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

First Page Critique – Samuel’s Mine

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Wikimedia Commons

Please welcome today’s Brave Anonymous Author with a submission entitled Samuel’s Mine.

CHAPTER ONE

Oddly enough her fingernails were left unbroken. Each nail remained intact, as sharp and fresh as they had been right before Julia went to sleep. The bright pink polish now served as a beacon of hope in this otherwise despondent room. She looked around, unbelieving, and still trying to figure out the situation. How did she get here? Where is here? She remembered talking to Jacob on the phone. She remembered painting her nails  sitting on the edge of her bed. All else was a fog, like unrecognizable shadows in the poorly lit recesses of her brain. Something was there but yet nothing.

She turned her head. Her neck seized instantly with stiff pain. Oh dear Christ!  A thick perspiration began its slow descent down her forehead. She lay across the floor with a dull but growing pounding building inside her head. She rarely got headaches. I fell, she thought. The fog in her head was drifting away as her surroundings grew clearer. I fell..how could I fall? Sharp jabs of pain filled her upper body. No, No, I couldn’t have. This isn’t right. She winced while moving her head to the left. The room was dark and she could smell mildew. The perspiration slid a smooth path down her face although a chill ran through her. The fog finally lifted from her head leaving the remnants of ache and confusion. How did I get on the floor?

Her body shuttered, skin prickled, as a chilling draft surfaced. She could hear the faint shuffle of footsteps above her. Julia’s legs; however, were cramped and stiff pressed on the cold floor. In fact, the floor she was on was not a floor, but rather stones. She can see them now – large cobblestones like the ones that used to line the streets in the City. They were now biting against her body and left prickles on her skin. Goosebumps. This is not right. She scanned the room fighting the ache, unknowing where she was. Stone block walls now came into her ever-strengthening sight. And that smell was more than mildew, but what?

The thick moisture moving down from her brow found her parched lips and with a fine swoop of her tongue, Julia tasted it. At first the sheer moisture was soothing to her mouth, but shortly the taste surfaced. It was not sweat. This tasted coppery. She had her fair share of fights and busted her lip a few times playing hockey. Julia was tough and knew this taste well. It was the taste of blood.

***

Okay, let’s get to work.

At first glance, the title Samuel’s Mine doesn’t give any hints to the genre, story, or characters. Until the reader knows who Samuel is, it’s hard to determine if this is an effective title. It strikes me as vague and not that interesting. And it certainly seems on the tame side for the creepy scenario painted on the first page, which signals dark suspense or horror.

Julia, of unknown age, evidently had a bad fall she doesn’t quite remember and wakes up in an unfamiliar chilly basement that smells of mildew. She’s lying on a cobblestone floor, apparently can’t move, and is bleeding from a head wound. She hears footsteps above.

What sets Julia apart from many other stories that start with a similar setup?

Pink polish on unbroken fingernails.

Brave Author, your instincts are good to include vivid, specific details in your first paragraph. The reader easily sees Julia sitting on the edge of her bed, painting her nails and talking on the phone with Jacob. Then Julia evidently loses consciousness. She wakes up disoriented and is amazed that her nails aren’t broken.

The second and third paragraphs offer descriptions of her pain, confusion, and cold. A fair amount of overwriting and repetition could be cut and condensed.

More important, creepy descriptions will only hold the reader’s attention for a limited time. Compelling action is necessary to move the story forward. More about this in a moment.

A number of odd, awkward, or incorrect word choices jarred me. I sense the author is trying too hard.

Otherwise despondent room – Despondent describes an emotion that Julia feels but the room doesn’t. Maybe “desolate” instead?

Her neck seized with stiff pain – Is the pain stiff or is it her neck?

Thick perspiration – “thick” distracted me, although you later explain it’s not sweat but blood.

Shuttered – should be “shuddered.”

Lay across the floor – sounds awkward.

Growing pounding building – watch out for three words in a row ending in “ing”

Prickled, prickles, and goosebumps –  repetitive.

Julia’s legs; however, were cramped and stiff pressed on the cold floor. In fact, the floor she was on was not a floor – repetitive. Replace the semicolon with a comma.

…but rather stones. She can see them now [tense change] – large cobblestones like the ones that used to line the streets in the City. – Repetitive. Also, suggest you use this opportunity to specify which “City” so you convey more about her background as well as her possible location.

The thick moisture moving down from her brow found her parched lips and with a fine swoop of her tongue, Julia tasted it. At first the sheer moisture was soothing to her mouth, but shortly the taste surfaced. – Odd phrasing. How does a tongue make a fine swoop? How does a taste surface?

She had her fair share of fights and busted her lip a few times playing hockey. – Another excellent specific detail that characterizes Julia.

The first 400 words basically set the scene and don’t give much insight into Julia’s character nor the conflict. So far, it’s a helpless-female-in-jeopardy trope. Her reactions are generic fear.

However, the details about her pink fingernails and familiarity with hockey and fighting make Julia real and relatable. I suggest you include more specific details like that.

