Who’s A Best-Selling Author?

Who’s A Best-Selling Author?
Terry Odell

Best-selling authors

Can you read those “Best Seller” banners at the top of the book images? Those were put there by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, not me.

Pretty impressive, right?

I should rush right out and change all my book covers so they proclaim my status. Plaster it on my website, add it to my email signature line.

But let’s step back and be realistic.

A while back, I attended a conference workshop on becoming a best-selling author, thinking I might pick up a few tips. Nothing she said was anything different than advice I’d already heard dozens of times. When I walked out was when the presenter said that if you could be in the top 100 on an Amazon genre list, you could promote yourself as a best-selling author. Note: she said “Genre List,” not overall sales. Another route was to make the top 100 in a Genre list on Amazon’s “New Releases page.”

Yes, I got those banners from Barnes & Noble and Amazon. But how?

I was fortunate to garner a BookBub Featured Deal promotion slot. For which I paid a pretty penny, mind you. Getting the BookBub acceptance is as much luck as it is having a first-rate product. They hold their algorithm cards close to the vest, but I’m convinced a lot has to do with timing, how much of a price drop you’re willing to take, and maybe reviews, although they’ll be the first to point out that many of their deals have very few reviews. In this case, my submission was for a 3-book set. The set itself didn’t have many reviews, but the individual books did, and one had won a respected award. But, it could just as easily have been numbering all the submissions in any given genre and using a random number generator to pick.

So, for one day, my Blackthorne Inc. Novels, Volume 1 was featured in the BookBub newsletter. Sales skyrocketed, which is the usual case. Not a huge moneymaker, since I’d dropped the price to 99 cents, which lowers the royalty rate (except at Nook, which pays 70% regardless of price).

Because those skyrocketing sales brought the book to #1 in 3 sub-genres, they garnered me those Best Seller banners.

Best-selling authorsBest-selling authorsBest-selling authorsDo I consider myself a best-selling author? Did I write a best-seller? No. One day’s sales, stimulated by an ad, are not my criteria for touting myself as a best-selling author. Yet I’m fully aware that there are those out there who would milk those banners for everything they’re worth.

Realistically, when I see an author I’ve never heard of touting themselves as ‘best-selling’ authors, I’m going to look up their books on Amazon. When I see that they’re ranked in the hundreds of thousands—or, in some cases, millions, I have to wonder. Odds are, they’re looking at a fleeting moment of good sales/rankings based on an ad. And that they received that ranking for a relatively obscure genre, not overall sales.

And popping back to that workshop where making the top 100 in “New Releases” was grounds for declaring oneself a best-selling author? I have a new release coming out this summer. I put it up for preorder and used BookBub for a pre-order ad. These are different from Featured Deals, and are dirt cheap in comparison. The flip side is they go only to your BookBub followers who agree to notification, so it’s a teeny-tiny pool relative to their regular newsletter. (At least it is for me, since I don’t have that many followers on BookBub.) On a positive note, when you’re a tiny fish in a big ocean, it doesn’t take very many sales to boost the new release in genre categories. Based on the workshop speaker, I’m a best-selling author because of that as well. I think my upcoming Trusting Uncertainty hit #50 in one sub genre, and hung on by its toenails in the 80s and 90s in two others.

Early on the day of the new release ad, I checked (because of course I did).

And look who else I’m sharing the stage with.

Best-selling authorsHowever, unlike Mr. Gilstrap, who has a much larger body of top-sellers, I can’t, with clear conscience, declare myself an author of best-selling books, or a best selling author. (I do, however use “award winning author” because I have won awards for my books.)

What’s your take, TKZers?


Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellNow available for Preorder. Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

When the Right Word is Wrong

When the Right Word is Wrong
Terry Odell

As writers, we deal in words. Thousands of words. And we’re always looking for the right word to use. But what happens when the right word is wrong?

For example, I was reading a draft chapter from one of my writing pals. She’d written something about a man pulling up the collar of his t-shirt to wipe sweat off his face. My comment to her was, “T-shirts don’t have collars.” Her reply was “Yes, that’s what I was taught when I took sewing classes.” I recalled that when I worked a temp job, our jackets were provided, but we were told to wear shirts with collars, and the accepted attire was either a blouse with a collar or a polo shirt, but absolutely no t-shirts. Being curious, I hit the search engines and looked up t-shirts.

Merriam-Webster said this: a collarless short-sleeved or sleeveless usually cotton undershirt; also :  an outer shirt of similar design

Wikipedia had this to say: a style of unisex fabric shirt, named after the T shape of the body and sleeves. It is normally associated with short sleeves, a round neckline, known as a crew neck, with no collar.

So, I was “right”—to a degree. Will readers stop reading to research words, especially ones they assume they know the meaning of? Not likely (as authors, we hate to pull anyone out of the read). However, some readers won’t notice it, because they consider the neckline of a t-shirt a collar. Others might hiccup, thinking the same way I did. Will it spoil the read? No.

Is there a solution? Maybe. When in doubt, I’d go with the dictionary definition. That way, if someone is puzzled enough to wonder, when they look it up, they’ll see the author was right.

