Dialogue – Ten Ways to Make it Real

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Recently I’ve been writing characters with unique regional accents or characters that I’ve had to invent how they speak, because they are unlike any other character I’ve ever written. When you create a character like this, you have to work doubly hard to “see” them and “hear” them in your mind.

Listen to real conversations. I especially love eavesdropping on teens, but as writers it is fun to be a snoop and hear the way people express themselves and their cadence. People often speak in fragments and laugh at one word asides. They launch into a diatribe and get interrupted by someone else. How do they react? If they come from a large family, I have a pretty good idea how they would react. But if they are an only child, do they retreat until the blustery winds of a blowhard die down?

It’s important to not only hear authenticity, but to also visualize it, without losing the fluid flow, pace, or clear plot points conveyed. Fictional dialogue must have a point, too.

1.) How well do you know your characters?
• Does it take you some writing time to get to know your characters? A good exercise is to write your character in first person to take them for a test drive, to get a feel for who they are and what matters to them.

• Live in their skin for awhile. Imagine what they look like, what they would wear. Create a photo image board from internet searches to flesh them out –in posture, eyes, attitude, swagger, dialect, education, job, sense of humor, etc.

• When you have a good feel for your main character, pair them with other fictional sidekicks or antagonists who will argue with them or cause conflicts and friction.

• Be careful to minimize slang or poorly spelled words or lots of bad grammar. Readers might have a problem with dialogue that is difficult to read throughout a book, but a smattering of regional color can be just the ticket to setting your world stage.

2.) Imagine Playing Your Character on Stage
When I “hear” voices in my head (from my characters, that is), especially if I’ve written them with accents or attitudes, it is fun to act them out. Do this by reading aloud and embellishing with your thoughts on how they sound. Reading aloud helps catch edit issues, but it can also help you create a cadence suitable for your character and give you insight into who they are.

Whenever I do readings at book signings (which I LOVE to do), I really get into the reading and become the character. I sometimes have my attendees close their eyes to focus on the story and trigger their imaginations, forgetting that they are in a bookstore. Often you can hear a pin drop when I finish and you get the real reaction from those listening when they open their eyes and return to the present from where they’ve been. Who knows? Acting out your character can help you “see” them in your mind – how they move or do hand gestures.

3.) In action scenes or tension packed scenes, make the dialogue sound real.
As an author would shorten narrative prose to give the reader the feeling of tension, suspense, and danger, it’s best to use short, concise sentences to enhance pace. Each line is like a punch in the gut to give the reader a visceral reaction to the change in pace.

Some passages may have longer lines of explanation or technical plot essentials, but keep those to a minimum if you want pace to lead the way. An expert in a dangerous situation would not suddenly turn into Mr Wizard to explain everything. They might get impatient and find a quick example or way of speaking to get their point across, while showing their frustration. How do they react under stress will show in their dialogue.

A long back and forth with punchy short sentences can let the reader sense the mounting tension, but if it goes on too long, it can get old, fast.

Excerpt: The Darkness Within Him (Amazon Kindle Worlds)
When a startling vision triggered a memory Bram Cross thought he’d buried, an icy shard carved through his body The macabre and haunting face of his mother lurched from the pitch-black of his mind—her eyes, what she did.

No, I can’t do this. Don’t make me. He fought hard to stifle his childish, irrational refusal, but he had to say something.

“You’re an asshole. We shouldn’t be here,” Bram said. “Someone’s watching us. I can feel it.”

“Shut up. You’re paranoid,” Josh spat. “You said you’d come with me. Quit your whining.”

“Something’s not right.”

Josh stopped, dead still, at the mouth of the infamous tunnel. He stood on the spot where the mutilated, half-eaten bodies of dead rabbits had been found in 1904—killed by ‘Bunny Man,’ an insane prison escapee named Douglas Grifon. The bad omen made Bram step back, but too late. By sheer stupidity and bad luck, Josh had jinxed them both.

Josh glared at Bram as he reached into a pocket of his jacket.

“I brought insurance, courtesy of dear old dad. We’ve got nothing to worry about.” He pulled out a gun and grinned as if he had all the answers.

“Are you insane? Put that away.” Bram fumed. “I’m out of here. I didn’t sign up for this.”

Bram turned to go, heading back toward the car that Josh had parked at the trailhead, but his friend grabbed his arm.

“You’re not going anywhere. I’ve got the car keys. Man up, shit for brains.”

4.) Dialogue should intrigue and draw reader in. Don’t use it to explain or the lines fall flat.
Dialogue should enhance the action and add to the emotion and pace. If you take the time to explain an action, the dialogue will sound contrived. If you explain what the characters should already know, why are you doing it? Savvy readers know when the dialogue is meant for them and when it doesn’t add to the story, but detracts from it and slows the pace.

