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.

That’s All, she wrote

Frank Sinatra via Wikimedia Commons

It’s time for my final curtain, dear friends. This is my last official post for TKZ. It’s with a heavy heart that I write this, because I’ve had a blast with you the past several years.

TKZ was the first and only group blog for which I’ve written regularly, and I couldn’t have chosen a better one. I can’t think of a more experienced group of writers writing about writing on the Internet. While many other group blogs have become weighed down with self-promotion and infighting and prima donna grandstanding, TKZ has only gotten better with time.

You, dear readers, are our better halves. You’re talented and curious and smart. You make it a pleasure to show up–whether it’s to post or join in the comments. Please give yourselves a big round of applause.

It’s often a challenge for me to come up with blog topics about writing that I think will interest you. My interior life is chaotic, and writing fiction is still a mystery to me after three decades of writing. When I finish writing a book or story, the memory of how I did it dissolves with time like Kool Aid mix in water–and nearly as quickly. It’s tough to delineate a process that I can’t precisely recall. While I am a person of a certain age, it’s not that I’m going dotty. It’s just the way my ADHD brain works. I can hyperfocus on something so that it becomes a delicious experience that engages my senses so fully that I find it difficult to return to reality. It’s a dreamlike state, and, like a real dream, it dissipates and disappears. When things are going well, a dozen pages of writing is left behind. The challenge is dodging all the shiny objects that seem to throw themselves at me when I’m trying to get back to the dream again.

If it sounds like I’m telling you that writing is magic that can’t be taught, I promise I’m not. I attended writing classes and workshops during the first six or seven years I was writing. (And I have to tell you that if you pay attention to the craft and critique pages here, and you write regularly, and read, you will get a solid writing education without paying a dime. Just sayin’…) Writing is not magic. It’s a combination of art and craft.

So, I hope you’ll forgive me for all the posts I didn’t write about how to plot, or create a character, or remind you to number those pages. (Seriously, Manuscript Rule 1 is number your pages!) We all have different strengths, and different gifts.

You know I love a list. Here’s a list of a few thoughts about writing and the writing life I’d like to leave with you.

— Read indiscriminately. Read the stories that you know will please you, and read stories and writers that will challenge you. Read out of your preferred genre and your culture and your comfort zone. Good writing is everywhere. Learn from it.

— Write bravely. I won’t lie. Brave is hard. The more of yourself–your feelings, your experiences, your ideas, your imagination–you put in your work, the better it will be. It may seem that both publishers and our contemporary society are currently offering writers very narrow lanes in which to write. It’s tough to be brave when you’re feeling pressured and walled in. Be brave anyway. That’s where your best work lies: beyond the walls.

–Let yourself be envious, then let it go. Too much envy is poisonous, but it’s a totally normal feeling. If you feel it, that’s okay. Let it motivate you to write better, be better. But use it and let it go before it turns on you. The phrase love and light sounds like the stuff of an SNL skit, but it’s kind of useful. Pile coals of kindness on the heads of those who make you itch with irritation. Their journey is not your journey, so keep your eyes on your own paper and do your own work. (Did I get enough platitudes in that paragraph?)

–Don’t be a dick. If you achieve any kind of success–from being the first in your writing group to sell a story, to being the only one at a table full of established writers to have made the bestseller lists–don’t be arrogant. Retain (or cultivate) some humility, if only because you never know when you’ll get surpassed or taken down, or by whom. Otherwise, it’s just a good idea to be nice. Cheer others’ successes. It’s true that someone might forget that you offered them congratulations on their Facebook page, but they won’t ever forget if you only ever talk about yourself.

–Don’t bore your reader. If you’re writing and you find you’re getting bored, stop what you’re doing immediately and try something different. If you’re feeling bored, chances are your reader would already have wandered off.

–Publishing is a crapshoot, and there’s an element of luck involved. Raise your odds by submitting (to an agent or publisher or beta reader) your best writing, packaged as a clean manuscript, and ask for help, advice, or representation in the most polite and charming way possible. Keep in mind that there are a huge number of not-very-well-written books alongside terrific books released every week. Just because you get a rejection doesn’t mean your writing is bad.

–Write what brings you joy. Or scares your pants off. Or makes you cry in a good way. That way lies authenticity (always good) and personal fulfillment (even better).

That’s it. I’m done. In Frank’s immortal words: I did it my way. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your kind attention. Stay in touch. Write like the wind!  xx Laura

11+

Is There Such A Thing As Too Many Books?

 

 

At our house, we’re still in the midst of The Never-ending Remodel. The good news is that we finally have access to five renewed closets with actual shelves, rather than wire, shelf-like surfaces through which our belongings dangled for thirteen years. The other news is that the piles of unshelved belongings that remain are made up mostly of books. A lot of books.

