About Sue Coletta

Member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and ITW, Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer of psychological thrillers. She also writes true crime: PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND hits bookstores by Nov. 1, 2020 (Globe Pequot, trade division of Rowman & Littlefield). Feedspot & Expertido.org honored Sue's blog with the Top 100 Crime Blogs on the Net award (Murder Blog sits at #5). Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

Titles and Comp Titles — How To Find the Best Ones For Your Book

I asked my dear friend Ruth Harris to dazzle us with her experience of choosing titles and comps, and she delivered. Big time.

Ruth is a New York Times, award-winning bestselling author whose novels have sold millions of copies in hardcover and paperback editions. Translated into 19 languages and sold in hardcover and paperback editions in more than 30 countries, her books were Literary Guild, Book-of-the-Month Club and book club selections around the world. Ruth is also a former Editor, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher at Big Six and independent NY publishers who knows the publishing business from both sides of the desk.

And so, she’s an author who knows what works and what doesn’t. Enjoy!

A Prince by any other name would still be a Prince. (I hope.)

Meghan by any other name would still be a princess.

Ditto Diana.

Lord or Lady. Peasant or serf.

Professor or student.

Beginner or expert.

Titles orient us to where we are and what we should expect next.

Doesn’t just apply to people, either. Also applies to books, because time-pressed readers/editors/agents take only a few seconds to make their buy decision, and authors have the same few seconds to make their sale.

If you’re aiming for a traditional publishing deal including relevant comp titles in your query letter is a must, because comp titles define the expectations and positioning of your book. Well-chosen comp titles provide a target in a crowded marketplace, and will affect your cover, blurb and sales pitch.

Agents and publishers ask for comp titles because they need a quick shorthand way to establish the basis for sales expectations and marketing. The agent/editor/potential reader needs a reference point, and, if your book will appeal to readers who enjoy legal thrillers, steamy romance or epic fantasy, you’re providing a valuable selling tool by providing appropriate comp titles that give a solid clue about which market you’re aiming at.

Meaning before details.

According to John Medina of the University of Washington, the human brain requires meaning before details. When listeners doesn’t understand the basic concept right at the beginning, they have a hard time processing the rest of the information.

Bottom line for writers: The title and the cover—image plus title—have to work as a unit to explain the hook or basic concept first. Wrong image and/or misfit title confuse the would-be buyer and you lose the sale. On-target image plus genre-relevant title and the reader/agent/editor will look closer.

Your cover indicates visually by color, design and image what the reader can expect inside—a puzzling mystery, a swoony romance, futuristic scifi, or scary horror—but the first words the prospective reader/agent/editor sees are the ones in the title.

Your title tells readers what to expect.

You’re unpublished but your title is awfully close to Nora Roberts’ newest or…ahem…a clone of James Patterson’s most recent? Come on. Get real. Please. For your own sake.

Your book is about a modest governess in 19th Century London who falls in love with the maddeningly handsome Prince who lives in the castle next door, but your title promises hotter-than-hot, through-the-roof sales like, oh, maybe, 50 Shades Of Grey? Really? 51 Shades of Grey is the best you can come up with? Seriously?

If you’re in a quandary about choosing a title for your book here are Anne’s 10 Tips for Choosing the Right Title for Your Book.

You can also research successful titles in your genre for inspiration. Whether your genre is romance or suspense, you will find that certain words recur. Just be aware that most publishing contracts give the publisher the right to change the title. Sometimes the author is pleased.

Other times? Not so much. (Don’t ask me how I know, but horror stories abound.)

If the title you’ve chosen for your book is your idea of the one and only, check your contract to make sure you have the last word on title. The reality, though, is that few author have this right and, if you’re just starting out, you won’t. Sorry about that, but it’s the reality.

If you’re self-pubbing, you control the decision about titles. And, if you think of a better title in the future, you can easily change a title later.

All about comp titles.

The writer’s version of GPS, your comps tell readers/agents/editors where they are and what they can expect if they go further. That’s why a poorly chosen title or the wrong comp titles are an invitation to nowheresville for you and your book.

A sweet romance compared to a horror epic called Tarantula Invasion? I don’t think so.

Scifi comped to something titled A Duke For The Duchess? Nope.

Serial killer police procedural titled Miss Emily’s Quaint Cupcake Cafe? You’re joking, right?

Comp titles are books that are similar to yours. Comps help agents/editors/readers figure out who your book will appeal to and how big the potential audience might be. Comps give the Art Department or your cover artist a starting point and help them understand what is required.

Comps are indispensable to the sales department at a publisher and serve the same purpose in your blurb. Sales reps have only a few second to interest a buyer or bookstore owner. Being able to tell them that New Book X is like Old Book Y is useful shorthand telling the prospective buyers something about the likely audience and sales potential.

  • “If you like X, you’ll love Y”
  • “If you like action-adventure with strong female leads, you’ll like Y”
  • “If you like Regency romance, you’ll like Y”
  • “Readers who like Dean Koontz will love Y”

Another approach is X is like Y—with a twist.

