About Debbie Burke

Crime novelist, suspense and mystery novels are her passion. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Her nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications and she is a regular blogger at The Kill Zone. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

Throw Away Your Shoehorn

My adopted mother adored pretty shoes. She used to say if she won the lottery, she’d spend the money on shoes. A great pleasure in her life was dressing up for church on Sunday morning in a beautiful outfit with a fancy hat and matching shoes.

However, her feet were size 10 ½, limiting her choice of stylish footwear, always geared for women who wear size 6AA.

For her birthday, I often took her shopping for new shoes. The salesperson would use a shoehorn to jam, pummel, and squash her poor feet into lovely pumps that were at least two sizes too small.

Her pain made me cringe. I wondered how she could even walk. The ordeal brought to mind Lisa See’s brilliant book, Snowflower and the Secret Fan, about Chinese foot-binding.

By now, you’re wondering what shoes have to do with writing. Glad you asked…

A critique partner is rewriting her first novel. Her subject—a teenager struggling with a compulsive disorder that badly affects her appearance—is fresh and compelling. Her voice is wry and funny. For a relatively new writer, she has a strong grasp of how to write good scenes, from heart-rending to laugh-out-loud hysterical.

But, as good as they are, many of them don’t move the story forward.

No matter how hard we critiquers try to shoehorn these wonderful (but unnecessary) scenes into her plot, they don’t fit.

How do you determine if a scene is needed?

Novelist and writing instructor Dennis Foley identifies four major functions of a scene:

  1. Reveal character;
  2. Move the story forward;
  3. Create or increase tension;
  4. Foreshadow.

To test if a scene is needed, figure out what functions it performs. Today’s fast-paced fiction generally requires scenes that multitask, accomplishing two, three, or all four functions.

Revelations about a character can occur on the fly, while the character is taking action that moves the plot forward.

A scene may foreshadow lurking disaster, which increases tension for the reader at the same time it drives the story closer to that disaster.

Dennis offers another tip to determine if a scene is needed: remove the scene. Does the story still make sense? Can the scene easily be plunked down somewhere else in the story?

If so, it’s not part of the causal linkage that moves the story forward.

Causal linkage means something happens in A that leads to B where something else happens that leads to C, and so on. Each scene builds on the ones that precede it.

This tip is easy when stories are told in chronological order with limited characters.

However, what if you’re writing a Ken Follett-style saga or an epic fantasy with multiple plotlines and a large cast of characters? Such stories may jump around to different locations and time periods. That makes it tougher to determine whether or not a scene is necessary.

Even in “big” books, causal linkage can still be determined. Separate each plotline and string its scenes together. You can do this with color-coded index cards, plotting on a spreadsheet, or using Scrivener. After you’ve put all scenes from one plotline together, read them.

Does each scene link causally with the scene before and after it?  If a scene could fit anywhere, it may not be needed.

“But,” the writer protests, “if I cut those scenes, my book will be too short.” 

That leads to the question: how long should a book be? Lee Masterson at Writing-World.com offers guidelines for various genres but his main point is: a book needs to be as long as it takes to tell the story.

Better to write a concise, effective story than one that’s bloated and boring because of unnecessary verbiage added to reach an arbitrary number of pages.

If the story is “too short” as a novel, consider recasting it as a novella, a short story, or a screenplay. In a screenplay, one page equals approximately one minute of screen time. One-hundred-twenty pages is a two-hour movie.

The problem of excess scenes is not limited to newer writers. I just went through it with my current work in progress. About two-thirds of the way into the first draft, I hit a wall. A critique buddy suggested an abrupt, unexpected turn in the plot that punched a hole right through that pesky wall. Her idea was brilliant!

However, that change meant going back to the beginning and rewriting 200+ pages.

I’d worked diligently to hone certain scenes to the height of emotional resonance. As proud as I was of my darlings, they were now dead ends, irrelevant to the new plot direction.

So I used a trick TKZ authors taught me: cut those parts and stick them in an “outtakes” file.

You’re not killing your beloved children but instead sending them to a time-out.

A funny thing happened. Those scenes waited patiently, out of sight and out of mind. When critiquers and beta readers went through the revised draft, they didn’t notice their absence.

Those deleted scenes almost never get put back into the story. As wonderful as I thought they were at the time, those size 10 ½ scenes just plain didn’t fit the size 6AA plot. To shove them back in would require serious shoehorning.

And that just makes my feet hurt!

TKZers, how do you decide if a scene is needed? Do you have hints to chop the excess?

 

 

Debbie Burke’s thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale in October for $1.99 or FREE on Amazon Prime. Here’s the link.

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Pop Quiz

Time for a pop quiz to test your knowledge of sneaky word traps writers can fall into.

Today let’s talk about homonyms, homographs, and homophones.

Homonyms are words that sound the same but have different meanings.

Example: “write” and “right.”

Homophones are words that sound alike but have different meanings and spellings.

Examples: rein, reign; aisle, isle; suite, sweet.

Homographs are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings and different pronunciation.

Example: desert (a hot dry place, pronounced with an accent on the first syllable) or desert (to leave, accent on the second syllable).

Don’t worry—the above definitions won’t be on the test. Only hardcore grammar Nazis care.

Some words are just plain confusing. They may sound similar but are spelled differently and have different meanings.

But…professional writers should know how to choose the right word in a particular sentence.

We’ve all typed “there” when we mean “their” or “to” when we mean “too.” Those fall more into the category of typos.

I’m talking about out-and-out goofs because of incorrect word choices. When your book is published, some readers are quite happy to point out those errors that you missed. Embarrassing.

Standards of proofreading and copyediting are on a steep decline. The below examples are boo-boos I’ve collected lately from recently published books, news articles, and blog posts.

See if you can make the right choices.

  1. Juicy gossip (a) peeked (b) peaked (c) piqued her interest.
  2. The hangman held the rope (a) taut (b) taught.
  3. The professor (a) honed (b) homed in on the novel’s theme.
  4. The study (a) sited (b) sighted (c) cited research from the Mayo Clinic.
  5. A serial rapist is careful to (a) allude (b) elude capture.
  6. The eyewitness (a) poured (b) pored over the photo lineup of suspects.
  7. A new zoning ordinance was brought before the city (a) council (b) counsel.
  8. Floodwaters (a) reeked (b) wreaked (c) wrecked havoc in homes along the river.
  9. A depressed person can suffer from (a) deep-seeded (b) deep-seated anxiety.
  10. The state must reduce the budget by (a) paring (b) pairing expenses.
  11. Skateboarders are getting a bad (a) rap (b) wrap.
  12. The (a) effect (b) affect of the new court ruling will (c) effect (d) affect millions of people.

How many of you looked up the test answers on Google? Come on, tell the truth.

That’s OK. It’s not cheating–it’s research. The lesson here is it’s always better to double-check before you submit to an agent or editor who might turn you down because of improper use. Or before you hit the “publish” button on your indie book.

Self-published books carry a stigma because many are full of such errors. If you’re an indie author, don’t contribute to the bad reputation with sloppy word choices.

Now that I’ve reached a certain age, I may think I’m sure about proper usage but sometimes find I’m mistaken. When it’s so easy to check on sites like Grammar Girl or Writing Forward there really is no excuse not to.

Answers:

  1. (c) piqued.
  2. (a) taut.
  3. (b) homed. “Honed” means sharpening a blade.
  4. (c) cited.
  5. (b) elude. “Allude” means to refer to.
  6. (b) pored.
  7. (a) council. “Counsel” refers to advice or legal help, e.g. The judge said, “Let counsel approach the bench.”
  8. (b) wreaked.
  9. (b) deep-seated.
  10. (a) paring.
  11. (a) rap.
  12. (a) effect, (d) affectThese two words are constantly mixed up. Effect is a noun (The effect of the ruling). Affect is usually a verb (The ruling will affect millions)…unless it refers to a blank facial expression known as “flat affect.” Then it’s a noun.

