Red Herrings, Foreshadows and Creating a Mystery

Recently Kay DiBianca and I talked about the elements of a cozy mystery, which you can read here if you missed it the first time.

I thought it would be worthwhile to dive into the TKZ archives to look at mystery elements in general. I love studying story elements and structure, especially with mysteries.

Red Herrings are an important part of mysteries, and Kathryn Lilley has a terrific summation of what makes some good and some stink. Foreshadowing is important in fiction in general, but I’d argue that it’s essential in mystery fiction. Jodie Renner looks at ways to use foreshadowing which can work well in setting up and revealing a mystery. Finally, how do you come up with a mystery? Where do you begin? Cozy mystery author Nancy Cohen shares her methodology, which also does a fine job of giving a rundown of the core elements of a mystery.

As always, the full posts are date-linked at the bottom of their respective excerpts.

What makes some red herrings good, and others stink like yesterday’s…well, red herring?

Camouflage

Red herrings shouldn’t scream, “Hey, I’m a clue!” from the rooftops. Readers are smart, and they’ll be working to solve the mystery as they go. They don’t need you to stomp on ’em. The subtlety rule applies to all clues, not just to red herrings.

A fish before dying

You can plant a red herring before your victim turns up dead, right at the beginning of your story. At that point, your reader doesn’t even know who is going to get killed, much less whodunnit.

Dead fish need not apply

All clues, including red herrings, must serve to move your story forward. Don’t use your red herrings only as a way to throw the reader off. Make them integral to your plot or character-building.

Two-faced fish

In some of my books, I wasn’t sure who the villain was until very near the end of the writing process. I write all the clues so that any of them can be red herrings or valid clues, depending on the ending.

Kathryn Lilley—August 4, 2009

 

Here are some ways you can foreshadow events or revelations in your story:

– Show a pre-scene or mini-example of what happens in a big way later, for example:
The roads are icy and the car starts to skid but the driver manages to get it under control and continues driving, a little shaken and nervous. This initial near-miss plants worry in the reader’s mind. Then later a truck comes barreling toward him and…

– The protagonist overhears snippets of conversation or gossip and tries to piece it all together, but it doesn’t all make sense until later.

– Hint at shameful secrets or painful memories your protagonist has been hiding, trying to forget about.

– Something on the news warns of possible danger – a storm brewing, a convict who’s escaped from prison, a killer on the loose, a series of bank robberies, etc.

– Your main character notices and wonders about other characters’ unusual or suspicious actions, reactions, tone of voice, facial expressions, or body language.Another character is acting evasive or looks preoccupied, nervous, apprehensive, or tense.

– Show us the protagonist’s inner fears or suspicions. Then the readers start worrying that what the character is anxious about may happen.

– Use setting details and word choices to create an ominous mood. A storm is brewing, or fog or a snowstorm makes it impossible to see any distance ahead, or…?

– The protagonist or a loved one has a disturbing dream or premonition.

– A fortune teller or horoscope foretells trouble ahead.

– Make the ordinary seem ominous, or plant something out of place in a scene.Zoom in on an otherwise benign object, like that bicycle lying in the sidewalk, the single child’s shoe in the alley, the half-eaten breakfast, etc., to create a sense of unease.

– Use objects: your character is looking for something in a drawer and pushes aside a loaded gun. Or a knife, scissors, or other dangerous object or poisonous substance is lying around within reach of children or an assailant.

– Use symbolism, like a broken mirror, a dead bird, a lost kitten, or…

Jodie Renner—January 27, 2014

How do you formulate a traditional murder mystery plot? Do you start with the victim? The villain? Or do you select an evocative location or a controversial issue and start there?

I’ll clue you in to my methodology. This might work differently for you and is by no means a comprehensive list. But these are the elements I consider when planning a mystery. It’s part of what I call the Discovery phase of writing.

Book Title
Do you title your story before or after you write the book? I prefer to have a title up front. Sometimes, this dictates what I have to do next. For example, in Murder by Manicure, I had a title and no plot.

This had been part of a three-book contract, and all of a sudden my publisher wanted a synopsis. I had to come up with an idea that incorporated the title. Someone had to die either while getting a manicure or as a result of one. I face this same quandary now. I have the title, and I have to suit the crime to this situation. That brings us to the next element.

The Crime Scene
Do you begin with the victim or the villain? In a psychological suspense story, you might begin with the villain and why he became that way. The focus would be on how he turned to the dark side and what motivates him now. Then in comes your hero who has to figure out a way to stop him while delving into his psyche at the same time.

My plots center around the victim. Who is this person? Where do they die? How do they die? Once I figure out the Howdunit, I’ll move on to the next factor.

The Victim
What made this person a target? Here we might learn about their job and personal relationships. Was this person loved without a single blemish in his past? Or did other people have reason to resent him? What might have happened in his past to lead up to this moment? And what did he do to trigger the killer at this point in time? What could he be involved in that you as a writer might want to research?

