About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book. www.elaineviets.com

Book Signing Jitters

By Elaine Viets

I still remember my first signing for my first mystery, Backstab. It was a frozen January afternoon in St. Louis, and the streets were slick with ice. I didn’t expect anyone to show up, but there was John Lutz in the bookstore, stamping the snow off his boots. Yep, that John Lutz, the thriller writer whose novel SWF Seeks Same became the movie Single White Female.

I was a recovering newspaper reporter who’d crossed over to novels. “Congratulations,” John said. “You’ve managed to find a business even more screwed up than newspapers.” The copy I signed for John was my first book signing sale.
Mystery writers support one another. That’s still true. Since then, I’ve had too many signings to count, but I still remember how nervous I was at that first signing in 1998.

 Now mystery writer Patricia Hale is facing her first signing for her new novel, The Church of the Holy Child. “It’s my first signing ever, so I’m a little nervous,” she wrote. “I know there will probably be no one there and I’m mentally prepared for that. Do any of you experts out there have some advice?”

Congratulations, Pat. Be sure to tell your audience this is your first signing. They’ll love the idea that they “discovered” you. Here are some things you should be doing:
Right now. Publicize your event. Publicity for an event starts at least six to eight weeks out, but it’s not too late to send an e-newsletter or an e-blast to your friends, family, co-workers, and potential readers. Post your news on all the mystery lists and on Facebook. Tweet it. Send a notice to your community papers and radio stations. It may be too late to make the news columns, but many of them have local events pages that will list your signing for free. Check their Websites. 
Food and treats. Check with the bookstore about its policy. Some don’t allow food because chocolate thumb prints can ruin a book. The damaged novel will be sent back – and charged against your royalties. Other stores allow cupcakes, veggie trays or other snacks. A little alcohol can liven up the event and pry open wallets, if the store permits it.

If you can’t bring food for your audience, don’t forget the sales staff. I often bring cupcakes or Krispy Kreme doughnuts for the booksellers’ break. They’ll remember you remembered them, and maybe recommend your work to their customers.

If the bookstore has a cat or dog, bring it a treat. Unless you’re seriously allergic, take time to pet and praise the bookstore cat. I had a signing where the store’s big orange tabby plopped down on my table in the middle of my talk. The audience laughed and photographed the cat sitting on my books. Afterward, readers brushed the cat hair off the books, and bought them.

Bookmarks are a good way to publicize your books. A less expensive option is business cards with your cover in color on one side and your name, Website, and author e-mail address on the other.

The day of the signing. If you don’t have an audience. You said you were prepared if no one shows up – but if no one comes to your signing, you’ll be rattled. At least, I am. It doesn’t help to tell myself it’s happened to Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark: those empty chairs feel like an accusation. If no one shows up, talk to or help the bookseller. I also do guerilla signings if no one shows. I’ll go up to people entering the store and say, “Hi, do you like mysteries?” If they say yes, I’ll hand them a copy of my new book and tell them about it. Stalking customers works.


If you do have an audience. Even the kindest readers look scary at your first signing. Early in my career, I was told, “If you’re scared, just imagine the whole audience is naked.” That idea was too traumatic. Instead, imagine the audience is your friends and favorite relatives. After all, some of them will be. While waiting for the signing to start, talk to the people. Ask them about themselves. Compliment them on a pretty piece of jewelry or a fun T-shirt. Ask what kind of mysteries they like to read. Once you get people talking, they’ll be your fans.

During your talk. Be prepared to give your readers two or three fascinating facts about your novel, or an unusual bit of research. Tell them why you chose this subject.
Should you read from your novel? Only a short selection, no more than a page or two. And practice first.

               Bring a notebook. Ask readers to sign up for your free e-newsletter.

                    Do not be surprised if someone asks you where the bathrooms are. Just tell direct them. You may also be mistaken for a bookseller. In that case, find a staff member who to help the person.

After the signing. Thank the bookseller for the signing and the nice display. Ask if you can sign your stock. Signed stock can almost always be returned. Often, after the signing, the bookseller will display your signed novels on a table, an end cap (the display on the end of the shelf rows) or best of all, next to the cash register. This is prime bookstore real estate.

Help clean up and put things away. If you brought food, ask the staff if they’d like it.

Have fun. I know, that sounds easy to say. But you’ve worked hard to write your book. Now, enjoy showing it off.


If you’re in Newburyport, Mass., Patricia Hale’s signing is Thursday, August 17, from 5:30-7 p.m. at The Book Rack, 52 State Street.

Good luck, Pat. See you on the bestseller lists.

               TKZ readers and writers, what advice would you give Patricia?

11+

Mystery Cliches: Are They Boring Your Readers?

By Elaine Viets

Are you writing cliches? Of course you are. We all do. Call them cliches or give them a Hollywood make over and claim they’re literary tropes, certain scenes and characters appear again and again in the mystery genre. We writers need to be aware of them. Masterful writers can turn tired scenarios into art. But in lesser hands, those same cliches can annoy readers. Here are a few cliches that real, book-buying readers have identified.

Cozies– The heroine looks at her body in the mirror and describes herself. This has been done again and again.

