First Page Critique: The Master’s Inn

Today, I’m reviewing the first page of a woman’s fiction novel entitled The Master’s Inn. My comments follow – looking forward to getting input from this great TKZ community and bravo to our brave submitter!

The Master’s Inn

“Mom! Where’s my iPad?” Joanie bellowed.

Susan Brown, downstairs in her newly remodeled dining room in Sandpoint, Idaho, ignored the stomping noises overhead and her fourteen year old daughter’s frantic voice.

It sounds like a bull moose on the rampage up there.

Staccato stomping was followed by Joanie’s voice floating down the stairs as she talked to herself. She used every foul word in her teenage vocabulary—loud enough for Susan to hear. Something else to confront.

She shook her head in exasperation and reviewed the contents of her garment bag once again—no mistakes this time. Two other bags were packed and strapped by the front door. She wanted to surprise Bill by being ready to go on time tomorrow. He was a stickler for schedules and sometimes lashed out at any bump in his plan.

She hummed to herself as she scanned her list for the third time. As usual, she’d packed too much.  But she hadn’t been able to decide what to bring. She’d whittled it down to two evening and three day outfits she could mix and match.

She tucked everything neatly into the bag and made sure the clothing was tightly strapped. It wouldn’t do to have wrinkled blouses—although the venue hotel in Las Vegas offered full valet service. Nothing but the best for Bill.

She lined up the bags by the front door where he would see them when he came home, then returned to the dining room and grabbed a clean microfiber cloth she kept handy and wiped the table where she’d had her bag. Bill had a critical eye—he would notice a blemish on the expensive table.

She stretched and looked at her watch. He would be home from his meeting soon.

She looked forward to the long weekend—only her and Bill. The one thing she didn’t look forward to was watching him compare her to the glamorous women they’d see on the stages and in the restaurants. She’d never had any reason to question his loyalty, but she knew—after all these years—that she didn’t measure up. She’d lost her petite figure and the glow had faded from her complexion.

She walked back out to the entry hall and looked at herself in the elegant full-length mirror outside the dining room. Her face turned red at what she saw.

Pudgy. That’s the word.  

Overall Comments

I liked how, as I continued to read this first page, the tension over Bill slowly began to build until the reader realizes just how much Susan is in his thrall, and how terrified she is of disappointing and angering him. That being said, I think that the dramatic tension could have been ramped up even more, so as to place the reader right at the moment Bill comes home. In some ways we get too much of her anticipation of what might happen if she doesn’t have everything exactly right for him and not enough actual conflict. Even the tension with her daughter is remote (just hearing her upstairs, rather than being engaged in an argument with her). I also wanted to know where her daughter figured in the upcoming trip – is she going with them or going to a friend’s place? Is Bill her step-father or just her mother’s boyfriend (and how does her daughter view Bill’s controlling nature?). I wanted a little more of this backstory to become invested in the characters and a little less about the house or the contents of the bags.

One thing I did ponder was whether Susan was going to be an unreliable narrator or if Bill really was as controlling as she made him out to be. As a reader I was torn between empathizing with her and being frustrated that she was so worried about satisfying his need for order and control. Given that the novel is described as women’s fiction, I wasn’t sure if there was going to be a suspense or mystery aspect to the story – but I have to say I already hope Bill gets what’s coming to him:)

Specific Comments

  • There was some repetition of words like ‘stomping’ and ‘strapped’ which was distracting and, as I looked down the page, 7 paragraphs all began with the word ‘She’. Although this might seem pedantic, it’s important to vary sentences so as not to appear repetitious or sloppy.
  • I also noticed that, apart from Susan’s inner monologue and preoccupation with her appearance, we don’t actually get any description of her which made it hard for me to picture her in my mind.
  • Although the descriptions of the house suggest a measure of wealth – expensive table, elegant full-length mirror, and remodeled dining room for example – the reader doesn’t actually get any specific descriptions to help visualize the scene. I would have liked a more sensory exploration of the house so I could imagine Susan in it (the glint of polish, the smell of cleaning spray etc.) as well as specifics that could be telling (such as the brand of bags, clothing etc.)
  • Finally, the title of the book, The Master’s Inn, seemed a little incongruous as it evoked more of a historical fiction novel in my mind.

So TKZers what additional comments or feedback would you give our brave submitter?

 

 

 

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A Writer in Italy

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Everywhere you turn, you’ll find a side street or meandering cobblestone stairway that you can get lost in. Fertile ground for the mind of an author. That’s Italy. Romantic storybook panoramas, delicious food, welcoming people, inviting shops to buy treasures, and outdoor bistros. Italy has a vast history, varied culture and is the center of global fashion. Beautiful gardens rival any in the world. Plus an added bonus for me–Italians LOVE walking their dogs. Many locations looked like the Westminster Dog Show with gorgeous well-groomed dogs. Shop owners even put large water bowls out for leashed pets.

As promised, I am posting some pics of my amazing trip to northern Italy, the Lakes District nestled in the Swiss Alps.

(HOUSEKEEPING – I had trouble posting these and worked on how to do it for hours yesterday. When you see a link, it’s to my Instagram acct. I wanted to post individual image links, but Instagram wouldn’t allow it. My files were too large to post solo and I’m not tech savvy at compressing sizes, especially for as many as I wanted to show you. But at the links, please scroll through the images on Instagram for the topic I’m posting about.)

Many people think of Lake Como & George Clooney when they speak of the Lakes District. I didn’t see George, but I felt as if I had walked into a post card and stayed for awhile. We had gorgeous sunny weather for most of the days. We were lucky for October.

