Write Like You’re in Love, Edit Like You’re in Charge

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Several years ago I tweeted the words that are the title of this post. The phrase went viral (is there such a thing as going bacterial? I’m done with viruses!) It got passed around and was picked up by the great writing tips author Jon Winokur (@AdviceToWriters). The phrase aptly sums up my approach to writing a novel.

I thought today I’d unpack it a little, and ask for your responses.

Write Like You’re in Love

Coming up with a great idea, one that gets your nerve endings buzzing, is like love at first sight. You’re giddy. You can’t wait to spend precious months with this new romance.

When you start writing it’s all champagne and moonlight walks on the beach.

But then, out of the blue, you find yourself in an argument. The book is resisting you. Or vice versa.

Usually this happens to me around the 30k mark. I start to think maybe this isn’t going to work out after all.

You say to the book, “You’re not giving me what I need.”

And the book says, “This is how you treat me? After all I’ve done? I’ve given you the best pages of my life!”

Fortunately, I’ve found this little dustup to be only temporary. Let me suggest two ways to kiss and make up with your novel.

First, go more deeply into the characters. Pick any one of them (and not necessarily your Lead) and write some backstory. Create more of their history and use that to come up with a secret or a ghost.

A secret is simply that which the character doesn’t want anyone to know about, for some personal reason related to backstory.

A ghost is an event from the past that haunts the character in the present, and causes the character to act in certain ways. It’s best to let those actions happen without an immediate reveal. It creates mystery for the reader, always a good thing.

Five or ten minutes with these brainstorms will get your story juices flowing again. You’ll want to keep writing just to see what happens to these people!

Second, jump ahead and write a scene you feel excited about. Write it for all it’s worth. Then drop back and pick up the story and figure out a way to get to that scene.

These tips will help keep the love fires burning, like bringing the wife flowers even when it isn’t Valentine’s Day.

(Also see my post “When Writers Hit the Wall.”)

Edit Like You’re in Charge

Once you have a complete draft, you move into the hard-scrapple world of revision. And here you need a system.

The late Jeremiah Healy was a popular author-speaker on the conference circuit. In one of my writing books I found a clipped page from a newsletter I used to get called Creativity Connection. I’d saved it because it was a summary of one of Healy’s talks. In it he described his system of approach after writing a first draft:

  • He set aside the draft for a month.
  • He printed out a hard copy and read it through in one day, not making a marks on the manuscript (“Once you start, you won’t be able to stop.”)
  • He looked for “holes in the plot, underdeveloped characters, anomalies, and inconsistencies.”
  • He edited the draft to address any problems.
  • He next submitted it to three beta readers. “One should be an intelligent general reader. The second should be familiar with your genre. The third should be the dumbest bunny you can find.”
  • Then another edit, based on this feedback.
  • Finally, create the “cinderblock manuscript.” By this he meant the final polish on the old-school paper manuscript you used to submit to a publisher (the shape of a cinderblock). He worked especially hard on the first three pages. “When agents—who get buried in 50 manuscripts a week—decide which of the ‘cinderblock’ manuscripts to take home and read, they do so by reading the first three pages. It may be harsh, but it’s not arbitrary. Eighty-five percent of book buyers decide their purchases by applying the same test.”

That’s a good system, and very close to the one I use myself.

And systems can often be improved by adding a formula. Here’s one I’ll leave you with. It came in an early rejection letter the young (1966) Stephen King received from a science fiction magazine. It was a form rejection, but the nice editor had scribbled the following on it:

“Not bad, but puffy. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”

Now it’s your turn. How do you keep the love as you make your way through the first draft? Do you have a system for revision?

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True Crime Thursday – Smuggling Contraband into Prison by Drone

 

Photo credit: Kal Visuals-Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

So, you’re back on the street after doing time in the federal pen in Fort Dix, New Jersey. You want to earn a little extra income, presumably to pay your defense attorney, and to supply your buddies who are still inside. Nothing big, just cigarettes, cell phones, heroin, and fentanyl.

Why not use a drone to deliver packages—just like Amazon?   

Jason Ateaga-Loayza, AKA “Juice”, must have thought that was a good business plan even though he was on supervised release from Fort Dix, a low-security federal correctional facility.

Between October 2018 and June 2019, Juice and several co-conspirators smuggled contraband by drone into the prison. Juice communicated by cell phone texts with an accomplice who was still incarcerated. The accomplice took orders from inmates and collected payments. Juice gathered the requested items and stored them in his home. Then he and other accomplices hid in the woods surrounding Fort Dix and operated a drone from there, dropping packages inside the prison at night. They taped over the lights on the drone to prevent detection.

Evidently the operation succeeded for a while…until FBI agents searched Juice’s home. Officers turned up a closetful of empty cell phone boxes and tobacco containers matching items that had previously been dropped inside the prison. They also found enough heroin and fentanyl to charge him with possession with intent to distribute.

In April, 2021, Juice pleaded guilty to several charges and is scheduled for sentencing in September, 2021.

His high-flying entrepreneurial venture has been grounded.

~~~

 

 

Bad guys use a drone to surveil the good guys in Debbie Burke’s thriller Eyes in the Sky

Buy at Amazon or major online retailers. 

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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.

+8

TKZ Marketing Survey – Part 2

By Debbie Burke

 @burke_writer

 

On Saturday, Steve Hooley kicked off Part 1 of the TKZ Marketing Survey. Today, I’ll cover the rest of the results and sum up our findings.

Before we get started, please indulge me for a moment. Back in November, I wrote about my good friend astrophysicist Sarah Rugheimer who’d been selected to deliver a TED talk. Several readers asked when her talk would go live. Yesterday was the day! Congratulations, Sarah! Here’s the link. 

~~~

Garry Rodgers’s answers (indie pub):

What is your goal with marketing?

 Two things which are intertwined. One is to sell more books (products). The other is to increase discoverability. Increasing my discoverability by distributing my brand in as many places as possible organically sells more books. By selling more books, I create read-through which increases my discoverability. Never underestimate the power of “word-of-mouse”.

What marketing do you do?

 I’ve appeared on many podcasts and blog interviews. I can’t say I’ve ever struck gold from one, but each exposure increases discoverability. (“You are the worst writer I’ve ever heard of.” “Yes. But you have heard of me.”)

 Blogging – Website

 Blogging is *BY FAR* the best ROI I’ve ever had. That includes my own blog at DyingWords, the Kill Zone posts, and many guest pieces I’ve done on other sites. Recently, I was “found” by a NYC film producer who landed on one of my old posts.  It led to discussions and to a potential NetFlix series which I’m outlining a proposal for as we speak.