Husband, also a writer, has never been sentimental about printed books. Without my, um, encouragement, we wouldn’t own more than two copies of any of his published books. (We long ago lost track of all the books in which his work is anthologized.) A frequent quote: “If I need a copy, I can get it off Ebay.” Did I say he was unsentimental? My mind is searching for another word that better expresses the gravity of his position. Maybe something in the blasphemy neighborhood. But he is also a creative writing professor who teaches his students how to tell compelling stories in arenas that didn’t exist a decade ago–from podcasting to virtual reality. And some of his third year graduate students already have (ironically enough) book deals and jobs in publishing awaiting them.

I love our books. I love the books I brought with me when we married, and the books we bought along the way. I love all the books with our writer friends’ names on their spines. I love having the books we’ve written. I love the books we read to our kids. I love the books we own that I’ve never read. I love the books I used to homeschool our kids. I love the books we received as gifts–even if they aren’t books we might have chosen. Together, that’s a lot of books.

We’ve given away many hundreds of books over the years. Mostly to libraries for book sales. Though the newer books we’ve donated from the many competitions we’ve judged often find new life on our local library’s underfunded shelves. It’s always a joy to hear when that happens.

Does the above establish me as a book lover? I hope so.

Publishing paper books is big business. In 2017, 675 million print books were sold in the U.S. alone. (I didn’t dig too deeply for this number. Your result may differ.) What about all those books that are printed by traditional publishers and never leave the warehouse? That’s a lot of books, a lot of paper.

Sometimes I feel guilty about all the paper we use for books. If you’re a person concerned with carbon footprints, this post has some interesting comparisons on the impact of ereaders vs. paper books, and even includes the surprising news that reading on a phone has considerably less environmental impact than reading on an ereader. It also mentions something I’ve long suspected: reading comprehension is notably higher with paper books than digital books. (FWIW, the post has a disturbing number of exclamation points, which, despite the piece’s footnotes, makes its conclusions seem suspect. Punctuation matters, kids.)

Book publishing creates jobs, beginning with the writer. Also: librarians, travel companies, snack food companies, coffee companies, agents, therapists, phone and data companies, office supplies, delivery companies, the postal service, bars, editors, receptionists, cover artists, layout artists, paper suppliers, printers, copy editors, publicity people, restaurants for meetings, carry-out food for exhausted writer/editor/publicity/production folks, book and warehouse-store employees…the list goes on.

You lose quite a few of these folks with ebooks–or even audiobooks.

If I see someone reading a paper book, I’m immediately interested. Doesn’t matter if it’s not my kind of book. I still feel a kind of kinship. Hey, you’re cool, reading that book there. I have a book, too. WE ARE BOTH COOL AND SPECIAL!” Mostly I see people reading on airplanes. Occasionally I’ll observe someone reading a book in a restaurant. Many, many people stare at phones, so I don’t know what they’re looking at. Could be WAR AND PEACE, could be porn. I guess it’s not my business, even though I still wonder.

No kidding that I’m sentimental about paper books. They were my closest friends when I was a kid. They never let me down, even when they weren’t great. Not only could I hide behind them–I could brandish them as weapons, or hold them out just far enough to read as I walked so that they would bump into things first. It’s easy to fetishize things that made a big difference for us as kids.

 

Yet sometimes, I can see Husband’s point. A story is a story no matter what format it’s in. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the presence of so much paper. I often feel guilty when I look at a book on the shelf that I know I’ll probably never read. That fantasy about how books might somehow disappear in the greater world, and we’ll be sitting pretty because we have enough books to last us years should we need them? Oh, yes. I’ve had that one. And also the one about how if I pass on too many of our books, and come to rely mostly on ebooks and audiobooks as Husband does (insert reminder that I listen to 4-5 audiobooks a week, myself), there will be a coincidental electronic disaster that will make all digital content disappear.

Apparently I’m not only sentimental about books, I’m superstitious.

When my first hardcover novel was finally remaindered, I bought 125 copies because I got them for $4 apiece. Do you know how many books that is? It’s 125! There are perhaps 15 or 20 left. I confess I felt a lightening with each one I gave away. 9 years of giving them away.

I’ve never been able to figure out how many of my own books I should keep. As I’m no legendary bestseller, it’s not like I’ll be leaving the to Harvard or Yale or even the University of Missouri-St. Louis for their archives. Paper rots eventually. I don’t want my legacy to my kids to be a dozen totes of decaying books with my name on them. To future generations, my career–such as it is–will only be a footnote in the family trivia trove. That idea is pretty humbling. Ashes to ashes, and all that.

In the end, we are all going to be the victims of rot. As with books, we will all get cracked and yellowed around the edges and probably smell old. Not unpleasantly, I hope. (Am reminded of the wi-fi network name OLD PEOPLE SMELL that comes up on my phone when we drive by a certain senior living community in our town.)

