About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

Blue Menace: First Page Critique

Photo credit: Canva.com (author pro access)

Greetings, readers, writers, and population at large. Today we have a first page critique of a futuristic story about a young woman with the colorful name of Diamond Blue. Please read the submission, and my comments, then let our dear writer in on your thoughts.

Working Title: Blue Menace

Diamond Blue scrambled around her small bedroom, grabbing clothes and accessories at random, shoving them in her backpack.

She looked at her wrist. Crap! Ten minutes to get to the ship, and maybe another twenty before the cops figured out what she had done.

In the bathroom, she held the backpack up to her side of the shelf and swiped everything in. She rested the bag on the vanity and pushed at the jumble inside to close the zip. As she finished, she glanced at the mirror – red face, sweaty, and wild-eyed. Oh sure, they’d let her on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.

She splashed water on her flushed face and ran her damp hands over her long sapphire-blue braids.

Deep breaths.

The memory flashed of her best friend, Rina, surrounded by a swarm of armed cops. She shook her head to clear it. If she didn’t get moving, it would all be for nothing.

She turned out of the bathroom, swinging the backpack onto her shoulder, and crossed the living room. She and Rina weren’t messy flatmates, but the remains of yesterday’s hasty planning session was strewn across the coffee table – pizza, wine, chocolate. Diamond grabbed the last few squares of chocolate and popped them into her mouth. Breakfast of champions.

At the front door, she waved her hand over the sensor. It slid across the opening and disappeared into the opposite wall.

Diamond pulled the hood of her sweater over her hair, leaned out and checked the corridor.

Her neighbors in this quadrant of Residential Floor Three liked to start work a little later than most. There was no one around.

Neither was her ride. Of all the times for the damn Sliders to malfunction!

The Sliders, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from the public bays near the core to her location based on the quantum chip in her hand.

The chip! Ahh, she was a class-A idiot!

She slapped at the cuff around her lower left arm to wake it up, and re-ordered the Slider in the name she’d stolen in the early hours of the morning – Rina Cavanaugh.

Somewhere on the Justice floor was a Slider hovering around the booking desk, maybe even outside Rina’s cell if it got that far.

She had less time than she thought.

______________________-

This, dear readers, is an example of a quite accomplished opening to a story. We have immediate action occurring in the midst of some troubling event—that desirable in medias res we so often encourage around here. A well-defined setting: sometime in the technological future. Clear, identifiable characters: Diamond Blue and her flatmate, Rina Cavanaugh, the cops. Interesting nomenclature in the story’s world. And a nearly complete scene that doesn’t lose its focus. Check, check and check.

So let’s look at some details, dear writer.

I like the title, Blue Menace. Evocative, and connected to the main character. While I’m not certain, the title and voice make it sound like it’s a YA story.

Opening line:

“Diamond Blue scrambled around her small bedroom, grabbing clothes and accessories at random, shoving them in her backpack.”

This is a perfectly good opening line for a chapter. I’m less convinced that it is telling enough for a novel. If this is, indeed, a novel, I’d like to see the opening chapter—even just a paragraph– be an event in the obviously chaotic world outside the building (or whatever where Diamond lives is called). It can be in the past, such as the scene where Rina is surrounded, or some apocalyptic event that we will eventually learn about. Make the stakes of the story bigger right off.

“She splashed water on her flushed face and ran her damp hands over her long sapphire-blue braids.”

A couple of commas will make the sentence clearer:

She splashed water on her flushed face, and ran her damp hands over her long, sapphire-blue braids.

You could even lose “-blue.” I don’t think anyone would imagine her hair is made of actual sapphires. Though there are a few sapphire stones of other colors (rubies are technically sapphires), they are typically blue. Then again, it occurs to me that her name is Diamond. Is the sapphire reference intentional?

I admire the way you do the reflection description of Diamond, dear writer. Mirrors can be cliché, but it works.

Quoting a character’s thoughts—

Oh sure, they’d let her on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.”

Using italics to hear a third-person character’s thoughts is fine. But if you’re going to use quotes or italics, you need to treat thoughts like internal dialogue, and use me instead of her, and I instead of she. It should read:

“Oh sure, they’d let me on board looking like a panicked junkie after a marathon, no problem.”

When you quote this way, you can make the thoughts sound a little more natural, as in,

Sure. Like they’ll let me on board looking like a crackhead after a five mile run, no problem.”

Later, Damn Sliders. Of course they choose now to screw up!” and Holy crap, I’m an idiot!

A matter of agreement—

“The Sliders, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from the public bays near the core to her location based on the quantum chip in her hand.”

I had to think about this one a moment. I’m assuming individual Sliders are referred to as “a Slider.” If so, the sentence should read:

(Simpler, preferred version. Don’t get caught up in exact locations.) A Slider, a simple hover-platform with a t-bar to steer, was supposed to come from a public bay closest to the requester’s location based on the quantum chip in their hand.

 Or, The Sliders, simple hover-platforms with t-bars to steer, were supposed to come from the public bays near the core to requesters’ locations based on the quantum chip in their hands.

(I know I use “their” as singular in the first one. According to some, that usage is still under debate. I’ve made the change in my work.)

 “She slapped at the cuff around her lower left arm to wake it up, and re-ordered the Slider in the name she’d stolen in the early hours of the morning – Rina Cavanaugh.

Somewhere on the Justice floor was a Slider hovering around the booking desk, maybe even outside Rina’s cell if it got that far.”

Okay, you’ve got me here, dear writer. I’m lost. Am I supposed to understand that she ordered in her own name originally? If the Slider is supposed to come to her based on the fact that it responds to the chip in her hand, shouldn’t it have located her where she is? What does the cuff have to do with it? I finally understand that Rina is locked up on the Justice floor—good news that she’s not dead—but I don’t get the explanation for the Slider mixup.

Perhaps simply drop the whole mistaken Slider thing, unless it will have an effect on the plot later. If that’s the case, just make it as simple as possible, and put the revelation of Rina’s location somewhere else.

What a great start, dear writer. I would definitely read on.

