About Jodie Renner

Jodie Renner is an editor and award-winning author of fiction-writing guides, CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER. She has also published two clickable e-resources to date: QUICK CLICKS: WORD USAGE and QUICK CLICKS: SPELLING LIST. www.JodieRenner.com; @JodieRennerEd

TKZ – a Guide for the Writer’s Journey

by Tom Combs, physician-author, www.tom-combs.com tom_tkz-safety-chain-on-tricky-climb

In 2007, after twenty-five years as an emergency medicine specialist working in the ERs of busy inner-city level-one trauma centers, a personal health event ended my medical career. I’d worked briefly as a technical writer prior to medical school, but for the last eight years have been able to focus full-time on the study and creation of fiction.

The Kill Zone and its contributors have been a daily part of my writing life for years. I contacted Kathryn Lilley a few weeks back to share news of the release of the second book in my medical suspense-thriller series and mentioned my long-term involvement with TKZ. She suggested I guest blog and share how TKZ has influenced my writer’s journey. Specifically she mentioned that she believed my experience “would be inspiring to others, and spread cheer to my fellow bloggers!” I hope so.

Here are some ways TKZ has helped me on my journey from aspiring fiction writer to indie publisher of two well-received thrillers:

Instruction on craft

TKZ provides ongoing instruction on the craft of writing fiction that engages and sells.

James Scott Bell, Jodie Renner, PJ Parrish (Kris), Jordan Dane, Larry Brooks, and all the TKZ contributors regularly share the essence of their experience and hard-gained knowledge. I realize I’m preaching to the choir when I identify that the writing instruction presented on TKZ is ninja-level. The TKZ bloggers are the faculty of an online academy. Note: many of most useful posts are organized by topic in the TKZ Library (click HERE or on “TKZ Library” in the banner above).

Philosophy, support, and guidance

All readers here know the writer’s life can be tough at times. Self-doubt, frustration, discouragement, and disappointment are all part of the journey. I’m certain the honesty, humor, and sage counsel of TKZ’s “usual suspects” has assisted many a writer get over the rough spots. It has definitely helped me.

First page submission

By 2012, I’d been a TKZ follower for years and felt as if I knew the faculty and their personalities. I’d missed the submission deadline for the initial and subsequent “First Page” critiques and regretted having lost out on the great opportunity.

In 2012, I submitted on time. My mouth went dry on April 12, when I saw that TKZ emeritus John Ramsey Miller had rendered the critique of my work. JRM was a particular favorite of mine and, among his traits is a no-BS, flame-throwing honesty. I approached his critique with fear and trepidation. His favorable response to my submission gave me a lift unlike any I’d experienced in writing to that point. It is a treasured memory in my TKZ history.

The comments beneath the critique provided education on the varied and subjective nature of opinion/review – “dang excellent,” “this is brilliant,” “it’s not without problems,” “I’m hooked,” “wouldn’t have hooked me in any way,” etc. This provided additional education on the realities of writing.

Top-shelf editor

Years back, a TKZ guest blogger presented an article on craft that blew me away with its content and clarity. I learned that the writer, Jodie Renner, had edited two of Joe Moore’s novels. Jodie became a TKZ regular for a few years, and followers benefitted from her many outstanding articles on craft as well as her three writing guides. I did even better – after her guest piece, I was able to convince Jodie to work with me, and we have collaborated on both of the books in my series. She is amazing as both an editor and a friend – another major personal and professional benefit of my involvement with TKZ.

James Scott Bell and the TKZ faculty

I can’t recall if I discovered James Scott Bell first and it led to TKZ or the reverse. The discovery of both was definitely a boon to my writing development and career. JSB’s savvy, humor, enthusiasm, and guidance on both craft and the writer’s life is special and representative of the warmth, wisdom, and generosity of the TKZ faculty, both current and past. I attended Jim’s outstanding “Story Masters” seminar with his teaching partners, Donald Maass, and Chris Vogler, where I learned a great deal while laughing often (JSB could do stand-up comedy).

James Scott Bell’s enthusiasm, professionalism, and support of other writers is characteristic of my experience with TKZ.

I’m not certain I can inspire TKZ followers, but I can unequivocally recommend ongoing participation. The return on investment is astronomical – how can you beat free writing wisdom? TKZ is a writing travel guide that is updated daily for those who seek excellence.

I share Kathryn’s hope that her fellow bloggers/faculty will feel cheered. These people deserve to feel good about themselves. The hours, effort, and imagination invested in creating the daily posts are considerable. Despite receiving little in return, they share their knowledge and support every day.

Thank you to TKZ faculty, current and past, for your continuous commitment to helping writers. Your efforts are, and have been, a special part of my writer’s journey. I’m certain there are many among the TKZ faithful who have benefitted as I have.

I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to share my appreciation today.

tom-c_nerve_damage_kindle_bestDo you have examples of how TKZ has helped you on your writer’s journey? Please share in the comments below.

Nerve Damage, the first book in my medical suspense-thriller series, was released in 2014. The response has been excellent, with more than 200 five-star Amazon reviews, wonderful personal comments from discriminating readers, and glowing independent book reviews.

Hard to Breathe, the second installment in the Drake Cody suspense-thriller series, is now available.

ER doctor and medical researcher Drake Cody has a past no physician is allowed to have. When an injured woman presents to the ER with a report of a fall, Drake reportstom-c_hard-to-breathe_best to police his suspicion that her powerful businessman husband is guilty of domestic violence. Within hours, Drake’s medical license and the rights to his breakthrough experimental drug are threatened.

Murder, billion-dollar intrigue, and corruption involving the most powerful elements in healthcare threaten Drake’s career, those he loves, and his life. Can the law deliver justice, or will it abandon him?

“Intense and highly entertaining. Combs’ writing grips you from the first chapter and never lets go. Very cinematic and intense. Speeds the reader from chapter to chapter at a breakneck pace. Hard to Breathe is a terrific book.” – Laura Childs, New York Times best-selling author

Nerve Damage and Hard to Breathe provide an insider’s exposure to the blast-furnace emotions of critical care medicine and the high-stakes “business” of healthcare and its mega-dollar temptations.

Both books are fast-paced, intense, twisting thrill rides involving individuals you care about and medical realities that affect us all.

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It’s All in the Verbs

Jodie Renner, editor & author  image

Okay, maybe not ALL, but your choice of verbs can make or break a scene. Have a look at a recent chapter or short story you’ve written. Check the verbs in particular. Maybe even highlight them. Are some or a lot of them bland, vanilla verbs like came, went, arrived, approached, walked, ran, or looked?

Do you have a heavy, tired, or angry character simply walking when he could be trudging or clomping or stomping or plodding? Or an old or ill or exhausted character walking who should be limping or shuffling along? Make the conceited or over-confident guy swagger or strut and the lawyer stride into the courtroom. And be sure your drunk, stoned, or injured suspect is staggering, lurching, wobbling, meandering, or shambling, not just walking. Or perhaps someone is running when sprinting or racing or darting or dashing or fleeing would better capture the situation and her mood.

Of course, sometimes an ordinary character on a regular day is just walking or jogging. But when you need to bring the character and scene to life and add tension (which is most of the time), use all the tools in your toolbox to create sensory impressions for the readers and engage their emotions — make them worry.

If you’ve got a character looking at something or someone, consider whether they really are just looking. Or are they actually peering at something? Or observing or studying or examining or inspecting or scrutinizing it? Or perhaps they’re covertly spying at a group around a campfire. Or maybe they’re glancing around them or catching a glimpse of someone. Or glaring at another person in anger. Or squinting into the distance under the glaring sun.

Be sure your words, especially the verbs, capture the mood you’re after.

And don’t prop up a weak, overused verb with an adverb. Instead of “She walked quietly,” say she crept or she tiptoed or she sneaked or she slinked along the wall.

Fire up Your FictionFor a whole chapter on finding just the right verb for every scenario, check out my award-winning writing guide, Fire up Your Fiction, chapter 21, “Choose Words That Nail It.” Subtopics include People in Motion, Words for “Walked,” Replacements for “Run,” and Different Ways of Looking. (Lots of other great stuff for writers in there, too!)

