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.

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? 

6+

First Page Critique: They’re Gone

 

Greetings, writers.

Today, join us for a peek into the life of the cutest family ever! Take it away, Brave Author:

CHAPTER 1

We all have secrets. Josh prefers to keep his hidden, especially from his wife. Josh Benson is a 35 year old family man, devoted father, and loving husband. He has no idea his life will shatter in the next 24 hours.

Josh is scrolling through cell phone photos. He stops at one in particular. It’s from his first date with Lauren. He looks fit and his blue eyes are staring into Lauren’s without a hint of deception. Things change. This photo was taken nine years ago.

He hears little footsteps scurrying across the hardwood floor. Sean and Cooper come running into the living room and jump on the couch like it’s a trampoline.

“Mommy, Daddy, can we watch tv?” It’s a Saturday morning so this excitement is expected.

Lauren says, “Yes, but you need to quit breaking the couch. I’ve told you a hundred times.”

“Fine Mommy, we’ll stop.” The things kids say just to watch television.

Josh clicks a button on the remote control and asks the boys what show they want to watch.

They both respond at the exact same time as if they’re the Backstreet Boys. “Sesame Street!”

Josh looks at his two greatest accomplishments and just smiles. He loves them more than life itself.

After the kids find out the number of the day, they consume some snacks like Joey Chestnut in a hot dog eating competition.

Josh says, “Okay boys, guess what today is?”

“Family day!” Everyone cheers. Josh and Lauren are taking the boys to the Philadelphia Zoo for the first time.

“Who’s ready for the zoo? Who wants to see a lion?”

Cooper starts roaring as loudly as he can. He’s 3 years old so this is appropriate behavior.

The boys are adorable, as in they’re so perfectly good looking, you would think Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston had kids in their prime and out came Sean and Cooper.

Sean, their 5 year old, is full of life and never stops. He’s like the Energizer bunny. He says, “I’ll be right back, Daddy!”

He plays a quick game of frogger to avoid the never-ending amount of toys scattered across the living room floor. Once he finds the right bin, he puts on his favorite costume. He dresses up in a black mask, puffed out chest, gold utility belt, and a long black cape. He hustles to the kitchen table and taps Josh’s shoulder.

 

__________________

Before rushing into the meat of this submission, let’s address the piece’s first word: We. “We” is a huge word, and its implications are several.

  1. “We” implies a rare, first-person, plural narrator.
  2. Who is included in this we? Does it include all humans? Is it a Greek-style chorus of Josh’s friends and family? Perhaps an alien tribunal?
  3. Hearing this particular “we,” I’m immediately put in mind of Rod Serling’s opening and closing monologues on the original Twilight Zone television series. Serling’s monologues had an intimate, confidential, we’re all in this together, feel. He seemed to be addressing each listener across a table set with crystal ashtrays and chilled cocktails.
  4. A story with a first-person, plural narrator is definitely akin to second-person narration, which uses “you” handily. As in, “You may be reading this thinking, ‘Oh! The author is going to kill off that darling little puppy!’ But you would be wrong. We all know I’m way smarter than that.”

“We,” as intimate as it sounds, here leads us into a scene over which we hover as though we’re watching images sent back to us via drone. An opening scene sets the tone of the entire novel–and while there are plenty of clues that we’re dealing with a happy family and proud father, there is no other tension except Josh’s slight frustration with Elmo repeating himself.( My sympathies, I’ve been an Elmo prisoner.)

All this is to say, please give us some small, physical signs of John’s frustrations. Is he always the perfect, fun dad? Or is he occasionally grouchy and overly-protective.

Josh pulling out an old photo of him and his bride is a bit cliché.

Given the title, and the tale’s dire, first paragraph prediction, I’m going to assume that it’s the two adorable children who are the “They” who are soon gone? With those assumptions, the story will clearly be a thriller. Except…there’s a whole lot of cuteness to navigate that serves to make me wonder if that’s really going to be true.

Thinking about dialogue:

““Mommy, Daddy, can we watch tv?” It’s a Saturday morning so this excitement is expected.” –Who is talking here? Both of them? It would be weird and truly scary to have them say this simultaneously.

““Fine Mommy, we’ll stop.” The things kids say just to watch television.” –“Fine, Mommy, we’ll stop.” sounds a bit Stepford-child-ish. And, again, is it both children saying this?

“The things kids say just to watch television.” Is this Josh’s thought? Again, it feels like an intrusive narrator’s words, rather than those of a character.

All that said, I love the children’s presence, and the intense family feeling here.

Please keep in mind that an opening scene needn’t be saccharine to imply general happiness. If this is, indeed, a thriller, put in more tension, less Elmo.

Set to, dear readers! I’ve left plenty of open territory for other criticismsl

 

2+

First Page Critique: Coyotes

Gentle Readers, We’re in dusty New Mexico today, at a delightfully grisly scene. Let’s go!

(Coyotes)

Three days is a long time to be dead, especially out under the intense New Mexico sun. The bodies were stacked like cord wood; if they were wood, I’d wager there was a good half a cord there. New Englanders know these things.

The smell was overwhelming; the chorus of a few thousand flies filled my ears and the half-cord sized pile shimmered with writhing maggots. I gagged but forced myself to look, to see the coyotes’ empty yellow eyes.

There were at least fifteen of them, maybe more, it was hard to be sure. Blocks of wood with a date scrawled in black marker—October 20th, three days ago—had been placed into the animals’ mouths, to what end I couldn’t imagine. Temporary markers for temporary remains, I guessed. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel like those small sections of two-by-four pressure treated wood had been placed there with any measure of respect.

The coyotes’ once sumptuous red-gray coats were matted, their fur dulled by the ever-present dust that blows across the desert, by the lack of lifeblood for nourishment. Their bodies had already begun to shrink. To flatten, sinking back into the plains where they had made their homes, where they had hunted their prey. Where they’d eaten berries and birthed their young and filled the night with their songs. No one would come to dispose of their bodies; the BLM land would simply reclaim them.

I looked away then. I didn’t understand it but, when I’d risen this morning, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’d needed to see for myself. “Fucking hell,” I whispered and wished I had a cigarette, but they were a quarter of a mile away, in my unit—dubbed the Eunuch by my friend Ben, since my unmarked Charger “has no balls and protects divine royalty.”

Ben has a little bit of a crush on me.

“They think of it as a sport,” he’d sputtered the night before, his youthful cheeks red with righteous indignation, his prominent nose red from the beers. Ben’s half Jewish and has the shnoz to prove it. He’s also very tall and thin and his tagline, when meeting new people is, “Ben Short. All my life.”

______

Dang, there’s so much to love about this passage. I’m wild for it. We’re BANG, right into the scene of the crime, with a smart narrator showing us around. The slaughtered animals tell us this isn’t going to be a gentle story, and the grisly detail is carefully observed. Such an opening won’t be for the faint of heart, but this will find plenty of fans. And there’s humor here to leaven it. I don’t have much more than praise to offer, so I’m going to give it a line edit.