  • “Cozy mystery with dragons”
  • “Historical mystery with space ships”
  • “Romantic suspense in a gay retirement home”

A third example is X meets Y—with a twist.

  • “Jack Reacher meets Jane Austen”
  • “Fan fiction meets literary memoir”
  • “Leo Tolstoi meets K-pop.”

Do’s and don’ts of choosing comp titles.

  • Do stay within your own genre (or genres if you write mash ups).
  • Do keep it realistic. Choose comps with the same likely sales pattern: out of the gate with a burst or a long, slow and steady sales arc, front list star vs backlist stalwart.
  • Do keep it recent: choose titles published within the last two or three years so that they are still fresh in the minds of reader/agents/editors/sales staff/store buyers. Pointless to choose a comp from a decade ago that no one remembers.
  • Don’t abandon common sense and compare your book to a #1 NYT bestseller or the latest gee-whiz phenom.
  • Don’t mix formats. If your book will be offered in a digital edition, don’t compare it to a hardcover title and vice versa.
  • Don’t jump genres. Compare apples to apples, oranges to oranges. That is, compare scifi to scifi, thriller to thriller, epic fantasy to epic fantasy, literary fiction to literary fiction.
  • Don’t ignore demographics. If your book will appeal to women, be sure to choose comps that will appeal to that same reader. Don’t choose a comp that will appeal to young adult readers or males looking for hairy-chested adventure in the remote jungles of Borneo.

Where to find good comp titles.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and the gang.

Because readers of romance tend to buy more romance and readers of action-adventure tend to buy more action-adventure, type the title of a book similar to yours into the search window of any book seller to find recommendations under headers like:

  • “Customers who bought this also bought”
  • “What customers bought after viewing this”
  • “Trending now”
  • “Pageturners”
  • “Monthly picks”
  • “Frequently bought together”
  • “Favorite authors”

Goodreads

Tell Goodreads what genre you’re interested in and they will provide a list of titles.

Or you can enter comp titles you’re already considering to ask for more suggestions.

You can also describe the kind of book you’re looking for—“thriller set in Iceland,” “mystery in Uruguay,” “cozy mystery in Nantucket,” or “scifi in a crippled space capsule”—for suggestions.

Goodreads Choice Awards lists their annual picks by category if you’re looking for even more inspiration.

Bestseller lists.

The middle or lower down titles in the NYTimes and the USA Today lists are good starting points, but don’t overlook your town or city. Your local bookstore will know what books are selling well in your area.

If your book is of regional interest—New England, Florida, the Far West—local bestseller info will be valuable and all you have to do is ask.

Librarians can help you ID relevant books that float just below the top bestsellers. We not talking mega authors and books, but titles just below the top ten or twenty that have reliable sales records and are known by buyers/agents/editors/retailers.

BookBub.

Sign up—it’s free—and ask for recs in genres similar to yours or by authors who appeal to the same readers you are looking for.

BookBub also has extensive genre lists that can be helpful as well as real-time updates from authors who write books similar to yours.

More help.

You’ll find more ideas for finding comp titles in this marketing-oriented post by Penny Sansevieri about Finding and Using Competing Book Titles in Your Book Marketing

Dave Chesson’s Publisher’s Rocket uses up-to-date market research data to quickly identify relevant comp titles, categories and keywords.

NerdyBookGirl offers a helpful FREE Book Category Hunter.

★★★★★“WOW! WHAT A STORY!”★★★★★

“A master storyteller coaxed me through a maze of fascinating, brilliant, tragic, and heartwarming twists and turns, and left me feeling uplifted and satisfied. ZURI slides to the top of my favorite books of 2020!”

—Sue Coletta, award-winning, bestselling author

 

99c Sale. Ends soon.

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+9

Writing Wisdom from Gary Provost

Jim’s Reader Friday question got me thinking. What is the special sauce that ignites a writer’s brain? Would a new writer know when to run with an idea and when to let it go? Maybe. Maybe not.

With that in mind, I’ll share the following tips from critically acclaimed author and beloved writing instructor, Gary Provost. Incidentally, these tips can be used for fiction and nonfiction, if your nonfiction falls into the “story” category (i.e. true crime, historical, narrative nonfiction, etc).

Gary Provost created a simple paragraph to encapsulate the dramatic arc in a story.

Once upon a time… something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.

This works because of its classic dramatic structure, which is the most satisfying type of story for the reader. It’s brilliant, if you take the time to dissect it. For now, I’d like to concentrate on a quick and dirty shortcut to test a story idea.

Gary Provost thought of stories in terms of a series of “buts.”

Joyce is a poor secretary, but she meets a millionaire and marries him.

She’s married to a millionaire, but the marriage goes sour.

She wants to end the marriage, but she (allegedly) thinks she’ll be left penniless.

She perhaps has a motive for murdering her husband, but so do other people.

After the murder, police suspect her, but she passes two polygraph exams at two different times and places. One, a highly regarded expert.

She passes the polygraphs, but the court rules they will not be allowed. But a federal court rules in a different case that the polygraphs can be allowed.

She goes back to court to get the polygraph tests allowed, but Judge Smith still will not allow them.

