Macro-Level Jump Cut Scene

Full Disclosure: Jump cut may not be the correct term for the advice that follows. Years ago, the late great John Yeoman, beloved writing coach and friend, called the cinematic technique a jump cut during one of our lengthy craft discussions. Thus, it’s the term I’ve always used. Then I reread JSB’s 2018 article to prepare for this post. Jim’s correct use of the term is more widely known. Nowhere could I find the description of what I call a jump cut. Nonetheless, the two techniques are basically the same. When I use the term, I’m referring to the macro-level. Jim’s post focused on the micro-level.

Clear as mud? Okie doke, moving on…

The macro-level jump cut is a technique where the writer drops the reader into a harrowing situation—in media res—conflict builds, tensions rise, all without the reader knowing what proceeded this scene (aside from a few hints). The scene ends at a pivotal moment. Next scene rewinds the clock to the days or hours leading up to the opener. We’ve all seen this play out in movies and net-streaming series. Novelists use it to ensure readers will stick around to find out how the protagonist wound up there. Inducing curiosity and/or fear in the opener strangleholds the reader, forcing them to keep flipping pages.

The payoff that follows must live up to the hook. All my Grafton County Series novels (except the first book) open with the first half of the jump cut scene. Chapter One rewinds the story. It isn’t necessary to label this scene as a prologue. I do, but it could also be the first chapter. If you choose to include it as a prologue, Chapter One still needs its own hook.

Remember the pivotal moment where we left the reader? No matter where the payoff is—first plot point, midpoint, or climax—continue the jump cut scene from there. Newer writers may be tempted to copy/paste the first half of the scene. Resist that urge. Trust the reader to connect the dots. They’ll recognize the setting and situation.

Let’s look at two examples.

The Prologue of Pressure Points by Larry Brooks opens like this…

It was the echo of gunfire that kept him running. His body had long ago abandoned hope, pushing on faith alone through a fog of pain and fatigue. Logic screamed that this was pointless, while another voice whispered it was all a lie. Both were old friends that had served him well, and like Jesus on his fortieth desert night, he was tempted.

But neither voice was real. The gunshot had been real. The echo of it was real.

And so he ran. For his very life, and for those left behind. He knew that precious little time remained, and what was left was as critical as it was dwindling. Everything he had ever learned or believed or dreamed was at stake. He was out of options, down to a final chance that, win or lose, would be his statement to the universe.

It was his time. He had come full circle.

It is not paranoia when they are really out to get you. When they are right on your ass, downwind of the scent of your blood, closing fast.

Whoever the hell they are.

He ran all through the night’s relentless downpour. Low branches whipped his forehead and cheeks until they bled. He could feel his heart pounding in every extremity of his body, his vision clouded by sweat and rain. Both elbows were bloodied from a fall when his foot caught an exposed root, sending him skating wildly across a patch of decaying leaves. Leaping over a rotting log, he felt his right ankle turn impossibly inward, and the ensuing bolt of pain seized his leg like a pair of gigantic hands twisting with the enthusiasm of a gleeful sadist. But he had no time for this or any other distraction, not on this night, when, one way or the other, his past would finally and conclusively catch up with him.

Chapter One rewinds to 41 days earlier. I can’t show you the payoff scene without ruining the ending. Trust me, it’s amazing.

Please excuse my using an excerpt from one of my books. I searched my Kindle for other examples but couldn’t find any that jumped out at me.

The Prologue of RACKED opens with…

In the vast openness of the snowmobile trails, solar-powered Christmas lights danced across pine needles on the branches I separated while the lanky silhouette of the Serial Predator tossed shovelfuls of dirty snow on a mound. Was he digging a fresh grave? My calf muscles jumping-jacked beneath my skin, begging me to run. But I couldn’t. Not yet.

A row of thin birch trees bowed over the makeshift grave, thin branches curled like the skeletal fingers of a demon protecting its prey. The overcast sky blurred the hazy moon into non-compliance, its glow hastened by gathering storm clouds.

Who did he plan to bury here? My gloved hand clawed at my throat.

Please tell me Noah’s still with Mrs. Falanga. All the saliva in my mouth dried, my insides squirming, screaming for release. What if Childs left his post long enough for the Serial Predator to sneak past him? What if he murdered everyone in the house? What if he abducted my son after Mrs. Falanga tucked him in bed? She might not realize he’s missing till dawn.

Beyond the tree a flashlight balanced on its end, a smoldering yellow glow pointed toward the heavens. Cigarette smoke billowed through the haze. Hot ash tumbled into the darkness when he flicked the filter into the arctic December air.

I backed away from the tree.

Crunch.

My right heel froze on the pinecone.

The Serial Predator slung his portable spade over one shoulder and stalked toward me. “Hello?”

Male voice. Almost familiar. Where had I heard it before?

Holding my breath, cramps squeezed my calf muscles as I crouched behind the conifer, flames tunneling down my sciatic nerve to my partially raised foot, bent at such an angle mind-numbing pain riddled the whole right side of my leg.

The Serial Predator hustled back to the shallow grave, and I lowered my wet boot to the snow. The moment he turned his back, I nosedived toward the base of the tree trunk, slithering beneath the branches like a frightened garter snake. Snow piled around the bottom helped shield the top half of my body. I pulled my legs out of view. A glacial breeze swept across my wet hair, and I could not stop shivering, the icy snow soaking through my jeans and wool coat.

With one smooth motion, he swiped his flashlight off the snow and aimed the beam toward the pine tree. “Hello?”

After the blinding light struck my eyes, I would never be able to describe his face or any distinguishable features, the black hoodie masking his identity. He could be anyone. Or no one.

With both gloved hands covering my nose and mouth, I held back icy breath that threatened to reveal my hiding spot.

“Is someone there?”

A cylindrical sphere lasered through the pine needles, and I ducked, my bare cheek trembling against a clustered mass of icicles. Snow boots clomped around the tree, then stopped—inches from my face.

Dear God, don’t let him find me.

Chapter One rewinds to 26 hours earlier.

Have you used this technique in one of your novels? There’s nothing wrong with writing a linear storyline. This is just another option. Let’s discuss.

The Rule of Three

“There are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

This quote is usually attributed to W. Somerset Maugham, and it’s been kicked around a lot over the years. There may, or may not, be some truth to it depending on your view, your experience, and your sense of humor. But there is something to the rule of three.

The rule of three is a staple in the writing world. It’s known by many names—the triple, the triad, the trebling, and the trilogy. The three-act structure of beginning, middle, and end is a prime example of the rule of three.

The rule of three suggests that a trio of events, characters, or phrases is more effective, satisfying, or humorous than other numbers. Think of the “walks into a bar” jokes. An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman or a brunette, a redhead, and a blonde.

