Key Tips for Creating a Genderless Character for Villain Options

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane




In my critique of Cruel Sacrifices, an anonymous submission, I brought up the topic of creating scenes with a genderless character and TKZ follower Paul Duffau asked for a post on the subject. You asked, Paul. Here it is. 

The technique of writing a genderless character can be effective to allow an author more options for suspects so the reader can’t easily determine the gender of a villain. One of my favorite ways to create a mystery/suspense “whodunnit” is to build a case against a slew of suspects. By the end of the book, I can flip a coin and make the final decision on who is guilty. By making a killer neutral and without gender, that expands my choices. More fun for me.

I’ve seen many books written with scenes where a villain is described as “the man” or “the killer.” As an author, that pulls me from the story, because I see the craft behind the use of the generic term. It’s obvious the author is trying to build suspense by letting the reader see a glimpse of the diabolical bad guy without fully disclosing who it is. I’m sure I’ve done this too, but in my last two thriller novels (Blood Score and The Last Victim), I challenged myself by creating a genderless character to broaden my suspect list and make it harder for readers to figure out who the guilty are. 

Scenes with my genderless character were difficult to write. It’s easy to slip and add a pronoun of he or she, so edits must be thorough. And it’s hard to come up with different ways to describe this person. It’s also a challenge where to place these scenes throughout a book to add tension and mystery, but try it. It adds complexity to your writing and can make for a better “whodunnit.”

1.) Omniscient POV – In select spots during the scene, I write in omniscient Point of View (POV). I try not to carry this on for too long. I want the reader to clearly know this is my bad guy and I add a generic descriptor later to ground the reader into the head of my character, but the shock value of seeing the bodies through the eyes of the killer (the artistic elements to the brutal crime) seemed to create a more macabre effect and give insight into my serial killer.

Excerpt: The Last Victim (Jordan Dane)

Moonlight cast its slate glow onto a lifted hand, fingers gracefully posed toward the dark heavens. They would point to the worthy pinnacle of the masterpiece. The bare skin of a sculpted leg made a beautiful silhouette against the full moon, toes perfectly poised to catch the glimmer of the night. Frozen flesh glittered under the stars in the right light. The crystalline webbing of ice turned blanched skin into an intricate texture with a shine that reflected the dark sacred night.

Too bad the meat had to thaw. To rot.

2.) Generic Character Description – Without gender, I used a description of “the driver” to describe my bad guy. This type of generic description can be used for anyone, men or women.

Excerpt: The Last Victim (Jordan Dane)

Cutting a scream loose, the warmth of a blood shower, the thrill of seeing the soul leave the body and knowing God’s hand played no part in it—those were rare and powerful addictions—but none of those things matched the final moment when hope left their eyes and they accepted their fate. Sated and drunk on memories, the driver tossed sturdy work gloves aside and climbed into a truck when it was time to go, started the engine, and turned on the music.

The voice of Ray Charles sang. ‘What a Wonderful World’ brought a fitting end as the truck jostled along the gravel service road toward the busted gate few people knew about—heading through the trees into the dark sacred night.


3.) Deep POV – Focus on the action and see it through the eyes of the character. My killer is suffering from withdrawals and the need to kill is escalating. So rather than focusing on HIM or HER, I distract the reader by concentrating on the action or what he or she is obsessed with. In deep POV (in our heads), we wouldn’t define ourselves because we already know who we are. We would simply let random thoughts race through our minds, driven by what we see or think. Deep POV, coupled with omniscient view, can give the illusion to the reader that they are in the head of a killer, yet not give away the gender of a bad guy.

Excerpt: The Last Victim (Jordan Dane)

One final glance in the rear view mirror made it hard to leave, but the stunning silhouette of the Totem against the moon stirred the question that remained. Who would top the next creation? There would definitely be a next time and it had to be someone worthy. It wasn’t enough to kill perfection once.

Hitting stride, the Totem Killer had only gotten started and had cross-hairs on the next one. A name. Another perfect one. Everything had been planned with each detail thought out. Nothing would be rushed.

The driver had a pick up to make and wouldn’t go home empty handed.

4.) Unreliable Narrators – Detectives or sleuths can assume a gender based on a criminal profile or perhaps the strength it would take to perpetrate a crime or the statistically expected Modus Operandi (MO) for one gender over another. FBI profiles can project a male killer simply by MO if the crime is heinous enough NOT to indicate a female assailant, for example. So your main heroic character can be the unreliable narrator, or witnesses can lie or tell their version of the truth as they see it. A big reveal can come later to turn things around, but that’s what is so fun about peeling back the layers of an investigation.