Since I can’t include tons of pics on this post and had trouble loading my panorama views, I will direct you to my Instagram acct at JordanDaneBooks for many of my memories of Italy. I posted every day and picked some of my favorites. There’s also more space on Instagram to describe things so I broke down my postings by tour day. But for your convenience, I will speak about certain images and provide a link to Instagram.

As you might remember from my first post Travel Replenishes the Writer’s Soul about my trip (before I left the country), I was anxious about traveling alone. I was traveling with a small group of 29 people, organized by the outstanding Traveling Aggies, but I was the only person truly traveling alone. I made up my mind that with this being my first real vacation in decades that didn’t involved visiting with family or friends, I would make the most of it and not let my solo adventure turn me into a wall flower. Thankfully the other people on the tour made me feel welcome but I had to put myself out there.

Boy, did I meet the right folks. By the end of the trip, I did not want to leave this great group of people. I had a BLAST! I made sure to spend time with each couple. By the end of the trip, I had folks handing me their contact info and I’ve stayed in touch with several couples, including a new travel buddy that I’m planning a trip with in 2020. As a writer, I can be introverted. I really love my solo down time, even as much as I find other people fascinating and enjoy adventures.

I sneaked away on a total free tour day into Switzerland with two married but solo traveling ladies from Chicago who were hilarious. My sister(s) from another mister. We took the infamous “Donkey Train to Locarno.” (There is a story about that name and a very amorous donkey. I may have to put it in a book.) I will never be anxious about traveling alone again. That donkey even broke through the language barrier with a German family in our train car. Some things are universal, like laughter and being naughty.

I didn’t feel hindered by the fact that I didn’t speak Italian. There is a common humanity that connects us all. We were with tour guides who spoke the lyrical language and everything was extremely well-run and organized for us. Nothing was left to chance by AHI Travel International, our top-notch tour company. Our main tour guide was Valentina. I wanted to kidnap her and hide her in my luggage by the end of the trip. Adorable and funny and very kind. Toward the end of the trip, she shared her funny family stories about her mother and sister and showed us what hand gestures meant in Italy (including the ones we shouldn’t use ANYWHERE).

The star(s) of the Lake District is, of course, THE LAKES. Everywhere you looked there were gorgeous water views. Here is the view from my hotel room balcony. As a traveler to the lakes, you tour on ferry boats many days. Another beautiful view of the water. No lie, the water is as blue as you see in the pictures. When you look down into it from the shoreline, it is clear and glistening.

As a writer, I took in the sights and want to always remember them for future books. This trip fed my soul and replenished my creative juices, but it also gave me new experiences to include in my work. What must it feel like to be the stranger who doesn’t speak the language or know the customs? How to see something so beautiful that it makes you ache for more? How a romantic language can make your heart do flip flops? How food can be sexy? All these things went through my mind and my heart during this trip. I didn’t simply take a vacation, I saw Italy through the eyes of a writer.

On land, we saw many architectural wonders. Simply breathtaking. Il Duomo in Milan (Otherwise known as the Milan Cathedral) has taken 600 years to build and Milan is still working on it. 600 years? Pffft. When entering these stunning structures, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Always look up. These cathedrals were created to bring man closer to God. You get the sense that the creators and fresco artists used for these magnificent buildings were making at attempt to recreate heaven. On Orta Island, one of my favorite day tours, the cathedral on the island was truly breathtaking. The extensive history and the timeless work of artisans blew me away.

The food was served in more reasonable portions than the way we pile it on in the U.S. I loved how their pastas were flavored with light sauces with complex layers of seasonings and ingredients. Lots of fresh seafood. I was wary of the many courses of food, but I really got into the full production of a meal – from soup to pasta to main entree to cheese offering to dessert. Small portions allow you to languidly consume your meal with wine and good company. No one is in a hurry. Lovely, indeed.

I toured the Last Supper in Milan, the La Scala Opera House and Museum, Duomo (Milan Cathedral), and the Milan Fashion Scene at the Galleria and our guides shared tons of history and charming stories about these historic spots.

I am planning more trips with friends and family next year. I already have one trip scheduled for Hungary, Austria and Germany with my brother and I want to add more. I hope this trip and others lead to plots and stories for me, although what I learned about myself was almost worth more. I made lovely new friends and my spirit to travel has only grown.

For Discussion:

1.) Would you like to share trips you’ve taken and would recommend?

2.) Where would you go if you could take the vacation of your dreams?

3.) Do you have a dream vacation for a trip you’d take as an avid reader or something geared for authors?

EVIL WITHOUT A FACE is a reissue of the first book in my Sweet Justice series, formerly published through HarperCollins. My version of Charlie’s Angels on steroids.

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How to Enhance your Writing by Layering Your Scenes & Plot

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

When this blog posts, I will be JET LAGGED from my return trip to Italy. It will be my first full day back home, after a late flight on Wednesday. I hope to be coherent enough to participate with comments, but forgive me if I sleep in. (I will definitely post pictures of my adventure in a later post.)

***

In my last blog post on “Narrative Drive – Do You Have It?” – I focused on creating a page turner novel using Narrative Drive. As important as it may be to write a page turner (no matter what genre), it’s also important to have balance when you’re creating a world for the reader to love. Adding layers of character emotions, clear motives, interesting subplots that reveal morsels for the reader, and enriching the world the author creates can enhance the reader’s experience and give them something memorable.

