The Basics of Endings

By Joe Moore

Here at TKZ, we often talk about advanced writing techniques that go well beyond the basics. And because of that, there’s always something here for everyone—wannabes and bestsellers. I have not been writing for very long. My first book was published in 2005. Because of that, I haven’t forgotten what it wdeadend1as like to know little about writing techniques—I had a story or two struggling to get out of my head and that’s all I cared about.

When I consider the many basic tips I wished I’d know back then, I find a strong desire to share what I’ve learned. Not that anything I suggest should be taken for gospel, but some of this stuff actually works.

So many most new writers stumble and fall out of the gate. It’s why so many manuscripts fail to get published or even get considered for publication. And a lack of appreciation for the basics is a huge source of frustration later on when things aren’t clicking. There are no magic beans or silver bullets in dealing with the basics. And despite some urban legends, you won’t be initiated into a secret society of published authors with a special secret handshake. The basics are just that: basic concepts on which to build your story without letting anything block the flow of your creativity.

Today I want to discuss the basics of creating endings.

It’s obvious that a strong ending is as important as a strong beginning. Your reader should never finish your book with a feeling that something was left hanging or unanswered that should have been completed. It doesn’t matter if the ending is expected or unpredictable, it shouldn’t leave the reader with unanswered questions. You don’t want to wind up with a dead ending.

Oftentimes, beginning writers don’t successfully bring all the elements of a story together in a satisfying ending. There’s no real feeling of accomplishment at the end. Your readers have taken part in a journey, and they should feel that they have arrived at a fulfilling destination. This is not to say that every conflict should be resolved. Sometimes an open-ended conflict can cause the reader to ponder a deeper concept, perhaps an internal one. Or a more obvious reason to have an unresolved conflict is to suggest a sequel or series. But something has to occur that will give your readers the feeling of satisfaction that the journey was worth the investment of their valuable time and money.

There are a number of basic methods you can use to make sure your ending is not a dead end. Consider ending with a moment of insight. Your character has gone through an internal metamorphosis that causes her to learn an important life-lesson. Her growth throughout the story leads up to this emotional insight that makes her a better or at least changed individual.

Another technique is to set a series of goals for your main character to work toward and, in the end, are achieved. Naturally, the harder the goals, the more satisfying the ending will be for the character and the reader.

The opposite of this technique is to have the protagonist fail to overcome the main obstacle or goal in the story. The ending may not be a happy one for the character, but he can still experience an insight that is fulfilling for the reader. An example of this would be a character who truly believes that riches bring happiness only to find that true fulfillment comes with the loss of material wealth. In the end, the goals of becoming rich are never met, but he is a better person for it.

You might choose to end your story with irony. This usually occurs when the character sets out to accomplish a goal and expects a certain result only to find in the end the result is exactly the opposite. A con artist tries to pull off a big scam only to be conned and scammed by the victim. There’s an old saying that the easiest sell in the world is to a salesman. Watch The Sting.

How about a surprise ending? There’s probably never been a bigger surprise ending than the movie The Sixth Sense. A kid keeps telling a guy that he can “see dead people”. Well guess what? He sees the guy because the guy is dead. There were audible gasps in the theater at the ending of that one.

As you decide on an ending and begin to write it, think of the summation an attorney makes right before the jury goes into deliberation. The final verdict will be whether the reader loves or hates your book. Or worse, feels nothing. Present a convincing argument, review all your evidence, and walk away knowing you’ve done all you can to get the verdict you want.


Max is back! Coming this Spring, Maxine Decker returns in THE TOMB from Sholes & Moore. #1 New York Times bestseller Brad Thor calls Sholes & Moore one of his favorite writing teams.

How I Discovered A Cozy Voice

Those of you who have been hanging around this blog for a while may know that I became a fiction writer somewhat by accident. Back in the 90’s, I started writing Nancy Drew mysteries when a college buddy-turned-editor invited me to submit a story proposal for the series. When my editor friend moved on in her career, I stopped writing. I remember having vague notions back then about trying to write a manuscript on my own, but the idea seemed too intimidating. Without my editor friend as a Spirit Guide, I was at sea.  

