Reader Friday: Tense and Person
Does it matter whether it’s first or third person?
Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”
Reader Friday: Tense and Person
Does it matter whether it’s first or third person?
Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”
When it comes to pure storytelling, is there a company doing better than Pixar? Pixar Animation Studios is a Disney subsidiary based in California and, since 1979, has produced some of the best-ever, film-presented stories. Part of Pixar’s success was thanks to early influence from George Lucas’s vision and Steve Jobs’s money, but much of their ongoing success comes from 22 storytelling rules Pixar writers religiously follow.
Toy Story. Finding Nemo. Dory. The Incredibles. Wall-E. A Bug’s Life. Monsters, Inc. Cars. And now Luca, to name just a few. What these blockbusters have in common is storytelling. Pure storytelling. But storytelling that follows Pixar’s rules.
Here at the Kill Zone, we have storytelling in common. Whether we’ve got our writing hat on or our reading hat off, at the end of the day, on the bottom line (insert your own concluding cliché here), we all love good stories well told. Must be something in our ancestral DNA.
Let me go around the Kill Zone room and spec out people’s storytelling style / rule adherence. (Sorry if I miss one or more of the usual suspects, but there’re only so many musical chairs at this party.)
Let’s see. Gonna start with JSB. Jim’s a crime guy, now working on a great hardboiled series starring Mike Romeo and HB has genre rules that Jim well knows, but probably breaks. Terry writes mystery & romance series. Same with her, she probably rule breaks. Debbie? She’s into action mysteries, I’d call them. John cranks out high octane thrillers; reportedly doing well. Kay and Ruth are traditional cozy gals with rules of their own while Deb does tall tales and short stories of redemption. Dale. Where’s Dale? He’s got his niche in empowered library cozies which, I’m sure, has its unique genre rules.
Joe’s retired from the contributing mill but always has time for an insightful and highly intelligent comment. Plus, he’s first to get up in the morning. Dr. Steve is building a legacy with middle-grade fantasies while Harald writes about Neanderthals who could be plucked straight from the Canadian Senate.
Sue—your crime works are so bloody powerful that if they get any stronger you’ll need to be institutionalized. Harvey writes right across the board. He’s, by far, the most prolific among us, and I think should be tested for meth. And Reavis Z is in a league all his own, making up rules as he writes along, and up there with GOATs like Brady.
Yeah, we’re a diverse pack, us Kill Zoners. But we’re storytelling fans and creatives at heart with one more thing in common. We understand there are storytelling rules. (I think it was Somerset Maugham who said, “There are only three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”)
And we’re a delinquent bunch here at the Kill Zone. As much as we respect “the rules”, we know rules are supposed to be broken. Provided, that is, we know what rules to broke and do so intentionally at potential peril of killing our darlings.
Pixar calls BS on the 3-rule crap. They have 22 rules their screenwriters follow, and they’re generous enough to share these storytelling rules with us lowly novelists.
What got me going on this post was a piece on Jane Friedman’s site the other morning titled Why Write This Book? The contributor, Jennie Nash, opened by stating that in 2013 Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats wrote down the 22 rules her collaboration team used to generate content—Academy Award-winning content. Ms. Coats shared them on Twitter, to which they went viral, and are now quoted so often that they’ve taken a life of their own. In no particular order, here are Pixar’s storytelling rules (guidelines, if you’d like):
1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Kill Zoners — What Pixar storytelling rules hit home to you? And what rule or rules could you add to the Pixar list? Don’t be shy. Let us know in the comments!
Garry Rodgers is a retired murder cop and coroner who specialized in forensic death investigation. Now, Garry’s reinvented himself as an indie crime writer working on a new hardboiled detective fiction series titled City Of Danger.
Outside of crime-style storytelling, Garry Rodgers hosts a popular website and blog at DyingWords.net. Garry’s also a Transport Canada certified marine captain. Sometimes he putts around the Pacific saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island at British Columbia’s west coast.
Amazon A+ Content
Recently, Amazon, in an unusual gesture to all indie authors, not only those participating in its “Select” program, opened what it calls A+ content to anyone using KDP to publish. Previously, only traditional publishers could use the feature.
What is it? It’s content that appears on the book’s detail page on Amazon, and provides additional information, allowing authors to give potential readers a deeper look at the author and their work.
Curious (or procrastinating work on the WIP?), I gave it a look.
Amazon has its own “how to” but I thought I’d run through my experiences here. Note: I’m not much of a techie, but I’m willing to try new things. This post is more of a starting point than a tutorial.
Here we go:
(Click on any image to enlarge.)
From your KDP Dashboard, click the “Marketing” tab at the top.Scroll down to the A+ Content section, and click the down arrow for marketplace. I stuck with Amazon.com for starters, but if you don’t choose one, you can’t move on. (You have to do this every time you come back to work on a project.)
