Advice to My High School Self

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there. May you enjoy it to the full.

Here is something I recently enjoyed—my 50-year high school reunion. Hoo boy! “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” (Erroneously attributed to Groucho Marx. But whoever said it probably had been to his 50-year.)

We had a graduating class of 1100, being of the Boomer generation in the San Fernando Valley. About 185 of us made the reunion. I had a grand time seeing old friends (some I’ve known since elementary school) and catching up. It was also a chance to see how some of our graduating class award winners made out.

Most Likely to Succeed, Paul, certainly has filled the bill. Yale Law School and a partner in one of the biggest firms in the world. He works out of their London office, specializing in international law.

Class Clown, Steve, is still a good friend and the most spontaneously funny guy I’ve ever known. Example: We had a Vice Principal at Taft named Mr. Gibb. Not much for small talk. One day he walked by Steve and me, said nothing, nodded, and moved on. Steve leaned over and said, “He’s got the gaft of Gibb.”

Steve has gone on to a successful career in TV comedy writing. Even more, in a fascinating turn of events, he became personal secretary to Groucho Marx near the end of the legendary comedian’s life. Steve put his account of those years into a memoir, Raised Eyebrows, which is about to become a major motion picture starring Geoffrey Rush as Groucho. (Your humble scribe makes a minor appearance in the book. I am a letter saver. Back then we actually wrote letters on paper and sent them through the mail. So when Steve asked me if I had any of his letters to me during the Groucho years, I was able to send him about a dozen, which helped him fill in some gaps.)

Sad, of course, to see the additions to the In Memoriam page. People I laughed with, went to Taco Pronto with, played basketball with.

All of which puts one in a reflective mood about this time we have on Earth. It’s good to think about that from time to time, even when you’re young. Maybe especially then.

In the movie City Slickers, 39-year-old Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal) makes an appearance at his son’s school career day. Having just been demoted at his rather thankless job, Billy tells the class:

Value this time in your life kids, because this is the time in your life when you still have your choices, and it goes by so fast. When you’re a teenager you think you can do anything, and you do. Your twenties are a blur. Your thirties, you raise your family, you make a little money and you think to yourself, “What happened to my twenties?”

Your forties, you grow a little pot belly you grow another chin. The music starts to get too loud and one of your old girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother. Your fifties you have a minor surgery. You’ll call it a procedure, but it’s a surgery. Your sixties you have a major surgery, the music is still loud but it doesn’t matter because you can’t hear it anyway.

Seventies, you and the wife retire to Fort Lauderdale, you start eating dinner at two in the afternoon, lunch around ten, breakfast the night before. And you spend most of your time wandering around malls looking for the ultimate in soft yogurt and muttering, “How come the kids don’t call?”, “How come the kids don’t call?” By the eighties, you’ve had a major stroke, and you end up babbling to some Jamaican nurse who your wife can’t stand but who you call Mama. Any questions?

Which makes me wonder, if I could go back in time, what would I tell my high school self? Three things.

First, don’t be disappointed. Lots of men lose their hair.

Second, take more risks. Not stupid ones. Not life-might-end ones. Just do more things that take you out of your comfort zone. Especially if it involves real estate.

Third, don’t give in when somebody tells you that you don’t have what it takes to do something. Even if that person has a Ph.D. If you want something bad enough, go for it and find out for yourself.

Now over to you. Have you been to any of your high school reunions? What would you tell your high school self?

Interview with Randy Ingermanson – The Snowflake Guy

By

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Randy Ingermanson AKA the Snowflake Guy

Brilliant people understand complex concepts. But, despite their superior intelligence, they often cannot explain those concepts to less-than-brilliant folks.

But Randy Ingermanson can. He’s brilliant but he has a simple way of breaking down the incomprehensible so we mere mortals understand what he’s talking about.

For those who don’t know Randy, he has a PhD in physics specializing in elementary particle theory. According to the bio on his website: “Most of my work was in nonperturbative methods in quantum field theory.”

Did that lose you? Yeah, me too.

When I Googled nonperturbative, I recognized three words in the definition: cannot be described. That’s for sure!

Yet…Randy, in his spare time, became a successful author of fiction and nonfiction as well as a sought-after writing instructor. His two-book Snowflake series and Writing Fiction for Dummies still remain in the top 100 writing reference books on Amazon many years after they were published.

Randy has the extraordinary ability to break down complex writing concepts into easily digestible bites. In addition, his step-by-step plan of action template helps writers track and accomplish their goals.

Randy graciously agreed to chat with us here on TKZ. Welcome, Randy!

Debbie Burke: Your day job as a physicist requires a lot of brain energy. You also keep up the Advanced Fiction Writing blog and write bestselling craft books. Plus you write multiple fiction series, some involving extensive historical research, including archaeological digs. And you have a family. Do you ever sleep?

Joking aside, your ability to juggle multiple projects is impressive. Can you share some hints on how you manage your time and prioritize tasks?

Randy Ingermanson: For a big chunk of my life, I didn’t manage my time very well. I took on too many things and then felt really stressed. But things began to change about 15 years ago when I read David Allen’s classic book Getting Things Done. I realized that I was doing things badly, and that’s the first step to doing things better.

