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

Turning Real Terror into Fiction

Years ago, I experienced a terrifying hell ride when the gas pedal on my Ford Explorer stuck wide-open while driving Rte. 125 during rush hour traffic. Two days later, I received a recall notice in the mail. Little good it did me then. The experience remains as fresh in my mind today as it did then.

I’d just left Khols parking lot and stopped at a red light. When the light turned green my foot shifted to the gas pedal, and the SUV took off like a bullet fired from an automatic pistol. Here’s the strange thing. When something like this happens, you try to reason it away. Never do you think anything dangerous could be happening. Our self-protection mode kicks in and we waver in and out of denial.

Until we can’t any longer.

Until we need to face the truth — this day could be our last. And it’s terrifying!

The SUV kept gaining more and more momentum till the speedometer read 40 mph, 50 mph, 60 mph, and climbing. Rte. 125 is a main drag. Traffic lights stood every mile or so, and most of them turned red. But I couldn’t stop. With both feet on the brake, I screamed out the window for someone to help me.

No one did.

Other drivers honked their horns. They didn’t know what was happening inside my Explorer. All they saw was a crazed woman swerving in and out of traffic, barely missing numerous vehicles, black smoke trailing behind from the brake pads tearing clean off. Next, smoke poured out the back. Not sure why. If I had to guess, I’d say it was the rotors or something else brake-related. All I knew was I couldn’t stop the damn SUV.

As the speedometer climbed toward 70mph, a gazillion things raced through my mind in the span of a few seconds, including how to crash the vehicle without killing myself or others. After five sets of lights and miles and miles of the most harrowing journey I’d ever had the displeasure of experiencing, I came to a stretch of road with a field on the right. My plan was to veer in to the field and crash into a tree, where hopefully I could jump out the driver’s door. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking clearly. My complete focus was on avoiding obstacle after obstacle so I didn’t kill anyone.

If it weren’t for two college students who pulled alongside me, I might not be alive today.

They hollered at me to throw the SUV into neutral, which I did. But the car kept accelerating. Then they told me to turn off the ignition. Finally, I rolled to a stop. When they hustled to my door, I could barely speak, nerves zinging through my system, tears streaming down my twitching cheeks.

Horrible memories make great fodder for books. Wouldn’t you agree?

Fast forward to 2017.

In May, my neighbor asked to borrow my vehicle because his wouldn’t turn over. Thing is, it was a fairly new vehicle. What we soon discovered was he’d missed a loan payment. The lender blocked access to the car by using what’s called a starter interrupter device to make the vehicle un-driveable till he brought his payments up-to-date.

My crime writer antennae dinged.

If they could prevent him from starting his SUV, could someone hack in and take control? What I discovered chilled me to the bone . . . and breathed life into HACKED.

Have you used a terrifying experience in your writing? Do tell.

 

“HACKED is a meaty novella packed with great characters, unexpected humor, intriguing plot twists & page turning pace. This comes from good writing and an author who delivers every time.” ~ Jordan Dane

“Witty, exciting and perfectly paced! Normally, novellas leave me wishing for more but Sue Coletta’s ‘Hacked’ was absolutely perfect!” ~ Amazon Reviewer

Look Inside: https://amzn.to/321QDqM 

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Reader Friday: Where Will You Hide the Body?

You’ve just committed the perfect murder (all that research finally pays off!), but to be successful the cops can’t find the corpse. Your DNA, a stray hair, fibers, or fingerprints might lead them back to you.

Where will you hide the body?

Hint: it’s the location of the book you’re reading. Get those creative juices flowing! Where in that location will you stash the evidence?

Are you dumping the evidence (latex gloves, murder weapon, etc.) with the body?

If no, what’s the distance between the evidence and the corpse?

 

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Tiny Creatures Deconstruction Part II

And we’re back with Part II of Tiny Creatures deconstruction. In Part I, we looked at characterization, plotting, pacing, and the importance of raising story questions. In this segment, let’s narrow in on story structure, scene development, character arc, word choices, and story rhythm.

First, a quick review of Tiny Creatures Deconstruction Part I to allow you to see the full character arc. Within a four-part story structure, each Part of the character arc equals 25%.

Part I: The Setup

  • introduce the protagonist
  • hook the reader
  • setup 1st Plot Point through foreshadowing and establishing stakes
  • establish empathy for the hero

In the first quartile, Tiny Creatures introduced the viewer to our tiny hero in an empathetic way and we bonded with her right away. We also learned about Raven, who we believed was the villain. And the writer setup the 1st Plot Point — a life or death chase which defined the stakes.

Part II: The Response

  • protagonist reacts to new goals/stakes/obstacles revealed by the 1st Plot Point
  • hero doesn’t need to act heroic yet
  • she retreats, regroups, experiences doomed attempts
  • remind the reader/viewer of the antagonistic forces at play

Tiny Creatures excelled in this area as well. Remember when Raven chased our tiny hero around the cabin? That scene established the life or death stakes, and Miss Rat reacted by fleeing. She also feared the human. Which is exactly how she should act in the second quartile of the character arc.

Part III: The Attack

  • Midpoint information/awareness causes the protagonist(s) to change course
  • hero is now empowered with information on how to proceed
  • not merely reacting anymore
  • hero also ramps up battle with inner demons

A perfect example of this occurred in Tiny Creatures when our tiny hero summoned the courage to face her fears and freed the raven from the fisherman’s trap.

Now, let’s return to the deconstruction. Keep in mind, we’re still in Part III of the character arc.

Tiny Creatures, Episode 6 Deconstruction Part II

Once released from the trap, Raven cocks his head at the rat. Their gazes lock, linger. “The raven is puzzled by the rat’s action, but grateful nonetheless.” He leaps into the sky.

The fisherman returns from an early morning outing, and the raven calls out to warn Miss Rat to get out of sight (Remember all those intriguing characteristics of the raven we learned in The Setup? Now they take on new meaning. Raven’s intellect actually compliments Miss Rat’s strengths, and together they morph into a winning team). Our tiny hero scurries back into the shack as the fisherman examines his busted trap on the front porch.

As our tiny hero curls into her boot home, the camera pans out to the surrounding area. “The Everglades are home to many animals.” Camera closes in on an alligator. “The American alligator is a keystone species crucial to the health and wellbeing of the ecosystem.” (red herring to get our blood pumping—more tension builds + story questions. Will our heroes face this beast?)

Camera pans out to a body of water in the Everglades, cleverly disguised, and we’re not sure why. (We’ll keep watching to find out. Which expertly demonstrates why it’s important to withhold information.) “But some animals aren’t always welcome. An exotic species introduced by humans, the Burmese python doesn’t naturally belong in the Everglades. Despite this fact, it has everything it requires to multiply and dominate these delicate waterways.” (Notice the harsh “dominate” paired with “delicate.” Perfect word choices send subtle clues of emanate danger.)

