About Sue Coletta

Member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and ITW, Sue Coletta is an award-winning, bestselling author of the Grafton County Series and Mayhem Series. In 2017, Feedspot named her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Learn more about Sue and her books at http://www.suecoletta.com

First Page Critique: She Said No

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer submitted their opening page for critique. Your help is encouraged and appreciated. Catch ya on the flipside with my comments/suggestions.

She Said No.

1996

She walked with a steady clip down Wilshire Boulevard as she did every morning, looking forward to nothing but the usual. The bank where she worked as a telephone operator was two blocks away, but she was early and not in a hurry. With the sun warming her skin, she reached the familiar theater where she spent many free nights.

Her gaze sought out the movie posters and her feet dragged. She veered right and followed the worn path as if programmed. Won’t take but a minute to see what’s playing. An alien hovered over New York in Independence Day. A girl with wide eyes and open mouth filled the poster for Scream. Richard Gere under a circle of light in Primal Fear. She enjoyed being alone in a dark theater. A few quick hours in the worlds of romance, adventure, and mystery replaced her dull existence of money troubles, loneliness, and an uncertain future.

At eighteen she was on her own for the first time. Kicked out of the house, living at the YMCA, she had no regrets. She got what she wanted. The freedom to live with nobody telling her who to befriend or how to pass the time. After her boring job paid for the room and a few necessities, she used what was left to see a flick once a week.

A movement inside the theater caught her attention. A young man opened the door and stepped outside. He used a rag to swipe the window next to the entrance then stopped to admire his handiwork. Or his own reflection. He must have seen her in the mirrored shine because he turned and flashed a smile. She couldn’t help but stare. He was Brad Pitt in her favorite movie, Thelma and Louise. His streaked blond hair swept casually across his forehead. His tight shirt showed off a muscular torso. He beckoned with a friendly wave. She started to wave back, but let her hand drop. Is he flirting?She stifled a giggle. Shouldn’t encourage him. She had to get to work.

She hadn’t met any young men since she moved to L.A. Even if she did meet someone, the YWCA didn’t allow male visitors in her room, and who wanted to sit with a date in the common area?

“Come here, don’t be shy,” he called out. “Want to show you something.”

***

Okay, time for a little tough love. Anon, please know what follows comes from a place of genuine concern. I want you to succeed, I really do.

By the title I assume this story will deal with date rape. Which promises a landscape rife with conflict, yet nothing interesting happens on this first page. Nothing. As written, the protagonist—by the way, please use her name right away so we know who’s head we’re in—has a boring job and boring life. Why would we want to spend time with her? We read to escape, to experience adventure, to live through heroes we relate to or yearn to be more like. Readers don’t necessarily need to like our MC as long as they “empathize” with them. I’m sorry, but you didn’t accomplish that in this opening.

The only thing that intrigues me is that title—a promise of an emotional journey.

Let me tell you where I’m comin’ from real quick. My Grafton County Series features a rape survivor as the MC, and she’s not an easy character to write. I’m so invested during the writing process, it emotionally drains me. Nightmares resume. I’ve even screamed in my sleep and woken my husband. By the time edits roll around, part of me dreads having to relive the hell I’ve put my MC through. My dark side revels in it. The point is, if we play it safe, readers will able to tell. As writers, we risk losing pieces of our soul, our blood spilled across the keyboard, raw emotions on display for all to judge.

I tell you this, Anon, to show you I understand how difficult it is to read a harsh critique. In fact, I delayed working on this first page for the same reason. Trust me when I tell you, there isn’t one professional writer who hasn’t read similar notes about their own work. Myself included.

Okay, so, now that we know what the problem is, how can we improve this first page?

START OVER

Choose a better place to start your story. Keep the important parts of this first page for a later scene. I’m guessing the dude at the theater is the rapist? If so, showing how they met may be crucial to the plot. Include the backstory by sprinkling it in after their encounter. An option is opening with this woman in the hospital undergoing the rape exam, which many victims say feels like being raped all over again. While nurses poke and prod her, she thinks back to the first time they met.

Quick example …

On the first day she met [insert name] he reminded her of Brad Pitt. Aqua cleaner trickled down the windows of the theater as he scrubbed the glass, muscle upon muscle testing the seams of his T-shirt. A blazing sun burned through morning clouds, warming her face, chest, and arms, tricking her to believe this was an ordinary day. Why didn’t she keep walking?

Then get back to the action in the room. You’re doling out information little by little but leaving out tidbits to intrigue the reader. Thereby setting up a future scene.

If you plan to show the actual rape rather than the aftermath that stems from such brutality, Chapter Two could start x-amount of days earlier. The readers are already invested in her story, because they know something terrible is about to happen. Showing how humdrum her life was before the rape will take on new meaning. Here’s the thing, though. Even with this technique, we still need some sort of conflict in each scene. Skip the parts where nothing happens and get right to the good parts. The more visceral the experience, the better.

STRUCTURE THE SCENE

By structuring our scenes, the story keeps moving forward. Proper structure makes it nearly impossible to leave the MC musing about nothing.

Scene structure looks like this …

GOAL: What does your POV character want?

CONFLICT: Obstacles she encounters that prevents her from reaching that goal.

DISASTER: Things get even worse for her. Pile on the conflicts to prevent her from reaching that goal.

REACTION:  How does she feel about it? Try triggering all five senses for a more emotional read.

DILEMMA: If she does this, then that will happen. A situation where there’s no right answer. If she does X, then Y will happen. She has an impossible choice to make with no good options.

DECISION: What will your MC do? This decision is often the GOAL of the next scene.

MOTIVATION-REACTION UNITS

Motivation = external

Reaction = internal

Humans are emotional creatures. Outside stimuli causes us to react. Sometimes it’s on a micro-level, other times it manifests physically. It’s our job to match the reaction to the motivation. To see MRU’s in action check out this post.

Once we learn how to use MRU’s in our writing it becomes automatic.

 

Anon, you’ve got a firm grasp of POV which puts you ahead of the game. Let us feel your character’s emotions, let us experience her terror, joy, fear, and sadness. Force us to care and we’ll stick around to see what happens. Best of luck to you, Anon. You can do this!

Over to you, TKZ family. Please weigh in with your suggestions and/or comments. I’m in final edits for SCATHED (deadline Friday), so please excuse my delay in responding to comments.

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Where Do You Find Inspiration?

By Sue Coletta

Whenever I’m plotting a new novel, I read a lot of true crime stories for inspiration. I may even steal character traits from one real world serial killer or victim and combine them with another. Reading triggers the muse to fire off plot, character, and subplot ideas. Somedays, though, the stories are almost too bizarre to believe. In which case, I’ve merely entertained myself for a while. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t call it wasted time, because true stories have a way of worming into our subconscious mind. When we’re in the writing zone, these alleged “useless facts” can morph into an intriguing scene that we never expected. Don’t you love when that happens?

With that in mind, I pose the following question to you, my dear TKZers. Did you know serial killing families existed? I’ve written about them before on my blog, as well as serial killing couples, which aren’t as rare.

Wes Craven found inspiration for his 1977 slasher film The Hills Have Eyes when he read about the horrors of one particular family of serial killers — the Sawney Bean clan. This is their story. (Did anyone else hear Law & Order’s theme song when they read that line?)

In the times of King James I, Mr. and Mrs. Sawney Bean transformed Bennane Cave, by Ballantrae in Ayrshire, Scotland, into their home. Long, twisting tunnels extended for more than a mile underground. The cave also featured several side passageways to accommodate a growing family. And grew they did. Over the years they created their own army of psychopathic cannabals.

Opposed to getting a job to support his new bride, Sawney Bean resorted to robbery. On the lonely back roads that connected the villages, he’d lie in wait for travelers to pass by. Townsfolk believed the roads were haunted due to the massive amount of disappearances.

A budding serial killer stalked those streets.

Bean’s sole reason for escalating to murder was to not leave witnesses. But then, Agnes, his wife, had an even sicker idea. If they butchered their victims, their remains could provide a high-protein diet, which had the added benefit of evidence disposal. Their relationship had already forced them to flee from their homeland in northern Scotland, after locals repeatedly made accusations of Agnes being a witch, claiming she’d been involved in human sacrifice and conjuring demons.

Over the years Sawney and his wife had fourteen children — all as twisted and evil as their parents — who became an army of serial killing cannibals.

During the next two decades, through incest, the children bore more children, who refined the art of murder and cannibalism, often salting and pickling human flesh. According to the Bean family ledger, found many years later, these incestuous acts brought Bean and Agnes a total of 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters, now bringing the Bean clan to a total of 48 inbred, cannibalistic monsters.

