7 Hard Truths of Working as a Professional Writer

By SUE COLETTA

When we first begin our writing journey, our dreams often overshadow the realities of working as a professional writer.

Which publishing path we chose (self-publishing or traditional) doesn’t make a difference. The products we produce do.

For those of you who are at the early stages of your career, let’s take a look at 7 Hard Truths of Working as a Professional Writer.

For the professional writers in our TKZ family, please add your truths.

Truth #1:

Writing consumes us. We decline more offers for lunch than we accept. We could analyze one sentence ad nauseum, and still not be happy with it. To an outsider, at times we may look like we’re staring into space, but our mind is whirling with ten different scenarios after a character did something unexpected or our storyline banged a hard right instead of a left, even though we’d planned the milestones in advance.

Truth #2:

When you work from home, friends and family assume you have time to chitchat. No matter how many times you mention your deadline, book launch, or any “author” subject, many will breeze right over it with, “Yeah, so, anyway …”

I’ve tried using signs or mugs as a clear signal not to interrupt me (see above pic), but there are those who still barge right in, whether by phone, text, or (gasp!) in person. Not in a callous way; it’s because they don’t understand the amount of brain-power required to plot and successfully execute a novel.

Writers always have multiple balls in the air at once. Yet, from the intruder’s perspective, they think there’s no harm in breaking our concentration for a minute or two (or five or ten), that we can simply return to where we left off as though the disruption never took place.

Easy-peasy, right? Wrong. Interrupting a writer should be punishable by death! At least fictionally. 😉

Truth #3:

Writers spend hours alone in our fictional worlds, and we like it that way. To write professionally, we must be comfortable behind the keyboard. Buy a nice comfy chair; you’re gonna need it. Many professional writers work six or seven days per week, and some hold down full-time day jobs as well. Not everyone has a supportive spouse or makes enough money to write full-time yet.

Truth #4:

Our writing process won’t make sense to anyone but other writers. Don’t even try to explain how a certain song transports you to fictional place or why you have two tiny squares (no more, no less) of chocolate every day as your reward while you read your new favorite thriller.

Writers, did you know daily chocolate* is good for your health? It certainly is, and here’s why:

  • Flavonoids, found in many plant-based foods, including cocoa, can lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain, and make blood platelets less sticky and less likely to clot and cause a stroke.
  • Flavonoids can lower cholesterol.
  • Quality dark chocolate with a high-cocoa content is nutritious, contains a decent amount of soluble fiber, and is loaded with minerals.
  • The fatty acids profile of cocoa and dark chocolate is excellent. The fats are mostly saturated and monounsaturated, with small amounts of polyunsaturated fat.
  • Chocolate contains a stimulant like caffeine and theobromine but is unlikely to keep you awake at night.
  • Chocolate is a powerful antioxidant. One study showed that cocoa and dark chocolate had more antioxidant activity, polyphenols, and flavonoids than any other fruits tested, including blueberries!
  • Consuming dark chocolate can improve several important risk factors for heart disease by significantly decreasing oxidized LDL cholesterol in men. It also increased HDL and lowered total LDL for those with high cholesterol.
  • Dark chocolate can also reduce insulin resistance, which is another common risk factor for many diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
  • A study showed that eating dark chocolate more than 5 times per week lowered the risk of heart disease by 57%.

*I’m referring to a small amount of daily chocolate. Everything in moderation. Too much of anything is never a good idea.

Truth #5:

Our debut is just that, a starting point. It’s where our publishing journey begins. For the first time, the public will read our words, and it’s a terrifying experience akin to standing naked for all to judge. I’d love to say it gets easier, but it doesn’t. I’m as nervous for my thirteenth book to release as I was for my debut. Maybe more so, because the dream of becoming the next “overnight success” isn’t still obscuring reality.

Truth #6:

Many professional writers have health problems. Our bodies weren’t meant to hunch over a keyboard all day, every day. This position can lead to slipped discs, narrowing of nerves in the neck and back, joint issues, carpel tunnel … the list goes on and on.

Remember to take good of yourself! Buy the proper tools of the trade, like an ergonomic chair, a keyboard and/or mouse with wrist support, a sit/stand desk or have the option of switching from the desktop computer to a laptop. Exercise breaks help, too.

Truth #7:

Write for love, not money. The sad truth is, until we build a backlist, writers can’t survive on royalties alone. We can supplement our income in a variety of ways. Some writers coach, some appear on panels or do guest speaking, others offer online courses or webinars. My favorite is mingling with readers at book signings. I make most of my income from May to December. Memorial Day through Labor Day are my busiest time of year, with book signings every weekend.

By studying my area, which is a hotspot for vacationers, I’ve learned where I should appear and when. Year after year, I return to the same venues around the same date. Gone are days of sitting around an empty library, hoping for reader to approach my table, but it took time, consistency, and patience.

There are no shortcuts. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying to you.

***

I haven’t even broached the subject of marketing, piracy, or endless “buy my book!” emails from total strangers who expect you to promote “the book that’ll change the world!” to your audience. You might be surprised by how many new writers believe that, and I seem to attract all of them.

All that said, I love this profession. There’s nothing else I’d rather do.

What are some other hard truths of working as a professional writer? If you’re beginning your writing journey, is there something you’ve wondered about but never had the chance to ask? Now’s the time.

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READER FRIDAY: What Book Inspired You to Start Writing?

