Does your story have a “wobble”?

Sometimes your story may get unbalanced in some areas, like a tire that’s gone out of alignment. Severe story wobble can kill the pacing and reading experience, so it pays to recognize the symptoms, and take remedial action to push your narrative back into shape.

When you’re doing any of the following in your writing, it’s likely that your story is getting off kilter:

  • Over describing the actions of the main character.
  • Over describing background information that you think the main character needs to know.
  • Under describing (or losing track of altogether) the actions of secondary characters in a scene.
  • Using repetitive sentence structure.

It’s easy to fix most cases of story wobble. Here are some remedies:

  • Use only minimal actions to show the actions of the main character.
  • When you have some background information that the main character needs to know, sprinkle it in, or create an SME (Subject Matter Expert) for your story.
  • If it’s been a while since you’ve mentioned a secondary character in a scene, be sure to “establish” the character in the reader’s mind before giving him dialogue or action. Otherwise the reader won’t know who the re-introduced character is.
  • Do search-and-destroy missions on repetitive sentence structure. It’s easy to fall into using the same sentence patterns repeatedly throughout a book, so make sure you change things up in every paragraph. This is also known as varying the sentence rhythm.

What are some of your story wobbles that you have to search for and destroy when you’re rewriting? Has there ever been one that has caused you embarrassment?

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Survivor II: Writer’s Island


By Kathryn Lilley

I love being ahead of the curve.

Last week I blogged about the fact that we authors need to make our own book videos to stay alive in the new-millenium publishing paradigm.

Well today, our friend Neil Plakcy
alerted us to the fact that the New York Times ran an article about the same subject…yesterday.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/books/review/Sullivan-t.html?_r=3

Yes folks, some authors are paying big bucks to have a Book Trailer(R) made. But meanwhile there’s something else happening over at YouTube that is much more interesting. Authors are making multiple-channel videos to communicate with their reading audience. The multi-video concept is simple. It’s not a question of, “Make one video, sell many books.” It’s make many videos. To sell to one audience.

See the difference?

You see, in the YouTube world, videos are the equivalent of the author’s writing blog. Over here at The Kill Zone, we post a blog made of words. Over at YouTube, millions of people are posting videos about their lives. And they watch other video “blogs”, and they’re looking for fresh content every day.

That’s what we writers do. We provide content.

We simply have to learn how to master the unfamiliar visual platform to communicate with our readers.

Some of the most successful authors are already doing it. Hop over to YouTube and search on Dean Koontz or Meg Cabot, and a gazillion videos will pop up. And they’re certainly not all formal book videos. They’re interviews, goofy riffs, appearances, and what-have-you’s. They’re the author’s dialogues with his or her readers.

The question is, I know–does all that video-traffic sell books? Can’t say. I know in my case, I’ve posted my own (home-made, very humble) book video, and I’m running some meta-data reports on YouTube “impressions” and “click-through” data, trying to find the answer to that question. If I find out, I’ll let you know. And as soon as the second draft for my next book is turned in on 2/15, I’m going to start making lots more videos and posting them. I’ll be thinking of videos as a logical extension of blogging. And because I can barely hold the camera steady, you can be sure that my videos will be very goofy.

Once I started thinking of book videos as blogs instead of formal book trailers, it all began to make sense. And YouTube is totally set up for video blogs. You even get your own “Channel.”

And here’s the bottom line: The big-buck authors are already over there, making video-merry. You should check it out.

And a question for you: Do you YouTube?

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Stomping out your writer’s tics

“Every writer has a writer’s tic,” a famous author once told me.

As a writer, you challenge is to identify your own writer’s tic, and stomp it out of your manuscript.

In my own case, when I’m writing my first draft, I give free rein to my writing tics. But in the second draft, I hunt them down and stomp them out.

Here are a few of my own writer’s tics that I have to wipe out in the second draft:

  • Worthless words.
    My first draft is always studded with superfluous words such as very, apparently, obviously, suddenly, and surely. In the second draft, I do a global search for these serial offenders. Out they go!
  • Ding-dong, the dash is dead. Also the ellipses.
    I have a bad habit of “dramatizing” the rhythm of sentences with dashes and ellipses, which have to be removed.In fact, you could me the Queen of Dashes—or the Empress of Ellipses…
  • Lazy-man’s time reference: “By the time.”By the time I get to Phoenix, I realize I need to delete all my instances of “By the time.”