Decaying body parts washed up on the beaches surrounding Bennane cave. Which prompted massive search parties. But no one thought to check the cave.

In about 1430 A.D., fate intervened when the Bean army — who had split into several small groups to hunt — attacked a man and his wife while on their way home from the fair. Half the Bean clan dragged the woman off her horse and had already disemboweled her before the other half of the group had a chance to wrestle the man to the ground. Fighting for his life, the distraught husband trampled several members of the Bean clan with his horse. This caused such a commotion a group of twenty bystanders came to his rescue.

During an all-out war, the Bean clan found themselves outnumbered for the first time in their pathetic lives. They retreated to the cave, leaving behind the mutilated remains of the man’s wife and a score of witnesses. The surviving victim was taken to the Chief Magistrate of Glasgow to tell his tale. With the longest missing persons list the country had ever seen, they reported to King James I, who arrived in Ayshire with his own army of 400 men and a pack of dogs.

Together with several hundred volunteers, another search was underway. Yet again, no one thought to search the cave. Until one cadaver dog alerted at the entrance.

Nothing could have prepared them for the horrors inside. The Bean family lived in that cave for 25 years. In total, the number of missing persons during that time is said to be over 1000.

Bennane Cave

Torches in hand and swords drawn, the army soldiered into Bennane cave and into the mile-long twisting passageways to the inner sanctum of the Bean lair. Dank cave walls held row after row of human limbs, heads, and torsos displayed like the window of a butcher shop. Bundles of clothes, jewelry, and picked-clean bones littered the ground.

A fight broke out between the King’s Army and the forty-eight Bean members, resulting in the arrest and apprehension of Sawney Bean and his kin.

Their crimes were so heinous that normal channels weren’t enough, so King James I sentenced them all to death. Twenty-seven Bean men were left to exsanguinate after executioners disarticulated their limbs. The twenty-one Bean women were hung, staked, forced to watch their male kin bleed out, and finally. set ablaze. Through the entire ordeal not one member of the Bean family showed any sign of fear or remorse. Instead, they spit obscenities toward their captors.

Until the moment Sawney Bean drew his final breath, he repeated one continuous phrase, “It isn’t over, it will never be over.”

Legend says, one of the daughters escaped during the fight with the King’s Army and a local family adopted her. At seventeen years old, she married and had a son. In hard times they also killed and cannibalized to stay alive. When the villagers caught wind of their gruesome activities they hung the Bean daughter and her husband, but not before her son escaped to America, settling what was then known as Roanke Island. The entire colony later disappeared without a trace.

Legend also says that if you sit under the hanging tree in Scotland, you can still hear the Bean daughter’s bones scrape against the bark.

I’ll end this post the same way it began. Where do you find inspiration?

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Eavesdropping on Quora

By Sue Coletta

Crime writers do their research in various places. Many of us have experts we can call on, but I hate to bother friends unless I can’t find the answer elsewhere. A great place to look is Quora. Numerous LEOs volunteer their time to answer questions. If you’re unfamiliar with Quora, you can follow topic feeds, like Police and Law Enforcement, and scan the Q&As. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask a new question.

Because I write about serial killers I also follow Psychopathy and Psychopaths. Some of the information is valid, other times alleged “real” psychopaths write in. Although it’s not unheard of for psychopaths to brag, Quora allows anonymity. Any time the poster doesn’t need to reveal their true identity, the information becomes unreliable.

Even if the poster has a valid profile, still double check the information. I recommend confirming with least two or three reliable sources for any internet information you intend to use in a book. Two of my favorite sites are Psychology Today and Explore Forensics, depending on what I’m looking for. I also need to give a quick shout-out to my dear friend Garry Rodgers, RCMP (Ret.), weapons expert and forensic coroner, who blogs at Dying Words. Quora also has its place in the pecking order.

In the Q&A below, I did not edit the answers for two reasons:

1. It’s not my writing; full credit goes to the poster;

2. The voice, including grammar and/or spelling errors, helps with the overall mental image of the officer who’s answering. After all, that’s one of the best parts of eavesdropping.

How many of you have listened in on a conversation while shopping or out to eat? You may not be able to see the person, but their language paints an image in your mind. As you read the following stories, I want you to imagine the officer who’s speaking. There’ll be a fun exercise at the end of this post.

Please note: the s-word is used a few times. Cussing and cops go together like peanut butter cookies and milk. You’ve been warned. 🙂

As a cop, what are the weirdest things you ever experienced?

Scott Conroy, 17 year veteran of law enforcement, answers:

Years ago some construction workers found some human bones in a a concrete patio that they were tearing up in the Venice Beach Area. In looking into the concrete we noticed that there were cavities in the concrete that were made by the now decomposed body. We summoned the Scientific Investigation Unit (LAPD’s version of “CSI”) and we came up with an idea to inject latex rubber into the cavities to get the body contours. Lo and behold we pulled out a latex rubber hand impression of the person to whom the bones belonged.

The detail of the latex replica was amazing. We could see defensive knife wounds and more importantly we saw fingerprints on the latex. We printed the “fingers” of the latex cast and discovered they belonged to a teacher who had disappeared around the time the concrete patio was poured. The ensuing homicide investigation revealed that the primary suspect in this homicide was a nephew who had worked in construction and on that particular patio job.

Epilogue: The suspect, however, had suffered an industrial accident a few years before the discovery of the bones in the concrete and was existing in a vegetative state. In the interest of justice, he was not charged or put on trial for that crime.

What is the scariest experience you’ve ever had as a police officer?

Jim Lee, Former Military Police officer (8 years) answers:

I was running a solo unit one unseasonably cold (for San Diego) November night over 20 years ago when dispatch sends me to an on-base bowling alley; apparently, security personnel were dealing with a D&D (Drunk/Disorderly) individual running around the parking lot half-dressed and beating on cars. I arrive on scene 5 minutes later and see the contact, and something wasn’t right about the situation. As I attempted to make contact with the individual I already didn’t like what I was seeing: no shirt in 40 degree weather but still sweating like a pig; dilated pupils; blank thousand-yard stare and wandering aimlessly. I’d seen these symptoms before, and they had jack sh!t to do with alcohol from what I’d remembered.

As I unsuccessfully attempted to speak to this guy he starts toward me in a threatening manner; I decided to deploy my collapsible baton and warn him off, but he wasn’t listening. That’s when I realized what I was looking at: My new “friend” was on PCP (aka “Angel Dust”).

Officers who have experience dealing with contacts on PCP are familiar with the dangerous situation I found myself in. But for those who don’t know: PCP prevents the actions normally caused when a neurotransmitter, called glutamate, attaches to its receptor in the brain.

It also disrupts the actions of other neurotransmitters. PCP distorts sights, sound and other senses. The user may experience “out of body” sensations that are related to the dissociative effects, feel like they are “floating” with strange impressions of space and time, or imagine things that aren’t real. Some abusers experience euphoria and invulnerability while others experience drowsiness and calming sensations.

PCP is dose-dependent and the effects on the brain intensify with greater doses depending on the methods of consumption and certain biological or psychological factors of the abuser with effects, generally, last from 4 – 6 hours. While the intoxication effects on the brain may be short-lived, the disruptions in neuronal activities can cause the person to feel unpleasant symptoms of depression, anxiety, mood swings, and general dysphoria when the intoxication effects subside.

I threw the baton to the security personnel; I knew, thanks to the effects of PCP, that I could beat the brakes off this guy all night long and he wouldn’t feel a damned thing, so the baton was absolutely pointless. I requested a cover unit to the scene; it usually takes several officers to subdue someone who is on this stuff, and I couldn’t trust the barely-trained security personnel, so I knew I’d have to keep the suspect at bay for a few minutes until “real” help arrived.

This is when things went sideways.

The suspect immediately went for my 9mm Beretta sidearm. I knew I had to keep him from getting to my service weapon at all costs, even if it meant taking an ass-kicking; a bloody nose or broken jaw would pale in comparison to what would happen if he were to somehow get hold of my pistol. Fortunately there were two things going in my favor:

  1. Our department issued retention holsters as standard equipment. Retention holsters serve the same purpose as regular holsters with one exception: instead of simply lifting the gun on of the holster one has to use a sort of “twisting” motion to be able to get to the weapon, otherwise it won’t budge. Thankfully, I’m pretty sure he didn’t know that.
  2. This guy was about 140 pounds soaking wet; this meant he gave up about 80 pounds to me (I was about 220–225 back then).