Think of endings where the villain goes through lengthy explanations to “tell” the reader what the book has been about. Old mystery formats are like this where Sherlock Holmes expounds on how clever he is by detailing “who done it.” If a certain amount of this is necessary, make it about a mind game between the hero and villain where they have a reason to “one up” the other with reveals, but keep it to a minimum and not at the expense of good dialogue.

5.) Interruptions can be good in dialogue.
Interruptions can focus a character, keep up the pace, or show a realistic way to direct the reader where you want them to do. Have your characters ask questions of each other to liven things up.

Excerpt – The Darkness Within Him
Ryker Townsend – FBI Profiler
After the kid undid the latch and the deadbolts, he opened the door enough for me to see the injuries he’d sustained in his fight with Mr. Whitcomb. Josh stared at me for a split second before he shoved the door closed, but I jammed my foot in the opening.

“Police. We just want to talk.” I pushed through the breach and he winced. “Are you Josh Atwood?”

He didn’t answer and backed into a small living room. Reggie and Jax walked in behind me.

“Hey, aren’t you supposed to show ID?”

I eyed Reggie and the detective indulged him with a show of his badge.

“But I didn’t invite you in.”

“That only works with vampires. Consider this a welfare check, Bueller.”

6.) Add tension in Dialogue by making your characters hesitate or stall.
Is one of your characters in charge or forceful? How does that manifest in the other character in the scene? Often dialogue is like a chess game where one person tries to outwit the other or get the upper hand.

When one character stalls or shuts down, and the conflict grows, that can read as very authentic. We all have little voices in our heads, especially when we are dealing with arguments or confrontation. Effective dialogue must have nuances like a dance choreography that flows naturally and reads as effortless. When the scene starts out, one character can suddenly change course. How would you reflect that? Conflict is always interesting.

7.) Cut out the unnecessary and keep your dialogue vital. No chit chat.
I often write dialogue first, like in a script, to flesh out the framework of a scene. Later I fill in the body language, action, internal monologue, but dialogue is vital to make the scene hold up. It’s what the reader’s eye will follow on the page. When I edit, I will tighten dialogue lines, especially in action scenes, to keep the lines flowing naturally.

8.) Punch up the dialogue with action or character movement in the scene.
Give the reader something visual to imagine as they read your scene. All dialogue scenes, where two characters sit at a table, can be mind numbing and boring. Make the scene come alive by giving them something to do, especially if it puts them at odds with each other. Make that action unexpected, like adding sexual tension in the scene below (excerpt from Elmore Leonard).

Even if you MUST put them at a table, give them something to do. I especially like body language where it’s obvious the characters are hiding something and have let the reader in on that fact. Or punch up a funny line with a physical habit to accentuate humor or give distinction to a character.

9.) Minimize tag lines and give characters unique dialogue so tags aren’t as necessary.
One of my edit reviews is looking at tag lines to eliminate ‘saids.’ I often replace a said with an action that attributes which character delivered the line.

Also keep in mind, if you have a number of characters in a scene, a well-placed ‘said’ can orient the reader and ID the character in a scene where it’s easy to get lost. Gender oriented lines can help distinguish characters, or the regional dialect, or even if one character has a certain type of humor. ‘Said’ is the kind of word that disappears in a reader’s mind, but if you string too many together, it’s like sending up a flare “NOTICE ME!”

10.) Reading authors who write excellent dialogue is important.
Real pros at dialogue make it look effortless. Get schooled. If an author makes dialogue work, try to understand why it works and how you can infuse that in your own style and voice. Here are a couple of examples:

 

Elmore Leonard Excerpt – From Out of Sight (U S Marshal Raylan Givens) – I can imagine this very visual scene with the sexual tension.

‘You sure have a lot of shit in here. What’s all this stuff? Handcuffs, chains…What’s this can?’

‘For your breath,’ Karen said. ‘You could use it. Squirt some in your mouth.’

‘You devil, it’s Mace, huh? What’ve you got here, a billy? Use it on poor unfortunate offenders…Where’s your gun, your pistol?’

‘In my bag, in the car.’ She felt his hand slip from her arm to her hip and rest there and she said, ‘You know you don’t have a chance of making it. Guards are out here already, they’ll stop the car.’

‘They’re off in the cane by now chasing Cubans.’

His tone quiet, unhurried, and it surprised her.

‘I timed it to slip between the cracks, you might say. I was even gonna blow the whistle myself if I had to, send out the amber alert, get them running around in confusion for when I came out of the hole. Boy, it stunk in there.’

‘I believe it,’ Karen said. ‘You’ve ruined a thirty-five-hundred-dollar suit my dad gave me.’

