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

What Did You Say? Writing Realistic Dialogue

By Elaine Viets

My agent just sent me his suggestions for rewrites on my fourth Angela Richman mystery. Most of his criticisms were about dialogue: it was too long, too wooden, a speech turned into a rant. Based on his critique, I developed these dialogue tips:

Six Dialogue Tips By Elaine Viets

(1) Listen to How People Talk
Go to a bar, restaurant or a coffee shop or a McDonald’s and listen to conversations. I love to eavesdrop on conversations. They help me pick up the rhythm of real speech – and sometimes I hear things I can use. Like the man at the bar who talked to his friend about how to kill his wife. They discussed various fatal scenarios until he finally concluded that he should “accidently” push her radio off the shelf into water when she was in the tub. I was about to call the police when I realized the two men were plotting a novel.

(2) Don’t be too realistic
People say “uh,” and “er” and rarely speak perfectly. They interrupt one another. You need to make your dialogue believable without making it absolutely realistic.

(3) Beware of stereotypes and accents
If your character speaks with an accent, point it out for a sentence or two: He spoke with a heavy Russian accent – but don’t make your readers wade through it for pages.

(4) Cut the small talk
You don’t need all those hellos and good-byes. Normally, they add nothing to the story. If your scene starts with a wife coming home from work and it begins this way:
“Hi,” she said.
“How are you?” he asked. “How was your day?”
Skip the hellos and start with “How was your day?” And let us know if the couple kiss. That could be a key to their marriage.

(5) Break up the dialogue with action
If two characters are talking over breakfast, have them pour syrup on their pancakes, sugar their coffee and cut up their bacon between sentences.

(6) Avoid dialogue tags
She sputtered. He chortled. She raged. He observed. She exclaimed. He interjected. She purred. These are all dialogue tags. Now forget them.
Dialogue tags attribute a line of dialogue to one or other of the characters, so that the reader always knows who is speaking. Tags should be invisible.
All you need are “he said” and “she asked.”

(7) Avoid the “You know, Jim,” syndrome
That’s an information dump disguised as regular dialogue: “You know, Jim, if you want a tax break, equipment that qualifies for the Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit includes solar, wind, geothermal and fuel-cell technology.” Nobody talks like that in casual conversation – not even a salesperson.

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7+

First Page Critique: The Devil’s Noose – A Pandemic Medical Thriller

 

Happy Valentine’s Day. You did remember the one you love, didn’t you? If not, finish this blog, then rush out and find something for your special someone.
Today another Brave Author, known as BA, sent in a First Page Critique. Take a look, and then we’ll talk about it. – Elaine Viets

The Devil’s Noose – A Pandemic Medical Thriller

Former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan
Central Asia

Seven-year-old Aliya Nizova darted through the trees, her little horsehair-trimmed boots slipping on the carpet of wet pine needles, heart pounding in her chest.
Her breath rasped in her throat as she ran, desperately seeking someplace to hide. She came to a stop at the edge of a clearing and looked around. To the right, a gray granite boulder jutted from the ground, a rime of dirty snow clinging to its base. To the left, the mucky soil sloped down to a cluster of tangled berry bushes.
A not-so-distant shout filtered through the dark forest. She made her decision and moved to the left. Cold mud squelched under her boots as she knelt behind one of the bushes.
She waited, ears keen to pick up any sign of her pursuer.
Aliya heard a thump.
Unlike the shouts, the strange noise had come from nearby.
It had sounded a little like a heavy pinecone hitting the ground, she thought. She craned her neck to look around at the nearby trees. But none of them had cones dangling from their branches.
A second thump.
The sound was followed by a strange scuffling noise.
Then silence.
Jumping to her feet, she stepped out from the bushes and back into the clearing. At first, she saw nothing but tea-colored earth and gray-green sedge grass. The breeze picked up, cutting and cold.
Aliya skipped back a step as more thumps sounded next to her, one-two-three, like rifle bullets burying themselves in the earth. The clouds parted, allowing a thin shaft of sunlight to bathe the clearing in golden light. They were all around her.
Small, broken black shapes.
The ground was littered with the bodies of carrion crows. Their heavy beaks and ebony plumage glistened as they lay sprawled on the ground, necks broken and wings shattered They’d fallen from the sky as if expiring in mid-flight.


Even at seven years old, Aliya knew enough about the world to think: Something’s wrong here.
One of the dark shapes moved. The bird’s wings fluttered, beating against the ground with a scuffling sound before going still. She knelt next to it, absently grabbing a slender twig in one hand. She gave it a gentle poke in its side.
No reaction. She poked it again.
The crow’s head whipped around as it struck with a convulsive snap.

