Editor Interview – Val Mathews

By Debbie Burke
@burke_writer

After lunch on the second day of a writing conference, typically attendees’ brains are already brimming. Fatigue sets in. With full tummies, the temptation to nod off is strong.

Editor Val Mathews

However, no one dozed during Val Mathews’s presentation at the Flathead River Writers Conference in Montana this past October.

Val is a former acquisitions editor at The Wild Rose Press and teaches at several universities. She’s a certified flight instructor and used to fly Lear jets. Additionally, she’s a gifted speaker who knows how to grab and keep an audience’s attention.

At the beginning of her talk, Val got about 100 attendees up on our feet and walking between long rows of tables and down the aisles of the auditorium. Initially, she asked us to imagine we were taking a leisurely hike in Glacier Park. What did we see, smell, and hear?

Then she switched the scenario to a crowded city street. We were late to an important meeting, had forgotten our notes, and needed to return to the office to retrieve them. The energy in the room increased. The sea of people hurried around, now moving in opposite directions, passing each other and trying to avoid collisions.

Next, Val reduced the pace and had us walk with different postures—chests out, heads lowered, hunched over, hips forward, speeding up, slowing down—while paying attention to how each variation made our bodies feel.

Then she told us to become our main character and emulate their posture, movements, stride, and attitude. She asked, “How does your character feel? What are the physical sensations? What are they thinking about? How does that affect their movement?”

After ten minutes, Val had succeeded in chasing away all drowsiness and captured our full attention.

The exercise impressed me, so I invited Val to visit The Kill Zone. Welcome, Val!

Debbie Burke: Please share a little of your background and how you ended up in the publishing business.

Val Mathews: Thanks for having me, Debbie. I’m so glad you enjoyed my workshops! They are always so much fun to do, and everyone comes away renewed with ideas and inspired to write!

By the way, that opening exercise was borrowed from acting classes I took recently. Acting is all about stepping into your character’s body and soul and deeply connecting to your character’s inner world. Writers must do the same thing! And we can get to this deeper level of connection with our characters through our senses. Good writers have a knack for stepping into their characters, and it shows on the page. The characters come alive, feel real! And real-feeling characters hook readers.

So, to answer your question, I recently left The Wild Rose Press. Currently, I’m an editorial consultant for CRAFT Literary, a well-established online literary magazine, and I teach other editors at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Editorial Freelancers Association in New York City. Also I work one-on-one with writers to take their manuscripts to the next level—or the next few levels. All done remotely from my home in Athens, Georgia.

The funny thing is that I feel like I ended up in publishing by accident, even though my mom encouraged me to pursue that direction all my life. I got into publishing later in my life. In my 40s, after I already had a couple of careers and raised a family, I was accepted into graduate school and earned my Master of Arts in Professional Writing.

While in graduate school, I taught First-Year Composition, tutored writers, and volunteered as a poetry editor for a little literary magazine. On the side, I was coding and designing websites. Then I volunteered for SurfCoaches, a surfing company in Costa Rica, and created a digital magazine and website for them.

Those experiences gave me the confidence to approach the Georgia Writers Association and propose a digital literary magazine. They were thrilled since they only had a little newsletter at the time. I got a team together—mostly volunteer editors and readers—and we poured through submissions. We published poetry, short stories, and articles on the craft of writing. We did a couple of flash fiction contests too. A lot of fun!

Initially, I was just going to handle the poetry side, but surprisingly to me, I ended up being really good at fixing red-hot messes and fine-tuning short stories.

One of the accepted short-story authors asked me to edit her full manuscript. Then another asked and another. They referred me to their writer friends, and before I knew it, I was working with a writer every month while still in grad school. It spread by word of mouth. Soon writers asked me to come and talk at their writer groups, and I got even more clients. Then I started presenting at writer conferences, and my career took off from the exposure and experience. I’m booked two months or more in advance now.

A few years ago, I sent letters of introduction to a few university presses and small traditional publishers. I was hired on with The Wild Rose Press and got on the developmental editor list with the University of Georgia. During the first few years, I asked myself, “Is this real? Can I do it again next month?” And I always did. My mom would say, “I told you so.”

I’m still amazed at how I get to do what I love and I can do it from home, the coffee shop, the mountains—maybe the moon in five years. (Just kidding about the moon; I’ll settle for an island as long as I have a good internet connection.)

In college, I wanted to major in Biology. My mother bucked. She said, “But you can’t; you’re a girl!” Hard to imagine nowadays! She convinced me to major in English at Loyola University in New Orleans. Eventually, I rebelled, and I secretly enrolled in college for aeronautical science to become a commercial pilot like my father. I didn’t tell my mom until after my first solo! I flew turboprops and Lear Jets for a little while, and then life took unexpected twists and turns that led me to my current publishing career.

I’m still a FAA Certified Flight Instructor and have been for almost three decades now. Being a jet pilot is a bonus in the editing world. Aspiring authors often mention that my flying past was one of the deciding factors that made them pick up the phone and ask about my editorial services. And they always sign on.

Needless to say my mom was right. She knew I had a knack for writing and editing. Don’t you hate it when your mother is always right?

DB: What attracted you to editing?

VM: Although I edit at all levels—from developmental to proofreading—I’m most attracted to developmental editing. Developmental editors are all about the big picture. We assess how scenes hang together as a whole, how a story moves and unfurls, how characters drive the story forward. We’re kind of like detectives. We look for clues—or story seeds, as I call them.