The slow and agonizing action of the Burmese python sliding into our tiny hero’s drainpipe would tremble even the steeliest heart. (That image alone proves my point about the Tiny Creatures Netflix series — the writer has mastered the art of suspense. Showing a murder or attack is far less suspenseful than the moments leading up to it. Examples: A lone pinecone crunches under the weight of a stranger’s boot behind you on the hiking trail. The flick of a butane lighter amidst the darkened forest around your property while you sip an evening cocktail at the picnic table. You get the picture. 😉)

Sampling the air, the python flicks its tongue. “An intense odor is coming through the pipes.” <dramatic pause> “It can smell a rat.” (Raising the stakes even higher — our heroes don’t stand a chance against this formidable villain.) The python slithers through the drainpipe. “Although the Burmese python is one of the largest snakes in the world, they’re surprisingly agile climbers. To shift their heavy, elongated frame, specialized muscles under their belly propel them forward.” (This smattering of backstory shows how skillful and deadly this predator is AND drives the plot. Lesson: Any and all backstory should be employed with purpose. If it doesn’t benefit the plot, don’t include it.)

<cue dangerous music as the python flows through the dark pipe>

“Continuously flicking its forked tongue, it analyzes its surroundings.” The python emerges from the toilet in the shack (paying off an earlier scene that showed our tiny hero traversing the same route). “The snake can taste (“taste” is another perfect word choice) chemical trails in the air left behind by passing prey.” (Gulp. He referred to our tiny hero as prey! This scene conjures images of the snake swallowing our tiny hero, and our fear mounts with anticipation.)

<cue music that evokes urgency> Camera focuses on the sweet rat munching on a crumb, unaware of the dangerous intruder.

“Instead of adopting an ambush attack, it likes to stalk its unsuspecting prey slowly and silently. Able to open its mouth five times wider than its own head, the rat is an easy meal for the python.” (Can you feel the stakes raising more and more?)

The camera flashes between the snake and our sweet little hero.

“Using heat-sensitive pits lined along its upper lip, the python possesses infrared vision. This allows it to detect warm things.” (setup of 2nd Pinch Point)

The python slithers across the floor as Miss Rat climbs up to a workbench. The close-up of a fly adds to the chilling scene. (We’re glued to that screen as a gazillion questions race through our mind — the epitome of nail-biting suspense.)

Camera gives us a quick peek of outside the shack. “The fisherman has grown up on the Everglades, and he still honors the good ol’ days.” Near the window of the shack, a transparent plastic bag holds water and five coins. “Sunlight passing through the bag acts like a prism, scattering light in all directions. The idea is that it dazzles and confuses flies, keeping them away.” (We think this is just an interesting tidbit of backstory . . . until the camera zooms in on our tiny hero near the bag.) The camera narrows on the python. “But it might not be just the flies that get confused (python’s character flaw).” The snake approaches the bench. “The python has the advantage of not only seeing the rat but also feeling it.” (The writer could’ve used “senses” instead of “feeling,” but the later invokes more terror.)

The python slithers up the wooden leg of an upholstered chair—painfully slow—and we chew our cuticles raw. “Detecting the heat signature as far as three feet away, the rodent appears illuminated.” (Another perfect word choice. “Rodent” ratchets up the tension. Mean ol’ snake doesn’t know our tiny hero like we do!)

Unaware of the danger, Miss Rat munches on another tasty morsel.

“The python slithers ever closer. Its target lies dead ahead.” (2nd Pinch Point, perfectly placed at 62.5%)

Raven lands on the outside windowsill above the bench, but the window is closed. “The raven notices the snake (MRU motivation) and calls out to warn the rat (MRU reaction). But it’s no use. Our tiny hero’s loud munching overpowers the raven’s call (MRU motivation). Time for more drastic action (Scene Goal = Get inside the shack).”

Raven bangs on the glass pane with his strong beak (MRU reaction) to no avail (Scene Conflict = Glass won’t shatter).

“The snake’s hearing is sensitive only to low frequency sounds (villain’s character flaw). And so, it remains unperturbed the raven’s tapping.” With the Burmese python on the cushion of the chair near the workbench, the writer delivers the final blow. “Fixating on its victim, it retracts its body to strike position.” (Tension reaches a boiling point — we cannot look away! + MRU motivation)

Still frantically trying to get inside, Raven slides his beak around the edges of the windowpanes, hammers at the glass, and screeches at high decibels (MRU reaction).

Nothing works. (Suffocating suspense; we’re paralyzed by fear.)

Camera zooms in on the bag suspended next to our tiny hero. “The hanging water bag has gradually heated in the sun (MRU motivation). Now the snake senses two warm targets (MRU reaction + Scene Disaster). Any small movement from either will trigger the snake’s predatory instinct to strike.”

With his bill Raven hammers the crevice between the doors of a shudder-style window (Sequel Reaction).

Helpless, our hero’s furry back faces the python (Sequel Dilemma). Murder is afoot! But right when things look their bleakest (All-is-Lost Moment perfectly placed between 2nd Pinch Point & 2nd Plot Point), the raven busts through the window.

“The raven’s sudden appearance has foiled the python’s ambush.” The snake slithers down the chair leg (MRU motivation). From the safety of the workbench Raven scolds the python as it flees across the floor (MRU reaction + this scene pays off the earlier scene where we learned about the snake’s stomach muscles + Sequel Decision doubles as the next Scene Goal: keep his little buddy safe).

With our tiny hero safe from the python (MRU motivation), Raven hops back on the windowsill (MRU reaction) just as the fisherman enters the shack. The Burmese python in his shack (MRU motivation) causes him to snatch a grabber tool off the wall (MRU reaction).

“Usually the cryptic nature of these snakes makes them hard to detect in the grass. But in the shack, there’s nowhere to hide.”

With the mechanical grabber, the fisherman grips the snake by its head and bundles it up in a long pillowcase. “Expertly catching the snake, the fisherman plans to take it far away.” He loads the python-filled-sack on the boat (MRU motivation). “The rat retreats to the safety and protection of her home (MRU reaction).”

<cue peaceful music as we roam the Everglades> The narrator adds a few lines about the rich landscape (weaving in backstory and allowing the viewer a well-needed break = expert pacing) as the fisherman returns home. “The waters and banks of the Everglades provide humans with endless opportunities.” Inside the shack, the fisherman turns on a gas burner and sets the tea kettle on top. (A close-up of the flame forewarns a potential hazard.)

“After an exhaustingly long day on the water, the fisherman’s work isn’t done yet. He sets about preparing and maintaining his much-loved equipment, working late into the early hours of the morning.” (2nd Plot Point, perfectly placed at 75%)

Our tiny hero curls up in her boot and falls asleep.