The rule of three can apply to words, sentences, and paragraphs. It can be used to frame chapters, whole books, and a series of books. The three-rule also applies to poetry, oral storytelling, and films.

What got me going on the rule of three this morning was stumbling on a writing resource titled The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. It’s written by Christopher Booker and first published in 2004. Apparently, Booker worked on this book for thirty-four years.

I’m going to quote from Mr. Booker’s book where he deals with the rule of three:

“The third event in a series of events becomes ‘the final trigger for something important to happen.’ This pattern often appears in childhood series like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood. It also appears in adult works like Fiddler on the Roof, A Christmas Carol, and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

In stories, the Rule of Three conveys the gradual resolution of a process that leads to transformation. This transformation can be downwards as well as upwards. The Rule of Three is expressed in four ways:

1. The simple or cumulative three. For example, Cinderella’s three visits to the ball.

2. The ascending three where each event is more significant than the preceding. For example, the hero must first win bronze, then silver, then gold.

3. The contrasting three where only the third has positive value. For example, The Three Little Pigs—two of whose houses were blown down by the Big Bad Wolf.

4. The final or dialectical form of three. For example, Goldilocks and her bowls of porridge. The first is wrong in one way, the second is wrong in an opposite way, and the third is just right.”

I also stumbled upon a formula for the rule of three. This is often used in joke telling and comedy writing. It’s called the SAP test.

S = Setup (preparation)
A = Anticipation (triple)
P = Punchline (story payoff)

Let’s look at a joke by comedian Jon Stewart:

“I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”

The rule of three appears so many times in so many ways that it’s barely noticed as a delivery technique. In the rule’s simplest form, outlined in Aristotle’s Poetics, it’s the classic beginning, middle, and end which is a time-proven structure. But think of all the times you’ve encountered the rule of three:

The truth, the whole, truth, and nothing but the truth.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.
Ready, aim, fire.
On your mark. Get set. Go.
Veni. Vidi. Vici.
Solid, liquid, and gas.
Three wishes.
Stop, look, and listen.
Snap. Crackle. Pop.
Blood, sweat, and tears.
Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.
Faster. Higher. Stronger.
See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.

What about you Kill Zoners? How often have you used the rule of three in your works? And can you add to the examples?

How to Earn Short-Term Rewards During the Long Haul

Author Debbie Burke and Buffy

No, this picture is not Photoshopped clickbait. It’s me and a real bear. Details below. 

 

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

In your real-world job, would you be willing to work for two or more years before receiving a paycheck? Probably not.

Yet, as authors writing books, that’s exactly what we do.

Writing a novel is often likened to a marathon. It takes months, if not years, to complete a book. Traditional publishing tacks on another one or two years before you see your book for sale. Indie-pubbing speeds up the process but it still doesn’t happen overnight.

Thirty-plus years ago, I was stuck in the endless loop of writing novels, submitting them, and being rejected. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Because fiction was my passion, I didn’t really consider writing nonfiction until a couple of journalist friends offered their help and encouragement. I dipped my toe into article writing and made the happy discovery that nonfiction was much easier to publish than fiction (not to mention it paid better).

At last, I had the satisfaction of seeing my words in print.

One magazine gig led to another. As my file of published clips expanded, editors began to call me. Article assignments took a little sting out of the rejections that my novels continued to collect.

Many more years would pass before I reached the ultimate reward of a published novel but, along the way, articles were small consolation prizes. They encouraged me to keep moving toward my goal.

My journalist friends taught me another neat trick—take the same article but re-slant it for different markets. Do research once and get paid several times.

For instance, a story about how to run a successful garage sale could be pitched to community newsletters, antique/collectible magazines, and senior-interest markets as tips for retirees to earn extra money.

An article about gold mines might fit in a travel magazine, a state historic journal, and a niche publication for hobbyist prospectors.

Often, during research, I ran across interesting people and wrote personality profiles about them.

One in particular led to a number of offshoot articles plus a memorable experience with the stunning bear in the above photo.

At the Flathead River Writers Conference in the 1990s, I met Ben Mikaelsen, a kid-lit author who had his own bear. Buffy had been a research cub that couldn’t survive in the wild. To save him from being euthanized, Ben adopted him. Life with Buffy inspired Ben’s award-winning novel Rescue Josh McGuire and several other books.

Side note: Ben does not advocate keeping wild animals as pets. He went to great effort and expense to build a suitable home for Buffy that was approved by state and federal authorities.

The unique friendship between an author and a bear was a story idea that begged to be written. Ben graciously invited me to his home near Bozeman, Montana, for an interview and to meet Buffy

Yes, that really is me feeding Wheat Thins to the 700-pound black bear. Fun fact: He didn’t use his teeth or tongue to take the treat but rather his prehensile lower lip, similar to an elephant’s trunk. I watched in awe as his bottom lip gently folded around the cracker in my hand.

The amazing encounter resulted in multiple articles that were published in Writer’s Digest (including a reprint in their annual children’s writing guide), several Montana general interest magazines, and international nature and wildlife magazines.

This experience was definitely not a consolation prize but rather a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for which I’ll always be grateful.

Back to the marathon. While I wondered if I’d EVER have a novel accepted, articles were like short sprints where the rewards of publication and payment were only months away rather than years. Those helped sustain me through decades of discouragement.

In addition, writing nonfiction helped hone my craft.

Here are a few things I learned:

Write concisely and clearly. If an editor said 500 words, that’s what has to be turned in.

Choose what’s necessary and what should be cut. No matter how fascinating the research might be, it can’t all be crammed into the allotted space.

Always meet deadlines.  

Most important, I learned about storytelling and pacing to keep the reader engaged.

The 21st century changed the market for short nonfiction from print to online. As the internet expanded, magazines went out of business.

Nowadays my articles are mostly digital content. Fewer trees give their lives. I no longer have to buy sample print copies to study magazines’ style and focus. Finding outlets to write for is as easy as asking Mr. Google.

The downside is online markets often pay little to nothing because there is so much free content on the net. To make significant money, one needs to find particular niches that pay for specialized content.

However, there’s a different kind of reward: Publication is fast. As soon as authors hit submit, their writing is available to an audience of millions. 

On top of that comes the gratification of immediate feedback. I really enjoy reader comments on my posts for TKZ.

Steve Hooley recently asked me if research for an article had even sparked an idea for a novel. Not yet. But the research I do for articles often finds its way into my plots.

The second book in my series, Stalking Midas, concerns elder fraud. I attended seminars presented by local and state watchdogs to learn about that growing, insidious crime. Unfortunately, research turned personal when my adopted mother was victimized by a caregiver. Her experience became a True Crime Thursday post.

Several newspapers published my elder fraud article. It also formed the basis for a talk that I give to senior groups. Additionally, I revamped parts of Stalking Midas to incorporate what I’d learned.