Then, click the Manage A+ Content button right below the marketplace.
On the next screen, at the far right, there’s a “Start creating A+ content” button on the right. After trying other options, such as searching for an ASIN, or even plugging in an ASIN, I found this to be the most efficient.
I suggest studying their module examples. They’re not completely user-friendly, but they are a good starting point for how each module works. Just beware. Every module has its own set of rules as to what you can add and where it has to go. Their suggestions aren’t always the best for what you want to do. I’ll go into this in more detail later in this post.
Then, you click the “Add Module” and the fun begins. For starters, it’s best to stick to no more than three. For “branding” purposes, I am using my website header from the “Standard Company Logo” Module for all the content I create, although I had to resize it to the required 600×180.
My advice is to start with something simple. I chose two of my stand alone books, Heather’s Chase, and What’s in a Name? to practice on.
For Heather’s Chase, I used the standard company Logo, the Standard Single Left Image, and the Standard Multiple Image Module A.
What I learned. The multiples images in the last image don’t show up all at once. To see the text for each, the reader has to hover the cursor or tap.
When you click the “Add Module” button, you’ll see a bunch of choices, all about dogs. Not much help for genre fiction writers. Also, each module has an image size “recommendation” which means, “this is the size we accept.” Trouble is, except for the standard logo module, you don’t see sizes until you select the module. There’s not a lot of flexibility here, at least not that I found, so my advice is to use a photo editing program to size your images to the same dimensions each module allows. I use Canva or Photoshop, depending on the image I’m starting with. The aspect ratios of book covers mean you’ll have to get creative.
Using Canva, I create a template of the acceptable dimensions and work from there. This is what I did for Heather’s Chase, where the image size was 300×300. The cover image alone wouldn’t have worked, so I added the background.
After having my two stand alone projects approved, I decided to move on to a series. I tried to use the Amazon-suggested module for a series, thinking I’d use it on one of my box set pages. My plan was to have it show on the box set book detail page, with images and short tag lines for each of the 3 books in the set, so readers would know what was included.
My troubles: The image size template is 150×300, which creates a tall, skinny book. Since the entire book shows, I thought I could deal with it. Because I was required to include the ASIN for each image, the finished product would show up on the book detail pages for the box set AND the three novels it includes, which I didn’t want. After much discussion with KDP reps (who are still learning how all this works), I ended up abandoning that project. This is what it would have looked like, had I been able to convince the program I only wanted it to show on the box set page.
I chose the Standard Single Image & Sidebar module. There are two places for images in that module. One was 300×400, and the other 350×175. Again, I went to Canva for a quick way to create images with the book covers that fit those dimensions. Then, it’s a matter of plugging things in and filling the blanks.
ASINs: Although the field says “search” it’s much more efficient to copy your ASIN into that box and hit “Enter.” It should bring up the book, and it’ll tell you if it’s eligible. It should be, so you click the “Assign” button.
Once you’ve done this, you can still go back and edit, but you’ll have to hit the “Assign” button again every time you want to move forward. The program remembers the ASIN, but it’s not intuitive that you need to click that button every time you want to make forward progress. You can’t jump around in the steps.
I was satisfied with my Mapleton Mystery results, and this one was approved quickly, so—what the heck?—I created one for my Triple-D Ranch series using the same format. I’m working on book 4 now, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to have something more detailed on the pages for the first 3. When Book 4 comes out, I’ll go back and edit.
When you add an image, you have to assign keywords. If you remove the image for any reason, the keywords disappear, too, so it’s a good idea to have them written somewhere you can copy and paste instead of retyping.
You can create the modules in any order and then use the up and down arrows to move them around.
Amazon has to approve all content, and it can take a week.
The content appears on the page under “From the Publisher” so readers have to scroll down a bit to see it, but at least it’s not the last item on the page. It should show up right after the “Also Bought” carousel.
If you want to see how it looks “in action”, you can find one here.
Overall, the editing process is cumbersome. I don’t think there’s anything I can say here that will eliminate trial and error if you want to give the content creation a go.
Once you’re satisfied, you click Review and Submit, and then wait for Amazon to give the thumbs up or thumbs down. So far, all of mine have been accepted.
Has anyone else here used A+? Have you found an easier way to do it?
To those of you observing Yom Kippur, G’mar chatima tova. And may you have an easy fast.
By Debbie Burke
Like the weather, we talk about it a lot but can’t do anything about it.
Remember the original Nancy Drew books? I devoured 37 of them before outgrowing the series. From the first book The Secret of the Old Clock (1930) until #37, The Clue in the Old Stagecoach (1960), Nancy was 16 to 18.
Thirty-seven adventures in two years? Busy young lady, that Nancy.
But she started me thinking about writing series characters.