The Cause
This is the passionate belief that underlies your story. It’s what gets me excited about a book, because I can learn something new and feel strongly about an issue while weaving it into my tale. In Hanging by a Hair, I deal with condo associations and their strict rules. I also touch upon Preppers and the extremes they go to in their survivalist beliefs. Or perhaps my theme is really about family unity, and how Marla strives to bring peace to the neighborhood so she can resume a normal family life. In my current plot, I finally hit upon The Cause. Now the elements are starting to come together. It’s exciting when this happens. And that brings us to the next factor.

The Suspects
Who has the motive, means and opportunity to have committed the crime? Does every one of your suspects have a viable motive? If so, whodunit? And why now? How can you relate these people to each other? This is the fun part, where the relationships build and the plot begins to coalesce in your mind. Character profiles might help at this stage, so you have a better concept of each person before they step on stage. Seek out photos if necessary and do any research you might need before you get started writing. What does The Cause mean to these people? Is it the reason why the victim had to die? Or is it the glue the sleuth will use to put the pieces together?

Nancy Cohen—August 13, 2014

***

  1. What makes a good red herring for you, both as a writer and a reader? How do you avoid an obvious red herring?
  2. What’s a favorite way you like to foreshadow?
  3. How do you come up with a mystery? What inspires you?

What Sort Of Writer Are You?

We’re leading with the questions in today’s Words of Wisdom:

What sort of writer are you? Do you only work on one project at time, or do you have multiple irons in the fire? Have you ever worked on two projects simultaneously that are at the same stage? If so, how do you juggle them? If you haven’t, have you considered it? Oh, and do you know your writer type?

Okay, that last needs more context, and Kathryn Lilley provides it below, in the last of our three excerpts today. Clare-Langley Hawthorne’s post discusses her own consideration, prompted by her agent, of working on two projects simultaneously, while James Scott Bell talks about the lure of a hot new idea when you are already working on multiple projects.

As always, the full post for each excerpt are date-linked below.

When I met with my agent a few months ago he raised an interesting suggestion – that perhaps I consider juggling multiple WIPs at once. While I have certainly managed copy edits while writing a new project, I have never actually juggled two WIPs and I am intrigued as to the practicalities of having more than one active project on the go at once. To be honest I am a bit of a linear writer, tackling one draft at a time, but now I am seriously considering the possibility of trying to complete multiple WIPs simultaneously…and I need some advice.

  • For those of you who have juggled multiple WIPs, how did you handle it?
  • How did you divide your time and deal with the development process for each?
  • Were you able to retain a sense of balance?
  • Was it easy to keep each ‘voice’ unique or did the projects blue or affect the others?

All and any advice on juggling multiple projects will be gratefully received (!) while I try and wrap my head around getting back into the swing of writing once more…I have to tell you though moving countries plays havoc with your schedule:)!

Clare Langley-Hawthorne—September 6, 2010

You’re working on a project, you’ve got a deadline. In some cases, like my own, you have two or three projects going and you are getting close to the various finish lines.

But then you’re walking along from the store or the coffee house, and it tiptoes up––that new idea, that inspiration, that concept, that what if?

You try to ignore it at first. Or maybe you give it a little dalliance, while at the same time part of your brain is saying, Stick with the program, bud. You haven’t got time for this!

But this new idea, shoved up from the basement where the boys are hard at work (and they have closed the door so the idea can’t go back down) beckons to you. It winks. It nods. Whatever the scent it’s wearing, it’s intoxicating.

So you figure you’re merely walking along, nothing’s really happening, why not give this idea a little time?

And that’s when you’re cooked. That’s when the hooks go in.

So you take the new idea out for a drink. It’s totally innocent. You’re not wedded to this idea. You have a couple of other ideas you’re married to waiting for you at home. But you’re not home. So just one drink to talk things over, see what’s happening, and maybe you can just part as friends.

But part of you knows it is oh so dangerous to drink with a new idea. You don’t want to admit you’re really attracted to it. You certainly don’t want your other projects to get jealous. But there you are, ordering from the bartender, and all of a sudden you’re looking at your idea and imagining her all dressed up.

She’s wearing a great opening chapter.

Underneath that is a perfect structure.

This idea has legs.

Stop!

But it’s no use. Your idea is flirting with you. And you like it.

You all know what I’m talking about. It happened to me the other day. I have three front-burner projects I have to finish. But I made the mistake of taking a long walk without any keyboard in front of me.

There flashed the idea! Oh, it was a honey. I started to dally. Two main characters. What was their story? Why would they be thrust together after this suspense-filled first scene?

Oh, I know! I can give them this great Doorway of No Return into Act II!

And who is waiting for them there? A villain, of course! And he’s baaaad….

But is that all? No, my characters each need a “mirror moment” to tell me what their stories are really all about.

