Eight Tricks to Tap Your Subconscious for Better Writing

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

The subconscious is the writer’s superpower. Ideas, imagination, and inspiration live in that vast reservoir.

The goal is to open a channel between the conscious mind and the subconscious to allow free flow between them.

Like a physical muscle, the subconscious is a mental muscle that can be made stronger with exercise. Many writers don’t use it enough because they don’t understand its value or don’t know how to tap into its depths.

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The mind is often compared to an iceberg—only a small part shows as “conscious” while the unseen majority is “subconscious.”

What is the subconscious? Novelist/writing instructor Dennis Foley reduces the definition to a simple, beautiful simile:

The subconscious is like a little seven-year-old girl who brings you gifts.

Unfortunately, our conscious mind is usually too busy to figure out the value of these odd thoughts and dismisses them as inconsequential, even nonsensical.

The risk is, if you ignore the little girl’s gifts, pretty soon she stops bringing them and you lose touch with a vital link to your writer’s imagination. But if you encourage her to bring more gifts, she’s happy to oblige.

Sometimes the little girl delivers the elusive perfect phrase you’ve been searching for or that exhilarating plot twist that turns your story on its head.

At those times, she’s often dubbed “the muse.”

The trick is how to consistently turn random thoughts into gifts from a muse. Here are eight tips:

#1 – Be patient and keep trying.

Training the subconscious to produce inspiration on demand is like housetraining a puppy.

At first, it pees at unpredictable times and places. You grab it and rush outside. When it does its business on the grass instead of expensive carpet, you offer lots of praise. Soon it learns there is a better time and place to let loose.

Keep reinforcing that lesson and your subconscious will scratch at the back door when it wants to get out.

#2 – Pay attention to daydreams, wild hare ideas, and jolts of intuition. Chances are your subconscious shot them out for a reason, even if that reason isn’t immediately obvious.

Say you’re struggling over how to write a surprise revelation in a scene. Two days ago, you remembered crazy Aunt Gretchen, whom you hadn’t thought about in years. Then you realize if a character like her walks into the scene, she’s the perfect vehicle to deliver the surprise.

#3 – Expect the subconscious to have lousy timing.

That brilliant flash of inspiration often hits at the most inconvenient moment. In the middle of a job interview. In the shower. Or while your toddler is having a meltdown at Winn-Dixie.

Finish the task at hand but ask your subconscious to send you a reminder later. As soon as possible, write down that brilliant flash before you forget it.

#4 – Keep requests small.

Some authors claim to have dreamed multi-book sagas covering five generations of characters. Lucky them. My subconscious doesn’t work that hard.

Start by asking it to solve little problems.

As you’re going to bed, think about a character you’re having trouble bringing to life. Miriam seems flat and hollow but, for some reason you can’t explain, she hates the mustache on her new lover, Jack. Ask your subconscious: “Why?”

When you wake up, you realize Jack’s mustache looks just like her uncle’s did…when he molested Miriam at age five.

Until that moment, you didn’t even know Miriam had survived abuse…but your subconscious knew. That’s why it dropped the hint about her dislike for the mustache. She becomes a deeper character with secrets and hidden motives you can use to complicate her relationship with Jack.

#5 – Recognize obscure clues.

This tip takes practice because suggestions from the subconscious are often oblique and challenging to interpret.

You want to write a scene where a detective questions a suspect to pin down his whereabouts at the time of a crime. You ponder that as you drift off to sleep. The next morning, “lemon chicken” comes to mind.

What the…?

But you start typing and pretty soon the scene flows out like this:

“Hey, Fred, you like Chinese food?”

“Sure, Detective.”

“Ever try Wang’s all-you-can-eat buffet?”

“That’s my favorite place. Their lemon chicken is to die for.”

“Yeah, it’s the best.”

[Fred relaxes] “But not when it gets soggy. I only like it when the coating is still crispy.”

“Right you are. I don’t like soggy either.”

“Detective, would you believe last night I waited forty-five minutes for the kitchen to bring out a fresh batch?”

“Wow, Fred, you’re a patient man. About what time was that?”

“Quarter to eight.”

“So you must have been there when that dude got killed out in the alley.”

[Fred fidgets and licks his lips] “Um, yeah, but I didn’t see anything. I had nothing to do with him getting stabbed.”

“Oh really? Funny thing is, nobody knows he got stabbed…except the killer.”

Lemon chicken directed you to an effective line of questioning to solve the crime.

#6 – Tiny details pay big dividends.

You’re writing a story about a woman, Susan, searching for her dead grandmother’s missing diamond. In the description of Granny’s garden, an empty snail shell appears. Seems kind of silly but it’s first draft so you leave in the detail. You can always cut it later.

In the second draft, you realize, when Susan was little, she and Granny used to collect snail shells.

Now Susan goes outside and picks up that empty shell you’d left earlier in the garden. The diamond falls out.

Before she died, Granny hid the diamond where only her beloved granddaughter would think to search because of her long-ago interest in snail shells.

Like the mustache mentioned earlier, you didn’t know the story needed that detail but your subconscious did. It planted the seed, sat back, and waited for you to recognize it.

#7 – Bigger problems need more time.

In my WIP (working title: Eyes in the Sky), an unseen mastermind is pulling strings to cause harm to the main characters. At page 100, that antagonist is revealed to the reader but remains unknown to the protagonists.

A beta reader suggested keeping his identity secret until even later to increase suspense. It was a great point but would require major rewriting.

For several weeks, I pondered the problem both consciously and subconsciously.

At last, my muse offered a different solution. The mastermind is still identified at page 100. But now suspicion additionally falls on a minor player. That secondary character has an even more compelling motive to harm the protagonists. I simply hadn’t recognized it until my subconscious brought it to my attention.

Rather than withholding the identity longer, instead I beefed up the additional suspect to make the reader wonder which antagonist is the ultimate villain.

Tip #8 – Practice trigger activities.

Whenever a story gets caught in a corner, I go for a walk. I stretch out stiff muscles, breathe fresh air, and let my mind wander.

Before long, the solution pops up from my subconscious and I rush back to the keyboard.

Walking is my trigger activity. It works. Every. Single. Time.

That’s because, for years, I’ve conditioned my subconscious. Like a bell at a factory that signals the start of the shift, a walk signals my subconscious that it’s time to go to work.

Through experimentation, you can find a trigger activity that opens the channel between your conscious and your subconscious. It might be listening to music, reading, playing basketball, meditation, skydiving—what you do doesn’t matter, as long as it works for you.

Once you find your best trigger, use it whenever you need your subconscious to produce. The more often you use it, the stronger the reinforcement between the activity and the results.

Photo credit: Pixabay

 

That little seven-year-old girl wants to please you. She is happy to bring gifts as long as you keep encouraging her.

When the channel between the conscious and subconscious flows freely, the deep well of imagination bubbles up.

 

Your writing will show the difference.

 

TKZers, do you have favorite tips to access your subconscious?

 

Post script: recently Joe Hartlaub blogged about improving creativity by writing with a font called “Comic Sans.” Sounded pretty woo-woo but I always trust Joe’s advice so I tried it while drafting this post. It works. Thanks, Joe!

 

Debbie Burke is still trying to figure out the hidden meaning in the latest five-star review for her thriller Instrument of the Devil :

“Very easy to apply. Great instructions…Product works great just like the expensive ones you buy at the store.”

Whatever.

It’s available on Amazon here.

10+

Heil Safari – First Page Critique

Today let’s welcome another Brave Anonymous Author who offers the first page of Heil Safari.

Title:  Heil Safari

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot. He had stepped to the caution line and put one foot on the other side. The caution line, marked with wooden stakes and a strand of wire across the top, warned the prisoners of war from getting too close to the wire fence fifteen feet beyond. On the fence going around the entire prison camp there were signs in English and German that read:

ATTENTION!

Forbidden to Move Inside

Restricted Area

Violators Will be Shot

The American guard in the corner watchtower shouted, “You there! On the deadline! Git back!” The guard raised a rifle to his shoulder. “I said git back!”

But Fritz didn’t move.

“You damn Nazi,” the guard yelled at Fritz. “Git back or I shoot!”

Fritz still didn’t move, apparently not taking the threat seriously. Or caring. But Beyer took it seriously. He cared.

Returning to his barracks after doing his morning toilet, Beyer now stood still, uneasy. Then he heard the click of a breech bolt coming from the guard tower at the other corner of the compound. In horror he saw a guard hunkered behind a machine gun. He was covering the south end of the compound as if at any moment there might be a general uprising. The nearby prisoners, however, remained still and only stared.