Can they stay the same age through numerous books?
Should they age?
That raises more questions when writing a contemporary series with continuing characters.
What kind of character arc can an author create if the hero doesn’t age?
Is an evolving character arc important to today’s readers?
How does an author keep characters fresh and interesting if they remain approximately the same age over a number of books?
Classics like Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple remain basically static; the plots change but the characters don’t.
Then there is the quintessential hard-boiled hero, Philip Marlowe.
Although I don’t believe his specific age is ever mentioned (please correct me if I’m wrong), the reader has the strong impression that, at birth, Marlowe was already old and cynical.
Over two decades, starting with The Big Sleep (1939) and ending with Playback (1959), Marlowe was repeatedly beaten up, double-crossed, and betrayed. His life remained solitary with occasional sexual encounters that didn’t end well. The tarnished knight won a few victories but ultimately lost the war against evil. As vivid and memorable a character as he was, he didn’t change much, except for more scars. (Note: I’m not counting Poodle Springs, Chandler’s unfinished novel completed by Robert B. Parker and published in 1989 where Marlowe married, at least for a little while.)
How would readers react to Arthur Conan Doyle, Dame Agatha Christie, or Raymond Chandler if their books were released today?
Contemporary readers seem to lean more toward series characters who go through ups and downs similar to those we face in real life.
In James Lee Burke’s series, the beleaguered Dave Robicheaux moves from New Orleans to New Iberia, switches jobs, falls off the wagon and climbs back on, gains and loses spouses and friends, and adopts a child who grows up through the books.
Readers meet Kinsey Milhone at age 32, with a police career and two marriages already behind her. In the course of Sue Grafton’s 25-book Alphabet Series, Kinsey has her home blown up and rebuilt, loses her beloved VW convertible, discovers the roots of her absent family, falls in and out of love several times but remains determinedly single. In the final book, Y is for Yesterday, she is 39.
Judging by their popularity, readers relate deeply to characters like Dave and Kinsey. We’ve been in the trenches beside them as they live through the same life trials that we ourselves do. They become close friends we’ve known for years.
What do series authors need to consider when time passes and their characters age?
When I wrote Instrument of the Devil in 2015-6, I didn’t envision a series. The book was set in 2011 as smartphones were transitioning from exotic toys for geeks into phones adopted by ordinary people. Because of a new smartphone, my character Tawny Lindholm stumbles over her milestone 50th birthday and into a nightmarish world of technology. Unbeknownst to her, it has been rigged by a terrorist to launch a cyberattack she’ll be blamed for.
The book was published in 2017, six years after the story takes place.
Near the end of Instrument, a brilliant, arrogant attorney, Tillman Rosenbaum, came on scene to defend Tawny. He was intended as a minor walk-on character. However, the match and gasoline chemistry between him and Tawny propelled them into more books where she goes to work as his investigator despite her dislike for him.
[Spoiler alert: they ultimately fall in love. But you’d already guessed that, right?]
What I originally conceived as a one-off had longer legs than anticipated.
Then, in 2017, Hurricane Irma struck Florida and knocked out power to 16 million residents.
The event tweaked my writer’s imagination. Reports of people who mysteriously went missing during that storm, along with scary personal experiences related to me by family and friends, turned into Dead Man’s Bluff.
After drifting along a vague fictional timeline starting in 2011, all of a sudden there’s a real date that’s set in stone. Uh-oh.
Okay, I figured from now on, I’d just make oblique references to Tawny’s age. Her children are in their thirties. Let readers infer she’s somewhere in her fifties.
As often happens with writing, life had other plans.
Can an author ignore monumental events that tilt the world on its axis?
Not unless you write alternate history.
For much of 2020, writers debated how to handle the pandemic in current fiction. If it was incorporated into the plot, readers who were sick of it might be alienated. If we tried to ignore it, hoping it would go away, we risked being perceived as unrealistic and insensitive. (Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?)
Some authors attacked it head-on with thrillers about biological weapons or adventures in a post-pandemic, futuristic, dystopian world.
Some retreated in time to historical genres where major outcomes—like who won the war—had already been determined.
Others dove into fantasy genres where the author, not real life, decided the outcome.
Now in the last quarter of 2021, the world changes faster every day. What you wrote this morning may well be obsolete and out of date by this afternoon.
The sixth book in my series, Flight to Forever, is set in spring of 2020. When a Vietnam veteran can’t visit his beloved wife in a memory care facility because of pandemic restrictions, in desperation, he busts her out, seriously injuring two employees during the getaway. They flee to a remote fire lookout in treacherous Montana mountains. Tawny races to find them to prevent a deadly showdown between the cops and the vet who has nothing to lose.
Do the math. If Tawny was 50 in 2011, that made her 59 in 2020.
Uh-oh, I really should have hired a stunt double for her in this book.