______

“Three days is a long time to be dead, especially out under the intense New Mexico sun. The bodies were stacked like cord wood; if they were wood, I’d wager there was a good half a cord there. New Englanders know these things.”

Terrific opening line. Don’t change a thing. Except maybe get rid of “out.”

Not identifying the bodies as belonging to coyotes is misleading. I assumed they were human, and felt a little confused and dopey when I learned they weren’t. Whole different story. 

__Three days is a long time to be dead, especially out under the intense New Mexico sun. The coyotes’ stiffened bodies were stacked as high as a half cord of firewood so that they appeared to be one hideous creature with way too many heads. Against my better judgement, I moved a few steps closer.__

(Okay. The “so that they appeared to be one hideous creature with way too many heads” may sound like too much, but you need something to carry forth some rhythm into the middle of the paragraph.)

Lose “New Englanders know these things.” Keep us in New Mexico for now. You’re in it for the long haul, and the confident voice needs no justification pertaining to knowledge of cords of wood.

“The smell was overwhelming; the chorus of a few thousand flies filled my ears and the half-cord sized pile shimmered with writhing maggots. I gagged but forced myself to look, to see the coyotes’ empty yellow eyes.”

I want to know more than that the smell was “overwhelming.” What does that mean? That it’s so strong that the narrator staggers and might faint? That it smells like rotting hamburger wrapped in the socks of a million sweaty feet? Be specific. Give us a sentence.

Same deal with the flies and their sound.

 __A thousand hovering flies, their electric hum vibrating in my ears, swept and dove at the pile, which already shimmered with patches of wriggling maggots. Gagging, I forced myself to look into the coyotes’ empty yellow eyes.__

“There were at least fifteen of them, maybe more, it was hard to be sure. Blocks of wood with a date scrawled in black marker—October 20th, three days ago—had been placed into the animals’ mouths, to what end I couldn’t imagine. Temporary markers for temporary remains, I guessed. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel like those small sections of two-by-four pressure treated wood had been placed there with any measure of respect.”

You’ve got an amazing visual and powerful commentary by the narrator here. Remember to keep the voice active and confident.

__I counted fifteen heads, but there may have been more that I couldn’t see. A block of wood scrawled with a date of 10/20–three days earlier–jutted from each animal’s mouth. Temporary markers for temporary remains, I guessed. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel like those small sections of two-by-four pressure treated wood had been placed there with any measure of respect.__

“The coyotes’ once sumptuous red-gray coats were matted, their fur dulled by the ever-present dust that blows across the desert, by the lack of lifeblood for nourishment. Their bodies had already begun to shrink. To flatten, sinking back into the plains where they had made their homes, where they had hunted their prey. Where they’d eaten berries and birthed their young and filled the night with their songs. No one would come to dispose of their bodies; the BLM land would simply reclaim them.”

“Matted.” Were they bloody? Were the coyotes shocked to death, or shot? Attacked by vampires/vampire bats?! The “lack of lifeblood” implies they’ve lost blood.

Call me an idiot, but I wondered at the (BLM) Black Lives Matter land reference. Further investigation suggests that it refers to Bureau of Land Management land. Adding the BLM reference dulls the poignancy of the last line. Slip it in a tad later.

__The coyotes’ once sumptuous red-gray coats were matted, their fur dulled by the ever-present dust that blows across the desert, by the lack of lifeblood for nourishment. Their bodies had already begun to shrink and flatten, sinking back into the plains where they had made their homes, where they had hunted their prey. Where they’d eaten berries and birthed their young, and filled the night with their songs. No one would come to dispose of their bodies. The land would simply reclaim them.__

“I looked away then. I didn’t understand it but, when I’d risen this morning, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’d needed to see for myself. “Fucking hell,” I whispered and wished I had a cigarette, but they were a quarter of a mile away, in my unit—dubbed the Eunuch by my friend Ben, since my unmarked Charger ‘has no balls and protects divine royalty.'”

“I didn’t understand it but, when I’d risen this morning, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’d needed to see for myself.”

I don’t get this at all. Are we not on the immediate scene? Had the narrator been told about the coyotes sometime earlier, and that’s why they’re now at the scene? Very confusing. If that’s the case, make that super clear and don’t drop it randomly in here–tell us at the end of the scene when they’re driving away or something. “The captain was going to be pissed as hell that I’d gone by the scene, but I’d been up all night thinking about it after Ben told me. I had to see it for myself.”

__I looked away then. “Fucking hell,” I whispered, and wished I had a cigarette. But they were a quarter of a mile away, in my unit—dubbed the Eunuch by my friend Ben, since my unmarked Charger “has no balls and protects divine royalty.”__

“Ben has a little bit of a crush on me.”

I must ask. Does our narrator identify as a man, woman, as transgender, or something else? Please make this clear, and sooner. It will matter to many readers because they’ll want to get the picture in their head.

“Ben is a bit of a comedian. He also has a crush on me.”

“They think of it as a sport,” he’d sputtered the night before, his youthful cheeks red with righteous indignation, his prominent nose red from the beers. Ben’s half Jewish and has the shnoz to prove it. He’s also very tall and thin and his tagline, when meeting new people is, “Ben Short. All my life.”

Okay. Now I see that Ben is the one who told her about the coyotes the night before. Still, the implied timeline is confusing. There’s no need to go back and forth–just tell us straight out what the narrator is doing there and at whose behest. Earlier.

Who is “they?” Maybe he can refer to them as son-of-a-bitches or bastards, etc. If he doesn’t curse, he could say “Jerks.”

The line about Ben joking about his name is cute. But given the intense scene, I think it’s one joke too many on top of the grisly coyote situation.

“Ben’s half Jewish and has the shnoz to prove it.” Really? This sounds like a line from a 1940s noir. It’s a stereotype that some people might find offensive. Use at your peril.

__“Bastards think of it as a sport,” he’d sputtered the night before, all six feet of him towering unsteadily over me. His youthful cheeks were red with righteous indignation, his prominent nose red from the beers.__

____

Again, I think this is a terrific beginning, and can be near-perfect with a small amount of thoughtfulness and editing.

What do you all think? Tell us your advice for our Brave Author!

 

5+

In Which We Talk Swag

Panorama pic of Left Coast Crime 2019 Swag Table

In recent years, the bags of free goodies celebrities receive for going to awards shows or film festivals has become the stuff of–well, if not of legend, then over-hyped fodder for gossip sites and their related television shows. These “swag bags” often contain things like  vacations, certificates for plastic surgery (booty lift, anyone?), jewelry, designer duds, catering, gaming systems, computers, booze, beauty products, therapy consultation, car leasing, protein bars, and much, much more.

If you’ve been to a book festival or conference, you know that attendees sadly must settle for less.

Back in the 00’s, a fan might pick up the occasional button, keychain, or bookmark. (Much to author Bill Cameron’s puzzlement, I still have a button with his LOST DOG (2008?) cover, and put it on my Christmas tree every year.) Now, it seems that the majority of authors attending conferences are giving at least a little something away with their name, website, and book cover to potential fans. When the number of authors at a conference can run well into the hundreds, you’re talking about a lot of stuff.