But Beyer had to do something other than stare to see how the crisis would turn out. He couldn’t afford to lose Fritz. The only mining engineer in the Officers Compound, Fritz was essential to the success of Hermes. Beyer was desperate for Hermes to succeed. Being too long cooped in the densely packed prisoners and buildings of the enclosure, Beyer, much like Fritz, was becoming unnerved. Beyer frequently broke out in night sweats, his breathing rapid and shallow, and sigh a low, agonizing moan.

Considering that Fritz might be shot, a shiver of fear raced through Beyer at the prospect of a catastrophe. Without Fritz there may not be a tunnel completion, no one would get out, all the hard work done up to now remaining unfulfilled.

“Damn you! Stop!” the guard with the rifle shouted.

The shout startled Beyer, then he noticed Fritz beginning to take mincing steps, his short height straddling the wire in his crotch.

 

Okay, let’s get to work.

Usually first pages arrive naked and unadorned at TKZ, without genre or background information. Page One must stand entirely on its own. That’s good because a strong first page is critical to whether or not a reader buys your book.

However, this submission included a synopsis. And the synopsis was intriguing. For that reason, I’m going to handle this critique a little differently than normal.

Most writers would rather endure an IRS audit than write a synopsis because it’s damn hard to do well.

In the summary, Anon explained the novel was based on a true but largely-unknown incident during World War II at Camp Trinidad in Colorado. I Googled it and found this article. Essentially, The Great Escape got turned on its head with German prisoners of war trying to escape American captors.

Show, don’t tell is oft-repeated advice for fiction. However in a synopsis, telling is permissible because it’s the most efficient way to introduce characters, lay out the story problem/conflict, and set up what’s at stake.

Anon handled that summary very well. German prisoners plot to escape a POW camp in Colorado because they are going mad from wire enclosure fever. A main character, Beyer, would rather die than endure another day in captivity. But there is dissent among prisoners, some of whom are die-hard Nazis while others are not. There are additional complications because Beyer’s friend Fritz, the chief engineer in charge of building the escape tunnel, is teetering on the brink of insanity. Anon sets up external conflict between German prisoners and American captors and among the POWs themselves, internal conflict with severe psychological stress, and a ticking clock with a race to see if the tunnel can be finished before the engineer completely loses it.

Lots of great potential for a historical thriller. Congratulations on a clear, competent synopsis, Anon.

Unfortunately, on this first page, Anon is mostly telling when s/he should be showing.

The POV character Beyer observes the events unfolding not only from a physical distance but also an emotional distance. Anon tells us he’s concerned but the reader doesn’t feel his apprehension, his helplessness, his panic that Fritz’s actions may not only lead to his death but also ruin the escape plan that can’t proceed without him.

The stakes couldn’t be higher–life or death–which is a great way to kick off a first page.

But the problem is: the reader doesn’t care.

Because we’re not inside Beyer’s skin. We don’t feel his guts churning, smell the nervous sweat under his armpits, taste the bile rising in his throat. We don’t see what he sees—the madness in the wild eyes of his friend Fritz who’s trying to commit suicide. We don’t hear the angry bark of the guard with his twitchy finger on the trigger.

We don’t feel the urgency driving both men to risk death because they can’t endure another day in captivity.

Showing is more than visual—it must be visceral and emotional.

The synopsis used the term “wire enclosure fever.” Unfortunately there is no sense of  fever in this first page.

A few suggestions to consider as you rewrite:

Lead off with a simple dateline that immediately sets the date and location. The reader right away understands this is historical fiction set in a military environment. For example:

Camp Trinity, Colorado, 1943

Next, climb inside Beyer’s skin and stay there. Use sensory detail to bring action to life. Actions trigger Beyer’s thoughts and feelings.

As Jim Bell often recommends, “Act first, explain later.” Give the reader just enough information to set the scene and prevent confusion.

A lot of repetition can be cut and condensed. Consider the first two sentences:

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot.

These two sentences essentially repeat the same information that could be combined into a single sentence with much more punch. Again, it’s telling rather than showing. Instead of having Beyer “wonder” how to save Fritz, he should act. His action may help the situation or it may make it worse. But either way, it moves the story forward.

Every scene needs to accomplish at least five tasks:

  1. Set the scene;
  2. Reveal character;
  3. Introduce a problem or goal;
  4. Demonstrate the stakes if the problem is not solved or the goal is not met;
  5. Propel the action forward.

How do you build a compelling scene? By stringing together groups of sentences that accomplish these tasks.

How do you build a compelling book? By stringing together compelling scenes.

In a fast-paced thriller, each sentence must build on the previous one to push the plot forward. Treat each sentence as a springboard that induces the reader to jump to the next sentence to learn what’s going to happen.

Below is one possible way to rewrite this first page, using additional details gleaned from the linked article.

Captain Martin Beyer fastened the last button of the drab uniform shirt that shamed him every day with its PW insignia: “prisoner of war.” He stomped his feet on the wood steps of the officers barracks to knock the fine silt off his once-shiny Luftwaffe boots. Barbed wire surrounded this desolate, barren patch of dirt named Camp Trinity. On the fence, signs in German and English warned that anyone would be shot if they crossed the caution line, the restricted buffer zone that was fifteen feet inside the compound fence.

“Hey, Nazi, git back!”

The shout from the watchtower caught Beyer’s attention. He turned to see an American guard aiming a rifle at Beyer’s closest friend in the camp, Hans Fritz. The young second lieutenant had stepped beyond a wire stretched taut between wooden posts.

One foot over the caution line into the restricted zone.

Beyer’s gut cramped as he prayed his friend would heed the guard’s warning. Lately, he never knew if Fritz taunted the Americans for sport or if he truly sought death rather than endure another day inside the prison.

There was a wild gleam in Fritz’s wide blue eyes as he teetered on the line, one boot in life, the other in hell.

The metallic click of a breech bolt sounded from the opposite watchtower where another guard hunkered behind a machine gun. “Git back or I’ll shoot!”

“Don’t do it, Fritz,” Beyer muttered. If Fritz died, the escape tunnel plan died with him.

 

The above is about 230 words and conveys most of the same information more concisely plus gives a deeper glimpse into the POV character.

Work on sensory detail that draws the reader in. Let the reader see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the story world you’ve built.

Work on showing emotion and feelings in the POV character. It’s not enough to say he felt alarmed—show his alarm with his sensory reactions.

Examine each sentence. Ask yourself if it repeats information previously stated. If so, choose the strongest version and delete the weaker. Or combine two sentences into one.

Count how many of the five elements listed above are included in each sentence. I try to pack sentences with at least two elements, preferably more. When you compose a sentence, choose an action that reveals character as well as demonstrates the stakes. The consequences of that action either solve the problem or make it worse.

One last point: the title Heil Safari is vague and doesn’t hint at the meat of the story. “Heil” made me think of the Nazi salute so I deduced it took place during World War II. But how does that connect to “Safari”? Maybe refer to the escape tunnel to freedom. Or perhaps the perils that lie beyond the tunnel if they escape successfully. You can find a better title to convince a potential reader to click the “buy now” button.

Don’t be discouraged, Brave Author. You have a compelling storyline based on historical events that are not widely known. World War II history buffs will find this interesting. A strong foundation in fact serves as a solid platform on which to build your fictionalized version. Work on your craft and you should have a good book.

Over to you, TKZers. Suggestions and comments for our Brave Anonymous Author?

 

If you’re a member of Amazon Prime, you can read Debbie Burke’s bestselling thriller Instrument of the Devil for free. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

 

3+

You Control the Action – Make It Flow Without Distractions – First Page Critique – In Vitro

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Another intrepid author has submitted their 400-word introduction to their work-in-progress for feedback. Please read and enjoy. Provide your constructive criticism in your comments. Thank you, my TKZ family.

***

The simple action of opening a door made Axel Chadwick an accomplice to murder.

The day of the shooting wasn’t supposed to be a normal day, but it didn’t feel like it was going to be a bad one. As usual, his eyes burned from reading a paper on his tablet titled The Further Evidence of Botanic Life Benefits on Astro-based Laboratories nearly too fast to comprehend. Striding through the busiest atrium at Invitron meant he’d bump into someone while trying to avoid someone else, and after planting on a fourteen-year old’s foot and nearly dropping his tablet, he decided to take a different route to his examination room.

Empty, he could sway without worry and delve further into his text. The soft patter of rain against the windows were interrupted by frantic bangs on the door a few feet away. A boy stood outside it. “Oi, let me in! I’m locked out!”

Axel glanced past him to see nothing but dark clouds over the beach through the window before returning back to his text. “Use the fingerprint scanner like you’re supposed to.”

“The rain—it’s short circuited it,” he cried, muffled through the glass. “I’m going to be late to my exam!”

He should have asked his name, what class he was in, which exam he had to take, and who his department head was so he could verify it, because even though no intruder had gotten onto the island before, it was the rules not to let anyone in.

