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!

 

10+

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. 

13+

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?

 

8+

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.

6+

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.

 

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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.

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Quit Trying to Write

 

You were expecting Yoda?

 

Having coffee this morning? Yum!

Now, try to pick up the cup. Go on… Are you touching the cup? No, no, no–that’s not allowed. You’re only allowed to try to pick it up.

Is your hand hanging uncertainly in the air?

This is not a trick. Okay, maybe it’s a little tricky, but it demonstrates something very important. Trying doesn’t get things done. It isn’t a thing. There is only doing. *insert Yoda here*

I think I read the phrase “I’m trying to write a (insert genre) novel” online five or six times a week. Although I empathize with struggling, beginning, and frustrated writers–as I’ve been them all–I want to gently shake these “trying” authors by the shoulders of their faded university sweatshirts and tell them to stop trying and just keep writing.

Either you’re writing a novel, or you’re not writing a novel. We can prepare ourselves to write. We can take a break from writing, or we can quit writing, or we can continue writing until we’re finished, and start the next one.

If you’re bogged down, or stuck, admit it. Don’t hide it. Ask for help, then quickly get back to your keyboard. Don’t worry: if you’re thinking constructively about your work, you’re still writing. But don’t think too long. Take an afternoon, or a day. Don’t lose your momentum, even if it’s the momentum of the  hundred words you wrote during the fifteen minutes before breakfast yesterday.

If you’re writing, you’re a writer.

Keep writing.

Help other writers.

Don’t bother trying. Make the choice to do, and not give up.

 

Are there things you find yourself “trying” to do, instead of doing them?

(for me it’s “trying” to lose weight)

 

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Can Hypnagogia Improve your Fiction Writing? Find Out

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased from iStock by Jordan Dane

I really liked TKZ contributor Debbie Burke’s Feb 5th post “Eight Tricks to Tap into your Subconscious for Better Writing.” The mind is an interesting resource for writers. I’ve heard other authors say they dreamed a plot or how certain insights come to them while they sleep. I’ve personally had strange experiences in what I call “twilight sleep,” the realm between sleep and fully awake.

Many experts on dream studies say that dreams exist to help us solve problems we’re experiencing in our lives, or can help us tap into memories and process emotions. It’s possible that if you go to bed with a troubling thought – like a plot point that’s implausible or a character motivation that doesn’t feel right – sleep will allow your mind to come up with a resolution by the time you wake up.

Our own James Scott Bell has a term for this phenomenon. He calls the working brain at night – the boys in the basement. They don’t need to sleep. I’ve experienced this many times. That’s why I keep notepads near my nightstand or jot down ideas on my phone when they come to me after I wake up.

LUCID DREAMS 

Have you ever sensed you were dreaming INSIDE of a dream? You might’ve experienced a “lucid dream.” Research has shown that lucid dreaming is accompanied by an increased activation of parts of the brain that are normally suppressed during sleep. Lucid dreaming represents a brain state that falls between REM (rapid eye movement) deep sleep and being awake.

Some people who are lucid dreamers are able to influence the direction of their dream, changing the story, in a manner of speaking. While this may be a good tactic to take, especially during a nightmare, many dream experts say don’t force it. It’s better to let your dreams occur naturally.

HYPNAGOGIA

Hypnagogia is the transition between wakefulness and sleep. It’s what I call “Twilight Sleep” and it has nothing to do with sparkling vampires. It’s a state of mind where you may experience lucid dreaming.

In this state, you can tap into all the good ideas you have stored up, uninhibited by rational thought and insecurities. You’re open to all things. It’s how authors can go to bed knowing our manuscript has a flaw, but not knowing how to fix it. Our mind (or the boys in the basement) come to our assistance during the night when we are open to ideas.

Hypnagogia can also manifest in other ways, like when we may hear strange noises in our house–at the moment we wake up–and we KNOW someone has broken in. This could explain the monsters in our closet when we were kids or how we see dangers hidden in the shadows of our room. We’ve tapped into the primitive primal fear that animals experience where they trust their instincts (in order to survive) and react on pure reflex.

I have an experience like this and never forgot it. It happened in the afternoon while I was napping after a long exhausting day at work. I had the sensation that I was dreaming inside a dream, but I was certain someone was in the empty room with me. I even felt the bed move when they sat next to me. I got the sense they were staring down at me. I was so terrified (my body reacted with the fear – my heart raced and my lungs heaved) that I refused to open my eyes. I was so sure my nightmare would be confirmed. I sensed being touched, but still, I didn’t open my eyes. I never did. But I never forgot the feeling of abject, paralyzing fear and have written it into my stories.