Hers: I’ve got it!

His: Yes, that’s it!

The idea whispered, “Buy me another drink.”

And now, guess what? I asked the idea to marry me!

And she said, “Yes!”

Ah, Cupid! I am undone!

James Scott Bell—September 6, 2015

 

I spent some time today pondering the variety of our styles. Here’s my list of some of the major categories and characteristics of the writer species:

1) The Proud Pantster

Outlines? You don’t need stinkin’ outlines! To get inspired, you bite the heads off voles and spit them out. Sure, sometimes you have to perk up saggy spots in the pace by throwing in a dead body or two. But hey, that’s the way you roll.

2) The Reluctant Pantster

You always plan to outline, but never get around to it. You feel remorseful that your track record is so haphazard. You  promise to outline the next one.

3) The Writer-Terminator

You churn out an impressive  quota of words every day. No. Matter. What. You finish projects before deadline, and juggle multiple WIPs while breaking the minute mile on the treadmill. Your fellow writers admire you. And resent you.

4) The Unemployable-As-Anything-Else-But-Writer Writer

Thank goodness you can write pretty well, because basically, you have no other marketable skills. If it weren’t for words, you’d be pushing a shopping cart.

5) The Accidental Writer

You didn’t plan to spend your career writing fiction–it just seemed to happen. A series of lucky breaks meant that you didn’t have to work too hard to get published. You don’t like to talk about how you got started–people get annoyed. Besides, nowadays, you are definitely suffering

6) The Cranky Writer

You like having written, but you hate to write. Writing for you is like pulling out a fingernail. And then smearing the blood on the screen.  Your bottom line: Writing. Sucks.

7) The Harried Writer
You cram in your writing time between a million other duties: job, family, life. Your perennial dream is to go on a writer’s retreat. Or simply to take a nap.

8) The On-deadline Writer
See Harried Writer. See also Cranky Writer.

9) The Fantasy Island Writer

Words flow easily from you, in delicious, buttery prose. You landed your agent and a contract with a Big-6 publisher within weeks of finishing your first draft. You don’t understand what people mean when they say they’re “blocked.” When you write, you’re simply taking dictation from a band of leprechauns who conjure stories deep inside your brain.

Just one problem: You don’t actually exist.

Kathryn Lilley—February 4, 2014

***

Up to this point, I’ve never been able to work on two projects simultaneously, though I keep returning to the idea. If you have tried it, are both projects in the same genre, or different ones?

When it comes to writer types, what’s yours? Feel free to add your own type to Kathyrn’s fun list. I’m “the Novel Journaling Outliner: Needs to figure out the beats, the ending, character motives and goals, while troubleshooting, brainstorming, and thinking about the book in the (digital) pages of a novel journal.”

I look forward to your comments!

Traditional Publishing Words of Wisdom

Our wonderful family here at TKZ runs the gamut in terms of how we are published. Some of us walk the self-published “indie” path, others the traditional. I get the impression a few are “hybrid,” journeying on both paths.

I showcased evergreen self-publishing words of wisdom last month, and wanted to do the same with traditional publishing today. While I am an indie, I have many author friends who are “tradpubbed.” For almost all of them working with an agent remains a vital part of their careers. For new writers who want to be picked up by a publisher, especially one the Big Five, an agent seems more essential than ever.

So, with that in mind, I found a post on agents by John Gilstrap from 2012, another from 2013 by James Scott Bell, and a 2016 post by Kathryn Lilley on avoiding pitfalls when querying agents. As always, the full posts are date-linked at the end of their respective excerpts.

I also want to highlight that JSB does an annual post on publishing, which is well worth reading.

What role does your agent play after the publishing contract is signed? 
Understand that a lot of negotiation goes into what a publishing contract looks like.  What rights will be sold?  More importantly, what rights will be retained by the author?  Is this a one-book contract, or a multi-book contract?  What will the pay-out schedule be?  If it’s a multi-book contract, will they be individually accounted or jointly accounted?  (Joint accounting means that Book #1 would have to earn back its advances before you could start earning advances on Book #2.  It’s by far the least preferable method, but first-timers often don’t have a lot of heft there.)

The agent is the go-between for all uncomfortable transactions.  For example, in fifteen years, I have never discussed money issues with an editor, and no editor has had to tell me to my face that I wasn’t worth the money I was asking for.  The agent keeps the creative relationship pure.  Beyond that, if everything goes well, the agent doesn’t have a lot to do after the contract is negotiated.

But things rarely go well.  What happens if your editor quits or gets fired?  What happens if you really hate the cover, or if the editor is getting carried away with his editorial pen?  On a more positive note, the agent will continue to pursue foreign publishing contracts, movie deals, etc.