– The stupid detective who makes major errors no police officer would. Cozy heroines often need a reason to investigate the crime, and a stupid detective is the standard one. But I threw a book against the wall when a cozy heroine went back to the victim’s home and found her diary SITTING ON THE DESK IN HER OFFICE in plain sight and it just happened to have a major clue. Any police officer with a pulse would have taken that diary!

– The protagonist who is Too Stupid to Live and confronts the killer alone. I’ve seen this in all genres – even noir, where cops who should know better confront the killer without calling backup – but it happens more often in cozies.

– I used to pick up every “cupcake bakery mystery” and “knitting circle sleuth” book, but I found that they all opened with a description of the new woman driving into town thinking about how she just broke up with her fiancé, just sold her house, just quit her job, or just inherited the family shop, and how she’s starting over, yadda yadda.

– In one series, the writer starts every book with a scene of waking-up, feed-the-cat, think about what we do for a living, and the people we deal with as we shower. Every time we encounter a character we hear again the same basic spiel that was in book one about the back story of the character or location. We even have to hear about people’s nicknames and why they have them. This gets extremely tiring and I have to skip past it by books two and three.

Thrillers


– I’m tired of books that are always about lost artifacts that good guys race against bad guys to find. Too much detail and a predictable story line.

– This thriller was told in present tense, but then shifted between different time periods and different points of view. I couldn’t keep it all straight and jumped to the end. I don’t want to work that hard to stick with a book.

– Story jumped from city to city to city. The author didn’t set the scenes, just changed the place and dateline at the start of the chapter. I lost interest trying to figure out where it was.

– Ordinary minivan dads and moms suddenly develop SEAL-level skills to save their spouses and/or children. I know parents can perform extraordinary deeds to save their family, like lift up a car to save the baby from being crushed to death, but gimme a break! Or give them a background where they’ve been in the military or have some kind of special training.

– The nice guy hero with the psychopath friend who does all the killing and dirty deeds the good guy won’t do.

– My pet peeve is cardboard characters. Any mystery can have stock characters, but I think they’re especially common in thrillers, where character development is too often sacrificed for action. It’s a turn-off.

Chick lit

– Look, I know it’s a genre – chick lit mysteries – but I don’t always know I am downloading one until I listen to the setup (someone croaks or is croaked) and when the police come, the female protag suddenly notices how tight the sheriff’s shirt is over his manly pecs, and we are off! I have had several opportunities to call the police and never did I start sniffing their aftershave and swooning. Seems like every book with people of both genders in it, two opposite ones (usually) will immediately glom onto each other. Dunno – it’s kind of funny and kind of stupid.

– Don’t know about cops, but it has become apparent to me over the years that all firemen, no matter where they live, have to pass some sort of hunk test before they’re hired. The pizza delivery person has never been hot and interested in me nor has any auto mechanic ever offered special services. Very depressing.

– The heroine has a sidekick friend who is either old, fat, or weird, wears wild clothes and behaves outrageously.

– I’d like a mystery where the characters are not over-the-top having sex with the detective and the ex and so forth, and they have to work to make a living.

Noir
– The protagonist’s wife/husband and child were killed in a car accident or a plane crash and the protag crawled into a bottle. Yes, I know that happens sometimes, but it happens so much in the mystery world I’d be afraid to let any family members board a plane or even drive to church.

– The hero is beaten unconscious in one chapter – kicked, pounded, bloody, broken nose and maybe other bones – and in the next is running around chasing the bad guy, without any damage.

So readers, what cliches turn you off?

FIRE AND ASHES, my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery debuts July 25. Pre-order the e-book for $3.99. It’s FREE for Kindle Unlimited. http://tinyurl.com/yawp64ku

6+

First Page Critique: Like Hell

Critiqued by Elaine Viets

Thank you to another brave soul who gave us this intriguing first page, called Like Hell. This seems to be a mystery with paranormal elements. Let’s start with the first page, then my comments for AA – our Anonymous Author – and then yours, TKZ readers.

 Alyssa lay facedown in a pool of blood that wasn’t hers. The weight of a stranger’s body crushed her, smothered her. She tried to tamp down her panic, but she was drowning in his blood. It bubbled in her nose and mouth, soaked through her clothing. The metallic taste of it gagged her, but she didn’t dare move.

The shooter was still here, his boots echoing in the university library. Someone whimpered, and received a burst of gunfire in response. He talked in a steady stream, in a language Alyssa didn’t understand. She had no idea who he was speaking to.
The thud of his boots approached and Alyssa held her breath. He kicked her ankle and she choked back a cry. With a grunt, he fired another shot into the poor stranger who had tried to shield her when the shooting started.

Somehow she didn’t scream. The shooter maintained his monologue as he paced the room. A door slammed, then … silence. Alyssa felt hot, sick, as she battled the gorge rising in her throat.

The door slammed against the wall with a loud crack and she nearly screamed.  Heavy steps, running straight at her. Suddenly, the body sailed off her, striking the wall with a thud. Impossible. The dead man had to weigh at least 250 pounds.
Alyssa opened her eyes. This man was much smaller than the one who’d shielded her, but he hauled her up with ease. Panic flashed in his blue eyes. He seized her face and jerked her head to the side.