I started writing articles to counteract discouragement during the long marathon of trying to get novels published. Articles became short sprints refreshed by water breaks of publication. They helped keep me going toward the ultimate finish line.

In 2017, my thriller Instrument of the Devil was published.

Seven novels later, I’m writing more articles than ever because…

A funny thing happened during that decades-long marathon. I discovered I like writing nonfiction as much as fiction.

Especially when I get to meet a bear.

~~~

TKZers: Do you write fiction, nonfiction, or both? How important is getting published to you? What sustains you during the long haul of writing a book?

~~~

 

 

DNA is supposed to prove guilt or innocence. Instead, it reveals deception and betrayal in my new thriller, UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY. Please check it out at these online booksellers.

First Page Critique – An Easy Fix

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer 

Today, welcome to another Brave Author who’s submitted a first page for critique. The genre is noir fiction. Please take a look then we’ll discuss.

~~~

An Easy Fix

You always think you know what you’re doing, but that’s just the first circle of hell. Well. Maybe not the first circle but the escalator only goes one way and that’s down.  Oh, you can try and run up but you’ll never make it. You’ll run out of breath, you’ll sweat and wheeze and pant and then you’ll collapse like a bag of dirty laundry.

The bartender came over to Elam’s end of the bar from where she’d been cleaning glasses. She wiped her hands on a towel.

“What’ll it be, Elam?”

“A double of Jack and a draft Bud, Katie.”

The bartender placed two coasters on the bar, poured the draft and two shots, and set them in front of Elam. He placed a crumpled twenty on the bar.

“What have you been up to, Elam? How’s Charity?”

“Exceptional children, they call ‘em. Whoever thought that up needs to be smashed in the face. I mean, what are they trying to do here? Make people feel good about disasters? The only reason Charity was exceptional was the fucking doctors with their knives and their halothane masks.”

“Really? I thought you were over the worst of it.”

“You know what a bum mitral valve is, Katie? She’d run out of breath and turn blue, couldn’t keep up with the kids on the playground. So they say, ‘Oh yeah. An easy fix. Be back home in five days.’ And then the fucking anesthesiologist is thinking about her cheating husband, and her girlfriend and his girlfriend and their trip to Aruba and her mind’s a million miles away and she’s not paying attention because it’s all so routine. An easy fix.  And the pressure drops and the cock sucker is fucking with the regulators in a panic but it’s too goddamned late. There’s no going back.”

“I didn’t know. You never talked about it.”

“Now the kid’s in a wheelchair and can’t see and can’t walk and she goes to a special school for kids like her.  She’s a tape recorder, everything that she hears she repeats.”

That’s how Elam knew about Carol’s boyfriend, from Charity.

A year after Charity came home Carol left.  It was anticlimactic. No big showdown like the OK Corral.  Elam came home from driving the beer truck and Carol was gone, took nothing except a suitcase and her Ford Fairlane. She did clean out the bank account and set the credit cards on fire at ATMs across Missouri and Kansas.

Elam never heard from Carol again. He’d hear things every now and again when his mother in law would let something slip, something about her boyfriend and Las Cruces, but that was all.

He didn’t care any more.

~~~

Title: An Easy Fix offers the right blend of noir and irony, promising the story will be anything but an easy fix.

First Paragraph: Trying to run up an escalator that’s going down is great imagery of never-ending frustration and despair.

But combining that image with the first circle of hell feels like mixing metaphors.

The point of view is uncertain. Is it omniscient or Elam’s? Is Elam addressing the reader? Or musing to himself?

A bag of dirty laundry doesn’t really collapse because that implies it was previously upright. Choose a different verb.

This first paragraph shows promise but needs a little honing.

Premise: Elam’s situation is tragic and compelling. He’s the father of a child who was permanently damaged by medical carelessness. His marriage has fallen apart. He’s tired of trying to run up the descending escalator of his life. He wants to give up.

The last line is: “He didn’t care any more.”

That line sums up what I see as the biggest problem with this page: If the main character doesn’t care, why should the reader?

How do you make the reader care?

Make something happen.

But…the next paragraphs don’t advance the story. The setting and actions are ordinary and generic—wiping glasses, ordering a drink, putting down coasters, paying, small talk.

That’s followed by an info dump of backstory about Elam’s daughter. Medical terms like mitral valve and halothane masks add authenticity. But there’s too much for one passage, especially on page 1.

Then comes another info dump about his failed marriage. At this point, do readers need to know all these details? Or can they be saved for later?

This first page describes a typical day in Elam’s dreary life as he unburdens himself to a bartender. That’s not enough momentum to compel the reader to turn the page. It needs a stronger sense that something dire is about to happen.

Disturbance: What is different about this day? What changes Elam’s course?

Charity provides an excellent opportunity to make the reader care and also pump up the forward momentum of the story: “She’s a tape recorder, everything that she hears she repeats.”

That line is loaded with possibilities. What did Charity say on this particular day to disrupt Elam’s life?

The scene in the bar could be reworked like this:

Before Elam had time to settle on his regular stool, Katie slid a beer and two shots across the bar to him and asked, “How’s your daughter?”

He slugged down half the brew. “You won’t believe what Charity said today…”

Then reveal the problem.

Another place to open the story might be when Elam comes home from work and Charity delivers a startling message. For instance:

“Your electricity will be shut off tomorrow for non-payment.”

Or Charity quotes her caregiver: “Tell your dad I quit. I’m sick of cleaning up after a brain-dead little brat who shits herself and parrots every effing word I say.”

Or Charity repeats a voicemail from Elam’s lawyer: “The judge dismissed your malpractice suit for lack of evidence. Sorry, there’s nothing more I can do.”

The words Charity hears and repeats force Elam to take action. Backstory can then be added in small bits while the action moves forward.

Action Options: What are Elam’s choices? He could surrender his daughter to an institution, commit suicide, or storm the hospital to take revenge. Or the Brave Author has entirely different plans in mind.

I’m guessing, in the next few pages, Elam makes his decision. Try moving that decision to page 1.

Another alternative: Keep the bar setting but make the big change occur there. Katie feels sorry for Elam’s financial troubles. She heard about an upcoming heist and the gang needs a driver. Since Elam drives a beer truck and knows how to handle a big rig, he’s the perfect guy. Then she hands him a phone number.

Character: There is no physical description of Elam and Katie. All character development is done through dialogue (more on that in a minute). I’m not suggesting  driver’s license details like hair and eye color but give the reader a few hints such as…

When Elam sits on the barstool, he realizes he’s slumping and thinks, at 40, he probably looks as old and broken down as his dad who died at 65.