In 2003, I got RIF’ed from my job as a corporate writer. In retrospect, being laid off was the best thing that could have happened. With the blessing of a supportive spouse, I used my copious spare time to write the manuscript I’d been dreaming about. 

I had a main character in mind for my story and a rough outline, but I struggled to find a “voice.” Writing in the Nancy Drew voice had been relatively easy, because Nancy already had a voice. My first attempts at finding my own voice failed miserably. Everything I produced sounded dry and flat, like it had been written by the journalist I once was. My main character came across as angry and slightly bitter. Completely unappealing.

For inspiration I started binge reading mysteries. Like Ariel’s song in The Little Mermaid, I hoped to hear a voice that would rescue me from the sea. One day I pulled a mass market mystery off the shelf and started skimming. This book sounded different, I discovered. It sounded funny. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just discovered the world of cozy mysteries and “chick lit”.

I can write like that, I remember thinking. From that moment on, writing in a brand new voice flowed smoothly. My character Kate became a little bit like Nancy Drew, if Nancy had gained weight and developed a potty mouth.

Nowadays I still struggle to find the right voice for any new project.       The first time I tried to write something darker than a cozy mystery, I floundered around again in search of a new “sound” for the narrator.

I wonder if developing or changing voices is as much of a challenge for other writers as it is for me. Please share your experience in the Comments.

Do we need Gatekeepers?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Recently the concept of a ‘gatekeeper’ seems to have become a pejorative term for the agents, editors and other players in the traditional publishing world. With the advent of ‘indie’ publishing we’ve seen a lot of negativity surrounding the concept of ‘gatekeeper’ and for some, I think, the concept itself seemed outdated and irrelevant. 

I’ve come across two recent posts, however, defending the ‘gatekeeper’ – one by author Chris Pavone (see In Praise of Editors, Agents and every other Gatekeeper in Publishing) and the other by book editor Daniel Menaker (see The Gatekeeper. In praise of publishers who move readers and units) and they raise some interesting points in praise of the profession. I do believe that my own books benefited from the rigour imposed by this ‘gatekeeper’ model (both in terms of books acquired and not acquired:)). Along the way I always felt my writing improved from each round of revision and feedback. That of course, doesn’t have to happen within a traditional model – there are many fine independent editors who can apply just the same level of rigour to an author’s work (I just haven’t used them so I can’t really speak to this experience). 

I thought it would be interesting to get your take on both these ‘defences’ of the gatekeeper model and to see how TKZers felt the current state of the industry helps or hinders authors in terms of both curating the best work possible and getting readers to connect with writers (and books) that they might enjoy. There’s no doubt in my mind that the book world is now an incredible crowded one – one that I personally find hard to navigate as both a reader and a writer.

So what do you think?
Is there still a place for the traditional gatekeeper model? 

