The Proper Use of Improper Words

By Elaine Viets

CAUTION: Pearl-clutching zone. This blog contains R-rated language. If you’re offended by off-color words, please don’t continue.

Hah. I knew you’d keep reading this.
When I was a kid, my mother would wash my mouth out with soap if I used bad language. I can tell you from personal experience, Dial soap does not taste good.
Now that I’m grown up, those same forbidden words are in the dictionary. Yes, sometimes I mourn the good old days, when no one dared to use these words in public. But we can’t go back.
So why am I writing about offensive words?
Because if we want to write realistic stories, that’s how some people talk.
When I lived in a rough neighborhood in Washington DC, I was approached by would-be purse thief. He didn’t say, “Madame, hand over your reticule, please.” He said, “Give me your money, bitch.” (He didn’t get it, but that’s another story.)
In our novels, offensive language can be in indication of character (or lack of), social status, and age. Younger people are more likely to use these words than older ones.
Here are some cuss words from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

Badass. One word, no hyphen.
This is my favorite off-color word. Often used for men, lately it’s been describing strong women (see kickass). Gal Godot in Wonder Woman, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, and Michelle Yeoh, in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, are all examples. Dania Gurira, the all-women army leader in Black Panther, is the epitome of badass.

Webster says badass can be an adjective and both usages are “chiefly US, informal and sometimes offensive.”
Badass means “ready to cause or get into trouble.” Or, “of formidable strength or skill” as in “a badass guitar player.”

As a noun, badass is “a person who is badass.”

Badassery. Noun, one word.
It means “the state or condition of being a badass.”
This example in the Village Voice would have had Mom buying a case of Dial.
“The Seattle quartet, hailed as godfathers of emo back when that word made you think of something other than ‘eyeliner,’ indulged the distorted guitar badassery of their grunge-era brethren …”

Bitch. Noun.
We all know that bitch is a female dog. That’s excuse I used on Mom when she was brandishing that soap bar. She wasn’t fooled.
Like Webster, Mom knew that word was “informal and often offensive” and meant, “a malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman.” It was also “a generalized term of abuse and disparagement for a woman.” And finally, “something that is extremely difficult, objectionable, or unpleasant.”
Or, as the novelist Harold Robbins wrote: “July and August were always a bitch in the subway.”
Bitch also means “complaint,” and is both a transitive and intransitive verb.
“They bitched up their lives.”

SOB. Noun, capped with no periods.
Webster downgrades this cuss word to “slang, sometimes offensive” and gives this example: “. . .. A guy who brought two dozen roses to a first coffee date and told you he felt like the luckiest SOB on the planet in the first five minutes.”

Asshat. Here’s a word that seems to be gaining in popularity in novels.
Webster says it’s a noun and “vulgar slang. A stupid, annoying, or detestable person.” See, asshole.
The first known use of this was in 1999. Then Webster has this odd “History and Etymology for asshat.”
“The seemingly nonsensical linking of ass and hat has a curious prehistory. Examples of the linkage can be found in dialogue lines from late-twentieth-century films: ‘Anyone found bipedal in five wears his ass for a hat!’ (addressed to the employees of a bank as the robbers leave, in Raising Arizona, 1987, script by Ethan and Joel Coen). . . .”
Webster wonders: “If we have been calling people assheads for almost 500 years now, why did it take so long for ass and hat to get together in similarly pejorative fashion? One reason may be that while ass lends itself well to the beginning of an opprobrious compound, hat leaves something to be desired in terms of mordant wit.”
Amen. Few of these words can be considered witty, and most are a blight on the language.
Now we get to the cuss words I really dislike.

Asshole. A noun, “usually vulgar.”
The first meaning is “anus,” but Webster also says it can mean “a stupid, annoying, or detestable person,” and “the least attractive or desirable part or area —used in phrases like asshole of the world.” This is an ancient word, first used in the 14th century.
But not by Mom.

We can skip “shit” – we know too about that word and its variations. I hate that word, though I’ve used it occasionally. Mostly in traffic.

Let’s go to a fairly harmless phrase:
WTF. Harmless, that is, until you see what the abbreviation stands for.
Now if Mom was around with her bar of soap, I’d try to weasel out by quoting the Acronym Finder.
“Hey, Mom, WTF stands for Well and Truly Freaked, or What’s This Foolishness? Where’s the Fudge?, or heh, heh, Welcome to Florida. In fact there are 105 definitions of WTF, so put down that soap, Mom, and let’s talk.’”
Webster authoritatively says the phrase is all caps and “informal.”
“WTF means ‘What the f– ’” Webster uses the actual f-word and says WTF is “used especially to express or describe outraged surprise, recklessness, confusion, or bemusement.”
Mom would not be bemused. Or amused.

LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE, my new Angela Richman mystery, is out. Publishers Weekly says, “Colorful characters match the crafty plot twists. Viets consistently entertains.” Read the review and order your copy here: https://www.publishersweekly.com/9780727850287

What is Your POV Motive?

Photo credit: JohnPotter Pixabay

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Why does a writer choose to tell a story from a particular point of view?

Recently, Chuck, a regular TKZ reader, emailed me with questions about omniscient point of view. He wanted to write the first chapter of his revenge-theme murder mystery from the omniscient POV.

Right away, I knew I wasn’t qualified to advise him. I’ve never written anything  omniscient. The books I read rarely use it because my personal taste has always favored close, intimate POVs.

So I dove down the research rabbit hole to learn more about this mysterious POV.

Masterclass.com offers this definition:

An omniscient narrator is all-seeing and all-knowing…The narrator may occasionally access the consciousness of a few or many different characters.

Some writers use this perspective to create a more “godlike” or deliberately “authorial” persona that allows them to comment on the action with the benefit of distance.

Before TV, films, internet, and streaming, most people didn’t venture far from the places they were born. Travel was the domain of the wealthy.

Charles Dickens – Wikimedia

Therefore, books were ships that carried readers to distant shores they would never personally set foot on; to exotic worlds constructed from the author’s descriptions; to smells, sights, sounds, textures, and tastes readers could only imagine.

World building was crucial. 

Leo Tolstoy – CC BY-SA 3.0

 

 

 

 

Authors like Dickens, Tolstoy, and Tolkien spent many pages explaining the physical, social, religious, economic, historic, and psychological elements of the story world.