The biggest problem: Where is the action?

The author actually submitted about 1400 words that revealed additional clues about the story’s direction that were not found on the first page. I suggest you cut repetitious descriptions of Julia’s cold, confusion, and pain, and instead move to the action sooner.

I took the liberty of rewriting (in red below) to incorporate developments that didn’t show up on this first page but did occur later in the submission.

Oddly, Julia’s fingernails weren’t broken—bright pink, as sharp and fresh as when she’d painted them, sitting on the bed before she went to sleep. Yet now she lay on a cold floor, cramped with pain, in a dim room, hemmed in by stone block walls. She smelled mildew and a faint odor of something else.

When she tried to look around, spasms seized her neck. A draft chilled her bare legs, her nightshirt pulled up to her panties. Her pink-tipped fingers traced the rough contour of the floor—cobblestones, like old streets in London.

I fell…how could I fall? Unrecognizable shadows clouded the poorly lit recesses of her memory. She remembered talking to Jacob on the phone but after that, nothing.

Wet warmth flowed down her face. When it reached her parched mouth, she licked it. Not perspiration. Blood. She recognized the taste from split lips she’d endured while playing hockey. And from fights. She touched a raw, pulpy spot on her skull. The wound was bleeding badly.

Footsteps creaked on the wood planks above. “Daddy?” she pleaded, her whisper harsh and scratchy.

Through foggy vision, she made out a dark corner where a propane cylinder sat on a table with other tools she didn’t recognize.

Above, a door opened and footsteps clomped down the stairs. She tried to see who was coming but pain froze her. She squeezed her eyes shut, fighting tears.

A new smell, earthy and ripe, familiar yet not. Coal River Farm. The petting goats. Julia and her parents feeding the animals.

When she opened her eyes, a tall, lean man in dirty jeans and boots was walking to the table. Not her father.

“Where am I?” she croaked. “What do you want?”

“Shut up, sow.” He picked up the propane cylinder and a long thin rod.

Terror prickled her senses. She had to fight, run, escape. But when she struggled to stand, her legs felt too weak, too heavy. “Let me go, please. I won’t tell anyone.”

He stood over her, staring down with piercing brown eyes. “How old are you? Nineteen, twenty?”

“Twenty-two.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Why do you care?”

“Ah, twenty-two. You’re ready.”

“For what?” She shivered in the chill of her own blood that now soaked her nightshirt.

He pulled a lighter from his shirt and lit the propane torch. A long blue flame shot out. “The culling.”

***

Print out these early pages and read them aloud.  When you’ve repeated the same description several times—for example, how cold Julia is—choose the strongest way to say it and cut the others.

When you stumble over a sentence as you read aloud, that signals a place that needs smoothing out.

Take several different color highlighters. Assign one color to each element of the scene. For instance, orange for setting, blue for characterization, green for descriptionred for action. Once you’ve identified and marked up the scene in a tangible visual way, it’s easy to see where there’s too much emphasis on one aspect and too little of another. You can then work to play up the most important parts–action and character–to engage the reader.

Brave Author, there is a lot of scary promise in this story. Thanks for sharing your work.

 

TKZers, any helpful ideas for today’s Brave Author?

 

 

 

4+

Eight Tricks to Tap Your Subconscious for Better Writing

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

The subconscious is the writer’s superpower. Ideas, imagination, and inspiration live in that vast reservoir.

The goal is to open a channel between the conscious mind and the subconscious to allow free flow between them.

Like a physical muscle, the subconscious is a mental muscle that can be made stronger with exercise. Many writers don’t use it enough because they don’t understand its value or don’t know how to tap into its depths.

Creative Commons license

The mind is often compared to an iceberg—only a small part shows as “conscious” while the unseen majority is “subconscious.”

What is the subconscious? Novelist/writing instructor Dennis Foley reduces the definition to a simple, beautiful simile:

The subconscious is like a little seven-year-old girl who brings you gifts.

Unfortunately, our conscious mind is usually too busy to figure out the value of these odd thoughts and dismisses them as inconsequential, even nonsensical.

The risk is, if you ignore the little girl’s gifts, pretty soon she stops bringing them and you lose touch with a vital link to your writer’s imagination. But if you encourage her to bring more gifts, she’s happy to oblige.

Sometimes the little girl delivers the elusive perfect phrase you’ve been searching for or that exhilarating plot twist that turns your story on its head.

At those times, she’s often dubbed “the muse.”

The trick is how to consistently turn random thoughts into gifts from a muse. Here are eight tips:

#1 – Be patient and keep trying.

Training the subconscious to produce inspiration on demand is like housetraining a puppy.

At first, it pees at unpredictable times and places. You grab it and rush outside. When it does its business on the grass instead of expensive carpet, you offer lots of praise. Soon it learns there is a better time and place to let loose.

Keep reinforcing that lesson and your subconscious will scratch at the back door when it wants to get out.