Someone claims to have heard shots at 3:30 A.M., but the medical examiner says that Stanley died around 5:30 A.M., consistent with Joyce’s story. She seems to be telling the truth, but it was five minutes from the time of the Colorado phone call to the call to 911.

Joyce allegedly says to Officer Catherine Parker, “I shouldn’t have done it,”but Parker never reports this.

Three days after the murder a cop tells the medical examiner that he saw signs of lividity, indicating that the body had been dead for a few hours.

But Wetli, the medical examiner, reviews his material, still comes to the same conclusion. Stays with that conclusion for three years.

No charges against Joyce, but the Miami Herald starts an anti-Joyce campaign, demanding that she be brought to justice.

Newscaster Gerri Helfman is about to get married, but her father is murdered.

No charges are brought against Joyce, but Stanley’s family pressures the state’s attorney’s office to come up with something.

And on and on it goes.

The above series of “buts” Provost used in a book proposal for a true crime book entitled Rich Blood. The proposal started a bidding war between publishers.

In the end, he decided to write Deadly Secrets instead. Turned out to be the right move because Deadly Secrets became the mega-hit Perfect Husband: True Story of the Trusting Bride Who Discovered Her Husband was a Coldblooded Killer.

Use a series of “buts” to test your story idea. Obviously, a “but” won’t fit every sentence. When it doesn’t, try “and then.” But a “but” should follow “and then” soon. Why? Because “buts” are complications. Complications = conflict. And conflict drives the story.

Example:

Husband kills wife, and then stuffs her body into a 3ml bag, and then drives to a secluded area to bury her, but his foldable spade isn’t in the backseat. Did the neighbor borrow it again?

When you write don’t keep all the “buts” and “and thens.” Think in those terms, but you don’t want all of them in the final draft. Over time your story sensibilities will automatically search for (nonfiction) and/or apply (fiction) this rhythm.

The point is, whether we write fiction or nonfiction, we need to find the story beneath the headline or first spark of an idea. Without a narrative driven by conflict, the story will fall flat.

Five pieces of wisdom from Gary Provost’s 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.

  1. A writer’s most important vocabulary is the one he or she already has. 

Learning new words is much less important than learning to use the words you already know. Think about your ideal reader. If he or she wouldn’t understand your word choice, you might as well be writing in a foreign language. Over time finding the right word becomes easier, almost a subconscious act. Until then, be intentional with every word.

  1. A lead should have energy, excitement, an implicit promise that something is going to happen or that some interesting information will be revealed.

Whether a lead is the first sentence, the first paragraph, or even the first several paragraphs of your story, it should pique a reader’s interest by raising story questions and give readers someone (or something) to care about before delving into the backstory.

Act first, explain later.
—James Scott Bell

A strong lead delivers on the promise it makes.

  1. When writing a beginning, remove every sentence until you come to one you cannot do without. 

Meaning, make your point by answering “who, what, when, where” in the first paragraph. Make the reader wait for “why.” Unless, of course, the why is the character’s goal.

A topic sentence contains the thought that is developed throughout the rest of the paragraph. The topic sentence is commonly the first sentence in a paragraph. For each paragraph ask, “What do I want to say here? What point do I want to make? What question do I want to present?” Answer with a single general sentence.

When you edit, ask how each sentence works for the paragraph. Ask why it’s there. Does it have a purpose? Great! Then keep it. If you can’t pinpoint why you included that sentence, hit DELETE.

  1. Style is form, not content.

In writing, the word style means how an idea is expressed, not the idea itself.

A reader usually picks up a story because of content but too often puts it down because of style.

 

  1. To write is to create music.

The words you write make sounds, and when those sounds are in harmony, the writing will work.

 

Gary Provost was highly regarded as an author, sought-after speaker, consultant, and celebrity biographer.

“The writers’ writer” authored thousands of articles, columns, and dozens of books covering most every genre. His highly acclaimed Writers Retreat Workshop, and video and audio courses remain available through writersretreatworkshop.com.

What’s your favorite piece of advice here? Care to add a tip?

+14

When Opposites Attract

Foils and antagonists are two types of characters that serve different functions. An antagonist or villain works in direct opposition to the protagonist or hero. The antagonist presents obstacles to thwart the hero from achieving his or her goal. The foil, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily working against the hero. A foil’s qualities simply differ from the hero’s.

The hero and foil often work together, such as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The key difference between the foil and antagonist is that the antagonist’s actions oppose the hero while the foil’s character traits create conflict. Also, a foil shines the spotlight on another character’s personality traits and/or flaws, without necessarily thwarting their plans. When done right, however, there will be conflict!

The term “foil” came into its current usage as a literary device from the concept of putting tin foil behind a gemstone to make it look more brilliant. The foil character works in the same way—to add credibility to the hero or to spotlight his or her faults.

Opposing personalities add a great deal to a story. Pairing these two characters can transform a ho-hum scene into one with explosive conflict. But we need to—dare I sayplan these character traits in advance. 😉

Conflicting personalities rub against one another, which allows the writer to maximize slower moments within the plot. After all, if everyone in the scene “plays nice,” we risk boring the reader. With a bit of character planningoh, my, there’s that word again—clashing personalities lead to conflict-driven scenes.