J.R.R. Tolkien – public domain

 

 

 

But as communication increased and the world became smaller, authors no longer had to paint such detailed pictures.

Reader interest shifted to characters who were fascinating or with whom readers could identify. They wanted go deeper into the characters’ hearts and minds to vicariously experience their fears, elation, rage, joy, doubt, guilt, pride, disappointment, lust, etc.

In today’s book market, close third and first person POVs are the most prevalent, although epic fantasy with its detailed world building still uses omniscient POV.

According to a 2016 New York Times article by Elliott Holt:

The effects of omniscience are authority and scope; novels with such narrators seem especially confident. The characters may be uncertain, but we sense the controlling force above them. Omniscience reinforces that we are reading fiction.

Some readers like that quality while others see it as authorial intrusion.

Holt goes on to say:

We know we’re being watched, by traffic and security cameras, by our employers, by the N.S.A., by random people taking pictures with their phones. We’re aware of the threat of hackers and cybercrime…Technological transcendence is “spooky”: Perhaps omniscience taps into this collective fear about loss of privacy.

Hmm. That explains why I personally avoid omniscient POV.

The most comprehensive article I found about omniscient POV is by John Matthew Fox of Book Fox at this link.

John provides clear, understandable explanations. For instance, in discussing show vs. tell, he says:

Third person omniscient is often more telling than showing, because the narrator is an objective observer. It’s like you’re telling someone about a movie you just saw.

He defines two types of third-person omniscient POV:

Objective: The narrator knows all, but they’re an observer. They can’t get into the characters’ heads, but are telling the story from somewhere outside.

Subjective: The narrator is an observer with opinions. We get a sense of what the narrator thinks about every character, in a judgy kind of way.

He says one advantage is the narrator “can dispense information that no character knows.” But he cautions: “many writers slide over into head hopping.”

He goes on to elaborate:

Where this gets confusing, especially for new writers, is in third person omniscient. Some newer writers think that head hopping and third person omniscient are the same thing, or at least close. This is not true. Third person omniscient tells a story from one perspective: the narrator’s. The narrator shouldn’t tell us the thoughts and feelings of all the characters, or any of the characters.

The narrator shows us how the characters feel through action and dialogue, not by hopping into the character’s heads to reveal what they’re thinking. The story is told from the narrator’s perspective, like the narrator is a character.

Here is John’s most compelling argument against using omniscient POV:

Literary agents and publishers are so reluctant to consider third person omniscient, and they’re not going to do it for a new writer. If you really want to try third person omniscient, do it for a very limited time, like the first chapter, to describe the setting. Sort of like a wide shot in a movie, writing the first chapter in third person omniscient can work.

~~~

As writers, we like to experiment with new ways to tell stories. Some experiments work, others fall flat, and a few explode in our faces.

After researching, my suggestions to Chuck are:

Examine your motive for using omniscient. Why is it the absolute best way to introduce your story? If it’s merely a gimmick or experiment, rethink the choice. 

Run the first chapter by critiquers and beta readers. They’ll help you judge if it works or not.  

Before submitting to agents or editors, understand that many are predisposed to dislike it.

If you use omniscient POV, be darn sure it’s done correctly and effectively.

~~~

TKZers: Please share books you’ve read that use omniscient POV. Which work and which don’t?