Not only that, affect is a homograph (spelled the same but pronounced differently). When used as a verb, the accent is on the second syllable. When used as a noun, the accent is on the first syllable.

No wonder writers get confused. Glad I was born in the USA because I’d never master the vagaries of English if I had to learn it as a second language!

 

TKZers, how did you do on the quiz?

Which homonyms, homophones, and homographs do you find confusing?

What words do you tend to mix up?

Do you have favorite tricks or tips that remind you of correct usage?

 

During October, here are two ways to get a cheap thrill:

Debbie Burke’s bestselling thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale for $1.99; or if you’re a member of Amazon Prime, you can read it for free. Click here.

 

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Heil Safari – First Page Critique

Today let’s welcome another Brave Anonymous Author who offers the first page of Heil Safari.

Title:  Heil Safari

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot. He had stepped to the caution line and put one foot on the other side. The caution line, marked with wooden stakes and a strand of wire across the top, warned the prisoners of war from getting too close to the wire fence fifteen feet beyond. On the fence going around the entire prison camp there were signs in English and German that read:

ATTENTION!

Forbidden to Move Inside

Restricted Area

Violators Will be Shot

The American guard in the corner watchtower shouted, “You there! On the deadline! Git back!” The guard raised a rifle to his shoulder. “I said git back!”

But Fritz didn’t move.

“You damn Nazi,” the guard yelled at Fritz. “Git back or I shoot!”

Fritz still didn’t move, apparently not taking the threat seriously. Or caring. But Beyer took it seriously. He cared.

Returning to his barracks after doing his morning toilet, Beyer now stood still, uneasy. Then he heard the click of a breech bolt coming from the guard tower at the other corner of the compound. In horror he saw a guard hunkered behind a machine gun. He was covering the south end of the compound as if at any moment there might be a general uprising. The nearby prisoners, however, remained still and only stared.

But Beyer had to do something other than stare to see how the crisis would turn out. He couldn’t afford to lose Fritz. The only mining engineer in the Officers Compound, Fritz was essential to the success of Hermes. Beyer was desperate for Hermes to succeed. Being too long cooped in the densely packed prisoners and buildings of the enclosure, Beyer, much like Fritz, was becoming unnerved. Beyer frequently broke out in night sweats, his breathing rapid and shallow, and sigh a low, agonizing moan.

Considering that Fritz might be shot, a shiver of fear raced through Beyer at the prospect of a catastrophe. Without Fritz there may not be a tunnel completion, no one would get out, all the hard work done up to now remaining unfulfilled.

“Damn you! Stop!” the guard with the rifle shouted.

The shout startled Beyer, then he noticed Fritz beginning to take mincing steps, his short height straddling the wire in his crotch.

 

Okay, let’s get to work.

Usually first pages arrive naked and unadorned at TKZ, without genre or background information. Page One must stand entirely on its own. That’s good because a strong first page is critical to whether or not a reader buys your book.

However, this submission included a synopsis. And the synopsis was intriguing. For that reason, I’m going to handle this critique a little differently than normal.

Most writers would rather endure an IRS audit than write a synopsis because it’s damn hard to do well.

In the summary, Anon explained the novel was based on a true but largely-unknown incident during World War II at Camp Trinidad in Colorado. I Googled it and found this article. Essentially, The Great Escape got turned on its head with German prisoners of war trying to escape American captors.

Show, don’t tell is oft-repeated advice for fiction. However in a synopsis, telling is permissible because it’s the most efficient way to introduce characters, lay out the story problem/conflict, and set up what’s at stake.

Anon handled that summary very well. German prisoners plot to escape a POW camp in Colorado because they are going mad from wire enclosure fever. A main character, Beyer, would rather die than endure another day in captivity. But there is dissent among prisoners, some of whom are die-hard Nazis while others are not. There are additional complications because Beyer’s friend Fritz, the chief engineer in charge of building the escape tunnel, is teetering on the brink of insanity. Anon sets up external conflict between German prisoners and American captors and among the POWs themselves, internal conflict with severe psychological stress, and a ticking clock with a race to see if the tunnel can be finished before the engineer completely loses it.

Lots of great potential for a historical thriller. Congratulations on a clear, competent synopsis, Anon.

Unfortunately, on this first page, Anon is mostly telling when s/he should be showing.

The POV character Beyer observes the events unfolding not only from a physical distance but also an emotional distance. Anon tells us he’s concerned but the reader doesn’t feel his apprehension, his helplessness, his panic that Fritz’s actions may not only lead to his death but also ruin the escape plan that can’t proceed without him.

The stakes couldn’t be higher–life or death–which is a great way to kick off a first page.

But the problem is: the reader doesn’t care.

Because we’re not inside Beyer’s skin. We don’t feel his guts churning, smell the nervous sweat under his armpits, taste the bile rising in his throat. We don’t see what he sees—the madness in the wild eyes of his friend Fritz who’s trying to commit suicide. We don’t hear the angry bark of the guard with his twitchy finger on the trigger.

We don’t feel the urgency driving both men to risk death because they can’t endure another day in captivity.

Showing is more than visual—it must be visceral and emotional.

The synopsis used the term “wire enclosure fever.” Unfortunately there is no sense of  fever in this first page.

A few suggestions to consider as you rewrite:

Lead off with a simple dateline that immediately sets the date and location. The reader right away understands this is historical fiction set in a military environment. For example:

Camp Trinity, Colorado, 1943

Next, climb inside Beyer’s skin and stay there. Use sensory detail to bring action to life. Actions trigger Beyer’s thoughts and feelings.

As Jim Bell often recommends, “Act first, explain later.” Give the reader just enough information to set the scene and prevent confusion.

A lot of repetition can be cut and condensed. Consider the first two sentences:

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot.

These two sentences essentially repeat the same information that could be combined into a single sentence with much more punch. Again, it’s telling rather than showing. Instead of having Beyer “wonder” how to save Fritz, he should act. His action may help the situation or it may make it worse. But either way, it moves the story forward.

Every scene needs to accomplish at least five tasks:

  1. Set the scene;
  2. Reveal character;
  3. Introduce a problem or goal;
  4. Demonstrate the stakes if the problem is not solved or the goal is not met;
  5. Propel the action forward.

How do you build a compelling scene? By stringing together groups of sentences that accomplish these tasks.

How do you build a compelling book? By stringing together compelling scenes.

In a fast-paced thriller, each sentence must build on the previous one to push the plot forward. Treat each sentence as a springboard that induces the reader to jump to the next sentence to learn what’s going to happen.

Below is one possible way to rewrite this first page, using additional details gleaned from the linked article.

Captain Martin Beyer fastened the last button of the drab uniform shirt that shamed him every day with its PW insignia: “prisoner of war.” He stomped his feet on the wood steps of the officers barracks to knock the fine silt off his once-shiny Luftwaffe boots. Barbed wire surrounded this desolate, barren patch of dirt named Camp Trinity. On the fence, signs in German and English warned that anyone would be shot if they crossed the caution line, the restricted buffer zone that was fifteen feet inside the compound fence.

“Hey, Nazi, git back!”

The shout from the watchtower caught Beyer’s attention. He turned to see an American guard aiming a rifle at Beyer’s closest friend in the camp, Hans Fritz. The young second lieutenant had stepped beyond a wire stretched taut between wooden posts.

One foot over the caution line into the restricted zone.

Beyer’s gut cramped as he prayed his friend would heed the guard’s warning. Lately, he never knew if Fritz taunted the Americans for sport or if he truly sought death rather than endure another day inside the prison.

There was a wild gleam in Fritz’s wide blue eyes as he teetered on the line, one boot in life, the other in hell.

The metallic click of a breech bolt sounded from the opposite watchtower where another guard hunkered behind a machine gun. “Git back or I’ll shoot!”

“Don’t do it, Fritz,” Beyer muttered. If Fritz died, the escape tunnel plan died with him.

