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

Stuck! A Writer’s Nightmare

By Elaine Viets

A desperate writer sent me this email. “I am having difficulty getting back to my story,” he said. “Maybe it’s Covid hangover…. I need to rewrite some stuff in my earlier chapters and I can’t get into it. Argh!!! So tell me, is this common?”
You bet. I’ve been stuck, too – and many of my writer friends are tearing their hair out. Some are so desperate, they’re threatening to give up writing. Blame it on Covid-19, your day job, your kids, (insert your worry here), we’re not keeping those computer keys clacking.


I was in a deep funk for three weeks before I finally broke out of it.
Here’s how I got back to writing.
My next Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery is due in January. I was off to a good start – I crafted the plot, created a catchy opening chapter, introduced the main characters, figured out who was the killer, all the things writers do when we’re starting a new book. I happily banged out six chapters. And then . . .
The words dried up.
I couldn’t go forward. I tore up chapter after chapter. I stared at the screen, willing the words to form on the page. The blank space taunted me.
I paced the house. I surfed the Net, looking at cute cat pictures. I fell for click bait (Did you know the Princes in the Tower may be buried in Westminister Abbey, but Queen Elizabeth won’t let anyone test their DNA?). I ate half a pound cake. Still nothing.
Gloom descended, and it didn’t help that Hurricane Eta was bearing down on South Florida, bringing lashing rains and flooded the streets.
Last Saturday, I went to a Sisters in Crime chapter Zoom meeting – a plotting seminar by mystery writer Annette Dashofy. Annette had us plot a mystery, based on her method, and things quickly went off the rails. Our mystery started with a dead female politician who was killed in her office. The awful plot included an unfaithful husband, an ex-stripper boyfriend, a cheating reporter, and an unmentionable murder weapon. The red herrings would leave you red-faced. But we had a lot of laughs. After much laugher – and some very serious plotting strategy – I realized I had a giant hole in my plot. After the meeting, I reworked the plot, put in another murder and more red herrings. The dam broke. I was back writing. I was going forward. I’d been too isolated.
So when you’re stalled:
(1) Talk to other writers.
Many writers are solitaries, but we need to talk to our own kind. We used to do that at chapter meetings, conferences and mystery conventions, but those are canceled thanks to the pandemic.

When you’re stuck, schedule a Zoom meeting or set up a FaceTime chat. Talk over tea. Make a lunch meet or coffee break. Or my personal favorite, a cocktail hour – a whine and wine session with one or more writer friends.
When I was stuck earlier in the year, I had a Zoom lunch with a writer friend and ran my plot past her. She listened carefully and then said, “You know, there’s not a single likeable person in your novel.” She was right. I changed the characters. Thanks to her, I could write again.

(2) After meeting with those writers, my head was buzzing with ideas.
I started taking notes again, always a good sign. My subconscious was working. I keep a notepad on my night stand and write down ideas that I get in the middle of the night. Some of these ideas are useless – I once scrawled “Call California” on a notepad. The next morning, I had no idea what that meant. After all, it’s a big state.
Sometimes, I can’t even read what I wrote.
More most often, I have the start of another chapter, or a nice fat red herring.

(3) Here are some ways to get in touch with other writers:
Sisters in Crime has a number of free seminars on its national Website. https://www.sistersincrime.org/ Also, check with the individual chapters. Sisters in Crime is also sponsoring NaNoWriMo, and it’s not too late to join:
https://www.sistersincrime.org/events/EventDetails.aspx?id=1427737

Most of the Mystery Writers of America chapters have monthly virtual programs. The Florida MWA Chapter has a free virtual program November 21, called “Seriously Series: Why and How to Write Series Fiction” given by Joanna Campbell Slan. Members can sign up here: https://mwaflorida.org/events/monthly-meetings/

The International Thriller Writers Association has their Virtual Winter Thrills Program, Jan. 11 to March 18. You can buy the whole package or choose individual session for $35 each. Here’s the information. https://web.cvent.com/event/8e0e649d-5c1c-4c55-be1c-575146f15ebf/summary?rp=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000

What do you do, TKZers, to break out and break the isolation?

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Need a good laugh? Read KILLER CUTS, my eighth Dead-End Job mystery. Buy the e-book for $1.99 – or free on Kindle Unlimited. https://tinyurl.com/y6yopjkp

 

12+

Just Who Are You Calling Old?

What’s old?
That’s easy. Anyone ten years older than me.
Yes, that’s an old line, but we writers need to be careful who we call old.
In 2020, calling someone who is 60 “elderly” can anger your core readers.
It can even make readers laugh – at you.

Some readers snicker at Ellery Queen’s description of the “elderly” Inspector Queen who was “not yet 60.” The dynamic mystery writing duo were young whippersnappers of 29 when they created Inspector Queen.
To be fair, I thought 60 was ancient when I was in my 20s. Now, not so much.