These story seeds are often hidden or not fully fleshed out by the writer. But developmental editors look deep into the heart of a story and pull them out. Often writers don’t even know these seeds are there! Their creative subconscious scattered those seeds, but their consciousness was barely aware of them. When I point them out, their faces light up. It’s incredible to watch authors in this moment of inspired realization.

What I love the most about developmental editing is these light-bulb moments.

It’s deeply fulfilling to help writers fulfill their dreams. If a manuscript lacks focus, I’ll help the writer find it. If an author lacks confidence, I’ll work to inspire, challenge, and cheer them on. A developing editor’s job is not just about the manuscript—a large chunk of what we do involves inspiring the author’s voice and developing their full potential. In fact, the best developmental editors become the author’s collaborating partners—we hone the writer’s unique voice and make the author’s vision our vision.

When copyeditors move to developmental editing, it’s a significant perspective shift for sure. And how to make that move is a big part of my focus when teaching other editors to do what I do.

DB: When reading manuscripts, what qualities catch your attention?

VM: Well, on that first page, I’m crossing my fingers and hoping to be hooked. I love a story that starts with a strong voice—either a strong narrator voice or a strong character voice. Voice is a bit of an allusive term. What a good voice is for one editor may not be for another. It’s often very subjective.

In Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing, James Scott Bell says that a “great voice is symbiotic,” meaning interdependent, and he encourages authors to identify with their characters so intimately that the authors begin to feel and think how the characters feel and think. Again, this is what actors do when preparing for a new part, and what I try to do in my workshops.

Furthermore, I love a story that captures my senses. At The Wild Rose Press, we have a good rule of thumb: include three sensory details per page and one of those should be something other than visual. Sensory details make the characters and their world come alive and really pop off the page.

DB: What qualities turn you off?

VM: Simply boring writing. Boring is also an elusive term too. What boring is for one editor may not be boring to another editor. Again, it’s often very subjective. But there are a few things that all editors will agree on.

For instance, dialogue that doesn’t add anything to the mood or increase the tension or drive the conflict. Boring dialogue and “talking heads” turn me off the most. Talking heads is when characters are talking but disconnected from the story world—there are no action beats, no sensory details, no glimpse into the point-of-view character’s inner world and motivations. The characters don’t feel real!

But the good news is it’s an easy fix. Writers can just look for long stretches of dialogue, and weave in actions and details to ground the reader in the story’s physical world. Then show the character’s conflicting desires, values, and emotions so the character becomes real.

Another turn-off is when the characters’ roles are generic, stereotyped, or old-fashioned because they don’t represent real people in all their colors, patterns, and quirks. Again boring.

DB: Could you describe your acquisition process at The Wild Rose Press?

VM: Every editor at The Wild Rose Press may have a different process. Typically, a senior editor or our editor-in-chief will send us a potential new author’s submission package consisting of the query letter and the first five pages. Each editor makes their own decision to request more pages or send a friendly (but often helpful) rejection letter. That’s why an author’s opening pages have to pop. Writers have a small window to hook a publisher and make the acquiring editor want to read on.

However, my submission process normally starts at a writers’ conference. Most of the submissions I read were sent to me from authors I met at a conference or workshop. I also get contacted by literary agents who pitch their client’s novels.

When I receive a submission, the first thing I do is read the first five pages. Often, I can tell on page one if it’s going to be a rejection—cold hard truth. If the opening doesn’t pop off the page, most readers aren’t going to wait until page three hundred to see if anything happens. One time, a writer told me, “But it gets good on page one hundred.” True story! Readers read for the joy and thrill of it. We want that joy and thrill on page one, page two, page three, and every page after that.

To get your foot in the door with an acquisition editor, rock the house down on the first page. It doesn’t have to be exploding bombs, car chases, shooting matches, and murder mayhem on page one, but it does need to hook us immediately and keep hooking us on every page.

The hook can be a promise of future conflict or subtle micro-tension or a strong character voice. One of those three things (preferably all three) will prompt me to immediately email the author and ask for a partial or full manuscript.

After reading the first five pages, I look at the pitch part of the author’s query. I’ll also read the synopsis and then request more pages or send a rejection. Some editors always read the query first and only ask for more pages based on the pitch. However, more than once, I’ve been thrilled by a fantastic pitch and strong synopsis, only to be disappointed when reading the manuscript. I think sometimes authors hire a professional query and synopsis writer.

I suggest writing it yourself. You have to know your story cold. When writers struggle to put the gist of their stories into a strong pitch paragraph or break the story down into a tight synopsis, then I bet there is a good chance their manuscripts have plot holes or too many storylines or too many characters—just my two feathers. I’m sure there are exceptions.

If I’m on the fence about a story or just want another opinion, I sometimes run it by our reading panel for their input. Depending on their positive reviews, I will continue with the acquisition process. Sometimes the readers give me insights I haven’t thought about or clue me into some aspects of the novel that might rub readers the wrong way.

Once I find a manuscript that I love and want to make an offer to the author, I send a Request for a Contract to my senior editor. If she approves, she sends it through, and an offer is made. Then the fun begins!

DB: What do you believe are the most significant changes in the publishing industry in the past five years?