Elaine’s Comments: This pandemic medical thriller has a good, creepy opening. It’s well-paced and the writing is energetic. But I have some questions:
– Who is the little girl running from?
All we know is he or she is described as “her pursuer.”
– Why is she running?
Since this is a medical thriller, is she trying to escape from someone who wants to use her in a medical experiment? Or is there another reason: she’s the only survivor in her family or village? Or is her pursuer not related to the medical crisis: is the pursuer a soldier? Let us know. It’s distracting to have this unsolved question.
The second sentence would be a good place to give us an answer:
“Her breath rasped in her throat as she ran, desperately seeking someplace to hide” from the white-coated scientist who wanted to take her away. Or from the soldiers who killed her family. You get the idea, BA.
Where are her parents?
Are they dead, in hiding, or have they been taken away?
A misplaced sentence.
“They were all around her” does not work where it is. I’d make a new paragraph, start it like this:
They were all around her: small, broken black shapes.
Describe Aliya for us more.
Her “little horsehair-trimmed boots” is a nice touch. The dead crows hitting the ground sound like “rifle bullets burying themselves in the earth.” That phrase tells us a lot about Aliya. How many seven-year-olds know how rifle bullets sound? A clever hint. But is the girl big or small for a seven-year-old? Dark-haired or blonde? A phrase or two can answer these questions.
The ending scene with the crow is a good one.
There’s much to love here, BA.
What do you think, TKZers?

Looking for a forensic mystery? You’ll love Ice Blonde, my third Angela Richman novella. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1625673620/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o00__o00_s00?ie=UTF8

4+

Know What You’re Writing

By Elaine Viets

What kind of mystery are you writing?
I ask this question whenever I give a talk to writers, and I’m surprised how many people can’t answer it – at least fifty percent of the audience doesn’t know.
You need to know your sub-genre to sell your book to an agent, or to promote it.
Here are a few types of mysteries. Remember, some of these categories can cross over. Your police procedural may also be a hard-boiled novel.

Cozy mysteries are written in the style of Agatha Christie. The murder takes place offstage, there’s no blood or gore, no graphic sex or cussing. Animals and children are never harmed in a cozy, though Dame Agatha killed at least one Girl Guide. Agatha is the queen of cozies. Cozies are not all tea and crumpets. Many of them address social issues, including racism, poverty and pink-collar inequality. A good example is Margaret Maron’s cozy series featuring Judge Deborah Knott. Long Upon the Land won an Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel.

Chick lit is light mysteries, usually written for women readers. Chick lit centers around female friendships, with a splash of romance and a dash of murder. I’ve written ten chick lit mysteries in my Josie Marcus mystery shopper series, and I have a contest give-away at the end of this blog. Kellye Garrett writes award-winning chick lit. Her first novel was Hollywood Homicide.

Soft-boiled mysteries are between cozies and hard-boiled: some violence and the occasional four-letter word. The best example is Sue Grafton’s alphabet series.

Police procedural. The name says it all. This is a mystery that gives a realistic look at some type of police work, including criminal investigations, forensics, search warrants, and interrogation. Michael Connelly writes top-notch police procedurals, especially his Harry Bosch novels. Start with The Black Echo and keep reading.

Hard-boiled. These mysteries are much darker than cozies. Readers may encounter violence, sex scenes and graphic language. Children and animals can be kidnapped and killed. Hard-boiled mysteries often take place in cities. Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Ross MacDonald write first-rate hard-boiled mysteries.

Noir, with its dark view of life, is closely related to hard-boiled mysteries. The protagonist is often up against a corrupt system or a wicked world. Women are often viewed as betrayers and heartless temptresses. Many protagonists are self-destructive. Don’t expect a happy ending. Cornell Woolrich writes true noir.

Thrillers are action novels with high stakes: Someone wants to kill the President, blow up New York City, or kidnap a busload of school children. The protagonist races against the clock to save them. My favorite thriller is Thomas Harris’ Black Sunday.

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Win an e-book of High Heels Are Murder, my Josie Marcus, mystery shopper mystery. Click Contest at www.elaineviets.com

4+

First Page Critique: Quandor

Thank you, Brave Author, for sending TKZ your first page. I’ve critiqued it below, and then our readers will weigh in. (NOTE: The punctuation below is the author’s.) — Elaine Viets