Another example. My Triple-D Ranch series includes a character who runs a cooking school. I was writing a scene where she was teaching her students about the various pots and pans they’d be using. She was talking about the differences between frying pans and sauté pans (based on my trip through the Google Machine). I ran my draft by my (former) chef brother to see if I got things right. He came back and told me all my research was “wrong” because anyone trained in cooking wouldn’t use those terms, and proceeded (at some length) to set me straight. And therein lies the rub. He’s not my “target” reader, but he knows of what he speaks. Other readers might, too. And just as many would “know” that they’re right about the differences between sauté pans and frying pans. Either way, I’m right for some, and I’m wrong for some.

What did I end up writing? My instructor now says,

“Most cooking techniques and terminology we use comes from the French. However, a lot of names have been Americanized, and none of you will be ready for a fancy French restaurant simply by completing this course. You’ll be cooks, not chefs. So, I’m not going to dwell on terminology too much. As long as you can match the right tool with the right task, you’ll do fine.”

And then there’s the most important part about choosing the right word. POV.

Example 1

My characters were in a café, and it was one where customers place their orders at the counter, and the clerk hands them a metal stand with their order number on it to display on their table so the servers can find them.

First, I’d shown the heroine entering the café and placing her order.

She paid for her meal, accepted the metal holder with the number eighteen from the clerk, and found a small table in the back of the crowded café, inhaling the blend of aromas as she waited for her order to be ready.

In the next scene, the hero arrives and places his order.

At the counter, Bailey ordered a burger—a man had to eat, right?—and carried his stand with its number to Tyrone’s table.

My critique partner had trouble with the word “stand” in the second example, and asked what they were really called, and maybe I should use that definition instead.

So, I took a quick trip through Google and learned they’re called “Table Number Stands,” so my use of the term is correct.

Example 2

My character was at an event in a hotel, and she was going to leave, so she wanted to get rid of the half-empty glass she was carrying.

I’ve been to enough events at hotels or banquet halls, and I know the catering people normally have trays on stands set up at various places around the room where guests can deposit their used dishes. But I didn’t know what they were called.

But you know what? I forgot one crucial aspect. Would the character know?

What if my research showed the aforementioned table number stands were called Grabbendernummers. Then, I could have written, “Bailey carried his Grabbendernummer to the table.” But would he know that?

You see, it doesn’t really matter what you, the author knows or doesn’t know about something. It’s what the character knows. If my character with the half-empty glass were in the catering business, then yes, she’d refer to that tray by a proper name, if it had one. (And per my brother the chef and all the Googling I’d done, there isn’t a specific term for them.) So, my heroine, would simply see the tray on a stand. It might be black, or brown, or covered with linens, but she’s going to think of it as a tray.

Yes, do your research. But if you want to save a lot of time—especially if you’re easily sidetracked while looking something up—ask yourself if the character would know whatever you’re researching first. Just because the author knows (or looked up) what a particular object is called, in Deep POV, it’s the character who has to know it. The character is going to use whatever vocabulary exists in his head, not the author’s.

Are you a stickler for the correct word? Do your characters know them?


Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellNow available for Preorder. Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tips for Dealing With Character Names

Tips for Dealing With Character Names
Terry Odell

Character NamingLast week, John Gilstrap addressed coming up with character names, and there were a lot of helpful suggestions in the comments.

I tend to hit the Google Machine. “Male (or female) Names Starting with …” is a frequent search. Another thing to add to that search is the year/decade that character was born. Name trends change with time.

I had a shocking realization when seeking a name for a character in a recent book.

Names have to “match” the characters to some extent. For me, it’s a loose match. Our country is so much of a melting pot that names often don’t match one’s ethnicity, and it’s often a stereotype to try to give them “appropriate” names. I recall my daughter, when she was in middle school, asking if her friend Kiesha could come visit. What’s your first visual? Probably not the blue-eyed blonde who showed up. But if I want an ethnic name, I just add that to my Google search.

This week, I thought I’d expand on John’s topic, because coming up with names is only part of the problem. You’ve cleared the choosing names for your characters hurdle. But there are pitfalls to avoid so you don’t confuse your readers.

A tip I picked up at a workshop was the reminder that the characters should sound like their parents named them, not you.

Major warning: Names shouldn’t be too similar to other characters in the book.

This mean no Jane and Jake, or Mick and Mack, or Michael and Michelle—and that includes nicknames. If everyone calls Michael Mike, and there’s another character named Norman, but Norman’s last name is MacDonald and everyone calls him Mac, then you’re setting things up for reader confusion. I recently read a book where the author had fixated on the letter B for character names, and these were major players, not bit parts. I don’t think I ever got them straight.

Many readers see the first few letters of a character’s name and connect it to whatever image they’ve created for that character. Your character might be named Anastasia, but the reader might be thinking “The blonde woman with the A name.”

So, how do you keep track so you don’t confuse or frustrate your readers? Here’s my system.