 Newsletter

 I have 2100 subscribers on my mailing list, and I send out a new blog post every second Saturday – consistently. I get about 500 click-throughs so I’m happy with that. I’m in a publishing cycle of 1 book every 2 months so I put a post out promoting the release. However, when I look at my sales stats right after a newsletter, I don’t see any spike. I know the gurus say “Mailing List Mailing List Mailing List” but I’m not seeing it directly tied to sales spikes – It’s the long term exposure and a slow reader growth that pays off.

 Which social media platforms?

I do Facebook for personal laughs and Twitter for sharing writing stuff and making connections. I have an author FB page but haven’t done anything with it which is likely why there’s no return on it. I have a friend who writes under the pen name Chevy Stevens (because her real name is too hard to pronounce) who has killer FB returns and is her main reader connection. Twitter has been good for making personal connections in the writing business, but I can’t say it’s sold anything directly.

Paid ads

Now we’re talking returns. Pay-to-play ads are THE Thing that works for me. My money-maker is my based-on-true-crime series which is at Book #8. I have about 20 publications out there, but the read-through from the series is working very well. I have book 1 as perma-free and pay to advertise it on the discount newsletters – Ereader News Today (ENT) is the best payback. Last campaign resulted in 5K downloads and generated a read-through which brought a 3 to 1 return on investment. The other good returns are from Robin Reads, Fussy Librarian, Free Booksy, Bargain Booksy, Book Doggy, and Book Gorilla. I’ve tried one BookBub ad which was a flop and I have yet to try FB and AZ ads.

Conferences – networking

I’ve never been to a live writing conference. I was going to go to Bouchercon last year but you-know-who showed up and threw a wrench into the travel spokes. I’ve taken in a bunch of online conferences and webinars but you don’t get personal connections this way – at least not from my experience. I’ve cold-called high profile people on Twitter and have had surprisingly good results in having them guest appear on my blogsite.

Others

Absolutely nothing beats building a backlist and creating read-through. “Write More Books” is the best advice I’ve ever gotten, and that’s where I put most of my efforts at the moment. I changed my mindset last February to treat my writing like a business and not a hobby. I credit Adam Croft for this. Adam and I have been personal friends for ten years – I say back when Adam wasn’t famous and I still had color in my hair. Adam’s book, The Indie Author Mindset, https://www.amazon.com/Indie-Author-Mindset-changing-transform-ebook/dp/B07FZ3X349/  is a MUST-READ for any indie who intends to “make it” in this biz.

 “Going Wide” is another must-do tactic. I started on Kobo and Nook last April and have had over 30K downloads in 66 different countries since then. Yes, many are freebies but the discoverability and read-through in paid sales has been remarkable – truly rewarding and motivating to write more books.

For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?)

I keep a journal/daily log where I track my time in 15 minute blocks. On a good writing day, I get in 3,000 – 3,500 words and I write about 1,000 words per hour so that’s 3 – 3.5 solid writing hours per day. Most days I put in 8 – 10 hours of solid time in what I call the four Ps – Production, Publishing, Promotion, and Perfection. Production is about 5 days per week. Publishing goes in spurts – 1 book every 2 months. Promotion is all the time – here, there & everywhere – every action is some sort of promotion (like this). Perfection never happens but what I mean by this is craft improvement. I read a lot and across the board, not just genre specific. I just finished a book titled “Profiles In Folly” which is about world-changing stupid things done by influential people. Hopefully, I don’t appear in the sequel.

For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective?

Write more books is the most effective. Pay-to-play ads is second. Networking with influencers who can increase discoverability is a close third.

What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above?

These publications: “Indie Author Mindset” – Adam Croft, “On Writing” – Stephen King, “Elements of Style” – Strunk & White, “Wired For Story” – Lisa Cron, “Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us” – Jessica Page Morrell, “Self-Editing For Fiction Writers” – Dave King & Renni Browne, and “Think And Grow Rich” – Napoleon Hill.

What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic?

I have to say the pandemic was the best thing ever for my writing business. It was coincidental that I changed my mindset last February just before this thing hit, but I increased my output and promotions. I think more people had more time to read and were looking for new stuff as well as more people turning to ebooks because they couldn’t get out to the bricks & mortar stores – plus they also got comfortable with ereading devices. So it was the perfect storm that propelled me from zero to hero. I can’t wait for the next wave. Bring it!  J

Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over?

I would have taken this more seriously far earlier. You can’t turn back the clock of reality – only go forward with the flow and write more books. Write, publish, repeat – as they say.

Where do you sell your books?

Amazon – 70%. Kobo – 29. Nook – 1%. I’m going to publish on Apple and Google this year. Plus look into print and audio options. Amazon is strong in the US and the UK, but Kobo (Rakutan) has immense world-wide reach. Nook is barely worth the effort however I hear great things about Apple.

 Series with a permafree first issue really works. And you’ve got to keep your name out there – you never know when Netflix comes calling.

~~~

Joe Hartlaub’s answers (trad pub):

What is your goal with marketing? Get my name out there.

What marketing do you do or participate in? Zoom interviews, blogging at killzoneblog.com,

Facebook, networking at Bouchercon.

For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?) Irregularly, unfortunately.

For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective? Blogging and networking.

What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above? Just getting out there and learning along the way.

What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic? No Bouchercon!

Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over? I would have started getting involved with the writing community earlier than I did.

~~~

Sue Coletta’s answers (trad pub):

What is your goal with marketing? To reach a wider audience.

What marketing do you do or participate in? Speaking – Zoom – Podcasts – Book Tours – interviews – Blogging – Website – Newsletter – Social media – Conferences – networking

All of the above. I’ve done Zoom book events, appeared on podcasts, blog tours, interviews, and in-person appearances (in the nice weather). I blog on TKZ and my site, Murder Blog. If it weren’t for my website/blog, I would’ve missed out on so many amazing opportunities. Some authors say writers don’t need to blog, but I disagree. We all need a home base where readers/agents/publishers can find you, and social media is NOT a home base. Last year, I buckled down to write a separate newsletter for readers (I’ve always sent blog-related newsletters), and the response has been positive so far. Networking with other writers is key. The writing community is a generous, kind, funny, little crazy tribe, and I wouldn’t trade any of them. J

 For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?) Depends if I have a new release or what I’m doing. Zoom events take a lot longer than, say, social media marketing.

For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective? I think it’s all important. I view marketing as a sum of its parts (blogging, social media, book signings, etc). Most effective? Appearances, either in person or virtual.

What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above? Other writers. Nine times out of ten, a writer will share advice with another writer. It’s what we do.

What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic? I’ve done a lot more virtual events than in person. Now that I’m fully vaccinated (yay!) I’ve booked my usual venues for the upcoming season.

 Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over? Too many things to mention. Top answer: Plan where you want to see your career in five years, ten years, fifteen years. Then be patient and choose an agent or house that can help you achieve your goals.

~~~

Debbie Burke’s answers (indie pub):

What is your goal with marketing? Connect PERSONALLY with as many readers as possible b/c I strongly believe in old-fashioned word-of-mouth recommendations. That is more rewarding to me than 10K followers I’ll never meet. I’d like to sell more books but thankfully I don’t depend on writing income to survive.

What marketing do you do? Zoom discussions with book clubs and educational presentations for writing groups. Radio and newspaper interviews in my local area.

Blogging – Website Not as much as I should for my own blog/website. Most blogging is for TKZ.

Social media – Twitter only for name recognition. I doubt that generates sales.

Paid ads – In the past, I’ve bought cheap ads ($50 and under) directed to mystery/thriller genre readers. Never broke even. Trying out some of Garry’s strategies and will report back later. 

A personal observation – I’m deluged with constant ads and am sick of them. I rarely buy any product solely b/c of an ad. Most of the time, I delete w/o reading them. I suspect I’m not alone in that feeling. 

Conferences – In the past, in-person appearances/workshops at conferences.

Networking – most speaking invitations come from networking with people I know or have met from previous appearances.

Others – I have had good luck partnering with other authors for appearances. Two other authors and I give presentations as the “Montana Women of Mystery.”

For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?)

Speaking, classes, workshops – 5+ hours prep time per event plus presentation time. Blogging – 10+ hours/month.

Social media – 1 hour/month.

For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective? At book clubs, close to 100% of participants buy books, but numbers are small since most clubs have fewer than 20 members. For general speaking appearances, 20-25% of participants buy books. In 2017-2019, blogging on TKZ resulted in significant sales spikes but tapered off in 2020-2021. I suspect any TKZ regulars who are interested have already bought my books so that market is somewhat saturated. However, exposure and repetition are still important. When readers see my name regularly, like blogging on TKZ every other week, they think of me. I just spoke to a mystery group in Arizona that found me through TKZ.

What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above? JSB’s book Marketing for Writers Who Hate Marketing; Jane Friedman’s blog; Dave Chesson’s Kindlepreneur; Authors Guild discussion groups; asking other authors what works for them; trial and error.

What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic? Zoom instead of in-person appearances. Zoom allows meeting with groups outside my local area. I’m increasing those promotions b/c appearances work better for me than advertising. 

Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over? I wish I’d gotten my rights back sooner from the original publisher and rereleased the book independently.

My sales are not great but I only have so much time and energy. I’d rather concentrate on writing more books. Now that six are available, I’m increasing promotion and see a gradual but steady increase in sales. Readers of my prior books are repeat customers. My following is small but loyal and growing. I still feel producing more product is more important than advertising.

Where do you sell your books? For several years, my books were exclusive with Amazon but there is no longer any advantage to exclusivity. Several months ago (prompted by Garry and Terry), I “went wide” and books are now for sale at B&N, Kobo, Apple, and other online markets through Draft2Digital – too soon to see results but wider availability can’t hurt; local indie bookstores sell paperbacks; I sell paperbacks at book signings and presentations.

~~~

What do all these results add up to?

Besides increased sales, several consistent themes for the goal of marketing were repeated: name recognition, discoverability, word-of-mouth, and building customer loyalty.

Seven contributors mentioned Zoom as an important development that’s replaced in-person appearances. Two additionally mentioned doing Zoom appearances in partnership with other authors.

According to all nine survey respondents, blogging is definitely not dead. Several said they’d cut back on other blogging but continue with TKZ.

Six authors use newsletters.

Paid ads yield the most varied responses, with some authors having good results while others didn’t believe ads were worth the cost. BookBub was mentioned several times as the most effective advertising.

Social media is viewed by the majority as a necessary evil that doesn’t generally sell books but increases name recognition. Several complained SM wastes too much time but needs to be done. Facebook and Twitter are the most used venues, although a couple of authors mentioned You Tube and podcasts.

Jim Bell offers wise advice about social media in his book Marketing for Writers who Hate to Market:

“Here is my advice regarding social media.

Pick one platform to specialize in.

One.

Pick the one you enjoy most, or think you can handle best.

If you want to have a presence on other platforms, to experiment, go ahead. But place your focus on one.

Use it to the extent you enjoy it, and no more.

Use it for actual engagement with those who follow you.

Be a good content provider, and a good listener.

Avoid venting your spleen on social media. Because besides being a lousy place to sell books, it’s a horrible place to take controversial positions. There is no true discussion here, because that’s not what social media is set up for.

Don’t post drunk.

Make all people glad they follow you.

Earn trust. When it’s time to mention a book, you’ll have earned the right to do so.”

Nearly all authors lamented the loss of in-person conferences. Two have not previously attended conferences and expressed disappointment over cancellations.

Networking at conferences was cited as enormously important because those contacts often opened up other opportunities as well as marketing avenues.

Two indie authors mentioned “going wide” to other sales outlets besides Amazon.

“Write more books” was noted by most respondents as the best marketing tool.

This survey confirmed that there is no marketing magic bullet. It’s time-consuming, long-term work. Results don’t happen overnight. But, if we want to sell books, we gotta do it.

 Steve, thanks for coming up with this topic and including me as your co-conspirator. Thanks also to the TKZ family who answered questions and shared helpful insights.

~~~

Over to you, TKZers. What type of marketing is most productive for you? Did you learn any new methods from this survey you’d like to try?

~~~

Note: I’m taking Garry’s advice on “permafree” for the first book in my series. So far, results look very promising. Thanks, Garry! 

 

 

Instrument of the Devil is now FREE. Please give it a read. If you like it, come back and check out five more books in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series. 

+10

Agent Perspectives on First Pages

I attended a virtual writing workshop last weekend in which there was a panel of agents providing feedback on a random selection of first pages anonymously submitted by attendees. It provided a fascinating (yet also terrifying) vision of how agents review material sent to them by authors and how quick they are to stop reading (as the moderator read out the first pages the agents raised their hands at the moment they would have stopped reading and when 3 out of 4 agents had their hands raised, the reading stopped and the critique began).  Given our own first page critiques here at TKZ I was interested to see whether agents had any different takes/perspectives when reading those critical first pages provided them on submission. Not surprisingly this panel revealed just how critical the first page is – and how quick agents will stop reading! Of the twenty or so first pages read out, only one survived being read out in its entirety. For many pages, agents didn’t even get past the first paragraph…yikes, right?!