Let’s add a bit of urgency to the sentence below by changing up the verbs:

The NCIS agents drove to the scene, then went to the back of the vehicle and pulled out their equipment.

Here’s one possibility:

The NCIS agents raced to the scene, then hurried to the back of the vehicle and grabbed their equipment.

Note how changing just three verbs can amp up the scene. You could probably charge it up even more.

Are you accidentally sabotaging your scene by choosing a verb that gives entirely the wrong impression?

Make sure none of your verbs are actually working against the scene, undermining the effect you’re after. Do you inadvertently have characters strolling or ambling or slouching at tense times? Or leaning back during an argument? Be sure not to use shuffling for the walking of someone who isn’t old, sick, weak, or very tired.

Remember that tension and conflict are what drive fiction forward, so unless you’ve got two lovers taking a romantic walk, don’t have your characters strolling along when they should be hurrying or hustling or darting in and out, glancing around and behind them. Relaxed, easygoing verbs aren’t going to get your reader’s pulse quickening and make her want to turn the page to read more.

Also, think about the difference between a smile and a smirk and a sneer. Don’t have a character sneering when they’re just smirking. Sneer means “to smile or laugh with facial contortions that express scorn or contempt.” So if you have buddies disagreeing or teasing each other, you might use smirked, but don’t use sneered. Save that for someone nasty.

There are a lot of nuances for showing a character looking at someone or something. The verbs glare, glance, scan, peer, study, and gaze have quite different meanings, for example.

Do you have characters glaring when you mean gazing or staring or studying or scrutinizing? For example,

Brock glared at the intruder with the gun, eyes wide with fear. He shifted his stare to Gord, mouthing, “Help.”

“Glared” doesn’t go with “eyes wide with fear.” Glared is for anger. Maybe “stared” here? And “shifted his gaze”? Or maybe:

Brock’s eyes widened with fear at the intruder with the gun. He shifted his gaze to Gord, mouthing, “Help.”

How about eyes squinting when there’s no bright light?

At the funeral, the widow caught Adam’s glance and squinted her eyes in accusation. She no doubt held him responsible for her husband’s death.

I’d say “narrowed her eyes” or “glared at him.”

Watch for “happy” verbs that have sneaked into your story at tense times.

Have any happy, carefree words or dreamy imagery somehow slipped into any of your scenes at tense moments? If your two young protagonists are running for their lives in the woods, don’t mention the birds chirping or the brook babbling or the leaves dancing in the breeze. Keep all your imagery scary and ominous – darkness, nasty weather, treacherous terrain, a howling wolf, or whatever.

Find the “happy” or “comfy” verbs that are subtly dissipating the tension in the scene below in a crime novel:

They pursued the getaway car on a dark, lonely country road. Lights from farmhouses twinkled in the distance. Up ahead, they saw the car spin out and crash into a tree. They pulled up behind it and got out. Tony shone his flashlight into the car. The windshield was fractured. Bits of glass sparkled throughout the inside, and steam rose from the damaged engine.

Yes, “twinkled” and “sparkled” normally have positive connotations, so they counteract the tension you’re trying to build in a scene like this.

Similarly, don’t use casual, relaxed language in a stressful situation:

Johnson and Fernandez parked their cruiser at a distance, then jogged at a comfortable pace to the scene of the crime.

Best to not use words like “comfortable” or even “jogging” at a time of stress. Choose words that fit the anxious mood and tone of the moment better.

Or if someone is about to face a harsh boss, be reamed out about his behavior, and likely fired, avoid detracting from the tension like this:

“You can go in now,” the secretary said, holding the door open for him. He found himself in a comfortable outer room with a stunning view, several armchairs, a bookcase, and a sofa against a wall. A large oak door stood closed on the far wall.

At such a tense time, it’s best not to add anything comfortable or any obviously positive words like “stunning.” That dissipates the tension at a time when you need to keep building it. Besides, the guy isn’t thinking about the view or the comfy furniture at this moment!

Here’s an example from a different book, describing the actions of a nasty villain about to shoot someone:

Before: He smiled. (doesn’t sound very nasty)

After, revised by the author: His mouth was twisted in a cruel smile.

So what’s the takeaway from all this? Don’t overdo the bland, boring verbs, or your scenes will be bland and boring. But if you’re looking for a unique synonym and you’re not 100% sure of the nuances, look each one up in the dictionary so you don’t have your character sneering when you mean smirking, or squinting when you mean peering or glaring.

Your turn. Share some possibilities in the comments below if you feel like playing.

How would a bunch of SWAT team members move after a few miles when training on rough terrain in bad weather?

How would two carefree little girls move around the playground?

How about two top contestants on Dancing with the Stars? How are they moving across the ballroom floor?

How about a more vivid way to say “took” or “carried” something?

* * *

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as twoCaptivate w Silver decal2 clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers, including a middle school edition. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook and Twitter.

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How and When to Use HYPHENS, DASHES, & ELLIPSES

by Jodie Renner, editor and author    Captivate w Silver decal2

Ellipses vs. Dashes; Hyphen, Em Dash and En Dash

In my editing of fiction manuscripts, I often find writers using ellipses (…) where they should use dashes, or hyphens instead of dashes, etc. Here’s a brief run-down on the use of these punctuation marks.

A. Ellipsis (…) or Dash (—)?

In fiction,

An ellipsis (…) is used to show hesitation:

“What I meant is… I don’t know how to begin…”

or a trailing off:

“She came with you? But I thought…” She paused.

“You thought what? Come on, spit it out.”

(Also, usually in nonfiction, indicates the omission of words in a quoted text.)

A dash (—), also called em dash, is used to show an interruption in speech:

“But I—”

“But nothing! I don’t want to hear your excuses!”

or a sudden break in thought or sentence structure:

“Will he—can he—find out the truth?”

The dash is also used for amplifying or explaining, for setting off information within a sentence, kind of like parentheses or commas can do:

“My friends—I mean, my former friends—ganged up on me.”

Note: To  use dashes this way, make sure that if the information between the dashes is taken out, the rest of the sentence still makes sense and flows properly. Also, avoid three dashes in a sentence. Rewrite the sentence to avoid that.

B. Hyphen vs. En Dash vs. Em Dash:

The en dash is longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash (the normal dash).

A hyphen (-) is used within a word. It separates the parts of a compound word: bare-handed, close-up, die-hard, half-baked, jet-lagged, low-key, never-ending, no-brainer, pitch-dark, self-control, single-handed, sweet-talk, user-friendly, up-to-date, watered-down, work-in-progress, etc.

Dashes are used between words.

An en dash (–) connects numbers (and sometimes words), usually in a range, meaning “to”: 1989–2007; Chapters 16–18; the score was 31–24 for Green Bay; the London–Paris train; 10:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.

An em dash (—) is used to mark an interruption, as mentioned above (“What the—”), or material set off parenthetically from the main point—like this. Don’t confuse it with a hyphen (-). In fiction, the em dash almost always appears with no spaces around it. Some authors, publishers, and companies prefer an en dash with spaces on each side of it for this: ( – ). This is more common in nonfiction.

C. How to Create Em Dashes and En Dashes:

Em dash (—): Ctrl+Alt+minus (far top right, on the number pad). CMS uses no spaces around em dashes; AP puts spaces on each side of em-dashes.

En dash (–): Ctrl+minus (far top right, on the number pad)

D. Advanced Uses of the Dash (Em Dash):

According to the Chicago Manual of Style (6.87), “To avoid confusion, no sentence should contain more than two em dashes; if more than two elements need to be set off, use parentheses.”

Also, per CMS, “if an em dash is used at the end of quoted material to indicate an interruption, a comma should be used before the words that identify the speaker:

“I assure you, we shall never—,” Sylvia began, but Mark cut her short.

But: “I didn’t—”

No comma after it here, as that’s the end of the sentence, and no tagline.

The Chicago Manual of Style also says (6.90) that if the break belongs to the surrounding sentence rather than to the quoted material, the em dashes must appear outside the quotation marks: “Someday he’s going to hit one of those long shots and”—his voice turned huffy—“I won’t be there to see it.”

