What Do Ringtones Say About Your Characters?

One of my favorite ways to play with characterization is to assign my main character a ringtone.

In my Mayhem Series, Shawnee Daniels started with “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette. Two books later, she switched to ZZ Ward’s “Put the Gun Down.” And now, she has “Ironic” also by Alanis.

Even without any other information, I bet you’ve already formed a visual of who she is, based on her ringtones.

If you guessed snarky and badass, you’re right. 😉

In my Grafton County Series, I used ringtones to show my main character’s emotional wellbeing. Sage Quintano has no designated ringtone for herself, but she constantly changes her Sheriff husband’s ringtone as a form of silent communication. She’s done it so many times, I doubt I could list them all, but let’s go through a few to show what she’s saying to her husband.

  • “Here Comes Goodbye” by Rascal Flatts

Considering this is a psychological thriller series, not romance, Sage used this ringtone to indicate fear.

  • “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” by Michael Bolton

This ringtone showed Sage’s gut-wrenching devastation when their child was abducted.

  • “Just Once” by James Ingram

This ringtone showed Sage’s sadness about a rough patch in their marriage.

  • “Tonight I Wanna Cry” by Keith Urban

This ringtone indicates Sage’s sadness, too.

  • “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw

Though this is an uplifting song, Sage used the ringtone to show a ticking clock on her life.

  • “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry

Sage used this ringtone to show fear.

  • “Let it Hurt” by Rascal Flatts

This one still gets me every time. Sage used this ringtone to show her devastation over an incident involving Ruger, one of her beloved dogs. Don’t worry. He survived. 😉

  • “All of Me” by John Legend

Sage used this ringtone to show her husband she’s feeling frisky.

  • “Only Women Bleed” by Alice Cooper

Sage used this ringtone to show her fear while being stalked by a killer. The killer also sent her this song, so it worked two-fold.

  • “Hurt” by Christina Aguilera

If you know, you know. This song shows soul-crushing sadness, and Sage used it to portray exactly that.

  • “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” by Elton John

Sage used this ringtone to show panic. If her husband didn’t hurry, she may die.

To add validity to this post, I ran a search to see how other writers might use ringtones. Couldn’t find what I was looking for, but Forbes had an interesting article.

Research indicates that people do judge mobile users based on their ringtone. In 2005, U.K.-based carrier Tesco Mobile surveyed 1,000 customers and discovered that 21% of them thought having a standard ringtone was “uncool.” The survey also concluded that people who use their own recorded voice as a ringtone are self-obsessed, and that users who constantly change their rings might be flighty and unreliable.

No rocket science, that. But there’s no doubt that ringtones have become big business because people want to say something personal about themselves. So we wondered, what does your ringtone say about you?

If your phone plays a classic rock tune, you’re showing your age, but you get points for figuring out how to change the ringer, Gramps.

If your phone is still playing “Jingle Bell Rock” in July, you’re not going to impress people with your productivity.

If your ringtone is a current hip-hop or R&B hit, you’re young at heart, but you’re not particularly original. Hip-hop ringtones accounted for more than half of the $300 million U.S. market in 2004.

If your phone plays the sound of an old mechanical phone bell, you’re not as funny as you think you are.

If your phone plays the theme song to a television show, you’re not going to impress anyone with your intellectual acumen. Perhaps a Mozart or Beethoven ringer would do some damage control.

If your phone never leaves vibrate or silent mode, you may be the kind of important person who can’t afford to waste time answering a phone call right now. Or maybe you just think you’re that important. However, you may also be considerate and respectful, the kind of person we’d like sitting behind us in a movie theater.

Unfortunately, we tend to get saddled with seatmates whose phones play the popular “Crazy Frog,” the clucking chicken, or any number of other annoying animal noises. If you’re one of these folks, you may be a sociopath.

Hope this post gives you some fun ideas on ways to use ringtones for your characters!

Have you ever used ringtones in your writing? Please explain how/why.

Do you change your own ringtone? Share the song!

If you had to choose one song to describe you, what would it be?

First Page Critique — Filthy Money

Let’s welcome another Brave Author who submitted a first page for review and critique. Please read through this submission, Filthy Money, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Filthy Money

It’s effortless, like a gliding albatross.

A shaft of sun bounces off the silver leading edge of the Cessna’s wing. I blink and glance down at the instrument panel. Only seven minutes, thirty nautical miles to the island. I scan the horizon.

And there it is.

Santa Catarina.

A dark iris surrounded by the tranquil cerulean blue waters of the Indian Ocean.

The runway, a bleached grey stripe, cuts through the sickle-shaped piece of land. It’ll have deteriorated. It’s been twenty years since this runway, once a carpet-smooth welcome to the wealthy and famed, was abandoned.

The question is how badly has it deteriorated?

I can see pockets sea grass in the still shallow waters. The dune bush barely ripples. I dip slow and low over the runway to check the condition of the surface.

I peer down. It’s a crumbling ribbon. The tar has cracked and burst in the searing sun. The hairs on my nape and arms lift.

Tall yellow weeds droop at the outer edges.

A second loop confirms my fears.

It’s not safe to land. Only an idiot would try. I’ve got to think of the safety of the five passengers sitting cocooned in luxury behind me. Never mind the likely damage to the state-of-the-art jet I am piloting.

Vonn will not take this news well. Not after all the months of strategy meetings and preparations. I wipe my clammy hand on my trousers.

‘Mr Le Clezio?’ At first, he doesn’t hear me. My voice is reluctant. I clear my throat and call again.

He acknowledges me with a nod of his head, then swallows the half inch of Wild Turkey in the tumbler and turns to Butch. ‘Drink up, we’re about to land.’ He slips the now half empty bottle into the side pocket of his holdall.

‘Mr Le Clezio, I’m sorry. It’s not safe to land. The runway’s in a far worse state than we were advised.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, José.’ He spits the words at me.

In my peripheral vision, I’m aware of Butch turning to face me. Judging, watching. He’s the only investor invited to join Vonn in this first recce. Embarrassing Vonn is not an option. Sweat pricks in my hairline.

‘I thought this bloody fancy jet was designed to land on rough terrain?’

‘It is, but —’

‘Well, land it. That’s what I pay you for.’

 

* * *

First Impression: Right away, the first sentence caught my attention by juxtaposing the serenity of gliding with the foreboding of the word “albatross.” Nice. And anytime a scene begins with people in an airplane, you know there’s going to be trouble.

The setting: The author did an excellent job of setting up the environment without going into too much detail. “A dark iris surrounded by the tranquil cerulean blue waters of the Indian Ocean.” We know where we are geographically.

Pace: Each sentence drew me to the next one. The contrast between the beauty of the island and the impending danger is well done.