One key thing I’ve learned is that sometimes you just have to prune things out of your life. That’s very hard, but over the last several years, I’ve cut back several parts of my life that I thought were essential. And nobody died. I have a theory that everyone has a set limit to the number of main projects they can juggle. My limit is three. Some people can do four, and I admire them to death, but I can’t do it.

Another key thing I’ve learned is that it’s OK to have a hundred things on your To-Do List, as long as they’re not all visible right now. So I have a cascading sequence of To-Do Lists, one for “Someday”, one for “This Year,” “This Quarter,” This Month,” “This Week,” and “Today.” Every Sunday, I review the lists and promote some tasks from “This Month” to “This Week”. Every day, I choose things from “This Week” to put on the “Today” list. The beauty of this is that a day is a success if I knock off all the things on the Today list. I only have to look at those 15 items and decide which to do next. I don’t have to look at the dozens or hundreds on This Week or This Month or This Year. Those will all get done in due time, but the name of the game is to not be overwhelmed. When you get overwhelmed, your brain goes into panic mode, you spend all day spinning your wheels, and you end up eating all the Haagen-Dazs.

I use a nifty method called “Kanban” to manage my tasks. (This is very popular among software developers.) There are a bunch of websites that let you set up Kanban projects. The one I use is at Kanbanflow.com, and it works for me. But I recommend that people always use a tool that resonates with them.

DB: Writing a novel is a hard project. You have a wonderfully workable system for how to tackle hard projects. Can you explain the steps in that system?

RI: I wrote a blog post awhile back on the general problem of managing any hard project. I’ll refer your readers to that post here: https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/blog/2021/01/21/how-to-make-an-action-plan/

I’ve gotten extremely famous for my system for managing one particular hard project—writing the first draft of your novel. The “Snowflake Method” will probably be listed on my headstone. It’s a ten-step method I use for writing my first draft. I wrote out the ten steps back around 2002 in answer to a question somebody asked in an online writing group I was on. And some people liked the idea enough that I posted it on my website. And then it just took off. It’s now been viewed more than 6 million times and has earned me a ridiculous amount of money.

The core idea is that you design a novel before you write it. Some people hate this idea and would rather just write by the seat of their pants. That’s fine by me. Different people are wired different in the brain, and it doesn’t matter how you get your first draft down on paper. We all can respect each other and recognize that we don’t all think alike. The Snowflake Method happens to work well for about a third of the writing population.

You start by taking an hour to write down a summary sentence for your story. This will be your selling tool forever, so it makes sense to take a little time to do it. But don’t spend weeks obsessing on this. Write down your best one-sentence summary for now and then move on to the next step. You can always come back and improve it later. In fact, you certainly will.

The Snowflake Method has another nine steps, and I don’t have space to even summarize them here. But anyone can Google “Snowflake Method” and find my 3000-word web article or my 50,000 word book on the subject. If you like to know approximately where you’re going before you start writing, then the Snowflake Method is designed for you. If you don’t, then it’s not for you.

 

 

DB: Most authors dread marketing. What do you recommend as the most important marketing tools for a writer?

RI: I used to hate marketing. In fact, I remember the day I told an agent friend of mine, “I hate marketing! I’m a terrible marketer, and I don’t ever want to have to market my books again!” She got a panicky look on her face and told me not to say such things out loud, because the walls have ears. And she was right.

I now believe there are three main keys to good marketing for a novelist. I call them the Three Rings of Power. They are:

  • Your website
  • Your email newsletter
  • Paid advertising

Your website is important because you own it. Social media is notoriously fickle, and any social media platform can suddenly become unusable, for a variety of reasons. Various platforms can ban you, or go out of fashion, or start charging you. But you own your website and it’s very hard to take it away from you.

Ditto for your email newsletter. If you have a newsletter with 5000 loyal readers who know you and actually read what you send, you have a guaranteed bestseller, every time you launch a book. That’s gold.

Paid advertising is now just a fact of life. None of us like paying for ads, but they work. If you use Amazon ads and Facebook ads and BookBub ads and the various book promo sites effectively, you can move copies with a positive return-on-investment. I think TikTok will soon join this short list of paid-ad opportunities that authors routinely use.

So the Three Rings of Power are great, and I personally have done extremely well using them. However …

However, a lot of authors don’t see a good return on their investment for their website, their email newsletter, and their paid ads. Why not? Do the marketing gods hate them?

No, the reason is very simple. The Three Rings of Power are useless unless you also master the One Ring that Rule Them All. That One Ring is copywriting. The ability to write good headlines, strong sales copy, and a compelling call-to-action, all without smelling like a weasel. This is a fine line to walk, but once you learn it, you can apply it everywhere. To your website. Your newsletter. Your paid ads. And away you go.

As it happens, I began to learn copywriting shortly after I had my “I hate marketing” conversation with my agent friend. And that has made all the difference for me. In some sense you make your own luck in marketing, and my luck changed permanently when I took the time to learn how to write copy.

Copywriting is not particularly sexy or fun. But if you go to Amazon and do a search for books on copywriting, you’ll find any number of sources that will teach you the fundamentals. And then you just need to go do it, determined to learn it, no matter what.

Learn copywriting, and the Three Rings of Power are your servants, not your masters. Many Bothans died to bring me this secret.

