Ask Yourself Why

Ask Yourself Why

Terry Odell

Ask yourself why

Image by Anand Kumar from Pixabay

Everyone, I’m sure, has heard of using the “What if?” question to start a story, and to help move things along throughout. But for me, there’s an even more helpful question for me while I’m writing. WHY?

Disclaimer. I’m not a Plotter. Not a true Pantser. More of a Planster.

In one of his workshops, James Scott Bell has an exercise designed to help you understand your characters. There, he sets up a scene of a gorgeous room with a huge picture window overlooking a pastoral view and your character picks up a chair and throws it, breaking the window. He asks Why he or she would do that.

While that can be helpful when it comes to characterization, my question relates to the story. Even though we write fiction, it has to come across as reality. One technique I use to make sure things seem “real” is to ask myself Why a character would do or say something.

If the answer is “Because I need it for tension/conflict/humor/plot advancement,” it’s probably wrong. When I was writing Danger in Deer Ridge, the first major ‘error’ I spotted in my opening draft was having the hero appear while the heroine was looking in her car’s trunk for her tool kit.

  • Why didn’t she hear him drive up?
  • Why did he park the truck there?
  • Why did he come down without a toolkit of his own?

All these Why questions require answers. Answering them drives the story forward for me. My thought processes might not end up on the page, (and this is most prevalent in the early chapters, while things are taking shape) but the results do.

So, where it ended up: She didn’t hear him drive up because he parked at the top of the drive. Why?

He parked the car there because his son is asleep in the truck. It’s a quiet rural area, one he knows well, and he’s not concerned that someone will come by and Do a Bad Thing.

That’s still weak, so I added a dog who would take the head off of anyone who tried anything. (Note to self: don’t forget you’ve now saddled yourself with yet another ‘character’ to keep track of.)

More Why questions.

Why not go all the way down the drive? It’s steep, curves, and riddled with potholes, and he doesn’t want to wake the kid.

Weak. What if he’s not an experienced father? Why not? Because his wife left him, took the kid and remarried, and he hasn’t seen the kid since he was an infant.

Why does he have the kid now? Because the ex-wife and the boy’s stepfather were killed in a Tragic Accident? Works for now. (Note to self: revisit this before Grinch has to tell anyone about it.) Also, having him a new and inexperienced father allows for more conflict between hero and the Very Caring Mother who is our heroine.

More notes: Why doesn’t the hero work for Blackthorne, Inc. when the book opens, since the other books in the series open with a scene of a Blackthorne op. Why does he live conveniently near the heroine’s new digs?

By the time I’d written the scene, answers to my Why questions gave me more insight into my characters. I realized that the hero’s friendly demeanor and magnetic grin weren’t consistent with a man who’s worried about leaving a young child asleep in his truck. I ended up tweaking that scene, which added to the tension, because the heroine sees someone who’s in a rush, who keeps looking over his shoulder. She extrapolates from her own secret-keeping life, and it seems logical for her to worry that this guy might be out to get her.

If you don’t want your story to seem contrived, try asking yourself “Why?”

What other questions help you move forward in your writing?



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Banished Words 2020

Banished Words 2020

Terry Odell

Banished WordsOne of my final editing tasks is removing overused words. I have my list of offenders, and I run the manuscript through SmartEdit, which will find more I was unaware of.

But “overused” can’t be decided based solely on number of uses. It depends on the word.

We all have words and phrases we like to use, often to the point of overuse. Maybe we’re not even aware we’re using them. When we’re writ­ing, they seem to sneak into our man­u­scripts via our fin­gers, as if the brain isn’t involved at all.

Lit­tle words, like “just” and “really” and “well” are com­monly listed among words that don’t add any­thing to the man­u­script other than giv­ing our brains time to catch up with what we’re try­ing to write. They’re the equiv­a­lent of the “um” in speak­ing.

Big “fancy” words, or “unusual” words are in another cat­e­gory. Miasma? Efful­gent? Par­si­mony? They’re going to jump out at a reader, and should be used spar­ingly, per­haps only once or twice in an entire man­u­script. I recall an author using halcyon repeatedly, and it made me stop after the second time.

Recently, one of my critique partners asked about my use of libation, bringing up an important point. How many characters used the term? Often, it’s good to have specific vocabulary words used by specific characters.

While I’m looking at my repeated words, I will check for con­text. Is it dia­logue? Does it enhance the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion? Then, I look to see how long it’s been since the last time I used the word. (There’s that “you’re on page XXX” thing at the bot­tom of Word.)