Quandor
Quandary, age 13 and the only child of Frando and Zelmar Surdona, quasiborg rulers of exactly one half the planet Xenia, anxiously awaits his next birthday. Little does he know a space exploration science kit will radically change his future and that of the entire planet. Nor does he know the powerful pull of adolescent attraction will gain him an unexpected ally when he needs it most, but at a price.
“Mom, dad didn’t take me with him again to the council meeting.” He whined. “How am I going to take his place as supreme monarch if he won’t teach me anything?”
“All in due time Quannie.” She said.” Right now they are working on the delicate issue of where to find replacements for the dwindling supply of Beryllium and Gallium.”
“Yeah I know. Not enough to go around for the next generation. Hard choices for who gets the quality interfaces and who doesn’t.” He said.
“That’s right dear. Very important for our quasiborg family and worker cyborgs.”
“Well, at least you guys got me that special operation before I was born making me a Superborg. I’ll never have to worry about an interface. And I have lots of advantages over quasiborgs and worker cyborgs when I take over.”
“You aren’t taking over dear. Just learning to help rule. Please don’t talk to anyone about the operation. It’s a private matter.” She said. “Yes you have 70% human and 30% cyborg charactics while the other 1816 family quasiborgs are only 40% human and 60% cyborg.
“Ha. Not so private. An open secret if you ask me. And don’t call me Quannie. Sounds so childish.”
“Ok master Surdona. Is that better? We must get to the store through the thermal cloud tube before it gets crowded.” She said.
“Or we could use dad’s business pass and use the express lane.” He quipped.
“Like father like son.” She muttered as they readied the cloud rider.


Elaine Viets’ take:
Brave Author, this reads like a gentle YA sci-fi story, a coming of age novel. If you’re using it to open your story, it needs more tension to capture your reader. Here are some suggestions:
(1) Give us more world building. Is Xenia a hostile or hospitable planet? Does it have an Earthlike atmosphere, or is it hot and harsh like Mars? Let us know in a few words.
What does a quasiborg, Superborg, or cyborg look like? Do these beings resemble humans, or some other type of alien? What are their skin colors and facial features?

(2) Little does he know. That phrase in your first paragraph is borrowed from the sci-fi classic, Star Wars. It’s like another Star Wars favorite phrase: “A long time ago, in a Galaxy far, far away.” They give stories a fairytale feel. The crawl for Star Wars VI says “Little does Luke know that the GALACTIC EMPIRE has secretly begun construction on a new, armored space station . . .”
That works for the movie, but not for this novel. I’d move that section to the end of this first page to ratchet up the tension. Consider starting your novel this way:
“Mom, Dad didn’t take me with him again to the council meeting,” thirteen-year-old Quandary said. The only child of Frando and Zelmar Surdona, quasiborg rulers of exactly one half the planet Xenia, was in a whiny mood. His mother hated when his voice had that high-pitched demand and he swaggered around their dwelling, making demands. “How am I going to take his place as supreme monarch if he won’t teach me anything?”
“All in due time, Quannie,” Zelmar said. “Right now they are working on the delicate issue of where to find replacements for the dwindling supply of Beryllium and Gallium.”
Right here, Brave Author, you could put in a brief description of the planet, and what these beings look like, then have the rest of that conversation, and mention that Quandary was eagerly awaiting his next birthday. Then your omniscient narrator could add at the very end:
“Little does Quandary know a space exploration science kit will radically change his future and that of the entire planet. Nor does he know the powerful pull of adolescent attraction will gain him an unexpected ally when he needs it most, but at a price.”
Having this prediction here also comes with a price, Brave Author. It will put distance between you and your readers. But it may deliver a better story.
(3) Give us a snappier title. Make us want to read this novel. Maybe use the boy’s name, “Quandary.”
(4) Last, and most important, learn punctuation.
Here’s how those second and third paragraphs should be punctuated:

“Mom, Dad didn’t take me with him again to the council meeting,” Quandary whined. “How am I going to take his place as supreme monarch if he won’t teach me anything?”
“All in due time, Quannie,” she said. “Right now they are working on the delicate issue of where to find replacements for the dwindling supply of Beryllium and Gallium.”

These basic mistakes would drive an editor nuts. Consider a basic English course at a community college or the local library. You could also read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Many major publishers either follow White’s style, or the Associated Press Stylebook. No editor will buy a book with unprofessional punctuation, no matter how well-written it is.
Writing a novel without understanding proper punctuation is like building a house without understanding how to use carpenters’ tools.
Go forth and create, Brave Author.

2+

Deadlier than the Male

By Elaine Viets

When I was a girl, Mom warned me about all the awful things that could happen to trusting young women. I was warned to be careful when I went to bars, and never leave my drink unattended, or some sly stranger would drug it and unspeakable things would happen – which she was happy to discuss. The way Mom regarded young men, they should all have “Beware of Dog.” signs.
My brothers did not get these helpful talks. Sure, Dad told them to carry a condom in their wallet in case they got lucky, but young men had nothing to worry about.
Except they do. “Mistress of the Mickey Finn” is the title of my new short story in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine’s November/December issue.