Another longtime mystery reader said, “They Found Him Dead” by Georgette Heyer starts with a sixtieth birthday party for Silas Kane who is described as being “very old. As far as I can see, the book was published in 1937.”

How about Edmund Crispin’s “The Moving Toyshop” where the dead victim is described as “an elderly woman in her late 50s”?
What? That’s outrageous!
Except those books were published decades ago, and “old” in 1930 was a lot different than “old” in 1970 – or 2020.

Think back to your grandparents. In 1970, my beloved grandmother was an old woman at age 60. She had a big black purse (stuffed with photos of her grandchildren), sturdy shoes, crispy gray hair and a flour-sack figure. Granted, Grandma had a much harder life than I did, but people used to age faster than they do now.
The government says we’re old at 62. That’s when Americans can start collecting Social Security benefits – and haul them in for a long time. Social Security.gov says, “About one out of every three 65-year-olds today will live until at least age 90, and one out of seven will live until at least age 95.”
Sixty-five is the retirement age in the US, but many people that age still see themselves as young and vigorous.

So if you’re creating an older character for your novel, here are some things to consider:
Older people do not have equal protection under the law. If you have an older person who’s going to be assaulted, many jurisdictions have extra penalties for bashing seniors. In Massachusetts, a man was “arrested and charged with unarmed robbery, assault and battery on a person over the age of 60, assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon (shod foot – aggravated) and mayhem.” In other words, he kicked an older person with his shoe. That’s something to consider when you have your bad guy attack an older person.
Seniors are often stereotyped as defenseless. But that ain’t necessarily so. An 88-year-old woman was assaulted and carjacked in a Walmat parking lot. She fought back with her cane and survived. “I’m a tough old broad,” she boasted.
And speaking of tough, how about the 82-year-old “award-winning female bodybuilder who turned the tables — literally — on a home intruder and beat him so badly after he broke into her house that he had to be taken to the hospital.” It’s true, and it happened in Rochester, New York. The bodybuilder broke a table over the creep – and she was just getting started.
Statistically, that Rochester Wonder Woman would be considered old, even by today’s new and improved standards.

The good news is that old people are getting older. So says CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-age-is-considered-old-nowadays/
So just how old do you want to make a senior character in your novel?
The CBS story says, “Research from John Shoven, a prominent economics professor at Stanford University, suggests that if your chance of dying within the next year is 1 percent or less, you might be considered ‘middle aged.’”
Shoven has a chart that shows “the threshold for men transitioning beyond middle age increased from about age 44 in the 1920s to about 60 today.”

Oddly, 44 would be true “middle age.” Sixty may be the “new” middle age for men, but there are very few 120-year-olds roaming around.
Shoven says, “And finally, if your chance of dying within the next year is 4 percent or higher, you might be considered ‘very old’ or ‘elderly.’ . . . This threshold for men increased from about 65 in the 1920s to 76 today.” So men are “old” at 76.
“Shoven suggests that reduced mortality rates correlate roughly with improved health and vitality at all ages, and can be used as a proxy measure for aging.”
If you’re a woman, you’re even luckier – and younger. Consider this cheery news, ladies, from Shoven.
“By these measures, women today transition out of middle age around 65, a number that has increased from the late 40s in the 1920s. ‘Old’ for women today is about 73, which increased from the late 50s in the 1920s. And ‘very old’ today is about 80, an increase from about 67 in the 1920s.”
People don’t automatically get ‘old’ at 70. Wikipedia sums it up this way:
“Gerontologists have recognized the very different conditions that people experience as they grow older within the years defined as old age. In developed countries, most people in their 60s and early 70s are still fit, active, and able to care for themselves. However, after 75, they will become increasingly frail, a condition marked by serious mental and physical debilitation.”
That’s why my character Margery, in my Dead-End Job series, stays a perpetual 76. I can’t have her aging naturally, or she’ll be too old to go on adventures with Helen Hawthorne.
Personally, I like the question the sage Satchel Paige may or may not have asked:
“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”

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Treat yourself to the first two books in my Angela Richman, Death Investigator series. Only $1.78.   https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B074CCL963?ref_=dbs_p_mng_rwt_ser_shvlr&storeType=ebooks

 

12+

Mighty Irks From Little Eggcorns Grow

By Elaine Viets

Did you ever mistake the word “acorn” for “eggcorn”?
Me, either. But apparently enough people mistakenly heard eggcorn instead of acorn, and that was enough to name a whole category of mistakes. Mistakes that can bedevil writers.

The Christian Science Monitor calls an eggcorn “a slip of the ear . . . the written expression of a plausible mishearing of a standard term. ‘For all intents and purposes,’ for example, is a set phrase—inherently redundant, perhaps, but it’s the idiom. It gets misheard though as ‘for all intensive purposes,’ and sometimes appears that way in print.”

