’Tis the season to be jolly.
Or is it?
One view is offered by Mr. Scrooge:
“Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”
At the other end of the spectrum is his clerk, Bob Cratchit:
Then Bob proposed: “A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us!”
Which all the family re-echoed.
“God bless us every one!” said Tiny Tim, the last of all.
So what’s it gonna be? You gonna be merry or what? (Why do I sound like I’m grabbing your shirt?)
My favorite dictionary is Webster’s New Collegiate (1960). I have two copies, hoping somehow to preserve the language from the unrelenting lingual onslaught of these latter days. I’ll be the one standing on a hill, waving them around, shouting, “Try and get ’em! Just try!” (Please bury me next to a small town library.)
Here is the definition of Merry:
adj. 1. Pleasant; delightful; of sounds, etc., sweet; of a wind, favorable. 2. Mirthful. 3. Amusing; funny. 4. Marked by gaiety or festivity.
Who doesn’t think we need a little more merriment these days? In life and in writing.
I’ve quoted this before but it’s worth another look:
In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it. — Clayton Meeker Hamilton, A Manual of the Art of Fiction (1919)
How do you get that merriment into your writing? One way is to get so invested in your characters that you can’t wait to see them live and breathe. I believe it was Dwight Swain who advised that whenever your tale is getting to be a slog, do some character work until you get excited again—and you always will.
Another method: Pause occasionally in your plot and ask How can things get worse? That’s how we novelists really get merry—by coming down even harder on our characters!
Another thing you can do is pitch your story to a friend or loved one. I don’t mean the 30-second elevator gab. I mean tell them the story right up to where you are in the manuscript. Try to notice two things:
- Are you enjoying telling the story?
- Is your audience rapt? Or are they squirming around like they want to check their phones?
Use the answers to these questions to fix what needs fixing. That brings its own kind of joy.
And a Snappy New Year.
snappy, adj., 1. Snappish. 2. Colloq. Full of snap, or life, briskness, pungency, smartness, etc.; as, snappy conversation.
Apply this to your social media. We know that we have to be “out there” in some fashion. Agents and publisher expect it. So do readers. The temptation is to blunder around without thought or plan, thinking that the world is waiting with bated breath to hear whatever jumps to the top of your head five seconds ago.
Revisit Sue’s advice on these matters. As she notes: “Always conduct yourself as a professional, but don’t hide the real you while doing it. There’s so much garbage and negativity on social media.”
So be brisk, snappy, funny, pungent. If you share an opinion, do it with style and even a little humor. Be someone who’d be a welcome guest at any gathering.
Don’t be a dullard, a dolt or a diva.
Hey, how’s that for a snappy ending to TKZ 2021?
Thank you for all your support over this last, challenging year. I speak for all of us at TKZ when I say your hearty and helpful comments create a welcome oasis in the vast internet wilderness. It’s a pleasure to commune with you each day on all things writing and publishing.
We now take our annual two-week hiatus. May this season be full of abundant blessings for you and yours.
See you right back here on January 3, 2022!
Counter-intuitive Routes to Creativity and Productivity
By Steve Hooley
Christmas is coming and Hanukkah has passed
One week until Christmas. Twelve days after Hanukkah. Family gatherings, parties, and travel, all will cause interruptions in our writing schedules. Are these interruptions good or bad? Do they help or hurt our creativity? Do they increase or decrease our productivity?
As I contemplated a topic for this post, I remembered hearing of references to the benefit of breaks from writing to increase creativity and productivity. I had always been somewhat skeptical, being more of a puritanical believer in “put butt in chair” and write. I thought this might be a good time to take a look at some of that research on breaks.
Before I start on the topic today, I should mention that JSB wrote on a parallel topic this past Sunday, 12/12/21 – “Ways to Write When You’re Not Writing.”
Back to today’s post:
I found an article in Scientific American that summarized some of the recent research. And an article in Writer’s Digest, (Writer’s Digest, May/June 2021, pgs. 40-44, “The Curiously Effective Way to Beat Procrastination,” Michael La Ronn), had caught my eye with a discussion of “drifting.” These two articles are the basis for today’s post.
Summary of research over last ten years
In the article from Scientific American, titled “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime,” author, Ferris Jabr, begins with a brief intro: “Research on naps, meditation, nature walks, and the habits of exceptional artists and athletes reveals how mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories, and encourage creativity.”
He describes what happens when we don’t take those breaks, and defines “cerebral congestion” as that “sense of so much coming at you at once, so much to process, that you can’t deal with it all.” He then shifts to the benefit of long periods of time (vacation) away from the cause of the stress.
Apparently, people in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Hong Kong take the fewest days off work each year (10 days), versus European Union (20 days) or the Netherlands (26 days).
Along with the intuitive belief that such continuous busyness is not healthy, there is now much empirical evidence from studies that “the benefits of vacation, meditation, and time spent in parks, gardens, and other peaceful outdoor spaces, along with napping and unwinding while awake, can sharpen the mind.” It is argued that downtime restores the brain’s attention, motivation, productivity, and creativity.
Unfortunately, the benefits of vacation may fade within two to four weeks.