VM: Well, the pandemic certainly changed things and pushed readers more strongly toward audio and digital books. Both have been steadily rising, but they really jumped up in readership during the pandemic. Audiobooks are a hot marketplace ticket! We are talking about a billion-dollar market here!

Authors may want to consider keeping their derivative rights. Derivative rights are the starting point for audiobooks. Before signing a publishing contract, ask, “Do I control my derivative rights, specifically my audio rights?” Read that contract and consider renegotiating to hang on to those rights. Because as I said, audio rights are hot right now and are expected to get hotter.

Spotify is buying Findaway and is really moving into the audiobook market. They expect audiobook sales to grow from $3.3 billion to $15 billion by 2027. That’s huge!

If you control that right, you get 100% of the profit. However, more publishers are keeping those rights. But it’s still economically not attractive for many publishers to produce audiobooks, so they may decide not to do it. In either case, you may want to ask for those rights to be reverted back to you so that you reap all the profit.

DB: What trends have you noticed lately?

VM: TikTok is the fastest-growing social media platform and is probably today’s essential tool for branding and marketing your novels. I used to rave about Twitter, but TikTok is stealing the show these days.

Although audiobooks and digital books are hot, print books are in demand, and apparently there is a shortage. Despite the surge in new technologies, all generations still prefer reading physical books. So, the good news is that print publishing is not dying as many had predicted.

Serial fiction is super-hot! As the old sales adage goes: It’s easier to keep an old client than to get a new one. The same goes for readers. This is particularly important for self-published authors. Sites like Kindle Vella, Wattpad, Inkitt, Tapas, Radish, and other online reading apps will continue to do well.

During the pandemic, book sales increased, especially among Gen Zers. Not surprising with more free time and people working from home or off work and going to school from home. And contrary to popular belief, Millennials are voracious readers.

The book industry is still alive and well. Older readers tend to gravitate to thrillers, mystery, and suspense, whereas younger readers tend to favor fantasy, science fiction, and general literature. Young adult novels had the most significant jump in sales in 2021. Also, 66% of poetry book buyers are under thirty-four. These young people are huge readers!

One interesting statistic I found is the rise in romance readership among young people, specifically young adult men. However, with that being said, most fiction readers are still women. About 80%!

Writers may want to think about creating a tough, wicked-smart female protagonist who solves her own problems and doesn’t wait for the knight in shining armor. I think the days of the damsel in distress are gone—again, just my two feathers.

It’s good to understand the differences between the generations and how they hear about novels. Gen Z looks to social media and friends for book recommendations, whereas most of the older generations depend on bookseller lists. So, if you’re not on social media, such as BookTok, I encourage you to get hopping. It’s never too late or too soon to start.

DB: Is there anything you’d like to add that I haven’t asked about?

VM: Yes! On behalf of all editors everywhere, I want to thank you and all the writers out there. Thank you for letting us into your creative worlds. I know how hard it is to let your “baby” go and entrust it to the care of an editor. I want to acknowledge the guts it takes to be a writer and put yourself out there. I’m so happy that you are in the world! Keep learning. Keep pushing your boundaries. Keep moving forward one page at a time.