Hypnagogia might possibly be one of the mind’s most vital tools for creativity and for tapping into the words to describe the high tensions or emotions we need to write a scene we may never had experienced personally.

How do we tap into Hypnagogia when we need it?

I believe it takes time to train our minds to open like this, but it could be a good exercise. I know that when I first started writing, I had to tap into my brain to hear dialogue from my characters and visualize each scene. Over time I got better at it. Now it’s impossible for me to be in public. I have no filter between my brain and my mouth. Have any of you experienced this? Oy. It can be a curse, but no regrets. I love how it works when I write–so worth it.

Some authors use image boards to trigger their imagination for the world they are creating, but what if you could tap into twilight sleep and manipulate ideas in your mind – to imagine them more deeply? Find a dark room in the afternoon and relax. Shut your eyes and clear your mind. I sometimes visualize numbers floating in the darkness behind my closed eyelids and count down until I am completely relaxed.

You don’t want to fall asleep, so you might consider holding something that will wake you if it falls. Salvador Dali used to hold steel balls that would make a noise when they dropped. Thomas Edison used to hold a metal ball over plate tins that would cause a racket if he let them drop. Test what works best for you in this process.

Does it help to record your results immediately after? A nearby notepad could help solidify your ideas visually as you write them down. Try these sessions for a short period and make the most of them as you get better. I find that if nothing else, the quiet time is good for the soul.

Tips to Recall Your Dreams

If you are a sound sleeper and don’t wake up until the morning, you are less likely to remember your dreams compared to people who wake up several times in the night. Try these tips to improve your ability to remember your dreams:

1.) Wake up without an alarm. You are more likely to remember your dreams if you wake up naturally than if you use an alarm. An annoying alarm can shift your focus to turning the blasted thing off and away from your dream.

2.) Tell yourself to remember. If you want to recall your dreams and make a fully aware decision to do so, you are more likely to remember your dreams in the morning. Before you go to sleep, tell yourself that you want to remember your dream. It may take practice.

3.) Dream playback. If you think about the dream right after waking, it may be easier to remember it later. Which has worked best for you? Making note of it immediately after or is it better to have patience and recall it later?

SUMMARY – This may seem odd if you hadn’t considered it before, but if you’ve been writing for years, can you recall how much your imagination has grown since the beginning? How has your process changed over the years? Have you noticed the changes? As I write, I find it easier to tap into my imagination now than when I first started out. Like I said, my mouth has no filter, by design. This is a good thing as a writer. Not so much if you hang around normal people.

FOR DISCUSSION

1.) Has anyone experienced Hypnagogic writing? What were the results?

2.) Do you know anyone who has experienced dreams that they used in their writing? Has it happened to you? Tell us about it.

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Key Ways to Give a Mystery Room to Breathe – First Page Critique – The Good Neighbor

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased by Jordan Dane

I can’t think of a better way to settle in for Thanksgiving and the holidays than with a little murder among neighbors. For your reading enjoyment–and for your constructive criticism–we have the first 400 words of THE GOOD NEIGHBOR, submitted anonymously by a gutsy author and follower of TKZ. Read and enjoy. My feedback will be on the flip side.

***

The unusual heat wave which persisted over parts of New England, long after forecasters had predicted an early end to summer, gave many of the residents an irritable disposition.

The nights didn’t bring much in the way relief to the sweltering New Englanders, who looked forward to the cooler winds from the North by this time and the promise of fishing for those by Maine’s coastline.

Tonight at 12 Rillington Lane, Kennebunk, Kaitlyn O’Donnell struggled with the heat. She tossed, turned, rolled over, then repeated it all once more.

The blending of the weather, the cicadas and that infernal scraping noise—what the hell is that, anyway?—guaranteed sleep would not come tonight.

Frustrated, she threw the thin cotton sheet back and jumped out of bed.
A half-moon in the cloudless sky enabled Kaitlyn to see without the aid of electricity and she shuffled over to the window of her bedroom on the second floor.

The scraping, it sounded like it came from…

The neighbor’s backyard.

From her vantage point Kaitlyn spotted a light in the neighbor’s yard. She assumed a battery-powered lamp.

Silhouetted against the low-light, a male figure busied himself with a shovel.

Next to the hole he dug were two oblong objects encased in a light-colored fabric.

They were the length of —

Oh, my God. Bodies, he’s burying someone!