With a simple “bear hug” I was able to slam this guy on the pavement, as I was hoping to knock the wind out of him for a second. That was the easy part.

But now the fun was about to start.

Remember what I said about PCP’s effect of the human body’s nervous system? I finally got to see this effect first-hand; no amount of punching, arm bar holds or pressure point manipulation was going to stop this freak. It took all I had just to wrestle this guy and hold on for dear life (namely, mine). Despite the fact that I outweighed him by such a large amount I could barely hold this guy down, and he was determined to get his hands on my weapon. I’m not sure how long it took the cover unit to finally show up; it was probably about another 5 minutes but it felt like an hour.

Fortunately the officers in the other unit (they were riding a partner unit, thankfully) immediately recognized the situation I faced and helped me hold the drug-crazed nutjob down while security personnel contacted a paramedic unit under our orders. Upon the paramedic’s arrival it took no less than five of us to apply restraints to the suspect, “hogtie” him and prepare him for transport to the medical facility for treatment and evaluation. A subsequent search revealed that he was also armed with a 4-inch blade; I wondered why he didn’t use it but was relieved that he must have forgotten about it (otherwise this story would have been about a police shooting).

After I was also examined by the paramedics (and found to be still intact) my watch commander ordered me back to the station to take a rest and start my report. Good thing, too, because that was probably the longest 10 to 15 minutes of my life at that point; I was worn out, and someone just tried to kill me.

Yeah, fun times.

Benjamin Bender, Retired Police Detective St Louis Metropolitan Police, answers:

For me its almost getting thrown off a 6 story bridge that was over a freeway while fighting a guy who outweighed me by 100 lb or watching a Woman burn alive 3 feet from me that I would have saved if I had arrived literally 10 seconds earlier.

Bridge incident story starts as all my stories do. One day while on “routine” patrol (again on a day my permanent partner had a Kelly Day…which was a common thing for me to get the call of the century while he was off….drove him nuts).

I got a call for a “vehicle accident” on the Freeway, I-55 near the North Bound exit onto the Poplar Street bridge. Traffic often backed up on that on ramp and rear end collisions were common. I was in an area not my normal one because my partner Blake was off I got stuck in a sector car that a guy was off and would be deadheaded. When I got the call it was crucial that I take one particular hidden on ramp to arrive at the location the quickest. I unwisely chose to go to one that was 2 blocks further (because the other was hard to find off an alley hardly marked and it was dark).

When I pulled up 3 cars had been in an accident. A drunk in the rear slammed into a guy who slammed into a 3rd car in front. The furthest car in front had a Mother in Law in it. The Son in law was the middle car. Drunk as I said..in the rear ramming and causing it.

Well as I pull up the Mother in laws car erupts in flame from gas leaking out of the tank by the back bumper. She is trapped in the car but nobody had got her out by breaking the window. Nobody noticed the leaking fuel. By the time I run to her the flame is fully over and in the back seat of the car. I break the window and cut her seat belt …go to pull her 100 LB body out like a kid but just before I can the flame billows over and engulfs both of us…the entire car bumper to bumper. I drop away and lose most of my exposed hair and a shirt. She burned alive in front of us..and the Son in law. I then had to take him to the station and sit there while he called his wife and told her he just rear ended her Mother and she died.

If that was my beat or I knew that exit better she would have lived. 100%

Second was a Home Invasion robber wanted for many crimes was leading Cops from 6 or more jurisdictions on a high speed chase through the City and County. I was listening in on the radio and correctly guessed he would go for the bridge over the Mississippi to get to Illinois. The chase went on for over an hour and I correctly deduced he was circling the rabbit hole to get home to Illinois and couldn’t find the bridge on ramp.

I went to the easiest one for him to get to based on his location north of the city. I then cause a traffic jam on the 1 lane on ramp by ordering 1 car to stop on the ramp and not move until I said ok. 10 Min of round about chase later…sure enough…here he comes. Goes on the side of cars as much as he can till its blocked..gets out on foot and starts running up the ramp to the bridge on foot with me 10 feet behind..letting him run a bit and get tired before we fight.

So…he gets higher up and apparently then did get tired and want to fight. When it didn’t go well for him he tried to jump off the side of the bridge (he didn’t realize that the earth rise fell away to a long drop the higher you went up…he thought ground was about 10 feet down or something). I instinctively grab his forearm as he went and I held a second. Then I felt his weight pulling me over. I knew I was going over now…I saw the terror in his eyes as he realized he had screwed up and was about to get very hurt and or dead. I then made the split second decision to let go. I saw his eyes go wide as saucers as I said…”bye”…and let go. He fell 60 feet and shattered both legs and his pelvis and lived. Almost got ran over too. That scared the shit out of me. He came sooo close to pulling me over head first…not feet first like he fell.

Love the dark humor, love the voices. I hope you enjoyed them as well. Ready for a fun exercise? Take one of these fascinating stories and describe the officer who told the tale. No clicking the name to peek at their profile picture!

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How To (Legally) Get Away With Murder

By Sue Coletta

A few nights ago, my husband and I watched Population Zero, a documentary-style movie based on the alleged true account of a murderer who walked free after confessing to a triple homicide.

In the documentary, the killer even videotaped the murders and summoned this documentarian (our hero) to find the motive behind his killing spree. To entice him, he sent a photo of a bear chasing a horrifically burned buffalo — a symbolic message for the murders he committed in Yellowstone National Park.

The entire ninety-minutes shocked me, not only because a loophole in our constitution allowed a murderer to walk free but because of the explosive ending (no spoilers). It also made me suspicious. I thought, you mean to tell me an entire sheriff’s department couldn’t unravel the mystery but a film-maker cracked the case in a matter of days?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie. True story? Ah, not so much. The legal loophole, however, is real. Within the United States there’s a stretch of land where you could, in theory, get away with murder. Fact.

How Is This Possible?

Most of Yellowstone National Park is in Wyoming, but a portion of the federal land extends into Montana and Idaho. That’s where the problem begins. The 50 square miles of Idaho’s section of the national park is called The Zone of Death, and it’s because of a loophole in the U.S. Constitution. If, like in the documentary-style movie, someone committed a spontaneous murder on that 50 square mile strip, the U.S. Constitution may be their ticket to freedom.

Here’s why. Yellowstone National Park is federal land that was established in 1872, years before the three states. Montana joined the union in 1889, Idaho and Wyoming in 1890. Across the United States federal land is split-up and divided into its corresponding state and district courts. Yellowstone National Park is the only exception. 

In 2005, Brian C. Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University of Law, published a paper entitled The Perfect Crime, where he pointed out that all of Yellowstone National Park was assigned to the District of Wyoming. But now, the District of Wyoming includes land in other states. So, Kalt asked the question, “What happens if you’re caught for a crime within that 50 square miles of the Idaho region of the park?” 

The first thing LEO’s would do is bring you to the District Court of Wyoming, because the crime happened within Wyoming’s jurisdiction. But Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states: The trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury; and such trial shall be held in the state where the said crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any state, the trial shall be a such place or places as the Congress may be law have directed.

A smart killer, like the one depicted in Population Zero, could assert his right to have his case heard in Idaho. No big deal, right? Well, not exactly. 

Amendment VI states: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

This is called the Vicinage Clause.

Picture two overlapping circles, with Wyoming (the District) on one side and Idaho (the State) on the other. Where these two circles intersect is that 50 square miles of Idaho land. The legal loophole exists because it has a population of zero. No humans live there, therefore, no jury can be called. Kalt argues, the court must let you walk free to avoid violating your Sixth Amendment rights.  

“The more I dug into it, the more interested I got,” Kalt told Vice. “People have this fascination with uncovering a loophole for the perfect crime. There are a lot of different approaches to it. But in terms of geography, there’s just this one spot.”

Kalt proposed numerous solutions to Congress, but they have yet to act. In Kalt’s words, “All they have to do is redraw the district lines so that the District of Wyoming is Wyoming, the District of Idaho is Idaho, and the District of Montana is Montana. And if they do that, this all goes away.”

In Population Zero, the hero set out to prove the killer had preplanned the murder. If so, he could be tried in the district court where the murder was planned. But in the confession, the killer stated that one of the victims started a fight, and he just snapped. In which case, there’s nothing within the law that let’s the court hold him accountable. All events happened within The Zone of Death. Therefore, he walks.

Crazy, right?