You can find me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/editorvmathews and Instagram https://www.instagram.com/val_mathews/.

~~~

Val, thanks for the deep dive into the mind of an editor. We appreciate you sharing your insights with TKZ! 

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This is my last post before TKZ goes on our annual holiday break. See you in 2023. Aargh! How did 2022 whiz by so fast?

As always, thank you for your interest and participation in TKZ’s community! 

May your holiday season be filled with cheer, love, and peace!

Walking with the Wise

“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise” – Proverbs 13:20a

***

Over the past several years, I’ve been privileged to conduct interviews on my blog at kaydibianca.com with many highly-respected authors of books on the craft of writing. One question I’ve asked almost every interviewee is “What advice would you give a new writer?” Here are some of their answers:

***

James Scott Bell (Plot & Structure) “It’s the same answer every time: write to a quota. Get in the habit of writing a certain number of words every week, week in and week out. You have to practice what you learn in craft books and classes. You have to exercise your imagination. You have to produce the pages if you want to make it in this game.”

Steve Laube (The Christian Writers Market Guide) “To quote a line from the movie “Galaxy Quest”: Never give up. Never Surrender. Seriously. This is an industry that demands excellence. Few writers are born as a perfect writer. Instead, most writers are marked by a dogged determination to improve their craft, learn the industry, build relationships, and create great ideas.”

Randy Ingermanson (How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method) “Create a habit of writing every day. You can analyze author success mathematically, and there are four crucial factors. One of the factors of a successful career is production. A habit of writing every day drives production. One of the other factors is quality. A habit of writing every day builds quality. So write every day. Every single day.”

Renni Browne (Self-editing for Fiction Writers) “Don’t self-edit your first draft. Let the story pour out, unimpeded by self-editing points, grammar, anything you’ve read or heard from famous writers, and so on. Story first, style later.”

Dave King (Self-editing for Fiction Writers) “Writing is hard.  It doesn’t take long to learn the basics of writing well enough to write competently, especially if you have the help of a professional editor (ADVT).  But to really develop the writer’s gifts – the insight into people you need to create layered characters, the awareness of how your readers will react to your story, the ability to make all the different aspects of your novel work together – takes time to develop.”

Angela Ackerman (The Emotion Thesaurus) “Tough to narrow it down to a single piece of advice, lol. I think what I would probably say is to not be in a rush. Developing strong storytelling skills takes time. Can anyone belt out a book and publish it? Yes. Should they? Not if their intent is to have a satisfying career if their skills are not at the level needed for that to happen.”

H.R. D’Costa (Story Stakes) “The advice I’d give is to make sure that you work on cultivating the right mindset. In fact, I’d put that above even developing plotting and marketing skills. With a healthy mindset, when you run into a thorny plot problem, you won’t give up on the manuscript (or perhaps on writing itself). Instead, you’ll persevere. You’ll power through.”

Jodie Renner (Fire Up Your Fiction) “Don’t be in a rush to publish your novel or send it off to agents. Be sure to go through it several times, then get some volunteer beta readers to go through it and give you their impressions. Then, if you can afford a professional editor, that would be invaluable. Agents and small publishers are flooded with submissions, so the slightest off-putting issue (wordiness, repetition, bland characters, stilted dialogue, not enough intrigue or tension, typos, punctuation errors, bloopers, etc.) will quickly land your story in the “rejects” pile.”

K.M. Weiland (Creating Character Arcs) “Find the process that works best for you. Explore and experiment and figure out what best unleashes your creativity. For example, outlines aren’t one size fits all. My outline won’t look anything like someone else’s outline. So just because one outlining approach doesn’t do it for you, don’t give up right away. Play around and see if you can find the right blend of tools and techniques for you.”

Martha Alderson (The Plot Whisperer) “Understand that writing a novel from beginning to end takes you on an epic journey. You’ll learn as much about yourself as you do about stories the longer you write. Keep going. Trust the process.”

***

So, TKZers: What advice would you give to new writers?

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                    It’s About Time

The Watch Series of cozy mysteries is available here.

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.

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

A Single Word Can Change the Tone

by Jodie Renner, editor & author 

In your WIP, are you inadvertently tossing in a word here and there that jolts the readers out of your story or gives an incongruous impression?

Once you’ve completed a first or second draft of your story (or your muse is taking a break), now’s the time to go back and reread each scene carefully. Does every word you’ve chosen contribute to creating the overall tone and mood you’re going for in that scene? Or are some of your word choices unintentionally detracting from the impression you want readers to take away?

Is it possible you may have unconsciously inserted the odd “cheery” word into a tense scene in your story? Or a relaxed-sounding word in a scene where the character is stressed or in a hurry? Or maybe your teenager or blue-collar worker sounds too articulate? I’ve seen examples of these quite often in the fiction I’ve edited over the years.

For example, the heroine and hero are running through the woods, pursued by bad guys intent on killing them. The debut author, thinking it’s a good idea to describe the setting, uses words like “leaves dancing in the light” and “birds chirping” and “babbling brook.” These light-hearted, cheerful words detract from the desperation she’s trying to convey as the young couple races frantically to escape their pursuers. In this situation, it would be better to use more ominous words, perhaps crows cawing, a wolf howling, water crashing over rapids, or thunder cracking.

Read through each of your scenes and make sure every word you use to describe the setting, the people, and their actions, words, and thoughts contributes to create the impression you’re going for in that scene, rather than undermining your intentions.

