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.

 

 

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.

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+.

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+.