Stakes: In just a few paragraphs, we learn the problem. We can feel the pilot’s angst, and we know even before he turns to call to Mr. Moneybags that things are going to escalate quickly. James Scott Bell wrote in a recent TKZ post, “Unless the conflict is a life-and-death struggle, the plot will not engage as it should.” This plot clearly avoids that problem.

POV: I also like the use of first person, present tense. It gives a sense of immediacy that works well here. (There were several comments about writing in first person, present tense on John Gilstrap’s TKZ post last week, so I’ll be interested to see what others think of this.)

* * *

There were a few areas I thought needed some work:

The Title: I don’t particularly care for Filthy Money as the title. “Filthy” isn’t one of my favorite words, but I don’t have an alternative since I don’t know the entire story. Maybe some commenters can chime in and make a suggestion.

Grammar: I spotted a couple of small issues in one sentence and I show the corrections here:

I can see pockets of sea grass in the still, shallow waters.

 

Other Issues:

“A shaft of sun bounces off the silver leading edge of the Cessna’s wing.” When I initially read this, I assumed the Cessna was the kind I flew: a single-engine, propeller-driven, four-seater. To avoid that misunderstanding, add the specific model (e.g., Cessna Citation).

“He’s the only investor invited to join Vonn in this first recce.” I had to look up the word “recce.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the process of visiting and quickly looking around a place in order to find out information about it.” Maybe readers of thrillers would know this, but I didn’t. If it isn’t common knowledge to the intended audience, replace it.

“The runway, a bleached grey stripe, cuts through the sickle-shaped piece of land.”  The island was originally described as an “iris,” which I assume is round.

British vs. American spelling and punctuation. The use of the word “grey” rather than “gray” in the snippet above and the use of single quotes rather than double quotes to enclose dialogue throughout the piece indicate the author is British. If the intended audience is largely American, it would be wise to change to the American standard. (i.e., “gray” and double quotes for dialogue.)

Those were the only real issues I found. However, I think the prose could be tightened up a bit. I noticed the words “deteriorated” and “runway” were used more than once in close proximity. I’ve taken the liberty to make suggestions below. A few of the suggestions rely on my own sense of cadence. Deletions are in blue, changes and additions are in red. My comments are in green.

* * *

 

It’s effortless, like a gliding albatross.

A shaft of sun bounces off the silver leading edge of the Cessna Citation’s wing. I blink and glance down at the instrument panel. Only Seven minutes to go. Just thirty nautical miles to the island. I scan the horizon. [Good short sentences set the pace. I changed a couple of words around.]

And there it is. Santa Catarina. A dark green iris surrounded by the tranquil cerulean blue waters of the Indian Ocean.

The runway, a bleached grey stripe, cuts through the sickle-shaped piece of land. It’ll have deteriorated. It’s been in the twenty years since this airstrip runway, once a carpet-smooth welcome to the wealthy and famed, was abandoned. [Rewrote two sentences into one and changed the second use of “runway” to “airstrip.”]

The question is how badly has it deteriorated? how bad is it? [No need to repeat “deteriorated.”]

I can see pockets of sea grass in the still, shallow waters. The dune bush barely ripples. I dip slow and low over the runway to check the condition of the surface.

I peer down. It’s a crumbling ribbon. Tall yellow weeds droop at the outer edges. The tar has cracked and burst in the searing sun. The hairs on my nape and arms lift.

Tall yellow weeds droop at the outer edges. [Moved this sentence up for effect.]

A second loop confirms my fears.

It’s not safe to land. Only an idiot would try to land on that corroded strip of disintegrating asphalt. [Strengthened the danger.] I’ve got to think of the safety of the five passengers sitting cocooned in luxury behind me. Never mind the likely damage to the state-of-the-art jet I am piloting.

Vonn will not take this news well. Not after all the months of strategy meetings and preparations. I wipe my clammy hand on my trousers.

‘Mr Le Clezio?’ At first, he doesn’t hear me. My voice is reluctant. I clear my throat and call again.

He acknowledges me with a nod of his head, then swallows the half inch of Wild Turkey in the tumbler and turns to Butch. ‘Drink up, we’re about to land.’ He slips the now half empty bottle into the side pocket of his holdall.

‘Mr Le Clezio, I’m sorry. It’s not safe to land. The runway’s in a far worse state than we were advised.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, José.’ He spits the words at me.

In my peripheral vision, I’m aware of I see Butch turning to face me. Judging, watching. He’s the only investor invited to join Vonn in this first recce. Embarrassing Vonn is not an option. Sweat pricks in my hairline.

‘I thought this bloody fancy jet was designed to land on rough terrain?.

‘It is, but —’

‘Well, land it. That’s what I pay you for.’

* * *

 

Lasting Impression: Fine job, Brave Author. I’d turn the page. Now let’s see what everyone else thinks.

 

TKZers: What’s your impression of this first page? Would you keep reading? Please offer your comments and suggestions.

ProWritingAid Premium How-To

Terry’s last post spurred spawned this one. With many editing softwares available, it’s difficult to decide on the one that will work for you. I use ProWritingAid Premium, though like Terry, I take the advice that resonates and ignore what doesn’t. The worst thing a writer can do is to depend on automated software to do all the heavy lifting, or it’ll strip out your voice and style choices. The nice part of ProWritingAid is its ability to learn. The more you use it, the less it flags nit-picky things. You can also tell it not to check for certain things.

For example, I include quotes with some chapter headings as a subtle POV signal to the reader. Only one character has quotes in his chapter headings. Every single time, ProWritingAid flags the quotation marks for not being closed at the end of each line, even if it’s mid-quote. I don’t want to tell the software to ignore the quote rule or it won’t catch places in the narrative where I may have forgotten the end quote. See what I’m sayin’? Be careful of which rules you set to ignore. You may need that second pair of eyes later.

Whether you use the free or paid version, the first step is to download the software (available for Mac or PC). Once the software downloads directly into MS Word, it’ll add a new button to the top ribbon. Also available for Google Docs, Scrivener (desktop), or as an extension for Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Edge.

Here’s what it looks like in Word.

(click to enlarge)

When you want to use the software, click the button. Easy peasy. If you don’t want to download the software, you can use the app instead, which opens in a new tab/window. In the app, you’ll have to upload a doc. When downloaded to Word, the software will read whatever document you’re in.

Once you open the software, click the dropdown menu. Since I write thrillers, I keep it set to Thriller, but you can choose any genre of fiction, formal or business writing, other nonfiction, or even email.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After PWA processes the document, it’ll show you suggestions for improvement.