I won’t insist that this piece has had much of a point, except to say that I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by the number of books we own. It still remains to be seen how many of my own books I should keep. Who said it? Books furnish a room. Will my home be soulless if I give away a dozen too many?

Tell us about your relationship with your books. Is it complicated? And if it’s simple, tell us your secret.

 

3+

First Page Critique (sort of): The Writer I Was

Photo of me by the late poet Glenn McKee, whom I met at the workshop.

juvenilia (plural noun) : compositions produced in the artist’s or author’s youth.

When: Early August, 1989

Where: The Appalachian Writer’s Workshop, Hindman Settlement School, Hindman, Kentucky

Who: Your Faithful Correspondent

Weather Report: Hot and humid Kentucky summer, not a lick of rain

I’d been writing fiction for about two years. Maybe not even that long. Looking at the definition of juvenilia, it would seem hardly to apply to what I was writing then, as I was twenty-seven years old. Not seventeen, or even twelve. But when we talk about writers of any age, their earliest work is referred to as their juvenilia.

Fully employed, but terminally broke, I wanted to combine a cheap vacation with a writer’s workshop. The Appalachian Writer’s Workshop was pretty much the cheapest out there, with the added bonus that Eastern Kentucky was The Land of My People. Though I didn’t actually know anyone there. That didn’t seem a bad thing to me, as I was shy about my writing.

I signed up for the fiction workshop. That worked out well for me because the instructor was named Pinckney Benedict, and now my name is Laura Benedict, and we’ll be married thirty years in July. But I digress.

The workshop was obviously everything I’d hoped for—and more. Now I wish I still had the story manuscript (we’re talking maybe ten pages) that Pinckney enthusiastically commented on. But here’s the thing about juvenilia for most writers: it’s embarrassing. Sure, when I was eighteen, it wasn’t long after I’d accidentally seasoned my from-scratch spaghetti sauce with celery seed instead of oregano that I could laugh about it. The same wasn’t true for my early writing. There’s a video (vhs no doubt) of me reading my work to the Hindman crowd that someone (thoughtfully?) sent us after Pinckney and I married. Mortifying! Even two decades later I threw out the printed pages of my two practice novels, The Disappearing and Skin Hunger (which I still think is a brilliant title, even though someone used it about ten years ago as a YA title).

We are currently deep into a house renovation due to an early fall plumbing disaster. I discovered a box on the top mud room shelf that was full of surprises from our early years. Among them was a story that another Hindman instructor kindly commented on in exchange for a ride from Hindman to the airport in Lexington.

It’s the only story I have from those very early days, and I warn you: it’s not good. It might even be funny-as-hell not good.

I thought it would be fun if I put it up as a First Page Critique. At first I planned to critique it myself, then let you all have at it. Then I decided that I would probably do a critique that would end up ten pages long, and less than thoughtful. Seriously, I practically have to tie my hands behind my back to keep myself from pointing out the first fifty things I see wrong with it.

All this is to say that it takes a lot of writing to become a writer with eight published novels and a couple of collections’ worth of short stories. I’ve been unpublished, and I’ve been a step below amateur, and I’ve been wildly, unabashedly not so good.

Take a few minutes, if you will, to read the beginning of “The View From the Woods.” What criticism could you offer its newbie writer? I’m curious to know if you see the same things I do. I’m so far from this story that it feels like it was written by someone else, so zero worries about my feelings. Or if critiquing isn’t your sort of thing, tell us how you approach your own juvenilia.

[Update, written just after I typed in the excerpt that follows: There’s a dog that has died before the opening of the story. Also, I can’t believe I am offering this up for you all to see. Oh! The melodrama!]

 

The View From the Woods

 

”Mama? Mama, did you hear what I said?” Jerilee screamed into the mouthpiece of the phone. “He shot the dog, Mama. He’s killed Petey!” The valley of silence between Jerilee and the other end of the line was breached by a thousand “I told you so’s”. She paced the cracked linoleum on the kitchen floor, twisting the phone cord around her knuckles as she walked. “Mama, what do I do?” Her voice was a frustrated whine.

”Well, I’d say the first thing you do is bury the dog. He’ll be drawin’ flies in the heat. I’ll send your brother along.”

”No, Mama! I don’t need Will over here!” Jerilee stopped pacing. “I want to take care of it myself. I do.”

”Suit yourself, Jerilee. You’re the one who sounds like she’s dyin’. Now just take a deep breath and calm down,” the older woman ordered.

Jerilee closed her eyes, shutting out the harsh sunlight that poured from the kitchen window.

”Now,” her mother said, “is he gone out of the house?”

”God, yes,” Jerilee answered. “He took his guitar an’ all them stupid dead animals of his.” She looked out at the tiny, towel-covered lump that sat in the middle of the yard. “An’ his guns,” she spat. “He took his guns.”