If the hero dances on the edge of the law, the foil might be hyper-vigilant about following rules of any kind. If the hero never follows directions, the foil might be a map enthusiast. If the hero’s loud and extroverted, the foil might be shy, quiet, and reclusive.

Positioning the foil and main character in close proximity will draw readers’ attention to the hero’s attributes. A story could have more than one foil. In my Mayhem Series, I created a foil for my hero and another for my villain.

By crafting opposites, these characters’ scenes crackle with tension. Foils show the hero’s and/or villain’s strengths and weaknesses through friction. Remember to include the element that ties the two characters together, a believable bond that’s stronger than their differences.

Since Garry mentioned my video excerpt in the comments on Thursday, I’ll include it as an example of the foil/hero relationship. Don’t worry. There’s no need to watch the entire video (unless you want to). You should recognize the opposing personalities pretty quick.

Have you used a foil in your story? Please explain. Or: What’s your favorite fictional foil/hero relationship?

As bloody, severed body parts show up on her doorstep, Shawnee Daniels must stop the serial killer who wants her dead before she becomes the next victim.

But can she solve his cryptic clues before it’s too late? Or will she be the next to die a slow, agonizing death?

Preorder for 99c on Amazon.

Releases April 20, 2021.

+8

Rinse and Repeat

Remember JSB’s post about public speaking? Well, before an exciting opportunity two weeks ago, I reread his tips a gazillion times. What he failed to mention was a bizarre side effect of stress—dry mouth. I noticed it when I did my first Zoom book signing. Which is odd, right? I’ve never had a problem with in-person book signings, but on Zoom? I dried up like the Sahara. Halfway through the event it went away, so I didn’t give it another thought. I Zoomed a few more times without incident.

And then, an Emmy award-winning true crime series asked me to appear on their show. (Can’t tell you which one yet, sorry!) I was fine on the drive over. Nervous as all heck, but other than a thundering heartbeat, I could hide my anxiety. After all, that’s what a professional does. They don’t let nerves get the better of them. Plus, I knew this case inside out. How hard could it be? So what if a camera crew would be focused on me.

My confidence waned on the walk inside, but I was still holding my own. Head held high, shoulders back.

Then I sat in the interview chair.

With that one simple act, all the saliva in my mouth turned to dust. And I mean all of it. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, my lips puckered, and words refused to roll off my tongue with ease. Me on the day of my debut TV appearance…

They offered me bottled water—gallons of it through two and half hours of taping. After the second or third bottle, I think they might’ve figured out I wasn’t an old pro at this TV stuff. 😉 Thankfully, I’d spoken to the producer on the phone several times prior, so he had faith in me. “Get her more water please!” And I drank, and drank, and drank.

Mr. Producer told me several times I did an excellent job. I’ll be the judge of that, thank you…in six months when the episode airs. We did have a lot of laughs. But when you’re discussing a shooting and can’t spit out the word “caliber” because your tongue feels like it’s three sizes too big for your mouth…

Well, let’s just say it isn’t a good look. The more I stressed, the drier my mouth became. Throughout the interview I fluctuated between Lord, give me strength and Someone—anyone—please shoot me! But most of all, I needed more water STAT.

On the plus side, the nice part of working on a true crime show is it’s not taped in front a live audience. All I had to do was string together one good sentence at a time and the editor would grab what s/he needs.

Mission accomplished. That’s a rap!

Shamefaced, I crawled into the passenger seat of our truck—and all at once my mouth regained its moisture. Ain’t that a b*tch? I can hardly wait to see what happens next time. Maybe I’ll grow some weird lump on my forehead. Or better yet, my saliva glands will over-stimulate, and I’ll show up looking like this…

I think it’s fair to say no one will ever ask me to do a TedTalk. Probably best.

To understand my body’s reaction to stress, I researched the subject the next morning to find out why this occurred and what to do about it in the future. Turns out, dry mouth isn’t an uncommon reaction.

Researchers have studied this phenomenon.

The term stress refers to a series of events that lead to a reaction in the brain (perceived stress), activating the physiological fight-or-flight response in the body. Anxiety is also a generalized unpleasant and vague sensation of fear and concern with an unknown origin.

Makes sense.

Psychological conditions might affect both salivary flow rate and xerostomia. Furthermore, it was observed that salivary cortisol levels increased during stress, followed by changes in the composition of saliva.

In simpler terms, stress plays a significant role in reducing the salivary flow rate.

So, what’s my advice in case you experience something similar? Hope you’ve got a nice strong bladder. You’ll need it to hold all the water. No, seriously, pack lozenges. If all else fails, smile! Works every time.

I’m a big believer in laughter. If we can’t poke fun at ourselves, we’ll dwell on the negative. I appeared on an Emmy award-winning true crime show (!), and have spoken to the producer several times since. For me, it’s a dream come true. 🙂

Let’s discuss embarrassing moments! Your turn. Extra points if it relates to writing, reading, acting, etc.

