About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone, Story Empire, and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-8 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

#BookTok Tips for Writers

Last week, Steve asked for a post about #BookTok on TikTok. Since I wrote an article for Anne R. Allen’s blog in October 2022, I’ll repost it here so all of TKZ can benefit. I’ve included 2024 updates in bold.

When the buzz of TikTok started spreading, I wanted no part of it. With two Facebook accounts, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, YouTube, Goodreads, etc. the last thing I needed was another social media site. I could barely juggle the audience I’d amassed on social media over the last twelve years. Then I discovered #BookTok, and my outlook changed.

#BookTok

The hashtag #BookTok opens a doorway to a subsection of TikTok where thousands of voracious readers spend their time, along with #WriterTok and a host of genre hashtags. #BookTok exploded over the last two years. In fact, #BookTokers call the dancing/singing videos “the wrong side of TikTok.” Rarely, if ever, do we venture outside of #BookTok — a loyal, generous community bonded by our love of the written word.

Remember when social media was your guilty pleasure, your happy place, and you looked forward to hopping online? For many of us, that drive faded away when politics and rants filled our timelines.

Yet, having a social media presence is a vital part of an author’s career. The problem is, once we form the emotional connection between social media and publishing, engaging with readers can start to feel a lot like work. #BookTok reignited my spark, and it can do the same for you. Not only is it a blast, TikTok in general is a selling machine.

WHAT IS TIKTOK?

TikTok calls itself an “entertainment platform.” Statistics show people spend more time watching TikTok videos than Netflix. Shocking, right? By its very nature, TikTok is a storytelling platform. The videos that reign supreme tell some sort of story, engaging the viewer through drama, comedy, or bewilderment.

The beauty of TikTok is that even with only a handful of followers, content can still go viral. I’ve personally witnessed new accounts gain 20-30K views on one video. Romance (all genres) do the best, followed by fantasy/sci-fi, mystery/thriller/suspense, YA, paranormal, and horror. True crime and nonfiction have their own massive audience. No matter what genre you write in, your audience is on #BookTok. All ages, all genres.

TIKTOK MYTHS

  1. I’m too old for TikTok.

As someone in their — ahem — mid-fifties, I thought the same thing. Nothing could be farther from the truth. When TikTok hit the scene, it did cater to a younger demographic. That’s changed over the years. #BookTokers range from 20s to 80s.

  1. I refuse to make a fool of myself to sell books.

Sure, there’s a lot of silliness on TikTok, but you don’t need to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. Be your beautiful, reserved, crazy, funny, introverted, or extroverted self. That’s who readers want to know, not some made-up version of yourself. Although, if you write spicy romance and want to conceal your identity, that’s okay, too.

  1. I don’t have time to learn another social media site that’ll probably disappear in a few years.

All writers suffer with the same issue. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day. Here’s a cold, hard truth: sooner or later authors won’t have a choice about joining TikTok. Our audience is turning away from Facebook and Twitter. At the end of last year (2021), Facebook reported its lowest daily views yet, and they attributed the loss to TikTok.

Of all the social media sites, X-Twitter has the lowest ROI for selling books. Do you know who has the highest? TikTok. Why? Because it’s unlike any other social media site.

  1. You must be tech-savvy to create videos.

TikTok does have an advanced video creator built into the app, but it’s very easy to use. They also provide video tutorials. If you still have trouble, head to YouTube. Creators post step-by-step instructions that anyone can follow.

  1. You must be comfortable in front of the camera to use TikTok.

I’ll tell you a little secret. The thought of shooting videos scared me half to death. The few videos I posted on social media took me forever to create, obsessing over every tiny detail, and I still wasn’t happy with the end result. Before I jumped on TikTok I froze in front of the camera. I wasn’t a fan of public speaking, either. Sure, I could hold my own at a book event, but I still trembled inside.

#BookTok helped me overcome that heart-stopping fear. And tomorrow, I fly out to film three episodes of a true crime series for TV (UPDATE: They’ve aired. Check out A Time to Kill, Season 6, on Investigation Discovery). Guess how the producers found me? Initially through my website — I still say authors need a home base — but they got a feel of my personality through my TikToks (videos). I can’t say that sealed the deal — they also read my books — but it definitely helped.

HOW DO AUTHORS START ON #BOOKTOK?

Download the app and setup an account. I started with a business account, but that was a mistake. Personal accounts get more views. Be sure to use your author name. If you use more than one pen name, then either create an account for each or umbrella them all under your real name. Choice is yours.

All you’ll be doing at first is lurking. Let me warn you. TikTok may seem overwhelming at first. You can spend hours watching talking dog videos, cooking videos, and any other passion you may have. Here’s the thing. The more content you watch that’s not book related the more you’ll confuse the algorithm. Learned that lesson the hard way.

Once you gain a thousand followers, the link in your bio becomes clickable. Still include one, though. People know to copy/paste a dead link. I use LinkTree. Back in 2016, LinkTree solved social media’s most annoying problem — only allowing one link in bios. Now, all your social media, newsletter sign-up page, website, blog(s), books, giveaways, etc. can be housed under one LinkTree link. And it’s free!

THE TIKTOK ALGORITHM

TikTok’s secret algorithm far exceeds all its competitors. When a new user signs up, it throws all kinds of videos at you, then watches and learns which ones you react to or re-watch. If you stop at every talking dog, the algorithm will flood your For You Page (timeline) with more talking animals. The longer you watch, the more it thinks that’s what you want. I can’t resist anything animal related. Hence why it took me a while to train the algorithm to gain more #BookTok followers.

Some authors advise to create two accounts. One to watch animals or whatever. The second for book related content. Alas, I use one account for everything, but I’m cognizant of the type of videos I watch. The algorithm has figured out that I love books and animals. Since I include animals in my books, I feel it’s related.

Pay close attention to authors in your genre.

  • What type of content do they create?
  • Do their videos get a lot of interaction?
  • Do they post only book content?
  • What other type of content do they post?
  • How does their audience react?

CREATING YOUR FIRST TIKTOK

Once you get comfortable with the app, you’ll feel the urge to jump in. Resist that urge for another week. I did nothing but lurk for a solid month. By the time I created my first TikTok *cringe* I felt I knew the rhythm of #BookTok. I didn’t. And neither will you. But that’s okay. The only way to learn the ins and out of #BookTok is to jump in headfirst.

Then why did you tell us to lurk first?

Because you’ll be ahead of the game if you do. All that knowledge you’ve acquired will benefit you when you’re ready. Think about this… You’re in #BookTok and stumble across a how-to video. If you don’t know what they’re talking about, you’ve wasted valuable information. For example, Trending Sounds or “how to invert” the title on your cover so it’s not a mirrored image.

WHAT IS A TRENDING SOUND?

A Trending Sound could be a fragment of music or a voiceover that helps you connect with an audience. All of TikTok uses Trends. You’ve probably seen the dance videos that everyone copies. Well, #BookTok has their own Trends and Trending Sounds.

2024 UPDATE: TikTok also owns CapCut, a video software app. If you use a trending CapCut, you’ll get more views. This video sold 100 books in one day. Why? Because I used a trending CapCut. When’s the last time one of your Facebook or Twitter posts sold that many books in a day? A video, I might add, that took me less than one minute to create.

It’s fantastic exposure. TikTok content lives forever. Unlike other social media sites, the algorithm constantly pushes old TikToks to new people.

Early on, I created a video of calling “my” murder of crows for breakfast. I showed the empty trees, me calling for Poe (the alpha), and the crows flying in moments later. That one video has over 5K views and climbing (2024 UPDATE: 31K views and climbing). It relates to my books because in my Mayhem Series, my antihero has three wild crow companions (Poe, Allan, and Edgar).