It’s also a warning to young men. No one tells them about predatory women, and they should. Here in South Florida, a travelling gang of young women preys on well-heeled men.

I found out about them from my husband Don’s barber. Oscar Alci, a US citizen from Turkey, is a master storyteller. He told Don about a client who’d been ripped off by a wily young woman at a fashionable Fort Lauderdale watering hole. That story became “Mistress of the Mickey Finn.” Oscar has his own book, Short Cuts from Oscar the Barber, coming out this month. In tribute to his storytelling skills, I made him a character in my own story.
If you write short stories, ideas are everywhere. You just have to listen for them. Hair stylists and barbers are good sources. So are bartenders (and the drinks are deductible as research). Listen to their stories of love gone wrong, problems making payments, and the weird person who came in last Thursday. Then ask yourself, “What if someone could get killed?” Now the stakes are high and you have a short story.
My short story, “Mistress of the Micky Finn,” opens this way:

“She cleaned me out. She took everything—even my towels.”
Will Drickens’ nasal whine echoed off the marble floor in his Fort Lauderdale beach house.
The thirty-something hedge funder pleaded for help with sad, puppy-dog eyes—at least, he tried to look sad. Private eye Helen Hawthorne saw a hound with skin tanned and oiled like a Coach bag.
Will wore enough flashy designer labels to stock a mall. Phil Sagemont, Helen’s husband and PI partner, had trouble hiding his contempt for their new client.

This set-up was typical for this kind of crime: Will met Donna Simon at the Perfect Manhattan. They talked for a bit, and he began feeling woozy. She paid his tab and called for his car, tipping the valet lavishly. Donna drove Will to his beachfront home in his car, and when he recovered, she fixed him breakfast in bed. They enjoyed a romantic weekend together, and on Sunday night, he couldn’t bear to part with her. Donna said she’d always wanted to spend a day at the beach, and Will told her she could stay at his house Monday. He spent his day hearing wedding bells, while Donna’s gang cleaned out Will’s luxurious home.
In South Florida, these gangs “travel up and down the Florida coast from Vero Beach to Miami.”
Oscar the Barber and Phil have this conversation:

“A beautiful woman will spend the whole weekend with the mark,” Oscar said.
“What about security videos?” Phil asked.
“These women are very, very smart. They are careful to turn their faces to hide from the cameras. Many have long hair, and use it like a curtain. Most security systems have such blurry images, it’s hard to see the person. The police rarely get anywhere.”
“Why haven’t the police cracked down on these scammers?”
“These are the cream of the crooks,” Oscar said. “They can spot an undercover cop.”
“How?” Phil asked.
“Easy. These women have fine-tuned senses. They notice little things: the undercover cops trying to pass as rich guys buy their expensive suits at resale shops, so they’re a couple of years out of style. They have ‘cop eyes’—they’re alert, watchful, not like someone having a drink at a bar.”


Oscar wasn’t my only source. A retired Fort Lauderdale detective told me these gangs have been around since at least the mid-’80s. Sometimes they work in teams—the woman drugs the mark’s drink, then drives him home, takes whatever she can carry out of his apartment, including his pricey watches and jewelry. Her accomplice may pick her up, or she may steal the mark’s car, too. By the time he wakes up, it’s in a chop shop or being loaded on a freighter to a foreign country.
The victims of this game are men of astounding innocence. The way Will met Donna at the mythical bar is classic:

“I stopped by the Perfect Manhattan on Las Olas. Just for some conversation,” Will said.
Right, Helen thought. Conversation. The two words heard most often in that bar were “how much?” and the customers weren’t asking
the price of the drinks. The Perfect Manhattan was known for “handcrafted cocktails” for the no-holds-barred singles set. Stunning supermodel bartenders displayed their implants as they “built” twenty-dollar Manhattans and whispered, “Would you like a cherry?” with a suggestive wink and a giggle, straight out of an old-school men’s magazine. The servers—all women—were expensively enhanced and barely covered.
“Donna was sitting at the bar in a black dress and pink heels. She told me they were Manolo Blahniks. Sexy as hell—little tiny roses all over and straps halfway up her legs.”
“Cage sandals,” said Helen, who knew her shoes. “They cost twenty-two hundred dollars.”
“For one pair?” Phil said.
“Donna appreciates the best,” Will said. “I asked if I could buy her a drink, and the next thing I knew we were talking. She was easy to talk to.”
Your mother should have named you Mark, Helen thought. You were the easy one.

6+

First Page Critique: Dearest Executioner

By Elaine Viets

Today’s entry by an anonymous Brave Author has the intriguing title “Dearest Executioner.” Read this first chapter, and then I’ll give my critique. I look forward to your comments, readers.