The fisherman makes and repairs lures at the workbench. “Such delicate work requires a lot of focus.” He scrubs a hand across his weary eyes. “But, as the saying goes, you shouldn’t burn the candle at both ends.” (forewarns danger + further sets up Climax.)

Our tiny hero peeks out from the boot at the fisherman, who leans back in his chair. Light snoring fills the room (MRU motivation). “A rat never passes on an opportunity to fuel up, and she quickly collects crumbs dropped by the fisherman.” (MRU reaction)

Wicked cute close-up of our tiny hero munching away on a snack (just sayin’). “The noise of the whistling kettle draws the attention of the rat, who anxiously watches as a gust of wind through the opened window ignites a disaster.”

The tail end of a paper towel roll catches fire — <cue dramatic music> — and a flaming sheet falls to the floor. (Climax begins)

Character Arc Part IV: The Resolution

  • hero summons courage and growth to come up with a solution
  • overcomes inner obstacles
  • conquers the antagonistic force
  • all new information must be referenced, foreshadowed, or already in play by this point to avoid deus ex machina.

“Unaware of the catastrophe spreading around him, the fisherman slips into a deeper sleep.” Music from his ear buds lulls him into tranquility.  

Smaller fires break out everywhere (MRU motivation).

“The rat realizes she must act fast if she is to save her home (Scene Goal).” She scans the room. But she’s so tiny (Scene conflict). She scampers up to a wooden rack of pots and pans suspended from the ceiling, and chews through the rope (using the same behavior she learned at the Midpoint when she freed the raven from the trap; thus, this scene also pays off that earlier scene + MRU reaction). Pots and pans crash on the floor.

“The rat’s actions fall on deaf ears.” (Scene Disaster)

Like a black beacon of hope, Raven emerges through the smoke-fueled haze (Sequel Reaction). He lands on the fisherman’s crossed leg, but he doesn’t wake. <cue dramatic music> He screeches and squawks. The fisherman is out cold (Sequel Dilemma).

“The raven calls loudly. It appears to be trying to help the fisherman (nice role reversal, right? Which also illuminates Raven’s true character—3rd Dimension of Character). The raven is not giving up. This situation calls for more drastic measures.” (Sequel Decision doubles as the next Scene Goal = save his little buddy and the fishing shack)

Fire dances dangerously close to the fisherman’s leg as our two heroes communicate, as if forming a plan. But Miss Rat has done all she can. It’s up to Raven now.

While the rat looks on in horror, Raven’s gaze follows the wire from the ear buds to the human’s chest. Flames grow higher around the fisherman (MRU motivation + Scene Conflict).

<cue louder dramatic music> “Time to get physical.” Grabbing the wire in his beak, he tugs and pulls, but it’s no use. Those ear buds won’t budge (Scene Disaster). Nonetheless, he preserves. With all his might Raven muscles one last jerk (Sequel Reaction) and the ear buds pop loose.

“The fisherman’s woken to an alarming spectacle (Sequel Dilemma).” Raven escapes to the windowsill (Sequel Decision = survival) as the fisherman jolts to his feet. Our tiny hero ducks out of sight. “Fires are common in the Everglades. And luckily, he is well-prepared for such an emergency.” The human extinguishes the blaze.

“The heroic efforts of both the rat and the raven meant the fire didn’t get the chance to cause too much damage. The human has cheated death. And he has the rat and the raven to thank.” (Nice twist, right?)

The camera narrows in on both these amazing animals. Raven takes to the sky as our sweet rat climbs down to the floor (Scene Goal = to rest after a job well done).

“But the rat is left without a home.” Camera zooms in on her charred boot (Scene Conflict + setup of the ending). “She must find a new place to rest her weary head.” Our tiny hero climbs into a duffle bag, and her tail slips beneath the partially opened zipper.

Come morning, the sun rises to a new day.

“Troubled by the fire, the fisherman seeks solace on the water.” He collects his equipment, including the duffle bag (Scene Disaster), and sets off on his boat to clear his mind.

Our tiny hero’s nose twitches out a small opening in the bag. As the raven’s gaze follows his buddy being swept away by the human, his lower bill slacks. “Concerned by where the fisherman is taking the rat, the raven follows closely behind from the air.” (Sequel Reaction)

Camera pans out to show the vastness of the Everglades (indicates danger + story questions. Where will our tiny hero end up?). The boat putts through an open channel.

“The fisherman has an unexpected stowaway. But luckily for the rat, she comes from a long line of seafaring ancestors.” (This fact comforts the viewer and begins the setup of the denouement.)

Camera narrows on our tiny hero’s innocent face, shadowed by the duffle bag (Sequel Dilemma).

“As the boat engine stops, he sets up his fishing equipment.” The fisherman unzips the duffle bag but doesn’t spot the rat. “The rat owes a lot to the fisherman. The shack has provided a shelter to her and any future offspring.” (Perhaps the human isn’t all bad after all.)

Our tiny hero crawls out of the bag and into unfamiliar surroundings. Still, she remains quite perky (3rd dimension of character — her true character. And we love her even more.)

He casts. Casts again and again.

“All over the Everglades animals do what they must to survive.”

Camera flashes to the alligator, the python, the iguana, the fly, and then a wide pan from above showing the raven soaring toward the boat with his majestic outstretched wings. (Fantastic cinematography! Which novelists can also create by etching a vivid mental picture in the reader’s mind.)

“In a delicate ecosystem such as this, a balance between predator and prey is critical.”

Raven lands on the boat (Sequel Decision = ensure his little buddy’s safety).

“Through their trials and tribulations, the rat and the raven have developed a mutual respect and understanding for one another. These two lonely souls have formed an unlikely bond, proving that no matter where you’re from or who you are, it’s your actions that truly define you.” Silhouettes of our two heroes perched on the side of the boat.

“The once great rivalry that existed between them has transformed into an even greater friendship.”

Raven and Miss Rat turn to face each other as the sun sets in the background, brilliant orange and blue hues splashed across the horizon.

“Now with the support of one another, anything is possible.” (What a great last line! We leave the story with our hearts overflowing with love for these two incredible animals.) And the denouement is complete.

Highlights of the Writer’s Skill

 

The writer locked us in a stranglehold from the very beginning by raising the Central Dramatic Story Question (shown in Part I). Which became the jumping off point for more and more story questions. Each scene written with a purpose, to either setup a future scene or pay off an earlier one. The proper stringing of scenes ensures the viewer’s attention would never waver.

Also notice how the writer never loosened the death-grip around our throats for more than a brief moment (perfectly placed respites). And through characterization (shown in Part I), the writer periodically forced the viewer to change our perception of the hero, anti-hero, and almost every villain we encountered. Most importantly, perfect plotting kept us engaged from the first sentence to the last.

What’s not to love about Tiny Creatures?

 

8+

Reader Friday: Name an Activity You’ve Never Tried

What’s one activity you’ve always wanted to try but haven’t?