Weave in their attitudes and personality. Elam can notice sympathy in Katie’s eyes. That irritates him because he doesn’t want to be pitied.

Add interior monologue, such as: People always think they understand but they don’t. They don’t know what’s it’s like to change stinking diapers or get her wheelchair trapped in a narrow doorway. 

Dialogue: Elam’s cursing shows his frustration and bitterness but it quickly becomes repetitive. Save F-bombs and C-bombs for significant moments. Otherwise, they lose their impact.

Try interspersing gestures, facial expressions, and Elam’s thoughts with the dialogue so what he says sounds less like a speech and more like a conversation.

Time stamp: Ford Fairlanes were manufactured between 1955-1970. Readers who aren’t gearheads probably don’t know that. But it’s a subtle, economical way to hint at the era.

Summing Up: Brave Author, the premise has excellent potential but I feel the story starts in the wrong place. As you reread your draft, look for the passage where a change occurs in Elam’s situation. As mentioned above, it may be on page 2 or 3 or later. Try beginning the story at that point.

Make something happen. Elam may not care but readers must care or they won’t turn the page.

Thanks for submitting and best of luck!

 ~~~

 TKZers: Does the Brave Author’s premise grip you? What do you think of Elam? Any suggestions?

~~~

 

When the law prevents justice…

When DNA isn’t enough…

When a lie is the truth.

Please check out my new thriller, Until Proven Guilty. 

Amazon sales link

 

Running and Writing – The 800-meter Novel

“Pace doesn’t mean speed; it means the right speed.” – Reginald Hill

Some people think the 800-meter race is the hardest track event to run. Why? Because the race is twice around the track which equates to roughly a half-mile. Pace is the key. There’s a tendency to run the first lap too fast and run out of steam on the second lap. On the other hand, running the first lap too slow could mean falling so far behind the leaders that you can’t catch up. Each runner has to find their own pace within the field to run their best time. Can we apply this knowledge to writing a novel?

One of the most famous 800-meter races of all time was the 1972 Olympic final in Munich, West Germany. Eight world-class runners toed the starting lines. The favorite was Yevhen Arzhanov of the Soviet Union who had won every race he had entered for the previous three years.

The lone American in the race was Dave Wottle. Although Wottle had won the U.S. Olympic Trials race, he suffered injuries prior to the Olympic Games, and there was some question about his fitness. Here’s a two-minute video of the race. Arzhanov is wearing a red shirt and is in Lane One. You can easily spot Wottle – he’s the one wearing the golf hat.

***

Several weeks ago, Reavis Wortham wrote a blog post on pacing within a story. I’d like to explore the subject further by mapping Wottle’s race to a novel format. We’ll make Dave Wottle the protagonist in our story. Although I’m sure Yevhen Arzhanov is a very nice man, he’s going to be our antagonist for the purposes of this post. All the others are secondary characters in the story.

I suppose the inciting incident in this story is the start of the race. The gun goes off, and seven of the runners fly around the first turn.

My husband and I heard Dave Wottle talk about that race years later. He said he was surprised at how fast the other runners went out, and he was afraid he wasn’t up to the task. (Refusing the call?) Wottle could have stepped off the track after the first turn, claiming injury, and would have avoided disappointing his friends and family at home. But despite what he thought was a poor performance at the start, he decided to answer the call.

The backstretch, like the middle section of a novel, is usually not the most interesting part of the race. But in this race, there’s a lot of pushing and shoving going on in the first two hundred meters that focuses our attention on the secondary characters leading the race. At the same time, our antagonist, the favorite Arzhanov, slips back into anonymity at the middle of the pack.

As they come around the turn to complete the first lap, Wottle is still trailing. Running in last place at the midpoint of an Olympic final doesn’t bode well for our hero. Wottle must have asked himself if it was worth the pain to keep trying.

Down the backstretch for the second time, the tension ramps up as the competitors bunch up and jockey for position. Wottle moves ahead of a couple of runners. Now our attention shifts to Arzhanov as he takes off like a bullet to pass the leaders.

The race is now a 200-meter sprint. The finish line is in sight. The runners accelerate down the homestretch. The crowd senses the drama. Everyone yells for their favorite.

Our hero starts to pick off runners one at a time. It’s like figuring out clues in a mystery – with each new insight, he moves one step closer to catching the bad guy.

The tension is palpable as they approach the climax of the race. When Arzhanov realizes how close Wottle is to him, it’s too late to do anything other than fling himself forward, hoping to cross the finish line first, but Wottle clips his opponent at the line to win by three hundredths of a second.

In a mystery, the criminal always makes a mistake. In my book Dead Man’s Watch, the killer takes the watch off his victim, thinking no one could ever trace it to him. In the 1972 Olympic 800-meter race, Arzhanov started his finishing kick too soon, thinking no one would catch him. Both were wrong.

Maybe we can add a corollary to Reginald Hill’s maxim:

Writing a novel isn’t about producing words. It’s about producing the right words at the right pace.

***

So TKZers: How do you handle pace? Do you make your protagonist suffer an almost-certain defeat before finding that fire within? How do you prevent a sagging middle section? Do you pick it up in the last chapters heading to the climactic scene? What advice do you have about setting the right pace in novel-writing?

***

 

The Watch Series of cozy mysteries

Watches that tell more than the time.

Reminder or Repetition?

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: wwnorm on visual hunt

 

 

When you read a novel, do you like occasional reminders?

 

 

 

 

 

Or…do you find reminders tedious and repetitious?

 

 

 

 

Recently, I discussed these questions with author/editor Karen Albright Lin. Karen is currently reading my WIP, Until Proven Guilty, book #7 in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

Speaking as an older reader with termites eating holes in my memory, I need reminders. Most of the time, I read a novel in bed and fall asleep after a few pages. Days may pass before I pick up the book again.

In stories with many characters, POVs, and plot lines, I get lost and need to scroll backward to review. Who are these people? How are they connected? When and where is the story taking place? What just happened?

My readers are generally older and probably have similar memory lapses. Because of that, as a writer, I make a conscious effort to include small reminders to ground the reader at the beginning of each new scene and chapter.

Authors often leave a character hanging on the edge of a cliff, particularly in thrillers. In the next scene, they jump-cut to a different character in a different place and time. Three or four scenes later, they return to the poor hanging character. At that point, I appreciate a brief reminder of how and why the character wound up in that situation.

Reminders are also helpful for secondary characters who are offstage much of the time. When they reappear, in addition to their names, I usually mention their role or function.

A minor character, Mavis Dockerty, appears only three times in Until Proven Guilty—in chapters 1, 18, and 32.

She’s first introduced during a preliminary hearing on page 2, questioning a rape victim in what should be a slam-dunk prosecution:

County Attorney Mavis Dockerty said, “Take your time.” She picked up a box of tissues from the prosecution table and handed it to Amelia.