If it’s a com­mon word, my goal is at least 10 pages between uses. “Medium” words, maybe 30–50 pages. And those big fancy ones? If they’re truly the char­ac­ter speak­ing, and not autho­r­ial intru­sion, once is enough. Not a rule, just something I consider.

And, of course, the caveat that any “fancy” words are appro­pri­ate to the char­ac­ter, the genre, and the time­frame of the book. If you’re read­ing a Regency romance, the lan­guage is going to be totally dif­fer­ent from a contemporary.

There are other words one might want to avoid. Every year, Lake Superior State University publishes its “Banished Words List” of words based on misuse, overuse, and general uselessness. Their list for 2020 contains the following.

Most nominated

  • quid pro quo

Words that attempt to make something more than it is

  • Artisanal
  • Curated
  • Influencer

Words banished for pretentiousness or imprecision

  • Literally
  • I mean
  • Living my best life
  • Mouthfeel

Those darn millennials!

  • Chirp
  • Jelly (Abbreviation of jealous)
  • Totes (Abbreviation of totally)
  • Vibe/vibe check

To see why these were selected, go here.

What about you? Any words that jump out at you when you’re reading, either mundane or unusual?



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Focusing on the Writing

Focusing on the Writing
by Terry Odell

Focus on the Writing

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I was supposed to be on a photo tour in Croatia today, but that’s been put on hold, so let’s talk about dealing with writing routines in times of distraction.

I’ve talked to a lot of people about how they’re having trouble focusing on their writing. Distractions abound, and the writing gets set aside. Guilt sets in.

It’s okay to be distracted, to flounder about. Writing less is acceptable. For me, I find the following techniques helpful. I’ve used them when coming back from vacations, when it takes a while to find my writing groove, and they work as well for me in these crazy times.

Get rid of chores that will nag.
If you are going to worry about cleaning house, paying bills, going through email, take the time to get the critical things dealt with. Otherwise you’re not going to be focused on your writing. If you’re a ‘write first’ person, don’t open anything other than your word processing program.

Do critiques for my crit group.
This might seem counterproductive, but freeing your brain from your own plot issues and looking at someone else’s writing can help get your brain into thinking about the craft itself.

Work on other ‘writing’ chores.
For me, it can be blog posts, or forum participation. Just take it easy on social media time.

Deal with critique group feedback.
Normally, I’m many chapters ahead of my subs to my crit group. If I start with their feedback on earlier chapters, I get back into the story, but more critically than if I simply read the chapters. And they might point out plot holes that need to be dealt with. Fixing these issues helps bring me up to speed on where I’ve been. It also gets me back into the heads of my characters.

Read the last chapter/scene you wrote.
Do basic edits, looking for overused words, typos, continuity errors. This is another way to start thinking “writerly” and it’s giving you that running start for picking up where you left off.

Consult any plot notes.
For me, it’s my idea board, since I don’t outline. I jot things down on sticky notes and slap them onto a foam core board. Filling in details in earlier chapters also helps immerse you in the book.

Figure out the plot points for the next scene.
Once you know what has to happen, based on the previous step, you have a starting point.

Write.
And don’t worry if things don’t flow immediately. Get something on the page. Fix it later.

What about you? Any tips and tricks you’ve found when outside world distractions keep you from focusing?

And one more thing. On Friday, May 1st, you have a chance to Ask Me Anything. I’ll be on a Draft2Digital Spotlight podcast talking with Mark Leslie Lefevbre. It’ll be broadcast on YouTube and Facebook. You can bookmark the links and you might be able to set up a reminder.
Time: 10 Pacific, 11 Mountain, 12 Central, Noon Eastern. It’ll be my first video appearance. Yikes!  The program is 45 minutes long, with the last 15 minutes for Q&A. I hope to meet you there.

 



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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The Ears Have It

The Ears Have It
By Terry Odell

Deer EarAs authors, we want to provide the best possible experience for our readers. That means providing a well-edited book, and the more reliable eyes on the manuscript, the better. But I’ve learned you need ears on the manuscript as well.

Skipping the ‘read it out loud’ editing pass means you’re going to miss things. Heck, even when you do read it out loud, you still miss things, because you’re too familiar with what you’ve written. Your eye sees what’s supposed to be on the page. That’s what you’ll read; that’s what you’ll hear.

Since I can’t afford a narrator to read the book aloud twice, and I don’t know anyone who’d be crazy enough spend the time to read the book to me, I investigated having my computer do the job. I’d tried it a long time ago, and the robotic voice was impossible to listen to. However, there have been improvements in the system, so I decided to give things another shot. Here’s what I discovered.

Disclaimer. I use Microsoft Word.