Why do you like or dislike omniscient POV?

~~~

 

In Debbie Burke’s thriller Eyes in the Sky, a drone gives an omniscient–and sinister–point of view. Please check it out at these links: 

Amazon

Other online booksellers

First Page Critique: Innocent to a Fault

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a novel entitled ‘Innocent to a Fault’ and, although we don’t have a genre specified, I’m assuming it is going to be a mystery or a thriller. The fact that this isn’t clear is indicative of some the key issues facing this page – which you can see discussed in the comments that follow. I’m looking forward to getting input and support from our TKZ community to help guide our brave submitter on how to address the issues raised and turn this into a compelling first page. Here we go!
INNOCENT TO A FAULT
Thirty-three years ago, on a sunny October afternoon, driving a classic GTO that he’d just stolen from his neighbor’s carport, a teenager murdered our parents. Celia was 18, Katie was 16, and I was 12 when the Springville police notified us about the horrible accident. Because the kid was about my age, he was given a rap to the knuckles as punishment. At that devastating time, I didn’t know who I hated more—the delinquent for destroying so many lives, or the legal system for saying, “Boys will be boys.”
Nana said the hate I felt harmed me more than anyone, so I tried keeping it in check. But I failed badly, mainly because I needed to feel something and since I couldn’t love my parents any longer, hate filled the void.
During those early days of loss, feeling more anger than a child ever should, I came to two conclusions. One, that sometimes hating a person feels good, no matter how self-destructive.  And two, people who hurt others should face punishment, with no excuses allowed. Or more simply, if they couldn’t do the time, they should not have done the crime.
I know some will disagree, but I believe those who commit crimes are selfish to the core. They figure what they want is more important than what’s right. If selfish behavior could be obliterated, murders, thefts, rapes, all crimes would go down significantly.
My sister Celia is of a different mind. She believes sometimes good people do bad things, and each situation should have room for wiggle, which was why her daughter turned out the way she had. Reni had been wiggling out of trouble since puberty, with Celia always nearby, excuse in hand.
A few weeks ago Reni got involved in trouble that even Celia couldn’t justify. The scheme was criminal, and it all hinged on me. I learned about the plot during an unexpected visit from my niece.
With little preamble, Reni presented me with two choices: commit a felony, which would keep my family safe, or refuse and see my family destroyed. It was then that I understood Celia’s wiggle room philosophy that sometimes a good person has only bad options.
I thought about those bad options—while being more scared than I’ve ever been in my life—and made my decision.
I don’t know if I would make the same choice today.
(end of Chapter 1)
 
Overall Comments
The most significant concern I have with this submission is that it reads like a synopsis not the first page to a novel. Not only have we been given the entire backstory to the narrator’s current situation but we’re also being told the entire set up for the novel without having any action, dialogue, character development, or inciting incident. All we really have is exposition and explanation that robs the first page of all dramatic tension and makes it feel like the summary of a plot rather than the start of a work of fiction. That being said, we do get some sense of the conflict that (I assume) forms the backbone of the story in the choice presented our narrator (“commit a felony, which would keep my family safe, or refuse and see my family destroyed.”) What we don’t have is a dramatic scene unfolding to show us this choice.
This first page introduces us to five characters without giving us any real sense of them as people. There’s the narrator (who is in his or her mid 40’s – the fact that we have no idea even about gender is indicative of the lack of character development); his/her sisters Celia and Katie, Nana, and Reni, Celia’s wayward daughter. That’s a lot of characters for a first page especially in the absence of action or dialogue, and when we don’t yet have any setting or real sense of time or place (everything is presented in the past tense). What we do have is a lot of explanations, theories, and beliefs – all of which could definitely come into the novel as we learn more about the narrator, but which seem very ‘non-fiction’-esque when laid out so fully in a first page. Despite these significant issues, however, there are definite stirrings of a voice for this narrator.  Brave submitter, I think that if you use this first page as an exploration of your narrator’s voice and POV, then you have a solid foundation on which to build a compelling first page.
Specific Comments
Given the major concerns I raised in my overall comments, I thought the most useful feedback I could give was to highlight specific issues and recommendations in bold/italics throughout the text of this first page. I hope these will be received in the spirit in which they are intended – as honest and helpful feedback that our brave submitter can use to start drafting a great first page. Again, here goes!
INNOCENT TO A FAULT (Odd title choice – doesn’t really seem to mesh with the story outline that follows)
Thirty-three years ago, on a sunny October afternoon, driving a classic GTO that he’d just stolen from his neighbor’s carport, a teenager murdered our parents. (This first line has too many details and yet is still strangely distancing – my recommendation is to either start with a visceral/vivid flashback to that day 33 years ago, or start with a scene in which the narrator is reminded of this traumatic event. We need to be taken straight into a scene and shown the full impact of this event on the narrator’s life. At the moment everything is merely being told to us as readers.)
Celia was 18, Katie was 16, and I was 12 when the Springville police notified us about the horrible accident. (We have nothing to ground us in the scene or make us care about the narrator or his sisters – age specifics seem unnecessary when we can’t picture who any of these characters are) Because the kid was about my age, he was given a rap to the knuckles as punishment. At that devastating time, I didn’t know who I hated more—the delinquent for destroying so many lives, or the legal system for saying, “Boys will be boys.” (Too much telling. Let the reader see the scene in the courtroom when he was sentenced. You need to decide in this first page whether your scene is set in the past or the present – at the moment we’re just being told the backstory.)
Nana said the hate I felt harmed me more than anyone, so I tried keeping it in check. But I failed badly, mainly because I needed to feel something and since I couldn’t love my parents any longer, hate filled the void. (Too much telling. We don’t know anything about the family let alone the character of Nana. Show us why the narrator was harmed more than anyone. Have the story unfold about the failure and how hate filled the void.)
During those early days of loss, feeling more anger than a child ever should, I came to two conclusions. One, that sometimes hating a person feels good, no matter how self-destructive.  And two, people who hurt others should face punishment, with no excuses allowed. Or more simply, if they couldn’t do the time, they should not have done the crime. (Show us this and structure a scene to demonstrate this to us. A conversation between siblings perhaps on the anniversary of their parents death (?)…)
I know some will disagree, but I believe those who commit crimes are selfish to the core. They figure what they want is more important than what’s right. If selfish behavior could be obliterated, murders, thefts, rapes, all crimes would go down significantly. (This reads as an opinion piece not the opening to a novel)
My sister Celia is of a different mind. She believes sometimes good people do bad things, and each situation should have room for wiggle, which was why her daughter turned out the way she had. Reni had been wiggling out of trouble since puberty, with Celia always nearby, excuse in hand. (Again we’re just being told characters’ opinions and behavior. We need to inhabit a scene where this is shown to us. Maybe this first page has Reni and the narrator and his sister Celia at a family function where this plays out in terms of action and dialogue.) 
A few weeks ago Reni got involved in trouble that even Celia couldn’t justify. (Too vague.) The scheme was criminal, and it all hinged on me. (Again too vague – is it petty crime, is it murder? – could be anything.) I learned about the plot during an unexpected visit from my niece. (Let us see this visit. Let us see the confrontation. It sounds like it is the pivotal event which sets the story in motion so we have to see it.)