USING LAYERS TO ENHANCE A SCENE:

This is my primary process of reviewing scenes after I write them. Yes, I look for typos and probably other things my mind is conditioned to look for (ie word repeats, crutch phrases, cliches, adverbs, passive voice, etc.), but below are my broad brush strokes in reviewing for layers.

FIRST EDIT – After I finish with my first pass as a scene, I go back to edit. My initial pass is to delete unnecessary words and tighten the sentence structure. After I get a stripped down version of the scene, I go back to why I wrote the scene in the first place and add on.

QUESTIONS TO ASK – What’s the purpose for the scene? Do I advance the plot by 1 – 3 plot points so that the scene is integral to the plot? Does my character have a journey through the scene from start to finish? How has he or she grown or been changed? Are things revealed that propel the scene forward? Are motives clear for the reader?

EMOTION – Whatever the purpose for the scene (ie to build on fear, or love, or tension or to add a mystery element), I try to add more layers of THAT. Make the fear over the top, for example. Create images to show a deepening love. Darken a feeling of grief. Intensify the action by ratcheting everything up to another level. I tweak things sparingly so I don’t slow the pace with more than I need, but almost every scene can do with a bit more. Use your judgement on how much to add.

GIVE GREATER INSIGHT INTO YOUR CHARACTER – Enhance the voice of your scene by using DEEP POV to show what’s happening inside your character’s head. This could be a display of emotions if your character is prone to swearing or it could be adding a more colorful VOICE of your character as he or she sees the scene unfolding in front of their eyes. Give them an opinion on what they are doing and show who they are to the reader. Review any scene to tweak it for a more colorful character punch.

ACTION – If there is action in the scene, make the character active. Don’t tell what’s happening. Have the character be in the thick of it. Also make sure you write the action in well-placed snippets of movement without overly describing it. That can slow the pace. Sometimes with action, less is more.

SCENE STRUCTURE – Does my scene have structure with a beginning, middle and end? Does my character know more by the end than at the start? is there a journey? Does the scene foreshadow something coming?

USING LAYERS TO STRENGTHEN YOUR PLOT:

In my book EVIL WITHOUT A FACE, I wrote five full plot/subplots that paralleled the main action. My primary protagonist, Jessie the bounty hunter, was the main driver. It was her story to tell. I had her soon-to-be love interest, Payton, be the uncle of a missing girl and showed what he did to find his sister’s only girl. The 3rd character was the missing girl Nikki. I didn’t want her to be a symbolic McGuffin for people to chase. I wanted to show how dark things got for her as she is abducted into an international human trafficking ring. I also had two other minor subplots involving a woman cop in Chicago, friend of Jessie’s and a mystery woman (Alexa) who brought help to Jessie as things escalated on a global scale. These three women would become my version of Charlie’s Angels on Steroids.

All these plots converged in a big scene in the middle of the book where their separate journeys collided in an action-packed scene with explosions and high-octane battles. The dark moment left them all stunned with the girl still missing and presumed dead. Once they started to work together, they found another way to hunt for the missing girl.

The only way all this would work? I had to make each subplot be integral to the main plot. Each character had different story lines and different motives for their involvement, but they were all chasing either the bad guys or the missing girl. Each added to the escalating tension with the time running out. It was a challenge to write, but I learned a lot and pushed my comfort zone.

MAIN PLOT – When you break down any book, there is a primary or main plot, but there can also be various subplots for the reader to enjoy. Life isn’t just one thing going on. Give the reader insight into the world you have drawn them into. The main plot is the core conflict that drives the plot.

SECONDARY PLOT – A secondary plot (subplot) should work parallel with the main plot to add escalating tension, conflict or mystery. This type of subplot should add complications to your main plot.

TERTIARY PLOT – If there is a third level subplot, this can be something of less substance, yet make it something memorable for the reader – something to give special insight into the character of your protagonist or that may titillate a romance. Think of a 3rd level plot as a CHARACTER ARC that adds color and texture. Although the 3rd level subplot may not be as driving as the main plot or secondary plot, it can sometimes capture the imagination of the reader because it’s fun or romantic, or a mystery.

For a 3rd tier plot, I once had my main character pick out the right puppy for a young woman who was a rape survivor. A therapy dog. A very emotional payoff for that subplot. It gave insight into HIS character and the puppy warmed the hearts of readers. It gave hope that the young woman would survive her ordeal.

WEAVE THEM TOGETHER? – If you are daring, make these 3 levels of plots work together, where the main plot drives the action, the secondary plot can be a plot device to escalate the consequences and shorten the timing of the main plot, and the 3rd plot can reveal the protagonist’s traits as things escalate.

Do they have time to find a puppy while they are saving the world? Do their internal conflicts and weaknesses add tension as the plot shifts (ie suicidal tendencies, aggravated illness, debilitating fears, temperament issues, or romantic involvements)? Test your character by abusing their weaknesses or personal conflicts. How do they deal with it? How does that struggle manifest throughout the main plot development?

Summary – I’ve often thought of layering as it pertains to one scene at a time, but when I researched this topic, I found layering can apply to plots. As I thought of my own writing, on how I devise subplots, I realized layering impacts the overall structure and makes the book more cohesive. Even themes can be enhanced with scenes and subplots that are woven into a story in a subtle way.

DISCUSSION:

Share your thoughts on your current WIP and the levels of plot/subplot you are using. What choices did you make on the structure of your story? (Even if you are a “pantser,” you should have a feel for this.)

