About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

Tips on Writing Believable Conspiracies for Thriller Fiction

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

 

www.cgpgrey.com

“Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
– Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Conspiracy theories have captured our imaginations for many decades. With the advent of the Internet, such theories have proliferated from the comfort and anonymity of your cell phone with your fake handles. Rightly or wrongly, the anonymity of the Internet has spurred conspiracies and brought them into our homes, linked to our smart phones and other devices.

Some popular, long standing conspiracies involve:
• A secret world order that controls the globe – Illuminati/Knight Templar
• The government secrets from Area 51/Roswell/Alien Autopsy
• Reptilian aliens walk on two legs among us
• The JFK assassination – Oswald wasn’t alone
• The moon landing was fake
• The FDA is withholding the cure for cancer

“WHAT IF” questions can generate plot ideas. Many conspiracy theories revolve around big institutions like the church, educational institutions, big oil, rogue agents operating within the CIA, a secret government agency,Wall Street, big pharma or similar organizations that touch people’s lives and make them vulnerable. Your notion of conspiracy can be domestic or foreign, localized or global, political, religious, military or big corporations.

Here are some popular movies that were based on conspiracy theories:
Wag the Dog – White House officials and a Hollywood producer create a fake war to distract the public from a sex scandal involving the US President.(1997)
All the President’s Men – Based on Watergate and secret factions operating in our government.
Manchurian Candidate – An evil corporation brainwashes US soldiers into fighting in Iraq in order to create a perfect assassin capable of eliminating undesirable political rivals. (2004)
Syriana – An energy analyst, a CIA agent, a middle-eastern prince, and a corrupt lawyer become embroiled in a high-level assassination involving Big Oil. (2005)
Network – Upon learning of his dismissal, failing news anchor Howard Beale goes on hugely popular rants quickly angering the Powers That Be. (1976)
JFK – Oliver Stone’s masterpiece documenting District Attorney Jim Garrison’s struggle to prove the involvement of a conspiracy behind the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy. (1991)
The Insider – A research chemist turns whistle blower (Jeffrey Wigand) and threatens to reveal to the world Big Tobacco’s cover up of the negative health effect of cigarette smoking. (1999)
They Live – A drifter accidentally discovers a pair of sunglasses which enables him to see Aliens among us, the true rulers of the world. (1988) (I can’t believe I actually saw this one.)

If you want to add a twist to your plot, consider combining multiple conspiracy theories that might not be related on the surface. I once combined a secret global human trafficking ring making illicit use of the dark web and combined it with a news story set in India where people were getting robbed on the street for their kidneys and other organs. I envisioned a contemptible shadowy organization that traded human flesh online and used my energy trading experience to visualize how such a group would conduct business across a network that resembled the control panels at large oil refineries (places I had seen many times).

Medical Conspiracies

Like telling a good ghost story, tap into fears people would believe. Not too far-fetched. Medical conspiracies are a great combination of personal vulnerability with a high stakes thriller plot. Think of the many ways we all accept certain medical procedures as normal. What if a covert group interferes with a “normal” procedure and hunts innocent victims without reason or a connection to the crimes? A great example of a medical thriller based on a believable fear is Michael Palmer – The 5th Vial.

Seemingly unrelated victims across the globe are targeted by a top secret cabal of medical specialists dealing in illegal organ donation. Standard blood work—and the 5th vial—put a target on their backs and seal their fate.

Robin Cook’s Coma is another classic medical thriller where certain victims are targeted and their bodies are harvested for illegal organ donation after the victims are suspended in a coma state. Innocent patients go in for standard and routine operations, only to become the latest addition to a body farm in a secret facility operated by wealthy patrons through the Jefferson Institute.

8 Key Ways to Writing Believable Conspiracies

1) Take advantage of paranoia. Mistrust and suspicion are keys to pulling off a believable conspiracy plot. Even if readers haven’t considered darker subversive motives at play during relatively routine activities, trigger their paranoia with your plot and a different way to look at it.

2) Write what you fear. If you fear it, chances are that readers will too. Convince them. Exploit common fears and highlight deeper ways that get readers thinking. In fiction, it works to grip readers in a personal way. The fears we all share—the things that wake us up in the middle of the night—can tap into a great plot.

3) Villainous motivation must feel real. You can be over the top but give your diabolical conspiracy a strong and plausible motivation. Don’t be vague. Drill down into your conspirators and justify their motives and existence from the foot soldiers on up the line.

4) Give your bad guys believable resources. Make it seem insurmountable to stop them. Think of the infrastructure it would take to plausibly pull off your thriller plot. Have them use believable technology, science and manpower to give them the appearance of Goliath when it comes to your hero/heroine fighting their diabolical acts.

5) Know organizations and your governmental jurisdictions to give your plot teeth. How do they operate in secret? Give them a plausible connection to organizations the reader may know about. Draw from organizations or systems readers will understand. If you’re too vague, readers will dismiss your plot as unlikely and a shadowy plot with no substance.

6) Make the risks personal for your hero and heroine. High stakes are important, but force your main character(s) to dig deep to fight through their fears and insurmountable odds. This is what will keep readers rooting for your characters. Make them worthy of their star role. A global phenomenon can put readers on edge, but bring the impact down to the personal stakes of real human beings for maximum impact.

