Holiday Food for Thought on Character Conflicts

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Purchased from iStock for Jordan Dane’s use

This is my last post for 2018, but I got my inspiration from Jim’s post “What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Writing” on Nov 25th. As always, the discussion comments were very interesting. Two comments stood out in my mind and I wanted to explore them. I thought they could combine into this post on character and conflict.

Marilynn Byerly said: “…Conflict should exist on many levels. In other words, the character’s emotional struggle should be mirrored in the action of the novel.”

Marilynn is so right. Great summary. There can be the external conflict of a global disaster or a killer on the loose, but if you add complications within the main character (a flaw or handicap that forces them out of their comfort zone to deal with the external conflict after facing their own demons), that’s good stuff.

AZAli said: “When I was starting out, I thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t write a scene about characters enjoying themselves.”

I could relate to AZAli’s comment here when I first started out. I didn’t want to waste a scene on the seemingly real life of the character, but in moderation, this can be insightful, especially if the internal demons of the character are at odds with what the plot will bring. In Michael Connelly books, The ups and downs of Bosch’s personal life are an intricate thread woven into the fabric of his stories, so tightly written and paced, that Bosch becomes real in the reader’s mind. It’s like you KNOW him over the series of books you’re reading. His failed relationships, the love he has for his daughter and complicated ex-wife, and his troubles on the job that arise because of his very uncompromising nature.

Be judicious, not to overdo diversions, but I would suggest that if you want to add depth to your character, give him or her a backstory that is integral to his/her internal conflicts and force your character to deal with those too, along with the plot. No scene is wasted if the reader is enthralled. It’s a balance, but one worth pursuing. (I love getting emails or social media comments from readers who ask about the personal life of my characters. They share their hopes for what might come next or ask about the service dog I have my Vigilante Justice series, Karl. You never know what will resonate with readers.)

I thought of a writing resource book by Deb Dixon called “Goals, Motivation & Conflict.” This little book (affectionately called the GMC book) has a lot of fans. It helped me add complications to my characters when I first started writing. It’s a good resource for new writers. I also attended one of Deb Dixon’s workshops and got a lot out of it. (Workshops are wonderful to learn new things and to network. I would encourage any author to attend a workshop, no matter what skill level you are. There’s bound to be something that will stick with you.)

I’m resorting to my memory on the matrix concept of the GMC book and the general idea that has stuck with me after reading it. My resources books are buried in my BOX ROOM after my last move. The idea of t he GMC book is to give your characters INTERNAL CONFLICTS and EXTERNAL CONFLICTS and maybe dare to have them conflict with each other.

What does your character want and why can’t they have it? Conflict is vital to creating memorable characters. No conflict(s), no story. I can’t emphasize this enough. If there is a common mistake many aspiring authors make, it’s not having enough conflict to keep a story flowing through to the end that will drive the characters and keep their story interesting.

Your EXTERNAL CONFLICT might be the villain or the insurmountable situation, but the most unforgettable characters will also contend with their own flaws or biases (INTERNAL CONFLICTS) or demons, so they have a journey toward self-discovery. If you have a hero who is in conflict with a villain, while he’s battling his own demons, then think about creating a heroine who has opposing conflicts where one of them must lose in order to be together. Conflicts are best when layered and made more complicated.

Find your characters’ greatest weaknesses or fears—their internal conflicts—and demand they deal with it. Torture them. It’s legal. Rubbing their nose in it generally comes from the influences of the external conflict—the plot. The one-two punch of the external and internal conflicts adds depth to your character. Make him/her suffer, then ramp up the stakes and the tension. It’s all about drama!

Add Depth to Each Character—Give them a journey
• With any journey comes baggage. Be generous. Load on the baggage. Give them a weakness that they’ll have to face head-on by the climax of the book.

• Make them vulnerable by giving them an Achilles Heel. Even the darkest street thug or a fearless young girl with magical powers should have a weakness that may get them killed and certainly makes them more human and relatable.