This activity might include writing in a different genre, bungee jumping, paragliding, skydiving, public speaking, writing from a new perspective, or scaling the side of a mountain.

What prevented you from doing this activity?

Age should never be a deterrent, but let’s face it, older bones may be more brittle, eyesight may not be as sharp . . . blah, blah, blah. You know the drill.

With that in mind, if you were twenty years younger, would you try this activity? What is it about this activity that appeals to you?

4+

Deconstruction of Netflix’s Tiny Creatures – Part I

By SUE COLETTA

Tiny Creatures is a new docuseries on Netflix that’s adorable, suspenseful, and masterfully plotted and paced. To check it out I skipped ahead to Episode 6, which features a raven and a rat. And the storytelling craft blew me away. This episode, along with all the others in the series, provide a detailed roadmap driven by obstacles, misdirection, and conflict. Let’s pull back the curtain and peek behind the scenes.

Even with the “Spoiler Alerts” I still recommend watching the episode. I’ve only concentrated on a few areas of craft, and I don’t point out every instance of where it occurs. The full post still landed at 4564 words. Hence why I’ve broken the post into two parts. See what can happen when you’re high on craft? 😉

Before we get to the deconstruction, check out the trailer.

Deconstruction Part I

“Florida, home to the Everglades. A wild expanse of almost two million acres of wetlands.” (We know where we are, but there’s also a hint of mystery and intrigue. What creatures lurk in the Everglades? And that, is the Central Dramatic Story Question—the cornerstone question at the heart of every story that directly relates to the hero’s conflict. Boom! The writer raised the most important question in the first two lines of the script. Notice s/he never outright poses the question. Rather, s/he implants it in the viewer’s mind.) “Isolated among the Everglades stands a fishing shack, the backdrop of two very different animals whose stories are destined to cross.” (There’s the hook. We need to continue to find out where this leads.)

In flies an impressive raven. (Is he our villain or hero? We’ll keep watching to find out.)

“A raven, a sleek bird with glossy black feathers. Behind this polished appearance, the raven possesses intellect as well as beauty.” The camera zooms in on his size and power (hints that he must be the bad guy). “Lately, the raven’s been keeping an eye on this fishing shack, tracking the movements of the human owner, their habits and routine. He knows when the coast will be clear.”

The raven struts into the fishing shack.

“Ravens are quirky characters and this one is keen to explore. (quirky = surface trait = 1st Dimension of Character) His eyesight, however, isn’t as sharp as his mind (character flaw). He can’t see well in the dark. (obstacle) But this bird is a problem-solver and he has the perfect solution.”

The raven tugs on the wooden knob of the shade, and the shade rolls up. Cascading sunlight bathes the fishing shack in brightness.

“As smart as a chimpanzee, ravens frequently use their brains to exploit the riches of others. Especially humans. (Notice the word choices; the harsh “exploit” and staccato “especially humans” indicates he’s the villain) And this person has many treasures hidden away, safely out of reach.”

The raven flies over to a tackle box.

“But for the raven this is a test of his wits.” (Tension builds) Raven struggles to break into the tackle box (conflict). “And he does what ravens do best—he improvises.” (problem-solver = psychological trait stemming from past experience, upbringing, emotional scars, memories, etc. = 2nd Dimension of Character. We’re beginning to better understand the raven.)

Using a hook-shaped tool, the raven breaks into the tackle box to get at some sort of bait scattered across the bottom of the middle drawer. Clearly, the raven is burglarizing this shack to suit he needs. (Burglar = antagonist. Or could he be an anti-hero? We’re still not sure, which forces us to keep watching.)

Camera pans out to the Everglades and the narrator offers more details about the area. “The water is also home to an assortment of wildlife. Unlike the raven, some animals strive for a simple existence.” (A sprinkle of backstory. More importantly, this is the setup to introduce our tiny hero).

Enter stage left: an adorable rat doggy paddles across the water. (cuteness = surface trait = 1st Dimension of Character)

(Side note: If you’re not a lover of rats, I get it. I wasn’t either. But by the end of this story, you will fall in love with this little rat. And that, ladies and gents, is what characterization is all about.)

“After a busy night exploring, this drowned rat is traveling home to rest (relatable + we empathize with our tiny hero). Each night she swims from bank to bank to see what she can forage. Just like humans, not all rats are natural swimmers (our hero has a superpower). Those rats who have mastered the art can swim over a mile in one go. With her small frame and streamlined body, she’s a natural, moving effortlessly through the water.” (What other superpowers might she possess? Curiosity and empathy keeps us watching.)

Our tiny hero reaches a drainpipe and climbs inside.

“This is a familiar and safe route. Not many predators can follow her through these narrow tunnels. It was her swimming agility which brought her to this hidden route to her home.” (backstory dribbled in to drive the plot) Our tiny hero crawls farther through the drainpipe. “A light at the end of the tunnel signifies her final hurdle.” <cue dramatic music> She plunges into a U-shaped drain (tension builds). “One that relies on her ability to hold her breath and stay submerged for up to three minutes.” (determination = psychological trait = 2nd Dimension of Character) “A rather unconventional way of entering her home in the fishing shack.” (setup of 2nd Pinch Point)

Up pops our tiny hero from the toilet.

“Now soaked to the bone, she carries an extra 5% of her body weight in water. If her fur stays wet for too long, she’s at risk for hyperthermia. (more conflict + character flaw) Using the equivalent of nature’s hairdryer to dry off, she adopts an alternative approach.”

<cue dramatic music and slow-motion camera> Our tiny hero twists and shakes her body 18 times per second, loose water spraying in all directions.

“It’s an efficient if not slightly messy approach. Within just four seconds, she’s removed 70% of the water droplets.” She climbs down off the toilet seat and into the main room of the fishing shack. “Unbeknown to the rat, however, there’s a trespasser inside her home.” (First hint of trouble.) <cue dangerous music as the camera narrows on the raven> “And the normal serenity of the shack is swiftly broken.” (Inciting Incident)

Wings outstretched, the raven squawks.

“The presence of the rat irritates the raven. He could easily kill this rodent. But he has other ideas.” (Because we’ve bonded with our hero — the under-rat, if you will — we fear for her safety. There’s no way we’ll stop watching.) Loud screeches from the raven combined with a penetrating glare startle our tiny hero. “Ravens are one of the few bird species that like to play. And the rat is the unfortunate victim of its game . . . and her tale is a tempting target.”

Raven swan-dives off a nearby table—straight at our hero. The chase is on! (1st Plot Point lands at 20-25% — perfect)

<dramatic music enhances the terror> “Fleeing this terrifying predator, the rat seeks sanctuary where she can.” Each time the raven misses our hero by mere millimeters. Camera closes in on the raven’s opened beak, massive black wings, and powerful physique. “This game is a little one-sided.” (And now, we’re certain Raven is the formidable villain.)