“Where are you hit?” he demanded, as his fingers crawled over her scalp, searching for a wound.

“It’s … not …” Alyssa swayed and he caught her. “It’s not my blood,” she whispered against his chest.

Footsteps thundered into the room. Alyssa clutched the stranger and squeezed her eyes shut.

Bullets struck him in the back. She heard them thud, felt their impact, though he barely flinched.
He roared something incomprehensible. Alyssa glanced at him just before he peeled her off him. His blue irises were replaced with flames.

Stunned, she fell as he pivoted. Black wings erupted from his back, protecting her as he screamed at the shooter in his own language.”

The shooter shrieked. Babbled.

Something crashed against the wall. Her protector cursed. He turned and hauled her up again. His wings closed around them an instant before the room exploded.

Elaine’s Comments: You’re off to a sizzling start, AA, and I’d like to see more of this novel. But I’m itching to change the very first line. Try, “Alyssa lay face down in a pool of blood.” Extra words – “that wasn’t hers” — are distracting, and you tell us whose blood it is a few paragraphs later, when Alyssa tells the creature who saved her, “It’s not my blood.”

The “black wings erupting from his back,” and “blue irises were replaced with flames” are intriguing details: Is Alyssa’s savior an angel or a devil? He’s definitely supernatural. The last line is vivid – I want to know more about who – or what – saved Alyssa and why.

But here’s the major problem with an otherwise good beginning: Alyssa is too sketchy. Give us a few more details. This is a university library. Is Alyssa a teacher, a student, a scholar or a librarian? How old is she? What does Alyssa look like? These vital questions can be answered with a few phrases.

Also, tell us where we are: Is the university library in New York, the Midwest, another country? A word or two will solve that unnecessary mystery.

There’s a stray pronoun that needs to be rounded up and branded in this pair of sentences: “Someone whimpered, and received a burst of gunfire in response. He talked in a steady stream, in a language Alyssa didn’t understand.” Make that “He talked” into “The shooter talked.”

I’d find another way to phrase this sentence about the gorge in her throat: “Alyssa felt hot, sick, as she battled the gorge rising in her throat.” Technically, “gorge” means “throat,” and Merriam-Webster says, “‘Gorge’ is often used with ‘rise’ to indicate revulsion accompanied by a sensation of constriction – ‘my gorge rises at the sight of blood.'”

You might also want to combine these two sentences into one paragraph: “Footsteps thundered into the room. Alyssa clutched the stranger and squeezed her eyes shut. Bullets struck him in the back. She heard them thud, felt their impact, though he barely flinched.”

These are small complaints, AA, and can be easily fixed. You’ve done an excellent job of building tension when the shooter comes back and kicks Alyssa to make sure she’s dead.

I have one technical question about this sentence: “With a grunt, he fired another shot into the poor stranger who had tried to shield her when the shooting started.”
What kind of weapon was the shooter using? I’m not a ballistics expert, but many bullets can go right through that stranger’s body. Why wasn’t Alyssa hit and hurt?

Keep writing, AA. Hope this sells like hell.

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

    Fire and Ashes, the second Angela Richman Death Investigator mystery, will be published July 25. Pre-order the  ebook for $3.99 here

3+

Spaulding Syndrome: Misplaced Clauses

By Elaine Viets
Groucho Marx’s classic line about the elephant in his pajamas could be called “Spaulding Syndrome.” The brilliant comedian knew exactly what he was doing with that discombobulated clause. Marx said the line when he played the African explorer, Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding in “Animal Crackers,” the movie and Broadway musical.
We writers occasionally stumble in the grammatical jungle and trip over tangled verbiage. Here are a few examples of Spaulding Syndrome sighted in the wild:

Her husband is in ladies’ lingerie: “One night in 1957, a resentful and slightly tipsy Jackie waited up for her husband who had been out at a party, wearing nothing but a slip.”
Oops! That clause is dangling in the breeze, and shouldn’t be exposed in public. A better approach would be: “One night in 1957, a resentful and slightly tipsy Jackie, wearing nothing but a slip, waited up for her husband who had been out at a party.”

Dead wrong: Singer Gregg Allman was the victim of a celebrity death hoax. False reports of celebrities’ deaths are a favorite pastime of the get-a-life crowd. Rest assured, Allman fans, the 69-year-old singer is above ground. So how did the veteran rocker reportedly wind up dead?
According to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, “Gregg Allman took to Facebook on Monday to let fans know he’s at home on doctor’s orders.
“‘Hey everyone. I just wanted y’all to know that I’m currently home in Savannah resting on my doctor’s orders,’ the singer posted on his Facebook page.”
But that message got twisted. “Monday afternoon, a radio station reported that Allman was in the care of hospice, news that was spread on social media,” said the paper.
Allman is alive and well, but guilty of a grammatical misdemeanor. Those doctor’s instructions were mighty tall orders, if they were big enough for a rocker’s rest. Replacing that “on” with a dash was one way Allman might have saved himself from premature burial: “Hey everyone. I just wanted y’all to know that I’m currently home in Savannah resting – doctor’s orders.”