• Whether you are writing one book or a series, have a story arc for your character’s journey that spans the series. Will they find peace or love, or some version of a normal life? Will they let someone else into their lives or will they be content to live alone? Will a villain have a chance at redemption? Do what makes sense for your character, but realize that their emotional issues will cloud their judgment and affect how they deal with confrontations. By the end of a book, they should learn something.

Use Character Flaws as Handicaps
• Challenge yourself as an author by picking flaws that will make your character stand out and that aren’t easy to write about. Sometimes that means you have to dig deep in your own head to imagine things you don’t want to think about, but tap into your empathy for another human being. You might surprise yourself.

• Stay true to the flaws and biases you give your characters. Don’t present them to the reader then have the actions of the character contradict those handicaps. Be consistent. If they have strong enough issues, these won’t be fixed by the end of the book. Find a way to deal with them.

Summary: With a little forethought and patience, you can craft a better book if you plan your characters’ conflicts and create a tough journey of discovery for them. And remember that one book could turn into a series if you create a large enough world with characters that can be sustained through a series. I even like to plant seeds of mystery for future books within the pages of a standalone. You never know what good fortune might happen.

Happy Holidays! Wishing you the best and have a great 2019, TKZers!

DISCUSSION:

For Writers: Tell us about the internal and external conflicts of the main character(s) in your current WIP, TKZers. How have you made your characters at odds with each other?

For Readers: Share novels that had a good balance of the internal and external conflicts of the main character. What did you like most about the journey of the book?

 

8+

First Page Critique – Zip & Millie: Siberian Adventure

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Please welcome today’s Brave Author who’s submitted a first page entitled:

Zip&Milly: Siberian Adventure

Russian train – courtesy of Wikimedia

“Raccoon” — an inquisitive legal assistant from Ducklingburg, U.S.A., appeared in the car of a speeding Siberian commuter rail quite unexpectedly.

Appeared being the operative word. Raccoon was not exactly sure how he got there.

He did not board the rail; did not catch the rail; did not even wake up there with a start. He just . . .  appeared.

A gentle waft of extraordinarily fresh Spring-smelling air shifted and carefully inserted Raccoon’s body into a tight spot between two groups of bulkily dressed people . . . then, before he could get oriented, that same fresh-smelling waft nudged on and pushed him forward, along the swaying length of swiftly moving train, down the narrow corridor with a row of closed compartment doors on one side.

Instinctively, Raccoon steeled his gait — stance wide, head forward, chin in . . . and, finding no grounding point to balance himself, fell in into the closest compartment.

First thing he saw was Zip — or, more precisely, Spaniel Zip’s rear quarters.

“Score! There you are! Zip! Get here!” whispered Raccoon, leaning down. Losing their best client’s dog would be hard to explain back in Ducklingburg.

The Spaniel lay stiffly in the most unflattering position. Head buried deep under the train bench, black hind paws and short un-wagging tail sticking out on the floor, spread like a dead frog, and Zip’s most embarrassing part — the bright-yellow spot of fur under his tail that made him look like he — was not to careful doing business — was shining in full view.

Not like Zip at all, Raccoon plopped on the floor, sinking feeling in his stomach. Anybody who met Zip knew: Zip would rather die than let his rear side be seen in public.

Raccoon caught a glimpse of red under Zip’s hind paws . . ..

“Zippy?!” Raccoon hunted under the bench, hooked his arm around the dog’s neck and, scooping Zip, pulled gently, cajoling, “Zippy, why are you hiding — come outta — OUCH! Don’t bite!”

Zip whimpered, and scrambled, burrowing deeper under the bench, from where he growled with an unapologetic menace.

“Alive!” breathed out Raccoon, and for the first time, glanced up. Where are we?”

The train definitely looked like nothing that connected through their native Ducklingburg.

***

Let’s get to work.

This story appears to be a humorous fantasy about teleportation directed at young readers. The POV character is described as an inquisitive legal assistant named Raccoon from Ducklingburg, USA. He suddenly appears in a speeding Siberian commuter train without knowing how he got there. Kudos to the brave writer for starting with action and minimal backstory.

Animal names set a playful, lighthearted tone but also raise a question: is Raccoon the nickname of a human character or is he actually a furry, four-legged critter with a black mask across his eyes?