The 5 Laws of the Fiction Reader

James Scott Bell

Without readers a writer has no career.
There are other reasons people write, of course. For therapy. For fun. For their family. Out of boredom. In prison.
But most writers write to share their stories with the hope of some financial return.
When asked what kind of writing made the most money, Elmore Leonard replied, “Ransom notes.”
Outside of that particular genre, professional writers swim in the free enterprise system, which usually involves two parties: seller and buyer.
The writer is the seller, the reader is the buyer. The product is a book. Or a story.
And in order for this exchange to work, the buyer must like the product.
In order for this exchange to become a lucrative career, the buyer must love the product.
Which brings me to the 5 Laws of the Fiction Reader:
1. The reader wants to be transported into a dream
Fiction writers often hear from agents and editors that a reader wants an “emotional experience” from a novel. Or to be “entertained.”
True, but I don’t think those go far enough. What a reader really and truly longs for is to be entranced. I mean that quite literally. The best reading and movie-going experiences you’ve ever had have been those where you forgot you were reading or watching, and were just so caught up in the story it was like you were in a dream.
It’s like one of my favorite shows as a kid, Gumby. Remember Gumby and Pokey? (If you want to keep your age a secret, don’t raise your hand).
My favorite part of any episode was when Gumby and his horse jumped into a book, got sucked inside, and became part of the story world. I wanted to do that with the Hardy Boys. Jump in and help Frank and Joe solve the mystery.
The point is, when you read, you want to feel like Gumby, like you’re inside the story, experiencing it directly.
Hard to do, writer friend, but who said great writing was easy? Maybe a vanity press or two, but that’s it.
When I teach workshops I often use the metaphor of speed bumps. You drive along on a beautiful stretch of road, looking at the lovely scenery, and you “forget” that you’re driving. But if you hit a speed bump, you’re taken out of that experience for a moment. Too many of those moments and your drive becomes unpleasant.
One reason we study the craft is to learn to eliminate speed bumps, so the readers can forget they’re driving and just enjoy the ride.
2. The reader is always looking for the best entertainment bang for the buck
In this, readers are like any other consumer. If they are going to lay out discretionary funds on something, they want a good return on that investment. Their judgment is based on expectations and experience. If they have experienced a writer giving them wonderful reading over and over, they will pay a higher price for their next book.
If, on the other hand, a writer is new and untested, the reader wants a sampling at a low price, or free. Even then, however, they desire to be just as entertained as if they shelled out ten or twenty bucks for a Harlan Coben or a Debbie Macomber.
That’s a challenge all right, and should be. But here’s the good news. If a reader gets something on the cheap and it enraptures them, you are on your way to a career, because of #3, below.
3. If you surpass reader expectations, they will reward you by becoming fans
Fans are the best thing to have. Fans generate word of mouth. Fans stay with you.
So your goal needs to be not just to meet reader expectations, but surpass them.
By doing everything you can to get better, write better. To do what Red Smith (and NOT Ernest Hemingway) said. You just sit down at the keyboard, open a vein, and bleed.
That’s not just romanticized jargon. It’s what the best writers do, over and over again.
So what if you don’t reach that high standard with your book? No matter. You book will be better for the trying, and you’ll be a better writer, and you next book will be better yet.
Jump on that train, and stay on it.
4. Readers want to feel a connection with authors they love
Which in the “old days” meant maybe sending a fan letter and getting a note in return; or going to a book signing and getting a hardcover signed and saying a few words to the author.
Now we have tweets, and Facebooking, and blogs, and email. Different ways for readers to feel connected to their favorite writers.
Which is really what social media is about. It’s social, not marketing, media. Do it well and you build up a community and when you have something to offer, you will have earned the right to do so.
5. Readers need stories, so supply their needs
In fact, we all need stories. Stories are what keep a culture alive, as opposed to being on life support. Stories shape us, the best ones for the good, like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Long Goodbye. The former is literary, the latter is genre, but it’s elevated genre, it has something to say that’s deep, and in this era of 50 shades of dreck and dross, there’s a crying need for books that elevate the soul, which can be done in any genre, even horror (just ask Koontz or King).
Obey the law! And readers will thank you with a fair exchange of funds.

A Note to My Future Self

Image courtesy of Nuttakit at

I am frightened of three things: 1) spiders; 2) heights; and 3) senility. The first I take care of by calling for my wife or younger daughter to dispose of the demon spawn as quickly as they can. I avoid the second whenever possible. The third…that’s what we are going to talk about today.

A number of our readers, writers and non-writers alike, are getting up there in age. We wouldn’t have it any other way, I assure you, when one considers the alternative. I would venture to say that all of us, if not all, have family members, loved ones (those are sometimes mutually exclusively groups, but that’s a topic for another time) and acquaintances who are experiencing or have experienced the beginning of the long cognitive fade. I’m not talking about occasionally being unable to place a name with a face, misplacing the car keys or cell phone, or forgetting an appointment or task. I’m referring to repeating questions or stories several times within a period of a few minutes; failing to recognize an immediate family member or member of the household, frequently getting lost in one’s home or other familiar surroundings, or finding oneself in a place with no recollection of getting there; to name a few. The most terrifying aspect of this for me is that people so afflicted often seem to be blissfully unaware of what is occurring. I’ve had some experience: literally all of the members of my paternal blood line going back two generations died in the grip of some form of senility or dementia, and all would have denied that there was anything wrong with them.