Little eggcorns are mighty big traps for writers. There’s even a site devoted to eggcorns, called the Eggcorn Database (eggcorns.lascribe.net). You can while away many hours checking out eggcorns. At least, I did. I was surprised by the number of experienced writers who stumbled over eggcorns.

Here’s how Deadline Hollywood mangled when all is said and done:
“There is no deal in place but when all is set and done, something is expected to happen after the Academy Awards . . . ”

The Associated Press ran afoul of another phrase, but we should chalk it up to deadline pressure:
“‘Chock it up to just another amateur exhibition of a lack of administrative ability,’ said Georgia pollster Claibourne Darden.”

Even the great Ansel Adams made a mishmash of criticism in this letter: “‘Photography in the Fine Arts’ was a distressing mixmash.”

Some eggcorns make more sense than the correct word:

“Extreme Court” for “Supreme Court,”
“Close-a-phobia” for “claustrophobia,”
“Hearbuds” for “earbuds.”

I like the eggcorn “ostenspacious” instead of “ostentatious,” especially if it’s a big house.
“Skyscratcher” is more accurate than “skyscraper.”
Other eggcorns make writers look just plain dumb.
I wince when I read that someone who moved away from their country is an “ex-patriot.”
How about claiming someone “passed mustard” instead of “passed muster”?
“Physical policy” instead of “fiscal policy” is downright embarrassing.
Ditto for calling ambitious persons “real goal-getters” when they’re “real go-getters.”


How many books have you seen where someone has to “tow the line” instead of “toe the line”?
Here are a few more:

“cold slaw” for “cole slaw”
“old timer’s disease” for “Alzheimer’s Disease”
“chesterdraws” for “chest of drawers”
“wipe board” for “whiteboard”
“curve your enthusiasm” for “curb your enthusiasm”
“A doggie-dog world” sounds much nicer than “a dog-eat-dog world.”
Anyone who’s ever been wiped out at a poker game knows a “card shark” is more accurate than a “card sharp.”

There is one surprising eggcorn that almost everyone gets wrong. Calling an earthquake a “tremblor.” The correct word for an earthquake is . . .
TEMBLOR.
No R after that T.

A temblor is an earthquake.
There’s no such word as tremblor, according to Merriam-Webster. And a trembler is someone who shivers or shakes.
Some lesser dictionaries allow “tremblor” as an informal term for earthquake. But the big names, like Webster, remain unshaken.
Beware the eggcorn – a reminder that words should never be taken for granite.
Name your favorite eggcorns.
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Break out the champagne! I have a contract for two more Angela Richman mysteries. Pre-order Death Grip, Angela # 5 now.

https://tinyurl.com/y2zz9hb5

 

 

 

 

 

 

10+

Let Your Fingers Do the Walking

TKZ is delighted to welcome Marcia Talley, the Agatha and Anthony award-winning author of eighteen mystery novels featuring sleuth Hannah Ives. Her short stories appear in more than a dozen collections and have been reprinted in several of The Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories anthologies. She is a past president of Sisters in Crime, Inc. Marcia lives in Annapolis, Maryland, but spends the winter months in a quaint Loyalist cottage in the Bahamas. Previous titles in the popular Hannah Ives series include Footprints to Murder, Mile High Murder and Tangled Roots. www.marciatalley.com

March, 2020. The pandemic caught up with me at Cocoa Village Marina in central Florida, locked down with my husband on a forty-two foot sailboat where we shared a space about the size of your average American bathroom suite.

The first half of my eighteenth Hannah Ives mystery, DONE GONE, had been written in a quiet corner of the marina’s spacious lounge—bottomless coffee pot! ice machine! microwave! restrooms! — but that luxury abruptly ended with the virus. Forced by stay-at-home orders to retreat to the boat, I set up office in the V-berth which was as far away as I could get from the computer where my husband was fighting off boredom by alternating between playing Civilization and binge watching Versailles.

At that stage of my writing, it’s usually time for a road trip to gather first-hand details on my locations.

Ha ha ha. Good luck with that.

Fortunately, the marina had a robust wireless connection, so I fired up my laptop and began to explore its possibilities by tapping keys.

Browsing through my bookmarks just now, I see that I Googled:

A Fleetwood Mac concert on October 24, 1997 at the Hollywood Bowl
Sending encrypted emails to the New York Times
The private company responsible for security at Hancock Airport in Syracuse, NY
Floor plans of the Cowley Shock-Trauma hospital center in Baltimore
Creole sayings popular in St Kitts
High end gas ranges
Suspension bridges in Ithaca, NY
Folk art galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico
and
How to repossess an airplane
to name but a few.