In all genres, pictures from the writer’s vivid imagination must translate to the page. In fantasy, that’s even more important because the world is unfamiliar.

Unfortunately, in this first page, the reader feels as lost and confused as poor Raccoon.

A scene in a fantasy world must be made clear to the reader. How does Raccoon know he’s on a Siberian commuter rail as opposed to, say, a New York subway?

The laws of physics in a fantasy world must also be clear.

How does a gentle waft of air carefully insert a person into a crowd? How does it then push him along a corridor? A waft isn’t powerful enough to move a person. Waft means “a gentle movement of air,” so adding gentle is redundant. Perhaps “force field” would be a better term to describe it.

The compartment doors are closed. How does Raccoon physically move through a closed door? Or do you mean a door is ajar and he falls through the opening? Clarify. Delete the extra word: fell in into.

There are too many modifiersquite unexpectedly; was not exactly sure; gentle waft of extraordinarily fresh Spring-smelling air; carefully inserted. Overuse of adjectives and adverbs dilutes the power of the prose.

You’ve chosen some good verbs, like nudged, hooked, scooping, but they’re used awkwardly. Suggest you simply say nudged, rather than nudged on. Also you don’t need pushed in addition to nudged.

The description of Raccoon attempting to steady himself on the swaying train confused me.

Instinctively, Raccoon steeled his gait — stance wide, head forward, chin in

He’s actually steeling his stance, not his gait, which describes movement (walking, running).

Head forward, chin in sounds inherently off-balance, which is how I felt reading this submission. Try physically acting out the movements in order to more clearly explain what’s happening.

Next, Raccoon spots Zip, a spaniel that belongs to an important client. However Raccoon’s dialogue causes confusion.

“Score! There you are! Zip! Get here!” whispered Raccoon, leaning down.

“Score!” is an odd word to use when Raccoon first sees the dog, unless it’s made clear earlier that Raccoon has been searching for him and finally finds him.

“Get here!” should read “Get over here!”

Why does Raccoon feel the need to whisper? Is there someone else in the compartment he doesn’t want to overhear him? If so, you need to show that character.

Losing their best client’s dog would be hard to explain back in Ducklingburg is a good summation of the story problem but seems misplaced. Suggest you move the sentence earlier in the page.

Was not to careful doing business should read Was not too careful doing his business.

When Raccoon sees blood, he worries Zip is dead. But the dog quickly proves he’s alive by nipping, scrambling away, burrowing under the bench, and growling. At the end of all these actions, Raccoon says, “Alive!” The timing of that exclamation is too long after the reader understands Zip isn’t dead.

Here’s one way the page could be rewritten:

Zip the spaniel was missing. Raccoon, an assistant at the Ducklingburg Law Firm, sat at his desk, wondering how to tell his boss that their best client’s dog had disappeared. He took a deep breath. From nowhere, a smell of spring flowers filled his nostrils.

Without warning, a gust of wind whisked Raccoon from his chair and set him down inside the crowded passenger car of a speeding train. The swaying movement made him stagger. He stumbled into a woman dressed in a bulky, fur-trimmed parka. She glared at him and spoke in a language that sounded like Russian. Outside the train windows, snow drifted across tundra.

Before Raccoon had time to steady himself–let alone wonder how he’d gotten there–the sweet-smelling wind shoved him into a corridor with compartments lining one side. He tried to stop the force by planting his feet but the gust tumbled him like a fallen leaf. He fell through the open door of a compartment, landing with a jolt on the floor, sprawled on his hands and knees.

Under the bench seat, he saw a dog’s hindquarters, stained with red, black rear paws spread out like a dead frog. Raccoon zeroed in on a bright yellow spot that looked as if the dog hadn’t been careful while doing his business—the embarrassing spot under his tail that Zip always tried to keep hidden.

“Zippy!” Raccoon reached under the bench to scoop him out but the spaniel sank sharp teeth into his hand. He jerked back. “Ouch! Don’t bite!” Blood seeped from the punctures. “Thank goodness you’re alive. But what are you doing here?” Dazed and dizzy, Raccoon glanced around the compartment. “What are we doing here?”

