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

Mistakes Many Writers Make

By Elaine Viets

I edit manuscripts, some for writers you’d know and others who haven’t been published yet. No matter how well they write – and many write very well indeed – the same mistakes often appear in their manuscripts. In mine, too, for that matter.
Here are some of the mistakes many writers make:

Not checking your corrections.
Aha! You spotted the mistake in this sentence:
I her saw leave the store.

So you correct it to:
I her saw her leave the store.
And don’t remove that extra pronoun. Arggh! Don’t forget to check the corrections to make sure they’re correct.

Clang clunkers.
These words sound similar to the word you really want. Here’s a recent example I encountered:
My friend, who was no athlete, clamored up the side of the steep hill.

Really? He shouted his way to the top? More likely this is what happened:

My friend, who was no athlete, clambered up the side of the steep hill. That means he climbed awkwardly to the top.

Lost in space.
Let’s say you’re Arthur Conan Doyle, writing about the immortal Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Dr. John Watson. Somewhere in your latest manuscript, you’re going to slip and call Sherlock Watson, or vice-versa. I find at least one misplaced name in every manuscript, no matter how careful the writer.
Conan Doyle is the patron saint of authorial absentmindedness. Was Watson wounded in the shoulder or the leg? Did he have only one wife or maybe as many as six? Sherlockians love to debate these points.

Dropped pronouns.
Most pronouns – he, she, it, I, you, him, her – aren’t very heavy. Even the biggest – they and them – are a slender four letters. But they get dropped again and again. So does “a,” a harmless indefinite article.
Here are a couple of examples:

He worked long hours for family.
She’s smart woman.

The pronoun “his” is missing in the first sentence and “a” is missing in the second. The best way to locate those tricky dropped pronouns and articles is to read the sentences out loud.

Good luck, writers. There are more examples, in your manuscript and mine. But those don’t show up until after publication.

9+

First Page critique: Dance with Death

By Elaine Viets

Writers, I feel your pain! As you struggle with your first pages, I’ve had my own writing fight – six weeks crafting the first chapter of my new Angela Richman mystery. I had to introduce my death investigator, Angela Richman, describe her job, her age, explain where she lives, say what time of year it is – and hope people will keep reading.
That’s why I congratulate the anonymous author of the following first-page critique. AA has achieved most of those goals.
First, let’s read it, next I’ll discuss it, and then you tell me what you think.

First Page Critique: Dance with Death

Alle fought off the death grip of the sheets, flung her feet over the side of the bed, and tried to shake the dream as she searched for her slippers. She noticed Gulliver; the pink stuffed pig Sasha had given her and that she’d slept with every night for the last ten years, laying on the floor. She must’ve knocked him off the bed during her struggle with the sheets. Her heart sank seeing him there, like a discarded toy that meant nothing. A tear ran down her cheek as she picked him up.

Still half-drunk from her sleep meds she stumbled toward the bathroom, smacking her funny bone against the half-open bathroom door. Cursing, she made it to the toilet just in time. Still holding her elbow, she shut her eyes for what she thought was only a moment; but jerked awake when she lost her balance and fell against the vanity. Out of childhood habit, she looked up and pleaded, please don’t let this be a sign for today.

She kicked her way through the clothes littering the hallway and made her way from the bathroom to the kitchen and more importantly coffee. Leaning against the counter, head down and shoulders slumped, she listened to the drip, drip, drip of the Keurig.

Every night, it seemed, she dreamed of Sasha. She didn’t just dream she relived the day Sasha died. She drank her coffee and thought about those people who over the years had lied and told her it would get easier with time. “They don’t have the damn guilt.”

Carrying her second cup of coffee to the bathroom, she ran a hot bath, not something she normally did since she was always running late. The tension in her back and shoulders melted away as she slid into the almost scalding water. She drifted off into a semi-peaceful, dreamless sleep. The water turned cold and she woke up disoriented, panicking when she realized it was a workday. Her phone showed the time as 8:00. Damn it, I’m going to be late again!