Now none of the agents on this panel were cruel or unusually critical, but it was depressing to witness how many basic issues doomed these first pages. By the end of the panel it was also clear that these agents (which came from a variety of backgrounds and interests when it came to representation) were pretty consistent (often unanimous) on the particular issues that made them stop reading. As a result, I thought it might be helpful for our brave first page submitters as well as other TKZers to summarize these issues. So here we go with a list of the ‘top 5 issues that will make an agent stop reading your first page’…

  1. Beginning with the weather…we had a remarkable number of entries that had detailed descriptions of the weather in the first paragraph and the agents were like ‘ugh’ unless it served a very unique or useful purpose. Bottom line – don’t.
  2. Beginning with only exposition…again a large number of first pages had no real action, dialogue, or even character interaction in the first page. Many entries had only exposition and backstory. Bottom line…agents didn’t care enough about the character to read this – so save the exposition for later!
  3. Having a character alone…this was an interesting take from a couple of the agents who really didn’t like first pages where the character is all on their own. The principal reason for this was that doing this limited the author’s ability to show character and increased the potential for exposition and introspection rather than action and dramatic tension. Bottom line – better to show character through action and interaction/dialogue on a first page than resort to telling/exposition.
  4. Unnecessary verbiage or description…One of the main reason agents stopped reading was the overuse of adverbs, adjectives or descriptions which slowed down the pace of the action. In one first page there was a three paragraph description of the main character waking wondering if he was dead. The agents were like, establish this in one line and move on! Likewise they did not like flowery, overly descriptive prose. Bottom line…word choice matters. Say it in one word not three:)
  5. Being cliched! It was clear that this panel of agents had seen it all so they nixed any opening that felt worn and cliched. The list of cliched openings in these first pages included characters waking up and not knowing where they were/who they were or if they were alive; running for a flight in an airport; meeting someone in a bar; planning a heist…you get the picture. They also stopped reading as soon as characters turned into stock standard cliches – like the brilliant but eccentric misfit, the bitter divorcee or the alcoholic former cop…again, you get the picture. Bottom line…Be fresh!

Although this agent panel was pretty depressing to watch (as I said, only one of the entries passed muster!), it was clear that all these agents wanted to love these first pages. They wanted to be inspired to read on!  And all of the issues that stopped them reading are same issues that present themselves time and time again when we read and critique first pages at TKZ (so there’s no particular mystery or magic as to what agents are after!). Bottom line – any writer who is able to cast the same critical eye over his/her own work is ready to make the changes necessary to craft an amazing first page.

So TKZers, what’s your take on these agents’ feedback?

+18

TKZ Marketing Survey

by Steve Hooley

After a recent post on marketing, by Clare, Marketing in the Time of Covid, (April 12, 2021), Debbie and I were discussing the topic, and decided to survey all the contributors here at TKZ to learn their practices and strategies, and see what differences exist between indie and traditional publishers. In today’s post you’ll see five of the nine responses. On Tuesday, 5/25/21, you’ll see the remaining four responses and Debbie’s analysis, so please return on Tuesday to finish the discussion.

Today, as you read the responses, please be thinking about your overall strategy for marketing and if you plan to change any components.

 

John Gilstrap’s answers:

Traditional Pub

  1. What is your goal with marketing?
  2. The real answer here will sound flippant, but it’s true: My goal is to make my name and by books more recognizable to the public, and therefore sell more. I haven’t established any hard and fast metrics for this. And without metrics, my “goal” is more accurately classified as a “strategy.”
  3. What marketing do you do or participate in?
  • Speaking – Zoom – Podcasts – Book Tours – interviews

o   Speaking gigs as we once knew them are obviously dormant. As soon as more of America is released from house arrest, I hope to get back to more of that. In 2020, I did a number of Zoom meetings, from individual book clubs—which I hope to continue into the future—to speaking at virtual conferences.

  • Blogging – Website

o   TKZ is the only blog on which I regularly participate. I have a website that I keep current with book data, and I’ve populated it with short stories and essays about writing. That said, the website is fairly static. While I provide the content, I do not handle the design or manipulation of the site.

  • Newsletter

o   I have a newsletter list, and in theory, I send out newsletters, but I am not nearly regular enough with them. I send out publication announcements, but my life is too boring to send regular (monthly or quarterly) newsletters. I think I just don’t understand the purpose of newsletters.

  • Social media – Which platforms

o   Ah, social media. What a cesspool that has become. My SM focus has been on Facebook and YouTube. I use my Facebook author page as I think I’m supposed to use my newsletter. I post about the progress of the house we’re building and about selected life events. I also participate pretty actively in a 100K+-member FB group about fiction writing. I leverage many of those posts to point people to my YouTube channel which I call a Writer’s View on Writing and Publishing. The point of my YouTube channel is to get more invitations to speak at conferences and such.

  • Conferences – networking

o   Conferences are the great casualty of the pandemic panic. There’s no way to replace that kind of face-to-face interaction with readers, fans and other authors. That said, I have a standing date with some author buddies for virtual happy hours every Wednesday evening via Zoom. It’s not the same, but it helps.

  • Others

o   Kensington (my publisher) does a lot of work on my behalf with GoodReads, BookBub and the various retailers, but I don’t understand how most of that stuff works.

  1. For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?)
  2. I dedicate probably an hour per day to Facebook. My TKZ posts take at least two hours apiece—often more. The videos for my YouTube channel take a few hours apiece, between scripting, shooting and editing. I tend to binge-shoot these in the weeks between books, and as my deadlines approach, I don’t do any social media.
  3. For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective?
  4. I have no idea. I don’t even know where to look to find that data.
  5. What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above?
  6. My publisher’s publicity apparatus has been very helpful in educating me on what does and does not work in social media. We work together to project the same messages around publication dates. Historically, they’ve also arranged for some speaking gigs on my behalf. As far as YouTube is concerned, the best education sources are on YouTube itself.
  7. What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic?
  8. I haven’t changed things so much as I have backed away from them. The best analogy I can think of is this: If I were on a canoe camping trip through the woods and a freak storm turned the normally placid river into a torrent, I wouldn’t attempt to navigate the dangerous waters. Instead, I’d wait for the stormwaters to recede. That’s what I’m doing during the blind panic of the pandemic.
  9. Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over?
  10. It’s been my belief from the beginning that there is virtually nothing an author can do to significantly impact sales. I think that book tours are terrible wastes of money and time. Conferences are better, but not by much. The Holy Grail of marketing is to snag the keynote speaker slot, but there are only so many of those to go around. The best way for an author to sell books is to write more books.

 

Jim Bell’s answers:

Indie Pub

What marketing do you do?
Speaking – Zoom – Podcasts – Book Tours – interviews
Blogging – Website
Newsletter
Social media – Which platforms     Twitter, Facebook (limited)
Paid ads – which onesBookBub, BookGorilla
Conferences – networking

3. For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you
spend (per week? per month?)

It varies, of course. I try generally to keep things 90/10…90% on my writing because word of mouth (the result of really good book) is by far the best marketing.

4. For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment?

In the back of my mind I’m always thinking I have an hourly worth based on my average writing income each month. So I tend to think “I’m losing money by spending too much time here” with regard to social media.