What kind of deadlines are there? How firm are those deadlines? 
Deadlines are part of the negotiation process.  You’ll have to agree to respond to your editorial letter by a certain date with a corrected manuscript, and then you’ll have copyedits and page proofs, all while making your commitment to deliver the next book in the contract if it’s a multi-book deal.  I consider deadlines to be inviolable.  I’ve had to push the delivery date by a couple of weeks once, but I hated doing it because it inconveniences so many people, and it makes me look unprofessional.  Here is another instance where a track record of performance keeps people from losing faith in the author.  For first-timers, blowing a deadline can kill a career.  Remember, by blowing the deadline, you technically violate the contract, which the publisher would have the authority to void.

Writers need to understand that publishing calendars are set 12 to 18 months ahead.  Working backwards from those dates are the in-house deadlines for the production side of things (cover design, copyedits, publicity, ARCs, reviews, and a thousand other details).  If a deadline is blown by as little as a month, publishers may pull the author’s book from the calendar and replace it with another, thus potentially adding months to the publication date.

John Gilstrap—March 16, 2012

 

Seriously, those agents I know are good ones: caring deeply about the success of their clients, hurting when they can’t place a project, or when a client is dropped by a publisher. But they know this is the duty they signed up for. They are professional about it.

That’s a key word, professional. In any business relationship, no matter how warm, there are duties. So it’s proper to ask what each party owes the other.

What do writers owe their agents? I think they owe them productivity, optimism, partnership and patience. There will be times, of course, when concerns must be expressed and details hashed out. Time for phone calls and complaints. But these should be rare in comparison to the positives.

A writer needs to listen. Part of a good agent’s job (we’ll get to bad agents in a moment) is to guide a career, and the writer (who ultimately makes the decision about direction) ought to consider and attend to an agent’s wisdom.

And just plain not be a “pill” (slang, 1920s, “a tiresomely disagreeable person.”)

I said we’d get to bad agents, and here’s all I have to say: it is better by a degree of a thousand for a writer to have no agent than to have a bad agent. A bad agent is one who will make you pay fees up front before reading or submitting something; who will slough you off to an editorial service which kicks back a finder’s fee to the agent; who provides no feedback on projects or proposals; and who throws up anything against several walls to see if it sticks. How does one find the good and avoid the bad? The SFWA has a post that’s very helpful in this regard.

Now, what does an agent owe a client? Honesty, encouragement, feedback. But I think there is one thing above all, and that is what prompted this post today. Over the years I’ve heard from writer friends who are frustrated and sometimes “dying on the inside” because of lack of this one thing:

Communication.

When I was an eager young lawyer I took a course on good business practices from the California Bar. One item that stood out was a survey of clients on what they most wanted from their attorneys. At the very top of the list, by a wide margin, was communication. Whether it was good news or bad, they wanted to know their lawyer was thinking about their case or legal matter.

Writers are the same way. Even more so, because the insecurity of the business is an ever-present shadow across their keyboards. So if a writer sends in a proposal or list of ideas to his agent, and the agent doesn’t respond within a few weeks . . . and writer sends follow-up email or phone call, and still doesn’t hear from agent . . .this is not a good thing. In fact, for a writer, it is close to being the worst thing.

So I would say to agents what the California Bar says to young lawyers: just let the client know what’s going on from time to time. Especially if the client has sent something to you.

Now, I know from my agent friends that there are times when they can’t drop everything to communicate immediately. They have other clients, and things may be popping for one or more of them. It may be that the writer has submitted something that is going to take a lot of time to go over and assess. The agent may be off at a conference or maybe, gasp, needs some personal family time. All understandable.

But communication can be brief, even if it is just a short email acknowledging receipt.

James Scott Bell—May 5, 2013

Before there is an Agent and a Publishing Deal, there is every writer’s dreaded obstacle and Final Wall: the Query Letter. Here is  a list of the top five reasons a query letter is rejected by an agent.

  1. Perilous Protocol

Manners and professionalism count. Your query letter will be met with an instant “No” if it doesn’t meet the minimum requirements of query letter protocol.

What is “protocol”?

It almost goes without saying, protocol requires you to pay close attention to an agent’s posted Submission Guidelines. Here are some links to excellent discussions about some other how-to basics of crafting a query letter.

The Complete Guide to Query Letters That  Get Manuscript Requests, by agent Jane Friedman.

How to Write a Query Letter by agent Rachelle Gardner.

Query Shark (a site where where you can post your query letter for review, discussion, and critique)

  1. Misses and Misdirection

This point sounds obvious, but you must send your query letter to an agent who represents your manuscript’s genre. Do your homework. Research which agents are actively seeking new manuscripts in your chosen genre. (Genre-blending works are frequently problematic here–if you can’t pinpoint which genre your story belongs in, it makes it that much harder to attract an agent).