”You shoulda known better than to get that little dog, Jerilee. Billy Clyde hated that poor thing, always ready to step on it whenever it made a noise. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”

”Mama, it was a helpless little animal, for Christ sake.” Jerilee was pacing again. The floor creaked under her feet. “The man’s crazy, Mama. What I can’t believe is he didn’t shoot me. He’ll be back. I know he’ll be back.” Jerilee’s anger had erupted into fierce rushes of blood that pounded in her head; the air around her seemed close and tight. The ends of her fingers, wrapped securely with the phone cord, throbbed with pain.

Her mother’s voice continued from the fingerprint-blackened receiver. “Why, good riddance to bad rubbish, I say. You shoulda got rid of him soon as he started steppin’ out with that little redhead from down the drugstore last year. I never can understand why you keep takin’ him back. One day you call me to say he’s gone, and the next day he’s answerin’ the telephone. You just leave the rest of his junk packed up on the front porch.”

 

4+

When a Writing Break Turns Into a New Novel: J.T. Ellison

Laura Benedict here. Refilling, refueling, refreshing…There are many names for it, but they all refer to giving our creativity the chance to enjoy a well-earned rest. To give it some space, and let our subconsciouses play so we can come back and mine it when we’re ready. My guest today is my good friend, J.T. Ellison, and she and I have had hundreds–yes, hundreds–of conversations about staying creative and navigating flashes of burnout for over a decade. Given that J.T. has published 22 novels since 2007, along with a significant number of stories, novellas, and anthologies, she knows well the challenges of keeping her work fresh and herself productive, yet also sane.

Welcome, J.T.!

* * *

Credit: Krista Lee Photography

“I’ve always wanted to write a boarding school mystery…”

Let me set the stage. 2018. St. Petersburg, Florida. Bouchercon. A long lunch with an editor, a publisher, a spouse, and a completely burned out author.

I’m not one for tears, but I was feeling it that day. I’d been juggling too much, jumping back and forth between my books and my co-written series, work for the TV show, traveling all over the place, and I was feeling it. I tend to bite off more than I can chew anyway, but at that moment, I had the horrible sense that writing had become work. It’s happened a couple of times in my career, so I recognized what I needed. A break.

Of course, that’s the very last thing any editor wants to hear, but I didn’t think I had a choice. It was take a break or flame out completely.

I’ve worked with my team long enough to be comfortable being honest with them. We talked frankly about author burnout, about finding the joy in the work, about how sometimes, you have to take a break from the grind, write something that you know will be fun. And the words slipped out: “I’ve always wanted to write a boarding school mystery.”

Though I wasn’t actively writing this story, I already had a character – Ash Carlisle. I already knew she was British, and was coming to America to attend an elite boarding school. I knew I wanted her to go from revered to reviled. That’s all I had. But my editor’s face lit up, and I knew I had to find a way to write the book. Just not then.

We left the lunch with a plan for me to regroup and get back to them when I thought I was ready to jump in. I planned to take the rest of the year off – two full months – and then spend six months on a new co-written book, then write the boarding school mystery.

We had scheduled a few days between events to go across the state for some east coast beach time. On the drive over, I was kicking myself. I’d had a conversation about burning out with another author friend, Carla Neggers, who rightly pointed out that some people have to work for a living and we writers have it pretty cushy. She didn’t exactly say suck it up and get back to work—or maybe she did, there was a lot of wine that night—but that’s what I heard. I was relaying this to my husband, feeling silly for my whining. “She’s right, of course. It’s not like I’m digging ditches. If I took a little time off now, maybe I could write the book by February.”

We talked it through. I only had one tour event left after Bouchercon, but February was only four months away. I had the setting, the main character, and the semblance of a plot. It wasn’t like I’d need to do a lot of research—I attended an all woman’s boarding college and was planning to use it as my setting anyway. We’d just been to Oxford, so Ash’s hometown was fresh in my mind. I had a sense of who she was. And it would be a fun book to write. A really, really fun book to write. Hauntings and history, secret societies and hazing, all against a backdrop of one of the prettiest campuses in the country.

I texted my editor, who said yes, they could work with February. I took three full days at the beach to recharge my batteries, handled a couple more events. And then off I went. I started writing in early November and the story just poured out. It was so much fun. I rediscovered the joy of writing. I wrote a few scenes in screenplay format to make sure the visuals worked, played and played with it, hit my usual ¾ of the way in block, where I need to blow up the book to make it all make sense. I even went so far as to change POVs after I’d written a large chunk of it, which truly brought it to life.

I made that deadline (with a small two week extension). My editor loved the book. And here we are, 14 months after my temporary meltdown, and GOOD GIRLS LIE is about to be in stores. It feels like a huge triumph, because this book refilled my well so completely that I found a new joie de vivre for my writing. It’s amazing to me how these things work themselves out.