7) Ripped from the headlines stories can add layers of credibility. The best fictional thrillers come from events or news that readers are familiar with.

a.) Re-imagine a well known historical event. Add your best twist to a conspiracy makes your work more interesting and forces readers to think.

b.) Or dig into a headline story for facts that are not readily known. Often that story will be deeper than most readers are aware of, especially if there are personal human stories within the big headline. I used the Mumbai terrorist attack to add bones to some of my stories. I’ve also used the National Geographic’s TV show Locked Up Abroad in my book The Echo of Violence and wrote my own version of those amazing events when a married couple (Christian missionaries) were abducted and held for ransom for a year by a small terrorist cell. It saddened me to realize that only one of the missionaries came back. They had gone to the Philippines for a second honeymoon to celebrate their wedding anniversary. I didn’t exploit their horrific story, but I re-imagined a “what if” scenario involving a nun.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What conspiracies can you imagine from today’s headlines? Get crazy. Add humor or scare the hell out of us.

2.) Do you have helpful resource links for writers interested in conspiracies?

3.) What book sticks in your mind that scared you with a plausible and frightening conspiracy?

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12-Archetypes: A Framework for Creating a Cast of Memorable Characters

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Wikimedia Commons-Falkue

How do characters come to you? For me, each book can be different. I don’t have a set method, nor do I want to nail my process down. I’ve awakened in the middle of the night with a character speaking to me about his or her story. I leap from bed and rush to the bathroom with pen and paper in hand to jot down notes.

Sometimes from my preliminary research, I can meld 2-3 ideas together and a character might spring from that work. For example, I might realize I need an adventurer hero, a love interest and one of them might need a scientific background or have other special cognitive skills to pull off the plot that’s developing. Those characters come at me slowly and build, where I sometimes throw in fun hobbies or weirdness to keep the plot interesting.

Have you ever gone back into a novel you’ve already written and examined character archetypes?

You can also do this deep dive for themes you generally write about, even if it’s not a conscious awareness you have when you first start your project. I write from a gut level. Too much structure might inhibit my process, but I do find it interesting to take a closer look after I finish writing a book, especially if it sells well and the feedback is good from industry professionals. It’s helpful to dig into a plot I created organically to find threads of themes I love to explore.

Let’s take a closer look at character archetypes. In researching this post, I found a more comprehensive list of 99 Archetypes & Stock Characters that Screen Writers Can Mold that screenwriters might utilize in their craft. Archetypes are broader as a foundation to build on. Experienced editors and industry professionals can hear your book pitch and see the archetypes in their mind’s eye. From years of experience, it helps them see how your project might fit in their line or on a book shelf.

But to simplify this post and give it focus, I’ll narrow these character types down to Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung‘s 12-Archetypes. Listed below, Jung developed his 12-archetypes, as well as their potential goals and what they might fear. Goals and fears can be expanded, but think of this as a springboard to trigger ideas.

TYPE/GOAL/FEAR

1.) Innocent

GOAL – Happiness

FEAR – Punishment

2.) Orphan

GOAL – Belonging

FEAR – Exclusion

3.) Hero

GOAL – Change World

FEAR – Weakness

4.) Caregiver

GOAL – Help Others

FEAR – Selfishness

5.) Explorer

GOAL – Freedom

FEAR – Entrapment

6.) Rebel 

GOAL – Revolution

FEAR – No Power

7.) Lover

GOAL – Connection

FEAR – Isolation

8.) Creator

GOAL – Realize Vision

FEAR – Mediocrity

9.) Jester

GOAL – Levity & Fun

FEAR – Boredom

10.) Sage

GOAL – Knowledge

FEAR – Deception

11.) Magician

GOAL – Alter Reality

FEAR – Unintended Results

12.) Ruler

GOAL – Prosperity

FEAR – Overthrown

I recently sold a series to The Wild Rose Press. Book 1 is called THE CURSE SHE WORE – A Trinity LeDoux novel.

TRINITY – When I looked back at my heroine, Trinity appeared to be a combination of two archetypes, until I gave her a closer look. On the surface, she’s an innocent AND an orphan, but when I examined her from the GOAL and FEAR angles, I saw her clearly as an ORPHAN. No family. She’s homeless and living on the streets of New Orleans. She hasn’t known much happiness and punishment would only make her more stubborn. Her soft underbelly lies in her own thoughts on where she belongs and what she deserves. She keeps her life at a distance from others–her self-imposed exclusion. She thinks she doesn’t need anyone until she meets Hayden, but what she has planned for him, there won’t be anything left to build on. Loyalty can be a double-edged sword.

HAYDEN – My hero Hayden Quinn doesn’t fall neatly into the HERO category. Because of his psychic ability, he’s become a CAREGIVER to a small needy Santeria community in New Orleans. But his gift didn’t help him when he needed it most. He’s drawn to help others, but his ability only reminds him of the worst day of his life.

CROSSED PATHS – As a child of the streets, Trinity exploits Hayden’s guilt and grief to get what she wants. He’s unable to say no because of his guilt. For an author, it’s not easy to walk a line of conflict that I wanted to sustain throughout the first novel in this series. Surprises and unexpected outcomes twist through the plot until the very last page of book 1. The roots of their conflict grow deeper and extend into book 2.