Books have influenced my life since I was in elementary school. I remember summer afternoons where my mother would take us to the library and we’d spend hours roaming the aisles looking for a handful of books to read. My senses still respond with joy when I enter a library. But it wasn’t until I read Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series that I noticed Ludlum’s page turning skills and got the itch to write my own original work. What about you?

What author or book got you hooked on the idea of writing your first novel? Tell us about it and your journey.

 

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Know Your Genre and Do the Research – First Page Critique: The Nature of Things

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Wikimedia Commons – Author Cliff (GIANT PACIFIC OCTOPUS) https://www.flickr.com/people/28567825@N03

An intrepid anonymous author has submitted their first 400 words of “The Nature of Things” for critique. My feedback follows. Please help this author and provide your constructive comments, TKZers. Enjoy.

***

“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella,” said the reporter.

Anna perused the mutilated body. Damage to the head. Impressive gash in the temple and the empty eye sockets.

“Who or what do you think did this?” the reporter prompted. “You were invited out for an expert opinion. Do you think a man or animal killed him?”

The cuts to the head and upper torso were massive and random. It was hard to recognize the face with most of it eaten.

The salty Oregon coastal breeze wafted into the cave opening. It mingled with the stench of rotting flesh warming in the sun. The smell of death has many scents.

“Looks like our friend here met up with some pretty irate sea dweller,” she said. “I’m thinking giant Pacific octopus.”

“How so?”

“See the cuts? How they’re sometimes random, then more concentrated at the injury sites? Looks like damage from an octopus beak to me. Sliced open the soft spot near the temple to get to the soft stuff inside.”

A grisly sight to behold. More hideous than the one she saw one night long ago. Same result. Different circumstances.

“You recognize this guy at all?” the reporter said.

“Why would you say that? Not much left here to recognize.” said Anna.

“No particular reason. You being a marine biologist in this area, thought maybe you might have seen someone hanging about the coastline lately.”

“I’m mostly out in the big ocean. Deep sea. But a person can get lost very easily if they want to.”

Like Pa’s buddy, Ray, from the Viet Nam war. Ray wanted nothing to do with people after being discharged and returned to the states. The hatred and name calling were too much to take. One of the reasons Momma and Pa had moved so far out in the woods of Oregon. Homesteading far away from the prying eyes of local busybodies. Small towns are like that. Gettin’ in other peoples’ business was not just normal. It was a way of life.

She said, “My guess is he went diving in this cave and surprised a trapped and hungry animal. Tentacles most likely grabbed his head and the beak started gnawing away.”

“Detectives just left,” he said checking his notes. “They noted extra shoe prints in the sand. Must’ve had somebody with him.”

“It’s a public beach. Footprints could be from anyone. Anytime,” Anna said.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – I enjoyed this author’s “stick to the action” writing. The author jumps into dialogue without over-explaining the action.

POLICE PROCEDURE ISSUES – Right off the bat, I’m left wondering how a reporter would be inside the crime scene tape, which is the way this appears. Anna (whoever she is to the investigation as an expert) is examining the body, up close. She’s carrying on a conversation with a reporter as they apparently stand over the body.

Standard police procedure is that medical examiners or coroners (there’s a difference) would make the call on the cause and manner of death. The ME or coroner would take charge of the body and would not leave the corpse behind or bring in anyone at the scene to give an opinion on how the person died. That would be done in the autopsy, if the examiner needed the assistance.

For avid crime fiction readers, this opener would read as implausible for these reasons. That’s a “throw the book against the wall” error, in my opinion. Despite what I may like about this author’s writing, I’m not as forgiving on poor research and lack of knowledge on police procedure.

OCTOPUS KILLS HUMAN? – This seemed odd to me. I had to query it online. Most octopus or squid can cause harm to a human, but not death. Many species are venomous, but they’re mainly harmful to their usual prey and not harmful enough to kill a person. The Humboldt Squid is known to attack a human being en masse and there are videos of these attacks. Very creepy. Is this story about a giant squid or octopus? There’s not much known about them, only if they are found dead and can be studied. If this story is about the JAWS equivalent to a giant octopus, introducing that possibility through Anna in the first scene seems too soon. It would be best to build on the suspense.

GENERAL QUESTIONS – Why would the reporter say, “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella” in the first line? There’s no follow up on why the reporter disparaged the dead man. Then the reporter asks Anna if she knew the dead guy, without offering an identity. It would appear that the reporter doesn’t know the dead man either, so why the first line insinuation?

Why keep Anna’s last name a secret? This excerpt reads like a first draft with details stripped out. Now is the time to layer in details that don’t overwhelm the reader and slow the pace, but will add a gripping setting with details of who is on that beach with the corpse.

There’s also an assumption that the corpse is dead because a man or animal killed him (the reporter asks). A body could’ve been dumped in the water with animals eating at the corpse or damage sustained from churning in the water over rocks. The reporter is asking questions and leading the reader by TELLING what they should know. I would suggest that if Anna is the expert, let her examine the body and give her opinion to a detective or medical examiner/coroner. A reporter would be the last person allowed onto a crime scene when the body is still exposed. Also, if I were the reporter who got beyond the police barrier, I would be taking photos with my phone. Asking questions is secondary to getting those gruesome pics.

Why would the eyes have been eaten out of the body? Would an Octopus be so selective? Seems like a delicate procedure to focus on the eyes like that.