She felt his hand move down her thigh, fingertips brushing her pantyhose, the way her skirt was pushed up.

‘I bet you look great in it, too. Tell me why in the world you ever became a federal marshal, Jesus. My experience with marshals, they’re all beefy guys, like your big-city dicks.’

‘The idea of going after guys like you,’ Karen said, ‘appealed to me.’

 

John Steinbeck – Of Mice & Men

‘Tried and tried,’ said Lennie, ‘but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.’

‘The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard street and watchin’ that blackboard?’

Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile. ‘Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…’

‘The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?’

‘Oh, sure, George, I remember that now.’ His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, ‘George…I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.’ He looked down at the ground in despair.

‘You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ‘em here. Think I’d let you carry your own work card?’

Lennie grinned with relief.

For Discussion:

1.) What dialogue craft skills work for you? Any tips to share?

2.) What authors do you like to read for dialogue?

Vigilante Justice – $0.99 Ebook – Published by Amazon Kindle Worlds

 

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How not to do an Interview!

As a regular reader of the NYT Book Review I usually look forward to their weekly column ‘By the Book’ but this week’s contribution raised my eyebrows. Unfortunately, to me at least, it was a classic example of what not to do in an author interview. The author this week was Philippa Gregory (a link to column can be found here) and in some ways my post today is a follow up to the one I did about Hilary Mantel (who appeared to look down on female historical writers such as Gregory!). Gregory’s interview is full of such gems as:

  • “What I don’t read is historical fiction in the period I am writing. Firstly, the characters as described by anyone else drive me mad…”
  • “Why does anyone write sloppy genre novels? The typing alone is so exhausting – surely if you’re going to undertake 150,000 words, you might as well have something interesting to say?”
  • “Why do people write crime novels with blindingly obvious murderers?”
  • “Choosing to write a genre novel is like fencing the universe because your are afraid of space.”

The upshot of Gregory’s tone is that she is far above those mere mortals who write ‘genre’ novels. What bothers me the most about her town is the unprofessionalism that seems to be on display. When giving an interview, I think that all writers (and especially those who enjoy popular acclaim) should be mindful of the image they present. There is no need to denigrate ‘genre’ writers (or any other writers for that matter) and there is certainly no need to show disdain for their craft. By the Book is normally a column that displays the quirks of an author and their book tastes, it doesn’t usually involve book snobbery or an attitude that, quite frankly, turns me off reading an author’s work….but this one did.

My takeaway from this? A few pointers on how to do a professional interview…

  • Don’t use the interview to denigrate other writers, genres, or work. You can most certainly reveal your preferences, but negativity isn’t needed.
  • Don’t make statements such as ‘why does anyone write sloppy genre novels?’. No writer I’ve ever met has sat down to write 150,000 words of absolute crap. We all sit down to write the best book we can, and who is Gregory to judge the merits of that in such wide ranging terms? Genre novels are not by their very nature ‘sloppy’ – and many so-called literary books can be excruciating to read:)
  • Be aware of the tone you are conveying and avoid anything that smacks of pretentiousness or snobbery.
  • Publishing doesn’t need to be shark-infested waters where, to succeed, you have to lunge and bite other writers in order to succeed. Most writers I’ve met are nothing but supportive and humbled by the own success. This interview suggests that Gregory feels herself far superior to other mere mortals writing historical or genre fiction (was that really the image she wanted to convey?)

So TKZers what is your take on the interview? If you were invited by the NYT to be interviewed for ‘By the Book’, how would you want to appear?

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Dear Diary…

The last time I kept a personal diary I was twelve years old. Since then I’ve kept various travel journals documenting trips and stays overseas, but I’ve never revisited the idea of keeping a personal diary. I know many writing teachers advise aspiring writers to keep a journal but, to be honest, I’ve never been very good at documenting the day-to-day. Recently, due to some health issues, my doctor said that it might be a good idea to journal but my immediate thought was ‘I’d much rather kill people off in a novel’…so obviously, for me, fiction is far more cathartic than diary entries!

In yesterday’s NYT Book Review there was an article about the German novelist, Christa Wolf, who kept a diary over 50 years recording the events of only one day each year – September 27th (the link to the article is here). Apparently she kept this diary until her death in 2011, jotting down everything she did and everyone she saw (even everything she ate) on that day. From the article, it sounds like she was a careful diarist rather than a confiding one – giving plenty of detail on the day, and some deep commentary on the meaning of time, but less in the way of sharing her innermost thoughts or emotions.