Our tiny hero scampers into a hole in the side of a cardboard box. “The raven uses its sharp beak to poke and probe.” (Notice the hard-sounding word choices “poke” & “probe” which only solidifies our theory about the raven) Raven leaps on top of the box, tears at the old packing tape. (Stakes are raised. If our hero doesn’t escape, she could die!)

“But the rat’s size and agility gives her the edge into some unusual terrain. She ceases her opportunity and makes a dash for it. She squeezes through a one-inch gap, leaving the raven still pecking.”

When our tiny hero races across the floor, Raven is right on her heels. But in the mad dash he knocks over a bottle. Liquid leaks out its spout (foreshadows danger + setup of climax).

“Distracted by the chase, the raven loses track of time.”

Outside the shack, a boat docks at the pier. “The fisherman arrives back at the shack, seeking shelter from the midday sun. But for some, the heat of the sun’s rays are welcome to warm, cold blood.” A menacing-looking iguana sunbathes atop a large rock on the porch, and we learn more about him, including his voracious appetite. (This spattering of backstory raises the stakes even higher while conjuring more story questions: Will our hero need to fight the iguana, too?)

Camera cuts back to the raven whose sharp talons pin down a burlap sack. Underneath, our tiny hero struggles to break free.

“The fisherman returns from a long but successful day on the water.” He unloads his gear and clomps toward the front door. “He is unaware of the raven’s game that is still taking place in the shack.”

Cameras cuts back to inside, where our hero whimpers as she tries to flee from the massive raven. (Conflict, tension, action, and rising stakes, combined with rotating motivation/reaction units, along with solid characterization and story questions—questions that must be answered—and the viewer’s breathless with anticipation. We cannot look away.)

“The noise of the fisherman alerts the raven. Realizing the human has returned, the game with the rat is no longer of interest to him”—he soars toward the window— “as the raven spots a more appealing opportunity outside.”

Camera zooms in on bait in a three-gallon bucket.

“Luckily, the pause in the chase allows the rat to escape to her bed.” Our tiny hero careens into an old boot (allowing viewers a moment to catch their breath = smart pacing).

“For the raven, it seems there are bigger fish to fry.”

Camera captures the raven lickin’ his chops as he stares out the window at the bucket (menacing appearance = surface trait = 1st Dimension of Character). Raven climbs out the window and stalks the ledge to the front corner of the fishing shack. When the fisherman enters the shack, he seizes the opportunity to raid the bait.

While we watch the raven feast, the narrator offers us a few more fascinating details. “With no teeth, the raven pecks at the food, swallowing whole the more manageable pieces.” (These tidbits allow us to better understand the raven, and to envision what he might do to our sweet hero.)

Little Miss Rat emerges from the boot. The camera flashes outside to the iguana, increasing the tension of the scene. Our tiny hero could be up against two villains! (raises the stakes even higher)

“Capable of smelling food from a mile away, the scent of fish entices the rat to leave her hiding place. Similar to ravens, rats are not choosy to what they eat (similar character flaws). There’s more than enough food here for both of them.”

Our innocent hero totters up to the bait bucket. Glowering, Raven towers the rat, his talons latched onto the rim.

“Though still leery of the raven, she hopes this distraction will allow her to break cover and grab a quick bite, unnoticed. But the beady-eyed raven hasn’t learned the art of sharing.”

Raven squawks (motivation), which wakes the sleeping iguana (reaction). Our tiny hero runs and hides, leaving the two bad guys to square off. (tension mounts)

“Woken by the commotion from the raven, this sensitive lizard doesn’t hesitate. Its instinctive reaction is to run.” But when the iguana charges (motivation), the raven leaps off the bucket (reaction) and the bait splatters across the porch. The iguana escapes into the surrounding landscape. “In a flash, it’s gone.”

But the fisherman hears the crash from inside and peers out the window. Raven makes a mad dash to gobble up as much bait as he can swallow.

The narrator hits us with this as a clever misdirect: “Ravens can learn to either like or dislike a person, depending on how they’re treated. And they never forget a face.”

Da, nah, nah. <cue dangerous music>

The fisherman storms outside with a broom. (Now it looks like the human might be the real antagonist of the story. Is the raven an anti-hero? But if that’s true, then why does he keep tormenting an innocent rat? Raising story questions forces us to keep watching.)

Broom in hand, the fisherman chases the raven across the porch, screaming and yelling, and we watch this play out in silhouette through the window (1st Pinch Point, perfectly placed at 37.5%).

With the raven gone, our tiny hero can finally rest. <cue sweet music>

“Both the rat and the raven are blissfully unaware of the danger being constructed outside (This line subtly signals that they are, in fact, dual protagonists). Humans also hold grudges. And the raven’s actions have consequences.” (The fisherman sure looks like the real villain now, doesn’t he? Just when one answer is revealed, the writer raises another story question. How will the human punish the raven?)

On the porch sits a wired trap baited with fish. Our tiny hero is sleeping soundly in her boot when she’s awakened by the raven screeching outside.

“Trapped and outsmarted by the fisherman, the raven calls for help.” Poor Raven is caught in the trap (gaining empathy for our anti-hero).

The camera pans over to our sweet rat emerging from the safety of her bed.

“A social animal, the rat can sense the raven’s distress. Unnerved by the calls for help, her instinct draws her to the raven. (instinct = inner trait = 2nd Dimension of Character) Arriving to see the trapped bird, a sense of empathy washes over the rat. (compassion = inner trait = 2nd Dimension of Character) She approaches cautiously. She has not forgotten the raven’s torment yesterday.”

The raven and the rat gaze into each other’s eyes (this Mirror Moment bonds the two heroes).

Camera closes in on our tiny hero’s sweet face. “Her sense of compassion overrides her concern.” In a bold move, she climbs up on the door of the trap and gnaws on the rope securing the top of the door to the metal bars (the act of facing her fears = 3rd Dimension of character, her true character). “Equipped with super strong teeth, rats are capable of chewing through concrete, glass, and even metal. Although not quite as a clever as the raven, rats are super smart. (yes, the repetition is a writing tic, but it’s invisible to the viewer due to the high tension & action. See what good plotting and three-dimensional characters can mask?) Unsure of when the fisherman will return, the rat works as quickly as she can to gnaw through the rope.”

The rope falls to the deck boards and our tiny hero drags open the door, freeing the raven. <cue dramatic music> (Midpoint Shift, perfectly placed at 50%.)

Raven cocks his head and stares at the rat. “The raven is puzzled by the rat’s action, but grateful nonetheless.” He leaps into the sky. (story question: will they meet again?)

The fisherman returns from an early morning outing, and the raven calls out to warn the rat to get out of sight (his actions/behavior = 3rd Dimension of Character, his true character). Our tiny hero scurries back into the shack as the fisherman examines his busted trap on the front porch.

