Don’t Play Coy With Your Readers

Don’t Play Coy With Your Readers
Terry Odell

Don't Play Coy With Readers

Image by Tayeb MEZAHDIA from Pixabay

One of my first writing lessons was Point of View. I learned it was a good idea to stick to one character at a time (and ‘time’ means more than a paragraph or two).

As a reader, I discovered I connected more with characters if I was privy to their thoughts. There are no hard and fast rules about Point of View beyond it’s important that readers can keep track of whose head they’re in.

My preference is to use Deep Point of View, which is sometimes called Close or Intimate, and that’s the focus of today’s post. What you call it isn’t as important as making sure that your readers can’t know anything your POV character doesn’t know. Or see. Or feel. Or smell. Or hear. It’s very close to writing in first person.

POV is a powerful tool, because by controlling the POV character, you control what you reveal to the reader. As I said above, the reader is only privy to what the character knows. On the flip side of that coin, if the POV character sees, smells, feels, or hears something, the reader should, too.

In my current WIP, my female lead knows why she quit her job, and is aware of some less-than-ethical behaviors of her boss. I’m eight chapters in, and she doesn’t want the male lead to know the details yet. But she can feed him bits and pieces as circumstances arise. The way I see it, it’s the author’s responsibility to find legitimate ways to withhold information from readers until it’s time to reveal it.

Which brings me to a couple of recent reads which had my hackles up. Both were written in first person POV. That puts the reader right into that character’s head, the same way Deep POV does.

In one book, the character read a letter; in the second she looked at a photograph. In both instances, the characters had strong emotional reactions to what they’d just seen. These books were both mysteries, and this “secret” information provided important clues.

But—and this is where I would have screamed out loud, had it not been late at night with someone sleeping nearby—both authors opted to hide this information from the reader. They simply avoided the reveal. The characters mulled it over, worried about it, wondered if they should tell another character, weighed the pros and cons. On and on. But never did they mention the name of the person in the photograph or the contents of the letter. The characters knew what they’d seen, so there was no reason the reader shouldn’t other than the author was doing what one of my first critique group leaders called “Playing Coy With the Reader.”

And for me, it’s not fair, not if you’re writing in first person or deep POV. It’s like when a television show character gets a letter, opens it, reads it, and then … cut to commercial without letting the viewer know what it said. If, when the commercial is over, the action picks up where it left off before the break and either shows the letter or the characters talking about it, I’ll accept it as being a way to make sure viewers “stay tuned.”

Now, if the author breaks to a different POV character, I might forgive them if, when we get back to the first character’s POV, we get the reveal. But to put a reader in a character’s head and then yank them out when something important happens is likely to aggravate them rather than heighten the suspense (which is what the author is going for.) To me, it’s a cheat.

In one of the books, the author never put the information out there. In the other, it took a while, but the reveal did come, so I grumbled and gave the author another chance.

And that’s what might happen. Play coy with the reader and you might lose them, not just for this book, but for future books they’ll never read.

In a more distant point of view, where the author is telling the story more than the character, it might not be such an issue, but then—I don’t like distancing points of view. Your mileage may vary.

All right, TKZers. What are your thoughts about authors withholding information a reader should have? Does it add a layer to the read for you, or frustrate you?

(I’m away from cyberspace this morning, but will be back later this afternoon to respond to comments.)


 
Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellNow available for Preorder. Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.

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.

Tips for Writing for Television

Tips for Writing for Television
Terry Odell

Writing for Television

Image by Bokskapet from Pixabay

Are you a fan of television mystery shows? Ever thought of writing one? Or any kind of television show? If so, here are some tips to keep in mind.