This time, however, my Internet research needed to go way beyond Googling what kinds of flowers would still be blooming in a Maryland garden in late November. Or, determining whether it would still be light enough at 5:45 for Hannah to see someone skulking about outside her window, or would I have to position that person under a street lamp?
Google Street View turned out to be a lifesaver. It allowed me to “drive” from the Hampton Inn near the Syracuse airport to the house where Mary lives on Snowshoe Trail and be able to write with confidence that if I got to the overhead power lines, I’d gone too far. It helped find a town house on Clinton Street in Brooklyn in need of rehab, and after rehab was done, Zillow gave me a look inside that house, all the way from the ultra-modern penthouse bedroom suite down to the wine cellar.

Vacationers posting 5-star reviews to Travelocity assured me that the Carrier Circle Hampton Inn still had bathtubs in their guest rooms and, yes, you could make your own waffles at the complimentary breakfast bar.

To meet Dicey for the first time, Hannah needed a friendly coffee shop. Yelp obliged, and I found myself taking a virtual drive down College Avenue in Ithaca, past the bike shop and the 7-Eleven and parking in front of Collegetown Bagels where I could see from the street view images that I’d have to use the Park-and-Pay machine to do it.

A local newspaper database informed me that if I planned to have someone leap off a suspension bridge at nearby Ithaca College, it had better be before 2013 when the town suicide-proofed all the bridges with high-tensile steel mesh netting. ‘The students called the suicides “gorging-out” Dicey is able to lament.

While Google Street View offers just that, views from the street, switching to Google Earth gave me a super power I didn’t know I had: zooming in over Prince George Street in Annapolis from outer space. Is there enough room in Trish’s back yard to plant a colonial garden? Yes, indeed, but mind the wall at Cumberland Court.

I’m particularly grateful to the passenger who posted to You-Tube a video of her flight on a small, private plane out of Martin Airport near Baltimore, soaring over the magnificent twin spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. And to the poster of another video of a perfect winter landing on the runway at Hancock Airport in Syracuse. The executive terminals at those two airports are run by Signature Flight Services whose helpful website photos of their passenger lounges allowed Hannah and her sister, Georgina, to relax in comfortable loungers and know exactly where the coffee machine was located. And, bonus! In Syracuse, they even have a gas fireplace!

But most of all, I have to thank Mr Pegman from Google Street View, who, unencumbered by stay-at-home orders, was able to do a lot of the legwork for me.

9+

A Writer’s Learning Curve

I’m pleased to welcome TKZ alumna Nancy Cohen today, as she talks about the Writer’s Learning Curve. That’s Nancy in the hot pink suit. — Elaine Viets

By Nancy J. Cohen

As we go through our journey as writers, we move from one set of learning goals to another. These may evolve over time but there’s never a lack of new things to conquer. Always needing to stay ahead in this game, we must keep up with trends in the marketplace, writing styles and marketing strategies.

When you’re starting out, you’ll devour articles on character, plot, setting and other basic elements of a novel. Once you hone your skills, you’ll narrow down your focus to a particular genre. This can take years, along with many unpublished books, notes from critique partners and rejections from editors. Eventually, if you persist, you’ll get published. With professional editorial input, your skills will keep improving until you look back on those earlier books with dismay. Now that you’re a seasoned author, what’s next?

Writing styles change as pressures from the real world influence our tastes as readers. Before technology infused recreational pursuits, people had plenty of time to read for pleasure. Long, descriptive passages and poetic prose were common. Remember those long tomes by authors such as James Michener? How many of us would pick up one to read now?

These days, readers lack the patience for long expository passages. They want white space, short paragraphs and even shorter chapters. Fast-paced stories with lots of dialogue and action will win readers over sooner than lengthy descriptions that make your eyes glaze. What was that famous line about cutting out the parts readers tend to skim past?

The advent of e-book readers has reinforced this shorter, breezy writing style. So has the “Look Inside” feature at Amazon. You need to grab a reader’s attention within the first few pages. Never mind spending several paragraphs describing the luscious sunrise and seguing into backstory about how the heroine came to be there. Cut to the heart of the story and get things moving from the start. Listen to what readers want and adapt your style if you want to attract more fans.

This also applies to the marketplace. Are cozies popular because the outside world is scary and rife with tension these days? Or are darker tales and thrillers in vogue? Do we need to steer clear of certain topics? Or can we address these issues in a timely manner in our work? Supposedly our books reflect what’s going on in society. In a pandemic, does this mean writing our lifestyle changes into our stories or carrying on as though things are normal? That would depend upon your readers’ expectations, so again, consider your audience.

By now, you’ve produced a number of published books and have learned how to manage your promotional efforts. Back in the day, this meant booksignings inside malls at B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. Then it became independent bookstores. Now it’s online events and ZOOM presentations. You have to keep up with the times in terms of marketing efforts. And when you think you have it down pat, you decide to go hybrid or indie and have to learn a whole new skill set. Nor does it ever end. Audiobook production, box sets, sales promotions, social media campaigns…the opportunities to try new things can be overwhelming. It helps to focus on one item at a time. What is it you want to learn next?