Have at it, TKZers! What are your thoughts and suggestions?

 

 

3+

Good Lists Make Great Stories

 

 

On a recent drive to a workshop event, I was listening to Jodi Picoult’s novel, SMALL GREAT THINGS. Near the beginning, Ruth, a Labor and Delivery nurse, describes all the things that need to be observed during a newborn’s physical assessment. It’s a long list of  over a dozen items, including measuring the circumference of the infant’s head, its sucking reflex, the relative softness of its belly, the location of the urethra, etc.

I got very excited when I recognized the list as a list because I was planning an exercise about using lists in fiction during the workshop. (Credit for the exercise goes to my writing prof/writer husband, Pinckney, who is an amazing teacher.)

Do you create lists for yourself? I’m most prone to make lists when I’m very busy around the holidays, need to do a brain dump for all the things I need to do for a project, or I’m packing for travel. Even the least list-like people usually have mental checklists they use. Think: unlock car, get in, turn on engine, buckle up, adjust climate, charge phone, light cigarette, put car in gear. Or, make coffee, unlock door, take dog outside, get paper, lock door, feed dog, make breakfast, read paper. An airplane or helicopter pilot doesn’t fly if their checklist isn’t completed. If you write down all the things you usually do in a particular order, you’ll have a list.

Directions–whether to a particular location or describing how to put something together–are another sort of list.

The glorious thing about using lists in stories and other writing is that they are a perfect shorthand for defining characters and setting scenes.

Some famous lists from literature:

Oft-quoted packing list from Joan Didion’s The White Album

TO PACK AND WEAR:
2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
stockings
bra
nightgown, robe, slippers
cigarettes
bourbon
bag with: shampoo
toothbrush and paste
Basis soap, razor
deodorant
aspirin
prescriptions
Tampax
face cream
powder
baby oil

TO CARRY:
mohair throw
typewriter
2 legal pads and pens
files
house key

“This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes.”

—Joan Didion, “The White Album”

So, it’s not fiction. But we get an astonishingly clear picture of Didion, the person and the writer, in a fairly small space. Bourbon, aspirin, Tampax, typewriter–though where’s the underwear? Perhaps it was too delicate a mention for her? If so, that definitely says a lot about her.

 

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

“What more easily explained and natural? With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatcher, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.”

A scathing sentence, isn’t it? Two lists that condemn both practices and and entire philosophy.

 

Mary Oliver

“I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.”

Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

I want, I want, I want…Imagine playing with the form of your short story (it would be too long for a novel), beginning every line with a word or phrase. A list of wants, shaped into a story.

Joyce Carol Oates has a story in which each line begins with “If.” At least I think it was “If.” Anyway, it was a good story, as I recall.

 

Johnny Cash’s To-Do List

“THINGS TO DO TODAY!

1. Not smoke
2. Kiss June
3. Not kiss anyone else
4. Cough
5. Pee
6. Eat
7. Not eat too much
8. Worry
9. Go see Mama
10. Practice Piano

NOTES: Not write notes”

This says so much about Johnny Cash. Or another sensitive man, musician, lover.

 

Bridget Jones’s Diary, New Year’s Resolution list

One of the most famous lists in recent literature. Find it. Read it. Even if it’s not your flavor of fiction. Utterly defines her character and is a brilliant precursor for the entire novel.

From my novel, The Stranger Inside

“There are two carefully folded summer dresses, both V-neck and in patterns she might have chosen for herself, one more tailored than the other. Beneath them is a pair of white Capri pants and two pairs of soft linen shorts. Then several linen shirts in pastel colors, one a loose button-down. As she takes the clothes from the bag, she lays them out on the bed. The tags say Nordstrom, and the linen pieces are marked as having been on sale. She smiles when she opens the two shoeboxes to find a pair of buff kitten-heel slides that go with the dresses, and a pair of flat Tory Burch sandals. It’s as though she’s been visited by a fairy, but she knows the fairy was surely Diana.

Opening the third bag, she laughs. There’s more tissue, but it’s wrapped around a clutch of panties that spill out like silky water over her hand and onto the bed. At the bottom of the bag is a diaphanous pink cotton nightgown with satin ties at the shoulders. While everything else is very close to what she’d wear, the nightgown strikes her as bridal and girlish. Still, what a surprise it all is. She realizes she hasn’t really smiled in days.”

(Don’t be fooled. This is one of the novel’s very few quiet moments. After all, there’s a stranger occupying Kimber’s house and he has possession of all her clothes.)

 

__________

Are those enough lists for you? Think of your own lists: grocery lists, wishlists, self-improvement lists, lists of goals, bucket lists. There are as many lists as people in the world.

Think about what kinds of lists your characters might make. If your character is a serial killer, imagine her Home Depot shopping list. Imagine the prescriptions her elderly victims take.

Every list tells a story. Go make one!

Do you have any favorite literary lists? What lists have you made that could be stories? How have you used lists in your work?

 

6+

Evolution of a Cover: ISABELLA MOON

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since my first novel was traditionally published in 2007, it’s that a writer needs to be flexible and amenable to change if they want to be successful. My definition of success? I’m still here. Readers still read my stories–often paying for them–and I still write them.

ISABELLA MOON was first published by Ballantine Books, and was/is available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio. It’s about a woman living in hiding from an abusive husband, and she’s contacted by the ghost of a child who went missing two years earlier. Why am I so attached to my first novel? I wonder if I would even think about it much if the ebook revolution hadn’t happened. Without ebooks, I doubt I would have bothered to republish it once the rights reverted to me. Just think of all the books that (often deservedly) are lost to time because they were published in paper–paper that wasn’t acid-free. The existence of non-expiring digital content, combined with easy access to book resellers, means that pretty much any book can now stay alive a long, long time.

But tastes change. Markets change. And there are always potential new readers to attract. I confess I’m often guilty of picking up a book because I’m drawn to its cover. Thus I feel compelled to update the covers of the few books I re-publish myself.

