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

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.
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


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.
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.”


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.

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.


The First Detective Story

Susanna and the Elders by Domenichino 1603

By Elaine Viets

Sex, violence, perjury, crooked judges, blackmail – and police procedural techniques still used today. All these are in the first detective story.

So which one is it?

Some say the first detective story was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” way back in 1841. Wilkie Collins generally gets credit for the first detective novel, “The Moonstone,” in 1868. And others claim Metta Victoria Fuller wrote the first American detective novel, “The Dead Letter,” in 1866. After that, scholars slug it out until we get to the undisputed champion, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his detective, Sherlock Holmes, in 1887.

But I agree with M.T. Logan that the first detective story was published several thousand years earlier. It’s the story of Susanna and the Elders. If you’re Catholic or Greek Orthodox, Susannah is in the Book of Daniel and is considered divinely inspired. For Protestants and many other religions, the story is part of the Apocrypha, the books that didn’t quite make the cut.

Detail from Susanna and Elders by Tintoretto

Susanna was a young married Jewish woman, living in Babylon. She was God-fearing and good-looking. Susanna liked to walk in her husband’s orchard, and two old pervs – excuse me, two highly respected judges – liked to watch. They fell madly in lust with her, and conspired “when they might find her alone,” as the Good Book says. The old creeps lucked out.

On a hot day, Susanna decided to take a bath in the orchard. The two old men hid themselves and watched as she told her maids, “Bring me oil, and washing balls, and shut the doors of the orchard, that I may wash me.” As soon as the maids brought the things for Susanna’s bath, they shut the doors and left. Nobody knew that the two old degenerates were lurking in the orchard.

Once the doors were shut, the horny old coots cornered Susanna, and said she’d better have sex with them, or they would lie and say “that a young man was with thee, and therefore thou didst send away thy maids.”

Susanna realized she was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t, but she’d be damned if she’d have sex with those two creeps. “It is better for me to fall into your hands without doing it, then to sin in the sight of the Lord,” she said.

Susanna and Elders by Anthony van Dyck

Susanna screamed and the old blackmailers screamed, and there was a trial. The judges testified falsely against Susanna, claiming she was with a young stud under a tree, and they’d tried to stop this terrible sin of adultery. The young man got away, but the judges caught Susanna. “The multitude believed them, as being the elders, and the judges of the people, they condemned her to death.”
This was long before #MeToo, and while adultery was a sin for both sexes, it was a bigger sin for women. The patriarchs didn’t want free-range women begetting someone’s child.
Susanna called out to God, “I have done none of these things, which these men have maliciously forged against me.”
In stepped young Daniel, who said, “I am clear of the blood of this woman.”
He lectured the crowd for condemning Susanna “without examination or knowledge of the truth.”
He then conducted his investigation the way all good modern police officers do. He separated the two judges.
He asked the first judge under what tree did he see Susanna doing the wild thing with the young hunk. The judge said, “under a mastic tree.” That tree is where chewing gum comes from.
The second judge claimed Susanna did the deed under a holm tree, a type of oak.

Holm tree

The two lying judges had convicted themselves “by their own mouth.” They were killed.
So there you have it – a detective story with a victim, two villains, and a hero who knew how to search for the truth.
Just out! A STAR IS DEAD, my fourth Angela Richman mystery. Publishers Weekly calls it “skillfully plotted” and says it has “witty dialogue and well-defined characters.”
Buy it now: https://www.amazon.com/Angela-Richman-Death-Investigator-mystery/dp/0727890166/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3P57RLYRP7F08&keywords=a+star+is+dead+by+elaine+viets&qid=1583967357&s=books&sprefix=A+Star+Is+Dead%2Cstripbooks%2C170&sr=1-1


First Page Critique: A Thousand Cuts

By Elaine Viets

Have I got a first-page critique for you, TKZers – a biker, a strip club, serious money and the age-old struggle between mother and daughter. A winning combination in my book. Here, take a look. Then I’ll make my comments.

“Juliana, it’s time to grow up and stop being foolish.”

My mother and I had been locked in this loop for the last four days. Every morning, she descended from her five-hundred-a-day vacation perch on the lake and made her way to the trailer park to harangue me about my life choices. Of course, I had an open invitation to stay with her and partake in the luxury. After one night, I decided the natural stone hot tub wasn’t worth it. Being in her lair gave her more time to go on about all my failures.

“I’m going to be thirty-seven in a few weeks. I think I’m as grown as I’m going to get. I do not want to move to Houston,” I said with the flat monotone of a phrase well-rehearsed and often-repeated.

Rachel María del Carmen Delgado Martin could easily pass for ten years younger than sixty. She wore her vintage designer suit and cat-eye makeup like a queen. In contrast, my black jeans and tank top, still stained from work behind the bar at the Biloxi strip club, marked me as a refugee from a biker rally.

Evidently, my mother agreed. She pulled one of my wild curls straight and let it spring back. I hadn’t cut it since the FBI shut down the family law firm, and the jumbled mass was almost to my waist.

