Automated Editing? Or Not?

Automated Editing? Or Not?”
Terry Odell

In the process of doing the final pass of the manuscript for Deadly Relations before sending it to my editor, I ran checks through several automated programs. I use SmartEdit to check for overused words and phrases, adverbs, etc. I’ve reported about that here at TKZ before. People have talked about using Grammarly (SmartEdit doesn’t check for grammar), so I tested that with a few chapters. (I used the free version. Premium mileage may vary.)

I wasn’t impressed, as almost every suggestion Grammarly made was “wrong” but I had to look at them to decide. Time suck. And, I had to know enough grammar to recognize when the suggestions were valid, optional, or off-the-wall. A while back, John Gilstrap talked about discovering an Editor function in Word, so I gave that one a shot as well. Most of the suggestions the Editor gave me dealt with commas. I agreed with some, disagreed with many—mostly about commas before “but”. Enough so I looked it up, because Mr. Holtby in HS English drilled into us that ‘but’ can connect two independent clauses, but you needed to use a comma. The Google Machine agreed. I don’t know why the Editor didn’t.

Which brings me to the main ‘flaw’ with these automated editing helpers. They’re not set up for fiction, and they can’t read in context.

Example: The jerry can sat in a spreading puddle of liquid. Both Grammarly and Word’s Editor told me that “can sat” is incorrect usage. It didn’t understand that “can” is a noun in that sentence.

And never mind dialogue, which comes from the character and many rules fly out the window because people don’t speak with perfect, rule-abiding grammar. Or jargon. Many of my characters in this book are cops, and they use “cop speak” which doesn’t follow the rules of grammar.

There’s also the case of voice, which is mine, and I’m not changing my style for any automated program.

Then there’s the section called “Inclusiveness.” Mr. Gilstrap opened a big discussion when he talked about what the Editor flagged in that category for him, so I did a deeper dive. Editor flagged several spots where it thought some people might find my word choices offensive. Not offensive in a profanity way, but rather reinforcing biases and stereotypes.

Here are some examples of what I’d written and what (and why) the Editor suggested changes. It also gave suggested words to substitute. Some made sense. Some didn’t.

“Be home soon.” Gordon put his SUV in gear—only a little white lie that he was already on his way—and headed for home.

You might consider using different language to avoid equating “black” with negative or “white” with positive. Although this term doesn’t directly refer to race, these connotations can unintentionally reinforce racial stereotypes and biases.

A high-pitched voice—Frieda’s—called to Moose. The dog, tail wagging, bounded to the front porch. “Who’s there?” Frieda clutched the dog’s collar. Moose, still eyeing Gordon warily, sat by her side. Not that the frail woman could restrain him should the dog bolt.

Some expressions may draw undue attention to age or imply negative attributes due to a person’s age. Consider removing unnecessary, negative, or condescending references to age.

The coating of dust on the three-inch wide rungs was disturbed by what Gordon interpreted as the toe end of boot prints. Man-sized.

Some terms may suggest negative attitudes or stereotypes related to gender roles or a person’s gender identity or expression. Consider avoiding expressions that may imply bias.

Other usages the Editor pointed out:

  • Gordon checks his manpower spreadsheets.
  • He refers to someone manning the front desk.
  • He searches for a character using her maiden name
  • Gordon faces a gunman.

After a little digging, I discovered you can adjust the settings so the Editor checks only for what you want it to. (Note: You should also be sure you’ve selected “Casual” rather than “Formal” or “Professional” before running any checks.) Under “Inclusiveness” I found the following options:

  • Age Bias
  • Cultural Bias
  • Ethnic Slurs
  • Gender Bias
  • Gendered Pronouns
  • Gender Specific Language
  • Racial Bias
  • Sexual Orientation Bias
  • Socioeconomic Bias

Now, I’m of a generation that remembers the addition of “Ms” to the honorific options. I remember what we referred to as “Women’s Lib.” I asked my daughters about some of the usages the Editor flagged, and they agreed with the sentiments behind them, and didn’t think the Editor was out of line. Their social and professional circles differ a great deal from mine. But they also agreed that reading a novel wasn’t the same as face to face talking to other people.

The Big Question is “How does this apply to fiction?” Word doesn’t have a setting for that. And, if you’re writing in Deep POV, everything on the page should come from the character’s voice. Will I consider the words the Editor said were biased? Yes. Will I make all the changes the Editor suggested? No. Because my characters don’t talk that way. At least now. Will they change with the times? Maybe.