 

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Reaching Out to New Writers

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Columbia Falls Junior High NaNoWriMo students

It’s Tuesday morning at Columbia Falls Junior High School in northwest Montana. Approximately 75 eighth graders troop into the library where a massive glass wall faces Glacier National Park, shrouded in clouds that promise early snow. The students are gearing up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) led by English teachers Rubianna Masa and Cecilia Byrd-Rinck.

Since 2012, Rubianna has shepherded her students through the November writing marathon. “I will not lie,” she says. “Some of my students are excited to write while others think this is the craziest and worst thing a teacher has ever made them endeavor.”

Prior to the challenge this year, she invites two local authors to talk to the kids.

The lucky guest authors? Memoirist Susan Purvis (Go Find: The Journey to Find the Lost and Myself) and yours truly.

As students trail into the library, I chat briefly with Brookann who tells me she uses her dreams to inspire her writing. We discuss harnessing the power of the subconscious to find answers to story problems. I’m instantly impressed.

Sue kicks off the talk. “It all starts with a promise. I promised to train my Lab puppy to be a search dog that never leaves anyone behind. And I promised to write a book about it. That was my dream.” She draws parallels between her true-life story and fiction the kids will write, starting with an inciting incident, the roller coaster of setbacks, finally building to the climax, then the resolution.

Since Sue’s book is set in high mountains, she asks the kids, “What’s your Everest? What is your goal or dream?” followed by the question, “What’s standing in your way?”

Aspen answers: “Be an artist. But I have to do schoolwork instead of draw.”

Emma answers: “To love somebody. But society is in the way.”

Sue then describes the story problem in her memoir: “Why is it easier for me to jump out of helicopter with my search dog onto a 13,000-foot mountaintop to recover a dead body than to talk to my husband about our marriage?”

Tristan answers: “Because your dog doesn’t judge.”

Sue and I stare at each other, blown away by his insight.

When I ask the kids who are the antagonists in Sue’s story, they shoot off more great answers:

“Her dog that didn’t want to be trained.”

“The other search guys who didn’t want a woman around.”

“Her husband.” 

This is one smart crowd.

Next we focus on their stories and ask:

Who’s your main character? What do they want? Who opposes them? What’s at stake if they fail?

And the toughest question of all: How do you distill your entire novel into a 30-word elevator pitch?

They take a few minutes to write their answers. Then several read their summaries to the group.

Hailey: “My main character is a 14-year-old boy who wants his mom to stop using drugs. If he fails, she will get sicker and sicker.”

Sarah: “My story is about a girl and her best friend who want to change the world by getting rid of trash. Then the best friend is killed in a school shooting and my main character falls apart. Her new mission is to stop future attacks.”

Whoa. Serious writers with serious themes.

We invite them to meetings of our local group, the Authors of the Flathead, whose motto is writers helping writers.

I talk about how brainstorming with others can get you out of a corner; how it’s hard to judge your own work because you’re too close to it; how asking others read your story gives you honest assessments, even if they’re painful.

I encourage them to grasp unexpected opportunities that may divert from the original plan yet lead to greater rewards.

Sue and I arrive with the intention of helping young writers but we receive an unexpected gift in return. We are co-writing an adventure book for young readers and ask if they’ll give us feedback on our synopsis. They enthusiastically agree and proceed to shoot off penetrating questions like:

“Are you going to use alternating points of view?” That has not occurred to us until Jasmin brings it up! And we’ll certainly consider it.

Other comments: “Tell us more adventures in the mountains.”

“What happens to people in avalanches?”  

“I want to hear about the science of how dogs smell lost people.”

We’re on it, guys!

We ask if they’ll be our focus group to offer suggestions and opinions as we write the book. “Sure!”

Ninety minutes have flown by and the bell rings for their next classes. Off they go, hopefully with a few new tools to help them survive NaNoWriMo.

Novelist/screenwriter Dennis Foley mentored Sue, Rubianna, and me (see earlier post here). He always urges us to “pass it on.”

As so often happens in life, you set out to help others and instead wind up being the one who’s helped.

Sue and I leave Columbia Falls Junior High School with full hearts and two notes from students.

Brookann writes to me (with a follow-up email that afternoon, condensed here): Goal is to be a writer of anime books. Elisbeth wants to save the human race and defeat the villains to make a better world…I am writing this story because I love anime and I am basing it off multiple scenes from different anime series, to make the perfect character for the perfect book. I hope this book will succeed in the way I want it to. I hope you can help me progress and succeed with this book. Thank you.

This eighth grader understands more about researching her market and making her book stand out in the crowd than most adult authors! 

 

Terrance writes to Sue: “My dream is to be like ski patrol, like Susan Purvis. I want to change the world by saving lives. I want to become an Avalanche Rescuer. My writing is going to be like Susan Purvis.”

 

It’s a good day to be an author.

 

 

 

TKZers: What’s your favorite way to pass it on? 

 

 

 

You can find Debbie Burke’s new thriller Stalking Midas on Amazon.

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The Age for Loving (or Hating a Book)

In this weekend’s NYT Book review’s ‘By the Book’ I saw two questions (this week for YA author John Green) that I don’t recall seeing before and which started me mulling about the impact of timing (and one’s age, specifically) when in comes to appreciating certain books. The two questions were:

  • What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
  • What book should nobody read until the age of 40?