  1. If staying in a haunted house, women should investigate any strange noises wearing their most revealing underwear.
  2. If being chased through town, you can usually take cover in a passing St. Patrick’s Day parade – at any time of year.
  3. It’s easy for anyone to land a plane, providing there is someone in the control tower to talk you down
  4. Once applied, lipstick will never rub off, even while SCUBA diving.
  5. The ventilation system of any building is a perfect hiding place. No one will ever think of looking for you in there and you can travel to any other part of the building without difficulty.
  6. Should you wish to pass yourself off as a German officer, it will not be necessary to speak the language. A German accent will do.
  7. A man will show no pain while taking the most ferocious beating but will wince when a woman tries to clean his wounds
  8. When paying for a taxi, never look at your wallet as you take out a bill—just grab one at random. It will always be the correct fare.
  9. During all police investigations, it will be necessary to visit a strip club at least once.
  10. Cars and trucks that crash will almost always burst into flames.
  11. A single match will be sufficient to light up a room the size of a football stadium.
  12. Medieval peasants had perfect teeth.
  13. All single women have a cat.
  14. One man shooting at 20 men has a better chance of killing them all than 20 men firing at one.
  15. It does not matter if you are heavily outnumbered in a fight involving martial arts. Your enemies will wait patiently to attack you one by one, by dancing around in a threatening manner until you have knocked out their predecessor.
  16. When you turn out the light to go to bed, everything in your room will still be clearly visible, just slightly bluish
  17. Dogs always know who’s bad and will naturally bark at them.
  18. Rather than wasting bullets, megalomaniacs prefer to kill their archenemies using complicated machinery involving fuses, pulley systems, deadly gases, lasers, and man eating sharks that will allow their captives at least 20 minutes to escape.
  19. A detective can only solve a case once he has been suspended from duty.
  20. If you decide to start dancing in the street, everyone you bump into will know all the steps.

Okay, tongue was inserted firmly in cheek. But sometimes, you just want to sit back and have some fun.

Any favorites among these? Any to add?


Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellNow available for Preorder. Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.


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.

Who’s A Best-Selling Author?

Who’s A Best-Selling Author?
Terry Odell

Best-selling authors

Can you read those “Best Seller” banners at the top of the book images? Those were put there by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, not me.

Pretty impressive, right?

I should rush right out and change all my book covers so they proclaim my status. Plaster it on my website, add it to my email signature line.

But let’s step back and be realistic.

A while back, I attended a conference workshop on becoming a best-selling author, thinking I might pick up a few tips. Nothing she said was anything different than advice I’d already heard dozens of times. When I walked out was when the presenter said that if you could be in the top 100 on an Amazon genre list, you could promote yourself as a best-selling author. Note: she said “Genre List,” not overall sales. Another route was to make the top 100 in a Genre list on Amazon’s “New Releases page.”

Yes, I got those banners from Barnes & Noble and Amazon. But how?

I was fortunate to garner a BookBub Featured Deal promotion slot. For which I paid a pretty penny, mind you. Getting the BookBub acceptance is as much luck as it is having a first-rate product. They hold their algorithm cards close to the vest, but I’m convinced a lot has to do with timing, how much of a price drop you’re willing to take, and maybe reviews, although they’ll be the first to point out that many of their deals have very few reviews. In this case, my submission was for a 3-book set. The set itself didn’t have many reviews, but the individual books did, and one had won a respected award. But, it could just as easily have been numbering all the submissions in any given genre and using a random number generator to pick.

So, for one day, my Blackthorne Inc. Novels, Volume 1 was featured in the BookBub newsletter. Sales skyrocketed, which is the usual case. Not a huge moneymaker, since I’d dropped the price to 99 cents, which lowers the royalty rate (except at Nook, which pays 70% regardless of price).

Because those skyrocketing sales brought the book to #1 in 3 sub-genres, they garnered me those Best Seller banners.

Best-selling authorsBest-selling authorsBest-selling authorsDo I consider myself a best-selling author? Did I write a best-seller? No. One day’s sales, stimulated by an ad, are not my criteria for touting myself as a best-selling author. Yet I’m fully aware that there are those out there who would milk those banners for everything they’re worth.