Click to enlarge

 

 

Because I’m using the software as I write this post, it’s showing suggestions for all of it. LOL

If I click the first suggestion, it looks like this…

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The program didn’t like the spaces between ProWritingAid, so I accepted the revision by clicking the highlighted suggestion. Boom — it corrected the spelling for me. The next suggestion was “nice” in the opening paragraph of this post. I clicked “ignore,” but check out the alternatives…

 

 

 

(click to enlarge)

 

 

 

 

Let’s move on to fiction… For this post, I pasted a few paragraphs from the WIP. Keep in mind, I’m in the drafting stage. 😉

A gunshot coiled through the dark forest, and he ducked, the bullet sailing over him. Not that I could pinpoint something that small, but it sure didn’t hit him. Before the scumbag had time to fire a second shot, Mr. Mayhem dove on top of him, tackling him, wrestling in the dirt, arms, legs, and fists flailing.

My breath stalled somewhere in my chest. Where’s the third guy?

Through the binoculars, I scanned left.

The software suggested I add “the” before “left,” but it reads fine without it. If my editor suggests the same, then maybe I’ll change it.

No beam of light. I swung the binoculars to the right. No light-beams. Where the hell did he go? Once I lowered the binoculars, my blood turned to slush. Camouflage boots clomped through thick underbrush—twenty feet from the oak tree!—a sawed-off shotgun rested on linebacker shoulders. Behind him, Poe emerged, divebombing the intruder, crow feet stomping on his head.

 

PWA caught the missing hyphen in dive-bombing. I accepted the change by clicking the green highlighted area. (click to enlarge)

 

 

The mobbing technique allowed me enough time to climb down, Shicheii’s quiver slung on my back, his bow held tight in my hand.

Shicheii means maternal grandfather in Diné, so I added his name to dictionary like this..

 

 

(click to enlarge)

 

 

 

At fifteen feet away, I stopped, reached behind me, and slid out an arrow. Aimed low to avoid Poe. Fired. The razor-tipped arrow sailed through the air, striking the scumbag in the thigh.

Shoot. Missed my mark.

I reloaded. Aimed a scooch higher. And fired. This time, the arrow zipped right past him, missing his hip by an inch, maybe two.

Since scooch is a word, and it’s spelled correctly, I added it to dictionary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Screw this.” I dropped the bow, squirmed my arms out of the quiver straps, and charged straight at him, bellowing a deep, raspy roar, my voice coiling through the trees, boomeranging right back as I lunged at him.

Arms spread like wings, I flew through the air without considering the consequences. If he raised that shotgun, he could kill me. Didn’t matter. Everything within me screamed for me to protect my family, and sheer animalistic instinct took over. I landed on his chest, and we both tumbled backward. 

I ignored the suggestion to remove “through the air” after “flew” because it doesn’t sound right to my ear.

Here’s where you need to be careful. Don’t accept that the software knows better than you. Since this is an early draft, I’ll probably end up rewriting the sentence to use swan-dive instead of flew (paints a better picture), but that’s irrelevant. The point is, question every change to remain true to your voice, your style.

While straddling his hips, I threw a mean right hook, sucker-punched him—almost broke my friggin’ knuckles on his blocky nose—and I swear he laughed. Over and over, I hammered his face in rapid succession, first the right, then left, alternating between the two to keep him off-balance.

“Who’s laughing now, asshole?”

Probably shouldn’t’ve gotten cocky, because he muscled me onto my back. Drilled me in the right temple with his fist, and tiny specks of bright, white light danced before my eyes. That only pissed me off more, and I chomped down on his forearm, my teeth sinking into his flesh.

 

Valid suggestion, PWA. The comma is unnecessary after “bright.”

 

<– At the bottom of that pane, it says Open Full Editor.

When I click that button, it opens in a new window.

 

 

(click to enlarge)

 

 

 

Notice the side column. I’ll scroll through for you…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everything looks good, except dialogue tags. But I don’t have any dialogue tags in the excerpt. Hmm, let’s see what it says by clicking the dialogue box in the top-right corner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okay, it’s just explaining why “said” and “asked” are best to use. Not sure why it says 100% in the negative. There are no dialogue tags. Perhaps that’s why. See what I mean about not blindly trusting editing software? You—the writer—need to weigh each suggestion. If it works, accept the change. If it doesn’t, ignore and move on. Your human editor should flag it again if there’s a problem.

Now, if you’re just beginning your writing journey, click each dialogue box for a full explanation of why to remove things like weak adverbs from your writing.

Here’s what it says under “Weak Adverbs”:

 

 

 

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Check out the top ribbon of the full editor. You can tell the software to search for anything. Overused Words, anyone? We’re all guilty of littering the first draft with crutch words.

 

 

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Check out the Thesaurus. Not only does it tell you how many nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs the document has, but look at all the suggestions it offers for the word “different”.

 

 

 

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This software checks for everything, from sticky sentences, homonyms, echoes, and alliterations, to structure, pacing, and a visual representation of sentence length. Seriously, you could spend hours dissecting your prose. I don’t, but if you’re just learning the craft of writing, spending time learning the basics is time well-spent. I love ProWritingAid Premium because it catches typos, commas, grammatical errors, awkward sentences and/or phrases, or clunky words written when your soul’s on fire and your fingers are sailing across the keyboard. You know what I’m talkin’ about, that sheer passionate writing that made so much sense in the moment, but in the cold light of day, needs tweaking.

Let’s talk about money for a minute. I pay yearly, but they also have monthly plans. I buy yearly plans at Christmastime, because it’s, like, $60 compared to $120 ($10/mo). Or try the free version first. There are some limitations to the free plan. You can only upload five or six chapters at a time, rather than uploading an entire 90K word novel, and you won’t have access to everything in the Full Editor ribbon. But at least it’ll give you the feel of how it works. I’ve used Grammarly, too, and ProWritingAid offers a lot more bang for your buck, IMO.

So, that’s a sampling of ProWritingAid Premium. Hope you found it useful! Do you use editing software? If so, which one?

 

Happy Public Domain Day 2023

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

1927 was a watershed year in motion picture history. 

Wings won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. 

“Wait a minute…wait a minute…you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”

Those were the first words ever spoken in a motion picture. Although The Jazz Singer is now considered insensitive, nevertheless, it stands as an historic moment in 1927 when the first “talkie” rang the death knell for the silent film era.

You can listen to a clip of Al Jolson’s first words here. 

 

January 1, 2023 was Happy Public Domain Day when copyrights ended for movies, literary works, and music published in 1927.

Here’s a partial list of works that are now in the public domain, provided by Duke University.