Great questions – right? Not because I believe that anyone should prescribe a particular book to a particular age group but because I’ve begun to realize just how much age has been a factor in terms of appreciating certain books in my life. This realization came as I was trying (unsuccessfully I might add!) to cull some overflowing book shelves, and I started leafing through books that I absolutely adored when I read them but now, as I began to flip through them, all I could think was ‘huh?’.

My book group a few years ago did an experiment where we chose a book that everyone had read years before and which we wanted to revisit only to have us all recoiling in horror, unable to believe that (a) We’d actually read the book before (so much had been lost to the mists of time…) and (b) That we’d actually loved it (the book BTW was The Magus by John Fowles). I remember our discussion circling round whether age was the main factor in our changing tastes in literature – and, although we all instinctively knew this to be true, it still surprised us just how much impact it had. Going through my shelves the other day, I was surprised how many books I’d loved in the 1980s and 1990s now seemed dated, not just in terms of technology, but also in terms of themes and emotional resonance. If I were to read these same books today I have little doubt that my reaction to them would be completely different…Actually, it made me sad to think of the books I no longer loved:(

So the questions in the NYT book review got me thinking – both about books that I think everyone should have read before turning 21 as well as those I don’t think people should tackle until they’re at least 40…The first question seemed easier as I immediately thought of To Kill A Mockingbird (as well as a myriad of children’s books, like the Narnia series). The second question was harder…much harder…although I recently read Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot and I’m pretty sure this would have made zero impact if I’d read this as a younger woman. Some books touch on themes that really only resonate at certain points in your life with both age and experience (and What Alice Forgot is definitely one of those books). Other than that though I was stumped… so I thought, why not turn to my TKZers for guidance and input…

So if you had to answer these two questions what would you say? What book do you think everybody should read before the age of 21? What book should nobody read until the age of 40?

 

5+

Narrative Drive – Do You Have It?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Another author who blurbed one of my books told me, “You have great narrative drive.” I thanked her with a smile and quickly went to look it up. Being a self-taught author, I had never heard the term. Narrative drive is that quality that keeps readers turning the pages, riveted to your work. It’s your innate story telling ability. It’s not complicated when you break it down, but how do you teach it? Can it be taught?

What sets apart highly successful best selling authors from others? Best selling authors can build worlds that readers want to be in and they create memorable characters and plots that are compelling with good pace, but do they have something unique to them and their ability that sets them apart?

Each author strives to create a compelling narrative drive (whether they understand what the term means or not) because they want readers eager to turn the page. That means the author MUST manipulate the world and the characters into the optimal story that involves mystery, suspense and intriguing relationships. This covers all genres of writing.

The author controls what is revealed to the reader and parses it out in the most optimal way by their judgement. They make choices on when to reveal things and how they are to be doled out. Natural born story tellers know how to do this instinctively.

The author is in control of EVERYTHING. He or she manipulates the reader with a titillating story and how that story is shared and how it affects the character relationships. Nothing should come as a surprise to the author.

To create MYSTERY elements, the author is guarded about what to share with the reader and when to share it. There’s misdirection with red herrings or through unreliable narrators, for example.

To create SUSPENSE, the author can have the reader follow along and reveal what they want the reader to know as the main characters discover things. This builds on suspense elements.

To give the reader an INSIDER VIEW, the author may reveal things to the reader that the characters don’t know. Let the readers play God from afar and watch the play that is told in the story.

KEEP A READER CURIOUS and/or WORRIED – Readers are naturally curious folks. Give them something to uncover. A wise author will let a reader’s minds be piqued by carefully placed clues. Or an author might make readers worry for the characters they’ve grown fond of. Make readers care and escalate the danger for the characters. Again, this post might sound geared for crime fiction, but it can apply to any genre. The threat does not have to involve life or death. It can involve the heart or the emotional survival of a family enduring a tragedy or a stigma.

WHAT KILLS NARRATIVE DRIVE
1.) Backstory dumps and long boring expositions can kill a strong page turner.
2.) When one scene doesn’t lead to a cause and effect, the plot may drift without cohesion. The reader gets lost in the amble. Actions must have consequences for the reader to want to come along for the ride.
3.) Cheating at mystery elements, where the author creates intrigue, but the outcome is a let down or a head fake for the reader. That’s when a reader will throw a book against a wall and may never buy an author again.
4.) Cheap surprises without build up is the same type of disappointment. Don’t pull a killer or a bad actor or a story element from thin air to end the book.
5.) No coincidences. An author might get away with a coincidence in the first few pages of a story, but a coincidence should never end the book. Major No-No.

HOW TO FIX A FAULTY NARRATIVE DRIVE:
I believe that each scene in a book should be like a mini-story. It should have a compelling beginning, a journey through the scene with purpose, and an ending that foreshadows what’s to come to create a page turner. Each scene should move the plot forward by 1-3 plot points, making that scene impossible to delete without toppling your story (like the wood block-building game of Jenga.)

I endeavor to build as many of these scenes as possible, even with scenes that build on a relationship as a subplot. The subplot should have a journey through the book as well.

If an author is in control of everything in a book, the fixes come from the author too. Be critical of each scene during the edit phase. I first strip out the unnecessary words to tighten the writing. I layer in the emotional content. Whatever the scene is meant to do–like action or romance or mystery–I layer in MORE of those elements. I read the book aloud to make sure it has cadence and the dialogue sounds real and well-motivated.

1.) Give a character GOALS to every scene. Otherwise what is the purpose for that scene?

2.) Are the motives clear? Are the characters well-motivated? Do their actions make sense and does the scene contribute to building on the plot? If not, how can the scene be revised to make motives stronger or more compelling?