I don’t know what my situation will be if or when the same happens to me. I have decided, however, that I want at least some warning, other than people telling me second-hand stories of what I have and have not been doing. I have accordingly taken the step of leaving notes to my future self. The Google Calendar is wonderful for this, though I am sure that there are plenty of other apps that will do the same job to a greater or lesser extent. I am 63 right now (yes, yes, I know, you don’t believe that someone of my youthful appearance, virility, and mental acuity is 63, but it’s true! No I do not need the original VigRX male enhancement pills or any other enhancement!); commencing on January 1, 2019 I have left a notation, repeating weekly, asking myself if I am 1) missing appointments; 2) forgetting important dates; 3) getting lost; and 4) having people tell me that I am asking the same questions and/or telling the same stories over and over.  I have also noted that if the answer to any of these questions is yes I need to seek medical help immediately. I close with a message from my (by then) younger self. I don’t know if this will help, but it’s a step, if I need it.

If you are of a certain age, are you doing anything like this as a hedge against what might be inevitable? Do you know of anyone who is? Or are you not worried about it?

Reader Friday: Are Messages Poison?

“I try very hard to stay away from the word ‘message,’ because I think it’s poison in fiction. I think you tell your story and then the reader gets to decide what he or she will learn from your story. And if they don’t want to learn anything from it, that’s their choice.” – Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge To Terabithia, in an interview on NPR

Agree or disagree?

First Page Critique – FORBIDDEN

Jordan Dane

Our first 1st page anonymous submission for 2015 is FORBIDDEN. I’ll have my feedback on the flipside. Enjoy.


Voices of excited Middle Eastern travelers echoed throughout Samarra’s crowded airport. A large man bumped into Eliza and muttered, “Laanah aleiky.” (damn you). She cringed and turned her back to the frenzy. 

Her knowledge of the Arabic language and Islamic culture drove home the risk she was taking – travelling alone in a country with a history of treating women harshly.

Habitat For Humanity has requested Eliza meet fifteen American volunteers at Samarra’s International Airport. United Air was now overdue. After another hour, she again checked the airport’s arrivals digital board. ‘United Air 719 – DELAYEDFriggin hell, they’re almost two hours late. Eliza fidgeted with her hijab (head scarf).

As she gazed at ‘DELAYED’, a vision overshadowed the surrounding clamor. Bloodied bodies, flames in a dark void and screams impaled her with waves of horror. She barely contained a shriek. Stop it, just friggin stop it! A sense of foreboding urged her to run. Find the next plane out of RIPT and get the hell back to Dubai.

“Breathe,” she whispered. She inhaled and exhaled slowly. “Again.” She shivered as the vision faded. Thank God I can easily control those damn visions.

Certain her odd behavior glowed like a neon sign, she scanned the long concourse for a dark and quiet alcove, or a bathroom. Nothing close. She turned her back to the perceived prying gazes and walked to a bank of floor to ceiling windows.


Lights of the tarmac and runways glowed. She listened to a jet’s engines roar as it reached takeoff speed. The last departing flight to leave the Republic of Islamic States and Provinces (RIPT) disappeared in the night sky like a homesick angel.

Trapped. She gasped. Her anxiety soared out of control. One of her strongest triggers erupted. Wild eyed, she watched as a void swallowed a family standing beside her. Her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) psychosis began its torment. A horrific memory surfaced, seized her body and mind.

Instantly, her mind switched to the horror of four years ago. She fought against a seatbelt. It pinned her to the driver’s seat of her van. Screams of desperation. Her sons, Nathan and Noah engulfed in flames, still alive. Oh my God, my boys ….

She restrained a shout for help. No, no, no. I’m at the airport. I’m waiting for American friends. The floor swayed. She grabbed a window’s pillar, closed her eyes.