I grabbed her hand before she could start finger-combing my hair. “Stop it. I’m not five. I don’t need you to spit on a hankie and wash my face.”

“Well, you need something. A half-million dollar education and you’re living out here in that box with wheels. You’re better than this. Come to Houston. The co-op board needs a new lawyer. One word from me and it’s yours. You don’t even have to live with me, although you didn’t seem to mind after your surgery. There’s a nice two-bedroom unit on the tenth floor of the south tower, and,” she paused as if her next words hurt, “It’s yours.”

I choked back the sarcasm bubbling to my lips. For my mother to even think about giving away a couple of million in real estate; she was speaking from her heart. I wasn’t going to gain anything by being a bitch.


My contrition was cut short by the rumble of a motorcycle pulling into my driveway.


I thought our Brave Author did a fine job of setting the scene: We know Juliana is 37 and her mother is 60. Mom has plenty of bucks and is staying at a $500 a night vacation place. She wants her daughter, who is 37, to leave the trailer park and her life as a bartender in a strip joint, and tries to bribe her with a job and a high-end condo in Houston.
As an editor, I would make some tweaks:

(1) The first sentence – “Juliana, it’s time to grow up and stop being foolish” – doesn’t have a tag. It’s obvious who is talking, Juliana’s mother, Rachel Martin. But just so readers don’t get lost, I’d recast it this way:

“Juliana, it’s time to grow up and stop being foolish,” my mother said. Again.
My mother and I had been locked in this loop for the last four days. Every morning, she . . .
That tag, or something similar, ties the first paragraph into the second.

(2) The next tweak is punctuation:
There’s a nice two-bedroom unit on the tenth floor of the south tower, and,” she paused as if her next words hurt, “It’s yours.”

It should read:
There’s a nice two-bedroom unit on the tenth floor of the south tower, and,” she paused as if her next words hurt, “it’s yours.” (It’s is lower case.)

(3) The parts of this sentence do not belong together:
For my mother to even think about giving away a couple of million in real estate; she was speaking from her heart.

Consider recasting it this way:
My mother must be speaking from her heart to even think about giving away a couple of million in real estate.

Finally, I’m not sure what kind of book this is. There are plenty of elements – the daughter’s wild life, Mom’s money, and the “FBI shutting down the family law firm” – that could make for a good mystery. On the other hand, it could be modern women’s fiction, examining the relationship between two headstrong women.
However, I believe the author throws too much at us too soon: What we really have here is the opening to a short story or other form of short fiction. For this to work as a novel, and avoid having the women become stereotypes (defiant rebel daughter vs. controlling mother), the author needs to introduce the characters a little more slowly, and build sympathy for both of them. We need to meet them a little at a time.

Congratulations, Brave Author. I’m intrigued.
How about you, TKZers? What do you think?
A STAR IS DEAD, Elaine’s new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, debuts in April. Publishers Weekly says it has “witty dialogue and well-defined characters.” Pre-order it here: https://tinyurl.com/uwj27lv


Making Time To Write


By Elaine Viets
The cat needs to go to the vet, the repairman is coming at three to fix the light switch, and the dryer is making a shrill squeak. When am I going to find time to write with all these household demands?
This is the writer’s dilemma, and after 35 novels, I’m still coming to terms with it.
Here are some suggestions:
(1) Have a dedicated space to work.
I’m lucky to have an office in our condo, with a view of the Intracoastal Waterway. My husband, bless him, prefers a room with no windows. Don says windows are a distraction. I’d get claustrophobic in his office. The landfill pictured below is my desk.

If you’re serious about writing, you need a place to work. A writer friend with a small apartment uses her daughter’s bedroom while the girl’s away at college – my friend loses her space at Christmas and spring break, but otherwise she has a good writing space. Another has a small desk tucked in a nook in the hallway. A third writes at a kitchen desk. No matter how small it is, stake a claim to some space in your home. And when the going gets tough and you’re overwhelmed by noisy spouses and children, head for the coffee shop or local library.

(2) Know your most creative time.
I get most of my writing done between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. After that, I’ll still write, but my work often feels flat. My brain really sparks during those four peak hours. After that, it’s better for editing.
(3) Seize the time you have.
If your husband takes the kids to McDonald’s, don’t use that time to sort socks. Write!
Romance writer Joan Johnston wrote her way to the New York Times bestseller list by writing her novels between 4 and 6 a.m. – while the kids were asleep. Now, that’s dedication.
What if you have a sick spouse or ailing children – or you don’t feel so well yourself?
That’s where your own determination comes in. I’ve written novels by my husband’s bedside when he was in the hospital, and edited proofs for the next book while waiting to hear from the doctor when he was in surgery.
Am I Super Woman? Heck, no! But I can concentrate for short periods. Writing is a way to escape a painful or scary situation. It can be solace.