The late Jeremiah Healy prefaced one of his workshops with a very vocal complaint about character names in books. He said, “How hard is it to take a sheet of paper, write the alphabet in two columns, and then put first names in one, last names in the other?”

Now that we’re using computers, instead of a sheet of paper, I use a simple Excel spreadsheet. When I name a character, I fill in a blank field in the appropriate line. This lets me see at a glance when I start to fixate on a letter. I hadn’t been to Healy’s workshop when I wrote What’s in a Name? but when rights reverted to me, I used the spreadsheet and was shocked at what I’d discovered. THREE characters named Hank? Okay, only two, but the third was Henry “but you can call me Hank.” I still haven’t forgiven my then editor for that one.

This is what I found when I went through the book:
(You can click to enlarge the images)

Character NamingIn addition to making minor revisions to the text, you can be sure I updated the character names. Here’s the “after” spreadsheet.

Character Naming TipsOther considerations. Foreign names might be realistic, but what if a reader is unfamiliar with the name, or its pronunciation? One of my critique partners wrote a book with a family of Irish descent, and she’s calling one of the characters Siobhan. (If I were naming a character that, the first thing I’d do would be to set up an auto correct, because I’d probably spell it wrong more often than not.) But typing it right is the author’s problem, not the reader’s. Do you know how to pronounce Siobhan? (shi-VAWN) If the author tells you, when you see the word do you “hear it” or is it strictly a visual?

(With apologies to Brother Gilstrap, I never see/hear his character Venice as Ven-EE-chay, no matter that he’s made the pronunciation clear. To me, she’s “Not Venice” in my head.)

And then, there’s a whole new set of problems. Audiobooks. When I started to put my books into audio, I had to focus on what things sound like as well as look like. In my third Triple-D Ranch book, the heroine’s ex-husband’s name is Seth. Her sister’s name is Bethany. They don’t look very similar on the page, but when spoken, I’m concerned that they’ll sound too much alike, especially if they’re in the same sentence. Or even paragraph. I don’t want my narrator stumbling (or calling them both Sethany).

All right, TKZers. Share your tips for keeping track of character names.


Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellNow available for Preorder. Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Character Descriptions – Part 2

Character Descriptions – Part 2
Terry Odell

character descriptionLast time, I gave some tips for character description. I’ll repeat them here:

  1. Remember the POV of the character.
  2. Avoid “mirror” type self-descriptions.
  3. Less can be more. Readers like to fill in the blanks.
  4. Don’t be afraid to wait for another character to do the describing.
  5. Have your descriptions do double-duty, such as revealing character.
  6. Don’t show the same traits for every character, and remember to make your characters different!

Today’s focus is on dealing with character descriptions in First Person or Deep/Close/Intimate Third (which are almost the same thing.)

I am a deep point of view person. I prefer everything to come from inside the character’s head, However, I will read—and enjoy—books written with a shallower point of view. It all comes down to the way the author handles things.

What are authors trying to convey to their readers with physical character descriptions? The obvious: hair color, length, style to some extent. Eye color. Height, weight, skin color. Moving forward, odds are the character is dressed, so there’s clothing to describe. This is all easier in a distant third POV. Using that POV, you can stop the story for a brief paragraph or two of description, a technique used by John Sandford. In a workshop, he said he didn’t like going into a lot of detail, and listed the basics that he conveys in each book, usually in a single paragraph. Here’s how he describes Lucas Davenport in Chapter 2 of Eyes of Prey, one of his early Davenport books:

Lucas wore a leather bomber jacket over a cashmere sweater, and  khaki slacks and cowboy boots. His dark hair was uncombed and fell forward over a square, hard face, pale with the departing winter. The pallor almost hid the white scar that slashed across his eyebrow and cheek; it became visible only when he clenched his jaw. When he did, it puckered, a groove, whiter on white.

But what if you want to write in deep point of view? Staying inside the character’s head for descriptions is a challenge. Is the following realistic?

Sally rushed down the avenue, her green-and-yellow silk skirt swirling in the breeze, floral chiffon scarf trailing behind her. She adjusted her Oakley sunglasses over her emerald-green eyes. When she reached the door of the office building, she finger combed her short-cropped auburn hair. Her full, red lips curved upward in a smile.

You’ve covered most of the “I want my readers to see Sally” bases, but be honest. Do you really think of yourself in those terms?

There are other ways to convey that information. First, trust that your reader will be willing to wait for descriptions. Make sure there’s a reason for the character to think about her clothes, or her hair. Maybe she just had a total makeover and isn’t used to the feel of short hair, or the new color, or the makeup job. Catching a glimpse of herself as she passes a mirror and doing a double-take is one of the few times the “Mirror” description could work for me.

Even better, use another character. Some examples of how I’ve handled it:

Here,  an ex-boyfriend has walked into Sarah’s shop and says to her:

“You look like you haven’t slept in a month. And your hair. Why did you cut it?”

“Well, thanks for making my morning.” Sarah fluffed her cropped do-it-yourself haircut. “It’s easier this way.”

Note: there’s no mention of the color. Someone else can bring it up later. Neither of these characters would be thinking of it in the context of the situation.