Kaitlyn’s eyelids flared as she stared with disbelief into her neighbors yard.
The neighbor stopped digging moments later and stood erect. In a deliberate motion, he turned to face the O’Donnell home.

He’s staring at me, oh my… he’s staring…

Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins.

Kaitlyn threw a cotton nightgown over her head and ran barefooted to the hallway. “Dad, Dad,” she called.

Bursting into her parents bedroom at the end of the hallway seconds later she called again. “Dad, wake up, there’s something’s—”

The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty, the top blankets thrown on the floor but the light colored sheets were missing.

She remembered the two object wrapped in light cloth in the neighbor’s yard.

A heavy banging on the front door echoed through the O’Donnell home.

“Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…”

FEEDBACK:
Aspects of this author’s style are vivid and have set the stage for the creepiness of this introduction. The voice here has promise, but there is a feeling that the story is being rushed toward the end and the author resorts to “telling” what is happening, which diminishes the tension and pulls the reader out from inside the head of Kaitlyn. I promise you, anonymous author, that if you truly stay in the head of this horrified kid, your readers will feel the tension and may suffer a rash of goosebumps if you take your time to set up this scene through Kaitlyn’s senses.

Also, it is not recommended to start stories with the weather. Plus, the Point of View (POV) in the first line (and in other spots) is omniscient and not from the main character. This is most evident with the weather description “gave many residents an irritable disposition,” rather than focusing on Kaitlyn’s perspective of HER being irritable with the pervasive heat.

The next line is clearly not in Kaitlyn’s POV either.

“The nights didn’t bring much in the way relief to the sweltering New Englanders, who looked forward to the cooler winds from the North by this time and the promise of fishing for those by Maine’s coastline.”

But without a major rewrite, let’s take a look at how we can use the bones of the author’s story and shuffle sentences to allow the focus to start and remain with Kaitlyn.

STORY SHUFFLE:
In this intro, the author states the physical address of the house where Kaitlyn lives, but doesn’t include the State of Maine until later, after a reference to New England (a region of six states). The reader could be oriented with a quick tag line at the top of the scene to list the town and the time of day. I like using tag lines to anchor the story and reader reviews have mentioned that they like this. In a book by Tami Hoag, she used the dropping temperatures in Minnesota during the hunt for a child exposed to a deadly winter. The added tension of knowing the weather could kill the child became an effective use of tag lines that made an impression on me. So this story could start with the tag lines:

REWRITE INTRO SUGGESTION

Kennebunk, Maine
After Midnight

A full moon cast an eerie shadow of an Eastern White Pine through Kaitlyn O’Donnell’s open bedroom window that stretched onto her walls. The swaying gloom played tricks on her mind and teased her fertile imagination. When the hot night air gusted, the spindly branches of evergreen bristles scraped the side of her house like clawing fingernails, grating on her frayed nerves.

The sixteen year old girl struggled with the unusual heat that smothered her skin like a thick, dank quilt. She tossed and turned and fought her bed sheets, struggling for any comfort that would allow her to sleep. Even if she could doze off, the annoying rasp of cicadas rose and fell to keep her on edge.

Sleep would not come–not tonight. Not when something else carried on the night air.

With sweat beading her arms and face, Kaitlyn tossed the sheet off her body and sat up in bed. Without thinking, she slid off her mattress and wandered toward the open window, drawn by an odd sound that caused the cicadas to stop their incessant noise.

In this new opener, the point of view is clearly in Kaitlyn’s head and her senses show the story of her restlessness and how her mind plays tricks on her. In her current state, she could’ve imagined what comes next.

TELLING – In the action that follows, the descriptions seemed rushed to me and the author resorts to “telling” what is happening, rather than showing. The following sentences are examples of “telling” or POV issues or rushing the story.

She assumed a battery-powered lamp. (It’s not important that the lamp is battery operated. No one spying on their neighbor at night will wonder about batteries. Keep it real and stay with the mystery and tension.)

Oh, my God. Bodies, he’s burying someone! (Give time for her to see shapes and describe them. She’s only watching from the light of one lamp and the neighbor is in silhouette. How well could she see the bodies? But in this case, the author gets impatient and has Kaitlyn “tell” the reader what’s happening.

He’s staring at me, oh my… he’s staring… (Same issue of “telling” the reader. In the dark and shadows, Kaitlyn might only see his body turn toward her. She can’t possibly know that he’s staring at her. But the author should consider giving the neighbor a reason to turn, like the sound of Kaitlyn calling for her dad. Her voice and an open window could allow the sound to carry. Kaitlyn’s sense of urgency could get her into trouble before she realizes she’s alone in the house. Much scarier.)