A few pages later, Mavis’s airtight case against the rapist is destroyed by defense attorney Tillman Rosenbaum, the male lead.

Mavis doesn’t appear again for 150+ pages and could be forgotten by some readers. So, I reintroduce her on page 166:

Flathead County Attorney Mavis Dockerty was sitting by herself in the last row of Courtroom #2 when Tillman tracked her down.

She appears for a final time on page 287:

County Attorney Mavis Dockerty was doggedly determined not to lose twice against the rapist Claude Ledbetter. Her evidence at his second preliminary hearing was flawless and overwhelming, every possible loophole sewed up tight.

Quick reminders like that are easy.

But when do reminders turn into repetition?

Back to my discussion with Karen. In my manuscript, she made many notes where she thought I was being repetitive. She advised: “Trust the reader to get it the first time.” 

My initial reaction was Really? Nah, I don’t repeat myself.

Writers can’t see their own flaws. That’s why we depend on critique groups, beta readers, and editors to point out problematic trees amid the dense forest of our novels. I trust Karen’s sharp eye and savvy skills as an editor so I took a closer look.

What I found was shocking. Here are a few examples:

One hint the writer is being repetitive is when the reminder appears three times in two paragraphs.

In the following passage, protagonist Tawny is experiencing empty-nest syndrome. She loves her husband’s three children from his previous marriage but they’re away at school or traveling. Her own son Neal is in his mid-thirties, in the military, and is home for a rare visit.

She’d already had one disappointment, when Neal declined to stay in the beautiful, sprawling, ranch-style house that Tillman had bought when they married because it had enough bedrooms for all their kids. Instead, Neal opted to sleep at Tawny’s creaky old bungalow in the historic district—the home where he’d grown up and still felt comfortable.

The hollow bedrooms of the new house sometimes made Tawny melancholy. Occasionally Tillman’s two daughters and his son came for weekend visits but otherwise the rooms stayed empty. But that was the way with grown children.

Did you get the picture of the vacant bedrooms?

Again and again and again.

Based on Karen’s suggestions, the first paragraph stayed the same but the second now reads:

The hollow bedrooms of the new house sometimes made Tawny melancholy, wishing Tillman’s two daughters and his son visited more often. But that was the way with grown children.

In another example, Karen noted that the location of a coffee kiosk had been repeated. In that instance, since there were only a couple of mentions, with many pages in between, I did not take her suggestion because it seemed like a reasonable reminder that wouldn’t bug readers.

The bigger problem is how to express themes without being repetitive. That’s where Karen busted me big time.

Until Proven Guilty weaves together three plots, each showcasing a different perspective in the tug of war between the law and justice. The first involves a clearly guilty character who walks free; the second addresses an innocent character who’s wrongly imprisoned; the third shows the perils of presuming guilt without proof.

The two protagonists, Tawny and Tillman, are married, work together, and clash over their different beliefs. Tawny is an idealist who wants justice for crime victims. Tillman is sometimes a righteous crusader but he’s also a cynical, pragmatic attorney whose job is to vigorously defend his clients whether they’re guilty or not.

At the start of the story, Tillman destroys County Attorney Mavis Dockerty’s case against an accused rapist because of faulty evidence. Tawny didn’t know Tillman’s plan before the hearing and is shocked and dismayed that the accused rapist is set free.

As they walk from the courthouse back to the law office, she confronts Tillman:

Tawny looked up at him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

His deep, rumbling baritone rose above traffic noise. “So you could distract me with a lecture about right and wrong, good and evil?”

“You know he’s guilty,” she said. “The judge practically said so.”

His dark gaze, half sexy, half scary, pinned her. “The cops botched the evidence collection. The crime lab mishandled the DNA samples. It’s not my responsibility to help the county attorney prove her case. It’s full of holes bigger than the Berkeley mine pit.”

“But he’s guilty,” Tawny repeated. “He assaulted that poor woman. That doesn’t bother you?” She dearly loved her new husband but sometimes she didn’t like him very much.

Tillman stopped in the shade of a maple tree overhanging the alley behind the office. “I did my job, Tawny. That’s how the system is set up. Presumed innocent until proven guilty. Mavis didn’t prove Ledbetter guilty. And the fee Ledbetter paid me allows me to take on more pro bono cases.”

He didn’t say “like yours” but the unspoken words hung heavy in the late summer air.

A scene follows at the law office where Tawny expresses her indignation to a coworker:

A new headache settled behind Tawny’s eyes, the pressure making them feel like they were bulging. “When the judge threw the case out, that poor woman was crushed. Her husband looked ready to peel off Ledbetter’s skin and dunk him in alcohol. I wouldn’t blame him if he had.”

Then she thinks even more about it:

Tawny knew the system. Yet, in cases like Ledbetter’s, her conscience chafed. What about the victim’s right to justice?  

A few pages later, on their way home:

Tillman said, “If you wanted a lawyer who represents only innocent people, you should have married Perry Mason. This is how the system works. What can be proved versus what can’t be, what evidence is admissible versus what isn’t. I use the law as it’s written to defend my clients.”

“But it’s wrong,” Tawny said.  

“It’s the law.”

Tillman was hard to argue with. That’s why he was so good.

Tawny couldn’t think of a rebuttal.

A heavy silence hung over the rest of the drive home.

Then, at home, they talk more about the case:

“You’re such a Pollyanna,” he murmured but without his usual sardonic tone.

“I know you have to do what you have to do. I just feel bad for that poor victim.”

“It’s not a justice system, Tawny. It’s a legal system. Right and wrong, good and evil. None of that comes into play.”

In the first 15 pages of the book, I repeat the theme five different times.

Didja get it? Sure you got it? Are you positive? Just in case, let me smack you over the head with a two-by-four.

The author’s personal beliefs are bleeding all over the story.

That refrain echoed through the rest of the manuscript as Karen observed over and over that I was beating the same drum. By page 188, her understandable frustration was showing: “This drum has been beat until there’s a hole in it.”

Therein lies my dilemma. Three different plots share the same theme but are seen through contrasting lenses by various POV characters. How does a writer show multiple perspectives yet avoid being repetitive? How do I keep my obvious bias in check?

Through the book, the running argument between Tawny and Tillman escalates. It ultimately leads to a crisis in their marriage.

Photo credit: matthijs smit – Unsplash

How the heck do I show that important plot arc without beating a hole in the drum?

Right now, I’m going through page by page with Karen’s cautions in mind. I have to decide when reminders become repetitious and cut those parts.

Sometimes I can combine several references into a single one that makes the point.

I’m trying to reserve dialogue about theme for the most important pivotal scenes.

Karen says, “Trust the reader to get it the first time.”