Later, Sarah is opening the door to Detective Detweiler. We’re still in her POV, but now we can see more about her as well as a description of the detective, and since it’s from her POV, there’s none of that ‘self-assessment’ going on.

She unlocked the door to a tall, lanky man dressed in black denim pants and a gray sweater, gripping several bulky plastic bags. At five-four, Sarah didn’t consider herself exceptionally short, but she had to tilt her head to meet his eyes.

Sometimes, there are compromises. My editor knows I don’t like stopping the story, especially at the beginning to describe characters, but she knows readers might want at least a hint.

This was the original opening paragraph I sent to my editor:

Cecily Cooper’s heart pounded as she stood in the judge’s chambers, awaiting the appearance of Grady Fenton, the first subject in her pilot program, Helping Through Horses. She’d spent months working out the details, hustling endorsements, groveling for grant monies, and had done everything in her power to convince her brother, Derek, to give Grady a job at Derek’s Triple-D Ranch.

This was my editor’s comment to that opening: Can you add a personal physical tag for Cecily somewhere on the first page—hair, what she’s wearing? There’s a lot of detail that comes later, but there should be something here to help the reader connect with her right away.

So, I figured there’s a good reason I’m paying her, and added a bit more.

Shuffling footfalls announced Grady’s arrival. Cecily ran her damp palms along her denim skirt, wishing she could have worn jeans so she’d have pockets to hide the way her hands trembled.

My reasoning: I mentioned the skirt was denim, because the fabric helps set the “cowboy” theme for the book, but there’s no more detail than that. Not how many buttons, or whether it’s got lace trim at the hem. Now, let’s say she was wearing Sally’s “girly” skirt. For Cecily, that would be far enough out of character  for her to think about it, BUT, I’d make sure to show the reader her thoughts. Perhaps,

“She hated wearing this stupid yellow-and-green silk skirt—jeans were her thing—but Sabrina told her that skirt would impress the judge.”

See the difference between that and Sally’s self description earlier?

How do you handle describing your POV characters?


Blackthorne Inc. Bundle 1A brief moment of promotion–thanks to a BookBub Featured Deal, the box set of the first three novels in my Blackthorne, Inc. series is on special this week only for 99 cents instead of $6.99. Ends the 17th. Available at Kobo, Amazon, Apple & Nook.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Character Descriptions – Part 1

Character Descriptions, Part 1
Terry Odell

When I decided to address self-description, I found that it would make for a very long post. Since everyone’s time is valuable, I opted to split it into two posts, so you’ll get more on the topic when it’s my turn again. Today, it’s a few tips for writing character descriptions.

A while back, I started reading a book I’d received at a conference. I’d never heard of the author, and was looking forward to adding this one to my collection. I love discovering new authors and new characters, and since this book was part of a series, I knew, if I enjoyed it, there would be more.

I settled in to meet the characters. The first paragraph immediately punched some of my buttons. I prefer a “deep” or “close” point of view, and if the first time I meet a character, she’s brushing her thick auburn hair away from her face, I get antsy. People don’t normally think of themselves that way. This says, “outside narrator” to me. Not a deal-breaker, but not my taste. I’m a Deep POV person.

These descriptions went on with more self description—shoving white hands into the pockets of her black jeans. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought about what color my hands are—unless I’ve been painting.

I moved on to Chapter 2. My twitchiness increased when in the first paragraph, the introduction to the character had her capturing her long raven hair and fastening it into a ponytail. When the first sentence of chapter 3 introduced a new character pulling her long blond hair into a ponytail, I hit my limit.

Yes, understand that readers like to “see” characters, and if you’re not writing in a close POV, you can describe them the way an outside narrator would see them, but readers would like to see that you can get beyond hair—or at least vary more than the color. By now, I’m not seeing different characters, I’m seeing pages full of clones of faceless, shapeless, long-haired women with ponytails.

There’s more to describing a character than hair color. There are other physical features one can mention, as well as emotional states. Here are a couple of examples, all including hair and more.

From “An Unquiet Grave,” by PJ Parrish, where the protagonist is observing another character, one he knows from the past:

“She was standing at the stove, her hands clasped in front of her apron. She had put on a few more pounds, her face round and flushed from the heat of the oven. Her hairstyle was the same, a halo of light brown hair, a few curls sweat-plastered to her forehead.”

Another, this from “Rapture in Death” by JD Robb, who writes in an omniscient POV:

“The man was as bright as Roarke was dark. Long golden hair flowed over the shoulders of a snug blue jacket. The face was square and handsome with lips just slightly too thin, but the contrast of his dark brown eyes kept the observer from noticing.”

Or here, from “Rain Fall” by Barry Eisler, written in 1st person POV, where hair is a major part of the description of the main POV character, but it’s showing more than a simply physical description—and readers haven’t “seen” the POV character before this from page 7—we don’t need to know what he looks like from page 1, paragraph 1.

“When I returned to Tokyo in the early eighties, my brown hair, a legacy from my mother, worked for me the way a fluorescent vest does for a hunter, and I had to dye it black to develop the anonymity that protects me now.”