Elaine’s critique:
This is a fine first page. I’d like to make a few tweaks.
The first sentence trails off and loses its impact. What if AA wrote that first paragraph this way?
Alle fought off the death grip of the sheets, flung her feet over the side of the bed, and tried to shake the dream. As she searched for her slippers, she noticed Gulliver, the pink stuffed pig laying on the floor. Sasha had given her Gulliver. Alle had slept with the stuffed pig every night for the last ten years.
Note the comma after Gulliver in this version. You don’t need that semicolon. Put a comma after “Still half-drunk from her sleep meds, she stumbled toward the bathroom . . .”
Later, you have another semicolon. The sentence might have more impact if you made that two complete sentences:
Still holding her elbow, she shut her eyes for what she thought was only a moment. She jerked awake when she lost her balance and fell against the vanity.

Next, Alle has “kicked her way through the clothes littering the hallway . . .” This would be a good place to tell us the season. Are these heavy woollen winter clothes? Summer shirts and swimsuits? You could also give us a hint of the season in the second sentence – is she searching for her slippers on a cold floor – or a warm one?

In the kitchen, Alle “listened to the drip, drip, drip of the Keurig.”
Do Keurigs drip? The ones I’m familiar with burble and blurp. They’re too noisy for polite drips.

This next paragraph sets up the death of Sasha. Can you give us more hints about that?

Every night, it seemed, she dreamed of Sasha. She didn’t just dream, she relived the day Sasha died. She drank her coffee and thought about those people who over the years had lied and told her it would get easier with time. “They don’t have the damn guilt.”
Give us some clues about Ali: How old is she? What does she look like?
You’re off to a good start, AA. What do you think, readers?

Win the new e-version of RUBOUT, Elaine Viets’ Francesca Vierling newspaper mystery set at the Leather and Lace Bikers Society Ball. Click contests at www.elaineviets.com

6+

Putting the Power Back: 8 Ways to Fix a Stalled Mystery

By Elaine Viets

Is your novel stalled like an old car on the railroad tracks, and your deadline is bearing down? You can’t get the thing jump-started, no matter what you do.
We’ve all been stuck in that situation. Here are a few suggestions that might help you get your work moving again.

1. Are you using all five of your senses?
Can you see, hear, smell, touch and taste things? Can you hear the night wind? Smell your character’s aftershave? Hear his voice? Feel her soft hands?
If not, your writing will be dead.

2. Are you being general or specific?
Generalities are dull and lifeless. Specifics perk up your writing.
“He wore old pants” is general.
“He wore old jeans that sagged at the seat and were oil-stained at the knees” is specific. It’s descriptive. It makes your reader wonder: Where did the oil come from? Is he a mechanic or is there some other reason?

3. Are you showing or telling?
This is an old one, and TKZers have often addressed it. But it never hurts to check if you are writing an essay or a novel.
Tell: She was mad.
Show: Her face grew red, and she pounded the desk.
Tell: She loved her son.
Show: She stayed up all night making a Halloween costume for him.

4. Ask yourself: Why is your character doing this?
Because you want to write a novel — or because this is the natural way to act?
Do you have a strong enough motivation? If not, you don’t have a chapter.

5. Is there any conflict in your novel?
Is there a reason to root for your character? Is there something she needs to overcome? I’ve seen manuscripts where the protagonist is young, talented, beautiful and rich. So what? Take something away: She gets in an accident and is badly scarred. She makes a bad investment and loses all her money.

6. Did you give your readers a sense of time and place?
Readers who don’t know where they are become lost. It’s like feeling around in a dark room for a light switch. Let us know early on where your characters are and what year it is.

7. Are there any scenes in your novel that don’t move it forward?
This one is hard. It’s so tempting to use your novel as a soapbox, and expound on everything from man buns to tourist traffic. Instead of a lecture, use that information to tell your readers something about the novel’s character or the plot. Personally, I like man buns, and when I see one, that suggests the guy will probably be a thoughtful and nonthreatening. So I’d put a man bun on a character I liked. As for tourist traffic snafus – those are saved for villains and to frustrate my characters.