___________

Cover 1, Ballantine: Hardcover (2007)

This is a beautiful cover. If I’d been a more experienced writer, I might have pushed to have it look a bit edgier. It has a mysterious, dreamlike, feminine, rather timeless vibe. Yet the book has several horror elements.

Cover 2: Trade Paperback, Ballantine (2008)

I love the fuzziness of the title, particularly since the book is a ghost story. The size of trade paperbacks appeals to me.

Covers 3 and 4: Hardcover, Trade paper (export edition) William Heinemann, UK (2008)

The yellow color in this photo is a bit deceiving. It’s actually more of a pale cream, with a glimmering, matte sheen to it. It’s truly stunning, and thematically dead-on.

 

Cover 5: Ebook, Gallowstree Publishing  (2011) (My publishing company, freelance designer)

Looking back on this one makes me go Hmmmm.  It definitely has more of a horror vibe, and is certainly unsettling. The adult protagonist is obviously in danger.

Cover 6: Ebook, Gallowstree Press (2015?), freelance designer

This is the most literal cover: Ghostly font, ghost, photo of moon. Not sure why it’s basically 3 colors. I think it would make a terrific paperback.

 

Covers 7 and 8, Gallowstree Press, my designs

I’m going to experiment with two covers for this next update that’s coming in a week or two. One cover has a mystery feel to it, and the other that of a dark thriller. I’m considering adding a horror short story to the edition with the flower cover to differentiate it at the retailers. We’ll see how that works.

Between Vellum, and Canva, and many other helpful sites, it’s shockingly easy to make changes to all of my owned content. And, really, I have little to lose by making those changes. As these last two are for ebooks exclusively, my goal has been to make them great thumbnails. I would love to sell ISABELLA MOON in my own print-on-demand versions, but there are PLENTY of hard and softcover versions available out in the world. No need to add to the world’s post-consumer paper glut.

Why the wide selection of cover styles? ISABELLA MOON is one of those stories that crosses genre boundaries: thriller, crime, gothic, horror, mystery. It’s tough to classify. I’ve always felt that the original cover, though beautiful, put it off on the wrong foot in the market. There’s strong language, sex, and plenty of violence between the covers. The reviews are polarized, so I had to stop reading them.

Of course, I should’ve done all this revamping well before my most recent novel, THE STRANGER INSIDE, was published back in February. There’s lots to do: update the excerpts in the backs of the books. Update the blurbs, and add my most recent four books to the interior bibliography. Oh, and update my author photo. Though I wouldn’t mind being eternally forty-five.

Note: The images in the two latest covers came from Istock. I will have to purchase extended licenses to use them as part of salable content.

TKZers–tell me all your cover successes and woes. And ask me anything!

 

 

5+

First Page Critique: The Purple Door

 

 

(Purchased photo via iStock)

 

Greetings, readers and writers all! It’s First Page Critique time. Please take a few moments to read the submission, and my critique–then share your thoughts and advice in the comments.

THE PURPLE DOOR

CHAPTER ONE

Christina

Thursday, October 1

For the first time since Christina buried the yellow bag, it was time to check in. She was in no shape for it. She hadn’t slept in two days, maybe longer, and the Storm was here.

She stood at one of the windows, the old boarding house creaking in the wind. The Storm poured out of her unwell mind, blurred the pane of glass, blended with the actual, physical storm outside. The leaves on the treetops shook with tethered fury, and lightning splashed over the street. She looked down over the neighborhood, her ceaseless thoughts flowing out into the raindrops watering the ground.

So much had happened in a month, most of it bad. But she’d found something unexpected at the Purple Door. This attic room had become home.

She’d made herself a nest.  Up in this high-raftered roost, working on the mural and listening to her records as loud as she wanted, talking to Adam until the sun came up, this place was her whole world. Everything and everyone she needed was here… and all the little things she didn’t need, she’d buried.

She was going to stay right here. So she had to pass this phone call.

Christina dropped the curtain on her faint reflection in the glass, a flash of long blond hair. She had to be ready. She began to pace, staring into the fathomless black face of her phone until it lit up in her hand:

“DAD”

The name leapt off the screen in all caps, a visual shock. It was a trick she used in order to focus, now that the crazy thoughts her meds used to kill were back in bloom.

She’d buried her pills, and several other problematic artifacts, in little holes around the boarding house. In the back yard, a gauzy yellow bag that used to shimmer in the light was now stuffed with tablets of lithium, lamictal, and clozapine, and sealed underground with three feet of dirt. She was up here without a net.

________

Let’s start this party with a quote from William Howard Taft, 27th President of the United States, and 10thChief Justice of the United States:

Don’t write so that you can be understood, write so that you can’t be misunderstood.

This is a big deal when it comes to writing (or speaking), and it’s uniquely critical when a writer is creating a fictional world for the reader. If the reader feels unbalanced by the prose, or more confused than fascinated, the writer may lose them. Below I’ll discuss how this is relevant.

There’s so very much to like about this submission, The Purple Door.

–Christina is a vibrant protagonist. She’s a person of strong will and motivation.

–Dreamlike imagery

–Precise language

-Compelling portrait of a young woman with brain differences

 

 

“For the first time since Christina buried the yellow bag, it was time to check in. She was in no shape for it. She hadn’t slept in two days, maybe longer, and the Storm was here.

She stood at one of the windows, the old boarding house creaking in the wind. The Storm poured out of her unwell mind, blurred the pane of glass, blended with the actual, physical storm outside. The leaves on the treetops shook with tethered fury, and lightning splashed over the street. She looked down over the neighborhood, her ceaseless thoughts flowing out into the raindrops watering the ground.”

 

The first thing I imagined when I read this opening was that Christina was either a witch or a superhero who was maybe checking in with her handler. I had no clear idea what kind of this story was. Call me overly literal, but I cannot lie.

The second paragraph, about the Storm, definitely has a supernatural feel. Now, I understand that the drug combination at the end of the piece implies that our protagonist has psychiatric issues that present her with some spectacularly trippy, mind-blowing experiences. And there’s room for them in the story. Maybe just not right off the bat. Don’t give the reader dessert before the meal. UNLESS you’re going to start out with a hugely damaging or significant psychotic episode as the novel’s opening gambit. But that’s not happening here.