Odd punctuation was distracting. Insert spaces between Zip & Milly. The “s” in spring-smelling isn’t capitalized. Semicolons are generally not used in fiction. Try Googling punctuation rules to see when dashes, ellipses, and italics should be used. Here’s one helpful link: https://www.myenglishpages.com/site_php_files/writing-capitalization-rules.php

Be careful with your choreography. Movements have to make sense, be clear, and occur in the correct order that they happen. Action comes before reaction. Cause leads to effect.

I suggest you pretend to be on a swaying train and examine exactly how your body feels as you stagger and fall. Kneel on the floor and reach for an imaginary dog under a bench. When it nips, your arm will instinctively jerk back before you yell, “Ouch!”

By physically acting out the movements, rather than simply visualizing them in your head, you’ll have a better idea how to explain each step to the reader.

Brave Author, your humor comes through. Play up that quality. The story premise is fun. Your description of the dog’s hindquarters “spread like a dead frog” is spot on.

You’ve already taken an important step by submitting this first page. Opening yourself to feedback takes courage.

Critique can hurt as much as Zip’s bite. Read these suggestions. Feel free to jerk back in pain and yell “Ouch!” Wash the wounds and put on Band-Aids.

Then come back later and reread. Suggestions don’t hurt as much the second time around. At TKZ, we want to help you make your story as good as it can be.

Most important, please don’t be discouraged. Keep writing.

 

Your turn, TKZers. Any ideas to help out our Brave Author?

 

 

First page critiques work. Shortly after Debbie Burke submitted to TKZ‘s review, her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and was published.

3+

The Value of Libraries

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert” – Andrew Carnegie

My local library is a hive of activity with a bustling cafe attached, a used book sale area, and a busy downstairs where almost every table is occupied by 10am with people working on laptops, reading newspapers, or logging on to the free wifi on the row of public computers available. Upstairs, there is wonderful children’s section with story time and other parent-children activities, and meeting rooms that hold an array of community events and speakers. I remain thankful that my local community and government values a library such as ours because in many other places, the very existence of community libraries is under threat. In the UK for example, nearly 500 libraries have closed since 2010 and many libraries are now being run by volunteers due to budgetary costs and restrictions. The results of this are heartbreaking, especially since, by many accounts library use is actually on the increase (see The Guardian’s report on library closures here).

After seeing posts on Twitter about the rise in volunteer-run libraries in England, I began to think more carefully about what libraries mean to me and my community. They are more than just a place to borrow books or DVDs or CDs – for some it’s a safe, warm, place to read or study, for others it may be a way to find social connection in their lives, and for some people it might be their only way of accessing the internet (which could be crucial in terms of a job search or education). The more I thought about libraries, the more I realized how lucky I was to have such a fantastic one in my community.

Growing up in Australia, our local library was really my only source of research (yes, this was in the dark ages before the internet) and it was a family outing to go there to borrow books or to get material needed for dreaded homework assignments. Now, although I can access much of my book research online, I still find myself drawn to my local library – and I’m frequently seen laden down with books as I struggle back to my car. Our library recently updated their online ebook lending system (the app is called Libby) which makes it easy to borrow ebooks and download them to my Kindle. So for me the library has immediate, work related value, in that it enables me to undertake research without completely draining my bank account:) For my twin boys, the library is still their ‘go to’ place for books and they have discovered many new series and authors simply by making a decision to try something new (no risk as no money was expended!).  For many others, the library provides intangible benefits too – offering a means of attaining social mobility, self-improvement and providing opportunities to reach beyond the limitations of social or economic class.

Still, I wonder in this day and age whether people still value libraries the way I do – so I was heartened to read the American Library Association’s annual report (which you can view here) that indicates that American libraries are still receiving the funding and attention they deserve (though that’s not to say there aren’t still challenges or threats to that!).

So TKZers, I’d love to know what libraries mean to you. Do you still visit your local community library on a regular basis? What do you think is the value of a library today?

 

3+

Let’s Talk About the Skeleton in the Room

By SUE COLETTA

I’ve seen way too many medical professionals in the last six months (living with rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis isn’t always easy). As Joe pointed out Saturday—beautifully, I might add—life as we know it can change in an instant. In short, remember to have fun. Laughter really is the best medicine.