SUMMARY: Whether you use these 12-archetypes to analyze a completed manuscript or consider them when you begin framing a new story, these building blocks can sustain an effective character study and get you thinking. It helped me dive deeper into my characters and this will help me develop the series. Any series needs the stakes to escalate and it all springs from a foundation of knowing your characters well. You have to keep punishing them. Show the reader why your characters deserve star status.

Can you see how you might utilize a list if archetypes to infuse your creative process?

When you consider these basic types, imagine pitting them against one another for sustained conflict. In the case of Trinity and Hayden, she risks putting his life at risk out of her loyalty to a dead friend. Any hope she had for a future is snuffed out by her own decisions.

For him, the very gift that had been a blessing failed him at the worst time of his life. Now his gift might kill him, but he can’t resist protecting Trinity. It’s in his nature.

All Hayden and Trinity have in common is death.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) As an exercise, forge conflict between two archetypes of your choosing to create a one-liner plot pitch.

2.) Share your main character archetype from your current or latest WIP. Does the Carl Jung matrix above help you define your character?

***

The Curse She Wore – A Trinity LeDoux Novel

 They had Death in Common                                                 

Trinity LeDoux, a homeless young woman in New Orleans, has nothing to lose when she hands a cursed vintage necklace to unsuspecting Hayden Quinn at one of his rare public appearances—a wealthy yet reclusive clairvoyant she hopes to recruit for a perilous journey. She prays that the jewelry she’d stolen off a body at a funeral will telepathically transport the powerful psychic to the murder scenes of two women at the exact moment of their deaths—even though the killings take place 125 years apart and span two continents.

When the ill-fated necklace connects the brutal crimes in a macabre vision, Hayden becomes a sympathetic believer. After enduring the tragic loss of his beloved wife and child, Hayden is touched by Trinity’s vulnerability and her need for justice in the cruel slaughter of her best friend, the rightful owner of the necklace.

Hayden and Trinity are two broken people who have nothing but death in common when they take on a dangerous quest. They must stop a killer from resurrecting the grisly work of Jack the Ripper by targeting the ancestors of the Ripper’s victims. Trinity will learn the hard way that trespassing on Fate’s turf always has its reckoning.

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READER FRIDAY: What Book Would You Like to See Developed for Movies? (Yours or Another Novel)

 

Have you ever dreamed about one of your books or your series becoming a movie? Dream big or go home, I say. Share your thoughts and why you think your book(s) would make a good film.

Or maybe you have a favorite book that you would like to see on the big or small screen. Tell us about that book and why you think it would be a great film.

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READER FRIDAY: Share Your Feelings When Your First Book Was Published

 

This can be a big topic. I had several stages and amazing feelings when my books first sold and when I saw them on a book shelf at stores all over town and online. My first autograph.

But the one I will share with you today is when I received my first cover flats from HarperCollins. I had them sitting on my coffee table. As I stared down at them, still stunned to see them for the first time, my husband walked in on me. He picked them up and grew very quiet. You could hear a pin drop. I didn’t know what he would say or if he knew what they were (the format is not like a real book), but I didn’t want to put words in his mouth.

He finally looked at me and with tears in his eyes, he said, “My God, you’re going to be in a library.” That simple realization hadn’t dawned on me. I usually tried downplaying the events because I was in it for the long haul and wanted a writing career, but my best friend husband always knew how to draw emotions out of me. He hugged me and I finally broke down and cried–my first real celebration since I’d sold. I had put so much passion and hard work into achieving this moment and he knew it. He’d been there with me.

My advice now is to celebrate every step of the way. You’ll never get that moment back and you’ve earned it.

Please share what you felt or did when you first were published. We can all use good news stories.

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How Writing is like a Good Brisket Recipe – 8 Key Questions for Every Writer

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

When this post is released on TKZ in the wee hours of the morning, my brisket will be cooking low and slow all night and waiting to be swaddled in heavy foil. I’m praying for a crispy thick bark, an elusive phenomenon for me. My house is filled with an incredible aroma. Someone should bottle it.

There is a genuine art form to making a perfect Texas-style smoked brisket and I already know I will never be worthy, but I’m giving it a go. My older brother is a God when it comes to being a pit master. He’s given me tips and I am sticking to them…as much as my headstrong mind will allow me. I am my mother’s ‘let’s wing every recipe’ daughter.

I will be posting pictures and recipe tips on my Instagram account where I focus on my low carb ketogenic diet and other interests.

Just like a good, tried and true recipe is for brisket, we pick up new tips but keep what works. The same goes for writing. There are ways we all use to build upon our craft methods of writing a novel. We try new things to see what works. We discard other methods that we’ve outgrown as we evolve.

Below are some questions I’d like for you to answer if you see anything that fits you. Feel free to add what you’ve learned about writing in your comments. I am a sponge for picking up new stuff.

Writer Questions – Share your Experiences

1.) Are you still finding time to read? Do you read outside the genre you write? Even when life gets busy, reading can be a comfort, but it can also open your eyes to new techniques or interesting POVs or genres. Always be a student when it comes to your writing craft. You will keep growing.