Which one do you think is the most effective?

BookBub.

5. What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above?

TheCreativePenn.com

6. What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic?

Obviously, more Zoom. Workshops, mini-conferences.

7. Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over?

Nothing really. I’ve kept writing as #1 and that hasn’t changed. I’ve tried paid ads — cost per click — on both BookBub and Amazon, but haven’t cracked the code for fiction. Nonfiction has worked better.

8. Where do you sell your books?

Amazon.

 

Terry Odell answers:

Indie Pub

I didn’t answer because I don’t have a marketing plan. I’m random and haphazard, and don’t track much.

Best for me, IF you can get one, is a BookBub deal. For Audio, a Chirp deal. I’ve done ads with other newsletters, such as ENT, Bargain/Free Booksy, Fussy Librarian. I’ve done the occasional Amazon ad, but just let them handle it, and I keep my spending very low.

I have a blog, a newsletter that goes out when I have something new, a Facebook Author Page. My blog feeds to my author page, to Amazon, to Goodreads (which I never visit), and I’m not even sure where else it shows up.

The only thing that’s changed during the pandemic is I haven’t gone to any conferences, although I’d cut way back before the pandemic.

Social media is about engaging, not selling, but if it’s lumped into marketing, then I probably spend under an hour/day doing “marketing.” If you remove that from the mix, more like 10-15 minutes, max.

Can you tell I don’t like marketing? I’m not in this gig for the money; I’d go nuts if I wasn’t writing. Seeing sales is good, but I look at bad years as a way to cut back on our taxes.

 

Elaine Viets’s answers:

Traditional Pub

  1. What is your goal with marketing?
  • To create a loyal group of satisfied readers who will return to buy my mysteries and help sell books by word of mouth.
  1. What marketing do you do or participate in?
  • Speaking – Zoom – Podcasts – Book Tours – interviews
  • I give talks via Zoom and I’ve been a podcast guest. Before Covid-19 I went on book tours. Now I participate in Zoom book signings. These are most successful if I team up with one or more writers for the event. My last Zoom book signing was with Charlaine Harris at Murder on the Beach Bookstore in Delray Beach, FL. Murder on the Beach asks participants to buy at least one book.
  • Blogging – Website
    • I’ve cut back on blogging, except for TKZ. I believe blogging’s popularity is waning. TKZ has an established audience, and it’s worth my time.
  • Newsletter
    • I have a database of about 3000 names and send out a newsletter two or three times a year, usually when I have a new book or anthology coming out. I don’t like to bombard my readers with constant newsletters.
  • Social media – Which platforms
    • Social media is a huge time suck. I use Twitter and Facebook.
  • Conferences – networking
    • Thanks to Covid, most of the conferences were cancelled. I really miss them. I’ve been a speaker at several virtual conferences and will be at Mostly Malice, the Malice Domestic conference. As for networking, I belong to MWA and I’m treasurer of the Sisters in Crime Treasure Coast Chapter.
  • Others
    • My agent, Joshua Bilmes of JABberwocky, got the rights back for my Dead-End Job mysteries, my Josie Marcus cozy series and the Francesca Vierling series. He commissioned new covers and descriptions. Julie Smith at BooksBNimble does a good job of marketing the books. She places ads and has giveaways.
  1. For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?) Blogging takes about two days per month. Social media is about half an hour per day.
  2. For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective? Facebook gives me the best results personally, though BooksBNimble does well as an income stream.
  3. What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above? I learned about BooksBNimble by networking.
  4. What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic? I go to fewer in-person events, and I miss conferences and book signings.
  5. Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over? If I were starting over, I would join MWA and Sisters in Crime earlier and go to the conferences as soon as I had a contract, rather than waiting for my book to come out.

 

Steve Hooley’s Answers:

Indie Pub

  1. What is your goal with marketing? Leave a legacy for my descendants. Sell more books.
  2. What marketing do you do?
  • Speaking – Zoom – Podcasts – Book Tours – interviews Beginning to work on a target audience of schools with visits and zoom.
  • Blogging – Website TKZ only. Website needs updating.
  • Newsletter Once monthly to a sign-up group
  • Social media – Which platforms On Facebook, don’t use it.
  • Paid ads – which ones Want to learn about this.
  • Conferences – networking – In past. Not post-virus.
  • Others
  1. For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?) Speaking – just starting – one hour per month. Blog (TKZ) about 2-3 hr every other week. Newsletter – one hour monthly.
  2. For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective? No return with any, other than speaking to individuals and small groups when I was still in my office. Most effective – speaking.
  3. What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above? JSB – How to Make a Living as a Writer. Dale Carnegie – The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking. Kahle and Workhoven – Naked at the Podium. David Gaughran – books and newsletters.
  4. What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic? Beginning to learn Zoom.
  5. Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over? Build my website as a website rather than a blog site. Do a better job of updating. Build a bigger newsletter list. Start public speaking sooner. Experiment with paid ads. Begin use of Zoom earlier.
  6. Where do you sell your books? Amazon and local bookstores.

 

 

Okay, TKZ family, it’s your turn:

  • What is your overall plan or strategy for marketing?
  • Do you plan to make any changes?

 

Two final notes: 

  1. Please remember to stop back on Tuesday, 5/25, when the four remaining responses from TKZ contributors will be presented, and  Debbie will analyze the results and wrap things up.
  2. In two weeks (June 5th) Dale Ivan Smith, a former librarian, will present a guest post, titled “How to Break Into a Library.” Please join us, and bring all your library questions.
+14

Procrastination for Writers

We all do it—to some extent, that is. You. Me. The princesses on the top and the paupers at the bottom. It seems to be some primal urge. Some burning instinct to seek self-pleasure, not pain, and avoid the unpleasant or overwhelming.

I’m talking procrastination, of course. The art of putting off till tomorrow that which should be done today. I’d say the majority of writers are procrastinators, and that’s okay. Many times, though, procrastination can be a positive force and not a negative curse. Especially for writers who can perfect their procrastination down to a science.

Procrastination’s best defined as “the act of avoiding doing what you know (or think) you should be doing”. The word descends from the Latin word procrastinare which means “to postpone or delay” and the Greek term akrasia, the “lack of self-control or the state of acting against one’s better judgment”. Leave it to the Greeks and the Romans to label the condition because these ancients were some of the biggest procrastinators of all time. In fact, back then procrastination was viewed as an admirable quality—something that was to be perfected for peak performance.

I know that doesn’t make sense, on the surface. But drilling down, you can make the case that, properly done, intentional procrastination can increase your productivity on important tasks. It’s a matter of setting priorities and focusing on prime output that brings delayed gratification—not a waste time on trivial stuff that seems like fun in the moment (immediate gratification).