5.) Red Herrings – A mystery craft technique, called a red herring, is used to create a clue that leads down a false path in the investigation. This can contribute to the illusion that the killer is one gender, when it can easily be discovered later that the clue was misinterpreted or someone lied to mislead the police. If you couple this method with your generic character POV, it can keep the reader guessing. And news flash: killers lie to throw cops off their scent or they plant evidence or pretend to be a victim to mislead investigators. That makes the chase more fun. A good killer is a chameleon who could conceivably get away with murder. The more diabolically clever the killer, the more brilliant your sleuth would have to be. Make your hero earn his status by giving him or her a worthy adversary.

6.) Scene Timing – If a scene is written through the eyes of the dastardly genderless villain (at a distance, for example), followed by a subsequent scene where the character walks unassumingly on the page with a name, that could influence the reader into thinking “it can’t be him/her. He/she can’t be in two places at once.” If the scene is written well enough, it can appear there is distance and the reader assumes there are two people, when the character could be one and the same.

I used all of these methods to build upon the mystery of my killer’s identity and push off “the reveal” as late as possible in the book. Leave twists in the plot, even toward the end, and make your readers sweat it out.

Has anyone else used a technique not mentioned here, to create a genderless/faceless villain? Or what books have you read where an author kept you guessing on gender? Please share.

Wishing you happy holidays, TKZers! Hope 2015 is special for all of you.

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POV 103: Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View

Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker  @JodieRennerEd

As I discussed in POV 101, in order to draw the reader in and grab him emotionally, every story needs to have a clearly dominant viewpoint character. We should meet that protagonist right away, preferably in the first paragraph, and the first chapter should be entirely from her point of view, so the reader knows whose story it is and can start bonding with her and rooting for her. When we see the story through her eyes, reacting as she does to her problems, it sucks us into the story and we want to keep reading to find out what happens to her.

In POV 102, I gave some tips for avoiding “head-hopping.” If we stick mainly with our main character, in his head and heart, with a bare minimum or no stepping back to describe things from the author’s stance (omniscient POV), we’re using deep point of view. Also called close third, this intimate viewpoint is a lot like first-person point of view, with the added freedom of switching to the villain’s or some other character’s POV when it suits our purpose. Deep POV is a powerful way of drawing your readers into your story quickly and making them worry about your hero right away, and keep worrying – which is exactly what you want!

But how do you go about this? Let’s suppose you’re writing a story about a macho, hero-type guy named Kurt, who defeats the villain, restores justice, and even gets the girl. It’s Kurt’s story so he’s your main viewpoint character. How do you make sure your handling of his viewpoint is as powerful as it can possibly be?

The first thing you need to do is imagine the setting, people and events as they would be perceived by Kurt, and only by him. As you write the story, you the writer must become Kurt. You see what he sees, and nothing more. You know what he knows, and nothing more. When Kurt walks into a bar, for example, you do not imagine how the bar looks from some god-like authorial stance high above, or as a movie camera might see it; you see it only as Kurt sees it, walking in purposefully and looking around.

And of course include his reactions to the other people in the bar. Show Kurt’s feelings (and only his) about what and who he’s seeing, and his reactions to the situation. Instead of saying, “The bar was noisy, dark and smoky,” say “The cigarette smoke in the air stung Kurt’s eyes and, in the dim light, he couldn’t make out if his target was there. As he looked around, the room started to quieten down. Heads turned, and eyes took him in, some curious, some hostile.” This way, the reader is seeing the scene through Kurt’s head and identifying with him, starting to worry about him. This from-the-inside-out approach is vital if you want your reader to care about your protagonist and get truly engaged in your story.

Captivate_full_w_decalBut you need to go even further – you need to describe what he’s seeing and feeling by using words and expressions that he would normally use. If your character is a rancher or a drifter or a hard-boiled P.I, you’re not going to describe the scene or his reactions in highly educated, articulate, flowery terms, or tell about things he probably wouldn’t notice, like the color-coordination of the décor, the chandeliers, or the arrangement of dried flowers in an urn on the floor.

It’s also important to be vigilant that your viewpoint doesn’t slip, so you’re suddenly giving someone else’s opinion about Kurt, or telling about something that’s happening out in the street or even in a hidden corner of the bar, while Kurt is still at the entrance of the bar. You can let the reader know other people’s reactions to Kurt, not by going into their heads at this point, but by what Kurt perceives—he sees their disapproving, admiring, angry, curious, or intense looks, picks up on their body language, hears their words and tone of voice, etc.

Then, in a later scene or chapter, you can go into the bad guy’s point of view and find out what he thinks of Kurt. Or, once he meets the girl, write a scene or chapter in her viewpoint so the reader finds out more about her and what she thinks of our hero Kurt.

This technique, properly used, will suck your readers effectively into your story world, where they really want to be, engaged, involved, and connected.