As our tiny hero curls into her boot home, the camera pans out to the surrounding area. “The Everglades are home to many animals.” Camera closes in on an alligator. “The American alligator is a keystone species crucial to the health and wellbeing of the ecosystem.” (red herring to get our blood pumping—more tension builds + more story questions. Will our heroes soon face this beast?)

Of special note for Part I: Through characterization, did you notice how the writer periodically forced the viewer (reader) to change their perception of the hero, anti-hero, and almost every villain we’ve encountered so far? Storytelling at its finest, folks.

Stay tuned for Part II on Monday, Aug. 24.

Have you watched Tiny Creatures on Netflix?

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Reader Friday: Share a 2020 Victory

Success comes in many forms. No two writers view success in the same way. Sure, if we’ve had a film adaptation of our novel, then I think we can all agree that’s a success story.

That said, I’m a big believer in celebrating small victories along the road to success (whatever that means to YOU). Celebrating smaller victories helps to keep us focused, grounded, and moving forward in a positive way.

Please share one victory for 2020. I know it hasn’t been an easy year, but that’s why it’s more important than ever to celebrate each new hurdle you’ve jumped. A victory can be anything, from completing a manuscript to hiking a mountain for inspiration to a successful virtual book signing to Hollywood knocking at your door.

Let us celebrate your success!

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Writing Hacks: Keyboard Shortcuts

Picture this. You’re in the zone rockin’ the WIP, the words flowing from your fingertips faster than you can type. And then . . . splat. You’ve hit a brick wall. That special character or symbol isn’t on your keyboard.

Sound familiar?

So now, you need to stop, go to Insert, then to Advanced Symbols and scroll through the list to find that pain-in-the-butt character. You could leave yourself a note in the manuscript to deal with it later and continue on, but wouldn’t a keyboard shortcut make life easier?

With that in mind, I offer the following . . .

SYMBOLS & SPECIAL CHARACTERS 

Please note: these shortcuts can be used on the web or in Word by using the numbers on the top row of your keyboard. If you use your numbers keypad, you may get different results.

ALT + 1 = ¡

ALT + 2 = ™

ALT + 3 = £

ALT + 4 = ¢

ALT + 5 = ∞

ALT + 6 = §

ALT + 7 = ¶

ALT + 8 = •

ALT + 9 = ª

ALT + q = œ

ALT + SHFT + Q = Œ

ALT + w = ∑

ALT + SHFT + W = „

ALT + e = ´

ALT + r = ®

ALT + SHFT + R = ‰

ALT + t = †

ALT + SHFT + T = ˇ

ALT + y = ¥

ALT + SHFT + Y = Á

ALT + u = ¨

ALT + i = ˆ

ALT + o = ø

ALT + SHFT + O = Ø

ALT + p = π

ALT + SHFT + P = ∏

ALT + a = å

ALT + SHFT + A = Å

ALT + s = ß

ALT + SHFT + S = Í

ALT + d = ∂

ALT + SHFT + D = Î

ALT + f = ƒ

ALT + SHFT + F = Ï

ALT + g = ©

ALT + SHFT + G = ˝

ALT + h = ˙

ALT + SHFT + H = Ó

ALT + j = ∆

ALT + SHFT + J = Ô

ALT + k = ˚ (degree)

ALT + SHFT + K = Ó

ALT + l = ¬

ALT + SHFT + L = Ò

ALT + ; = … (to create ellipsis you can also press CTRL + ALT + .)

ALT + SHFT + : = Ú

ALT + “ = Æ

ALT + ‘ = æ

ALT + z = Ω

ALT + SHFT + Z = ¸

ALT + x = ≈

ALT + SHFT + X = ˛

ALT + c = ç

ALT + SHFT + C = Ç

ALT + v = √ (square root)

ALT + SHFT + V = ◊

ALT + b = ∫

ALT + SHFT + B = ı

ALT + n = ˜

ALT + m = µ

ALT + SHFT + M = Â

ALT + , = ≤

ALT + SHFT + < = ¯

ALT + . = ≥

ALT + SHFT + > = ˘

ALT + / = ÷

ALT + SHFT + ? = ¿

COMMON SHORTCUTS

On my keyboard “Command” equals the “WIN” key—I use a Windows keyboard on a Mac—but yours might be CTRL or COMMAND (Mac users) depending on the keyboard type.

<Command> + C = Copy

<Command> + X = Cut

<Command> + V = Paste

<Command> + Q = Quit

<Command> + W = Close File or Window

<Command> + N = Open New file

<Command> + O = Open Existing file

<Command> + S = Save

<Command> + P = Print

<Command> + F = Find a word or phrase­­­ on web pages or in Word. If the word or phrase appears more than once, press ENTER to move to the next instance.

<Command> + Z = Undo Action (To redo the action, press <Command> + Y)

<Command> + A = Select All

<Command> + B = Bold (To stop bold, repeat command)

<Command> + I = Italics (To stop italics, repeat command)

<Command> + U = Underline (To stop underline, repeat command)

<Command> + T = Open New Browser

<Command> + D = Bookmark Page

<Command> + B = View Bookmarks

WORDPRESS SHORTCUTS

Most of the above commands also work on WordPress. Here’s a few extras exclusive to WordPress …

<Command> + 1 = Heading 1

<Command> + 2 = Heading 2

<Command> + 3 = Heading 3

<Command> + 4 = Heading 4

<Command> + 5 = Heading 5

<Command> + 6 = Heading 6

<Command> + 9 = Address

ALT + SHFT + n = Check Spelling

ALT + SHFT + j = Justify Text

ALT + SHFT + d = Strikethrough

ALT + SHFT + u = Bullet List

ALT + SHFT + o = Numbered List

ALT + SHFT + q = Quote

ALT + SHFT + w = Distraction Free Writing Mode

ALT + SHFT + p = Insert Page Break Tag

ALT + SHFT + l = Align Left

ALT + SHFT + c = Align Center

ALT + SHFT + r = Align Right

ALT + SHFT + a = Insert Link

ALT + SHFT + s = Remove Link

ALT + SHFT + m = Insert Image

ALT + SHFT + t = Insert More Tag

ALT + SHFT + h = Help

Most social media sites offer their own shortcuts in the help menu. YouTube, however, offers several cool hacks to save time.  

YOUTUBE SHORTCUTS

Press 1 = jump ahead 10% through the video.

Press 3 = jump ahead 30%

Press 4 = jump ahead 40%

Press 5 = jump ahead 50%

And so on.

Press 0 = restarts the video

Spacebar = pause/un-pause video

← Go back 5 seconds

→ Go forward 5 seconds

↑ Raise volume

↓ Decrease volume

F = Fullscreen

ESC = Exit Fullscreen

MISC.