#2 – Pay attention to daydreams, wild hare ideas, and jolts of intuition. Chances are your subconscious shot them out for a reason, even if that reason isn’t immediately obvious.

Say you’re struggling over how to write a surprise revelation in a scene. Two days ago, you remembered crazy Aunt Gretchen, whom you hadn’t thought about in years. Then you realize if a character like her walks into the scene, she’s the perfect vehicle to deliver the surprise.

#3 – Expect the subconscious to have lousy timing.

That brilliant flash of inspiration often hits at the most inconvenient moment. In the middle of a job interview. In the shower. Or while your toddler is having a meltdown at Winn-Dixie.

Finish the task at hand but ask your subconscious to send you a reminder later. As soon as possible, write down that brilliant flash before you forget it.

#4 – Keep requests small.

Some authors claim to have dreamed multi-book sagas covering five generations of characters. Lucky them. My subconscious doesn’t work that hard.

Start by asking it to solve little problems.

As you’re going to bed, think about a character you’re having trouble bringing to life. Miriam seems flat and hollow but, for some reason you can’t explain, she hates the mustache on her new lover, Jack. Ask your subconscious: “Why?”

When you wake up, you realize Jack’s mustache looks just like her uncle’s did…when he molested Miriam at age five.

Until that moment, you didn’t even know Miriam had survived abuse…but your subconscious knew. That’s why it dropped the hint about her dislike for the mustache. She becomes a deeper character with secrets and hidden motives you can use to complicate her relationship with Jack.

#5 – Recognize obscure clues.

This tip takes practice because suggestions from the subconscious are often oblique and challenging to interpret.

You want to write a scene where a detective questions a suspect to pin down his whereabouts at the time of a crime. You ponder that as you drift off to sleep. The next morning, “lemon chicken” comes to mind.

What the…?

But you start typing and pretty soon the scene flows out like this:

“Hey, Fred, you like Chinese food?”

“Sure, Detective.”

“Ever try Wang’s all-you-can-eat buffet?”

“That’s my favorite place. Their lemon chicken is to die for.”

“Yeah, it’s the best.”

[Fred relaxes] “But not when it gets soggy. I only like it when the coating is still crispy.”

“Right you are. I don’t like soggy either.”

“Detective, would you believe last night I waited forty-five minutes for the kitchen to bring out a fresh batch?”

“Wow, Fred, you’re a patient man. About what time was that?”

“Quarter to eight.”

“So you must have been there when that dude got killed out in the alley.”

[Fred fidgets and licks his lips] “Um, yeah, but I didn’t see anything. I had nothing to do with him getting stabbed.”

“Oh really? Funny thing is, nobody knows he got stabbed…except the killer.”

Lemon chicken directed you to an effective line of questioning to solve the crime.

#6 – Tiny details pay big dividends.

You’re writing a story about a woman, Susan, searching for her dead grandmother’s missing diamond. In the description of Granny’s garden, an empty snail shell appears. Seems kind of silly but it’s first draft so you leave in the detail. You can always cut it later.

In the second draft, you realize, when Susan was little, she and Granny used to collect snail shells.

Now Susan goes outside and picks up that empty shell you’d left earlier in the garden. The diamond falls out.

Before she died, Granny hid the diamond where only her beloved granddaughter would think to search because of her long-ago interest in snail shells.

Like the mustache mentioned earlier, you didn’t know the story needed that detail but your subconscious did. It planted the seed, sat back, and waited for you to recognize it.

#7 – Bigger problems need more time.

In my WIP (working title: Eyes in the Sky), an unseen mastermind is pulling strings to cause harm to the main characters. At page 100, that antagonist is revealed to the reader but remains unknown to the protagonists.

A beta reader suggested keeping his identity secret until even later to increase suspense. It was a great point but would require major rewriting.

For several weeks, I pondered the problem both consciously and subconsciously.

At last, my muse offered a different solution. The mastermind is still identified at page 100. But now suspicion additionally falls on a minor player. That secondary character has an even more compelling motive to harm the protagonists. I simply hadn’t recognized it until my subconscious brought it to my attention.

Rather than withholding the identity longer, instead I beefed up the additional suspect to make the reader wonder which antagonist is the ultimate villain.

Tip #8 – Practice trigger activities.

Whenever a story gets caught in a corner, I go for a walk. I stretch out stiff muscles, breathe fresh air, and let my mind wander.

Before long, the solution pops up from my subconscious and I rush back to the keyboard.

Walking is my trigger activity. It works. Every. Single. Time.

That’s because, for years, I’ve conditioned my subconscious. Like a bell at a factory that signals the start of the shift, a walk signals my subconscious that it’s time to go to work.

Through experimentation, you can find a trigger activity that opens the channel between your conscious and your subconscious. It might be listening to music, reading, playing basketball, meditation, skydiving—what you do doesn’t matter, as long as it works for you.

Once you find your best trigger, use it whenever you need your subconscious to produce. The more often you use it, the stronger the reinforcement between the activity and the results.