Boys in the Basement and the Default Mode Network
The really interesting research has revealed how much the brain goes on working when we are not concentrating, working, or focusing. A “mysterious and complex circuit stirs to life when people are daydreaming.” This is called the Default Mode Network (DMN).
Immordino-Yang, a research scientist at USC, in a review of research on the DMN, argues that “when we are resting, the brain is anything but idle and that, far from being purposeless or unproductive, downtime is in fact essential to mental processes…”
Other research suggests the Default Mode Network is more active in highly creative people.
So, if we need to turn our DMN loose to do creative things for our brain, we should take more naps. Right? Many studies have established that naps “sharpen concentration and improve the performance of both sleep-deprived and the fully rested…”
Here, the interesting data is in the length if naps. One study looked at 5, 10, 20, and 30-minute naps. The five-minute naps barely improved alertness. Ten minutes and higher increased performance, but the 20 and 30-minute naps were associated with half an hour or more of “sleep inertia” (post-nap grogginess). The study concluded that 7-10-minute naps were best.
Restorative Breaks and Mindfulness Training
Here’s my favorite. Breaks taken in a natural outdoor setting (vs. in a setting full of city noise and chaos) led to a 3-times greater improvement in memory. I wonder how the sound of my chain saw (requiring ear protection) affects the benefit of the “natural outdoor setting.”
And, finally, “mindfulness training” (sustained focus on one’s thoughts, emotions, and sensations in the present moment) is believed to “improve mental health, hone one’s ability to concentrate, and strengthen memory.”
The Bonus, “Drifting”
This if from the article in Writer’s Digest. When I read this article several months ago, I shook my head. I didn’t know what to think. I grabbed a pen and wrote in the margins: “What!?” “A disease becomes a cure.” “Really?” And “Procrastinate, just not too long.”
But, after reading the other article on brain research and the benefits of taking breaks, I’m trying to be more open-minded about this approach.
If you haven’t read this article, I urge you to do so. Basically, the author is arguing for an approach to writer’s block where you “give your mind permission to do whatever it wants to fuel your creativity. Simply put, you let it be curious.” (Drifting). In the author’s case, drifting took the form of three days off just to let his curiosity explore.
Near the end of the article, he lists 5 ways to “Drift Like a Pro:”
- Read a Book About Something New
- Consume Other Content
- Meet New People
- New Experiences
And in a final section, he writes, “Teach yourself to drift, and enjoy the journey.”
It sounds too good to be true. I don’t know if I could trust myself to drift purposefully or return from the journey. I worry that it could be addictive, or the easy way out.
Okay, time for your thoughts:
- What kind of “restorative” breaks have you taken or will you take over the Hanukkah – Christmas holiday?
- What type of naps, breaks, vacation, meditation, or drifting do you regularly practice to maintain your creativity and productivity during the rest of the year?
- BONUS POINTS – What do you think about “drifting?”
This is my last post before the Christmas – New Year’s break. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy Productive/Creative New Year! See you in 2022.
Reader Friday: Dinner With an Author
You and your author of choice (see last week’s post) are enjoying your meal.
You can ask two questions. What would they be?
In July of 1897, Edward Stribbling (Trout) Shue was convicted of first-degree murder for strangling his wife and breaking her neck. Trout Shue’s trial, held in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, rested entirely upon circumstantial evidence that strangely proved Shue’s guilt—beyond a reasonable doubt—to jurors who were presented evidence from beyond the grave.
The “facts” included postmortem statements from Shue’s wife, Zona Heaster Shue, who was said to appear before her mother four weeks after death and reportedly told what truly occurred in her murder. It was the first—and only—time testimony from a ghost was admitted as evidence in a United States Superior Court trial, and it helped secure a conviction.
At 10:00 a.m. on January 23, 1897, twenty-three-year-old Zona Shue’s body was found by an errand boy. She was lying on the floor in their house, face down at the foot of the stairs, stretched with one arm tucked underneath her chest and the other extended. Her head was cocked to one side.
Trout Shue arrived home before the coroner, Dr. George Knapp, attended. Shue had already moved his wife’s body to their bed where he’d dressed her in a high-necked gown. As Dr. Knapp began examining Zona, Trout Shue exhibited overpowering emotions and cradled Zona’s head and her shoulders, sobbing and weeping. Dr. Knapp stopped his exam out of respect for the grieving spouse and signed-off the death to “everlasting faint”.
A traditional wake was held before Zona’s next-day burial and attendants noticed peculiar behavior from Trout Shue. When the casket was opened for viewing, he immediately placed a scarf over Zona’s neck as well as propping her head with a pillow and blanket. Shue then put on another spectacular show of grief and made it impossible for mourners to get a close look at her face.
Zona Shue was buried in the Soule Chapel Methodist Cemetery in Greenbrier County. Initially, everyone who knew the Shues accepted Zona’s death as not suspicious—except for her mother, Mary Jane Heaster.
Mrs. Heaster disliked Trout Shue from the moment they met, and she suspected foul play was at hand. “The work of the devil!” Heaster exclaimed. She prayed every night, for four weeks on end, that the Lord would reveal the truth.
Then, in the darkness of night, when Mary Jane Heaster was wide awake, Zona’s spirit allegedly appeared.