 

The above is about 230 words and conveys most of the same information more concisely plus gives a deeper glimpse into the POV character.

Work on sensory detail that draws the reader in. Let the reader see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the story world you’ve built.

Work on showing emotion and feelings in the POV character. It’s not enough to say he felt alarmed—show his alarm with his sensory reactions.

Examine each sentence. Ask yourself if it repeats information previously stated. If so, choose the strongest version and delete the weaker. Or combine two sentences into one.

Count how many of the five elements listed above are included in each sentence. I try to pack sentences with at least two elements, preferably more. When you compose a sentence, choose an action that reveals character as well as demonstrates the stakes. The consequences of that action either solve the problem or make it worse.

One last point: the title Heil Safari is vague and doesn’t hint at the meat of the story. “Heil” made me think of the Nazi salute so I deduced it took place during World War II. But how does that connect to “Safari”? Maybe refer to the escape tunnel to freedom. Or perhaps the perils that lie beyond the tunnel if they escape successfully. You can find a better title to convince a potential reader to click the “buy now” button.

Don’t be discouraged, Brave Author. You have a compelling storyline based on historical events that are not widely known. World War II history buffs will find this interesting. A strong foundation in fact serves as a solid platform on which to build your fictionalized version. Work on your craft and you should have a good book.

Over to you, TKZers. Suggestions and comments for our Brave Anonymous Author?

 

If you’re a member of Amazon Prime, you can read Debbie Burke’s bestselling thriller Instrument of the Devil for free. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

 

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Writers Conferences – Finding Your Tribe

Courtesy of Flickr

Years ago, my husband and I had a good friend named Jimmy Bogle (not to be confused with the American Ninja Warrior). Jimmy was a little person who stood about four feet six inches in cowboy boots.

Jimmy told stories about growing up in the 1920s and ’30s, during an era when little people were considered “freaks” and “abnormal.” Children born with dwarfism were often hidden away in the basement so they wouldn’t bring shame on their families. Many grew up in isolation, never knowing there were other little people like themselves. A few found homes in circus sideshows or vaudeville but career options were pretty limited.

Then came the casting call for Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.

During the poverty of the Great Depression, parents of little people seized the chance to earn money from their children’s size.

Jimmy was a teenager at the time. He was chosen to take over the role of the Mayor of the Munchkins when the original adult actor (who receives credit on Wikipedia) couldn’t finish the film. Heavy makeup transformed Jimmy into a wrinkled old man.

More than a hundred little people came together and were cast in the movie. Many had never encountered another little person before. For the first time in their lives, they connected with others from similar sheltered backgrounds, with similar problems and feelings. They were no longer isolated but suddenly among friends with whom they had an immediate connection. In 21st century parlance, they’d found their tribe.

Let the celebration begin!

The Munchkin cast was short in stature but long on partying. They drank and danced and pulled pranks. They fell in and out of love several times a night. Full of mischievous exuberance, they trashed the hotel where they were staying.

Knowing Jimmy, we suspect he played ringleader to this merry band of cut-ups.

In 1981, Billy Barty, Chevy Chase, and Carrie Fisher starred in the film Under the Rainbow, a fictionalized account of the making of The Wizard of Oz. Jimmy scoffed at the movie, saying it didn’t do justice to his gang’s shenanigans.

What does this have to do with writing conferences? I’m glad you asked.

Although writers’ families don’t hide us away in basements (at least not usually!), we are often perceived as different from regular people.

Writers work in isolation, living inside our imaginations. Many are shy introverts and are sometimes perceived as antisocial.

That is, until we get around other writers. Then we emerge from our shells.

At my first writing conference, I was a tongue-tied beginner, ill at ease, self-conscious, surrounded by professional authors who, I was sure, wouldn’t lower themselves to talk to an unpublished nobody.

Big surprise. They were welcoming, encouraging, and, amazingly, as plagued with self-doubt as I was. Shyness melted. Friendships blossomed spontaneously from our common passion.

Like the little people who came together as Munchkins, I’d found my tribe.

I became a conference junkie and my dear husband supported my addiction. Instead of birthday gifts, he treated me to various gatherings.

Along the way, I became a volunteer at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (TKZ‘s own Jim Bell is their keynote speaker this year) and Pikes Peak Writers Conference. I judged contests, handled the registration table, moderated panels, etc. Working behind the scenes made me appreciate the experience even more, seeing how much time and effort went into pulling together a successful event.

Because I saw many different presenters, I became a speaker wrangler for the Flathead River Writers Conference sponsored by my local group, the Authors of the Flathead. Inviting editors and agents for a fun weekend in Montana is a far easier job than querying (begging) them to consider a manuscript.

I learned they were not cruel gods who cavalierly damned struggling writers to slush pile purgatory. They are human beings who genuinely feel bad about rejecting manuscripts. They struggle with budgets, timing, and marketing constraints. They serve as midwives who are often as ecstatic as the author when a book is born.

And they like to talk to writers. They’re glad to demystify the publication process.

Conferences provide a rare opportunity to interact face to face with editors and agents. If traditional publication is your goal, meeting the pros in person can be a big step out of the slush pile. When you’ve paid tuition, they can see you’re serious about your career.

Whether you go the traditional route or self publish, contacts at gatherings can enhance your knowledge in ways you never imagined. I once spent an afternoon in a hotel lobby listening to an FBI agent and a forensic anthropologist trade stories. My collection of business cards is a great source for experts in all kinds of fields.

While the cost of conferences can be off-putting, many organizations offer scholarships or internships. Volunteer help is always needed and may earn discounted tuition.

You can also cut expenses by splitting the gas bill and sharing lodging. I’ve roomed with three pals whom I only see at conferences. Our reunions are always a blast. Like happy Munchkins, we drink, laugh, and stay up all night, although we don’t trash the hotel…at least, not that I remember!

Conferences provide more than education and professional contacts. They take us out of our solitary world and give us a chance to connect with our tribe. I always come home energized, inspired, and eager to write.

Now for a shameless plug: if you’re looking for a friendly, intimate gathering that offers lots of useful information for a reasonable price, please check out the Flathead River Writers Conference, September 22-23, 2018 in Kalispell, Montana.

Look me up—I’d love to meet TKZers in person. We’ll celebrate like Munchkins.  

 

 

 

When Debbie Burke is not writing suspense and thrillers, she’s on the planning committee of the  Flathead River Writers Conference, now in its 28th year.

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Eight Lessons from Digging in the Dirt

Garden in late June

Join me today as we get down and dirty to root out a few parallels between gardening and writing.

  1. Timing matters

The first few years we lived in Montana, a handful of warm, sunny April days always fooled me into thinking winter was over. Sparkling blue sky lured me outside where I chipped through ice to dig up black dirt. New life abounded—robins scouted for nest locations in the bare branches of apple, pear, and apricot trees that were just starting to bud. I couldn’t wait to get seeds in the ground.

Inevitably I planted too early—a spring blizzard usually dumped a foot of new snow the next day and the seeds never germinated. I’d have to buy more and try again weeks later when the weather finally warmed for real.

In those early days, I sent out novels that weren’t ready. In my eagerness to get published, I was blind to immature plots that needed more development and characters that didn’t ring true. Market conditions, pfft! Who needs to worry about that?

Often those submissions resulted in biting blizzards of rejection.

2. Persistence

Veteran Montana gardeners know to plant corn seeds three times in succession. The first batch rots because the soil is still too cold and wet; crows gobble the second round; with luck, the third grows and produces.

Nine earlier novels of mine didn’t make the grade. But I kept replanting to hit the right editor/agent at the right time. Gardeners and writers must be persistent and never give up.

3. Patience

Gardeners and writers must play the long game. Cherry trees don’t bear for seven years after they’re first planted. Books may require similar time from the initial seed of an idea to publication.

I’m more patient these days, willing to give my stories enough time to grow and ripen.