Using an em dash in combination with other punctuation:

CMS 6.92: “A question mark or an exclamation point—but never a comma, a colon, or a semicolon, and rarely a period—may precede an em dash.

All at once Jeremy—was he out of his mind?—shook his fist in the officer’s face.

Only if—heaven forbid!—you lose your passport should you call home.

Do you have any questions or comments about the use of ellipses, dashes, and hyphens that I can help you with? Please mention them in the comments below.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-Fire up Your Fictionwriting guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. Jodie recently organized and edited two anthologies for charity: Voices from the Valleys and Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers, created to help reduce child labor in Asia. You can find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter, at www.JodieRenner.com or www.JodieRennerEditing.com, and on her blog Resources for Writers.

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A Fond Farewell from Jodie Renner – and links to Jodie’s Top TKZ Posts

Jodie Renner, editor & authorJodie_June 26, '14_7371_low res_centred

It’s with mixed feelings that I bid a fond farewell to The Kill Zone. I started guest blogging here in November 2012, then officially joined the team in early October 2013. It’s been a lot of fun and a real honor to be part of this talented team for the past few years, and I hope I’ve made some meaningful contributions, including setting up the TKZ library. (Click on the TKZ Library link above to check out many TKZ posts, categorized by topic.)

I’m also pleased to have brought in as guest bloggers several friends who are also bestselling authors, including Robert Dugoni, Steven James, Allison Brennan, LJ Sellers, and Allan Leverone, as well as award-winning blogger and humorous fiction writer, Anne R. Allen.

Scroll down to see links to my most popular TKZ posts.

I’ll continue to follow this excellent, award-winning blog, and have been told I’m welcome as a guest blogger any time, so you may see future posts by me here occasionally.

Below you’ll find links to many of my posts from this blog, listed from oldest to most recent. And at the bottom you’ll find links to my books, my websites, and my own little blog, where I will continue to post occasionally.

LINKS TO MANY OF JODIE RENNER’S CRAFT-OF-WRITING POSTS HERE ON TKZ:

~ Writing Tense Action Scenes

When your characters are running for their lives, it’s time to write tight and leave out a lot of description, especially little insignificant details about their surroundings. Characters on the run don’t have time to admire the scenery or décor, start musing about a moment in the past, or have great long thoughts or discussions. Their adrenaline is pumping and all they’re thinking of is survival – theirs and/or someone else’s. …

~ Impart Info with Attitude – Strategies for Turning Impersonal Info Dumps into Compelling Copy

As a freelance fiction editor, I find that military personnel, professionals, academics, police officers, and others who are used to imparting factual information in objective, detached, bias-free ways often need a lot of coaching in loosening up their language and adding attitude and emotions to create a captivating story world. Really need those facts in there? Rewrite with attitude! …

~ Checklist for Adding Suspense & Intrigue to Your Story

Writing a Killer Thriller_May '13Here’s a handy checklist for ratcheting up the tension and suspense of your novel or short story. Use as many of these elements and devices as possible to increase the “wow” factor of your fiction. …

~ Phrasing for Immediacy and Power

Have you ever been engrossed in a novel, reading along, when you hit a blip that made you go “huh?” or “why?” for a nanosecond? Then you had to reread the sentence to figure out what’s going on? Often, it’s because actions are written in a jumbled-up or reversed order, rather than the order they occurred. Do this too often, and your readers will start getting annoyed. …

~ Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details

… In order for your story and characters to come to life on the page, your readers need to be able see what the main character is seeing, hear what he’s hearing, and smell, taste and feel along with him. …

~ Don’t Stop the Story to Introduce Each Character

Imagine you’ve just met someone for the first time, and after saying hello, they corral you and go into a long monologue about their childhood, upbringing, education, careers, relationships, plans, etc. You keep nodding as you glance around furtively, trying to figure out how to extricate yourself from this self-centered boor. You don’t even know this person, so why would you care about all these details at this point? …

~ 10 Ways to Add Depth to Your Scenes

… Besides advancing the storyline, scenes should: reveal and deepen characters and their relationships; show setting details; provide any necessary background info (in a natural way, organic to the story); add tension and conflict; hint at dangers and intrigue to come; and generally enhance the overall tone and mood of your story. …

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silvers~ Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude & Immediacy

… Showing your character’s immediate thought-reactions is a great way to let the readers in on what your character is really thinking about what’s going on, how they’re reacting inside, often in contrast to how they’re acting outwardly. …

~ Fire up Your Fiction with Foreshadowing

… Foreshadowing is about sprinkling in subtle little hints and clues as you go along about possible revelations, complications, and trouble to come. It incites curiosity, anticipation, and worry in the readers, which is exactly what you want. …

~ Nail it with Just the Right Word

To set the mood of a scene in your story, bring the characters to life, and engage readers in their world and their plight, it’s critical to choose just the right nuance of meaning to fit the character, action, and situation. …

~ Looking for an editor? Check them out very carefully!

An incident happened to me recently that got me thinking about all the pitfalls that aspiring authors face today when seeking professional assistance to get their books polished and ready to self-publish or send to agents. …

~ Tips for Loosening up Your Writing

As a freelance editor, I’ve received fiction manuscripts from lots of professionals, and for many of these clients, whose report-writing skills are well-researched, accurate and precise, my editing often focuses on helping them relax their overly correct writing style.

Captivate Your Readers_med~ How to save a bundle on editing costs – without sacrificing quality

below you’ll find lots of advice for significantly reducing your editing costs, with additional links at the end to concrete tips for approaching the revision process and for reducing your word count without losing any of the good stuff.  …

~ Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner

… Today’s readers have shorter attention spans and so many more books to choose from. Most of them/us don’t have the time or patience for the lengthy descriptive passages, long, convoluted “literary” sentences, detailed technical explanations, author asides, soap-boxing, or the leisurely pacing of fiction of 100 years ago. …

~ 15 Questions for Your Beta Readers – And to Focus Your Own Revisions

…To avoid generic (and generally useless) responses like “I liked it,” “It was good,” or “It was okay,” it’s best to guide your volunteer readers with specific questions. …

~ Dialogue Nuts & Bolts

The basics of writing dialogue in fiction: paragraphing, punctuation, capitalization, etc.

~ 12 Essential Steps from Story Idea to Publish-Ready Novel

… If you want your novel, novella, or short story to intrigue readers and garner great reviews, use these 12 steps to guide you along at each phase of the process: …

~ 12 Tips for Writing Blog Posts That Get Noticed

Blogging is a great way to build a community feeling, connect with readers and writers, and get your books noticed. …But if you’re just getting started in the world of blogging and want to build a following, it’s all about offering the readers value in an open, accessible style and format.

~ Creating a Scene Outline for Your Novel

… The outline below will help you organize your scenes and decide if any of them need to be moved, revised, amped up, or cut. …

~ 25 Tips for Writing a Winning Short Story

Writing short stories is a great way to test the waters of fiction without making a huge commitment, or to experiment with different genres, characters, settings, and voices. And due to the rise in e-books and e-magazines, length is no longer an issue for publication, so there’s a growing market for short fiction. …

Three articles on point of view in fiction, with an emphasis on close third-person viewpoint (deep POV). Includes examples.

~ POV 101: Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There (for most of the novel)

~ POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping

~ POV 103 – Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View

 ~ Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)

How to format your manuscript before sending it to an editor or publishing.

Quick Clicks_Word Usage_Precise Choices~ Just the Right Word is Only a Click Away

How are your word usage and spelling skills? Try this quiz to find out.  …

~ Tricks and Tips for Catching All Those Little Typos in Your Own Work

Tips for fooling your brain into thinking your story is something new, something you need to read critically and revise ruthlessly before it reaches the demanding eyes of a literary agent, acquiring editor, contest judge, or picky reviewer.

~ Don’t Muddle Your Message

… Wordiness muddles your message, slows down the momentum, and drags an anchor through the forward movement of your story. It also reduces tension, anticipation, and intrigue, all essential for keeping readers glued to your book. …

~ How to Reach More Readers with Your Writing

15 tips for clear, concise, powerful writing.

