mall, and Viceroy played counterpoint to feature articles like “Crash Effort for a Safer Cigarette” from April, 1964. By the 1990s, the Post’s focus had shifted to breakthrough medical developments, with nary a cigarette ad to be found.

Warning: resist the temptation to pack in too many details simply because you don’t want to waste the research. Use only as many as are needed to capture the flavor of the era.

Perspective: By reading Post issues prior to a major historical event, the author can find insights into what precipitated the event.

I found one example in a cautionary article from 1900 by a young member of the British Parliament named Winston Churchill. He warned that a complacent citizenry and a weak, underfunded military could lead to future conflicts. His predictions came true in 1914 with the Great War. By 1940, he became Prime Minister and led the Allies against the Axis in World War II.

Political Issues: Letters to the editor illustrate why people believed and thought the way they did at the time. They voiced opinions based on how certain topics affected them that day, without knowing what was in store in the future. Articles, bios, and op-eds from the Post can lend authenticity to the attitudes of your characters during a given period.

For instance, in early 1960, the Post interviewed then-candidate John F. Kennedy. At the time, Pope John XXIII mandated a total ban on birth control. When JFK, a Catholic, was asked about his position, he stated: “Our government does not advocate any policy concerning birth control here in the United States.”

Letters to the editor expressed concern that JFK’s Catholicism would sway his political direction. In the 1960 election, separation of church and state was considered a critical issue.

By 1962, that concern was overshadowed by the Cuban missile crisis. As Americans stockpiled canned food and built backyard bomb shelters in anticipation of nuclear attack, JFK’s religion faded into a non-issue.

Authors and readers of historical fiction have foreknowledge. We know the North won the Civil War. However, story characters in 1860 can’t know that. Character A may feel optimistic about a certain event while character B views that same event with trepidation. The difference in opinion amplifies conflict between A and B. Plus, the reader feels an added layer of tension, knowing that event will soon lead to the bloody battle between the Union and the Confederacy.

Obviously, I fell way down the vast rabbit hole in the Saturday Evening Post archives. I’ll be back for more visits to the archives that refresh memories of my grandmother as well as tidbits about bygone days.

 

TKZers, what are your favorite historical references? Does reading about history tempt you to write about it?

 

 

 

Please check out my thriller Instrument of the Devil, on sale for $.99 until November 15 on Amazon.

4+

First Page Critique: Titan’s Fall

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is entitled Titan’s Fall. My comments to follow. Enjoy!

Title:  Titan’s Fall

Steel gears grind overhead along thin aluminum girders. A red glow illuminated the gray cinder block wall to my right. The weighted anodized-pistol warms my palms. As I wait for the targets to line up, two questions rotate on heavy cycle: Why did my brother have to die? And, will Ms. Reddington remember I prefer chocolate cake over spice this year?

The panel next to the speaker box embedded into the wall beeps and ten cardboard birds drop down from the ceiling. According to my father, the gaming system is the latest in target technology. I wouldn’t know. My siblings and are allowed to leave the compound. The birds’ tails flash red, blue, and green. It doesn’t matter how quick they move or in which direction, blue is always first. I adjust my stance and squeeze the trigger. One by one, the targets return to the rafters.

GAME OVER.

“Kade Maddox,” Mother’s voice shrills from the intercom. “Upstairs! Now!”

My eyes flick to the red START button. Two-tenths of a second and I’ll have beaten the high score. Perhaps I can squeeze one more–

“Double-time, mister. Your father and I have to leave.”

But you just got here?

My dress shoes squeal along the glossy anti-static tiles as I sprint across the open atrium to the staircase. Spotless glass gleams all around me. Like the gaming system, the three-story, fully-staffed house in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains is supposedly hi-tech. Again, I wouldn’t know. My brother’s unexpected death changed a lot of rules.

“You promised this time would be different, August,” Mother barks. I press my back against the wall and lean closer to the door. The smell of Ms. Reddington’s overly-peppered roast beef mixes with chlorinated-air of the basement.