2.) Do you cherish the time you write, where you write and make sure you don’t get interrupted? Life, family/friends and your day job can pile on to add stress in your life. Is your writing the first thing to go? I hope not. Even if you only finish a page a day, that’s progress. I find that once I establish a routine, my body can react in a bad way if I stray from my writing schedule. I can physically get the shakes. Even when I had my day job, I made sure to write every evening and on weekends. It wasn’t easy but it paid off.

3.) How do you capture those big ideas that can spring on you any time of day or night? Do you keep notebooks all over the house or a voice recorder? I get lots of ideas while I’m driving. The best ones, I pull over and reach for my purse where I keep a small notepad and pens. Or better yet, get someone to drive you so your genius is unfettered. Is there a place where you consistently get your big ideas? No pictures if you tell me “the shower.”

4.) Do you have personal rules/discipline when it comes to unplugging from social media and the internet while you are writing? My usual day is writing 9:00 am until 3:00 pm with short breaks to care for my dogs and grab a snack. I try to get up every 3 hours to stretch and walk and replenish the well for a quick change of scenery but I don’t get to emails or social media until after I’ve achieved my word count goal. YES, I have a daily goal. I generally shoot for 1500-2000 words per day and do rolling edits to keep my progress going on the overall project. But social media and emails are a time drain. No sneak peaking as a diversion when you hit a wall. Pick another way to shake out the cobwebs.

5.) Do you read your work aloud? After all these years, I still read my edits aloud. It’s a great way to insure you have a natural cadence to your dialogue and prose. Even if you don’t do this every day, I recommend doing it for important passages/proposals or as one of your final draft processes. This is the best way to find words you’ve left out.

6.) Do you use the first third to a quarter of your book to set up your world building and character introductions? An editor with a large publishing house said something at a writer’s conference about expecting to read the basic set up with characters and conflict within the first 3 chapters. Now it may not be 3 chapters exactly, as I see it now, but he wasn’t wrong about how to establish your world for the reader. Even if you don’t plot ahead of time, expect that readers and editors and agents will expect you to set that foundation for your story and include your cast of characters and their conflicts in the first part of the book.

7.) Do you plan the ending of your book while you’re working on your plot idea or are you willing to let it happen when you get there? If you’re like me, each book can be different. Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night with a new character telling me the ending to his/her story. True. That doesn’t happen with each book, but when it’s that strong that it wakes me, I listen. On the other hand, I am flexible enough to see new ways to add twists. I want to be open to new character motivations too. More times than not, I have found better books by staying open to my endings. How rigid are you? Have you ever been pleasantly surprised with an ending you never expected, just because you followed a rabbit trail or discovered something new about your main character?

8.) How open are you to criticism? Does it matter who gives it? I used to be more prickly when anyone criticized my masterpiece, but after having many good editors from the publishing houses I’ve worked with and solid beta readers, I’ve grown very open to their suggestions. I think of their criticism as a collaboration to make the book better. I may not always take every suggestion. Only the author should decide what makes sense for the world they are building, but pick your battles. Generally, if someone is confused or something isn’t working for them (even if they can’t describe it exactly), I pay attention and try to find a solution. I’ve never regretted that approach. For anyone taking the time to give a critique, take what they say and make changes where it’s appropriate, even if you have to come back to their feedback later. Keep an open mind.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Share your answers to any of the questions I’ve mentioned above–the questions that resonated with you the most.

2.) Add any new questions or tips that you have found a must to your process. What are your core “must dos” and what have you discarded?

3.) Any brisket tips? I promise I will listen, even if you’re not from Texas.

11+

READER FRIDAY: What Book Inspired You to Start Writing?

Books have influenced my life since I was in elementary school. I remember summer afternoons where my mother would take us to the library and we’d spend hours roaming the aisles looking for a handful of books to read. My senses still respond with joy when I enter a library. But it wasn’t until I read Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series that I noticed Ludlum’s page turning skills and got the itch to write my own original work. What about you?

What author or book got you hooked on the idea of writing your first novel? Tell us about it and your journey.

 

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Know Your Genre and Do the Research – First Page Critique: The Nature of Things

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Wikimedia Commons – Author Cliff (GIANT PACIFIC OCTOPUS) https://www.flickr.com/people/28567825@N03

An intrepid anonymous author has submitted their first 400 words of “The Nature of Things” for critique. My feedback follows. Please help this author and provide your constructive comments, TKZers. Enjoy.

***

“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella,” said the reporter.

Anna perused the mutilated body. Damage to the head. Impressive gash in the temple and the empty eye sockets.

“Who or what do you think did this?” the reporter prompted. “You were invited out for an expert opinion. Do you think a man or animal killed him?”

The cuts to the head and upper torso were massive and random. It was hard to recognize the face with most of it eaten.

The salty Oregon coastal breeze wafted into the cave opening. It mingled with the stench of rotting flesh warming in the sun. The smell of death has many scents.

“Looks like our friend here met up with some pretty irate sea dweller,” she said. “I’m thinking giant Pacific octopus.”

“How so?”

“See the cuts? How they’re sometimes random, then more concentrated at the injury sites? Looks like damage from an octopus beak to me. Sliced open the soft spot near the temple to get to the soft stuff inside.”

A grisly sight to behold. More hideous than the one she saw one night long ago. Same result. Different circumstances.