I know what you’re all thinking. What a fantastic plot for a novel! Sorry, folks. C.J. Box beat us to it with his 2007 thriller, Free Fire. I should also mention the author tried to fight Congress to close the loophole but no one wants to acknowledge its existence. The only way it’ll happen is if someone dies within The Zone of Death.

The loophole also inspired a 2016 horror film with the same title as the documentary-style movie, Population Zero. Although, I don’t recall the legalities being mentioned.

Has the Loophole Ever Been Tested?

In 2005, a hunter illegally shot an elk. When he fired he was standing in the Montana section of the park. Authorities indicted him in Wyoming. He successfully argued he had a right to be tried by jurors from Montana, and while people do live in that section, there are too few residents to call a legitimate jury. The court dismissed the argument out of hand, simply because it would imply that Yellowstone National Park contained a Zone of Death. 

I’ll leave you with this: the Buffalo Campground, a popular tourist destination with a gorgeous lake and some of the best fishing for miles, is located within The Zone of Death. If you feel lucky, why not add it to your summer vacation plans. Any takers? 🙂 

Have you seen Population Zero or read Free Fire? What do you think of this legal loophole? Let’s discuss.

 

7+

The Wagon Wheel of Suspense

By Sue Coletta

We have another gutsy writer who submitted their first page. Please pay special attention to the notes at the end of this post, and you’ll understand my title (I hope).

Gym Body

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. Deep breath. Step in. The cop cars outside reminded me of something that had happened long ago.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes.

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down.

Breathing in the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.”

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist, and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepen into greater and more cynical levels of boredom depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now she was pushing 11 on a bored-look scale of 10. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.”

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!”

Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars. She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

* * *

NITTY-GRITTY

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. If her hand is on the door handle, how could she feel her heartbeat in her palm? If you’d like to deepen the POV, reword like this: With my hand on the gym door handle, the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio pulsed through my hand.  Deep breath. Staccato sentence, which varies sentence structure and adds rhythm. Good job! Step in. This one may be overdoing it, but it’s a stylistic choice. The cop cars outside [the building] reminded me of something that had happened long ago. I’d love a hint to what happened. Don’t explain in detail, though. Rather, hint at it, teasing us to keep us interested. As written, it’s not enough.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes. Good. It makes me wonder why she’s so upset. I hope it’s because someone got their head bashed in with a weight and not due to a minor disagreement. Meaning, if you’re going to show us a woman racing down the stairs in tears in the opening paragraph, you ought to have a compelling reason why, a reason the reader will soon discover. This is precious real estate. Don’t waste it on meaningless conflict that has no bearing on the forthcoming quest. 

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down. Meh. I’d delete this sentence. It detracts from the next sentence, which I like. Breathing in Inhaling the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card. Bravo on using sound and smell to enhance the mental image. Too often writers forget to use these senses, and often they’re the most powerful.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.” You managed to sneak in the main character’s name, which is great. However, this dialogue is too on-the-nose. What if Trixie gossiped about why the woman ran out in tears? Again, give us a compelling reason. 

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist “Fell” indicates she had her hair up prior to this., and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepened into greater and more cynical levels of boredom, depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now, she was pushing 11 eleven on a bored-look scale of 10 ten. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.” Love the snark. This paragraph shows us Suzi’s fun personality. Very good.

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. Unless the character is shouting, lose the exclamation point. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!” <– Here too. Rather than pick away at this, I’m stopping here. Please jump to the notes below. Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars.  She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

Old Fashioned Wagon Wheel Garden Fountain

NOTES

Even if we tightened the writing, these last two paragraphs still aren’t interesting enough for the opening page. I’d rather see you use this space to hint at what Suzi will find inside her classroom. Dead body? Blood? An escaped zoo gorilla? Hordes of tarantulas from the exotic pet store next door? Prison escapee? Suzi’s ex-husband who just dumped the crying woman? My point is, the details must connect. Or show us why she fears the past might be repeating itself. Hint at the disturbance you mentioned in the first paragraph. As it stands now, the cop cars disappeared from Suzi’s mind. By including too many details about the surroundings you’ve undone the tension you started to build in the opening paragraph.

The title, I assume, is a play on words. Gym body = dead body in the gym? As a crime writer, my mind jumps to a scenario that involves murder. If this isn’t the case, then you need a new title. Preferably one that hints at the genre.

THE WAGON WHEEL OF SUSPENSE

Envision an old fashioned wagon wheel fountain (pictured above). The water rides up in the buckets, over the top of the wheel, and spills down into the same basin. The water itself never changes, even though it cycles through several buckets. In writing, especially in our opening chapter, we need to narrow our focus to one main conflict (i.e. a killer on the loose), one compelling question that the reader needs to answer (why do folks die at this specific gym?). This is how we force them to turn the page. We can and should include several disturbances along the way (in this analogy, I’m referring to the buckets), but they all should relate to that main conflict (the water) in some way.

In the opening chapter it’s crucial to stop the wheel partway. Don’t let that water escape till later, thereby raising the main dramatic story question. We still need to transfer the water from bucket to bucket on the way up the wheel (remember, conflict drives story). That’s how we build suspense, little by little, almost painfully teasing the reader till we’re ready to let the water flow.

In this opening chapter, the main conflict could be what’s inside Suzi’s classroom that’s so horrible a woman pounded down the stairs in tears after witnessing it, but you’d need to drop more clues to make us want to find out. Use the patrol cars outside the building as one disturbance. How does the past relate to present day? What sort of reaction do the lights and sirens have on Suzi? Has this gym been the scene of other murders? Hint at how these things connect to pique the reader’s interest.

Anon, please remember, if I thought you were just beginning your writing journey, you wouldn’t see this much red ink. Your grasp of POV tells me you’ve got the skills to do better. I already like Suzi enough to go for the ride. That’s a huge plus. All you need to do is give us a compelling reason to turn the page. With some tweaking, I know you can do it.

Over to you, TKZers! What advice would you give to improve this first page?

8+

Nature Provides Amazing Opportunities

By Sue Coletta

It’s no secret that I’m a huge animal lover. Folks who follow me on Twitter may’ve noticed my interest in wildlife, conservation, and protecting our ecosystems.

When our last two dogs crossed the rainbow bridge, part of me died right alongside them. In 10 years we’d lost eight dogs, seven of which died to cancer and one to a brown recluse spider bite. I longed for another to help fill the void, but my husband couldn’t go through the pain again. I understood. Nonetheless, I still grappled with the lack of pitter-pattering of paws across the hardwood. The house didn’t feel the same.  

To help heal, I turned to nature. The woods surrounding our house had to be teeming with life. Surely some little fella needed love.  

At the time, I was writing Blessed Mayhem and had studied crows extensively. How hard could it be to befriend a crow?  

One day, I piled peanuts on the grass. Circus peanuts, unsalted. In my research I’d discovered that circus peanuts are high in carbs. It takes a high-carbohydrate diet to flap wings. Within thirty minutes, a crow landed in the yard. A bubble of joy burst inside me, a tidal wave of love shattering the protective layer of my heart.  

“Poe?” I said, blurring the lines between fact and fiction.   

Unlike in my book, my Poe turned out to be female. The only reason I knew this was because a few days later, she brought her mate, Edgar, who was noticeably larger. Poe struts with an unmistakable wiggle to the hips and Edgar acts as the great protector. A real man’s man, if you know what I mean. The proud parents flew peanuts back and forth to their nest … in the woods across the street.  

OMG, they had chicks! The helplessness that had consumed me each time cancer stole another dog from us, withered away like lilies in a frozen pond.  

Days turned into weeks as I marveled at their intelligence, grace, and loving nature. My husband got swept up, too. 

Then we had a new visitor. The Marilyn Monroe of squirrels, this gorgeous dirty-blonde with a swanky strawberry-blonde tail sauntered into the yard. Hesitant at first but making a b-line for the peanut pile. Uh-oh, she could be trouble. Would Poe and Edgar accept her, or would they retaliate for the intrusion?  

Since I’d already matched the crow names to fictional pets, why not stay consistent? From that day forward, the sexy squirrel became Shawnee. Then I noticed she was pregnant. If Poe didn’t accept her, how could I ever kick her out? Better lay out two piles of peanuts from now on. 

Fights broke out between the two mothers as I bit all my fingernails to the quick. And then something amazing happened. Little by little, day by day, the taunts, lunges, and overall discourse lessened. It’s like they’d struck a deal — you stay on your side of the yard and we’ll stay on ours. With tiny mouths to feed, the kids remained their top priority.  

Just like that, harmony was restored.  

