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?

 

Stay in the Phone Booth With the Gorilla

Stay in the Phone Booth With the Gorilla
Terry Odell

One of my critique partners is a computer programmer by trade, and one of the things we frequently mention in our critiques is how much detail is needed, and when. His mind works in a very logical fashion, and he’s always looking at every what if possibility. Normally, I’m pointing out where he doesn’t need to cover all the possible permutations of any given situation. But once in a while, he’ll catch me dwelling on unnecessary details. I figure when he sees them, I probably need to cut.

When I’m writing my police scenes, I do like my character to weigh all the options, since they’re trying to piece together clues, and often they don’t know what’s a clue and what’s not. But in an action scene, it’s important to remember to stick with the action. This isn’t the time to have your characters stop to reflect on the past. Dripping in back story should be done judiciously, and it’s probably never appropriate in life-threatening situations. Or even tension-filled scenes. Here’s an example from when I was working on Dangerous Connections:

My heroine, an undercover Vice cop, was supposed to use her “feminine wiles” to distract another character so the hero could mess with a computer program. I had her thinking about her job, because I wanted to make it clear that because she worked Vice didn’t mean she was experienced at seducing men.

Elle shoved her mind to the place she sent it when she was working a major sting. Truth of the matter, her day-to-day routine working vice didn’t involve seduction. Seduction could lead to claims of entrapment, and that was a headache for everyone. The johns weren’t fussy, and they didn’t want romance. All she had to do was get the money to change hands, and someone from her unit would show up and take them both away so as not to break her cover.

My partner’s comment: “I think you need to stay in the phone booth with the gorilla.”

Where did that come from?

Here’s an explanation from Robert Newton Peck’s Secrets of Successful Fiction:

Alma walked hurriedly down the dark and deserted street. Hearing footsteps echo behind her, she darted into a telephone booth. Before closing the door, Alma Glook knew she was not alone. With her in that phone booth was a five-hundred pound gorilla.

“Help!” yelped Alma.

Seeing the gorilla, her thoughts turned back in time to when she was a little girl, back home in Topeka, living with her aunt Mildred who was a taxidermist and scratched out their meager living by stuffing gorillas. In fact, her aunt had earned quite a reputation in college when she had, as a prank, stuffed nine gorillas into a phone booth.

Your readers aren’t interested in Alma’s past right now. They want to know how she’s going to deal with the gorilla. And the readers probably don’t need to know the ins and outs of working Vice. They want to know if Elle is going to be able to distract Bill so Jinx can do what he’s supposed to do.

A character’s thoughts can reveal a lot. Just be careful where you insert them.

Deadly FunMy new release, Deadly Fun. I’m sharing all March royalties with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.



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

What’s Your Point? Figuring Out
What Goes Into Each Chapter

By PJ Parrish

I dunno, maybe this is going to sound simplistic to most of you, but I’m going to throw it out there anyway: What should go into a chapter?

I’ve been thinking about this since last week after reading Jordan’s excellent post on narrative drive. In the comments section, BK Jackson wrote this:

The one of these I fumble with the most is having a goal for every scene. Sure, it’s easy when they’re about to confront the killer or it’s about a major plot point or a clue, but what about scenes that just set the stage of story-world and its people? Sure, you don’t want mundane daily life stuff, but sometimes I write scenes of protag interacting with someone in story world and, while I can’t articulate a specific goal for the scene, it seems cold and impersonal to leave it out.

And Marilynn wrote:

Working with newer writing students, I’ve discovered that some write a scene…because they are trying to clarify the ideas for themselves, not for the reader. 

I’ve found writers often struggle with this. It’s as if they just start writing, trying to figure out what the heck is happening, then they just run out of gas. End of chapter. But that’s not how it should go. No, you don’t need to outline, but you really need to stop and ask yourself questions before you write one word: How do you divide up your story into chapters? Where do you break them? How long should each chapter be? How many chapters long should your book be? And maybe the hardest thing to figure out: What is the purpose of each chapter? Or as BK put it, what is the “goal?”