3.) What is the internal and external conflict in the scene? How is conflict layered in? Revise to show the parallels between what a character is confronted with and how it affects them emotionally. Heighten the intensity of a character’s journey.

4.) What’s at stake and is it compelling enough? Are the stakes clear to the reader? What does the character stand to lose? Make the reader care more.

5.) Give the character choices. Good guys or bad, do they face dire consequences for their actions? Do the consequences matter? Make the reader care what happens.

6.) Do the character(s) change in the scene? Is there a journey of growth or development? No throw away scenes. Make each one count.

7.) Be critical of the scenes meant for backstory or too much world building. Do these elements drag on and slow the pace? How much is essential to the story? How much should be reserved as a mystery element? Remember, even the smallest of mysteries can create curiosity in the reader. Make it count. Be judicious.

8.) What is the point of each scene? What makes it impossible to delete? If a scene can be deleted in total without consequence to the overall plot, it should stay gone or parts of it could be stripped and used in other scenes.

9.) Word choices can affect Narrative Drive – Strip out unnecessary words within each sentence to give more impact. Too many adjectives or flowery descriptions can slow pace and confuse the reader on the direction of each scene.

10.) Do your scene and chapter endings fizzle to a dead stop or do they foreshadow what’s coming? Anticipation can build on fear or feelings from readers. Compelling imagery can be an effective way to end a scene that’s based on a relationship. Cliffhangers don’t have to be major to intrigue a reader, but don’t waste a scene or chapter ending without something that makes the reader want to turn the page. That’s a wasted opportunity.

11.) Look for too much described body language in each scene. Too much head movements or blinking eyes or interruption with movement can be a distraction to slow narrative drive. Make sure any character movement means something or adds to the irony or character banter.

DISCUSSION:

1.) Can storytelling be taught? What distinguishes authors from the competition?

2.) What tips do you have on Narrative Drive that you use in your own writing?

3.) What challenges have you experienced in improving your Narrative Drive?

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Toxic Romance?

My mother-in-law forwarded me an interesting article on the toxicity of many of the romances depicted in YA novels and it got me thinking about how writers tackle the whole romance thing, especially in an age where many protagonists (in mysteries, thrillers as well as YA) are often ‘bad boy’ (or ‘bad girl’)  heroes/anti-heroes.

The article in the Melbourne newspaper The Age (link here), is an interview with Kasey Edwards, an Australian writer, about the often abusive, stalkerish, and horrible relationships depicted in some YA novels (most notably, the Twilight series) where girls fall for the ‘bad boy’ who thinks ‘no’ just means ‘try harder’ when it comes to winning their affection. And it’s not just YA – you have books like the Fifty Shades of Grey series which translate this behavior in a decidedly adult way where girls/women fall in love with someone who is more powerful, controlling and possibly abusive (I confess I haven’t read the Fifty Shades of Grey books so I can’t really comment!).

I do think there is a broader issue at play in terms of the way relationships and romances are depicted, irrespective of gender or genre. I know I’ve certainly fallen into the trap of creating emotionally distant male characters who don’t treat their female counterparts with the respect that I certainly would demand in real life. But then fiction isn’t real life and nice, kind, pleasant people don’t necessarily make the most compelling characters!

In YA I think the issue of depicting abusive, controlling relationships and toxic romance as ‘normal’ is a definite concern, because girls (and boys) reading them may start to believe that these are the sort of relationships they should seek in real life. In adult fiction the lines are more blurred and, though I wouldn’t want to write a book that would in any way condone or encourage abusive relationships, mysteries and thrillers by their very nature deal with the darker aspects of human nature as well as society. So how do we, as writers, reconcile the two? How do we create compelling relationships without falling into the trap of writing ‘toxic’ romance?

I don’t have any answers, except to say that I support a writer’s right to choose to depict whatever characters, relationships, or romances they want – even though somewhere along the line those choices must come with some level of responsibility (again, I think in YA, this is much greater). Beyond that, I’m not really sure – although I do think it’s a valuable topic to debate. After reading this article, I’ll certainly think a little more carefully about the type of romance and relationships I portray in my books.

So TKZers how do you approach the issue of potentially ‘toxic romance’ in your writing? Do you step back and consider the nature of the relationships and romance between your characters – especially if they might be seen as condoning abusive or dysfunctional behavior or perpetuating damaging stereotypes?

 

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What book made you a reader?

I’ve been reading some of the previews of the upcoming version of Little Women (though seriously, how many film versions do we need?…) and it got me nostalgic for the days when my sister and I would reenact scenes from the book (I was always Jo, she was always Amy). Looking back I realize just how definitive this book was in turning me into a lifelong reader – and when I see books like ‘How to Raise A Reader’, I wonder if some books really do turn out to be pivotal in inspiring someone to love reading. I know for my sister at least, there really wasn’t any one book (or books) that proved critical to turning her into a lifelong book lover. In fact, growing up she was indifferent to many of the books I adored and, though we played ‘Little Women’, she didn’t actually read that book until she was a young adult. I wonder if for her it was just a matter of timing – finding that one amazing book at the right time in childhood that would make all the difference – because, even though she is a great reader now, she was never as passionate (nor as voracious) a reader as I was as a child. This got me questioning whether many ‘non-readers’ simply never found that one pivotal book in childhood that inspired them to read…

For me, Little Women was one of many books that inspired my love of reading. I remember how much I wanted to be just like Jo, how I wished she’d married Laurie (I really hated Amy for a while!), and how much a wept over Beth’s death. Little Women wasn’t the only book I remember reading vividly – there was also C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Madeline L’Engle’s ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, and Elinor M. Brent Dyer’s Chalet School Series (which I read and re-read for many years). When I think back to my childhood reading experience, these are the books that really stand out for me – with the memories of the first time I read them indelibly imprinted on my brain. When I look at my own children, I feel grateful to have witnessed their own ‘book’ moments that turned them into lifelong readers – but then I wonder what happens to those kids that never find that special book, or who never have those moments which turn them into book lovers…?