When I’m writing, I prefer to use very broad strokes and wait until another character does the describing. My editor and I go back and forth about how much time I should spend describing my heroine in my opening paragraphs “because readers like it” versus “it’s not how people think of themselves.” I know we’ll see her through the hero’s eyes in chapter 2, just as we’ll see him through her eyes. So, in my first chapter, in paragraph 1, readers see her emotional state. The only description comes in the second paragraph:

Or (not to put myself in a league with the above quoted authors), a quick sample from one of my books. The character is on her way to a job interview.

“She refreshed her makeup, then finger-combed her hair, trying to get her curls to behave.”

Does it matter what color her hair is? She certainly knows and isn’t going to be thinking of it—unless she’s changed it for a reason, such as in the Eisler quote. We know she cares about grooming because she’s stopped to check her appearance before her interview. She wears makeup, which reveals something about her character, and she’s got unruly curls. That’s enough for page 1.

My tips:

  1. Remember the POV of the character.
  2. Avoid “mirror” type self-descriptions.
  3. Less can be more. Readers like to fill in the blanks.
  4. Don’t be afraid to wait for another character to do the describing.
  5. Have your descriptions do double-duty, such as revealing character.
  6. Don’t show the same traits for every character, and remember to make your characters different!

Do you have any other tips to share? Pet peeves?


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Deadly Options

Are Gordon’s Days in Mapleton Numbered?

Deadly Options, a Mapleton Mystery/Pine Hills Police crossover.

Enough Already

Enough Already
Terry Odell

info dumpingI talked about repetition in my last post. Today, another peeve along similar lines, triggered by the same author that bugged me enough to write that previous post. I understand (and agree) that sometimes telling is more efficient than showing. But how much? While I can understand an author’s  desire to make sure the reader understands background, I’m not fond of his technique, which is to step in as the author and provide details that don’t seem worth stopping forward motion.

Michael Connelly feeds in background, but it never pulls me out of the story. This author, also writing a police procedural, isn’t pulling it off as well.

The two cops in the story—typical detective tropes: old, fat, donut eating guy just counting down to retirement, and the young, attractive female, recently promoted to detective—answer a call to a home where a neighbor says she saw blood. The cops take a look, and the newbie says, “Exigent circumstances?” Now, both cops know what this means, but the author decides to spend a paragraph explaining it. If the author wants to show the reader, why not have one of the cops explain it to the neighbor who wants to know why they’re not rushing right in?

Then there’s stopping the story for reflection. Two cops looking into a possible murder scene. Is this the time for one of them to reflect on what her siblings dressed up as on Halloween? And do we need to know the ages of those siblings? Is it important? Maybe. Is it important now? I don’t think so. Skimming right along.

Given the possible victims have connections to the movie industry, one of the witnesses mentions a possible suspect who’s a grip. She very nicely explains that a grip “moves lights and carries stuff on movie sets.”

That’s fine. Makes sense for her to explain it to the cops, but then the author takes us on another trip down memory lane while the rookie cop reflects on a family member who was also a grip, and how he was related, how often he visited, and what he brought them for Christmas. I’d call this a “stay in the phone booth with the gorilla” moment.

Details about what kind of magnets are holding up what kind of artwork on the fridge don’t move the story forward. The fact that there’s blood spatter on one of those pieces of art does.

In an attempt to give the readers information, the author has a scene between the rookie detective and the head of the Crime Scene Unit. It’s clear the author has researched the subject and wants to make sure readers know it, but how many readers care that the techs test stains they think are blood with tetramethylbenzidine? Just “We ran a test to confirm they’re blood” would probably work for 90% of readers. And do I want to know that they used HemDirect to tell if the blood was animal or human? Again, a simple “We determined the blood was human” would probably be sufficient. And this type of conversation went on and on for the entire chapter. We see the rookie detective using her knowledge, but her thoughts seem to be on the page as a way to explain—or over-explain—things for the reader. Or, worse, showcase the author’s research. Research should be like pepper. You don’t want to overwhelm the dish.

I’m also bothered by a lot of the roadmap descriptions. I don’t really care what street a sheriff’s station is on, or that the street runs alongside the southern edge of the 101 freeway. I’m direction-challenged, so telling me a hotel is seventy miles north of Los Angeles (even through I grew up there) doesn’t add anything. It makes me stop and try to imagine a map, thus pulling me out of the story. Unless you’re familiar with the city, seeing the turn-by-turn route a character takes won’t add anything to the story. Going into detail about how long it would take to get from point A to point B in varying traffic conditions, unless there’s a plot-related reason is just another speed bump. Even the Hubster, who has a much higher tolerance level for things that bother me, complained about the overdone roadmap scenes.

Where do you draw the line between description and info dumping?  Genre matters, of course, but in commercial fiction, especially mysteries, thrillers, and action-adventure, too much might be as bad as too little.


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Deadly Options

Are Gordon’s Days in Mapleton Numbered?

Deadly Options, a Mapleton Mystery/Pine Hills Police crossover.