Realistically, when I see an author I’ve never heard of touting themselves as ‘best-selling’ authors, I’m going to look up their books on Amazon. When I see that they’re ranked in the hundreds of thousands—or, in some cases, millions, I have to wonder. Odds are, they’re looking at a fleeting moment of good sales/rankings based on an ad. And that they received that ranking for a relatively obscure genre, not overall sales.

And popping back to that workshop where making the top 100 in “New Releases” was grounds for declaring oneself a best-selling author? I have a new release coming out this summer. I put it up for preorder and used BookBub for a pre-order ad. These are different from Featured Deals, and are dirt cheap in comparison. The flip side is they go only to your BookBub followers who agree to notification, so it’s a teeny-tiny pool relative to their regular newsletter. (At least it is for me, since I don’t have that many followers on BookBub.) On a positive note, when you’re a tiny fish in a big ocean, it doesn’t take very many sales to boost the new release in genre categories. Based on the workshop speaker, I’m a best-selling author because of that as well. I think my upcoming Trusting Uncertainty hit #50 in one sub genre, and hung on by its toenails in the 80s and 90s in two others.

Early on the day of the new release ad, I checked (because of course I did).

And look who else I’m sharing the stage with.

Best-selling authorsHowever, unlike Mr. Gilstrap, who has a much larger body of top-sellers, I can’t, with clear conscience, declare myself an author of best-selling books, or a best selling author. (I do, however use “award winning author” because I have won awards for my books.)

What’s your take, TKZers?


Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellNow available for Preorder. Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.


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.

Reader Friday: Writers as Readers

Reader Friday: Writers as Readers

Last week’s answers got me thinking. Most everyone said they saw no reason to finish a book they weren’t enjoying, for a variety of reasons. Someone told me that once you’re a writer, you can never read the same way again.

As a writer, do you think you’re more critical than before you took up the craft? Did you finish more “unfinishable” books when you were “only” a reader? Has your definition of a “unfinishable” book changed?

When the Right Word is Wrong

When the Right Word is Wrong
Terry Odell

As writers, we deal in words. Thousands of words. And we’re always looking for the right word to use. But what happens when the right word is wrong?

For example, I was reading a draft chapter from one of my writing pals. She’d written something about a man pulling up the collar of his t-shirt to wipe sweat off his face. My comment to her was, “T-shirts don’t have collars.” Her reply was “Yes, that’s what I was taught when I took sewing classes.” I recalled that when I worked a temp job, our jackets were provided, but we were told to wear shirts with collars, and the accepted attire was either a blouse with a collar or a polo shirt, but absolutely no t-shirts. Being curious, I hit the search engines and looked up t-shirts.

Merriam-Webster said this: a collarless short-sleeved or sleeveless usually cotton undershirt; also :  an outer shirt of similar design

Wikipedia had this to say: a style of unisex fabric shirt, named after the T shape of the body and sleeves. It is normally associated with short sleeves, a round neckline, known as a crew neck, with no collar.

So, I was “right”—to a degree. Will readers stop reading to research words, especially ones they assume they know the meaning of? Not likely (as authors, we hate to pull anyone out of the read). However, some readers won’t notice it, because they consider the neckline of a t-shirt a collar. Others might hiccup, thinking the same way I did. Will it spoil the read? No.

Is there a solution? Maybe. When in doubt, I’d go with the dictionary definition. That way, if someone is puzzled enough to wonder, when they look it up, they’ll see the author was right.

Another example. My Triple-D Ranch series includes a character who runs a cooking school. I was writing a scene where she was teaching her students about the various pots and pans they’d be using. She was talking about the differences between frying pans and sauté pans (based on my trip through the Google Machine). I ran my draft by my (former) chef brother to see if I got things right. He came back and told me all my research was “wrong” because anyone trained in cooking wouldn’t use those terms, and proceeded (at some length) to set me straight. And therein lies the rub. He’s not my “target” reader, but he knows of what he speaks. Other readers might, too. And just as many would “know” that they’re right about the differences between sauté pans and frying pans. Either way, I’m right for some, and I’m wrong for some.