Over the years I’ve given away bookmarks, laminated magnets, flower seed packets, plain magnets, chip clips, lots of candy (not branded), postcards, and did I mention bookmarks? Those were all paid for directly out of my pocket. For THE STRANGER INSIDE, Mulholland Books created some kick ass keychains to give away at a Little Brown event at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg. I snapped up the five or six left on abandoned tables after the event. (Never leave your swag behind!) I never could’ve afforded to sponsor such a high-value bit of swag myself, so I was very, very grateful.

As I’ve just returned from Left Coast Crime 2019, Whale of a Crime, in Vancouver, BC, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the immense amount of swag I saw there. No, I didn’t ask any of these authors if I could post photos, as the items are–I assume–meant to advertise their books. But I did take the photos, and they itched to be shared. If you’re promoting your own work already, or someday will be, I hope they’ll be useful to you. Pics are in no particular order.

KEYCHAIN: This was one of my favorite bits of swag. Janice Peacock/To Bead or Not to Bead. The cover is charming and colorful, and a keychain is one of those items that’s going to hang around a long time. Unfortunately, no website address.  $$$

CARD LIST: I wasn’t sure what to call this, so “card list” it is. I had to read the list and the headline a couple of times before I understood that it was just for fun. Used online, this would make a cute Facebook or Pinterest image. As clever as it is, I would’ve liked to have seen at least one of the book covers as well. I went to Becky Clark’s “Books” page to see that Mystery Writer’s Mysteries is a collection of books featuring mystery authors. When I first saw the card I thought it was maybe a group of authors who wrote them. Bonus points for eye-catching colors, website addy, and stand-out size. $

RECIPE CARD: How lovely is this?! Coincidentally I have been wanting to make scones. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have any identifying information–as though it’s at the wrong conference. I assume there’s book and author information, and perhaps a book cover on the reverse side. As you can see in the photo, the stack is similarly placed. NOTE: The swag table is a crowded place–you can’t expect a browser to turn every thing over to see what’s on the back. Be sure you have book and author information on BOTH SIDES.

Four-color printed, large card: $$

 

WINE STOPPER: Unique at the conference. Good author name presence, especially with the added bookmark. Alec Peche/Damian Green Series. Visited her website to see if the books were wine related. They don’t appear to be, but lots of people drink wine like they use keychains, bookmarks, etc. $$$

DRINKS COASTER: On theme, useful, and good information. Could use a website address. These went quickly. Leslie Karst/Sally Solari Mysteries $$$

SURGICAL MASK: Another unique item–meaning no one else brought them. I found this both charming and a little alarming. At first I thought maybe the books were Michael Crichton-type horror books, but they’re hospital mysteries. I breathed a sigh of relief! Card attached to the mask with good information. Again, these went fast. (There was no shortage of folks wearing surgical masks on the streets of Vancouver!) Very on-theme. Liz Osborne/Robyn Kelly Mysteries $$$

PRINTED SHORT STORY: Content! Smart offering. Eye-catching and large. (Large might be a drawback, as attendees take home many books and might not have much room for more.) Good to mention it’s a story in a series universe. No website address? D.R. Ransdell/MARIACHI MEDDLER $$

PAPERBACK BOOK: Not sure if this paperback was meant to be a giveaway, or if it’s related to the black pens in front of it. I didn’t see any other copies. Very cool cover. Henebury/SLEEP $$$$

Publishers often give away paperback ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) at conferences. It’s a pricey option, but there’s nothing better than getting an actual book, IMO.

PEN/CARDS: I liked this combo a lot. The pens were adorable, and had the book series name and website (as I recall). The cards offered every other bit of info you could want. Plus an author pic. If there hadn’t been colorful pens, I think I’d have wanted to see a book cover. Also, a rabbi writing about a rabbi is a fascinating combo. Rabbi Ilene Schneider/RABBI AVIVA COHEN Mysteries $$$$

When you have multiple items, there’s a chance they’ll get separated. (Note Alec Peche’s useful box above) And you’ll notice that the pens went way faster than the cards. So the pens need maximum info.

TWOFER

CONFERENCE CARD (large): It’s not just authors who promote. There were quite a few offerings from workshops and retreats. IDK if there’s info on the back, but there’s no website on the front. Again…Everything should be obvious and immediate. Colorful and eye-catching. $$

STICKY NOTES: Colorful, useful, informative. These sticky notes are a great giveaway. The author’s name and website is right there, along with the name of the series. Sticky notes can hang around a desk a long time. Pricey. $$$$

STANDING POSTER: See what I mean about things getting covered up? I had to rearrange things to get the full poster shot. It’s smart that she made it so large that it could tower over the stuff people put in front of it. Real estate is precious. I don’t know if there were copies of a short story to go along with the poster, but wouldn’t you think so? The cat kills me! Bonus points for excellent design. Website addy? Denise Dietz/Annie and The Grateful Dead.  $$ for just the poster, $$$ if story copies were included.

TWOFER, though it doesn’t look like it

MAGNETS: Magnets used to be super expensive. They involved sealing an image and putting a magnetic back on it. Now they can print on long strips of magnet.

This is my moment of shame: Great cover for THE STRANGER INSIDE, yes? Magnets hang around a long time on refrigerators or on metal filing cabinets, etc. Note the bits of white on the edges of my magnet. When the magnets were cut from sheets, they didn’t cut cleanly, and some of the black edge was exposed as white. Ugh. Also, this last magnet shows fingerprints. No website addy. $$

Note: You can’t tell the difference between the magnet and the four-color cards surrounding it. That’s a problem. Unless someone picks it up, they’ll never know what it is. Magnets are great to hand out directly, say at book festivals and signings. But they’re useless flat on a table. I did do bookmarks as well, though. They have all the info.

CARDS: The number of beautifully produced cards was astonishing. Michael W. Sherer’s were particularly high quality and had great variety. Useful if information is on the back. Book covers are striking. If they’re striking enough, people may be moved to pick them up to investigate. They also have a collectible quality about them, and make good bookmarks.

BOOK COVERS: Colorful, all the information about the author, and the book. Author Libby Klein had several versions of these. They seem to be bigger than postcard size. Maybe they are actual book covers? Interesting souvenir. $$$

FREE PROMO CARD: Deborah Coonts/AFTER ME. Striking size and design. Lots of good information, including cover, synopsis, blurb, and download code. No website addy? (I didn’t look at the back).  $$ or maybe $$$ including the download.

I did a free download of a short story on a bookmark for my sixth book. I didn’t have all that many downloads, but it is a clever gimmick and a great freebie. The idea that you have to type in the address and can’t just click on the picture is still funny to me.