Literary:

Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

Agatha Christie, The Big Four

Countee Cullen, ed., Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties

Franklin W. Dixon, The Tower Treasure (The Hardy Boys #1)

Franklin W. Dixon, The House on the Cliff (The Hardy Boys #2)

Franklin W. Dixon, The Secret of the Old Mill (The Hardy Boys #3)

 

 

 

Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” and “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place,” the last two stories from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (which means Holmes himself is now in the public domain)

E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

Ernest Hemingway, Men Without Women

Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

Franz Kafka, Amerika

Anita Loos, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes

Edith Wharton, Twilight Sleep

Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Films: 

Metropolis (directed by Fritz Lang)

The Jazz Singer (the first feature-length film with synchronized dialogue; directed by Alan Crosland)

Wings (winner of the first Academy Award for outstanding picture; directed by William A. Wellman)

Sunrise (directed by F.W. Murnau)

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Alfred Hitchcock’s first thriller)

The King of Kings (directed by Cecil B. DeMille)

London After Midnight (now a lost film; directed by Tod Browning)

The Way of All Flesh (now a lost film; directed by Victor Fleming)

7th Heaven (inspired the ending of the 2016 film La La Land; directed by Frank Borzage)

The Kid Brother (starring Harold Lloyd; directed by Ted Wilde)

The Battle of the Century (starring the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy; directed by Clyde Bruckman)

Upstream (directed by John Ford)

Music:

The Best Things in Life Are Free (George Gard De Sylva, Lew Brown, Ray Henderson; from the musical Good News)

(I Scream You Scream, We All Scream for) Ice Cream (Howard Johnson, Billy Moll, Robert A. King)

Puttin’ on the Ritz (Irving Berlin)

Funny Face and ’S Wonderful (Ira and George Gershwin; from the musical Funny Face)

Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man and Ol’ Man River (Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern; from the musical Show Boat)

Back Water BluesPreaching the BluesFoolish Man Blues (Bessie Smith) Listen here.

Potato Head BluesGully Low Blues (Louis Armstrong)

Rusty Pail BluesSloppy Water BluesSoothin’ Syrup Stomp (Thomas Waller)

Black and Tan Fantasy and East St. Louis Toodle-O (Bub Miley, Duke Ellington)

Billy Goat StompHyena StompJungle Blues (Ferdinand Joseph Morton)

My Blue Heaven (George Whiting, Walter Donaldson)

Diane (Erno Rapee, Lew Pollack)

Mississippi Mud (Harry Barris, James Cavanaugh)

~~~

Of particular interest to mystery authors, the last two works by Arthur Conan Doyle featuring Sherlock Holmes are now in the public domain. What does this mean to writers?

If you’ve always hankered to feature the iconic Sherlock as a character in new adventures, you are free to do so without violating copyright or worrying about legal repercussions (more on that in a moment).

Here are a few genre possibilities:

Sherlock uses his powers of deduction to solve contemporary mysteries in the 21st century;

Or he time-travels through history in pursuit of villains;

Or fantasy stories might bestow magical superpowers like flying, turning invisible, telekinetically moving objects, and casting spells;

Or sci-fi, where he travels to distant universes—a rocket ship or space station makes a great setting for a locked room mystery;

Or for romantic suspense, he can fall in love.

Although a number of contemporary works have featured Holmes and Watson, there is a copyright backstory that’s nearly as complicated as Conan Doyle’s mysteries.

Even though Sherlock and Watson had already entered the public domain, legal battles over Sherlock’s copyright persisted for years. The Conan Doyle estate claimed various justifications to charge licensing fees to authors and film makers who wanted to use the characters.

Most creators paid the fees rather than endure the time and expense of taking the estate to court. But attorney Leslie Klinger fought back and won.

In one suit, Judge Richard Posner criticized the estate’s “unlawful business strategy” and stated:

The Doyle estate’s business strategy is plain: charge a modest license fee for which there is no legal basis, in the hope that the ‘rational’ writer or publisher asked for the fee will pay it rather than incur a greater cost, in legal expenses, in challenging the legality of the demand.

The expiration of the copyright on the last two works featuring Sherlock has now ended any possible claims by the estate.

Sherlock is finally, unquestionably free for any creator to use.

That means, as to Sherlock’s future adventures…you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