“You recognize this guy at all?” the reporter said.

“Why would you say that? Not much left here to recognize.” said Anna.

“No particular reason. You being a marine biologist in this area, thought maybe you might have seen someone hanging about the coastline lately.”

“I’m mostly out in the big ocean. Deep sea. But a person can get lost very easily if they want to.”

Like Pa’s buddy, Ray, from the Viet Nam war. Ray wanted nothing to do with people after being discharged and returned to the states. The hatred and name calling were too much to take. One of the reasons Momma and Pa had moved so far out in the woods of Oregon. Homesteading far away from the prying eyes of local busybodies. Small towns are like that. Gettin’ in other peoples’ business was not just normal. It was a way of life.

She said, “My guess is he went diving in this cave and surprised a trapped and hungry animal. Tentacles most likely grabbed his head and the beak started gnawing away.”

“Detectives just left,” he said checking his notes. “They noted extra shoe prints in the sand. Must’ve had somebody with him.”

“It’s a public beach. Footprints could be from anyone. Anytime,” Anna said.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – I enjoyed this author’s “stick to the action” writing. The author jumps into dialogue without over-explaining the action.

POLICE PROCEDURE ISSUES – Right off the bat, I’m left wondering how a reporter would be inside the crime scene tape, which is the way this appears. Anna (whoever she is to the investigation as an expert) is examining the body, up close. She’s carrying on a conversation with a reporter as they apparently stand over the body.

Standard police procedure is that medical examiners or coroners (there’s a difference) would make the call on the cause and manner of death. The ME or coroner would take charge of the body and would not leave the corpse behind or bring in anyone at the scene to give an opinion on how the person died. That would be done in the autopsy, if the examiner needed the assistance.

For avid crime fiction readers, this opener would read as implausible for these reasons. That’s a “throw the book against the wall” error, in my opinion. Despite what I may like about this author’s writing, I’m not as forgiving on poor research and lack of knowledge on police procedure.

OCTOPUS KILLS HUMAN? – This seemed odd to me. I had to query it online. Most octopus or squid can cause harm to a human, but not death. Many species are venomous, but they’re mainly harmful to their usual prey and not harmful enough to kill a person. The Humboldt Squid is known to attack a human being en masse and there are videos of these attacks. Very creepy. Is this story about a giant squid or octopus? There’s not much known about them, only if they are found dead and can be studied. If this story is about the JAWS equivalent to a giant octopus, introducing that possibility through Anna in the first scene seems too soon. It would be best to build on the suspense.

GENERAL QUESTIONS – Why would the reporter say, “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella” in the first line? There’s no follow up on why the reporter disparaged the dead man. Then the reporter asks Anna if she knew the dead guy, without offering an identity. It would appear that the reporter doesn’t know the dead man either, so why the first line insinuation?

Why keep Anna’s last name a secret? This excerpt reads like a first draft with details stripped out. Now is the time to layer in details that don’t overwhelm the reader and slow the pace, but will add a gripping setting with details of who is on that beach with the corpse.

There’s also an assumption that the corpse is dead because a man or animal killed him (the reporter asks). A body could’ve been dumped in the water with animals eating at the corpse or damage sustained from churning in the water over rocks. The reporter is asking questions and leading the reader by TELLING what they should know. I would suggest that if Anna is the expert, let her examine the body and give her opinion to a detective or medical examiner/coroner. A reporter would be the last person allowed onto a crime scene when the body is still exposed. Also, if I were the reporter who got beyond the police barrier, I would be taking photos with my phone. Asking questions is secondary to getting those gruesome pics.

Why would the eyes have been eaten out of the body? Would an Octopus be so selective? Seems like a delicate procedure to focus on the eyes like that.

SHOW – DON’T TELL – In the dialogue lines, the reporter tells Anna what the author wants the reader to know. A sneaky way to TELL and not SHOW. Here are some examples of TELLING lines:

Reporter: “You were invited out for an expert opinion…” (Anna would already know this. A reporter would not.)

Reporter: “You being a marine biologist in this area, thought maybe you might have seen someone hanging about the coastline lately.” (Again, Anna would already know her occupation, but why would the reporter know?)

Reporter: “Detectives just left,” he said checking his notes. “They noted extra shoe prints in the sand. Must’ve had somebody with him.” (Reporter is TELLING the reader what the author wants them to know. Why isn’t the detective the one talking to Anna? And why isn’t she the ME or coroner? The author must do the research to make this more plausible.)

Maybe make Anna be the person who spotted the body on the beach and called it in to the police. She’d be involved and have to be questioned on the spot. A reporter wouldn’t be allowed near the body, especially if the next-of-kin notifications have not been done. Major No No.

BACKSTORY DUMP OUT OF CONTEXT – Because of the spartan style of this author’s voice, not much is known about Anna. Not even her last name. The excerpt below feels out of context. I would prefer the author stick to the action and layer in more details of the setting and the feeling of standing over a gruesome body than to read the details below that could be pieced in later when they fit better.

Like Pa’s buddy, Ray, from the Viet Nam war. Ray wanted nothing to do with people after being discharged and returned to the states. The hatred and name calling were too much to take. One of the reasons Momma and Pa had moved so far out in the woods of Oregon. Homesteading far away from the prying eyes of local busybodies. Small towns are like that. Gettin’ in other peoples’ business was not just normal. It was a way of life.