As authors, we’re on a journey that will keep taking us to new places. We always have more to learn and to achieve. Be grateful, because it keeps our minds sharp and gives us a sense of purpose each day. In this, we share a unique mindset that connects us to each other.

11+

Body of Evidence: Are We Boring Our Readers?

By Elaine Viets

New York Times bestsellers. Pulitzer Prize nominees and winners. Man Booker short-listed books and winners. Books taught in high schools and colleges. And books fresh off those coveted “Best of” lists.
I want all these honors for my novels.
But what do these literary successes have in common?
Cliches.
Cliches that would embarrass novice novelists.
For a project for The Pudding, an online magazine, Erin Davis “selected 2,000 books spanning Pulitzer-winning classics to pulpy bestsellers (getting myself banned from the library—twice) and ran them through a parser that identified sentences mentioning body parts. I then extracted the owner of the body parts and any adjectives describing them.”
Her results should put every writer on alert. We’re cranking out cliches.
Here are some of Erin Davis’ findings:
“Hair is twice as likely to be mentioned for women characters than for men . . . society values different things about men and women. For example, there is a long literary, historical, and cultural tradition of valuing a woman’s hair: the Bible calls hair a woman’s crowning glory.
“In other cases, that gaze is more lascivious,” Davis writes. “Consider this litany of woman-skewed body parts: hip, belly, waist, and thigh.”
But when it comes to men, we writers typically – stereotypically, to be exact – describe men’s strength and power. “Body parts such as fist, knuckles, chest, and jaw sketch an image of a commanding and intimidating presence,” Davis says, “as empty of nuance as the soft, sexy image of women.”
Women’s faces are eight times more likely to be “lovely” or “pretty.” Men are plain old “handsome.”
Female bodies are more likely to be “naked,” “young” and “slender.” Men are sixteen times more likely to be described as “powerful.”
Women’s legs are bare and long – especially long. Sorry, guys. Your gams are simply “hairy,” a pedestrian description, if you’ll pardon the pun, and a great offense. I live near the beach, and can testify that many men have shapely bare legs.
As for shoulders, once again, the ladies are nekkid and “white.” Men’s shoulders are “heavy” and “broad.” What a shame those hunky male shoulders are covered up.
And women’s skin? Alas, it’s not much different than our shoulders: it’s described as “white,” “pale,” “smooth,” or “dark.” Men’s skin is reduced to either “black” or “yellow.” Fortunately, both sexes have “warm” skin.
What this project shows is how many authors rely on lazy writing. When our fingers are flying over the keys, it’s easy to grab a reliable cliche. Everyone does that.
Here’s my favorite paragraph from Davis’ article: “In real life, women are obviously more dimensional than soft, sexual objects. Men are more complex than muscular lunkheads. We should expect that same nuance of the characters in the books we read.”
If we’re interested in more thoughtful descriptions of lovers for our novels, check your family photos. Remember the relatives who were – or are – madly in love. Are the women all long-haired beauties and the men strong and handsome? Or are there some startling mismatches.
Consider your sizzling hot Aunt Anna who married geeky Uncle Walter, the guy with the weak chin. They’re still living happily ever after. And what about sexy Cousin Jack? Why did he fall for flat-chested Verna, with the thick glasses and bird legs? Why are they still in love twenty-five years later?
For strong women, I give your Rosie the Riveter, who inspired World War II women to work in factories and help their country. Here’s one Rosie, her crowning glory wrapped in a red bandana, working on an aircraft.

Norman Rockwell’s Rosie is eating a sandwich. She may have white shoulders, but her bare arms are definitely muscular.

As for strong men, here’s a hero who defies the standard cliches: the British spy Frank Foley.

Frank was short, pot-bellied, and wore owlish glasses. He looked exactly like his cover profession – passport control officer for the British embassy in Berlin. History says, “Foley bent the rules and helped thousands of Jewish families escape from Nazi Germany after Kristallnacht and before the outbreak of the Second World War.”
Forget the James Bond tux. Foley, the quintescential clerk, saved ten thousand people.
Write on – right past the cliches.

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A Star Is Dead, my fourth Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is “skillfully plotted… Witty dialogue and well-defined characters, including plucky and intelligent Angela, lift this wry look at the trappings of celebrity. Fans and newcomers alike will be pleased” – Publishers Weekly. Buy it today: https://tinyurl.com/yc6fnysb

 

10+

Don’t Say It! Words We Love to Hate

By Elaine Viets

You know, some words and phrases are getting on my nerves. Most people would say it is what it is and at the end of the day, let it go. I know, right? But I’ve been doing some online research. There are certain sayings that tick people off. And readers are people, too. You don’t want to turn off your readers with annoying phrases. Just sayin’.
These outstandingly irritating phrases are garnered from various corners of the Web.
Think carefully before you use them in your writing. You may want to save them for your most hateful characters.