**Note. We here at TKZ value our readers’ comments and discussions. Recently, we’ve been having some issues with leaving comments. If this happens to you, we hope you’ll understand. And keep trying. Our web guru is working on the issue.

Coming Soon! Deadly Relations.
Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does
Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

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

What’s Your Writing Time Like?

What’s Your Writing Time Like?
Terry Odell

Image by 0fjd125gk87 from Pixabay

We’re four days into the new year, and by now, I’m sure everyone’s been inundated with posts about the good, the bad, and the ugly of 2022, and suggestions for a better 2023.

I’ll offer my take on why I don’t make resolutions, and that’s it on the subject of New Years, other than wishing everyone at TKZ a very positive one.

Okay … on with a more writerly offering. Another one of my questions about how people approach their writing.

Note: I’m talking about getting words down, not ideas. To me, that’s a different facet of the process.

I’ve got a writer friend who wants large chunks of time for fear she’ll get “on a roll” and then have to leave for lunch, an appointment, watching the football game, whatever, and lose momentum. She’ll say, “It’s almost lunchtime, so no point in starting now.” There’s nothing wrong with that. She produces and meets her deadlines, but her comment got me thinking about how other writers utilize time.

I’ll go first. Disclaimer: I’m a retired empty-nester with a husband who understands that I spend time at the keyboard. (In fact, I think he’s glad I do.)

My first activities of the day (which starts for me at about 5:30) include checking email, doing the Mini-Cross, playing Tiles, and chatting with one of my critique partners. Breakfast fits in there somewhere, along with crushing a few candies. Getting the “easy stuff” out of the way until I’m coherent. I can barely find the right keys for the crossword, so being productive first thing doesn’t work for me.

My first “writing” thing comes after I’ve finished my playtime. It’s probably around 7:30. I look at the marked up chapter from the previous night’s read. If I didn’t end a scene or chapter and had nothing to print, then I have nothing to tweak, which throws off my morning routine. I’ll reread to see where I left off and try to pick things up from there, but it takes longer to get into the story.

I know I’ll be interrupted for dog walkies around 9:30, but unlike my writer friend, instead of waiting until I get back, I try to move forward. Once I get going, I keep the manuscript open on the PC all day and work on it as time permits (which, as mentioned above, for an introverted, retired empty-nester is significant). If I have appointments, or need to cook dinner, or it’s laundry day, I write until it’s time to deal with them, take care of the chore, and return to the work. Looking at my productivity, I do better in the afternoon, as there seem to be fewer things needing my attention, so I can remain immersed in the story. But a goal of 500 words before lunch and at least 1000 words a day is my norm.

I know some people carry a notepad or recording device and are never not writing. They’ll write a paragraph, or a single sentence, utilizing time in waiting rooms, car pool pickup/dropoff lines, sporting events. If they’re plotters/outliners, they might work on a scene that’s way down the line. That doesn’t work for me. I write at my computer, and figure my word count output is justification enough for leaving the manuscript alone if I’m not around the house.

In a Q&A session with Nora Roberts, she says she works out 90 minutes a day and works in her office 6-8 hours a day. That’s her job, as she puts it, and she takes it seriously (obviously, to look at her output).

So, what kind of writer are you? Bits and pieces? Longer sessions? Dedicated hours for writing when nothing else is allowed to happen? Can you hop around the story as ideas hit, or are you (like me) extremely linear and everything hits the page in the order it happens in the story?

Bargain/BSP Time: The first book in my Mapleton series, Deadly Secrets, is perma-free, and the second book, Deadly Bones, is on sale for 99 cents this week only. My 11th book in this series, Deadly Relations, is about ready to go to my editor. I’m hoping it’ll be ready to go in time for Left Coast Crime in March—and hope to see some TKZers there.

Coming Soon! Deadly Relations.

Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does

Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

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

A Jar of Rocks

A Jar of Rocks
Terry Odell

image of rocks inside a glass jarChecking my calendar, I see that this is my last post before the annual holiday hiatus, so it’s time to think “loftier” thoughts as we reflect on the upcoming departure of 2022.

A while back, a post from Garry Rodgers introduced me to the weekly newsletter from Farnam Street.