SHOW – DON’T TELL – In the dialogue lines, the reporter tells Anna what the author wants the reader to know. A sneaky way to TELL and not SHOW. Here are some examples of TELLING lines:

Reporter: “You were invited out for an expert opinion…” (Anna would already know this. A reporter would not.)

Reporter: “You being a marine biologist in this area, thought maybe you might have seen someone hanging about the coastline lately.” (Again, Anna would already know her occupation, but why would the reporter know?)

Reporter: “Detectives just left,” he said checking his notes. “They noted extra shoe prints in the sand. Must’ve had somebody with him.” (Reporter is TELLING the reader what the author wants them to know. Why isn’t the detective the one talking to Anna? And why isn’t she the ME or coroner? The author must do the research to make this more plausible.)

Maybe make Anna be the person who spotted the body on the beach and called it in to the police. She’d be involved and have to be questioned on the spot. A reporter wouldn’t be allowed near the body, especially if the next-of-kin notifications have not been done. Major No No.

BACKSTORY DUMP OUT OF CONTEXT – Because of the spartan style of this author’s voice, not much is known about Anna. Not even her last name. The excerpt below feels out of context. I would prefer the author stick to the action and layer in more details of the setting and the feeling of standing over a gruesome body than to read the details below that could be pieced in later when they fit better.

Like Pa’s buddy, Ray, from the Viet Nam war. Ray wanted nothing to do with people after being discharged and returned to the states. The hatred and name calling were too much to take. One of the reasons Momma and Pa had moved so far out in the woods of Oregon. Homesteading far away from the prying eyes of local busybodies. Small towns are like that. Gettin’ in other peoples’ business was not just normal. It was a way of life.

SETTING CAN ENHANCE THE SCENE – Is the weather cold and windy? What are the waves doing? Are they a calm ebb and flow of water or do the waves dramatically crash onto a rocky shoreline? The Oregon coast is mostly rocky, but pick a spot and describe it so a reader from the area recognizes the setting.

How does the sea mist and air feel on her skin as she stares down at a grotesque corpse? Sand carried in the wind and salty sea air can feel gritty on the skin. The brackish water has a smell that can mingle with the stench off a putrid corpse. Is the body tangled with seaweeds? Have other creatures crawled onto the body as the ocean laps around it?

I would recommend focusing on selective details that ADD to the setting and the emotion the author wants the reader to feel when they read this intro. Don’t write volumes that slow the pace, but pick the most essential descriptors that will trigger memories in the reader, even if they’ve never visited the Oregon coast.

CHARACTER ESSENCE – I had mentioned that the backstory dump seemed out of context, but nothing is known about Anna up until that point. Let the reader in on who she is without TELLING the reader in that backstory dump. The same way it is important to stick to the action and not TELL the reader about the character, try sharing details about Anna that SHOWS who she is.

What is she wearing? Does her clothing and other details say anything about who she is? Proper footwear? Jewelry? How does she fix her hair? Are her nails short or long, polished or not? You don’t need to describe all of these points, but have an idea who she is and pick the most essential ways to show the kind of woman she is to the reader by subtly filtering the most essential details into the narrative.

Is she repulsed or clinical about examining the corpse?

Is she observant about the details of the body AS WELL AS the details of the whole crime scene and who is there?

If Anna is the star of this story, the author could set her up better than the way she comes across in this intro. The reporter seems to know more than she does, for example. I have some suggested changes listed below:

SUGGESTED CHANGES – SUMMARY:

Pair Anna up with a detective that might challenge her. Have there be friction between them because she is an outsider and not a detective. If she proves to be a necessary expert where the detective is forced into using her, the friction you start with will only enhance the story line. Have her mind work like a detective as she clinically examines the dead body and doesn’t act squeamish. Any dialogue in an introduction like this could be like reading a game of cat and mouse. The lines would SHOW who these two are and how they’re matched for each other. Have him obviously trying to get her insights then try to get rid of her, while she keeps adding things that make him wonder if she might help him more. Do they know each other from the past? That could be fun.

Layer in more setting that enhances the morbid scene. That would be delicious.

Tease the reader with what killed the man and not spill the beans right away. It’s very cool that we could be talking about a giant octopus – an 8-legged JAWS creature. Milk that. I can hear the dialogue between the detective and Anna now. He thinks he knows how the guy died. Body dump. The sea and its creatures did the damage, but what if at the end of the scene, Anna breaks the news that the man died from a rare octopus attack. Have her hint that it’s not the first as she walks away. That could be a chilling start.

OVERALL – I really liked the voice of this author. Like I said before, this reads like a first draft and stark, bare bones writing. But it’s a good place to begin to fill in details that can only enhance the writing. Many of the typical beginner mistakes are not raging in this intro. Yes, the lack of crime scene research would be a deal killer for me as a reader, but if the author has a good foundation on writing, the research can be learned and developed. There’s lots to tweak with this beginning, but there’s a great deal of promise here. Good luck with your project, anonymous.

DISCUSSION:

What do you think, TKZers? Provide your feedback in your comments.

6+

Citizen’s Police Academy

My local police department runs an annual citizen’s academy designed to provide insight into the operation of local law enforcement and (I suspect) as a way of counteracting some of the many misconceptions that abound about the police. This year, despite the fact that I don’t write contemporary mysteries or police procedurals, I decided to enroll – figuring, hey you just never know (research is research after all, and inspiration can strike anywhere, anytime!). This free program is 12 weeks long (yes, you read that correctly!) and for three hours each week we learn about the whole range of operations: from patrol procedures, evidence/crime lab and computer forensics, investigations, 911 center operations, to the K9 unit, traffic and the local jail. We also get CPR certification as well as a firearms training (which should be interesting given how gun-averse I am!) and a chance to do a ride-along as well as a 911 ‘sit-along’.