She’s right but, oh, it’s a struggle to restrain my drumstick.

~~~

TKZers: As a reader, how do you feel about reminders?

Do you sometimes want to tell the author enough is enough already?

As a writer, how do you incorporate reminders?

Do you catch yourself making a point until it becomes repetitious?

~~~

Receive a FREE BONUS Short Story when you sign up for my newsletter at debbieburkewriter.com.

You’ll also be among the first to hear when Until Proven Guilty is published.

The Fine Art of Editing

 

By Elaine Viets

Here’s one reason why I like my London publisher, Severn House: Editing.
Like most writers, I try to turn in clean copy. I’m also an editor myself. So I appreciate the masterful way Severn House edited my latest Angela Richman mystery, Late for His Own Funeral, due out in the US this November. The editors took care to fine-tune the sentences with small but significant changes.
Take a look at these. The way I wrote the selection is first. The edited version is second.
(1) In this first example, Angela is recalling her friend’s doomed married. The change helps set the scene.
Elaine: Back then, Sterling had seemed awed by Camilla’s cool elegance, and she fell in love with his humor and energy.
Severn House: When they first met, Sterling had seemed awed by Camilla’s cool elegance, and she fell in love with his humor and energy.

(2) Elaine: I walked over to him and looked right into his red eyes. We were both the same height.
Severn House: I walked over to him and looked right into his red eyes. We were the same height.
This change gets rid of a redundancy. If Angela could look the man in the eyes, then they were the same height. I didn’t need that “both.”

(3) Elaine: The cut on her forehead had been stitched. She’d have a heck of a bruise there tomorrow.
Severn House: The cut on her forehead had been stitched. She’d have a heck of a bruise there.
I didn’t need that “tomorrow.”

(4) This change makes the sentence sing.
Elaine: The child wore a pink polka-dot T-shirt and jeans, and had pink ribbons in her hair.
My editor rearranged it as:
Severn House: The child wore jeans and a pink polka-dot T-shirt, and had pink ribbons in her hair.
(5) Here’s a shorter way of saying the same thing:
Elaine: We were at my car now.
Severn House: We reached my car.

(6) Elaine: I fired up my iPad and opened up the Death Scene Investigation form.

Severn House: I fired up my iPad and opened the Death Scene Investigation form.
No need for that second “up.”
(7) Another unnecessary phrase bites the dust:
Elaine: “It’s going to be rough for a bit,” I said. “But you’ll get through it. I promise. You have a real advantage – one of the best lawyers in the Midwest.”
With that, Mrs. Ellis entered the room carrying a tray. “I’ve brought you some food, Camilla dear.”
Severn House: “It’s going to be rough for a bit,” I said. “But you’ll get through it. I promise. You have a real advantage – one of the best lawyers in the Midwest.”
Mrs. Ellis entered the room carrying a tray. “I’ve brought you some food, Camilla dear.”

(8) This small change makes for a cleaner sentence.
Elaine: I was on duty at midnight tonight, so I packed a small overnight bag with my DI uniform and added my office cell phone charger.
Severn House: I was on duty at midnight, so I packed a small overnight bag with my DI uniform and added my office cell phone charger.

(9) Elaine: Millie watched fascinated while the server mixed the ingredients together in a large glass bowl, then added the dressing and tossed the salad.
Severn House: Millie watched fascinated while the server mixed the ingredients in a large glass bowl, then added the dressing and tossed the salad.
If the ingredients were mixed in a bowl, naturally they’d be “together.”

(10) Here’s another two-letter change:
Elaine: Linda’s apartment, 615, was in the middle of the hall. I could hear the TV on and hoped Linda was home.
No need for that “on.” If I could hear the TV, it was definitely on.
(11) One last one-word change.
Elaine: I went home to my place, feeling discouraged. Chris and I didn’t have a fight. I just wanted to be alone tonight.
Severn House: I went home to my place, feeling discouraged. Chris and I didn’t have a fight. I just wanted to be alone

Most of these changes were small and subtle. Also, I don’t have to accept any that I don’t like. Some got lost in translation when they crossed the Atlantic. Like this one:
Angela says: “I was a bridesmaid in her wedding ten years ago, and we marched down the same aisle now blocked by her husband’s casket.”
The copyeditor had changed it to: “I was a bridesmaid ‘at’ her wedding.” I had to explain that if you’re “at a wedding” you’re attending it, while if you’re “in a wedding,” you’re an attendant.
Sometimes we truly are two countries divided by a common language.

Now hear this: My Dead-End Job mysteries Murder with Reservations, Clubbed
to Death, Murder Unleashed and Killer Cuts are now on Scribd.com. Listen to them during your 30-day free trial.

Tips To Write a Character You Hate

Have you ever written from the perspective of a character you hated?

It’s a unique experience for me. Which is sayin’ something, considering I write psychological thrillers involving serial killers. With all my other serial killer characters, I could find at least one endearing quality, and I clung to that while I wrote from their perspective. I may not have agreed with their motivations, but at least I understood how they justifIed their actions.

Let me back up a minute.

I mentioned in one of my Reader Friday questions that I’ve been teaching a virtual course about serial killers as part of the Advanced Education Program for a school in Connecticut. I’m also racing toward the finish line in Book 5 of my Grafton County Series. I drew a firm line between the two projects until an Ah-ha! moment slapped me across the face. I was working on the lesson plan for Week 3 of my course when a deliciously evil idea popped into my head.

Don’t you love when that happens?

Even though the finish line was within reach, I couldn’t ignore the new idea. It’s a game-changer, and the perfect way to round out the series as a whole. It also required me to go back to page one, drop a few new clues, and include POV chapters from the killer.

Writing from a serial killer’s point of view isn’t anything new for me. In my Mayhem Series, readers expect a cat-and-mouse chase with alternating POVs between protagonist and antagonist. The Grafton County Series is different. I don’t normally include scenes/chapters from the killer’s POV.

To write a character in deep POV we need to know everything about them or slipping into their skin would be challenging to say the least. And here’s where my two projects—fiction and nonfiction—blurred together.

Out of all the serial killers we’ve discussed during class the most frightening of all was a nasty individual named Israel Keyes, whose MO happened to fit my plot. As part of my research for class, I sat through endless video confessions from Keyes, and learned a lot about who he was as a person and what motivated him to kill. Subconsciously, I must have had in mind all along and only now realized it. After all, if I fear him, so will my readers.

To write from his point of view, I had to view the world as he did. Think as he did. Feel—or more accurately, not feel—as he did. This was problematic for one huge reason—I despised everything about him. He’s evil to the core and didn’t possess even one redeeming quality.

Now, you could say, but Sue, this is fiction. You can add anything you want to his characterization. True, but then he wouldn’t be as frightening.

See what I’m sayin’?