You may also be interested in these related posts:
~ Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details
~ Show Your Characters’ Reactions to Bring Them Alive
~ Developing a Strong Third-Person Voice
~ Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude & Immediacy

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping

 by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker   @JodieRennerEd

In POV 101 – Get into your protagonist’s head and stay there, I discussed the effectiveness of starting out your story in your protagonist’s point of view and staying there for most of the novel.

But what if you want to show how other people are feeling? If they’re important characters, like the villain, a romantic interest, or a close friend or family member, you can give them their own POV scenes, where you get into their heads and we see their thoughts, emotions, goals, aspirations and fears.

If they’re in the same scene as your main character, you show their thoughts, feelings and attitude only through what your protagonist can perceive—their words, tone of voice, body language and facial expressions. Say you’re writing a romantic suspense or mystery, and you’re in the heroine’s point of view, showing her thoughts, perceptions and reactions. The hero, whom she’s just met under unfortunate circumstances, is angry. You’ll show his thoughts and reactions, not from inside him at that point (What the hell is going on here? he thought. What’s she trying to pull off, anyway?), but by what the heroine is seeing and hearing—his tense posture, hunched shoulders, clenched fists, furrowed brows, set mouth, clipped tone of voice, angry words, etc.

The general rule of thumb is “one scene, one viewpoint.” Or even better, wait for a new chapter to change the point of view to someone else’s. If you change the viewpoint within a scene, it’s best to do it only once, and leave a blank space before you start the next person’s point of view. Ping-ponging back and forth can be jarring and confusing to the reader. This is what’s referred to as “head-hopping.” Some writers go so far as to leave three asterisks (* * *) and spaces above and below to indicate a switch in viewpoint within a scene, but I think that’s too jarring and disruptive to the flow of action, since we’re still in the same scene. Three asterisks, centered, are best reserved to indicate a shift in place and time.

So why is it so important to avoid switching viewpoints (head-hopping) within scenes?

Writing a Killer Thriller_May '13According to Cynthia VanRooy, “When a reader becomes emotionally engaged in a book, he or she enters into the story. The reader understands the book world isn’t real, but in order to fully enjoy the story, he or she chooses to temporarily pretend otherwise, or to suspend their disbelief. […]

“Every time you shift the reader from one character to another, they are jarred out of their suspension of disbelief and reminded that they’re only reading a story. Do that often enough and they’ll stop reading your story. Scene changes or new chapters are the best and least disruptive places to change POV.”

Here’s an example of a viewpoint gaffe, which I made up:

Our heroine, Carole, is stirring the spaghetti sauce on the stove and talking to her husband on the phone. They’re discussing the fact that their son, Colton, is grounded. Suddenly, the author jumps into her son’s head and tells us about Colton sneaking by behind her back (his rap music is playing loudly in his room), and out the front door, then jumping on his bike and racing off. Back to Carole, who continues to stir the spaghetti and talk on the phone.

What’s wrong here? We were in Carole’s POV, and she had her back turned so she wouldn’t know Colton was sneaking past, especially with all that noise coming from his room. And how would she know he’s riding away on his bike? Another jarring POV shift in the same scene would be if we suddenly started seeing her husband waving his secretary away because he’s in an important conversation. We’re in Carole’s POV in this scene, and she can’t see what her husband is doing at his office.

Here’s another example of ping-ponging point of view, where we the readers jump back and forth over miles, within seconds.

We start out in Steve’s point of view, who’s in trouble and has just picked up the phone and called his wife, Grace:

“Grace, thank god you’re home. This is all too much for me. My life is crumbling around me and I can’t seem to do anything about it,” Steve said, closing his eyes and rubbing his face.

The sadness and despair in his voice brought tears to Grace’s eyes.

“I have to think.” There was long pause before Steve continued. “Luckily, George is right here. I’ll ask if he knows a good attorney who can help with this.”

“That sounds good.” She felt some relief.

“I’ll call you later,” Steve said, then hung up and slumped back in his chair.

“I’ll be waiting,” she said softly. The call ended before she could say I love you.

What’s wrong with how this scene is written?

Choose either Steve or Grace and play the scene from his or her POV. Show us only what he or she can see, hear, and perceive.

A quick way to check whose POV you’re in is to get out the highlighters or colored pens and choose a different color for each of your main characters. Pick your protagonist’s color, then start highlighting or underlining sentences that describe scenes, people, perceptions, and emotions strictly from his or her POV. Do the same for other characters, with their color. When you’re done, you should have paragraphs, and preferably scenes, of only one color. If you have another color creeping into that scene, see if you can rewrite those sentences from the dominating character’s POV. If you have a number of colors within one scene, you’ve got some revisions to do. And as Stephen King says, “Writing is rewriting.”

Captivate_full_w_decalBy the way, my third book, Captivate Your Readers, gets into a lot of detail on engaging your readers and bringing your story and characters to life by using deep point of view, showing instead of telling, and stepping back as the author to let the characters tell the story in their own voice.