Psychologists have done a lot of procrastination studies. Traditional thinking suggests procrastination is nothing more than a time management problem. These thinkers suggest self-discipline is all that’s required to Get Things Done, or GTD as the acronym’s known.

Others aren’t so sure about this. Dr. Tim Pychyl of Carlton University in Toronto and his counterpart, Dr. Fuschia Sirois of Sheffield University in the UK, did a detailed procrastination project and came up with a different suggestion. They saw procrastination, at its root cause, as an emotional management issue, not time.

Drs. Sirois and Pychyl found their studied subjects reacted to procrastination in relation to how they felt in the moment about tackling certain tasks. It’s human nature to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and that emotional connection is just as hard-wired as flight or fight. It’s really about mood when it comes to GTD, say the Docs.

The Docs went on to report the anti-procrastination mindset for GTD is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which is a psychological offshoot to Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). They say that a GTD mentality based on ACT principles allows “psychological flexibility” to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings (ie: I really don’t want to do this right now, but I know I have to or the consequences will be more untolerable). Recognizing this lets a person stay in the present moment in spite of negative feelings and to prioritize choices and actions that help that person (you) get closer to what you really want in life.

Their studies, the Docs said, found most people couldn’t envision their long-term situation—where they’d be in five or ten years instead of at the moment. Procrastination, or putting off important works, kept their subjects “happy in the moment”. They termed this “mood repair” and found people naturally avoid uncomfortable feelings by putting off tasks-at-hand regardless if the tasks are vital to overall life success.

This doctoral work claims people are actually wired to think of themselves as two different people. They say we have our present selves and our future selves but, strangely, we naturally prioritize our present mood at the expense of our future well-being even though the choice is irrational in our long-term welfare. The Docs reported brain scan waves of people told to envision themselves ten years out were the same as when told to think of celebrities they didn’t know.

Thinking about it, this does make sense. We procrastinate because our brains are wired to care more about our present comfort than our future wellness. That makes it clear we have two ways of dealing with procrastination:

  1. We make whatever topic we’re procrastinating on feel less uncomfortable.
  2. We convince our present selves into caring about our future selves.

Yes. I know. This is easier said than done. However, as a serious writer, you have to focus on the long term. It means feeling less uncomfortable about facing the blank page and putting the fingers on the keys. It means completing the current WIP and starting the next—knowing that in five years, ten years, fifteen years, and longer, you’ll have built a backlist strong enough to support you ad infinite.

You’re probably expecting some examples of how to pull off perfect procrastination for writers. To start with, let me suggest you don’t really procrastinate as much as you think. It’s just a matter of setting the right priorities and addressing/attacking the most urgent issues first.

Before I became a serious writer, I was a long-time government worker with high-stress tasks. I faced life and death issues, literally, for over three decades. Often, there wasn’t time to procrastinate. Each day was a challenge to balance urgent and important issues along with non-urgent yet still important jobs.

I learned to work within a priority matrix of four quadrants. There’s nothing new or secret about this anti-procrastination process. It’s called the Eisenhower Matrix or the Ike Box and rightly named after the Second World War General and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower who was supremely famous for GTD.

The Eisenhower Matrix deals with two priority dimensions. One is importance. The other is urgency. It’s laid out like this:

Upper Left Box — Important and Urgent Tasks

Upper Right Box — Important but Not Urgent Tasks

Lower Left Box — Not Important yet Urgent Tasks

Lower Right Box — Not Important and Not Urgent Tasks

I’ve used the Ike Box as a police officer and as a coroner. Each profession has a system in place to minimize procrastination and prioritize workload as well as a built-in accountability checker. I won’t get into how they work, but I will let you peek at the Ike Box I have as a writer for this week’s priorities as well as into the near future. It’s all about building the world of five, ten, and more years ahead.

Upper Left — Write blog posts for The Kill Zone and DyingWords, Link backlist in based-on-true-crime series on Amazon, Kobo and Nook, Exercise/Eat/Sleep well, Spend time with Rita, Get a haircut and buy shaving cream

Upper Right — Develop City Of Danger series, Plan July stacked promotion for crime series, Plan podcast with cool co-star Sue Coletta, Publish true crime series on Apple and Google

Lower Left — Respond to two lengthy email assistance requests, Plan print releases for true crime series, Mow the lawn before it’s impossible to walk through and remind our downstairs tenant to pick up after their Rottweiler/Great Dane crossbreed

Lower Right — Renovate writing/recording studio, Have that discussion with Floyd, my neighbor

That’s it. That sums my priorities in this writing and living gig. Nothing fancy or complicated, but it gives me a snapshot of what needs doing right now and what doesn’t matter. I’ve learned (or try to learn) to take only so much on and to say “No” to unproductive time theft. I heard someone say, “When you’ve got it all down to one shopping cart, you’ve got it made.”

Examples of procrastination for writers? Right, I did mention that. One big return in putting stuff off is sitting on your manuscript for some time after you’ve completed a polished draft and before you ship it for publication. This brewing time is precious, and I see that as high-value downtime.

Speaking of downtime, you might view surfing Facebook and watching cat videos as terrible procrastination when you need to GTD. I don’t see it that way, because no one can work all the time and keep peak productivity. Note: If you haven’t read Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Productive People, please do so. This is time well spent.

Time away from the keys and screen lets the creative juices flow. My best downtime is while out for a walk on the waterfront. My worst is after dinner and at the end of the day when I’m creatively done. However, I don’t consider watching an evening’s net stream of the Moody Blues Nights In White Satin (Days of Future Passed) and a TED talk on brain science with Dr. Lara Boyd as a procrastinator’s waste of time which I did last night.

Another prime example of procrastination for writers is leaving a major decision until the last moment and then committing after you’ve had plenty of time to think things over. Rash decisions (gut responses) just to GTD quick can have disastrous consequences as the Lehman Brother organization found out. While researching this piece, I found a Smithsonian Magazine article on a book by Frank Patroy titled Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. Here’s a quote about how the Lehman Brothers destroyed their own future by failing to procrastinate:

I interviewed a number of former senior executives at Lehman Brothers and discovered a remarkable story. Lehman Brothers had arranged for a decision-making class in the fall of 2005 for its senior executives. It brought four dozen executives to the Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue and brought in leading decision researchers, including Max Bazerman from Harvard and Mahzarin Banaji, a well-known psychologist. For the capstone lecture, they brought in Malcolm Gladwell, who had just published Blink, a book that speaks to the benefits of making instantaneous decisions and that Gladwell sums up as “a book about those first two seconds.” Lehman’s president Joe Gregory embraced this notion of going with your gut and deciding quickly, and he passed copies of Blink out on the trading floor.

The executives took this class and then hurriedly marched back to their headquarters and proceeded to make the worst snap decisions in the history of financial markets. Failing to delay, or procrastinate, their crucial decisions caused Lehman Brothers to go broke in 2008.