I’d like to see the piece start out with the bold facts, and resist being coy. Always resist coy.

Suggestion:

Exactly one week ago, Christina had used a rusted hand spade to bury her pills, and other problematic artifacts, in deep holes around the backyard of the boarding house. A gauzy yellow drawstring bag that used to shimmer in the light now lay hidden three feet underground, stuffed with what was left of her lithium, lamictal, and clozapine tablets. They were down there, which meant she was up here, living without a net.

We immediately know who Christina is, and the battle she’s fighting in her brain. It’s a fierce beast. Sure, she has to get by DAD, but he is a secondary foe. No doubt he’s one of many she’ll encounter over the course of the book. The real beast—that brings her both burdens and strange gifts—will be with her all her life.

With that in mind, it’s okay to go on and show us Christina’s current sleepless, exhausted, nervous state. If you’re going to go with a visual of the Storm she experiences as she looks out the window, be straight about it. She knows it’s not real, but she’s also experiencing it. Let the reader know, too.

Now she stood in the darkness, looking out the window, phone in hand, waiting for her father to call. It was time to check in. Time to convince him that she was doing just fine on her own. Except, she felt the Storm in her head coming on. It blurred the pane of glass, blended with the real rainstorm lashing the outside of the old house. The topmost leaves of the trees shook with tethered fury… [continue as written]

I very much like the imagery in this section. The splashing lightning made me hesitate, but I think it works.

As far as I’m concerned, the rest of the page works fine—as long as the burying of the pills moves to the beginning. Two minor points:

–Remove the ellipses in the fourth paragraph and replace with a comma, or begin a new sentence.

–Does she really think of her thoughts as “crazy thoughts?” [penultimate paragraph] One of the implications of not being on the drugs appears to be that she feels like herself. It brings into question the concept of normalcy—something that is certainly debatable.

One more significant suggestion. After the first paragraph, try switching to the present tense. Not everyone is a fan, but just try it. It offers an immediacy that I think is appropriate to the subject.

Now she stands in the darkness, looking out the window, phone in hand, waiting for her father to call. It’s time to check in.

Sally forth, Brave Author. This is a terrific story!

 

 

 

 

 

5+

Don’t Miss Your Deadlines: A Great Big Cautionary Tale

With thriller writer friend Shane Gericke, 2009. Photo by Judy Douglas Knauer via Facebook

This pic with my dear friend, Shane Gericke, was taken at the now-defunct Love Is Murder conference back in 2009, near Chicago. It was February, and I was promoting my second novel, which had come out in the once dead zone between Christmas (2008) and New Year’s Day (now a pretty good time to be published). Why the dead zone? Primarily my own fault because I made the sophomore mistake of being more than a month late getting the book turned in. If I’d been the professional I am now, I would’ve gotten it in on time, published in October, and the book probably would’ve been in paperback as well. Though my #sophomorefail wasn’t helped by the publishing industry’s January 2009 implosion. Everyone in the business was either deeply distracted by waves of bad news, or their hair was on fire.

That winter, I was way too green to realize my novel had been published “dead,” as the description goes. If a book is published dead, nothing happens. I mean nothing. Oh, my book was on library shelves, and made it into bookstores, and there were reviews. (Joe Hartlaub loved it, which is everything to me.) But it was not pushed by marketing, and not embraced by readers. The publicist still took my calls, but my editor was harder to reach. I don’t think I had another conversation with him until an awkward New York cocktail party a couple of years later. As I mentioned above, there was no paperback.

When it came time for the house to review my next book’s proposal and chapters, per my contract, my agent was the contact. The rejection was so swift that I hardly had time to get anxious about the proposal being out. I wish I could say I wasn’t surprised. I wish I could say I wasn’t hurt. I wish I could say I didn’t take it personally. Now, I find myself embarrassed at my naiveté.

Why am I telling you this cautionary tale–aside from the fact that I have an odd confessional streak? A public service announcement about meeting deadlines never goes amiss. Seriously, don’t miss your deadlines! The entire trajectory of my career was (possibly, probably) changed because I screwed up so badly.

Five years ago, maybe even two years ago I wouldn’t have shared this story with you. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to. Yes, I was ashamed and embarrassed. Also, it’s a bad idea to mess with your professional reputation online. You never know what potential editors might think. Potential readers. Then there’s that ego thing. I got the once-in-a-lifetime debut, two book contract. And lost the plot. Nobody wants to be fodder for the Writer Schadenfreude Gossip Machine.

Except that ten years have passed already. I’m what you might call a mid-career author. (Okay, if I die tomorrow, then today I actually would’ve been an end-of-career author. Huh.) These days, I find little value in being opaque. I’m a writer, and I’m human, and I make mistakes. Still.

This whole mid-career thing has taken me a bit by surprise. It feels like no time at all has passed since I sat so nervously in that hotel lobby with Shane. Steve Berry was also there. In fact, I was so nervous about being in public, and around writers and readers whom I didn’t know, that I would go hide in my hotel my room and practically hyperventilate several times a day. But as with so many other things, time brings perspective.

As a writer and human, you will screw up. Accept it, then move on.

If I hadn’t screwed up so badly, I never would’ve taken my rejected novel and started my own little press with my husband. I wouldn’t have learned about self-publishing in the early days, been able to teach my writer friends about it, or gotten to a place where I understand that readers don’t really care who published a book, but mostly just care about the story, and–very occasionally–the author. I might not have pushed myself to come up with a story concept that got me a three book series with a traditional publisher. Or a chance to publish with a truly brilliant young editor. And so on.

You never know.

(And don’t miss your deadlines!)

 

Dear TKZers–Do you have a cautionary writer’s tale to share?

 

 

 

8+

The Honest Epitaph

Photo: Ben Churchill [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Having recently celebrated a birthday that was (once again) well past my life’s statistical half-point, I’m feeling a bit maudlin. And maudlin is so dull!