DESCRIBING YOUR SETTING:

Here’s an example, slightly disguised, from my editing. It’s supposed to be a tense, scary moment, but the author has, without thinking about the impact, inserted relaxed, even joyful imagery that counteracts and weakens the apprehensive mood he is trying to convey (my bolding).

He locked the door behind him, his harried mind ricocheting between frightened alertness and sheer fatigue. He took a furtive glance out the window. No one there, so far. Despite the cold, a warming shaft of morning sunlight filtered through the stained curtain, and languid dust particles slow-danced in its beam.

What had he gotten himself into? They would certainly be on to him now—it was only a matter of time before they found him. He looked out again through the thin curtain. Sunbeams were filtering through the branches of an old tree outside the window, the shriveled shapes of the leaves dancing in the breeze, playing gleefully with the light. He swore he saw movement on the ground outside—a figure.

Some of the wording in the two paragraphs above is excellent, like “his harried mind ricocheting between frightened alertness and sheer fatigue” and the phrases “furtive glance,” “stained curtain” and “shriveled shapes of the leaves.” But the boldfaced words and phrases, warming, languid, slow-danced, sunbeams, dancing in the breeze, and playing gleefully with the light weaken the imagery and tone because they’re too happy and carefree for the intended ominous mood. Perhaps the writer, caught up in describing the view outside in a literary, “writerly” way, momentarily forgot he was going for frightened.  

Check to be sure every detail of your imagery enhances the overall mood and tone of the situation.

Here’s another example where the description of the setting detracts from the power of the scene and doesn’t match how the character would or should be feeling at that moment.

The protagonist has just had a shock at the end of the last chapter, where she’s discovered her colleague murdered. This is the beginning of the next chapter, a jump of a few days.

Mary gazed at the brightening horizon, immersing herself in the beauty of the rising sun. She watched as the dawn’s rays danced across the waves. Mary adored this time of day when the hustle and bustle had not yet started, and she could enjoy watching the waves wash in and listening to the seagulls overhead. It was one of the many reasons she loved this area so much.

Since the murder of Teresa three days ago, Mary had been in a state of turmoil. Teresa’s death had changed everything. Gruesome images continually flickered through her mind like an unending motion picture. She could think of nothing else and was racked by guilt.

To me, the two paragraphs seem contradictory in mood. If she’s racked by guilt and can think of nothing else, how can she enjoy the sunrise so much?

Be sure to choose words that fit the mood you’re trying to convey.

THOUGHTS, IMPRESSIONS, & IMAGERY:

Here’s another example of a tense, life-threatening scene whose power and tension have been inadvertently eroded by almost comical imagery.

The room went black and shots rang out in the darkness.

He took to the floor on all fours and, panicking, scrabbled around aimlessly, searching his addled mind for a direction, a goal. He poked his head up and looked around. Spotted the red exit sign of the back door. Loping ape-like across the office floor, he tried to keep his body below the level of the desks—he had seen them do it in the movies, so it was good enough for him. Several more bullets whistled overhead.

 

The words “addled” and “loping ape-like” seem too light and humorous for the life-or-death scene. Even the bit about seeing it in the movies, so it was good enough for him seems too light-hearted – this could be the last moments of this guy’s life if he doesn’t find a way to avoid the bullets!

Here’s the same scene, rewritten to capture the desperate mood:

The room went black and shots rang out in the darkness.

What the—? He dropped to the floor and, panicking, searching his frenzied mind for a direction, a goal. Get out of here! He poked his head up and looked around. Spotted the red exit sign of the back door. At a low crouch, he set out across the open office, dodging from one desk to another. Several more bullets whistled overhead.

Another example with imagery that’s fresh and creative, but does it actually fit the moment?

A truck came barreling toward them. He wrenched the wheel to the right, and they passed the truck, missing it by inches. Mud splattered onto the windshield, and the wipers smeared it like chocolate ice cream.

I think the chocolate ice cream imagery, although clever, is too positive and playful for the tense, scary moment.

A cliched phrase that doesn’t fit:

The frightening story cut too close to home for Diane. Just the possibility of it happening to her family scared her silly.

My comment to the writer: The word “silly” detracts from your intention to show her nervousness and fear. I’d express this with a less “silly” word. (and less of a cliché).

ACTIONS: The character’s body language and actions need to match the situation.

Don’t have someone “strolling” when they’re worried. Have them “pacing” instead. Similarly, when they’re arguing, don’t have them leaning back in their chair – have them hunched forward, or pointing a finger.

As they entered the police station, a tall, balding man with a goatee and an expensive suit shuffled down the hall towards them. As he passed, he handed a card to Wilson. “I want to see my client now, alone.”

My comment to the author: “I wouldn’t have a high-priced, confident lawyer shuffling. Save that verb for elderly or sick people, or a prisoner with chains.”

Another example of a verb that doesn’t fit the situation:

Joe stood up, shocked and numb, after his boss delivered the tragic news about the death of his friend. He dreaded his visit to Paul’s widow. He sauntered back to his office, his mind spinning.

“Sauntered” is way too relaxed and casual a word for the situation. The guy’s just been told his friend is dead. Maybe “found his way” or “stumbled” back to his office.

Another example: A high-ranking Nazi officer is about to invade the home of a wealthy Jewish family during the Second World War. The author wrote:

He giggled inwardly, thinking about the chaos he was about to bring to the Jews who lived here.

My comment to the writer was: The verb “giggled” fits a couple of schoolgirls, not a nasty Nazi. I suggest “smirked” or “gloated.”

Another example:

At the funeral, the widow caught Peter’s glance and squinted her eyes in accusation. She no doubt held him responsible for her husband’s death.

“Squinted” is like against the bright sun. I’d say “narrowed her eyes” or “glared at him.”

How is your character moving?