How about you? What are your “writer’s tics” that you have to stomp out before you submit your manuscript to the editor?

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Writers who do way too much

Note: Sorry for missing my posting day last week. For the explanation, see Phase Three, below.

Everywhere I go, I hear it: Authors are cutting back on book promotion.

At conferences and on blogs, I hear published writers announcing that they are “scaling down” the time and dollars they spend flogging their books. They’re chopping their advertising budgets, attending fewer conferences, and abandoning blogs. In extreme cases, they’re even turning down contracts for new books—which guarantees that you won’t have to do any promotion.

In a world where most authors get little promotion budget from their publishers, some writers who previously spent tons of time “getting the word out” about their books are becoming more like Greta Garbo. They vant to be alone. Alone, in the company of their word processor.

I call this process the Quitclaim Syndrome. The syndrome usually progress in the following phases:

Phase One: Writer gets published, then spends first year in a giddy travel/networking/book signing spree.

Phase Two: Writer spends so much time promoting Book One that s/he risks falling behind schedule on producing Book Two, but manages to make the deadline by dint of superhuman effort. By now, Writer has spent more money on promotion than the combined advances for all the books, which haven’t even been paid out yet. Royalties are hiding somewhere in a La-La land called FutureWorld.

Phase Three: Writer begins to experience the physical tics of over-multitasking: chronic fatigue, self-medication therapies gone wrong, and desk rage, if she has a day job. Medical intervention may be required. Writer is so exhausted that she plans the promotion of Book Two with a more realistic—even jaundiced—eye. Kind of the way a guy regards the prospect of paying for a fourth or fifth failed date in a row. What’s this worth to me? he asks himself. For way less money, I could have more fun sitting at home on the couch with a beer and a copy of Debbie Does Dallas.

Phase Four: Writer reaches a fork in the road. To continue breathless promotion efforts, or not? Whereupon Writer either A) keeps promoting herself, but not nearly so breathlessly, or B) stops most promotion efforts except for the bare necessities.

Phase Five: Writer returns to more isolated, less frenzied writing schedule, and greater productivity.

Is anyone else seeing this as a trend? Is frenzied book promotion just not worth the effort as much anymore, because the costs are too high and there’s not enough payoff in terms of book sales? Does the whole thing interfere too much with the time it takes to write?
Thoughts?

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As a writer, do your characters invade your “real life”?


“Careful, dear. You’re acting like your character.”

That was my husband’s warning to me last week, after I survived a risky (and slightly smelly) stand-off with a mentally challenged dude on board a tram in Portland. For the roily details, see last week’s post, Too close for comfort.

I escaped from that little adventure with nary a scrape. In fact, I ended the episode with a thumbs-up sign and a jaunty little wave; but seriously, my part in the encounter was stupid. I could have gotten my ass seriously kicked by that guy, or worse.

All of which got me to thinking: To what extent (if any) does our writing affect our choices and actions in “real life”? Is there a bright red line that is never crossed between fantasy on the page and reality? Or do you find that there is ever any psychological “page-bleed,” as they say in the publishing world?

In my case, last week’s tram episode was completely out of character for the “real me,” Kathryn Lilley. Ever since I was an adolescent, I’ve always been a shy, retiring soul. I’ve traditionally avoided eye contact with strange men, much less interaction. In the past, I would never have tried to remove a mentally disturbed person on public transportation. (And let’s be honest—what I did was supremely stupid. I’ve been told by a number of Herman Munster-sized, macho-macho guys that the only reason I’m alive today is that I’m a woman, and that I stayed utterly calm throughout the encounter. Seriously, my heart rate didn’t even increase. I have no idea why.).

But ever since I started writing the Fat City Mysteries, I’ve found that I’ve been getting deeper and deeper into the emotions of my main character, Kate Gallagher. And now, I’m like one of those actors who stays “in character” between shooting scenes of a film. In many aspects of my life, I find myself coming up with quicker ripostes, more assertive actions—bottom line is, I’m acting more like Kate.

So my question is, is this experience a unique and unhealthy response to getting too deeply involved in the writing or characterization process? Have the rest of you experienced anything remotely similar?

But just as a reassurance to myself, I have made a solemn vow—no matter how much Kate Gallagher inhabits my thoughts and feelings, going forward, I will never, ever again attempt to toss someone off a tram.