4. Dirty, backbreaking work

While my hands root around in the dirt, my mind stays busy digging out a more compelling plot, digging into the puzzling psyches of difficult characters, or digging out of the inadvertent rabbit hole I burrowed into.

Sometimes my mind winds up as muddy as my body.

5. Weeds, like bad habits, never die

Dandelions, black medic, and quack grass keep coming back no matter how often I pull them. Same with stubborn writing problems. Someone needs to invent Roundup for word tics, repetitions, misspellings, and excess verbiage.

6. Some crops do better in certain years than others

This July’s raspberries ripened fat, sweet, and juicy, while last summer they yielded only hard seeds. Peas that had been plentiful in the past did poorly this year, no matter how much I pampered the vines.

Sometimes I’ve written articles because the subject fascinated me yet they never found their way into print. Other stories I thought were ho-hum surprised me when editors accepted them and asked for more. Perhaps I was trying to sell peas in a market looking for raspberries.

7. Sometimes hard luck negates hard work

Rogue deer crash through the mesh fence and claim the salad bar for themselves. Aphids suck the life out of tomato plants. Grasshoppers strip plants down to mere stems. A freeze in August can destroy the harvest overnight.

Even so-called foolproof crops aren’t immune to whims of nature. One year I dug up what promised to be a bounty of potatoes to find voles had eaten the insides of every single spud, leaving only hollow shells behind.

After almost three decades of novels being rejected, my thriller Instrument of the Devil was published last year. The editor expressed strong interest in the second book in the series, Stalking Midas. I’d finally made it.

Right.

Six months later, the publisher closed up shop. Voles ate the heart out right of that potato crop.

8. Seasons ebb and flow in the garden and in writing

Here’s the current ebb and flow in my career:

Although I’m back in the submissions grind, at least I have lots of practice.

The first draft of book 3 in the series is close to complete and I’m still excited about the story.

Marketing keeps me spinning my wheels in the mud.

This regular gig at TKZ is great fun. I get to write about my passion, interact with interesting authors, and learn. What’s not to like?

 

“The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye”

 

Today in my garden, “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,” to quote the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma. In a few weeks, I look forward to breaking cobs off the stalks, rushing inside to nuke them in the microwave while still in their husks, then slathering them with butter. In that first burst of flavor, the memory of sore muscles from stooping, bending, and digging fades into the background.

But if a September hailstorm strips the garden bare, there’s always next spring with seeds of a new novel to plant.

 

TKZers, where are you in your seasons of writing?

 

 

Even though Debbie Burke is searching for a new publishing home, Instrument of the Devil remains available on Amazon here.

 

 

 

 

 

7+

First Page Critique – Sofa

Creative Commons usage

Today we welcome an Anonymous Author with a first page that takes place in an unusual location—the East Siberian Sea. Please enjoy this submission. My comments follow.

Title Sofa

August 2007

Overhead clouds cast pale grey shadows over the floating ice chunks adrift on the East Siberian Sea. The Wolf stood at the prow of a crimson, expedition vessel, inhaled the unpolluted air of the Artic, and wondered if this refreshing air existed anywhere else on Earth. He marveled at the inviting crystal-clear water imprinted with cloud shadows, and the magnificent ice shelf that erosion had sculpted into a piece of frozen art. The silence stirred something within him a memory of gentler times, peaceful times.

The Wolf, aka, Dimitri Volkov tore his eyes from the surrounding beauty of nature and focused on a drifting iceberg 100 yards in the distance. He gazed at the NASA Aqua satellite photograph of a massive iceberg floating off the shoreline. He raised his binoculars and zoomed in on his target, inspecting the surface of the immense mountain of ice. A sharp crack vibrated through the air. Startled, he watched as a wall of ice broke off the ice floe and crashed into the sea. It disappeared beneath the icy water and shot an angry spray of seawater hundreds of kilometers into the air.

Dimitri grabbed his satellite phone and punched in a number. “Zdravstvuj, “Its here, but melting,” he said, in Russian. He listened for a moment, nodded several times, and ended the call. He twirled his fingers in the air and pointed to the sea. A sleek Poseidon inflatable boat splashed into the water; The Wolf shouldered a mustard-colored, waterproof equipment bag and lowered himself over the side, jumping the last few feet into the rubber dinghy. He revved the engine and maneuvered the inflatable toward the iceberg.

As he approached the glacial mass, Dimitri noticed the iceberg cast a blue-green sheen, a dead giveaway; the iceberg was melting faster than he thought. He nosed the inflatable to the base of the berg, shut off the engine, and pitched the anchor overboard. He opened his equipment bag and snagged a pickaxe, ice drill, laser, clawed shoe cleats, and a spool gun. Aiming the spool gun at the iceberg, He shot an aluminum wire into the iceberg twenty feet above the waterline.

            The ice creaked, moaned.

Concern clouded Dimitri’s deep-set, black eyes as he glanced up. A crack appeared in the center of the blue-green haze.

Okay, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

The setting with ice floes and an expedition ship in arctic waters is exotic and intriguing. But you need to spell Arctic correctly. I’m guessing this is the start of a thriller or Clive Cussler-style adventure about climate change and melting polar ice caps, with the potential for international conflict because of the geographical location, north of Russia near Alaska. That’s compelling.

However, the title Sofa doesn’t hint at anything like that. My first thought was couch? Not compelling. You’ll come up with something better, perhaps relating to the locale, the intrigue, or the conflict.

The second sentence begins with The Wolf. Right away, I thought that was the ship’s name because ship names are italicized while human names generally are not. Why introduce the character in a way that causes momentary confusion?

Instead: Dimitri Volkov, aka The Wolf, tore his eyes from the surrounding beauty…

Whoops, another hiccup. Eyeballs generally stay in their sockets unless someone tears them out. It’s the gaze or focus that can be torn from the surrounding beauty.

Your description is vivid and colorful, but inviting doesn’t feel like an accurate adjective for water that must be near freezing temperature. You do a good job with sensory detail–I can smell and taste the fresh bite of pristine air. Nicely done. His memory of “gentler times, peaceful times” hints that the present is neither gentle nor peaceful–good foreshadowing.

Strengthen the sentence even more by cutting the vague word “something”: The silence stirred something a memory within him, a memory of gentler times, peaceful times. 

Work on more precise word choices (details below). Improve the clarity of action so the reader can see exactly what is happening. Also cut repetitions of ice, iceberg, and icy. Here’s a possible rewrite of the second paragraph to address those issues:

The Wolf, aka, Dimitri Volkov, aka The Wolf, tore his eyes gaze from the beauty of nature surrounding him beauty of nature and focused on a drifting iceberg 100 yards meters in the distance. He gazed at compared it to the photograph he held in his left hand–a the NASA Aqua satellite image taken a year before of photograph of a massive the same iceberg floating off the shoreline. He raised his binoculars and zoomed in on his target, inspecting the surface. of the Although still immense, the mountain had shrunk significantly of ice.

[Paragraph break] A sharp crack vibrated through the air. startled him. He watched as a wall of ice broke off the ice floe and crashed into the sea. It disappeared beneath the surface, icy water and shot an angry shooting spray of seawater hundreds of kilometers into the air.

Watch out for switches between US and metric measurements. The iceberg is 100 yards away, then water shoots hundreds of kilometers in the air. One hundred kilometers equals 62 miles in the air. I’m guessing you mean meters, not kilometers.

Next Dimitri jumps the last few feet into the dinghy and shoots a wire twenty feet above the water line.

Incorrect or inconsistent word choices jar the reader. Suggest you stick with the metric system since presumably Dimitri is Russian.

Need to fix typos in the following:  Dimitri grabbed his the satellite phone from his belt holster and punched in a number. “Zdravstvuj, “Its it’s here, but melting,” he said, in Russian.