The part of him that most frightened me was his complete lack of empathy toward anyone or anything, his arrogance, his inflated self-worth, and the violent blitz attack of his home invasions. If I softened his psychopathic personality, I’d lose the qualities that made me choose him in the first place. A softer villain wouldn’t pack the same punch. And let’s face it, after going head-to-head with numerous other serial killers in Books 1-4, my protagonist is no shrinking violent. She needs a frightening opponent.

Basing an antagonist on a real serial killer is hardly a new concept.

In the 1960s, Thomas Harris was visiting the Topo Chico Penitentiary in Nuevo Leon, Mexico while working on a story for Argosy, an American pulp fiction magazine that ran for 96 years, between 1882 and 1978. The 23-year-old Harris was interviewing prisoner Dykes Askew Simmons, who was committed to the prison’s psych. ward and sentenced to death for a triple murder. Simmons bribed a guard to help him escape. The guard took the money but had second thoughts during the prison break and shot Simmons.

As Simmons lay on the ground, bleeding out, another inmate, Dr. Alfredo Balli Trevino, treated the gunshot wound, saving his life.

This led Harris to develop an interest in Trevino. He interviewed the doctor and learned Trevino was convicted for the murder of his boyfriend, Jesus Castillo Rangel, in a “crime of passion” after an argument.

Apparently, Rangel had attacked Trevino with a screwdriver. The enraged doctor administered anesthetic to Rangel’s body and dragged him to a bathtub, where he slit his throat, draining all the blood out of his body. Trevino then chopped up Rangel’s body into small pieces and packed them into a box, drove to a relative’s farm, and asked if he could bury medical waste there. One of the farm workers called the police.

Thomas Harris said the doctor “had a certain elegance about him,” even as he discussed dismembering his boyfriend in a bathtub.

I found no such qualities in Israel Keyes.

How do we write from a hateful, despicable point of view?

Much like an actor who plays a villain, we must become one with the character. We have to identify with him. Win his arguments, even if those twisted views rub against our values. I despise this antagonist as much as I do Israel Keyes. Doesn’t matter. Our job is to breathe life into him, bring him to life on the page. The only time we can express our own personal feelings is through the protagonist if, and only if, the protagonist shares our views.

I find it easier to skip over a hateful character’s chapters while drafting the storyline. Then I take a day or two, get into character, and bang out his chapters. The next day when I reread those chapters I’m stunned by his actions and comments. That’s a good thing. If it shocks me (the writer), imagine readers’ reactions.

In my case, though the real killer can’t hurt anyone else—he committed suicide like a coward—it’s left me with one burning question: How many other Israel Keyes walk among us? I’d tell you, but I don’t want to shatter your reality. 🙂

Have you ever written a hateful, angry POV character? Did you handle it in a similar way?

The Secret to Being a Successful Writer

Rachel Thompson, today’s guest, is my mover & shaker writing friend who hosts two sites, Bad Redhead Media and RachelInTheOC.com. We’ve cross-blogged over the years and hang around on Facebook and Twitter. Rachel shared her popular post titled The Secret to Being a Successful Writer on my website a while back, and it had great reception—it’s a real motivational kick-in-the-a. I thought it’s well worthwhile for Kill Zoners to read, so Rachel generously gave me permission to repost it here. Let’s welcome writer, book marketer, and social media expert Rachel Thompson to the Kill Zone.

———

Regardless of how you publish your books, articles, or blog posts, the secret to being a successful writer is not anything pie-in-the-sky or full of inspirational goo-gah. Besides, I’m not the kind of person to spray glittery sunshine up your you-know-what, so here’s the real deal. It’s the big secret. Ready? Grab your pen.

Don’t Be Lazy.

That’s it. Let me deconstruct this a bit. Pull up a chair.

Make It Happen

You. Yes, you. Stop looking around.

I’ve worked with writers in all kinds of ways since hmmm, gosh, 2009-ish. Ten years of observing that unique species of human we refer to as, writer. I’m a writer myself (six books released so far , been in a few anthologies, two new books on deck for this year), so I fully comprehend the challenges of balancing writing, marketing, the day job, real life, chronic pain, mental health, and single parenting.

Completely and totally get it.

There isn’t room in any of those roles to be lazy if we’re being #TruthBomb honest here. Yet, in my ten years of working directly with writers, I can count on one hand the writers who are get-out-of-my-way go-getters.

Not the kind who will eat you for lunch with some fava beans and a nice chianti. I mean those who actively set aside time for writing AND marketing AND promoting strategically — not creepy, spammy, ‘must take a shower after seeing this’ ways. Nope, I mean those who treat their publishing career as a business, not a hobby where they lollygag around on social media arguing politics or talking about writing their book, then hope and pray someone eventually buys it.

In fact, I so related to that panicky, ‘Where do I even start?” feeling I experienced with my first book back in 2012, that I created an entire month last year (year two is happening right now! and every May going forward if I decide to continue this exhaustive effort) where I’ve wrangled publishing experts this entire month of May to generously donate books, guides, and consultations, and yet shockingly (she says not shocked), few writers are taking advantage of it.

When I speak with them as to why not, several have told me they know about it but don’t want to participate because then they’ll HAVE to work on their writing and marketing.

This baffles me. And yet, nah, it doesn’t.

Lazy Writer Syndrome 

It’s a thing, right? We all get it. I get it, too. It’s not that I’m not writing. I’m here, aren’t I? I also write for my own author blog, RachelintheOC.com as well as on Medium, which are important parts of my author marketing and business marketing. I have those two manuscripts mentioned above on my desktop: one is in edits, and the other is in draft. I also keep a journal, a planner, and a book just for creative notes and ideas.

So, yea, I’m writing. Yet sometimes it feels like I’m not writing writing.

Am I accomplishing stuff? Am I climbing the mountain? Well, yea. Kinda.

It feels like this: it’s a big mountain, full of mud. It’s raining. Hard. I’m carrying this heavy weight. But I’ve got this! It’s just that some days it’s just…so exhausting. Or I have a migraine. Or I’m running my kids around (single mom). Or I’ve got client deadlines (solopreneur).

So, I set the weight down and make camp. For a little while. To rest and recuperate. And then get back out there when I’ve got my wind back.

That’s okay. I’m getting there. We’re all getting there (wherever the hell there is). (Maybe lazy doesn’t describe me. I am a Capricorn, after all.)

Are You a Lazy Writer?

These are the hard questions you have to ask yourself:

  • What am I doing to move my writing career forward?
  • What am I not doing?
  • What actions am I taking to build relationships with readers?
  • How can I learn more about how to market my work?
  • How am I standing in my own way?