With little preamble, Reni presented me with two choices: commit a felony, which would keep my family safe, or refuse and see my family destroyed. (We need may more details about the family dynamics and characters to understand this. If this is the critical conflict in the novel we need dramatic build up and a real scene to see this play out…) It was then that I understood Celia’s wiggle room philosophy that sometimes a good person has only bad options. (Again we have no real sense of character yet so why as readers should we care about the narrator’s dilemma or Celia’s philosophy?)
I thought about those bad options—while being more scared than I’ve ever been in my life—and made my decision. (At this stage the reader has no idea why the narrator was scared or the basis for making the decision. We don’t even really understand the basis for the ‘bad options’ being presented. We need a real story presenting this dilemma in dramatic terms)
I don’t know if I would make the same choice today. (I like this as an end line but we need a scene before this that builds character and dramatic tension so it can resonate)
(end of Chapter 1) (I don’t understand this either – this is only a page – how can it be the end of Chapter 1 when nothing in dramatic terms has actually happened?)
 
So TKZers, I’d love to hear your guidance and feedback to help our brave submitter on his/her path to producing a great first page. Looking forward to seeing your comments!

Monday Tips and LOLs

I should’ve had a first page critique for you today, but it’s my birthday, you see, and I gave myself the gift of time. By that I mean, rather than juggle nine million tasks, I spent an uninterrupted Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning inside my fictional world (except for a quick trip to TKZ to read Rev’s top-notch advice about agents and JSB’s superb first page critique). Sunday afternoons I reserve for football. 😉

Most of last week I spent redesigning my website and Murder Blog. Then tweaked it to death in between working on the WIP, engaging on social media, marketing, newsletters, virtual events, updating email subscribers and SEO, etc. etc. etc. So, allowing myself to pull away from it all, crawl into my writer’s cave, and block out the world freed my soul.

Today’s dedicated to birthday shenanigans. If the sun parts the storm clouds, Bob and I will head to one of my favorite places—Squam Lakes Natural Science Center—for a relaxing stroll through the wildlife trails. It’s the simple things in life that bring the most joy. Don’t you agree?

I’ve got two writer tips to share, then let’s party with a few Monday morning laughs. Sound good? Cool, let’s do this…

NEWSLETTER TIP

If someone Unsubscribes from your email list, be sure to Archive their name. Mailchimp and other email providers still charge you whether or not that person ever receives another newsletter. You’re billed for Contacts, not Subscribers. Technically, the person who Unsubscribed is still considered a Contact. They can’t charge for Archived Contacts.

WEBSITE/BLOG TIP

Poor SEO (Search Engine Optimization), an outdated design, lost backlinks, broken links, and/or a slow or unresponsive website theme murders organic traffic. If bot crawlers aren’t happy, they might skip your site, and all the years you’ve spent writing content will be wasted. Did you know most people read blogs on handheld devices? I am not one of them, but the experts swear it’s true.

ZOOM TIP

HOUSEHOLD TIP

Umm, about five minutes ago. Did you know this?

UNEXPECTED OBSERVATION

SAD, BUT TRUE

WRITER PROBLEMS

I plead the fifth, Your Honor. 😉

AND MY PERSONAL FAVORITES

Who can relate?

Feel free to steal any of these for your social media. Hope you have an amazing week!

via GIPHY

With a Little Help from My Friends

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

NEWSFLASH!

MOST AUTHORS HATE SELF-PROMOTION!

All right, so that’s not news to anyone at TKZ.

Truth is we’d rather parade naked down the mall than sit at a lonely table full of books in front of Barnes & Noble, directing people to the restroom.

But we gotta do it sometimes if we want to sell books.

One way to make promotion less painful is to join with other authors.

WHY?

  1. Misery loves company (just kidding!).
  2. Being in front an audience by yourself is scary. Being in front of audience with colleagues is easier.
  3. A solo appearance means you carry 100% of the responsibility to entertain the audience. Join with other authors and that splits the responsibility up.
  4. More authors draw more interest…unless you’re Lee Child, who doesn’t need help.

HOW TO DO IT?

  1. Find other authors.

Invite one to three other authors in your area to join you either in person or by zoom. A total of three or four offers good variety while giving everyone a chance to talk. More than that is too crowded and cumbersome.

  1. Decide on a genre and theme.

Montana authors Leslie Budewitz, Christine Carbo, Debbie Burke, Mark Leichliter

My recent event focused on crime fiction, combining four subgenres: cozy mystery (Leslie Budewitz), small town police procedural (Mark Leichliter), police procedural in a national park (Christine Carbo), and thriller (Debbie Burke). The title was “Murder, Inc. – How Montana authors kill people…on the page.”

Include variety in subgenres so there aren’t two cat cozy authors competing with each other.

For instance, a children’s literature gathering could feature one author who writes picture books, one middle grade, and one young adult, reaching three different audiences.

  1. Set up a venue.

Weather permitting, many people feel more comfortable outdoors these days. Depending on where you live, indoor settings may or may not be available.

I’ve been lucky to be hosted twice by a dream open-air location in Bigfork, Montana, right beside the Swan River. Lake Baked Bakery/Riverview Bar has a large grassy area with tables and chairs.

Lake Baked Bakery/River View Bar, Bigfork, Montana

Many cafes, coffee houses, brew pubs, and independent bookstores are struggling financially due to the pandemic. The ones I’ve approached are enthusiastic about hosting activities that draw more customers.

Independent-living senior communities are a good bet to find  many avid readers. So are schools, community colleges, and libraries.

  1. Decide on a format.

A panel discussion with Q&A from the audience works well. Designate one person as moderator. S/he has a list of prepared questions and keeps the discussion moving.

If you decide to do open readings, they should be short—no more than five minutes per person, broken up with discussion and questions between authors.

  1. Publicize the event.

Here’s where having friends is a real force multiplier. Each author has their own blog and email list to disseminate info about the appearance. Each has their own social media followers. If there are four participants, that’s four times the number of contacts than if you did it by yourself.

Press releases to newspapers/radio are more likely to be noticed if there are three or four authors appearing together. Then it becomes an event of interest to the community instead of a lonely author crying in the wilderness.

The venue may have a Facebook page or other outlet where they publicize events. Ask them to include yours. Again, that reaches a wider, different demographic than simply reading fans.

Supplement these efforts with posters around the area and you should have a respectable turnout.

  1. Set up and logistics.

Scope out the venue before the event. Find out what equipment, chairs, tables, etc. they can provide and what you need to bring yourselves.

You need sound equipment–an amplifier and at least two mics for four people. If the venue doesn’t have that, you may know someone who will let you use their equipment. If not, you may need to rent it.

Leslie Budewitz is my frequent partner-in-crime for live presentations. Her husband Don is a musician and he graciously sets up and runs his equipment for us. I always buy a drink and snack for great volunteer helpers like him.

If you need Power Point capability for slide shows, verify that the venue’s system is compatible with yours. Sometimes you can put a thumb drive in their computer. Other times, it’s better to bring your own computer but check that connecting cords work.

Always, always, always test video and audio beforehand. Glitches are uncomfortable not only for you but your audience as well.

Depending on the venue, if there’s a stage, you can sit on chairs/bar stools. Or you may prefer to stand/walk around as you talk.

Set the tone. If possible, arrange the audience seating to be comfortable and relaxed. Rows of chairs are not as friendly as groupings like in a café or bar.

  1. The day of the event.

Arrive at least a half hour early to set up/test equipment. Always, always, always test sound equipment before the presentation.

If the venue serves refreshments, buy some and encourage others. The business is supporting you to improve their bottom line. The higher their sales, the more likely they’ll invite you back again. Thank your host and the servers and tip generously.

During the discussion, encourage the audience to ask questions. The more interaction with them, the better.

Beforehand, set up your own book table.

Bring pens, business cards, and swag.

Bring a signup sheet for your mailing list.

Bring change for cash purchases.

If you use a credit card reader, make sure you can log into the venue’s wi-fi.

Oh yeah, don’t forget to bring your books!

Consider holding a drawing or contest with your book as the prize. People love to win free stuff.