What did I end up writing? My instructor now says,

“Most cooking techniques and terminology we use comes from the French. However, a lot of names have been Americanized, and none of you will be ready for a fancy French restaurant simply by completing this course. You’ll be cooks, not chefs. So, I’m not going to dwell on terminology too much. As long as you can match the right tool with the right task, you’ll do fine.”

And then there’s the most important part about choosing the right word. POV.

Example 1

My characters were in a café, and it was one where customers place their orders at the counter, and the clerk hands them a metal stand with their order number on it to display on their table so the servers can find them.

First, I’d shown the heroine entering the café and placing her order.

She paid for her meal, accepted the metal holder with the number eighteen from the clerk, and found a small table in the back of the crowded café, inhaling the blend of aromas as she waited for her order to be ready.

In the next scene, the hero arrives and places his order.

At the counter, Bailey ordered a burger—a man had to eat, right?—and carried his stand with its number to Tyrone’s table.

My critique partner had trouble with the word “stand” in the second example, and asked what they were really called, and maybe I should use that definition instead.

So, I took a quick trip through Google and learned they’re called “Table Number Stands,” so my use of the term is correct.

Example 2

My character was at an event in a hotel, and she was going to leave, so she wanted to get rid of the half-empty glass she was carrying.

I’ve been to enough events at hotels or banquet halls, and I know the catering people normally have trays on stands set up at various places around the room where guests can deposit their used dishes. But I didn’t know what they were called.

But you know what? I forgot one crucial aspect. Would the character know?

What if my research showed the aforementioned table number stands were called Grabbendernummers. Then, I could have written, “Bailey carried his Grabbendernummer to the table.” But would he know that?

You see, it doesn’t really matter what you, the author knows or doesn’t know about something. It’s what the character knows. If my character with the half-empty glass were in the catering business, then yes, she’d refer to that tray by a proper name, if it had one. (And per my brother the chef and all the Googling I’d done, there isn’t a specific term for them.) So, my heroine, would simply see the tray on a stand. It might be black, or brown, or covered with linens, but she’s going to think of it as a tray.

Yes, do your research. But if you want to save a lot of time—especially if you’re easily sidetracked while looking something up—ask yourself if the character would know whatever you’re researching first. Just because the author knows (or looked up) what a particular object is called, in Deep POV, it’s the character who has to know it. The character is going to use whatever vocabulary exists in his head, not the author’s.

Are you a stickler for the correct word? Do your characters know them?


Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellNow available for Preorder. Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.


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.

Tips for Dealing With Character Names

Tips for Dealing With Character Names
Terry Odell

Character NamingLast week, John Gilstrap addressed coming up with character names, and there were a lot of helpful suggestions in the comments.

I tend to hit the Google Machine. “Male (or female) Names Starting with …” is a frequent search. Another thing to add to that search is the year/decade that character was born. Name trends change with time.

I had a shocking realization when seeking a name for a character in a recent book.

Names have to “match” the characters to some extent. For me, it’s a loose match. Our country is so much of a melting pot that names often don’t match one’s ethnicity, and it’s often a stereotype to try to give them “appropriate” names. I recall my daughter, when she was in middle school, asking if her friend Kiesha could come visit. What’s your first visual? Probably not the blue-eyed blonde who showed up. But if I want an ethnic name, I just add that to my Google search.

This week, I thought I’d expand on John’s topic, because coming up with names is only part of the problem. You’ve cleared the choosing names for your characters hurdle. But there are pitfalls to avoid so you don’t confuse your readers.

A tip I picked up at a workshop was the reminder that the characters should sound like their parents named them, not you.

Major warning: Names shouldn’t be too similar to other characters in the book.

This mean no Jane and Jake, or Mick and Mack, or Michael and Michelle—and that includes nicknames. If everyone calls Michael Mike, and there’s another character named Norman, but Norman’s last name is MacDonald and everyone calls him Mac, then you’re setting things up for reader confusion. I recently read a book where the author had fixated on the letter B for character names, and these were major players, not bit parts. I don’t think I ever got them straight.