Dearest Executioner

Mara sat atop the splintered bench between the oarsman and executioner, hysterical laughter bubbling in her throat. Her hands were bound behind her back, heavy rusted shackles rubbing her wrists raw. The moon hung low. Lights of the distant manor dwindling into darkness. Would the souls wandering those warm halls shudder at the echoes of screams? Or close the shutters, certain they heard nothing more than howling winds? As it was, no breeze rustled her hair.

Mist sat stagnant over the fetid bog. Insects hidden in the reeds chattered their solemn eulogy. The oarsman guided the decaying ferry through the thick muck with practiced rhythm. His rows slow, steady. As though allowing his passengers time for morbid reflection of their sins. Ought she contemplate her own? Perhaps no. No journey would be long enough. The urge to laugh intensified.

Her gaze flicked to the other man aboard. Shrouded in a fine black tunic and gloves, hood hiding his face. A grin split her chapped lips.

“Did someone tell you executioners wear black, or had you read it in a silly book?”

His shadowed visage angled away from her.

“Yes, surely the marsh is more fascinating than your soon-to-be victim.” She leaned closer to him, the wood creaking beneath her. “Don’t you wish to hear my crimes, dearest executioner?”

“Your crimes are against Lord and Lady Loch. That is all I need know.”

She nodded her head several times. “A sensitive family. Easy to offend. And quick to punish. Murder seems rather disproportional a sentence for honest speaking, but who am I to decide what’s fair?” She tipped her head. “How have you offended them?”

His attention snapped to her. Voice cruel. “I’ve done nothing.”

“Oh, but you have, you have. Perhaps murdering me is how you atone? A dark gesture of loyalty and all is forgiven? I think, no. Evil things haunt this marsh. Hungry things. Oh, dearest executioner, you’re as dead as I.”

He stared at her a long moment. “You’re mad.”

“Perhaps a giddy spirit has taken claim of my wits. They’re about in this unholy marsh, don’t you know? Others, too. Others dead, but not.”

“There are no unnatural beings here,” he said. “Only we three.”

The little bubbles rose, coming out as tremulous giggles. “You’re a sure man. A sure, sure man. A man who will not survive this night.”

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Elaine’s Critique

You’ve done a fine job of setting the mood here, Brave Author. This is an impressive piece of writing. While you’ve painted an eerie scene, it doesn’t go anywhere. A first chapter is supposed to deliver three things: Time, Place and Point of View.
Your POV is quickly established: This is third-person omniscient, a good choice for storytellers. First-person would be too limiting.
But this first chapter is floating in time and space. What century are we in?
What season is it? I’m guessing, from the sounds of the insects, that it’s either summer or fall, but let us know.
Where are we? What country? I’m guessing it’s either Scotland or Ireland, but tell us.
Mara is a little too mysterious. What has she done that’s condemned her to this lonely death? Did she commit treason? Is she a witch? What she part of a plot?
Please tell us.
Who and what are Lord and Lady Loch? Are they powerful land owners? Rulers of the county? We need to know this.
These issues can be quickly fixed. Most of this information could be added in the third sentence. Something like:
“The witch (or traitor or rebel) watched the moon hang low over the Scottish highlands . . . .”.
There’s fine writing here, Brave Author.
The title immediately captures my interest.
I’m impressed that you didn’t need to tell us that Mara was in a boat. Instead you said:
“Mara sat atop the splintered bench between the oarsman and executioner, hysterical laughter bubbling in her throat.”
That not only says where she is and that she’s on her way to her death, it establishes her own mood.
I admire the death images in the second paragraph:
“Mist sat stagnant over the fetid bog. Insects hidden in the reeds chattered their solemn eulogy. The oarsman guided the decaying ferry through the thick muck with practiced rhythm. His rows slow, steady. As though allowing his passengers time for morbid reflection of their sins. Ought she contemplate her own? Perhaps no. No journey would be long enough. The urge to laugh intensified.”
One small quibble. It should be reflection “on” their sins, not “of.”
There’s foreshadowing, too, as Mara warns the executioner: “You’re a sure man. A sure, sure man. A man who will not survive this night.”
Good job, Brave Author. A few small changes and you’ll have a first-rate story. I can’t wait to read it. What about you, TKZers?

_________________________________________________________________

Win the new e-book version of Catnapped!, my 13th Dead-End Job mystery, set in the strange world of show cats. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com 

5+

First Page Critique: Jolted

By Elaine Viets

Another brave Anonymous Author would like us to evaluate this first page. Read it first, and then my comments. I’m looking forward to seeing yours. Here’s the offering:

JOLTED
From the window of the school bus, Hannah spotted her dad’s new black truck above the hay fields. A dry, cold Wednesday afternoon, the farm’s normal colors were today blanketed in shades of gray. The roof of the familiar BMW parked outside the horse barn seemed to glisten redder than usual.