Also, check out POV 103 – Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View here on TKZ. And check out the handout to my workshop “Engage the Readers with Deep Point of View” on my own blog.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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Narrative Voice

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

A few weeks ago, I blogged about POV shifting and what’s called “head hopping”. To carry on with the topic of POV, I want to dig into a common topic discussed at workshops and critique group: narrative voice. Narrative voice determines how the narrator tells a story. Often it’s the voice of a character, less often, an unseen voice. The narrative voice is what provides background information, insight, or describes the actions and reactions taking place in a scene. Before a writer sets out to tell a story, she must choose which narrative voice to use. Here is a basic list and comparison of the different choices and why one might be more adventitious that the other in a particular project.

Although dialogue plays a critical role in fiction, having a story told completely with dialogue would be out of the ordinary if not downright creepy. No matter how many characters there are in a typical novel, there’s one that’s always there but is rarely thought of by the reader—the narrator. Like the referee at a football game, the narrator’s job is to impart necessary information and, in general, keep order. Someone has to tell us about mundane stuff like the time of day, the weather, the setting, physical descriptions, and the other things that the characters either don’t have time to tell us about or don’t know.

And just like the characters, the narrator—the author—has a voice or persona. Some authors like to be a part of the story and make themselves known through a distinct personality and attitude. Others prefer to remain distant and aloof, or completely transparent. One of the main things that determine the narrator’s voice is point of view.

Most stories are written in either first- or third-person. If it’s first-person, it’s usually subjective. Subjective POV tells the reader all the intimate details of the protagonist—her thoughts, emotions, and reactions to what’s going on around her. There’s also first-person objective. This story telling technique tells us about what everyone did and said, but without any personal commentary, mainly because the narrator doesn’t know the thoughts of the other characters, only their actions and reactions. First-person narration is all about “I”. I read the book. I took a walk. I fell in love.

In between first- and third-person is a rare POV called second-person. You don’t see this technique used much, and when you do, it’s about as pleasant as standing in line for hours at the DMV. Second-person narration is all about “you”. You read the book. You took a walk. You fell in love.

Next is third-person. There are a couple of third-person types starting with limited. As the term implies, this is a story technique told from a limited POV. It usually involves internal thoughts and feelings, and is the most popular narration style in commercial fiction.

We can also use third-person objective. The narrator tells the story with no emotional involvement or opinion. This is the transparent technique mentioned earlier. The interesting advantage of third-person objective is that the reader tends to inject more of his or her emotions into the story since the narrator does not.

Then there’s third-person omniscient. With this POV, the narrator pulls the camera back to see the bigger picture. He is god-like in his knowledge of everyone and everything. This POV works well when dealing with sweeping epic adventures that might span numerous generations or time periods. Unlike first-person subjective, which is up close and intimate, third-person omniscient is distant, impersonal, and sometimes cold. The reader has to use his imagination more when it comes to emotions because there’s no one to help him along. Third-person narration is all about “he, she and they”. He read the book. She took a walk. They fell in love.

The other key element in determining narration and voice is verb tense. Most stories use the past tense. This is what most readers are comfortable with. The opposite of this would be the incredibly annoying and almost unreadable second-person present tense. If you’re interested in experimental, artsy writing and want to use this technique, make sure you’re independently wealthy and have no interest in actually selling copies of your book.

So who does the talking in your books? Does your narrator’s voice seem warm and fuzzy, cleaver and funny, or cold and distant? Do you stick with the norm of third-person past tense or do you like to venture into uncharted territory? And what type of narration do you enjoy reading?

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shield-cover-smallComing soon:THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore

“THE SHIELD rocks on all cylinders.” – James Rollins, New York Times bestselling author of THE EYE OF GOD.

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Developing a Strong Third-Person Voice

Today I welcome back to TKZ my friend and editor, Jodie Renner, to share her tips on strengthening your main character’s voice, especially when writing in third person POV. Enjoy!
———————–
Jodie_June 26, '14_7371_low res_centredby Jodie Renner, editor & author

Thanks, Joe. There’ve been some great articles here on The Kill Zone and elsewhere about “voice” in fiction and how to develop an authentic, compelling voice that readers will love. To me, the key is in recognizing that voice in fiction is – or should be – inseparable from the words, thoughts, attitudes, and reactions of your main character.

For example, some strong, unique voices that sweep us immediately into the character’s world and the fictive dream, are Huck’s in Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield’s in Catcher in the Rye, Stephanie Plum’s in Janet Evanovich’s series, Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Katniss’s in The Hunger Games.

These novels are all written in the first person, so of course it’s a lot easier for the author to immerse us in the character’s attitudes and world-view – especially with such great characters! But I think we can create and maintain an equally strong, appealing voice in third-person, too, if we take a tip from first-person POV and keep all of the narration for each scene firmly in the viewpoint of the main character for that scene – and have at least 70% of the novel in the protagonist’s point of view.