This excerpt has been written in fairly close third-person point of view (POV). Yet you deliberately withhold the other side of the phone conversation. That may lead to the reader feeling cheated since the close POV gives him/her the expectation of hearing responses from the person Dimitri called. If the plot requires the speaker to be kept secret (and it probably does), suggest you come up with a different technique to mask that information.

Clarify the action in the below examples:

Why does Dimitri nod several times? That doesn’t make sense because the listener can’t see him unless it’s a video phone, unlikely in 2007.

Make clear when Dimitri twirls his fingers in the air that he is signaling to deckhands and giving the order that they lower the inflatable. As it reads now, the dinghy appears to fall magically from the heavens.

Recommend you replace semicolons with periods. Semicolons belong in nonfiction, not fiction.

Calling him both Dimitri and The Wolf seems unnecessary because, at this point, the reader doesn’t know the significance of the alias or code name. Suggest you defer the nickname until later, for instance, when another character refers to him as The Wolf or it comes up naturally as the plot unfolds. Right now, switching between the two names seems forced and pretentious.

Dimitri first needs to start the dinghy’s engine before he revs it.

Snagged is a good verb but it doesn’t quite fit here because he’s removing a number of items from the gear bag. Snagged sounds more like grabbing one item on the fly.

The following should read: Aiming the spool gun at the iceberg, he…

You say the iceberg cast a blue-green sheen. I like the visual a lot but the verb cast implies a reflection on another object, like the surface of the sea. A paragraph later, you write: A crack appeared in the blue-green haze. Is the reflection cracking or is it the actual iceberg? Suggest you find a more precise verb than cast, perhaps emitted a blue-green sheen or glowed with a blue-green sheen.

Don’t need italics for The ice creaked, moaned. By putting the sentence in a paragraph by itself, you’ve already emphasized it without using italics unnecessarily.  

Concern clouded Dimitri’s deep-set, black eyes is a POV lapse. He can’t see his own eyes cloud or that they’re deep-set. Also black eyes raises a question for the reader. Does he have a pair of shiners? Or is the iris color a very dark brown?

A few paragraphs earlier, Dimitri just watched a massive wall of ice crash into the sea. Now he’s at the base of the same iceberg. It could come down on him. Wouldn’t his reaction to the cracking sound be more extreme than simply glancing up? If it were me, I would jerk back, haul up the anchor, and get the hell out of there!

I realize you’re at the end of the first page but Dimitri should have a stronger reaction to the danger.

Brave Author, you have a colorful setting and you’ve set up a promising conflict that could go in interesting directions. But your attention to detail needs work. Correct punctuation, accurate proofreading, and precise word choice are vital. Once you master those skills, you should have an exciting story.

Be especially careful with word choice. Remember Mark Twain’s admonition:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightningbug and the lightning.”

 

Your turn, TKZers. What suggestions can you offer our Brave Author?

 

 

5+

Book Expo America 2018

MONTANA AUTHOR TAKES A SMALL BITE OUT OF THE BIG APPLE

The population of my Montana home town is around 25,000—about the same number of people I encountered during six days at Book Expo America (BEA) and BookCon in New York City.

BEA is the biggest annual convention of book publishers, booksellers, distributors, librarians, and authors in North America. With 840,000 square feet of exhibit space at the Javits Center and nearly 500 exhibitors, the show is so big that Publishers Weekly covers it with daily tabloid reports of 70-100 pages each.

The event is open to industry professionals, not the public. I was fortunate to be invited to check out the inner workings of the business. What a learning experience it was!

Big names draw big crowds. Celebrities launching new books stayed busy autographing advance reading copies (ARCs). Some wait lines rivaled Splash Mountain at Disney World. This year’s stars included a couple of guys named Patterson and Clinton who co-wrote a thriller, along with Nicholas Sparks, Sally Field, Barbara Kingsolver, Trevor Noah, and more.

Debbie Burke and Hank Phillippi Ryan

 

I was delighted to meet the charming Hank Phillippi Ryan at the signing of her new book Trust Me. A few weeks before, I’d watched Hank teach a great online class sponsored by International Thriller Writers (TKZ’s own James Scott Bell also taught a segment of the webinar).

One Librarian’s Bounty

 

 

Librarians from all over the country flock to BEA to pick up bagfuls of free ARCs to help them decide what to order for the coming year. Their biggest expense must be the charge for overweight checked baggage!

Important lesson to authors: librarians are your best friends. If librarians get behind your book, their efficient network can put millions of eyes on your work.

 

 

Not surprisingly, Amazon isn’t exactly the most popular kid on the BEA playground. The headline of one daily report read: “Amazon’s Actions Remain a Problem,” a quote by the CEO of the American Booksellers Association. The article talked about the impact of “lost jobs, stores, and uncollected taxes” due to the online giant.

The Big Five (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster) had large showy booths on main aisles. In contrast, Amazon’s booth was in a distant corner, far from the entrance.

Since Amazon’s Kindle Press had published my thriller Instrument of the Devil, I trekked all the way to the rear of the exhibit hall to visit them. But when I got there…..

Black curtains surrounded all four sides of the booth. Through the gauzy fabric, I could see people moving inside. But there was no entrance.

Hmmm.

Upon further investigation, I was told Amazon specifically requests a private booth for book publicists to meet with major media to pitch upcoming titles.

Oh.

In addition to the Big Five, scores of indie publishers had booths, representing niche markets for religious, ethnic, political and social issues, health and fitness, food and cooking, short fiction collections. No matter what off-the-wall subject you imagine, chances are someone has published a book about it that shows up at BEA.

Children’s and YA book publishers were out in force, introducing thousands of new products: print books, graphic novels, puzzles, interactive 3D devices, plus tie-in merchandising like costumes, cuddly stuffed characters, sports equipment, etc. There were even quaint retro items like pens and stationary. Could writing actual letters be making a comeback?

Waiting for autographs from their favorite authors

 

BEA runs from Wednesday through Friday for industry pros. BookCon follows on the weekend and is open to the public. Thousands of readers crowded the Javits Center on Saturday and Sunday. They pored over new releases, waited in line for autographs from favorite authors…

BookCon 2018

 

…and posed for photos dressed up as popular book characters.

Older folks (like myself) often complain about young people zombie-walking through life with bent necks, mesmerized by their smartphones. Yet at BookCon, I didn’t notice a single example of that disconnection. Kids engaged with each other and were excited about new adventures in reading. Witnessing that gave me hope.

 

 

Audio book sales continue to grow by double digits, 30+% increase in the last year alone.

A major BEA sponsor for 2018 was Blackstone Publishing. In 1987, the family-owned independent audio publisher started producing cassettes in a garage in Ashland, Oregon. They tapped into the town’s renowned Shakespeare Festival for narrating talent.

Three decades later, Blackstone has expanded into a full-service publisher of print and e-books in addition to audio, employing more than 200 people. Still headquartered in Ashland, they’ve increased their presence in NYC with acquisitions editors, audio narrators, and a sound studio that’s second to none.

Blackstone also showed me firsthand what a debut author’s dream launch should look like.

Excited debut author Susan Purvis with the banner of her new book

Last April, I wrote about cadaver dogs and mentioned Susan Purvis’s upcoming memoir, Go Find, which Blackstone is publishing. At BEA, they rolled out the red carpet for Susan, including a 10-foot-tall banner at the entrance of the Javits Center.

At their booth, lighted signs showcased new releases. Book covers were displayed on video screens. During signings, representatives guided people through the waiting line, graciously giving out swag including postcards, book bags, and ARCs.

This contrasted sharply with some author signings sponsored by bigger houses where I wondered if cattle prods might be in use!

 

Blackstone’s good treatment of authors has resulted in them picking up bestsellers like Orson Scott Card, cozy queen M.C. Beaton, and mother-daughter fantasy writers P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast.

Despite BEA’s gargantuan scope, it offered opportunities to make personal contacts.