One way I’ve amused myself while waiting in the exam room is by analyzing the skeleton suspended by a metal pole. You know the one … the staff usually names it Fred, or something equally common, as though the name will somehow lessen the impact of bad news.

What I find fascinating is the fact that the vast majority of doctors and nurses don’t know the sex of their skeleton, evident by the female skeletons tagged with a male name.

Determining the Sex of a Skeleton

Many differences exist between the two sexes, and the variations run as deep as our bones. This becomes especially important for corpses found in an advanced stage of decomposition. All that might remain is the skeleton, perhaps teeth, and possibly some hair. Even if the pathologist has teeth and hair to work with, that doesn’t mean enough DNA material remains to identify the victim.

This is where the skeleton offers more information. The only exception would be that of a pre-adolescent, where sexual dimorphism is slight, making the task much more difficult. Need to buy time in your story? Murder an adolescent. (Oh, no, she didn’t just say that.) Or have the killer shatter the key areas of the skeleton.

The most common way to determine a skeleton’s sex is by bone size. Not the most accurate, but it’s a starting point. Male bones are generally larger than female bones because of the additional muscle that increases on the male through adolescence and into adulthood.

Another good inclination of sex is the pelvic area.

The sub-pubic angle (or pubic angle) is the angle formed at pubic arch by the convergence of the inferior rami of the ischium (loop bone at the base) and pubis (top of loop) on either side. Generally, the sub-pubic angle of 50-60 degrees indicates a male. Whereas an angle of 70-90 degrees indicates a female. Women have wider hips to allow for childbirth.

Female

Male

There are also distinctive differences between the pubic arches in males and females. A woman’s pubic arch is wider than a male’s as is the pelvic inlet to allow a baby’s head to pass through.

The pubic arch is also referred to as the ischiopubic arch. Incidentally, this difference is noticed in all species, not just humans.

 

 

The area around the pelvic inlet (middle of the pelvic bone) is larger in females than in males. A female skeleton who has given birth naturally will be identifiable because this space widens during childbirth. Even though it contracts afterward, it never fully returns to its original size. In the picture above notice the heart-shaped space.

 

If you don’t want the pathologist to easily ID the victim, perhaps the neighborhood bear takes off with the pelvis bone. You could also have him return for the rest of the body as the coroner is examining the corpse. Talk about adding conflict to the scene! Just remember, most black bears don’t eat human flesh (in my area, anyway). So, do your homework. Grizzly bear, anyone? How about a Kodiak brown bear?

Other Body Clues

The acetabulum—the socket where the femur (thigh bone) meets the pelvis—is larger in males. Also, the head and skull have several characteristics that help the pathologist (or crime writer) determine male from female.

  • In males, the chin is squarer. Females tend to have a slightly more pointed chin.
  • The forehead of males slant backward, where females have a slightly more rounded forehead.
  • Males tend to have brow ridges; females do not.

These differences and more tell the pathologist the sex of the deceased.

So, the next time you’re sitting in an exam room, get friendly with the skeleton in the room. Who knows? You may even sell a book or two when you educate the staff. Do it nicely, though. Some medical professionals don’t like to be schooled by a crime writer, as weird as that sounds. 🙂

Wishing you all a joyous Thanksgiving!

 

10+

Reader Friday: What’s Your Favorite Emotion to Portray?

By SUE COLETTA

On TKZ, we’ve been known to beat the show-don’t-tell drum, because it makes the scene come alive. When a writer nails an emotion so perfectly, it’s easy to visualize the moment.

What’s your favorite emotion to portray?

What’s your crutch body cue that you edit out?

Care to share a favorite line or two from your WIP, published book, or from a story you’ve read that shows a vivid emotion?

Please also share the circumstances surrounding the character, so we can appreciate the emotion in the right setting.

6+

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

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased by Jordan Dane

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

The scraping, it sounded like it came from…

The neighbor’s backyard.