Last week we had our session with one of the current patrol team leaders and it was already an eye opener for me – both in terms of the the range of calls they handle and the amount of equipment they have on hand to deal with these. All the patrol officers in our local police department undertake their own (non-felony) investigations and have facial recognition software as well as fingerprinting and DNA kits in their patrol cars. They also all carry drug testing equipment as well as Narcan (which is a sad reflection of the opioid crisis in America today). Even in our relatively safe community they have to be prepared to respond to active shooter calls and SWAT team situations. It sounded to me like one of the greatest challenge for a patrol officer today is handling the stress/mental health challenges of dealing with such a wide range of calls – one minute you could be dealing with a teenage suicide, the next a coyote attack, then a routine traffic stop, followed by a stolen vehicle report, a drug overdose, and then a call like the Aurora theater shooting. Another key takeaway (for me) was that law enforcement is nothing like it’s depicted on TV or in the media. So if that’s the case, how do I make sure I don’t fall into the same trap (if I ever do decide to use this as research for a novel)??

I’ve already lined up a 3 hour Friday night ride-along with one of the female patrol officers which I’m pretty excited about – I specifically asked for a female patrol officer because I know I lean towards strong female protagonists in my books. However, I’m used to writing about women who lived 100 years ago…so where do I start getting into the mindset of a modern day female police officer?

This is where I want to get input from you, my knowledgable TKZers!  What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about the police in books/media today? What mistakes do you see often in mystery novels about local law enforcement? What questions would you ask a local female patrol officer if you were doing a ride-along?

 

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READER FRIDAY: Share How You’ve Used Family & Friends for a Book Plot

After Sue Coletta’s post “When Real Life Collides with Fiction,” I wondered how many other TKZ members have stories about the many ways an author can abuse family and friends for the sake of a book. I’ve heard of wild stories at writer conferences where authors talk about staging a crime scene using friends as attackers & victims or cornering a relative to brainstorm a murder over Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.

In what ways have you used the people in your life for research or to develop a book plot?

3+

Wounded Writer Syndrome

By Sue Coletta

Being a writer can be traumatizing.

Back in October I finished writing Silent Mayhem, a book that deeply affected me.

Sure, I was passionate about the story — I wouldn’t have written it otherwise — but it morphed into more than that; it slashed open another part of me.

I’m still not sure if I’m feeling my own emotions or my character’s, the line between reality and fiction blurred beyond a rational explanation.

While writing, I became the vessel and something else inside me wrote the story, my soul taking it places I hadn’t foreseen in the planning stage. This sounds like a good thing on the surface, but something occurs in the story that wounded me on such a deep personal level. Was it the best thing for the Mayhem Series? Absolutely. This series of events became the catalyst for the next book. And yet, I was still grappling with how to move past it.

The holidays rolled around, and I reverted back into my happy-go-lucky self again. During that time, I started writing Book 4 of my Grafton County Series, but even this new storyline pierced several layers of my heart, illuminating the fact that I may never escape emotional turmoil.

Fast-forward to the beginning of February. My publisher and I worked with the cover designer for Silent Mayhem. On the day the final cover popped into my inbox, my editor sent back the first round of edits.

No big deal, I told myself. I’m a professional. I’ll just leapfrog into the story, bang out the edits, and then plunge back into my WIP. Easy peasy, right?

Wrong.

I read the story one last time from start to finish, making my corrections along the way. Well, I soon found myself in the same quandary, the storyline almost crippling me emotionally.

Friday night I finished my edits and had planned to reopen my WIP on Saturday morning, but as I sat at my desk, I wasn’t able to let go of Silent Mayhem, the storyline tearing open scars I didn’t even know existed. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake off the emotional upheaval. This isn’t the first time it’s happened, either. Unlike before, though, I don’t have the luxury of processing my feelings ad nauseam, or even take a well-earned break. Grafton County, Book 4, is due in March.

So, what do you do? Exercise, read, watch a movie … anything to take your mind off the story, right? But what if you still can’t flip the emotional switch to off?

I turned to our ol’ friend Google for the answer. Surely other writers have experienced the same thing. One brave soul must have written about it, right? Surprisingly, I couldn’t find one post. Not one! I read about specific emotions that may lie at the heart of my unrest … grief, betrayal, uncertainty, vengeance, etc. etc. But nowhere could I find advice on this topic as a whole.

What would you even call it, Wounded Writer Syndrome?

Psychology Today has a fantastic article about trauma and how writing about it can help heal us. Writer’s Digest also advocates using a traumatic experience to fuel our writing. Harvard Medical School uses the term “expressive writing” when writing becomes cathartic after a difficult life event. But what if writing caused the trauma?

After a lot of soul-searching, I came up with my own way of coping.

The first step is the hardest of all. It requires us to delve deep within our psyche and unearth the root cause. At what point in the story did our emotions entangle with the character’s? Where did we lose control? Is there a certain scene or chapter that arouses a physical reaction, like crying, shaking, or squirming in the chair? If we’re able to pinpoint the exact moment that first had a profound effect on us, the healing process can begin.