Smoked coffee? Here’s another sentence that went astray: “He smoked his first cigarette along with his coffee.” Change that to: “Along with his coffee, he smoked his first cigarette,” and you get the idea without the horse laugh.

Washed up: “I want to wash my hands and face in the worst way,” a novelist wrote. How about washing them the best way?
Except for Gregg Allman, these clunkers were all written by professionals. Spaulding Syndrome is waiting to attack unwary writers. Forgive us our trespasses, readers.
And ponder this Groucho maxim. It would make a dandy blurb: “From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.”

Like forensic mysteries? Fire and Ashes, my second Angela Richman, death investigator mystery will be published July 25. Pre-order it as a $3.99 e-book. http://tinyurl.com/ltfxsyy

 

10+

Passion

Today’s TKZ guest, author Sasscer Hill, has been involved in horse racing as an amateur jockey and racehorse breeder for most of her life. She sets her novels against a background of big money, gambling, and horse racing, and her mystery and suspense thrillers have received multiple award nominations. She’s well qualified to write about writing with passion. Welcome, Sasscer.   — Elaine Viets

 

 PASSION

By Sasscer Hill

Here’s what I believe: if a current of passion doesn’t run beneath a story, it will never be as good as it can be.

Let me mention three authors who have greatly influenced me with the passion that appears to drive their writing. All three are terrific writers with an excellent grasp of the craft of writing, but each has that something extra, that something that polished technique alone doesn’t produce.

Michael Connelly, previously a crime journalist for many years, has a visceral theme in his books that appears to be propelled by a desire for justice. His main character, Harry Bosch, strongly believes that someone must speak for the victims of violent crimes. Bosch’s empathy and integrity lends an authenticity and tension to his stories that has kept readers coming back for years.

Born in 1908, M. M. Kaye, author of the book, The Far Pavillions, had a lifelong fascination with India and the history of the British Raj. She had a wonderful story idea for her book. But her passion for India’s exotic culture, the mysticism and mystery found in its rugged land and among its people appear to have impelled her to create a book that became an international bestseller.

Lke me, author Walter Farley had an intense passion for horses and horse racing. His love of speed and the thrill of the sport, coupled with his ability to translate it into fiction, made his Black Stallion series one of the most popular children’s series of all time.

As a reader, I graduated from Farley to Dick Francis, the famous British author whose career began with horse racing mysteries. In school, the only thing I truly loved, and consequently excelled at, was literature and creative writing. My extracurricular activities centered on horseback riding.

When I set out to write my first horse racing mystery, I worried. Just because I loved the sport, how could I make my racing novel mysterious or compelling for others? Back in the eighties, I went to Maryland’s Laurel Park racetrack quite often. One day standing by the winner’s circle and gazing beyond the vast oval track to the backstretch beyond, I realized it was all there, right in front of me. From the terrible intensity of the gamblers, to the possible cheating by trainers, owners, and jockeys, and finally, to the drug problems. And more importantly, the love and care shown to the horses by the backstretch workers. Most important of all, the heart and courage exhibited by the jockeys and horses when they reach deep inside themselves to pull out that win. I was pretty sure that if I could weave these things with good craft, I could produce a competent and entertaining novel.

Lacking craft, that first novel wasn’t too competent and still hides in a drawer where, I fear, it belongs. I knew nothing about plotting, and had no idea was a story arc was. So I took mystery classes at Maryland’s Bethesda writer’s center where I wrote Full Mortality, the first of four Nikki Latrelle books. The novel was published and garnered nominations for both Agatha and Macavity best first book awards. Several years of hard work and a new agent later, I finished the first in the Fia McKee series and landed a two-book contract with St. Martins. The first in this series, Flamingo Road, will appear on April 18. If adult mystery-thriller readers like the novel half as much as the kids who still love the Black Stallion books, it will be one of the greatest events of my life.

Flamingo Road, published by Minotaur Books, St. Martins Press, can be found at Amazon, bookstores, and any ebook outlet on the April 18 pub date. Find it herehttp://tinyurl.com/gq4lyql

7+

First Page Critique

Admin note: Strong language, content advisory.

By Elaine Viets

Another brave writer has sent in this untitled first page for a critique. We’ll start with the page, then my comments.

Chapter One (Monday)
“I hate men.” Faith sat on the bed cross-legged, Indian style, naked, dipping pineapple chunks and strawberries into chocolate fondue.
“Well, you do have valid reasons to feel that way.” Bill stretched out along the side of the bed opposite the fruit and chocolate, naked.
“I only want to hate men that I knew before I was 24, so I can include Troy. But the list keeps growing.“
“I want you.”
“You’re trying to distract me.”
“Obviously, doesn’t change that I want you.”

“Why are you the only man I can stand to be around?”
“Because I want you for who you are. Because I respect the hell out of you. Because I accept all that you are, and all that you aren’t. Because I don’t want to change a single thing. Because I don’t want to control you. Because I don’t need to have power over you to feel like a real man. And some other things that nicely pass the eye-test.”
“Because you are the only man I have ever felt comfortable with.”