Is he strolling, trudging, striding, tiptoeing, stomping, shuffling, meandering, staggering, lurching, sauntering, tramping, slinking, mincing, strutting, pacing, sashaying, marching, or slogging along? Each word paints a very different picture of the state of the character and the situation.

For lots of specific suggestions for choosing just the right verb for the situation, see my post “It’s All in the Verbs” from a few years back here on TKZ. And read the comments there for more great suggestions.

And for specific lists of effective, evocative verbs for various situations, check out my post on my own blog, “People in Motion — Vary Those Verbs!

Make sure every single word fits the scene and enhances the mood.

Even one incompatible word can jolt the reader or dilute the power of a scene.

Can you pick out the word below that deflates the moment?

The guard drew in a shuddering breath as if to cry out. He half-coughed and half-gasped, then started to scream again, this time with enthusiasm. Brad covered the man’s mouth and knocked his gun to the ground.

Rather than screaming “with enthusiasm,” I’d use “in desperation or “in terror” or something like that. The choice of “with enthusiasm” evokes positive, cheery connotations.

Here’s another example of just one word jolting us out of the mood:

They broke the lock on the warehouse and looked around. “Let’s check the big freezers in the back.” He strode over and opened the freezer door. The smell of frozen flesh and blood smacked him in the face. An emaciated, naked man stared at him with lifeless eyes, frozen like a popsicle.

Yes, it’s that word at the end. I imagine the writer was searching for a good word for “frozen like” but “popsicle” is an unfortunate choice as it evokes an image that’s way too upbeat for the situation. Best to look for a more somber or horrific simile (maybe “like a pale slab of beef”).

Read these short passages and see if you can pick out the single word in each that contradicts the desired mood and tone.

  1. As the realization of what had happened hit her, Linda gasped and dropped to her knees, a myriad of twirling thoughts bombarding her mind.
  2. Could Greg have sold him out, led him here into a trap? Tony fixed his friend with an intense stare brimming with disappointment and betrayal.
  3. In the interrogation room, the accused man’s stiff, jaunty movements, drumming fingers, and constant glances around made Derek wonder if he was on something.
  4. The car spun on an invisible axis then crashed into a light post. Steve’s head bounced off the window, and his headache blossomed anew.

Words that don’t fit:

  1. “twirling” seems too light-hearted in this situation, like a dancer or a baton twirling. Maybe “whirling” or “swirling.”
  2. “brimming” is too cheery, too positive. Maybe just “his voice filled with disappointment…”
  3. “blossomed” seems too positive for a headache caused by a crack on the head during a car accident. Maybe just something like “intensified” or rewrite the phrase.

Your turn:

Rewrite any of these sentences with a more apt verb and any other tweaks you’d like to add:

  1. The big man walked into the… 
  2. The little girls danced around the room.
  3. The rabbit/squirrel/deer ran off.
  4. She looked at him, hands on hips. “What?”
  5. The crowd moved along the sidewalk.
  6. The pickpocket ran down the street.

Or feel free to make up one of your own. Have fun!

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: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, and CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. Website: www.JodieRenner.com; blog: http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/; Facebook. Amazon Author Page.

Use Color to Test Your Story

It’s been months since I shared the saga of the injured raven vs. my beloved “pet” crows, but there’s a good reason for that. I didn’t have an ending till last Thursday. For a while I thought I did, but I needed to verify my suspicions. Ignore the colors as you read. I’ll show you cool writing trick at the end. 🙂

When the story left off, I was trying to figure out how to feed “Rave” without angering my beloved Poe and her murder. While I weighed my options, the crows scolded the raven from all directions.

I have a strict “no fighting” policy in my yard. When anyone breaks this rule, I reinforce my disappointment by withholding food till they smarten up. A wise crow doesn’t anger the human who controls a never-ending supply of tantalizing treats. Needless to say, the attacks stopped as long as Rave stayed within the property lines. If she crossed the dirt road to the woods, my rules were no longer in play, and they divebombed her.

Brilliant birds.

Two weeks later, Poe signaled for me to use her summer rock. I’d created two separate feeding areas so Dad (my husband) didn’t have to shovel the lower yard — affectionally named Animal Planet for its greenery, flowers, and throngs of wildlife who visit — and Mumma didn’t have to schlep through thigh-high snow all winter.

The change in feeding area reset Poe’s murderous hatred toward Rave. By feeding Poe and family on Animal Planet and Rave on the winter rock in the upper yard, I’d restored a modicum of peace.

Until about a week later when Rave thought Poe’s rock looked tastier than hers. Or perhaps, she remembered switching rocks in the warm weather with her dad, Odin. Hard to say for sure what prompted her to move to the woods near the summer rock when our new arrangement worked so beautifully.

Poe was NOT pleased about Rave’s decision.

For the umpteenth time I tried to capture Rave to bring her to a rehabber. And once again, she outmaneuvered me. Maybe she’d be okay on her own? The question replayed on an endless loop, followed by the grave reality of a fox, Great Horned Owl, Fischer cat, raccoon, or black bear crossing her path during the night.

Sleepless nights wore me down.

For two-plus-weeks I wrestled with what to do. Then one day I stopped looking at the situation through my eyes — human eyes — and viewed it from Poe and Rave’s perspective. Once I did, all the years of researching corvids flooded my mind with ideas.

One of crows’ amazing abilities is delayed gratification. Meaning, crows will wait for food if the food they’re waiting for is tastier than the scraps that await them now (Ravens can do this, too, but don’t when they’re injured).

With this theory in mind, I offered Poe a deal.  As the alpha, she’s the only crow I needed to convince. The others would fall in line behind her.

“Poe, if you let Rave eat, I’ll bring out your favorite treats after she’s safely out of sight.”

Now, I’d love to tell you Poe agreed right away, but the truth is, she wasn’t thrilled with the idea at first. Every time I served breakfast, lunch, or dinner, the crows emptied the rock within seconds. Just once I needed Rave to beat Poe to the rock.