~~~

Just for fun, here’s The Battle of the Century, featuring Laurel and Hardy and the greatest custard pie fight of all time:

~~~

TKZers: Do any stories, movies, or songs from 1927 make your creative juices flow?

Do you have ideas for repurposing works that are now in the public domain?

Please share your ideas in the comments.

Writers’ Longitude

“at sea” – an idiom meaning “confused” or “lost”

* * *

I recently read a book entitled Longitude by Dava Sobel. It’s the story of an invention that first made it possible for sailors to pinpoint their location at sea. According to Sobel,

“Lines of latitude and longitude began crisscrossing our worldview in ancient times, at least three centuries before the birth of Christ. By A.D. 150, the cartographer and astronomer Ptolemy had plotted them on the twenty-seven maps of his first world atlas.”

Knowing one’s position on the face of the earth is just a matter of knowing the latitude and longitude. . (You’ll remember latitude are the horizontal lines around the earth, all parallel to the equator. Longitudinal lines (meridians) are lines drawn from the North Pole to the South Pole.)

During the Age of Exploration, roughly from the 15th to the 18th centuries, one of the major seafaring problems was the inability to establish the ship’s position on the high seas. Latitude was fairly simple to determine by the height of the sun as it progressed across the sky or by the position of certain stars, but there’s no similar way to determine longitude. Once a ship sailed out of the sight of land, it had no reference point for which to understand its east/west position.

Since longitude is a measure of time, not distance, an easy way to determine it is to compare the time of day on board ship with the time at the home port from which the ship sailed. This can be accomplished by setting a clock to the home port time before sailing and keeping that clock on the ship. The actual time aboard the ship is determined by the position of the sun and compared to the clock. Each hour of difference corresponds to fifteen degrees of longitude. Sounds easy, right? Unfortunately, there were no clocks in existence during the early days of the great explorers that would keep accurate time on board a ship. The movement of the ship and the changes in temperature, pressure, and humidity affected the clocks’ mechanisms, and the results were unreliable.

Some of the best minds of that era, including the great Sir Isaac Newton, had tried to find an astronomical solution to the problem, but the quest seemed out of reach. (Pun intended.)

It was such a big problem that in 1714 the British Parliament passed the Longitude Act which offered a lucrative prize for the first person who could deliver a practical means of determining longitude at sea.

Into this environment stepped John Harrison, a carpenter and self-taught clock maker, whose skill and determination were just the attributes needed. Harrison solved problem after problem in his dogged persistence, and finally in 1736, his first clock, unimaginatively named the H-1, sailed aboard the HMS Centurion to Lisbon and returned aboard the HMS Orford. The clock performed admirably, and the Longitude commissioners asked Harrison to continue his work.

Over the course of the next twenty-five years or so, John Harrison created a total of three more clocks. The fourth one (you can guess the name: H-4) was actually a watch, and it was the H-4 that sailed to Jamaica in 1765 and performed within the limits required by the Longitude Board for the prize. John Harrison had solved one of mankind’s thorniest problems, and he likely saved the lives of many sailors in the process.

John Harrison is revered in England for his work. All four of his sea-faring clocks reside in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. In 1884, the Prime Meridian (longitude 0°) was defined as the longitudinal line that runs through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Hence, our definition of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) from which all other time zones are offset. If you visit the Royal Observatory, you can have your picture taken astride the Prime Meridian, one foot in each hemisphere.

* * *

As I was reading about the longitude problem, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity to writing. PJ Parrish quoted Walter Mosley in her Kill Zone Blog post last week:

Writing a novel is like taking a journey by boat. You have to continuously set yourself on course. If you get distracted or allow yourself to drift, you will never make it to the destination.

So how do we as authors keep ourselves on course? It’s easy to feel like you’re “at sea” when you’re in the second act muddle, not sure how to get to your destination, or even exactly where your destination lies. But there are experts who can help us find our writing longitude. I have a stack of craft books I love to refer to. Here are a few:

  • Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
  • Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • Fire Up Your Fiction by Jodie Renner
  • Writing Novels That Sell by Jack M. Bickham
  • Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain
  • On Writing by Stephen King

 * * *

So TKZers: What resources do you use to chart your course across the great ocean of writing a novel?

 

And speaking of time … 

The Watch Mysteries is a box set of three complete novels in which clocks, watches, and time play an important role.

 

 

 

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Story Structure in Humans

As I tell this story, think back over your life. We’ve all gone through hard times, some worse than others. Humor me, and if you’re struggling with story structure, you’ll at least begin to grasp it by the time you’ve read this post. That’s my hope, anyway.

Humans have structure — flesh, organs, tissue, arteries, veins, water, and muscle all have their place. No matter what race, religion, or creed, we are the same. What braces up our bodies is our skeleton — story structure.

We may look different on the outside — some have big noses, full lips, different skin and eye color — but we all started the same way…

As an egg — story idea.

Once fertilized, the egg grew in the womb, but still hadn’t fully formed yet — concept.

We evolved into a living, breathing human and entered the world — character.

We each grew to think and feel differently, have different world views, religions, heart, and soul — theme.

And we lived our lives, our story — premise.

Some people are more giving, outwardly loving. Some are more reserved. But it’s all because of how our parents raised us, or because a tragedy changed us — backstory.

So, we’ve been born and we’re growing up, maturing or have already matured. Whichever applies to that specific time in your life.

We scored a job. Perhaps married and had children. But we retained our inner demons, our flaws — Act I — 1st quartile: Set Up << which begins character arc, introduces characters, sets up FPP, foreshadows future events, etc. 

And then something happened to throw our lives out of balance. This defining moment demanded that we act. We could not hide from it. It forced us to do something — First Plot Point, at 20-25%.

After this crucial moment occurred, an antagonist force entered our lives, or it was there all along and only now revealed itself — 1st Pinch Point, at 3/8th mark or 37.5%.

We reeled, flailed, resisted, and failed — Act II — 2nd quartile: Response 

We either did something to fix the problem, or the problem worsened. All the while we kept thinking things could not get much worse. Or we believed we’d finally solved the problem. But it was a false victory or a false defeat — Midpoint, at 50%.

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So, we needed to attack the problem head on, because it’s wasn’t going away — Act III — 3rd quartile: Attack << our true character changes again and we become a warrior.

We stopped our pity party because it wasn’t doing us any good. Besides, we’re stronger now than when we started this quest.

And then, the antagonist force emerged again. Only now, it was more terrifying than ever because it too had upped its game — 2nd Pinch Point, at 5/8th mark or 62.5%. Learn more about Pinch Points.

We realized we hadn’t actually solved the problem. We’d only made it worse. Or the victory was short-lived because we didn’t realize X,Y,Z was around the corner, waiting to explode. Things looked bleak. Could this situation get any worse? — All Is Lost Moment.

But how did we really feel about this? What sort of impact did it have on us? — Dark Night of the Soul.

Then something changed. Or we discovered something new that helped us see a glimmer at the end of a dark road — 2nd Plot Point, at 75%.

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In fact, there was a way we could fix our lives — Act IV — 4th quartile: Resolution << this act completes character arc

The only way to defeat the antagonist was to overcome our fears, inner demons, flaws, and meet this force head on. We had to fight this battle (not be a bystander), with everything we’d learned in life thus far, about ourselves and the world around us — Climax.

After which, we lived happily ever after, or as happy as we could be in our new world. We grew as individuals, faced our fears, and had come out stronger for the effort. We’d settled into our new lives — Resolution.

Boom. The end. Obviously, we need a compelling hook first, but that’s it in a nutshell.

Could you think of a time in your life when this applied to you? Hold tight to that memory, and you’ll never forget story structure at its basic level.

“The more Shawnee digs, she ends up with more questions than answers and then add bloody body parts showing up on her doorstep, crows stalking her every move, unreachable friends, a serial killer on her heels, harrowing situations, and she’s just really not sure she’s up to the task at hand. Lines blur with truth and lies, deceptions and facts, and everything about her past will come into question. I loved everything about this book!” — Denise H, book reviewer

On sale for 99c on Amazon

First Page Critique – Deadly Water

Photo credit: Ray Bilcliff, pexels

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Happy New Year! Hope the spirit of the holiday season kept you warm in spite of the frigid weather.

What better way to kick off the first week of the new year than with a First Page critique? Please take a plunge into Deadly Water submitted by a Brave Author.

~~~

Deadly Water

Kit sat on the back steps and laced up his running shoes. Getting a bit battered he thought. Might have to invest in a new pair if I plan on doing that marathon later in the year. Jumping nimbly to his feet, and making sure he had the ball in his pocket, he set off up the road towards the beach. Gem trotting happily beside him.

The day had one of those dirty gray overcast skies that were full of rain. The forecast was indeed for it to bucket down later. Kit knew these skies well, having grown up on the street he still lived. Rain would come from the north east, and it would last for a few days. Given his current mood this suited him perfectly well.

Down on the beach the tide was well out. Despite the number of runners, walkers, dogs, and strollers, there was plenty of room for Kit and Gem. As she had done for countless kilometers, Gem was content to lope alongside Kit. Half border collie, half German Shepard, Gem was a true companion. Loyal, obedient, and possibly deadly. Strangers never knew if Gem was going to herd them, or rip their lungs out.