Just sayin’. The winner! Nearly everyone hates this redundant phrase. I mean, you’ve already said what you were going to say, right?

Literally. I confess I’ve used this one and thought it was pretty clever – the first time. Then I noticed that word in every novel I picked up – literally.

It is what it is. Arggh! This meaningless phrase is enough to send me screaming into the night. I admit I’m a little touchy these days, with the quarantine and all, but please don’t use it.

At this moment in time. What’s wrong with “now”? Can this pretentious phrase.

Everything happens for a reason. Usually said after some meaningless tragedy, and meant as consolation. If you don’t have that comforting belief system, this phrase triggers an urge to slap that person silly. Also avoid this phrase: Whenever God closes a door, he opens a window. I had a roommate like that. Very annoying.

Honestly. Often a trigger word indicating the person using it is lying. Use it carefully.

My bad. A cutesy way of glossing over a mistake. This phrase says, “I know I did something offensive and I don’t care.”

I want 110 percent. Right, boss. Except your math doesn’t add up.

No worries. Some people find this phrase a little passive-aggressive. In other words, when someone says, “No worries,” they’re really telling you that you should be worried.

At the end of day. As in, “At the end of the day, getting a new CEO won’t make any difference. This company is doomed.” This crutch will cripple any sentence.

With all due respect. The warm-up to an insult. “With all due respect, even in your prime you weren’t that good.”

That’s my list, and it’s pretty good, in IMHO (oops, there’s another one.) Now’s your chance. What tired words and phrases would you like to see retired?

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A Star Is Dead, my new Angela Richman death investigator mystery “will satisfy procedural and cozy fans who like a good puzzle,” says Booklist magazine.
Buy it here: https://tinyurl.com/yc6

5+

Making Characters Count

By Elaine Viets

I’m starting my sixth Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery by returning to my comfort read, Agatha Christie. After all, she’s sold a billion books in English and another billion in foreign languages.
Why read an author who’s been dead for nearly 45 years?

Because her writing is timeless. I still learn from her. Here are three ways:
(1) Agatha Christie’s character descriptions are superb.
Even the most unimportant characters are carefully described.
In Death on the Nile “smooth-footed, deft-handed waiters ministered” to Hercule Poirot’s table, serving him an excellent meal.

And while the butler didn’t commit this murder, his brief appearance is memorable:
“A few minutes later she was being ushered into the long stately drawing room, and an ecclesiastical butler was saying with the proper mournful intonation, ‘Miss de Bellefort.’”
I love those phrases –”an ecclesiastical butler” “with the proper mournful intonation.” I can almost hear him intone her name.

(2) Agatha Christie finds fresh ways to describe series characters.

It’s tempting for series writers like myself to repeat the same descriptions of our main characters, book after book. But we have to be careful. Readers are smart enough to recognize boilerplate.
Here’s Agatha’s description of Hercule in After the Funeral. This is the 29th mystery in the Poirot series, but she still comes up with a new description:
“There were no curves in the room. Everything was square. Almost the only exception was Hercule Poirot himself, who was full of curves. His stomach was pleasantly rounded, his head resembled an egg in shape, and his moustaches curved upwards in a flamboyant flourish.”
Hercule is talking to Mr. Goby, an expensive operative who acquires outre information. Here’s Agatha’s clever description of a nondescript operative:
“Mr. Goby was small and spare and shrunken. He had always been refreshingly nondescript in appearance and he was now so nondescript as practically not to be there at all.”
Mr. Goby has to deliver a long list information that could have been quite dry. But Agatha livens it up with a funny bit. Here’s how Mr. Goby gives his report to Poirot:
“He was not looking at Poirot because Mr. Gobi never looked at anybody. Such remarks as he was now making seemed to be addressed to the left-hand corner of the chromium-plated fireplace curb.” He delivers his first round of information that way.
For the second batch, Mr. Goby “shifted his gaze to an electric plug socket.”
The third burst of info is given while he “winks at a lampshade.”
And finally, Mr. Goby finishes his information “by nodding his head at a cushion on the sofa.”
Mr. Goby never appears in this book again, but Agatha has found a good way to make what could have been a boring recitation of facts entertaining.
(3) Agatha Christie knows how to skip esoteric discussions that can bog down a scene.
Hercule is back at that fine dinner, and the host says, “‘You will enjoy your dinner, Monsieur Poirot. I promise you that. Now as to wine–’
“A technical conversation ensued, with Jules, the maitre d’hotel, assisting.”
Agatha also uses this technique to avoid repetitious dialogue from scene to scene.
That’s how I prep for my newest novel. I don’t call it procrastination, though Agatha has some 80 books and short stories.
What do you do before you start your novels?