DB: What are you working on currently?

RI: I read Steven Kotler’s book The Art of Impossible back in October, and it revolutionized my thinking. I decided that for the next few years, I’m going to focus on fewer things and do them better. I have a day job doing image analysis for a biotech company in San Diego, and that consumes half my life, because it’s a half-time job. I am currently writing a series of historical novels on the most influential person ever to walk the planet, Jesus of Nazareth, and that’s going to take me another three or four years to finish. And I’m working on a project I call “Project Chronologicus” that will combine my mathematical/computer skills with my interest in ancient history—it’s a project to harvest historical data from ancient documents and compute the best-fit chronology for ancient history. (This is a notoriously hard problem, too difficult for any human to solve without a computer; but my whole career has been spent solving problems humans can’t solve alone, so I may possibly be able to write the software to solve this one. And if not, I’ll have fun.)

 DB: Is there anything else you’d like to add? Any questions you wish I’d asked?

RI:  As Gandalf once said, you don’t know your danger when you ask a hobbit such a question, because the hobbit will go on endlessly. This hobbit will have mercy on you and just say no.

~~~

Randy, feel free to go on endlessly with all the knowledge you have to impart to writers! Thanks for visiting The Zone!

Randy’s Snowflake series

Advanced Fiction Writing blog

Randy’s website

~~~

TKZers: Have you tried the Snowflake method of plotting?

Please share your best tips for time management for writers.

What is Your POV Motive?

Photo credit: JohnPotter Pixabay

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Why does a writer choose to tell a story from a particular point of view?

Recently, Chuck, a regular TKZ reader, emailed me with questions about omniscient point of view. He wanted to write the first chapter of his revenge-theme murder mystery from the omniscient POV.

Right away, I knew I wasn’t qualified to advise him. I’ve never written anything  omniscient. The books I read rarely use it because my personal taste has always favored close, intimate POVs.

So I dove down the research rabbit hole to learn more about this mysterious POV.

Masterclass.com offers this definition:

An omniscient narrator is all-seeing and all-knowing…The narrator may occasionally access the consciousness of a few or many different characters.

Some writers use this perspective to create a more “godlike” or deliberately “authorial” persona that allows them to comment on the action with the benefit of distance.

Before TV, films, internet, and streaming, most people didn’t venture far from the places they were born. Travel was the domain of the wealthy.

Charles Dickens – Wikimedia

Therefore, books were ships that carried readers to distant shores they would never personally set foot on; to exotic worlds constructed from the author’s descriptions; to smells, sights, sounds, textures, and tastes readers could only imagine.

World building was crucial. 

Leo Tolstoy – CC BY-SA 3.0

 

 

 

 

Authors like Dickens, Tolstoy, and Tolkien spent many pages explaining the physical, social, religious, economic, historic, and psychological elements of the story world.

J.R.R. Tolkien – public domain

 

 

 

But as communication increased and the world became smaller, authors no longer had to paint such detailed pictures.

Reader interest shifted to characters who were fascinating or with whom readers could identify. They wanted go deeper into the characters’ hearts and minds to vicariously experience their fears, elation, rage, joy, doubt, guilt, pride, disappointment, lust, etc.

In today’s book market, close third and first person POVs are the most prevalent, although epic fantasy with its detailed world building still uses omniscient POV.

According to a 2016 New York Times article by Elliott Holt:

The effects of omniscience are authority and scope; novels with such narrators seem especially confident. The characters may be uncertain, but we sense the controlling force above them. Omniscience reinforces that we are reading fiction.

Some readers like that quality while others see it as authorial intrusion.

Holt goes on to say:

We know we’re being watched, by traffic and security cameras, by our employers, by the N.S.A., by random people taking pictures with their phones. We’re aware of the threat of hackers and cybercrime…Technological transcendence is “spooky”: Perhaps omniscience taps into this collective fear about loss of privacy.

Hmm. That explains why I personally avoid omniscient POV.

The most comprehensive article I found about omniscient POV is by John Matthew Fox of Book Fox at this link.

John provides clear, understandable explanations. For instance, in discussing show vs. tell, he says:

Third person omniscient is often more telling than showing, because the narrator is an objective observer. It’s like you’re telling someone about a movie you just saw.

He defines two types of third-person omniscient POV:

Objective: The narrator knows all, but they’re an observer. They can’t get into the characters’ heads, but are telling the story from somewhere outside.

Subjective: The narrator is an observer with opinions. We get a sense of what the narrator thinks about every character, in a judgy kind of way.

He says one advantage is the narrator “can dispense information that no character knows.” But he cautions: “many writers slide over into head hopping.”

He goes on to elaborate:

Where this gets confusing, especially for new writers, is in third person omniscient. Some newer writers think that head hopping and third person omniscient are the same thing, or at least close. This is not true. Third person omniscient tells a story from one perspective: the narrator’s. The narrator shouldn’t tell us the thoughts and feelings of all the characters, or any of the characters.

The narrator shows us how the characters feel through action and dialogue, not by hopping into the character’s heads to reveal what they’re thinking. The story is told from the narrator’s perspective, like the narrator is a character.