Expressive writing may hold the key to healing a wounded writer’s soul, even if the trauma’s self-inflicted. Expressive writing is also beneficial to our overall well-being. Researchers studied the effect of expressive writing on everything from asthma and arthritis to breast cancer and migraines.

They conducted a study in Kansas, where women with breast cancer experienced fewer symptoms and went to fewer cancer-related appointments in the months following expressive writing. The aim of the study wasn’t to combat the disease, and the authors of the paper don’t claim the actual cancer cells were affected. However, the study shows other aspects of the women’s health improved faster than the control group, who merely stated facts rather than expressing the emotional impact of the disease.

From BBC.com

What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this simply happened through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d let out their pent-up feelings. But then Pennebaker began looking in detail at the language people used in their writing.

He found that the types of words people used changed over the course of the four sessions. Those whose wounds healed the fastest began by using the word “I” a lot, but in later sessions moved on to saying “he” or “she” more often, suggesting they were looking at the event from other perspectives. They also used words like “because”, implying they were making sense of the events and putting them into a narrative. So Pennebaker believes that the simple act of labelling your feelings and putting them into a story is somehow affecting the immune system. 

I propose the same holds true for those of us afflicted by Wounded Writer Syndrome. Find the exact moment in your story and write about how that scene, or scenes, affected you, the writer. At that point, we can then piece together our shattered spirit … just in time to traumatize ourselves all over again with the next book. 🙂

Have you experienced Wounded Writer Syndrome? What are some ways that helped you heal?

 

13+

Ways to Beef Up Conflict & Mystery – First Page Critique – Whatever Tomorrow Brings

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

 

For your reading enjoyment, we have the first 400 words of an anonymous author’s work in progress. I’ll have my feedback on the flip side. Please provide your constructive criticism in your comments.

***

Dad and I arrived at Houston’s Medical Hospital as an orangy-pink sun dipped below the horizon. We hurried across a parking lot the size of a football field, the October breeze lifting wisps of my ash brown hair as we headed for the warmth of the building.

In the elevator, Dad punched the button for the third floor while I rubbed my hands together. We began our ascent with a jerk that made me latch onto Dad’s arm, and then I felt my stomach drop. Just what I needed.

We greeted Mr. and Mrs. Garrett in the visitor’s waiting room. After catching up on the latest news regarding Slate’s condition, I walked alone to Room 316. Rounding the nurses’ station, a concoction of hospital smells assaulted my nostrils: alcohol, chlorine, undefinable cafeteria food, and floor wax. Lovely. I leaned against the wall for a few moments, my hand on my empty and now queasy stomach, before continuing down the hall.

Finding the door to Slate’s room closed, I took a moment to smooth my hair, powder a shiny nose, remove an errant eyelash threatening to slide under my blue contact lens. Then I knocked.

“Yeah.”

I peeked in. “Hi.”

Slate Garrett sat propped up in bed, two pillows behind his back. His velvet brown eyes were dark. “Did you hear?”

I nodded and walked towards him. Lindell High’s all-state linebacker would’ve looked ridiculous in his pale hospital gown under other circumstances; but his blackened left eye, busted lip, and the white bandage behind his left ear took all humor out of the situation.

“Three games into my senior year, and this has to happen. Benched for the rest of the season. No college scholarship, no playing for the Longhorns, no more football. Ever!”

I could almost hear his heart breaking. I blinked back tears.

His own eyes watering, Slate reached for the glass on his nightstand and drank from it.

I feigned interest in his room while we both tried to regain self-control. His gold wristwatch and an opened package of malted milk balls lay on the nightstand beside his bed. A chair stood in the corner, a football resting on its cushion.

I walked over and touched the stiff, stained laces. “What’s this doing here?”

“Game ball from Friday night. Like I want it now.”

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – Depending on what genre this novel will be, the opening could start earlier with the injury on the field and more action. Or it could start with the young woman narrator rushing to the hospital, leaving the reader to wonder what is happening and who will be there. I prefer more action than the way this story starts so the reader is drawn into the novel by elements of mystery and the emotions of something about to happen. Even in the case of a romance, mystery elements still have their place. Readers want to be sucked into a story with anticipation of what will happen. This particular story reads like a romance or maybe a Young Adult (YA)/New Adult with younger characters that could grow into their early twenties. Who doesn’t love a good sports story with the struggles of a romance mingled between the lines? Sign me up, but let’s take a look at where to begin.

Genre & Elements of Romance – If this is a romance or YA, don’t rush a scene between a girl and a boy. Add layers to their relationship. The sexual tension, even if it’s only one way, can pull a reader in.

Be sensitive to eye contact or touches or the hyper awareness of the girl who has feelings for a guy who may not notice her. Does she see his skin flushing with color? Does she have heat rising to her cheeks? Pay attention to the details and only put in enough to not slow the pace, but make everything count. She’s dying to get into the hospital room, but she takes the time to primp and fix her hair. Nice touch, author.

But I would recommend adding more awkward tension from her point of view. I can feel a good foundation of it here, but there can be more. She’s walking into his hospital room alone. How well do they know each other? Are they only friends? Does she want there to be more? Since she didn’t run into his arms, I’m assuming they aren’t boyfriend/girlfriend.