~ Make Sure Your Characters Act in Character

Do your characters’ decisions and actions seem realistic and authentic? …

~ Create a Fascinating, Believable Antagonist

For a riveting story, be sure to challenge your hero – or heroine – to the max. …

~ How are short stories evaluated for publication or awards?

What are some of the common criteria used by publications and contests when evaluating short story submissions?

~ Critical Scenes Need Nail-Biting Details

… for significant scenes where your character is trying to escape confinement or otherwise fight for his life, be sure you don’t skip over the details. If it’s a life-or-death moment, show every tiny movement, thought, and action. …

I look forward to connecting with you all again here, as well as on Facebook and Twitter — and maybe at some writers’ conferences! Keep on writing!

Jodie Renner, a former English teacher and school librarian with a master’s degree, is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook.

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Social Media Etiquette: 15 Dos and Don’ts for Authors

by Anne R. Allen

Note from Jodie: I’m just heading home from presenting at Word on the Lake Writers’ Festival all weekend (2 workshops, panel, blue pencil sessions), so humorous author and award-winning blogger AAnne Allen_e-agenne R. Allen has graced us with her wit and wisdom today. Take it away, Anne!

Thanks, Jodie. It’s a pleasure to be a guest on TKZ.

“Authors behaving badly” tends to be a hot topic on booky forums and blogs these days. A lot of people blame the indie movement, but some of the worst social media behavior I’ve seen comes from traditionally published authors who are following the dictates of their marketing departments.

Unfortunately, a lot of marketers seem to have studied their craft at the “let’s cold-call random strangers just as they sit down to dinner” school of salesmanship.

As a general rule, I feel if someone has the social graces of a rabid squirrel, he’s probably not the guy to listen to on the subject of winning friends and influencing people—which is what social media is all about.

We need to keep in mind that social media isn’t about numbers, no matter how numbers-oriented your marketing department squirrels are. Social media is about making actual friends, not about mass-“friending” a horde of random strangers.

You’ll make a lot more real friends and sell a lot more books in the long run if you heed the following dos and don’ts.

1) DO remember Tweets are casual: Never tweet a query—not to an agent, reviewer, blogger or editor.

2) DON’T post advertising on anybody’s Facebook “wall.”  A person’s wall is how they present themselves to the world. When you plaster the cover of your book on their timeline you seriously mess with their brand.

Posting on somebody’s wall is like putting a sign in the front window of their house. Don’t do it without permission. This is true for pleas to sign petitions or donate to charities, no matter how worthy the cause.

3) DO use social media to interact with people, not to broadcast a never-ending stream of “buy my book” messages.

People whose Twitter stream is the identical promo tweet over and over look like robots with OCD. They will only get followed by other compulsive robots.

Twitter is a place to give congrats to a newly agented writer here or a contest winner there. It’s a wonderful vehicle for getting quick answers to questions. Or to commiserate when you’ve had a disappointment. Or if you’ve found a great book you love, tweet it.

Social Media is a party, not a telemarketing boiler room.

4) DON’T put somebody on an email list who didn’t sign up for it. ONLY send newsletters to people you have a personal connection with, or who have specifically asked to be on your list. Lifting email addresses from blog commenters without permission is considered especially heinous. Cue Law and Order music…

5) DO use Direct Messages sparingly. And never automate DMs. Private messages are for personal exchanges with people you have a legitimate connection with—not for advertising or begging for money. The fact somebody has followed or friended you back doesn’t give you license to send them advertising through a private message. This is especially true with “thank you for the follow” messages that come with a demand to “like” your author page, visit your blog and buy your products.

6) DON’T forget to check your @ messages on Twitter several times a day and respond to them. It only takes a moment, but those are people reaching out to you. Ignoring them will negate what you’re doing on Twitter in the first place.

 7) DO change the Facebook default “email” address to your actual email address. You are on social media to connect with people. Post a reliable way to connect—which that Facebook address isn’t.

8) DON’T forget to check your “Other” Folder on Facebook regularly. People who want to contact you for legitimate reasons may contact you through a Direct Message, but if they’re not on your “friend” list, the message goes into your “other” file.

A lot of FB users don’t even know it’s there.

If you’ve never heard of it, go to your home page and click on the message button on the left side of the toolbar (It’s the one in the middle, between friend requests and notifications.) They’re semi-invisible if you don’t have anything pending, so if it’s all blank up on the left side of that blue toolbar at the top of the page, move your mouse slightly to the right of the Facebook logo in white and click around.

Mostly your “Other” file will be full of spam and hilarious messages from guys with poor language skills who think Facebook is a dating site. But nestled in there you may find a note from a fan or a fellow author who wants to co-promote or is asking you to join a blog hop or something useful. So do check it once a week or so.

9)  DO post links to your website on all your social media sites. And have your contact info readily accessible on your site! Being paranoid on social media makes your presence pointless. Even if you’re on the lam, incarcerated, and/or in the Witness Protection Program, you need to be reachable if you want a career. Use a pen name and get a dedicated email address where you can be reached at that Starbucks in Belize. 

10) DON’T “tag” somebody unless they’re actually in the picture. This is an unpleasant way some writers try to get people to notice their book or Facebook page. They’ll post their book cover or some related photo (or worse, porn) and “tag” 50 random people so they’ll all get a notification.

But here’s the thing: a tag means a person is in the photo. Full stop. Yes, you may get a person’s attention with this—but not in a good way. Remember you’re trying to get people to like you, not wish for you to get run over by a truck.

11) DO Network with other writers in your genre. Joining up with other authors to share fans and marketing is one of the reasons you’re on social media. You’re not here to sell to other authors, but you are here to pool your resources.

12) DON’T thank people for a follow, especially on Twitter. It may seem like bad manners, but the truth is most people on Twitter and FB would prefer you DON’T thank them for a follow. That’s because those thank-yous have become 99% spam. If your inner great aunt won’t let you rest without sending a thank-you note for every follow, send it in an @ tweet.

If you actually want to show gratitude, retweet one of their tweets. Then maybe they’ll thank YOU and you can get a conversation going. 

13) DO talk about stuff other than your book. Yes, we’re all here because we want to sell books, but social media is not about direct sales. It’s about getting to know people who might help you make a sale sometime in the future. Consider it a Hollywood cocktail party. You don’t launch into your audition piece every time you’re introduced to a film executive. You schmooze. You tell them how great their last picture was. You find them a refill on the champagne. You get them to LIKE you. Then you might get asked to audition in an appropriate place.

14) DO Read the directions. If you’re invited to join a group, and you’re instructed to put links to your books only in certain threads, do so.  Anything else will be treated as spam and you could get kicked out of the group. And don’t dominate any site with your personal promos, even if it isn’t expressly forbidden in the rules. Taking more than your share of space is rude. People don’t like rude.

15) DON’T ever respond to a negative review or disrespect a reviewer online.

  • Not in the Amazon or Goodreads comments.
  • Not on your Facebook page
  • Not on their blog.
  • Or yours.

And especially don’t Tweet it.

If you get a nasty, unkind review, step away from the keyboard. Go find chocolate. And/or wine. Call your BFF. Cry. Throw things. Do NOT turn on your computer until you’re over it. Except maybe to see these scathing reviews of great authors. Getting a bad review means you’ve joined a pretty impressive club.

If you break this rule, you can face serious consequences. So many authors have behaved badly in the past that Amazon has sprouted a vigilante brigade that can do severe damage to your career if you get on their poop list.

In my forthcoming mystery novel, SO MUCH FOR BUCKINGHAM: The Camilla Randall Mysteries #5, an author breaks this rule and ends up being terrorized—online and off—with death and rape threats, destruction of her business, hacking her accounts, and other horrors.

This isn’t so farfetched. I know authors who have gone through this, for much smaller offenses than my heroine. There are some terrifying vigilantes in the book world who don’t just fight fire with fire. They fight a glow-stick with a nuclear bomb.

So ignore these rules at your peril, or you could be designated a “Badly Behaving Author” and become another of their victims.