SETTING CAN ENHANCE THE SCENE – Is the weather cold and windy? What are the waves doing? Are they a calm ebb and flow of water or do the waves dramatically crash onto a rocky shoreline? The Oregon coast is mostly rocky, but pick a spot and describe it so a reader from the area recognizes the setting.

How does the sea mist and air feel on her skin as she stares down at a grotesque corpse? Sand carried in the wind and salty sea air can feel gritty on the skin. The brackish water has a smell that can mingle with the stench off a putrid corpse. Is the body tangled with seaweeds? Have other creatures crawled onto the body as the ocean laps around it?

I would recommend focusing on selective details that ADD to the setting and the emotion the author wants the reader to feel when they read this intro. Don’t write volumes that slow the pace, but pick the most essential descriptors that will trigger memories in the reader, even if they’ve never visited the Oregon coast.

CHARACTER ESSENCE – I had mentioned that the backstory dump seemed out of context, but nothing is known about Anna up until that point. Let the reader in on who she is without TELLING the reader in that backstory dump. The same way it is important to stick to the action and not TELL the reader about the character, try sharing details about Anna that SHOWS who she is.

What is she wearing? Does her clothing and other details say anything about who she is? Proper footwear? Jewelry? How does she fix her hair? Are her nails short or long, polished or not? You don’t need to describe all of these points, but have an idea who she is and pick the most essential ways to show the kind of woman she is to the reader by subtly filtering the most essential details into the narrative.

Is she repulsed or clinical about examining the corpse?

Is she observant about the details of the body AS WELL AS the details of the whole crime scene and who is there?

If Anna is the star of this story, the author could set her up better than the way she comes across in this intro. The reporter seems to know more than she does, for example. I have some suggested changes listed below:

SUGGESTED CHANGES – SUMMARY:

Pair Anna up with a detective that might challenge her. Have there be friction between them because she is an outsider and not a detective. If she proves to be a necessary expert where the detective is forced into using her, the friction you start with will only enhance the story line. Have her mind work like a detective as she clinically examines the dead body and doesn’t act squeamish. Any dialogue in an introduction like this could be like reading a game of cat and mouse. The lines would SHOW who these two are and how they’re matched for each other. Have him obviously trying to get her insights then try to get rid of her, while she keeps adding things that make him wonder if she might help him more. Do they know each other from the past? That could be fun.

Layer in more setting that enhances the morbid scene. That would be delicious.

Tease the reader with what killed the man and not spill the beans right away. It’s very cool that we could be talking about a giant octopus – an 8-legged JAWS creature. Milk that. I can hear the dialogue between the detective and Anna now. He thinks he knows how the guy died. Body dump. The sea and its creatures did the damage, but what if at the end of the scene, Anna breaks the news that the man died from a rare octopus attack. Have her hint that it’s not the first as she walks away. That could be a chilling start.

OVERALL – I really liked the voice of this author. Like I said before, this reads like a first draft and stark, bare bones writing. But it’s a good place to begin to fill in details that can only enhance the writing. Many of the typical beginner mistakes are not raging in this intro. Yes, the lack of crime scene research would be a deal killer for me as a reader, but if the author has a good foundation on writing, the research can be learned and developed. There’s lots to tweak with this beginning, but there’s a great deal of promise here. Good luck with your project, anonymous.

DISCUSSION:

What do you think, TKZers? Provide your feedback in your comments.

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READER FRIDAY: Share How You’ve Used Family & Friends for a Book Plot

After Sue Coletta’s post “When Real Life Collides with Fiction,” I wondered how many other TKZ members have stories about the many ways an author can abuse family and friends for the sake of a book. I’ve heard of wild stories at writer conferences where authors talk about staging a crime scene using friends as attackers & victims or cornering a relative to brainstorm a murder over Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.

In what ways have you used the people in your life for research or to develop a book plot?

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Ways to Beef Up Conflict & Mystery – First Page Critique – Whatever Tomorrow Brings

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

 

For your reading enjoyment, we have the first 400 words of an anonymous author’s work in progress. I’ll have my feedback on the flip side. Please provide your constructive criticism in your comments.

***

Dad and I arrived at Houston’s Medical Hospital as an orangy-pink sun dipped below the horizon. We hurried across a parking lot the size of a football field, the October breeze lifting wisps of my ash brown hair as we headed for the warmth of the building.

In the elevator, Dad punched the button for the third floor while I rubbed my hands together. We began our ascent with a jerk that made me latch onto Dad’s arm, and then I felt my stomach drop. Just what I needed.

We greeted Mr. and Mrs. Garrett in the visitor’s waiting room. After catching up on the latest news regarding Slate’s condition, I walked alone to Room 316. Rounding the nurses’ station, a concoction of hospital smells assaulted my nostrils: alcohol, chlorine, undefinable cafeteria food, and floor wax. Lovely. I leaned against the wall for a few moments, my hand on my empty and now queasy stomach, before continuing down the hall.

Finding the door to Slate’s room closed, I took a moment to smooth my hair, powder a shiny nose, remove an errant eyelash threatening to slide under my blue contact lens. Then I knocked.

“Yeah.”