Even though 60 is the new 40, will readers find some of the action implausible for a woman her age?
Many people in their 70s and 80s are in fantastic shape. Recently I wrote an article for Montana Senior News about the Senior Olympic games where nonagenarians are setting athletic records.
Yet ageism lurks in the world of publishing and literature.
Especially about sex.
Many younger readers are creeped out by the notion that characters who are their parents’ or grandparents’ age enjoy sex.
Newsflash, kid—that’s how you got here. And, since you grew up and moved out, it’s even better.
How about physical wear and tear on characters?
Remember classic TV westerns like Gunsmoke? Whenever Matt Dillion got shot (reportedly more than 50 times), in the final scene, he’d be back in the saddle with one arm in a sling. By the following episode, he resumed life as usual—galloping horses and engaging in fisticuffs.
How realistic should series fiction be? How far will contemporary readers go to suspend disbelief?
If we put our lead characters through hell, in the next book, should they suffer from PTSD or physical disability?
What if you write middle grade or young adult books? Every year, there’s a new crop of readers to replace older ones who’ve outgrown a series. Perhaps MG and YA characters don’t need to age. Nancy Drew did all right. What do you think?
For now, I’ll keep writing Tawny and Tillman in their fifties and hope no one checks my math too carefully.
Or maybe I’ll let them drink out of Nancy’s fountain of youth.
Question for series authors: how do you handle age and the passage of time with continuing characters?
Have you found workarounds, tips, or tricks?
Question for series readers: Do you care about the main character’s age? Do you want to see evolution and change in them over time?
To follow series characters who age more slowly than the calendar, please check out Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion.
Other online booksellers:
Please help me welcome back a dear friend and talented storyteller, Steven Ramirez. The last time he guest posted on TKZ he discussed Pantsing Through the Pandemic. Today, he’s sharing his experience with— Well, I’ll let him tell you…
Recently, I took a break from writing fiction to focus on screenwriting. Currently, I’m adapting my latest novella, Brandon’s Last Words, as a feature screenplay.
If you’re wondering why anyone in their right mind would take on something like this, it’s simple—I live in LA. Trust me, you can’t swing a dead cat at Starbucks without hitting a screenwriter huddled at a corner table, determined to crank out the next Black Widow.
Okay, that’s partly it. The other reason is, I wanted to see if I could do it.
The novella is a prequel to a new thriller series. It takes place in the same universe as another of my series—only this time, with new characters. For those who have written a screenplay, you already know you need a log line. Here’s what I originally wrote for the novella:
Brandon Wheegar has just joined a secretive government-funded lab as a security guard. Why did no one warn him about the murderous test subjects?
That’s not bad. The question is, does it work for a movie? We’ll see. Of course, there’s plenty of other stuff to worry about. For this post, I’ll focus on three lessons learned.
As fiction writers, we are keenly aware of story beats. They’re hammered into us starting in the womb. I’m tempted to joke that our friend James Scott Bell has beat that concept to death, but it would be low-hanging fruit, so.
The point is, screenplays need beats, too. But these are different and immutable. And without them, you effectively have something that is not a screenplay.
There are lots of resources out there that can teach you about screenplay structure. For simplicity’s sake, here are the high-level story beats, courtesy of Syd Field:
This scene brings the main character into focus. Without this beat, there’s no story.
FIRST TURNING POINT
What happens here sends the MC off on a new path, similar to the Hero’s Journey.
This is where things get interesting. Maybe the MC makes an important decision that changes the course of the story. Or they realize that what they thought was the truth isn’t.
SECOND TURNING POINT
This scene moves the character from conflict to resolution. The MC has a plan and intends to execute on it.
Often, these events bring physical and emotional closure. In Hero’s Journey terms, the MC returns home and shares what they’ve learned.
Now, there are many other elements you should layer in to make a killer screenplay. If you want to see a more fully realized story beat list for some well-known movies, check out Save The Cat.
When writing a novel, I include lots of characters. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve got a little Russian blood in me. In my case, the names don’t all sound the same, though. Anyway, I take this approach because my main characters tend to travel far and wide.
Unfortunately, you don’t have that luxury when it comes to screenplays—unless you’re Quentin Tarantino.
Because a script is a blueprint that tells the producer how much money they must spend. And the more characters, the more the above-the-line costs skyrocket—things like actors’ salaries, hair, makeup, and snacks.
My novella has a fair number of supporting characters. And they serve the story well. But for the screenplay, I had to find a way to either cut or combine characters. Which brings to mind that most famous of advice, which admonishes the writer to kill your darlings. Most people attribute the quote to Faulkner. But, in fact, it was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote, “Murder your darlings.”