  1. “Good”, But Not Good Enough

The Truth: Agents aren’t looking for good writing. They’re looking for great writing. They’re looking for compelling, fresh writing that sizzles. “Good” (AKA amateur) writing simply won’t cut it in the current marketplace. So before you submit your query letter, make sure your writing meets that mark. You have to be brutally honest when judging the merits of your own writing. Compare your first chapter to some best sellers in your genre, and then ask yourself: am I there yet?

Kathryn Lilley—February 23, 2016

***

There you have it—posts on agents and querying them. I would love to hear your thoughts.

  1. Are you traditionally published, or aspiring to be traditionally published?
  2. What advice do you have on finding and working with agents?
  3. Have things changed since 2016 in terms of how advice on query letters?
  4. Do you have any other insights or advice on having a career in traditional publishing, or as hybrid author?

To Read or Not To Read

To Read or Not To Read? That is the question.

 We had some requests for specific authors’ posts during a recent Words of Wisdom discussion, so I have searched the archives and found three posts from those authors, on the same subject – reviews and feedback, and how to handle them. I hope you enjoy the discussion, add your own comments, and even respond to others’ comments. The livelier the better.

I’ve invited the original authors of the posts to join us. We hope they will stop by.

Don’t Read Reviews

I know this is going to sound counter-intuitive, and for many authors, nearly impossible, but here’s my advice: don’t read your reviews, ever. Turn off that Google alert. Skip the Amazon reviews section. Ignore your Good Reads’ ratings. And if you must know what a blogger or traditional media reviewer is saying about your book, enlist someone you trust to skim the contents and give you the highlights.

This applies not only to negative reviews, but positive ones. Because here’s the thing. As we all know, a reader’s opinion of a book is enormously subjective. The way they approach a story can vary at different points in their lives, or even their day. They read things into it that you might never have intended–and they’re all going to have vastly different opinions about what worked and what didn’t. I’m always startled when I get feedback from beta readers–everyone always manages to come up with different favorite sections, and least favorites. So, when taking their advice, I usually try to find the commonalities, the issues everyone zeroed in on. In the end, much of what they say is taken with a serious grain of salt. – Michelle Gagnon (1/31/2013)

 

Writing Obstacles

4.) Listening to Naysayers – Everyone has advice on a topic they have no experience with. It’s rare that people who say “I’ve always wanted to write a novel” have actually even started one, much less finished one. Yet that doesn’t stop them from shelling out advice. Some advice I got was: write what you know, write a shorter story because it’s easier, write for a house that lists what they’re looking for in great detail (i.e., category romance) so you don’t have to think too hard. Surround yourself with positive people and those who support your writing endeavors.

5.) Putting Too Much into Writing Contest Feedback – Generally I found contests to be a good experience. They got me noticed and looked good on my writer resume, but you have to take them with a grain of salt.

As I studied the craft of writing, I entered various national writing competitions to see how my work stacked up. These were mainly through the Romance Writers of America (RWA) and their many opportunities to compete. There was a rush when I received word that my entries were named a finalist. Even my first entry had some success and the first time I entered the Golden Heart contest for aspiring authors in the RWA, I was a finalist. These things can go to your head and you have to stay focused on your objectives. Good feedback and negative feedback can have an effect on you, just as good or negative reviews can. Keep things in perspective.

In contests you get lots of judges’ comments and editor/agent comments when you final, but you have to take whatever works for you and disregard the rest. You must develop a sense of your voice as a writer and not chase every suggestion, otherwise you will lose your instincts by constantly needing reassurance you’re on the right track. – Jordan Dane (2/4/2016)

 

Writing Reviews

But I’m thinking I should change my ways. According to an article in the Economist, it’s the sheer volume of reviews–not whether they’re good or bad–that sells books.  People are much more likely to “click through” and buy a book if it has received lots of reviews, research indicates. Even when that volume includes a healthy slice of unfavorable reviews, the book still sells better. In fact, it’s better to have some negatives–readers mistrust books that have only favorable reviews.

In her MySpace blog, author Deb Baker discussed the importance of her reviews, and issued an appeal for more of them. She’s right on the money. When it comes to reviews in today’s online marketplace, volume counts.

So, I’m thinking we should join together and become an army of critics. We could post reviews of all the books we’ve read to get the numbers up. Or we could find a midlist writer who has, say, only 9 reviews, and bump him into the double digits (the threshold for boosting sales).  It doesn’t matter if you liked the book or not. Just post your review.  It would be our own version of crowdsource marketing.

Do you like to post reviews, and do you think writers should post reviews about other books online? Have online reviews played a role in your book’s success? – Kathryn Lilley Cheng (2/23/2010)

 

  1. How do you handle reviews and feedback?
  2. How do you think you should handle reviews and feedback?
  3. Any other comments on reviews and feedback?
  4. What do you think about Kathryn’s “army of critics” – “crowdsource marketing?” I’m ready to join. How about you?