This past Sunday’s offerings included a variation on something I used to do with my 7th grade science students early in the semester, which was to take two graduated cylinders, each with 100 ml of a clear liquid and pour the contents into a third graduate. The combined liquids did not reach the 200 ml line, and we discussed possible explanations of why. Answer in the comments.

The article included in Farnam Street was similar, but the teacher’s goal went beyond the science. I thought it worth sharing at this time of year, especially after NaNoWriMo, where word count became the focus of participants.

A high school science teacher wanted to demonstrate a concept to his students. He takes a large-mouth jar and places several large rocks in it. He then asks the class, “Is it full?”

Unanimously, the class replies, “Yes!”

The teacher then takes a bucket of gravel and pours it into the jar. The small rocks settle into the spaces between the big rocks.

He then asks the class, “Is it full?”

This time there are some students holding back, but most reply, “Yes!” The teacher then produces a large can of sand and proceeds to pour it into the jar. The sand fills up the spaces between the gravel.

For the third time, the teacher asks, “Is it full?”

Most of the students are wary of answering, but again, many reply, “Yes!”

Then the teacher brings out a pitcher of water and pours it into the jar. The water saturates the sand. At this point, the teacher asks the class, “What is the point of this demonstration?”

One bright young student raises his hand and then responds, “No matter how full one’s schedule is in life, he can always squeeze in more things!”

“No,” replies the teacher, “The point is that unless you first place the big rocks into the jar, you are never going to get them in. The big rocks are the important things in your life …your family, your friends, your personal growth. If you fill your life with small things, as demonstrated by the gravel, the sand, and the water…you will never have the time for the important things.

So, what are the “Big Rocks” in your life? Spending time with your children, your parents or your spouse? Taking the seminar or class to get the information and perspective you need to succeed? Making the time to set goals, plan or evaluate your progress? When you are hassled because there is no time, remember the story about the Big Rocks and the Jar!”

— Author Unknown

 All right TKZers, at this busy time of year, what are your Big Rocks?

(If anyone knows why I didn’t get 200 ml of liquid, feel free to mention it in the comments. Or take a guess.)

Have a safe and happy holiday season no matter what you celebrate (or don’t).

See you in 2023!

Now Available: Cruising Undercover

It’s supposed to be a simple assignment aboard a luxury yacht, but soon, he’s in over his head.

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

Being Thankful – Writer’s Edition

Being Thankful – Writer’s Edition
Terry Odell

Here in the US, tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day where families often gather around a groaning table, eat way too much, and maybe watch a little football. At one point during the holiday, most people share something they’re thankful for.

In her post on Monday, Kay asked readers what they were thankful for. While we routinely mention family, friends, health, creature comforts, and maybe a pet or two, I thought we could lighten up and look at things less lofty. Little things, “writer-specific” things.

Here are a few of the little writerly things I’m thankful for, in no particular order

  • No work wardrobe
  • No commute to work
  • Post-it notes and foam core boards
  • Legal tablets, red pens, and highlighters
  • Red squiggly lines
  • Word’s Read Aloud
  • Indie publishing
  • Critique partners
  • Draft2Digital’s free conversion software
  • My editor
  • My readers
  • Books

What about you? What writer-specific things are you thankful for?  (Note: TKZ is a given!)

And Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Now Available: Cruising Undercover
It’s supposed to be a simple assignment aboard a luxury yacht, but soon, he’s in over his head.

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

Where’s The Body?

Where’s The Body?
Terry Odell

Sherlock Holmes with pipe and magnifying glass I write a small town police procedural series that readers have said “has a cozy feel.” I’m not big on traditional thrillers (defined as a suspense with consequences of global proportions), or psychological suspense, or serial killers—probably because I burned out on them the year I judged the Edgars, and I don’t think I’ve fully recovered.
So, here I am in the 7th novel in my Mapleton Mystery series. Book 1, Deadly Secrets, revolved around a new and reluctant chief of police faced with solving the first homicide in the town’s collective memory. Avoiding the Jessica Fletcher/Cabot Cove syndrome became my challenge as I continued through the series. I had a cold case, homicides discovered while my character was outside of Mapleton, another case when the victim wasn’t a Mapleton citizen. With the current WIP, currently approaching the 35K mark, I realize I have yet to have a homicide. The story begins when someone sets off an IED in the protagonist’s house and subsequently disappears. It’s an arson investigation. There are personal connections between the arsonist and the protagonist, but I don’t have a body yet. Will I? Should I? What happens if I don’t?
Maybe it’s because I learned to love mystery with Sherlock Holmes, and I’m sure he solved a lot of puzzles where nobody died.
My question to you TKZers: Is a dead body critical to a book that’s going to end up on the mystery “shelf” in bookstores? There are plenty of crimes that aren’t homicides, but why is the focus on a mystery always the murder victim?
Floor is open.
Note: This is a short post because the Covid virus has invaded the Odell household. The Hubster swore it was “just a head cold” and didn’t take my “suggestion” to test until two days later. Meanwhile, we’d been going about our normal, relatively isolated rural lives, so we still have no idea where we contracted the disease. Fortunately, we’re both fully vaccinated and boosted, so our symptoms have been mild. But the old brain isn’t making all the connections, most notably with the fingers.