What about you? Have you been making any of these faux pas? (I’m not going to claim I haven’t. We were all newbies once.) Do you have any funny “Other” folder encounters you want to share? Any do’s and don’ts of your own would you’d like to add? 

Anne R. Allen is an award-winning blogger and the author of eight comic novels Anne Allen_ARA roseincluding the bestselling Camilla Randall Mysteries, plus a collection of short fiction and poetry. She’s also co-author of How to be a Writer in the E-Age: a Self-Help Guide, with NYT bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde.

6+

Critical Scenes Need Nail-Biting Details

Captivate Your Readers_medJodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

For mundane scenes, it’s best to spare readers the details. We don’t need to know that your character got up, showered, dressed and had toast and eggs before heading off to work. Yawn.

On the other hand, when it comes to significant scenes where your character is trying to escape confinement or otherwise fight for his life, be sure you don’t skip over the details. If it’s a life-or-death moment, show every tiny movement, thought, and action. To increase tension, suspense, and intrigue, milk those crucial scenes for all they’re worth.

Below are some “before” examples, inspired by passages I’ve edited. In each example, including additional detail, such as emotions, physical sensations, and reactions, would be much more effective in bringing the scene to life and keeping readers on the edge of their seats.

I’ve quickly created a possible “after” example for each one to illustrate what I mean, but I’m sure you can do even better.

Setup: Escaping from an insane asylum.

Before:

Harley whispered, “I managed to lift the keys. Four in the morning. Get through the woods. I’ll be waiting in a car on the other side.”

Jennifer didn’t sleep at all that night. Four a.m. couldn’t come soon enough. Harley had chosen that time because it was the morning shift change, when the attendants met to discuss what patient problems to look for. After they had settled into the cafeteria, Jennifer ran to the supply room that had an exit door at the other end. The keys worked perfectly, and she was out behind the hospital in less than a minute.

That was way too easy for suspense fiction. Nothing went wrong! Yawn. Let’s try that again:

After:

Harley whispered, “I managed to lift the keys to the supply room. Inside the room, there’s an exit door that leads to the backyard. Do it at four in the morning. It’s shift change, and they’ll all be meeting to discuss the patients. Get through the woods. I’ll be waiting in a car on the other side.”

Jennifer didn’t sleep at all that night. At four a.m., she threw on a robe and crept toward the supply room, flattening herself against the walls and ducking into doorways. She peeked around the last corner. Damn. An orderly was coming out of the supply room carrying towels. Jennifer ducked her head back and hid in a dark recessed doorway, clutching the keys so they wouldn’t jiggle.

She heard footsteps approaching. She held her breath. The orderly passed, engrossed in his cell phone, so he didn’t notice her. She raced to the storage room, glad she was wearing sneakers. Looking around, she tried one key after another, before finally hitting one that opened the door. Yes. She crept in and quietly closed the door behind her, then fumbled for the light switch so she could find the back exit. Just as she saw the exit straight ahead, she heard footsteps approaching. Damn. The orderly must be back. She snapped off the light and tiptoed toward the Exit sign in the dark. She fumbled for the doorknob and found it just as she heard a key in the other door. She yanked out the door and slipped out.

So far so good! But she still has to make it across the back field to the cover of the woods. And did the orderly hear her close the exit door?

Another “before” to continue the same story:

Jennifer looked around. It was pitch black and raining like crazy. With every step, she would sink a few inches into the muck, more walking than running. When she got to the edge of the yard, she searched for a hole in the hedge, then crawled through. She hopped a barbed wire fence and saw a blue Toyota idling on the side of the road. She took off on a run.

My advice to the author of the original version was:

For nail-biting scenes like this, it’s best to have more “showing” than “telling.” Stretch it out a bit here for more trouble and tension and suspense. Also, amp up the tension by adding more danger and threats.

After:

It was pitch black and raining like crazy. And she was in her hospital gown. She started to run across the field, sinking into the muck with every step, more walking than running. Behind her, the door opened, and a male voice yelled “Hey, you! Stop!”

Crap! She picked up her pace, glad she was away from the lights and there was no full moon. As she raced through the soggy field, the mud sucked off one shoe, then another. The alarm started blaring behind her. She limped along, bare feet sinking into the mud with each step.

When she finally reached the woods, she discovered that what from her window had looked like a thin hedge was instead a thorny knot of blackberry bushes. She ran along the edge looking for an opening. At last, she found an opening and crawled through. She ran along the deer path for a while, then stopped. A barbed wire fence. Damn! She carefully grabbed the wires and pulled them up and down, then crawled through with difficulty. She could hear yelling and running behind her. She ran to the road and saw a blue Toyota idling there. She took off on a run.

Here’s another example of adding details, emotions, and reactions to create a more riveting scene.

Writing a Killer Thriller_May '13Before:

Linda opened the door of the tiny apartment.

Terry was gone, his clothes were gone, and so was the money. What! She ran down the concrete steps and into the parking lot. The Jeep was gone.

After:

Linda opened the door of the tiny apartment.

Where was Terry? She called his name. No answer. She surveyed the small room, then checked the bathroom and tiny bedroom. No sign of him. His clothes were gone too. What the–? Did he take the money, too?

Starting to panic, she searched under the bed and in the closet for the bag of cash. She yanked open all the dresser drawers and pulled out the contents, then ran and ransacked the small kitchen and living area. Nothing. Shit! The rat.

She ran down the concrete steps and into the parking lot. The Jeep was gone. Christ. Now what? She stomped her foot and ran a hand through her hair in frustration.

And one last example:

Before:

Ken ran down the back stairs. The wind was whistling between the buildings, and it felt like it was twenty below. He finally saw an old beater in the back of the parking lot that wasn’t locked, so he jumped in, hotwired it, and got the hell out of there.

It would be much more effective to show the details of his struggle so the reader can picture what he’s going through and get caught up in it, rather than skimming over and summarizing like this.

After:

Ken ran down the back stairs. The wind was whistling between the buildings, and it felt like it was twenty below. Hoodie up over his head, he darted through the parking lot, trying one car door after another. All locked. Damn! He looked around. A dented beater sat in the back of the parking lot. He dashed over and tried the door. It opened. Yes! He jumped in, hotwired it, and got the hell out of there.

But don’t show details the character wouldn’t notice.

On the other hand, skip any extraneous or distracting details, things the character wouldn’t notice or care about at that critical moment.

Say your two characters, a young male and female, are on the run from bad guys in a large museum or art gallery. They’ll be desperately looking for places to duck into or exits, concentrating on escaping alive. This is not the time to go into detail about the interesting artwork or ancient artifacts around them. Perhaps mention a few in passing as they consider ducking behind them, or for some other reason relevant to their life-or-death situation. Describing their surroundings in detail is not only unrealistic; it dissipates the tension and slows down the pace at a time when they should be charging through at a break-neck speed.

So be careful not to bog down your fast-paced scenes with a lot of detail the characters wouldn’t have time to notice.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversFor more tips on pacing your scenes, including how to write effective action scenes, check out my three editor’s guides to writing compelling fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller.

5+

Keep Your Options Open

Omega ConnectionAllan Leverone

Note from Jodie: I just moved to a new city a few days ago and am up to my ears in unpacked boxes and chaos, so I’ve brought back my friend and two-time former client, bestselling thriller and horror author Allan Leverone, to tell you how he recently increased his author visibility and spiked book sales. Take it away, Al!

Thanks, Jodie. Great to be back at TKZ. My first book was published a little over four years ago, in February 2011. You may remember that as the chaotic period when the self-publishing phenomenon really broke through and turned the traditional publishing model upside down.

Between December 2009, when I signed my first contract, and February 2011, those changes swept through the industry. One result of everything going on was that I suffered a unilateral modification in contract terms by my publisher—changing the agreed-upon format of my upcoming release from mass-market paperback to ebook-only—a change that forced me to reconsider signing in the first place.

My debut novel hadn’t even been released yet and I was already questioning my decision to sign that first contract.

Should I hire an attorney and attempt to force the publisher to abide by the original contract terms? Should I demand they return the rights to my book based on breach of contract? Or should I suck it up and accept the change?