“Exactly what I said, just a bit more concisely. Pass me a strawberry. And you keep eating the pineapple.”
“Ha, you and your pineapple. That’s an old wives’ tale.”
“Not at all. I’ll let you taste my tongue next time.”
“I need to get to the office. Lots to do and I’m losing time here.”
“What? No session two? What the hell?”
“Not today. I owe you, rest up for a few days old man.”
“Fuck. OK. Go harass some men, make the world a better place, save some women, be the super-woman that you are. I will patiently await your blessing me with your presence again.” Bill stood up, picked-up the platter of fruit and fondue and turned toward the door. “Stay moist my friend.”
“Oh, you know I will. Someday I’ll understand how you make me wet and every other guy makes me grind my teeth.”

* * * * * * * * *******************************************************************
Monday
“Everyone, in the conference room please. Bring your creative and strategic minds and plenty of coffee. It’s time to change the world.” Faith skipped down the hall of her tiny set of offices and headed straight into their conference room, which was really just the largest of the tiny offices that she rented for her not-for-profit agency. “It’s time to rid the world of domestic violence. Are you WITH ME?”


ELAINE VIETS’S TAKE:
Two naked people are in bed eating chocolate fondue. This is a bold start to a novel. Many writers are shy about writing sex scenes, or in this case, postcoital scenes. Congratulations for a beginning that grabs readers by the (eye) balls.
This first page has so many possibilities, but many are unfulfilled.
Most important, who are these chocolate lovers? They seem lost, ghostly figures adrift on this mattress like shipwreck survivors on a raft.
All we know is they are naked.
What do they look like?
How old are they? What color is their hair? This is the one time we will truly know if characters are natural blonds. Is her hair tousled from sex and sleep? What about his? Does he even have hair, or is he all the way bare? We don’t know.
They’re both wearing birthday suits. What color is their skin: flour white, deep chocolate, caramel? Are they fit and tan? Pale and flabby? Wrinkled? Or well-nourished and well-developed, as the pathologists say?
What about the lovers’ relationship: Is this a long-term romance? Is it a romance at all? Are they married or single? This appears to be a passionless encounter. Is this true? If there’s heat, we need to know it. If love is dying, we need that too.
Where are we? We know it’s Monday, but what month? What’s the weather? Is it a sunny morning? A chilly afternoon? Is the day as hot as the potential scene? And what about the room? Is this a poorly furnished apartment? A luxurious home? Again, that mattress is floating in space.
The scene is supposed to be sexy, but there’s a strong ick factor. Bill says, “I’ll let you taste my tongue next time.” No, thanks.
Why does Faith hate Troy? Give us a hint: did he beat her, abandon her, or betray her? A word or two would ratchet up the tension.
“I want you.” Bill says this twice. Are these three words said with a sensual smile, or simply a demand? Does Bill love Faith, is he obsessed with her, or does he just want more sex? What actions go with those words? Show us what he’s doing. Show us her reactions: Does she love Bill? Is she bored with him?
What’s he doing with that fruit while they’re talking? Is Bill still eating strawberries? Dipping them? Dripping chocolate on her body? Painting it on his? Does she want him to do that? How was the sex for him? Is he exhausted? Exhilarated? Satisfied? Or was it just a routine roll in the hay?
Bill says he wants her, but is there any physical evidence? Is he fully erect? Does he reach for her? In this version, he’s all talk. Is that intentional?
POV: What’s the point of view here? It needs to be stronger.
Fix that misplaced naked. This sentence reads better as: Bill stretched out naked along the side of the bed opposite the fruit and chocolate. Otherwise, it sounds like the fruit and chocolate are naked.
What old wives’ tale about pineapple?
The dialogue starts out interesting, but slips in to self-help cliches. Bill says, “Because I want you for who you are. Because I respect the hell out of you. Because I accept all that you are, and all that you aren’t. Because I don’t want to change a single thing. Because I don’t want to control you. Because I don’t need to have power over you to feel like a real man. And some other things that nicely pass the eye-test.”
Does he mean that? Or is he being ironic? We can’t tell.
The scene at the office is confusing: We don’t know it’s Faith talking until four sentences into the paragraph. Set the scene first, please. Tell us the time of day.
Now that we’re naked – what are we doing? What kind of story is this? What are we reading? Is this a mystery? A thriller? Crime fiction or adult fiction? A line or two, a little foreshadowing, can answer this questions: “Faith wanted rid of domestic abusers, and she knew the best way was to eliminate the men who hurt those women . . .” “Faith knew the best solution for domestic abusers was to stash them six feet under.” You can come up with better examples, but you know what I mean.
You’ve got the start of a fascinating first page here, Anonymous. Now make it live up to that potential.
What do you think, TKZers? Feel free to add your criticism – constructive criticism only, please. We writers have tender feelings.