To begin with, of course, your main character needs to be charismatic enough to carry the whole novel, so it’s critical to take the time to first create a protagonist who’s engaging and multi-dimensional, with lots of personality and openness, fairly strong views, and some baggage and inner conflict. Then show his world through his eyes and ears, not the author’s.

Stay in character for the narration of each scene too, not just the dialogue and any inner thoughts and reactions. It’s your character who’s moving through that world, reacting to what’s around him. Don’t describe the surroundings and what’s going on from a distant, authorial point of view – show the character’s world directly through her observations, colored by her personality and mood.

Look through your WIP novel. Does the narration (description and exposition) read like the main character for that scene could be thinking or saying it, or is it someone else’s (the author’s) words and phrasing? Are the descriptions of the surroundings neutral? Or are they colored and enriched by the character’s feelings, goal, mood, and attitude at that moment?

Beware of stepping in as the author to blandly and dispassionately explain things to the readers, as if it’s nonfiction. Besides being a less engaging read, that approach yanks us out of the character’s mindset and world – and out of the fictive dream.

Read through your fiction manuscript. Are there places where you can bring the scene to life more by writing the narration in the language of the POV character?

Here’s one of many examples I could give from my editing of fiction, with details, setting, and circumstances altered for anonymity:

Setup: This is a flashback, a ten-year-old’s frightened observations as, hidden behind a tree, she watches some bad guys in the woods.

Before:

The heavyset man pulled out a knife and strode toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked stunned, like he didn’t expect that. In one swift movement, the big guy plunged the dagger into the older man’s carotid artery. Bright red blood gushed out like a river.

Jodie’s comments: We’re in the point of view of a ten-year-old who is observing this and telling us what she sees. I doubt she’d know the term “carotid artery,” much less exactly where it is. Also, she probably wouldn’t say “heavyset man,” “dagger,” or “in one swift movement.” And probably not “strode,” either.

After:

The big man pulled out a knife and charged toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked at him, his eyes wide. Before he could do anything, the big guy raised the knife and plunged it into his neck. Bright red blood gushed out like a river.

To me, this sounds more like a ten-year-old telling us this now.

Tips for keeping narration and description in the POV character’s voice:

Here are a few little techniques for livening up information-sharing and imparting it with attitude, from the viewpoint of the POV character involved.

~ Use stream-of-consciousness journaling.

To bring out the character’s personality in the parts where he’s thinking or planning or worrying or ruminating, not just when he/she is interacting with others, do some stream-of-consciousness journaling by him/her. Have him ranting in a personal diary about the people around him, what’s going on, etc. Also show his deepest fears here. Then use this stuff to show his personality more in the scenes.

~ Write the scene in first-person first, then switch it back.

Write a whole scene, or even a chapter or two in first-person narration/POV to get the rhythm and flow of that person’s language patterns and attitudes, then switch it to third-person.

~ Stay in character.

Stay in the POV of your character throughout the whole scene. How is he/she feeling at that moment? Let the narration reflect their present mood, level of tension, and sensory feelings.

So to bring the scene and characters to life, deliver those details through the POV of the main character for that scene, in their voice, with lots of attitude!

Fiction writers and readers – what are your thoughts on this?

Copyright © Jodie Renner, July 2013

Related articles by Jodie Renner:

Show Your Setting through Your POV Character: http://www.crimefictioncollective.blogspot.ca/2013/03/show-your-setting-through-your-pov.html

Info with Attitude – Strategies for Turning Impersonal Info Dumps into Compelling Copyhttps://killzoneblog.com/writing-techniques/info-with-attitude/

Voice – That Elusive but Critical Ingredient of Compelling Fiction: http://www.writers-village.org/writing-award-blog/voice-that-elusive-but-critical-ingredient-of-compelling-fiction

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, at her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/ and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

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First Page Critique: Beware the Wolf

By Jordan Dane
Please enjoy Beware the Wolf, an anonymous submission for critiquing, My thoughts are on the flip side.

***
Hoards of onlookers pushed and shoved to the front as they congregated behind the yellow tape, all hoped to see the mutilated body. Police huddled, compared clues, and discussed the who, the how, and the why of the crime. They may work and eventually answer who and how, but the why will always be a mystery.

Derek Mitchell reached for the tape, ducked below it and entered the crime scene. He waved a moth from his face as he stepped around the temporary lights.

“Hey.” A scowling officer pointed at him.

He held up his ID. “I have authorization to be here,” he said in a low voice. The man retreated.

He turned his head, and studied every detail of the park. Hours before the killing, children played on the slides and swing sets feet from where the body now lay. Oak trees and crepe myrtles surrounded the area, which provided ample cover for the attacker to wait for a victim. The location would indicate a random murder. Only, he knew this victim wasn’t random. The why is what he needed to understand in order to stop future killings.