It was not in a dream, Heaster reported. It was in person. First the apparition manifested as light, then transformed to a human figure which brought a chill upon the room. For four consecutive nights, Heaster claimed her daughter’s ghost came to the foot of her bed and reported facts of the crime that extinguished her life.
Zona’s ghost was said to reveal a history of physical abuse from her husband. Her death resulted in a violent fight over a meal the night before she was found. Trout Shue was said to have strangled Zona, crushing her windpipe and snapping her neck “at the first joint”. To prove dislocation, Zona’s figure turned its head one hundred and eighty degrees to the rear.
Mary Jane Heaster steadfastly maintained her daughter’s ghost was real and Zona’s reports of the cause of her death were accurate. Heaster was so compelling in her paranormal description that she convinced local prosecutor, John Preston, to re-open the case.
Preston’s investigation found Trout Shue had a history of violence. In another State, he’d served prison time for assaults and thefts. He’d been married twice before—one other wife dying under mysterious circumstances. By now the Greenbrier community was reporting more peculiar behavior from Shue. He’d been making comments to the effect that “no one would ever prove I killed Zona”.
Combined with Coroner Knapp’s admission that he failed to conduct a thorough exam, Preston established sufficient grounds to exhume Zona’s body and conduct a proper postmortem examination.
Zona was autopsied by three medical doctors on February 22, 1897 with the official cause of death being anoxia from manual strangulation compounded by a broken neck. Bruising consistent with fingermarks was noted on Zona’s neck, her esophagus was contused, and her first and second cervical vertebrae were fractured. Anatomically, they’re known as the C1 Atlas and the C2 Axis which combine to make the first joint at the base of the skull.
An inquest was held, and Trout Shue was summoned to testify. Although he denied being present at the time of Zona’s death and bearing culpability, he was unable to establish an alibi and was considered an unreliable, self-serving witness. It was ruled a homicide and Trout Shue was charged with her murder.
Trout Shue’s first-degree murder trial began in Greenbrier Circuit Court on June 22, 1897. A panel of twelve jurors was convened who heard evidence from a number of witnesses, including Shue himself.
John Preston was reluctant to subpoena Mary Jane Heaster as a witness, fearing her ghost story would damage credibility. However, Shue’s defense lawyer opened that can of worms and called Zona’s mother to the stand. Evidently, it backfired.
This verbatim excerpt is from the transcript of Mary Jane Heaster’s testimony. It’s still on record in the West Virginia State Archives:
Defense Counsel Question — I have heard that you had some dream or vision which led to this post mortem examination?
Witness Heaster Answer — It was no dream – she came back and told me that he was mad that she didn’t have no meat cooked for supper. But she said she had plenty, and said that she had butter and apple-butter, apples and named over two or three kinds of jellies, pears and cherries and raspberry jelly, and she says I had plenty; and she says don’t you think that he was mad and just took down all my nice things and packed them away and just ruined them. And she told me where I could look down back of Aunt Martha Jones’, in the meadow, in a rocky place; that I could look in a cellar behind some loose plank and see. It was a square log house, and it was hewed up to the square, and she said for me to look right at the right-hand side of the door as you go in and at the right-hand corner as you go in. Well, I saw the place just exactly as she told me, and I saw blood right there where she told me; and she told me something about that meat every night she came, just as she did the first night. She cames [sic] four times, and four nights; but the second night she told me that her neck was squeezed off at the first joint and it was just as she told me.
Q — Now, Mrs. Heaster, this sad affair was very particularly impressed upon your mind, and there was not a moment during your waking hours that you did not dwell upon it?
A — No, sir; and there is not yet, either.
Q — And was this not a dream founded upon your distressed condition of mind?
A — No, sir. It was no dream, for I was as wide awake as I ever was.
Q — Then if not a dream or dreams, what do you call it?
A — I prayed to the Lord that she might come back and tell me what had happened; and I prayed that she might come herself and tell on him.
Q — Do you think that you actually saw her in flesh and blood?
A — Yes, sir, I do. I told them the very dress that she was killed in, and when she went to leave me she turned her head completely around and looked at me like she wanted me to know all about it. And the very next time she came back to me she told me all about it. The first time she came, she seemed that she did not want to tell me as much about it as she did afterwards. The last night she was there she told me that she did everything she could do, and I am satisfied that she did do all that, too.
Q — Now, Mrs. Heaster, don’t you know that these visions, as you term them or describe them, were nothing more or less than four dreams founded upon your distress?
A — No, I don’t know it. The Lord sent her to me to tell it. I was the only friend that she knew she could tell and put any confidence it; I was the nearest one to her. He gave me a ring that he pretended she wanted me to have; but I don’t know what dead woman he might have taken it off of. I wanted her own ring and he would not let me have it.
Q — Mrs. Heaster, are you positively sure that these are not four dreams?
A — Yes, sir. It was not a dream. I don’t dream when I am wide awake, to be sure; and I know I saw her right there with me.
Q — Are you not considerably superstitious?
A — No, sir, I’m not. I was never that way before, and am not now.
Q — Do you believe the scriptures?
A — Yes, sir. I have no reason not to believe it.
Q — And do you believe the scriptures contain the words of God and his Son?
A — Yes, sir, I do. Don’t you believe it?