Now Available: Cruising Undercover

It’s supposed to be a simple assignment aboard a luxury yacht, but soon, he’s in over his head.

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

New Outlets for Creativity

New Outlets for Creativity
Terry Odell

Decades ago, I was a photography hobbyist. Long enough ago so I was shooting black-and-white film and processing in my home darkroom.

Fast forward a slew of decades, and I’m getting back into it. Still at a hobbyist level, but as I said on my own blog last week, having more than one creative outlet can help deal with any frustrations in your primary field. People come to TKZ to talk about writing, so we all have that in common, but many of us have other channels we can turn to as well.

Given my books often include some aspect of photography, be it the kind of camera my covert ops agent is using for surveillance, or a character looking to become a professional photographer, I’ve enjoyed expanding on simple research and moving more into the hands-on. The more I know, the more my characters know. If the research satisfies an underlying need, so much the better. Right now, I’d say my skills lie somewhere between Kiera in In the Crosshairs and Belinda in Cruising Undercover.

I might know something about photography but it’s new all over again. Cameras bear only a vague resemblance to the ones I learned on, just as word processors or writing software bear only a vague resemblance to the Underwood and Remington uprights I learned to type on.

My son’s business includes photo trips where he takes clients to a variety of locations, both domestic and international, and leads them in picture-taking. I’ve been on several with him (as a paying client, no “mom” favors), including Alaska, the Caribbean, the Galapagos, and Croatia, and most recently, Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico. Getting away from home, seeing new sights can add depth to characters and settings.

I’m the newbie in the workshop group on this trip. My little camera might have felt inferior next to all the big fancy ones with multiple lenses. (Okay, I own other lenses, but the advice I got was that a 14-150 zoom would cover virtually every shooting situation, so that’s the only one I carried.)

Listening to the others on this tour is like hearing a new language. Everyone else is fluent, yet they’re all here to expand their “vocabularies”. For one—not a newbie by far—it was simply pointing out a better way to hold his camera. Nobody had ever told him that before. Another learned about long exposures for clouds. And one member is interested in mystery writing, so we were able to compare places we lacked significant knowledge, but had significant interest.

For me, it’s almost all new. They’re talking about swipes, zoom blurs, multiple exposures, blue hour shots—and I’m hoping my settings are close to correct, period. Histograms? I’m supposed to look at them? What are they supposed to look like? All I see is something interfering with the image.

But that’s the point of the workshop. To have people show you (often more than once) better or different ways to do things. We were shooting in areas that almost always required moving in close for detail shots. The overwhelming amount of “stuff” made it impossible to capture everything in a single shot, so zooming in on details was the way to get better pictures. As it compares to writing–we’re always learning new skills, improving the craft.

How many times have we read passages from books and said, “Damn, I wish I could do that?” With my photography, I don’t compare my work to that of the experts, but I can look at what I create and try to make it better. Just as everyone’s voice in writing means 7 people can be given the same story prompt and no two will be alike, 7 photographers can shoot the same subject, and every image will be different.

On Monday, Kay talked about words and pictures. As the final activity in our workshop, each of us was to share three images for discussion. Photographers notice things non-photographers don’t. They point out little details that add or detract to the picture–things most of us wouldn’t notice. Kind of the way writers notice things like POV issues, descriptions, overused words, etc. One group member talked (and talked) about the emotions he was trying to convey in each of his shots. Did I get the same feelings? Not really.

Several in the group chose pictures of a very old cemetery taken at the Taos Pueblo. Each had a different approach. Different angles, and different renderings–one in black and white. Instructors made comments about things like leading lines, rule of thirds, toning down or playing up shadows.