Neither Poe nor Shawnee cared when Hippy joined the party. Hip is a tiny chipmunk who at the time hadn’t even formed stripes yet. Instead, two dotted lines trailed down his back. My heart puddled into goo. Hippy must be the most enthusiastic of his kind. Each time he scores a peanut he leaps a good four-to-six inches into the air, as if screaming, “Hip, hip, hooray!”

Poe and Edgar brought the chicks once they were old enough to fly. Tears teemed my eyes as they taught their babies how to crack peanut shells against the rock. Their beaks weren’t strong enough yet to pry the shell apart. Shawnee brought her babies, too. Two older chipmunks joined Hippy. That was it. No other birds, no other animals of any kind. Until the sun set in the night sky, when Foxy Lady and her kit, Cornelius, ensured the yard was properly licked clean. Jeff, the opossum, and two of the fattest raccoons on record, the Fatty Patty Twins, also helped with the clean-up. Albeit in shifts. The night crew story I’ll save for another time before this post morphs into a book. 

Back to Poe, Shawnee, and Hip … 

In the yard, I designated a pile of peanuts for each family and they stayed at their respective piles, never encroaching on their neighbor. The two mothers formed the foundation for a mutually beneficial arrangement and everyone played fair.  

The nice thing about crows is, they know how to keep a secret. This becomes especially true with places they feed. Sure, they may bring a guest here and there, but it’s a one-shot deal. If the visiting crow(s) try to hang around, Poe and Edgar escort them past the property lines. Crows also aren’t opposed to playing dead next to a consistent source of food, so other crows flying by will think the feast is toxic. They really are smarter than fifth-graders! 

In New Hampshire, winters are long and brutal. This fact alone worried me. How would my new fur-and-feathered-babies weather harsh conditions? Little did I know, they worked out a solution ahead of time: me. If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m an easy mark, and they knew it from day one. A tilt of the head, a swish of the tail, and I’m out the door, trudging through two feet of snow. My husband also isn’t immune. Thank God, too, because someone needs to shovel a path for them. He’ll even clear the snow around the bottom of Shawnee’s tree so her feet don’t get cold when she climbs down.

During the same blizzard, Odin, our chatty raven who loves to hang out on my deck railing, sang for his breakfast around 6:00 a.m.  

Crows and ravens have an amazing range of calls, which include mimicking other animals. They can even imitate us!  

Once the snow arrived, I moved peanut piles up a level to shorten my trek. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but that slight alteration caused a major shift. The waft of peanuts caught the attention of blue jays, who wasted no time in muscling in on the action. Shawnee’s kids had kids of their own, or she’d spilled the beans to one of her squirrel suitors. Between you and me, she’s a bit of a floozie.  

The harmony in the yard became a massive feeding frenzy, new squirrels zigzagging around crows, blue jays divebombing from all directions, warring with one another in mid-air while Poe and Edgar played referee. Add in an adorable red squirrel, aptly named Wile E. Squirrel, and I created the perfect storm. Absolute madness unfolds daily around here … but everyone’s fat and happy.   

The truly beautiful thing is, Poe and Shawnee still eat wing to tail without even so much as a harsh glance. Even after all this time they’ve never broken that initial vow to put family first. Can’t say the same for their offspring, though. If a baby squirrel tries to take off with one of the suet squares (yes, I cut them into bite-sized pieces), the Poe clan gangs up on the poor little fella. Massive black wings flapping behind you will make anyone drop their stash.  

I’ve also witnessed new behavior. Poe and Edgar’s kids – who are huge by the way; they take after their Dad – line up on the lower level, their backs concealed by the skeletal-branches of the bushes. When one of the baby squirrels takes off down the hill with a mouthful of nuts, the wings spread. If he makes it past the defensive line, they soar after him. It’s not like there isn’t enough food to go around, either. I go through 15-20 lbs. of peanuts per week. Maybe stolen food just tastes better.  

Spending time with wildlife is one of my favorite ways to relax. Enjoying nature is an excellent excuse for taking a well-needed break from the computer. Thanks to Jim, TKZers know why it’s important for writers to step away from their WIP from time-to-time.  

My neighbors probably think I’ve lost my mind … again. Passerby’s certainly do. Twice a day, if I haven’t been beckoned, I stand in the yard, hands cupped around my mouth, and call into the sky for Poe. A caw always echoes in return. Within minutes of closing the sunroom door, the yard erupts – a Coletta family signal that a new day has begun.  

It’s impossible to have a bad day when you’re surrounded by tiny paws and talons. Let’s start the week off on a fun note. Do you feed the wildlife around your house? Tell me about the animals in your life.  

8+

1st Page Critique: Pinprick

By SUE COLETTA 

We have another brave writer who submitted their 1st page for critique. My suggestions will follow. 

Title: Pinprick 

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA 

Rosa Gomez slammed the door behind her and stalked out onto her small front porch.  She’d just seen the tattoo on her nephew Bernardo’s neck, and knew that if she stayed in the house she’d do something she’d regret.   Mara Salvatrucha was scrawled in ink across the back of his sixteen year old skin.   Mara Salvatrucha meant MS-13, the most vicious street gang in the Americas.   

She collapsed into the rocking chair where she spent her evenings, rocking back and forth, glaring at the gang members who paraded past her bungalow.  Her house was the last one in the neighborhood with a mowed lawn and a front light that hadn’t been shattered by gunfire.  They’d demanded that she pay them money as recognition that they controlled the neighborhood, but she’d vowed to die before she paid them any tribute.   

Most nights she sat with a shotgun on her lap, reminding the punks that they might control the neighborhood but they couldn’t control her.  

She glared out into the darkness, her lower lip thrust forward, knowing that her defiance would be seen by the mareros.  She’d been stubborn since the day she was born.  Her father said he’d seen more of her lower lip than any other part of her body.

Chamacas,” she shouts at the street.   She’s calling them little girls, the way they said it in El Salvador.    It wasn’t much to throw at them, but she’s so upset it’s all she can think of.   

She collapsed back into her chair, rocking back and forth in the early November chill, settling into the rhythm that pumped blood into her arthritic knees.   

 

I like where you’re going with this, Anon. If done well, this could be a compelling storyline about a world many people don’t know a lot about. One word of caution: please portray the inner-workings of gang life and those affected by it in an accurate way, rather than basing your research on the stereotypes fueled by the media. I’m not saying you’ve done that here, just something to think about.  

Big Picture  

Why not show Rosa’s reaction when she first sees the tattoo? This is a big deal. Her nephew just joined a ruthless street gang, the same gang that’s harassed the neighborhood for years. SHOW us how he first told his aunt he’d jumped in. Did she see the tattoo by accident when he stripped off his shirt? Did he flaunt the tattoo in her face? Had he been covered in welts, cuts, and bruises days before this tattoo appeared? There’s your opening. Save what you have here for page 3 or 4. 

First Lines 

I’m a sucker for a great first line. It often takes me several rewrites till I’m satisfied, so I understand the struggle. A great first line accomplishes many things.

A first line should …

  • Hook the reader 
  • Establish mood  
  • Give a sense of foreboding 
  • Reveal character and voice 
  • Hint at, or outright show, an obstacle 

If the first line doesn’t grab the reader’s attention – Think: “Hey, pay attention!” — they may not read the sentence that follows. For writers who choose the traditional publishing model, here’s a hard truth. Agents and acquisition editors give each query 8 seconds, max. If the first line doesn’t grab them, you could drown in that slush pile. 

Links for further study … 

Jerry Jenkins broke down opening lines into four categories: surprise, dramatic statement, philosophical, and poetic. Find the post HERE. 

Writer’s Digest gave us 7 Ways to Create a Killer First Line. 

One of my favorite features on Writer Unboxed is Flog a Pro. Here, you can read numerous 1st pages from books that sit on the New York Times Bestsellers’ List. Skim 58 opening lines, and you’ll see why they’re so important. It’ll also help spark ideas for your story. 

Point of View 

You’re using a limited 3rd POV, which is fine if that’s your intention. However, deep POV has the ability to more closely bond the reader to the main character. Whether you write in 3rd or 1st doesn’t matter. The technique is the same. I hate to keep beating this particular drum, so for an in-depth look at deep POV read this 1st Page Critique 

Nitpicks 

We use one space after a period, not two (or three, like you’ve done in a few places). This may seem petty, but details matter. You also have your tab set to an awkward spacing, which justified when I copied to the blog. The norm is .5.  