Eventually I chose the third option and the book was released almost a year later, and I was left with the challenge faced by all authors not named King or Patterson or Grisham.

How the hell was I going to attract readers to a book offered for sale by a virtually unknown writer?

My theory was then and still is now that avid readers don’t read books, they read authors, that when picking their next read, given the choice between an author’s name they recognize and one they don’t recognize, they will almost always choose the former over the latter.

This was a problem, and one thing that struck me as I read J.A. Konrath’s blog day after day, where he hammered home the point that ebooks are forever, was that this problem was only going to get worse. If convincing readers to choose my book was a challenge in 2011, it was only going to become more of a challenge over time, as the market became more and more saturated.

It was critical I raise my name recognition, so that I could become one of the authors whose names readers recognized and thus chose.

When I looked at the writers who were becoming successful in the Brave New World of modern publishing, I saw men and women who all seemed to have one thing in common, regardless of their genre: they took risks.

I decided I would become a risk-taker as well, and since making that decision I’ve approached the business side of writing from that perspective: to take chances when I felt it could be beneficial.

So when I read in October 2014 that Amazon Publishing was about to open up a brand-new venture called Kindle Scout, I paid close attention. I’m friends with some outstanding writers published through Amazon’s Thomas and Mercer imprint, people like Vincent Zandri and J. Carson Black, and their experience with Amazon has been universally outstanding.

Do you know how rare that is in the world of publishing, for authors not just to be satisfied with their publisher, but actually pleased?

But there was a problem: Thomas and Mercer was closed to submissions and had been for a long time.

As someone looking for a way to get involved with Amazon Publishing, the benefits seemed obvious to me: Amazon is the world’s biggest bookseller and thus has a ready-made ocean of buyers out there, actively searching for quality books in all genres. Their targeted marketing is second to none, and unlike other publishers, they can directly control which titles their readers see, and how many readers see them.

So I studied the Kindle Scout program. It seemed fairly straightforward. I would submit a manuscript. My book would be featured in a thirty-day campaign, where readers (“Scouts”) could examine an excerpt and nominate the book for publication if they deemed it worthy. At the end of the book’s campaign, Amazon editors would consider the quality of the work and the number of nominations received, and within fifteen days would either accept the book for publication by their brand-new Kindle Press imprint, or would decline to publish it and return the rights to me.

It just so happened that I had a manuscript nearly submission-ready.

My theory was to take risks when it could be beneficial.

This was a no-brainer. I finished cleaning up the manuscript and submitted it into the Kindle Scout program about ten days after the program opened for submissions. Two days after THE OMEGA CONNECTION’s campaign ended, the manuscript was accepted for publication by Kindle Press and on March 3, was among the first ten books released by the brand-new imprint.

I believe I made the right decision. My experience with Amazon Publishing to this point has been nothing short of outstanding. The copyediting process was thorough, I have an Amazon rep who is friendly and smart and responsive, and best of all, the book is selling. I’m gaining readership.

Omega Connection

THE OMEGA CONNECTION has taken up residence in two bestseller categories at Amazon, Political Suspense and Hard-Boiled Mystery, and has consistently ranked between 5,500 and 9,500 at Amazon. These results over a six-week period are far better than I’ve ever achieved with any other book.

Is Kindle Scout for everyone? Of course not; nothing is for everyone. The program is not perfect. For example, unlike traditional publishers, Amazon expects Kindle Scout authors to provide their own quality cover art. As someone familiar and comfortable with self-publishing, this was not a problem for me; it might be a deal-breaker for some.

And as with any venture, it is absolutely essential you read and understand the contract before signing anything.

But if you’re willing to take chances, if you believe in your work, if you’re looking to sell books and raise your profile as an author, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t at least seriously consider the new Kindle Scout program.

It’s your career. Keep your options open.

Allan Leverone, Mar. '12

Allan Leverone is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of eleven novels, including MR. MIDNIGHT, named by Suspense Magazine as one of the “Best Books of 2013.” 

A 2012 Derringer Award winner for excellence in short mystery fiction and 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee, Allan lives in Londonderry, New Hampshire with his wife of more than thirty years, three grown children and one beautiful granddaughter. 

Check out THE OMEGA CONNECTION or learn more at www.AllanLeverone.com. The CIA’s most secret weapon, Tracie Tanner, must stop a killer targeting defense contractors. Or die trying.

5+

Think your book is ready to publish? Maybe not.

Note from Jodie: I’m busy packing to move to another city next week, so bestselling – and prolific! – author Allison Brennan has kindly consented to share some valuable advice for aspiring authors today. Welcome, Allison!

Allison Brennan

In 2002, I finished my first full-length novel, a masterful romantic suspense. It had everything … and I mean everything … that a romantic suspense novel could have.

A Heroine … beautiful, smart, sweet. And a virgin. She was a computer expert who worked from home.

A Hero … tough, dedicated, handsome. And a cop.

A Chance Encounter … the heroine thought the hero was an intruder in her apartment building. An old house converted into three flats. How was she to know the landlord had rented the vacant unit?

A Villain … he worked at the coffee shop where the heroine bought her morning coffee after her daily run. He loved her. He was certain she felt the same way, but he couldn’t talk to her, so he stalked her.

A Victim (or five) … the villain, unable to share his feelings for the heroine, rapes women who look like her. Of course my hero catches the serial rape case.

The Ex-Girlfriend … the hero has a psycho ex-girlfriend who is none too happy when she sees the hero kissing the heroine. At some point, she trashes the Heroine’s apartment.

The Ex-Fiancé … yes, the heroine had been engaged. She broke it off for some reason I don’t remember (but I’m sure it was a very good reason), and then she learned that her ex was selling company secrets to a rival. So of course she turned him in.

The Heroine’s Brother. A priest. Well, a former Marine turned priest. (Why? I don’t know. It sounded good at the time.)

Danger. The Heroine’s ex-fiancé, furious that he was fired, plots to embezzle money from the company. But he needs the Very Smart Heroine to hack into the system and steal the payroll before it’s direct-deposited into employee accounts. To force her to help him, he and his gang hold her brother (the former Marine turned priest) hostage, shooting him in the leg when she refuses to help.

Of course, the hero comes in to save the day!

But lest you forget Stalker Boy, he was just as upset as Ex-Girlfriend that Heroine and Hero were kissing. Around this point, Hero realizes that the rape victims (and he’s escalating, because one died) all look like our Heroine. He gets all Alpha Hero wanting to protect her. But because Villain is a psycho, he kills Ex-Girlfriend and frames our Hero. While our Hero is in jail, our Stalker kidnaps the Heroine and takes her to the Cascade Mountains where he forces her to wear his mother’s wedding dress in a mock ceremony so that they can “legally” consummate their marriage.

Of course, the hero comes in to save the day … again.

Did I mention that Villain also killed his mother and kept her decomposing body in her house?

Yes, Hot Latte had it all. Literally.

(Stop laughing. Yes, I called it Hot Latte. Because that was the heroine’s preferred beverage at the coffeehouse.)

Alas, Hot Latte has never been—and never will be—published. Truly, I had at least six good books crammed into that one novel! I’ve used some of the plot twists in future books, and I still have more to spare.

My first book taught me a lot about writing. In fact, writing Hot Latte was essentially a crash course in fiction writing. What to do … and, mostly, what not to do.

I sold my fifth completed manuscript, The Prey, to Ballantine in 2004. My first four books aren’t publishable, but I truly believe my career depended on me writing them. Through the process of writing those books, I learned how to structure, pace and plot a story. (I use the word “plot” loosely because I don’t plot, per se.) I learned about character, backstory, conflict, and self-editing.

My first book isn’t salvageable. I would also argue that ten years ago, I didn’t have the skill to completely rewrite anything into something that was the same core story … but different. Better.

I owe more than I can say to my former editor at Ballantine for helping me learn how to see the big picture. In fact, I still hire her to edit my indie books because, even after twenty-five traditionally published novels, I crave editing. I also insist on revisions for every traditional book I write. I don’t consider it a failure to get a long revision letter—to me, that external guidance makes a good book great. While I’m a better writer today than I was ten years ago, but that doesn’t mean my books don’t benefit from a thoughtful developmental editor. (I’m not talking about copyediting and proofreading – those are a given. I’m talking about someone who looks at the big picture and helps make it clearer.)