I’ve often wondered about writers who keep detailed journals or diaries and how they tackle the delicate balance of writing for themselves as well as writing in a medium that might ultimately be made public (especially if they become famous). I certainly admire anyone who has the discipline to keep a diary/journal as well as their other writing. I  would find maintaining a personal diary challenging – in part, because, I’d always feel a constraining hand, as if someone was reading the entries over my shoulder. I think I would censor my entries or indulge in creating a ‘fictionalized’ account of my life rather than being open and honest (this may also be why I find it hard to write anything in public areas like coffee shops – I need to have the absence of ‘others’ in order to write).

So TKZers, do any of you write a personal diary or journal on a regular basis? If so, how do you maintain the momentum for this? Do you censor or hold yourself back in any way? Do you find it helps your fiction writing? If, like me, you don’t write a journal or diary, why not?

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Dictate Your Next Book – Key Resources & Tips

Jordan Dane

@Jordan Dane

Have you ever considered dictating your next book or used voice recognition resources to dictate your book? I must admit that the thought of this scared me. I’m such a visual learner and have a process I’m comfortable with. I connect that comfort to my ability to craft a book, so the idea of messing with my comfort zone gave me the jitters. Here are some things to consider:

Dictating is free – If you’re uncertain about investing in this process, you can test the waters for free. Google Voice Typing and Google DOCs has a feature you can try. HERE is a link to the step by step instructions for Google. For other free apps, visit this LINK.

Voice recognition software has gotten better. (For MAC users, Google Voice appears to be a better option than Dragon/Dragon Naturally Speaking even if Dragon is made for MAC users). Dragon may be another software to try for PC users.) HERE is a list of top-rated recommended voice recognition software with feature comparisons.

Health Issues – For those concerned with carpal tunnel for your wrists or too much sitting, dictating can ease the strain on your body from long hours of sitting.

Dictating is much faster than typing the words, so less time needed for writing in a day and more effective use of your time when you’re in the process.

More writing and less editing – I am a big editor as I go. I hate leaving mistakes behind, so I have a rolling edit process. This could get more on the page faster and still leave edit time at the end of the day.

Dictating your book can allow you to do it using your cell phone (once you’ve set it up) and you can do this anywhere. No more excuses that “I have to go home to write.”

If cost is a concern, there are free apps or software readily available that won’t cost you a penny. You may eventually want to buy a microphone or acquire different software for voice recognition, but don’t let that be an excuse to not try it. Go for the free versions in your Google Play Store and dip your toe into something new.

TIPS to Enhance your First Dictation Try:

1.) Scene Ideas – We all know this, but think about staring at a blank page versus creating a short outline or list of ideas for a scene. Things will always go more smoothly if you have a notion of what you’ll write ahead of time. Take a few minutes to jot down ideas before you start.

2.) Error Time – Voice recognition software is not infallible and you may have additional issues with the dictation process. If you read the written results aloud, this could help find things like odd nonsensical words as a result of pronunciation or the software not capturing the words correctly.

3.) Take A Moment to Think – Before you leap into a sentence, take time to think through what you intend to say. Visualize what you want to say, before you say it. This could save correction time later and also prevent a muddled sentence. Practice will make it easier to dictate as you gain experience.

4.) Edit in Layers – I have a rolling edit process and that would not change with dictating. I like to print out my pages and edit what I’ve written during the day, usually before I go to bed or treat myself to someone else’s book. But depending on your edit process, if you like to create a first draft and revised in a number of draft iterations, you may consider adding a pass through for dictation type errors or adding a ‘read aloud’ phase as another layer to check your work.

5.) Grammar should be double-checked. Since you will be using voice recognition software to insert punctuation, you will need to edit for something that might come naturally to you if you typed it. This could be included in a rolling edit process as I described or in one of your draft fixes. This LINK has a summary of grammar related commands provided by Dragon. To write a line of dialogue, you may have to dictate – new line, open quote, Hi comma Mark period. Why are you sleeping with my wife, question mark, close quote. It will take experience to get used to the punctuation commands, but if dictation saves you considerable writing time, it may be worth it.

Other Revision Tools to Consider for Dictating Projects:

1.) Scrivener – I don’t have the personal experience with Scrivener as others do at TKZ, but here are a few notes I found in my research of dictation. Scrivener’s BINDER, SPLIT SCREEN, and LABELS (for plot line regrouping) can help you arrange sections of your book for a more logical flow. Check the WORD COUNT column in the OUTLINER section to consider pace issues at a glance, if word counts per chapter are a concern.

2.) Checking for Filler Words – My first pass through on edits is to delete and eliminate unnecessary word and tighten sentences. Filler words happen more in dialogue when we speak, but since you are dictating, filler words can appear when you might not expect them because of the change in process. In my research I found reference to a macro that can help you identify filler words. For instructions on setting up this Macro, try this LINK. Overused Words check in ProWritingAid can help with this also.