Kit ran with one of those easy strides that made running look easy. He was tall, with hair that wasn’t quite red, not quite auburn. With that, and his green eyes, he could either scrub up stunningly, or just as easily look like he had slept rough for days.

They did the mandatory four lengths of the beach. Kit then took the disgusting old tennis ball out of his pocket and threw it into the water for Gem to chase. He still had a good throwing arm from his cricketing days, so this gave Gem a good workout. The sprint up the hill home always made him feel virtuous.

Back home he made his regular breakfast of egg with tomatoes on toast, and fed Gem. It was now getting on for seven thirty, and Kit wasn’t sure what he was going to do with the rest of the day. The house really did need some work, especially the fence. Ever since his parents had died, and Kit inherited the house, he had not much felt like renovating.

The promised rain arrived.

It was on day three of the rain that his mobile went. It hadn’t rung for days. His mates knew better than to annoy him when the mood was on. Kit and Gem had still run every morning. Running as therapy Kit thought grimly to himself more than once.

~~~

Okay, let’s get started.

Title: A title makes the book’s first impression on a reader and Deadly Water fills the bill for the mystery/suspense/crime genre. It immediately raises the question—why is the water deadly? That promises sinister happenings–maybe a floating body, murder by drowning, or a dangerous hunt for undersea treasure.

The title also works to set the story’s mood. Treacherous seas evoke primal fears of being lost, alone, and helpless in the depths, along with the terror of being unable to breathe. BA made an evocative, effective choice with Deadly Water. Good job!

Craft: The writing is generally clear. No typos or spelling errors except “Shephard” should be “Shepherd.

“Might have to invest in a new pair if I plan on doing that marathon later in the year.” This is the only place where “I” is used. The rest of the page is in third person.

For consistency, consider changing I to he: “Might have to invest in a new pair if he planned on doing that marathon later in the year.”

“Well” is repeated twice in two paragraphs.

The phrase “one of those” appears twice and is unnecessarily vague and wordy.

Try reading this page out loud to pick up repeated words and to smooth out a few awkward phrases.

Beginning a sentence with “It was” sounds weak. What does it refer to?

Watch out for gerunds (-ing words). “Jumping nimbly to his feet, and making sure he had the ball in his pocket, he set off up the road towards the beach. Gem trotting happily beside him.”

Suggested rewrite: Kit made sure he had Gem’s ball in his pocket. He jumped to his feet and set off up the road towards the beach, the dog trotting happily beside.

Setting and tone: British-isms like “scrub up” and “mates”, as well as the reference to “cricket”, suggest the setting is an English seaside town.

“Dirty gray overcast skies that were full of rain” is a nicely written phrase that establishes a gloomy, threatening tone.

“Given his current mood this suited him perfectly well” indicates Kit feels melancholy.

Characters: Two characters are introduced, Kit and Gem.

Kit is a fit marathon runner who still lives on the same street where he grew up. He recently inherited a home after his parents’ deaths.

Kit ran with one of those easy strides that made running look easy. He was tall, with hair that wasn’t quite red, not quite auburn. With that, and his green eyes, he could either scrub up stunningly, or just as easily look like he had slept rough for days.

This description gives a clear picture of what Kit looks like. However, the point of view is omniscient—as if a god is looking down on him—in contrast with the third-person POV in the rest of the excerpt.

An important goal at this early stage is to interest and connect the reader closely with the main character. Switching the POV pulls the reader out of the story, which is risky.

Gem is described as:

Half border collie, half German Shepard, Gem was a true companion. Loyal, obedient, and possibly deadly. Strangers never knew if Gem was going to herd them, or rip their lungs out.

Whoa! Ripping lungs out grabs the reader’s interest in a big way. I want to know more about this dog.

What causes her to react with unexpected violence? Is she trained to attack? If so, why does Kit need or want an attack dog? Should she be off-leash on a public beach? How does Kit handle Gem’s scary behavior?

At this point, Gem is a far more interesting, compelling character than Kit. She is also an effective device to foreshadow future conflict.

Story Problem: This otherwise well-written page has a major flaw.

Nothing happens.

Here are the problems Kit faces on this page:

Should he buy new running shoes?

Can he motivate himself to fix the fence?

His mobile goes dead.

None of these problems is compelling or earth-shaking.

The reader doesn’t care. And that’s a BIG problem. 

A side note: I was confused by the sentences “It was on day three of the rain that his mobile went. It hadn’t rung for days.”

On the first reading, I thought “his mobile went” meant the phone had gone dead. On rereading, I wondered if the first sentence was missing a word. Should it have read “his mobile went off”? In other words, did it ring for the first time in days?

If in fact the phone does ring for the first time in days, that constitutes a disturbance, which I’ll discuss in a moment. However, since the reader doesn’t know the significance of an incoming call, it’s not a compelling hook.

Back to the story problem. BA hints at potential difficulties. Kit is depressed enough that his mates know not to call him. He considers running as therapy but doesn’t address why he needs therapy. If his mood is connected to the deaths of his parents, how does that lead to a larger story question?

At TKZ, we talk frequently about ever-shorter attention spans. Reading is only one activity in world filled with constant distractions.

For authors seeking traditional publication, agents and editors need to be grabbed by the first page, paragraph, or even sentence. Otherwise, they quickly move on to the next submission.

The same applies to self-published authors. The “Look Inside” sample must immediately grab a prospective buyer’s attention. If not, there are a few million other books they can check out.

This first page is not a story yet because there is no disturbance or conflict. It’s just another day in the lives of Kit and Gem where nothing out of the ordinary happens.

The background may be useful to help the author become familiar with the setting and characters.

 But…it’s boring for the reader.

 My guess is the real story begins a few pages later when a significant event changes the course of Kit’s life.

Unfortunately, most readers won’t stick around that long. To hook them, put the disturbance on the first page, preferably in the first few paragraphs.

What if Kit throws the ball for Gem to retrieve but instead she brings back a severed hand?

Bam! The story is off and running.

Here’s one possible way to begin:

Kit’s mobile went dead during his regular morning run along the seashore, deserting him when he needed it most.

Gem, his German Shepherd-border collie mix, was racing down the beach after her ball. Abruptly, she stopped to sniff a pile of flotsam that three days of windswept rain had washed ashore. As Kit approached, he noticed a stench besides rotting seaweed.

A body. 

He started to call emergency services then realized his phone was dead, as dead as the young woman handcuffed to a wooden rail.

Jim Bell frequently counsels writers to “act first, explain later.”

To make this first page effective, try beginning with action. What disturbance changes Kit’s predictable, monotonous life into a story adventure?

The background information—like his familiarity with weather patterns, his parents’ deaths, and that he lives on the same street where he grew up—can all be woven in later, after the reader is hooked.

Summation: This page has potential. I like the English seaside setting and Gem is an interesting character. The excellent title promises that something bad is going to happen.

If BA rewrites the first page with action that lives up to the title’s promise, the reader will be eager to plunge into those Deadly Waters.

Thanks for submitting, Brave Author!