OTHER STUFF

BOOKMARKS: Bookmarks are the go-to swag for the thrifty author. They’re useful, colorful, have the book’s cover, and room front and back for lots of critical information. I also include blurbs, the pitch line, and website address. $

MATCHES: This was a first for me. I believe they are simply the cover, and matches. Talk about on-theme! Very cool. $$$

BUMPER STICKER: I didn’t know SNOPES was at the conference…Interesting concept, though I’ve never seen a book bumper sticker. Ever. Not even on that weird car that’s so covered with bumper stickers that you can’t see the color of the car anymore. $$$

PENS: Pens are stupidly expensive. I love them, but am very wary of poor quality. They also have limited room for your info. Book or series title and website seem to be the most common/useful. $$$$

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something. Authors are very creative when it comes to promo.

Final thoughts. Look at that table! IMO the conference could have used a second swag table. This one was like a tiny, violent sea, with flotsam and jetsam constantly bobbing and bumping on its surface. It became a kind of game to see how my own magnets would appear and disappear, or pop up in different places when I dropped by. I was stunned when the big box of matches appeared, sitting on a dozen other offerings.

Keep in mind:

Swag costs money. Spend wisely.

Your stuff is going to get covered up by other stuff. Keep an eye on it.

Don’t be a jerk and cover up other writers’ stuff.

Don’t put out magnets unless you don’t mind spending the money to have people not pick them up because they don’t know what they are.

Don’t be hurt if you have swag left over. Take it home for the next event or to your library.

IDENTIFY YOURSELF ON BOTH SIDES.

Include your website.

Buy the highest quality swag you can afford. But don’t go into debt for it. Who knows what the return is?

If you stick a couple dozen in your badge pocket, you can give your bookmark/magnet/card to everyone you meet.

Have fun with it!

Okay, TKZers. Have at it. What’s your swag experience? Are you fer it, or agin it? What’s your favorite swag? Has swag ever led you to buy a book?

8+

First Page Critique: ALEXA

 

The Party Busload of Exposition (GoDaddy Stock photo)

 

Dearest Readers,

Step into the Kill Zone Critique Parlor, where today’s Brave Author has a tragic tale to tell. Pull up a tuffet, and buckle up. I have Thoughts.

 

ALEXA

Tom’s death changed everything.

I sat in my car, the engine idling, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian. I wasn’t cheered.

It was only twelve weeks past his funeral. When I wasn’t sobbing, I was frowning at the myriad details I’d had to deal with in the days following the end of life as we know it. That’s how I thought of it. I’d packed up the furnished rental, mailed out change-of-address forms and done my best to put on a brave face for TJ. I was exhausted from the long drive that brought us to Ohio.

We’d been planning the move before Tom…went away, but now I was making it alone. Well, with TJ. Tom inherited the yellow house from his grandmother when she passed away six months ago. He’d flown out to look it over and reported back that it needed some updating but had good bones. He said there were lots of rooms, which sounded like heaven in comparison to our tiny two-bedroom in the city. “It has a huge country kitchen,” he said with a grin, poking me in the side and causing me to jump and make a face at him. At the time I was chopping veggies in the postage-stamp that passed for our current kitchen. I leaned my head back against his shoulder and sighed, daydreaming of twirling around in our future house, giddy at all the space.

I’m so angry at the goddamn drunk driver who snuffed out my husband’s life on March 16, 2017. March 16, 2017…a day that will live in infamy. Oh, ha ha. Bitter much?
I guess I have a right to be. All that crap about forgiving. I will not forgive the one who stole his life…and my life and TJ’s.

Maybe with time. Everyone’s quick to say that holding on to the hate I feel for Mr. George Goddamn Daniels will only poison me and not bring Tom back. I feel the poison in me now, but I embrace the huge empty hole eaten away by the acid-generating hatred. I don’t want to feel good, because everything’s bad now. Maybe with time….

I glanced in the rearview mirror at TJ. His face was sad, like mine. He gazed at the yellow house, not moving to open the car door. Maybe the two of us could stare it into becoming our home.
“Ready, buddy?” I asked as I opened my door. My heart broke at his wan smile and “Sure, Mom.”

____________________________________________________

Let me say right off that I’m impressed with the voice of this story. The narrator’s voice is confident and mature. Believable. The sentences are tight and declarative–my favorite. Let’s talk story.

My understanding is that ALEXA is about a newly-widowed woman and her young son who are moving into the house her husband inherited from his grandmother before he was killed by a drunk driver named Mr. George Daniels. The new house is somewhere in Ohio and they’re coming from a bigger (?) city, where they’d lived in a two-bedroom, furnished rental apartment. She loved her husband Tom very much, and she and her son are very sad that he’s dead. She feels poisoned with hate, but doesn’t yet want to go of her consuming, awful feelings.

This opening telegraphs that this is a family or personal drama, and neither a thriller nor mystery. It could end up with a romantic story line, but it doesn’t feel like that will be a focus.

Title

This story is called ALEXA, and there’s no evidence that it has anything to do with Amazon’s AI, Alexa. I was confused right off the bat. I know young women named Alexa, and while I would never confuse any of them with the AI, it’s different when I run into the name as a title. Perhaps I’m being picky (“I’m not picky, I have standards.” –Mindy Kaling), but Amazon comes up first in my brain. Amazon has appropriated the name, and there’s no going back.

Is our narrator named Alexa? Was it the grandmother’s name? If so, somehow let us know asap so we’re not left hanging. This seems to me a sad and rather tender story. If I’m mistaken, and they walk into the beautiful country kitchen (What is considered a country kitchen these days? There are many, many online definitions, but my ancient understanding is that it is a large kitchen with maybe a seating area and perhaps a fireplace. I don’t know what image it suggests to others.) to discover that ALEXA has taken over the house and is programmed to terrorize them, then it’s a story that surely takes a shocking turn on Page 2.

Pacing

May I just say… WHOA THERE, NELLIE!

I was exhausted by the time I finished the first 400 words. I was even more exhausted the second and third and fourth times I read it. I worry because at this pace the novel will only be approximately 60 pages long.

It feels as though you’ve decided to get the backstory out of the way so you can move on and proceed with the action.

We start out very well: “Tom’s death changed everything.”

“I sat in my car, the engine idling, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian. I wasn’t cheered.”

It’s clean. It’s direct. It’s compelling. Though you might consider shifting to present tense with the second line to give the story immediacy and emotional punch.

“I sit in our idling Toyota, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian house. I’m not cheered.”

The third paragraph continues with our narrator relating the many, many things she’s been doing in the past twelve weeks besides staring: sobbing, frowning, dealing, packing, mailing, and putting on a brave face.

In the next paragraph we learn that the family was moving. Tom was also inheriting, looking over, flying, reporting, grinning, poking, and causing our narrator to jump. And she’s making a face, chopping veggies, leaning back, sighing, and daydreaming about twirling and being giddy.

In the fifth paragraph, we learn how Tom died.

In the sixth paragraph, we learn that she’s really, really pissed off at the guy who killed him, and won’t be forgiving.

The seventh identifies the drunk driver.

Then we finally get back to the boy in the car, and the yellow house.