Photo credit: Pixabay

 

That little seven-year-old girl wants to please you. She is happy to bring gifts as long as you keep encouraging her.

When the channel between the conscious and subconscious flows freely, the deep well of imagination bubbles up.

 

Your writing will show the difference.

 

TKZers, do you have favorite tips to access your subconscious?

 

Post script: recently Joe Hartlaub blogged about improving creativity by writing with a font called “Comic Sans.” Sounded pretty woo-woo but I always trust Joe’s advice so I tried it while drafting this post. It works. Thanks, Joe!

 

Debbie Burke is still trying to figure out the hidden meaning in the latest five-star review for her thriller Instrument of the Devil :

“Very easy to apply. Great instructions…Product works great just like the expensive ones you buy at the store.”

Whatever.

It’s available on Amazon here.

10+

Surveillance by Keystrokes – Giving Permission to Snoop

By now, we’re all pretty used to doing a Google or Amazon search, then having ads pop up about the item you searched for.

Take that a step further: Have you walked into a business but didn’t buy anything? Then next time you check Facebook, an ad for that business appears on your feed?

Happened to me for the first time about a year ago. I went into an independent bookstore in Whitefish, Montana to make sure they still had copies of my book in stock. I left without purchasing anything.

When I got home, I happened to check Facebook. An ad popped up for that same bookstore. How did FB know I’d been there? I hadn’t Googled it. No credit card transaction had been processed to connect me to that store.

However, the smartphone in my pocket knew I’d been there.

The amount of data recorded by that device creeps me out…especially when I didn’t knowingly put the information into it.

Recently I made airline reservations on my laptop. When I opened the calendar on my smartphone to enter the flight times and numbers, they were already there. What the…? I purposely haven’t synced the laptop and smartphone to talk to each other.

Yes, it was convenient but it bothered me. What uncomfortable magic suddenly connected the two devices? It hadn’t occurred several months earlier when I last bought tickets from Delta, nor with American Airlines where I’d booked flights a week before. What had changed?

Somewhere hidden in terms and conditions, apparently a new provision allowed access to my phone. By whom? Google? Delta? The phone manufacturer?

If anyone more techie than I am (which means 99% of the population) can explain this, I’m all ears.

Stealth “permissions” sneak past us whenever we check that box: “I agree to the terms and conditions.” When you download a game, an app, or make a purchase, do you read all 47 pages of underlying legalese? Probably not. Additionally, since terms are often subject to unilateral change by the company without notice, what good does it do to read them?

We have traded privacy for convenience, one app at a time.

Smart devices invade our homes. Alexa eavesdrops 24/7 on conversations. In some instances, she has been known to broadcast private conversations to third parties, as happened to this Portland, OR family who learned their discussion about hardwood flooring had been shared with a person on their contact list.

https://www.kiro7.com/news/local/woman-says-her-amazon-device-recorded-private-conversation-sent-it-out-to-random-contact/755507974

Nicolaes Maes

So…in the privacy of your bedroom, what if you complain to your spouse about your rotten boss? Suppose the oh-so-helpful Alexa sees fit to send that conversation to that boss because s/he happens to be on your contact list. Ouch.

Never mind what else Alexa might overhear in your bedroom!

Lately my husband and I have been listening to a Michigan attorney named Steve Lehto on You Tube. He delivers short, entertaining podcasts about legal issues, specializing in vehicle warranties and lemon laws. Sometimes he goes off on an unrelated topic that catches his interest. This video addresses stealth permissions on smartphone apps.

Steve reveals that when you buy or lease an Android smartphone, it comes preloaded with certain apps including one that keeps track of keystrokes on the phone’s keyboard. Sounds innocuous, right?

Until you realize every text message, every bank PIN, and every credit card number you type is recorded. A record of those keystrokes may be available to whoever pays for that information.

Steve didn’t mention iPhones but it’s not a great leap to imagine they share similar apps.

Older devices like Blackberries have mechanical keyboards rather than electronic. You tap a key and a contact switch causes the letter to appear on the screen.

But smartphone keyboards are different. They record keystrokes electronically (known as “keylogging”) with no mechanical switch. Somewhere in cyberspace, someone is keeping track and storing every keystroke.

I don’t bank or pay bills online because hackers gallop miles ahead of safeguards. Security patches close the breach only after the horse is long gone out the barn door.

http://Embed from Getty Images

However, I do text. And that’s how the keystroke app slapped me in the face.

Last summer, an old friend visited us in Montana and left behind his small, well-worn Bible. A few weeks ago, he died in San Diego. At the time of his death we were away from our Montana home, on vacation in Florida, meaning we had to fly from Tampa to San Diego for the funeral.

We wanted to take his Bible to the memorial so I texted our neighbor in Montana and asked him to look for it among the books stacked on our coffee table. I described it as a small, turquoise Bible. The neighbor found it and mailed it to us. All good.

Shortly afterward, an ad popped up on my Facebook feed…

Amazon ad on my Facebook feed

…for a pocket Bible in turquoise.