DUETS

Duets are when you, well, duet someone else’s video. Here’s an example of me duetting a cop’s video.

It works for my audience because I’m a crime writer. Romance writers duet male models, and their audience goes crazy. Paranormal writers might duet a medium or ghost hunter. If you write cozy mysteries in a library setting, duet a librarian. Write about vampires? No problem. Duet a vampire (yes, they’re on TikTok). Serial killer thriller author? Duet videos about serial killers. Think outside the box.

FINDING YOUR AUDIENCE

Are your books geared toward an older audience? Use the #GenX hashtag along with a genre hashtag. Are you targeting millennials? Use #GenY. Knowing who your audience is the key to finding potential readers. Niche down from there.

Some authors say never to follow other authors, but that’s a mistake. Writers are your people, your tribe. We learn from each other. We help boost each other’s views. #BookTok wouldn’t be nearly as fun without other writers. And we read, too!

TRENDS

We also start our own Trends, and they’re hilarious. Last week, a writer friend used the videotape filter. I’d need a whole other post to discuss filters. Suffice it to say, the TikTok looks like you’re being videotaped by someone else. In this case, the police were searching for a missing person: Grammarly. She was Suspect #1. In her video, she named me and a slew of other mystery/thriller authors as possible suspects, and we all created videos of being interrogated by the cops. Mystery & thriller readers loved it! We all gained new followers and sold books from that one idea.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the genius behind #BookTok. It’s marketing that doesn’t feel like marketing. Some savvy authors sell between 200-600 books per week from #BookTok alone. Still think it’s a waste of time?

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’m not sayin’ it’s easy to get started. Finding your groove takes time. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll find your audience much faster than any other social media site. If you’ve never watched a video review of one of your books, you’re missing out on something special. It’s humbling to witness the reaction of a reader who just closed the cover, tears still in her eyes while she gushes about how much she loved your characters or the story, and how she felt while reading.

Duet every review.

Authors can either “blind react” to a review or prepare themselves first, both done via the Duet feature, helping the review reach more and more readers. After watching a particularly emotional review of I AM MAYHEM, my son said to me, “Imagine how many other readers you’ve touched in the same way?” He’s right. Before #BookTok, authors never had the pleasure of witnessing immediate reactions from readers. Now we do.

Have you considered joining TikTok? Has this post inspired you to see if you’d be happy there? What are your biggest concerns?

How To Write a Dance Scene

I was eavesdropping on Quora again and stumbled across a thread about how to write a dance scene. Because I included a sensual dance in the WIP, the question piqued my interest. I’ve written dance scenes before, but my characters spent most of their time spying on bad guys. Nothing like the scene I wrote in the WIP (which also ties into the plot).

The writers who responded on Quora had such great advice, I had to share.

Each answer attributed to the writer, of course.

Original question: How can you describe a dance in writing?

Emma Thomas, Novelist wrote:

Here’s two examples of how not to do it.

She stepped onto the floor and awed them all with her dancing.

Under-descriptive. Dancing is such a physical and emotional movement that you have to balance those two in your writing and neither happened here (Sue: She means in the above example).

She gazed across the lacquered wooden tiles and, with a sudden burst of courage that she hadn’t known she’d possessed, stepped onto the dance floor. As the thrumming rhythm of classical music whispered into her ears, she began to dance.

Sliding her right foot back and the other one forward, she dropped low so that her dress brushed the ground, then sprang back up again, so quickly that she got whiplash. She threw her arms out and waved them from side to side, perfectly in tune with the beat, before jumping into the air. Her dress spun around her and for a moment it felt like she was flying … then the ground was beneath her again.

That hurt as much to write as it did to read. I shouldn’t be telling the reader each one of the movements that our dancer makes, unless I want an incredibly monotonous one-hundred page instruction manual on how to jump up and down and fling your hands in the air, like what the MC is doing here. Did you catch that? Possibly not; it sounded like it had taken an hour for her to dance when it was really just a split-second.

When you write about someone dancing, make sure that it’s obvious. It’s okay to say the word “dance.” Not everything has to be a ten-page description — but not everything can be a one-word summary, either. Tie in enough of the surroundings to establish a mood and a sense of place. Lastly, make sure that the dance conveys what you want it to — if it’s careless, make it sound careless. If it’s more meaningful, make it sound like that.

Let’s try this again.

She was dancing. Arms flailing in the sky above her, she whirled around and whooped her happiness into the sweat-stained air. Foot forward. Back. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d done this — why had she ever stopped? A hand grabbed hers and she was swung backward, dipped low, then soaring into the air, the flashing colors momentarily blinding her … she touched ground again and skidded to a smiling, breathless halt.

That’s a rough paragraph but it conveys what it needs to. It established a sense of place, action, and a connection with the dancer. Not under-descriptive or over-descriptive, just effective.

Aaaand that’s it. Hope it helped.

Shreya Pandey wrote:

Do not describe each and every dance step in detail. It’ll get complex and it’ll sound very mechanical. Describe one step, then follow it up by describing how a character felt while they did it. Do they feel dizzy? Happy? Feel an adrenaline rush? Feel scared?

Describe what they see. Does the room start to spin? Do they see the audience looking at them in awe? Describe the way their body moves. Is it effortless? Are they having trouble remembering the steps? Is any part of their body sore?

Describe the atmosphere. Are they dancing at a party? What kind of music is playing in [t]he background? What kind of beats does it have? Can they fee the bass thumping through their body? Is it a popular song? How many people are there? Are they dancing in a crowd, or alone on a stage? What are they wearing?

Give meaning to the dance. It must be significant if you are introducing it in your text. Why is it significant? Is it about how liberated, happy and care free the character feels when they dance? Is it an intimate dance sequence the character shares with someone they love? Does the dance bring back memories? Is it demonstrating their hard work? Is it something they are doing to lose some steam? Do they have a purpose behind it?

The dance scene is always more than just the movement of the character’s body. It is significant to the plot in some way. You need to subtly highlight that significance. At most, if it isn’t anything serious, it can be used to manipulate the reader’s senses. Make them feel, hear, touch, smell, move, see, etc. Transport them. Make them feel as if they are dancing, or as if they are the audience and they are watching someone dance from up close. Writing the perfect atmosphere perfectly is the key.

And my favorite answer…

James Sams, Writer/Editor wrote:

I’d like to caution you against “over describing”. Books are not movies. We can see every step of the Tango in a movie, but no one wants to read what every step is. If you write things like…

“He moved his left foot backward in a smooth motion, sliding across the slick floor. She slid her right foot forward, chasing his retreating foot with hers, like a fox on the hunt. Dipping forward and looking into her eyes, his fingers tightened on her ribs as his left foot came forward again, surprising her foot and chasing it back. They stopped, toe to toe, and he pulled her hips in close to his.

Threatening to brush his lips against hers, he looked to the left, and then to the right. She mimicked him, turning her head opposite. To the right, then to the left.

He pushed her away as though she were too terrible, yet to[o] wonderful, to be near, yet he held on to her left hand with his right, catching her as their arms pulled taut and spinning her out and away. Then he reeled her back in, unable to give her up.

She fell into him, his strong arms wrapping her tight, protecting her before casting her out again.”

… you can get away with it for a paragraph, maybe two. Even with the nice similes and small details, it will soon become agony for a reader to get through. You have become a puppet master, forcing the reader to imagine each foot, each hand, each head motion exactly the way you want it to be. Readers don’t like that. They like to use their imaginations. They want you to give them a coloring book outline and then hint at what colors they should use when they color it in with their imagination.

To give them those subtle colors, only give sweeping descriptions, and add in the senses. Put in the emotions, even if they are only faux representative ones [that] describe the types of movement.