Again, this sounds simplistic but it’s not simple. How you CHOSE to divide up your story affects your reader’s level of engagement.  The way you CHOSE to chop up your plot-meat helps the reader digest it.  The way you CHOSE to parcel out character traits helps your reader bond with people. And the way you CHOSE to manipulate your story via chapter division enhances — or destroys — their enjoyment.

For some writers, this comes naturally, like having an ear in music. But for many of us, it is a skill that can be learned and perfected. So let’s give it a go.

First, do we even need chapters? Marilynne Robinson doesn’t use them. James Dickey’s To The White Sea is one big tone-poem. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road uses a couple dots instead of chapter headings, perhaps to emphasize the in media res feeling of a long journey. (I was so pulled into that book I didn’t even notice it didn’t have chapters!) But most of us mere mortals probably need to break things up a bit.

Why? Chapters give your reader a mental respite. Chapter breaks allow the reader to digest everything that’s happened. They also help build suspense for what is yet to come. If you divide them up artfully instead of willy-nilly.

Maybe it’s helpful to think of each chapter as a dramatic island. (I wrote a whole blog about this a couple years back). Then build bridges (transitions) between them. Or think of each chapter as a mini short-story. Each chapter, ideally, has its own dramatic arc — a beginning to pull the reader in, a middle with meat, and a kicker ending that makes the reader want to turn the page.

But first, ask yourself this about each chapter: What do I want to accomplish?

The first chapter is sometimes the easiest.  We talk about this all the time here, especially in our First Page Critiques. To review: For crime fiction (if not all good fiction, in my humble opinion) an opening chapter should establish time and place, introduce a major character (often the protagonist or villain), set the tone, and at least hint at some disturbance in the norm. (A body has been found, a gauntlet thrown, a character called to action). Yeah, we get all that, right?

But, as BK said, things tend to fall apart after that. The deeper you get into your story, the harder it becomes to articulate what needs to happen within each chapter. For those of you who outline, maybe it’s easier. But I’ve seen even hardcore outliners lose their way. When you sit down to write, sometimes, it just pours out in this giant amorphic blob, until, exhausted, you just quit writing. End of chapter? No, end of energy because you didn’t pace yourself.

So, before you start a chapter, STOP.  Sit there and think, really hard, until blood beads on your forehead. Don’t write a word until you can answer this question:

What do I need to accomplish in this chapter?

Some other things to help you home in on chapter “goals.”

Write a two-line summary before you start each chapter. For a revenge  plot, you might write “In this chapter the reader will find out villain’s motivation for killing his brother.”  Or in a police procedural you might write: “In this chapter, Louis and Joe put together the clues and realize Frank isn’t the killer.”

Look for ways for every chapter work harder, to have secondary purposes. Main purpose: “In chapter four, Louis goes to the UP to find evidence on the cold case of the dead orphan boys.” But also in that chapter: “The reader gets some background on Louis’s years in foster care.”  (character development plus resonates with lost boy theme) Also: “Add in good description of the Upper Peninsula.” (Establishes sense of place and underscores desolate mood.”)

Maybe this is what BK was asking for — how to make those later chapters more muscular. As you go deeper into your plot, keep looking for layers you can add, ways to make each chapter have secondary “goals.”

Use physical tools. Don’t visualize your book as a continuous unbroken roll. Think of it as a lot of little story units you can move around. Think Lego blocks, not toilet paper. Some writers draw elaborate story boards. I’m told there is software for this, but Kelly and I are Luddites. We write the salient points of each chapter on Post-It notes that we color code for POVs and move them around on a big poster board. Vladimir Nabokov wrote chapter notes on index cards and shuffled them until he found a chapter sequence that made sense.

How do you keep your chapters from just petering out? Again, you have to THINK about this before you write. Here’s another tip: Look for logical breaks in your narrative for your endings. Such as:

  • Change of place. Say, you move from New York City to London
  • Change in point of view.  From maybe your protagonist to the bad guy.
  • Change in time. (a couple hours or a couple years depending on your story)
  • Change in dramatic intensity.  Say you just wrapped up a big mano-a-mano fight. The next thing that happens is having your hero recovering and thinking about what just happened. That might be a great place to start a new chapter.  It goes to pacing: Follow up an intense action scene chapter with a slower chapter that allows the reader to catch their breath.