~~~

Photo credit: Kay Bjork

Take a deep breath and try to relax. Initially, you may feel like you’re going to an IRS audit but you’re not.

The audience came because they’re interested in reading. They want to learn more about you as authors and your books. Make it enjoyable for them and yourself.

We get by with a little help from our friends. 

~~~

 TKZers: Have you done live appearances? What tips can you offer?

If you haven’t yet done a live appearance, what is holding you back?

~~~

 

Debbie Burke enjoys meeting readers in person or by Zoom. To set up an appearance, please click on “Request a TKZ speaker” at the top of the page.

Here is her series sales link.

Art Lessons

You may recall that during the height of the pandemic I went on quite the painting binge with art providing a welcome respite as well as soothing creative outlet. I’m at the point where painting is now a part of my daily schedule (even nudging out my writing now and again) and a couple of weeks ago I participated in my first art show (!) and had my first work accepted into a real exhibition (which was very exciting!). Since then I’ve been reflecting on these experiences and have realized that the lessons I’ve learned though my painting are resonating with my writing as well. I fact, I think painting is actually helping me regain focus when it comes to my writing career.

For a start, I had no real expectations when it came to my painting. I was braver and less inclined to worry about the potential for failure (actually, I expected to fail but thought ‘what the hell’ anyway). Most of this bravery stemmed from an initial meeting I had with another artist who encouraged me to think more professionally about my art and who mentored me through the process of applying for exhibitions and shows and helped advise me on the business side of art (of which I was completely ignorant). It was also clear from the start that all I really needed to do is just put my work out there – and this was the first real lesson I’ve taken to heart when it comes to my writing. For many (many…) years I’ve relied more on my agent to send out my work while I focused solely on the writing aspect, only to realize that this meant that many (many…) projects ended up stalled in a kind of weird limbo. Not that this was anyone’s fault necessarily, but I realize now that I didn’t really take charge of my work or push for submission the way I should have. My experience with painting has shown me that I really need to adopt a more proactive ‘send it out into the universe’ approach…something which feels both liberating and terrifying, as well as necessary.

I have also been far less critical of my painting (probably because I had no expectations of success!) and happier to let a painting emerge and evolve over time. This has given me the freedom to experiment and try new approaches and techniques without obsessing about the end result. Of course it’s easy to paint over a failed painting and far less soul destroying than rewriting a novel…but when it comes to writing I’ve always been far more critical and ‘editorial’ from the start of the first draft. Now I see that if I adopted the kind of approach and attitude I have to my painting, the writing process could be far less fraught with self-doubt and criticism (well, maybe…).

Finally, I’ve learned that while preparation and professionalism remain key to both painting and writing – the true heart of the issue lies in the concept of identity. Once I allowed myself to identify as an artist, the rest flowed naturally. This fact alone has helped reinforce how important mindset really is to success. I wonder if over the years I’ve never really accepted my identity as a writer and this is why I’ve been far less confident and proactive than perhaps I should have been. In this way my painting has really helped me refocus on my career goals, both as a painter and a writer.

So TKZers, are there lessons you’ve learned from other creative endeavors that have helped inform your writing process or career?

Two Important Points for Writers

A recent conversation with my husband brought up two important points for writers to keep in mind. Rather than tell you, I’ll peel back the veil and let you eavesdrop.

Bob: Whatcha doin’?

Me: Studying forensic taphonomy. I’ve been dyin’ to dig into this field and finally gotta reason. Exciting, right?

Bob: Forensic taphonomy? Oh, sure, I know all about it. Are you just researching that now? I’ve known about it for years.

Me: Ha. Ha. Very funny.

Bob: Lemme ask ya this. Why are you studying forensic whatever-it’s-called?

Me: Forensic taphonomy. Well, I need to know it for a new character— Actually, the character’s an anthropologist, but y’know, since we only have one in the state, she delves into forensic taphonomy and forensic archaeology, as well. That part’s true, by the way, not fiction. We really do only have one forensic anthropologist in New Hampshire. Imagine how overworked she is? Anyway, since I needed to learn the field, I figured I’d write a post about it for TKZ. Y’know, two birds, one stone type o’ thing.

Bob: How far’d ya get?

Me: The post? About halfway. Wanna hear it?

Bob: Sure.

Me: Okay. Forensic taphonomy is the study of what happens to the human body after death. Specifically, how organisms decay and/or fossilize when exposed to the elements or in clandestine graves. Most of what happens to the body (and evidence) at an outdoor crime scene is the result of alteration or modification by natural agents, such as plants, animals, insects, soils, environment, gravity, and a whole range of environmental, climatic, and biotic factors.

The recognition and documentation of the specific role played by each of these natural agents becomes critical to understanding why evidence ends up where it does and why it looks the way it looks. By focusing on unusual patterns of dispersal and/or removal of evidence and/or remains, it shows investigators where or if human intervention occurred. (e.g., moving/removing remains to hide evidence).

Bob *teeing his hand*: Stop, stop, stop.

Me: What’s wrong?

Bob: Ya lost me.

Me: Which part?

Bob: Does it matter? You lost your audience.

Me: Oh. *pause* But forensic taphonomy’s a fascinating field.

Bob: For you, maybe.

Me: Since when is decomposition not fascinating? I thought you and I lived on the same page.

Bob: Honey, we do, but your audience may not appreciate your fascination with decomp and death like I do.

Me: Oh.

Bob: What’re you gonna write about?

Me: I dunno now. You ruined it.

Bob: You may wanna rethink that character, too.

Me: Why are you in my office?

Bob: Too much?

Me *glares*

Bob *backing away*: Yep, crossed a line. Okay, okay, don’t shoot. I’m goin’.

Sadly, he’s not wrong. When I read the post aloud it sounded dry. He wasn’t right about the character, though. I need her—she plays a vital role in the plot—but I may have gotten a bit overeager with my research. And you guys almost ended up with a 1500-word post about forensic taphonomy to read with your morning coffee/tea.

This conversation raises two important points. Did you catch them already?

#1: For what reasons do we create secondary characters?

Secondary characters bring the story to life. No one lives in a bubble. Secondary characters can provide comic relief at a tense moment, or make matters worse by adding conflict or increasing tension. A secondary character may come in the form of a mentor, love interest, work colleague, long lost relative…the list goes on and on. Subplots often revolve around secondary characters, and we can use these subplots to mirror and add depth to the main storyline.