Now, he was talking about prose. In screenwriting, you pretty much have to take out the entire family. Here’s an example. In the novella, I have a chief security officer, a head of security, and two ruthless security specialists. Each has a part to play, and in Brandon’s Last Words, it’s all good. But for the script, I realized I had to combine the two security chiefs into one character and do the same with the two specialists. And it really doesn’t matter what kind of fiction you adapt. Chances are, you’ll slice and dice like a boss.
My novella can best be described as a horror/sci-fi thriller, with some comedy thrown in. I know, I know—welcome to my world. But, like any successful novel, you should tailor your screenplay to a target market.
When I sent off my first draft to a professional reader, I got back lots of notes. Some centered on the fact that my script didn’t read like horror. I had missed essential tropes, and many of the beats weren’t right.
Rereading the work, I realized I was clinging to my original mashup. Fine for novellas, not so much for screenplays that sell. I’m rewriting now, and let me tell you something. Scripts aren’t written—they’re rewritten. You thought it was a big deal writing three drafts of your novel? Try ten—or fifteen. Yeah. Also, in the real world, once the project is greenlit, they bring in other writers to “punch up the script.” Call it insurance.
Using the reader’s notes, I took a crack at turning my story into classic horror. But I ended up losing much of the humor. Now, if I were as cold-blooded as the chemically modified test subjects who terrorize my main character, I’d continue down this path. Most of you would because it’s the smart thing to do. And after all, you’d like to make some money, right? Me, I’m a rebel. I decided I prefer the story as a comedy thriller. Who knows, I might still have a shot (he said, nursing his tepid tea at Denny’s).
Look, there are quirky films out there that defy genre. I mean, did you ever see a little movie called Naked Lunch? It was directed by David Cronenberg and based on the William S. Burroughs novel. Yeah, so you know what I’m saying. Anyway, my advice is this: If you’re serious about selling your screenplay, then, by all means, write to market. Who knows? You might end up as a big-time Hollywood screenwriter. Me, I just want to create something surprising.
We writers are well acquainted with copyrighting our work. Technically, your novel is protected the moment you put pen to paper. Unfortunately, when it comes to screenplays, there’s more to it than that. In this town, a good movie idea gets stolen faster than you can say Coming to America. The point is, register your script with the Writers Guild of America. It’s no guarantee some no-account won’t try to take your precious, but at least you have legal recourse. For more information, visit the WGA West website.
The other thing to consider is screenwriting software. There’s plenty out there, including traditional writing apps like Scrivener, which support the screenplay format. If you’re planning to make this a career, though, I suggest you purchase Final Draft. It’s arguably the industry standard. Also, when collaborating with other screenwriters, there’s an excellent chance that’s the software they use. For more information, visit the Final Draft website.
Well, that’s me done. Happy screenwriting. Oh, and wish me luck with the next Naked Lunch.
Steven Ramirez is the award-winning author of thriller, supernatural, and horror fiction. A former screenwriter, he’s written about zombie plagues and places infested with ghosts and demons. His latest novel is Faithless, a thriller. Steven lives in Los Angeles.
For discussion: Have you ever considered turning your novel/novella into a screenplay? What actor would you want to play your hero or antagonist?
Growing up in SoCal I was privileged to meet Ray Bradbury on a couple of occasions and hear him speak several times. He loved libraries, and one evening spoke at the local branch were I first learned to love books.
There he told his famous story about a meeting that changed his life. As he recounted:
One autumn weekend in 1932, when I was twelve years old, the Dill Brothers Combined Shows came to town. One of the performers was Mr. Electrico. He sat in an electric chair. A stagehand pulled a switch and he was charged with fifty thousand volts of pure electricity. Lightning flashed in his eyes and his hair stood on end….He reached out with his sword and touched everyone in the front row, boys and girls, men and women, with the electricity that sizzled from the sword. When he came to me, he touched me on the brow, and on the nose, and on the chin, and he said to me, in a whisper, “Live forever.” And I decided to.
And Bradbury does live forever…through his books! His wonderful body of work will always be there to be discovered by new generations of readers. In junior high I read The Illustrated Man. It fired me up to think that perhaps someday I could write things this marvelous. In college that desire got knocked out of me by some who looked at my attempts and sniffed and told me you cannot learn to become a writer. You either have it or you don’t, and I didn’t.
Only many years later did that desire re-emerge, and I knew I had to try and keep trying.
Bradbury’s work was still pulsating inside me, like electricity. I picked up his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, and the current got hotter. I started living forever.
We have various reasons we write. Of course, we all want to make some dough, but there are other reasons, not the least of which is the pure joy of storytelling.
And for others (like Mr. Steve Hooley) there is the desire to leave a legacy for our children and grandchildren.
When I started to get published, I knew I wanted to write books that my kids could someday look at and not be embarrassed. Or think, Dad wrote THAT???