So TKZers, what were your early reading experiences like? Was there a particular book (or books) that turned you into a reader? Do you think it’s getting harder for kids to experience this? (asked against a background of dread that ‘screen time’ has now replaced book time!)

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Labors of Love

Happy Labor Day weekend!

I hope you all are enjoying the quasi-official end of summer. For me, the approaching fall has got me thinking about how few of us have time for hobbies anymore. I think about this as my twins enter their freshmen year at high school and how crammed their schedules are with both school work as well as activities, most of which (given everyone’s focus on college and careers) cannot be mere hobbies anymore.

Sadly there doesn’t seem much time now for activities undertaken simply for pleasure. You don’t have to excel at a hobby – you don’t even have to be any good at it – you just have to enjoy It. But for my kids especially, there is a culture of excellence which means they should forgo what they’re not good at (even if they enjoy it) for sports or other activities they excel in. Sometimes, it seems like it’s all about getting into the competitive sports teams (recreational leagues being few and far between for my boys at least), or working towards varsity in your chosen activity such as marching band or debate. The focus is definitely on pursuing activities that will either look good on your college application or that might lead to scholarship or other opportunities. It’s really hard for them to find time just to enjoy something for fun!

Even for the adults around me, there’s very little time left in our busy schedules to undertake anything remotely resembling a hobby. Take gardening, for example…what was once an enjoyable hobby for my husband has now turned into a desperate scramble to keep things alive in the garden with the few minutes or hours that can be carved out over a weekend!

This fall, however, I’ve decided to buck the trend and indulge (that’s what it feels like sometimes – an indulgence) in not one but two hobbies…the first is my painting, which I love, and the second is knitting, which I’ve never succeeded at before. When it comes to my art, I’ve always felt guilty setting aside time to paint, especially as most of my life is taken up with writing (something, my husband considers a hobby anyway:)). There are always so many other chores or errands to run, that taking time to paint (especially when I’m clearly never going to make a career or money out of it) feels wantonly indulgent. Recently, however, I returned to art class and loved it so much I vowed that I had to allow myself time to  to paint. Painting unlocks a different creative process for me than writing – the only difficulty is, I still feel guilty doing it!

I decided to take up knitting for completely different reasons. When I was at school we had one compulsory craft unit in 7th grade, and I was so terrible (and I mean terrible…) at the knitting component, that the teacher had to get assurances from my parents that I would never do another craft lesson with her! As a result, I’ve been designated the ‘uncrafty’ one throughout my adult life – the one incapable of knitting or sewing, while my mother, mother-in-law, and sister proudly knit, sew clothes, embroider etc. A  few months ago I stumbled across a website ‘We are Knitters’ and decided I would finally throw off the yoke of ‘uncraftiness’ and try knitting. I’ll admit I had pretty unrealistic visions of sitting by the fire in the mountains knitting away…but I was determined to give it a try.  A month ago my mother-in-law was in town and she helped me get started – and, despite some fear-filled moments of dropped/wrong stitches, I’ve finally managed to get the hang of it. Now, I feel like knitting could actually be a real hobby of mine – if only I can find the time…I’m also totally fine with the fact that I might never be actually that good at it!

So, TKZers, what new hobbies have you tried this year? How do you find (and justify) the time? Do you find having a hobby helps or hinders your writing process?

 

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True Crime Thursday – Elder Fraud…And a Book Giveaway

Courtesy of Pixabay

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer 

Today’s true crime is personal. My adopted mother, Ruth, was a victim of elder fraud.

Estimates of losses from elder fraud range from $2.9 billion to $36.5 billion per year. That’s billion with a B. Every single year. 

After doing considerable research into elder fraud, I was shocked to discover dirty, little-known secrets about indifferent banks, lack of prosecution, and impotent enforcement.

Here’s what happened to my mother:

Ruth, a widow, was fiercely independent and insisted on living alone in her own home in San Diego. After a medical crisis in 2016, Ellie (biological daughter) and I (adopted daughter) tried to convince Ruth to move in with one of us—Ellie in L.A. or me in Montana–or to have another relative live with her. Ruth flatly refused but finally consented to a visiting caregiver three times a week.

For several years, Ruth’s older sister had been taken care of by a woman named “Jane,” (not her real name for reasons that will soon become clear). The sister’s adult children vouched for Jane. The situation seemed ideal since Jane was already familiar with the family and could drive our mother to visit her sister.

Fast forward to 2017 when a catastrophic stroke left Ruth unable to speak or swallow. Ellie and I rushed to San Diego to care for her.

While we were there, Ruth’s credit card bills arrived in the mail…showing balances of more than $15,000 for items Ruth clearly not had charged.

Ellie called Jane and asked about the charges. Jane broke down and admitted she had been using Ruth’s credit cards. She had also been intercepting mail so Ellie would not find out about the bogus charges. After their distressing phone conversation, Jane sent numerous apologetic texts, promising to pay back the money.