Milk the unrequited love aspect and have her tentatively walk into a dim room. Set the stage better by making the room dark with him brooding and her looking for his glances through shadows where he may not want to face her. Have patience when building layers into a scene. If this scene takes place at dusk (as mentioned in the first paragraph), why not change the time to add mood to this intro? It would add to the tension if she’s pressuring her father to drive faster. Make it start to rain. Readers will wonder why she’s pushing her dad. The lights and the darkness and the treacherous weather can add to the mystery of where they’re going.

If you have her eventually rushing into a hospital, stretch out the intro with the build up of tension without telling the reader what’s happening. You will have them hooked as she steps into a shadowy room with an injured guy unable to look her in the eye. Maybe he’s in a private room and staring out the window. Is it raining? Make it moody. Have the stage set for what’s happening from her side. A good setting can really add to a scene.

Where to Begin – The way this story begins, the author is “telling” the reader what is happening, rather than creating an opener with more action and tension and conflict. Conflict is KEY. Start with action and add mystery elements without explaining what is happening and why.

Conflict – Does the injured boy expect to see her? Does he want her to be there? Only the author can answer these questions, but the story is completely under the control of the writer. I would recommend more conflict as she steps into the hospital or into his room. Are his parents surprised she’s there, but don’t say anything? When she finally steps down the long corridor and pushes open his door, what would he say to add conflict and tension right away?

“I told you not to come. You never listen.”

OR

“Come to gloat? Get out.”

Opening – Below is the first 2 paragraphs. It “tells” where she and her dad are going. Although there is a sense of urgency, that tension could be better. Any tension is deflated when she brings up the color of the sunset and talks about the time of day and brings up the hue of her own hair. This is a short cut for new authors to tell the reader this is a girl and the color of her hair but there are better and more natural ways to do this. Have patience. Make this opening about the action and stick with it.

The tension in this opening feels contrived because the urgency is forced and watered down.

Dad and I arrived at Houston’s Medical Hospital as an orangy-pink sun dipped below the horizon. We hurried across a parking lot the size of a football field, the October breeze lifting wisps of my ash brown hair as we headed for the warmth of the building.

In the elevator, Dad punched the button for the third floor while I rubbed my hands together. We began our ascent with a jerk that made me latch onto Dad’s arm, and then I felt my stomach drop. Just what I needed.

In this next paragraph, the author does more ‘telling” rather than “showing.” Again, the tension is soft and deflated when the author uses phrases like “after catching up on the latest news regarding Slate’s condition.” The author launches into the sights and sounds of a hospital, which detracts from any emotion this girl is feeling. It’s too clinical and matter-of-fact. She would be more focused on counting the room numbers and looking for his room. She’d be thinking of what she would say. Will she be welcomed? Don’t tell the reader. Show her apprehension without answering any of the questions she raises in her worrying.

We greeted Mr. and Mrs. Garrett in the visitor’s waiting room. After catching up on the latest news regarding Slate’s condition, I walked alone to Room 316. Rounding the nurses’ station, a concoction of hospital smells assaulted my nostrils: alcohol, chlorine, undefinable cafeteria food, and floor wax. Lovely. I leaned against the wall for a few moments, my hand on my empty and now queasy stomach, before continuing down the hall.

Suggested Start – I can’t know what the author’s intentions are for this story. I can only suggest ways to make this more of a page turner and pique the interest of an agent or editor. As I’ve stated under the Genre & Elements of Romance heading, I would start with more action. Regardless if this is romance or not, action will pique the reader’s interest more than this opening does. The elements of a good story are here, author. We just need to massage and tweak to add more action and conflict.

1.) Make the drive to the hospital more about the girl pressuring her father to drive faster. Don’t explain why she wants him to do it. Add tension with the darkness and rain coming down.

2.) Have her rushing into the building, not waiting for her father to park. She stops at a nurse’s station in the ER. Her stomach is doing flip flops. She looks for other familiar faces while the nurse asks questions she doesn’t want to answer. She’s not family.

3.) She sees Slate’s parents down the corridor and rushes to them, but stops when they stare at her without a greeting. If you want to add conflict, give them a reason to wonder why she’s there. Or if she’s a friend to their son, have them warn her that he doesn’t want to see anyone from school. “Not even you.”

Question to answer – You have to give the parents a reason why they are waiting in the hallway when their son is in a hospital room, alone. Why aren’t they in the room with him?

4.) Make the reader feel every step she takes toward his room. Take time to describe what she’s feeling without answering any questions. Don’t even talk about football until she sees him.

5.) Be patient with the body language, conflict and tension between them. He could be ashamed of something or feel like a failure because his future is shot. She could be wanting to hold him, but can’t. Make the reader feel every aspect of emotion in this opening scene.

Dialogue – Make every line of dialogue count. Below is the stripped out dialogue lines–isolated to highlight what is said without any description or movement. This is a good way to see if the lines sound chit chatty or if they carry enough weight that can add to the tension/conflict.

HIM: “Yeah.”

HER: “Hi.”

HIM: “Did you hear?”

HIM: “Three games into my senior year, and this has to happen. Benched for the rest of the season. No college scholarship, no playing for the Longhorns, no more football. Ever!”

HER: “What’s this doing here?”

HIM: “Game ball from Friday night. Like I want it now.”

I would recommend more substance be added. Give them a past that may set them at odds. Is she an old girlfriend? Is she dating someone else, but rushes to the hospital, unsure why she can’t get him out of her system? Is there relationship one-sided? Reflect that into the dialogue and make each line count.

“Why did you come? You made yourself perfectly clear where we stand. I don’t need your sympathy.”