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

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

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

They were the length of —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REWRITE INTRO SUGGESTION

Kennebunk, Maine
After Midnight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KEY WAYS TO GIVE THIS MYSTERY ROOM TO BREATHE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOR DISCUSSION:

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

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

3+

SATURDAY EVENING POST – 200 Years of American History

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

When I was a tot in the 1950s, my grandmother lived with us. She smoked Raleigh cigarettes and saved the coupons in her top dresser drawer.

Raleigh cigarette coupons could be redeemed for gifts, keeping smokers loyal and addicted.

The scent of tobacco and Yardley’s English Lavender mingled in a rustic perfume that belonged uniquely to her.

Looking back, I realize how much she influenced me to become a writer. In her clipped British accent, she read Mary Poppins and Dr. Doolitle to me, awakening a love of books. She introduced me to the romance of storytelling as she related her own exciting teenage adventures, like the time she stole a boat and sailed from England to Spain

She also subscribed to the Saturday Evening Post, which she used to teach me to read.

Each week when the magazine arrived by mail, we’d sit in her bedroom and giggle over the cartoons. Hazel was my favorite and became the basis for a popular 1960s TV sit-com starring Shirley Booth as the wise-cracking maid who was smarter than her bosses.

Today, the Saturday Evening Post has endured when most print magazines have disappeared.

Recently the Post unveiled their new website that includes every issue all the way back to 1821. The task of scanning and digitizing tens of thousands of pages took nine years.

For $15/year, subscribers receive six current issues plus access to nearly two hundred years of history. I just subscribed as a fond trip down memory lane because of my grandmother.

However, the deeper I delved into the Post’s archives, the more I realized what a valuable resource this could be for writers of historical fiction. Nearly two hundred years of American life are collected in one convenient location. I soon got lost in bygone eras.

Below are a few ideas how the Post archives can enliven your historical fiction:

Language: Reading prose written during your chosen era helps you better capture the particular phrasing, jargon, and speech rhythms of the time.

In an example from 1821, a fanciful story features a talking mirror warning readers about vanity with this snippet of dialogue:

“How many charming creatures have I spoiled, and made beauty the greatest misfortune that could befal [sic] them! . . . Alas, why was I made a Looking glass?”

Contrast that flowery style with the terse dialogue from Alastair MacLean’s 1960 short story, Night Without End:

“From now on, Zagero, you and Levin ride with a gun trained on you!” Mason snapped.

Setting details: Illustrations for architecture, building styles, and period home furnishings add authenticity to your story world.

Creative Commons

 

I was drawn to advertisements for home appliances from the 1950s, recalling brands like Kelvinator and Hotpoint, and refrigerators in a choice of colors like pink and turquoise.

 

 

Employment: In the 1910s and ’20s, many ads featured motor oil, tires, and batteries, reflecting industrialization as society changed from carriages to automobiles. A character living in Ohio then might work at the Timken Roller Bearing Company in Canton or manufacture Grande Cord tires at the Republic Rubber Corporation in Youngstown.

Styles: Fashion illustrations in the Post showcase clothing, shoes, and hairstyles of each era. In 1927, a female character might straighten the seam lines on her Realsilk hosiery while her husband shines his stylish Selz shoes.

1929 Ford 5AT Tri-Motor N9651-Wikimedia Commons

Transportation: In the span of two hundred years, horse-drawn carriages and stagecoaches were replaced by trains and steamships which gave way to airlines like Pan American and Trans World Airways. Automobile ads from the early twentieth century feature now-forgotten brands your characters might drive, like Hupmobile, DeSoto, and LaSalle. Or they might fly on a Ford Tri-Motor.

Health/Medical: In the 1960s, ads for Chesterfield, Pall Mall, and Viceroy played counterpoint to feature articles like “Crash Effort for a Safer Cigarette” from April, 1964. By the 1990s, the Post’s focus had shifted to breakthrough medical developments, with nary a cigarette ad to be found.

Warning: resist the temptation to pack in too many details simply because you don’t want to waste the research. Use only as many as are needed to capture the flavor of the era.

Perspective: By reading Post issues prior to a major historical event, the author can find insights into what precipitated the event.