~~~

Over to you, TKZers. What do you think of this first page? What suggestions do you have for the Brave Author?

~~~

 

 

Start the New Year with a new series. Please check out award-winning Thrillers with Passion by Debbie Burke. 

Amazon link

The Nearly Impossible Triple Jump

Most writers hope we’ll have long-running series: John Sandford has written 32 Prey thrillers, featuring Lucas Davenport. Sue Grafton’s alphabet series has 25 mysteries, and with her untimely death, the alphabet ended at the letter Y. And Marcia Talley has written 19 Hannah Ives mysteries since 1999. She’s managed to take her series to three publishers, a nearly impossible feat.
Booklist magazine said this about her latest mystery, Disco Dead, which debuted in November, “Some long-running series have their ups and downs, but the Ives series has been remarkably consistent.”
We’ve asked Marcia about her long-lasting series, and how she’s kept up the quality.
– Elaine Viets

Elaine: Who is Hannah Ives, and why did you create her?

Marcia: I don’t have to tell you that the real world is a messy, violent, frequently unjust place. Mysteries can be a respite – in my fictional world I call the shots. Justice is served and the villain suitably punished. I love the puzzle aspect of the mystery, planting clues and dropping red herrings. As for me personally, there have been a lot of people in my life who needed to die. In a mystery, I can bump them off with a stroke of my pen, and it’s cheaper than a therapist. I’ve bumped off former bosses, an ex-brother-in-law, a real estate agent, a crooked developer (the list goes on!) and even my husband a couple of times.

Elaine: How much of you is in Hannah?

Marcia: Is she my alter ego? Yes and no. She reminds me a bit of what Nancy Drew would be like at 55 or so. Like me, Hannah is a breast cancer survivor who enjoys sailing and is married to a professor at the Naval Academy. She’s funnier than I am, though, and braver—I would never break into a doctor’s office and riffle through his medical records, but Hannah would. Hannah’s younger and prettier, too, although just as curious and fiercely independent.

Her name was always Hannah, by the way, but I didn’t realize until my first editor emailed to inquire about it that my heroine didn’t have a last name. In a semi-panic, I called a friend who suggested the name Ives. I found out later that my friend’s phone was mounted on a kitchen wall next to a Currier & Ives illustrated calendar, so Hannah might well have been named Hannah Currier.

Elaine: How was your first Hannah mystery received?

Marcia: It still amazes me! Sing It to Her Bones won the Malice Domestic Grant for unpublished mysteries, then, after it was published by Bantam Dell, was nominated for an Agatha Award for best first novel. At the Malice Domestic conference that year, I appeared on a panel with the other nominees that was moderated by Margaret Maron (I was such a fan girl!). Hannah lost out to Donna Andrews and her wrought-iron flamingos, but the boost the award gave me spurred sales. Reviews were uniformly positive – “a shining new talent” OMG! – and I was thrilled to get cover blurbs from mystery authors I admired tremendously like Margaret, Laura Lippman, Sujata Massey and Deborah Crombie.

Elaine: Cancer is a grim topic. How do you keep Hannah entertaining?

Marcia: With humor and pragmatism. The opening lines of Sing It to Her Bones are:

“When I got cancer, I decided I wasn’t going to put up with crap from anybody anymore.”

And over the course of the next nineteen novels, she certainly doesn’t.

Take this example in a scene from the first chapter of Sing It to Her Bones. Here, Hannah is receiving the devastating news that she’s being laid off from the prestigious D.C. accounting firm she’s worked at for years:

While Coop oozed on about severance pay and maintenance of health benefits, I stared at Fran, who sat straight-backed and immobile, like an ice sculpture. I willed her to look at me, but she focused on his reflection in the tabletop. If Jones of New York had issued shotguns along with its suits, I thought, Old Cooper’s shirtfront would have been a sodden mass of red and we would have been picking bits of lung and rib out of the oriental carpet. I concentrated on the way his yellowish hair sprouted from his upper forehead in spiky clumps and how his earlobes wobbled when he talked. Frankly, when he laid the news on me, I didn’t know whether to run out and hire a lawyer to sue his ass or fall down and kiss his feet.

Elaine: Who was your first publisher and why were you dropped?

Marcia: My first contract was a three-book, mass-market paperback deal with Bantam Dell, a division of Random House. At some point between Unbreathed Memories and Occasion of Revenge, Random House was bought out by the German publishing giant, Bertelsman and their whole mass-market paperback mystery line was axed. Up until that time, B/D had been publishing two paperback mysteries a month; twenty-four authors were instantly orphaned. I remember (barely!) commiserating with a bunch of homeless B/D authors around the bar at Bouchercon Denver in September of 2000.

Elaine: Were you expecting your series to be canceled? What did you do when you got the news?

Marcia: I was completely blind-sided. My then editor had already told my agent that they would be wanting a fourth book in the series. I got the bad news on my cell phone, directly from my editor while sitting in a parking lot outside a Shaw’s supermarket near my sister’s home in Gorham, Maine. After sulking for a while, I marched into the store and bought a pint of Haagen Dasz rum raisin ice cream and ate it all by myself.

Elaine: Conventional wisdom says when publishers drop writers, these authors have two choices: indie publish their series, or start a new series. Did you consider either alternative?

Marcia: Back in 2001, indie publishing was about as respectable as printing your manuscript out at Kinko’s and selling it out of the trunk of your car, so it was never a consideration for me. Conventional wisdom at the time was to Keep Your Name Out There. So, I began to write short stories, the first of which, “With Love, Marjorie Ann” was short-listed for an Agatha award. Fans of my Hannah Ives mysteries will be surprised to learn that I am also a serial novelist. I wrote novels with other women. And not just one woman either. TWELVE other women.

My then agent called shortly after the aforementioned rug had been pulled out from under me, to say he’d heard that some publisher had paid Big Bucks for a serial novel about golf. He suggested I write a novel set in an exclusive health spa, with, say, a greedy owner, a star-struck daughter, a drunken senator, an aged rock star … and Naked Came the Phoenix was born. Naked was followed by I’d Kill for That, my second expedition into collaborative serial novel territory. For the uninitiated, let me explain that the novel, like its predecessor, was written in round-robin style: one author writes the first chapter then passes it to the second who picks up the story where the first author left off, then passes it on to the third, and so on.

For me, coming up with the scenario – murder in an exclusive gated community — and creating a smorgasbord of fascinating characters for the others to play with was just the beginning. The fun really started when I turned it all over to my fellow authors, sat back and waited to see where my dream team would run with it, and they didn’t disappoint.