The best thing you can do with a dance, is keep it short, at least in your description. Focus on the characters’ feelings, fears, hopes and thoughts, and then come back for another quick description. If you took the dance I wrote above and stretched it out for the full dance, describing every move in detail, I guarantee even an editor will begin skipping over it as they read. Even if you don’t give every little dance step, it will be too long and people will just let their eyes slide over it, looking for the place you stop describing and get back to the story.

Don’t be afraid to use a dance, just remember, readers are reading for the characters and their thoughts, feelings, and stories. The descriptions, backgrounds, clothes, etc. need to always take a back seat.

I hope that helped.

What do you think, TKZers? Have you written a dance scene? If so, did you follow these guidelines? Any other tips to share?

Cautionary Tale in the Zone or Flow State

This is a cautionary tale of how “the zone” or flow state can skew reality and common sense.

Several years ago, I turned the sunroom into my office. All the windows allow me a panoramic view of “Animal Planet,” the lower level of the yard where I feed my crows, ravens, jays, cardinals, barn birds, squirrels, chippies, and anyone else who needs an easy meal.

It’s my happy place.

For years, I dreaded winter. The cold weather meant I had to move my office into the spare bedroom, because my converted office had no heat. That changed with the installation of a mini split, an electrical unit for heat and AC. But they can only handle so much.

Here in New Hampshire, the recent temps plummeted to single digits with “feels like” temperatures well below zero. It’s a big ask for a mini split. But I’m stubborn, so I bundle up in warm clothes and write for as long as possible before I must grab my MacBook and head into the living room for the rest of the day.

Yesterday (as of this writing), we had one of the coldest days we’ve had all winter. Downright frigid in my office, with frost crystalized around the windows. The mini split coughed out bursts of heat in between shutdowns to gain its bearings. Didn’t matter that I cranked the thermostat to 76 degrees.

The unit basically told me to pound sand. “Be happy with what I give you.”

Fair enough.

I’m at a point in the WIP where I’ve reached total obsession. You know that point in every project where things gel easier, words flow, excitement builds, milestones/goalposts whip by with less effort? Uh-ha, that’s the place. I’ve also had two scenes rolling around my head for days—weeks?—but it wasn’t time to write them yet.

There’s nothing wrong with jumping ahead to write a specific scene. Sometimes, I do the same. My preference is to let the scenes simmer inside me till they reach a boiling point. If my and my character’s obsession align, all that pent-up anticipation transfers to the page.

If you haven’t experienced this mild form of psychological torture, it’s effective. At least, it is for me.

Ahem. Anyway…

When my husband left for work at 4:30 a.m., I ventured into my office with a hot tea and the expectation that I’d only write at my desk till sunrise, then I’d snuggle up by the wood stove with my MacBook.

The first time I noticed the clock it read 10:30 a.m. But I was mid-scene. I couldn’t switch to my MacBook now. If I’m on a roll, I’ll never mess with the mojo that got me there.

Yes, I know how superstitious that sounds. Don’t we all have a few weird writing quirks?

The next time I glanced up from the screen, the clock read 2:30 p.m. But again, I was midway through another scene and not willing to risk losing momentum. At this point, I was also super high on craft and probably not in any condition to make decisions about my well-being, with serotonin, adrenaline, and dopamine coursing through my system. 😉

There I stayed in a suspended state of euphoria till the sun lowered toward the horizon. And I marveled at the pink sky interspersed with violet hues.

All my animal pals returned to their burrows, trees, and nests, the lower level now devoid of wildlife.

Still, I ignored the darkness swallowing daylight, my complete focus on the screen, my fingers barely able to keep up with the enticing hum of neurons firing.

When my husband returned from running errands after work, he strode into my cold, dark office. “Step away from the desk, honey. Now. That heater shut off hours ago.”

“It did?”

“Must’ve. It’s freezing in here.”

“Is it?”

I never once felt cold. Not once. I was so immersed in my story world, and drunk on intoxicating hormones, I left New Hampshire before dawn. All day I’d been chasing bad guys through the woods of Montana, dodging bullets and encounters with predators. I laughed. I cried. I feared. I rejoiced. I experienced the entire spectrum of emotions right alongside my characters from dawn to dusk.

It wasn’t till I strolled into the warm living room that I felt the first pang of stiffness, muscle aches, and joint pain.

What can we learn from this, kiddies?

There are worse ways to die. Kidding.

Sort of.

Clear Takeaways

  • Don’t sacrifice your wellbeing, or safety.
  • The human body needs blood flow. Get up and move.
  • The mind is a beautiful place. Take good care of it.
  • You only get one life. Don’t sacrifice a second.
  • Lastly, take the time to admire the natural beauty around you, like sunrises and sunsets.

Do I regret it?

The correct answer is yes, but I don’t. Not one bit. Those chapters rock. 😉 Do as I say, not as I do.

Have you ever gotten “lost” while writing? Tell us about it.

Who Is In Control of What You Do?

It’s no secret that I’m slightly obsessed with the brain. Okay, okay, it’s a full-blown obsession, but it’s such a fascinating organ!

The other day, I watched a neuroscience documentary (like I often do). One episode asked the question: Who is in control of what you do? The neuroscientist then said…

“Every action you take, every decision you make, every belief you hold is driven by parts of your brain that you have no access to. We call this hidden world the unconscious, and it runs much more of your life than you would ever imagine.”

Shocking, right? The entire episode blew my mind (no pun intended) and drove me down a rabbit hole of research. What I discovered shows just how many superpowers we writers possess.

Let’s dig in…

The conscious you, or conscious awareness, makes up the smallest part of your brain. The conscious brain believes it’s in full control of the body, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

Have you ever driven home and not remembered how you got there? One minute, a thought crosses your mind. And the next thing you know, you’re turning on to your street. It’s a wild feeling that we write off with, “I’ve driven this route so many times, the car knows its way.” But the truth is, this sensation occurs because the action is being done unconsciously and automatically. And somehow, you arrive home without harm.

Through clinical trials, Freud discovered that beneath the surface of each of us lies a swirling sea of hidden motivations, drives, and desires. The way we think and feel and act is profoundly influenced by our unconscious mind.

As the twentieth century progressed, many others dove into the brave new world of neuroscience. They were trying to uncover how much control the unconscious brain really has, but what they soon discovered was far stranger than anyone could have predicted.

In the 1960s, Eckhart Hess ran several experiments. In one, he asked men to look at women’s faces and make snap judgments about them.

  • How kind does she look?
  • How selfish or unselfish is she?
  • How friendly or unfriendly is she?
  • How attractive is she?

What the men didn’t know was how Hess manipulated the experiment. In half the photos, the women’s eyes were artificially dilated. Same women but with different sized pupils. Dilated eyes are, among other things, a biological sign of sexual arousal. This manipulation was meant to influence the choices made by the men, but without them being aware of it.

Can you guess the outcome?

The men found the women with dilated eyes more attractive. Here’s the important part. None of the men noticed the dilated pupils in the photographs, nor did any of the men know about the biological sign of sexual readiness. But somehow, their brains knew.

Hess and his team ran deeply evolutionary programs to steer the men toward the right sort of mate (the feminist in me is holding back here; please do the same). The subjects’ brains analyzed and recognized tiny details in the photos and then acted upon them. All of this occurred without a flicker of conscious awareness.

This type of experiment revealed fundamental knowledge about how the brain operates. The job of this organ is to gather information from the world, then steer appropriate behavior. And it makes absolutely no difference whether you (your conscious awareness) are involved. Most of the time, you’re not. Most of the time, you’re not even aware of the decisions being made on your behalf.