3.) Check for Longer Sentences – When you dictate, you can create longer sentences without realizing it. As you say the words, you use TONE as you may dramatize your wording, but on the page, this does not come across (things like italics use or internal monologue for deep POV). You may find longer sentences when you dictate and may want to consider shortening some. Two resources that can help with analyzing for long sentences – Hemingway Editor for MAC or PC & the Sticky Sentences/Long Sentences check on ProWritingAid.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Has anyone used voice recognition for writing? How did it work for you? Pros and Cons?

2.) What are your thoughts on trying something new like this?

BOOK BIRTHDAY! The Darkness Within Him releases today – $1.99 Mystery, Suspense, Thriller Ebook 

It’s part of Paige Tyler’s Dallas Fire & Rescue Amazon Kindle World #DFRKW and a crossover with my Ryker Townsend FBI Profiler series (book #4).

SYNOPSIS – FBI Profiler Ryker Townsend is a rising star at Quantico, but he has a dark secret. When he sleeps, he sees nightmarish visions through the eyes of the dead, the last images imprinted on their retinas. After he agrees to help Jax Malloy with a teenage runaway, he senses the real damage in Bram Cross. Ryker must recreate the boy’s terror in painful detail—and connect to the dead—to uncover buried secrets in the splintered psyche of a broken child.

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First Page Critique

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is a fantasy entitled A Turin Mercenary. My comments follow.

A TURIN MERCENARY

I sat silhouetted on my warhorse on the top of the hill.  I wanted them to see me.  A band of brigands had noticed me when I left the town of Ashton this morning.  I knew they would follow me.  I decided to make a stand.

It was midmorning.  The sky was clear, but it was cold.  It was the beginning of winter in the Realm.  I had taken off my warm cloak and gloves and let the cold invigorate me.  I took a deep calming breath and prepared myself for battle.

I could see the four of them riding on the road toward me now.  All too often, there were brigands that made their living by robbing people.  A lone female mercenary against the four of them.  They probably thought I would be an easy target.  I think not. Because I made my living by stopping them.  I allowed myself a little smile.  I made sure they would never harm anyone again.

The lead brigand whooped out loud when he saw me.  He drew his broadsword and held it high in the air.  The three brigands behind him drew their swords raised them as well.  They turned off the road and sent their horses at a gallop up the hill toward me.

I had given Talon the order to stand still and placed him with his left side parallel to the road.  A tactical maneuver.  In my left hand, was my longbow with an arrow notched.  I held the black bow vertically so it was hidden with my black horse, tack and clothes. The brigands would not see the bow until it was too late.

I waited patiently for them to come closer within range.  I calmly took in their expressions as they got closer, their faces tense with sneers of rage.  It was time.  I quickly lifted my bow up and drew back the bowstring.  I aimed and released the arrow at the lead brigand.  The arrow hit him square in the chest.  I immediately pulled another arrow from my back quiver, drew and fired.  The arrow hit the second brigand in the chest.  I saw the disbelief on the two remaining brigands’ faces when they saw their companions fall.

I dropped the bow and gave Talon the command to charge.  My warhorse responded with quick acceleration.  I drew my rapier and rode straight at the third brigand…

MY COMMENTS

It’s always tricky with fantasy as a writers needs time for world building – so a first page critique can be hard to do, as we really only get a glimpse of this. Nonetheless, I think this first page demonstrates that, even in fantasy, it is critical to draw a reader in right from the starts with specifics, firmly rooted in whatever world (be in real or fantastical) the author has created. With this first page, we have some tension, a little character development and action, but I think what we most miss is the specifics to add color and texture to the scene. My comments therefore center on world building, characterization and POV.

World Building

In this first page we get a sense of the world but little in the way of specifics. For example, the world is called ‘the Realm’ but we know nothing about it, except that the character is a lone female mercenary who is waiting for a groups of brigands to attack. We don’t really get a sense of her role, motivations, or place in the ‘big picture’ of the novel beyond this (I admit, thought, with a first page only, that is often a hard task). I would have liked more detail that enabled me to see, hear, and smell this world, and enough to enable me to distinguish this story from many other medieval/fantasy novels. One of the key issues I had in this regard was the use of the word ‘brigands’ – which is used eight times on just the first page. This kind of repetition drains the scene of color and specificity – likewise the use of ‘lead brigand’, ‘second brigand’ and ‘third brigand’. Apart from their faces being ‘tense with sneers of rage’ I can’t picture or distinguish one from the other. Such an action scene as a first page would definitely benefit from richer descriptions.