How To Build Conflict Using Myers-Briggs Personality Types

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

In recent TKZ posts, Myers-Briggs has been mentioned by John Gilstrap and TKZ regular Eric Beversluis. Kathryn Lilley also talked about Myers-Briggs in this post from 2015.

Which brings me to today’s discussion about how authors can use this personality test to build characters and foment conflict.

Image purchased from Shutterstock by Debbie Burke

Have you ever met someone and instantly disliked them for no apparent reason?

Conversely, have you ever “clicked” with a stranger and didn’t know why?

Have you ever been fired from a job or had to leave because of “personality conflicts”?

Have you ended a relationship or been dumped because of different values?

Do you have a hard time figuring out the needs, desires, and priorities (or lack thereof) of some people?

Do people sometimes act in ways you can’t understand or justify?

How about your characters? Do they struggle with the above issues?

If so, that’s great because conflict is the mainstay of fiction.

Myers-Briggs (MB) is a tool that can help writers answer these questions.

What is Myers-Briggs?

Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers-Briggs
Wikimedia Commons

In 1923, the mother/daughter team of Katharine Cook Briggs (1875-1968) and Isabel Briggs Myers (1897-1980) became interested in the study of personality types based on research by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961). The two women developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test that classifies the different ways people function in life.

Their purpose was to help people make career and personal choices that best suited their individual personalities. The test has been widely used by psychologists and industry to put people in the right jobs based on their particular traits, as well as to improve communication between vastly different personalities.

In other words, to solve problems.

However, in fiction, writers want to create problems for their characters.

If you understand why certain MB personality types clash with other types, you can use that knowledge to increase tension among your characters.

With the MB test, let’s dig a little deeper into reasons why you instantly dislike a person or can’t understand why they act the way they do. Then we’ll extrapolate those reasons into opportunities to create conflict among characters.

What are the MB components?

Introvert/Extravert (I or E)

Are you shy among strangers? Do you prefer to be alone in an interior world of thoughts and ideas? If so, you may be an introvert (I).

Are you outgoing and like large groups of people? Are you interested in what’s happening in the big, wide world around you? If so, you’re likely an extravert (E).

What happens if you take “I,” a shy character who avoids conflict at all costs, and force him/her to interact with “E,” a bold, boisterous character who loves to scrap?

Intuitive/Sensing (N or S)

Do you draw conclusions based on hunches? Do you look below the surface to determine what is going on? If so, you’re probably intuitive (N).

Do you use your five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) to observe the world around you? Do you like facts and figures? You might be sensing (S).

Take “S,” a detective with the attitude if-I-can’t-see-it-it-doesn’t-exist. Add “N,” an intuitive who plays hunches and follows his/her gut instinct. Partner those two up and watch the fireworks.

Thinking/Feeling (T or F)

Are you logical and fact-oriented? You’re probably thinking (T).

Are you in touch with emotions and driven by them? You’re probably feeling (F).

Arrange a date between “T,” a logical, analytical woman, and “F,” a warm-fuzzy metrosexual. Lots of problems for that romance.

Judging/Perceiving (J or P)

Are you decisive and want things settled, organized, and clearly defined? Probably judging (J).

Do you prefer to take things as they come, remaining open to new opportunities? Probably perceiving (P).

The Odd Couple is the classic example of conflict between “J” and “P”. Felix demands neatness and precision while Oscar thrives on disorder and chaos. Remember this scene: “It’s not spaghetti, it’s linguine.”

Sixteen Variations:

The combinations of the above characteristics yield sixteen variations of personality types. If you’re not already familiar with MB types, here is a link that describes each one: https://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/the-16-mbti-types.htm

Pitting Opposites Against Each Other:

If you instantly dislike someone when you first meet them, their four dominant traits may be the opposite of your four dominant traits. This doesn’t mean they’re right or wrong; they’re simply different ways in which you perceive the world around you.

Here are a few examples to build personality differences into fictional conflict.

An extravert “E” can’t understand why the introvert “I” wants to stay home rather than go out partying. “I” is sick and tired of being pressured to mingle with other people when s/he would much rather read a book.

A sensing “S” doesn’t see why an intuitive “N” doesn’t act on facts that are as plain as the nose on your face. “N” trusts flashes of insight from the subconscious and thinks “S” is hopelessly unimaginative and dull.

A thinking “T” has no patience for a feeling “F” who always gets upset over the stupidest things. “F” is constantly frustrated by “T” who never understands his/her feelings.

A judging “J” is fed up with that loosey-goosey perceiver “P” who never plans ahead and flops haphazardly from one activity to another. “P” is annoyed that “J” is so rigid, inflexible, and set in his/her habits.

Characters who are too much alike can also mean trouble:

If characters share the same traits, they may lack balance and believe that is the only way to be.

For instance, judgmental J extremists convince their followers to condemn anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs. This manifestation brought Hitler to power.

Feeling F characters can go overboard emotionally. Because of intense feelings, poor Romeo and Juliet both end up dead.