8. If your character seems flat, ask yourself — do I know enough about my character?
Write a short biography about your character. Is he married or single? Does he have children? Where does/did she go to school? What does he look like? Even if you don’t use all that, it will help you know your character and make decisions on the kind of person he or she is.
I had a waitress named Marlene in one of my novels. She was particularly protective of the young female servers she worked with, and chased away predatory male customers. Why? Marlene had had a bad marriage to a man like that. I mentioned that fact in a line or two, but it was a major key to Marlene’s behavior.

8+

The Nose Knows

By Elaine Viets

Does your writing stink? Do your scenes feel flat and your characters cardboard?
Maybe you’re neglecting the sense of smell. Sights and sounds are essential. But smell can add another dimension.
Smell is tied to emotion. Real estate agents tell prospective sellers to bake cookies or a loaf of bread just before a buyer tours their house. They’re hoping those smells will trigger happy memories of home cooking and the lookie-loo will buy the house.
Years ago, when I was growing up, I would wake up and smell the coffee – and the fried eggs and bacon. Those were good memories.

Smell can be a quick, easy introduction to a flashback in your novel.
The smell of climber roses and cut grass take me back to my Midwestern summers. The scent of honeysuckle reminds me of Sundays at my grandmother’s house, when I read near a honeysuckle vine.
The smell of hothouse flowers make me think of funerals.
Beer, gin, wine and other alcoholic odors can bring back good times and bad ones.
These smells can trigger a happy – or sad – memory and give you an easy way to reveal your character’s back story.

Smell can herald a person. I can smell smokers before I see them: I pick up the stale nicotine scent of their cigarettes or cigars. The smell lingers on their skin and in their hair.
So do perfumes. In a mystery I just read, the protagonist knew the man she was talking to had just seen his girlfriend – his car still smelled of Chanel No. 5. I know when a certain security guard is on duty at our condo because he wears a strong, pleasant aftershave that I can smell throughout the lobby.

Smell can announce your protagonist or cue your characters that the killer is in the room.
In “Postmortem,” Patricia Cornwell has a killer who

(spoiler alert!)

has a rare metabolic disorder, maple syrup urine disease, which provides a crucial clue. He smells of stale maple syrup.
You can have your victims smell their assailant’s sweat, cigarette smoke, perfume or aftershave. They can be close enough to have garlic or curry or mints on their breath.
In “The Poet,” Michael Connelly says a room “smelled like stale smoke and Italian salad dressing.”
Smells change at different times of day. I visit an office building two or three times a week. Early in the morning, about 7:30, it smells like cleaning products with top notes of bleach. After 9 a.m., when many of the workers are at their computers, the building smells like hot coffee. By noon it smells of microwave dinners. And at 4 p.m., it smells tired. What’s that smell like? Burnt coffee with undercurrents of sweat and stale microwave meals.
In the morning, people may smell freshly showered and their shirts smell of starch. By nighttime, after a stressful day, they could smell of sweat.

Smells can give your story a sense of reality. Your writing can paint an idyllic picture of a farm: the green fields, the sturdy farmhouse, the horses grazing in the pasture. But what’s the first thing you smell?
Be honest now.
Manure.
That smell gives your pretty word picture a whiff of reality.

****************************************************************************
Win “Backstab,” Elaine’s first newspaper mystery, reissued as an ebook. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com

11+

First Page Critique: Reluctant

By Elaine Viets

Here’s another first page from the prolific pens of our TKZ readers. I’ll make my comments after you read it.

Galilee Medical Center, Nahariya, Israel
11 November 1982

The child lay limp and pale on the gurney like a cast-off doll. Blinking hard, I terminated the unrelenting replay of a past tragic failure.

Block it out doctor! But the brutal images of another little girl clutching a Raggedy-Ann doll mocked me, and refused to give way. The little one I tried to save. The one I was forced to leave, to die, alone.

No Moshe. Not now. Save this one!

“Okay Dr. Sabin, we’re ready to go,” said Lydia, giving her a few more breaths with the ambu-bag. The self-recrimination momentarily halted, I slid the laryngoscope blade into her mouth, and gently lifted.

“Suction please.”