Here is John’s most compelling argument against using omniscient POV:

Literary agents and publishers are so reluctant to consider third person omniscient, and they’re not going to do it for a new writer. If you really want to try third person omniscient, do it for a very limited time, like the first chapter, to describe the setting. Sort of like a wide shot in a movie, writing the first chapter in third person omniscient can work.

~~~

As writers, we like to experiment with new ways to tell stories. Some experiments work, others fall flat, and a few explode in our faces.

After researching, my suggestions to Chuck are:

Examine your motive for using omniscient. Why is it the absolute best way to introduce your story? If it’s merely a gimmick or experiment, rethink the choice. 

Run the first chapter by critiquers and beta readers. They’ll help you judge if it works or not.  

Before submitting to agents or editors, understand that many are predisposed to dislike it.

If you use omniscient POV, be darn sure it’s done correctly and effectively.

~~~

TKZers: Please share books you’ve read that use omniscient POV. Which work and which don’t?

Why do you like or dislike omniscient POV?

~~~

 

In Debbie Burke’s thriller Eyes in the Sky, a drone gives an omniscient–and sinister–point of view. Please check it out at these links: 

Amazon

Other online booksellers

First Page Critique – Little League; Huge Trouble

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Good morning and welcome to another Brave Author who’s submitted the first page of a mystery for discussion. Please enjoy the following then we’ll talk about it.

~~~

Little League; Huge Trouble 

Genre: Mystery

The streets were empty, black puddles filling the trench where they dug up the gas line. It was the quiet time after school and before the commuters wind through the neighborhood.

If anyone was walking through the neighborhood, they would have seen him. He was running with hard plastic soles slapping the pavement.

On Milbert Street, according to the police report, he ran behind the shingled Victorian and through the garden that’s been featured in 40 magazines and down 220 yards of wooded trails to Salmon Street.

He ran left on Salmon, which descends through three quick curves and a patch of native rhododendrons, rising 30-feet high and exploding with faded pink blooms.

The next street, Greenway, is a short road with only seven houses and just beyond the fourth home, the midcentury showplace, he was shot. The bullet entered behind his left ear, severing the spinal cord and the slug tumbled underneath his skull, burrowing through the brain tissue like an angry metal worm.

He rolled down the embankment to the water that collects in the culvert after every strong rain.

When I learned he died and that he had been murdered, I hate admitting my initial reaction.

Damn, I thought, I just lost my leadoff hitter and best catcher.