What about you Kill Zone folks? How does procrastination fit into your short and long-term writing plans? Don’t put off commenting until it’s too late.

——

When it comes to procrastinating, Garry Rodgers ranks with the best. Garry managed to put off a writing career until his sixties. Now, he’s making up for lost time with an 8-part, based-on-true-crime series written and indie published within the last two years as well as penning a few stand alones.

What Garry Rodgers isn’t putting off is starting a new made-for-net-streaming detective fiction series called City Of Danger. Tagline: A modern city in dystopian crisis enlists two private detectives from its utopian past to deliver street justice and restore social order. Follow Garry on Twitter and checkout his personal blog/website at DyingWords.net.

+11

What’s In A Name?

By John Gilstrap

I’ve heard that many writers sweat over the names of their characters. One very famous romance writer (I’m not sure which one or I would name her) says that she cannot begin a story until her characters have the perfect name. I’m not like that. While I’ll put some effort into naming primary characters–the ones that will live on throughout a series of books–secondary characters are get their names sort of at random.

Nathan Bailey, the eponymous character of my first novel, Nathan’s Run, got his name by process of elimination. My son, Chris, was about the same age as Nathan when I wrote the book, and since I knew what lay ahead for the character, I couldn’t name him Chris. But because he was the same age, and kids are not always forgiving sorts, I couldn’t use the names of any of his friends. He didn’t know any Nathans at the time, and Nathan Hale has always held a prime spot in my panoply of noble patriots. Nathan’s last name, Bailey, is a direct nod to George Bailey of It’s A Wonderful Life.

Lyle Pointer, the twisted bad guy in Nathans Run, and Warren Michaels, the kind-hearted cop, are both named as they are because I thought their names worked against type.

Jonathan Grave, the protagonist of my hostage rescue series, is named as a convenience. In my original plan for the series, I imagined a branded line of titles like Grave Danger, Grave Peril, Grave Doubt, etc. It turned out that I was the only person in my editorial food chain who thought that was anything but a terrible idea. I kept the name because I had already finished the book, and I like the character. (Hand to God: It never occurred to me that Jonathan and I share a monogram until I was many books into the series and a fan asked about it.)

Secondary characters in general come from one of two sources. Each year, I auction character names for charitable fundraisers, and those winners get a prime secondary spot–often as the bad guy, but not always. My next alternative is to go to IMDB, pick a movie that I like, and then click on “all cast and crew.” I rarely copy both the first and last names of crew members, but rather mix and match them.

Ethnic characters. Over the course of the Grave series, most of my bad guys have been American, but I’ve exploited Chechen, Russian and Mexican bad guys, too. (Jonathan and the cartels don’t get along at all.) For those names, I’ll do a Google search for “Chechen names,” or likewise for another nationality. It’s astonishing how that never lets me down.

Richard Goldsbury was the bully who preyed on me in junior high school. He’s died in at least five books. Most recently, he was incinerated in a nuclear blast.

Laziness. I don’t like typing complicated names. In my new Victoria Emerson series, a throwaway character named First Sergeant Paul Copley turned out to have a more significant role that I thought he would, and I ended up having to type his name a lot. I have accordingly instructed the autocorrect in Word to change “1stsgt” to First Sergeant. “1stsgtp” becomes First Sergeant Paul Copley and “1sgtc” becomes First Sergeant Copley.

Amusement. In one of the Grave books (I think it’s No Mercy), Jonathan and his buddy Boxers encounter a guy named Dick Semen, and they get the giggles. Thrillers need some comic relief and that worked. In fact, I’m smiling as I write this, thinking back on the scene. (Aspiring writers please note: men’s true senses of humor form and solidify when they’re 12 years old. Farts and funny names will always be funny. The more inappropriate the timing, the funnier they will be. [See: Rusty Bed Springs by I.P. Nightly.])

So, Killzone family . . . Any thoughts on naming characters? Any tricks or resources you’d like to share?

+13

Give A Writer Enough Trope
And They’ll Hang Themselves

By PJ Parrish

I was an English literature major way back in college and I now am going on record that not once did I ever encounter the word “trope.”

Now it’s possible I might have dosed off during my 8 a.m. Post-Colonial British Literature class and missed it. But all these decades later, I can safely say that the word “trope” has never taken a front seat in my writer brain. Motif. Theme. Allegory. Irony. Even synecdoche I can remember. But trope…nope.

Yet I’ve run across the word at least six times in recent months, usually in book and movie reviews, which forced me to the Google machine to find out what the heck I’ve been missing. So, to save you the trouble…

literary trope is the use of figurative language, via word, phrase or an image, for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.

I added the red there because that second definition sort of pissed me off.  One of my pet peeves is when a perfectly good word gets corrupted by misuse and comes to mean both sides of something, and thus means nothing.  Examples:

Hellacious. It began life as college slang in the 1930s, a combo of “hell” and “bodacious” and it was used as a negative. “What a hellacious storm!” Now, it can mean either good or bad. Which renders it impotent.

Fulsome. It used to be negative, starting out (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) as “filling” then “tending to cause nausea,” then finally “wearisome from excess or repetition.” Now, I guess because “full” sounds good, it has come to be misused as “generous.” The beloved professor received fulsome praise. A good word gone to meh.

Okay, okay, I am being pedantic, I know. English is a gloriously elastic language. “Girl” was just a young lady once, then it became a sort of pejorative, to put women down or even men, as in “You throw like a girl.” But of late, women have (thankfully, I say) reclaimed it as a power badge. And then there is the word “fizzle.”  We use it today to mean something just sort of peters out, right? In the 1500s, it meant to silently pass gas. Which is now called “crop dusting.”

But I digress. Back to trope.

As I noted above, it has two divergent definitions. At its best, a trope is a time-honored technique or classic theme. Good literary tropes honor genre traditions. At its worst, a trope is a cliché, something overused that shows a lack of original thought.

Now I for one, think “genre” itself is not a dirty word. I think of crime fiction the same way I think of ballet. (I spent 18 years as a dance critic). In ballet, there are only FIVE arm positions and FIVE foot positions. Everything in ballet emerges from that.  Yet from that tight formula came love stories as old as Petipa’s romantic “Swan Lake” to the new of George Balanchine’s abstract “Agon.”

We crime dogs honor the formulas of our genre, yet the best of us, like Balanchine, color outside the lines. But here’s the point of all this: As you ponder your plot and characterizations, the hard part is distinguishing between what is a good and useful trope of our genre and what is just tired cliché. Let me give it a try and then I hope you all will weigh in, please.

Bad Clichés.