One group member was from the east coast and had never experienced anything like what she was seeing in New Mexico, and she focused on details that spoke to her. She liked the shapes and colors of things.

No matter where you are, looking at everything around you as a writer provides story and character fodder as well as a photographic image. Driving down the highway and seeing articles of clothing strewn about triggers story ideas. Is there a body somewhere?

If you’ve stayed with me this long, here are some of the pictures I took. Consider them first drafts, as I’m still learning how to spot those details that will make them better images. Normally, I wouldn’t talk about ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures, the same way you don’t share first drafts with the general public, but this is The Kill Zone, after all.


Give Yourself Permission

Give Yourself Permission
Terry Odell

There have been several posts recently about how to motivate yourself to write, how to increase productivity, how to “do the job.” I’d like to take a moment to look at the other side of the picture.

(Disclaimer: I’m an indie author and am not on deadline at the moment.)

Recent events—both positive and negative—have pulled me away from the current manuscript. I had a short visit with my mother, followed by a planned week’s vacation which was an organized tour, and we were on the go all the time. When I returned home, ready to tackle the WIP, my mother’s failing health had taken a rapid downturn, and I dropped everything to return to LA. My brother and I spent two weeks dealing with the funeral and trying to get her house cleared out enough to put on the market. She’d lived in the house since 1958 and apparently threw nothing away.

At any rate, all the sorting and wrapping, bagging, and packing was both physically and mentally exhausting. Although I’d intended to use “down time” to work on the manuscript (even brought my regular keyboard), there wasn’t any.

I did have one pleasant break—I met with JSB for lunch one day, and it was nice to talk about writing, and a glimmer of a spark to get back to the book flashed for a moment or two.

At first, I told myself that I had reached a “need to do some research” stopping point before I left, but I faced reality. Even with that information I wasn’t going to be able to write. Constant interruptions, distractions, and the pressure to get everything done wasn’t conducive to productivity—at least productivity that wouldn’t end up being the victim of the delete key.

I gave myself permission to set the manuscript aside and not feel guilty about it. The same went for a presence on social media. I checked emails, but set most of them aside to deal with when I got home.

While writing every day is part of the “job”, there are legitimate reasons for taking a leave of absence. When life intervenes and you have to step away, accept it. The manuscript will still be there.

Now that I’m home in my familiar writing environment, I’ll be catching up with all the “life” stuff that accumulates while you’re away, but also with easing back into the writing. I wrote a post some time ago about getting back in the writing groove, but I thought it was appropriate to repeat my tips here:

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.

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?

Now Available: Cruising Undercover

It’s supposed to be a simple assignment aboard a luxury yacht, but soon, he’s in over his head.

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

Gimmicks or Good Plot Devices?

Gimmicks or Good Plot Devices?
Terry Odell

My recent reading has included two mysteries where the ‘bad guys’ went into “do I buy this?” territory for me, for various reasons. Both were well-written and good reads, so this post is more for discussion than me saying ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do this.’ I always like what the TKZ peeps have to contribute. Sadly, I have an emergency trip so I won’t be around much to respond to comments, but I know you will keep things going.

Keeping the villain’s identity hidden from readers in mysteries (my genre of choice) is a challenge. Neither book fell into the “you don’t see the villain until the gather all suspects into the parlor category, so there was no sense of cheating the reader.

In one book, there was a set of identical twins. No, it wasn’t a case of them pretending to be each other, which I consider a major contrivance (and I happen to be the mother of a set of twins, although they’re fraternal). Before I gave birth to them, I was of the “twins are a plot copout” mindset. They still can be, but that’s another issue, and I digress.

In the twins book, one was a very dependent individual, who the dominant twin, who also happened to be the killer, took responsibility for. Another twist—the dependent twin was in the midst of transitioning to female (is that a correct term these days?) and was more or less in hiding during the process. The reader was aware of the character’s existence via phone calls from the other twin, but there wasn’t much of an on-the-page presence until it was time to reveal the secret. When I got to that point, I had minor niggles of “is this playing coy with the reader?” Was it too much of a stretch from day to day reality? Or, do reader want departures from the logical, day to day reality?

The other book relied on the killer having Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple personalities) and the cops were looking for what they thought were two different people. Who later turned out to be three. DID is real, but it affects less than 2% of the population, and most cases are female. In this book, the character was male. Still, it’s a “this could happen” scenario.