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A Star Is Dead – “witty dialogue and well-defined characters” says Publishers Weekly – sold out of its first printing. Buy it  here:

https://tinyurl.com/y7cv83v4

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Perilous Work: Writing Cliffhangers

By Elaine Viets 

The 1914 movie serial “The Perils of Pauline,” was the ultimate cliffhanger. Week after week, Pauline escaped airplane crashes, searches for buried treasure, and multiple abductions. She was even carried away in a hot air balloon. But contrary to legend, the original Pauline was never tied to a railroad track, or nearly sawed in half by a buzz saw.
Pauline’s perils made great cliffhangers, and kept moviegoers crowding the theaters for some twenty episodes.
Cliffhangers are the hooks that make your readers keep turning the pages, pulling them into the next scene or chapter. Most cliffhangers come at the end of the chapter. If your readers are hooked, they’ll continue reading.

Here are some tips for good cliffhangers:
A cliffhanger should catch your readers by surprise.
Something unexpected has to happen: Someone threatens to jump off a bridge. Their car goes into a skid on a snowy curve. A door opens unexpectedly. Then, bam! The chapter ends.
Darkest Evening, Ann Cleeves’ new Vera Stanhope novel, has a perfect cliffhanger chapter ending. Vera follows a killer, who gets her alone and strangles her. I’ve edited out the killer’s name in this section, but you get the idea.
“As Vera began to lose consciousness, she thought that this was her fault. . . it was her pride again, making her think she was indestructible.
“Then the world went blank.”
I couldn’t wait to turn the page and see what happened to Vera. Not to mention the killer.

The Perils Of Pauline, poster, Pearl White, 1914. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

Someone unexpected arrives. A crook, an innocent person, a cop, just in time. This person is a surprise. They abruptly break up the scene.
Someone leaves.
A bride suddenly leaves the groom standing at the altar. A couple is fighting, and he walks out on her. She suddenly quits her job.

Sometimes, the cliffhanger is a new piece of information.
Your character learns something. She’s not married legally to her husband after all because he never divorced his first wife.
Or, he’s not the son of the man he called father: the DNA test proved it.
Your character notices something. The detective sees the scratches around the door lock and realizes the house had been broken into. A wife finds lipstick on her husband’s shirt – scarlet lipstick. She never wears that color.
Your character figures something out. She finally understands the key to the puzzle the dead man left behind. He finally knows why his dead father wanted him to listen to the CD he left in his desk drawer.

Your character decides something. She’s going to leave her abusive husband. He’s going to rob the store to get enough money to feed his family.
She’s going back to school.
Your character feels something. I looked at my husband of twenty years, and wondered, “Why had I married him? What did I ever see in him? Maybe it was time for me to walk away.”
Or, I looked at his picture, and suddenly, I couldn’t see it any more I was blinded by rage.
Your character makes a demand. “Get me to the hospital now!” she told the cabbie. “There’s fifty dollars if you make it in ten minutes!”


How do you end a chapter with a cliffhanger if nothing new is happening? Give a simple pastime a feeling of foreboding.
Agatha Christie, in The A.B.C. Murders, does that. Tom Hartigan and Lily Marbury are out for a carefree night of dancing while a killer stalks the area. Dame Agatha writes:
“They danced on happily – in their conscious minds nothing but the pleasure of being together.
“In their unconscious minds something stirred . . .”
Your character doesn’t show up. In Jeff Abbott’s thrillers are chockfull of cliffhangers. In Cut and Run” Claudia is in a booth at a Mexican restaurant, waiting for Judge Whit Mosley, a man on the run.
“Claudia traced the beer rings on the worn wooden table, waiting for Whit, waiting to see if he was still the man she knew, afraid of what she heard in his voice.
“The nachos grew cold. Whit never showed.”
Whit’s no-show is a cliffhanger and one reason why Jeff’s books are page turners.


Give your readers a sense of menace.
Let them know your characters will be going off to a dangerous place or a risky situation. Or something has happened that will change everything.
Before She Was Helen, by Caroline B. Cooney has some first-rate cliffhangers. Like this one:
Helen thought, “Cold cases are solved by DNA and fingerprints.
“Her fingerprints.
“Which were on the doors and knobs at Dom’s and the Coglands’ houses.
Where the police would shortly be summoned to reunite a stolen artwork with its owner.”
Would Helen’s guilty past catch up with her? I kept reading to find out.

Tick-tock. Time is running out. This is a favorite plot device in thrillers.
“He looked at the clock. He had two hours before the terrorists blew up the bus full of school children. He had to find them.”
Unexpected news. Important information, or a person, shows up unexpectedly. End your scene with the protagonist receiving devastating news: his wife is dead. His office was blown up. Her partner was shot in a hold-up.