Check out these findings:

  • If you’re holding a warm cup of coffee, you’ll describe your relationship to your mother as closer than if you’re holding an iced coffee.
  • When you’re in a foul-smelling environment, you’ll make harsher moral decisions.
  • If you sit next to a bottle of hand sanitizer, it’ll shift your political opinions a little toward the conservative side, because it reminds your brain of outside threats.

Every day we’re influenced in countless ways by the world around us. And most of this flies completely under the radar of our conscious awareness. Though clueless to us, the unconscious brain is continually reacting to the outside world and making decisions on our behalf.

What separates us from zombie-like beings?

Even when we’re on autopilot, if we come across something we weren’t expecting, our conscious mind is called into action to figure out if this new thing is a threat or opportunity. It’s one of the jobs of consciousness—to assess what’s going on and make sense of the situation. When our expectations are violated, our conscious mind is summoned to work out the appropriate reaction.

But reacting is not its only mission. The conscious brain plays a vital role in resolving internal conflict among the brain’s many automatic sub-systems, each working on its own task.

Take, for example, if you’re hungry but you just started a diet to drop a few holiday pounds. This is when the conscious brain needs to rise above the unconscious and make an executive decision on what to do. Consciousness is the arbiter of conflicting motivations in the brain, with a unique vantage point that no other part of the brain has access to. It’s a way for trillions of cells to see themselves as a unified whole.

For writers, our unconscious brain stores our superpowers.

Our unconscious is capable of truly remarkable feats if we stay out of its way. Therein lies the rub. We can train our unconscious to do many skills automatically, and some of them can seem almost superhuman. Through intense practice, we can harness the brain’s ability to run on autopilot to achieve almost anything.

See where I’m goin’ with this? Note the words “through intense practice.” Meaning, the more we practice, the more we hardwire our brains to work on autopilot. And yes, that includes writing. Those who write daily or several times per week have an easier time than writers who step away from the keyboard for weeks or months at a time.

We also enter the zone more often.

When our conscious awareness relinquishes control to our unconscious brain, we enter the flow state—a form of brain activity experienced by different kinds of people, from elite athletes and meditation experts to professional writers and musicians. Many of whom call this state “the zone,” which arrives during total emersion in a task. In flow states, neural circuits run without conscious mind interference. Our perception clears, our unconscious awareness heightens, and feel-good chemicals flood the brain, which allows for intense focus and gratification.

Thanks to neuroscience, a distinct pattern in the brain emerges when we’re in the zone.

When we first enter flow, dopamine increases attention, information flow, and pattern recognition. It’s essentially a skill booster.

Norepinephrine speeds up the heart rate, muscle tension, and respiration. It triggers a glucose response to give us more energy, increase arousal, attention, neural efficiency, and emotional control, thus producing a high.

Endorphins (rooted from the word “endogenous,” meaning naturally internal to the body) relieve pain and induce pleasure. Strangely, these chemicals function like opioids, with 100 times the power of morphine.

Anandamide (stemming from the Sanskrit word for “bliss”) is an endogenous cannabinoid and feels like the psychoactive effect of marijuana. In flow states, anandamide elevates mood, relieves pain, dilates blood vessels, and aids in respiration. It also amplifies lateral thinking—the ability to link ideas together.

At the end of a flow state, serotonin floods the brain with an after-glow effect. This leaves us with a feeling of bliss and only occurs once we exit the zone.

Unlike many ordinary people, writers dip in and out of the zone on a regular basis. Did I just call us extraordinary? You bet I did! We have a pretty cool superpower. Don’tcha think?

Tips to Achieving Flow

  1. Balance challenge and skill.

If you’ve never written nonfiction, for example, you may find it difficult to enter the zone because your conscious awareness is stressed out. You’re too afraid of making a mistake to enter flow.

If something isn’t challenging enough, you’ll get bored easily. In turn, so will your reader. Not only will adding plenty of conflict improve your plot, but you’ll enter the zone quicker while writing.

  1. Establish clear goals.

I will write for three hours. I will write at least 1000 words today. I will write two scenes or one chapter. By establishing a daily writing goal, it relieves the pressure of having to finish the entire first draft by a certain date. How you choose to establish those goals is up to you.

  1. Reduce distraction.

You will never enter the zone if you’re checking for social media notifications or email every ten minutes. When it’s time to write, write. Save play time and the inbox for later.

  1. Stop multitasking.

Have you ever turned down the radio while searching for a specific house number or highway exit? You’re instinctively helping your brain to concentrate on a visual task. For more on why multitasking is so difficult and why we should avoid it before a writing session, see my 2021 post entitled Can Multitasking Harm the Brain?

  1. Don’t force it.

Some days, you’ll enter the zone. Other days, you won’t. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. You’ll still produce words and make progress.

  1. Enjoy the process.

You won’t enter flow unless you’re enjoying yourself. Simple as that. If you view writing as a chore, it may be time to step away from the WIP for a while. Yes, penning a novel is hard work, but it also should be enjoyable. If it’s not, you may want to ask yourself why you do it.

What were your biggest takeaways from this research? Are you surprised that we live on autopilot most of the time?

Are You Moonstruck?

For the last few days, I’ve felt off. Writing had been difficult. Words refused to flow. Pumping out a decent chapter likened to delivering a 10 lb. baby with wide shoulders and oversized head. Even my playlists didn’t match my mood.

And sure, moments of melancholy go hand-in-hand with the holidays, but that wasn’t it. So, like I often do, I turned to nature for the answer. Specifically, the ebb and flow of the Moon.

When the lunar calendar showed the waning crescent phase, I’d found my answer. We’ve done battle before, her and I.

The waning crescent means one thing: early nights. With the final stretch of this lunar cycle, it’s normal to feel exhausted by the past month and want to unwind as the New Moon approaches. It’s also a time of reflection. Perfect time for journaling and self-care.

I’ve long known how the Moon affects me. It’s undeniable. I also know my views may conflict with yours, and that’s okay. We’re writers, after all. It’s our job and passion to question the mysteries of life.

Why would I believe the Moon is responsible for my lackadaisical mood?

I’m glad you asked. 😉

Let’s first look at the composition of the human body.

According to the Journal of Biological Chemistry 158:

  • An adult human body is made up of about 60% water.
  • The brain and heart consist of 73% water.
  • Lungs are about 83% water.
  • Skin has 64% water.
  • Muscles and kidneys are 79% water.
  • Even bones are 31% water.

The above percentages vary by age, gender, and where people reside. An adult male, for example, needs about 3 liters per day of water while an adult female only needs 2.2 liters. Some of which we derive from food. Keep in mind, fat tissue doesn’t have as much water as lean tissue.

Infants are born with the most water — about 78% of their body. By their first birthday, that number decreases to about 65%.

Water serves several essential functions:

  • first acts as a building material, then provides nutrients to every cell in the body
  • regulates internal body temperature through sweating and respiration
  • metabolizes and transports carbohydrates and proteins in food to the bloodstream
  • assists in flushing waste through urination
  • acts as a shock absorber for brain, spinal cord, and fetus
  • creates saliva
  • lubricates joints

With all the water in our bodies, how could the Moon not affect us? 

If you’re still not convinced, perhaps it’ll help to understand how and why the Moon wields great power.

Tides

The Moon’s gravitational pull generates something called “the tidal force.” The tidal force causes Mother Earth — and its water — to swell on the sides closest and farthest from the Moon. These bulges of water are high tides. As the Earth rotates, our regions pass through both stages every day. If we’re in one of the bulges, we receive a high tide. If we’re not, it results in a low tide. This cycle of two high tides and two low tides occurs on almost all of the world’s coastlines. The rare exception is when the tide circles around an island, like in New Zealand.

In addition to the tides, the Moon controls time, light, and stable seasons.