I cleared the tiny girl’s pharynx of bloody sputum. She smelled of smoke, dust, and something……what, urine? I was just about to pass the endotracheal tube, when the emergency-room doors burst open. Two medics exploded into the room, pushing another gurney, violently jolting the stretcher under my patient, nearly causing me to lose visual of her vocal cords.

“What the hell?” I blurted, but quickly slipped the slender tube into her trachea and removed the laryngoscope blade before glaring up at the offender. Instantly, the acrid, sharp stench of burned flesh and violence hit my nostrils.

“Burn patient doc,” grunted an IDF medic.

“Hannah!” I shouted to another nurse, “Grab the burn kit. I’ll be right there!” Commanding shouts rang out from beyond the double doors, followed by the high-pitched whine, and whop, whop, whop of an approaching helicopter.

“Huh?” I gasped, taping the ET tube to my patient’s face.

“We’re expecting more casualties, some sort of bombing.” Lydia said, as she attached the ambu-bag to the little girl’s airway. I squeezed the bag delivering a few quick breaths. A blush of pink replaced the dusky, ashen hue of the girls face, as oxygen-enriched air filled her lungs.

The doors crashed open again, and a barrage of wounded IDF soldiers cascaded through.

“You! Doctor!” barked a stocky, red-faced IDF captain, one hand holding a blood-drenched trauma pad against his neck. “Get your hands off that Palestinian dog and treat my men now!”

With that, the captain grabbed the end of the girl’s gurney and gave it a fierce yank, launching the stretcher into the back wall, and ripping the airway right out of her trachea.

Elaine Viets’ critique:
I assume, since the date is written European style, that the author is not an American. The story feels authentic and starts off with a bang. However, it quickly loses its impact when the second sentence trips over Dr. Moshe Sabin’s memories as he tries to save the life of the little girl on the stretcher. That sentence (Blinking hard, I terminated the unrelenting replay of a past tragic failure) is hard to read.

Rather than loading the action-packed beginning with extra information, why not wait until the little girl is breathing? That would be a good time to add the back story about the doctor’s previous failure.

The story is also slowed by medical jargon. Since many of us watch hospital dramas, we have a pretty good idea what an ambu bag is and we may even know where an endotracheal tube goes, but the phrase “lose visual of her vocal cords” should be in plain English.
Why not say: “nearly causing me to lose sight of her vocal cords”?

A laryngoscope is a fearsome-looking contraption. It would be a good idea to briefly describe it and the difficulties and dangers of using it – especially the blade.
What is an IDF medic? Tell us what those letters stand for.

Suppose the author began this way:
The child lay limp and pale on the gurney like a cast-off doll.

“Okay, Dr. Sabin, we’re ready to go,” said Lydia, giving the child a few more breaths with the ambu-bag.

“Suction please.”

I cleared the tiny girl’s pharynx of bloody sputum. She smelled of smoke, dust, and something . . .what, urine?

I was just about to pass the endotracheal tube (AUTHOR, TELL US WHERE ARE YOU PASSING THIS TUBE), when the emergency room doors burst open. Two medics exploded into the room, pushing another gurney, violently jolting my patient’s stretcher, nearly causing me to lose sight of her vocal cords.

“What the hell?” I blurted, but quickly slipped the slender tube into her trachea and removed the laryngoscope blade before glaring up at the offender. Instantly, the acrid, sharp stench of burned flesh and violence hit my nostrils.

“Burn patient doc,” grunted an IDF medic.

“Hannah!” I shouted to another nurse, “Grab the burn kit. I’ll be right there!”

Commanding shouts rang out from beyond the double doors, followed by the high-pitched whine, and whop, whop, whop of an approaching helicopter.

“Huh?” I gasped, taping the ET tube to my patient’s face.

“We’re expecting more casualties, some sort of bombing,” Lydia said, as she attached the ambu-bag to the little girl’s airway. I squeezed the bag delivering a few quick breaths. A blush of pink replaced the dusky, ashen hue of the girls face, as oxygen-enriched air filled her lungs.

Blinking hard, I tried to terminate the unrelenting replay of a past tragic failure.

Block it out doctor! But the brutal images of another little girl clutching a Raggedy-Ann doll mocked me, and refused to give way. The little one I’d tried to save. The one I was forced to leave, to die, alone.