I peeked in. “Hi.”

Slate Garrett sat propped up in bed, two pillows behind his back. His velvet brown eyes were dark. “Did you hear?”

I nodded and walked towards him. Lindell High’s all-state linebacker would’ve looked ridiculous in his pale hospital gown under other circumstances; but his blackened left eye, busted lip, and the white bandage behind his left ear took all humor out of the situation.

“Three games into my senior year, and this has to happen. Benched for the rest of the season. No college scholarship, no playing for the Longhorns, no more football. Ever!”

I could almost hear his heart breaking. I blinked back tears.

His own eyes watering, Slate reached for the glass on his nightstand and drank from it.

I feigned interest in his room while we both tried to regain self-control. His gold wristwatch and an opened package of malted milk balls lay on the nightstand beside his bed. A chair stood in the corner, a football resting on its cushion.

I walked over and touched the stiff, stained laces. “What’s this doing here?”

“Game ball from Friday night. Like I want it now.”

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – Depending on what genre this novel will be, the opening could start earlier with the injury on the field and more action. Or it could start with the young woman narrator rushing to the hospital, leaving the reader to wonder what is happening and who will be there. I prefer more action than the way this story starts so the reader is drawn into the novel by elements of mystery and the emotions of something about to happen. Even in the case of a romance, mystery elements still have their place. Readers want to be sucked into a story with anticipation of what will happen. This particular story reads like a romance or maybe a Young Adult (YA)/New Adult with younger characters that could grow into their early twenties. Who doesn’t love a good sports story with the struggles of a romance mingled between the lines? Sign me up, but let’s take a look at where to begin.

Genre & Elements of Romance – If this is a romance or YA, don’t rush a scene between a girl and a boy. Add layers to their relationship. The sexual tension, even if it’s only one way, can pull a reader in.

Be sensitive to eye contact or touches or the hyper awareness of the girl who has feelings for a guy who may not notice her. Does she see his skin flushing with color? Does she have heat rising to her cheeks? Pay attention to the details and only put in enough to not slow the pace, but make everything count. She’s dying to get into the hospital room, but she takes the time to primp and fix her hair. Nice touch, author.

But I would recommend adding more awkward tension from her point of view. I can feel a good foundation of it here, but there can be more. She’s walking into his hospital room alone. How well do they know each other? Are they only friends? Does she want there to be more? Since she didn’t run into his arms, I’m assuming they aren’t boyfriend/girlfriend.

Milk the unrequited love aspect and have her tentatively walk into a dim room. Set the stage better by making the room dark with him brooding and her looking for his glances through shadows where he may not want to face her. Have patience when building layers into a scene. If this scene takes place at dusk (as mentioned in the first paragraph), why not change the time to add mood to this intro? It would add to the tension if she’s pressuring her father to drive faster. Make it start to rain. Readers will wonder why she’s pushing her dad. The lights and the darkness and the treacherous weather can add to the mystery of where they’re going.

If you have her eventually rushing into a hospital, stretch out the intro with the build up of tension without telling the reader what’s happening. You will have them hooked as she steps into a shadowy room with an injured guy unable to look her in the eye. Maybe he’s in a private room and staring out the window. Is it raining? Make it moody. Have the stage set for what’s happening from her side. A good setting can really add to a scene.

Where to Begin – The way this story begins, the author is “telling” the reader what is happening, rather than creating an opener with more action and tension and conflict. Conflict is KEY. Start with action and add mystery elements without explaining what is happening and why.

Conflict – Does the injured boy expect to see her? Does he want her to be there? Only the author can answer these questions, but the story is completely under the control of the writer. I would recommend more conflict as she steps into the hospital or into his room. Are his parents surprised she’s there, but don’t say anything? When she finally steps down the long corridor and pushes open his door, what would he say to add conflict and tension right away?

“I told you not to come. You never listen.”

OR

“Come to gloat? Get out.”

Opening – Below is the first 2 paragraphs. It “tells” where she and her dad are going. Although there is a sense of urgency, that tension could be better. Any tension is deflated when she brings up the color of the sunset and talks about the time of day and brings up the hue of her own hair. This is a short cut for new authors to tell the reader this is a girl and the color of her hair but there are better and more natural ways to do this. Have patience. Make this opening about the action and stick with it.

The tension in this opening feels contrived because the urgency is forced and watered down.

Dad and I arrived at Houston’s Medical Hospital as an orangy-pink sun dipped below the horizon. We hurried across a parking lot the size of a football field, the October breeze lifting wisps of my ash brown hair as we headed for the warmth of the building.

In the elevator, Dad punched the button for the third floor while I rubbed my hands together. We began our ascent with a jerk that made me latch onto Dad’s arm, and then I felt my stomach drop. Just what I needed.

In this next paragraph, the author does more ‘telling” rather than “showing.” Again, the tension is soft and deflated when the author uses phrases like “after catching up on the latest news regarding Slate’s condition.” The author launches into the sights and sounds of a hospital, which detracts from any emotion this girl is feeling. It’s too clinical and matter-of-fact. She would be more focused on counting the room numbers and looking for his room. She’d be thinking of what she would say. Will she be welcomed? Don’t tell the reader. Show her apprehension without answering any of the questions she raises in her worrying.