Close to four o’clock—feeding time. Hannah skipped the steps and jumped from the bus before the creaky doors had fully opened, figuring that her impatient pony was already running circles in his stall, anticipating her kisses and treats, the appetizers to his half-quart dinner of grain. But hearing the rickety doors of the bus squeal again behind her, she quickly doubled back to get her books, which the driver was tossing onto the mud-stained snow.

Hannah sloshed her way up the icy drive and entered the barn through the tack room door, her wet-soled boots squeaking on the dry clay floor. She dropped the books on the nearest tack trunk and ran into the aisle past the horseback riding is a dangerous sport—ride at your own risk sign on the wall. When she got to Sparky’s stall, she threw open the door and wrapped her arms around his chunky neck, covering his muzzle and cheeks with damp kisses. The pony licked her from chin to forehead, the girl giggling as she wiped at her sticky face with her hands. “Yuck!” she said. “Pear juice!” A perfumed smell of ripe apples and riper pears drifted into her nostrils from next door, where the kindly owner of the BMW was slicing the fruit for a painfully thin mare.

“Hi, Mrs. Fields,” Hannah said, smiling. “Sparky says thanks!”

The pony nickered as though on cue. “You’re welcome, Sparky,” Mrs. Fields said, funneling a chunk of apple to the fat pony through the stall bars as the mare pressed against her and buried her wet nose in the grocery bag of fruit. “So, what do you think, Hannah? Does my girl look like she’s picked up any weight?”

Hannah held on to the stall bars, careful to keep her sleeves from riding up, and stood on tiptoes as she stared at the mare’s ribs, which were pushing up and out through the soft chestnut-colored hairs. “Yes, I think so,” she said, too afraid of her dad to tell Mrs. Fields why the mare had suddenly gotten so thin.

ELAINE VIETS COMMENTARY

The first paragraph is hardest part of any novel. Once you get that out of the way, you can introduce us to your characters and start your story. This first paragraph is confusing. It’s supposed to be an establishing shot, but we can’t figure out what we’re looking at. .
This Anonymous Novelist did an excellent job of creating young Hannah, eager to jump off the school bus to see her fat little pony. There’s a good sense of foreboding at the end of the section, when Hannah is “too afraid of her dad to tell Mrs. Fields why the mare had suddenly gotten so thin.”
But we’re missing opportunities to use that fear.

Consider the opening:
From the window of the school bus, Hannah spotted her dad’s new black truck above the hay fields. Fear gripped her heart. That meant her father was drinking and angry – and looking for trouble.
Give us some kind of reason who her father’s truck is in those hayfields.
And tell us where we are. So far, this farm is floating out in space: We don’t know if it’s in Kansas or Connecticut.
And why is her father’s truck “above the hay fields”? Is this hilly country, or are we seeing his truck from a distance?

The author sets the mood well: A dry, cold Wednesday afternoon, the farm’s normal colors were today blanketed in shades of gray.
(That’s a nice touch and the author could keep that mood going. Instead, the author introduces another vehicle.)
The roof of the familiar BMW parked outside the horse barn seemed to glisten redder than usual.

It’s obviously a bright spot in this bleak landscape, but tell us why. Who is the mysterious Mrs. Fields: Does she board her horse at the stables? Is she a riding instructor?
Give us more details about Hannah. She needs a first and a last name. How old is she? What color is her hair? These details can be supplied in a few words without slowing the pace of your opening. Here’s what I mean: 

JOLTED
From the window of Hannah’s (give her last name) school bus, she could see the normal (bright?) colors of her family’s farm (Is this correct?) were blanketed in shades of gray. She spotted her father’s new black truck above the hay fields. (Why is this truck important? How does make Hannah feel? Anxious, alarmed? afraid?)
The roof of Mrs. Fields’ (use her name here) familiar BMW parked outside the horse barn seemed to glisten redder than usual. (Who is Mrs. Fields? Why is she and her car a bright spot?) 

Close to four o’clock—feeding time for the horses. (You can give us Hannah’s age here) Twelve-year-old Hannah skipped the steps, and jumped from the bus before the creaky doors had fully opened, figuring that Sparky, (use the pony’s name here) her impatient pony, was already running circles in his stall, anticipating her kisses and treats, the appetizers to his half-quart dinner of grain.
But hearing the rickety doors of the bus squeal again behind her, she quickly doubled back to get her books, which the driver was tossing onto the mud-stained snow.