Reminders or Repetition

recorder

Image by Andreas Lischka from Pixabay

When I was finally able to travel after my vaccinations earlier this month, I visited my mom. She’s 95 and has cognitive issues. (And vision issues, and hearing issues, but she’s 95 and has survived COVID.) Carrying on a conversation with her is a challenge. She’ll ask a question, you’ll answer, and a minute later, she’ll ask the same question. It doesn’t take long before you feel like you could record your answer and set it to play back while you go do something else. Of course, she has no idea she’s repeating herself.

Repetition is something to watch out for in our writing as well. One lesson learned early on was, “Don’t tell readers something they already know.” But, as writers, we often want to make sure our readers understand a point we’re making, and we repeat it. But when is it too much? What’s the best way to handle it?

repetition or reminderAn extreme example: A long time ago, in one of my first critique groups, one author’s character was an activist, giving speeches all over the country. The author had done a good job of writing the speech and the readers ‘heard’ it all on the page (or several pages, as I recall). But then, when the character made the next stop, the author repeated the entire speech verbatim. You can imagine that by the third or fourth delivery of the speech, the reader was tuning out. Now, the author was also adding some new material to the speech, but would the reader stick with it to get to the end of the already way-too-familiar territory to see what was added? Probably not. The group suggested that the only thing the author needed to show was the new stuff.

I’ve been seeing the same issues in a series of mystery novels I’ve been reading. Cop Bob interviews a suspect, Jim. Then, when he reports to his partner—let’s call her Mary—he repeats all the information he’s gleaned. Skim time.

If you’re writing multiple points of view, any time your POV characters are separated, only one of them knows what’s going on. If you’re in a Bob POV scene, it’s easy enough to handle. But what if you’re Mary’s POV when Bob tells her what Jim said? You don’t want to repeat the conversation. AND, you don’t want to repeat the same plot points from the previous scene. No matter what the “rules” say, there’s nothing wrong with telling in order to get information to the reader—it’s when the telling becomes back story dumping that you’ll run into problems.

You need to move things forward. You can recap in narrative in a few words. “Mary listened as Bob told her Jim had admitted to being in the shop when the robbery took place. She cut him off before he went into every detail about who else had been there, and who bought what.”

Start your showing from there, dealing with the critical plot points for this particular scene.

An example from In Hot Water, one of my Triple-D Ranch romantic suspense books. In the genre, it’s expected to have alternating POVs. Here, the heroine, Sabrina, isn’t always with Derek, the hero. When the hero’s scene has him learning about a possible attack on his ranch, he and his team go over the possible ramifications, discuss plans of action. Now, when Sabrina gets her POV scene, the reader already knows all of this. But in her POV, she’s learning all new stuff. She needs to be brought up to speed. There will have to be some repetition, but it’s also important to have her add something to the mix. Does she bring up a point the guys didn’t think of? (One hopes so!) Is this attack going to affect her differently than it does the men? Show that.

Another aspect of repetition is to remind readers of things they might have forgotten, especially if they’re going to be important later. Did you foreshadow it? How long has it been since this information was relayed to the reader? Do they need a reminder? After all, much as an author hates to admit it, readers don’t always sit down with a book and read from page one to the end in a single sitting.

In a mystery, the cops/detectives are going to be reviewing the case, recapping old information along with introducing new facts. This can help the readers remember. It also lets the author sneak in red herrings and hide the “real” clues in plain sight.

Bottom line: Give the information in a new way. Add something new beyond straight repetition. Keep moving the story forward.


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Deadly Options

Are Gordon’s Days in Mapleton Numbered?

Deadly Options, a Mapleton Mystery/Pine Hills Police crossover.

Fun Hunting A Killer

Fun Hunting A Killer
Terry Odell

Hunt a Killer

(No, I haven’t forgotten that it’s St. Patrick’s Day. More about that at the end of this post).

Thanks to stumbling across a friend’s post on Facebook, the Hubster and I discovered a new project. We’d gone the jigsaw puzzle route, but this was something different.

What are we doing? Solving a murder. It’s called Hunt A Killer. What is it? A detective game. You can play alone or with others.

Here’s the setup:

Private investigator Michelle Gray needs your help with yet another perplexing mystery. A woman named Julia Adler has recently found a mummified corpse in the attic of her family-owned theater. The remains belong to the famed actress Viola Vane, who notoriously disappeared in 1934. Now that Vane’s body has been unearthed after decades, you can finally investigate the million-dollar question: Who orchestrated the vanishing of Viola Vane?

Here’s how it works:

Each episode ends with your action to piece together another aspect of the overall mystery. In Curtain Call, this isn’t just about finding evidence and eliminating suspects. You’ll be called upon to uncover all aspects of the case – including the suspects’ secrets and their relationships to Viola, as well as to one another. Follow your contact’s assignments to advance the investigation, but examine every document closely to reveal the full story of the Cadence Theatre.