No Moshe. Not now. Save this one!

The doors crashed open again, and a barrage of wounded IDF soldiers cascaded through.
“You! Doctor!” barked a stocky, red-faced IDF captain, one hand holding a blood-drenched trauma pad against his neck. “Get your hands off that Palestinian dog and treat my men now!”

With that, the captain grabbed the end of the girl’s gurney and gave it a fierce yank, launching the stretcher into the back wall, and ripping the airway right out of her trachea.

 

Anonymous Author, the last three paragraphs are outstanding. Congratulations on an intriguing first page. I’d really like to read this novel.
What do you think, TKZ readers?

Win Backstab, the first e-book in my Francesca Vierling newspaper series. The police say the deaths of the St. Louis columnist two friends were accidental, but Francesca is searching the city for their killer — before he finds her. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com

3+

Confessions of a Book Reviewer

By Elaine Viets

A reviewer for a major print magazine complained to me about a novel he was reading, when it dawned on me – this was news writers could use. If we know what’s wrong, we can fix it before the reviewer writes about it, for all the (mystery) world to read.
This reviewer is not some crank who looks for excuses to rip writers. If he has to give a book a bad review, he agonizes over that decision.
But here are some writing wrongs that upset this reviewer.

(1) Padded Middles. This is my reviewer’s number one problem – novels that slow down in the middle. “The padding doesn’t advance the narrative,” the reviewer said. “It’s pages and pages of the thoughts and feelings of people who aren’t very interesting. They offer no valuable insights. Sometimes, I wonder if editors make writers add this unnecessary information because big books are so popular. Most books I’ve read recently are 20 to 30 pages too long. Often, there’s a good book buried in that excess fat.”

(2) Switching names. “The character is introduced as Joseph Smith. Then the author proceeds to call him Joe, Joey, Joseph, and sometimes just Smith. It’s hard to figure out who the writer is talking about.”

(3) Who’s talking? “A character is introduced in the first 50 pages, and then shows up 200 pages later with no ID.” Take tax accountant Mary Rogers. She has a brief scene in chapter 2 and then in chapter 25 we see this line: “I think the suspect embezzled half a million dollars,” said Mary Rogers.
Huh?
“I’m frantically pawing through the book, trying to figure out who Mary Rogers is and why she’s saying that. If the author said, ‘I think the suspect embezzled half a million dollars,’ said tax accountant Mary Rogers’ that would make it easier for readers.”

(4) Writers who fixate on a certain word. “Like ass. I read an author who used ‘ass’ constantly. His character fell on his ass, showed his ass, got his ass kicked and had his ass handed to him. He dealt with asshats, ass clowns and of course, assholes.” Cuss words are necessary for realism, but don’t overdo it.

(5) Dumb and proud of it. “Writers who want to assert their real-people identities trot out lowbrow snobbery. Their favorite phrase is ‘I don’t know anything about . . .’ Then you can choose one or more of these – opera, classical music, gourmet food, Shakespeare.” Assume your readers are intelligent – after all, they bought your book.

(6) The hero with the drinking problem. He – or sometimes she – “is haunted by the awful things they did when they were on the sauce. Yes, people drink. And some authors handle this well. But most of these characters are tiresome cliches.” Reading these novels is like getting your ear bent by the garrulous drunk at the end of the bar.

(7) Writers who don’t do their research. If you really want to frost this reviewer, have your hero open a Heineken with a twist-off cap – there’s no such animal. And Jack Daniel’s whiskey always has an apostrophe. If you’re writing a thriller set in Nazi Germany, you’ll score extra points with this reviewer if you don’t say “Hitler was elected president in a democratic election.” You’ll find plenty of people who’ll write that, but the Website Mythfact.com says it’s complicated.
“In America we hear ‘Hitler was elected President in a Democracy’ a lot,” the Website says, “but the sentence is so semantically wrong . . . In summary, the whole thing is almost too complex to apply the ol’ ‘Hitler was elected democratically’ quip to, but since it is important, perhaps it is best phrased as, ‘Hitler and the NAZI party seized power in a democratic system.'”
Got that? Good.