Elaine Viets is the author of the critically acclaimed Brain Storm, an Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery. “Brain Storm has everything I love in crime fiction – complexity, intelligence, pretzel-plotting, and a touch of dark humor.”– PJ Parrish, New York Times bestselling author of She’s Not There and the award-winning Louis Kincaid series.
Brain Storm is an e-book, a trade paperback and audio book. Buy it here: http://tinyurl.com/hr7b9hn

 

2+

The Burning Question: He Said, She Said

By Elaine Viets

Every author uses he said or she said. Many of us believe a simple said is better than four-dollar words like “opined” or “uttered.”
Recently, something my editor said made me rethink my own use of said. She said I didn’t need to use he said or she said with every paragraph. She’d been reading the first chapter of Fire and Ashes, my November 2017 Angela Richman Death Investigator mystery. My editor wasn’t against getting rid of all saids – just the ones where it’s obvious who is speaking.
In this excerpt, Angela has been called out to a fatal fire at Luther Ridley Delor’s mansion in mythical Chouteau Forest, Missouri. At age seventy, the Forest financier created a major scandal when he left his wife of forty years for Kendra Salvato, a twenty-year-old manicurist. Luther gave Kendra an engagement ring with a diamond bigger than Delaware, and swore they’d marry as soon as he was free. Now his mansion is burning. Someone inside has died, and the firefighters are about to bring out a body. Nobody knows if it’s Kendra or Luther. Here’s the first version that sparked my editor’s comment:

Hastily dressed gawkers gathered in the cul-de-sac outside the burning house. Angela stood next to a scrawny-legged bald man in blue boxers and sandals, and tried not to look at his pale, flabby chest. She knew him: Ollie Champlain. Ollie lived on stale bar snacks and martinis at the Forest Country Club.
“Woo-eee!” Ollie said. “You can almost smell the money burning. That’s Luther’s house.”
“Don’t be disgusting,” said a worried woman clutching a long baggy plaid bathrobe. “The smell is horrible.”
Angela silently agreed. She caught the toxic stink of melting plastic mixed with the stomach-turning stench of burned meat and hair. The flames were eating the victim’s body.
Ollie refused to be shamed. He acted as if the fatal fire was staged for his entertainment. “Look at the firefighters taking axes to that bay window,” he said. “I can hear the corks popping in that thousand-bottle wine room.”
“Hmpf,” Plaid Bathrobe said. “The way Luther drinks, I doubt if he could keep a thousand bottles.”
“He was definitely pissed tonight,” Ollie said. “I watched him stagger home with his little Mexican cutie. Kendra had to help him inside the house. It was fun watching her in that tight white dress. Luther was too drunk to walk into his house, much less run out of it. Jeez, I hope that’s not her burning in that house. What a waste of a fine p–”
Plaid Bathrobe glared at him. He said “– a fine young woman. He’s a shriveled old coot. I hope she gets out alive.”

Now take a look at the same section after a said-ectomy.

Hastily dressed gawkers gathered in the cul-de-sac outside the burning house. Angela stood next to a scrawny-legged bald man in blue boxers and sandals, and tried not to look at his pale, flabby chest. She knew him: Ollie Champlain. Ollie lived on stale bar snacks and martinis at the Forest Country Club.
“Woo-eee!” Ollie said. “You can almost smell the money burning. That’s Luther’s house.”
“Don’t be disgusting.” The worried woman next to him pulled her baggy plaid bathrobe tighter around her pillowy middle. “The smell is horrible.”
Angela silently agreed. She caught the toxic stink of melting plastic mixed with the stomach-turning stench of burned meat and hair. The flames were eating the victim’s body.
Ollie refused to be shamed. He acted as if the fatal fire was staged for his entertainment. “Look at the firefighters taking axes to that bay window. I can hear the corks popping in that thousand-bottle wine room.”
“Hmpf.” Plaid Bathrobe clearly disapproved of Luther and Ollie. “The way Luther drinks, I doubt if he could keep a thousand bottles.”
“He was definitely pissed tonight. I watched him stagger home with his little Mexican cutie. Kendra had to help him inside the house. It was fun watching her in that tight white dress. Luther was too drunk to walk into his house, much less run out of it. Jeez, I hope that’s not her burning in that house. What a waste of a fine p–”
Plaid Bathrobe glared him into changing his words. “– a fine young woman. He’s a shriveled old coot. I hope she gets out alive.”

What’s your opinion? Is this a case of the less said, the sooner ended?

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First Page Critique: “A Stranger”

 

Critiqued by Elaine Viets

The writers at TKZ regularly volunteer to critique the first page of a novel. We have a big backlog. Congratulations to the brave writer who submitted this first page critique. My comments follow the work.

A STRANGER

This is a story about Timothy Frame, a man who saw the world in decimals and dollar signs. A man who, unable to prescribe himself with any wondrous adventures of his own, was often fond of basking in the adventures he could find inside of his television set, or his relatively new cellphone, which shined just as much now as it did when he first bought it.
This is a story of a man who wore his tie in a single-Windsor knot and could tie it with his eyes closed. A man who could never bring himself to care enough to fork over the seventy-five cents for a local newspaper, but was often bored enough to gaze upon their front pages during his time spent in the queue at his local Starbucks.
This is a story of a man who was proud of the urban-themed wall hangings and area rugs that he had decided, after a long and arduous debate within himself, would define his personality far better than any of the other eclectic, mass-produced items found in that particular section of the Pier One store, located down the street from his one-bedroom apartment.
This is the story of Timothy Frame, who had planned his entire existence, down to the last retirement dollar, and even down to the very slab of stone that would inevitably bear his name and a couple of dates, separated by a single hyphen. Timothy Frame, who had proportioned his life evenly and would measure those proportions accordingly on a day-to-day basis. Timothy Frame, whose teeth had always bled when flossed.
He threw the bloody clump of thread into the wastebasket and carefully placed the box of floss into the wooden drawer beneath his enamel-coated sink. Spitting one final time into the pricey-looking bowl, he thought to himself.
“$99. Money well spent.”
It wasn’t marble, though that didn’t bother him. It looked enough like it to satisfy him. If anyone else were to ever come over, they might fall for the lie at a quick glance.
“This guy owns a marble sink,” they would think. “He’s going places.”