Many readers see the first few letters of a character’s name and connect it to whatever image they’ve created for that character. Your character might be named Anastasia, but the reader might be thinking “The blonde woman with the A name.”

So, how do you keep track so you don’t confuse or frustrate your readers? Here’s my system.

The late Jeremiah Healy prefaced one of his workshops with a very vocal complaint about character names in books. He said, “How hard is it to take a sheet of paper, write the alphabet in two columns, and then put first names in one, last names in the other?”

Now that we’re using computers, instead of a sheet of paper, I use a simple Excel spreadsheet. When I name a character, I fill in a blank field in the appropriate line. This lets me see at a glance when I start to fixate on a letter. I hadn’t been to Healy’s workshop when I wrote What’s in a Name? but when rights reverted to me, I used the spreadsheet and was shocked at what I’d discovered. THREE characters named Hank? Okay, only two, but the third was Henry “but you can call me Hank.” I still haven’t forgiven my then editor for that one.

This is what I found when I went through the book:
(You can click to enlarge the images)

Character NamingIn addition to making minor revisions to the text, you can be sure I updated the character names. Here’s the “after” spreadsheet.

Character Naming TipsOther considerations. Foreign names might be realistic, but what if a reader is unfamiliar with the name, or its pronunciation? One of my critique partners wrote a book with a family of Irish descent, and she’s calling one of the characters Siobhan. (If I were naming a character that, the first thing I’d do would be to set up an auto correct, because I’d probably spell it wrong more often than not.) But typing it right is the author’s problem, not the reader’s. Do you know how to pronounce Siobhan? (shi-VAWN) If the author tells you, when you see the word do you “hear it” or is it strictly a visual?

(With apologies to Brother Gilstrap, I never see/hear his character Venice as Ven-EE-chay, no matter that he’s made the pronunciation clear. To me, she’s “Not Venice” in my head.)

And then, there’s a whole new set of problems. Audiobooks. When I started to put my books into audio, I had to focus on what things sound like as well as look like. In my third Triple-D Ranch book, the heroine’s ex-husband’s name is Seth. Her sister’s name is Bethany. They don’t look very similar on the page, but when spoken, I’m concerned that they’ll sound too much alike, especially if they’re in the same sentence. Or even paragraph. I don’t want my narrator stumbling (or calling them both Sethany).

All right, TKZers. Share your tips for keeping track of character names.


Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellNow available for Preorder. Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.


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.

Character Descriptions – Part 2

Character Descriptions – Part 2
Terry Odell

character descriptionLast time, I gave some tips for character description. I’ll repeat them here:

  1. Remember the POV of the character.
  2. Avoid “mirror” type self-descriptions.
  3. Less can be more. Readers like to fill in the blanks.
  4. Don’t be afraid to wait for another character to do the describing.
  5. Have your descriptions do double-duty, such as revealing character.
  6. Don’t show the same traits for every character, and remember to make your characters different!

Today’s focus is on dealing with character descriptions in First Person or Deep/Close/Intimate Third (which are almost the same thing.)

I am a deep point of view person. I prefer everything to come from inside the character’s head, However, I will read—and enjoy—books written with a shallower point of view. It all comes down to the way the author handles things.

What are authors trying to convey to their readers with physical character descriptions? The obvious: hair color, length, style to some extent. Eye color. Height, weight, skin color. Moving forward, odds are the character is dressed, so there’s clothing to describe. This is all easier in a distant third POV. Using that POV, you can stop the story for a brief paragraph or two of description, a technique used by John Sandford. In a workshop, he said he didn’t like going into a lot of detail, and listed the basics that he conveys in each book, usually in a single paragraph. Here’s how he describes Lucas Davenport in Chapter 2 of Eyes of Prey, one of his early Davenport books:

Lucas wore a leather bomber jacket over a cashmere sweater, and  khaki slacks and cowboy boots. His dark hair was uncombed and fell forward over a square, hard face, pale with the departing winter. The pallor almost hid the white scar that slashed across his eyebrow and cheek; it became visible only when he clenched his jaw. When he did, it puckered, a groove, whiter on white.