(This seems unusually mean. Was the driver cranky? Was there a grudge against Hannah’s family? Let us know. Or remove and relocate for later.
And the doors are confusing. Why do they “creak” open and then later “squeal again behind her” It sounds like the doors were closed before she could get her books.)

Hannah sloshed her way up the icy drive and entered the barn through the tack room door, her wet-soled boots squeaking on the dry clay floor. She dropped the books on the nearest tack trunk and ran into the aisle past the HORSEBACK RIDING IS A DANGEROUS SPORT—RIDE AT YOUR OWN RISK sign on the wall. (The sign adds a nice touch of menace.)

When she got to Sparky’s stall, she threw open the door and wrapped her arms around his chunky neck, covering his muzzle and cheeks with damp kisses. The pony licked her from chin to forehead, the girl giggling as she wiped at her sticky face with her hands. “Yuck!” she said. “Pear juice!”
A perfumed smell of ripe apples and riper pears drifted into her nostrils from next door, where the kindly owner of the BMW was slicing the fruit for a painfully thin mare. (Good details about the smell of the fruit.)

“Hi, Mrs. Fields,” Hannah said, smiling. “Sparky says thanks!”

The pony nickered as though on cue. “You’re welcome, Sparky,” Mrs. Fields said, funneling a chunk of apple to the fat pony through the stall bars as the mare pressed against her and buried her wet nose in the grocery bag of fruit. “So, what do you think, Hannah? Does my girl look like she’s picked up any weight?”

Hannah held onto (one word) the stall bars, careful to keep her sleeves from riding up, and stood on tiptoes as she stared at the mare’s ribs, which were pushing up and out through the soft chestnut-colored hairs. “Yes, I think so,” she said, too afraid of her dad to tell Mrs. Fields why the mare had suddenly gotten so thin.

 This last line is a critical detail. Build on it before you get here. I can’t wait to read the rest of this book. Good luck, Anonymous Novelist – Elaine Viets

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Refurbished Words


By Elaine Viets

English is a constantly changing language, which is its delight and its difficulty. Old words are constantly being refurbished and given new uses.
One is troll, a word once associated mostly with fairy tales, as in “The evil troll lived under the bridge.”
Thanks to the internet and computers, troll has a whole new usage. As a noun, the Urban Dictionary says a troll is: “One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.”
As a verb, to troll means to fool someone. Sasha Baron Cohen is the current Troller in Chief. He pranked sheriff Joe Arpaio into saying he’d have oral sex with Donald Trump.

Unpacked is another refurbished word. Unpack used to be something you did with a suitcase. Now it means to analyze. How many times have you heard a radio host on NPR say,
“There’s a lot to unpack here in this story on . . . ”
What refurbished words are you seeing, TKZers?

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Creative Destruction

By Elaine Viets

I’ve been hard at work on my fourth Angela Richman, death investigator mystery. Until last week I was up to schedule. Then I hit a snag at Chapter 11. An important character was being arrested for drug dealing. I thought – after writing 33 mysteries – that I knew the procedure. So I wrote the chapter. Then I got the little niggling doubt that all writers get, and decided I should check with my police procedure adviser, a former homicide detective.

Good thing I did: I not only had the procedure wrong – but the ex-detective suggested a better idea: Why not have the dealer discovered in the cop shop when a drug-sniffing canine “alerts” to the controlled substance?

Beautiful! Except I had to tear up the whole chapter and rewrite it. Now I’m a week behind.
I’m glad I did – the new scene is better.
It’s not the first time I’ve had to kill something, or even bury it. Like many novelists, I have parts of several novels, including an embarrassing serial killer mystery and a lackadaisical modern Sherlock Holmes pastiche, that I’ve buried deep in a file drawer, where I hope they’re never found.

We’re told (on the Internet) that Hindus worship Shiva as a god of contrasts who destroys as well as creates. “Shiva’s role as a destroyer is also constructive,” one source said. “This extends to all things in the world, meaning that Hindus regard Shiva as the source of all good and evil.”
“Shiva is full of passion which leads to extremes in his behaviors,” said another. “Sometimes he removes himself from the material world and abstains from pleasure, at other times he gives in to all desire. Shiva’s wife Pavarti tempers his passion and gives him balance.”
As good a description of writing – and married writers – as any.
Shiva is my new model, and I follow the art of creative destruction.
What about you?