A good question to ask him would have been: why on earth were you out in the pouring rain on the day of your exam instead of preparing. But he didn’t ask anything. Instead, one of his lanky arms propped up his tablet, the other pushed open the door, and his eyes were too buried in his screen to see if the boy was even a student.

The windowed-hallway was far behind him when Autumn caught up, pulling the pegs from her glasses out of her knotted hair. “Ready?”

Axel read the last sentence and then powered down his tablet, pulling its handle out of its top, and carrying it to his side. “Of course. You?”

“As much as I can be.”

***

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – This reads as if the story could be ripped from the headlines if the author intends this to be about a school shooting and an unauthorized entry on campus. To pull that off effectively, I would recommend the author stick to the action of the story and avoid diverging into back story or slowing the pace with actions not related to this intrusion. More details below.

FIRST TWO SENTENCES – The first sentence foreshadows what is coming, but it’s a head fake. I believe the author intended to force a compelling first line, but since it’s written in hindsight and quickly shifts into tedious details that slow the pace, it detracts rather than helps the pace and add to the intrigue. That first line might be more compelling if the author had stuck to the action and added that line to a scene ending, when Axel realizes what he’s done.

Any momentum from that first line is quickly diffused by a redirection into the POV of a student reading something on a laptop who reminiscences about the day as if he’s seeing it in hindsight with THIS line – The day of the shooting wasn’t supposed to be a normal day, but it didn’t feel like it was going to be a bad one. This line serves no purpose and is confusing. It should be deleted.

POV – I’m not sure why Axel is chosen as the POV, except that the author has probably given him a starring role as the main protag. I wonder how this intro might read if the POV came from the shooter gaining illegal access to the school, but let’s focus on Axel. If the action started with Axel racing through the school, against a clock, the author could set the stage better by focusing on Axel careening through the corridors, bumping into students and nearly dropping his laptop before he sees the kid pounding at the door in the rain. He knows he shouldn’t open the door (minimize his awareness of rules until later), but he tries to be a good guy and makes the mistake.

Give the shooter distinctive clothes that Axel realizes later is the guy he let into the building. Does the shooting start right away? Does the shooter do anything to let Axel realize he might’ve made a mistake? Does Axel see his face? There needs to be more tension in this gesture of opening a door, rather than Axel “telling” the reader that what he’d done was wrong. Following the action of Axel opening the door, he immediately gets back into his exam as he runs into Autumn. This diverts attention and adds to the slow pace.

STICK WITH THE ACTION – If the intruder to campus is a big deal, the author should focus on it as it happens and as the guy enters the premises. Instead we have Axel and Autumn talking about their test and if they studied enough.

AXEL’s AGE/STUDENT STATUS – I’m assuming that Axel is a student and not a teacher, although that is never really shown. Since Axel shows poor judgment in letting the student in and his mind sounds like the workings of a distracted teenager, but it’s not truly spelled out until he talks to Autumn. That point could be clearer, earlier.

DESCRIPTION OF ACTION – To give the illusion of pace, the author should give a better description of Axel’s scattered race through the halls. The original line below is too long. He’s also “striding” which is calm, but he is only thinking about “bumping into someone while trying to avoid someone else,” an awkward and distant way of describing the action. He comes across as too methodical in his run for his exam room.

BEFORE – Striding through the busiest atrium at Invitron meant he’d bump into someone while trying to avoid someone else, and after planting on a fourteen-year old’s foot and nearly dropping his tablet, he decided to take a different route to his examination room.

AFTER – Axel dodged bodies as he ran through the hectic atrium of Invitron. He careened through the horde of students with sweat running down his temple, Axel had one eye on the obstacles and the other on his open laptop. After he stumbled over a freshman, he nearly dropped his laptop.

“Eyes open, fish.” With his chest heaving, he darted by the bumbling kid without looking back.

Axel kept his eyes glued to the screen, studying with every second he had before his exam started.

CONTROL THE SETTING – Setting can add tension to any scene. In this intro, the author chose a soft patter of rain, against a frantic bang on the door. The sense of urgency is deflated if the rain isn’t a deluge. Since an author controls the setting, make it rain harder, where Axel feels badly for the drenched kid outside. Or have the intruder hold up his computer, saying it will be damaged, so Axel can relate to helping him.

CONTRADICTIONS – In this paragraph below, Axel is asking himself questions on why the kid is out in the “pouring rain” (that was previously described as a soft patter), but then Axel shows no regard as he lets the guy into the building without even looking at him. It’s not consistent if he has all these questions but his actions show indifference. Pick a perspective and do it for the betterment of the story.

EXAMPLE – A good question to ask him would have been: why on earth were you out in the pouring rain on the day of your exam instead of preparing. But he didn’t ask anything. Instead, one of his lanky arms propped up his tablet, the other pushed open the door, and his eyes were too buried in his screen to see if the boy was even a student.

This introduction needs work in order to make it consistent, descriptive with action, and focus on a foreshadowing of things to come. If the author’s intent is to focus on Axel and his studious world, that can be accomplished by endearing  him more to the reader, so when a fake student gets him to open a security door, the reader is rooting for him. But the author would need to get deeply into Axel overachieving head and give him some traits we can identify with. Opening a door to a drenched student might be understandable if the proper groundwork is set up. Don’t foreshadow that Axel knew all the rules and still ignored them. Have him be well-meaning and let the action unfold as he is duped. That would be another way to go.

DISCUSSION:

What do you think TKZers? Would you read more? What helpful feedback would you give this author?

 

3+

Setting Can Add Tension – Use it – First Page Critique: Dancing with the Well-Bred Devil

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

By Usien – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22220725

I will be traveling today for a bit of sun and fun. I’ll try to pop back when I can…IF I CAN. For my post, I offer the work of a gutsy anonymous submitter for a first page critique. I’ll have my feedback below. Please add to the conversation with your constructive comments so we can help this author with suggestions for him or her to consider.

The submitter added this insight into their work:

This is a murder mystery set in the early 1990s that digs into the dark, unseemly corners of academia where moral corruption and the abuse of power hide.

***

Club Orleans,
Sayreville, NJ
As Megan completed her sinuous corkscrew down the pole she saw him—Professor D.B., the last person she ever hoped to encounter here.

Holy. Fricking. Hell. She released the pole and strutted across the stage away from him, forced on her most seductive stage face, and hoped it hid the rush of fear that filled her stomach to overflowing. She managed to resist covering her all-but-naked breasts.

Her mind flooded with the image of the Psych Department chair dressing her down before sliding the letter across his pompous desk, the letter that would explain that she’d been kicked out of the grad program, and that she might as well pack up her apartment and move back to Gump-ville, Indiana, to the welcoming jeers of everyone who’d ever warned that she was too big for her britches. But it was the thought that followed that made her shudder—the thought of what good old D.B. might propose to keep his silence.

He couldn’t have recognized me. When she started dancing again, she’d gone to great lengths to morph her appearance—heavy make-up, huge eighties hair, costuming—and to transform her persona from Miss Quiet-Studious. Considering she only worked at clubs at least a half-hour from campus (and avoided the elite establishments altogether), she was certain she’d never see anyone from the program. Her transformation was good insurance nonetheless.

As she latched onto the life-preserver thought that D.B. couldn’t have recognized her, the fear dissipated. But what was he doing here? Look, make a last round and call it a night. Stay in persona and treat him like any other customer.

She worked her way around the rectangular bar that surrounded the stage, her nerves increasing proportionally as the number of bills in the elastic of her G-string grew. The whole time, she felt D.B.’s eyes crawling over her body. She suppressed another shudder.

And then she was facing him. “I hope you enjoyed my show.” She tried to keep the right level of sultry in her voice.

“Oh, it was . . . eye-opening, despite how much I missed.” D.B.’s eyes bored into her as he dangled a ten.” Miss . . . ?”

And in those eyes was the damning truth—he recognized her.

FEEDBACK

There is definitely a disturbance happening for Megan. Nothing like an unexpected visitor to your place of employment to rattle you, especially when you are half-naked and plying your best moves on a stripper pole. It’s hard to imagine why a graduate student would be stripping. The money must be good or she must be desperate for funds.

To have a professor be the one to find her is a solid set up. I don’t know why Megan calls him Professor D.B. by his initials for the reader. Why not just say his name since she’s in her head? I had to reread to see if DB is the chair of the Psych department and assumed DB wasn’t the big kahuna. I liked that the author didn’t drift into back story and stay there until the face off when Megan sees in his eyes that he recognizes her, but there is enough back story and “slow the pace” explanations that divert the reader’s attention from Megan’s mortifying moment of being recognized by someone from her graduate program.

This is definitely a page turner, but I would like to offer a few tidbits for the author to consider, to add layers to this intro. The writing is a little sparse and more can be woven into this intro to give a feel for how much Megan has at stake.