+6

First Page Critique: How To Improve a Compelling Opener

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments/suggestions will follow. Enjoy!

Expendable

Prologue 

Kate turned right onto her parent’s street only to find a street jammed with police cars. A cacophony of lights, flashing red and blue, backlighting people hurriedly moving against the night sky. My parents will certainly be outside watching, she thought. As she drew closer, she was alarmed to see her parent’s house isolated by swags of yellow police tape. 

She jerked her car to the curb and ran toward the chaos.

“I’m sorry, miss. You can’t go up there.” A policeman seemed to appear out of nowhere.

“But, I live here,” she lied.

“This is your house, miss?”

“It’s my parents’ house. I live with them. Please let me through.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. You can’t go up there.” The officer blocked her path and motioned to a man in an overcoat, standing near the garage. The man closed his notepad as he walked over. The two men had a brief exchange before the one in the overcoat spoke.

“Miss, my name is Detective Montoya.” A badge swung on a ball-chain around his neck. “You live here?” he said, opening the notepad again. She nodded. He put his hand on her shoulder, guiding her to a place on the lawn, away from the activity. He began writing as soon as she answered. Asked her name along with a few other questions. She gave terse answers, anxious to get inside. He asked whereabouts that evening requiring a lengthy explanation about her late class on Wednesdays. Each answer seemed to beget another question.

“Miss, what we’re looking at here is a double homocide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself. 

“No,” she said, covering her mouth with both hands. She battled her mind to keep from considering the obvious. “That’s impossible. No, it can’t be. Let me see,” she tried to force her way past him.

“I can’t let you in. It’s pretty gruesome. I don’t know that you could handle it.”

“I need to go inside.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, miss. Right now, it’s a crime scene and we can’t take the chance of you contaminating it.” 

“Look,” She said. “You owe me something. You can’t ask me to endure the entire night wondering if I’m still part of a family or not.” Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

The writer did so many things right. We’re dropped in the middle of a disturbance, s/he raised story questions, added relatability for the heroine, and I could (somewhat) feel her frustration, fear, and anxiety. Great job, Brave Writer! As written, I’d turn the page to find out what happens next.

Let’s see if we can improve this opener even more. Brave Writer included a note about using a prologue. I hope s/he doesn’t mind if I include it here.

I have never considered doing a prologue before but this allows me to describe a major event that will be referred to various times during the story as well as give some backstory about the protagonist and tell the reader what kind of story to expect.

Prologues

The correct reasons to use a prologue are:

  • the incident occurs at a different time and/or place from the main storyline
  • to inform the reader of something they can’t glean from the plot
  • to foreshadow future events (called a jump cut, where we use the prologue to setup an important milestone in the plot)
  • to provide a quick-and-dirty glimpse of important background information without the need of flashbacks, dialogue, or memories that interrupt the action later on (no info dumps!).
  • Hook the reader into the action right away while raising story questions relevant to the main plot, so the reader’s eager to learn the answers.

It sounds like you’re using a prologue for the right reasons. Keep in mind, if you plan to go the traditional route, many agents and editors cringe when they see the word “prologue” because so many new writers don’t use them correctly. If you can change it to Chapter One, you’d have an easier time.

Point of View 

For most of the opener you stayed inside the MC’s head.

Two little slips:

“Miss, what we’re looking at here is a double homocide homicide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself.

See how you jumped inside the cop’s head?

Same thing happened here:

Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

Stay inside the MC’s head. One scene = one point of view.

Dialogue

The dialogue is a bit stiff. I’ll show you what I mean in the “fine tuning” section. For now, I highly recommend How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by our very own James Scott Bell.

First Lines

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the first line, but I think you’ve got the writing chops to do even better. Let the first line slap the reader into paying attention.

To quote Kris (PJ Parrish):

  • Your opening line gives you an intellectual line of credit from the reader. The reader unconsciously commits: “That line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.”
  • A good opening line is lean and mean and assertive. No junk language or words.
  • A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. It says something interesting. It is a stone in our shoe that we cannot shake.
  • BUT: if it feels contrived or overly cute, you will lose the reader. Especially if what follows does not measure up. It is a teaser, not an end to itself.

“The cat sat on the mat is not the opening of a plot. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is.”  – John LeCarre

To read the entire post, The Dos and Don’ts of a Great First Chapter, go here.

Fine Tuning

I dislike rewriting another writer’s work, but it’s the easiest way to learn. I’ve included quick examples of how to tighten your writing and make the scene more visceral. Keep what resonates with you. After all, I don’t know where the story is headed.  

Kate turned right onto her parent’s street only to find a street jammed with police cars. A cacophony of lights, flashing red and blue, backlighting people hurriedly moving against the night sky. My parents will certainly be outside watching, she thought. “Thought” is a telling word. The italics tell the reader it’s inner dialogue. As she drew closer, she was alarmed to see her parent’s house isolated by swags of yellow police tape. “Alarmed” and “see” are also telling words. Remember, if we wouldn’t think it, our POV character shouldn’t either. Some writers have a difficult time with deep POV, which we’ve discussed before on TKZ. It’s one element of craft that we learn at our own pace. For more on Deep POV, read this 1st page critique. In the meantime, here’s a quick example to show you what I mean.