Q — Now, I would like if I could, to get you to say that these were four dreams and not four visions or appearances of your daughter in flesh and blood?
A — I am not going to say that; for I am not going to lie.
Q — Then you insist that she actually appeared in flesh and blood to you upon four different occasions?
A — Yes, sir.
Q — Did she not have any other conversation with you other than upon the matter of her death?
A — Yes, sir, some other little things. Some things I have forgotten – just a few words. I just wanted the particulars about her death, and I got them.
Q — When she came did you touch her?
A — Yes, sir. I got up on my elbows and reached out a little further, as I wanted to see if people came in their coffins, and I sat up and leaned on my elbow and there was light in the house. It was not a lamp light. I wanted to see if there was a coffin, but there was not. She was just like she was when she left this world. It was just after I went to bed, and I wanted her to come and talk to me, and she did. This was before the inquest and I told my neighbors. They said she was exactly as I told them she was.
Now, whether jury members accepted Mary Jane Heaster’s ghost story as being credible, or if it made any difference to their interpretation of the facts, will never be known. And it’s on record the trial judge cautioned jurors about the reliability of circumstantial evidence:
“There was no living witness to the crime charged against Defendant Shue and the State rests its case for conviction wholly upon circumstances connecting the accused with the murder charged. So the connection of the accused with the crime depends entirely upon the strength of the circumstantial evidence introduced by the State. There is no middle ground for you, the jury, to take. The verdict inevitably and logically must be for murder in the first degree or for an acquittal.”
The jury was out for an hour and ten minutes before returning to find Trout Shue guilty of murdering his wife, Zona, in the first degree. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and died of an epidemic disease three years later.
I’d love to travel back in time and be a fly on the wall during that deliberation. What they discussed in that sequestered room has long gone to the grave, but I find Mary Jane Heaster’s testimony about Zona’s fractured vertebrae to be downright spooky.
What about you Kill Zoners? From reading Mrs. Heaster’s evidence, do you find her credible? And, by all means, please share with us your true ghost stories!
Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner investigating sudden and unexplained human deaths. Now, Garry’s come back from the forensic dead and has reincarnated himself as a crime writer.
Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast is the haunting grounds for Garry Rodgers. In spirit, he maintains a popular blog at DyingWords.net and he occasionally floats in and out on Twitter — @GarryRodgers1. You can find Garry’s flesh-and-blood crime writing works on leading E-tailers —Amazon, Kobo, Apple, Nook, and Google.
Folks, I’m not going to try and bluff my way through this post. As I write this, I have what I believe is the flu. Remember the flu? That other respiratory malady that has been around for years? I did get tested for the new malady, and with negative results. So, as I enter my seventh day of fever, I find myself at a loss for writing advice that anyone could possibly find interesting.
Instead, as we here at The Killzone Blog wander up to our annual holiday hiatus, I’ll take this opportunity to express my gratitude to our subscribers and lurkers for all your support over these many years.
Next time we see each other, we’ll be in the embrace of a brand new year. I wish everyone health, prosperity and happiness.
You better make them care…It better be quirky or perverse or thoughtful enough so that you hit some chord in them. Otherwise, it doesn’t work. I mean we’ve all read pieces where we thought, “Oh, who gives a damn?” — Nora Ephron.
I feel like now people want more of a mirror. They want to see themselves in the book that they’re reading. — David Sedaris
By PJ Parrish
Well, it’s officially Christmas season. I know this because Ralphie is whining about getting a Red Ryder air rifle. Every time A Christmas Story comes on, I am reminded of my own childhood. But I’m also reminded how dependent writers are on our powers of observation and also our storehouses of life experience. And how we use that to connect with our readers.
This point is especially clear to me because I’ve been reading Nora Ephron’s Wallflower at the Orgy, her dispatches as a reporter about the cultural upheavals of the late ’60s. Here’s the opening:
Some years ago, the man I am married to told me he had always had a mad desire to go to an orgy. Why on earth, I asked. Why not, he said. Because, I replied, it would be just like the dances at the YMCA I went to in the seventh grade—only instead of people walking past me and rejecting me, they would be stepping over my naked body and rejecting me. The image made no impression at all on my husband. But it has stayed with me—albeit in another context. Because working as a journalist is exactly like being the wallflower at the orgy. I always seem to find myself at a perfectly wonderful event where everyone else is having a marvelous time, laughing merrily, eating, drinking, having sex in the back room, and I am standing on the side taking notes on it all.
Which pretty much summarized how I often felt during the ’60s and later when I worked as a reporter. But that’s the beauty of a great writer like Ephron, and why I am drawn to essayists. They see things more sharply than average folk. And they spin what they see into great stories that anyone can relate to. Which is pretty much what we novelists should be trying to do.
You have to connect. But easier said than done, as any writer knows. I remember reading a First Novel Edgar winner a couple years back. Man, the writing just sang! Gorgeous description, a lean neo-noir sensibility. But I always felt as if the writer was holding back emotionally. And this arms-length style eventually left me thinking, “who gives a damn?”
You have to connect. Some things to think about as you grapple with this.
Make your subject relatable in experience. Nora Ephron wrote a terrific essay called “A Few Words About Breasts.” It was about her agony, as a tomboy, waiting for her breasts to “develop.” When she begged her mother for a bra, her mom said “What for?” She recounts the horror of going alone to the department store and getting fitted for a size 28AA. When I read it, I was smiling, nodding and ultimately crying.