So, tell me. What would your honest epitaph be? It’s the very last bit of writing you share with the world. I’m not looking for the reverent words that loved ones will no doubt honor you with, but the words you would put on there if you didn’t mind embarrassing your kids, your partner/spouse, your mom.

Remember, it’s important to put honest bits of yourself into everything you write…

A few of mine:

“She Wasn’t Good, But She Had Good Intentions.” (via Lyle Lovett)

“Wait! That Wasn’t What I Meant to Say!”

“She Was F.I.N.E.”

“Go Away, I’m Reading”

“Of Course I’m Listening”

“She Was Late for Her Own Funeral”

 

Now it’s your turn, TKZers!

 

 

 

5+

First Page Critique: The List

 

Image from GoDaddy

 

Hop in, fellow travelers. Today we’re off on a short, shocking car ride with the protagonist of The List. I hope you’ll take a few moments to read my critique, then add your own comments.

The List

Everyone has lists. I might have too many. I could probably be accused of living my life according to lists. There are the usual: a shopping list, a bucket list, ToDo lists, vacation packing list, followup email list, books to read list, etc. I even have a list of lists, so I don’t forget I have a particular list. But the list I’m thinking about right now is my I-More-Than-Hate-You list. This is the list of people that I plan to take with me if I ever cross thatline. You know the one. The line where you no longer give a flying fuck about the consequences, because someone’s gonna die. That list. And today I’m thinking about that list a lot.

For many years there was one name at the top of my list; one piece of shit that would have to go first. But over time he was replaced by other bastards that needed to die and finally fell off the list completely because I didn’t think I would ever see him again; didn’t think anyone would. But there he was. I almost rear-ended the car in front of me doing a double take.

“No fucking way!!” I said out loud and circled the block to get another look.

Junior Moore was standing on the corner opposite the bus station looking like a gawping tourist. The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look; never more than a fuzz on his scalp and wrinkles like scars all over it. His head looked as if the skin were too big for the skull inside; like badly fitted upholstery. He also looked to have only a single eye and I could see that one ear was mostly gone. His alley-cat glare followed me around the corner. He looked right at me. There’s no way he could have recognized me after all these years, but I’m sure the astonished gasp on my face made him wonder.

“Shit!…shit…shit…” I muttered as I sped toward the Duck. Thirsty Thursday with the girls was going to be interesting.

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Our protagonist’s strong voice gives The List a promising start. It takes a considerable amount of practice to make every word sound like it’s coming from a fully conceived character. This character strides onto the page and–to borrow a title from Joan Rivers–enters talking. Good job, brave author.

Let’s talk a moment about the opening paragraphs. I’ve written similar paragraphs many times, and I imagine other TKZers have as well. It’s a Big Intro With a Side of Throat Clearing. Here, you’ve already got the title explained, so that’s out of the way. And you’ve told us a lot about the character. This is an obsessive person. A disturbed person. A Person Not to be Messed With. (I get a strong, post-1978 Shirley MacLaine vibe.) Plus, we have the added bonus of it setting up what’s ahead. But if we look closely, it’s not really a bonus. It’s an impediment to the action of the story.

The reader doesn’t need to be wrapped in a bubble and delivered to the action. Hook us with the action first, and offer explanations and descriptions at a later time, if at all.

Without the throat-clearing, there’s no need for a transition INTO the action. Such a transition is nearly always awkward. When we finally get to the double take/near-accident, we are yanked out of the protagonist’s spotlight monologue intro and plunged into the action. The storytelling changes completely.

Homework for all of the above: Check out James Scott Bell’s latest blog, and all will be revealed.

One of the written and unwritten rules about settings is that you should never set a scene in an automobile. Usually we see two characters talking to one another, either fighting or giving us exposition. (Ah. The stress is off. We’re in the car, gov. Let’s bring each other up to speed on the investigation.) White space would suffice. Here, you have a mix of exposition and action. Because our protagonist is driving when she sees dreaded Junior, the car is perfectly appropriate for the action. Bravo! Now just eliminate the exposition. (Caveat: If you’re reading this and have been thinking about setting a scene in a car, proceed with caution.)

I like the promise of this page. I’m interested in the character, and want to know exactly what Junior Moore did, when he did it, and how/if he’s going to pay. I would definitely read on!

A few words about word choice, punctuation, and description. (I’m not sure of the sex of this character, though from the last line I’ll guess female. Her age is also unclear. She doesn’t sound like a Millennial or younger. And the fact that she’s got a long list of people on her um, shitlist (couldn’t resist), suggests to me that she’s at least in her forties.

First paragraph: I am seeing the word “list” way too many times, and I want it to go away with the paragraph. Have one of the protagonist’s friends make fun of her lists.

There are four semicolons in the piece. I will mourn with you over the loss, but they have to go. Replace them with periods or commas, as you see fit. Oddly enough, sentence fragments are now considered more acceptable than semicolons in fiction. Crazy, right? So feel free to type: But over time he was replaced by other bastards that needed to die and finally fell off the list completely because I didn’t think I would ever see him again. Didn’t think anyone would. But there he was.

Exclamation points and speaking out loud:

“No fucking way!!” I said out loud and circled the block to get another look.”

While this quote is, indeed, an exclamation, we’re only allowed one exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Exceptions are emails and notes to friends and family, birthday cakes, texts, and anything written in sidewalk chalk.

If we are speaking, it’s redundant to say that we’re doing it out loud. (It’s only in the last couple years that I’ve dropped out loud from my own prose.)

No fucking way!” I shouted, slamming one palm against the steering wheel. I circled the block to get another look.

Junior Moore:

Oh, there’s so much to love about this description of Junior Moore. It’s full of spite and anger and fierce observation. It reminds me again of why I’d like to read more. There are a few tweaks that could tighten it up.

“Junior Moore was standing on the corner opposite the bus station looking like a gawping tourist. The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look; never more than a fuzz on his scalp and wrinkles like scars all over it. His head looked as if the skin were too big for the skull inside; like badly fitted upholstery. He also looked to have only a single eye and I could see that one ear was mostly gone. His alley-cat glare followed me around the corner. He looked right at me. There’s no way he could have recognized me after all these years, but I’m sure the astonished gasp on my face made him wonder.”