I found one example in a cautionary article from 1900 by a young member of the British Parliament named Winston Churchill. He warned that a complacent citizenry and a weak, underfunded military could lead to future conflicts. His predictions came true in 1914 with the Great War. By 1940, he became Prime Minister and led the Allies against the Axis in World War II.

Political Issues: Letters to the editor illustrate why people believed and thought the way they did at the time. They voiced opinions based on how certain topics affected them that day, without knowing what was in store in the future. Articles, bios, and op-eds from the Post can lend authenticity to the attitudes of your characters during a given period.

For instance, in early 1960, the Post interviewed then-candidate John F. Kennedy. At the time, Pope John XXIII mandated a total ban on birth control. When JFK, a Catholic, was asked about his position, he stated: “Our government does not advocate any policy concerning birth control here in the United States.”

Letters to the editor expressed concern that JFK’s Catholicism would sway his political direction. In the 1960 election, separation of church and state was considered a critical issue.

By 1962, that concern was overshadowed by the Cuban missile crisis. As Americans stockpiled canned food and built backyard bomb shelters in anticipation of nuclear attack, JFK’s religion faded into a non-issue.

Authors and readers of historical fiction have foreknowledge. We know the North won the Civil War. However, story characters in 1860 can’t know that. Character A may feel optimistic about a certain event while character B views that same event with trepidation. The difference in opinion amplifies conflict between A and B. Plus, the reader feels an added layer of tension, knowing that event will soon lead to the bloody battle between the Union and the Confederacy.

Obviously, I fell way down the vast rabbit hole in the Saturday Evening Post archives. I’ll be back for more visits to the archives that refresh memories of my grandmother as well as tidbits about bygone days.

 

TKZers, what are your favorite historical references? Does reading about history tempt you to write about it?

 

 

 

Please check out my thriller Instrument of the Devil, on sale for $.99 until November 15 on Amazon.

4+

First Page Critique: Titan’s Fall

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is entitled Titan’s Fall. My comments to follow. Enjoy!

Title:  Titan’s Fall

Steel gears grind overhead along thin aluminum girders. A red glow illuminated the gray cinder block wall to my right. The weighted anodized-pistol warms my palms. As I wait for the targets to line up, two questions rotate on heavy cycle: Why did my brother have to die? And, will Ms. Reddington remember I prefer chocolate cake over spice this year?

The panel next to the speaker box embedded into the wall beeps and ten cardboard birds drop down from the ceiling. According to my father, the gaming system is the latest in target technology. I wouldn’t know. My siblings and are allowed to leave the compound. The birds’ tails flash red, blue, and green. It doesn’t matter how quick they move or in which direction, blue is always first. I adjust my stance and squeeze the trigger. One by one, the targets return to the rafters.

GAME OVER.

“Kade Maddox,” Mother’s voice shrills from the intercom. “Upstairs! Now!”

My eyes flick to the red START button. Two-tenths of a second and I’ll have beaten the high score. Perhaps I can squeeze one more–

“Double-time, mister. Your father and I have to leave.”

But you just got here?

My dress shoes squeal along the glossy anti-static tiles as I sprint across the open atrium to the staircase. Spotless glass gleams all around me. Like the gaming system, the three-story, fully-staffed house in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains is supposedly hi-tech. Again, I wouldn’t know. My brother’s unexpected death changed a lot of rules.

“You promised this time would be different, August,” Mother barks. I press my back against the wall and lean closer to the door. The smell of Ms. Reddington’s overly-peppered roast beef mixes with chlorinated-air of the basement.

Father sighs. “He has been here two years longer than–”

“Don’t say his name.”

Comments:

Overall, I really enjoyed this first page. The first paragraph in particular combined just the right amount of description, intrigue and character. I thought the character’s voice was already compelling and that the humor as well as the anger and grief came through effectively, particularly in the first few paragraphs. I liked how the mystery of the brother’s death is introduced – although it did get a little confusing as we don’t really know why his death changed a lot of rules or who Kade’s mother and father are talking about in the final paragraph (I assume his brother?).