My leadoff hitter and best catcher, who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

~~~

I confess to mixed feelings about this page. There are some really nice, evocative visuals—black puddles in trenches, hard plastic soles slapping the pavement, etc. Rather than an info dump to describe the town, Brave Author blends action with  description. Well done.

However, the POV is awkward and off-putting, switching from omniscient to first person. More on that in a moment.

Title: Little League; Huge Trouble sounds catchy, light, and humorous, as if this might be a cozy or a story for young readers. But the title is at odds with the vivid, gritty description of a bullet tumbling in a little boy’s brain like an angry worm, which, BTW, is an excellent simile.

I’m not a fan of semicolons in fiction and especially not in a title. It’s distracting and appears pretentious. Suggest you replace it with a comma or a dash:

Little League, Huge Trouble or Little League–Huge Trouble.

Point of View: The drone’s eye view of the streets, houses, and the boy fleeing from his killer is a cinematic effect that can be intriguing.

Omniscient POV is one way to show the overview of the setting. However, omniscient keeps the reader at a distance and delays introduction of the “I” character.

Tone: I felt off-balance and unsettled because the tone is uneven and inconsistent. It skips from an almost-flippant travelogue of an idyllic town featured in 40 magazines to the horrifying death scene of a little boy. Rather than becoming engrossed in the story, I spent too much time trying to figure out what direction the author was going.

This opener fouled out for the following reasons:

In parts, the tone tries to sound like a detailed official police report with precise factual details: “40 magazines”, “220 yards of wooded trails”, “three quick curves”, “rhododendrons, rising 30-feet high”, “seven houses”, “fourth home.”

But those cold facts feel in conflict with the wonderful, sensory descriptions that evoke emotion: “running with hard plastic soles slapping the pavement”, “exploding with faded pink blooms”, “burrowing…like an angry metal worm.”

Further, the observations about 40 magazines and midcentury showplace sound like authorial intrusions, further muddying the mood.

The contrast technique can work but must be carefully constructed so the reader doesn’t feel like a pinball bouncing from hard facts to the narrator’s flippant observations to strong emotions.

Likeability:  When the POV shifts from omniscient to “I”, the character’s reaction to the murder strikes out big time.

When I learned he died and that he had been murdered, I hate admitting my initial reaction.

Damn, I thought, I just lost my leadoff hitter and best catcher.

My leadoff hitter and best catcher, who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

Gotta tell ya—The character may hate himself or herself but not nearly as much as I hate the character for that selfish, self-absorbed attitude. A child has been murdered and s/he worries how that affects their team’s chances to win.

Even the hardest-boiled noir treats a child’s murder more gently.

S/he may be a snarky anti-hero whose character arc eventually leads to redemption. But, after reading this beginning, I wouldn’t continue. No matter how much I want to see a child’s killer brought to justice, it isn’t worth spending 300 pages with a character whose values are so crass and selfish.

The Brave Author may be trying for irony, a technique that can be used to great effect. But it must be done deftly when dealing with a sensitive, emotionally-charged subject.

Writing: Overall, the craft is skillful and well done with excellent descriptions. There are some repetitious words (neighborhood twice in the first two paragraphs) and phrases (leadoff hitter and best catcher). Several times, the tense shifts from past to present within the same sentence (It was the quiet time after school and before the commuters wind through the neighborhood). That may be deliberate but it’s jarring.

The unevenness of tone and an unlikable narrator hit a grounder instead of a fly ball out of the park.

But this page is easily salvageable and can be rewritten into a home run.

In the example below in red, I tinkered with reordering and refocusing the tone to put more emphasis on irony: the contrast of a brutal murder in an idyllic setting; and the contrast of the promising sports career of a young boy who’s suddenly and violently cut down.

According to the police report, the streets were empty, the quiet time after school but before commuters wound through the neighborhood on their way home. Black puddles filled a trench where the gas line had been dug up.  

No witnesses had come forward yet. If anyone had been walking through the area at the time, they would have seen him, heard his hard, plastic soles slapping the pavement.

On Milbert Street, he ran behind the shingled Victorian and through the garden that’s been featured in 40 lifestyle magazines. He continued an eighth of a mile down a wooded trail to Salmon Street.

He ran left on Salmon, through three quick curves, passing 30-foot-tall native rhododendrons exploding with faded pink blooms.

The next street, Greenway, is a short road with only seven houses. Just beyond the fourth home, a mid-century showplace, he was shot.

The bullet entered behind his left ear and severed the spinal cord. The slug tumbled underneath his skull, burrowing through the brain tissue like an angry metal worm.

He rolled down the embankment into the water that collected in the culvert after every strong rain.

That evening, I learned the news that my leadoff hitter and best catcher had been murdered—a boy who two weeks earlier had celebrated his 11th and final birthday.

By starting the first paragraph with a reference to the police report, readers immediately know a crime has been committed. Then they follow the victim as he flees, setting up the contrast between the storybook setting and the horrific crime.

Lastly, the shock that the victim is a little boy is revealed but the “I” character’s reaction is not as off-putting. S/he may later admit disappointment that the team’s chances have been dashed IF that’s an important detail. But I suggest delaying that until the reader is much more invested in the story.

Brave Author, there is a lot of potential here for a compelling mystery but I think you need to decide on an overall tone that’s appropriate for the subgenre you choose.

Is this a small-town cozy? Unlikely because a child’s graphic murder takes it out of cozy realm.

A traditional whodunit mystery? More likely.

An amateur sleuth tale where a youth sports coach must solve a murder? This seems like the most appropriate slot.

What audience do you hope to appeal to?

Once you answer these questions, you can focus on a tone and title that are consistent and appropriate for that subgenre. Then the reader won’t feel off-balance. Instead s/he will be pulled into the story.

Thanks, Brave Author, for submitting this promising first page.