Word has two ways to have the computer read your manuscript to you, and since they’re part of Word, you don’t need to install (or pay for) another program. One is the Speak Selected Text option which I blogged about here.

The other option is Read Aloud, and here’s a peek at how it works. Note: “Read Aloud” offers a choice of narrators, which is nice to break things up. I chose the female voice for this section.

You can find more here.

Depending on your version of Word, you may be able to use one or both.

Whereas my audiobook narrators are performers, the Word guy who’s reading my text to me (I call him Fred) simply recites the words on the page. Unlike the audiobook narrators who sometimes leave out words, or substitute others, “Fred” is going to read exactly what’s on the page. For example, I’d read this paragraph countless times, as had my editor and crit partners.

She drove the up the dirt lane. A beam of sunlight shone through a break in the gray winter sky, reflecting off a sprawling white two-story house, as if to say, This is your light in the darkness.

No one saw the typo on any of their passes. Did you notice it? On the first read? Or were you paying close attention because I told you there was a typo? When “Fred” read it, the extra “the” jumped right out.

Listening forces you to go slowly. Depending on which option you use, you might be able to speed the read a bit, but you can’t ‘skim-listen.’ While “Fred” reads, I have the manuscript open. I look for wrong punctuation, improper spacing, and the like. If I catch repeated words that evaded my eyes but not my ears, I’ll fix those as well.

If Fred doesn’t know a word, he’ll spell it. Usually, these are acronyms, but sometimes it’s a word he’s not programmed for. Other time, his programming doesn’t work exactly right. In one instance, he read, “The paramedic inserted an four.” Can you figure out what I’d written? Answer at the end of the post.

There will be pronunciation errors. “Fred” doesn’t read in context. He doesn’t emphasize words in italics. He speeds up for dashes and hyphens. Our language is filled with heteronyms—words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. The computer doesn’t read context, so you’ll get the occasional jolt for words like live, read, wind, dove, close, bow, complex, and presents, but that’s good, because it makes you pay attention.

Other “fun” jolts come from Fred’s programming regarding abbreviations, as in “Joe came into the room and sat.” Fred read this as “Joe came into the room and Saturday.” Or, when the character said, “Wait a sec,” Fred read “Wait a section.”

No matter which method you choose, hearing a computer read exactly what you’ve written is a critical—and ear-opening—step in the editing process. By the time “Fred” and I are through the manuscript, I’m hoping to have a better product for my readers.

Is it worth it? I’d say yes, especially when you get a review like this one: “After reading so many books with poor editing, I was very happy to finally read a book without the distracting errors and I was able to enjoy the story.”

As for what I’d written: “The paramedic inserted an IV.”



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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April Fools’ Day Literary Hoaxes

Happy April Fools’ Day.

April FoolWhen my brother was about 3 or 4, he loved April Fools’ Day. I think he regarded it as a chance to tell little lies, like “You have dirt on your face,” or “Your shoes are untied,” and then shouting “April Fool.”

Some people go to great lengths to fool the public, like the great spaghetti harvest or the Sydney iceberg.

But when did this tradition of pranks originate?

Some historians speculate that April Fools’ Day dates back to 1582, when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. People who were slow to get the news or failed to recognize that the start of the new year had moved to January 1 and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 became the butt of jokes and hoaxes.

There’s also speculation that April Fools’ Day was tied to the vernal equinox, or first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, when Mother Nature fooled people with changing, unpredictable weather, something we Coloradans know all too well.

Since this is a writing blog, I hit the Google Machine for some literary “pranks.”

Here are a few.

Naked Came the Stranger, by Penelope Ashe
The Hoax: America goes nuts for a salacious novel of sex and drugs.
The Truth: A group of journalists purposefully wrote a terrible book to prove American culture is vulgar, which everyone kind of assumed anyway.

A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey
The Hoax: Wrote a harrowing memoir about his struggle with addiction.
The Truth: It was more novel than memoir; he got caught; made an enemy of Oprah.

Coffee, Tea or Me?, by Donald Bain
The Hoax: Memoir reveals the wild and crazy lives of airline stewardesses (which is what we used to call female flight attendants).
The Truth: A ghostwriter is hired to pen memoir of wild and crazy stewardesses, discovers they’re actually kind of boring, makes up a bunch of stuff, and makes millions.

The Painted Bird, by Jerzy N. Kosinski
The Hoax: Polish American author writes a harrowing memoir of his experiences during World War II…
The Truth: …but it’s a cobbled-together skein of plagiarism and lies.

Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous
The Hoax: The diary of a troubled, drug-addicted teen is published in order to scare kids straight.
The Truth: Well, yes, except the diary was a forgery, penned by a therapist.