Many moons later, I happened upon her essay on aging gracefully called “On Maintenance.” Best line about how getting hair highlights changed her life: “…a little like that first brandy Alexander Lee Remick drank in Days of Wine and Roses.”
Use Your Experiences to Find Your Own Voice. Another of my favorite writers is also an essayist — David Sedaris. Why do his essays connect with readers? Because he writes with wit and humility of his own experiences. He is a storyteller you want to spend your hours with. His essay on learning French “Me Talk Pretty One Day” articulated all the terror I felt in my first French adult ed course: “Learning French is a lot like joining a gang in that it involves a long and intensive period of hazing.” I’m now taking online Babbel courses now and every time I am “buzzed” for incorrect pronunciation — I have a heavy Detroit/Michigan accent, so I will never say anything in French pretty — I think of Sedaris. He’s got some really good advice for writers. Click here. This one is among my favorites:
Sad stories, dashed dreams, and memorable mistakes are ammunition for writers. Any experience can be converted into a story, and rough experiences often make the best stories. As a writer, failure is soil for growing heartfelt stories. Vulnerability is a powerful draw. Write down your biggest failures, then review the list to see which ones can be marshaled into relatable stories for your readers.
And about that voice thing? Don’t sweat it too much. When you’re just starting out, you might not be able to articulate exactly what you are trying, in your heart and soul, to get across. So be content with trying to become the best damn storyteller you can. If you are successful at that, the voice thing will emerge by itself. As Neil Gaiman says:
After you’ve written 10,000 words, 30,000 words, 60,000 words, 150,000 words, a million words, you will have your voice, because your voice is the stuff you can’t help doing.”
Which leads me to my final essayist who influenced me as a writer. I first encountered Jean Shepherd’s writing in the ’70s when I was reading Car & Driver magazine. (don’t ask…my ex-husband, a race car nut from Indy was a subscriber.) I loved his columns. He went on to write for Playboy, New York Times and others. Time magazine once described him as a “comic anthropologist.” His talent was noticing and using the mundane details of daily life to tell his stories, filtering them through a sensibility that was, by turns, funny, absurd, sarcastic, and often sad. (For the record, Shepherd hated the word “nostalgia.” I found this out when I interviewed him for a profile in the Fort Lauderdale News.)
I loved his short story about the awful rites of prom-going, “Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories” because every detail is acute. And also because I was poor pitiful Wanda:
I began to notice Wanda’s orchid leering up at me from her shoulder. It was the most repulsive flower I had ever seen. At least 14 inches across, it looked like some kind of overgrown Venus’s flytrap waiting for the right moment to strike. Deep purple, with an obscene yellow tongue that stuck straight out of it, and greenish knobs on the end, it clashed almost audibly with her turquoise dress. It looked like it was breathing, and it clung to her shoulder as if with claws.
As I glided back and forth in my graceful box step, my left shoulder began to develop an itch that helped take my mind off of the insane itch in my right shoulder, which was beginning to feel like army of hungry soldier ants on the march. The contortions I made to relieve the agony were camouflaged nicely by a short sneezing fit brought on by the orchid, which was exhaling directly into my face. So was Wanda, with a heady essence of Smith Brothers cough drops and sauerkraut.
But Shepherd is best known for A Christmas Story. You’ve seen it. It runs on a loop during the holidays, the 1983 movie about Ralphie, his long-suffering chenille-robed mom and his old man who lusts after a lamp in the shape of a fish-netted gam. The movie is based on some chapters from Shepherd’s first book In God We Trust (All Others Pay Cash), which were based on Shepherd’s childhood in Hammond, Ind. Why is the movie evergreen? Here’s what Shepherd told an interviewer in 1971:
“You can tell a story about anything. But the only stories that have any fidelity, any feeling, are stories that either did happen to you or conceivably could have happened to you.”
In other words, to be a great storyteller, you have to connect. Merry Christmas, y’all.
Misdirection is the intentional deflection of attention for the purpose of disguise, and it’s a vital literary device. To plant and disguise a clue so the reader doesn’t realize its importance takes time and finesse.
The most important thing to remember is to play fair. Clues must be in plain sight. We cannot reveal a clue that wasn’t visible earlier. That’s cheating.
A few years ago, I read a novel about [can’t name the profession without giving away the title]. The protagonist located the dead and solved every mystery with invisible clues. After I whipped my Kindle across the room, I took a deep breath and skimmed the story searching for the clues. Never found one. Not one! The author’s name now sits at the pinnacle of my Do Not Read list.
A key feature of good misdirection means you brought attention to the clue, and the reader still missed it.
A magician uses three types of misdirection:
- Time: The magician has the silk scarf balled in one fist before he begins the trick.
- Place: The magician draws your attention to his right hand while the real trick is happening in his left.
- Intent: The magician leads you to the decision he wants, but afterward you’ll swear you had a choice.
Notice any similarities to writing?
Misdirection can be either external or internal. External would be when the author misdirects the reader. Internal is when a character misdirects another character.