Characterization

I like how the lead character is a kick-ass lone female mercenary, but I needed a little more to truly believe and root for her as a character. It seemed strained to me that she would merely wait in the open and the brigands would oblige by attacking – what was their motivation for doing so? Does she look rich enough to be worth robbing? Why is she a mercenary (even just a hint on this would make her more intriguing)? At the moment she seems a little generic – and again, it’s really a question of giving us more specifics and making her seem more human (is she nervous at all? If she’s so confident – why? Have her experiences in the past hardened her?). This also leads to the question of voice, which I found wasn’t quite fully formed as yet.

POV

The ‘voice’ in this first page is clearly the mercenary and yet I didn’t get a sense of her voice strongly enough as yet. Perhaps it was the vague drifting into third person/omniscience (e.g.. ‘A band of brigands noticed me’) or the odd change in tenses (‘I think not’) or the short staccato style sentences (which can work, but here, felt a little bland). For a fantasy novel to grab me, I need to be fully invested in the main character from the get-go. Although I liked the action in the scene, I feel that a bit more attention to the lead character’s voice would go a long way to upping the tension and stakes.

Overall, I think this page has good action but lacks some ‘color’ in terms of world-building details, POV and characterization. If the writer spent a bit of time enhancing these elements this page would be all the stronger for it.

TKZers, what do you think?

 

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Mystery Cliches: Are They Boring Your Readers?

By Elaine Viets

Are you writing cliches? Of course you are. We all do. Call them cliches or give them a Hollywood make over and claim they’re literary tropes, certain scenes and characters appear again and again in the mystery genre. We writers need to be aware of them. Masterful writers can turn tired scenarios into art. But in lesser hands, those same cliches can annoy readers. Here are a few cliches that real, book-buying readers have identified.

Cozies– The heroine looks at her body in the mirror and describes herself. This has been done again and again.

– The stupid detective who makes major errors no police officer would. Cozy heroines often need a reason to investigate the crime, and a stupid detective is the standard one. But I threw a book against the wall when a cozy heroine went back to the victim’s home and found her diary SITTING ON THE DESK IN HER OFFICE in plain sight and it just happened to have a major clue. Any police officer with a pulse would have taken that diary!

– The protagonist who is Too Stupid to Live and confronts the killer alone. I’ve seen this in all genres – even noir, where cops who should know better confront the killer without calling backup – but it happens more often in cozies.

– I used to pick up every “cupcake bakery mystery” and “knitting circle sleuth” book, but I found that they all opened with a description of the new woman driving into town thinking about how she just broke up with her fiancé, just sold her house, just quit her job, or just inherited the family shop, and how she’s starting over, yadda yadda.

– In one series, the writer starts every book with a scene of waking-up, feed-the-cat, think about what we do for a living, and the people we deal with as we shower. Every time we encounter a character we hear again the same basic spiel that was in book one about the back story of the character or location. We even have to hear about people’s nicknames and why they have them. This gets extremely tiring and I have to skip past it by books two and three.

Thrillers


– I’m tired of books that are always about lost artifacts that good guys race against bad guys to find. Too much detail and a predictable story line.

– This thriller was told in present tense, but then shifted between different time periods and different points of view. I couldn’t keep it all straight and jumped to the end. I don’t want to work that hard to stick with a book.

– Story jumped from city to city to city. The author didn’t set the scenes, just changed the place and dateline at the start of the chapter. I lost interest trying to figure out where it was.

– Ordinary minivan dads and moms suddenly develop SEAL-level skills to save their spouses and/or children. I know parents can perform extraordinary deeds to save their family, like lift up a car to save the baby from being crushed to death, but gimme a break! Or give them a background where they’ve been in the military or have some kind of special training.

– The nice guy hero with the psychopath friend who does all the killing and dirty deeds the good guy won’t do.

– My pet peeve is cardboard characters. Any mystery can have stock characters, but I think they’re especially common in thrillers, where character development is too often sacrificed for action. It’s a turn-off.

Chick lit

– Look, I know it’s a genre – chick lit mysteries – but I don’t always know I am downloading one until I listen to the setup (someone croaks or is croaked) and when the police come, the female protag suddenly notices how tight the sheriff’s shirt is over his manly pecs, and we are off! I have had several opportunities to call the police and never did I start sniffing their aftershave and swooning. Seems like every book with people of both genders in it, two opposite ones (usually) will immediately glom onto each other. Dunno – it’s kind of funny and kind of stupid.

– Don’t know about cops, but it has become apparent to me over the years that all firemen, no matter where they live, have to pass some sort of hunk test before they’re hired. The pizza delivery person has never been hot and interested in me nor has any auto mechanic ever offered special services. Very depressing.

– The heroine has a sidekick friend who is either old, fat, or weird, wears wild clothes and behaves outrageously.