Nitty Gritty  

Rosa Gomez slammed the door behind her and stalked out onto her small front porch. (Strong action verbs form an excellent mental picture. Very good. However, try using a first line that delivers more of a punch.) She’d just seen the tattoo on her nephew Bernardo’s neck, and knew that if she stayed in the house she’d do something she’d regret. “Seen” and “knew” are telling words. Anytime you tell the reader what’s happened you rob them of the experience. The same sentence rewritten to show the action would look like this: After glimpsing the tattoo on her nephew’s neck (we don’t need to know his name yet)Rosa stormed out of the house before she crucified him. Sixteen years old and he’s marked for life.

Mara Salvatrucha was scrawled in ink across the back (isn’t the tattoo on his neck? Or do you mean the back of his neck? Be clear and concise. I had to scroll to the top to make sure I’d read “neck” the first time) of his sixteen-year-old skin. Too on-the-nose. See how I slipped in his age earlier? That’s one option. Another is to show through dialogue.  

For example, when she confronts Bernardo, he could say, “I’m an adult. I can do what I want with my body.”  

“But you’re only sixteen, Meho.” 

Mara Salvatrucha meant MS-13, the most vicious street gang in the Americas. The explanation of MS-13 I’ll get to in a minute. In the meantime, America has no “s.” Perhaps you meant “United States”.   

She collapsed into the rocking chair where she spent her most evenings, rocking back and forth, glaring at the gang members who paraded past her bungalow.  Her house was the last one in the neighborhood with a mowed lawn and a front light that hadn’t been shattered by gunfire (the wording could be tighter, but I like that this shows Rosa doesn’t take any crap. She’ll make a fine hero for this story.) They’d demanded that she pay them money as recognition that they controlled the neighborhood, but she’d vowed to die before she paid them any tributeTribute’s an odd word choice. More importantly, you’re missing an excellent opportunity to sneak in a tidbit about Rosa’s background and/or show her personality. Example: She hadn’t scrubbed bedpans for forty years to fork over the cash to a bunch of gang-bangers. They’d have to kill her first. 

Most nights she sat with a shotgun on her lap, reminding the punks that they might control the neighborhood but they couldn’t control her.  Nicely done. 

She glared out into the darkness, her lower lip thrust forward, knowing that her defiance would be seen by the mareros. The title of a street gang should be capitalized. “Knowing” is a telling word. You started to SHOW us the action, then pulled back. Rosa glared into the darkness with her lower lip thrust forward. Any minute now, the Mareros would catch wind of her defiance. She tapped her signet ring against the cool steel of her shotgun. Let them come.  She’d been stubborn since the day she was born.  Her father said he’d seen more of her lower lip than any other part of her body. The last two sentences are unnecessary backstory and all telling. SHOW these details later through dialogue and action. 

Chamacas,” she shouts at the street.   She’s calling them little girls, the way they said it in El SalvadorIt wasn’t much to throw at them, but she’s so upset it’s all she can think of.  This paragraph slips into present tense … “shouts” should be “shouted”, etc. But it also raises a bigger, more important issue — the use of a foreign language. On one hand, we want to be authentic in our writing. On the other, we don’t want to have to explain. Or worse, risk confusing our reader. Some writing advice says to stick with English. Period. Or only throw in a foreign word (always italicized, btw) if the meaning is clear.  

I like to take chances in my writing, so I didn’t heed this warning. In SCATHED, I included an old-school Italian grandmother, Mrs. Falanga. Like many Italian grandmothers (and I’m no exception), she’s very excitable and enthusiastic around children. Problem is, when she gets rolling she slides into mixing both dialects together. It’s also part of her charm, along with hand motions to accent her words. These mannerisms and speech enhance Mrs. Falanga’s character. To avoid her native tongue would destroy some of her endearing qualities. That said, she wasn’t an easy character to write. I can tell you how I handled using a foreign language, but we don’t have room for that today. I will, however, write a post about it in the near future. To be continued …  

She collapsed back into her chair, rocking back and forth in the early November chill, settling into the rhythm that pumped blood into her arthritic knees. I like the mental image. Rosa reminds me of Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino. We don’t necessarily need to know about Rosa’s arthritic knees, but if you choose to include it, then SHOW her knees aching. With the shotgun leveled in her lap, does she take a moment to massage one knee?

Overall, I like Rosa enough to turn the page. How ’bout you, TKZers? What advice would you give to strengthen this 1st page? Thanks to Anon for sharing his/her work. A public critique takes courage. Best of luck to you!

7+

Better Book Descriptions in 3 Easy Steps

By SUE COLETTA

Let’s be honest. Writing a book description isn’t fun. It’s grueling, mind-numbing work that I detest with every inch of my being. Mastering the art of back cover copy-writing is an important skill. Therefore, I’m always on the lookout for tips.

Saturday, I sat through yet another webinar on the topic, and a formula emerged, a formula that finally resonated with me (after 11 books, it’s about time). So, I figured I’d share my discovery with you, my beloved TKZers, in the hopes that it’ll work for you, as well.

I should preface this post with, do as I say, not as I do. After my Ah-ha! Moment, I now need to rewrite all my descriptions. Oy. I’d prefer a bullet to the brain.

A 3-Step Formula

Back cover copy follows a simple three-step formula, but we do have wiggle room to experiment. With readers’ short attention spans these days, the advice is to keep the entire description to roughly 150-200 words. If your description runs 25 words longer than the desired range, I wouldn’t sweat it too much.

Step 1: Headline/Hook

To find our hook we need to look at the main conflict of our story. We want readers to identify with said conflict, so don’t shy away from the emotional impact it causes the hero. Don’t dwell on it, either. Every word counts.

The following books sit on Amazon’s Top 10 Bestsellers List in Psychological Thrillers, and each description employs this exact formula. These authors worked hard on their hooks, and it shows.

What would it take to make you intervene? I Am Watching You by Teresa Driscoll 

It begins with a phone call. It ends with a missing child. Guilty by Laura Elliot

When family secrets are unearthed, a woman’s past can become a dangerous place to hide… Twist of Faith by Ellen J. Green

Every time Gwen closed her eyes, she saw him in her nightmares. Now her eyes are open, and he’s not going away. Killman Creek by Rachel Caine

They were all there the day your sister went missing. Who is lying? Who is next? The Reunion by Samantha Hayes

She’s a daughter he didn’t know he had. Until she calls him… from death row. 30 Days of Justis by John Ellsworth

What if you discovered your husband was a serial killer? Tell Me I’m Wrong by Adam Croft

Side note: Adam Croft is a master at hooking readers. This next book he wrote after he created the hook. What a doozy, too!

Could you murder your wife to save your daughter? Her Last Tomorrow by Adam Croft

Wow. Right? If that hook doesn’t grab fans of the genre, nothing will.

Step 2: Short Synopsis

The synopsis also follows a micro-formula…

  1. Introduce the protagonist by showing what defines their role in the story.
  2. What is that character up against?
  3. What’s standing in their way?
  4. Transition paragraph or as Kris called it in a 2014 post, “The Big But.”
  5. End with a cliffhanger.

Let’s go back to our examples to see if this micro-formula has merit. The red-bracketed numbers correspond to steps 1-5.

Synopsis of Her Last Tomorrow by Adam Croft

Nick and Tasha are a couple held together by their five-year-old daughter [1]. Until one ordinary morning, when Ellie vanishes amid the chaos of the school run [2].

Nick knows she can’t have gone far on her own, which can mean only one thing: she’s not on her own. Who would take his daughter, and why? With no motive and no leads, Nick is thrown into a tailspin of suspicion and guilt. Like Tasha, he doesn’t know what to think, or whom to trust… [3]

But then someone starts doing the thinking for him. Confronted with an impossible choice, Nick will have to make a decision, and both options will leave him with blood on his hands. But perhaps that’s to be expected. [4]

After all, Nick’s not quite as blameless as he seems. [5]

I Am Watching You by Teresa Driscoll

When Ella Longfield overhears two attractive young men flirting with teenage girls on a train, she thinks nothing of it—until she realises they are fresh out of prison and her maternal instinct is put on high alert.[1] But just as she’s decided to call for help, something stops her. The next day, she wakes up to the news that one of the girls—beautiful, green-eyed Anna Ballard—has disappeared. [2]

A year later, Anna is still missing. Ella is wracked with guilt over what she failed to do, and she’s not the only one who can’t forget. Someone is sending her threatening letters—letters that make her fear for her life. [3]

Then an anniversary appeal reveals that Anna’s friends and family might have something to hide. Anna’s best friend, Sarah, hasn’t been telling the whole truth about what really happened that night—and her parents have been keeping secrets of their own. [4]

Someone knows where Anna is—and they’re not telling. But they are watching Ella. [5]

Synopsis of Guilty by Laura Elliot

On a warm summer’s morning, thirteen-year-old school girl Constance Lawson is reported missing. [2]

A few days later, Constance’s uncle, Karl Lawson, suddenly finds himself swept up in a media frenzy created by journalist Amanda Bowe implying that he is the prime suspect. [1]

Six years later … [4]

Karl’s life is in ruins. His marriage is over, his family destroyed. But the woman who took everything away from him is thriving. With a successful career, husband and a gorgeous baby boy, Amanda’s world is complete. Until the day she receives a phone call and in a heartbeat, she is plunged into every mother’s worst nightmare. [3]

* * *

Even though Guilty played with the order, the description works. The formula still holds. Hence why I mentioned the wiggle room at the beginning of this post. *grin* Also note: some authors put their characters’ names and/or important details in bold, and the words catch the reader’s eye.