Misdirection is different than misinformation. We should never outright lie to the reader. Rather, we let them lie to themselves by disguising the clue(s) as inconsequential.
How do we do that?
When you come to a part of the story where nothing major occurs, slip in a clue. Or include the detail/clue while fleshing out a character’s life.
One character chats with another as they drive to a designated location. Is the locale a clue in and of itself?
What about the title of the book? The reader has seen the title numerous times, yet she never gave it much thought until the protagonist reveals its meaning to the plot.
Clandestine lovers meet in a hideaway. While there, one of the characters notices a symbol or sign. Later in the story, she finds another clue that relates to the sign or symbol. Only now, she has enough experience to interpret its true meaning.
A kidnapper chalks an X on a park bench to signal the drop-off spot. What if a stray dog approaches the kidnapper? If he reads the dog’s tag to find his human, the clue takes center stage, yet it’s disguised as inconsequential.
In all four examples the arrival of the clue seems insignificant at first. The reader will notice the clue because we’ve drawn attention to it, but we’ve framed it in a way that allows the character to dismiss it. Thus, the reader will, too.
The character knows the clue is important when she finds it, but she misinterprets its meaning, leading her down a dead end.
What if we need to supply information on a certain topic, but we don’t want the reader to understand why yet? If we take the clue out of context and present it as something else—something innocuous or insignificant—we’ve misdirected the reader to reach the wrong conclusion.
An important factor of misdirection is that the disguise must make sense within the confines of the scene. It should also further the plot in some way.
“Misdirection can be used either strategically or tactically. Strategically to change the whole direction of a story, to send it off into a new and different world, and have the reader realize that it’s been headed that way all along. Tactically to conceal, obscure, obfuscate, and camouflage one important fact, to save it for later revelation.”
— The Writer magazine
Character misdirection is when the protagonist (and reader) believes a secondary character fulfills one role when, in fact, he fulfills the opposite.
Two types of character misdirection.
- False Ally
- False Enemy
These two characters are not what they seem on the surface. They provide opportunities for dichotomy, juxtaposition, insights into the protagonist, theme, plot, and plot twists. They’re useful characters and so much fun to write.
A false ally is a character who acts like they’re on the protagonist’s side when they really have ulterior motives. The protagonist trusts the false ally. The reader will, too. Until the moment when the character unmasks, revealing their false façade and true intention.
A false enemy is a character the protagonist does not trust. Past experiences with this character warn the protagonist to be wary. But this time, the false enemy wants to help the protagonist.
When Hannibal Lecter tries to help Clarice, she’s leery about trusting a serial killing cannibal. The reader is too.
What type of character is Hannibal Lecter, a false ally or false enemy?
An argument could be made for both. On one hand, he acts like a false enemy, but he does have his own agenda. Thomas Harris blurred the lines between the two. What emerged is a multifaceted character that we’ve analyzed for years.
When crafting a false ally or false enemy, it’s fine to fit the character into one of these roles. Or, like Harris, add shades of gray.
Mastering the art of misdirection is an important skill. It’s especially important for mysteries and thrillers. I hope this post churns up new ideas for you.
Do you have a false ally or false enemy in your WIP? What are some ways you’ve employed misdirection?
This is my final post of 2021. Wishing you all a joyous holiday season. See ya in the New Year!
Female killers are often portrayed as caricatures: Black Widows, Angels of Death, or Femme Fatales. But the real stories of these women are much more complex. In Pretty Evil New England, true crime author Sue Coletta tells the story of these five women, from broken childhoods to first brushes with death, and she examines the overwhelming urges that propelled these women to take the lives of more than one-hundred innocent victims. If you enjoy narrative nonfiction/true crime, Pretty Evil New England is on sale for $1.99. Limited time. On Wednesday, Dec. 15, the price returns to full retail: $13.99.
We’re writers. We know what that means. We’re always on the job. Our minds, often apart from our intentions, keep the story wheels churning.
Like when we go to comfort a loved one in a time of need. We take their hand and issue words of consolation, while our writer mind is thinking, This would make a great scene. I wonder how I can work it into a book?
Nothing to apologize for. It’s how we roll. We write even when we’re not at the keyboard. So why not be intentional about it? Here are some of the methods I use to incentivize the Boys in the Basement:
We all know about brainstorming. That’s where we let the mind run free, without judgment, generating as many ideas as possible. The best way to get good ideas is to get lots and lots of them and only later cast aside the least promising ones.
I have found that a great aid to brainstorming is the mind map. Mapping is a way to visually link the random thoughts you jot down into some level of coherence. (A good book on this process is Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico.)
I use mind maps in two ways. First is to get ideas for flash fiction and short stories for my Patreon community. I often use a nifty set of cards called The Storymatic. Their ad line is “Six trillion stories in one little box. Which one will you tell?” It’s a set of 500 cards of two types. One type is a setting or situation, the other is a kind of character. I’ll draw one of each at random and put them together to see what comes up.
The other day I drew the cards “Survivor” and “Message in chalk on sidewalk.” I wrote those down on opposite sides of a page and circled them. Then I began the map. Here’s what it looked like (click to enlarge):
As I went along I kept coming back to the doodle of the chalk drawing. The Boys were trying to tell me something. I listened, and an idea for a short story popped up. As I pondered a little more I dropped the Survivor part altogether (you’re not wedded to anything when you mind map) and in a few minutes had the complete concept.