For the twins, I can accept the ploy, because the second twin could have been anyone the killer felt close to or responsible for.

In the case of the DID character(s), the condition is so rare that there was an underlying feeling of “although it could happen, I’m not sure it’s working for me.”

What’s your take on using the very low percentage condition for a villain in a mystery? Would you go back and re-read to find where the author left clues?

Now Available: Cruising Undercover

It’s supposed to be a simple assignment aboard a luxury yacht, but soon, he’s in over his head.

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

Beginnings – Not Just For Page One

Beginnings – Not Just For Page One
Terry Odell

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

I belong to a small online critique group. We’ve been together about 15 years now, so we’re in a combination beta-reader/critique partner relationship. Our process is to send a chapter at a time, with no real schedule. This means there are times when we’ll be seeing submissions every few days (as deadlines approach) or every couple of weeks.

Even when we’re moving “quickly” and sending subs every few days, this isn’t how we hope readers are going to be reading the final product. Much as we hate to admit that not every reader starts at page 1 and doesn’t put the book down until “The End”, it might be several days before a reader picks up the book again.

Most readers use chapter and scene breaks as stopping points. One thing my partners and I are aware of is how it’s critical to ground the reader at the start of each chapter, scene, or POV switch. It’s also the most common piece of feedback we give each other. Being aware and executing don’t always go hand in hand.

Unlike Chapter One, Page One, new chapters don’t have the same compelling “hook the reader” conventions. They should already be vested in the characters and the conflicts to want to keep reading.

How do you make sure you’re not creating those what’s going on? moments? I’m borrowing from a post I did several years ago on Transitions. You need to ground the reader in the who, where, and when.

You should be able to work all of these into the first sentence or two in the new scene. Action beats are your friend. If the previous chapter ended with a question, it can’t hurt to remind the reader what the question was. Subtlety is your friend here. You don’t want the “moving right along” reader to feel that you’re being repetitive or casting doubts on their intelligence.

If you’re writing a single POV, the task is easier, because odds are, your reader is pretty sure whose head they’re in.

An example of the end of Chapter 1 in Deadly Options:

Gordon turned to McDermott. “Vicky, what do we know? Angie called, said you were arresting Megan Wyatt. Is that true?”

“Not exactly,” she said.

There’s the hope that readers will turn the page to find out what Vicky McDermott knows. But what if they’re reading while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, and they’re called into the exam room right there? They use a bookmark, and who knows when they’ll be able to spare the time to read again.

My approach to grounding the reader is starting Chapter 2 with this:

“Either she’s under arrest or she isn’t, Vicky,” Gordon said. “Not exactly isn’t an acceptable answer.”

“Sorry, Chief. She’s not under arrest, but I can see how Angie might have interpreted it that way when I put Megan in a private room.”

We see the speaker is Gordon, and the question is repeated/paraphrased as a reminder to the reader. Using the other character names helps as well.

My romantic suspense books use two POV characters. A chapter might end with a nice hook for one protagonist, but he’s not taking center stage again until after the other protagonist has her turn. Here, it’s even more important to reground the reader. That requires a bit of a leapfrog mentality from the reader. If my characters weren’t together in the last scene, then things have happened to character A while we were with character B. Grounding becomes critical.

An example from Nowhere to Hide, where Graham is the male protagonist, a cop who wants to move up in the department. He’s been away from center stage for several scenes.

Graham finished filing his reports, surprised to see it was four-thirty. Instead of going home, he drove to Central Ops. Roger Schaeffer in CID might let him poke around a little. The lieutenant seemed to be one of the few who thought Graham had a shot at the CID spot. His recommendation could make the difference.

For this scene, I opened by using Graham’s name (who), and also a time reference (when). The where, Central Ops, is mentioned. Also, by showing something only Graham can be aware of (his surprise at the time), we’ve established it’s his POV scene. If there was any doubt, the rest of the paragraph is internal monologue, thoughts only Graham would know.

Another caveat: Be very careful if you’re opening a chapter with a secondary/non POV character doing something. You need to make sure your protagonist’s thoughts, actions, or dialogue are clearly theirs. Also if there’s been a time jump.

All right TKZ peeps. Have you run across examples of ways authors keep readers grounded over scenes and chapters? Or places where you’ve been confused? Solutions you use?

Note: I’m heading out of town for a while tomorrow. I’ll try to respond to today’s comments. Don’t know how much internet access/time I’ll have on the road.