I thank God that self-publishing was not a viable option in 2002 when I wrote Hot Latte. Because I honestly thought that it was a good book. My best friend read it and she liked it, too. (Ahem. See tongue in cheek?) It was clean – meaning there were few, if any, grammatical or spelling errors. Who wouldn’t love it? I mean it had everything in it! Literally!

But all the agents and editors who rejected it were right. When I found an old copy of the manuscript a few years ago, I cringed. It was that bad. Every cliché in romantic suspense found a home in my book.

I recognize that the publishing world is different today than ten years ago. Yet … there are some truths that remain the same. The primary truth is that you should only put your best work forward.

Just because the new climate has allowed everyone to publish doesn’t mean that everyone should publish their first … or second … or fifth book.

I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that they were rejected by “New York” and obviously “New York” doesn’t know what’s good, so they’re going to self-publish.

Or how many people have said they can’t afford an editor, but their daughter/mother/best friend is a good proofreader. (Proofreading is NOT editing.) One person actually told me that once they start making money selling their books on Amazon, then they can afford to hire an editor.

Or how many people feel they have written the perfect book and any editorial input would make it less perfect. That they don’t want to change anything in the story because it’s exactly the way they want it.

Or how many people tell me they don’t really care whether they make money or not, they want to “get their story out there” and since it’s free to do so, they don’t want to spend any money on editing or cover design. These people actually make me angry – because I take my career seriously, I take books seriously, and I don’t think that “just getting something out there because you can” respects authors or readers.

New York rejects books for two primary reasons: either the book is total crap or they have no idea how to market the book (meaning, it doesn’t fit into one of their pre-defined genres.) It’s much easier to sell a thriller to New York because they know how to market a thriller, they can look at the book and see exactly who the audience might be. It’s much harder (not impossible) to sell a book that doesn’t neatly fit into one of the pre-established genre shelves at Barnes and Noble.

I’m certainly not opposed to self-publishing. There are many authors who have chosen self-publishing to great personal and professional success. Sometimes it’s because they’ve tried New York and couldn’t break out, but had built a solid readership who then moved with them into the digital world where they were able to grow and thrive. Some were successful in New York, but for one reason or another felt they would be more successful in the indie world. Others don’t fit neatly into the mold, but readers simply like good stories and therefore they found a readership because they told good stories.

But with the glut of books available digitally, and so many of them really not publishable, readers are having a harder time picking the wheat from the chaff.

I am disheartened that so many aspiring writers have completely forsaken the process in the rush to be published. It’s your name on the book. You’ve spent hundreds of hours writing a book—usually while working at another job or raising a family. You wrote that book in your free time, meaning it had value to you—you sacrificed doing other things in order to write. Respect yourself! Respect your time! You deserve to invest in that book, to make it as strong as it can be.

If you want a career as an author, if you want to build a readership and grow your audience, the process is important—whether you walk down the traditional path or the indie path or, like many, a combination of both.

If I was starting today, I would have self-published Hot Latte and, in effect, lowered the bar for myself. It was a complete story, it had great characters, and it was cleanly written. Yet … it wasn’t a good book. I didn’t see the flaws because I didn’t know what to look for. It took me many books before I could see the flaws in my own work. Even now, I don’t always see the problems and am grateful to my editor because there is always something I can do better.

And that’s my goal: to make every book better than the last.

I’ll pop in and out today to talk about anything you want or answer questions! I’m easy that way 🙂

Oh, and for my BSP … COMPULSION, book two in the Max Revere iAllison Brennan_Compulsionnvestigative reporter series, is on sale now in hardcover, digital, and audio. RT Book Reviews gave COMPULSION a Top Pick: “Brennan really pulls out all the stops in this intense, terrifying thriller!” and Catherine Coulter says, “Don’t miss Max Revere’s roller-coaster new thriller. Talk about grit and courage—Max never gives up.”

You can check it out on my website, allisonbrennan.com.

*

Allison Brennan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of romantic thrillers and mysteries. She’s currently writing the Max Revere investigative reporter series (COMPULSION, April 2015) and the Lucy Kincaid romantic suspense series (upcoming: BEST LAID PLANS, August 2015.) She lives in Northern California with her husband, five kids, and assorted pets.

11+

How are short stories evaluated for publication or awards?

Captivate Your Readers_med– A glimpse into the minds of acquiring editors and judges for short (or any) fiction

Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

Have you tried your hand at writing short stories yet? If not, what’s holding you back? As award-winning blogger Anne R. Allen said in an excellent article in Writer’s Digest magazine, “Bite-sized fiction has moved mainstream, and today’s readers are more eager than ever to ‘read short.’” To check out Anne’s “nine factors working in favor of a short story renaissance,” see “9 Ways Writing Short Stories Can Pay off For Writers“, and there’s more in her post, Why You Should be Writing Short Fiction.

Here’s another Argument for Writing Short Stories, by Emily Harstone.  She says, “Writers who are serious about improving and developing their craft should write short stories and get editorial feedback on them, even if they are never planning on publishing these short stories. Short stories are one of the best ways to hone your craft as a writer.”

Okay, you’ve decided to take the plunge and craft a few short stories. Good for you! Next step: Consider submitting some of them to anthologies, magazines, or contests. But wait! Before you click “send,” be sure to check out my 31 Tips for Writing a Prize-Worthy Short Story, then go through your story with these tips in mind and give it a good edit and polish – possibly even a major rewrite – before submitting it.

What are some of the common criteria used by publications and contests when evaluating short story submissions?

I recently served as judge for genre short stories for Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Contest, where I had to whittle down 139 entries to 10 finalists, but I wasn’t provided with a checklist or any specific criteria. However, a friend who regularly submits short stories to anthologies, magazines, and contests recently received a polite rejection letter from the editor of a literary magazine, along with a checklist of possible reasons, with two of them checked off specifically relating to her story.

While useful, the list of possible weaknesses is very “bare bones” and cries out for more detail and specific pointers. Editors, publishers, and judges are swamped with submissions and understandably don’t have time to give detailed advice for improvement to all the authors whose stories they turn down. Perhaps you could help me interpret and flesh out some of these fairly cryptic, generic comments/criticisms, and add any additional points that occur to you, or checklists you may have received.

Can you think of other indicators of story weaknesses that could be deal-breakers for aspiring authors submitting short stories for publication? Or do you have links to online publishers’ checklists for fiction submissions? Please share them in the comments below.

Here’s the list my friend received, with my comments below each point. Do you have comments/interpretations to add?

Checklist from a Publisher/Editor/Publication in Response to Short Story Submissions

“Thank you for submitting your short story to …. We’ve given your work careful consideration and are unable to offer you publication. We do not offer in-depth reviews of rejected submissions, due to time constraints. Briefly, we feel your submission suffered from one/several of the following common problems:”

– “Tone or content inappropriate for… (publisher / publication / anthology / magazine)

Check their submission guidelines and read other stories they’ve accepted to get an idea of the genre, style, tone, and content they seem to prefer.

– “Stylistic and grammatical errors; too many typos

Be sure to use spell-check and get someone with strong skills in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure to check it over carefully for you. Read it out loud, and where you pause briefly, put in a comma. Where you pause a little longer, put in a period. You could also try using editing software or submit it to a professional freelance editor. This last choice has the most likelihood of helping you hone your fiction-writing skills.

– “Structure problems

For a novel, this could mean some chapters could be rearranged, shortened, or taken out. What do you think it could mean for a short story? Too many characters? Too many plot lines?

– “Formatting problems made reading frustrating

Be sure your story is in a common font, like Times New Roman, 12-point, and double-spaced, with only one space after periods and one-inch margins on all four sides. Don’t boldface anything or use all caps. For more white space and ease of reading, divide long blocks of text into paragraphs. Start a new paragraph for each new speaker. Indent paragraphs. Don’t use an extra line space between paragraphs. Use italics sparingly for emphasis. For more specifics on formatting, see “Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)”.