Wikimedia Commons

Characters can also be defined by their lack of a trait. A classic example is Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, an extreme “T” for whom logic is the supreme law. Whenever he was confronted by another character’s emotional “F” reaction, his response was: “That’s illogical.” 

Personality traits run along a continuum. Some traits are well-developed and dominant; others are more subtle. Our job as writers is to combine dominant and subtle variations into unique characters who are not stereotypes.

The opposite qualities may be fairly equally developed in the same personality. For instance, when I took the MB as a teenager, the result was INTP but T and F scores were almost equal, meaning I possessed an analytical, logical mindset (my husband would dispute that!) but was also highly emotional (that, he agrees with!).

My Intuition N was well developed while my Sensing S scored low. That explains why I rarely notice someone’s eye color, clothes, or shoes, yet I know the depths of their fears and secrets.

Underdeveloped S makes me a lousy eyewitness. What was the bank robber wearing? Huh? What did the getaway car look like? I dunno.

 

Dominant traits can change with time and experience, giving your characters an opportunity to transform themselves.

As a child, I was extremely introverted and shy. Due to career requirements, my extraverted side developed because I had to deal with people. Now, I’m no longer paralyzed with dread at a party. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy meeting new people at writers’ gatherings and book festivals.

Not surprisingly, many writers fall into INFJ or INFP, a pattern Tom Kuegler explores in this article on medium.com.

 

Try guessing the traits of your mate and your children; that obnoxious neighbor you don’t get along with; your annoying boss.

You might gain insight into why they act the way they do.

Then put your characters through the MB personality type test and use their traits to increase conflict among them. 

~~~

Now it’s your turn, TKZers.

Using MB traits, which category does your favorite fictional character fall into?

Who is the most memorable (not necessarily likable) character you can think of? Can you guess their category?

How do their traits cause conflict with other characters?

~~~

 

In Debbie Burke’s thriller, Instrument of the Devil, find out how the attraction between two INFP characters means trouble, while an ENTJ causes further complications.

Instrument of the Devil is on sale for $.99 during April. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

Seasons Greetings

AWREATH3It’s Winter break here at the Kill Zone. During our 2-week hiatus, we’ll be spending time with our families and friends, and celebrating all the traditions that make this time of year so wonderful. We sincerely thank you for visiting our blog and commenting on our rants and raves. We wish you a truly blessed Holiday Season and a prosperous 2015. From Clare, Jodie, Kathryn, Kris, Joe M., Nancy, Jordan, Elaine, Joe H., Mark, and James to all our friends and visitors, Seasons Greeting from the Kill Zone. See you back here on Monday, January 5. Until then, check out our TKZ Resource Library partway down the sidebar, for listings of posts on The Kill Zone, categorized by topics.

Putting On Your Writing Face

Did everyone catch the Internet meme started in the wake of the Oscars by author Laura Lippman? Following the widespread criticism of octogenarian actress Kim Novak’s appearance during the awards ceremony, Lippman posted a picture of herself without makeup, lighting, or filtering, along with a hashtag, #itsokkimnovak (Which translates to “Its okay, Kim Novak.” I must admit that at first I misread the hashtag to read “It’s so Kim Novak,” which would have sounded a tad less supportive. My bad.)

Within days, everyone I knew on Facebook was jumping on board the auteur tout naturel idea. Someone assembled a montage of the pictures set to music. I’ll post it if I can. Or you can scroll back through my FB timeline or Laura’s to view it.

It was inspiring, even heartwarming to see a collection of authors put their morning faces forward. Not that we’re the ultimate test case. As a species, we writers don’t tend to be a glamorous bunch. (Your average writer’s conference resembles a scene from The Invasion Of the Extremely Nice People Wearing Comfort Shoes.)

I was a few days late catching up with the trend, but I took a deep breath and posted my photo, seen here. (In response, I got several helpful replies suggesting make-up tips, mostly from Mary Kay and Avon reps. Thanks for that, ladies).


The experience made me question how I approach posting pictures in public. I’m a severe critic of my own photos, even those kept in house. My husband has to snatch the camera or phone away to keep me from deleting 90 per cent of the ones we take during vacations.

My last official author’s photo was taken in 2007. I need have another one ready by the end of this year. Last time around, I remember that the photographer kept telling the makeup artist to “vamp it up some more”. Next time, I may take a page from Laura’s book and go unadorned.

But now I’m taking another look at my #itsokkimnovak photo. I may have to reconsider. I much prefer the girlified look I had in a recent profile in LA Beat Magazine.

Did you all post sans makeup, unfiltered photos online after the Kim Novak thing? Did you learn anything from it? Feel free to post a link to a picture of the “real you” in the Comments!

Finding Your Purpose

“Every one of us needs a purpose that’s big enough to call forth the gifts and abilities within us.”
           — Richard J. Leider, Life Skills

Do you live your life “on purpose”? Do you know what that purpose is?