Hunt A KillerOnce a month, for six months, we get a box of evidence and clues. Of course, some will be red herrings. Each box comes with an objective. For box one, it was to determine the murder weapon. We sifted through forensics reports, newspaper clippings, theater programs, stage notes. There are more clues on the website dedicated to each crime. Of course, finding the monthly objective isn’t enough, because each month’s evidence will build on the previous months’.

Hunt A KillerWe’ve set up a murder board (honestly, I think this is what convinced the Hubster this could be fun), solved different kinds of ciphers, started a timeline, come up with potential suspects, worked on the relationships between everyone…and there’s more.

Since this is an 80-year-old case (created for the game), there are no survivors who can answer questions. We have to rely on what’s in our evidence boxes, or on the website where some more transcripts and pictures might be hiding more clues. Oh, and there are Facebook groups for each episode where people can ask questions if they’re stumped. It’s moderated to avoid spoilers.

Did the forensic anthropologist leave out relevant information? Who wrote the rehearsal notes? Is the shopping list jotted in the middle of those notes a clue? Do the dog roses refer to an incident in the play as an inside joke for the cast and crew, or will they be important? What about the letters to “Dear Dorothy” in the newspaper clipping? Why did the understudy take over Viola’s role? There’s a ton of information to sift through, and this is only box 1!

In addition to the game itself, they give you drink recipes and a Spotify playlist to get you in the mood. And gifts. We got a cocktail recipe book and two copper mugs.

Hunt A KillerWe’ve been having as much fun testing the libations as we have trying to interpret evidence.

We’ve only completed the first box so I can’t go into much more detail. If you want to move faster, there’s the option to expedite the next box once you’ve met the objective, but we’re letting things play out on the monthly schedule because there’s so much more to ferret out. I’m not going to go into specifics about what we’ve discovered in case anyone here at TKZ wants to give this a try. If you’re writing mysteries, you should already have the mindset for crime solving, and it’s a great way to keep those deductive processes honed.

Disclaimer: I’m sharing this because the Hubster and I have been having so much fun, and I thought some TKZers might like to know about it. (Of course, there are probably a bunch of you out there who wonder why I’m so late to the party.) I get nothing from the company for talking about their program.

St. Patrick's Day

As promised: Since it’s St. Patrick’s Day, I thought you might be interested in how it’s celebrated in Northern Ireland, where my daughter lives. Hint: There’s no green beer.


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Deadly Options

Are Gordon’s Days in Mapleton Numbered?

Deadly Options, a Mapleton Mystery/Pine Hills Police crossover.

Branding. It’s Not Just for Cows.

Branding. It’s Not Just for Cows.
Terry Odell

Author BrandingWhat is author branding? When I attended a SleuthFest conference, one of the invited guests was Neil Nyren, a top gun at Penguin Putnam. I did a workshop on Point of View, and served on several panels. My latest releases that year were my three Triple-D Ranch books, and when I was “working” I wore my cowboy boots and hat. (I live in Colorado: the boots are my dress shoes, and the hats are common attire.)

The next day, I wasn’t on any panels, and I’d left my hat in the room. I strolled across the lobby, and Mr. Nyren called out, “Terry. Where’s your hat?” (First shock was that he knew my name, because I was too far away for him to read my nametag.) I said it was in my room, because I wasn’t on any panels, and he said, “It’s your brand. Wear it.”

Needless to say, when a top gun at a major publishing house gives you advice, you take it. So, I went upstairs, got my hat, and wore it through the rest of the conference. Side perk—saves time and trouble messing with your hair.

Author branding can be how an author dresses. But that’s not all, especially now that we’re not getting out and about much.

Used to be, you looked at books in a bookstore window, on special displays, or on the shelves, where the ones placed face out could catch your eye. If you were looking at spines, perhaps a title caught your eye, or the name of a familiar author. If the cover enticed, you’d move to the back cover copy, or the jacket flap copy, and then maybe flip through the book. But, odds are, it was the cover that started the process.

Now, even though many book purchases are made from on-line bookstores, the cover is still vital, because books have an everlasting shelf life. Even “old” books are new to many readers. And the cover is just as important, if not more so, than in the brick and mortar stores.

If your publisher creates your cover, you probably have very little input on covers. For most traditional publishers, their stand is usually, “Did we spell your name right? Is the title right?” Beyond that, you learn to live with it.

But if you’ve got rights back, or are creating an original title to publish yourself, you have to understand the importance of good, professional-looking cover art.

I published three books in a romantic suspense series for a traditional publisher that sold primarily to libraries. Although they employed an art department, the tended to look at each book as an island unto itself. This is what they did for my three books with them:

Author BrandingAlthough there’s nothing “bad” about any of the covers, there’s no continuity. No author branding. Nothing that says ‘This is a Blackthorne, Inc. book by Terry Odell.’ And with all the competition out there, you need that author branding.

As digital rights for each book became available to me, and as I continued the series as an indie author, I hired a cover artist to try to make them look more connected, while keeping the same overall design. (And, it never hurts to get an award noted on the cover.)