Whew!

What we have here is a busload of exposition. Exposition–a chunk of narrative or backstory plunked in the middle of the action to give the action context (see what I did there?)–can be a useful tool in small doses. In large doses it distracts from the action of the story and slows it down. Note my second paragraph in the TITLE section above. I digress on what a country kitchen might be for such a long time that the reader probably had to go back and figure out what I said about a country kitchen before I opened the parentheses. Even I had to go back and look!

It’s tough to give the reader just enough information to get them interested, and keep them reading.

The thing to remember is that you’re writing scenes. Sentences build scenes. Scenes build chapters, chapters build books. A good way to start is to write one scene per chapter–even if it makes the chapter short. You’ll keep the reader focused, which is what you want to do. At the end of that scene, give the reader a reason to read on.

Here, you could continue this small scene with the boy bravely opening the car door. (I would discourage you from have her opening her door as she asks him if he’s ready. It’s a weighty moment that doesn’t need an activity.) The reader will naturally want to know what they do and see when they’re out of the car. Does she take his hand? Does he shrink back, used to the smallness of their previous home? Is there someone waiting on the porch?

“I’m so angry at the goddamn drunk driver who snuffed out my husband’s life on March 16, 2017. March 16, 2017…a day that will live in infamy. Oh, ha ha. Bitter much?
I guess I have a right to be. All that crap about forgiving. I will not forgive the one who stole his life…and my life and TJ’s.”

There are a lot of critical emotions here. We don’t need them all on the first page. She has a good, direct, confiding tone. But it’s too soon to jump into this. Sure, her feelings are complex. Right now, she’s just arrived at this house. Slow it down.

An aside– Mr. George Daniels is the drunk who caused the accident. It’s probably just me, but I couldn’t help but think of George Dickel and Jack Daniels as though the two whiskey brands had morphed into one drunk person.

“Maybe the two of us can stare it into becoming our home.” This is a beautiful line.

I don’t often suggest rewrites, but here’s a brief beginning. I can envision them getting out of the car, continuing, but you can too.

Tom’s death changed everything.

I sit in our idling Toyota, staring at the cheery yellow Victorian house we were supposed to move into together. I’m not cheered.

Our son T.J. sits in the backseat. In the rearview mirror, I see that he, too, is staring at the house. Maybe the two of us can stare it into becoming our home.

“Ready, buddy?” I ask. It’s been twelve weeks since we buried his father, my husband. My heart breaks at his wan smile, and the way his sad eyes meet mine in the mirror.

“Sure, Mom.”

Get to it, TKZers! I’ve left a couple things unaddressed because I want you to have some fun. What have I missed?

7+

Quit Trying to Write

 

You were expecting Yoda?

 

Having coffee this morning? Yum!

Now, try to pick up the cup. Go on… Are you touching the cup? No, no, no–that’s not allowed. You’re only allowed to try to pick it up.

Is your hand hanging uncertainly in the air?

This is not a trick. Okay, maybe it’s a little tricky, but it demonstrates something very important. Trying doesn’t get things done. It isn’t a thing. There is only doing. *insert Yoda here*

I think I read the phrase “I’m trying to write a (insert genre) novel” online five or six times a week. Although I empathize with struggling, beginning, and frustrated writers–as I’ve been them all–I want to gently shake these “trying” authors by the shoulders of their faded university sweatshirts and tell them to stop trying and just keep writing.

Either you’re writing a novel, or you’re not writing a novel. We can prepare ourselves to write. We can take a break from writing, or we can quit writing, or we can continue writing until we’re finished, and start the next one.

If you’re bogged down, or stuck, admit it. Don’t hide it. Ask for help, then quickly get back to your keyboard. Don’t worry: if you’re thinking constructively about your work, you’re still writing. But don’t think too long. Take an afternoon, or a day. Don’t lose your momentum, even if it’s the momentum of the  hundred words you wrote during the fifteen minutes before breakfast yesterday.

If you’re writing, you’re a writer.

Keep writing.

Help other writers.

Don’t bother trying. Make the choice to do, and not give up.

 

Are there things you find yourself “trying” to do, instead of doing them?

(for me it’s “trying” to lose weight)

 

14+

Hour of Fatality, First Page Critique

Licensed from Canva

 

Gentle Readers,

Gather ye ’round the hearth for the telling of a grand gothic nightmare from our latest anonymous Brave Author. I shall comment most profusely on said nightmare, and I entreat you to offer your own wisdom to our petitioner.

Your Faithful Friend, Laura

Hour of Fatality

I came to Thornfield Hall at the hour of twilight. My path wended among hay field and hawthorn, and when a bend in the road blocked my view of the house, I even ran in my haste. The battlements on the roof loomed darkly against the glimmering west. If I could touch them, the blackness would rub off on my skin like soot, and cling to me; such is the strange presentiment of dreams.

I reached the pavement near the door. It, too, was black, and I stepped cautiously, fearing the sound of my own tread in spite of the silence that lay on the dead air. I mounted the steps, their stone faces worn smooth in well-remembered grooves. The vaulted hall within was deep in shadow, but a blaze of light shone from the dining room, majestic and warm. Was I welcome there? Mr. Rochester entertained fine company in that room, gentlemen and ladies endowed with wealth and grace. No, I had no place in the dining room. I would see where else he might be found. I went to the library, but the grate was cold, the chair tenantless. I searched the long gallery; every door yielded to my hand, but the rooms were vacant shells to me. Where was Mr. Rochester?

I sought him in the passageways and on the stairs. The nursery was no haunt of his, yet I searched there too. With a reluctant step, I approached the dining room once more. A laugh: low, lugubrious, familiar in its stirring antipathy, came from behind the door. What a strange foreboding inhabited me! It wrapped round me like a smoke that no breeze could dispel. But I would stifle fear for his sake; I would find him out, though my soul shudder and my heart sink beneath the discovery.

A wisp of smoke flowed from the dining room, like a mist creeping along the ceiling. Down timidity! Revelations must be made. I suppressed the shaking in my limbs and threw open the door – a wreath of fire embroiled the room and heated my face. Brocaded curtains, purple cloth, rich damask, all writhed together in flame. A motionless form reclined in the chair, senseless and still, his head sagging to his breast.

“Mr. Rochester!” I called. “Mr. Rochester! Wake up!”

Mr. Rochester did not stir. Before I could come to his aid, a different being approached, hauntingly familiar in its ghastly shape. The flame did not touch her, yet her dark hair moved and lifted in the heat. Bertha Mason, black and menacing against the crimson light, barred the way. Her eyes burned, too, with a blue flame in their depths. It was her, Mr. Rochester’s wife, whom he had hid from my knowledge. In her madness, she raved and flung herself upon me, keeping me from my master.

“Mr. Rochester!”

“I am here, Jane, I am here.”

His voice dispelled the flames; his hand cooled my burning forehead.

*****************

Here is Jane Eyre, and yet not.