– “Characters were problematic/unbelievable/unlikeable

Your characters’ decisions, actions and motivations need to fit their personality, background, and character. And make sure your protagonist is likeable, someone readers will want to root for.

– “Content and/or style too well-worn or obvious

This likely refers to a plot that’s been done a million times, with cookie-cutter characters and a predictable ending.

– “Word choice needs refinement

This one could cover the gamut from overused, tired words like nice, good, bad, old, big, small, tall, short to overly formal, technical, or esoteric words where a concrete, vivid, immediately understandable one would be more effective.

– “Overbearing or heavy-handed

This probably refers to a story where the author’s agenda is too obvious, too hard-hitting, maybe even a bit “preachy,” rather than subtle, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.

– “Nothing seems to have happened

To me, this probably indicates no major problem or dilemma for the protagonist, not enough meaningful action and change, and insufficient conflict and tension.

– “Strong beginning, then peters out

This is an indicator that your plot needs amping up and you need to add rising tension, suspense, and intrigue to keep readers avidly turning the pages. Also, flesh out your characters to make them more complex. Give your protagonist secrets, regrets, inner conflict, and a strong desire that is being thwarted.

– “Needs overall development and polish.

This indicates you likely need to roll up your sleeves and hone your writing skills. Read some writing guides (like those by James Scott Bell or my Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, or Writing a Killer Thriller). Also, read lots of highly rated published short stories, paying close attention to the writers’ techniques. Here’s where a critique group of experienced fiction writers or some savvy beta readers or a professional edit could help.

We didn’t get it.

This is likely a catch-all category that means the story didn’t work for a number of reasons. This could be an indicator to put this story aside and hone your craft, critically read other highly rated stories in your genre, then, using your new skills, craft a fresh story.

“While all of these criticisms open doors to further questions, we regret that we cannot be more constructive….”

That’s understandable. They just don’t have time to critique or mentor every writer who contacts them. But I hope my comments above help aspiring fiction writers hone your craft and get your stories published – or even win awards for them. Good luck! For tips on how to actually submit, check out “Writing Short Stories? Don’t Make These 4 Submission Mistakes“.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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Create a Fascinating, Believable Antagonist

villainJodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

For a riveting story, be sure to challenge your hero – or heroine – to the max. Readers need to be constantly worrying about him. Which means his life is in upheaval and he’s struggling, dealing with increasing conflict in the form of serious opposition or threats. One or more forces of opposition should threaten the protagonist or stand in the way of his goals.

Challenges don’t need to be in the form of an actual character. They can be some other kind of opposing force or idea, like a fear, phobia, prejudice, or handicap that is preventing the character from reaching her goals.

The main threat in fiction usually comes in the form of an antagonistic character, who isn’t necessarily a murderous villain. Other determined opponents include romantic rivals, “mean girls,” schoolyard bullies, competing colleagues, or sports rivals.

Antagonists can also fall into a gray zone of opposition characters who aren’t really evil, just at odds with the protagonist we’re rooting for. They can be fascinating too, as we don’t know if they’re going to change sides, so they’re often unpredictable. A few examples include the Tommy Lee Jones character chasing Harrison Ford’s character in the movie The Fugitive and Sheriff Teasle in First Blood, who is after our hero, John Rambo. Or how about Han Solo from Star Wars? Not a villain, but not a good guy, either. He sparks things up though, doesn’t he? We wonder whether these somewhat likeable or understandable bad guys could switch sides at any time.

To pose a credible, significant threat and cause readers to worry, your antagonist should be as clever, powerful, and determined as your protagonist. Challenges and troubles are what make your main character intriguing, compel her to be the best she can be. They force her to draw on resources she never knew she had in order to survive, defeat evil, or attain her goals.

For today’s post, we’ll assume your antagonist is a villain – a mean, even despicable, destructive character we definitely don’t want to root for. He needs to be a formidable obstacle to the protagonist’s goals or a menace to the hero’s loved ones or other innocents. And thrillers, fantasy, and horror require really frightening, nasty villains.

Most of the bad guys in movies and books want the same thing: power. Or maybe revenge or riches. And they don’t care who gets hurt along the way. Or worse, they enjoy causing pain, even torturing their victims.

The antagonist needs to be powerful, a game-changer. As Chuck Wendig says in his excellent blog post 25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists,” “The antagonist is there to push and pull the sequence of events into an arrangement that pleases him. He makes trouble for the protagonist. He is the one upping the stakes. He is the one changing the game and making it harder.”

The protagonist and antagonist have clashing motivations. Their needs, values, and desires are at odds. The antagonist and protagonist could have completely opposite backgrounds and personalities for contrast – or be uncomfortably similar, to show how close the protagonist came or could come to passing over to the dark side.

Most readers are no longer intrigued by “mwoo-ha-ha,” all-evil antagonists, like Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Unless you’re writing middle-grade fiction, be sure your villain isn’t unexplainably horrid, evil for the sake of evil. Today’s sophisticated readers are looking for an antagonist who’s more complex, realistic, and believable.

Chuck Wendig suggests antagonists should be depicted as real people with real problems: “People with wants, needs, fears, motivations. People with families and friends and their own enemies. They’re full-blooded, full-bodied characters. They’re not single-minded villains twirling greasy mustaches.”

For a believable, fascinating antagonist or villain, try to create a unique, memorable bad guy of a type that hasn’t been done to death. Try to give him or her an original background and voice.

Remember that the antagonist is the hero of his own story. He thinks he’s right. He justifies his actions somehow, whether it’s revenge, a thirst for power, ridding society of undesirables, or payback. He may even feel he has a noble or just goal, as in the serial killer of prostitutes.

To create a worthy opponent for the protagonist and a realistic, believable, complex antagonist, get into his mind-set. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What does the antagonist want or need?
  • Why is he determined to go after it?
  • What drives the antagonist? Greed? Revenge? Hatred? Anger? Hurt?
  • What is his biggest motivation? To avenge past wrongs? To gain ultimate power?
  • Who does he want to suffer or lose out? Why?
  • How does he justify his actions? What does he tell himself?

Now create a backstory for your antagonist. Most of it will not show up in your story, but you need to get a handle on what makes him tick to ensure he acts in ways that are in keeping with his background.

Develop his voice. As you do for the protagonist, you can write a free-form rant, where he goes on and on about why he hates someone or something, wants to get revenge, needs to find and kill certain people, and so on.

Show his justification for his goals and actions. Why does he think he’s right and justified in his actions? This will create a more believable, more determined bad guy.

Perhaps identify at some point in your narrative a flashback or allusion to an experience that shows the antagonist as a victim – abused or neglected, treated cruelly by family or others in power. This can create a spark of sympathy while also potentially foreshadowing a particularly nasty incident. (Thanks to thriller author Tom Combs for this suggestion.)

Write some scenes purely from the antagonist’s point of view, away from the protagonist, so readers can find out what makes him tick and how twisted he is. This also creates reader concern for the protagonist, which is always a good thing.

Make him scary, a force to be reckoned with, but not all-powerful, as that’s unrealistic. Give him a few weaknesses, too.

And for added complexity and dimension, take it one step further by showing a human side of the antagonist, something readers can actually relate to, might be afraid they could also fall into. That amps up the tension and reader involvement.

So to create a fascinating, believable antagonist or villain, try to make him or her unique. Delve into their background, find out the goals and motivations that drive them forward. Get into their mind and try to understand them. How do they justify their actions?

Give us a complex villain we love to hate – or a gray antagonist who makes us squirm!

TKZers – Who are some powerful villains who made you shiver in novels or films?

Captivate Your Readers_med– And what about your favorite “gray” antagonists or anti-heroes?

And for a future article, what do you think about all the gray protagonists or anti-heroes cropping up in novels, movies, and TV shows, like Nick in Gone Girl and Walter in Breaking Bad? Do you welcome that trend toward a flawed, unlikeable protagonist? Or do you yearn for more admirable, ethical, heroic heroes to root for?

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Fire up Your Fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller, and Captivate Your Readers.

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