Creating an author platform is not a choice in today’s market. It’s not an option. At least, not if you want to sell books and be taken seriously by not only readers but also other writers, book bloggers, and book reviewers (as well as agents and publishers, if you go that route, or plan to). Many writers refuse to treat their writing like a business — they think if they can just sign with a traditional publisher, and then that publisher will swoop in and do all that work for them.

If only.

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I deal with many stumbling blocks: anxiety, depression, chronic pain. There are days where all I can do is the bare minimum for my business, kiss my kids, and that’s it. And that’s okay. Big fan of The Four Agreements: always do your best, and if your best is just getting out of bed that day, okay. I Scarlett O’Hara that bitch: tomorrow is another day.

In my business, many of my clients are traditionally published. Big 5 even. They hire me to do their social media and book marketing because no publisher does that for them. It’s on you, writer friends. Start early, share often. Learn author branding (we brand the author, not the book).

You don’t need to hire someone to do this marketing stuff for you. You learned how to write. You can learn how to market.

The other big secret I’ll share with you is this: Book marketing isn’t about spamming your book links with everybody (that’s desperation). It’s about building relationships with readers early on.

I do a free weekly chat on my @BadRedheadMedia business Twitter, #BookMarketingChat, every Wednesday, 6 pm pst, 9 pm est. Every week for the last 4 years, I share my time and/or recruit an expert in publishing and marketing to share their expertise with you, the writing community.

Invariably, someone says, “Yea, I should do that,” or “I’ll give that a try.”

Writing is great. Publishing is a business. Treat it like one.

———

Rachel Thompson released the BadRedhead Media 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge in December 2016 to rave reviews. She is constantly updating the book, and released a newly updated version in 2020 in both ebook and print.

She is the author of the award-winning, best-selling Broken Places (one of IndieReader’s “Best of 2015” top books and 2015 Honorable Mention Winner in both the Los Angeles and the San Francisco Book Festivals), and the bestselling, multi-award-winning Broken Pieces (as well as two additional humor books, A Walk In The Snark and Mancode: Exposed).

Broken People was released in 2020.

Rachel’s work is also featured in Feminine Collective anthologies (see Books for details).

She owns BadRedhead Media, creating effective social media and book marketing campaigns for authors. Her articles appear regularly in The Huffington PostFeminine CollectiveIndie Reader MediumOnMogulBlue Ink Reviewand several others.

Not just an advocate for sexual abuse survivors, Rachel is the creator and founder of the hashtag phenomenon #MondayBlogs and the live weekly Twitter chats, #SexAbuseChat, co-hosted with Cee Streetlights and Judith Staff (Tuesdays, 6 pm PST/9 pm EST), and #BookMarketingChat, co-hosted with Melissa Flickinger and Dr. Alexandria Szeman (Wednesdays, 6 pm PST/9 pm EST).

She hates walks in the rain, running out of coffee, and coconut. A single mom, she lives in California with her two kids and two cats, where she daydreams of Thor and vaguely remembers what sleep is.

———

Thanks so much, Rachel, for joining us here at the Kill Zone. What about you KZers? Am I the only writer here who gets lazy from time to time and have someone else do their bi-weekly post for them? Does the L bite you too? Let’s hear the comments!

Ten Tips from a Chiropractor for Writers

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Disclaimer: nothing is this article should be construed as medical advice.

Writing can harm the body. Okay, it’s not as bad as logging, or bull riding, or bomb dismantling. But sitting all day hunched over a computer is not a healthy lifestyle.

Recently I had an enlightening conversation with a chiropractor, Dr. Erika Putnam, shown here consulting with her office manager, Hartty.

Dr. Erika has unique insight into the particular physical problems that beset our profession because she herself is a writer. In addition to her chiropractic practice and operating a yoga studio, she contributed to the Ultimate Guide to Self-Healing Volumes 1-5. She is also working on her memoir and a how-to manual for yoga instructors.

So…I asked her for tips specifically to help writers.

Her overall approach is to develop a “long-term vision of our health and career path.” She says, “Value your wellbeing and work toward preserving that. Think prevention rather than fixing damage.” She believes for optimal health, humans need fresh air, sunshine, the earth…and time away from staring at electronic devices. 

People who spend long hours sitting at a computer tend to develop tight chests, tight hip flexors, and are weak in the core and the butt.

What can we do about that?

Here are Dr. Erika’s 10 tips:

  1. Undo what you do. If you use muscles in the front of the body, you need to counteract by using muscles in the back. Below is a good exercise to undo writer’s slump.

 

2. Strive for anatomical neutral: This means good posture with shoulders back, head up, chest up, arms at your sides with hands extended. For yoga aficionados, this is similar to mountain pose.

3. Neck care: a head-forward posture is hard on the neck. The farther forward your head is, the more strain on your neck. Sit straight with your head in line with your shoulders and pull your head and chin back. Try the old balance-a-book-on-your-head trick.

4. More Neck Care: At least once an hour, turn your head from side to side, looking over your shoulders.

5. Breathing: When shoulders curl forward, breathing becomes shallow. Take deeper breaths to improve posture. Stretch arms over your head to move/open the ribs to allow deeper breathing. Repeat several times/hour.

6. Neutral spine: When seated, rock your pelvis to find the correct neutral spine posture.

7. Sitting posture: If you sit on the back of the “sit bones,” pressure on the pelvis over time wears out disks in the spine.

Instead, sit up on sit bones. A pillow behind your back may help.

 

8. Hand care: Typing uses finger flexion which tends to curl hands into claws. To counteract, open your hands, stretch fingers, and press palms together.

9. Get up and move around at least once an hour. Take a walk. Do stretches. Dr. Erika suggests: “Go outside and play with dirt.”

10. I’ll take credit for this tip which came about after my visit with Dr. Erika.

After spending an hour with her, I became much more aware of my posture, standing straighter, shoulders back, chest up, head up. When I got into my car to leave, I noticed the rearview mirror was tilted too low. It had seemed fine while driving to her office. But, after an hour of consciously improving my posture, I realized I now sat a couple of inches taller in the seat. I needed to adjust the mirror upward.

I decided to leave the mirror in the higher position as a reminder to sit up straight.

The more reminders the better.

 One final note: Dr. Erika says she can’t back up the following observation with scientific studies but she has frequently noticed that people with a right-side head tilt often have a great deal of left-brain activity.

Here’s a discussion of right brain/left brain from Medical News Today.

JUST FOR FUN — Here’s a totally unscientific experiment to try:

If you’re having problems with plot organization, see what happens if you tilt your head to the right. Does that activate your left (analytical) brain?

If your story needs more feeling, trying tilting your head to the left. Does that activate your intuition and emotion?

Does head tilting make any difference in your thinking process? Please share your results in the comments.

~~~

TKZers: What helps keep your writer’s body in good condition? Do you have favorite exercises?