– I’d like a mystery where the characters are not over-the-top having sex with the detective and the ex and so forth, and they have to work to make a living.

Noir
– The protagonist’s wife/husband and child were killed in a car accident or a plane crash and the protag crawled into a bottle. Yes, I know that happens sometimes, but it happens so much in the mystery world I’d be afraid to let any family members board a plane or even drive to church.

– The hero is beaten unconscious in one chapter – kicked, pounded, bloody, broken nose and maybe other bones – and in the next is running around chasing the bad guy, without any damage.

So readers, what cliches turn you off?

FIRE AND ASHES, my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery debuts July 25. Pre-order the e-book for $3.99. It’s FREE for Kindle Unlimited. http://tinyurl.com/yawp64ku

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First Page Critique ‘Beware of Geeks Bearing Grifts’

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Bernie Madoff – DOJ photo 2009

The title of this anonymous submission gives us a clue on what this story might be about. At first pass, I had misgivings about mixing the tension of finding Granny’s body with the humor of this voice, but the title made me realize this is the voice of a grifter. I’ll have my thoughts on the flip side. Please share yours in the comments.

***

The pissy mood that sprang up when the supermarket was out of my favorite brand of salsa, evaporated at the sight of my grandmother sprawled at the foot of the stairs. I peeled the plastic bags off my right arm and dropped them on the needlepoint bench in the entryway.

“Nana?” My voice boomed in the silence of the house.

I don’t know why I said anything. It’s not like I expected an answer. I didn’t have to be a medic to interpret the sideways tilt of her head and the ninety-degree wrong way bend of her knee. There was also no need to call in the CSI team to figure out what happened. The old wood floors had soaked up most of the gin, but the outline of the shiny stain hinted that the broken glass had been full. The near-empty bottle near her head told me the glass had been refilled more than once. The cherry on top of this shit sundae was the bunched-up throw rug about halfway down the stairs.

I sat cross-legged, with my back against the elephant ear plant, sipping the dregs of her booze. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than a cigarette. I’d kicked in prison, it was easier than hustling, but if I had a pack right now, I’d be blazing up as fast as I could suck them down. I thought about calling the cops and even reached for my phone. Then, through the light liquor haze, I remembered the last time I’d voluntarily talked to the law. I’d stepped into the interrogation room and hadn’t seen daylight again for two years. I was an ex-con with a dead body on the floor and my name on all her financial accounts. I spun the bottle across the floor like a stone on a pond.

No cops.

Without a death certificate I couldn’t arrange a funeral, and even if I could, there was no money to give her the nice send-off she’d always wanted. Fixing the roof had drained most of the proceeds from the reverse mortgage. The words reverse mortgage sobered me up faster than a pot of hot coffee. The minute the bank heard that grandma had kicked they’d swoop in and take the house faster than I could say next-of-kin.

FEEDBACK

Overview: Feeling a little larcenous? After I imagined this guy coming across his dear Nana planted at the foot of the stairs (completely potted), and seeing him plop down for a drink to shrewdly think through his dilemma, I had to chuckle. Forget about a forensics team determining time of death and that his grocery receipt may give him an alibi, he’s an ex-con who would cause a good detective to put him at the top of his suspect list. What comes next for this grifter could be lots of fun.

INTRO – I would start with “Nana?” to focus on the inciting disturbance. With this being a grifter and the dark humor is apparent, I would take some of the first paragraph and add it as follows:

REWRITE example:

“Nana?” My voice boomed in the silence of the house. With my grandmother sprawled at the foot of the stairs, I forgave the supermarket for not having my favorite brand of salsa and set down my grocery bags.

POV – I’m assuming this is a man, but there is nothing that indicates this, other than reading between the lines. A way to remedy this is to have him chastise himself, using his own name, when he gets riled or finding another way to clarify gender before the reader gets too far into the narrative.

POINTS OF CLARIFICATION
1.) With the fall breaking her drinking glass, I can buy a shine left on the floor might indicate it was nearly full, but the author may want to describe the nearly empty gin bottle was unbroken. Did it have a cap on? Otherwise the shine on the floor may have come from the bottle tipping and spilling.
2.) The throw rug that caused her fall should probably be clearer that it was on the landing. I thought at first this was a stair runner or wondered why a throw rug had been on the steps.
3.) Why would she be carrying the bottle and the glass as she walked on the stairs? Was she going upstairs for bed and it was her usual habit to drink up there? She would have to be going up the stairs. I don’t know why she would be coming downstairs with the bottle and glass. Most people keep their booze downstairs.

WEIGHTY PARAGRAPHS
The paragraphs strike me as too many ideas lumped into each long train of thought. If the author broke up the elements, it would showcase the dark humor more.