It took about three days before Rave worked up enough courage to race Poe to the rock. Afterward, when Rave hopped back into her new wooded digs, I offered Poe raw chicken breast, her favorite kibble, and of course, I replenished the peanut pile.

Success!

Rave on her own special rock.

Day after day, Poe waited for Rave to eat and I made good on my promise. But then, Rave would climb up on this new rock at the tree-line to check out the menu before proceeding toward the summer rock.

The proverbial lightbulb blazed on. If I used both rocks — one for Poe and family and one for Rave — I could potentially decrease the animosity between them. And it worked. For the next few weeks, Poe never ventured near Rave’s rock at feeding time, and vice versa.

What happened next stunned me into submission.

Toward the end of nesting season, Poe sent the fledglings and elder siblings on patrol with Edgar. Shakespeare, known fondly as “Shaky” (Poe’s mini me), stayed with Mumma. Breath trapped in my lungs as Poe swaggered into the woods in search of Rave. Uh-oh. This can’t be good.

Moments later, “low-talking” indicated Poe and Rave were hashing out a few things. Shrubbery obscured my view. There’s nothing I could do but wait. Watch. Pray Poe wouldn’t morph into Hannibal Lecter or Buffalo Bill.

Seconds felt like years.

After several heart-stopping minutes, Poe sauntered out of the woods for a little worm-hunting while Shaky played lookout (since birds are most vulnerable on the ground, crows post a sentinel in the trees). To my surprise Rave lumbered right past Poe, so close the feathers on their wingtips almost touched. Rave climbed up the rock to the feast on chicken thighs, peanuts, sunflower seeds, and kibble. Poe even allowed Rave to eat the dead mouse!

That’s when it dawned on me — these two majestic animals had struck a deal.

Poe watching Rave’s six from the grass below.

With this new arrangement, Rave waited for the crows to tell her if it was safe to step into the open.

Many sharp-shinned hawks flooded our area, and an injured raven equaled easy prey.

In return for Poe’s service, Rave only ate half the food. She even tore off a piece of chicken and tossed it to Poe on the grass below. 

The good times didn’t last long.

Each year when the new fledglings leave the nest, Poe escorts the crowlettes to my yard to practice landing on branches and learn how to slalom through the maze of trees. Normally, it’s a special occasion filled with hilarity and awe.

Not this year.

When Poe brought the fledglings, trepidation surfed their wake. Rave still asked for permission to approach the rock, but Poe’s cutting glare indicated an emphatic, “Don’t you dare come near my babes.”

What could I do? I couldn’t scold Poe for protecting her young. I also couldn’t let Rave starve. A niggling sensation burrowed bone-deep for the next three weeks. Every time Poe, Edgar, and the elder siblings left to teach the fledglings crucial life lessons, I jogged down to the rock to feed Rave.

The situation wasn’t ideal for any of us, but we dealt with it. Until we couldn’t any longer.

Animal Planet turned menacing — dangerous — as a rebellious fledgling ventured past the rock into the woods, in line with Rave’s hiding spot, her home-away-from-home doubling as a hollowed bush.

Poe scolded the fledgling to back away, but he refused to obey. That tiny crow acted like he’d been sworn in as the new sheriff in town, a LEO hellbent on destroying the interloper in their midst.

The situation spiraled toward disaster.

One sultry July morning he’d had about enough of Poe’s “rules” and swooped down in full attack-mode. Ear-piercing caws tornadoed through the trees. I raced toward the woods to intervene before the others joined their brethren.

Whether this incident had anything to do with Rave’s future plan, I couldn’t tell, but she disappeared for three days. Upon her return, she stocked up on food and rested for two days. Vanished for another three days, returned for two. She seemed to have a set route to a precise location. Two days on, three days off. The routine never wavered. Two days on, three days off.

Could Rave be a mother? What if the scuffle with Poe’s fledgling convinced her to find her own? Crows and ravens have similar nesting patterns. If Rave had chicks in the nest when she got hurt, they’d be fledging, too.

More and more I became convinced that she was searching for her family during those three days away. Though this theory filled me with warmth, I still panicked every time she left. Until the day Rave soldiered into the yard with more confidence than she’d had in months, and her shiny black plumage had regained its luster.

For hours she perched on a rock near the house and exercised the injured wing. She even attempted short, low flights, about two feet off the ground for ten feet at a time. Day after day for a solid week, she waited for Poe to soar out of sight before practicing her flying, each day gaining more lift.

When I bustled down the hill to Animal Planet the following day, one flawless raven feather laid on the rock — a thank you from Rave — and I wept, keening over my loss. I’d prayed for Rave to heal, to thrive, but I never got the chance to say goodbye.

Would I ever see her again?

All summer I searched the sky for Rave. Every now and then my husband said he heard gronking in the woods, which brought me some solace. Still, I longed to see her one last time.

Two weeks ago, I had an early appointment that forced me out of the house early on a Friday morning. As I hustled up the walkway, gronk, gronk, gronk emanated from the woods across from the driveway.

I darted across the dirt road. “Rave?”

“Gronk, gronk, gronk.”

“Rave! I missed you so much!”

A black silhouette peeked out from behind a tree trunk. “Gronk, gronk.”

“I wish I could stay, but I can’t. Please come back, baby. I need to make sure you’re okay.”

A week rolled by with no word from Rave. Last Thursday, she strutted across Animal Planet with her bill held high, chest out, confidence and pride oozing off every feather. When she stepped on to Poe’s rock, disappointment crossed her face. The crows had devoured every morsel.

Rave stared up at the window. “Gronk, gronk?”

“Rave,” I called back. “One sec, honey. Be right out.”

That’s all the reassurance she needed. With her spectacular black wings spread wide, Rave leaped into the air and flew to the branch overlooking the rock. I bustled down to Animal Planet, my gaze locked with hers, my emotions rising over the rims of my eyes, joyous tears spilling down my cheeks. Rave’s healthy, happy, and loved.

Now, pull the screen away and look at the colors. It’s a rose garden. Brown = soil (exposition/narration). Red = roses (action/dialogue). Green = leaves (emotion, inner dialogue, and foreshadowing). Too much soil, you’ll have gaps in your garden, wasted space. Too many leaves will overshadow your roses. With too many roses, you can’t see the beauty of each blossom.