~~~

Over to you, TKZers. What are your impressions? Do you have suggestions for our Brave Author? Would you turn the page?

~~~

 

Try the first book in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series for FREE. Available at Amazon and major online booksellers. 

Creating Likeable Villains

By Elaine Viets

This month got off to a pleasant start. My short story, “Dog Eat Dog” was nominated for two awards: the Macavity and the International Thriller Writers.
The story was in The Beat of Black Wings, an anthology based on the songs of Joni Mitchell. I chose “Dog Eat Dog.”

This story was difficult to write, because my protagonist was so dislikeable. We learn straight out that Tiffany Yokum is a gold digger – and a calculating killer.
Here’s her introduction:

“The first time I tried to kill my husband, I failed. Miserably. I gave him a little push at the top of the stairs and Colgate tangled himself in his walker and fell down twenty-seven marble steps, just as I hoped. And he cracked his head – but not hard enough.
“Now he’s in a coma. The doctors say there’s still brain activity and he could wake up at any time, so I can’t pull the plug. He could live forever this way. As I sit by his bedside, I watch the fluid drip through his IV, and imagine each drop is a dollar. Even his immense fortune will be drained away.
“I want desperately to finish him off, but I don’t want to get caught.”

Greedy Tiffany put a nice old man into a coma, and now she wants him to die. How do I make readers root for this little moneygrubber?
Unlikeable protagonists are extremely popular, thanks to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Before Gillian, there was the disgusting pedophile Humbert Humbert in Lolita. And Rabbit Angstrom in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and other novels in this series. Books I pretended to read in college but couldn’t finish because I found Rabbit, the protagonist, self-absorbed and dull.
Short stories don’t have time to create the subtleties of a novel. Which gets us back to Tiffany and how to make readers root for this crafty killer. Here are some ways to do it.
Give your villains a minor illness.

The award-winning Evan Hunter – a.k.a. Ed McBain – made that recommendation. It works if your villains aren’t too evil. McBain had a lot of sniffling and sneezing detectives in the 87th Precinct. But I could give Tiffany pneumonia – heck, Covid-19 – and she still wouldn’t be likeable.

Give your villains a sympathetic background.


Tiffany is by no means her rich husband’s social equal. She’s an 18-year-old clerk at a hardware store in Festus, Missouri. “Colgate Osborne was a randy seventy-two when he first spotted me behind the cash register, falling out of my tank top,” Tiffany says. She grew up in a trailer park. So she’s at the bottom rung of the ladder, looking to climb. Readers like to root for a rags-to-riches scenario.

Make your villains smart. Or at least crafty.

Tiffany quickly becomes the fourth wife of rich old Cole Osborne and they live in luxury in Fort Lauderdale.
“I never went to college, but I wasn’t stupid,” Tiffany said. “I knew now that Cole had tied the knot with me, my struggle had just begun. Cole was very, very classy, and I had to fit in with his rich friends.”

Make your villains self-aware.

The Joni Mitchell song was Tiffany’s anthem, and she recognized herself in the lyrics of “Dog Eat Dog.” Especially the part about slaves. Some were well-treated . . .
And some like poor beasts
Are burdened down to breaking
Tiffany said, “This was a dog eat dog world – more so than the trailer park where I used to live. I was a well-treated slave, and I’d sold myself into slavery, but I knew that.”
Our villain has knows she’s living in comfort, but she can’t get comfortable.
“One misstep, and I’d be one of those poor beasts, working again at the local hardware store or greeting people at Walmart. I had a prenup that would give me a measly hundred thousand dollars if we divorced, but if I could hang on until Cole died, I’d get half his fortune.”

Make your villains work for their success. That way, readers can root for them.

Cindy knew she’s landed her pretty derriere in a tub of butter, but she knew her work has just started. Among other things, Cindy changed her name to a classier “Tish.”
She also “made friends with his housekeeper, Mrs. Anderson. She’d been with him for twenty years and three wives. I slipped her a little extra out of my mad money account that Cole gave me, and Mrs. A told me where to shop on Las Olas, the local Rodeo Drive, and which saleswoman to make an appointment with. She also advised me to ditch my long fake nails and get a nice, refined French manicure, then sent me to a salon where I had my long hair tamed into fashionable waves and the color became ‘not so blonde’ as the tactful stylist said.”

Make your villains aware of the stakes if they fail.

Now readers have more reasons to root for them.
“As I got into my mid-twenties, I had to work hard to keep my girlish figure,” Tiffany said. “My trainer was worse than a drill sergeant, and I endured endless runs on the beach. Awful as it was, it beat standing on my feet all day on a concrete floor, running a cranky cash register for nine dollars an hour.”

Create a conflict – and an even worse villain.

Tiffany says, “I thought I could sail smoothly into Cole’s sunset years and collect the cash when he went to his reward. But then that damn preacher showed up. The smarmy Reverend Joseph Starr, mega-millionaire pastor of Starr in the Heavens.”
As much as we may dislike money-hungry Tiffany, the bloodsucking TV preacher is even worse. He plays on Cole’s fear of death and walks off with a check for a million dollars on his first visit – and the Reverend has his sights set on more.
“Starr would work on Cole’s guilt and milk him for every dollar – my husband was one big cash cow,” the practical Tiffany said.
Now that her husband was in the hospital on life support, Tiffany has to find a way to kill her husband and put the blame on the Reverend Starr.
Does Tiffany succeed? Or does the Reverend Starr walk off with the money? You’ll have to read “Dog Eat Dog” to find out – and see if I made you root for her.
Tell us, TKZers. How do you humanize your villains?
***

The Beat of Black Wings, edited by Josh Pachter, is an anthology of 28 crime writers who wrote short stories inspired by Joni Mitchell’s lyrics. The award-winning authors include Art Taylor and Tara Laskowski, Kathryn O’Sullivan, Stacy Woodson, and Donna Andrews. A third of the royalties will be donated to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation in Joni Mitchell’s name.
Order your copy of Beat of Black Wings here: https://tinyurl.com/38x2cyar

The Unintentional Writer

Photo by Kasper Rasmussen on unsplash.com

I have received some correspondence recently to the effect that TKZ has some regular visitors who are not necessarily interested in becoming authors themselves.  They stop by because they are interested in how authors engage in the process by which writing is done. They have no inclination towards writing, let alone publishing a story. Think of folks who like to eat but who have no inclination toward cooking. This is aimed at those who enjoy literary feasts but have no inclination toward stirring the pot, though the Emerils in the audience may find it interesting as well. 

Our own Jim Bell contributed a deep but highly accessible piece the Sunday last titled “Advice for the Demoralized Writer.” It contains terrific advice which is applicable to all regardless of occupation but the crux of it is to do your very, very best while sublimating your expectations of awards or recognition. If your efforts garner such you will be pleasantly surprised. If not, you won’t be disappointed. I am going to take that advice a step further while aiming it in a different direction.

My suggestion is to write every day. That is not new or original advice. I am offering it particularly, however, to those of you who have no intention of or inclination toward starting or completing a story or having it revealed in the harsh light of day. Writing something every day because you want to, instead of when you have to, is good for you. I truly believe that writing regardless of length or motive makes one smarter — whatever that is — and yes, happier. Writing even one sentence of a few words per day enables you, the unintentional writer, to say, “I wrote this.” It may not give you an adrenaline rush but I submit to you that it will produce, at the least, a drop of it in your cup. It’s the difference between doing an action because you are required to (for reasons from within or without) and doing it because you want to. It can crack the ice that freezes your thinking, whether you write on a post-it, a computer, or your hand. It is an activity that you can do without prompting, or the desire of future reward, other than that occasioned by performing the act itself. I have mentioned this before, but the television series Miami Vice was born as the result of two words handwritten on a piece of paper. The words were “MTV cops.” Your results may differ. That’s the point. There are those who may keep a diary or journal for a similar reason. What I propose is not as involved. 