Step 3: Selling Paragraph

The selling paragraph answers two variations of the same question that readers ask themselves:

It sounds good, but how do I know it’s for me?

Sounds good, but will I like it?

There’s two ways we can go here, by showing similar books — if you enjoyed X, you will love Y — or by simply mentioning the genre.

A psychological thriller that keeps you guessing till the last chilling page.

If you like heart-hammering suspense, this book is for you!

A third option is to use clips of reader reviews or blurbs from authors in your genre.

CLEAVED by Sue Coletta

 

 

How far would you go to save your child?

CLICK HERE to look inside CLEAVED.

 

 

 

 

Over to you, TKZers. Do you use this formula for your book descriptions? If not, are you tempted to try it? Any tips of your own to share?

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A Lesson in Deep POV — First Page Critique

By SUE COLETTA

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. I’ll see ya on the flipside.

Murder Audit 

Jim Dunn, Controller of Prairie Pipeline Co., rubbed his eyes as he glanced up at the clock on the wall of his office. It was almost 7:00 pm and while this would be an early night for him, he was ready to call it quits. He had been working late hours getting ready for PPC’s annual financial statement audit and he wanted to make sure everything was in order for tomorrow’s inventory count. Although he had met with audit manager, Cynthia Webber, several weeks ago, he felt it was important he was at the office bright and early on inventory day.

            He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a half-full bottle of Crown Royal. He unscrewed the cap and poured a good jigger into his stale, cold coffee. After replacing the bottle in his desk drawer, he swirled his coffee cup and downed the concoction in three big gulps. As he planted his cup back on his desk in its usual spot he thought he heard voices. Knowing he was alone in the office, he went to his window and noticed some protesters had gathered outside the front entrance. Feeling brave from his last four mugs of “coffee Royal”, he opened the window and shouted at the protesters.

            “Get outta here you granola loving hippies! This town wouldn’t be what it is today without this company. I bet half of you work for our subsidiaries and don’t even know it. Go find something better to do!” As Jim closed the window, he heard something thunk against the building. He looked at the angry mob of about 20 to see that they were throwing rocks at the building. He opened his window and shouted at the crowd.

            “I’m calling the police!”

            “Oooh, the police. We’re scared now!” one of the protesters sarcastically snapped back. By this point Jim was ready to take matters into his own hands. He was sick and tired of environmental protest groups showing up at the office and disturbing not only the normal course of business but also the time he put in after hours. It was almost as if they were stalking him. He just couldn’t understand why they would choose 7:00 pm as a time to protest. Then he remembered there was a benefit dinner happening at the University to raise funds to relocate the hundreds of thousands of birds that would be without homes if the new pipeline went ahead as planned.

Overall, I liked this piece. I can see the potential for a fast-paced story, rife with conflict. It’s because of the writer’s potential that I’ve narrowed in on POV.

What we find with this first page is a distance narrator. The following words in bold are all telling words and phrases. 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 pace. One day it’ll just click. My hope is, this is that day for Anon.

When we tell the reader what’s happening rather than showing the events as they unfold, we’re robbing them of a vicarious experience and thus, they won’t be as invested in the story. Force them feel what our POV character is up against. If we don’t, the reader stays detached and it’s easy for them to put down the book.

Taken from the first paragraph, let’s reword into showing.

Telling:

He had been working late hours getting ready for PPC’s annual financial statement audit and he wanted to make sure everything was in order for tomorrow’s inventory count.

Showing:

In preparation for PPC’s annual financial statement audit, he’d worked ungodly hours. Everything must be perfect for tomorrow. If the inventory count was off even a fraction, he could lose his job.

See the difference? We’re now inside the MC’s head.

Let’s look at the same paragraph, last sentence.

Telling:

Although he had met with audit manager, Cynthia Webber, several weeks ago, he felt it was important he was at the office bright and early on inventory day. 

Showing:

Several weeks ago, he’d met with his audit manager. To say it didn’t go well was an understatement. For the last several days, he’d even beaten the crows to work, and their day started at dawn. The pesky buggers never missed an opportunity to raid the dumpster. What a mess they left, too.

Note the hints of environment as well as personality? Using deep POV allows the reader to get to know our MC a little at a time.

I’m including the next line for a different reason.

He looked at the angry mob of about 20 to see that they were throwing rocks at the building. 

The word “looked” in this context isn’t wrong, per se, but it is generic. Meaning, we have no idea “how” the MC is looking at the crowd below. By using a weak verb we miss an opportunity to show the MC’s reaction. Try “gaped,” which shows shock, “glared,” which shows aggravation or anger, “scowled,” which shows resentment, disgust, anger. Choose the word that best describes “how” the MC is staring at the crowd. Incidentally, don’t only concentrate on the eyes. A curled lip shows just as much disgust and paints a better picture.

2nd Paragraph

As he planted his cup back on his desk in its usual spot he thought he heard voices. Knowing he was alone in the office, he went to his window and noticed some protesters had gathered outside the front entrance. Feeling brave from his last four mugs of “coffee Royal”, he opened the window and shouted at the protesters.

Showing:

When he set the cup on the monogrammed coaster, one of the few things the ex-ball-and-chain hadn’t stolen, voices resonated below. Better not be those damn protesters again. For liquid courage, he poured another coffee royal, tossed his head back, and sucked the mug dry. (side note: I loved Jim’s coffee royal habit; my 90 y.o. Italian grandfather-in-law tipped quite a few in his day. 🙂 )

Jim shoved open the window. (Example of using a body cue instead of dialogue tag) “Get outta here, you granola-lovin’ hippies!” (Great dialogue. Good job, Anon!)

However, the following dialogue doesn’t work.

“This town wouldn’t be what it is today without this company. I bet half of you work for our subsidiaries and don’t even know it. Go find something better to do!”

The first line in the above passage is too on-the-nose. The second could work if reworded to sound more natural. Although, I’d rather see Anon use the dialogue to show us more of Jim’s personality. It’s precious real estate and shouldn’t be wasted by sneaking in backstory.

As Jim closed the window, he heard something thunk against the building. He looked at the angry mob of about 20 to see that they were throwing rocks at the building. He opened his window and shouted at the crowd.

“I’m calling the police!” 

Heard and see are telling words. The dialogue should come after the body cue, not on a separate line. Also, why have Jim close and reopen the window? Keep it open. If you need Jim away from the window, let him refill his coffee royal. Which also gives us the opportunity to show the reader how pissed off or frightened he is.

Rewritten:

Jim swiped the Crown Royal off his desk, and a pummel of tings blasted against the side of the building. He chanced a peek out the window. About twenty of the angry mob whipped rocks at the bricks, some even hit the new Prairie Pipeline Company sign. As CEO, he couldn’t let this behavior continue. Hidden by the window frame, his body flattened against the wall, his voice betrayed his confident front when it raised three octaves. “I’m calling the cops!”

Notice how I slipped in the name of the company and his job title? Here isn’t as intrusive as the first line and we won’t risk overloading our reader with information before they get a chance to know Jim.

Last paragraph:

“Oooh, the police. We’re scared now!” one of the protesters sarcastically snapped back. By this point Jim was ready to take matters into his own hands. He was sick and tired of environmental protest groups showing up at the office and disturbing not only the normal course of business but also the time he put in after hours. It was almost as if they were stalking him. He just couldn’t understand why they would choose 7:00 pm as a time to protest. Then he remembered there was a benefit dinner happening at the University to raise funds to relocate the hundreds of thousands of birds that would be without homes if the new pipeline went ahead as planned.