GENRE – If I only had this intro as a peek at the genre, I would’ve thought it to be a Harlequin Romance. There’s a hint of humor to Megan as a feisty heroine working her way through her graduate program. Is DB a soon-to-be love interest or a dastardly villain will to blackmail her into his sexual demands? What conflict would they have to sustain a whole novel? From this set up, I don’t know.

From the set up the anonymous author sent with the submission, we see that this is a murder mystery set in the 1990s and it’s about moral corruption and abuse of power in the academic world, but that’s not the feel of this intro. If Megan will be blackmailed by DB to keep her secret in exchange for sexual favors that will grow into a murder, then I would suggest the author layer in more mystery and the threat of coercion to this piece. The reader needs to see Megan’s fear and vulnerability at getting caught and her willingness to do anything to keep her secret. Beyond this short intro, the reader would need to feel her shame if her mother found out, or how her career plans would be dashed.

Words like “Gump-ville Indiana” and “too big for her britches” and “eighties hair” are meant for cliched humor. If this is not the intention with the rest of the story line, then why begin the book with implied humor?

SETTING – I like the world building of a good setting. It doesn’t have to be drawn out or slow the pace, but an effective setting can add to the emotional aspects of the scene. In this intro, I wonder if the setting can be an element of mystery to draw the reader into the scene, where it’s not completely clear where Megan is. The phrase “sinuous corkscrew down the pole” is a dead giveaway where she is and what she’s doing, but what if the description is vague and develops into something more as a tease. (The sample rewrite below was written hastily by me to illustrate the point of focusing on Megan, avoiding back story and adding more of a threat from DB. I’m sure the anonymous author could do better.)

SAMPLE REWRITE WITH MORE SETTING AND LESS BACK STORY

Through the blinding lights of the small stage, Megan caught a familiar silhouette—a tall man standing in the shadows apart from the rest. Something triggered a memory and made her think of him, but he vanished as soon as his face came into her mind. Spirals of smoke clouded the air as she moved and the music built to a crescendo. Her big finish would be next. Her fake eyelashes made it harder to search the crowd for the last person she expected to see.

Please…it can’t be him.

She strayed from her usual routine to stay in the murky corners near the velvet curtain and worked the edge of the stage until she felt the heat off the horde of faceless patrons and heard the low grumbles from her regulars. Megan couldn’t avoid her big finale. She had a reputation to uphold, but as she strutted across the stage and into the spotlight toward the shiny brass stripper pole, she sensed the laser heat off his eyes—Professor D.B. from her Psych department graduate program.

He’d stepped closer to the stage—and her.

After she turned her back on him and reached for the brass pole, she hoisted her body into her signature spiral that had the men hollering for more. With every turn and every impossible stretch of her limber body, she searched the shadows and hoped the professor hadn’t recognized her. She had troweled on enough makeup where her own sweet mother wouldn’t recognize her.

Her future, everything she had worked for, would be riding on whether she had only imagined Professor D. B. in the front row. Adrenaline raged through her body as heat flushed to her cheeks. Oh, God, please no.

OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS THAT MIGHT ENHANCE INTRO – Here are a few questions that came to my mind that may keep the focus on Megan and the tension, rather than dipping a toe into back story. The back story is sparingly used, but it’s there. It starts in the 3rd paragraph and is threaded through as Megan thinks of the ramifications of getting caught because D.B. might recognize her.

With open-ended, the author can put his or her take on the answers that might make it into a rewrite, to put their own spin on the story. I’ve found that by offering open-ended questions, the author usually comes back with something far better than my rewrite. It’s their story and their characters.

1.) When Megan spots D.B., is she upside down or spinning on a pole with stage lights? This would make it harder for her to see him clearly. She’d have to change her routine to peer through the silhouettes of men and hands touching her costume. It could add to the tension if she catches a glimpse of him, but he disappears–or build up her stress as she sees a familiar face without letting the reader know who she spots until the last minute.

2.) Does she change her routine because she’s afraid of taking off everything if it’s him? Or maybe she does awkward poses to get a better look at the crowd, like looking between her legs upside down. How do patrons of the club react as she changes her routine?

3.) What does the club look like, smell like? Setting might add to her stress if it’s the same “grind” – pardon the pun.

HOUSEKEEPING

In the sentences below, there are words to clean up. I’m not trying to offer different writing. I’d like to use the author’s words to start and clean up from there. I don’t begin sentences with “And,” don’t embed dialogue lines within a paragraph, and try to build stronger sentences and delete uses of “was.”

BEFORE

And then she was facing him. “I hope you enjoyed my show.” She tried to keep the right level of sultry in her voice.

“Oh, it was . . . eye-opening, despite how much I missed.” D.B.’s eyes bored into her as he dangled a ten.” Miss . . . ?”

And in those eyes was the damning truth—he recognized her.

AFTER

“I hope you enjoyed the show.” She fought to sound sultry as she came face-to-face with him.

“Oh, it was…eye opening, despite how much I missed.” DB’s eyes drilled into her as he dangled a ten. “Miss…?”

In his eyes were the damning truth. He recognized her.

Thanks to the author for their submission. I wish you luck on your project. For discussion, please comment with your feedback. Thank you.

1.) Is this a page turning submission for you?

2.) What suggestions would you make for this author?

3.) Bonus points for PUNS in your comments.

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Where to Start Your Story – First Page Critique – “Harm to Come”

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Below is an anonymous submission of the first 400 words of a brave author’s work in progress. Read and enjoy. My feedback is on the flip side. Please comment with your constructive criticism. Thank you.

***

On the floor. Broken and alone.

The image had haunted Kit Paterson’s mind for days. No one should die alone.

Viewing Rachel’s crumpled body in her head was harsh enough. Seeing it for real would have been unbearable. Rachel, neighbor and friend, had been thirty-two, eighteen years younger than Kit.

A dog’s sudden barking sent Kit to the windows of her dinette. It wasn’t MuMu’s usual bark. This howl sounded angry.

Kit knew MuMu’s owners weren’t home. She peeked through the blinds to the backyard beside hers. While searching for the Bogarts’ shepherd-lab in the near-darkness, she noticed the next house over, Rachel’s house. A glow came from the living room in back. Kit was certain she’d turned off all lights after boxing Rachel’s possessions for the day. Apparently she hadn’t. She grabbed her keys from the kitchen counter.

Beneath a streetlight, Kit smelled the aroma of smoke in the brisk October wind. She smiled. Smoke from someone’s chimney made autumn official. She wrapped her cardigan close.

MuMu’s frenzied yowls continued.

Feral cats must be prowling the woods, Kit thought. Or maybe coyotes again. She increased her speed.

As she approached Rachel’s one-story home, brightness from the windows on each side of the battered front door caught her attention. The radiance wasn’t steady like a lamp’s. This light danced.

Fire!

Kit snatched her phone from a sweater pocket. She punched 911. The operator asked, “What is your emergency?” Kit shouted the situation.

A drought had dogged Atlanta since spring. What if the fire jumped to the Bogart’s property? To the woods? To the neighborhood behind? The fire station was only a mile away, but she couldn’t wait. MuMu agreed.

Kit tore across Rachel’s lawn, past the garage, toward the rear of the house, where she collided with two people dressed in black. The taller one shoved Kit away. He and the shorter figure dashed to the road.

Kit stood stunned, until the stench of smoke slapped her awake. She ran to the patio off the living room.

A coiled garden hose laid below a faucet, unattached. Kit’s fingers trembled as she placed its end to the spigot. After several attempts, she connected the fittings and spun the faucet wheel to the left. The smell of burning wood and fabric began to overwhelm. Kit covered her nose and mouth with a hand while MuMu crashed against the chain-link fence, raising holy-hell.

FEEDBACK:

I had to reread this one a few times before I got the picture of the action. The brief memory and back story introduction of Rachel’s death had me following a path in the action until I realized there had been a detour back to a barking dog and something happening next door. One of the best tips I ever received from another author—and I’ve certainly read about this tip here at TKZ—is to “Stick with the action.”

The brief flashback to the body of Rachel is too important to gloss over and it’s a distraction from what’s happening in the present. It reads like the dead body is immediately on the page until the reader finds out this is a flashback and back story at the same time. I almost want this story to start with the body and how Kit discovers her dead neighbor. That would sure raise the hair on my neck if the author can put the reader in the moment. Very creepy.

This submission doesn’t do that. It quickly jumps into a dog barking and a fire starting next door, another good place to start. Either could be pulled off effectively, but the combination of both of them gives me the feeling that this intro is rushed and neither approach has enough meat on the bone, so let’s flesh this out.