Hmmm.

That unusual combination of keywords could only have come from the text I typed on my smartphone. Android recorded my private text message and passed it on to Facebook who passed it on to Amazon. Now I’m angry.

If you’re arrested on suspicion of a crime, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution requires law enforcement to obtain a search warrant to dump the contents of your phone. The same rules obviously don’t apply to Facebook, Android, Apple, Google, Amazon, etc. because we give up those rights simply by using these convenient devices.

Keylogging apps are sold for legitimate purposes, like checking your minor children’s exploration of internet sites, or to see if they’re texting pals to sneak off to a forbidden kegger.

However, such apps are a hacker’s dream because passwords, bank PINs, credit card numbers, and other sensitive private information can become available to cybercriminals.

It’s like installing a deadbolt on your door then handing out keys to random people on the street.

Crime writers can imagine endless plots arising out of technology scenarios.

My thriller, Instrument of the Devil, was set in 2011 as smartphones first exploded in popularity. In the story, a terrorist hacks into the protagonist’s smartphone. He employs what was then secret technology to eavesdrop on her every word and track her physical location while he sets her up to take the fall for his crime—a cyberattack on the electric grid.

In 2019, those formerly covert apps are widely in use by anyone. They are everyday tools that allow tech giants to mine ever more intimate information about us.

As an author, I’m normally delighted when someone reads what I’ve written. However, as a human being, I resent this invasion into my personal communications.

A wise lawyer once told me, “Don’t put in writing anything you wouldn’t want to be read in open court.” I remember his advice now when I text because…

…Someone is always watching and listening.

 

Your turn, TKZers. Have you experienced creep-out moments due to technology? What nefarious plots can you imagine where smart devices play a role?

 

Instrument of the Devil is on sale for only 99 cents during January.

5+

How Authors Can Help After a Disaster

 

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

NASA Goddard Photo of the Camp Fire, Paradise, CA

The Camp Fire in Paradise, California killed scores of people and destroyed 13,972 homes, 528 commercial structures and 4,293 other buildings (according to NPR, 11/27/18).

Our nephew and his wife were among those who lost their homes, barely escaping with old family photos and two pairs of pants—the size 36 jeans he was wearing, and the size 28 US Navy trousers that had belonged to his grandfather (my father-in-law) when “Pop” served on the USS Enterprise during World War II.

The fire destroyed countless memories, mementoes, and relics of history—the foundations upon which people build their lives, identities, society, and culture.

Amid the devastation, the Paradise Library remained standing, although damaged.

Beth Zimmerman, a national expert on disaster recovery says, “The library will be a key to providing [survivors] a known place to gather and take time to commune with their neighbors. Libraries can soothe children’s fears and help them cope, especially if they are used to going there.”

When everything familiar and comforting is lost, books can help recreate a sense of safety and security.

Melanie Lightbody, head of the Butte County Library System says, “The library is one of the few buildings which survived and therefore will be even more crucial to the community as it rebuilds. A symbol of possibility and hope.”

Efforts are underway to rehabilitate the structure and contents. Author Phil Padgett is spearheading a pledge drive for books to repopulate the library’s shelves. A former FEMA reservist who deployed to New York after Hurricane Sandy, Phil understands the complex, long-term logistics of rebuilding.

Unlike immediate necessities, such as bottled water, food, clothing, and construction materials, books fall into the category of way-down-the-road work. Yes, they are needed but what do you do with them in the mean time when there is no place to put them?

For now, Phil is compiling a list of authors who have pledged to donate their books. In coming months, he will coordinate collection, cataloguing, and storage. Later, when the library is ready to receive the books, he will arrange for shipping.

Books can be solace in time of tragedy, taking people’s minds off their troubles.

One of the best compliments I ever received came from a reader in Florida. My thriller Instrument of the Devil was released at the same time Hurricane Irma hit. The woman said my book had helped her pass the long, difficult week when she (and millions of others) had no electricity.

As authors, we don’t necessarily run bulldozers or nail up plywood but we can help rebuild lost culture.

If you’re an author who would like to donate to the Paradise Library, Phil’s email is: philip.j.padgett@gmail.com 

 

 

 

Does your Amazon holiday gift card have spare change left on it? Catch the January sale of Debbie Burke’s award-winning thriller Instrument of the Devil  for only 99 cents. Or read for free on Amazon Prime. Click here.

5+

Interview with cozy author Leslie Budewitz

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Tis the season and I have great fondness for Christmas cookies. Today’s guest Leslie Budewitz is an expert in those buttery, sugary treats. She is also an Agatha-winning author for fiction and nonfiction as well as an attorney. Her latest book As the Christmas Cookie Crumbles is a tasty mystery with recipes.

Leslie is the author of two cozy series and a reference guide for writers: Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately about Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedures. She’s a past president of Sisters in Crime and, after a two-year stint on the board of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, will be joining the national board of MWA in January.

Welcome, Leslie!