For many animals, particularly birds, the Moon is essential to migration and navigation. Others will time their reproduction to coincide with the specific phases of the lunar cycle. There’s also a whole world of fascinating adaptations relating to tides and the unique properties of moonlight.

Power of Lunar Cycle

The lunar cycle changes circadian rhythms — day/night cycles driven by Earth orbiting the Sun. Human circadian rhythms are easily thrown off by jet lag or when we change the clocks. But circalunar rhythms, which are tied to lunar cycles, can also impact us.

Circalunar rhythms are difficult to discern, but they effect different types of organisms. Some animals respond to both a circadian rhythm and a lunar clock. I recently wrote an in-depth article about why animals don’t get lost that may interest you.

“The Moon has been up there as long as evolution has been taking place, and lunar rhythms are embedded in the life cycles of many organisms. The challenge is working out when the Moon truly is a factor and what is merely myth and legend.”

— Dr. Tom White, Senior Curator of Natural History Museum

Day Length

The gravitational pull of the Moon is slowing Earth’s rotation, an effect known as “tidal braking,” which increases the length of our day by 2.3 milliseconds per century. Early Earth was spinning at a much faster rate. According to computer models, we had a six-hour day 4.5 billion years ago. Since then, with the help of our Moon, the Earth’s rotation has been slowing. The result is longer days.

Seasons

The giant impact that formed the Moon may have tipped the Earth and contributed to the 23.5° tilt of our North Pole. This tilt gives us our seasons.

The Moon’s gravitational pull acts like training wheels for Earth on its journey around the Sun, and keeps the axis pointed at a consistent angle. Without the Moon, the Earth’s stately progression through spring, summer, fall, and winter would have massive fluctuations.

If the Moon controls tides (with help from our Sun), time, light, and seasons, it’s naïve to think it can’t impact human life. Or maybe, you’ve never given it much thought.

Fair enough. We do live busy lives and have different interests.

A few fun facts:

  • Behaviors of several species have been linked to lunar periodicity.
  • The word “lunacy” stems from the Latin word “lunar,” which means “Moon.”

Ask your local police if crime rises during a full Moon. Many will say yes. A registered nurse friend of mine swears the nursing home goes berserk during a full Moon. Yet, neither have been scientifically proven as cold, hard facts. Doesn’t mean they aren’t true, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.

  • Some philosophers say the Moon affects human behavior and health by its gravitational pull on body fluids.

The gravitational pull is so strong, our planet’s crust is stretched by these same tidal effects on a daily basis.

Can the Moon Disrupt Sleep?

2021 study found that people fell asleep later and slept less overall on the nights before the full moon — called Moonstruck sleep. Other research suggests the full Moon may be associated with less deep sleep and increased REM (rapid eye movement) latency.

Sleep latency is the period between when you first fall asleep and when you enter the first stage of REM sleep. So, increased latency means it takes longer to reach REM sleep.

As restrictions in sleep duration have been shown to adversely affect glucose regulation and physical activity to improve glucose regulation, one could argue cardiometabolic risk factors might also be affected by the lunar phase.

Despite dismissal by many non-holistic practitioners, scientific studies show we sleep less during certain Moon cycles.

“While the sun is the most important source of light and synchronizer of circadian rhythms for almost all species, moonlight also modulates nocturnal activity in organisms ranging from invertebrate larvae to primates. Moonlight is so bright to the human eye that it is entirely reasonable to imagine that, in the absence of other sources of light, this source of nocturnal light could have had a role in modulating human nocturnal activity and sleep.

 

However, whether the moon cycle can modulate human nocturnal activity and sleep remains a matter of controversy. Some authors have argued against strong effects of moon phase on human behavior and biological rhythms, but recent studies have reported that human sleep and cortical activity under strictly controlled laboratory conditions are synchronized with lunar phases.”

Some people are biologically more sensitive to the lunar clock than others, along with the Moon’s alignment with astrological signs.

So, TKZers, if you’d rather snuggle up with a good book or watch a sappy Christmas movie, I grant you whatever permission you may need to go for it. When the New Moon arrives on the 13th, light up the keyboard!

I have only one question for you today. How are you, friend? 

This is my last post before our holiday break. Wishing you and yours a joyous season!

 

 

 

What type of writer and reader are you?

Back in 2015, I was chatting with a dear writer friend, Paul Dale Anderson, about the different types of writers and readers.

If you’re a new writer searching for your voice, understanding which classification you fall into might help. Professional writers should also find this interesting.

Some of you may be familiar with Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). Though many call it junk science, most agree with the basic theory behind it: Our brains process information through one of our five senses. Though some rare individuals favor their sense of taste or smell (usually together, and these people are often chefs or perfumers), for most of us, it comes down to either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.

Kinesthetic links the process of learning to physical activity. Meaning, kinesthetic people can read or listen to instructions, but deep learning occurs via the process of doing. Obviously, this doesn’t mean kinesthetic readers need to act out the plot — though that’d be cool to watch! — they better absorb the storyline when it relates to experiences and actions.

Clear as mud? Cool. Moving on…

Paul Dale Anderson authored 27 novels and hundreds of short stories. He earned graduate degrees in Educational Psychology, taught college-level Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), and earned an MA in Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin. He also taught creative writing for Writers Digest School (both Novel and Short Story) and for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Paul was also a Certified Hypnotist and National Guild of Hypnotists Certified Instructor.

Sadly, the writing community lost our dear friend Paul on December 13, 2018. You can still plant a tree in his honor here, which I just discovered. Seems fitting for such a kind and generous soul. Anyway…

What he shared with me in 2015 is pure gold. And today, I’ll share it with you. The italicized paragraphs below are Paul’s words, not mine.

Even from beyond the grave, his knowledge and expertise still dazzles…

Too many writers are unaware of how the human mind processes language. Various structures in the brain—some in the left hemisphere and some in the right—work together to make sense out of symbols. Symbols include, besides alpha-numeric digital representations, sounds, gestures, signs, maps, smells, tastes, and physical feelings. It is the mind that gives meaning to each symbol based on prior associations dredged out of memory. The map is not the territory but merely a representation of the territory.

During conversations with fellow writers at the 2015 Nebula Award Banquet in Chicago, I identified successful new writers by which symbols had salience for them and the way they accessed information.

Some writers were very verbal and had a fluidity of language based primarily on auditory processing of sensory input. Those people were able to instantly duplicate and respond to what they heard as they heard it. Sounds themselves had salience. Those writers are akin to the musician who plays mostly by ear, translating auditory input into kinesthetic output without the additional steps auditory-digital types like me require to process input and output.

I work differently. I “see” stories, then translate them into words that describe my visions. First I see the scenes. Then I see the written symbols that best represent that scene. I see each letter, each punctuation mark, each space at the beginning of a new paragraph, the way words and white space look laid-out on a page, the way each page contributes to the story as a whole.

I write at the keyboard where my fingers automatically translate the symbols in my head into kinesthetic actions that produce the symbols that appear on the screen or piece of paper. I cannot listen to music while writing. Background music interferes with the words in my head. Other writers find that listening to music while writing is a big help.

If you are primarily kinesthetic, you might prefer to write with a pen on paper before revising your works on a keyboard or sending your notebooks to a typist. The feel of the paper itself, the touch of the pen to paper, produces words from your subconscious faster and better than any other process. Kinesthetic writers also love to pound out words on manual typewriters. They write with a flourish that adds to their style. James Patterson is a kinesthetic writer.

If you’re more like me, however, you separate the process into a series of “drafts.” The first draft is primarily visual, and you describe what you see.