A couple of hours into the first morning, I sank down at a vacant table, already exhausted, eyes glazing over. A woman with a similar dazed expression sat across from me and we commiserated about feeling overwhelmed. Her name was Bee Kapitan, a designer from Vancouver. She had just received an Independent Publisher Award for her interactive e-book How To Say Cheese. I showed her the proposed cover for my new book, Stalking Midas, and she graciously made suggestions. She introduced me to the burgeoning world of interactive book design. We’ll be keeping in touch.

I’m learning from Umair Kazi (l) and Francesco Grisanzio (r)

Another valuable connection occurred with the Authors Guild. I knew of their excellent advocacy for writers but hadn’t gotten around to joining. At their booth, I talked with staff attorney Umair Kazi and digital services coordinator Francesco Grisanzio about rights reversion. Their guidance helped me make a career decision I’d been putting off. Needless to say, after their assistance, I signed up to become a member.

Another service they offer to authors is contract review. Before you sign a publishing contract, AG attorneys will review it and clarify the Byzantine maze of legalese. That alone is worth the $125 annual dues.

Authors Guild has also forged a communication channel into Amazon to register author complaints. Hopefully AG’s advocacy will temper Amazon’s review policies that, to authors, often appear capricious and arbitrary.

BEA gave me amazing insight into the publishing business. If I included all the adventures and interesting people I met in the Big Apple, this post would run into next week!

I’ll stop now and turn it over to TKZers for questions and comments.

A final post script: on the trip home I was privileged to meet a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor. That story is too long to add here but it can be found on my blog.

6+

Virtual Vigilantes – Revenge of the Scambaiters

From: “HALLIBURTON AWARD”
Date: Sun, 06 May 2018, 01:41:36 +0100
Subject: Congratulation You Have Won !!
Hello Dear,
This is to officially inform you that a total of $ 3Million USD has been donated to you by Halliburton Company.

As you can imagine, I was thrilled to receive this message. Such a warm, gracious salutation. They don’t even know me but they address me as “Dear.” How touching.

If you have an email address (and who doesn’t have several?), you’ve probably received numerous 419 scams, named for the Nigerian criminal code section about fraud since many operations originate there and in West Africa.

For your listening pleasure, here’s a catchy tune about 419 scammers entitled “I Go Chop Your Dollar.”

Advance fee schemes are the most popular: the mugu (Nigerian Pidgin for “big fool”) is asked to wire money in order to receive lottery winnings or awards, like the $3MM from my generous friends at Halliburton. Or the fraudster spins a tale of the death of a loved one (often related to a dead dictator like Gadaffi) who’d secretly stashed millions, now inaccessible. If you, dear trusting victim, will help by sending money for bribes, bank fees, etc., the bounty will be split with you. No extra charge for misspellings and fractured syntax in their communications.

Most of us wisely hit “delete” and don’t give spam a second thought.

But there are virtual vigilantes who fight back by scambaiting. The Better Business Bureau defines scambaiting as “getting even with person or a business that has either scammed you or attempted to scam you.”

Some scambaiters tie up criminals in long, convoluted email and phone exchanges with the goal of wasting as much of the scammer’s time as possible to prevent them from targeting other victims.

However, more aggressive vengeance seekers, like 419eaters.com, engage criminals in a “cyber-sport” game to turn the fraud back on the perpetrators. Some scambaiters cooperate with law enforcement to ensnare con artists. Many, however, act as freelance vigilantes.

Initially, the scambaiter pretends to play along with the scheme. He regretfully cannot follow the scammer’s original instructions but offers an alternative plan. For instance, he may answer along these lines:

My dear Friend,

Even though I’ve never met you, I can tell you are a person of the highest integrity. I put my absolute faith in you as my honorable friend that you will guarantee I will receive my reward as soon as I transfer the required fee to you. In order to facilitate that, please fly to London at your earliest convenience where my bank is located, and check into the Ritz (or the Savoy or other expensive accommodations the scammer has to pay for). While you are there, my trusted advisor, the Barrister Dr. Mon T. Python, will meet with you to arrange transfer of my monies into your hands.

Most sincerely with undying gratitude for allowing me to be of service to you,

I. M. Sucker

Except there’s always a slight regrettable hitch…One delay follows another, always with sincere apologies, while the scammer runs up expenses waiting to collect from Mr. Sucker.

Another variation moves the delivery location from place to place, necessitating more travel, time, and cost, sending the eager scammer on a wild goose chase in pursuit of his elusive fortune.

In one elaborate scheme, “Shiver Metimbers,” a well-known scambaiter, strung along the scammer “Mr. Martins” for several weeks. Finally Shiver had a long conversation by cell (recorded and available for listening below) that he was on his way to the Western Union office to deliver the money. In the background, traffic noise indicated a busy urban street.

As Shiver claimed to be entering Western Union, a sudden, loud crash could be heard, along with screeching brakes and blaring horns. The cell remained on so Martins could hear screams of agony, arriving sirens, concerned police and emergency personnel.

Guess who the unfortunate fake victim was?

Poor Mr. Martins remained in limbo for several days. One can only imagine his dilemma. Should he stay, hanging on the chance he’ll still receive the money? Or cut his losses and return home empty-handed?

Finally the frantic Martins reached “Gladys Knight,” Shiver’s pip of a secretary (half the fun seems to be making up names of players). Miss Knight regretfully informed him that her boss had been tragically killed.

Even more tragically, the promised money got lost in the confusion.

In addition to wasted time and money, the scammer is often publicly humiliated as well. He may be required to send embarrassing photos as proof of his “true” identity to receive the promised money. Such photos become “trophies” on the scambaiter’s wall of shame, shared all over the net.

The Better Business Bureau and law enforcement strongly advise against scambaiting. Revenge against criminals can be dangerous. Even experienced scambaiters like Shiver Metimbers warn of the dangers. After all, these folks are criminals. They could wreak vengeance of their own if the scambaiter isn’t highly skilled at hiding his location and true identity.

This topic started plots swirling in my head. Elusive scammers lurking in cyberspace seeking hapless prey; angry victims trying to get back their money; even angrier fraudsters who’ve been suckered.

When I did a Google search for novels about scambaiting, I found none, only a compilation of scambaiting stories by Shiver Metimbers.

Hmmm. Is this an untapped reservoir for crime fiction?

To work, the setting would obviously need to be broader than protagonist and antagonist squaring off at dueling computers. Still the concept intrigued me.

What do you think, TKZers?  Have you read stories about scambaiting? Do you see potential for a new fictional trend?

 

Update: In last month’s post about cadaver dogs I mentioned a pending search for a skier who’d gone missing last February in Montana. A few days after my post, the mission was launched with dog teams brought from other areas. A couple of hours into the search, a Golden Retriever from Colorado located the skier’s body buried under avalanche debris. Here are more details: Flathead Beacon news story. After months of uncertainty, the family at last has closure.

 

 

 

The Kindle version of my thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale for $1.99 until the end of May.

Try a cheap thrill!

2+

First Page Critique – The New One

Welcome to today’s brave Anonymous Author with the first page entitled The New One.

THE NEW ONE

“I’m new,” the vampire said.

Of course, at the time I didn’t know she was a vampire.  I didn’t even know vampires existed.

So.  She’d come in off the street.  My last patient of the day had just left, followed out the door by Dorinda, my receptionist.  I planned to do paperwork for a while.  I was standing at Dorinda’s desk flipping through messages when I looked up to see a woman silently watching me.  I jumped involuntarily as she spoke.

“Dr. Gilder, I presume?”

“Yes.  I’m Carrie Gilder.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Office hours are over for today.  You should call the office in the morning and make an appointment.”  I started around the desk.  “Now, if you don’t mind—”

“Please.  It’s important.  I won’t be able to come back in the morning.”

I looked at her, appraising.  She was striking.  Tall, well dressed, elegant.  She radiated power and confidence.  I felt drawn in by her eyes, somehow.  Maybe that’s why, almost against my better judgment, I relented, as if I had no choice.  “Step into my office.”