(8) Basic copyediting errors. “These are turning up in books by major authors,” our reviewer said. “I’ve seen ‘grizzly murders,’ when I’m quite sure the local bears are innocent. Clothes are tossed down a ‘laundry shoot,’ and people ‘tow the line.'” If you really want to see steam come out of this reviewer’s ears, mix up “it’s” with “its” and “your” with “you’re.” Granted, we all make mistakes, especially when we’re writing quickly. But somebody should catch those errors before the book is printed.

(9) TMI in the first chapter. Nearly every one of us at TKZ has written about this problem. Overcrowded first chapters slow the pace of your novel. Our reviewer said, “It stops a good book dead when the first chapter has an overlarge cast of characters and I can’t keep them straight.”

That’s all for now. Readers, what stops you when you’re reading a novel?

13+

Road Work

By Elaine Viets

I was reading a fast-paced thriller when suddenly, the action stalled. The sheriff was chasing the killers, pursuing them on the back roads – and I was stumbling through sentences like this one: “Where State Road 41 turned north to Wyandotte, I went south on US 64, and west on Highway 27 until it intersected with Route 441, and then . . . ”

And then I lost interest. My thriller had turned into Mapquest.

Never mind who wrote this novel, or the real names of the roads and town – all writers lose their way sometimes.

Even big name authors will give you turn-by-turn directions to the Santa Monica Freeway or the Holland Tunnel.

Donald Westlake parodied this habit in his funny Dortmunder novels. Stan, the driver for this band of feckless crooks, always discussed his routes through New York City. Here’s a Stan sample:

“Anyway, the Van Wych’s no good because they’re putting in the monorail. I figured the old streets are still okay, I’ll take a straight run up Flatbush Avenue, come to Manhattan that way.”

Mentioning lots of streets may seem to give your novel gritty authenticity, but those streets should help illustrate your story. If your hero is chasing drug smugglers through the back country, describe those roads so they are more than jumbled numbers. Is the highway deserted at night? Is that rutted road hard to see in the rain? Are there isolated farmhouses nearby – or is this road so far off the grid your hero will have no help in an emergency?

Use those roads to give us a feeling of what’s going on. This information can rachet up the tension in your novel.

Paddy Hirsch, in his historical mystery, “The Devil’s Half Mile,” about Wall Street in 1799, mentions a spaghetti tangle of Manhattan streets. But look how he does it:

“Bedlow Street and Timber Street had the high ground and the views, while Cherry Street had the seafront promenade, but the maze of lanes and alleys that tumbled down the hill and connect them was something else entirely. Most of the land there was marsh, and the work to drain the soil and fill in the incline had not gone well. The lanes were sunken, and the buildings on them flooded in the fall, froze in the winter and attracted mosquitos in the summertime. The mysterious fevers and sicknesses that plagued the city seemed to center on those sinkholes, so that only the poorest and most wretched lived there. But the rents were cheap, and as a result they were overflowing with newcomers seeking a fresh start in the growing city.”

Hirsch outlined an entire neighborhood in one paragraph, and named the major streets.
One of the best examples of stellar road work is in T. Jefferson Parker’s “California Girl.” It’s 1960 and teenage Andy is driving his girlfriend home in his car, nicknamed the Submarine.

“Andy steered the Submarine up Red Hill Avenue, into Lemon Heights. Meredith sat close beside him, her hand on his knee. Through his jeans, he could feel the exact shape of her palm and thumb and each finger. He tried to open his leg a little, invite her hand to go farther up, but he had an accelerator to work and she’d never moved much north of his knee anyway. Wasn’t going to in the middle of day, heading home from school. That was for sure.”

They talk about their plans and then:

“Andy downshifted and made the left onto Skyline. Meredith had removed her hand from his leg but he could still feel it there, warm and soft and a little damp. . . .

“Lemon Heights was where the rich people lived. The heights were rolling foothills with eucalyptus and avocado and sycamores, even a few lemon trees from the old days. The houses were big and each one was different, not like the tracts expanding below, where two or three floor plans repeated themselves up one street and down the next.”

Using streets can give your story real direction.