Cliffhangers you should avoid. Two of them are: “If I’d only known,” or “Had I but known.”
I ended a chapter like that and my editor cut the line. She told me it was a cliche.
Ending a novel with a cliffhanger.
Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? But it often ticks off your readers and leaves them feeling frustrated. Don’t do it. Unless, like Pauline, your new episode is available next week.
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Good news! A Star Is Dead, my fifth Angela Richman mystery, sold out its first printing. Buy your copy here: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=a+star+is+dead+elaine+viets&i=stripbooks&crid=1CW21L13TBKUZ&sprefix=A+Star+is+Dead+%2Caps%2C185&ref=nb_sb_ss_c_2_15

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First Page Critique

By Elaine Viets

Here’s another first page by a Brave Author. Read it, and then let’s discuss it.

Absence of Truth

The letters on the envelope spelled out her name, Vanessa Barella but, they were neither written in ink nor typed. They were cuttings from a newspaper.
The envelope had no mailing address or return address. Not even a stamp, but somehow it had made its way inside Vanessa’s locked mailbox.
She unlocked her front door and placed her mail on the kitchen counter, then slipped off her high-heeled shoes. She threw her jacket over her grandmother’s chair that she didn’t have the heart to throw out. She poured herself a glass of wine and raised it to her lips while keeping her eyes fixated on the mysterious envelope. She broke the seal then removed the letter from inside.
‘I AM A GHOST AND I AM GOING TO KILL YOU’
The letter and envelope fell to the floor when Vanessa reached for the edge of the counter, to stop herself from falling. The rough grout cut into her skin as she held on tight. Vanessa gulped several breaths to slow down her breathing. When the blood restored to her brain and her vision cleared, she picked up the letter and envelope off her tiled floor and then removed her phone and wallet from her handbag. There was a business card in the pocket of her purse, and she dialed the number.
She brought the glass of wine to her lips. The line went quiet after the second ring. Wine dribbled out of her mouth and onto her silk blouse. Shit!
“Hello…, Mr. Cooper, it’s Vanessa Barella. I’m not sure if you remember me? I’m one of the legal assistants over at Anderson & Smith.” There was no response. “It’s a criminal law firm here in San Francisco. You do some private investigating for our firm,” she said. There was still silence. “Mr. Cooper, are you there?” Vanessa was about to hang up the phone when she heard Mr. Cooper’s voice.
“Sorry about that, had to find a quiet place to talk.”
“Mr. Cooper, I’m not calling you about a legal matter. It’s more of a personal one. I need your help.”
“I didn’t catch the name?”
“It’s Vanessa Barella. We’ve met a few times in the conference room. But we’ve mostly spoken over the phone.”

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This entry has possibilities, Brave Author, but it needs work.
There are minor typos, but having a misplaced comma in the first line is not a good idea. The errant comma should go after Barella. There’s a dropped “was” in this line: “When the blood (sic) restored to her brain . . .” You don’t need quotes around the ghost’s message. It’s in all caps.
Now, the opening: It’s not good and it’s not bad. It’s meh. And meh doesn’t sell books.
Here’s an example of a gripping opening, by John D. MacDonald:
“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.”
Richard Stark opened Firebreak with: “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”
Hillary Davidson started The Damage Done this way: “It was the bright yellow tape that finally convinced me my sister was dead.”
Here are more first lines: https://www.crimethrillerhound.co.uk/first-lines
I know you can do better, Brave Author. You’ve dreamed up a fascinating scenario. You have the ultimate dead letter here – a ghost is threatening to kill Vanessa. Use it!

The second major problem is Vanessa’s phone call. You’re trying to deliver information about Vanessa, and it’s a good ploy. But don’t forget how Vanessa is feeling. After all, she just got a death threat. She spilled wine on her blouse. She’s frightened to death. Make her that way. How about a version of this:
“Mr. Cooper, it’s Vanessa Barella. I’m one of the legal assistants over at Anderson & Smith.” Her voice shook. She was sick with fear. There was no response.
“You know, criminal law firm here in San Francisco. You do some private investigating for our firm.” Please, she thought, please answer. You’re my only hope.
There was still silence.
“Mr. Cooper, are you there?” Vanessa was about to hang up the phone when she heard [use Cooper’s first name] Cooper’s voice.
“Sorry about that, had to find a quiet place to talk.”
“Mr. Cooper, I’m not calling you about a legal matter. It’s more of a personal one. I need your help.”
“I didn’t catch the name.”
“It’s Vanessa Barella. We’ve mostly spoken over the phone.”

This critique is what’s known as a “praise sandwich”: criticism stuck between compliments. You’ve given us a good first draft, Brave Author. Now sit down and rework it. I want to read more about that murderous ghost.

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Get an autographed copy of A Star Is Dead, my fourth Angela Richman, death investigator mystery, and help an indie bookstore. Email Murder on the Beach Bookstore at murdermb@gate.net and I’ll donate $1 to Feeding South Florida (feedingsouthflorida.org) for every copy of A Star Is Dead sold at the Delray bookstore.

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