ELAINE’S COMMENTS: You have an interesting essay here. You’ve given us a character sketch. I like your observations, and the careful details. It’s an entertaining exercise, but it’s not the beginning of a novel. I’m assume that’s what you’re writing.
Help us out, please. Your readers haven’t a clue what kind of novel you’re writing: Is it a crime novel? If so, what kind: a thriller? A cozy? A novel of psychological suspense? A hard-boiled mystery? Give us a hint.
Who is Timothy Frame? Is he a victim? A killer? A detective? How old is he?
Nothing happens, except Timothy flosses his teeth. A novel needs action, but there’s nothing to propel this description forward and let the story unfold.
Please let your readers know that something will happen. You can build on that last line:
” ‘This guy owns a marble sink,’ they would think. ‘He’s going places.’ Too bad the only place Timothy was going was prison. For murder.”
Or, “There was one thing Timothy could not plan: that his carefully measured life would be destroyed by . . . .”
Your readers are lost in time and space: Where are we? In a city? A small town? What is the time of day? What time of year?
We’re not even sure enough about Timothy to know his social status. We get hints he’s working his way up. That’s why he’ s so proud of his faux-marble sink. It looks real. But we need to believe he’s real, too.
There is fine writing here, but we writers often fall in love with our own descriptions. Take a hard look at this description and figure out where you want to go. I’d love to see these questions answered and have you turn this into a real novel.

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I Got Your Number

 

the-bionic-woman-1-coverBy Elaine Viets

My body is special, and here’s why: It’s traceable from top to bottom.
Several winters ago, I slipped on the ice in St. Louis and wound up with a total hip replacement. I was recovering from the surgery in the hospital, floating on a fluffy morphine cloud. (Let me tell you, morphine is definitely my favorite drug. No wonder the docs take it away after three days.) Anyway, I was pushed off my morphine high when a pathologist friend called.

hospital-room“Congratulations on your hip replacement!” she said.
Huh? I didn’t see any reason to celebrate.
“No matter what happens,” she said, “if you’re murdered and buried in the woods, they’ll always be able to identify your headless body.”

6-olga-the-headless-ladyThat’s never been one of my top ten worries. But at the time, a serial killer was stalking the area, kidnapping women, cutting off their heads, and leaving their decomposing bodies in trash bags along the highway. Police were having trouble identifying the victims – many didn’t have fingerprints in the system.
But my hip replacement had a nice traceable number engraved in the titanium. Decomp would make no difference. I wasn’t a no body any more.
Fast forward twenty years. That’s when I had six strokes, including a hemorrhagic stroke, and brain surgery. (I’m fully recovered, thanks.) Brain surgery put me a head of most people. When the surgeon sawed open my skull, he held the pieces in with titanium doodads (that’s a medical term). Those are numbered, too.
I am now identifiable top to bottom.
If deer hunters stumble across my skull in the woods, or I wind up on a shelf in some serial killer’s basement, I’m no Jane Doe.

skullMost mystery writers struggle with body identification in their novels. Identifying the victim can slow down a fast-paced plot. Yes, there are dental records, but you need to know the victim’s name to match her to them. Her prints have to be in the system for those to work. And you have to know who she is already to confirm her identity with DNA.
Medical implants cut through that. You usually won’t find out the victim’s name in ten minutes. But implants can help you trace your victim faster. If you want to pick up the pace of your crime novel and have your victim ID’d quicker, consider giving her a medical implant: a knee implant, hip implant, a pacemaker or other cardiac device.

knee_replacementBreast implants are also numbered. Both kinds, saline-filled and silicone gel. So your unidentified woman – or man, for that matter – could be someone who wanted a larger chest. Or she could be a woman who had breast implants after a mastectomy or other reconstruction.

breast-implantThe makers of medical implants sold in the US must list them with the FDA, and ME’s offices usually contact the manufacturer. It’s faster – but not lightning quick. The surgeon who used the implant may have closed his practice, and the records may be in storage. The hospital where the surgery took place may have the records on file.
Twenty years after I had a hip replacement, I had to track down the model and name of the device for an orthopedic surgeon. The surgeon who’d performed the replacement was long gone – but the hospital had the records stored in the cloud.
They had my number.