The Hour of Fatality excerpt is a fever dream sequence. Devotees of Charlotte Brontë’s magnificent gothic work, JANE EYRE, will be familiar with Mr. Rochester, Jane, and Bertha Mason (Rochester) as characters, and the house, Thornfield Hall. I confess that I was a little thrown when I first began reading, because the excerpt is unnerving. Have I read this scene before? In the novel, perhaps? Jane’s voice is recognizably modern and dissimilar from Brontë’s original Jane, yet eerily familiar at the same time.  Recreating a famous character is a real challenge, and I give Brave Author high marks for achieving laudable similarities in both voice and atmosphere.

This is a good time to bring up the subject of modeling, TKZers. We’ve talked about it before here. Don’t bother to look up “modeling writing” because you will be awash in barely-related education-speak. What I suggest is to take a bit of work from a writer whose style you admire and type it out word by word. Do it a paragraph at a time. Type a line, then imagine what thought process the writer might have gone through in order to produce the next line, and so forth. You needn’t do this all day, but it can give you the feel of how a story was written. It’s an odd, but useful exercise.

The other thing I’ll mention here (again and again!) is reading. It’s obvious that Brave Author knows the novel JANE EYRE well, and has spent time internalizing Brontë’s/Jane’s voice. If you’re trying to write—either in someone else’s style or simply in your own—you’d better be reading. A LOT. If you’re not, it’s like trying to drive a car without fuel. Or casting your fishing line into a dry lake. Or trying to spell metaphor without meta.

Before I forget, let’s all be mindful of how the page looks when we start three paragraphs in a row with “I.”

“I came to Thornfield Hall at the hour of twilight. My path wended among hay field and hawthorn, and when a bend in the road blocked my view of the house, I even ran in my haste. The battlements on the roof loomed darkly against the glimmering west. If I could touch them, the blackness would rub off on my skin like soot, and cling to me; such is the strange presentiment of dreams.”

I’m fond of this first paragraph. The setting is instantly spooky, even if the reader doesn’t already know Thornfield Hall as one of the most famous houses in classic literature. There are several passages in JANE EYRE where the manner of the house’s appearance is alternately terrifying and dear to Jane. Brave Author even gets Jane’s sense of wanting the house to stay in view right. Jane is occasionally forgetful of her manners, particularly when her emotions are roused, so her running is rather a big deal. And the presumed sootiness of the battlements is vivid and nicely suggests a dream image.

But…dang it. We’re starting off this story/novel with a dream. Few things are riskier for an emerging writer to do, and are as irritating to many readers. Yes, it establishes the mood. Yes, it pays homage to a similar scene in the original novel, thus readers will recognize the connection between them. Unfortunately, I found myself distracted by the fact that the dream scene occurs in a dining room, and the referenced scene in the novel occurs in a bedroom. I started wondering if it really was supposed to be the same, or if the difference was significant. And why is the man reclining in a chair in the dining room? Is he actually reclining? Should he be perhaps slumped at the head of the table? This is only a problem for someone familiar with JANE EYRE, which is probably only half the over-thirty female population of the planet. Anyway, it was distracting.

“I reached the pavement near the door. It, too, was black, and I stepped cautiously, fearing the sound of my own tread in spite of the silence that lay on the dead air. I mounted the steps, their stone faces worn smooth in well-remembered grooves. The vaulted hall within was deep in shadow, but a blaze of light shone from the dining room, majestic and warm. Was I welcome there? Mr. Rochester entertained fine company in that room, gentlemen and ladies endowed with wealth and grace. No, I had no place in the dining room. I would see where else he might be found. I went to the library, but the grate was cold, the chair tenantless. I searched the long gallery; every door yielded to my hand, but the rooms were vacant shells to me. Where was Mr. Rochester?”

If we are truly concerned with pavement, I want to know what sort of pavement is near the door. And why we should care that it’s black–other than as a kind of floppy thought bridge from the previous paragraph? (Readers are smart. No floppy thought bridges required!) Does she open the door? Is the door already open? This feels like an important moment to me, and yet we are thrust immediately from the stone steps at the front door to the subject of the dining room. Jane is searching for her man, and yet doesn’t even peek into the room–the BLAZING dining room–showing the only sign of habitation in the entire house? And what’s wrong with her that she feels she can’t go into the dining room? (I know, but only because I already know Jane’s station in life.)

The word “tenantless” is such a Brontë word.

“…every door yielded to my hand, but the rooms were vacant shells to me.” Let’s lose “to me.” It strengthens the image.

I want a bit more information around the edges of this dream. As it is, it pre-supposes that the reader already has opinions about and knowledge of the characters.

“I sought him in the passageways and on the stairs. The nursery was no haunt of his, yet I searched there too. With a reluctant step, I approached the dining room once more. A laugh: low, lugubrious, familiar in its stirring antipathy, came from behind the door. What a strange foreboding inhabited me! It wrapped round me like a smoke that no breeze could dispel. But I would stifle fear for his sake; I would find him out, though my soul shudder and my heart sink beneath the discovery.”

Another strong paragraph.

“It wrapped round me like a smoke that no breeze could dispel.” Given that we find out quickly that an actual fire is happening, this is a bit much. Also, she is both inhabited and wrapped?

The final line of the paragraph is pure Jane, pure gothic.

“A wisp of smoke flowed from the dining room, like a mist creeping along the ceiling. Down timidity! Revelations must be made. I suppressed the shaking in my limbs and threw open the door – a wreath of fire embroiled the room and heated my face. Brocaded curtains, purple cloth, rich damask, all writhed together in flame. A motionless form reclined in the chair, senseless and still, his head sagging to his breast.

“Mr. Rochester!” I called. “Mr. Rochester! Wake up!”

Let us resume our examination of the dining room and its formerly elusive door. In an earlier paragraph, there’s a blaze of light emanating from the dining room, so we necessarily picture the door open. Yet there’s a wisp of smoke here which compels her to throw open the door! Also, a flowing and creeping wisp feels like a bit much. Perhaps: A wisp of smoke escaped the closed dining room door, creeping across the ceiling like a mist on the moor. And wouldn’t the door, or at least the handle, be hot when she opens it?

“Mr. Rochester!”

Bertha Mason Rochester has set the room on fire and is leering maliciously, like Carrie’s mother at home after the prom. Jane tries to wake her beloved, but he’s insensate. It’s fabulous that Bertha flings herself on Jane. BUT. If Jane must deal with Bertha, let’s have some grappling in the scene. This is Jane’s chance to scream good and loud, to be terribly afraid, or just really angry. She’s often outspoken and passionate, so she should be even more so in her dream. Let her go a little crazy, maybe even fight Bertha back. Simply calling Mr. Rochester’s name in her greatest physical crisis is unworthy of Jane. If this book is supposed to contain the same Jane, seasoned by pain and flame, that we saw at the end of JANE EYRE, she needs to react as though her whole life has already changed. This is the same young woman who must run the life of her blinded husband. Give Jane some spunk in her nightmares.