But more evidence of fraud kept turning up, like:

Months before, Jane had changed the address for the cable TV, redirecting the service to Jane’s own home, and set up auto-pay from Ruth’s checking account to pay for it.

While we were at the hospital, a neighbor saw Jane snooping in Ruth’s mailbox, evidently trying to intercept more bills.

Jane had written checks to herself for large amounts of cash that Ruth had signed.

We notified Ruth’s local bank. They closed the checking account and turned the case over to their fraud department.

Ellie called Discover and they immediately froze Ruth’s account. They provided photocopies for the past year and we quickly identified many bogus charges Jane had made.

Now for the first dirty little secret: Your bank may not protect you from theft.

Ruth also had accounts and a VISA at a different Big-Name Bank. Ellie and I visited the branch to report the fraud. We explained Ruth was in the hospital and Ellie brought a copy of her power of attorney giving her authority on the accounts.

A bank officer told us the account could not be frozen nor would they provide copies of suspicious charges…until after Big-Name Bank’s legal department reviewed Ellie’s POA, which could take ten business days.

What???

The POA was simple and straightforward. Because of this mindless policy, the bank left the account wide open to more bogus charges. For the time being, all we could do was destroy the card and pray Jane didn’t have a duplicate.

Next, we called the police. Two detectives from the elder fraud division interviewed us. They copied the texts where Jane admitted the theft. We gave them paperwork showing the bogus charges from Discover and from the local bank where the auto-pay accounts had been compromised. They agreed the evidence was more than enough to recommend prosecution of Jane.

Two weeks after the stroke, Ruth passed away just before her 91st birthday. At the funeral, we heard the first hints of suspicion from the children of Ruth’s sister (who had died a few months earlier). The sister’s jewelry was missing and other money had mysteriously disappeared while Jane was caring for the sister.

Meanwhile, Jane had apparently fled to Arizona.

People don’t like to talk about fraud. They don’t want to accuse someone without proof. They’re embarrassed they didn’t catch on sooner. They feel foolish. Therefore, fraudsters have free rein to continue their crimes.

Ellie and I returned to Big-Name Bank where the POA was supposedly under review by their legal department. We were told that, since Ruth had died, the POA was no longer valid and they refused to help, even though Ellie was executor. Fortunately no additional charges had been made.

We then followed up with the police detective. He said he’d tried to interview Ruth but couldn’t locate her because she’d been moved from the hospital to hospice. Not that an interview would have helped—she couldn’t talk and was comatose.

Then came the biggest shock of all.

The detective said that, since Ruth had died, the case against Jane would not be prosecuted because the victim could not testify. The text messages where Jane confessed the theft plus the paper evidence of fraud were not enough.

WHAT???

Thanks to Discover and the local bank that acted quickly, Ruth didn’t suffer a significant loss. Discover reversed all charges. They were responsible about protecting their customer who’d been a crime victim. I feel bad they had to write off thousands of dollars.

However, my heart doesn’t break for the loss incurred by Big-Name Bank that refused to freeze Ruth’s VISA.

After that account was finally closed, Big-Name Bank then tried to claim Ruth’s estate owed them more than $5000, despite irrefutable proof the charges were fraudulent. The lawyer for the estate finally convinced them it would be a cold day in hell before they collected a cent.

What lessons did we learn?

First, it’s hard to prevent predators from taking advantage of vulnerable seniors. Be aware and suspicious of allowing outsiders access to a loved one, even if their references seem valid.

Second, no one is immune. Ellie works for a superior court judge whose own brother was victimized.

Third, encourage your family member to share their financial dealings with a trusted relative or friend. Understandably, many seniors resist because they fear they’ll lose control of their money. Too often, sadly, they instead lose control to a smooth-talking fraudster.

Fourth, glaring loopholes in the law allow scammers to slip through and move on to their next victim.

Fifth, there are no easy solutions.

If Ruth had consented to live with Ellie or me, would this have happened? No.

But if we had insisted on imposing our good intentions on her, we would have disrespected our mother’s proud, independent spirit. We loved her too much to do that. 

We thought we were making her life safer and easier by hiring a caregiver. Instead, we inadvertently opened the door to the henhouse for the fox.

How do you respect the rights and autonomy of loved ones while protecting them from those who would take advantage?

I don’t know. Dammit, I wish I did.

~~~

Life imitates art. More than a year before my mother’s incident, I had been writing Stalking Midas, the second book in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

The theme?

Elder fraud.

After this experience, I rewrote parts of Stalking Midas to incorporate some hard lessons learned. Although the story is fiction and very different from Ruth’s, I hope readers will find truths within the book to protect themselves and their family.

Justice never caught up with Jane. Her successes with Ruth and Ruth’s sister probably emboldened her to victimize others. That makes me sick.

However, a crime fiction writer can dispense justice on the page……

And I did!

~~~

I’m happy to announce the launch of my new suspense thriller, Stalking Midas.

 

Charming con artist Cassandra Maza has cornered her prey, Moe Rosenbaum, an addled millionaire with nine cats, until investigator Tawny Lindholm disrupts the scam. Tawny suspects elder fraud and won’t stop digging until she finds the truth.

Cassandra can’t allow that. She’s killed before and each time it’s easier. Tawny will be next.

 

 

Stalking Midas is available in ebook and trade paperback.

Especially for TKZ readers, I’m giving away a signed copy of the paperback. The winner will be selected at random from comments on today’s post.

For discussion: Have you or a loved one been a victim of elder fraud? What lesson did you learn?

 

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