I watched as she glanced around the room.  What a contrast, I thought.  My office is warm and comfortable, with its quaint country decor and fresh flowers gracing the credenza along one wall.  And she’s so sleek and, what?  Cold comes to mind.  She bent to smell the late summer flowers, touching a petal with one long finger.

She sat in the comfortable overstuffed chair opposite mine.  I was making notes.  Young woman.  Attractive.  Blonde hair, dark eyes, almost black.

“You’re very lovely, Dr. Gilder.”

“Thank you?” I said, frowning.  Not something I usually hear from my patients.

“Okay,” I said with a shrug.  “First, why don’t you tell me who you are?”

The young woman leaned forward in the chair and extended her hand, which I found surprisingly cold.  “I am Pica.  Pica Sharp.”  She then settled back in the chair.

I looked at her curiously.  “Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

“I was 27,” she replied.

“Was.”  Odd way to say it, I thought, making a note.

“Yes.”

“So, Pica, why are you here?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Well, you’ve got fifty minutes.”

She frowned.  “Yes.  I understand.  Cut to the chase, then.”

 

OK, let’s get to work. Upfront disclaimer: I’m not well-versed in vampire fiction. Please chime in if you’re more familiar with the genre. Suggestions are in blood red, naturally.

First, the title. While the line– “I’m new,” the vampire said.–piqued my interest, the title did not. The New One sounds vague and colorless—it gives no hint about genre, plot, character, conflict, or theme. Perhaps its significance becomes clear in the book but it doesn’t make a strong first impression on the reader.

A title must grab attention in a few short words, offering a tantalizing taste of what’s inside the book. A vivid cover may prop up a nondescript title. But in today’s competitive publishing world, authors need to make the strongest first impression possible, using every tool at their disposal. Search for keywords that relate to your plot: blood, vampire, undead, immortality, seduction, etc. Check out synonyms to trigger more ideas. Vampire fans, please add your suggestions to the list.

Anon, you quickly and clearly set up the situation: A psychiatrist or psychologist is alone in her office after hours when a vampire enters, seeking treatment. Carrie Lister’s normal world tilts.

The undercurrent of disturbance isn’t overly dramatic—no dead bodies, weapons, or explosions. Yet the reader gets the sense that Carrie’s life will undergo major changes because of her new patient. That is more than adequate to kick off an intriguing tale.

Now to the details:

“I’m new,” the vampire said.

Of course, at the time I didn’t know she was a vampire.  I didn’t even know vampires existed. A short, neat summary w/o wasting time on backstory. Well done.

However, upon re-reading, I wondered about that first line. It’s not clear when Pica actually says this. Kicking off a story with an attention-grabbing first line is important but if that bit of dialogue doesn’t actually occur, it feels like a bit of a cheat. A few paragraphs below, I’ve inserted the line in a different place.

Pica is a great vampire name. I’m guessing, Anon, that you also meant to refer to the disorder–pica–of eating things that are not normally considered food, like…uh…blood.

While you establish the setting and situation clearly, modifiers like “silently” and “involuntarily” are unnecessary. Adjectives and adverbs dilute the power of strong nouns and verbs. I also rearranged the order a bit for clarity.


So.  My last patient of the day had just left, followed out the door by Dorinda, my receptionist.  I planned to do paperwork for a while.  I and was flipping through messages at Dorinda’s desk flipping through messages when I looked up to see a woman silently watching me.  I jumped. I hadn’t heard her enter. I jumped involuntarily as she spoke. She’d come in off the street.

“I need to talk to you. I’m new.” [Inserting the “new” line here may eliminate the feeling of a cheat.]>

Watch out for the proper sequence of action and reaction. In the original, it sounds as if Carrie looks up to see Pica yet it’s Pica’s voice that startles Carrie. However, Pica is “silently” watching. Choose either sight or sound as the trigger: 1) Carrie looks up and sees Pica, then jumps, followed by Pica speaking (which is how I rewrote it); or 2) Pica says, “I’m new,” causing Carrie to jump, then she sees the unexpected visitor.

“Office hours are over for today.  You should call the office in the morning and make an appointment.”  I started moved around the desk to escort her out. “Now, if you don’t mind—”

You follow with a nice subtle reminder that she’s a vampire: ”I won’t be able to come back in the morning.”

Chop unnecessary verbiage. Watch out for words like “was” that often indicate passages that could be rewritten in a stronger way. Cut modifiers like “almost.” Below are several ideas to tighten up the prose:

I appraised her: looked at her, appraisingShe was striking, tall, well dressed, elegant.

Given two choices of how to express a thought, cut the weak and always go with the strongest:  Maybe that’s why, almost against my better judgment, I relented, as if I had no choice. “Step into my office.” Suggest you delete almost against my better judgment because the latter phrase I relented, as if I had no choice does a much better job of illustrating the irresistible pull the vampire has over Carrie. It also hints at her personality (more on that in a minute).

I watched as She glanced around the room.  What a contrast, I thought,.  My to my warm, comfortable office is warm and comfortable, with its quaint country decor and fresh flowers gracing the credenza along one wall. You don’t need I watched as or the separate declaration My office is warm and comfortable… Instead, incorporate the description into Carrie’s ongoing thoughts.

And She’s so sleek and, what?  Cold came to mind.  She bent to smell the late summer flowers, touching a petal with one long finger. The petal fluttered to the floor. Italicize cold to emphasize. I also added a small detail about the petal dropping to underscore Pica’s sinister quality.

She sat in the comfortable overstuffed chair opposite mine.  I made was making notes: Young woman.  Attractive.  Blonde hair, dark eyes, almost black.

“You’re very lovely, Dr. Gilder.”

I frowned. “Thank you?” I said, frowningNot something I usually hear from my patients usually say. I shrugged. “Okay, ” I said with a shrug.  “First, why don’t you tell me who you are?”

Thank you” followed by a question mark makes Carrie sound uncertain, as if she’s not sure how to react. If you intend to show she lacks confidence, that works. But it struck me as odd because a psychologist has likely heard strange statements from new patients and would already have practiced responses.

The young woman leaned forward in the chair and extended her hand. , which I found It felt surprisingly cold in the warm evening.  “I am Pica.  Pica Sharp.”  She then settled back in the chair.

Strong sensory details, especially touch, add to the mood. The reader not only sees Pica but feels her. Her cold handshake serves as more than simple description—it underscores the vampire theme and unsettling discomfort that Carrie experiences.

Choose a strong verb instead of modifying a weak one. I studied her. looked at her curiously.  “Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

She replied, “I was 27.” she replied.  For more impact, place the punchline at the end of the sentence.

“Was?”  Odd. I made way to say it, I thought, making a note. Nice hint of vampire immortality.

The style is minimalist and understated but maybe too understated. First person POV gives an opportunity to showcase a captivating, distinctive voice. However, Carrie’s tone sounds bland and clinically detached. I suggest you exploit the first person voice to give more hints of her personality under the professional demeanor.

Read Jim Bell’s VOICE. His terrific examples show how a character’s background colors her attitude and reactions in ways that don’t slow the story’s action.

Below are some thoughts that might trigger ideas to add depth to Carrie’s attitude.

Is she inexperienced and a little unsure? Is she a sincere healer who believes she can help patients? Or a burnout case putting in her time? Is she a seasoned old hand who’s heard it all? All, that is, except for a patient who’s a vampire.

Why does she make an exception to see an after-hours patient? Is she bored with her life and this piques her interest? Does she need the money? Maybe she has nothing to go home to. Kids are grown and moved out. Or she dreads going home to her mate because he’ll be drunk again.

Why does she succumb to the vampire’s will? What in her character makes her vulnerable to Pica’s allure?

Obviously, Carrie’s full background and experience shouldn’t appear in the first page but her voice must hint at why she is unique and why the reader should turn the page. Carrie must be interesting enough that we’re compelled to follow her journey, the same as she is compelled to listen to this mysterious patient outside normal working hours.