The swags of yellow police tape surrounding her parent’s house quickened her heartbeat. What happened? She’d spoken to Mom and Dad last night. Granted, the call didn’t last long. Mom said she had to go because someone knocked at the door. Endless questions whirled through her mind. Were they robbed? Are they hurt? Did Dad fall again?

She jerked her car to the curb, threw the shifter into Park, and ran sprinted toward the chaos, the soles of sneakers slapping the pavement. Use strong action verbs to paint a clearer mental image. Plus, I slipped in sound. With important scenes, tickle the senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, taste—for a more visceral experience.

A policeman seemed to appeared out of nowhere. Moved to the beginning to show who’s speaking. Here, too, you can paint a stronger picture: A meaty-chested cop blocked her path.I’m Sorry, miss, but you can’t go past the police tape.”

“But, I live here,” she lied. Not bad but think about this: She’s just happened upon a chaotic scene at her parents’ house. Would she be calm or hysterical? “Get the hell outta my way.” She swerved around him, but he hooked her arm. “I live here.”

His head jerked back. “This is your house, miss?”

“It’s my parents’ house. What’s the difference? I live with them. Please Let me through!

I’m sorry, ma’am. Sorry, but you can’t go up there.” Is the house on a hill? If so, you need to tell us sooner so “up there” makes sense. The officer hollered over his shoulder to blocked her path and motioned to a man in an overcoat (trench coat?), standing near the garage. “She’s the daughter.” The man closed his notepad as he walked over. The two men had a brief exchange before the one in the overcoat spoke.

Mr. Trench Coat hustled over, a badge bouncing on the chain around his neck. As he neared, he extended his hand, but she couldn’t shake it. Not yet. Not without knowing what happened. Miss, My name is Detective Montoya. And you are?

“[Insert her name]” Now the reader knows who she is.

Okay, [name]. Let’s talk in private.” He put clamped a his hand on her shoulder and guided, guiding her to a place on to the lawn, away from the activity. Describe the activity. Example: away from photographers snapping pictures, from uniformed officers guarding the front door, from men and women in white coveralls strolling in and out with evidence bags.

A badge swung on a ball-chain around his neck. “Do you live here?” he said, opening the notepad again.

Tears rose in her throat, and she could only nod.

He began writing as soon as she answered. Asked her name along with a few other questions. The detective would hold her gaze. She’s the daughter of two murder victims and he needs as much information as possible before he breaks the news.

She gave terse answers, anxious to get inside. Don’t tell us. Show us!

He asked whereabouts that evening requiring a lengthy explanation about her late class on Wednesdays. Each answer seemed to beget another question. Don’t tell us. Show us!

“Miss (since he knows her name, he wouldn’t call her miss), what we’re looking at here is a double homicide homicide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself.  This dialogue doesn’t ring true. A detective would try to avoid telling her about her parents until she forces him to, which gives you the perfect opportunity to add more conflict through dialogue.

Example:

“When’s the last time you spoke to your parents?”

“I dunno. Before I went to class, around eight. Why?”

“Did they mention anything unusual? A strange car or someone they didn’t recognize hanging around the neighborhood?”

“What? Why? Are my parents okay?”

“Did they meet anyone new recently?”

“Are they in the ambulance?” She peeked around him, but he stepped to the side to block her view. “Look. I’m done answering questions. Get outta my way.”

“[Name], I’m sorry to inform you, your parents…” His words trailed off, his voice muffled by the ringing in her ears.

“No.” Head wagging, she slapped her hands over covering her mouth with both hands. She battled her mind to keep from considering the obvious. What’s the obvious? Do you mean, the truth? Also, “considering” is a telling word. “No. What you’re saying isn’t That’s impossible. I just spoke to them. I’ll prove it to you. it can’t be. Let me see,” She tried to force her way past him. Don’t tell us. Show us! Example: She shoved him away, but he wrangled her flailing arms, pinned her wrists to her side.

“I can’t let you in. It’s an active crime scene now. pretty gruesome. I don’t know that you could handle it.” A detective would never tell the daughter of two murder victims that “it’s pretty gruesome,” nor would he even consider allowing her into an active crime scene whether “she could handle it” or not.

Instead, show us what’s happening around her. Example: The coroner’s van sped into the driveway. Two men dragged a stretcher from the back.

Our heroine entered a chaotic scene. She’d be on information overload, with sights, sounds, smells all around her, almost too much to process.

“Please.” She waved praying hands, her chest heaving with each hard breath, tears streaming over her cheekbones. “Please let me see them. Please.. go inside.

“C’mon, let’s get you out of here.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, miss. Right now, it’s a crime scene and we can’t take the chance of you contaminating it.” 