By the end of each chapter, you should resolve at least one thing.  A car chase ends. A victim dies. Two cops figure out a major clue and decide to act. One character tells another something important about their background.  When you end a chapter, you want to send your reader a clear signal that what they just read is important. One trick I love: End a chapter just before the climax of a significant story arc: This is a classic trick of the thriller and mystery novel. You lead your reader right up to the edge of a tense moment then you end the chapter.  They have no choice but to turn the page!

I wish I could remember who said this: A good chapter ending does two things — it closes one door and it opens another one.

Whew. Enough already, you’re saying. I hear you. Okay, let’s move on to some easier stuff.

How long should your chapters be? I wrote a whole blog on this a while back, but if you don’t want to go back and read it, here’s the short answer: As long as each chapter needs to be.

It’s a matter of style — your style.  But, if you are following the idea of a dramatic arc for each chapter-island, the answer should come organically. As you move through your story, you might want to try for a consistency in length — be it 200 words or 2000 words. Why? I think it helps your reader get a sense of your style and pacing. But don’t sweat this too much. If you are moving along at a steady pace of say 1500 words per chapter and suddenly one comes out at 5000 words, you might want to go back in and look for a logical break in your narrative or action.  You might find, with judicious rewriting, that you’ve really got two tight chapters instead of one long one.

Okay, I’m running long again. One more question:

Should you use chapter titles? Lots of writers love these, especially fantasy and YA writers. I’m on the fence about them. I’ve never used them, but for one complex book, we did have three “books” that had titles. When chapter titles are witty, they can be great because they provide hints about what to expect within the chapter. But if they are mundane or obvious, they are just annoying and pretentious.

One story I heard was that before the release of one of her Harry Potter books, JK Rowlings refused to divulge any plot points. But she released three chapter titles — “Spinners End,” “Draco’s Detour,” and “Felix Felicis” — just to tease readers.

Here’s some of my favorite chapter titles:

“Down the Rabbit-Hole.” Chapter 1, Alice in Wonderland. So great it has become a modern metaphor, especially in politics.

“I Begin Life On My Own Account, And Don’t Like It.” Chapter 11, David Copperfield. Didn’t realize Dickens had a sense of humor.

Rick Riordan might be the chapter title king. Here are six from just one novel:

“I Accidently Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher”
“I Play Pinochle with a Horse”
“I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom”
“We Get Advice from a Poodle”
“A God Buys Us Cheeseburgers”
“I Battle My Jerk Relative”

But here’s my all-time favorite from Ian Fleming’s Live And Let Die, chapter 14:

“He disagreed with something that ate him.”

And that is a good place to end.

 

READER FRIDAY: Share Your Feelings When Your First Book Was Published

 

This can be a big topic. I had several stages and amazing feelings when my books first sold and when I saw them on a book shelf at stores all over town and online. My first autograph.

But the one I will share with you today is when I received my first cover flats from HarperCollins. I had them sitting on my coffee table. As I stared down at them, still stunned to see them for the first time, my husband walked in on me. He picked them up and grew very quiet. You could hear a pin drop. I didn’t know what he would say or if he knew what they were (the format is not like a real book), but I didn’t want to put words in his mouth.

He finally looked at me and with tears in his eyes, he said, “My God, you’re going to be in a library.” That simple realization hadn’t dawned on me. I usually tried downplaying the events because I was in it for the long haul and wanted a writing career, but my best friend husband always knew how to draw emotions out of me. He hugged me and I finally broke down and cried–my first real celebration since I’d sold. I had put so much passion and hard work into achieving this moment and he knew it. He’d been there with me.

My advice now is to celebrate every step of the way. You’ll never get that moment back and you’ve earned it.

Please share what you felt or did when you first were published. We can all use good news stories.