Dialogue authenticity – The longest line of this conversation has him “telling” the reader that Slate is a high school senior and how many games he’s played. Both these characters would know that. Slate wouldn’t need to explain. It’s obvious the author is “telling” the reader what they should know, but it reads like a contrivance. Make this encounter about the emotion of what he’s feeling and her inability to comfort him. Is he angry and lashes out at her? If they used to date, is she now with the guy who injured him or the star quarterback of another team…someone with a future? Have patience with revealing the conflict but make the dialogue between them show the emotion of a troubled past or more of a conflict.

Characterization – I know this is only a short opening of 400 words, but what do we know of these two people? By not telling the reader about the narrator, the author could still show unique traits to pack this opening with a reason for the reader to care. Does she chew her nails when she’s tense? What is she wearing? Did she bother to change in her rush to get to the hospital? What does that say about her? Even little details sprinkled into these 400 words can add value into building who she is and why we should care. Maybe the author could clip out online images of what this character looks like. I love image boards to set the stage for the story and make the small details shine.

Housekeeping

What’s in a Name? – With the dialogue, there’s a good place to have Slate say her name – or maybe her father can share it when they’re weaving through traffic.

Gender – With this story being in first person POV, try to get the gender of the narrator into the first lines if possible. The reader wants to know.

Setting – In the action leading up to the hospital arrival, add landmarks or setting that allows the reader to get oriented into Houston, Texas. The author doesn’t have to provide the destination and the name of the hospital to set the location in Houston. As a Texan, I do love a good feeling of Texas in a story. Rush hour in Houston is a parking lot, for example. Depending on the time of year, the steamy heat could layer onto her skin as she races from the car into the hospital.

Summary – The author is very much aware of description for the sake of the reader’s senses. That’s good, but have patience with how to use that skill. Less can be more. Keep the character’s motivation and emotion real so the great descriptors don’t read as forced or contrived or piled on.

I focused on this being a romance, but if it’s not, my feedback is still worth considering. If this story is about head injuries in football, the additional conflict from the start would still work. Add more tension between these two people to allow the reader to develop a strong foundation in their relationship. If this is more about the drama of Slate’s recovery, I would recommend the author load up on the conflict to give this pair a journey that they may or may not survive in the end. Put them through the wringer.

There are good elements to this story and lots of potential with this premise and these characters. I want to know what happens and I would want to read more. Thanks for your submission, dear author.

Discussion

What other changes would you recommend, TKZers?

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Using Real People in Historical Fiction

Happy President’s Day!

Today I want to talk about an issue that was raised a few weeks ago by one of our first page contributors who is proposing to use a real historical figure (namely Samuel Pepys) in his historical mystery. The brave submitter asked whether, if he did use the actual person in his novel, he had to include all that person’s flaws (which could ultimately make the character less sympathetic.) My initial answer was that my preference would be to either use the real person, warts and all, or fictionalize the character entirely…but the question got me thinking about the issue a little deeper, as it highlights the often blurred distinction between fact and fiction in many novels, not just historical fiction (although today I’m going to limit my scope to historical figures, so we don’t have to deal with defamation/libel and all the attendant risks when using real people who are still alive and well!).

Some novels become more ‘faction’ than fiction, when they use historical figures as material for their novels, especially where they try to stick to the historical record as accurately as possible. Even when novelists attempt to do this, however, they almost inevitably come under criticism for aspects that have either been omitted from the book or where the fictionalization differs from reader/reviewer expectations. While I enjoy reading well-researched historical fiction novels, I do get irritated when historical figures are used more as a hook or gimmick rather than the springboard for a truly compelling characterization or plot. I see this more in genre fiction and while I admire any writer who wants to incorporate real people in their mysteries, for me it has to be more than just a cute premise – which is perhaps why I tend not to read novels that involve real historical figures supposedly solving crimes when they obviously didn’t.

In my own novels, I use real historical figures to give historical context/texture to the story but not usually as protagonists or other main characters. I do, however, enjoy channeling real people and their stories to create my own characters. For me, it would be a far trickier proposition to use a real historical figure as I would feel constrained by the truth (or at least what the historical record/sources indicate is the truth) and would feel compelled to be as accurate as possible in my portrayal of that person. Fictional characters have no such constraints:) The only exception to this, for me, is in the realm of speculative historical fiction – where, again, the speculative/alternative nature of the history presented gives an author far more leeway to deviate from the truth. Having completed a speculative YA novel myself that incorporated a real historical figure, I did, however, feel a duty to research the real person in order to know how to create the speculative or alternative historical version (it was a lot of fun too!).

As with everything in writing, if you decide to use a real historical figure or person in your novel you have to do it well. Do your historical research, reach out to descendants if there are any (especially if you’re planning to create a less than flattering representation of the person), be mindful of how you incorporate real and fictionalized elements, and, above all, be conscious of your choices and don’t just use a historical figure as a gimmick but as a real flesh and blood character. My key take home message from all of this would be: if in doubt, fictionalize.

So TKZers, I’d love to get your feedback and opinions on this. What advice would you give a writer who is planning on using a real historical figure in their novel?

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When Real Life Collides with Fiction …

By SUE COLETTA

Lately, I’ve been consumed by my WIP. It happens with every book. You know the drill. At a certain point something inside takes over. No more struggling, no more hair-pulling, no more research trips down endless rabbit holes. Instead, we spend more time “in the zone” than out of it.

Keep that in mind while I share this conversation between me and my husband, Bob — with pics!