That said, opening the novel with this dream requires you to go back and quickly explain who and where she is, why she has a fever, that she’s married, who “Mr. Rochester” is, etc. It feels awkward when a writer has to cram in details and explanations right away.

An excellent example of a gothic novel opening with a dream is Daphne du Maurier’s REBECCA. She makes our heroine’s dream her entire first chapter, and afterwards goes back in time to tell the story from the beginning. You cannot go back and retell JANE EYRE. But I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try du Maurier’s approach. Try letting Jane tell the story of the dream with the distance of longer reflection. Draw it out and let her personality be more a part of it. Or not.

You have some remarkable prose here. Keep at it, Brave Author!

4+

Write Where You Know, or Not, and a New Release

 

 

I’m not comfortable setting stories in places I haven’t lived or visited. Years ago, I wrote what I thought was a pretty good little story about a girl who’s held captive by a mad piano tuner. Okay, I know. Maybe a piano tuner isn’t the first bad ‘un to come to mind  when you’re thinking of thriller villains. But have you ever read the late William Gay’s story, “The Paperhanger?” You should. It’s brilliant. And I have a surreal story called “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” that’s been anthologized and is taught in some university writing courses. (You would like it unless you have a phobia of spiders that extends as far as the written page.)

Anywho…I wrote the piano tuner story to submit to an industry anthology years ago. One of the requirements was that it had to be set in Prague. I know people who have been to Prague. It’s known for Dvorák and Mozart, and impressive architecture. Only about one tenth of my story took place outside the apartment, if that. It was not chosen for the anthology. In fact, I’ve submitted four stories over the years to two different industry anthologies, and none of them have been accepted. The fact that those competitions are often themed makes the stories hard to sell elsewhere, but whatever. Writing is practice never wasted.

My takeaway from the Prague disaster is that I should stick closer to home. (And that submitting to industry anthologies is a crap shoot I’m not destined to win.)

I’m perfectly happy to set a story nowhere. An isolated mansion. A suburban condo. A backyard in summer. A mid-range hotel room. It’s part of the beauty of our U.S. of A. There’s anonymity out there if you want it. Though, now that I think of it, I also set a story in a Hall of the Gods that was definitely nowhere in particular.

All of my novels are set in places I’ve lived: Virginia-3, Ohio-1, Kentucky-3, Missouri-1. The one I’m working on now is also Kentucky. The Virginia and Kentucky landscapes are similar, in parts. Devil’s Oven is the only one set on a mountain. I’ve never actually lived on a mountain, but I’ve lived in valleys surrounded by them, and hung around on a few. Close enough, I figure.

The Cincinnati book is the one most colored by childhood memories of the town’s geography. (There are demons in that book, but I didn’t know any.) As I wrote, the image in my mind was of a big, old city, full of great hills hung with layers of narrow houses that were kept from falling into the river by a bit of dirt, hillside stairs, and a few trees.

Before I wrote my new novel, THE STRANGER INSIDE, I’d only set a couple of short stories in St. Louis.

The Missouri side of the St. Louis Metro Area is made up of 79 neighborhoods within the city limits, and dozens of small municipalities in St. Louis County. No matter if you are in one of these smaller municipalities, residents are either from North County, South County, West County, or the Mid-County. When I lived in St. Louis throughout the 80s, I lived in Ballwin (far west), University City in the (in-) famous Loop near WashU. Kirkwood (also west but southwest, sort of) and Clayton. There’s not a lot of geographical variation. The differences tend to be starkly economic and racial–not so different from any major urban area.

In St. Louis, if someone asks you where you went to school, they mean high school. It’s midwestern in the sense that residents are generally friendly, no matter what part of town they’re from. If you’re from Ladue or Clayton or Glendale, people will assume that you’re wealthy, and if you’re from far South County you might as well be in the Ozarks, and if you’re from North County, well, let’s just say that if you live past or west of the airport, you might be looking at Iowa. Okay, I’m exaggerating. But the different areas do have distinct personalities. And if you look at the census data of the past couple decades you’ll see that it doesn’t change all that much.

Most of my characters are from Mid-County–Ladue and Richmond Heights, with a bit of Webster Groves and Kirkwood to give it an old-time, leafy, suburban flair. My protagonist’s ex lives with his new husband in historic Lafayette Square in the house they once shared. She’s good with that. And one significant character lives in a high-rise apartment in the city, overlooking Forest Park. I confess I did make up a state park. And there may be a few  fictional details at which a native St. Louisan may wrinkle their nose. So, apologies for that. What can I say? I plead fiction.

Of course, all of these geographic details will matter little to the casual readers of THE STRANGER INSIDE. Unless they’re from or know St. Louis well, they won’t much see the distinctions. But the distinctions made a huge difference for me as I was writing. It’s not that I’m resorting to stereotypes, but just using a kind of character shorthand. That shorthand is very handy.

I’m super excited about THE STRANGER INSIDE. It’s a psychological suspense novel. Sometimes it’s called a thriller. And there’s a murder mystery. The biggest difference between this novel and my first six is that there are zero ghosts or supernatural incidents. (My seventh was a cozy mystery.) It was a lot of fun to write.

What about you? Do you write about faraway places? Or do you stick to places you know? Why or why not?

Also, surprise! I’m going to give away a signed copy of THE STRANGER INSIDE at 9:00 p.m. (CST) to one random commenter. But definitely check back to see if you’ve won, because I can’t tell you how many books I haven’t been able to give away because the winner disappeared forever. The winner should reach out to me at l.benedict@laurabenedict.com

5+

Process, Schmocess

 

My trusty, late-night writing companion

I’m shy/not shy about discussing my writing “process.” I actually dislike the word “process” when it comes to writing because it makes writing sound both vaunted and ridiculously precious at the same time.

I’m often shy sharing mine here because the posts on TKZ are created by professional, grown-up writers. Most have regimented schedules, produce work, reward themselves, and move onto the next project. They support families and/or themselves. Writing is a job. They also have other jobs, whether they be at home, or working outside the home. They blow me away every day with their dedication, creativity, and professionalism.

Weirdly, I’m also a professional, grown up writer. Though I’m a professional writer who has resisted schedules all her life. The ADHD is an issue. My brain can truly hyper-focus, but when it’s not hyper-focusing, it’s constantly on fire. It can’t be still at all. It constantly searches for novelty and stimulation. ADHD meds clamp down my creativity like an empty yogurt carton trapping a spider in the front hallway. Oh, and the yogurt carton has the Complete Works of Shakespeare on top of it. No more web-spinning, fly-sucking, or terrorizing the kiddies for that spider! (Hmmm. That about describes my creativity, though I’ve never actually drained a fly. I found myself weirdly desirous of eating a dead one once–but that’s another blog.)