At times it was also difficult to picture the whole setting – for instance why would the air of the basement still be mixing with the kitchen aromas after Kade has gone up the stairs and through an atrium and (possibly) up another staircase? I was thrown by the reference to ‘dress shoes’ as I wasn’t sure why Kade would be wearing them to target practice. I am also assuming it is a typo in the paragraph beginning ‘the panel’ that Kade and his siblings are  allowed to leave the compound (I’m assuming it should be that they aren’t). As we always emphasize, authors should be vigilant for these kind of typos as they do have a nasty way of sneaking in and staying in!

Overall, my main recommendation would just be to add a tiny bit more in terms of background so the reader isn’t confused by some of the off-hand references to the compound or ‘supposedly’ high tech features. Just a sentence or two might help ground the reader. Are we talking a dystopian society here? What ‘rules’ were there before Kade’s brother’s death? If they could leave the compound before, what was the outside world like? What level of tech is there? and where are Kade’s mother and father going (especially since they just got here according to Kade)?

However, these are all relatively easy fixes that help ground the reader in the novel, and overall I thought this was a very promising start to a novel. TKZers, what advice would you give our brave contributor?

2+

Compulsive Readability

A few weeks ago I purchased the latest Tana French novel, The Witch Elm, even though my TBR pile is almost to the ceiling. The reason? I buy every novel of hers as soon as it comes out. Why? Because of what I call ‘compulsive readability’ – closely aligned to the ‘trustability’ that Jim blogged about yesterday – meaning I automatically, faithfully, buy every book of hers that’s published. There aren’t many authors I’ll do that with – even J.K. Rowling missed the mark with me. I adored all the HP books and pre-ordered each installment, but then came her foray into adult books. I was uninterested in purchasing The Casual Vacancy and then with the Cormoran Strike mysteries, while I liked them, I didn’t love them (which means I got them out from the library but didn’t purchase them). In this instance, an adored author, didn’t necessarily become the compulsively readable one across all genres.

So what makes an author compulsively readable? What makes a reader buy every single book no matter the blurb or description? I think this aligns with what Jim was speaking about yesterday when it comes to ‘trustability’. I trust Tana French’s books implicitly and because of that level of trust, I won’t hesitate when it comes to buying her books. This, in essence, is what we are writers all strive for – to develop that degree of trust amongst our readers (this is what publishers are clearly looking for too!).

So what makes Tana French so ‘trustable’ to me? I thought I’d try and break down the reasons, as it helps highlight the key factors all of us should keep in mind as we build our writing careers.

First, and foremost, all her books are written to a consistently high standard – and by that I mean every single on of them is well-written, well-conceived, and (even when there may be plot holes) beautifully crafted. As a reader I have no hesitation ordering her books because I know I’m not going to be disappointed, even when they don’t appear to directly fit with the series she’s written to date (which is the case with The Witch Elm). Her writing is what has always stood out for me, not the premise of her books or the plots she spins, and this for me is critical. She never loses focus on what matters the most – the beauty of the words on the page.

Secondly, she consistently builds and maintains a world that I want to enter. Her Dublin murder squad series comprises different narrators/voices/characters but the world remains the same – which creates both an expectation and an anticipation in her readers. Whenever a new book comes out, I can’t wait to see what new spin or perspective she brings to this world (and the way she treats overlapping characters is cleverly executed – further enhancing the world).

Finally, her books never feel rushed. She doesn’t just pop out a book as if it’s merchandise. I’ve never got the feeling that she produces to a schedule (even though she almost certainly has to!) – so I don’t ever get the sense of being cheated that, now she’s successful, she’s resting on her laurels or producing ‘more’ at the expense of ‘quality’.

All these elements are worth bearing in mind as we, as writers, continue to try and establish or maintain our own careers. The difficulty is that there’s also an ineffable element – one I can’t pin down – that probably attracts me to these books over and above another (equally talented) author’s work. Nonetheless, what makes an author compulsively readable  is worth analyzing. Af all, if it was easy, we’d all be best sellers:)

So TKZers, who is your ‘compulsively readable’ go-to author? Which author are you committed to buying and why? What factors do you think go into ‘trustability’ as well as ‘compulsive readability’?

 

 

3+