This technique is easy to do in Word. I wouldn’t recommend it for a blog, as it’s labor-intensive to manually input colored highlights via CSS. You’re worth it, though. 🙂

One last note: If you come across sentences that contain emotion, exposition, and/or action, it’s fine to highlight it with one color. No need to nitpick. You’re looking at the story as more than the sum of its parts.

 

In other news, Pretty Evil New England released yesterday!  Congratulations to Priscilla Bettis for winning the giveaway!

 

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. 

A Writer’s Guide to Surviving Social Distancing & Quarantine

JordanDane

@JordanDane

No one has to tell me twice to stay home. I work from there as a writer. My commute is from the bedroom to my office. (No. I don’t work in my PJs. Puleeze.)

Don’t mingle? I love people, but I’m a bit of an introvert. I’m perfectly happy entertaining myself in my head. No worries. But in order to flatten the curve of the #CoronaVirus and allow health professionals to get this pandemic under control for the hospital beds and respirators they have, I am determined to do my part, happily. I’m also the primary caregiver to my parents who are in their 90s. They’re in good health, but their age puts them at a disadvantage.

I’m limiting my errands, appointments and socializing for the next few months and am hoping we, as a country, can get this pandemic under control. I’ve cancelled my European trip in July and will target my travel for 2021-2022 when things might be better.

I thought I would share what I am doing during my self-imposed lock down and get a conversation going. Let’s share what we’re up to and make this quarantine/social distancing survivable.

ALWAYS allow time for your daily quota but think outside the box for how to spend your time. This shouldn’t be same-old-same-old time. Treat yourself & bolster your spirit. The last time I had to spend time sequestered at home, I wrote my debut book after I had surgery. Perhaps this inconvenience could be a renaissance of sorts, a rebirth like a Phoenix rising from the ashes.

Stay positive & fuel your creativity.

Ideas for Writers to survive the #CoronaVirus #Pandemic:

1.) Develop your cooking skills. Treat yourself well by making an effort, even if it’s for a party of one. I have fun posting recipes with pics on social media, like Twitter and Instagram. If you’re feeling generous, try supporting your local restaurants who are suffering during this shut down. They may only be making money on deliveries. Order online with delivery & make sure to wipe down the cartons/containers & throw away the bags. Plastic & cardboard surfaces can carry the virus for 24 to 72 hours–and tip your driver.

2.) Research cooking homemade dog food & treats. My sister and I have challenged each other, from our respective homes, of course. We are cooking our own nutritious dog food with healthy ingredients (meats, vegetables and fruit) with vitamin & probiotic supplements. I recently did the math and I’m saving $20/bag off my old kibble brand. I cook once or twice a month and freeze some to have inventory. It’s fun to be creative for them. My oldest dog is ten and she’s gobbling up her food like she has never done before. I love seeing the joy of my three rescue dogs at meal times and their appreciation shows.

3.) Organize your life. What needs doing? What have you put off? For me, it’s tackling a storage room & my office. I also cleaned out my freezer & made use of what I could to make dog food. These jobs were long overdue. Writing deadlines are pushed to the top of the list normally, but this time of self-reflection has helped me get after projects that will make me feel better in the long run.

4.) Spend time outdoors. It’s spring. Get fresh air by working in a garden, cleaning up, applying lawn treatments. I maintain my home & yard on my own. It’s rewarding, invigorating & a reminder of nature’s renewal. This time of year, it is cleaning up leaves and sprucing up the garden to make way for the new growth. My tangerine tree is blooming and my tulips and bulbs are flowering.

5.) Do an inventory of the favorite things in your home & post pics of them on social media. I saw this on social media and participated. I thought it was a great idea for the home bound. Share a story of why something means the world to you. Tell a story and invite your followers to share their prized possessions. Very touching and interesting.

6.) Post a video of your quarantine activities online if you’re tech savvy. Or read excerpts of your books on video to share with readers. Do you feel comfortable with recording writing craft tutorials? With all the late night shows getting creative on Youtube, I thought–why not share our work with other quarantiners or read an age appropriate book to children? What the hell. I can’t sing

7.) Catch up on research for your next book & dig into a new plot. Daily writing time is important. That should come first, but working on a new project can be invigorating.

8.) Reach out to friends & family on FaceTime or texting or calling. Reassure your loved ones & stay more connected with the people you value most. Not including family, ask yourself–who makes the list of my top 10 contacts? I call this – taking an inventory of the heart.

9.) Focus on your pets. Things have changed in their world too. They see you home more and want your time. Take them on longer walks. It’s good exercise for you. Buy new toys for them, something you can enjoy with them.

10.) Catch up on your reading. Authors should be avid readers. You’ll learn as you enjoy.

11.) Write a letter to someone special. We’re writers, after all. Or keep a daily journal to get in touch with the emotions you might be feeling.

12.) Go on an online shopping spree. Or send a special gift to someone you love.

13.) Plan a vacation for late 2021 or 2022. Save for it. Take your time researching it & make the trip special.

14.) With sports being cancelled across our country, check out what others are doing on TikTok to invent a sport. Here is a LINK. Roomba Curling, window tennis, turtle tic tac toe, Sock Pacman, & ping pong trick shots set up in your home with obstacles.

15.) Take a vitual tour of these great sites at this LINK. Over 30 sites. Animal cameras, national parks, touring famous places across the world, try a virtual trip on Mars.

I count my lucky stars for everything good in my life, despite what’s going on across the globe. I hear & read about horror all over the world and things happening close to home. People are hurting and they don’t have many options if our economy shuts down to a crawl. Be kind to one another and help where you can. You will not regret it.

FOR DISCUSSION:
What are you doing to keep your sanity during this challenging time?