We greeted Mr. and Mrs. Garrett in the visitor’s waiting room. After catching up on the latest news regarding Slate’s condition, I walked alone to Room 316. Rounding the nurses’ station, a concoction of hospital smells assaulted my nostrils: alcohol, chlorine, undefinable cafeteria food, and floor wax. Lovely. I leaned against the wall for a few moments, my hand on my empty and now queasy stomach, before continuing down the hall.

Suggested Start – I can’t know what the author’s intentions are for this story. I can only suggest ways to make this more of a page turner and pique the interest of an agent or editor. As I’ve stated under the Genre & Elements of Romance heading, I would start with more action. Regardless if this is romance or not, action will pique the reader’s interest more than this opening does. The elements of a good story are here, author. We just need to massage and tweak to add more action and conflict.

1.) Make the drive to the hospital more about the girl pressuring her father to drive faster. Don’t explain why she wants him to do it. Add tension with the darkness and rain coming down.

2.) Have her rushing into the building, not waiting for her father to park. She stops at a nurse’s station in the ER. Her stomach is doing flip flops. She looks for other familiar faces while the nurse asks questions she doesn’t want to answer. She’s not family.

3.) She sees Slate’s parents down the corridor and rushes to them, but stops when they stare at her without a greeting. If you want to add conflict, give them a reason to wonder why she’s there. Or if she’s a friend to their son, have them warn her that he doesn’t want to see anyone from school. “Not even you.”

Question to answer – You have to give the parents a reason why they are waiting in the hallway when their son is in a hospital room, alone. Why aren’t they in the room with him?

4.) Make the reader feel every step she takes toward his room. Take time to describe what she’s feeling without answering any questions. Don’t even talk about football until she sees him.

5.) Be patient with the body language, conflict and tension between them. He could be ashamed of something or feel like a failure because his future is shot. She could be wanting to hold him, but can’t. Make the reader feel every aspect of emotion in this opening scene.

Dialogue – Make every line of dialogue count. Below is the stripped out dialogue lines–isolated to highlight what is said without any description or movement. This is a good way to see if the lines sound chit chatty or if they carry enough weight that can add to the tension/conflict.

HIM: “Yeah.”

HER: “Hi.”

HIM: “Did you hear?”

HIM: “Three games into my senior year, and this has to happen. Benched for the rest of the season. No college scholarship, no playing for the Longhorns, no more football. Ever!”

HER: “What’s this doing here?”

HIM: “Game ball from Friday night. Like I want it now.”

I would recommend more substance be added. Give them a past that may set them at odds. Is she an old girlfriend? Is she dating someone else, but rushes to the hospital, unsure why she can’t get him out of her system? Is there relationship one-sided? Reflect that into the dialogue and make each line count.

“Why did you come? You made yourself perfectly clear where we stand. I don’t need your sympathy.”

Dialogue authenticity – The longest line of this conversation has him “telling” the reader that Slate is a high school senior and how many games he’s played. Both these characters would know that. Slate wouldn’t need to explain. It’s obvious the author is “telling” the reader what they should know, but it reads like a contrivance. Make this encounter about the emotion of what he’s feeling and her inability to comfort him. Is he angry and lashes out at her? If they used to date, is she now with the guy who injured him or the star quarterback of another team…someone with a future? Have patience with revealing the conflict but make the dialogue between them show the emotion of a troubled past or more of a conflict.

Characterization – I know this is only a short opening of 400 words, but what do we know of these two people? By not telling the reader about the narrator, the author could still show unique traits to pack this opening with a reason for the reader to care. Does she chew her nails when she’s tense? What is she wearing? Did she bother to change in her rush to get to the hospital? What does that say about her? Even little details sprinkled into these 400 words can add value into building who she is and why we should care. Maybe the author could clip out online images of what this character looks like. I love image boards to set the stage for the story and make the small details shine.

Housekeeping

What’s in a Name? – With the dialogue, there’s a good place to have Slate say her name – or maybe her father can share it when they’re weaving through traffic.

Gender – With this story being in first person POV, try to get the gender of the narrator into the first lines if possible. The reader wants to know.

Setting – In the action leading up to the hospital arrival, add landmarks or setting that allows the reader to get oriented into Houston, Texas. The author doesn’t have to provide the destination and the name of the hospital to set the location in Houston. As a Texan, I do love a good feeling of Texas in a story. Rush hour in Houston is a parking lot, for example. Depending on the time of year, the steamy heat could layer onto her skin as she races from the car into the hospital.

Summary – The author is very much aware of description for the sake of the reader’s senses. That’s good, but have patience with how to use that skill. Less can be more. Keep the character’s motivation and emotion real so the great descriptors don’t read as forced or contrived or piled on.

I focused on this being a romance, but if it’s not, my feedback is still worth considering. If this story is about head injuries in football, the additional conflict from the start would still work. Add more tension between these two people to allow the reader to develop a strong foundation in their relationship. If this is more about the drama of Slate’s recovery, I would recommend the author load up on the conflict to give this pair a journey that they may or may not survive in the end. Put them through the wringer.

There are good elements to this story and lots of potential with this premise and these characters. I want to know what happens and I would want to read more. Thanks for your submission, dear author.

Discussion

What other changes would you recommend, TKZers?

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