Uniformed officers searched the flora with flashlights looking for clues, bagging every gum wrapper and lollipop stick, while two detectives stepped back from the corpse and waved the medical examiner forward.

He arrived too late. He needed to examine the body and area before the authorities arrival to detect fragile clues. He approached the examiner. “I need a few minutes to examine the evidence.”

The man nodded and walked back to his van.

He took a deep breath and raised the crimson stained sheet. It appeared to be a wild animal attack. The skull peeked through deep gouges of skin and muscle. The throat open, exposed the larynx, which was the source of blood that now seeped into the ground. Eyes, wide, stared into nothingness.

A shiver ran down his spine. To the human eye, a dog or wild animal killed her. Only he knew the truth. One of his people killed her.

***

Critique

The author sets a dark tone from the start – a crime scene with a dead body—but the punch of the last couple of paragraphs might work better if their essence were moved to the front of this scene to put the reader right into the action as seen through the eyes of a different kind of detective. Derek could be looking right down at the body and gathering “clues” in his own way.

With Derek walking up to the crime scene—and with the scene description so generic without details—these parts could always be described later during the course of the next narratives, if they are still important to the scene. Readers of crime fiction are familiar with aspects of a crime scene. To write it so generally is almost like waving a red flag that the author is glossing over details they may not be as familiar with. This sentence is a good example of too generic with POV problems: Police huddled, compared clues, and discussed the who, the how, and the why of the crime. Derek would not know what’s in the heads of the police or what they’d been discussing, so this reads like a bit of author intrusion.

If the author clues the reader in from the beginning that Derek isn’t quite human, he/she can build in his “abilities” to read a crime scene like a wolf. Derek could sense the fear from the crowd as he searches the bystanders. (Killer sometimes watch the cops work at scenes where they killed.) He could search the faces through the eyes of a predator at night, for example.

Sniffing the air, he could be drawn to the smell of blood and the splatter before he even sees the body. He might overhear snippets of distant conversations between the human detectives mixed with chatter from the crowd, since he has wolf instincts. Don’t go too crazy with this. That could slow the pace. Tease the reader with the set up, but leave more for later. For now, the author should “think” and “react” like a feral wolf. Since dogs/wolves can recognize scents off specific animals, does he have the same ability? Does he “mark his territory”? (Just kidding, but you get the idea.) Use your imagination on what his instincts are and why he’s a cop working “special cases.”

Another point – the author describes the park, right down to the oak trees and crepe myrtles as making “good cover.” Trees and shrubs could be cover, but why mention the variety? This reads like the author is using Derek’s POV to set the scene in a manner that would not be natural for a cop. It’s forced.

I’m also not sure how Derek would know from the start that the victim wasn’t a random kill. He’d have to establish a relationship between the vic and the killer, which is typical cop procedure that is backtracked after more is known about the victim’s life and a timeline of her activities that led up to the killing. But the first step in any investigation is to ID the victim, which isn’t mentioned here either.

If the attacker hid behind cover and waited for any victim to show up, that’s random, yet Derek seems to have an unexplained reason for knowing this wasn’t a random act of violence. Rather than spell all this out in the first 350 words, the author might focus on Derek’s instincts and his ability to read a crime scene in his feral way and leave the details/clues of the case to be discovered later. The intriguing part would be Derek, his instincts and abilities, and the conflict he faces being an outsider to both worlds—as a cop who isn’t human.

The author mentions that Derek “arrived too late,” but I would venture an opinion that he could detect far more than the average human who needs specific evidence to build a case. He wouldn’t need a human ME’s opinion of what happened and fragile clues would be his specialty. Is Derek trying to stay ahead of the cops to wield his kind’s brand of justice? Does he keep secrets to that end? Or does he work with human cops to keep the peace? Derek is the ultimate “lone wolf” cop.

There is definitely enough here to make me turn the pages. There are inherent conflicts in this scenario of an outsider cop working his own cases, sometimes at odds with humans and perceived as betraying his own kind. Plus he’d be tracking a killer with greater abilities to evade pursuit—a classic outsider theme that could be fascinating to explore. Good job of conceiving this plot, character, and conflict!

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Books and Movies: Forever Entwined

By John Gilstrap
NOTE: I’ll not be much of an active participant in my own blog day today because I won’t have access to a computer or even my iPhone.  Why, you ask?  Because I will be getting a VIP tour of the Navy SEALs compound in Virginia Beach, and they don’t let you take cell phones with you.  For the record, that’s not a moast.  That’s a pure neener-neener outright brag.