1.) The first paragraph is too brief to fully set up the imagery of a crowded airport before a large man bumps into Eliza. I didn’t feel the need for the language translation in parenthesis. If the description had been better, Eliza would get a good picture that the man was in a rush and disgruntled as he dismisses his rudeness with an over the shoulder slight. Anyone who travels has “been there, done that” and Eliza wouldn’t have to speak the language to know the gist of what he’s saying, so no need to translate for the benefit of the reader in parenthesis, which draws the reader from the story.

2.) The second paragraph is more “telling” than “showing” of the risk she is taking. The author could have shown Eliza’s body language as she, a woman traveling alone in a male dominated country, navigates through a crowded airport trying to keep a low profile. Does she look anyone in the eye? How does it feel to wear the traditional dress when she’s clearly not used to it?

3.) I would have appreciated knowing what country this takes place in at the top of this submission, as in a possible tag line, to orient me as a reader as to location and time of day. I had to look up that Samarra is in Iran.

4.) The first line of paragraph three has a tense error. ‘Habitat for Humanity has requested…” is present tense when everything else is in past tense. It should read, ‘Habitat for Humanity had requested…’  

5.) The translation of hijab in parenthesis, ie (head scarf), pulled me from the story. It reads as if the author is proud of his or her research and is trying to be authentic by using the correct word, yet adds an awkward translation that detracts from the story. Whenever I have a crime scene forensics procedure or a technical word, I find a way to explain in context as soon after I use the word, so the reader can surmise the meaning without having to resort to a footnote or parenthesized meanings. In this case, the author might have used: As a woman traveling in public, she had to wear a head scarf that covered most of her face. The hijab had grown hot and her scalp prickled with sweat.

6.) With very little world building or description, the reader is thrust into a confusing vision experienced by Eliza. And again, the action is more “telling” than “showing.” As a reader, I was pulled from the story with the sudden switch that read as a contrivance to create an air of suspense or mystery. It confused me and I had to reread to figure out if I missed something. The transition didn’t flow and seemed forced. The author might have given hints of foreshadowing to lead to this vision, like having Eliza grow more agitated with a mounting headache, with her desperate to control the onslaught of something familiar that she can foresee coming.

7.) As Eliza fights for control over her breathing, an italicized inner thought “tells” the reader what the author wants them to know, that she is easily in control, yet that doesn’t appear to be the case as her struggles intensify. So the ‘thank God I can easily control…’ phrase seems to be false or too quickly contradicted.

8.) I can’t be sure of this, but it appears there is a typo in the sentence, ‘Lights of the tarmac and runways glowed.’ The typo is the word ‘of’ should be ‘off.’ Is that how you read it, TKZers?

9.) While Eliza is stressing over her visions, I was distracted with two more parenthesis: RIPT and PTSD. In my opinion, if the full name is given for these, then it is unnecessary to add them in parenthesis right after. I’ve seen this done in corporate memos to allow the writer of the memo to use the acronym later, but that isn’t generally done in fiction. Just as I suggested in point #5, a way to bring in the acronym can be added in context later if needed.

10.) Lastly, the flashback at the end, from four years earlier, is too brief to fully make the horror read as real. A mother watching her sons burn to death would be catastrophic and the wording distances me from what should have been a painful scene to imagine. Then on the last line she cries out, “no, no, no, I’m at the airport.” That sudden reference, because it was italicized, read as part of her flashback and not her trying to regain control. The author might fix this perception problem by simply removing the italicized section where she is back in present day, but the memory is too sterile to be believed. It lacks believable emotion for me.

In summary, the author should have patience to set the stage for the world building in this foreign country and give Eliza more time to show how her visions work and how tormented she is. Other than the quick setting at the airport and the sudden jolt into an odd vision, there is no real action in this opener. The scene is confined to Eliza’s mind and her tortured past without a good enough anchor into the present to ground the reader. I want to care about Eliza and what happened (or will happen to her), but this introduction has too many quick snippets of something difficult for the reader to follow.

What do you think, TKZers? Share your thoughts and give your constructive feedback to this courageous author.

Are You Homophonic?