The other way I map is when I have a particular plot problem to work out. I’m finishing up a novelette in my Bill Armbrewster series about a Hollywood studio troubleshooter in the 1940s. As I closed in on the ending I realized there was a key element earlier in the story that needed clearing up. It involved the filching of a photo from a movie star’s dressing room (Bette Davis’s, to be exact.) So on paper I wrote “Who stole the pic?” and started mapping. In a few minutes I had my answer.
Sound and Music
I know some writers who want silence as they type. But for creativity there is research that suggests a little ambient noise helps. When I’m in my office I usually put on Coffitivity or New York street sound.
Often I’ll do my mind mapping while listening to music. If I’m thinking of suspense—which is most of the time—I’ll put on a playlist of suspense movie soundtracks (my favorite being the Hitchcock scores of Bernard Herrmann). I have other lists of soundtracks that stir up other emotions.
I don’t usually use music with lyrics for this, but I understand a certain Mr. King used to crank up the rock for his work. So I’ll make occasional use of the greatest rock era of all time—the 1970s (go ahead, try to prove me wrong).
Nice thing about the Boys is that they don’t take time off. So give them direction at night.
If you’re working on a novel, spend five concentrated minutes just before shut eye thinking about the plot, characters, or a scene.
Sometimes I’ll write a problem down on a pad on my bedside table. What is Romeo going to do about the bomb?
In the morning, as soon as possible, write down whatever is bubbling in your head, even if it doesn’t make sense at first. Somewhere in there is a message to you, though it may be in code!
I wonder if you’ve noticed a slight increase in stress levels these days.
We’ve all been there. We’ve all had days when we make the coffee nervous. As I pointed out in a previous post, all the mental effort that goes into navigating the mandate marshlands takes a toll on our creativity and writing energy.
Add to that the constant stream of vitriol spewing out of every communicative orifice in our civilized nation, and you’ve got a recipe for potential creative shutdown.
So what can you do? You can quiet your mind a couple of times a day. A popular practice for this is mindfulness.
Mindfulness isn’t some mystic practice that requires a robe and the lotus position. You won’t end up in a Tibetan monastery (unless you really want to). It’s just a way to practice calming down. In old movies the usual step was some guy saying, “I need a drink.” Many follow that path even now. Better is 10-15 minutes of mindfulness. Plus, instead of a hangover, you’ll get a burst of creativity afterward. Four ways I’ve done it:
Sitting: Sit in a comfortable spot, with your back straight (not leaning against the backrest). Feet flat on the floor, hands resting on your legs. Breathe easily in through your nose and out through your mouth. Listen to your breathing. Note the way your abdomen and chest move. Find an object in the room to concentrate on. Look at it, noting everything about it. Don’t analyze it, just look at it. It’ll be hard to do this at first. Your thoughts will easily distract you (“I have to remember to go to the store…Where did I leave my reading glasses?…Did The Rock really make another movie?”). When that happens, recognize you’ve had the thoughts and gently return to breathing and concentrating.
Walking: Don’t mistake this for taking a walk for exercise. Instead, you only need a small space outside. I walk around my pool. Do it slowly, nose-mouth breathing, noticing whatever is around you.
Driving: (Especially helpful in L.A. traffic.) Instead of grumbling about being late, breathe easy and focus on the taillights in front of you. Notice their design and texture. Make sure you’ve turned off talk radio and the news. Ignore bumper stickers.
Waiting in Line: Instead of grousing how long your line is—or how all the other lines seem to move faster—be grateful for the opportunity to have some quiet time. Don’t pick up a People magazine to see if Kim and Kanye are getting back together. Just breathe easily and note all the colors you see in the objects around you.
These are some of the ways I write when I’m not writing. What have you noticed about your own time away from the keyboard? When do ideas tend to pop up from the basement? Do you do anything to incentivize the Boys?
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” Stephen King.
I can’t agree more. I fear I’ll step on some toes here, because there are hundreds of authors who love adverbs and will argue ‘til the cows come home that they improve their writing. I can’t go there. Oh, I know they’re in my own novels and columns, they pop up without notice in the first drafts, but I do my best to weed them out and rewrite the sentences to make them better than the original.
A few years ago, I packed a couple of books in a carry-on, intending to spend the almost nine hour flight to Hawaii with my nose in a book. I’ve written novels and newspaper columns on planes, and have edited several manuscripts while hanging in the air over various parts of this great nation, but I prefer to read.
I’d purchased a much-touted post-apocalyptic novel from Amazon and had been looking forward to losing myself in the tale (I got hooked on those when I read Alas Babylon fifty years ago). The flight leveled off, I ordered a Bombay Sapphire and tonic, (they had my gin in stock, huzzah!) and settled back with The Novel That Shall Not Be Named (not the real title). The problem began in paragraph one and I knew the book was going to be a wall-banger when I read:
He headed for the baggage claim tiredly, hoping this would be the last time for a while.
Good lord. That sentence required two deep swallows of Bombay before I could continue, and I did, hoping the writing would get better.
Maybe that one slipped through the editing process.
Here we go again. Still on the first page, I read the word “battered” twice in two short, consecutive paragraphs and sighed.