This post is but one example of “wanting to” as opposed to “being compelled to.” I started this post with one sentence, though it is not the introductory sentence that you see above. I wrote a few words to get rolling and then took off, as John Coltrane said, in both directions at once. It was because I wanted to. “The Kill Zone” name notwithstanding, no one here writes with a gun to their head. We are all here because we want to be, whether to write or to read what is written. 

Now we present below an example of some writing that a six-year-old miscreant was compelled to do as a classroom punishment in the closing days of first grade. History has not recorded what the lad did over sixty years ago to earn this assignment. If rehabilitation was the purpose please rest assured that the effort failed miserably.  It is a wonder that he ever took pen(cil) to paper again voluntarily, but he did occasionally and still does.

Photo by Al Thumbs Photography. All rights reserved.

Try what I suggest and see what happens. At worst you will have wasted a few seconds. At best, it could be the start of something big. As with most things, the end result may be somewhere in the middle. Don’t worry about that. This is a worry-free activity for enjoyment as opposed to production. Just put a few words down for the fun of it. You might be surprised.  

Actually, let’s try it right now. Seven words or less. Go! Here’s mine:

“He wondered where the painter was.” 

Have a relaxing Memorial Day. While you do so, please remember the reason for the season. Thank you. 

Photo by Justin Casey on unsplash.com

 

The Power of Poignancy

Old Yeller movie poster, public domain

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Recently I read an article by Daniel Pink in the Saturday Evening Post extracted from his bestselling book WHEN—The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. According to various studies he cited, people like happy endings in books and films. No surprise there, especially in the current troubling times. Happily Ever After (HEA) in fiction fulfills a deep human longing because most of us wish for that in our real lives.

But the main point of Dan’s article was, while happy endings are good, the most resonant, memorable endings have sadness connected to them. The addition of bittersweet adds an important layer of emotional complexity beyond mere joy. He writes:

“The most powerful endings deliver poignancy because poignancy delivers significance. Adding a small component of sadness to an otherwise happy moment elevates that moment rather than diminishes it.”

The power of poignancy is why the endings of some stories stick with us for years, while other HEAs disappear from mind as soon as we close the book.

Dan’s article started me thinking about which books and movies still resonate in my memory years later.

Warning: spoiler alerts ahead.

I saw Old Yeller when the movie came out in 1957. A couple of times since then, I watched it but stopped before the climax (warning: grab a box of tissues before clicking this link). That scene remained seared in my mind. I didn’t want to start weeping again.

A boy, Travis, and his dog share an unbreakable bond until Old Yeller is bitten by a rabid wolf while saving the boy’s life. When Old Yeller is infected, Travis must shoot his dearest friend to keep him from suffering. It’s the hardest thing he’s ever done and may well be the hardest thing he’ll ever face in his entire life.

To soften the blow, the movie wraps up when Travis bonds with a new puppy from a litter sired by Old Yeller.

Consider this alternate ending: What if Old Yeller still saved Travis from the rabid wolf but walked away unscathed? Travis and Old Yeller trot off into the sunset, trailed by Yeller’s adorable puppies? Pure HEA, right?

Would the story still evoke the strong feelings it does more than six decades after I first saw it and bawled my eyes out? Probably not.

Charlotte’s Web had the same emotional power. Additionally, the first line is one of the greats in literature:

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Fern said.

Charlotte the spider dies after saving Wilbur the pig’s life and making him famous. The blow of her death is tempered because she left behind generations of children and grandchildren to keep Wilbur company for the rest of his days.

Alternate ending: What if Charlotte didn’t die but continued her friendship with Wilbur until, one peaceful night, they both passed away from old age? Would the ending be as memorable? Nah.

Witness (1985) with Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis is not only a cracking good thriller but also a love story. Philadelphia detective John Book must protect Samuel, a young Amish boy who witnesses a cop’s murder.  In the process, Book falls in love with the boy’s mother, Rachel. In the climax, the villains are thwarted and Samuel is safe. Mission accomplished. But Book must leave Rachel because, despite their love, he could never fit in her world and she could never fit in his.

Alternate ending: Book stays with Rachel in the idyllic Amish community and they share a blissful, if improbable, life together.

If screenwriter Earl Wallace had opted for the HEA above, would he have won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay? I doubt it.

Photo Credit: Edgar Brau, Creative Commons

Perhaps the most famous bittersweet ending in film is Casablanca. Rick gives up the woman he loves and watches Ilsa walk away with her husband, not because Rick wants to, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Alternate ending: Ilsa tells Victor Laszlo to go back his resistance work without her and she and Rick share a passionate kiss in his saloon while Dooley Wilson reprises “As Time Goes By.” 

With that HEA, would Casablanca have become an icon in movie history? Unlikely.

The examples cited above are all legendary. As authors, we can aspire to that status but most of us are happy if readers enjoy our stories, remember them, and want to buy more.

Mickey Spillane, who sold 225 million books in his career, famously said,

“Your first line sells the book. Your last line sells the next book.”

How does an author make endings satisfying and memorable enough to convert a reader into an avid fan who wants more? One way is to inject poignancy.

Here are several tools to help you add the bittersweet component.

The Wound: The hero ends up damaged. The wound doesn’t have to be physical; it can also be emotional, psychological, or spiritual.

During the journey, the hero suffers greatly. By the end, she is triumphant in achieving her goal, vanquishing the foe, solving the mystery, or righting the wrong. That’s the HEA part.

But her success comes with a cost.

She may have lasting effects from a bullet wound, PTSD from emotional and psychological wounds, or undergo a spiritual crisis when the belief or value system she’s always depended on collapses.

The wound can happen to another character, someone she cares deeply for. That loved one’s pain or death causes her to question if her success was worth it.

Disappointment: The hero may have worked his butt off to attain his desire but, once reached, he learns it’s not what he really wanted after all. Wiser after his journey, he must let go of his dream. The HEA can spring from his epiphany that there is a different, sometimes better, reward than the one he originally sought.

Sacrifice: The hero prevails but must give up someone she cherishes. She does the right thing at great personal loss to herself. The HEA stems from her satisfaction that her loved one is happy or safe.

Can you think of other tools to achieve poignancy? Please share them in the comments.

When an author successfully balances bitter and sweet, the reader feels the resonance to their core. In fiction and in life, there is no sweet without the bitter. 

By tempering a happy ending with sorrow, joy may emerge as the dominant emotion but the complex feelings you evoke in a reader make the story more memorable and lasting than one that only taps into happiness.

Dan Pink concludes by saying:

“Endings can help us elevate—not through the simple pursuit of happiness but through the more complex power of poignancy. Closings, conclusions, and culminations reveal something essential about the human condition: In the end, we seek meaning.”