DEAD BODY START – If the author moved the start of this story back to when Kit first discovers her neighbor Rachel’s dead body, there would need to be a setting established to put the reader into it. Why had Kit gone next door? When did it start to get creepy and why? Picture a harmless reason to call on a neighbor until Kit sees a door cracked open. Stick with the action and draw the reader into every aspect of that frightening experience. Did she scare off the killer? How much did she see of the body?

From there, where would the author go? Kit questioned by detectives, reporters, and the intrusion into Kit’s life. What does it feel like to find a body of someone you knew well and considered a friend? Kit’s reaction might cause her to overreact when a dog barks the next night and she runs to find the house on fire.

The bottom line is that this story seems to have a beginning off the page and only hinted at in the first few lines. That raised questions with me as a crime novel reader. I wanted to know what Kit saw? The dog barking and the fire can be exciting, but what happened to Rachel?

DOG BARKING/FIRE START – If the author decides to start the story at the first sound of a dog barking, that can work, especially if when Kit goes to check on the fire, she finds Rachel’s dead body and the shadow of someone running from the house. Then it would be OFF TO THE RACES.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SETTING – Whether the author chooses to go with the dog barking or the dead body to start this novel, setting can help to titillate the reader’s senses and give meat to the bones of this introduction. This intro is a little sparse for me. Try answering these questions by writing a solution into the introduction and see how much better it will read. It’s important to tease the reader with all their senses to put them into the scene.

Setting Questions:

  • What time of day is it? The first hint of time is in the 5th paragraph where the author references it’s “near-darkness.” We have control over every aspect of this scene. Why not pick total darkness? Anyone setting fire to a house would want to do it under cover of darkness.
  • What is the weather? In the paragraph starting with “Beneath a streetlight,” there’s mention of a brisk October wind. Instead of making this fact add to the mood of the scene and foreshadow what’s coming, the author made the choice for Kit to smell wood burning in a fireplace and it made her feel good. So picture a cold wind making Kit think twice about going outside. It makes her uncomfortable and forces her to bundle up. She’s already at odds with the weather, but her curiosity outweighs the biting chill.
  • What does Rachel’s house look like? Does it foreshadow what Kit might find? If Kit found a body there, going back would make her relive the shock. How would that make her feel? A house where good memories used to be might be cast into a sinister feel if Kit found Rachel dead inside.
  • How does the barking dog react when Kit approaches? If Kit’s going because she’s worried about the strangeness of the dog’s bark, how does the dog react as she approaches? A frenzied dog yapping would put me on edge and cause my adrenaline to hit the red zone, especially if I thought someone lurked inside.
  • How can the setting layer in the feeling of anticipation that something bad is about to happen? Make the reader feel the ramped up tension by layering the dread of something about to happen. Hitchcock was a master at building the anticipation of something bad. He knew how to build and layer. Once the reader (or moviegoer) saw what was behind the door, the tension was gone.

TENSION-FILLED DIALOGUE – Kit is alone for this intro, except for when she calls 911. Instead of focusing on Kit’s side of the call, while she’s frightened and unsure what to say, the author only writes what the calm dispatcher says, “What is your emergency?”

The author also uses a “telling” way to express Kit’s emotion by saying ‘Kit shouted the situation.’ Showing is a more effective way to get the reader engaged and have a visceral reaction to the action in the scene.

Imagine what Kit is feeling and how she might report the fire or a dead body. Her heart would be racing, her adrenaline would be off the charts, and she’d be panting as she tried to find her thoughts. She might speak in short spurts and stumble over words or ramble. What the author envisions for this scene, focus on the most emotional aspect of it—that’s Kit.

PLAUSIBLE ACTION – Toward the end of this intro, Kit encounters two people dressed in black. One of them shoves her. Instead of Kit being fearful of these two people, she races for a garden hose. That didn’t seem rational to me. If I ran into two people who obviously were up to no good, I would be afraid for my life. I wouldn’t be worried about a garden hose. Let the firemen do their job with their big hoses. (Everyone knows they have big hoses.) How gutsy does the author want Kit to be? Does she fight these people? Chase them? There are options for her behavior, but grabbing the garden might be last on Kit’s list if she is a gutsy, smart character.

For Discussion:

  • What constructive feedback would you give to this author, TKZ?

The Darkness Within Him – $1.99 Ebook

FBI Profiler Ryker Townsend is a rising star at Quantico, but he has a dark secret. When he sleeps, he sees nightmarish visions through the eyes of the dead, the last images imprinted on their retinas. After he agrees to help Jax Malloy with a teenage runaway, he senses the real damage in Bram Cross. Ryker must recreate the boy’s terror in painful detail—and connect to the dead—to uncover buried secrets in the splintered psyche of a broken child.

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A Fond Farewell from Jodie Renner – and links to Jodie’s Top TKZ Posts

Jodie Renner, editor & author, @JodieRennerEdJodie_June 26, '14_7371_low res_centred

It’s with mixed feelings that I bid a fond farewell to The Kill Zone. I started guest blogging here in November 2012, then officially joined the team in early October 2013. It’s been a lot of fun and a real honor to be part of this talented team for the past few years, and I hope I’ve made some meaningful contributions, including setting up the TKZ library. (Click on the TKZ Library link above to check out many TKZ posts, categorized by topic.)

I’m also pleased to have brought in as guest bloggers several friends who are also bestselling authors, including Robert Dugoni, Steven James, Allison Brennan, LJ Sellers, and Allan Leverone, as well as award-winning blogger and humorous fiction writer, Anne R. Allen.

Scroll down to see links to my most popular TKZ posts.

I’m now looking forward to a new phase in my life. I’m in my 60s now and recently moved closer to my family and roots, in the gorgeous Okanagan Valley, in beautiful British Columbia, Canada, with its mild climate, long lakes surrounded by low mountains and hills, and verdant fields covered with fruit orchards and vineyards – not to mention world-class wineries.

Okanagan valley

Canada’s Okanagan Valley

After many years of feeling exiled in Eastern Canada, it’s great to be back “home.” I’m already getting involved in a lot of local activities, including recently presenting at an excellent writers’ festival in the north Okanagan (Word on the Lake), setting up a series of workshops on various topics for local writers and aspiring authors, and helping organize a regional writers’ festival for next spring.

IMG_6836_trim

Word on the Lake, May 2015

After being practically chained to my computer for the past eight years, editing novels and writing my craft-of-writing guides, it’s time for me to to get away from spending so much time at my computer — I want to get out and enjoy life more, stay active, get fit, and slim down. I’m cutting way back on my editing and have already started walking, hiking, and dancing a few times a week. Basically, I’m transitioning from “living large” to “living local,” and my new focus is toward looking after my fitness level and social life too, not just my mind. Of course, I’ll always love reading good books and will continue to support authors!

I’ll continue to follow this excellent, award-winning blog, and have been told I’m welcome as a guest blogger any time, so you may see future posts by me here occasionally. And I’m thrilled with the choice of my replacement – the dynamic, knowledgeable Larry Brooks, the Storyfixer! I know he’ll add a lot of value to this already popular, highly rated blog.

IMG_6957

My 26-year-old son, who is visiting for a week from Europe where he’s doing a master’s degree, had a great suggestion for my last post on TKZ – to include some links from my previous craft-of-writing posts here. So below are links to many of my posts from this blog, listed from oldest to most recent. And at the bottom you’ll find links to my books, my websites, and my own little blog, where I will continue to post occasionally.

LINKS TO MANY OF JODIE RENNER’S CRAFT-OF-WRITING POSTS HERE ON TKZ:

~ Writing Tense Action Scenes

When your characters are running for their lives, it’s time to write tight and leave out a lot of description, especially little insignificant details about their surroundings. Characters on the run don’t have time to admire the scenery or décor, start musing about a moment in the past, or have great long thoughts or discussions. Their adrenaline is pumping and all they’re thinking of is survival – theirs and/or someone else’s. …

~ Impart Info with Attitude – Strategies for Turning Impersonal Info Dumps into Compelling Copy

As a freelance fiction editor, I find that military personnel, professionals, academics, police officers, and others who are used to imparting factual information in objective, detached, bias-free ways often need a lot of coaching in loosening up their language and adding attitude and emotions to create a captivating story world. Really need those facts in there? Rewrite with attitude! …

~ Checklist for Adding Suspense & Intrigue to Your Story

Writing a Killer Thriller_May '13Here’s a handy checklist for ratcheting up the tension and suspense of your novel or short story. Use as many of these elements and devices as possible to increase the “wow” factor of your fiction. …

~ Phrasing for Immediacy and Power

Have you ever been engrossed in a novel, reading along, when you hit a blip that made you go “huh?” or “why?” for a nanosecond? Then you had to reread the sentence to figure out what’s going on? Often, it’s because actions are written in a jumbled-up or reversed order, rather than the order they occurred. Do this too often, and your readers will start getting annoyed. …

~ Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details

… In order for your story and characters to come to life on the page, your readers need to be able see what the main character is seeing, hear what he’s hearing, and smell, taste and feel along with him. …

~ Don’t Stop the Story to Introduce Each Character

Imagine you’ve just met someone for the first time, and after saying hello, they corral you and go into a long monologue about their childhood, upbringing, education, careers, relationships, plans, etc. You keep nodding as you glance around furtively, trying to figure out how to extricate yourself from this self-centered boor. You don’t even know this person, so why would you care about all these details at this point? …

~ 10 Ways to Add Depth to Your Scenes

… Besides advancing the storyline, scenes should: reveal and deepen characters and their relationships; show setting details; provide any necessary background info (in a natural way, organic to the story); add tension and conflict; hint at dangers and intrigue to come; and generally enhance the overall tone and mood of your story. …

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silvers~ Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude & Immediacy

… Showing your character’s immediate thought-reactions is a great way to let the readers in on what your character is really thinking about what’s going on, how they’re reacting inside, often in contrast to how they’re acting outwardly. …

~ Fire up Your Fiction with Foreshadowing

… Foreshadowing is about sprinkling in subtle little hints and clues as you go along about possible revelations, complications, and trouble to come. It incites curiosity, anticipation, and worry in the readers, which is exactly what you want. …

~ Nail it with Just the Right Word

To set the mood of a scene in your story, bring the characters to life, and engage readers in their world and their plight, it’s critical to choose just the right nuance of meaning to fit the character, action, and situation. …

~ Looking for an editor? Check them out very carefully!

An incident happened to me recently that got me thinking about all the pitfalls that aspiring authors face today when seeking professional assistance to get their books polished and ready to self-publish or send to agents. …

~ Tips for Loosening up Your Writing

As a freelance editor, I’ve received fiction manuscripts from lots of professionals, and for many of these clients, whose report-writing skills are well-researched, accurate and precise, my editing often focuses on helping them relax their overly correct writing style.

Captivate Your Readers_med~ How to save a bundle on editing costs – without sacrificing quality

below you’ll find lots of advice for significantly reducing your editing costs, with additional links at the end to concrete tips for approaching the revision process and for reducing your word count without losing any of the good stuff.  …

~ Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner

… Today’s readers have shorter attention spans and so many more books to choose from. Most of them/us don’t have the time or patience for the lengthy descriptive passages, long, convoluted “literary” sentences, detailed technical explanations, author asides, soap-boxing, or the leisurely pacing of fiction of 100 years ago. …

~ 15 Questions for Your Beta Readers – And to Focus Your Own Revisions

…To avoid generic (and generally useless) responses like “I liked it,” “It was good,” or “It was okay,” it’s best to guide your volunteer readers with specific questions. …

~ Dialogue Nuts & Bolts

The basics of writing dialogue in fiction: paragraphing, punctuation, capitalization, etc.

~ 12 Essential Steps from Story Idea to Publish-Ready Novel

… If you want your novel, novella, or short story to intrigue readers and garner great reviews, use these 12 steps to guide you along at each phase of the process: …

~ 12 Tips for Writing Blog Posts That Get Noticed

Blogging is a great way to build a community feeling, connect with readers and writers, and get your books noticed. …But if you’re just getting started in the world of blogging and want to build a following, it’s all about offering the readers value in an open, accessible style and format.

~ Creating a Scene Outline for Your Novel

… The outline below will help you organize your scenes and decide if any of them need to be moved, revised, amped up, or cut. …

~ 25 Tips for Writing a Winning Short Story

Writing short stories is a great way to test the waters of fiction without making a huge commitment, or to experiment with different genres, characters, settings, and voices. And due to the rise in e-books and e-magazines, length is no longer an issue for publication, so there’s a growing market for short fiction. …

Three articles on point of view in fiction, with an emphasis on close third-person viewpoint (deep POV). Includes examples.

~ POV 101: Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There (for most of the novel)

~ POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping

~ POV 103 – Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View

 

~ Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)

How to format your manuscript before sending it to an editor or publishing.

Quick Clicks_Word Usage_Precise Choices~ Just the Right Word is Only a Click Away

How are your word usage and spelling skills? Try this quiz to find out.  …

~ Tricks and Tips for Catching All Those Little Typos in Your Own Work

Tips for fooling your brain into thinking your story is something new, something you need to read critically and revise ruthlessly before it reaches the demanding eyes of a literary agent, acquiring editor, contest judge, or picky reviewer.

~ Don’t Muddle Your Message

… Wordiness muddles your message, slows down the momentum, and drags an anchor through the forward movement of your story. It also reduces tension, anticipation, and intrigue, all essential for keeping readers glued to your book. …

~ How to Reach More Readers with Your Writing

15 tips for clear, concise, powerful writing …

~ Make Sure Your Characters Act in Character

Do your characters’ decisions and actions seem realistic and authentic? …

~ Create a Fascinating, Believable Antagonist

For a riveting story, be sure to challenge your hero – or heroine – to the max. …

~ How are short stories evaluated for publication or awards?

What are some of the common criteria used by publications and contests when evaluating short story submissions?

~ Critical Scenes Need Nail-Biting Details

… for significant scenes where your character is trying to escape confinement or otherwise fight for his life, be sure you don’t skip over the details. If it’s a life-or-death moment, show every tiny movement, thought, and action. …

And one more: Writers’ Conferences & Book Festivals in North America in 2015. Over 125 conferences & festivals across North America, listed by date, with links to their websites.

I look forward to connecting with you all again here, as well as on Facebook and Twitter — and maybe at some writers’ conferences! Keep on writing!

Jodie Renner, a former English teacher and school librarian with a master’s degree, is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Click HERE to sign up for Jodie’s occasional newsletter, and be among the first to know about any new releases.

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Exploiting Strengths and Weaknesses

Hawk

(Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

I never really paid much attention to birds until I met and married my wife Lisa. She is — and there is no other way to put it — obsessed with birds. We have hard drives figuratively bursting at the seams (and backed up, of course) with photographs of grackles, canaries, yellow whatever’s, and red these or those. While I have been observing her interest, and the subject of same, the area in which we live has experienced a marked increase in the presence of hawks. The reason doesn’t take an understanding of the nuts and bolts of nuclear propulsion to understand. We have what I will politely call more than our fair share of Canadian geese in our locale (which is not, I hasten to add, in Canada). The eggs of Canadian geese are considered by hawks to be a delicacy, in the same way that I regard the presence of a Tim Horton’s, Sonic, IHOP, or Cracker Barrel. The attitude of a hawk toward a goose egg could best be summed up by the statement, “If you lay it, I will come.” Or something like that.

Hawks will of course eat other things as well, and I’ve had opportunity to see them in the act of catch-and-not-release prey on a number of occasions. What they do is fairly highly evolved. If they catch a ground animal, they immediately take it into the air, where it is helpless and cannot run away. If they catch a bird, they bring it to ground, where it is at a disadvantage, and pin it so that it cannot fly away, while they kill it. One could say that a hawk is at a disadvantage on the ground, but I haven’t noticed squirrels, chipmunks, cats, or even other birds coming to the aid of one of their fellow and less fortunate creatures as the hawk goes about its business. No, things get really quiet for a while as the hawk exploits the weakness of its dinner.

Successful genre fiction utilizes the exploitation of strengths and weakness to succeed as well. This is particularly true when the author takes a personality trait that might, and indeed would, be considered a virtue and exploits it. We have a real world model for that, as well. Think of Ted Bundy. Those of us who are raised to be kind and polite and to assist others in need instinctively hold a door for the elderly or the infirm or pull down a top shelf grocery item for someone in a wheelchair. Bundy knew this and would wear a cast or walk on crutches while carrying a package to attract unsuspecting women. There’s a word for that: monster. But he was very, very good at it, and turned a virtue into a fatal weakness. Those who prey on children frequently do so with the premise of seeking assistance with locating a lost dog. What could be more heartwarming than reuniting a dog lover with his pet? Children are inclined to help, especially when it comes to dogs and such, and it’s a virtue that a parent would want to cultivate, but also to curb.

In the world of fiction, however, exploiting weaknesses of this type makes for a great story, and not just for mysteries or thrillers, either. Many science fiction novels and stories sprung from a seed of an advanced civilization bringing advancement to a primitive, or weaker, one with the best of intentions. Disaster inevitably ensued, for one side, or the other, or both. James Tiptree, Jr., was a master of this type of situation, as was the original Star Trek series. Romance novels? Think of a woman who is physically attractive to the extent that no one will approach her, out of fear of rejection. That idea has launched a thousand books and will undoubtedly launch a thousand more before this sentence is completed. As for mysteries and thrillers, the possibilities are endless and replicable: think of a strength, or a virtue, and find a weak spot to exploit. Create an antagonist to probe it and you’re on your way.

Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley comes to my mind most immediately as someone who was excellent at exploiting the best of others. Who comes to yours?

And…I would be remiss if I did not wish a Happy Mother’s Day tomorrow to those among our readers who celebrate the event . Bless you. You are the best.

 

 

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Critical Scenes Need Nail-Biting Details

Captivate Your Readers_medJodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

For mundane scenes, it’s best to spare readers the details. We don’t need to know that your character got up, showered, dressed and had toast and eggs before heading off to work. Yawn.

On the other hand, when it comes to significant scenes where your character is trying to escape confinement or otherwise fight for his life, be sure you don’t skip over the details. If it’s a life-or-death moment, show every tiny movement, thought, and action. To increase tension, suspense, and intrigue, milk those crucial scenes for all they’re worth.

Below are some “before” examples, inspired by passages I’ve edited. In each example, including additional detail, such as emotions, physical sensations, and reactions, would be much more effective in bringing the scene to life and keeping readers on the edge of their seats.

I’ve quickly created a possible “after” example for each one to illustrate what I mean, but I’m sure you can do even better.

Setup: Escaping from an insane asylum.

Before:

Harley whispered, “I managed to lift the keys. Four in the morning. Get through the woods. I’ll be waiting in a car on the other side.”

Jennifer didn’t sleep at all that night. Four a.m. couldn’t come soon enough. Harley had chosen that time because it was the morning shift change, when the attendants met to discuss what patient problems to look for. After they had settled into the cafeteria, Jennifer ran to the supply room that had an exit door at the other end. The keys worked perfectly, and she was out behind the hospital in less than a minute.

That was way too easy for suspense fiction. Nothing went wrong! Yawn. Let’s try that again:

After:

Harley whispered, “I managed to lift the keys to the supply room. Inside the room, there’s an exit door that leads to the backyard. Do it at four in the morning. It’s shift change, and they’ll all be meeting to discuss the patients. Get through the woods. I’ll be waiting in a car on the other side.”

Jennifer didn’t sleep at all that night. At four a.m., she threw on a robe and crept toward the supply room, flattening herself against the walls and ducking into doorways. She peeked around the last corner. Damn. An orderly was coming out of the supply room carrying towels. Jennifer ducked her head back and hid in a dark recessed doorway, clutching the keys so they wouldn’t jiggle.

She heard footsteps approaching. She held her breath. The orderly passed, engrossed in his cell phone, so he didn’t notice her. She raced to the storage room, glad she was wearing sneakers. Looking around, she tried one key after another, before finally hitting one that opened the door. Yes. She crept in and quietly closed the door behind her, then fumbled for the light switch so she could find the back exit. Just as she saw the exit straight ahead, she heard footsteps approaching. Damn. The orderly must be back. She snapped off the light and tiptoed toward the Exit sign in the dark. She fumbled for the doorknob and found it just as she heard a key in the other door. She yanked out the door and slipped out.

So far so good! But she still has to make it across the back field to the cover of the woods. And did the orderly hear her close the exit door?

Another “before” to continue the same story:

Jennifer looked around. It was pitch black and raining like crazy. With every step, she would sink a few inches into the muck, more walking than running. When she got to the edge of the yard, she searched for a hole in the hedge, then crawled through. She hopped a barbed wire fence and saw a blue Toyota idling on the side of the road. She took off on a run.

My advice to the author of the original version was:

For nail-biting scenes like this, it’s best to have more “showing” than “telling.” Stretch it out a bit here for more trouble and tension and suspense. Also, amp up the tension by adding more danger and threats.

After:

It was pitch black and raining like crazy. And she was in her hospital gown. She started to run across the field, sinking into the muck with every step, more walking than running. Behind her, the door opened, and a male voice yelled “Hey, you! Stop!”

Crap! She picked up her pace, glad she was away from the lights and there was no full moon. As she raced through the soggy field, the mud sucked off one shoe, then another. The alarm started blaring behind her. She limped along, bare feet sinking into the mud with each step.

When she finally reached the woods, she discovered that what from her window had looked like a thin hedge was instead a thorny knot of blackberry bushes. She ran along the edge looking for an opening. At last, she found an opening and crawled through. She ran along the deer path for a while, then stopped. A barbed wire fence. Damn! She carefully grabbed the wires and pulled them up and down, then crawled through with difficulty. She could hear yelling and running behind her. She ran to the road and saw a blue Toyota idling there. She took off on a run.

Here’s another example of adding details, emotions, and reactions to create a more riveting scene.

Writing a Killer Thriller_May '13Before:

Linda opened the door of the tiny apartment.

Terry was gone, his clothes were gone, and so was the money. What! She ran down the concrete steps and into the parking lot. The Jeep was gone.

After:

Linda opened the door of the tiny apartment.

Where was Terry? She called his name. No answer. She surveyed the small room, then checked the bathroom and tiny bedroom. No sign of him. His clothes were gone too. What the–? Did he take the money, too?

Starting to panic, she searched under the bed and in the closet for the bag of cash. She yanked open all the dresser drawers and pulled out the contents, then ran and ransacked the small kitchen and living area. Nothing. Shit! The rat.

She ran down the concrete steps and into the parking lot. The Jeep was gone. Christ. Now what? She stomped her foot and ran a hand through her hair in frustration.

And one last example:

Before:

Ken ran down the back stairs. The wind was whistling between the buildings, and it felt like it was twenty below. He finally saw an old beater in the back of the parking lot that wasn’t locked, so he jumped in, hotwired it, and got the hell out of there.

It would be much more effective to show the details of his struggle so the reader can picture what he’s going through and get caught up in it, rather than skimming over and summarizing like this.

After:

Ken ran down the back stairs. The wind was whistling between the buildings, and it felt like it was twenty below. Hoodie up over his head, he darted through the parking lot, trying one car door after another. All locked. Damn! He looked around. A dented beater sat in the back of the parking lot. He dashed over and tried the door. It opened. Yes! He jumped in, hotwired it, and got the hell out of there.

But don’t show details the character wouldn’t notice.

On the other hand, skip any extraneous or distracting details, things the character wouldn’t notice or care about at that critical moment.

Say your two characters, a young male and female, are on the run from bad guys in a large museum or art gallery. They’ll be desperately looking for places to duck into or exits, concentrating on escaping alive. This is not the time to go into detail about the interesting artwork or ancient artifacts around them. Perhaps mention a few in passing as they consider ducking behind them, or for some other reason relevant to their life-or-death situation. Describing their surroundings in detail is not only unrealistic; it dissipates the tension and slows down the pace at a time when they should be charging through at a break-neck speed.

So be careful not to bog down your fast-paced scenes with a lot of detail the characters wouldn’t have time to notice.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversFor more tips on pacing your scenes, including how to write effective action scenes, check out my three editor’s guides to writing compelling fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller.

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How are short stories evaluated for publication or awards?

Captivate Your Readers_med– A glimpse into the minds of acquiring editors and judges for short (or any) fiction

Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

Have you tried your hand at writing short stories yet? If not, what’s holding you back? As award-winning blogger Anne R. Allen said in an excellent article in Writer’s Digest magazine, “Bite-sized fiction has moved mainstream, and today’s readers are more eager than ever to ‘read short.’” To check out Anne’s “nine factors working in favor of a short story renaissance,” see “9 Ways Writing Short Stories Can Pay off For Writers“, and there’s more in her post, Why You Should be Writing Short Fiction.

Here’s another Argument for Writing Short Stories, by Emily Harstone.  She says, “Writers who are serious about improving and developing their craft should write short stories and get editorial feedback on them, even if they are never planning on publishing these short stories. Short stories are one of the best ways to hone your craft as a writer.”

Okay, you’ve decided to take the plunge and craft a few short stories. Good for you! Next step: Consider submitting some of them to anthologies, magazines, or contests. But wait! Before you click “send,” be sure to check out my 31 Tips for Writing a Prize-Worthy Short Story, then go through your story with these tips in mind and give it a good edit and polish – possibly even a major rewrite – before submitting it.

What are some of the common criteria used by publications and contests when evaluating short story submissions?

I recently served as judge for genre short stories for Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Contest, where I had to whittle down 139 entries to 10 finalists, but I wasn’t provided with a checklist or any specific criteria. However, a friend who regularly submits short stories to anthologies, magazines, and contests recently received a polite rejection letter from the editor of a literary magazine, along with a checklist of possible reasons, with two of them checked off specifically relating to her story.

While useful, the list of possible weaknesses is very “bare bones” and cries out for more detail and specific pointers. Editors, publishers, and judges are swamped with submissions and understandably don’t have time to give detailed advice for improvement to all the authors whose stories they turn down. Perhaps you could help me interpret and flesh out some of these fairly cryptic, generic comments/criticisms, and add any additional points that occur to you, or checklists you may have received.