CTRL+ALT+DEL = Quit Frozen Application. This command opens the Task Manager. Select the application that stopped working and press END TASK.

Do you have a favorite shortcut that you use regularly? Please share!

Want to have a little fun? Include a special character in your comment. ♠♣♥♦ If it’s not listed above, be sure to tell us how you created it. 

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How To Craft An Elevator Pitch That Sells

It’s my distinct pleasure to introduce Ruth Harris to TKZ, with an excellent post about how to craft an elevator pitch that sells. Take it away, Ruth!

Is this a dream? Or will it be a nightmare?

There you are—

  • At a conference in line for coffee. You turn around. The person behind you is Big Shot Editor at publishing collosus, Simon, Macmillan & Random Penguin.
  • Waiting for a taxi in the rain when an empty cab/your Uber pulls up. The woman next to you is publishing’s hottest agent. She is drenched and on her way to an important meeting. She asks (begs) to share your ride.
  • On a plane and your seat mate is the famous movie producer who’s known for lavishing Big Bucks on hot, new properties.

It’s do or die time.
You have seconds…
Then what?
Do you panic?
Freeze?
Are you tongue tied?
Do you babble?
Or have you prepared—and practiced—a killer elevator pitch?
Are you ready to razzle dazzle em?
And if not, why not?
Because the well-crafted and polished elevator pitch can make the difference between meh and a reaction that will be passionate.

Meaning before details: start with the big picture.

Readers/editors/agents take only a few seconds to make their buy decision.
Authors have the same few seconds to make their sale.
According to molecular biologist John Medina of the University of Washington School of Medicine, 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: explain the hook or basic concept first.
Then go into the details.

Example #1:

“Susie is trying to kill David by putting arsenic in his Red Bull because he cheated on her with her best friend, Elaine, but then Peter and Marie die.”
Uh. What? Who’s doing what to whom and why should anyone care? Big Shot agent yawns, checks the time, can’t wait to get out of elevator.

Instead: A betrayed wife’s murderous vengeance ends in the death of two innocent children.
Big Shot agent’s ears perk up. S/he is dying to know more.
Then come the details.

Example #2:

“Tim has to get to the coal mine before Wyatt so he can warn his brother about the goons hired by the 93-year-old evil mastermind who owns the mine and plans to destroy humanity with nukes.”
Huh? Followed by sound of confused Very Important editor’s brain switching off as s/he thinks about what to have for lunch.

Instead: Estranged brothers must work together to make their way past vicious dogs and armed guards to enter an abandoned mine and save the world from nuclear annihilation.
Very Important editor’s eyes widen. S/he can’t wait to hear what comes next.
Then come the details.

Don’t be afraid to be outrageous.

A famous but obnoxious TV chef hides from a serial killer in a London training school for snooty butlers.
An opposites-attract romance between a plumber’s apprentice and a poet with a stopped-up sink.
A loud-mouthed, crass political pundit gets drunk and comes to in a Buddhist monastery dedicated to serenity and meditation.

Don’t be afraid to refer to other books or authors, hit movies or TV series.

Gone With The Wind—as written by John Le Carré.
Gone With The Wind—as written by Michey Spillane
Gone With The Wind—as written by Barbara Cartland.
James Bond meets Hannibal Lector. They do not discuss fine wine and gourmet menus.
Game of Thrones. In a submarine.

Bottom Line: Sell the sizzle. Not the steak.

It’s old but relevant advice.
Before launching into the details of plot and character, you need to provoke excitement and curiosity first. That’s why the hook or the killer concept is the most important thing you’ll write.
It must be short, simple, clear, memorable, and easily repeatable.

Keep it short.

But my book is a 200K fantasy epic. You expect me to explain it to someone in a short sentence?
Yep.
Two Stanford grad students had an idea they thought would change the world, but they needed money to turn their idea into reality. Here’s their pitch to potential investors. “Organizes the world’s information and makes it universally accessible.”
In 9 simple words and 69 characters (less than the length of a Tweet), that elevator pitch bagged the needed $$$.
The two grad students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page—and their company, Google—were in business.

KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid).

Shakespeare said it this way: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
Mies Van Der Rohe’s approached it from another angle: “Less is more.”
So did Albert Einstein who explained his Theory of Relativity in three letters, one number and an equal sign: E = mc².
Steve Jobs heeded their advice to make Apple one of the world’s most successful companies.

  • 1984 won’t be like “1984”
  •  Think Different.
  •  iPhone — “Apple Reinvents the phone”
  •  iPod — “1,000 songs in your pocket.”
  • MacBook Air — “The world’s thinnest notebook.”

Apple website and stores, company execs, sales reps, and press releases are all on board and repeat these simple phrases over and over.
You can follow the same approach by using your hook—short, simple, memorable, repeatable—everywhere.

  • As a headline for your blurb
  • As a tweet or newsletter subject line
  • To introduce yourself to your audience when you start a speech
  • On the home page of your website
  • On your business card
  • On your author page
  • In your author bio
  • As a keyword

How simple? How about this?

The hot new bestselling thriller, The Chain, was launched with a three-word pitch: “Jaws for parents.”
Simple, to the point, easy for everyone to remember, easy for anyone to repeat.

Or this?

English mystery author, Adam Croft, launched his successful self-publishing career with a simple question: “Could you murder your wife to save your daughter?”

Embrace the power of repetition.

Successful politicians—ones who become President—embrace the power of repetition.

  • The New Deal
  • Make America Great Again
  • Nixon’s The One
  • Give Em Hell, Harry
  • I Like Ike
  • All the Way With LBJ
  • Change We Can Believe In

Advertisers have learned the same lesson. They spend millions of dollars to repeat the same simple phrases over and over because they understand the power of repetition.

  • Nike — Just Do It
  • Hallmark – When you care enough to send the very best
  • Burger King – Have it your way.
  • U.S. Marine Corps — Semper Fi
  • Bounty — The Quicker Picker Upper
  • Lay’s — Betcha Can’t Eat Just One
  • Dunkin’ Donuts — America Runs on Dunkin’
  • The New York Times — All the News That’s Fit to Print”

Savvy politicians and advertisers don’t get bored with the repetition. Neither do their audiences. Emulate their success and don’t be afraid of repetition.

Make it memorable—and easily repeatable.

You will be the first to use your elevator pitch—but you do not want to be the last.

  • Agents need a powerful hook to pitch publishers and TV and movie producers.
  • Editors need a potent pitch to persuade their advertising, marketing and sales departments that your book is worth their time and energy.
  • Your fans and readers will use your great hook to spread the word when they recommend your book to friends and family.
  • Bloggers and reviewers will use your words to attract their readers.

10 tips for creating a powerful pitch.