(4) Make time
Remember the words of that rabble-rousing journalist, Mary Heaton Vorse: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” You need seat time.
Try to schedule time-sucking activities after your peak writing time. If the cat isn’t deathly ill, make her vet appointment at 4:30 p.m. The repairman – if he deigns to show up – will start the repairs after your peak writing time. And for now, I’m ignoring the squeaky dryer.
Be ruthless when you write. Turn off your cell phone. Ignore the siren call of the internet, tempting you with cat videos, unanswered emails and Kim Kardashian’s latest lingerie photo. Use that time to write.

(5) A writer writes.
Make that your mantra.
I love being a writer. I enjoy talking to other writers at the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime meetings, and hanging out with other writers in the bar at conventions.
But writing is a lonely business. Eventually, I’m going to have to go to my office, all by myself, and write. You will, too. Good luck.

Pre-order A STAR IS DEAD, Elaine Viets’ newest Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, here.https://www.amazon.com/Angela-Richman-Death-Investigator-mystery/dp/0727890166/ref=sr_1_1?crid=GSRN4WJRG8EV&keywords=a+star+is+dead+elaine+viets&qid=1578517051&s=books&sprefix=a+star+is+dead%2Caps%2C176&sr=1-1


First Page Critique: The Blood Zone

By Elaine Viets

Today, another Brave Author gives us a first page to critique, The Blood Zone.
Let me take a deep dive into this first page, and then you, TKZ readers, can give our author your thoughts. Here’s the page, and my critique follows.

###                                                   ###                                                            ###

The Blood Zone

They’d lost contact with the dive team over an hour ago.

Reece Jordan looked up from her monitors and through the foot-thick tempered glass window. The one hundred meters of water above muted the sun’s radiance. At best, it illuminated the depths like moonlight through a cathedral’s windows.

Her chair squealed as she shifted back to the screens. She did her best to ignore the sound. Everything creaked, squeaked, or shed rust flakes in an underwater habitat like Sirenica. On a bad day, her monitoring center sounded like a fleet of cars with worn-out brakes.

A rap-rap-rap came from the open hatchway. Jordan didn’t look up. She knew her boss’ tics better than anyone.

“Anything?” Dylan Sawyer asked. The woman’s short blonde hair clung to her scalp as if she wore a skullcap. Another perk of living in a high-moisture environment.

Jordan shook her head. “Not a peep. I’ve got both ROVs on a search pattern.”

The remotely operated underwater vehicles were the size of large dogs. They sported a pair of grasping claws on either side of a cyclopean camera lens. Each could operate long distances without a tether.

But the ocean was a big place.

“Shouldn’t have sent them down there in suits,” Sawyer muttered under her breath. “I told them we needed that fourth minisub.”

“Peterson would’ve said something if he felt uncomfortable.” That was an understatement. Peterson and the two other men on his team had a combined fifty years of experience working under deep dive conditions.

“Even three people can get the nark. At the same time, too.”

Jordan nodded. Nitrogen narcosis could hit hard and fast at this depth. A too-quick depth change could fog the brain as effectively as chugging a bottle of Tennessee whiskey.

Her monitor emitted a ping.

“I’ve got something.”

In an instant, Sawyer was up and looking over her shoulder. “Show me.”

Jordan tapped a few keys. The monitor switched over to one of her ROV’s cameras. Her breath whistled out through her lips as the image of two divers came into focus.

Peterson swam with a crab-like motion. His right arm curled around one of his fellow divers, dragging him forward through the water. Dark streamers of some strange material rippled from the edges of the two men’s suits.

“The hell is that?” Sawyer peered at the screen. “And what’s that black cloud trailing them?”

Jordan swallowed. “It’s blood.”

###                                                             ###                                          ###
Elaine Viets’ comments
This is an excellent beginning, with one major problem: Where the hell are we? As readers, we’re as adrift as the three lost divers.
This problem can be easily remedied in the third paragraph, Brave Author. Tell us about the underwater habitat, Sirenica. You say it’s rusting and noisy, but how old is it? How many people live aboard? What is their purpose: Are they oceanic researchers? If so, which ocean? Are they explorers on another planet, and this takes place in a sci-fi future? Let us know.
Otherwise, there’s much to like here, starting with the title, which immediately grabbed my attention. The writing is clear and crisp, and the various dangers are pointed out quickly: the divers could be lost in a vast ocean, or suffering from nitrogen narcosis.
A few nits to pick: I’d change moonlight through a cathedral’s windows to moonlight through a cathedral window.
Also, I’d say the woman’s short blonde hair clung to her scalp like a skullcap, not as if she wore a skullcap.
And is clinging, damp hair really a “perk” – a benefit? Or is it simply a “result” of living in a high-moisture environment?
And finally, you need a more specific object in this sentence: “Shouldn’t have sent them down there in suits” might read better as:“Shouldn’t have sent the divers down there in suits.”
Otherwise, you have a good beginning with a nice, creepy opening. Well done, Brave Author. I hope the rest of this adventure makes it to publication.

Can you kill someone with a pink plastic flamingo? Read The Pink Flamingo Murders and find out. Win the new e-book version by clicking Contests at 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.


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?

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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.


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.
That smell gives your pretty word picture a whiff of reality.

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