REWRITE example:
I sat cross-legged, with my back against the elephant ear plant, sipping the dregs of her booze. I hated drinking alone. I raised a glass to Nana and craved a cigarette. Why the hell did I ever give up smoking? Oh, right, I remember. Selling smokes in prison had been easier than hustling.

I thought about calling the cops and even reached for my phone until deja vu cured me of stupidity. The last time I’d voluntarily talked to the law, I’d stepped into the interrogation room and hadn’t seen daylight again for two years.

I assessed my situation from a cop’s point of view. One dead body, check. One ex-con at the scene–that would be me–double check. Only one name on all the financial accounts of the dearly departed–yes, me again–trifecta check. DING! DING! DING! We have a winner.

FLOW – As I stated before, breaking apart a weighty paragraph might highlight the character’s thoughts better, show his dark humor, and highlight his train of thought flow better.

REWRITE (broken into 2 paragraphs):
Step one had to be no cops. Done, decision made. Step two, I needed a proper death certificate. Without legit paper, no funeral. Nana deserved a nice send off, but the funds from her reverse mortgage were nearly gone after fixing her roof.

Shit! The reverse mortgage sobered me faster than a good slap to the face. The minute the bank realized grandma had kicked it, they’d swoop in and take the house faster than I could say, ‘next of kin.’ Nana would’ve wanted me to have the house. That left me with only one choice.

SUMMARY:
I like where this is going, because it seems as if our ex-con has a scheme to grift grandma’s death into a fiasco. Reminds me of FARGO. I would encourage the author to get over the top with what this guy does. FARGO was based on real events. Keep piling on the absurd situation while you keep the protag deadly earnest with his situation. There’s load of potential for this plot and I love the dark humor of it.

DISCUSSION:
Where do you see this story going, TKZers? Constructive comments on the writing would be appreciated.

VIGILANTE JUSTICE (Available Now) $1.99 Ebook
In Montana, when a disturbing pattern of missing teens and college students falls under the FBI’s radar, former CIA operative Mercer Broderick fears the violent abductions are at the heart of a dark web of conspiracy that must be stopped and Brotherhood Protectors won’t be denied from the fight.

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From Idea to Novel

Starting a new project is always nerve wracking – there’s the empty page for starters but then there’s also making sure that the idea is sufficient to form the foundation for a complete novel. Generating ideas has never been my problem – a number pop into my head each day and some are sufficiently intriguing that I jot them down in my ‘ideas book’ to see if they will gradually begin to take shape in my mind to form the foundation for a story. Many ideas fall by the wayside at this point – because while they interest me, they never really coalesce into a premise that can sustain a novel. Even after that, I’m consumed with doubts…although I’ve really only had one story die after I’d finished the first draft because I realized the premise was too convoluted and confused (the idea, though still holds promise!).

I’m about to embark on a new WIP and I’m at the doubt-filled stage of wrestling with a new idea. Since I have other projects in various stages of the submission process, it’s definitely time to knuckle down to a new manuscript but in this early stage of the creative process I have to grapple with how to formulate an idea into (hopefully!) a great story.

My process (such that it is) usually goes something like this:

  • Light-bulb moment – new idea starts to whip round in the brain and, of course, I think it’s awesome.
  • Write down idea in vague terms – lots of questions and possibilities…
  • Start research (almost always involving some historical period/event)
  • First doubts – which way to proceed? More questions than answers? Do I have enough for a novel??
  • Begin to outline a proposal to help shape the idea into a real concept and (ultimately, I hope) the premise for a novel. This is usually when the second round of doubts start to hit… Sometimes I end up with multiple proposals revolving around the same initial idea as I fumble around trying to decide if this project really is ready to get off the ground.
  • More research = more procrastination and sometimes panic that whole idea really sucks…
  • Send outline to beta readers for feedback – see if it’s intriguing and clear enough (my issue is always one of complicating rather than simplifying a story!)
  • After feedback – sometimes involving a choice between proposals – I send to my agent for her initial read/buy in. This is where I have to formulate the log-line/blurb so I can succinctly describe it to her and others.
  • Once I have agent buy-in I start on an outline and the first chapters to establish the POV/Voice for the book (I spend a long time on the first chapters feeling my way into the book as well as drafting an outline of where I’m headed with the plot/characters)
  • More research (I like to hide between the pages of history books!) = procrastination
  • Finally begin draft!

So TKZers how do you go from idea to first draft? Do you spend time, like me, formulating the premise and making sure your idea is sufficient to sustain a novel? Or do you just set off writing from the get go with the confidence that it will all come together and work out in the end? What’s your process?

 

 

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