The second draft includes imagined sounds, tastes, feelings, smells. During the third draft I read all the words aloud to hear how the words sound and to feel how they roll off my tongue. I add punctuation marks to match my pauses, inflections, intonations. I tend to cut unnecessary flourishes out of my stories unless they add momentum to the plot or help describe a specific character.

If a story is to work, it must engage all of the reader’s senses. Some readers are primarily auditory, some are visual, some are kinesthetic, some olfactory, and some gustatory.

The majority of people in this world are auditory. They respond best to dialogue, to alliteration, to phrasing. If you are primarily auditory like Stephen King, you might find writing easier if you dictate and capture the words into a digital recorder. Kinesthetic people respond best to action and they translate words on paper into muscle movements. If you want to appeal to every reader, you need to reach each of them in their own personal comfort zones.

That last line is a killer, right? No pressure. LOL

I fall into the auditory category, both as a writer and a reader. I write with headphones on, but the music becomes white noise that narrows my focus, transporting me into my story worlds. My first drafts consist of mainly dialogue with no tags and minimal narrative and description. After I gain critical distance, I’ll add sensory details and other enhancements.

As an auditory reader, I can’t listen to audiobooks. I need to read the words to hear the story rhythm. Audiobooks rob me of that.

Paul told us readers fall into the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic categories. For fun, let’s look at reading subcategories as well.

  • Motor reader: These readers tend to move their lips and may even mimic speech with their tongues and vocal cords when reading. Their reading range is very slow (150 to 200 words per minute) because they must read word-by-word at the rate they speak.
  • Auditory reader: These readers vocalize minimally or not at all, but they do silently say and/or  hear the words. They read in the 200 to 400 words-per-minute range. Auditory readers are skillful readers with vocabularies large enough that they can quickly recognize words.
  • Visual reader: These readers engage their eyes and minds when they read, but not their mouths, throats, or ears. They can read many words at once because they read ideas, not individual words. They read at a rate of 400+ words per minute.

If we believe Paul, with all his experience and degrees, most people fall into the auditory reader category. If your sentences don’t sing, the auditory reader may DNF your book. We also can’t forget about the visual or kinesthetic reader. Striking the perfect balance for all three can wrench a writer’s stomach, but it’s a goal worth shooting for.

What type of writer are you? What type of reader are you? If you’re an auditory reader, do you enjoy audiobooks? Or can you only hear the story rhythm by reading the actual words?

Biological Responses to Anger

In the comments of my post about fear, Dale suggested I write about anger, another powerful emotion with a physical response within the body. We associate anger as a negative emotion. If well-managed, anger can motivate us to make positive changes. The same holds true for our characters.

Most emotions begin inside two almond-shaped structures in our brains called the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for identifying threats to our well-being, and for sending out an alarm when threats are identified.

It’s so efficient at warning us that it can cause us to react before we’re able to confirm whether our response is warranted. Thought and judgment stem from the prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead), which tends to lag behind the amygdala.

In other words, our brains are wired to influence us to act before we can consider the consequences of our actions. This is not an excuse for behaving badly—people can and do control their anger. Rather, it means managing anger is a skill, not something we instinctually know how to do.

Case in point: Teenagers. 😉

Fun fact: The human brain takes twenty-six years to fully develop. This should help you stay sane when kids lash out or talk gibberish. They’re not working with a full deck yet!

What happens within the body when we’re angry?

Like fear, anger triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response. The adrenal glands flood the body with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The brain shunts blood away from the gut and toward the muscles to prepare for physical exertion.

This results in:

  • Faster heart rate
  • Rising blood pressure
  • Breathing increases and/or shallows
  • Rising body temperature
  • Increase of perspiration

Meanwhile, the sympathetic nervous system — a division of the nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight response — nudges the adrenal gland, encouraging it to release epinephrine (aka adrenaline), noradrenaline, and other energy hormones.

When we’re angry our muscles tense. Inside the brain, neurotransmitter chemicals known as catecholamines are released, causing a burst of energy that can last several minutes to hours. This burst of energy explains why our first reaction is to take immediate action.

In addition to the above list, the face flushes as increased blood flow enters the extremities to prepare for physical action. Attention narrows and locks onto the source of rage or innocent target, if misplaced. Additional neurotransmitters and hormones release, which trigger a lasting state of arousal.

The body is now ready to fight.

Quick story to illustrate anger.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m a chilled person by nature. My blood pressure rarely, if ever, rises above 110/60. It’s tough to get me angry because I do not allow others to control my emotions. There’re only two ways to push my buttons—abuse of animals or children. If you tick one of those boxes, look out. I’m coming for you.

Now, I’ll tell you the story. 🙂

A few weeks ago, I’m editing Merciless Mayhem at my desk, when four husky guys huddled around the side of the road, bordered by woods.

Huh. That’s odd. Why are they here?

I get back to work but keep the strangers in my peripheral.

One of the guys jumps forward and kicks something on the ground.

What the—? Now they’ve got my full attention.

Over and over, this dude kicks. Laughs with his buddies. Kicks again. Another guy squats. When he rises, he has two hooves gripped in one hand, holding a dead deer by the legs while his buddy kicks and punches the carcass.

Unable to trust to my eyes, I jolt to my feet. All four guys find it hilarious to beat a young deer who lost its life.

Heat envelopes me from the inside out. My face flushes. Blood pressure spikes, and I careen out the door. “Hey!”

They stop, turn. The kicker said, “What?”

“Stop abusing that animal!”

“What’s the big deal, lady? It’s dead.”

“Oh, I see.” In seconds, I shorten the distance between us. “So, when you die, I can kick the sh*t outta your corpse? Leave now, or I’m gonna make that happen a lot sooner than you think.”

All four booked it to their SUV, parked around the corner.

Two hours later, my husband strolls through the door after work. “Hey, honey. Have a good day?”

Boom. All the same biological/physiological responses flood my system, and I’m reliving the incident while I recount the story.

“How many guys?” he said.

“Four.”

“And that didn’t give you pause?” He asked because I’m only 5’ 1.5” Doesn’t matter. It’s the fire that burns inside you, and mine was blazing hot.

“No. Why, should it?”

“Honey, they were probably hunters—with guns.”

“And?”

“You could’ve been shot.”

“And?”

“You could’ve been killed.”

“Oh, well. I will never allow anyone to abuse an animal, dead or alive, in front of me. I don’t care who they are.”

See how easily anger can spiral out of control? Hours after the incident, it didn’t take much to trigger me again.

Tips to Show Anger

Anger can build over time or occur in a split-second. If I were writing the above story in a novel, I’d slow it down. Show in detail the motivation that sparked rage in the MC. Drag out an inferno building inside the MC before she snaps.

Body cues include:

  • Flared nostrils
  • Sweating
  • Head up, chin and chest out, shoulders back
  • Audible breath
  • Flexed muscles
  • Vein or artery pulsing, thinning the skin
  • A fighter’s stance
  • Cold stare and all its variants
  • Face reddening (If the POV character is angry, they can’t see the color of their face)
  • Tightness of the eyes, chest, lips, etc.
  • Punching, kicking, throwing things
  • Teeth or jaw grinding
  • Hurtful words, sarcasm, swearing
  • Heart thundering
  • Muscles quivering against the surge of adrenaline
  • Irrationality
  • Jumping to the wrong conclusion 

Trigger the Senses

Using my story as the example…

Did tree limbs obscure my view? (sight)

Did each kick boomerang across the road? (sound)

Did the metallic sweetness of blood assault the back of my throat? (taste) Or was the carcass rotting? (smell)

When I booked it across the street, did the cold asphalt sting my bare feet? (touch)

We already know hearing is impaired by biological changes. How does the impairment affect the MC? Do muffled sound waves heighten other senses? Or is the MC always a hothead?