Please get better.
In the next couple of paragraphs, our protagonist leaves the airport, lights a cigarette, and outside for his delayed ride. Unlike him, we didn’t have to wait long for more adverbs.
“Hey pal, can’t you read?” someone said sharply.
“Does your daddy know you’re out playing cop?” he said snidely.
There were two more books in my carry-on, because I never go anywhere without backup, but reading that book was like watching a train wreck. I couldn’t stop, and my fascination with bad writing and boring sentences kept me from throwing the hefty novel against the bulkhead.
There were other problems as well, though I won’t dwell on them other than to say the author fell back on using character’s name in conversation over and over in order to identify the speaker, something I discussed in my last post.
His protagonist and other characters also snapped, spat, snarled, growled, grunted, barked, remarked (unnecessary), shouted, screamed (he just loved for verbs to follow dialogue), but I couldn’t get past the adverbs scattered like rice at a wedding.
Unceremoniously, firmly, loudly, tiredly (again), actually, expertly, apologetically, evenly, and finally (four times), all in the first short chapter.
And it was the way he used them. For example, he insisted on using adverbs that were redundant to the verb they modified.
“Amy whispered quietly to her mother.”
Uh, whispering is already quiet, so we don’t need it. That’s like…
He screamed loudly. Or, Amy drove quickly to the store.” This adverb is modifying a weak verb, so maybe Amy can “jump in her car and race to the store.”
Then there’s the adverb “very,” which I propose is the gateway word leading to Hell Road. Some writers use it the same as so many people who insist that the whole world and everything in it is amazing.
Amy was very tired.
Nope. Amy was exhausted, wrung out, beat, worn out, bushed, dog-tired or even wiped out, but for cryin’ out loud, lift your vocabulary! Her dogs were barking, she was dead on her feet!!! Jeeze!
I believe Mr. King also said adverbs prefer the passive voice, and seem to have been created with the timid word in mind. He was dead-on with The Novel That Shall Not Be Named. I closed it at the beginning of the second chapter. With no suitable walls to throw it against, and fearing aggressive responses from the other passengers if I heaved it into the aisle, I stuck the offending work in the seat pocket in front of me.
It’s something I regret today, because I figure some unsuspecting soul picked it up and found themselves subjected to poor writing. I regret leaving it on that plane for another reason, because I often use it these days as a teaching tool (I found another copy in a bookstore, which means I bought the damned thing twice). The Novel That Shall Not Be Named is a good, bad example of how adverbs allow the writer to be lazy, instead of allowing the work to support itself with well-constructed, thoughtful sentences.
Let’s go back to the first example from The Novel That Shall Not Be Named. I’ll refresh your memory:
He headed for the baggage claim tiredly, hoping this would be the last time for a while.
Exhausted from the long flight from Dusseldorf, he joined the herd of passengers making their lemming-like way to the baggage claim, hoping he wouldn’t have to travel overseas again for a while.
Now, I know we can argue the point to excess, but to me, it reads better with some context and gives the sentence a little more gas. Here are a few more examples.
I had her wrist firmly in hand.
I squeezed her wrist.
She closed the door firmly.
She slammed the door.
The horse loped around the arena speedily.
Comfortable in the saddle, Matt loped around the arena.
He stuttered haltingly.
How about a simple, “He stuttered.”
Read your manuscript carefully.
Read your manuscript with a critical eye toward those annoying adverbs.
Again, they tend to prop up weak or listless sentences, and that’s when I can’t stand those little buggers. When you find them, re-write the sentence and it will almost always be better than the original.
This example from Daily Writing Tips is a perfect example of these useless weeds (King’s description).
“Adverbs, like adjectives, have gotten a bad rap for their cluttering qualities. They are ever so useful, and so applicable and adaptable that writers often employ them mindlessly and indiscriminately. But which of the three adverbs in the preceding phrase (not only mindlessly and indiscriminately but also often) must I mercilessly vaporize with the Delete key?”
How about “…writers employ them without conscious thought,” or maybe, “…writers employ them with unconsidered, gleeful abandon,” or “…writers should find a better way to construct their sentences.”
I don’t think budding authors even know they’re being lazy, or maybe they don’t recognize adverbs for what they are. After reading On Writing by Mr. King, I went back and combed through my first manuscript, excising as many adverbs as I could find, and the truth be told, my writing sparkled when I deleted most of them.
Just this past Sunday, a friend asked if he could pick my brain a little about becoming an author. I have an idea for a non-fiction book.”
“I’ve written a lot of how-to magazine articles, but fiction is completely different and that’s where I’m comfortable.” I suggested some conferences or writing classes he could take to get started, but he had other ideas.
“I just want to talk about language and style.” He glanced around, as if worried that someone was listening in.
I couldn’t resist having a little fun with him. “I can give you a quick lesson now.”
“Write conversationally and avoid adverbs.”
Nodding, he wrote the sentence down on a scrap piece of paper.
It was just too easy, because he was concentrating on the subject at hand, much like writing the first draft of a manuscript, and those adverbs weren’t yet resonating. “Remember, no adverbs if you can help it. Seriously. That’s the best advice I can offer right now.”
“Absolutely. Thanks for your help.”