Anonymous Author, you did a good job of orienting the reader to your story world. You present the situation, set the scene, introduce two major characters, hint at the conflict, and raise questions. If you fully exploit the first person POV to amp up Carrie’s voice, you’ll be on your way.

Your turn, TKZers. What suggestions can you offer our brave Anonymous Author?

 

For a cheap thrill, my book Instrument of the Devil is on sale for $1.99 during May.

 

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Cadaver Dogs – The Nose Knows

Gruesome warning – The following contains graphic details about cadavers.

Sage on a water search
Photo courtesy of Stacie Burkhardt

On a bright March day near Anchorage, Alaska, Stacie Burkhardt lifts the lid of a chest freezer in a barn. With gloved hands, she picks up an object wrapped in plastic that’s the size and shape of a deer haunch but it’s not. “This is Revlon,” she says, pointing out perfectly manicured fingernails. Underneath lies a foot which Stacie also grabs. “And this is Tootsie.”

These are not animal parts but human.

The smell from the freezer makes Susan Purvis gasp and pinch her nose, even though she and her search dog Tasha spent a decade in what she calls “finding the stinky”—recovery of bodies.

Their dark humor might sound disrespectful but is necessary to cope in their grim profession.

Their mission: train dogs to help solve crimes and bring closure to grieving families. Both have risked their lives to recover the dead.

Tasha searches avalanche debris
Photo courtesy of Susan Purvis collection

Susan and Stacie are teaching a two-day specialty course in avalanche rescue and HRD—human remains detection—to twenty teams of search dogs and handlers from as far away as Juneau, Bethel and Fairbanks. All are volunteers and work closely with the Alaskan State Troopers, the law enforcement agency that oversees Search and Rescue missions.

During exercises, Tootsie and Revlon are hidden in the snow in the remote Talkeetna Mountains for the dogs to find and alert their handlers.

Sun dazzles on deep pristine snow while the dogs bark and jump, eager to start the hunt. Their enthusiasm is infectious. Despite the gruesome quest, the search is fun, playful, and adrenaline-fueled as shown in TV coverage.

Twenty-three-years ago, Susan had a goal to train her black Lab puppy Tasha as an avalanche dog to save lives. But reality intervened. Susan recalls, “I didn’t plan to make a career out of finding the dead but that’s how it happened. Missions may start as rescues but most often wind up recoveries. At that point, I just wanted to bring missing family members back home.”

In 2001, Susan and Stacie met at a cadaver dog boot camp led by legendary trainer Andy Rebmann. There, dogs learned to find remains on the ground, hanging aboveground, buried, and hidden in objects. They practiced with samples as small as a tablespoon because, in real-life situations, remains can be scattered and tiny: bone fragments, teeth, blood, and adipocere (the post-mortem waxy tissue formed by anaerobic bacteria).

In her own home freezer, Susan kept “Mr. Nub,” a severed finger, along with his tooth, and blood-soaked rags that were the remains of “Kimmy” (clearly marked “Biohazard”) as training aides for Tasha.

According to Andy, 80% of training is human and 20% is dog. “If you’re having problems with your dog,” he says, “look in the mirror.” He wrote Cadaver Dog Handbook – Forensic Training and Tactics for the Recovery of Human Remains, the definitive reference guide in the profession.

Specific words are used to command the dog, such as Find Fred, Mort, or Decomp. The dog’s alert signal can be: eye contact, bark, or lie down. A passive alert is preferred in crime scenes so the dog doesn’t disturb evidence.

Susan recalls a case she worked where a murder victim had been shot, chopped up, burned, then buried under a ton of landscape stone. Tasha’s avalanche training taught her to dig to uncover victims but, in this situation, digging was prohibited. Susan worried her dog might violate that rule but she alerted to the location without digging.

However, Tasha broke the number one rule—she found a small bone and proudly pranced around with it in her mouth, tail wagging. She was forgiven because she found evidence that professional investigators had missed the day before.

Killers may think they can outsmart a dog by hiding and masking the scent with extreme measures like wrapping the body inside an animal carcass. “But the human body is constantly decomposing,” Susan says, “and the dog always knows. That’s why we train for every situation, under every condition, and with every stage of human decomposition.”

Water search guided by Sage
Photo courtesy of Stacie Burkhardt

Stacie recalls a mission on the Pilchuck River for the remains of a murdered female. In the initial search, a trailing dog was able to follow the victim’s fresh scent and locate her lower extremities. Teams searched for the next few weeks but conditions – “the decomp” – wasn’t right. Finally Sage, Stacie’s cattle dog-Lab, caught a whiff and swam across the river, muscling against the current.  Her alert confirmed she wasn’t just taking refuge on a stack of rocks in the river. She was standing on a grave. Even though the victim had been found, the case remains unsolved.

How sensitive is a dog’s nose compared to a human’s? Humans have six million olfactory receptors. Dogs have 300 million receptors. What humans see, the dog smells.

Scent cone

Scent is strongest at the source but water, wind, and terrain move it in a fan shape, called the scent cone. The farther away, the weaker the scent.

Humans shed “rafts,” dead skin cells mixed with bacteria, at the rate of 50 million rafts per second. One-third fall to the ground and two-thirds rise to float in the air. Susan likens it to the character Pig Pen in the Peanuts comic strip, surrounded by a cloud of debris. Each individual gives off a unique scent.

Skin raft

 

 

Underwater recoveries are the most difficult. According to Susan, “Currents, temperature gradients, and surface wind can move scent any which way, making it difficult to locate the source.”

For water work, handlers submerge a cage or weighted PVC pipe containing remains to simulate a drowned victim.

In underwater searches a cage protects human remains.
Photo courtesy of Stacie Burkhardt

“Many people don’t realize a dog can locate the scent of a drowned human,” Stacie explains. “The dogs pick up the rising scent after it breaks the water surface, which can be quite far from the subject depending on the wind and current.” Body oils may also gleam on the surface closer in. The handler reads the dog and the conditions to direct the boat and solve the scent puzzle.

Stacie recounts a search for a missing canoer in a local lake: “A newly-acquired sonar was deployed first but soon after came a request to launch the dogs. The conditions were constantly changing but by marking the dog alerts on the GPS and noting the wind direction each time, we were able to narrow down a location. I chuckle because the divers told me my #1 on the map was right where the victim was found, thirty feet down. Dogs 1, Sonar 0.”

Despite popular lore, no particular breed has a corner on keen noses. Stacie and Susan have worked with Labs, Cattle Dogs, Golden Retrievers, Brittany Spaniels, Standard Poodles, German Shepherds, Duck Tollers, as well as mutts. Temperament is more important than breed.

Qualities to look for in a search dog:

  1. Is it friendly to people and other dogs?
  2. Does it crave human attention and want to please?
  3. Will it retrieve a favorite toy despite barriers, obstacles, and uneven surfaces?
  4. Does it love the hunt? 

Drive is a term often used by handlers. Dogs must have a high drive to hunt, search, eat, and play. This doesn’t necessarily translate into a well-mannered pet.

A dog needs to be closely bonded to the trainer but independent enough to follow the scent. Human-canine teams must be tuned in to each other’s signals. Even the slightest nuance in behavior or expression can mean the difference between life and death.

Not all search teams have the temperament to learn HRD. Susan says, “You can screw up a dog if they get confused about the scent of death because of the handler’s negative reaction to it. The process has to be fun for the dog.” The reward is chasing a favorite toy, playing tug of war, or food.

After two days in the Alaskan sun, Stacie lifts the freezer lid and replaces Tootsie and Revlon until next time. Susan and Stacie high-five each other and smile at another successful session—twenty dogs trained, no one injured.

And already there’s another mission poised to launch for a skier in Montana who went missing three months ago….

To read more about Susan’s adventures with her search dog, her memoir Go Find is available for pre-order and will be published in October. www.susanpurvis.com

 

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