I won’t totally rewrite the paragraph, but here are some suggestions.

“The years hadn’t been good to him. He had always had a grizzled alley-cat look…”

From here it’s not clear which characteristics Junior had “always had” and which were new. This can be fixed easily with something like:

…The years hadn’t been good to him. While he’d always resembled a grizzled alley cat, now he was downright monstrous (terrifying, hideous, etc). I was stunned to see that he’d lost an eye, and that part of one ear had been torn away. Wrinkles like puckered scars swam between the islands of sparse fuzz on his scalp. One thing that hadn’t changed was the way his skin hung like badly fitted upholstery on his too-small skull. I shuddered. His catlike glare followed me as I turned the corner…

I changed “alley-cat glare” to catlike glare to get rid of the repetition. Taking out “He looked right at me.” makes the image stronger. As a gasp is a sound, you might change “astonished gasp” to astonishment.

That the protagonist is headed to Thirsty Thursday to hang out at the Duck with her girl gang made me smile. Good lead-in to the next scene/chapter.

Language:

Some readers may object to the F-word, etc. I don’t have any concerns myself. In fact, “No fucking way!” is a statement I make way too often. But do check out TKZ takes on profanity. There’s plenty here. Be sure to read comments. Our own Kris Montee/P.J.Parrish takes on profanity in crime stories in a 2016 post. Jordan Dane has a First Page Critique that addresses it as well.

Okay, fellow travelers. You’ve read what I have to say (and thank you for reading!). What comments and advice do you have for our Brave Author?

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Sabbatical

–GoDaddy Stock Photo

When my kids were ten and three years old, I ran away from home for a week. Given all the pre-trip planning, list-making, grandparent arrivals, and pantry-stocking, it might have looked like I was about to take a solo vacation, but appearances can be deceiving. Inside, I was holding my breath, telling myself I could get it all done, hold out until the day I would pack up the ridiculously large, white, American sedan I’d rented, and cruise onto the highway, the “Girls Singing for Your Trip” mixtape cd my bff had made me cranked up on the stereo. The first song was Vacation by The Go-Go’s [sic]. The second was Walk Like an Egyptian by The Bangles. By the time I was actually in the car, blowing bye-bye kisses to the kids, I felt like a teenage bandit who’d stolen Grandma’s Buick and could only count on a few hours of freedom before the cops pulled me over and ushered me home.

Did I feel guilty? Yes, I did. But I also knew that if I didn’t get away—my stated reason was that I wanted time to myself to write—I would either collapse into a useless puddle of mommy-shaped goo, or have to take refuge in a small closet and refuse to ever come out again.

Roanoke, Virginia to Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, is a long drive—though I confess I thought it wouldn’t be. They looked so close together on the map. It was a good thing I liked driving alone. The ferry ride that ended my journey was a kind of revelation, a reminder that I was, indeed, far from home. Ocracoke is overwhelmingly beautiful, with pristine, protected beaches, and (at least back then) a small-town vibe that made me feel comfortable and safe. I felt Very Far Away from my life.

Now, I had a pretty darned good life back home. I loved my husband and children intensely. It wasn’t like I couldn’t take time to write. I had part-time childcare, and a lovely house set up on a hillside, among trees. And I liked my kids. It didn’t matter that they occasionally vomited on me, or threw the occasional floor-pounding tantrum in the post office, or didn’t pick up their room. They were still mine, and I loved them. But every mother has her limits, and as much as I loved my family, I knew I had to go away for a little while so I could remain in love with them.

Have you ever felt that way? Perhaps not about children, but about your work, or your partner, or circle of friends?

A couple of months ago, I stopped writing. Oh, I didn’t stop completely. I showed up here, and also wrote a couple of blurbs. I journaled just a bit. But for the most part, my computer screen was fallow. At first, the stoppage wasn’t intentional. I’d had a professional disappointment that left me deeply frustrated. But like so many things that look grim on the outside, it was hiding something useful on the inside. It led me to take a good hard look at my work and career, and what they meant to me. And that’s when I decided that my writing sabbatical needed to continue for a while.

I love writing. I really do. It’s the only thing I ever set my heart on. I’m terrible at goal-setting because I’m easily distracted. There’s a story I heard once about a distinguished scientist who told himself he was going to count the steps he took walking to work every day. He did it successfully the first day. On the fourth day he remembered that he’d made that plan earlier in the week, but had only counted his steps that very first day. His is the story of my life. The good news is that I mostly get distracted in good ways, by new projects. But writing is the thing I’ve never been distracted from for very long. When I was in my mid-twenties, I decided I wanted to write fiction, and I’ve been trying to learn to be a better writer ever since. [Note: If you’ve stopped learning, go back to where you left off, and begin again.] It is the only vocation I have ever truly wanted to pursue because it’s the most challenging, maddening, rewarding work I’ve ever done.

Sometimes writing (and often publishing) will vomit on you. It will wring you out of every emotion, and leave you panting for inspiration. It will break your heart, and flip you the bird on the way out the door. It will whisper or shout your shortcomings. But then it will snuggle you like a puppy or a two-year-old wanting comfort. It will bring you bright and shiny presents—a brilliant detail, or the perfect sentence. Most of all, it will make much of itself. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes it can be too much of a muchness.

I’m not fond of crises. I panicked when I realized I wasn’t writing. For a while, I thought I might never write again. (Did I type that out loud?!) Fortunately, that panic didn’t last forever. But I did let myself feel the panic while it was happening. Yes, that old touch-feely feelings stuff. I let myself see that there could be a life beyond writing. I don’t have to write! Ever! In fact, there are already plenty of writers. I could clean houses, dig ditches, paint portraits, design video games, become a professional birdwatcher or baker or phlebotomist. In fact, if I stop writing and get a 9 to 5 job—or even take a permanent copywriting gig—it would be a financial boon to the family coffers.