One of the joys of being an indie writer is that my forever books become available within 24 hours of completion (meaning done, edited, corrected, proofread and with a good cover).
But one of the challenges of being an indie writer, especially for the impatient, is putting out a book, as Orson Welles used to say about wine, “before its time.”
I recall reading a piece by an early indie pioneer who posited that maybe the idea is to be fast and not worry about top quality. To wit:
Why write longer? Why write better? What’s the benefit?…Now, I’m not talking about releasing a book with errors in it; plot problems, story problems, typos, formatting probs, and so on…I’m talking about releasing a book that would average 3.7 stars from readers, whereas if I spent an extra month on it, I could average 4.2. Seems like a gigantic waste of time.
Admittedly this was a thought experiment, and presented a rational argument. I thought about it for awhile. Then decided I couldn’t do it. For me, the extra time is worth it because…living forever!
It’s like the corpse of Sonny Corleone, shot up at the toll booth. Don Corleone has the body taken to the undertaker, Bonasera. As the Don looks at the body, he begins to weep. “Look how they massacred my boy.” He wants Bonasera to use all of his powers and skills to make the body look presentable for Sonny’s mother.
Now, this metaphor is not perfect. I don’t produce corpses upon first draft (at least I hope not!) But I do want to use all of my powers and skills to make my books the best they can be. They will be here long after I’ve gone to my Final Review.
Do you think about that when you write? What your books will mean to others—especially those close to you—after you’ve gone? Do you have legacy in mind? Perhaps not, which is okay. I’m not advocating any one position. Let’s talk about it.
Those Who Run to Trouble,
and Those Who Escape
By Steve Hooley
On this 20th anniversary of 9/11/2001, let us take a few moments to pause and remember those nearly 3000 who lost their lives on that terrible day. It is appropriate to honor the first responders, 343 firefighters and paramedics, and 60 police officers, heroes who gave their lives as they rescued others. And we must not forget that more than 2000 second responders, or Ground Zero workers, died from illnesses attributed to their time at the site, working to recover and identify the remains of those lost, helping to give families closure. Heroes all.
On this Patriot Day, a National Day of Remembrance, it is appropriate to reflect on heroes.
Heroes have always pulled us together, from the time prehistoric people gathered around the campfire to hear stories of conquest and victory, to modern day gatherings in front of the wide screen TV to cheer heroes of athletic competition. Heroes inhabit our stories, keeping readers on the edge of their seats, turning page after page to see how—or if!—the heroes will escape the traps and predicaments thrown at them.
Heroes pull us together, and they pull us into stories. We need heroes, and 9/11 gave us many of them.
Here are two accounts of true heroes from Biography.com, “Real Life Heroes of September 11, 2001:
Frank De Martini, a construction manager who worked for the Port Authority, and Pablo Ortiz, a Port Authority construction instructor, were inside the North Tower when it was hit. They survived, but instead of seeking safety they began to help people trapped on the tower’s 88th and 89th floors. Along with some of their coworkers, the two are thought to have saved at least 50 lives by opening stuck elevator doors, clearing offices, directing people to exits, and otherwise providing a lifeline amid dust, flames and obstructions. They were likely trying to come to the aid of additional people when the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 am.
United Airlines Flight 93 was the fourth plane hijacked that morning. Yet the plane’s departure from Newark Airport had been delayed until 8:41 am, and the terrorist hijackers didn’t seize control until around 9:30. The timing meant that when passengers and crew phoned their loved ones, they learned of the other attacks, and understood the hijackers’ intentions for their flight. At least four passengers — Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, and Jeremy Glick — decided to fight back and try to keep the plane they were on from becoming another destructive missile. Burnett told his wife, a flight attendant, “I know we’re all going to die. There’s three of us who are going to do something about it. I love you, honey.”
On the other end of the spectrum, 9/11 created opportunists who took advantage of the chaos and the dust cloud of catastrophe to play out their selfish deeds.
One group we will call “disappearers,” “vanishers,” or “Houdinis,” for lack of a better word, a small group of people who took advantage of the chaos and confusion to escape the bonds of their identity, then disappear, never to be heard from again.
Sneha Anne Philip was a physician in trouble. She had lost a past job for tardiness and alcohol-related problems. She was about to lose her current job. She was in legal trouble for falsely accusing a coworker of attacking her. Her marriage was in disarray after repeatedly staying out all night drinking, with accusations of leaving the bars with female lovers.
The night before 9/11, Sneha had been out all night, and had not returned by the morning of 9/11. This was not unusual, and her husband was annoyed but not surprised. Surveillance video of Sneha’s apartment lobby, showed that Sneha had returned to the lobby and was waiting for the elevator, when she suddenly left the lobby at 8:43 am, three minutes before the North Tower crash
She was never seen again.