Just because the plot may not revolve around a secondary character doesn’t mean their role is less important. After all, they’re still human with hopes and wants and dreams and fears and flaws like the rest of us. The story will be more interesting if our secondary characters are working toward their goals alongside the main characters.

While crafting a new secondary character, don’t get hung up on what they look like, unless their appearance adds to their characterization. For example, a depressed character might wear baggy lounge wear that’s two sizes too big, never wear makeup, or even bother to brush their hair.

What matters most is their role in the story, their association with the main players, and how they work with—or against—the protagonist. Once we nail down their role, we can flesh them out with personality traits that complement or contrast with the key players.

#2: Always keep the reader in mind.

Yes, we’ve all heard the speech: Write for you and you alone.

While it’s true on a certain level, writing is also a business. For those who don’t care if anyone ever reads their work, it’s a hobby. In which case, they probably don’t care much about craft, either. Serious writers keep audience expectations in mind. We care about delivering a visceral thrill ride each and every time. Which is not the same as writing for money or some crazy get-rich-quick scheme. If that’s the goal, find another profession.

I’ll let Stephen King explain:

One more matter needs to be discussed, a matter that bears directly on that life-changer and one that I’ve touched on already, but indirectly. Now I’d like to face it head-on. It’s a question that people ask in different ways—sometimes it comes out polite and sometimes it comes out rough, but it always amounts to the same: Do you do it for the money, honey?

The answer is no. Don’t now and never did. Yes, I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it. I have done some work as favors for friends—logrolling is the slang term for it—but at the very worst, you’d have to call that a crude kind of barter. I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.

Thank you, Mr. King!

TKZers, care to share your favorite secondary character? S/he can be a character you created or one you read about.

I AM MAYHEM is a semi-finalist in the 2021 Kindle Book Review Awards. Fingers crossed for the next round!

Handling Age and Time in Series Fiction

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Age.

Like the weather, we talk about it a lot but can’t do anything about it.

Remember the original Nancy Drew books? I devoured 37 of them before outgrowing the series. From the first book The Secret of the Old Clock (1930) until #37, The Clue in the Old Stagecoach (1960), Nancy was 16 to 18.

Thirty-seven adventures in two years? Busy young lady, that Nancy.

But she started me thinking about writing series characters.

Can they stay the same age through numerous books?

Should they age?

That raises more questions when writing a contemporary series with continuing characters.

What kind of character arc can an author create if the hero doesn’t age?

Is an evolving character arc important to today’s readers?

How does an author keep characters fresh and interesting if they remain approximately the same age over a number of books?

Classics like Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple remain basically static; the plots change but the characters don’t.

Then there is the quintessential hard-boiled hero, Philip Marlowe.

Even Philip Marlowe was young once – photo credit Maika, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Although I don’t believe his specific age is ever mentioned (please correct me if I’m wrong), the reader has the strong impression that, at birth, Marlowe was already old and cynical.

Over two decades, starting with The Big Sleep (1939)  and ending with Playback (1959), Marlowe was repeatedly beaten up, double-crossed, and betrayed. His life remained solitary with occasional sexual encounters that didn’t end well. The tarnished knight won a few victories but ultimately lost the war against evil. As vivid and memorable a character as he was, he didn’t change much, except for more scars. (Note: I’m not counting Poodle Springs, Chandler’s unfinished novel completed by Robert B. Parker and published in 1989 where Marlowe married, at least for a little while.)

How would readers react to Arthur Conan Doyle, Dame Agatha Christie, or Raymond Chandler if their books were released today?

Contemporary readers seem to lean more toward series characters who go through ups and downs similar to those we face in real life.  

In James Lee Burke’s series, the beleaguered Dave Robicheaux moves from New Orleans to New Iberia, switches jobs, falls off the wagon and climbs back on, gains and loses spouses and friends, and adopts a child who grows up through the books.

Readers meet Kinsey Milhone at age 32, with a police career and two marriages already behind her. In the course of Sue Grafton’s 25-book Alphabet Series, Kinsey has her home blown up and rebuilt, loses her beloved VW convertible, discovers the roots of her absent family, falls in and out of love several times but remains determinedly single. In the final book, Y is for Yesterday, she is 39.

Judging by their popularity, readers relate deeply to characters like Dave and Kinsey. We’ve been in the trenches beside them as they live through the same life trials that we ourselves do. They become close friends we’ve known for years.

What do series authors need to consider when time passes and their characters age?

When I wrote Instrument of the Devil in 2015-6, I didn’t envision a series. The book was set in 2011 as smartphones were transitioning from exotic toys for geeks into phones adopted by ordinary people. Because of a new smartphone, my character Tawny Lindholm stumbles over her milestone 50th birthday and into a nightmarish world of technology. Unbeknownst to her, it has been rigged by a terrorist to launch a cyberattack she’ll be blamed for.

The book was published in 2017, six years after the story takes place.

Near the end of Instrument, a brilliant, arrogant attorney, Tillman Rosenbaum, came on scene to defend Tawny. He was intended as a minor walk-on character. However, the match and gasoline chemistry between him and Tawny propelled them into more books where she goes to work as his investigator despite her dislike for him.

[Spoiler alert: they ultimately fall in love. But you’d already guessed that, right?]

What I originally conceived as a one-off had longer legs than anticipated.

Although there are no time stamps, roughly two years pass during the second and third books in the series, Stalking Midas and Eyes in the Sky.

Then, in 2017, Hurricane Irma struck Florida and knocked out power to 16 million residents.

The event tweaked my writer’s imagination. Reports of people who mysteriously went missing during that storm, along with scary personal experiences related to me by family and friends, turned into Dead Man’s Bluff.

After drifting along a vague fictional timeline starting in 2011, all of a sudden there’s a real date that’s set in stone. Uh-oh.

Okay, I figured from now on, I’d just make oblique references to Tawny’s age. Her children are in their thirties. Let readers infer she’s somewhere in her fifties.

As often happens with writing, life had other plans.

2020 hit.

Can an author ignore monumental events that tilt the world on its axis?

Not unless you write alternate history.