I think it’s very important for writers—artists in general—to take a step back when they’re feeling burned out or discouraged. You may think you need months off, but a few days at the beach could be the ticket. Or writing a book that you’ve had simmering in your subconscious, one that you want to write, that you know will be a blast to experience. Your passion project will refill your well, and isn’t that what we all want?

Have you ever wanted to take a break from writing, or been forced to by life circumstances? How did you find your way back?

 

J.T. Ellison is the New York Timesand USA Today bestselling author of more than 20 critically acclaimed novels, including TEAR ME APART, LIE TO ME, and ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, and coauthored the “A Brit in the FBI”series with #1 New York Timesbestselling author Catherine Coulter. J.T. is also the EMMY®Award-winning co-host of the television series A Word on Words. Her forthcoming novel, GOOD GIRLS LIE, was a LibraryReads Pick for December 2019 and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. For more, please visit www.jtellison.com, or visit her online @thrillerchick. An excerpt of GOOD GIRLS LIE is available now.

 

 

 

 

 

5+

First Page Critique: Neander: A Time Travel Adventure

GoDaddy stock photo

Greetings, fellow readers! It’s time for a peek at some work from one of our brave authors. Please read my comments, then add your own.

Neander: A Time Travel Adventure

I didn’t like caves.

Fears of getting stuck had often swamped my dreams. To find myself now working in one—and fighting off the panic sweats—was certainly ironic. But that’s where the best archeological evidence tended to be. I’d learned to live with it.

After rechecking the photo equipment and my to-do list again, I headed back to the entrance. Time to breathe. And call Carolyn.

I rested against the rim of Meredith’s Cave, pulled out my phone, and took in the sight of the whole Mediterranean spread out in front of me. The late morning sun danced and sparkled on the surface of the sea that surrounded Gibraltar. Gulls squawked and wheeled overhead hoping for a handout.

I spotted the whale-watching boat in the distance and pressed Carolyn’s face icon on the phone. She picked up on the second ring.

“Hey, future Dad,” she said.

“Is it great out there?” I asked, hoping—wishing—she wasn’t too upset about my sending her off on another excursion by herself. This was supposed to be a fun, together-trip to southern Spain. She was nearing the seven-month mark of her pregnancy, and this was her last opportunity to travel for a while.

“It’s amazing. We’ve already seen two pilot whales and a pod of dolphins. And Africa’s right there. I can almost touch it!”

Good. She sounded happy.

“How’s it going in the cave?” she asked.

“Fine,” I lied. “They’ve worked down another centimeter.”

The reality was, the tension was thick. And that was apart from the claustrophobia.

My assignment was to document the excavation’s progress for Science Alive, but my pushing to get it right with the lighting and the camera angles was annoying everyone. I knew that. But what were a few more minutes of attention to detail with a Neanderthal fossil that had been in the ground for tens of thousands of years?

I reached into my pants pocket and fingered the small, velvet ring box. I would propose to my beautifully pregnant Carolyn at dinner tonight. A thought that made me both nervous and excited.

I wanted this family so much.

“You’re not being too anal with them, are you?” she asked.

“Who me?” She was one of the few who understood my need for order, for perfection.

“Oh, there’s another whale! Gotta go.” The phone beeped and the call was gone.

Till tonight, I mouthed.

_____________________

Here we go:

I didn’t like caves.

Does this excerpt make you feel uncomfortable right off the bat? The opening line sets the tone: Our narrator is facing both mental and physical danger.

Good job, Brave Author. First lines are important.

A  possible red flag I can see is the use of past tense, which is important because we already know this will be a “time travel” story. It’s apparent that the narrator survives—at least in some place and time—to tell their story about the cave. You’ve missed an opportunity to create immediate suspense in the mind of the reader.

Fears of getting stuck had often swamped my dreams. To find myself now working in one—and fighting off the panic sweats—was certainly ironic. But that’s where the best archeological evidence tended to be. I’d learned to live with it.

This is a very calm, cool, expository explanation of the narrator’s intense reaction to a situation that certainly feels dangerous and untenable. So let’s have some true immediacy. Instead, let us feel his (I assume) hand shaking as he rechecks the photographic equipment, and his short, panicked breath, as he quickly heads outside to collapse against the entrance. Then you can note the irony of the situation, and have him be grateful for the calm of the sea.

“How’s it going in the cave?” she asked.

“Fine,” I lied. “They’ve worked down another centimeter.”

The reality was, the tension was thick. And that was apart from the claustrophobia.

I spotted the whale-watching boat in the distance and pressed Carolyn’s face icon on the phone. She picked up on the second ring.

“Hey, future Dad,” she said.

Should Carolyn’s whale watching boat be conveniently in the near distance? It feels coincidental. Does Carolyn have a satellite phone? Maybe I don’t know enough about these things, but such an easy cell connection seems unlikely. And “Hey, future Dad.” is confusing, as we 1) don’t yet know she’s pregnant, and 2) the time travel idea intrudes but isn’t clear.