Now Available: Cruising Undercover

It’s supposed to be a simple assignment aboard a luxury yacht, but soon, he’s in over his head.

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

A Balancing Act

A Balancing Act
Terry Odell

Image by JL G from Pixabay

I’m about 14K into my next novel, the tenth offering in my Mapleton Mystery series. Unlike my other series, which fall under the romantic suspense umbrella, my Mapletons are a true series, not a set of connected books. Although my romantic suspense series feature recurring characters, the protagonists are different in each. In Mapleton, my police chief, Gordon Hepler (who got his name when a postal clerk where I did a lot of mailing begged to be included. Neither of us had any idea he’d be a series protagonist) is the POV character in almost every story.

While I face the same issues with all series, the Mapleton books are more challenging. Why? The dreaded backstory conundrum. The setting, with a few detours, is the small town of Mapleton. The books progress in time from one to the next, so I’m continually balancing content that will offer enough explanation for new readers while not boring returning ones. By book ten, a LOT of things have transpired, and while my characters have a good idea of what’s gone before, readers might not.

Stopping to info dump bores new readers and can insult those ‘in the know.’ However, the occasional Easter egg makes a welcome reward. Overexplaining things or detailed character descriptions will have returning readers skimming. The further into the series I get, the sketchier descriptions become. John Sanford once said he includes a short paragraph with the highlights of Lucas Davenport in each novel—tall, lean, dark hair, facial scar, clothes horse—and that’s about it.

What kind of information has accumulated over the series? To name a few:

Gordon had Central Serous Retinopathy in an early book, takes blood pressure meds, and has to limit his caffeine intake. While this was a major plot thread in Deadly Puzzles, there’s no need to give readers the entire history in each book. But he’s a cop and he’s drinking decaf? Will readers wonder?

Angie has grown from character of interest to girlfriend to lover to wife throughout the series. They were newlyweds in Deadly Fun but now, they’re settling into the marriage. Angie runs the local diner, had a side business of catering with another character prominent in several books. There’s her cook who appears regularly and the rest of the staff of the diner who appear from time to time.

There are the other officers on the police force, and their number has increased. There are the dispatchers and Gordon’s admin, all of whom play their own parts in the stories. And we can’t forget Buster, the department’s part-time K-9 who shows up in this new book. Is that enough, or do I need to show that when he’s not doing police work, he lives with Officer Solomon? Should I mention his wife and kids?

Mapleton has had several mayors, each a thorn in Gordon’s side, and they’ve been dispatched in one way or another. Now, there’s an interim mayor and friction on the town council. There’s a newspaper reporter who often crosses a line Gordon thinks she shouldn’t when she writes her articles for the local paper.

The list goes on. And on.

You can see that trying to fit all this in would make a book far longer—and more tedious—than it needs to be. When a recurring character shows up, it’s tempting to lay in more background and description than is necessary. (Side note: since I write in Deep POV, I’m not going to intrude with my own descriptions. Those of you writing from a more distant POV might not have as much trouble.) I have to remind myself to save bits and pieces of description as well as other background information until there seems to be a logical place to do so. If Gordon’s admin has been with him since his first day on the job, he’s not going to be thinking of what she looks like every time he sees her. Now, if it seems important that readers “see” her, then maybe she’s wearing something unlike her normal office attire, or she’s changed her hairstyle. That way, Gordon’s doing the describing, not me. Or he might ask her about her family to follow up on a thread from another book.

My approach tends to be to include first, cut later. I think about having a series bible, and then think I’d probably want to include even more since I’d have everything laid out for me.

When someone asked Michael Connelly how he handles keeping readers up to speed, he said he thought about it early on and decided to take the “The other books are out there. Let them find out for themselves” approach.

JD Robb (based on her books, not asking her) throws in plenty of references to things gone before and after over 50 books in the In Death series, a lot has happened, and the cast of characters has grown tremendously. Given the state of my memory, I often wish there were footnotes for whichever book the various cases or situations she mentions. Not explanations, not backstory, not info dumping, but I’d know which book to take another look at.

What about you? How do you handle information in an ongoing series? Your preferences as a reader?

In case anyone wants to see my interview for the Speed City Sisters in Crime, you can watch the replay.

Now Available: Cruising Undercover

It’s supposed to be a simple assignment aboard a luxury yacht, but soon, he’s in over his head.

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