Now, on to today’s post:

Reading Joe Moore’s excellent post on Wednesday about the importance of setting, it was interesting to see how many examples of setting were in fact taken from movies.  In the context of Kathryn Lilley’s great post about Finding Your Voice, I got to thinking about how much movies have influenced books over the years.

As a writer of commercial novels (not to be confused with lit’rateur (read that word with a New England elite accent)), I am obsessive about pacing, imagery and snappy dialogue–the holy trinity of screenwriting.  I think in scenes, making every effort to begin and end on action.  I believe in jump cuts, taking the reader from one scene to another quickly.  Even my contribution to the voice discussion focused on “camera placement” as a means of keeping POV consistent.

So, how does a writer fulfill the goals of pacing, imagery and snappy dialogue?  It’s all about voice, baby.  And voice is inexorably linked to point of view.  Consider these two descriptions of the same scene:

1. Finally, he arrived at the desert.  He stepped out of the car, stretched his back and closed his eyes, letting the heat and the dry air soak into his skin.  If he used his imagination, he could smell the aroma of purple coneflower and Easter lilly cactus carried on the constant breeze.

2. He’d arrived.  There was no putting it off anymore.  He climbed out of his car into the blistering moonscape, somehow sensing that he’d stepped two rungs lower on the food chain.  Between rattlesnakes, scorpions and a climate that sucks the moisture from your bones, this was a place for the dead, not the living.  It’s no wonder that we tested nukes here.

To my eye and ear, those examples illustrate how an author’s voice simultaneously drives action, imagery and characterization–in this case in the form of inner monologue.  At least, I think that’s what it’s called.  Through description alone, filtered through the voice of the POV character, we get a glimpse at two entirely different personality types.  In both examples we learn that we’re in the desert, and that it’s hot.  The rest is all characterization.

And for me, all else being equal, I have all I need to know about the setting for this moment in whatever story this would turn out to be.  I’ve given the reader enough to take it from here and develop it further in his or her imagination.  This is a stylistic thing for me, but once that scene is set, it’s time for the character to do something, lest the pacing slow.

People are used to experiencing thrillers–my genre–on the screen.  In order to compete, I need to provide that same kinetic experience on the page, but with the addition of deeper character development.

What do you think? Do movies affect the way books are written?  Is our addiction to entertainment from the screen the reason why thrillers from the past feel sorta slow when we read them today?

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If only…

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

It’s a miracle this blog post got written at all – I have had a ‘twin-ful’ four days of raging flu in the house (just after my husband issued those fateful words “It’s been such a good winter, the boys have hardly been sick at all – I think we dodged the bullet this time…”) that, in the interests of sanity (and because I may be slightly hallucinatory after getting very little sleep for the last three nights), I offer up a very short blog post on a topic dear to my heart – writing techniques that drive me crazy.

In Australia there used to be a show that had a segment “what cheeses me off” and I was reminded of that when reading a book (which shall remain unnamed) which fell into what I consider one of the most “cheeses-me’ off sins of all – the “if only she had turned back, she would have seen…” sin. Yes, the, let’s totally get out of POV and warn the reader of some ominous event that the character (whose POV is firmly established) could never know or realize.

Now, I’m as guilty as the next writer of including ‘ominous’ descriptions – my own personal failing appears to the weather (which is always indicative of something ill, according to my husband) but I always strive to keep within the POV and voice of the book. To step outside this, I think, is a sign of flabby writing. The ‘If only she/ he/I had known’ technique drives me nuts. In first person POV it is an obvious no-no (how could I know, what I don’t know?) but even with second or third person POV it’s a technique that irritates me. Just think how much tension is lost when you reach a crucial suspenseful moment only to read “if only she had turned round she would have seen the giant squid poised to attack….”

As I hear the dulcet tones of my little ones calling for ‘nurse mummy’, I open the floor to all of you to vent – what is the writing ‘technique’ that most cheeses you off in mysteries and thrillers??
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Quick, Catch That Voice!

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


My current WIP uses a first person perspective which is new for me. New, not only because I usually write in third person (a close third person voice I grant you), but also because this time the first person narrator is a seventeen year old. Oh and living in 1914. So last week I just rewrote the first chapter for a third time – not because I’m anal (well…) but because I hadn’t nailed the voice yet.

For any novel I think voice is important but when dealing with a first person narration it’s critical – as far as I’m concerned a reader has to fall in love, has to inhabit the ‘body and soul’ of the narrator, right from the first page or (I fear) the novel is doomed to fail.