“Is it great out there?” I asked, hoping—wishing—she wasn’t too upset about my sending her off on another excursion by herself. This was supposed to be a fun, together-trip to southern Spain. She was nearing the seven-month mark of her pregnancy, and this was her last opportunity to travel for a while.

“It’s amazing. We’ve already seen two pilot whales and a pod of dolphins. And Africa’s right there. I can almost touch it!” 

Good. She sounded happy.

This section is a well-timed mix of exposition and current action. We get a good view of Carolyn’s compassionate personality, and her state of pregnancy. The narrator sounds slightly less stiff.

“How’s it going in the cave?” she asked.

“Fine,” I lied. “They’ve worked down another centimeter.

The reality was, the tension was thick. And that was apart from the claustrophobia. 

This works. It would be a good place to add a detail about who else is down there contributing to the claustrophobic atmosphere. And be more specific about the narrator’s physical reaction to the claustrophobia. Let him own it, and continue on about how his need for order conflicts with the physical situation.

My assignment was to document the excavation’s progress for Science Alive, but my pushing to get it right with the lighting and the camera angles was annoying everyone. I knew that. But what were a few more minutes of attention to detail with a Neanderthal fossil that had been in the ground for tens of thousands of years?

See above. Let the emphasis here be on the assignment and the surprising discovery.

I reached into my pants pocket and fingered the small, velvet ring box. I would propose to my beautifully pregnant Carolyn at dinner tonight. A thought that made me both nervous and excited. 

I wanted this family so much.

“You’re not being too anal with them, are you?” she asked.

“Who me?” She was one of the few who understood my need for order, for perfection.

“Oh, there’s another whale! Gotta go.” The phone beeped and the call was gone.

Till tonight, I mouthed.

The proposal makes a really nice contrast to the tension and claustrophobia. Make sure to highlight the change in the narrator’s mood and feelings when he thinks about the proposal.

The “Till tonight,” I mouthed, is extremely awkward. Just have him say it to the empty phone line. The mouthing mention comes off as unnecessarily ominous.

Think about some alternate titles. Perhaps some TKZers will have ideas. This one has a pulp feel that the story doesn’t reflect.

Overall the action of this selection is fine. Always strive to make the story more visceral and immediate. You’ll connect better with your readers.

TKZers! Please share your thoughts with us. And Happy Almost Thanksgiving!

 

 

1+

Are You a Neurotic Writer? Sometimes You Need to Leave That Stuff At Home.

Fangirling over Elizabeth George.

The Tuesday after I returned from Bouchercon 2019, my therapist congratulated me on experiencing my first non-neurotic conference. No, I don’t mean the conference itself was non-neurotic, because I can think of few things with higher potential for neuroses than 1700 writers, industry professionals, and fans, all gathered in one hotel. I mean, of course, that I was way less neurotic than I usually am at these things. How did I manage it? I decided to have a really good time, and do exactly what I wanted to do the whole six days I was there.

Things didn’t start so great, as I told pretty much everyone I spent more than 10 minutes with. (Okay, maybe that was a little neurotic.) It was a good airline story though. It took me 9 hours, plus an hour’s travel on either side, to fly from Houston to Dallas because of rainstorms. Yes, I could have driven there and back and halfway back to DFW again in the time I spent waiting for a plane. Our first plane got grounded at Hobby Airport before it could head to IAH, and then the crew timed out. I counted 15 “your flight will now depart at…” emails in my box.The 737 we finally got at 5:30 only had 30 people on it, including the crew, because so many people had to rebook. Sweet. Too bad my room service burger that night was nearly raw instead of medium well. They fixed it with reasonable promptness, returning a medium well burger (no bun, as requested), with fries I didn’t order. I confess I ate a few.

One reason conferences can be super stressful for me is my pantser, not plotter, nature. Though I’m pretty shy, this time I made a couple of lunch plans and a dinner plan with friends before I arrived. Those have always been risky asks for me. What if they don’t want to? What if they’re waiting for someone more interesting, more famous to come along and make a date? It turned out that one of the lunches and the dinner fell through, but I didn’t panic. I asked other people. How revolutionary was that?! A couple of them were busy, but several weren’t.

I also gave into the (albeit small) risk-averse side of my nature. Talk about food deserts. There were few restaurants within easy walking distance. To make matters more challenging, the temperature was frequently 60 degrees or lower. In the midwest, where I live, 60 degrees is positively seasonal for late October. But if you’re hanging out with some folks from southern Texas and Atlanta, you’ll soon find that you’ll be taking a lot of cars. because they have little desire to walk in the cold. And that was okay. I just popped up my app and away we went.