For much of 2020, writers debated how to handle the pandemic in current fiction. If it was incorporated into the plot, readers who were sick of it might be alienated. If we tried to ignore it, hoping it would go away, we risked being perceived as unrealistic and insensitive. (Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?)

Some authors attacked it head-on with thrillers about biological weapons or adventures in a post-pandemic, futuristic, dystopian world.

Some retreated in time to historical genres where major outcomes—like who won the war—had already been determined.

Others dove into fantasy genres where the author, not real life, decided the outcome.

Now in the last quarter of 2021, the world changes faster every day. What you wrote this morning may well be obsolete and out of date by this afternoon.

The sixth book in my series, Flight to Forever, is set in spring of 2020. When a Vietnam veteran can’t visit his beloved wife in a memory care facility because of pandemic restrictions, in desperation, he busts her out, seriously injuring two employees during the getaway. They flee to a remote fire lookout in treacherous Montana mountains. Tawny races to find them to prevent a deadly showdown between the cops and the vet who has nothing to lose.

Do the math. If Tawny was 50 in 2011, that made her 59 in 2020. 

Uh-oh, I really should have hired a stunt double for her in this book.

Even though 60 is the new 40, will readers find some of the action implausible for a woman her age?

Many people in their 70s and 80s are in fantastic shape. Recently I wrote an article for Montana Senior News about the Senior Olympic games where nonagenarians are setting athletic records.

Yet ageism lurks in the world of publishing and literature.

Especially about sex.

Many younger readers are creeped out by the notion that characters who are their parents’ or grandparents’ age enjoy sex.

Newsflash, kid—that’s how you got here. And, since you grew up and moved out, it’s even better.

How about physical wear and tear on characters?

Gunsmoke cast – public domain

Remember classic TV westerns like Gunsmoke? Whenever Matt Dillion got shot (reportedly more than 50 times), in the final scene, he’d be back in the saddle with one arm in a sling. By the following episode, he resumed life as usual—galloping horses and engaging in fisticuffs.

How realistic should series fiction be? How far will contemporary readers go to suspend disbelief?

If we put our lead characters through hell, in the next book, should they suffer from PTSD or physical disability?

 

What if you write middle grade or young adult books? Every year, there’s a new crop of readers to replace older ones who’ve outgrown a series. Perhaps MG and YA characters don’t need to age. Nancy Drew did all right. What do you think?

For now, I’ll keep writing Tawny and Tillman in their fifties and hope no one checks my math too carefully.

CC by 2.0

Or maybe I’ll let them drink out of Nancy’s fountain of youth.

~~~

For discussion:

Question for series authors: how do you handle age and the passage of time with continuing characters?

Have you found workarounds, tips, or tricks?

Question for series readers: Do you care about the main character’s age? Do you want to see evolution and change in them over time?

~~~

To follow series characters who age more slowly than the calendar, please check out Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion.

Amazon link

Other online booksellers:

Instrument of the Devil    Stalking Midas    Eyes in the Sky

Dead Man’s Bluff        Crowded Hearts     Flight to Forever

Three Things I Learned from Movie Adaptations

Please help me welcome back a dear friend and talented storyteller, Steven Ramirez. The last time he guest posted on TKZ he discussed Pantsing Through the Pandemic. Today, he’s sharing his experience with— Well, I’ll let him tell you…

Recently, I took a break from writing fiction to focus on screenwriting. Currently, I’m adapting my latest novella, Brandon’s Last Words, as a feature screenplay.

If you’re wondering why anyone in their right mind would take on something like this, it’s simple—I live in LA. Trust me, you can’t swing a dead cat at Starbucks without hitting a screenwriter huddled at a corner table, determined to crank out the next Black Widow.

Okay, that’s partly it. The other reason is, I wanted to see if I could do it.

The novella is a prequel to a new thriller series. It takes place in the same universe as another of my series—only this time, with new characters. For those who have written a screenplay, you already know you need a log line. Here’s what I originally wrote for the novella:

Brandon Wheegar has just joined a secretive government-funded lab as a security guard. Why did no one warn him about the murderous test subjects?

That’s not bad. The question is, does it work for a movie? We’ll see. Of course, there’s plenty of other stuff to worry about. For this post, I’ll focus on three lessons learned.

The Beats, They Are Different

As fiction writers, we are keenly aware of story beats. They’re hammered into us starting in the womb. I’m tempted to joke that our friend James Scott Bell has beat that concept to death, but it would be low-hanging fruit, so.

The point is, screenplays need beats, too. But these are different and immutable. And without them, you effectively have something that is not a screenplay.

There are lots of resources out there that can teach you about screenplay structure. For simplicity’s sake, here are the high-level story beats, courtesy of Syd Field:

INCITING INCIDENT

This scene brings the main character into focus. Without this beat, there’s no story.

FIRST TURNING POINT

What happens here sends the MC off on a new path, similar to the Hero’s Journey.

MIDPOINT

This is where things get interesting. Maybe the MC makes an important decision that changes the course of the story. Or they realize that what they thought was the truth isn’t.

SECOND TURNING POINT

This scene moves the character from conflict to resolution. The MC has a plan and intends to execute on it.

RESOLUTION

Often, these events bring physical and emotional closure. In Hero’s Journey terms, the MC returns home and shares what they’ve learned.

Now, there are many other elements you should layer in to make a killer screenplay. If you want to see a more fully realized story beat list for some well-known movies, check out Save The Cat.

Limiting the Character Count

When writing a novel, I include lots of characters. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve got a little Russian blood in me. In my case, the names don’t all sound the same, though. Anyway, I take this approach because my main characters tend to travel far and wide.

Unfortunately, you don’t have that luxury when it comes to screenplays—unless you’re Quentin Tarantino.

Why?

Because a script is a blueprint that tells the producer how much money they must spend. And the more characters, the more the above-the-line costs skyrocket—things like actors’ salaries, hair, makeup, and snacks.

My novella has a fair number of supporting characters. And they serve the story well. But for the screenplay, I had to find a way to either cut or combine characters. Which brings to mind that most famous of advice, which admonishes the writer to kill your darlings. Most people attribute the quote to Faulkner. But, in fact, it was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote, “Murder your darlings.”