Leslie Budewitz

Question: Although you write cozy mysteries, you also tackle serious themes. How do you balance the lighthearted tone of a cozy with grim issues like homelessness and family dysfunction?

Leslie: Any mystery—any novel—depends on conflict, some internal, some external. Those conflicts often arise from the world around us, whether it’s family tension or a dispute over whose turn it is to beg on a particular street corner. Other cozy authors have tackled social justice issues as well—Cleo Coyle, Elaine Viets, and Diane Mott Davidson among them. The trick in a cozy, I think, is to explore the emotions and motivations that the issues raise and make sure that the external actions flow from those internal tensions, because a cozy is ultimately about the personal impact of a crime and the community response to it.

I tend to use an ABC plot structure, with the murder the A or primary plot, the protagonist’s relationships the B or main subplot, and life in the shop or community the C or secondary subplot. That keeps the balance, I hope, and allows me to sneak in some humor and lighter moments while giving the murder the respect it deserves.

Question: The Spice Shop series is set in Seattle; the Food Lovers’ Village series takes place in a tiny Montana town. Can you talk about the differences in handling urban vs. rural settings? Do the personalities of your big city characters differ from those in a small town?

Leslie: To me, the heart of a cozy is community, and the role of the amateur sleuth is to probe and protect it. That makes a small town a natural setting. An urban cozy works when it is set in a community within a community—the Pike Place Market and Seattle’s restaurant community, or Coyle’s Greenwich Village coffee house and the coffee business in NYC.

On the flip side, small-town series are prone to Cabot Cove Syndrome—after a while, there’s no one left to kill! You can root the conflict in the town, bring it in from outside, or create a clash between locals and visitors. An urban setting makes a high crime rate more credible, and allows you to move around the various neighborhoods of a city, although you have to simplify geography and keep the protagonist’s home or shop at the center.

As for differences in personalities, that’s a great question and not one I’d considered. Both my main characters grew up where they now live and identify deeply with their communities. Erin Murphy in the Village series left for 15 years before returning; that’s a common story, especially in Montana; it’s my story, and I’m enjoying exploring it through her eyes

Question: You’ve worked with a Big Five publisher as well as smaller presses. Share with us the contrasts.

Leslie: They’re not as different as you might think. In both, the author’s primary relationship is with the editor. At my nonfiction house, Quill Driver, my editor was also the publisher. At my fiction houses, Berkley, Midnight Ink, and Seventh Street—large, medium, and small—the editorial relationship is still key, even when the structure differs. Larger houses tend to have more robust systems for accounting, routine publicity, and sales and distribution, although smaller houses often contract with big companies for the latter.

Both the decision of the post-merger Penguin Random House to drastically cut mass market paperback originals and the recent decision of Llewellyn to stop publishing new Midnight Ink titles after the Spring/Summer 2019 catalog, as well as the still-fresh sale of Seventh Street Books, demonstrate that business decisions beyond your control can come out of nowhere and dramatically change your career. The only thing you can control is the work itself. Fortunately, that’s the most satisfying aspect, but being able to predict your cash flow ranks pretty high, too.

Question: You’re an attorney yet none of your fiction features a main character in that profession. Is there a reason you’ve chosen other fields for your characters? Is there a legal mystery in your future?

Leslie: A cozy depends on an amateur sleuth; lawyers and journalists are semi-pros, so if one were to star in a cozy series, she’d probably need to be retired and running a bakery! Pepper Reece in the Spice Shop series managed staff HR for a large law firm that collapsed in scandal, and she uses her knowledge of people rather than a knowledge of the law to solve crimes. But she also reaches out to lawyers and paralegals she’s worked with now and then. Erin Murphy consults her step-father, a lawyer turned herbalist and acupuncturist, when she needs to understand a legal detail or two.

I don’t see myself turning to legal mysteries or thrillers, but I can say that injustice will always be at the heart of what I write.

Question: Anything else you’d like to talk about?

Leslie: While writing is a solitary activity, one of the most important elements in a writer’s career is her community. You and I met ages ago, long before we’d published any fiction. We shared a magical writers’ group for a couple of years, and have met for countless lunches and cups of coffee since then, brainstorming and bolstering. I encourage Kill Zone readers at all stages of their writing careers to form and maintain those communities, on line and in person. Cozies are sometimes criticized as unrealistic—as if Jack Reacher were more realistic than Jessica Fletcher—but one thing they get absolutely right is the fundamental importance of community.

Thanks, Leslie, for sharing your thoughts with The Kill Zone.

****************************************************************************************************

At TKZ, even cookies have aliases. Below is Leslie’s recipe for Russian Teacakes AKA Snowballs AKA Mexican Wedding Cakes:

Merrily’s Russian Teacakes

by Leslie Budewitz

The classic shape is a ball rolled in powdered sugar. But they can also be made as slice-and-bake cookies dipped in chocolate. A reader suggested the Dirty Snowball—add a little cocoa powder to the powdered sugar when you roll the cookie. A delicious idea, especially since a snowball plays a crucial role in the climactic scene.