Kaitlyn’s blood, now like ice water, rushed through her veins. (Kaitlyn might have a rush of chilling goosebumps caused by an adrenaline rush in the sweltering heat, but the cliched “ice water through her veins” isn’t the best word choice.)

The double bed of Kaitlyn’s parents was empty, the top blankets thrown on the floor but the light colored sheets were missing. (Would Kaitlyn notice in the shadowy room that her parents light colored sheets were missing? A scared kid would notice her parents were gone, but never do an inventory of their bed sheets.)

She remembered the two object wrapped in light cloth in the neighbor’s yard. (Here, Kaitlyn even makes a big deal of tying the light colored sheets to what she saw in her parent’s bedroom. Not remotely realistic. By rushing the ending, the author has given up details and mystery elements, like whether there is blood spatter on the walls and bed or signs of a struggle. Two people being accosted in the middle of the night by a neighbor would surely leave signs of a struggle. And–how did the neighbor get into the house? Why didn’t Kaitlyn HEAR anything if she couldn’t sleep? This intro needs work to make it more plausible.)

THE RUSHED ENDING – The ending is especially rushed. A vital part of suspense is the element of anticipation (something Hitchcock knew well). As an example of this – picture a teen babysitter creeping toward the front door with every movie goer screaming at the big screen “DON’T OPEN THE DOOR!” Once the door is open, the tension is deflated and everything becomes known. To keep the tension building, add some level of detail to build suspense.

A heavy banging on the front door echoed through the O’Donnell home. (The neighbor presumably invaded Kaitlyn’s house to attack her parents or take them to bury in his yard. Why is he knocking this time?)

“Kaitlyn? Oh, Kaitlyn.” A voice called. “It’s your neighbor, come on over, Kaitlyn. There’s always room for one more…” (I don’t believe it’s necessary to have the neighbor say “It’s your neighbor.” He doesn’t need to give his name, because she would know it. So the dialogue here is a bit cheesy and definitely “telling.” Another question – if the neighbor killed her parents, why stop at them? Why not take Kaitlyn too?)

KEY WAYS TO GIVE THIS MYSTERY ROOM TO BREATHE

There’s not enough plausible motivation for this rushed story. If this is a mystery, the details that are not addressed deflates the suspense in a big distracting way. How did the man take her parents from their bed? Why didn’t she hear any struggle? Are their signs of a struggle in the bedroom?

The author has a good deal of fixing that needs to occur to make this intro believable. Key ways to give this mystery room to breathe – suggestions for improving this introduction (besides the ones I wrote about above):

1.) Have Kaitlyn awaken from a drugged stupor – was she drugged or did she take cold medicine to help her sleep that could’ve distorted her take on reality or stopped her from being aware of a struggle?

2.) Had Kaitlyn’s parents been next door at a party with the neighbor and never returned home? Maybe the intro could take place the next morning when she realizes her parents never came home. Their bed is unmade. No breakfast. She rushes to the neighbor’s house and he’s not home or lies to her about when her folks left. “They went straight home, honey.”

3.) Have her file a police report with no clues on how her parents disappeared and the cops are skeptical. She begins spying on the neighbor – as in REAR WINDOW. This plot has been done before, but the idea is to create a compelling mystery that readers care about. A teen alone to deal with her missing parents.

4.) Give the girl a handicap where she is wheelchair bound and reliant on her parents for care. Who would she go to for help?

5.) Make Kaitlyn a suspect in the eyes of the police. Maybe she is a rebellious kid who’s been suspended from high school for fighting. What has given her a big chip on her shoulder?

6.) Grow the Suspect List – After this rushed intro, where would the rest of the book go? If the author made a bigger mystery of whether the neighbor is involved at all, there could be others who had motive to eliminating her parents. A fun way to create and sustain a mystery is to reveal others with motives as the story unfolds. Make a list of 4-5 individuals who are equally guilty looking. Maybe even the author doesn’t know who the real killer is until the last minute. I did this in my debut book NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM. I literally could’ve flipped a coin on which one of my 5 suspects could be guilty and I loved not knowing myself. But most importantly, having more than a crazy neighbor (who admits to guilt on the first page) allows the story plot to breathe and twist and build to a climax.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?

2.) Can you suggest other plot twists than the ones I listed in my summary?

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