“Look.” she said. Remove tag. We know who’s speaking. She stomped the grass. “You owe me something kind of explanation. What happened to my mom and dad? Who did this?You can’t ask me to endure the entire night wondering if I’m still part of a family or not.” Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

Wrap it up soon. Prologues should be short. Unless, of course, you decide to make this Chapter One. 🙂 

Brave Writer, I nitpick the most promising first pages because I know you can write and write well. If I thought otherwise, you’d see a lot less red. 😉 You’ve given us a compelling opener and plenty of reasons to turn the page. Take a few moments to see the forest for the trees. The elements I’ve focused on are meant to enhance your storytelling abilities. So, yell, scream, curse me, then get back to work. You’ve got this. Great job!

Over to you, TKZers. How might you improve this first page?

Side note: I won’t be around today. What I’m doing is super exciting (!!!), but I’m not at liberty to speak publicly about it yet. Fill you in later…

Join me, Laura Benedict, and many others on Zoom for Noir at the Bar. Win a signed paperback in the giveaway!

When: Sat., March 20, 2021

Time: 7 pm CST/8pm EDT

Tickets are FREE (limited to the 1st 100 fans)

Where: Comfort of home

Register: noiratthebar.online

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Reader Friday: Rewrites

Rewriting, love it or hate it?

I love it. Maybe too much. During edits, I often rewrite paragraphs, sometimes entire pages. Drives my editors insane. Drives me insane, too, but I can’t stop. It’s part of my process now. 🙂

Rewriting is where magic happens. The story reaches new heights.

What’s your favorite part of the editing process?

Do you mercilessly kill your darlings?

Do you keep a file for clipped passages?

What’d you name said file?

Ever use those dead darlings?

 

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Reader Friday: Which Hero are You?

A killer abducted you, bound your wrists and ankles, and dumped you in his lair. You only have a few hours to escape before he returns.

Don’t panic!  I’ve given you a superpower — the ability to change into a fictional hero.

The transformation is now complete.

Who are you? Why did you choose this hero?

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First Page Critique: Scattershot

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. Catch ya on the flip-side.

Scattershot

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  We had it planned, Tom and I. We said goodbye to friends – hoping retirement would be an adventure in everything we did. To drive cross country to New England, a picture postcard of snow and autumn leaves coloring the landscape in hues of red, orange, and yellow.  The Coronavirus took my Tom a week before the move.  His labored breathing and limp body placed in the ambulance drove him to the hospital.  I tested negative.  I never saw him again.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.   Oh sure, plans change, but no one ever thinks death will stop you cold.  Well, it stopped Tom and the hospital confirmed my worst fears.  Grateful to the nurse who held his damp, feeble hand, I listened to his last gasp from the speakerphone.  Tom was gone, the house was sold, and the movers expected me in Connecticut in two weeks to unlock the door.  My new life began without the love of my life.

My name is Joanna Seavers, and I am a 59-year-old retired teacher living in the age of Covid-19 or the Coronavirus or whatever the hell it’s called.  Who knows, and who cares?  All I know is the world stopped for Tom and me in 2020, and everyone else for that matter.

One thing I’ve learned in life, even in a pandemic, is never stop planning. It’s what keeps you alive.  You need a reason to get up in the morning, so I got up.   The pandemic wound down, and I drove north.  Businesses reopened and the population was injected with the second shot of the lifesaving serum.  Mask wearing became optional, but on occasions, I still wore the cloth covering my nose and mouth.  You can’t be too careful in a crowd.

Driving down the highway, the virus in my rearview mirror and Alfie, Tom’s faithful bird dog, really a raven, sitting in the passenger’s seat.  Not sure why my husband had a pet raven, but the relationship remained solid for fifteen years.  I read somewhere domestic ravens have a life span of 40 years, so it was a good thing Alf’s loyalty shifted to me.  We clicked and his companionship sustained me as we drove from the Bay Area out of California, not looking back to what we had lost.

I like the voice of this first page. The biggest problem for me was the lack of emotion. The words are there, but it’s not visceral. You can’t gain empathy for Joanna unless the reader feels her pain. As written, she doesn’t seem all that broken up. If Tom’s death is the trigger that kickstarts Joanna’s quest, it needs to pack a bigger punch. Because the first time I read this page, I thought maybe she’d planned his death…till she mentioned the coronavirus.

Dig deeper, Brave Writer. She’d pinned all her hopes and dreams on retiring with Tom. They had plans, plans they talked about for years. Where’s the grief? Where’s the heartache? Where’s the anger over not having the chance to hold him on his deathbed, of one last kiss, of professing her undying love to the man she’s spent a lifetime with? Tom’s death acted more like a minor blip in Joanna’s life.

To deliver a bigger bang, you need to let the emotions unfold gradually. We’re not fine one minute and hysterical the next. Emotions build in layers, change and intensify, and finally reach a crescendo. For Joanna, Tom’s death should be soul-crushing.

Actually, this is the perfect example of why JSB recommends interviewing characters.

A few questions for Joanna could be:

When did you first know Tom had the virus?

What made you call an ambulance?

How did you feel when the medics said you couldn’t accompany Tom to the hospital? Lost? Empty? Frightened?

Did you have a physical response?

Who broke the news of your husband’s decline? What’d s/he tell you? How did it feel to hear those words?

Are you a different person without Tom? What’s changed?