Back to the food…The always-delightful Judy Bobalik found us a French restaurant called Bouillon for lunch on Thursday. I liked it so much, that I brought people back for Friday lunch and dinner. Yep. Same restaurant three times, over two days. Did I mention it was delicious? Sadly, I did not receive a frequent diner discount. I also discovered a marvelous restaurant called Saint Ann’s when I perused reviews on the Open Table app.

A thing l did only once: Hang out at the bar in the evening. Conference bars are frequently hard-surfaced, crazy noisy, and crowded. I hate that cocktail party atmosphere where the person you’re talking to is often scanning the room for their next conversation. Though I’d be a horrible prig if I got upset about those situations. They’re perfectly normal and very human.  Now, I do enjoy a bit of gossip, and drunk people are great about leaking things. (I’m shameless, I know!) But I don’t drink much myself. I happily overshare when sober. It’s much more fun to me to visit with people one-on-one, or with groups in the lobby or the coffee bar. Do I sound like a terrible frump? Oh, well. I’ve done my time in conference bars, and once you’ve heard one drunk writer’s story about his 4 hour Viagra priapism (God rest his soul), you’ve heard them all.

More fangirling, this time over Therese Plummer, the FABULOUS audio narrator for The Stranger Inside. She also does Charlaine Harris’s Aurora Teagarden books.

A thing I did a lot of: Go to panels and interviews. I’ve attended conferences where I didn’t attend a single panel except the one I was on. This was mostly in the days when I would hide out in my room, freaking out because I was afraid I’d made some horrible faux pas. Or I was simply terrified to be around so many writers. What if they figured out I was a fraud and didn’t belong there? I decided just to get over that–or at least stress about it back at home. Conferences are short. There’s no time for too many neuroses.

I got to see/hear Charlaine Harris, Elizabeth George, and Meg Gardiner on panels or interviews twice each. Elizabeth George practically gave a masterclass in how she writes during her interview. (Brava, Hallie Ephron, for great questions.) I took in a panel on setting, and also one on cozies. I went with my talented friend, Rebecca Drake, to Half Price Books for an evening panel, and we all went out to a 24 hour BBQ place, where they had killer brisket. I’m always surprised when writers disdain going to panels. For probably the first time, I took out the pocket schedule the first day, and marked the panels I didn’t want to miss. And I was careful to include the one I was on and the one I moderated, because I can get distracted.

A thing I didn’t do: Author Speed Dating. I’ve done them the last 3 Bouchercons I attended, but not this one. One, they started at 7 in the morning! 8 is madness, 7 is just cruel to everyone. Also, there was some confusion about whether they were invitation-only because of a publisher’s involvement. If true, that would be a real shame. Bouchercon is a fan conference, and it’s important to seek out new potential fans.

A thing I regret doing: Giving a big, warm hug without warning to a woman I’d only corresponded with a few times. Clearly, I made her afraid. What can I say? I’m a hugger.

A last pitch: Go to conferences if you can. Be friendly, open to new experiences, and leave (most of) your neuroses at home. You’ll have a better time for it!

Do you go to conferences? What’s your favorite thing about them? Least favorite?

 

 

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My Muse Is Gone

 

I fear this will be a short, sorrowful Wednesday post.

On Tuesday morning, my husband had to take our much-beloved cat, Miss Nina Garcia Benedict, to be euthanized. Her kidney disease had swiftly advanced from stage 2 to acute in two very short months. She was only 10 years old.

Nina owned us the way that a proper cat owns her people: with complete and utter domination. She was stunning to look at from her kitten days onward, and bore the fact with the humility of a Hollywood starlet.

Whenever I sat down to write, Nina would materialize five to ten minutes later. If she wasn’t standing solidly on my keyboard or peering over the back of the screen, causing it to tilt threateningly towards me, she was on my lap, needling my thighs until I squawked. (Who am I kidding? I could squawk for hours, and she still wouldn’t stop.) She helped me write six novels, many stories, and countless blogs. Perhaps I’d have written even more without her valuable assistance, but those would have been hollow words.

And when I cried–as writers sometimes do–Nina was right there to rub her furry head against me, concerned.

I’m out of town this week, and am already anticipating walking in our front door, and feeling her absence. I can’t even think about writing more stories without her.

See? I told you this would be a brief post. There’s not more that I can bear to say about her right now.

Do you have–or have you had–an animal in your life that helps you with your writing? I want to hear your stories.

Nina

 

 

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Afflicted

When I think about the personal challenges that thriller/mystery series protagonists are saddled with–particularly cops, psychologists, private detectives, and medical examiners–they tend to be emotional and psychological. Or the protagonists are alcoholics or drug addicts. (Sherlock Holmes? Wallander? House? I know, but House solves medical mysteries.) Or they’re irascible jerks who get away with being jerks because they always solve the crime. (Morse, and often Lynley.) Poirot was a fastidious little man, yet not nearly as annoying on the page as on the screen (only in comparison–I’m a fan of both).  Lord, save us from the oft-divorced investigator who’s been damaged by the death of a sibling or (an abusive) parent or has abandonment issues, drinks too much, and can only be saved by a good woman–only he won’t be saved because he always screws up his best opportunities. Then again, never mind. These guys have become tropes because they make good reading.