But what if you want to write in deep point of view? Staying inside the character’s head for descriptions is a challenge. Is the following realistic?

Sally rushed down the avenue, her green-and-yellow silk skirt swirling in the breeze, floral chiffon scarf trailing behind her. She adjusted her Oakley sunglasses over her emerald-green eyes. When she reached the door of the office building, she finger combed her short-cropped auburn hair. Her full, red lips curved upward in a smile.

You’ve covered most of the “I want my readers to see Sally” bases, but be honest. Do you really think of yourself in those terms?

There are other ways to convey that information. First, trust that your reader will be willing to wait for descriptions. Make sure there’s a reason for the character to think about her clothes, or her hair. Maybe she just had a total makeover and isn’t used to the feel of short hair, or the new color, or the makeup job. Catching a glimpse of herself as she passes a mirror and doing a double-take is one of the few times the “Mirror” description could work for me.

Even better, use another character. Some examples of how I’ve handled it:

Here,  an ex-boyfriend has walked into Sarah’s shop and says to her:

“You look like you haven’t slept in a month. And your hair. Why did you cut it?”

“Well, thanks for making my morning.” Sarah fluffed her cropped do-it-yourself haircut. “It’s easier this way.”

Note: there’s no mention of the color. Someone else can bring it up later. Neither of these characters would be thinking of it in the context of the situation.

Later, Sarah is opening the door to Detective Detweiler. We’re still in her POV, but now we can see more about her as well as a description of the detective, and since it’s from her POV, there’s none of that ‘self-assessment’ going on.

She unlocked the door to a tall, lanky man dressed in black denim pants and a gray sweater, gripping several bulky plastic bags. At five-four, Sarah didn’t consider herself exceptionally short, but she had to tilt her head to meet his eyes.

Sometimes, there are compromises. My editor knows I don’t like stopping the story, especially at the beginning to describe characters, but she knows readers might want at least a hint.

This was the original opening paragraph I sent to my editor:

Cecily Cooper’s heart pounded as she stood in the judge’s chambers, awaiting the appearance of Grady Fenton, the first subject in her pilot program, Helping Through Horses. She’d spent months working out the details, hustling endorsements, groveling for grant monies, and had done everything in her power to convince her brother, Derek, to give Grady a job at Derek’s Triple-D Ranch.

This was my editor’s comment to that opening: Can you add a personal physical tag for Cecily somewhere on the first page—hair, what she’s wearing? There’s a lot of detail that comes later, but there should be something here to help the reader connect with her right away.

So, I figured there’s a good reason I’m paying her, and added a bit more.

Shuffling footfalls announced Grady’s arrival. Cecily ran her damp palms along her denim skirt, wishing she could have worn jeans so she’d have pockets to hide the way her hands trembled.

My reasoning: I mentioned the skirt was denim, because the fabric helps set the “cowboy” theme for the book, but there’s no more detail than that. Not how many buttons, or whether it’s got lace trim at the hem. Now, let’s say she was wearing Sally’s “girly” skirt. For Cecily, that would be far enough out of character  for her to think about it, BUT, I’d make sure to show the reader her thoughts. Perhaps,

“She hated wearing this stupid yellow-and-green silk skirt—jeans were her thing—but Sabrina told her that skirt would impress the judge.”

See the difference between that and Sally’s self description earlier?

How do you handle describing your POV characters?


Blackthorne Inc. Bundle 1A brief moment of promotion–thanks to a BookBub Featured Deal, the box set of the first three novels in my Blackthorne, Inc. series is on special this week only for 99 cents instead of $6.99. Ends the 17th. Available at Kobo, Amazon, Apple & Nook.

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.