Prolonged Effects of Anger

  • Headaches
  • Lower immune system
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart disease
  • Depression
  • Tingling sensation—muscle tension
  • Heart palpitations
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Ulcers
  • Muscle soreness
  • Jaw pain

Are you a hothead or chilled? Where is your line in the sand? Meaning, what triggers your anger?

Biological Responses to Fear

Last night, my husband and I went to a pumpkin festival with another couple. The town blocks off downtown’s main drag, and skeletons, witches, monsters, live music, and laser shows filled the streets.

Dozens of lit jack-o-lanterns on shelved staging fringed one side of the road — the focal point of the evening’s festivities. The only thing missing was a haunted house. Fine by us. We don’t chase the adrenaline high of fear.

Which brings me to today’s subject: Fear

Fear is a universal, physical response to danger. We associate fear as a negative emotion, but it also plays a vital role in keeping us safe by mobilizing us to cope with potential dangers.

What happens within the body when we’re fearful?

Fear begins in the amygdala, which then activates the pituitary gland, where the nervous system meets the endocrine (hormonal) system. The pituitary gland then secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream.

Meanwhile, the sympathetic nervous system — a division of the nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight response — nudges the adrenal gland, encouraging it to squirt  epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and other catecholamines into the bloodstream.

The body also releases cortisol in response to ACTH, which raises blood pressure, blood sugar, and white blood cells. Circulating cortisol turns fatty acids into energy for the muscles to use should the need arise.

Catecholamines include epinephrine and norepinephrine, both hormones that prepare the muscles for violence by causing the following:

  • Boost activity in the heart and lungs
  • Reduce activity in the stomach and intestines, producing “butterflies” in the belly.
  • Inhibit the production of tears and saliva, which explains why dry mouth often accompanies fright.
  • Dilate the pupils.
  • Produces tunnel vision.
  • Reduces hearing.

The hippocampus part of the brain is heavily involved in memory, whereas the prefrontal cortex aids in high-level decision making. Both these areas help us control the fear response and determine if the danger is real or exaggerated. If the latter, these areas of the brain dampen the fear, allowing us to read scary books or watch slasher films.

Biologically, fear responses include:

  • Increased breathing.
  • Increased heart rate.
  • Peripheral blood vessels in the skin constrict while central blood vessels around vital organs dilate and flood with oxygen and nutrients.
  • Blood pumps the muscles so they’re ready to react.
  • Muscles at the base of each hair tighten, causing piloerection aka goosebumps.
  • Eyebrows raise and pinch together.
  • Upper eyelid raises while the lower tenses.
  • Jaw may slack and part stretched lips.
  • Voice pitch rises, tone strains.
  • Posture either mobilizes or immobilizes or fluctuates between both.
  • Breath shallows.
  • Muscles tighten, especially in the limbs.
  • Increased sweating.

Metabolically, glucose levels spike to provide energy if needed for action. Fear also increases levels of calcium and white blood cells.

Tips to Show Fear

To show a believable fear response in your main character, consider the above scientific and biologic changes within the body. Then get creative. An effective way to enhance fear is to slow down. Visualize the context. What’s happening in this moment? What is the character experiencing, moment by moment? By drilling into slivers of time, we’re telling the reader to pay attention. We’re creating emotional resonance. We’re drawing readers farther into the story, forcing them to turn the page.

Trigger the Senses

Do shadows obscure the threat? (sight)

Do the leathery wings of a bat flap overhead? Or do footsteps ricochet off the building and make it difficult to pinpoint direction? (sound)

Does the metallic sweetness of blood assault the back of the throat? (taste) Or fill the sinuses? (smell)

Is the thick bark of the ash tree she’s hiding behind rough and scratchy? (touch)

We already know hearing is impaired by biological changes. How does the impairment affect the MC? Do muffled sound waves heighten other senses? Or does the MC enjoy the adrenaline rush that accompanies fear?

Emotion is Layered

Characters shouldn’t be totally fine one second then immediately immobilized by terror. Let emotions build over time, even second by second.

“In the real world, no two people are alike, which means each of us expresses emotion in our own way. Some people find it perfectly natural to share what they feel with those around them, experiencing little to no discomfort with their emotions being on display. Others find the idea of revealing what they feel horrifying and will avoid situations that could lead to such vulnerability. Most fall somewhere between these extremes. This spectrum of expressiveness is called an emotional range, and it will influence not only which feelings a person overtly shows but when and how they will manifest.”

—Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, the Emotion Thesaurus

Emotions — especially ones as extreme and universal as fear — unfold on a continuum. To impact the reader, show the MC’s physical and emotional responses in the correct order and with the proper intensity, or fear may come across as irrational or melodramatic.

Any adrenaline junkies in our audience? Do you ride roller coasters? Like haunted houses? Have you ever zip-lined? What about jumping out of an aircraft? Care to share a frightful experience?

 

 

First Page Critique: The Puzzle Within

Let me apologize to the Brave Writer who submitted this first page. A mix-up in communication caused me to think Brian sent this to another TKZer. Sorry! And thank you for your patience. My comments will follow.

***

Title: The Puzzle Within

Genre: Romantic Suspense

Arizona Powers slammed her palm into the office wall, ignoring the stinging sensation. Unbelievable. “Are you kidding me? I’m not doing that. I’m a federal agent, not a babysitter.” Her boss had clearly lost his mind. She spun on her hiking shoe, locking eyes with Senior Special Agent Matt Updike. Her fingers fidgeted with a button on her shirt. I deserve a second chance. 

Matt shoved his chair backward, rising with his hands splayed over the glass surface. “I’m not kidding. You are doing this,” he said, angling his bushy eyebrows and closing the distance between them in two steps. “You don’t have a choice.” His hot, stale coffee breath blasted her skin, and a vein in his neck bulged.

Reclining her head to make eye contact with a man nearly a foot taller than herself, Ari wrinkled her nose, crossed her arms, but refused to back down. “You can’t force me to do this. I’ll take it to the top.” All the way to the Director if necessary.

Matt’s energy deflated, a muscle twitching in his cheek. “This assignment came from the top. From the Director himself. The shrink doesn’t believe you’re ready,” he said, placing a warm hand on her shoulder. His expression softened. “Not yet.”

Ari shrugged, knocking his hand away, and stalked to the other side of the room. She rested her hands on a bookshelf, her eyes falling upon the photo of Matt’s smiling family taken at Disneyland last summer. The FBI was her family, and she didn’t need sympathy. She needed her job back. With a sigh, she rotated to face her boss. “But why me? Why isn’t DSS handling this?”

Shouldn’t the Diplomatic Secret Service be handling this problem? They’re responsible for Ambassador Van Sloan and his spoiled daughter, Bianca—the biggest brat in diplomatic circles. Growing up in the consulate with the world at her fingertips and a silver spoon in her mouth, the college student didn’t comprehend the word “no.”

I don’t have time for this. I’ve got cases to solve and missing children to find. A knot formed in her stomach.

Matt cleared his throat and returned to his seat.

Ari’s pulse flickered in her neck. “What aren’t you telling me?” Apprehension tinged her voice.

He swallowed. “DSS is handling it.” His eyes darted to a manila envelope on his desk. “You’re being ‘borrowed’ for the time being.”

***

Let’s first discuss all the things Brave Writer did right.

  • Good grasp of POV
  • Story starts with a goal: To get out of babysitting a diplomat’s daughter.
  • Includes a complication: The boss is forcing her to go.
  • Raises story questions: Why is Arizona not ready for FBI work? Why did the psychiatrist evaluate her?
  • Includes a subtle clue that tells us Arizona isn’t dressed for work—her hiking boot—which implies she’s on leave after an incident or came in on her day off.