~~~

TKZers: Please share examples of your favorite endings in books or films and why they stuck with you.

What techniques do you use to inject poignancy into your work?

~~~

 

 

A high-stakes gamble. The winner lives. The loser dies.

Please check out Dead Man’s Bluff, Debbie Burke’s new thriller here. 

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.

Creative Commons license

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.

25 Ways To Avoid Writer’s Butt*

 

Credit: Go Daddy Stock Photo

A handy list for your writing day:

  1. Don’t write.
  2. If you choose to write, don’t eat while you’re writing.
  3. Chain yourself to your desk to keep from going to the kitchen.
  4. If your desk is in the kitchen, you need to move your desk.
  5. Don’t write about food unless you’ve just eaten. It will make you hungry.
  6. A candy treat is a fine reward for a potty-training toddler, not grown-up writers who’ve squeaked out 100 words in three hours.
  7. A single glass (not bottle!) of wine, spirits or beer is a fine reward for finishing your work for the day.
  8. Take your dog or cat for a walk. Bonus points if you’re not staring at your phone.
  9. Exercise before you write. Let writing be your reward. (Hey! Stop laughing!)
  10. When you get stuck while writing and find yourself headed for the kitchen, scream DON’T DO IT at the top of your lungs and do 10 push-ups. Knee push-ups count.
  11. If you’re on the phone kvetching with another writer about the sad state of publishing, your life, your advance, or your Writer’s Butt, wear a headset and walk around and around your office, living room, front yard. Bonus points for each 1K steps you take.
  12. Keep your fridge and cabinets stocked with food you hate, or food that takes preparation.
  13. Get a standing desk and a good mat on which to stand.
  14. Nap, at your desk, or napping place of your choice.
  15. Take your dog or cat for another walk.
  16. When you temporarily forget how to write, listen to an audiobook by a writer who inspires you as you walk, jog, etc.
  17. Don’t write when you’re exhausted. Exhausted writers are hungry writers.
  18. When you’re not writing, make your diet as carb-loaded and awful as possible. Then you’ll have acid-reflux the whole time and won’t be tempted to eat.
  19. Take a dance break.
  20. Write stomach-churning prose.
  21. Wear pants that are already uncomfortably tight instead of yoga pants.
  22. Use the Pomodoro method. This one is online, but you can get yourself an actual timer for your desk.
  23. Write at the library and leave your money in the car so you can’t use the vending machines. Bonus points for parking far away.
  24. When you’re reading, walk around the house. You know you did it as a kid. Watch out for the dog.
  25. During your writing time, turn off the Internet, have a tall glass of water on hand, and write like a demon. You’ll feel so good and accomplished when you look at those pages that you’ll either not care if you have Writer’s Butt (always an option!), or you’ll feel so virtuous that you’ll make yourself a healthy dinner, have a glass of wine (or not), take the dog for a walk, get a good night’s sleep, and do it again tomorrow.

*Disclaimer: I have used all 25 methods at various times, and my Writer’s Butt comes and goes. As to number 3, I have gotten so tangled up in the huge number of power cords around my desk that I may as well have been chained because it was a real pain to try to get away from my chair and go to the kitchen.

Okay TKZ-ers! Please share your Avoiding-Writer’s-Butt strategies. We’re listening…