Juan Lafuente was a vice-president at Citibank, which allowed him to keep a flexible schedule. He often attended meetings related to his work without notifying his supervisor in advance. There is evidence that he planned to attend a meeting at the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11, but his name was not on the pre-registered list, and the final attendee list was destroyed when the building collapsed.
Juan suffered from depression and was being treated by a psychiatrist.
Tracking Juan’s path revealed the time that he had used a Metro Card at Grand Central station, and showed that it was uncertain as to whether he would have made it to the World Trade Center before its collapse.
Juan was never seen again.
Jimenez Molinar was a 20-year-old “undocumented immigrant” from Mexico, who worked as a delivery boy for a pizzeria in New York. Jimenez called his mother on September 8th, letting her know he had found a new job at the pizzeria. The evening of 9/11, Jimenez’s mother received a phone call from one of her son’s roommates, notifying her that Jimenez had not come home. She received a similar call on 9/20. The caller refused to give her his name or address, because he, too, was an undocumented immigrant.
Police checked the government databases while volunteers surveyed the local pizzerias. Since most businesses that hired undocumented immigrants used fake papers, it is not surprising that no evidence of Jimenez was ever found, or even that he was in the country.
Jimenez was never seen or heard from again.
These disappearances could have been spontaneous decisions to disappear, or possibly the premeditation was already occurring, and these people jumped at the chance to use the situation for their purposes. And there is still the possibility that they were caught in the destruction of the World Trade Center collapse, even though their remains were never found, and there was no evidence they were there.
Our stories are filled with disappearances, but how many of them are the spontaneous type where preparation meets opportunity?
Heroes run toward trouble. Houdinis escape.
We discuss heroes all the time. Let’s discuss characters who disappear without a trace.
Reader Friday: Everyday Superpowers
I’ll go first: I can fold a king-size fitted sheet.
I wish I could judge the right size container for leftovers.
Repeat for one of your characters.
Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”
By Elaine Viets
I like researching a mystery. I get to ask the wildest questions in the pursuit of facts.
A helpful homicide detective answers mundane question like these:
Does my cop have enough to get a search warrant? How about an arrest?
A poison expert shares her arcane knowledge of death. I was surprised how many perilous hazards lurked under the kitchen sink or in the garage.
Sure, I can look up some of these questions online, but it’s not as much fun. I like hands on research.
Here are a few of my favorite research questions.
Can a body fit in your car trunk?
I sprung this question on a sweet, silver-haired couple who owned a Lincoln Town Car, the same car as Margery Flax in my Dead-End Job mysteries. They were in a shopping center parking lot when I asked that question. Maybe I have an honest face. Or, since they were Florida residents, they were used to crazies. For whatever reason, they obligingly opened their trunk.
Yep, the Town Car trunk was definitely big enough for a body. Two, if the bodies were small.
How do you open a locked door with a credit card?
My cousin showed me how to do this. I’m not using her name because she is definitely light-fingered. She’s especially good with cheap button locks. She demonstrated her skill repeatedly, but I belong to the fumble-fingered side of the family. I did learn that “loiding” a door is a lot harder than it looks on TV.
Can you kill a person with a wine bottle?
“Empty or full?” the pathologist asked me. She was used to my crazy questions.
“A full bottle is a better weapon,” she said. Then she gave me another tip. “If you’re looking for another way to kill a person, please don’t use the old ‘hit-their-head-on-the-coffee-table’ to murder someone. That’s harder than it looks.”
How do you defrost a dead body?
This question for Ice Blonde stumped several pathologists. I finally found one who’d defrosted an intoxicated woman who ran out the door of her home and froze to death.
He told me, “You’ll need two body bags. Use a white one if you can, and then the heavy black bag. The white makes it easier to see the hairs and fibers when the decedent defrosts. Put the person in the white body bag first, then in the heavy black bag. Keep the decedent at room temperature, about 72 degrees, so the body will thaw naturally.
“What does your victim weigh?”
“About a hundred-fifteen pounds,” I said.
“The person will take about thirty-six, maybe forty-eight hours to defrost.”
I have a fairly high tolerance for forensic details, but defrosting someone like a piece of meat made my stomach do a backflip.
There was more. While the person was defrosting, the pathologist has to check the body every two hours. The hands and feet would probably defrost first, and then the pathologist could get scrapings from under the nails. As the defrosting progressed, the pathologist would draw blood and get fluids, including ocular fluid from the eyes, and if the person was a woman, check for seminal fluid in the vaginal vault.
Had enough information? Yeah, me, too.
How do you hot-wire a car?
A friendly mechanic spent an hour giving me lessons until I could describe the process. Don’t worry. Your vehicles are safe – nothing sparked no matter how many times I tried.
What off-beat questions have you asked for research, TKZers?
Now in audio! All my Angela Richman mysteries and the first three Dead-End Job novels. Listen to them during your 30-day free trial with Scribd.