Like forensic mysteries? My first two Angela Richman, Death Investigator mysteries are on sale for $1.99 each: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=node%3D13819722011&field-keywords=brain+storm+by+viets&rh=n%3A13819722011%2Ck%3Abrain+storm+by+viets

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Cozy Book Promotion: A Soft Sell in a Hard Business


By Elaine Viets

TKZ regular Eric asked us to define “a true cozy,” as opposed to what he called a “cutesie,” and how to market true cozies. Eric’s definition of a “cutesie” was “novels that start with a silly pun in the title, usually having to do with food or animals or Amish, that have a cartoonish cover, and that go downhill from there into worse silliness.”
Eric’s novel is “somewhat like James Scott Bell’s Glimpses of Paradise, with more crime and mystery and more realistic language.”
Since I’m a former cozy writer who now writes forensic mysteries, Jim asked me to address your question.
Last time, I defined a cozy as “a mystery with no graphic sex, cuss words or violence. Generally, the murder takes place offstage. Dame Agatha is the queen of cozies, but Miss Marple is no pushover. ‘I am Nemesis,’ the fluffy old lady announces, and relentlessly pursues killers.
“Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries are not cozies, though they have many of the same elements. Sherlock has a hard edge to him, and some of his stories, like ‘The Man With the Twisted Lip,’ border on noir. Doyle, like Grafton and Sayers, writes traditional mysteries, but they aren’t considered cozies. You’ve lumped a lot of traditional novels together under the cozy umbrella. Traditional mysteries play fair – they give readers all the clues, though they may be cleverly disguised. You may be writing a traditional mystery.
“The ‘cutesies’ that you object to are simply one branch of the cozy sub-genre.”
Now, on to the promo part. These tips are for traditionally published authors. Self-published promo is a different world.

(1) Know the men writing cozies. Read their work. Here are a few: Jeff Cohen, aka EJ Copperman, who writes several series, including the Asperger’s Mysteries and the Haunted Guesthouse series. http://www.ejcopperman.com/
There’s also Dean James, aka Miranda James and his Cat in the Stacks series, http://catinthestacks.com/
And James Ziskin, https://jameswziskin.com/ whose Ellie Stone series has been nominated for the Edgar, and Lefty Awards and won the Anthony and the Macvacity Awards.
(2) Know the women writing cozies. Put aside your prejudices and read some really good cozies. I’ve mentioned Charlaine (Sookie Stackhouse) Harris’s Aurora Teagarden series. Marcia Talley’s Hannah Ives series, and Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series. Keep on reading and you’ll find lots of cozies that have real social commentary.
(3) Meet your readers. Bouchercon, Thrillerfest, Left Coast Crime are some of the good mystery conferences, but if you really want to meet cozy readers, I recommend the Malice Domestic Mystery Conference in Bethesda, Md. (malicedomestic.org). Malice is devoted to the traditional mystery, but it has the highest concentration of cozy readers. Only a few men attend – lucky you. Also, think about a giveaway of your books for the Malice book bags. If your publisher won’t do it, buy a case of your books for the bags.
(4) Facebook. There are dozens of cozy sites. Get to know them. A few include Save Our Cozies, Cozy Mystery Giveaways, the Cozy Mystery Once a Month Book Club, Cozy-Mysteries.com. “Friend” the cozy writers you admire.


(5) Bloggers you should know. Dru Ann Love and Dru’s Book Musings. Dru calls herself a “book advocate” and she is definitely a friend to writers. Dru Ann won the Raven Award for her work. Another book lover you should know is BOLO Books reviewer Kristopher Zgorski, who’s also won a Raven.


(6) Join writers groups. Stay in touch with your peers. Join the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and don’t forget Sisters in Crime. They accept Misters. Each one of these groups can help you.


(7) Bookstores. Mysteries, especially cozies, are sold by word of mouth. Get to know your local bookstore. Stop by and say hello. Buy something, even if it’s only a card or a bookmark. And ask the owner or manager if they’d like to read a copy of your book. They may ask you to do a signing. Booksellers have done amazing acts of kindness for me through the years. When I was first starting out – and returns could have hurt my career – one bookseller kept a case of my books in her office for a year until she sold them all.
(8) Avoid cutesy giveaways. Pens, tea bags, emery boards, even lipstick, are often given as gifts by cozy writers to promote their books. Unless your publisher is paying for this paraphernalia, don’t bother. I used to work at a bookstore, and we had a box in the break room with all the cozy goodies. If we needed a nail file or a pen, we’d root around in the box. To my knowledge these gifts never sold a single book.
(9) Do get bookmarks. Those are worth your money. They sell books. Most bookstores like to keep them by the cash register, and so do many libraries – and libraries are big book buyers. They buy more hardcovers than the big box stores.
Can’t afford bookmarks? Get business cards with your book cover on the front and your information on the back – including the ISBN and a Website where your book can be bought.

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Like forensic mysteries? Win my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator novella. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com.

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