Whatever you call these scrumptious little treats, I know they’ll be popular with everyone you see this holiday season—even the Grinch and Mr. Scrooge.

1 cup butter (2 sticks), softened

1/2 cup powdered or confectioners’ sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup finely chopped pecans

1/3 cup additional powdered sugar, for rolling

optional:

2-3 ounces semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, for dipping

1 tablespoon cocoa powder, for Dirty Snowballs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter, ½ cup powdered sugar, and vanilla. Combine the flour and salt and stir into the creamed mixture. Stir in pecans. Chill up to an hour.

Roll dough into 1-inch balls and bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for 10-12 minutes. Pour the additional powdered sugar into a flat bowl or on a plate; for the dirty snowball, add the cocoa powder. When cool enough to touch but still warm, roll cookies in the powdered sugar. Cool, then roll in the sugar again if you’d like.

For slice-and-bake cookies, shape the dough into two logs, about 2 inches wide, and wrap in waxed paper, plastic wrap, or parchment paper. Chill about 20 minutes. Slice and bake 18-20 minutes. Cool cookies on a wire rack.

Melt the chocolate and dip one end of each cookie in the chocolate, or drizzle a bit on the end with a spoon. Return to rack to allow chocolate to harden.

Makes about 4 dozen.

Wishing you all a joyous holiday season!

 

 

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First Page Critique – Zip & Millie: Siberian Adventure

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Please welcome today’s Brave Author who’s submitted a first page entitled:

Zip&Milly: Siberian Adventure

Russian train – courtesy of Wikimedia

“Raccoon” — an inquisitive legal assistant from Ducklingburg, U.S.A., appeared in the car of a speeding Siberian commuter rail quite unexpectedly.

Appeared being the operative word. Raccoon was not exactly sure how he got there.

He did not board the rail; did not catch the rail; did not even wake up there with a start. He just . . .  appeared.

A gentle waft of extraordinarily fresh Spring-smelling air shifted and carefully inserted Raccoon’s body into a tight spot between two groups of bulkily dressed people . . . then, before he could get oriented, that same fresh-smelling waft nudged on and pushed him forward, along the swaying length of swiftly moving train, down the narrow corridor with a row of closed compartment doors on one side.

Instinctively, Raccoon steeled his gait — stance wide, head forward, chin in . . . and, finding no grounding point to balance himself, fell in into the closest compartment.

First thing he saw was Zip — or, more precisely, Spaniel Zip’s rear quarters.

“Score! There you are! Zip! Get here!” whispered Raccoon, leaning down. Losing their best client’s dog would be hard to explain back in Ducklingburg.

The Spaniel lay stiffly in the most unflattering position. Head buried deep under the train bench, black hind paws and short un-wagging tail sticking out on the floor, spread like a dead frog, and Zip’s most embarrassing part — the bright-yellow spot of fur under his tail that made him look like he — was not to careful doing business — was shining in full view.

Not like Zip at all, Raccoon plopped on the floor, sinking feeling in his stomach. Anybody who met Zip knew: Zip would rather die than let his rear side be seen in public.

Raccoon caught a glimpse of red under Zip’s hind paws . . ..

“Zippy?!” Raccoon hunted under the bench, hooked his arm around the dog’s neck and, scooping Zip, pulled gently, cajoling, “Zippy, why are you hiding — come outta — OUCH! Don’t bite!”

Zip whimpered, and scrambled, burrowing deeper under the bench, from where he growled with an unapologetic menace.

“Alive!” breathed out Raccoon, and for the first time, glanced up. Where are we?”

The train definitely looked like nothing that connected through their native Ducklingburg.

***

Let’s get to work.

This story appears to be a humorous fantasy about teleportation directed at young readers. The POV character is described as an inquisitive legal assistant named Raccoon from Ducklingburg, USA. He suddenly appears in a speeding Siberian commuter train without knowing how he got there. Kudos to the brave writer for starting with action and minimal backstory.

Animal names set a playful, lighthearted tone but also raise a question: is Raccoon the nickname of a human character or is he actually a furry, four-legged critter with a black mask across his eyes?

In all genres, pictures from the writer’s vivid imagination must translate to the page. In fantasy, that’s even more important because the world is unfamiliar.

Unfortunately, in this first page, the reader feels as lost and confused as poor Raccoon.

A scene in a fantasy world must be made clear to the reader. How does Raccoon know he’s on a Siberian commuter rail as opposed to, say, a New York subway?

The laws of physics in a fantasy world must also be clear.

How does a gentle waft of air carefully insert a person into a crowd? How does it then push him along a corridor? A waft isn’t powerful enough to move a person. Waft means “a gentle movement of air,” so adding gentle is redundant. Perhaps “force field” would be a better term to describe it.

The compartment doors are closed. How does Raccoon physically move through a closed door? Or do you mean a door is ajar and he falls through the opening? Clarify. Delete the extra word: fell in into.