I could have run away from my family. I could have stayed on that island beach until my money ran out, then gotten a job somewhere in the mid-Atlantic area. But I loved my family. Deeply. I just needed to be by myself for a little while so I could build up the energy to give them more, love them more. I hope I came back a slightly better parent.

During my writing sabbatical (a gentle word), I read some, watched television, bought furniture, decluttered the house quite a bit. I still have some power washing to do. And more reading to do. After two years of lightening the tone of my reading, and, to some extent, my writing, I’ve delved back into much darker stuff (the astonishing Mo Hayder has changed my life, I think). It’s got me thinking, and doing some unexpected planning. I’m still in love, but perhaps a bit wiser. That’s never a bad thing.

Have you ever had to get away just so you could stay?

 

 

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Guest Post: Carolyn Haines, Southern Mystery Doyenne

Hey, y’all! I’m so excited to have writer Carolyn Haines visit with us. Decades ago, even before Carolyn started her mystery series featuring Sarah Booth Delaney, I saw several of her books shelved in a place of honor at a friend’s house. My friend told me that Carolyn was a wonderful writer, and as an unpublished newbie, I immediately got stars in my eyes knowing I was thatclose to a famous writer. Carolyn’s writing is truly wonderful, and these days, I’m proud to call her my own good friend.

(If you’re in the Houston area, dash over to the amazing MURDER BY THE BOOK for a signing event with Carolyn, plus Terry Shames, TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m.)

Carolyn is here to talk about the pleasures and pitfalls of having a successful, long-running series. Please give her a warm TKZ welcome!

LONG LIVE THE BONES

I’ve been writing about my amateur detective Sarah Booth Delaney for over 20 years—and I have 20 books documenting her mystery-solving skills. The latest, GAME OF BONES, was just released. But I have to tell you, it’s my time to whine. In the world of Zinnia, Mississippi, Sarah Booth Delaney seldom ages. In the twenty years I’ve been writing about her and the rest of the gang, Sarah Booth has aged less than two years. I, on the other hand, have stacked two decades onto my total orbits around the sun. This is not fair.

While Sarah Booth remains eternally young, still able to consider pregnancy (though she is pushing that really hard as her personal “haint” Jitty would tell her) and still able to perform the physical feats that make her a good detective (and also a bit like Lucille Ball), I am feeling the passage of the years in my bones. Sarah Booth has never met trouble she didn’t want to get down and wallow in. I have not been arrested in a while, so I’m a slacker.

I’ve read a lot of blogs from authors who talk about “when it’s time to end a series.” To be perfectly honest, when I wrote THEM BONES, I didn’t realize I was writing a series. The book sold at auction and the publisher who bought it wanted a 3-book deal. I was terrified. I’ve always read mysteries, but I never considered myself a skilled plotter. But there I was—with two additional mysteries to write, and then two more, and then two more, and then three, etc., etc.

Now, the characters are so much a part of my daily life that it’s hard to imagine NOT writing about them. They are family, and I love the work of bringing their adventures to the page.

Over the course of two decades, I’ve outlined the series arc. I know what the last book in the series will be, but since I just signed another three-book contract, it won’t be until after 2022. (There will be two books in 2021. One in May, my regular publication time, and a special Christmas book.)

Through the years, folks have pressured me to marry Sarah Booth off and let her have young-uns. I’ve resisted this pressure for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Sarah Booth doesn’t listen to me or to Jitty, her ancestral ghost who tries to boss her around for her own good. I tried to edge Sarah Booth toward more romance with one character, but she balked completely. She knows her own mind. As I said, she is like family and the Haines clan is known to be hard-headed. My guidance is often rejected. But again, that makes the stories interesting to write.

Aside from Sarah Booth’s recalcitrant behavior, there are other reasons. I’ve read a lot of series books and watched a lot of series television where the two leading characters finally give in to lust, love, or domesticity. That’s the point I lose interest in the characters. I realize not all people are like me, but as the writer, I refuse to spend time in a world that bores me. As it stands now, Sarah Booth has a love interest, but romance is always a dicey business with my feisty anti-belle. Sarah Booth breaks the rules of polite society and she disdains the expectations to marry.

Each book in the series is a complete, standalone mystery, but the characters do change. I’m really proud of the way that my characters have grown. While Sarah Booth and her friend and partner Tinkie have madcap adventures, they are serious about the life decisions they make and the values they buy into. The cases they tackle highlight some tough issues, but always with humor. Most of all, the characters and I want to make you laugh and have fun. “A lot of life’s hardships are soothed by laughter.”—that’s a Sarah Booth quote.

I just finished the last season of GAME OF THRONES, where a lot of characters die. Some I watched with relish and others I mourned. I don’t have any plans to kill off any characters in the Zinnia universe. Just remember, I don’t have total control of this world. Sarah Booth goes her own way and she’s been heard to say, when asked why there are so many homicides in her small town of Zinnia, Mississippi, “A lotta men just need killing.” I concur. Some people beg for a swift end. Sarah Booth would be happy to deliver on that. Patience is a virtue she doesn’t have.

When I listen to other writers talk about ending their series at 8 or 9 books, I understand. Writing a book is an intense relationship with the characters. When a writer is tired of a character, it’s time. Give the series a dignified ending. What I really hate is an abrupt end to a series with so many questions unanswered—and no way to find an answer. The pulling of the publishing or television plug is an unfortunate part of the business that upsets both readers and writers. I do have an exit strategy, but I am a long way from executing it.

I write other series, and I think that keeps me fresh to “document” Sarah Booth’s escapades. I love writing humorous books, but I am also a fan of gothic/horror and mystery/fantasy, so I explore those worlds in other series. I’ve published over 80 books. I love riding my horse, caring for my pets, pranking my family and friends—and telling stories.

Sarah Booth will tell me when it’s time to let go, but I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon.

Where to find Carolyn:

Carolyn’s Facebook Page

GAME OF BONES  links

Carolyn’s Newsletter Sign-up and Website

Carolyn Haines is the USA Today bestselling author of the Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series and a number of other books in mystery and crime, including the Pluto’s Snitch paranormal-historical mystery series, and Trouble, the black cat detective romantic suspense books. She is the recipient of the Harper Lee Award for Distinguished Writing, the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence, and the Mississippi Writers Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. She is a former journalist, bartender, photographer, farmhand, and college professor and lives on a farm where she works with rescue cats, dogs, and horses.