That unsettling question was posed to an audience of about 200 people at a workshop I recently attended.

Many of us don’t think too much about the real purpose of our lives, said the workshop’s leader, a vivacious woman named Kathleen Terry We know what we like to do, what we’re good at, and what we have to do. But if we can discover a purpose behind all those activities, according to Terry, we can develop a richness of spirit and add meaning to our lives.

Terry gave us an actual formula for finding one’s purpose:

G + P + V = Purpose

This is how she explained the equation:

“You heed your purpose when you offer your Gifts in service to something you are Passionate about in an environment that is consistent with your core Values.”

Next, we set about drafting a Purpose Statement. To identify our Gifts, we were each given a stack of activity cards. We had to sort the activity cards into three piles, with each pile representing our preferences: 
1) Activities we Love to Do 
2) Activities We’re Not Sure About
3) Activities we Definitely Don’t Like to do.

From the “Love to Do” pile, we had to select our top five favorite activities, then designate one activity as the most important of all.

My Number One activity card turned out to be “Writing Things.” My four runner-up cards were “Researching Things,” “Discovering Resources,” “Analyzing Information,” and “Putting the Pieces Together.” 

All my activity cards–a.k.a., my “gifts”–identified me as a writer. No big surprise there. At least it was obvious what I like to do.

But I still lacked a purpose. How am I meant to use the  writing in the service of a greater purpose in life? Is that purpose merely to entertain and sell books? (That doesn’t sound very noble.) Is my purpose to inspire others to develop their own creativity? Perhaps I could volunteer as a blogger or writer on behalf of a cause I’m passionate about, such as Monarch habitat preservation.


We weren’t expected to finalize our purpose statement in the two hours of the workshop, I was relieved to learn. It turns out, sometimes it takes people years to discover their life’s purpose.

But I’m glad to be thinking in this general direction. And if you ever have a chance to take a “Finding Your Purpose” workshop, I highly recommend it. 

What about you? Have you given your life’s purpose much thought? Is your writing an element of a higher purpose?

Seasons Greetings!

It’s Winter break here at the Kill Zone. During oAWREATH3_thumb[1]ur 2-week hiatus, we’ll be spending time with our families and friends, and celebrating all the traditions that make this time of year so wonderful. We sincerely thank you for visiting our blog and commenting on our rants and raves. We wish you a truly blessed Holiday Season and a prosperous 2014. From Clare, Jodie, Kathryn, Kris, Joe M., Nancy, Jordan, Elaine, Joe H., Mark, and James to all our friends and visitors, Seasons Greeting from the Kill Zone. See you back here on Monday, January 6. Until then, check out our TKZ Resource Library partway down the sidebar, for listings of posts on The Kill Zone, categorized by topics.

Five online mistakes writers should never make

Clare’s post yesterday about social media has inspired me to add my own two cents about social media. Specifically, I’d like to discuss some of the language errors I see online at many sites (Fortunately, I don’t notice these mistakes here at TKZ, which reinforces my already high regard for this community). 

Anyone can make a typo or a mistake when they fat-finger something in haste or after consuming too many Singapore Slings. But there are a few gooflaws which seem to reflect a lack of understanding about the use of language. 

Here, in no particular order, is a list of the five language mistakes that have been driving me absolutely bat poop crazy lately, especially when they’re made by people who claim to be writers:

  1.  Loose/Lose: Perhaps because my series deals with body image issues, I lurk at a few sites where people discuss their need to lose weight. Too often, someone will say she needs to “loose” weight. Whenever I encounter this error, I have to control my itchy typing finger to keep from replying with a snarky correction. Nobody likes snark.
  2. Its/It’s: This is the mistake I see the most. People often use “it’s” when the correct form should be “its”. “It’s” is used as a replacement for “it is”. “Its” is a possessive pronoun, as in, “This post has got its dander up.” When unsure, try replacing the word with “it is”, and see if it makes sense,
  3. Your/You’re: Sigh. I don’t think I even have to explain this one to our readers. This offense seems to be committed mostly by Millennials, including some who claim to be writers. These people make me despair of the current state of English teaching in America. On the other hand, I don’t have to wonder how their literary ambitions will pan out.
  4. Their/There/They’re: These words seem to get misused on news sites a lot, mostly by online bloviators who use anonymous IDs and savagely attack the opinions of other people, no matter how benign those comments are. So, to recap: “Their” is used when you are referring to more than one person and something they possess. “There” is the word that is most often misused in place of the other forms. “They’re” is a contraction for “they are.”
  5. Compliment/Complement: “Compliment” is something nice you say to someone. “Complement” is something that adds to, enhances, or completes something else. It can also be used as a verb with an object.

 So that’s my rant for today. Do you have a pet peeve about language you’d care to add to my list?