The reader doesn’t need to know every detail, but you do. Joanna’s past will affect her future. You may be thinking, but Sue, Joanna’s the type to raise her chin and forge ahead. Fair enough. But her silent keening should still bleed through.

Five Stages of Grief

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

The character should bounce between each stage to mimic real life. A step forward to depression, two steps back to anger, etc.

Infuse Emotion

I like the echo of “It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” but let’s force the reader to feel those words.

Quick example:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We had a plan, Tom and I. We had a chance at a new beginning, a fresh start. We had hopes and dreams for retirement. But now, emptiness consumed me, the pit widening more each day. If the movers didn’t expect me in two weeks, I’d never leave Tom’s grave. How did this happen? Why us? We were so careful, so diligent about protection. We made all the right moves. And for what? So I could drive cross-country alone?

Notice I never mentioned what happened to Tom. All readers know is he’s dead, she’s devastated. Let the reader flip pages to find out why. In the next paragraph offer a bit more and get the hero moving.

Example:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Tom and I dreamed of life in New England, with its snow glistening on autumn leaves, hues of Scarlet, orange, and gold-painted landscapes. Pointless now. Muted shades of black and gray zipped by the driver’s window. Up ahead, a motorist leaned under the raised hood of a minivan. (Or whatever the case may be.)

 I added the motorist to accomplish two things:

  • It gets our hero moving, active rather than ruminating.
  • It hints at trouble to come.

Delete the part where Joanna introduces herself. It’s the lazy way out. You can do better.

Add dialogue. Keeping with my motorist example…

I pulled in behind the van, and a man craned his neck around the side of the hood. Not a female. Crap. I should’ve let Dr. Rosenthal change my prescriptive lenses before I left.

The stranger approached my window. “Thanks for stopping.”

“No problem.” I held a tight smile, jabbed a chin at the van. “What happened?”

“Outta oil. I could use a lift to the gas station.”

Joanna resists. The motorist pushes. Against her better judgment she gives in. Blah, blah, blah. During the drive the conversation turns.

“Really appreciate this.” He blows into cupped hands (the cold signals she’s on the east coast). “I’m Frank, by the way.”

“Joanna.”

Boom. Now the reader knows her name. Keep in mind, Joanna’s a woman alone. Other than her first name she isn’t likely to tell this stranger her life story.

“What do you do, Joanna?” The way he said my name raised the tiny hairs on my forearms.

“Retired.”

“From what, Joanna?”

Never had my name sounded so creepy. Tom wouldn’t have allowed a stranger in the car. If he were alive, we’d be halfway to Connecticut by now. (See how I slipped in her destination without slowing the pace?)

Frank rested his hand on my knee. “Joanna?”

Mute, my gaze shifted between his hand and the road. “Is the gas station much farther? My husband’s expecting me.”

“So, you’re not from the area?”

“Umm, I…uh…”

“Where are you from, Joanna?”

Each time my name rolled off his tongue my stomach somersaulted, flipped, acids splashed against the liner. Damn you, Tom! We vowed to grow old together. You promised to never leave me.

“Michigan,” I lied, unwilling to share details about my route from the west coast to the east.

And on and on it goes. I don’t have room for a line edit, but keep in mind there’s only one space after a period.

Pets

The last thing I’ll mention is the raven who materialized out of nowhere. As a die-hard corvid lover, I hope you’re not using the bird as symbolism for doom, gloom, or death. Pets needs a valid role in the plot. If the raven doesn’t fill that need, please consider removing it.

As written, it doesn’t sound like Joanna ever bonded with the family pet, a gigantic bird whose lived in her home for 15 years. It’s odd. When a wife loses her husband, (or vice versa) she clings to any and all traces of him, including his possessions (i.e. Tom’s favorite football jersey, the collar saturated with his scent). A loyal feathered baby should act like Joanna’s life preserver, and not a pet she hardly knew.

Main Takeaway

Concentrate on the fine art of storytelling, less focus on backstory. Allow readers to get to know Joanna in bite-sized pieces. Force the reader to flip pages. And they will, if you avoid filling in the blanks right away. The inclusion of story questions, conflict, dramatic moments, and hints of danger (valid or misinterpreted) helps to create a compelling mystery that strangleholds the reader.

Thank you for sharing your work with us, Brave Writer. Pandemic stories will flood the marketplace, if they haven’t already. Thus, it’s more important than ever to craft a visceral thrill ride so yours rises above the rest.

Over to you, TKZers! I excluded a few things to avoid turning this post into a book, so please mention them in the comments. How might you improve this first page?

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Reader Friday: Are You Publishing Too Soon?

SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) teaches us to set a completed draft aside for a while. It’s easy to prematurely submit a manuscript to a publisher, or to push publish too soon for Indies. And sadly, these books languish on Amazon with poor reviews and one-star ratings.

We’re too close to our work. By setting aside a manuscript, we gain clarity. A new perspective illuminates typos, plot holes, clunky sentence construction, wordiness, writing tics, etc.

How long to set aside a manuscript fluctuates between two weeks to two months, depending on the writer.

How long do you let your manuscript rest?

Do you start a new project while you’re waiting?

What’s the longest you’ve waited? And why?

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