By Elaine Viets

impatiens and walkway

   “The walkways were a triumphant imperial purple march of impatience and spiky salvia.”
    I wrote that in the manuscript for my May 2015 Dead-End Job hardcover, Checked Out, to describe the garden at the Coronado Tropic Apartments. That’s the home and office of private eyes Helen Hawthorne and Phil Sagemont, in my Dead-End Job mysteries.

     Good thing I wasn’t impatient when I read the novel’s copyedited version last week. Impatience is “the state or quality of being  restless or short of temper.”

    Impatiens are flowers. Webster’s says they are:  “Any of a widely distributed genus of annual or perennial herbs with irregular spurred or saccate flowers and forcefully dehiscent capsules.”
    This photo says it better:

    Traps for soundalike words – homophones – lie in wait for us writers. Here are a few recent  examples of homophonic behavior in public:

   (1) “Not phased by the Oscar winner’s petition to leave matters alone until after the show, the 52-year-old comedienne continued to vent about Whoopi’s actions.”

    Phases are for moons.

    Gimme an F here. The comedienne was fazed, as in daunted.

    (2) Another writer talked about “a deep seeded fear.”

eugenie-bouchard-new top-seeded

    Really? Afraid of a tennis player? Eugenie Bouchard has arms of steel, but she’s a top seeded player. What that writer really had was a deep seated fear.

    3) I was startled when I saw a newspaper call a neighborhood artsy-fartsy. The author meant that word to be an admiring description of an artistic area, like this street in Greenwich Village.


    That neighborhood may be charming or artsy, but artsy-fartsy is no compliment.

   (4) Curiosity rises to new heights when it’s peaked. Or peeked.

pike's peak

If you’re curious, this is a peek at Pike’s Peak. Now your curiosity is piqued.

    (5) “Do you think Justin died his hair blonde for Selena, Hailey or himself?”

    None of the above, gossip magazine. The Beeb dyed his hair. Without that crucial Y, the lad is dead.

    (6) This last one isn’t a homophone, it’s just plain confusing. “The man had a  ‘deep base voice.’ ”

    His voice was contemptible or meanspirited? I doubt it.  William Shakespeare wrote that King  Richard III was a brutal, cold-hearted villain, a thoroughly base man. Some historians say Will had base motives, since he was writing for the Tudors, who wanted Richard’s name blackened.
    Actually, the man had a deep bass voice.

    Oops. That bass is bass-ackwards. A bass voice is pronounced like base.
Fishy word, that.

Don’t Muddle Your Message

Captivate_full_w_decalby Jodie  Renner, editor & author

After your first (or second or third) draft, it’s time to go through your manuscript to cut out any unneeded words that are just cluttering it up.

Wordiness muddles your message, slows down the momentum, and drags an anchor through the forward movement of your story. It also reduces tension, anticipation, and intrigue, all essential for keeping readers glued to your book.

Wordiness gets in the way of a free, easy, natural narrative flow and wrenches your readers out of the fictive dream by subliminally irritating them and making them wonder if there are better ways to use their time.

Here’s an example of minor wordiness that disrupts the flow and slows down the pace. This is a well-disguised passage from my editing of a few years ago. For the “Suggested changes” section, I’ve crossed through all words to be removed and underlined words added, and I changed the font color to red, to imitate Track Changes, which most editors use these days. My notes and comments are in italics.

Genre: crime fiction

Setup: McRae is a homicide detective who’s just arrived to search the home of a murder victim and begin questioning neighbors. He’s speaking to a young man named Rod who lives next door.

Original excerpt:

McRae asked, “Why would you lie to me? Are you hiding something, Rod?”

Rod’s eyes involuntarily traveled to the porch lamp by the door.

McRae fought a smile as he realized he hadn’t looked there for a spare house key. He stretched his right hand up and felt a small box of some sort. He pulled it loose and saw it was a magnetic case of the kind used to hide spare keys. He slid the top back and the key was missing from inside.

McRae extended his palm out, and Rod seemed to deflate. Rod reached into his jacket pocket and produced a brass key.