Atlanta Nights, by Travis Tea
The Hoax: “Travis Tea” submits a salacious novel to a seedy publisher.
The Truth: “Travis Tea” is actually a group of sci-fi and fantasy authors seeking to expose an unscrupulous publisher.

Any April Fools’ Day memories to share? Best pranks? Given the “outside” world, a few laughs are welcome.

Image by Annalise Batista from Pixabay



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Romantic Suspense – An Overview

Romantic SuspenseIn a comment on a previous post, one TKZ reader asked about romantic suspense. Since I write in that genre as well as mystery, I’ll try to respond.

At first glance, the answer seems obvious. Romantic Suspense books have both romance and suspense. However, that’s a very broad definition, and in order to write in the genre, one needs to dig a little deeper.

Is it a romance novel with a suspense sub plot?
Or is it a suspense novel with a romance sub plot?

How are they divided? 50-50? 60-40 romance because it’s Romantic Suspense? Or 60-40 suspense because it’s Romantic Suspense? Or something else?

In truth, it’s none of the above, so let’s back up and look at the definitions.

According to the Romance Writers of America (presented long before the recent implosion and I think their definitions/guidelines still hold), a Romance is defined as a novel containing a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction.

One of those subgenres is romantic suspense. What does RWA say about that?

Romantic Suspense: Romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.

You’ll notice the definition does not single out suspense. Instead, it adds mystery and thriller. And my own personal bugaboo is that RWA chose to call the entire subgenre “Romantic Suspense” when the mystery genre is also in there. A mystery is not a suspense, and vice versa.

Let’s look at those genres that fall under the mystery umbrella. Author and former agent Nathan Bradford sums them up thusly:

Mysteries have mysteries, i.e., something you don’t know until the end.
Suspense has danger, but not necessarily action.
Thrillers have action.

A bit simplistic, but it’s a start. An easy way to think of it is in a mystery, the reader follows the protagonist and doesn’t learn anything until he or she does. Think Sherlock Holmes.

In a suspense, the reader is one step ahead of the protagonist and knows facts before he or she does. Think Alfred Hitchcock.

Can your book have both? Yes. In my Finding Sarah, the story begins with a mystery, and both characters are working together. But when Sarah disappears, readers will see what’s happening from her POV, and they’ll know more than Randy. Likewise, as Randy discovers clues, the reader will know them but Sarah won’t. Moving your characters apart can increase the suspense aspect of the book.

What about thrillers? The older definition of a thriller was “a suspense novel with consequences of global proportions”, but the lines between suspense and thriller have blurred. A thriller has more action, should have higher stakes, but often the stakes and/or consequences are only for the characters and don’t reach far beyond the setting of the book.

(Side Note) At a conference, I asked Lee Child whether he thought thrillers had been “watered down” as a way for publishers to attract a wider audience, because I’ve seen reviews for some of my Blackthorne, Inc. books that refer to them as thrillers, which was not my intention when writing them. He gave me a serious look (from way up high, because he’s tall and I’m not.) He said, “Do you want to know the difference between thriller and suspense?”

Duh. Of course I did. This was Lee Child, after all. He said, “It’s an extra zero on your advance.”

So, for the purposes of this post, I’m lumping thrillers and suspense in the same box. Now, back to my initial question, taking the RWA definition of romantic suspense into consideration.

Romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.

Note the word integral. The two elements are entwined so you cannot remove any of the mystery/suspense elements without the book collapsing. Likewise for the romance. If you can remove either of those elements, you don’t have a romantic suspense.

When you’re writing you should be writing 100% romance and 100% mystery/suspense.

Sound hard? You’re right. It is.

 



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Stay in the Phone Booth With the Gorilla

Stay in the Phone Booth With the Gorilla
Terry Odell

One of my critique partners is a computer programmer by trade, and one of the things we frequently mention in our critiques is how much detail is needed, and when. His mind works in a very logical fashion, and he’s always looking at every what if possibility. Normally, I’m pointing out where he doesn’t need to cover all the possible permutations of any given situation. But once in a while, he’ll catch me dwelling on unnecessary details. I figure when he sees them, I probably need to cut.

When I’m writing my police scenes, I do like my character to weigh all the options, since they’re trying to piece together clues, and often they don’t know what’s a clue and what’s not. But in an action scene, it’s important to remember to stick with the action. This isn’t the time to have your characters stop to reflect on the past. Dripping in back story should be done judiciously, and it’s probably never appropriate in life-threatening situations. Or even tension-filled scenes. Here’s an example from when I was working on Dangerous Connections:

My heroine, an undercover Vice cop, was supposed to use her “feminine wiles” to distract another character so the hero could mess with a computer program. I had her thinking about her job, because I wanted to make it clear that because she worked Vice didn’t mean she was experienced at seducing men.