Father sighs. “He has been here two years longer than–”

“Don’t say his name.”

Comments:

Overall, I really enjoyed this first page. The first paragraph in particular combined just the right amount of description, intrigue and character. I thought the character’s voice was already compelling and that the humor as well as the anger and grief came through effectively, particularly in the first few paragraphs. I liked how the mystery of the brother’s death is introduced – although it did get a little confusing as we don’t really know why his death changed a lot of rules or who Kade’s mother and father are talking about in the final paragraph (I assume his brother?).

At times it was also difficult to picture the whole setting – for instance why would the air of the basement still be mixing with the kitchen aromas after Kade has gone up the stairs and through an atrium and (possibly) up another staircase? I was thrown by the reference to ‘dress shoes’ as I wasn’t sure why Kade would be wearing them to target practice. I am also assuming it is a typo in the paragraph beginning ‘the panel’ that Kade and his siblings are  allowed to leave the compound (I’m assuming it should be that they aren’t). As we always emphasize, authors should be vigilant for these kind of typos as they do have a nasty way of sneaking in and staying in!

Overall, my main recommendation would just be to add a tiny bit more in terms of background so the reader isn’t confused by some of the off-hand references to the compound or ‘supposedly’ high tech features. Just a sentence or two might help ground the reader. Are we talking a dystopian society here? What ‘rules’ were there before Kade’s brother’s death? If they could leave the compound before, what was the outside world like? What level of tech is there? and where are Kade’s mother and father going (especially since they just got here according to Kade)?

However, these are all relatively easy fixes that help ground the reader in the novel, and overall I thought this was a very promising start to a novel. TKZers, what advice would you give our brave contributor?

2+

Writing About Experiences You’ve Never Had

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Ted Fox, USMC

One hundred years ago on this very day, the armistice ending the “war to end all wars” was signed just outside the city of Compiègne, France.

World War I, as it is now known, was a bloodbath, an unleashing of horrors heretofore unknown by humankind. From machine guns (“the devil’s paintbrush”) to phosgene gas, technology had overtaken military tactics, resulting in a massive scale of death.

One of those was my great uncle, Frederick “Ted” Fox, a Marine. He died in the Battle of Belleau Wood and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The longest book I ever wrote was the historical, Glimpses of Paradise. It begins in 1916 Nebraska and ends in early 1920s Hollywood. In between is a World War I sequence that was the result of intense research.

Which raises a natural question: how do you write about experiences you’ve never had? I’ve never been to war. Does that mean I can’t write about it? I obviously didn’t think so when I wrote Glimpses. So here’s what I did: 

  1. Extensive reading. I found some books deep inside the downtown branch of the Los Angeles Public Library that were priceless first-hand accounts of World War I battles. I also spent hours in the microfiche room, going through newspaper accounts of the same.
  2. I connected my emotions. I believe that if we’ve made it past forty or so in this life, we’ve experienced every emotion there is to a greater or lesser degree. While I have never felt the fear that a soldier feels on the eve of battle, I have felt the fear of dying. The same physiological response is there, and by extrapolation I brought it to the characters in the book.
  3. I looked at a lot of pictures of battlefields, soldiers, weapons and so on. I wanted to be soaked in them, so I could write with that soaked feeling.
  4. I had an expert review it. I showed the battle pages to someone who knows warfare, and got some notes for changes.

How about you? Have you ever written way outside your experience? What did you do to get it right? Please tell us in the comments!

And please pause a moment this Armistice Day to honor those men who gave the last full measure of devotion for our country a century ago.

Also, my film professor son alerted me to a new documentary by Peter Jackson about soldiers in World War I. The talented Jackson took old, herky-jerky silent film footage, digitized it and used computerization to connect the frames and make all the movements natural. Then he colorized the footage.

The stunning result is a view of The Great War as we have never seen it. I hear it will blow you away. Here’s the official trailer:

5+