If we put all these puzzle pieces together, the assumption is something bad happened to Arizona.

Kudos to you, Brave Writer. You’ve worked hard to hone your craft.

Now for some tough love.

The bones of intrigue are there, but it’s overshadowed by too many body cues and random details that add nothing of value. Here are the first two paragraphs with my comments in blue.

Arizona Powers slammed her palm into the office wall, ignoring the stinging sensation. This first line has no context. It’s a reaction without a motivation, or an effect without a cause. If, say, a grizzly bear was advancing on our MC, we wouldn’t first show the MC’s reaction. We’d show the grizzly bear huff or stomp the ground. Then the MC could react. Unbelievable. “Are you kidding me? I’m not doing that. I’m a federal agent, not a babysitter.” Her boss had clearly lost his mind. She spun on her hiking shoe This body cue implies she’s changing directions to leave, yet the rest of the sentence implies she’s entering her boss’s office. When put together, these two body cues cancel each other out and cause confusion., locking eyes with Senior Special Agent Matt Updike. I realize some writers use “locking eyes” but I immediately envision floating eyeballs. “Locking gazes” avoids confusion. But again, without knowing if she’s leaving or entering the office, the scene remains scrambled in this reader’s mind. Her fingers fidgeted with a button on her shirt. And now, she’s fidgeting, which implies nervousness. However, slamming a hand into a wall, locking gazes, and the inner monologue and dialogue all implies anger and/or defiance. Choose one emotion and stick with it. We haven’t even gotten to the second paragraph, and already the MC has experienced a plethora of conflicting emotions. I deserve a second chance. 

Matt shoved his chair backward, rising with his hands splayed over the glass surface. Glass surface of what? “I’m not kidding. <- this adds nothing of value, nor does this -> You are doing this,” he said, angling his bushy eyebrows <- I have no idea what this means. Is he consciously angling his bushy eyebrows at something? Doubtful. And if he is, we’ve slipped out of Arizona’s POV. and closing the distance between them in two steps. “You don’t have a choice.” His hot, stale coffee breath blasted her skin Face? Nose? Be specific. ’Course, shoving his chair backward is all you need to portray anger. All these other emotional cues distract from the dialogue. It’s too much. A good exercise for you may be to limit one emotion per character per page. It’ll force you to focus on strengthening the dialogue, inner monologue, and the narrative., and a vein in his neck bulged.

Let’s move on…

What if you started by showing Ari trying to control the diplomat’s reckless daughter (and failing)? Then this whole opener could be threaded through the narrative in a more organic way.

Example:

I didn’t become a federal agent to babysit a diplomat’s brat.

That one line of inner dialogue shows what you’ve conveyed in this first page. Please don’t get discouraged. We’ve all started novels too soon. And many of us continue to learn that lesson over and over and over. I wrote three different openers to my current WIP before I landed on one that worked, and it’ll be my 22nd book.

One last comment…

Because the out-of-control diplomat kid is a familiar trope, you need to work twice as hard to twist it in a way that’s fresh and new. It likens to the alcoholic cop or homicide detective who’s haunted by the cases he couldn’t solve. I can see that you have worked hard on your craft—otherwise I’d be handling you with kid gloves—so I’ll assume you have a fresh take. Which is great. I only bring it up to make you aware. Okay? Now, go write your bestseller. You’ve got the writing chops to do it. 😉

Over to you, TKZers. Please add your thoughtful suggestions for this Brave Writer.

Remember to Breathe

I wrote this post four years ago, but the subject is important enough to redux. Plus, I needed the reminder. Maybe you do, too.

When chaos starts shaking the to-do list in my face, I close my eyes, lean back, and breathe… It’s amazing what a few deep breaths can do. There’s a running joke in my family that I’m so chill, I’m practically a corpse. It’s true! My blood pressure rarely, if ever, rises above 110/60, even under stressful conditions. And you know why? Because I take advantage of the most powerful and the most basic gift we have — the ability to breathe.

It may not sound like much of a superpower, but controlled breathing improves overall health. Controlled breaths can calm the brain, regulate blood pressure, improve memory, feed the emotional region of the brain, boost the immune system, and increase energy and metabolism levels.

The Brain’s Breathing Pacemaker

A 2016 study accidentally discovered a neural circuit in the brainstem that plays a pivotal role in the breathing-brain control connection. This circuit is called “the brain’s breathing pacemaker,” because it can be adjusted by alternating breathing rhythm, which influences our emotional state. Slow, controlled breathing decreases activity in the circuit while fast, erratic breathing increases activity. Why this occurs is still largely unknown, but knowing this circuit exists is a huge step closer to figuring it out.

Breathing Decreases Pain 

Specifically, diaphragmatic breathing exercises. Ever watch an infant sleep? Their little tummy expands on the inhale and depletes on the exhale. They’re breathing through their diaphragm. We’re born breathing this way. It’s only as we grow older that we start depending on our lungs to do all the work.

Singers and athletes take advantage of diaphragmatic breathing techniques. Why not writers? If you find yourself hunched over the keyboard for too long, take a few moments to lay flat and concentrate on inflating your belly as you inhale through your nostrils. Then exhale while pulling your belly button toward your core. It takes a little practice to master the technique. Once you do, you can diaphragmatically breathe in any position. The best part is, it works!

Count Breaths for Emotional Well-Being

In 2018, another scientific study found that the mere act of counting breaths influenced “neuronal oscillations throughout the brain” in regions related to emotion. When participants counted correctly, brain activity showed a more organized pattern in the regions related to emotion, memory, and awareness, verse participants who breathed normally (without counting).

Controlled Breathing Boosts Memory

The rhythm of our breathing generates electrical activity in the brain that affects how well we remember. Scientists linked inhaling to a greater recall of fearful faces, but only when the participants breathed through their nose. They were also able to remember certain objects in greater detail while inhaling. Thus, researchers believe nasal inhalation triggers more electrical activity in the amygdala (brain’s emotional center). Inhaling also seems key to greater activity in the hippocampus, “the seat of memory,” according to Forbes.

Relaxation Response

The “Relaxation Response” (RR) is a physiological and psychological state opposite to the fight-or-flight response. RR therapy includes meditation, yoga, and repetitive prayer, and has been practiced for thousands of years. These stress-reducing practices counteract the adverse clinical effect of stress in disorders like hypertension, anxiety, insomnia, and aging.

Yet, research on the underlying molecular mechanisms of why it works remained undetermined until a 2017 study unearthed a fascinating discovery. Both short-term and long-term practitioners of meditation, yoga, and repetitive prayer showed “enhanced expression of genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function…” and more efficient insulin secretion, which helps with blood sugar management. Relaxation Response also reduces the expression of genes linked to inflammatory responses and stress-related pathways. In simpler terms, controlled breathing helps boost the immune system and improve energy metabolism.

Creativity

This probably goes without saying, but I’m mentioning it anyway. Good brain health increases creativity. Creativity helps inspiration. And inspiration ups the word count.

Shawnee and Mayhem continue to wreak havoc on the Killzme Corporation — the largest animal trafficking ring in the country — by killing one poacher at a time. The stakes grow increasingly higher when the nefarious group retaliates by putting a bounty on their heads.

Meanwhile, the traffickers set their sights on capturing Orca for profit and pleasure.

With a ticking clock and no place left to hide, Shawnee and Mayhem alternate between undercover surveillance and clandestine battles to save their loved ones and the Innocent Ones from Killzme’s evil plans. Skills are tested. Tenuous alliances are formed. Not everyone will make it out alive.

Set in a world of cultural wonder, environmental threats, and looming danger, this heart-stopping eco-thriller will have you glued to the page from the first sentence to the last.

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