It can be way too hazardous to your health.
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Too close for comfort

So Clare regaled us with the best and worst of Australia yesterday.
My vacation tale is a bit more raw-edged. Over Labor Day, I nearly wound up as road kill at the hands of a schizo. Make that tram kill, since I was on a train in Portland at the time.

Here’s what happened: We were in Portland so that my daughter could attend an anime convention. Anime, as you know if you’re from any planet in the galaxy, is the world of animation. Basically, an anime convention is like a weekend-long Halloween party—everyone gets dressed up as their favorite characters.

So while she was romping around dressed as some kind of warrior princess, I spent the weekend taking in the sights of Portland. And for the most part, Portland is a lovely, charming city. But during my day-long walking tour, there seemed to be quite a number of homeless people around. And they were, how should I put it, extremely…loud. At one point I said to an acquaintance, “Maybe it’s because we never walk in LA, but don’t a lot of people seem to be shouting here?”
For example, one lady I called the “Sun Worshipper” because she threw her head and arms skyward every time she stepped into a patch of sunshine, and let loose with a holler. A hell of a holler.
Other shouters were the types you’d cross the street to avoid.

And finally, there was the guy I encountered on the train. I’d stepped onto the train—called the MAX—because I was too exhausted to keep walking. But then the train didn’t move for a while—God knows why.

While the train was stopped, a homeless-looking (and smelling) man grew increasingly agitated. He was pacing, shouting and air-boxing.

Now here’s something you should know about me. I attract crazies. I attract shizos on the street like people who don’t like cats attract every feline in the house. I’m like the Doctor Magneto of madmen. Why? I have no idea. My husband claims it’s because I’m too engaging, outgoing, and I never mind my own business. And he may have a point.


Take the guy on that tram in Portland. When I sat down, he was doing little circles around and around the middle of the tram. Each lap of his circle brought him closer to me. Sitting next to me were a couple of elderly ladies, and they were getting quietly nervous. Meanwhile, the guy kept trying to make eye contact with me. And his shouts were getting louder.
Finally I said to the ladies, “I think you’d better move to the front of the car.” Which they promptly did.
It was my next move that got me in trouble. On the next lap of this guy’s ranting orbit, I stood up, stepped toward him and said, “Now would be a good time for you to step off this train.”

For a second he stopped air-boxing and stood there, dumbfounded.

So I repeated, “Now’s a good time to leave the train.”

That’s when all his anger returned, only this time, it came back as a Category Four hurricane. And I was New Orleans.

There was a sheet of Plexiglass between us. He kung fu kicked it with tremendous force, right where my face would have been if it hadn’t been for the Plexiglass.

It’s amazing how alone you can feel when you’re in a crowd and someone is going after you. Everyone simply sits, silent and frozen, like spectators watching something on TV.

Even I felt like a spectator. I stood there, watching this guy pummel the Plexiglass, screaming at me. I wondered what it was going to feel like when his foot or his fist made contact with my flesh.

But then something miraculous happened.

He stepped off the train. And then the train began to move, and the door closed.
He continued to beat the window of the train. He pulled up his sleeve to show me some kind of tattoo. It looked like something religious, or maybe it said “Death from Above.” I couldn’t tell.

The fact that the train was leaving without my attacker put me in a decent mood, so I gave him a thumbs-up for his tattoo. Then I waved good-bye as we pulled away.

After the action was over, it was funny how convivial and chatty everyone got all of a sudden. One guy asked me why the man had taken out after me like that. I said, “I don’t know, I just have that effect on men.”

But one thought stayed with me during the entire episode (besides not giving instructions to crazies–that one I’ve totally learned). I decided it would be a good idea to carry some kind of weapon.

Not a gun—too lethal, and way too many sticky gun control laws. Not even a knife, I think. No, I’m looking for something disabling without being deadly. Anyone have any good ideas about that?

Anyway, next year for the anime convention, I’ll satisfy myself by donning an electric-blue wig and fake sword to play-act the warrior princess. Becoming one in real life is way too hazardous to one’s health.

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Confessions of a true-crime TV junkie

Note: Leave a comment on the blog through Wednesday to qualify for our $50 gas card prize! We’ll draw the winning name out of the hat!

I’ll admit something straight away: I’m addicted to true-crime TV shows.