Why did I chose the first person POV for this book? Well, almost all YA novels adopt this perspective and I think wisely so. The journey normally taken in a YA novel is, after all, a journey of self discovery, one we want the reader to identify with as closely as possible . However, once I adopted the first person it was much harder than I had anticipated to get the voice just right. I’ve had a ‘challenging’ few weeks…and the process I went through to try and establish the ‘voice’ of my protagonist Maggie Quinn was far from perfect, but here’s what I did…

  1. I reserved and read as many YA historical/paranormal books I could. I took note of how the authors approached the issue of voice and how they appeared to achieve making that voice as authenticate and compelling as possible. The best YA book I read so far was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (an awesome book which is also illustrative of the fact that great YA books are really just great adult books with strong YA characters and themes).
  2. I started compiling a backgrounder for Maggie and brainstormed ideas about her inner self – delving even deeper perhaps than I have done for other characters in previous books (but then again that may also be because my husband is convinced Ursula Marlow is actually me!).
  3. I then walked around for a week or so with Maggie in my head, ruminating on how she would act and react to things.
  4. I drafted a prologue and first chapter.
  5. Read it. Realized the voice was not there.
  6. Got despondent. Decided perhaps I should focus on research for a day or so…
  7. Tossed the prologue – don’t need one!!!
  8. Rewrote chapter one. Wrote snippets of key parts for chapters two, three and four (as an outliner I already had these place marked:))
  9. Read second draft…realize I have no talent for writing whatsoever (shit!). Got even more despondent.
  10. Watched teen movies. (John Hughes, come back!)
  11. Did more historical research….
  12. Walked around a bit more with Maggie in my head. Still despondent.
  13. Rewrote chapter one again…and then a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Maggie is finally taking form. (hmm…is that ‘lucky’ number 13??)

So how do you approach the issue of voice? How do you know when you ‘have it’ or you don’t? What challenges do you see for someone attempting a first person POV – any advice on the do’s and don’ts? I’m already realizing it’s limitations but believe it or not, I think I’m starting to finally enjoy it…until next week when I reread chapter one and decide Maggie’s voice (and my writing) sucks once more.

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When it comes to writing, what’s your point of view?

God, how I hate having to deal with point of view. Whenever I’m writing, POV feels like a technical constraint that limits expression. It forces me to make choices, to rein myself in and be disciplined. I really hate that.
And yet it’s critical that you set up POV correctly for your story. When you lose control of POV, you lose control of your story. And that’s when you lose your reader. (For an earlier discussion about POV, see our February Sunday writing blog.)
At one of my writing groups this week, we spent some time debating how to handle point of view in one of our member’s stories.

This particular story jumped in and out of the point of view of two characters within the confines of a two-person scene. On first reading, nothing seemed really wrong with the scene; I had to reread it several times to figure out why it lacked suspense and kept the reader at a distance. I finally decided that the real problem with the scene was its POV. In other words, there was way too much head-jumping going on.

So here’s a general guideline to help you avoid a POV trap:

Use only one POV per chapter or section (Sections separated by asterisks or a space).

The story we were reading in group had a POV that shifted between paragraphs (aka omniscient POV). That constant shifting created a confusing overall effect. I think it may be possible to present POV this way, but it probably takes an extremely skilled writer to pull it off. So why even play with POV fire?

Omniscient

The omniscient POV lets the writer enter each character’s head during a scene, and even lets the narrator provide direct observations. The story in my writing group is an example of a story that used an omniscient POV. It suffered from the same fate that omniscient POV stories usually do–the reader failed to engage with the characters or the story. Suspense was nonexistent.

Now that I’ve dissed the omniscient POV, however, I will admit that I’m considering using an omniscient narrative opening for my WIP thriller. In this case, the omniscient POV will function as a garnish, like the paprika sprinkled on top of the baked chicken to draw in the eye and make the dish look tasty.

First Person

Favorite of detective novel series (to the point of being cliche), the first person POV has decided pluses and minuses. It’s a very intimate POV (you know everything going on in the character’s head), but you can only know and see what that character learns and sees throughout the entire story.

It’s tempting to use first-person POV, but trust it from a writer of first-person POV mysteries, it’s incredibly awkward to try write your character into every single scene.
It’s also awkward to make sure that your character doesn’t “know” anything in the story that he or she hasn’t seen, read, or been told.

Limited Third Person

Similar to the first person POV, only it uses he/she instead of “I”. My sense is that this POV is getting less popular, but it may just be me.

Multiple Third Person

Lets the writer switch from character to character. This is probably the best choice for most thrillers. This POV lets you roam free on the range with the buffalo.

Mixed

This is a mixture of first person with multiple points of view. For example, some thrillers use a first-person POV for the bad guy while everyone else is presented in third person. This approach can help build suspense.
Second
This POV is so rare I forgot about it until Joe Moore reminded me about it in the comments just now, so I’m adding it back in. Second person POV is where the writer talks directly to the reader. No wonder it’s an unusual POV–I find it completely annoying.
To wit:
You’re walking along and then you realize someone is following you. You spin around and then…Blam-o!
Bleah.
So I’m wondering how you make your POV choices for your novels, and are there any POVs that you love? Loathe?
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