6+

First Page Critique: The Secret of Thieves

By Elaine Viets

It was a pleasure to critique this first page. Our Brave Author had an intriguing premise and a fresh way of starting this story. As you can tell, I liked it. In fact, I really liked it. I found a few things that might be changed, but here’s how it was submitted:

The Secret of Thieves
I don’t believe in ghosts, magic, or lucky charms. There aren’t fairy godmothers or elves. If you lose your wallet or the concert tickets you distinctly remember placing in your purse, it wasn’t because of a goblin. I’d know, because it was probably someone like me who took them. And I am as red-blooded and white-boned as the next girl. As brokenhearted and scared. As daring and tough. And a hundred percent, just like every other person, I am haunted only by my memories—not that they aren’t doozies.
Like the one where my best friend dies right in front of me.
That’s why I’ve come back to the lake, to the spot where Lance and I’d spent so much time when we were young. I’m not trying to contact the dead. There’s a difference between trying to contact the dead and retracing your steps to figure out where you went wrong.
I close the door of my car and walk slowly around the hood. Ever since I first set young eyes on this cliff and watched a grinning Lance leap into the air, I’ve been afraid. Was it a fear of heights, I wonder, or fear that he was leaving me behind?
I stash the keys by the front tire and hesitate. When I’d started the list of my failures last night, I’d known the lake would be first. This cliff. This time of year. Lance’s favorite adrenaline rush. My own pulse trips wildly. I clench my teeth. It no longer matters that I’ve always thought it impossible to jump. I pull off my t-shirt dress, slinging it across the side mirror, then take one step and another toward the cliff, hugging my bare middle.
My progress is buffeted by inarticulate gasps, but I don’t stop until I’m at the edge. An unhinged laugh escapes and I clap my hand over my mouth. It’s as bad as I thought it would be. His cajoling never got me this close. Neither did his dares. But there it is, the lake ripples twenty feet below. A pebble dislodges under my water shoe and tumbles over the edge, clipping the cliff face once, twice, like a loose bullet, before disappearing beneath the dark blue water. I jerk my gaze up, wiping sweaty palms on my bikini bottoms.

Elaine’s Critique
Like I said, I enjoyed this first page, starting with the reader-grabbing title. There are some nice turns of phrase, including the ones in this sentence: “A pebble dislodges under my water shoe and tumbles over the edge, clipping the cliff face once, twice, like a loose bullet, before disappearing beneath the dark blue water.”

However, there are some things I’d change. I had a problem with this sentence, and would rework it: “I’d know, because it was probably someone like me who took them.” That “them” might be clearer and in agreement with the subject if it was changed to “your things” or “your valuables.”

Also, this sentence is awkward: “And a hundred percent, just like every other person, I am haunted only by my memories – not that they aren’t doozies.” I’d smooth that out to: “And, just like every other person, I am haunted only by my memories – and they’re doozies.”

The next sentence would be more effective if the phrase about the best friend was in past tense – then we’re sure Lance is dead. So I’d change: “Like the one where my best friend dies right in front of me” to: “Like the one where my best friend died right in front of me.”
Two paragraphs later, I’d make it: “Ever since I set my young eyes on this cliff . . .”
And one last nit to pick – I’d explain what a “water shoe” is. Water shoes are generally used for walking along pebbly surfaces or surf walking, to protect your feet.
Now there are some questions that our Brave Author has to answer, and soon: Where are we?
What time of year is it? It’s obviously a warm day, because our character is wearing a bikini, so it could be spring, summer, fall, or a warm winter day.
What is our thief’s name and what does she look like?
And most important, what is her age? She talks about “since I first set young eyes on this cliff” but she also refers to herself as being “red-blooded and white-boned as the next girl.” So if she’s still a “girl” how old is she?
Answer these questions, and your novel is off to a terrific start, Brave Author. I look forward to reading the rest of it. Good luck!

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Win the new e-book reissue of Death on a Platter, Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper mystery #7. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com

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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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Read forensic mysteries? You need BRAIN STORM, the first novel in my Angela Richman, Death Investigator series. Now 99 cents. https://tinyurl.com/yyuy2429

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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

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