  1. Research the headlines and blurbs of the bestsellers in your genre. What exact words do they use? What exact words occur over and over? Make a list of the ones you find most powerful and exciting, and use them for inspiration.
  2. Read the book descriptions on promo sites and keep the ones you love to refer to when you write your own fab elevator pitch.
  3. Be on the lookout for taglines other authors use to pitch their book in their FaceBook, BookBub, and Amazon ads.
  4. Read your own book—even if it’s for the fiftieth time!—to search for interesting words and turns of phrase. You might come upon a forgotten gem that’s just perfect.
  5. Consult your dead darlings, the ones you killed, (You do save them, don’t you?) for more ideas.
  6. Consider chapter titles that might make a great hook or pitch intro.
  7. Here are 5 suggestions from BookBub about how to write a killer elevator pitch.
  8. David Gaughram offers excellent advice about how to compose great text for ads and shares some terrific examples from the movies that will give you more good ideas.
  9. E = mc² might not mean much to a lot of people but the right audience (other physicists) will feel the thrill. Focus on your readers—romance/horror/fantasy/cozy mystery—and, like Einstein, talk to them in the language they use themselves.
  10. Practice your pitch over and over. In front of a mirror, your significant other, your friends, family, the dog until you are completely comfortable and confident sharing your brilliant idea!

Heed the 3 Rs: Remember, Repeat, Recycle to ride your elevator pitch to the top.
As the Nike ads advise: Just Do It!

FOR READERS WHO LOVED WATER FOR ELEPHANTS.

They rescue endangered animals, but can they rescue each other?

Find ZURI on Amazon.

Ruth invites you to join her newsletter. Or connect with her on Twitter or at Anne R. Allen’s Blog . . . with Ruth Harris 

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First Page Critique: Can You Find the Murder Weapon?

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments will follow.

The Invisible 

Bette always joked Marge’s baking would be their demise—but not like this. The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

“What about those?” Marge said, pointing to a large cluster.

Bette tsked. “I’m sure we can do better. Do you want the girls eating green tomatoes? What if it was—?” She stopped mid-sentence, glanced down, and wiped her boot on a rock. “Oh, my,” she chuckled, shaking her head. “Well, if that’s the worse that happens today, I’m counting my blessings.” She continued her search. “What time did Paige get in last night?”

“Well, it was past 9:00—when we went to bed. She rents a room; she doesn’t answer to us.”

“I know that, Marge.” She moved down the row. “I just worry she’s not getting enough sleep.”

“She’s a student. They aren’t supposed to sleep.”

“Who’s not supposed to sleep?”

They looked up to see their boarder, backpack over shoulder, mug of coffee in hand, cut across the dewy lawn. “We were just saying,” Marge said, “that you don’t get enough sleep, dear.”

She laughed. “Can’t argue with that. But my paper’s due Monday, and I’m nervous about it. By the way, was that apple pie I smelled, or am I still dreaming?”

“Oh, my pies! I almost forgot.” Marge squeezed Paige’s arm. “If you wait a few minutes, you can have a piece.”

“It’s tempting, but I really need to get to the library.” She waved to the sisters as she hurried to her car. “Save me a slice.”

“We will, honey. Now don’t work too hard. Remember, life is short.” They watched her head to campus, after which Marge rushed off to check on the pies, promising to be right back.

Bette continued down the rows, her persistence eventually paying off. As she removed an almost perfect Brandywine tomato from its vine, a high-pitched scream split the air. She snapped her head around in time to spot a red-tailed hawk, something squirming in its beak, swoop below the treetops. Her heart was still pounding when a calloused hand grabbed her ankle, causing her to drop the basket. She jerked free, only to discover the hand was an out of control cucumber vine.

Though the sisters seem sweet, not much happens on this first page … unless you’re a research junkie like me and have studied this particular murder weapon. Which is genius, by the way. Kudos to you, Brave Writer. For those who didn’t catch it, I’ll explain in a minute.

Let’s look at your first line, which I liked.

Bette always joked Marge’s baking would be their demise—but not like this.

Your first line makes a promise to the reader, a promise that must be kept and alluded to early on. Just the suggestion of green tomatoes is not enough.

Now, let’s look at the first paragraph…

The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

I assume Brave Writer discovered that tomatoes contain a few different toxins. One of which is called tomatine. Tomatine can cause gastrointestinal problems, liver and heart damage. Its highest concentration is in the leaves, stems, and unripened fruit. Red tomatoes only produce low doses of tomatine, but the levels aren’t high enough to kill.

Like other nightshade plants, tomatoes also produce atropine in extremely low doses. Though atropine is a nasty poison, tomatoes don’t produce enough of it to cause death. The most impressive toxin from green tomatoes is solanine. Which, as Brave Writer may have discovered, can be used as murder weapon. Solanine can be found in any part of the plant, including the leaves, tubers, and fruit, and acts as the plant’s natural defenses. People have died from solanine poisoning. It’s also found in potatoes and eggplant.

If Marge eats, say, potato pancakes along with green tomatoes during that brunch, it’ll increase the solanine and other glycoalkaloid levels coursing through her system. *evil cackle*

The nice part of solanine poisoning from a writer’s perspective is that it can take 8-10 hours before the victim is symptomatic, which gives Brave Writer plenty of time to let her stumble into more trouble to keep the reader guessing how or why she died.

If I were writing this story, I’d study the fatal solanine cases and put my own spin on it.

Hope I’m right about this. If not, my apologies. In any case, the weekly Girl’s Club (no hyphen and only capped if it’s the official title of the club) brunch seems important and so do the tomatoes. What I’d love to see on this first page is why. You don’t need to tell us, but you do need to hint at the reason to hold our interest.

What if Bette plucks the deadly fruit from the vine and notices how strange it looks? You’ll have to research to nail down the minute details of a toxic green tomato, if any differences are visible to the naked eye.

There’s one other problem with this first paragraph. Here it is again:

The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

Who’s narrating this story? It isn’t Bette, as your first line indicates. And it isn’t Marge. An omniscient point-of-view is tricky to pull off. Newer writers should focus on one main character and show/tell the story through their eyes. If that character doesn’t hear, see, feel, taste, experience, smell, etc. something, then it must be excluded.

Yes, some writers (me included) use dueling protagonists, alternating scenes between the two, and even include an antagonist POV. But when we’re still honing our craft, especially when we’re learning the ins-and-outs of POV, it’s easiest to concentrate on one main character throughout the story. For more on mastering point-of-view, see this post or type in “point of view” in the search box. We’ve discussed this area of craft many times on TKZ.

As written, my advice is to keep the first line and either delete the rest and find a different starting point (sorry!) or better yet, saturate it in mystery regarding these tomatoes. That way, the reader will fear for your main character while the fruit lay on a bed of lettuce on a serving platter during the Girl’s Club meeting. If you choose this route, one of your goals is to make the reader squirm. “Don’t eat that tomato, Marge!”

What say you, TKZers? Please add your gentle and kind advice for this brave writer.

 

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