I confess I’ve read a lot more male investigator stories than female, written by men and women, both. Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie, and Val McDermid’s Tony Hill are among my favorites. But when it comes to damage, it’s hard to compete with the devastating pasts of female protagonists Lisbeth Salander (Stief Larsson) and Kick Lanigan (Chelsea Cain).

As usual, I digress.

Psychological and emotional challenges are always interesting. But in the past week I listened obsessively to four novels in Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin series. Yes, I started with book number five, of eight. (I often start mid-series and eventually return to the beginning.) Joe O’Loughlin is a psychologist drawn into the profiling game. In addition to having the infidelity, alcohol, and relationship issues common to so many other (fictional) investigators, Joe has early-onset Parkinson’s disease. I find that a fascinating choice on Robotham’s part.

Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system that has a survival rate of between 7 and 15 years. It affects men more often than women, and is marked by uncontrollable movements, late-stage dementia, and a host of other troubling symptoms. It’s not a disease that the sufferer can hide for very long.

O’Loughlin’s battle with the disease begins in the very first book of the series, and never ends or gives him a break. He’s suffering, and it negatively affects his marriage, work, and other relationships. More than once, it nearly costs him his life. It’s become a super villain he refers to as Mr. Parkinson, and it’s a villain he can’t fight beyond taking medication and making some lifestyle changes. There is no cure.

Today, a woman who served me lunch at a restaurant had the use of only her right arm, as her left had been amputated at the elbow. She did her job with alacrity and care. However it happened, she just deals. It must be incredibly difficult, but she makes it look easy. She is not fiction.

O’Loughlin is a fictional character about whom Robotham made a significant and possibly unique choice. As a psychologist, O’Loughlin is a character who’s used to guiding other people’s lives, yet he can’t even control his own body. Frustration layered over sadness over tragedy. The deck is, as they say, stacked against him. But isn’t that what excellent thrillers are all about? Ordinary people facing extraordinary odds. Robotham pulls it off.

I’m stymied as to other thrillers in which the protagonist has a significant physical challenge. Of course, there was Jimmy Stewart with his broken leg in Hitchcock’s adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s REAR WINDOW. The break definitely intensified the story.

Can you name other stories/characters in which the writer severely challenged their main character?

Have you created similar situations in your own work?

 

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Things to Rescue From the Water

Possibly the homeliest post pic ever. The busted gray thing was an expansion tank that exploded when our house water pressure regulator suddenly failed.

 

Forgive my brevity, dear TKZers. The above photo may give you a hint as to what my week has been like. Last Wednesday night, I was practically walking on rarified air after I’d (successfully) interviewed writer Jodi Picoult in front of 900 readers at St. Louis County Headquarters. (Successful being defined as no one laughing me offstage, and I didn’t faint. Others’ definitions may differ!) I was just tucking up in bed when I noticed I had two missed calls from our alarm company. I’d missed them because my phone had gone into sleep mode. Husband was home, alone, with the animals. Talk about alarming.

After the responding police (!) left him (he’s a deep sleeper and didn’t hear the blaring horn sounds coming from the alarm unit), he texted me as he  looked around the inside of the house. Nothing appeared to be amiss–except for an inch of water in the back half of the house. Yes, four bedrooms, a mudroom, and a long hallway were all wet.

I felt helpless being two hours away, unable to do anything besides offer advice. Hero Husband managed to shut off the water to the house, and swept and vacced for several hours. If not for those missed calls and the pounding of the police on the door, the entire house would’ve been a loss. As it was, our biggest loss was flooring.

What did I ask him to rescue? A big box containing…books. Of course. Not that surely soggy box full of professional photos of a previous marriage (mine), and various high school and college certificates and yearbooks. Not the exercise equipment bits and bobs. Not whatever mysterious debris lay sodden on the floor of my son’s room. Only the books felt important.

Once home late Thursday morning, I rescued other damp things. But I made sure my books were safe and dry, first. (Really should’ve gotten rid of those wedding photos 28 years ago anyway, right?)

They weren’t particularly precious books, or rare. Ebay probably has other copies. But they weren’t the same copies. Then, as a good friend and I emptied those four bedrooms of belongings and more books, it occurred to me that life would’ve been a lot easier if all of my books were digital instead of paper. It was a brief thought, which I then banished to the  Outer Dark. I must have been very tired or something to have even had that thought at all.

So, gentle readers, what objects would you save first if your house flooded itself?

 

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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?

 

 

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