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First Page Critique

Today, another brave author has stepped into the TKZ spotlight with this untitled First Page critique. Thank you, author, for your courage. We all learn from critiques. I certainly do.
“No Title” is mostly set in Tripoli, Libya. Read it first. My comments are below.  — Elaine Viets

tripoli_0001NO TITLE

Prologue

March 1972 Brooklyn, New York

Lilah stood with her twin, Daniel, under the big black umbrella, fat rivulets of rain dripping off its sides. She barely heard the words of the minister as he said the final prayers committing the remains of her parents to the ground, but the smell of damp dug-over earth on that wet spring morning would stay with her all her life as a reminder of the end of her childhood. Walking unsteadily to the graves with a fistful of dirt, Lilah fell as her knees buckled, and an arm caught her around the shoulders.

“I’m here,” said Harry.

Part I – The beginning of always
(Remember tonight, for it is the beginning of always – Dante Alighieri)

1 November 1973
Tripoli, Libya

“Hide, Lilah! Don’t come out till they’ve left.” Her aunt shoved the sixteen-year-old towards the back stairs as hammering continued at the door below. “Hurry!”

Lilah was tearing across the second-floor gallery when the deadbolt shattered, and black-clad men rammed into the house, demanding to speak to the Sheppards. Mrs. Sheppard, Lilah’s aunt, ran down the wide curving central staircase to join her husband.

The taste of blood filled Lilah’s mouth as she bit her lip to muffle the shriek. She slid to the floor behind the pillar, back against the marble. The kitchen stairs were just a few feet away. Almost there. She clenched clammy hands on her white cotton nightgown. Her heart thumped painfully against her ribs as she waited for a chance. Pushing aside the long tendrils of dark hair that clung to her damp cheek, she ran, bent double, to crouch by the side of a chest.

Dark eyes widened as she scanned the scene below through the railings. She almost sobbed with relief when she saw Harry wasn’t there. The Sheppards’ son was her best friend. Be safe, be safe. Oh, God, be safe, Harry.

One of the intruders kicked over the ottoman in the living room, sending colorful pillows sliding across the polished wood floor. The tall lamp crashed down and sputtered, throwing the room into shadows. Blue moonlight filtered in through gauzy curtains as menacing figures continued the escalating argument.

Keeping to the darkness, she crawled on all fours towards the door to the back stairs, tripping when the folds of her nightie twisted around slim legs. Uncle Dev shook off the hands of one of the men as another swung a lethal looking cane at his head and he crumpled to the floor wordlessly. Her aunt stretched out a hand, her cry choking in her throat.

Lilah gasped, instinct yanking her to her feet. A hand clamped over her mouth, cutting off the scream, and drew her inside the door.

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Elaine: What you have here is well-written and action-packed, but reads like a sketchy outline by a professional writer. You have a good idea, but you have to put meat on those bones. I suggest ditching the prologue. Prologues often raise red flags for editors. You could expand this prologue, and the same information could be used much later in the story, when we know Lilah better.
Your novel really starts in Tripoli, which you call Part I. Are you planning to have several parts? I like the quote, though I wonder if it detracts from the action. Is there a reason for the date and city? Are you going to be moving the novel to other cities and back and forth in time? If not, I’d get rid of the dateline and year. I’m guessing you are not a US writer, since standard date style is November 1, 1973.
The action in Libya gets your novel off to a rousing start, but there’s too much confusion. Readers need a clearer picture of the house to understand what’s happening. We’re told it has a “second-floor gallery,” but how tall is the house – just two stories? Three? Five? The aunt shoves 16-year-old Lilah “toward the back stairs” as “black-clad men” hammer at the door below and shatter the deadbolt. Why push Lilah toward the back stairs? Where do they go? Will they take Lilah to safety? To a hiding place? To an exit or an escape route? Are these the same stairs as the “kitchen stairs”? Please clarify.
You give us an excellent picture of Lilah. Give us more clues about the Sheppards, her aunt and uncle. How old are they? Who are they? Are they Libyans? Foreigners living in Libya? Why do they fear the intruders? Who are these men? Terrorists? Criminals? Where does the Sheppards’ wealth come from: are they merchants, or in some shady business like arms dealing, human trafficking or drugs?
This is an excellent description of the invaders destroying the house: “One of the intruders kicked over the ottoman in the living room, sending colorful pillows sliding across the polished wood floor. The tall lamp crashed down and sputtered, throwing the room into shadows. Blue moonlight filtered in through gauzy curtains as menacing figures continued the escalating argument.”
However, this sentence stopped me: “Uncle Dev shook off the hands of one of the men as another swung a lethal looking cane at his head and he crumpled to the floor wordlessly. Her aunt stretched out a hand, her cry choking in her throat.”
Where is Uncle Dev? Still downstairs? Then help us out by adding “Downstairs at the doorway,” or something similar. That phrase “lethal looking cane” was another stopping point. Can a cane look lethal? Who is wielding it – is the attacker an old man or a young one? Did he take the cane away from Uncle Dev? If we can’t see the attackers’ faces, tell us what they’re like: are they muscular? Wiry and whippet thin? Slight but deadly?
The section ends on a suspenseful note. You have the beginnings of a good opening here. Answer these questions and you’ll be on your way to giving readers a first-rate yarn. Hope you’ll keep writing. I’d like to see where this novel goes.

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