There are too many modifiersquite unexpectedly; was not exactly sure; gentle waft of extraordinarily fresh Spring-smelling air; carefully inserted. Overuse of adjectives and adverbs dilutes the power of the prose.

You’ve chosen some good verbs, like nudged, hooked, scooping, but they’re used awkwardly. Suggest you simply say nudged, rather than nudged on. Also you don’t need pushed in addition to nudged.

The description of Raccoon attempting to steady himself on the swaying train confused me.

Instinctively, Raccoon steeled his gait — stance wide, head forward, chin in

He’s actually steeling his stance, not his gait, which describes movement (walking, running).

Head forward, chin in sounds inherently off-balance, which is how I felt reading this submission. Try physically acting out the movements in order to more clearly explain what’s happening.

Next, Raccoon spots Zip, a spaniel that belongs to an important client. However Raccoon’s dialogue causes confusion.

“Score! There you are! Zip! Get here!” whispered Raccoon, leaning down.

“Score!” is an odd word to use when Raccoon first sees the dog, unless it’s made clear earlier that Raccoon has been searching for him and finally finds him.

“Get here!” should read “Get over here!”

Why does Raccoon feel the need to whisper? Is there someone else in the compartment he doesn’t want to overhear him? If so, you need to show that character.

Losing their best client’s dog would be hard to explain back in Ducklingburg is a good summation of the story problem but seems misplaced. Suggest you move the sentence earlier in the page.

Was not to careful doing business should read Was not too careful doing his business.

When Raccoon sees blood, he worries Zip is dead. But the dog quickly proves he’s alive by nipping, scrambling away, burrowing under the bench, and growling. At the end of all these actions, Raccoon says, “Alive!” The timing of that exclamation is too long after the reader understands Zip isn’t dead.

Here’s one way the page could be rewritten:

Zip the spaniel was missing. Raccoon, an assistant at the Ducklingburg Law Firm, sat at his desk, wondering how to tell his boss that their best client’s dog had disappeared. He took a deep breath. From nowhere, a smell of spring flowers filled his nostrils.

Without warning, a gust of wind whisked Raccoon from his chair and set him down inside the crowded passenger car of a speeding train. The swaying movement made him stagger. He stumbled into a woman dressed in a bulky, fur-trimmed parka. She glared at him and spoke in a language that sounded like Russian. Outside the train windows, snow drifted across tundra.

Before Raccoon had time to steady himself–let alone wonder how he’d gotten there–the sweet-smelling wind shoved him into a corridor with compartments lining one side. He tried to stop the force by planting his feet but the gust tumbled him like a fallen leaf. He fell through the open door of a compartment, landing with a jolt on the floor, sprawled on his hands and knees.

Under the bench seat, he saw a dog’s hindquarters, stained with red, black rear paws spread out like a dead frog. Raccoon zeroed in on a bright yellow spot that looked as if the dog hadn’t been careful while doing his business—the embarrassing spot under his tail that Zip always tried to keep hidden.

“Zippy!” Raccoon reached under the bench to scoop him out but the spaniel sank sharp teeth into his hand. He jerked back. “Ouch! Don’t bite!” Blood seeped from the punctures. “Thank goodness you’re alive. But what are you doing here?” Dazed and dizzy, Raccoon glanced around the compartment. “What are we doing here?”

Odd punctuation was distracting. Insert spaces between Zip & Milly. The “s” in spring-smelling isn’t capitalized. Semicolons are generally not used in fiction. Try Googling punctuation rules to see when dashes, ellipses, and italics should be used. Here’s one helpful link: https://www.myenglishpages.com/site_php_files/writing-capitalization-rules.php

Be careful with your choreography. Movements have to make sense, be clear, and occur in the correct order that they happen. Action comes before reaction. Cause leads to effect.

I suggest you pretend to be on a swaying train and examine exactly how your body feels as you stagger and fall. Kneel on the floor and reach for an imaginary dog under a bench. When it nips, your arm will instinctively jerk back before you yell, “Ouch!”

By physically acting out the movements, rather than simply visualizing them in your head, you’ll have a better idea how to explain each step to the reader.

Brave Author, your humor comes through. Play up that quality. The story premise is fun. Your description of the dog’s hindquarters “spread like a dead frog” is spot on.

You’ve already taken an important step by submitting this first page. Opening yourself to feedback takes courage.

Critique can hurt as much as Zip’s bite. Read these suggestions. Feel free to jerk back in pain and yell “Ouch!” Wash the wounds and put on Band-Aids.

Then come back later and reread. Suggestions don’t hurt as much the second time around. At TKZ, we want to help you make your story as good as it can be.

Most important, please don’t be discouraged. Keep writing.

 

Your turn, TKZers. Any ideas to help out our Brave Author?

 

 

First page critiques work. Shortly after Debbie Burke submitted to TKZ‘s review, her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and was published.

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SATURDAY EVENING POST – 200 Years of American History

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons

 

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

 

 

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

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

1929 Ford 5AT Tri-Motor N9651-Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

4+

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.

13+

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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