Author BrandingAn issue I discovered came after Amazon added an “Action Adventure” category under the romance umbrella. I was picking up readers who were unaware they were getting a romantic suspense, and they were leaving reviews saying they didn’t approve of the sex. Romance readers not only don’t mind, most expect it. Thus, it’s important that the cover reflect the genre.

Even though these were romantic suspense books, I wasn’t a romance reader, and didn’t care for covers with couples embracing, or, as was popular at the time, the “floating heads.” (See Where Danger Hides in the first iteration.) I had my cover artist get rid of that right away.

It’s a hard lesson, but authors need to learn that a book cover is a marketing decision, and requires an entirely different skill set from writing. Finding that perfect scene to depict on the cover isn’t necessarily a wise move.

So, even though I had my cover artist redesign my first three Blackthorne books to connect all of them, and do an original cover for the 4th, it wasn’t until I wrote book 5 that I accepted  the reality that a “hunk” on the cover was more indicative of a romance, plus, research showed that readers liked to connect with a “character” so I followed that for subsequent books.

After all, the cover needs to clue the reader in to the genre of the book, and based on reviews, a lot of people weren’t expecting the romance–and they were vocal about it. (They could have read the book description, but we won’t go there!)

My concern before changing any covers, which is why I delayed the process as long as I did, was I didn’t want readers to think I’d put out a new book and then be upset when they found out they’d already bought it. However, for the sake of author branding, I decided it was time to take the plunge, and I would add a note to the book descriptions of all the titles with revised covers that it was simply a new cover, not a new book.

Decision made, I asked Kim Killion of The Killion Group to bring things up to speed, and she revamped the first four in the series to bring them up to speed with the last four. I wanted the romance angle more up front, and for the books to say “series.”

Author BrandingAny authors whose branding resonates with you? What’s your brand?

**After Debbie’s great post about character interviews yesterday, I thought I’d share a couple of auditions I did with my characters for their roles in When Danger Calls. It was a freebie for newsletter subscribers a while back. If you’re interested, you can find it here.


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Deadly OPtions e-Reader
Are Gordon’s Days in Mapleton Numbered?

Now available for pre-order. Deadly Options, a Mapleton Mystery/Pine Hills Police crossover.

Beware the “ING” Construction

Beware the “ING” Construction
Terry Odell

ING constructionI know this topic was mentioned recently, and apologies for not being able to find the post to credit the author. Perhaps it came up in the comments. No matter the source, I thought this craft topic worth another look, especially after a recent read.

We all have our favorite sentence construction. For the author in question, the book was overrun with sentences starting with gerund phrases – those “ing” words.

At the very first writer’s conference I attended, an agent said she would reject a query with more than 1 sentence beginning with the “ing” construction. Her explanation—it’s too easy to make mistakes with that sentence structure.

What mistakes? We’ve been told that construction with “was/ing” is a sign of weak writing. He was running. She was dancing. It’s stronger to say “He ran” (or sped, or rushed). Or “She danced” (or pirouetted, or waltzed, or sashayed) But there are more ways overusing gerunds can get you into trouble.

Dangling and misplaced modifiers. (Note. You don’t have to be able to know which is which, as long as you know they’re wrong and how to fix them.) A misplaced modifier is too far away from the thing it’s supposed to modify, while a dangling modifier’s intended subject is missing from the sentence altogether.

First, the misplaced modifier. In my first crit group, I held the prize for creating an answering machine that gave neck massages. I’d written, “Rubbing her neck, the blinking red light on the answering machine caught Sarah’s eye.” Ooops. (But I would like a machine with that function!)

Make sure the noun or pronoun comes immediately after the descriptive phrase. Thus, the above example could be “Rubbing her neck, Sarah noticed the blinking red light on the answering machine.”

And example of a dangling modifier: “Walking into the room, the smell was overpowering.” Corrected, it could become, “Walking into the room, they encountered an overpowering smell.”

Next, and the one this post-inspiring author was most guilty of: the non-simultaneous action. “Running across the clearing, John dove into the tent.” Or, “Opening the door, Mary tripped down the stairs.”

John can’t be getting into the tent while he’s running across the clearing. And Mary needs to open the door before she goes downstairs.

When you’re looking over your manuscript, you might want to flag words ending in “ing” and take another look to be sure you haven’t made any of these basic errors.

ING Construction

If you’re using Word, you can do a “find” using wild cards to flag words ending in “ing.” In Word, which is what I use, it’s Edit/Find/More. Then check the “use wildcards” box, and then special, where you’ll find the command for end of word, which is the > symbol.

That means, you should type ing> into the search box. Then you can either look at them one at a time, or check the “highlight all items found in:” box. True, you’ll get words that aren’t gerunds that end in ‘ing’ – thing, building, etc., but it’ll give you a place to start.

Any examples to share–from your own reading or writing?

OK, one more thing, a brag moment. The Mapleton Mystery Novellas was selected as a top pick for 2020 at Kings River Life Magazine.

 

 


Deadly OPtions e-ReaderAre Gordon’s Days in Mapleton Numbered?

Now available for pre-order. Deadly Options, a Mapleton Mystery/Pine Hills Police crossover.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.