First, cue the reader to who’s speaking right away. “Ooh, the police,” yelled the protest leader. Barry something-or-other. This wasn’t the first time he’d had run-ins with that loud-mouthed-loser. “We’re scared now!”

The next line is all telling and does nothing to further the plot — delete.

Rewrite the rest of the paragraph to hint at the story to come.

So damn tired of environmental groups disrupting the normal work flow, never mind the time spent before and after hours, something had to give. It was almost as if they sensed when he pulled into the parking lot. Had they planted cameras? Stalked him? Oh, maybe they attended the fundraiser tonight. Bunch of tree-huggers trying to find a way to relocate birds once PPC laid the new pipeline. If only these earthy-crunchy types could disappear. Vanished. Scraped off the planet like gum on a sneaker’s sole. But how?

He smirked. Murder might be an option.

###

Overall, there’s a lot to like about this first page. If Anon deepens the POV, s/he could have an intriguing story.

Jordan passed me the music challenge gauntlet. So, I’m including the inspiration behind Paradox, my killer in SCATHED, Grafton County Series, (release date TBA). #TKZMusicChallenge

Over to you, TKZers. What tips would you give to strengthen this first page?

 

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1st Page Critique: Across the Road

By SUE COLETTA

We have another brave writer who submitted a First Page for critique. My comments will follow.

ACROSS THE ROAD

Edward stepped on the brakes and brought the car to a halt on the edge of the road. Adjusting his rearview mirror, he again looked to make certain his intervention was indeed required. On the streets of Accra two people fighting was hardly a novel sight, and third party intervention was not always welcome. But the man still held the young woman by her throat, and she squirmed in vain to break free.

Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car.

It hit him like a falling object. “What the…?” he muttered. Cupping his hand over his eyes, he looked up.

It was a stupid thing to do. The pain in his head only worsened. He looked at his watch to ensure it wasn’t already mid-day. Even at 7:45 in the morning, the sun churned an unbearable amount of heat. If he kept driving, he’d be in his office in fifteen minutes waiting on an aspirin from his secretary. He squinted in the direction of the helpless young woman, and marched towards her.

Every step he took increased the throbbing in his head. He’d stopped his car only a couple of metres away. Amidst her gasping and choking, Edward heard the woman say, “Let…go of me.” Her small hands slipped and slapped against the man’s vice-like grip.

“Give me my money or else…” The man, who couldn’t have been shorter than six-foot-four, threw up a big, veiny left hand, palm wide open, and began to drop it at a target on the side of her face.

Edward reached it in time. He caught the weapon in his left hand before it reached its target. His fingers barely closed around the thick wrist. “Easy, my friend,” he said.

The man staggered, and Edward’s head exploded. Still holding on to the woman, the man turned his eyes from her to Edward. Deep furrows in his forehead marked his confusion. In a quick movement Edward transferred the seized hand from his left hand to his right. With his left hand he grabbed the choking hazard and calmly said to the brute, “Let her go.”

For a brief moment the two men glared at each other in a not-so-epic Mexican stand-off. Edward fixed his gaze. Too many times he’d been told he had kind eyes.

* * *

The writer has given us a peek into Edward’s character and we’re thrown into an action scene. Yet the writer didn’t hook me enough to turn the page. Why? Because when we don’t resist the urge to explain every movement in detail, it ruins the suspense. Readers are smart. Trust us to fill in the blanks. I’ll give you a quick example.

He reached for the bloody rag. By two fingers he pulled it from the stranger’s grasp, then retracted his arm.

See how overly descriptive that is? Remember, every word counts.

He snatched the bloody rag.

Same action. Same visualization. Four words instead of 19. We know what it looks like to snatch a rag from someone’s hand. Too many body movements slow (or stop) the suspense rather than enhance it.

The Headache

Throughout the first page we learn about Edward’s headache. I’m guessing these episodes play a key role in the story. In which case, the writer has done a good job of showing us how migraines start as a dull ache and little by little build into mind-numbing pain.

A word of caution here. Headaches aren’t all that interesting, nor are migraines. They help gain empathy for the MC, but they’re not enough to carry an entire story. Unless— and this is key—these migraines are a symptom of something larger. Jason Borne had migraines after the CIA erased his identity. If Edward went through a similar procedure, then you need to drop a few clues. As it stands now, Edward’s an average Joe who makes his secretary bring him aspirin. Speaking of, unless the story takes place before the 1970’s, this tidbit makes Edward look like a male chauvinist pig. Do you want to turn your female readers against Edward?

Word Choices

Throughout the first page the writer chose odd wording. For clarity, the brave writer’s questionable word choices are in red, my remarks in blue. Please add your own helpful suggestions in the comments.

Edward stepped on the brakes and brought the car to a halt on the edge of the road. “Brought” is generic. The edge of the road makes me think Edward stopped at the edge of a steep cliff. Breakdown lane or dirt shoulder may work better. 

It hit him like a falling object. What hit him? “It” tells us nothing.

The man, who couldn’t have been shorter than six-foot-four (don’t confuse the reader with odd wording. If he’s the size of a Patriot’s linebacker, say so), threw up a big, veiny left hand (first, gross; second, unless Edward is inches away he wouldn’t be able to see the dude’s veins), palm wide open, and began to drop it at a target (what target? Did a bullseye suddenly appear on her cheek?) on the side of her face.

Edward reached it (reached what?) in time. He caught the weapon (there’s a weapon now?) in his left hand before it reached its target (I still don’t see a target).

Adjusting his rearview mirror, he again looked (did he look a first time?) to make certain his intervention (intervention reminds me of an alcoholic who needs to get sober) was indeed required.

Also, the first line is nowhere near strong enough for an opener. Rather than rehash TKZ’s sound advice on first lines, I’ve linked a few posts that may help HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Always try to use strong action verbs. You can find an active verb pdf HERE.

On the streets of Accra two people fighting was hardly a novel sight, and third party intervention was not always welcome. The first half of the sentence shows us that Accra isn’t a safe place. Bravo! After the comma, however, is called over-writing. Most people don’t like others prying into their business. Because it’s common sense and it doesn’t help to clarify, well, anything, we can (and should) delete.  

But the man still held the young woman by her throat (still? This is the 1st time you’ve shown us), and she squirmed in vain (meh. You can do better) to break free. 

Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car. 

Unless men have a habit of strangling women on the side of the roads in Accra, the terror should be palpable. He’s killing her! Yet Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car? No, no, no.

Edward slammed the shifter into park and leaped out the driver’s door. “Let go of her, you bastard!”

Force us into that fight! Let us feel Edward’s face flush with rage as he witnesses a man beat on a woman half his size.

Let’s jump ahead.

The man staggered, and Edward’s head exploded. His head exploded? What a mess! I understand what the writer is trying to convey here, but I can’t help but giggle every time I read that line. Migraines are no joke, though. Please choose words that best describe how painful they are.

Example:

A volcanic blast exploded within Edward’s head. Vision blurred. Words jumbled. With a flat hand, he latched on to the hood to steady his gait. The goon dragged the woman by the hair, but Edward couldn’t react. The migraine held him hostage.

Still holding on to the woman, the man turned his eyes from her to Edward. How does one turn their eyes? I’m able to “shift” my eyes, but alas, I cannot turn them. I’m also a stickler for “eyes” that shoot across a room. “Gazes” can shoot to and fro. They can also roam, wander, and dance.  Eyeballs, to my knowledge, remain in their sockets at all times. Unless, or until, someone pries them out.

Deep furrows in his forehead marked his confusion. Simple, clear, paints an image in the reader’s mind. Well done!

 In a quick movement Edward transferred the seized hand (Seized? Money and property can be seized, hands cannot) from his left hand to his right. With his left hand (avoid repetition. In less than two sentences the word “hand” is used three times. Too many details confuse the reader. Which hand did what now?) he grabbed the choking hazard (I must admit, I’ve reread this first page umpteenth times and am still unsuccessful in finding “the choking hazard.” To me, a choking hazard is a small toy or toy part that we keep away from babies and toddlers) and calmly said to the brute, “Let her go.”

For a brief moment the two men (we’re not in Edward’s head anymore) glared at each other in a not-so-epic Mexican stand-off (cliché). Edward fixed his gaze (this works better than the preceding sentence; good job here!). Too many times he’d been told he had kind eyes (delete this line. Not only is it irrelevant, but it makes no sense in this context).

To review

  • Resist the urge to explain every single body movement.
  • Choose words carefully.
  • Avoid repetition.
  • Trust the reader to fill in the blanks, but give us enough information to do so.
  • Know your audience.

Over to you, TKZers. What tips would you give this brave writer?

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