Every so often, I dive into schedules and calendars and self-help books and organization projects. They delight me! The future immediately looks so bright! I love the idea of not writing at two in the morning because I couldn’t settle down all day to the work. (I don’t enjoy overnight writing, but I often do it out of necessity.) Schedules discourage writing right up to deadline. What a brilliant concept.  I’ve actually done it a few times and it was AMAZING. Like Graeter’s Ice Cream amazing. First kiss amazing. (Actually, my first kiss was kind of awful. But that’s also another blog. Or not.) Finding six Hershey’s kisses from last Christmas at the back of the cabinet when you’ve been out of chocolate for an entire day amazing. Dang, that’s a great feeling, isn’t it?

I’ve been in next-book mode for months and have restarted it three times. We’re talking between 30 and 50 pages started. I just couldn’t figure out WHERE the book needed to start because it’s a story with a higher number than my usual amount of turning points. (Hey, I used one of those professional writer terms here. Woot.) This is a big book, a big story. It’s opened in different time periods and with different characters. Also different POVs. Many (more sensible) writers would’ve moved on to another idea by now. Another writer might have been at their desk daily at 8:30 a.m. and gone through the three restarts in a few weeks.

Did I mention I’m 56.5 years old? I’ve been writing for thirty years. Honestly, my meandering process has changed little. I’ve written ten novels (eight of which have been published, 2 will remain unseen), anthologies, short stories, essays, blogs, articles, book reviews. There were even several profitable copywriting gigs. Somehow I’ve produced a reasonably significant amount of work.

But I still hunger for the right schedule. The right way to work. The right amount of finished pieces. I still imagine there’s a Platonic Ideal of Laura’s Writing Career out there.

Perfectibility is the eternal illusion. A quest at least as old as the first cave artist who sketched an Ibex that came out looking like a prairie dog, scraped it off and tried again. And again. Funny how we look at so many of those cave paintings now and think them wondrous. Are they perfect? Who’s to say? By what standards can we judge ancient art? We can classify it. Trace developments over time by looking at similar work. Say one artist’s work is somehow better than another. But each effort stands alone. Human creations are imperfectible, just like humans. (My opinion, y’all. I’m not itching to argue religion or philosophy here…) Here’s the cool thing I’ve discovered about the desire for perfection, though: It keeps me striving. As long as I don’t constantly kick myself for not ever being perfect, I still get plenty of satisfaction.

I will probably die with the notion of the Platonic Ideal of Laura’s Writing Career in my head. Oh, well. It’s definitely far less difficult to live with than it used to be.

Every time I post on Facebook these days, I get some stupid message about how people really respond better to posts with pictures. “Posts with pictures are more popular than posts without pictures, Laura Benedict. Why don’t you include some pictures in this post? And, by the way, you can go ahead and add your photos to this post, and we will automatically remove any preview links you’ve already included in the post, thus completely destroying it. You may then add pictures to your new post.”

So I’m going to add some pictures here. This is what my life has been like over the past five days in which I was hyper-focusing on the third start on this novel. I’m pretty sure I got it almost right this time, in the tradition of horseshoes and hand grenades.

They’re not lovely pictures. But in my life, creation is messy, and occasionally people have to make their own dinner.

After the photos:  Tell us about your process. Or your quest for perfection. Or creativity/work habits that really work for you. We are always open to new ideas here!

Where I slept last night because it’s not fair to disturb a sleeping husband at 5:00 a.m. when he usually gets up at six.

Trust me. You don’t want to see the front.

Sustenance. All the food groups. Plus, I roasted those pecans on Sunday. No one can say I didn’t cook.

I think a dozen clementines, two apples, and a 1/2 grapefruit count as nutrition, yes?

Uniform. Or as I like to call them, Second Jammies.

Bonus: Sometimes if you take the dog out to pee at 1:30 in the morning, there’s a ring around the moon.

Husbands can feed themselves. Birds can too. But I can’t convince Husband to go out and hop around the pole to entertain me when I look out the window as I write.

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Creating Characters: You Can Always Start With the Car

 

Stock photo via GoDaddy

 

So. You’re ready to create a character.

What does your character look like? Eat? Worship?

Do they exercise? Do they jump up on boxes and grunt, or are they a mall walker?

What high school did they go to? Freak or geek, prom king/queen, or regular Jane?

Do they color their hair? Clip joint, or fancy salon?

Gluten-free? Dairy free? Pescatarian?

Do they eat creamed corn? Do they look at porn? (Obviously I went for the rhyme there.)

Shoplifter, despite having millions?

Boxers, briefs, thongs, or commando?

Tampons or pads?

401K or under the mattress?

Acid reflux, heart palpitations, heartbreak of psoriasis?

Wrist watch, pocket watch, no watch, sundial?

Fast talker?

Lousy lover?

De-canterer of wine before guests arrive to hide how cheap they are?

You figure out all this stuff before you sit down to write, right? If you do, congratulations are in order. You’re about a hundred steps ahead of most writers—Okay, when I say most writers, I mean me, at least.

I envy writers who spend lots of time defining their characters, then put them onstage with ready-made conflicts. You bought me briefs instead of boxers? Are you even my wife?!

Goodness knows I torture encourage my writing workshop participants with character-building exercises. It’s a lot of fun, especially when they begin to see their character as something more than a mannequin with brown eyes, curly dark hair, a cruel mouth, and wearing a nose ring and expensive jeans. You only have to look around you to see that there is no such thing as a generic human. Family members make excellent character models, and the nice thing is that they rarely recognize themselves—Particularly if the character is unlikable. And there’s nothing like taking revenge on a dreaded former coworker or high school frenemy by putting them in a book.

Sometimes all your imagining will be for naught when it comes time to get into writing the story. Thriller and other genre writers don’t necessarily have the luxury of languorous character development because the action tends to move fairly quickly. This is where series characters really shine. A series gives a writer many opportunities to grow and deepen their personalities and habits. At the moment I’m reading Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike novel, Lethal White. Strike is a solid, well-defined character whose enormous, damaged body looks amazing in a well-tailored suit. And I think he likes squash soup? Okay, maybe I made that part up, but he’s not too shy to engage in a bit of dress-up roleplaying behind closed doors with his current girlfriend. Seriously, I could not have made that up.

I rarely did even minimal character sketches before I started using Scrivener about six years ago. Its template is on the minimalist side, with blank spaces for a character’s role in the story, physical description, occupation, mannerisms, internal conflicts, external conflicts, and background. This approach gives you plenty of latitude, without driving you crazy. I confess, I don’t often even fill these templates out completely. BUT I am one to go back and fill them in as I write the book. I like for the character to surprise me. It’s also extremely useful to keep track of all those details, like when two of your characters hook up and you’re not sure what color your heroine’s eyes are.

If you ever get stuck, I have a simple fix. Decide what sort of cars (if any) your characters are driving. Americans often express their personalities via their cars, and we all have ideas about what kind of people drive a particular model.

The protagonist of The Stranger Inside, my suspense novel that’s coming out the first week of February, drives a Mini-Cooper. Kimber isn’t quite forty, and she likes the option of being able to drive away with speed when she wants to escape her problems.

There really is no wrong way to design your characters, as long as you’re telling the story they want to tell.

What’s your process for creating and defining characters? Tell us about a favorite character that you created.

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