Under the talented pen of Gayle Lynds, the “greedy real estate developer” suggested in my proposal leapt to life “with a clash of cymbals and a drum roll” as Vanessa Smart Drysdale, a petite, chestnut-haired beauty in black leather slacks who possesses all the compassion of Cruella de Vil. Little did I know what Lisa Gardner had in store for poor, tormented Roman Gervase, and Julie Smith’s take on Sunday services at St. Francis of Assisi Interfaith Chapel had me chuckling for weeks. Other equally delightful chapters were penned by Rita Mae Brown, Linda Fairstein, Kay Hooper, Kathy Reichs (lending her customary forensic expertise, of course), Heather Graham, Jennifer Crusie, Tina Wainscott, Anne Perry, Katherine Neville and, ahem, me.

The authors seemed to enjoy the game, too. The rules were simple. Each chapter was to be written in the third person, with a definite solution in view, even thought we were well aware that subsequent authors might take – indeed were expected to take – the plot in divergent directions. Speaking of her chapter in Naked Came the Phoenix, which was set in a luxury health spa in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Nancy Pickard said, “It was dangerously liberating to know I didn’t personally have to deal with the consequences of whatever I put in my chapter.” Good thing, too, as she left our heroine struggling to extract the body of the spa owner from a mud bath.

Although writers were cautioned to avoid cliff-hanger endings that would require Houdini-like efforts on the part of the next author, the “real fun” comes, according to Laurie R. King who wrote the final chapter of Naked Came the Phoenix, “in seeing thirteen sweet-tempered lady crime writers stab each other thoughtfully in the back.” Judy Jance gleefully ended her chapter in that novel with Phyllis, the spa’s resident psychic, floating face down in a lake. Fortunately, however, someone in Faye Kellerman’s chapter knew CPR and revived Phyllis long enough for her to deliver a critical clue before lapsing into a coma.

As you might guess, my job as editor/contributor resembled a cross between tour guide and traffic cop as I assembled the team and worked out the intricacies of scheduling – each author had just a month to complete her chapter – and made sure, for example, that each author received packets of background information and copies of the chapters that preceded hers. Timing was critical. We met at conferences, spoke on the telephone and exchanged emails at a furious rate. As we raced to the finish line, Anne, Katherine and I kept the trans-Atlantic telephone lines hot as we brainstormed and worked out plot details – Anne Perry pointed out that the novel needed a love story, and she was right – so we put one in. And Val McDermid vowed she would not participate unless she could use the word “incarnadine,” a request I happily granted. Often we found ourselves revisiting an earlier chapter to plant a clue or clear up a discrepancy, and it fell to the amazing Katherine Neville – who volunteered for the job, I should point out – to tie up all the loose ends as our novel sprinted to its stunning conclusion.

Elaine: How many books did you do with your second publisher, and why did you jump to a third?

Marcia: My second publisher was Morrow/Avon. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the very night I won the Agatha Award for my short story, “Too Many Cooks” in 2002, I was approached at the awards banquet by Caroline Marino, a senior editor at M/A who was well aware of the bloodbath that had taken place over at B/D and said, “I have someone I’d like you to meet.” Caroline was already familiar with the Hannah series and introduced me to editor Sarah Durand. Within a week, my agent received an offer of a 3-book deal. In Death’s Shadow, This Enemy Town and Through the Darkness were all published by Morrow/Avon until they met the same fate as my first three books: the victim of a corporate takeover, this time by Harper Collins, and a decision to ax the mass market mystery line in favor of trade paper format. I was already well along with Dead Man Dancing, set in the world of competitive ballroom, which was immensely popular at the time with TV shows like “Strictly Come Dancing” in the UK and “Dancing with the Stars” in the US, so that may have been one reason the series was picked up by Severn House. I’ve been with them ever since.

Elaine: How has Hannah changed since your first book?

Marcia: If I had known when I was writing Sing It to Her Bones that I was writing a series, I would have made Hannah much younger. At the end of the first book, we learn she’s about to become a grandmother. My novels are roughly contemporaneous—Occasion of Revenge, for example, climaxes during New Year’s Eve celebrations in 1999, the eve of the New Millenium – so Hannah must be at least twenty-two years older than she was back then, but, uh, let’s not mention it.

Elaine: What do you do to keep your series fresh?

Marcia: Every time I finish a book, I think, “I’ll never get an idea for another one.” But all one needs to do these days is pick up a newspaper or watch television to find something that gets the creative juices flowing. The first thing I ask is how do I get Hannah believably involved in this? Writers of mystery series call it avoiding the Cabot Cove Syndrome. After twelve seasons of “Murder She Wrote” and years in syndication, there can’t be anyone left alive in Cabot Cove, Maine, and would you risk having tea with Jessica Fletcher? Once I figure out how to involve Hannah – and her network of cancer survivors is a big help there – I hop on the Internet and begin researching the issue. In Mile High Murder, for example, Hannah is invited to go on a fact-finding trip to Denver, Colorado by a Maryland state senator in their cancer support group who is looking into legalizing recreational marijuana in Maryland. In Tangled Roots, I explored what happens when Hannah’s Ancestry.com DNA test comes up with totally unexpected results. The expertise she gained with forensic genealogical research in that novel and the subsequent one, leads her to being invited to join a small group of quirky “citizen detectives” dedicated to solving cold cases in my latest novel, Disco Dead.

Marcia and her husband Barry are sailors, and spend winters in the Bahamas. Here’s Marcia (with a broken finger, no less) writing her novel on their boat, Iolanthe.

Elaine: Thank you, Marcia for an informative interview. TKZers, you can buy Sing It to Her Bones here: https://www.amazon.com/Sing-Bones-Hannah-Ives-Mystery/dp/0440235170?ie=UTF8&qid=1464306300&ref_=tmm_mmp_swatch_0&sr=1-1
And this is the link for Disco Dead: https://www.amazon.com/Disco-Dead-Hannah-Ives-Mystery/dp/1448307953/ref=sr_1_1?crid=AUSQ28331C5Y&keywords=disco+dead+marcia+talley&qid=1670508658&sprefix=disco+dead%2Caps%2C1810&sr=8-1

Editor Interview – Val Mathews

By Debbie Burke
@burke_writer

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

Editor Val Mathews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB: What attracted you to editing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB: What qualities turn you off?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB: What trends have you noticed lately?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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