McRae turned to his partner. “Let’s check the nearby neighbors ourselves,” McRae said, and looked around. “They’re mostly retirees in this complex, so they should have been home last night,” McRae suggested. “If he was killed somewhere besides in his own home, we have to find that place, and finding his car might tell us something about where he was before he was killed.”

If no one saw him leave, they would have to assume the murder took place inside Norm’s home. There was no evidence of a crime having taken place there, but the missing car presented another set of theories.

Suggested changes:

McRae asked, “Why would you lie to me?  Are you hiding something, Rod?”
Rod’s eyes flicked involuntarily traveledto the porch lamp by the door.
– The tighter wording reflects the quick action.
McRae fought a smile as he realized he hadn’t looked there for a spare house key. He stretched his right handreached up and felt a small metal box. of some sort.  He pulled it loose and saw it was a magnetic case of the kind used to hide spare keys .  He  slid the top back. No key. and the key was missing from inside.
– No need to say “his right hand” as it doesn’t matter which hand, and we assume if he’s reaching for something that it’s with his hand.
– No need to say “he saw” as we’re in his point of view, so we know it’s what he’s seeing.
– The rest of the changes in the above paragraph just reduce excess wordiness to reflect his inner thought patterns at that moment.
McRae extended his palm out, and Rod seemed to deflate. HeRod reached in his pocket and produced a brass key.
– “out” is redundant. Also, it’s best not to keep repeating names – the new “He” refers to the last male mentioned, so Rod.
McRae turned to his partner. “Let’s check the nearby neighbors ourselves.” HeMcRae said,  looked around.  They’re mMostly retirees in this complex, so they should have been home last night.,” McRae suggested. “If he was killed somewhere besides in his own homeelse, we have to find that place, and finding his car might tell us something about where he was before he was killed give us some clues.”
– Replace “he said” or “she said” with action tags whenever it will work. When “he said” or “she said” is followed by an action, most of the time it’s best to take out the he or she said, as the action indicates who’s speaking.
– No need to add additional speech tags within a short paragraph of someone talking. We know it’s still that person speaking.
– “finding his car might give us some clues” sounds more like a terse, busy detective than the longer original wording, so more in character, especially for a male.
McRae would have to question all the neighbors, because if no one saw him leave, they’dwould have to assume the murder took place inside Norm’s home. It didn’t look like itThere was no evidence of a crime having taken place there, and the missing car presented another set of theories.
– In fiction, it’s almost always best to use contractions (we’ve, I’m, she’s, they’d, etc.) in casual dialogue and thoughts.
– The change in the last line to reduce wordiness makes the detective’s inner reasoning sound more natural and casual.

A tighter final version:

McRae asked, “Why would you lie to me? Are you hiding something, Rod?”

Rod’s eyes flicked to the porch lamp.

McRae fought a smile as he realized he hadn’t looked there for a spare house key. He reached up and felt a small metal box. He pulled it loose and slid the top back. No key.

McRae turned to his partner. “Let’s check the nearby neighbors ourselves.” He looked around. “Mostly retirees, so they should have been home last night. If he was killed somewhere else, finding his car might give us some clues.”

If no one saw him leave, they’d have to assume the murder took place inside Norm’s home. It didn’t look like it, and the missing car presented another set of theories.

By cutting back on the wordiness, we’ve not only picked up the pace and made the narrative flow more effortlessly; we’ve also deepened characterization of the detective. The original, more stilted version seemed like the author telling us things, whereas in this final, more relaxed version, the wording keeps us firmly in the point of view and voice of this busy male homicide detective.

So look for all those “little word pile-ups” in your manuscript and see if you can smooth out the sentences by deleting extra words. The end result should be not only faster pacing and more tension, but will be much closer to how that character would actually speak and think.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversDo any of you have any before-and-after examples to share of tightening up your writing? Leave them in the comments below!

Books by Jodie Renner:
~ Fire up Your Fiction – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Stories

~ Captivate Your Readers – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction

~ Writing a Killer Thriller – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction
~ Quick Clicks: Word Usage – Precise Word Choices at Your Fingertips,,
~ Quick Clicks: Spelling List – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips,,