He’d just stretched out after a long day doing tile work as a favor for a friend, so exhausted he didn’t have the energy to take his boots off yet.

I’m sitting across from him. And within seconds, I’m enthralled by his boot treads. I can’t tear my gaze away, my mind whirling with endless scenarios of how I might use them in my WIP.

Bob: Why’re you staring at my boots?

Me: How long have you had those? Didn’t I buy ‘em, like, two Christmases ago?

Bob: Yeah. Why?

Me: Two years … gee, I woulda thought you’d have more of wear pattern by now. You must walk fairly even.

Bob: Thanks, I think.

It was more of an observation than a compliment, but he didn’t need to know that.

Eyes in a squint, I lean in to study the details of each tread, searching for any anomalies I could use.

Bob: What’s so fascinating about my boots?

I thumb the camera on my iPhone and aim at the treads. “Straighten your feet.”

Bob: In your mind, they’re bloody, huh?

Me: Why do you always assume the worse?

Okay, fine. Maybe I was envisioning blood in the grooves, but nobody likes a show off. 🙂 My main focus, however, was the type of impression these specific boots would leave in snow. At a crime scene, if footwear evidence is found and collected, examiners can compare these unknown impressions to known impressions, collected from other crime scenes and stored in databases.

To do this, examiners use three main characteristics for analysis …

  • Class
  • Individual
  • Wear

Class characters result from the manufacturing process and are divided as “general” —characteristics that are standard for every item of that make and model — or “limited” — any variations that are unique to a certain mold. Two boots may have identical tread patterns but may also hold slight differences due to imperfections in the molds during manufacturing.

Back to Bob’s boots for a moment. This time, let’s zoom in …

See that tiny dot on the “S” in Sorel? On his right boot it’s on the bottom. On his left, it’s at the top. The “O” is filled in on the left but not on the right. Also on the right, it almost looks like there’s an apostrophe after the O, as if the brand spells its name as So’Rel. These imperfections are the perfect example of class characteristics.

Individual characteristics are unique to a particular shoe that’s worn from use, not manufacturing. Suppose someone steps on a nail. That nail hole is there for the life of the shoe, and that mark will show in the impression. Same holds true for a cut or gouge from stepping on something sharp, like broken glass. Even a small stone or twig stuck in the grooves of the tread will transfer to the impression.

Wear characteristics result from the natural erosion of the shoe caused by use. Specific wear characteristics include the wear pattern, the basic position of tread wear, the wear condition, the amount of depth of the wear, and the damage to, or destruction of, the tread pattern. The location and amount of tread loss varies for each individual, wearing that particular brand and style of shoe, based on how and where they’ve walked and the length of time they’ve owned the shoe.

Footwear impressions provide valuable information for investigators …

  • Where the crime occurred
  • Number of people present at the scene
  • Direction the suspect traveled before, during, and after the crime
  • Link other crime scenes to the same suspect

Prints are divided into three types …

  • Visible
  • Plastic
  • Latent

A visible print is exactly like it sounds. These prints can be seen by the naked eye. Think: bloody shoe prints across a linoleum floor.

A plastic print is a three-dimensional impression left on a soft surface, like in sand, mud, or snow.

A latent print is one that’s not readily visible. It’s created through static charges between the sole of the shoe and the surface. Examiners use powders, chemicals, and/or alternative light sources to find latent prints. Think: a burglar’s shoeprint on a window sill.

The FBI compiles and maintains a footwear (and tire tread) database, which contains manufacturers’ information, as well as information from previously submitted evidence. But did you know the National Institute of Justice also maintains various forensic databases? They sure do. Which is perfect for an amateur sleuth character who doesn’t have access to the FBI’s database.

For print impressions, the NIJ maintains three databases called …

  1. SoleMate
  2. TreadMark
  3. TreadMate (for tire impressions)

For detailed information about how each database works, here’s the link to help with your research.

Knowing the basics of footwear impressions, I thought I was all set to write my scene. But if experience told me anything, it’s that a hands-on exercise trumps imagination. Hence why I’ve trapped myself in a steel drum to experience my character’s terror. And why, after spotting the boots, I dragged my poor husband outside to make prints in the snow.

Turns out, he had more of a wear pattern than I thought. After close inspection of several prints, worn spots in the grooves of the heel, toe, and instep revealed themselves. Guess someone doesn’t walk evenly after all. 🙂

If Bob hadn’t stretched out after work with his boots still on, and I wasn’t sitting across from him, consumed by my WIP, my story wouldn’t’ve taken a hard-right turn and led to several intense, gripping scenes. And I probably wouldn’t have written this post, either. Isn’t it amazing how that works?

We writers need to remain open to outside stimuli. If your short on ideas, you’re not paying attention to the world around you. Look through the writer’s lens at all times. That’s the biggest takeaway from this post (outside the helpful info. re: footwear impressions ;-)).

Our experiences bleed through every page we write. So, go ahead and drag your spouse/neighbor/friend into the snow to make prints, if that’s what you need for research. Or pause to listen to the throaty rattle of a raven, if you need a moment of clarity. Life is our greatest ally. Don’t squander the gift of perception by ignoring her.

Has real life ever collided with your fiction? Are you viewing the world through a writer’s lens? Please share a brief sliver of time. Like when a raindrop catches kaleidoscope colors as it rolls down a windshield or how the neighbor’s cat only limps when his owner’s watching.

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