There was a time in my life when I thought I wanted to be an actor. As I mentioned in a post back in January, I was cast as Lamar in one of the world’s first amateur productions of “Godspell.” (In the picture, I’m the guy with the striped pants and socks.) Every performance was sold out. In fact, we had to add additional performances, and those, too, were sold out. My solo song was “All Good Gifts” and every performance got a standing ovation. I even got a fan letter from a freshman cheerleader–much younger than I, who, at the ancient age of 17, could not be seen fraternizing with a lower classman (classperson?). It was very heady stuff.
I didn’t think I was very good in the role, but who was I to judge, right? And what a rush! Applause was SO way more exciting than lots of speaker points from the judges of debate tournaments. I was writing stories pretty steadily even back then, and I remember speaking to my buddy Steve (he’s the guy in the yellow pants and sport coat) that maybe one day I could write a play and star in it.
The next play on the schedule was Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”–quite a pivot from “Godspell”–and I won the role of George Gibbs. Buddy Steve (who went on to a wonderful career on Broadway and later in TV commercials) was the Stage Manager. Those are arguably the two male leads in the show.
For those who are unfamiliar with the “Our Town”, the titles of the three acts pretty much describe the story, which is set in Grover’s Corner New Hampshire in 1901: Act One-Daily Life; Act Two-Love and Marriage; Act 3-Death and Eternity. George Gibbs (my character) falls in love with Emily Webb, who ultimately dies, leaving George bereft.
Yeah, the feel good play of the year.
(I hear you purists out there already, warming up your computers to tell me how superficial my interpretation of the play is, but stand down. If you read on, you’ll see that that’s kind of my point.)
In “Godspell”, I got to perform. I got to sing and dance and do pantomime, but I never really had to act. Sure, there’re the crucifixion scene, but that was designed as a scene-chewer. Plus, it was sung, and ultimately danced.
“Our Town” flipped that formula solidly on its head. That role was all acting. I was expected to make other people’s words come to life, and I had no idea what I was doing. There’s a scene in Act 3 where George is alone at Emily’s gravesite, speaking to her, and he comes unglued. This is the Big Moment of the play, and I had nothin’. Not only had I never experienced real loss–hell, even my first dog was still alive at the time–but I grew up in a family where crying was shameful.
Now I was supposed to cry in front of all my high school buddies? I couldn’t do it.
Full disclosure: I guess I faked it okay because we got more standing O’s from the audience and no one kicked my ass for my performance. (Full disclosure redux: Parents and friends are not the most punishing reviewers.)
I hated the whole experience. I hated the emotional exposure, and I hated the notion of making a fool of myself live and in color on the stage. It wasn’t the crowd that bothered me–hell, I’ve always liked a crowd. It was the notion of someone seeing behind the curtain to reveal the real me, who was far different than the me I worked very hard to project.
Did I mention that I was 17 years old?
As an aside, about 25 years later, I was on the staff of the Virginia Governor’s School for the Humanities and Visual and Performing Arts. It was a monthlong residential program where rising juniors in high school gathered at the University of Richmond with the best fellow singers and dancers and actors from high schools throughout the state. I was teaching screenwriting at the time, but we had to teach an interdisciplinary course as well, so I developed one called “Truth and Labeling” in which kids explored the differences between who they pretended to be and who they really were. The course was a big hit. Just sayin’.
So, what does any of this have to do with writing? Here it is: Just as actors have to learn to bare their emotions and their feelings to the audience, we fiction writers have to find a way to do that on the page. If the sad parts don’t make us cry when we write, and the funny parts don’t make us chuckle, then we’re just phoning in our performance, and the reading audience will see right through it.
To be believed, you need to live the moment on the page. We talk about first lines and inciting events and characterization, and all of those things are important, but none of them are as vital as true emotion spilled onto the page. On those rare occasions when you find yourself squarely in the zone, the words are flying onto the page and you know that you are channeling something raw into the characters on the page, understand that you’re flirting with your bestseller moment.
Once it’s committed to the page, save it, print it, do whatever you have to do to preserve it, and then promise yourself not to touch it. Not to edit a word. That is your heart, as recorded live and in color as it presented itself. It’s important stuff, even if you never use it in your story, because it documents you. The real you.
When you return to the WIP and you write the second (or fifteenth) draft, you can edit and change that magical piece however you want, or not at all, to fit the story’s needs, but treasure the raw source material it came from.
Now that I’m more than a few years older than 17, I think that I would like to try my hand at acting again. I have a lot more life to tap into, and after a few million words in print, I think I’ve pretty much peeled the curtain away.
That audience is very enticing. I still like the sound of applause.
Now, if I could just find a way to edit my performance live on the stage.
What say you, TKZ family? Do you have it in you to get honest on the page?