My TiVo never misses a taping of America’s Most Wanted. I get a rush of adrenalin whenever host John Walsh announces the capture of another “dirt bag.” When he profiles the nasty dudes who are still at large, I study their pictures and video, trying to memorize their features. My only problem is that I actually have a lousy memory for both names and faces, so if I ever spot anyone on the lam in my hometown, which is known for its beach volleyball and beer bars, it’s possible I’ll be fingering, not an America’s Most Wanted, but an America’s Most Wasted Party Animal.

Another one of my absolute favorite shows is The First 48. The show follows homicide detectives during the critical first 48 hours of an investigation. It shows the gritty reality of their routines, and their race against time to find the suspect. The best part of the show is the interrogations. I have to admit I’m always amazed by how easily some of the bad guys confess. If I were a killer (and don’t worry, it’s not in my game plan), I’d be one of those who “lawyer up” and never say a word to the cops.

These true-crime shows fascinate me because as a mystery author, I needto know what makes both sides tick—the criminals and the crime fighters. And I’m always fascinated to learn how real homicide detectives work. What is it, exactly, that makes them able to crack a complicated case with few clues to go on?

In an attempt to find the answer, I once made a pilgrimage to Hollywood, where LAPD Chief William J. Bratton was signing a book of photos for which he had written the foreword. I bought the book, got his signature, and then waited patiently for the Q&A.

Then, I raised my hand.

“What is the major quality that distinguishes a great homicide detective?” I asked. “How are they special?”

The Chief spent a moment considering. Then he said, “The really good ones look at a room differently than you and I do. They can simply see more—the crime, the layout, and how it must have happened.”

Ah, that’s it. A different type of sight—that’s the key, according to Chief Bratton. I wonder how that special vision affects the everyday life of homicide cops. They must see less of a safety zone around the average person’s life than we do. They’re too used to seeing that zone violently assaulted. They’ve got cop’s eyes.

I’ll never be able to “see” the world exactly the way a homicide cop does. But I’ll keep trying. And that’s just one of the reasons I’m a crime show junkie.

How about you—as writers, how do you study real crimes to inform your fictional ones? Have you found any shows or sources to be particularly useful? Anything you can share with me? I’m on the prowl for my next true crime fix.

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Capturing fear on the page

By Kathryn Lilley

As a young girl, I hated feeling afraid.

But as a grown-up mystery writer (or at least, grown older), I love describing fear.

Like many authors, I’m a professional scaremonger. Give me any type of fear—it can be emotional, physical, healthy, or deluded—and I’ll do my best to exploit it into the stuff of page-turning prose.

Becoming a suspense writer was the only logical career choice for me. My family hails from the Deep South, where the art of self-protection (and its spawn, gun ownership) is a time-honored tradition. During my formative years, while other families were discussing events of the day around the dinner table, my father and I were drafting sketches for an all-terrain escape vehicle—just in case nuclear war broke out. (I believe the final design resembled a cross between a modern-day Stryker and an M48 Patton tank. Among its more notable features was a dedicated flamethrower).

The mission of guarding against life’s dangers, both real and imagined, ranked high in our priority of family values. We had a loaded M-16 hanging on the wall, and a vintage cannon in the dining room. I think it was some kind of Austrian Howitzer—all I know is, the old brass weapon made a truly deafening roar when we fired it on New Year’s Eve at the turn of the millennium. During the celebratory bang, everyone stood way, way back in case the damn thing exploded and blasted off part of the hill.

Gun play features heavily in my family stories and legends. People love to tell the story of my great-grandmother Nell. She left her house one afternoon for a stroll, then was approached by a couple of men asking for directions. Nell pulled a pistol from her fur muff and casually waved it about in the air to indicate which way they should go. Which they promptly did.

Even our ancient family history is fraught with mystery. At some point in time, one of my ancestors was “disappeared” from the family Bible; the man’s name was simply scratched out. For a couple of generations, no one seemed to know what had happened to him, and his name was never mentioned by the living. Eventually, an enthusiastic family genealogist turned up an old church funeral log in Texas that revealed his fate. The log noted that his body had been discovered—beheaded—lying on a train track. Next to the dead man’s name, the minister had written a single-word question: “Murdered?”

With this kind of genetic legacy, is it any surprise that I feel compelled to write novels that feature danger, suspense and murder? I really had no other choiceit’s all in the family.

What about you? As a mystery or thriller writer, what events started your interest in exploring the darker side of life? As a reader, why do you think you’re drawn the genre?

* Win a copy of DYING TO BE THIN *

I’ll send a signed copy to the author of the best comment today, as judged (extremely subjectively) by moi!

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