 

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TIGER BEAT and Other Things That Made Me a Reader

 

As I write this, my knees and hands hurt with a flavor of arthritis that has yet to be specified, I’m snuffling from allergies, my house is musty from dozens of inches of rain, I was only able to trim my cats’ toe nails before they escaped my trimmers, and it’s their ice pick dew claws that dig into my shoulder every time. A quarter of my garden has been overtaken by invasive Japanese irises that multiply every time I blink. Don’t even get me started on the house mouse that LICKED the peanut butter out of two traps without setting them off, and also apparently thumbs (poetic license—mice don’t have thumbs) its tiny rodent nose at my do-less, dew-clawed cats.

All the way from here I can hear you saying (over your coffee and lightly toasted buttery croissant—which is what I imagine you’re having for breakfast, or elevenses, if you’ve been up writing into the night, like I so often do), “What the heck, Benedict? This has nothing to do with writing. You’re just whining!”

Well, when life gets vaguely annoying, I like to complain for a while, and then pull a giant piece of particle board over the cozy fort/hole I’ve dug into the backyard. There I can ponder distant, gentler times. Here’s today’s note from the fort:

I’m thinking about the things I read as a kid that I don’t read much of today. As a kid, I acted without prejudice when it came to choosing reading materials. It’s not even that I chose things—they just showed up and demanded to be read. Gobble us up! You can have us all! We’re delicious! And I was totally game. Like a primitive Pokémon player, I was ready to catch them all. Perhaps it was that there were fewer printed (?) words floating around in the world than there are now, and so it seemed like an achievable task. There were moments (okay, hours) when I sincerely believed that if I tried hard enough, I could track down and read every word ever printed.

Dearest Reader, I never even got close, and at my age it’s not looking good.

BrainyQuote.com tells me that it was Arthur Ashe who said, “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” So here I am, on the journey, savoring the offerings along the way.

Back when I was first tempted by all those words, there were plenty of children’s books to keep me enthralled. Little Golden Books, library books, readers. (Damn, I loved those boring Dick and Jane and Spot books, but mostly because I thought they were funny. And also because I was made to sit behind the filing cabinet and read ahead, by myself, because I kept interrupting the other kids, telling them the words when they got stuck. Who doesn’t like to be allowed to read ahead?! In other news, I could be an insufferable brat.)

Then there was the good stuff. The stuff nobody told me to read, but that I couldn’t resist.

*Warning: If you are under the age of 45, you may have to consult a search engine. Think of it as research.

 

Highlights Magazine

God bless the Highlights writers. How did they know I wanted to do puzzles and read stories about animals and other kids? I thought Gallant of Goofus and Gallantwas a kiss ass prig, though I did understand that Goofus was not to be admired. The peg-jointed Timbertoes were fun. Did Ma remind anyone else of Olive Oyl?  I lived for Hidden Pictures. They were the first thing I went for as soon as the magazine arrived. In fact, when I later subscribed for my children (right, it was for the kids), I learned the Highlights people published entire magazines made up of only Hidden Pictures. And the jokes. I still can’t remember a joke to save my life, but Highlights always had one ready.

Dictionaries

I miss paper dictionaries. Was there anything better than sitting down with one to read row after row of new words? Old ones are true cultural artifacts. I refuse to throw away my 1980s vintage Webster’s.

Fan Magazines

Granted, I wasn’t allowed to have these at home. But my girl friends had them. Tiger Beatwas the preferred title. What does that title even mean? Somehow it was important for me to know what Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy ate for breakfast, and what they liked a girl to be like (and what does thateven mean?). I’m not going to tell you how many times I pretended to be Bobby Sherman’s wife, and mother of his children, before I was ten.

Cereal Boxes

I still tell people to read cereal boxes. Though now they’re not as much fun because they talk about having less sugar and more fiber, and there are no prizes in the boxes because trial lawyers have made sure we can’t have fun things anymore. Even worse, there are hardly ever hidden pictures on the back of boxes now. I think the trouble began with Wheaties and their fancy profiles of sports figures. Give me a Toucan word search any day.

Sears Catalogs

I’m not so old that you could still buy a house or a bride in a Sears Catalog when I was a kid. But those catalogs were the Internet of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The descriptions of the items were persuasive—at least they were to me—and worthy forerunners of The J. Peterman Company catalog. The pictures were great, sure. Particularly in the early 1970s when the kid models started looking extra-excited instead of sitting there like mannequins. The Sears Catalog was the first place I saw a bra, and men’s underwear. A real education.

Encyclopedias

Our family set of encyclopedias had belonged to my dad’s parents (I think). Printed in the late 1940s, I remember using them for reports into the early 1970s. They seemed purely informational to me, but it was information that entertained. Even if the article was about turbines. Or airplanes. Or beetles or waterfalls pictured in black and white. My mom’s parents had an even older set, geared to children. My favorite volume had watercolor illustrations, and old songs and poems. I never memorized what volume it was, but I knew where it lived on the shelf.

Children’s Bible

I had no time for a grown-up Bible. I adored my Children’s Bible Stories, and tried to take it to church with me. I was probably nine years old before I realized it wasn’t actually a Bible. Until I started reading books like Black Beauty and Kidnapped and Sherlock Holmes stories, they were my favorite adventure stories. Nothing says adventure like chariots being felled in a tsunami, and a brawny guy with bloody eyes pushing down pillars.

Maps

Cue the Dora the Explorer song. I’m a map! I’m a map! I cut my reading teeth on my grandparents’ AAA maps –every page flip showed some new blue (or red) line to somewhere new. Even when we weren’t traveling, I could imagine where the lines led.

Okay. I feel better. The lawn guy has texted and says he can come soon and mow so I won’t have to hear the deer ticks mocking me as they sway atop our foot-tall grass.

 

Tell us: What were your earliest written word influences? 

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