Now, he was talking about prose. In screenwriting, you pretty much have to take out the entire family. Here’s an example. In the novella, I have a chief security officer, a head of security, and two ruthless security specialists. Each has a part to play, and in Brandon’s Last Words, it’s all good. But for the script, I realized I had to combine the two security chiefs into one character and do the same with the two specialists. And it really doesn’t matter what kind of fiction you adapt. Chances are, you’ll slice and dice like a boss.

Getting the Genre Right

My novella can best be described as a horror/sci-fi thriller, with some comedy thrown in. I know, I know—welcome to my world. But, like any successful novel, you should tailor your screenplay to a target market.

When I sent off my first draft to a professional reader, I got back lots of notes. Some centered on the fact that my script didn’t read like horror. I had missed essential tropes, and many of the beats weren’t right.

Rereading the work, I realized I was clinging to my original mashup. Fine for novellas, not so much for screenplays that sell. I’m rewriting now, and let me tell you something. Scripts aren’t written—they’re rewritten. You thought it was a big deal writing three drafts of your novel? Try ten—or fifteen. Yeah. Also, in the real world, once the project is greenlit, they bring in other writers to “punch up the script.” Call it insurance.

Using the reader’s notes, I took a crack at turning my story into classic horror. But I ended up losing much of the humor. Now, if I were as cold-blooded as the chemically modified test subjects who terrorize my main character, I’d continue down this path. Most of you would because it’s the smart thing to do. And after all, you’d like to make some money, right? Me, I’m a rebel. I decided I prefer the story as a comedy thriller. Who knows, I might still have a shot (he said, nursing his tepid tea at Denny’s).

Look, there are quirky films out there that defy genre. I mean, did you ever see a little movie called Naked Lunch? It was directed by David Cronenberg and based on the William S. Burroughs novel. Yeah, so you know what I’m saying. Anyway, my advice is this: If you’re serious about selling your screenplay, then, by all means, write to market. Who knows? You might end up as a big-time Hollywood screenwriter. Me, I just want to create something surprising.

Final Thoughts

We writers are well acquainted with copyrighting our work. Technically, your novel is protected the moment you put pen to paper. Unfortunately, when it comes to screenplays, there’s more to it than that. In this town, a good movie idea gets stolen faster than you can say Coming to America. The point is, register your script with the Writers Guild of America. It’s no guarantee some no-account won’t try to take your precious, but at least you have legal recourse. For more information, visit the WGA West website.

The other thing to consider is screenwriting software. There’s plenty out there, including traditional writing apps like Scrivener, which support the screenplay format. If you’re planning to make this a career, though, I suggest you purchase Final Draft. It’s arguably the industry standard. Also, when collaborating with other screenwriters, there’s an excellent chance that’s the software they use. For more information, visit the Final Draft website.

Well, that’s me done. Happy screenwriting. Oh, and wish me luck with the next Naked Lunch.

Steven Ramirez is the award-winning author of thriller, supernatural, and horror fiction. A former screenwriter, he’s written about zombie plagues and places infested with ghosts and demons. His latest novel is Faithless, a thriller. Steven lives in Los Angeles.

Join Steven’s newsletter here or connect with him on Twitter.

For discussion: Have you ever considered turning your novel/novella into a screenplay? What actor would you want to play your hero or antagonist?

Questions of Life and Death

By Elaine Viets

I like researching a mystery. I get to ask the wildest questions in the pursuit of facts.
A helpful homicide detective answers mundane question like these:
Does my cop have enough to get a search warrant? How about an arrest?
A poison expert shares her arcane knowledge of death. I was surprised how many perilous hazards lurked under the kitchen sink or in the garage.
Sure, I can look up some of these questions online, but it’s not as much fun. I like hands on research.
Here are a few of my favorite research questions.

Can a body fit in your car trunk?
I sprung this question on a sweet, silver-haired couple who owned a Lincoln Town Car, the same car as Margery Flax in my Dead-End Job mysteries. They were in a shopping center parking lot when I asked that question. Maybe I have an honest face. Or, since they were Florida residents, they were used to crazies. For whatever reason, they obligingly opened their trunk.
Yep, the Town Car trunk was definitely big enough for a body. Two, if the bodies were small.

How do you open a locked door with a credit card?
My cousin showed me how to do this. I’m not using her name because she is definitely light-fingered. She’s especially good with cheap button locks. She demonstrated her skill repeatedly, but I belong to the fumble-fingered side of the family. I did learn that “loiding” a door is a lot harder than it looks on TV.

Can you kill a person with a wine bottle?
“Empty or full?” the pathologist asked me. She was used to my crazy questions.
“A full bottle is a better weapon,” she said. Then she gave me another tip. “If you’re looking for another way to kill a person, please don’t use the old ‘hit-their-head-on-the-coffee-table’ to murder someone. That’s harder than it looks.”

How do you defrost a dead body?
This question for Ice Blonde stumped several pathologists. I finally found one who’d defrosted an intoxicated woman who ran out the door of her home and froze to death.
He told me, “You’ll need two body bags. Use a white one if you can, and then the heavy black bag. The white makes it easier to see the hairs and fibers when the decedent defrosts. Put the person in the white body bag first, then in the heavy black bag. Keep the decedent at room temperature, about 72 degrees, so the body will thaw naturally.
“What does your victim weigh?”
“About a hundred-fifteen pounds,” I said.
“The person will take about thirty-six, maybe forty-eight hours to defrost.”
I have a fairly high tolerance for forensic details, but defrosting someone like a piece of meat made my stomach do a backflip.

There was more. While the person was defrosting, the pathologist has to check the body every two hours. The hands and feet would probably defrost first, and then the pathologist could get scrapings from under the nails. As the defrosting progressed, the pathologist would draw blood and get fluids, including ocular fluid from the eyes, and if the person was a woman, check for seminal fluid in the vaginal vault.
Had enough information? Yeah, me, too.

How do you hot-wire a car?
A friendly mechanic spent an hour giving me lessons until I could describe the process. Don’t worry. Your vehicles are safe – nothing sparked no matter how many times I tried.

What off-beat questions have you asked for research, TKZers?

Now in audio! All my Angela Richman mysteries and the first three Dead-End Job novels. Listen to them during your 30-day free trial with Scribd.
https://www.scribd.com/audiobook/490552091/Death-Grip