Elle shoved her mind to the place she sent it when she was working a major sting. Truth of the matter, her day-to-day routine working vice didn’t involve seduction. Seduction could lead to claims of entrapment, and that was a headache for everyone. The johns weren’t fussy, and they didn’t want romance. All she had to do was get the money to change hands, and someone from her unit would show up and take them both away so as not to break her cover.

My partner’s comment: “I think you need to stay in the phone booth with the gorilla.”

Where did that come from?

Here’s an explanation from Robert Newton Peck’s Secrets of Successful Fiction:

Alma walked hurriedly down the dark and deserted street. Hearing footsteps echo behind her, she darted into a telephone booth. Before closing the door, Alma Glook knew she was not alone. With her in that phone booth was a five-hundred pound gorilla.

“Help!” yelped Alma.

Seeing the gorilla, her thoughts turned back in time to when she was a little girl, back home in Topeka, living with her aunt Mildred who was a taxidermist and scratched out their meager living by stuffing gorillas. In fact, her aunt had earned quite a reputation in college when she had, as a prank, stuffed nine gorillas into a phone booth.

Your readers aren’t interested in Alma’s past right now. They want to know how she’s going to deal with the gorilla. And the readers probably don’t need to know the ins and outs of working Vice. They want to know if Elle is going to be able to distract Bill so Jinx can do what he’s supposed to do.

A character’s thoughts can reveal a lot. Just be careful where you insert them.

Deadly FunMy new release, Deadly Fun. I’m sharing all March royalties with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Who’s the New Kid?

Who’s the New “Kid”?
Terry Odell

Terry Odell LogoWhen I opened the email inviting me to become a contributing member of The Kill Zone Blog, I was honored. I’ve been reading the blog for years, making comments, but move to the other side of the page? Scary. The other contributors have set a high bar. But I accepted the invitation, so here I am.

Who am I?

I’m someone who did not start out with aspirations of becoming a writer. I did not write my first story in crayon. The one time I thought about putting a story idea onto “paper” (we were well into the word processor age by then), the tedium of getting dialogue punctuated correctly put a halt to that project.

You could say I became a writer by mistake, through a chance introduction to the Highlander television series. You can read that whole misadventure here. I’ll wait.

Back? I’ll continue.

Eventually, punctuating dialogue became automatic, I joined a local writing group (The Pregnant Pigs, and that’s another story), and I looked forward to sitting down to play with my characters. Honestly, I was having fun, and had more of an If someone knocks on the door and asks if I have a manuscript, I’ll say yes mentality. But my fellow Piggies pushed. I found an agent, which meant my rejections came faster and were worded more politely.

My road to publication started with e-publishers back in the day when people were reading on their computers or PDAs. I had some romance short stories published by The Wild Rose Press (I was their first contracted author), and some romantic suspense novels published by the now defunct Cerridwen Press. I had a trio of books published in hard cover by Five Star, which targeted the library market. When my first Five Star book was remaindered and I got the rights back, the Kindle had just come into being, and with it, indie-publishing. I figured I had nothing to lose, and ventured down that road.

And, that’s where I am now. A purely indie-author, and happy to be one. I have 22 novels, 3 novellas, 2 short story collections, plus some bundled works out there. (I had to check.)

What do I write?

Odell booksThis blog is focused on mysteries, and I have a mystery series (Mapleton Mysteries) with 5 novels (the 5th, Deadly Fun, drops on February 24th) as well as three novellas. My collection of mystery short stories, Seeing Red, happened to win the Silver Falchion Award in 2015. (There’s a story there, too, but that’s for another time.)

However, despite thinking I was writing a mystery, my first manuscript, according to my daughters, was a romance. Given I’d never read a romance, that came as quite a shock. I realized that when I read mysteries, I was just as interested in what went on in the “off duty” lives of the characters as I was in solving the crime. Thus, I call all my books “Mysteries With Relationships” even though three of my four series would be classified as romantic suspense, or mystery romance.

My series: the Mapleton Mysteries, Pine Hills Police, Blackthorne, Inc., and the Triple-D Ranch series. Most of them are also available as audiobooks.

That’s the writing side of me.

FeebieThe personal side: I grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from UCLA, taught junior high, moved to Florida, raised a family, and now I live in the Colorado Rockies with my husband and rescue dog, FBI SAC Odell, but we call her Feebie.

 



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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