Can you think of other indicators of story weaknesses that could be deal-breakers for aspiring authors submitting short stories for publication? Or do you have links to online publishers’ checklists for fiction submissions? Please share them in the comments below.

Here’s the list my friend received, with my comments below each point. Do you have comments/interpretations to add?

Checklist from a Publisher/Editor/Publication in Response to Short Story Submissions

“Thank you for submitting your short story to …. We’ve given your work careful consideration and are unable to offer you publication. We do not offer in-depth reviews of rejected submissions, due to time constraints. Briefly, we feel your submission suffered from one/several of the following common problems:”

– “Tone or content inappropriate for… (publisher / publication / anthology / magazine)

Check their submission guidelines and read other stories they’ve accepted to get an idea of the genre, style, tone, and content they seem to prefer.

– “Stylistic and grammatical errors; too many typos

Be sure to use spell-check and get someone with strong skills in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure to check it over carefully for you. Read it out loud, and where you pause briefly, put in a comma. Where you pause a little longer, put in a period. You could also try using editing software or submit it to a professional freelance editor. This last choice has the most likelihood of helping you hone your fiction-writing skills.

– “Structure problems

For a novel, this could mean some chapters could be rearranged, shortened, or taken out. What do you think it could mean for a short story? Too many characters? Too many plot lines?

– “Formatting problems made reading frustrating

Be sure your story is in a common font, like Times New Roman, 12-point, and double-spaced, with only one space after periods and one-inch margins on all four sides. Don’t boldface anything or use all caps. For more white space and ease of reading, divide long blocks of text into paragraphs. Start a new paragraph for each new speaker. Indent paragraphs. Don’t use an extra line space between paragraphs. Use italics sparingly for emphasis. For more specifics on formatting, see “Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)”.

– “Characters were problematic/unbelievable/unlikeable

Your characters’ decisions, actions and motivations need to fit their personality, background, and character. And make sure your protagonist is likeable, someone readers will want to root for.

– “Content and/or style too well-worn or obvious

This likely refers to a plot that’s been done a million times, with cookie-cutter characters and a predictable ending.

– “Word choice needs refinement

This one could cover the gamut from overused, tired words like nice, good, bad, old, big, small, tall, short to overly formal, technical, or esoteric words where a concrete, vivid, immediately understandable one would be more effective.

– “Overbearing or heavy-handed

This probably refers to a story where the author’s agenda is too obvious, too hard-hitting, maybe even a bit “preachy,” rather than subtle, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.

– “Nothing seems to have happened

To me, this probably indicates no major problem or dilemma for the protagonist, not enough meaningful action and change, and insufficient conflict and tension.

– “Strong beginning, then peters out

This is an indicator that your plot needs amping up and you need to add rising tension, suspense, and intrigue to keep readers avidly turning the pages. Also, flesh out your characters to make them more complex. Give your protagonist secrets, regrets, inner conflict, and a strong desire that is being thwarted.

– “Needs overall development and polish.

This indicates you likely need to roll up your sleeves and hone your writing skills. Read some writing guides (like those by James Scott Bell or my Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, or Writing a Killer Thriller). Also, read lots of highly rated published short stories, paying close attention to the writers’ techniques. Here’s where a critique group of experienced fiction writers or some savvy beta readers or a professional edit could help.

We didn’t get it.

This is likely a catch-all category that means the story didn’t work for a number of reasons. This could be an indicator to put this story aside and hone your craft, critically read other highly rated stories in your genre, then, using your new skills, craft a fresh story.

“While all of these criticisms open doors to further questions, we regret that we cannot be more constructive….”

That’s understandable. They just don’t have time to critique or mentor every writer who contacts them. But I hope my comments above help aspiring fiction writers hone your craft and get your stories published – or even win awards for them. Good luck! For tips on how to actually submit, check out “Writing Short Stories? Don’t Make These 4 Submission Mistakes“.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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Fire up Your Fiction with Foreshadowing

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

To create a page-turner that sells and gets great reviews, be sure to keep your readers curious and worried throughout your novel. That will keep them turning the pages. You can add tension, suspense, and intrigue to your story very effectively with techniques like foreshadowing, withholding or delaying information, stretching out the tension, and using epiphanies and revelations. (All discussed at length in my book Writing a Killer Thriller.)

Foreshadowing is about sprinkling in subtle little hints and clues as you go along about possible revelations, complications, and trouble to come. It incites curiosity, anticipation, and worry in the readers, which is exactly what you want. So to pique the readers’ interest and keep them absorbed, be sure to continually hint at dangers lurking ahead.

Use foreshadowing to lay the groundwork for future tension, to tantalize readers about upcoming critical scenes, confrontations or developments, major changes or reversals, character transformations, or secrets to be revealed.

Foreshadowing is great for revealing character traits, flaws, phobias, weaknesses, and secrets; building character motivations; and increasing reader engagement.

Foreshadowing also adds credibility and continuity to your plot. If events and changes are foreshadowed, then when they do occur, they seem more believable and natural, not just a random act or something you suddenly decided to stick in there. For example, if your forty-something, somewhat bumbling detective suddenly starts using Taekwondo to defeat his opponent, you’d better have mentioned at some point earlier that he has taken Taekwondo lessons, or else the readers are going to say, “Oh, come on! Give me a break. Suddenly he’s Jackie Chan?”

But for every hint you drop, make sure you follow through later in the novel. Be sure not to drop in what seems like a critical piece of info or object, but ends up not foreshadowing anything. Readers will feel deceived and cheated. (For more on this, Google “Chekhov’s gun” or see my book.)

Also, do be subtle about your little hints. If you make them too obvious, it takes away the suspense and intrigue, along with the reader’s satisfaction at trying to figure everything out.

Some ideas for foreshadowing:

Here are some ways you can foreshadow events or revelations in your story:

Show a pre-scene or mini-example of what happens in a big way later, for example:
The roads are icy and the car starts to skid but the driver manages to get it under control and continues driving, a little shaken and nervous. This initial near-miss plants worry in the reader’s mind. Then later a truck comes barreling toward him and…

– The protagonist overhears snippets of conversation or gossip and tries to piece it all together, but it doesn’t all make sense until later.

– Hint at shameful secrets or painful memories your protagonist has been hiding, trying to forget about.

Something on the news warns of possible danger – a storm brewing, a convict who’s escaped from prison, a killer on the loose, a series of bank robberies, etc.

– Your main character notices and wonders about other characters’ unusual or suspicious actions, reactions, tone of voice, facial expressions, or body language. Another character is acting evasive or looks preoccupied, nervous, apprehensive, or tense.

– Show us the protagonist’s inner fears or suspicions. Then the readers start worrying that what the character is anxious about may happen.

– Use setting details and word choices to create an ominous mood. A storm is brewing, or fog or a snowstorm makes it impossible to see any distance ahead, or…?

– The protagonist or a loved one has a disturbing dream or premonition.

– A fortune teller or horoscope foretells trouble ahead.

Make the ordinary seem ominous, or plant something out of place in a scene. Zoom in on an otherwise benign object, like that bicycle lying in the sidewalk, the single child’s shoe in the alley, the half-eaten breakfast, etc., to create a sense of unease.

Use objects: your character is looking for something in a drawer and pushes aside a loaded gun. Or a knife, scissors, or other dangerous object or poisonous substance is lying around within reach of children or an assailant.

Use symbolism, like a broken mirror, a dead bird, a lost kitten, or…

~ A no-no about foreshadowing:

But don’t step in as the author giving an aside to the readers, like “When she woke up that morning, she had no idea it would turn out to be the worst day of her life.” We’re in the heroine’s head at that moment, and since she has no idea how the day is going to turn out, it’s breaking the spell, the fictive dream for us to pass out of her body and her time frame to jump ahead and read the future.

~ Don’t like to plan your story out first? Just go ahead and write your story, then work backward and foreshadow later.

If you hate to outline and just want to start writing and see where the characters and story take you, you can always go back through your manuscript later and plant clues and indications here and there to hint at major reversals and critical events. Doing this will not only increase the suspense and intrigue but will also improve the overall credibility and unity of your story.

And remember to sprinkle in the foreshadowing like a strong spice – not too much and not too little. If you give too many hints, you’ll erode your suspense. If you don’t give enough, readers might feel a bit cheated or manipulated when something unexpected happens, especially if it’s a huge twist or surprise.

And again, the operative word is subtle. Don’t hit readers over the head with it. Not all your readers will pick up on these little hints, and that’s okay. It makes the ones who do feel all the more clever.

For more techniques for adding conflict, tension, suspense, and intrigue to any genre of fiction, check out Jodie’s book, Writing a Killer Thriller.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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