The Alcoholic Detective or Cop. This is an attempt, I think, to show that the protag has a hard job or worse, hates his job. Or it’s a lazy stand-in for “tortured past” or “deep soulfulness.” Bull hockey. Now, we were guilty of this our in my first mystery, Dark of the Moon. We had our protag Louis Kincaid hitting the cheap brandy way too often. I don’t think we realized way back in 1998 that it was a cliche, but there it was. To our credit, we built on this and had Louis recognize his fault, especially when a child entered his life. If you are going to use this, it darn well be part of a very believable character arc. Teresa Schwegel created a great portrait of cop Samantha Mack in her 2005 Edgar-winning debut Officer Down.

Eager Rookie Assigned to Bitter Veteran. Way back in 1976, Clint Eastwood grumbled about being teamed up with noobie Tyne Daly who is, gasp! also a woman. (Dirty Harry: “If she wants to play lumberjack, she’s going to have to learn to handle her end of the log.”)  And of course, the rookie always ends up teaching the burned-out cop a valuable life lesson. (Or she gets offed. To his credit, Harry felt really bad about this). I’d steer clear of this one unless you’ve got a really fresh slant.

The Cop or Detective With Bad Marriage or Alienated Kid. Yeah, law enforcement is tough on relationships, but this has been done to death. In the hands of a great writer (think Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River), it’s deeply knitted into the plot. But don’t use this as a crutch to slap a veneer of emotional depth on your protag. I’ve seen veteran writers who should know better stumble with this one. Oh, and the divorced cop always seems to find a new hot woman to save him.

The Dumb Sidekick. A sidekick is a very useful plot device, as it gives your protag someone to talk to (dialogue is action!) and bounce ideas off. I wrote a post about creating good sidekicks a while back. Click here. But a clueless foil, put there just to make your protag look clever, contributes nothing. At best, these secondary characters should have talents and life experiences of their own. Think Spenser’s friend Hawk, McGee’s cerebral Meyer or Elvis Cole’s sociopath Joe Pike who was so cool he got his own book. And yes, we could spend a whole post here debating whether Watson is really as dense as he sometimes seems.

Good Tropes. (These are purely my taste!)

Creepy Settings. I am a sucker for anything decaying, neglected or isolated. (My favorite Nancy Drew was Clue in the Crumbling Wall). Whenever Kelly and I begin a book, we think hard about the setting, almost always leaning toward the neo-gothic.  In An Unquiet Grave, we trap Louis in tunnels below an abandoned insane asylum. In Heart of Ice, it’s a ruined hunting lodge on Mackinac Island. In Island of Bones, it’s a remote private island in the Florida Gulf, peopled by a family time has left behind. I think I was influenced by Daphne du Maurier’s stories, especially Don’t Look Now, a chilling tale of a father who keeps seeing his dead child running through the dank alleyways of Venice. (Made into an eerie movie with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.)

Trouble in Paradise. Ah yes. Everything is beautiful, until it’s not. Agatha Christie might have started this trope when she sent Poiret on a cruise down the Nile. But this idea has been recycled with great freshness, notably by Ruth Ware in The Woman In Cabin 10. One of my favorites is Noah Hawley’s Edgar-winner Before The Fall, wherein a picture-perfect family departs Martha’s Vineyard in their private plane and only a down-on-his-luck painter and a little boy survive a crash into the ocean.

Coming Out of the Fog. This is a classic in medias res opening. A character wakes up in a place they don’t recognize. How did they get there? Why are they there? There is a feeling (vague or real) of peril. And of course, getting out is what sets the plot in motion. Sometimes the character has no memory, or can recall an abduction, being drunk or in an accident. I ventured close to cliche with She’s Not There, wherein my protag wakes up in a hospital with amnesia. And it took a lot of plot effort and thought to backstory to make it work. Tread carefully here, but it can be a really great way to fast-break your story from the gate.

Over at GoodReads, they’ve got their own list of classic tropes and some good examples of current cirme fiction under these categories:

  • The Locked Room.
  • We’re All Trapped Here Together!
  • Help! These Kids Are Creepy
  • I Think My Spouse Is Out To Get Me
  • The Inheritance Plot

And last, we have to deal with…

The Unreliable Narrator. Okay, I recognize its lineage: Poe begat Roger Ackroyd who begat Holden Caulfield who begat Teddy Daniels who begat Amy Dunne who begat legions of liars.  But I’m tired of the trickery. Trope or cliche? What say you?

 

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Tips for Deepening the POV in Your Fiction

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

Most of today’s popular fiction is written in first-person POV (I) or third-person limited point of view (he, she), both of which show us the story mainly from inside the character’s head and body. These narrative techniques engage readers much more emotionally than the more distant third-person omniscient, which was popular in previous centuries.

Current popular fiction, although a long way from the old omniscient style, still employs a variety of narrative distances, depending on the genre, the target readership, and the writer’s own comfort level. There is a whole spectrum when it comes to narrative distance, from plot-driven military or action-adventure novels and historical sagas at one end to character-driven romantic suspense and romance at the other.

Today’s post focuses on close or intimate narrative distance – how to engage readers emotionally, bond them with your character, and draw them deep into your story, so they can’t put it down. And how to avoid interrupting as the author, which some readers might even find akin to “mansplaining.” See a great post here on TKZ by bestselling thriller writer, Robert Dugoni, “Hey, Butt Out! I’m Reading Here!

Most female readers (and apparently females make up about 70% of readers of novels) prefer to identify closely with the main character. The reading experience is more satisfying when we connect emotionally with the protagonist, worrying about them and rooting for them.

What is third-person limited POV? As Dan Brown says, “limited or ‘close’ third point of view (a narrative that adheres to a single character) … gives you the ability to be inside a character’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations, which can give readers a deeper experience of character and scene, and is the most common way to use point of view.”

(For an introduction to point of view in fiction, especially deep point of view or close third-person POV, see my articles here on TKZ: POV 101, POV 102, and POV 103)

From third-person limited, you can decide to go even deeper, into close third person or deep point of view to create an immersive experience where readers are more emotionally invested, feeling like participants rather than observers.

As David Mamet says, “Deep point of view is a way of writing fiction in third-person limited that silences the narrative voice and takes the reader directly into a character’s mind…. Deep POV creates a deeper connection between readers and characters.”

In deep POV, the author writes as the character instead of about him. The character and his world come to life for us as we vicariously share his experiences and feel his struggles, pain, triumphs, and disappointments.

As editor and author Beth Hill says, “deep POV…is a way of pairing third-person POV with a close narrative distance. It’s a way of creating the intimacy of first-person narration with a third-person point of view.” (And without all those I – I – I’s.)

Depending on your personal style, you could decide to write in a deeper, more subjective third-person point of view for a whole novel or story or reserve this closer technique for more critical or intimate scenes.

Assuming you write in third person and want to engage your readers more and immerse them in your story world, here are some tips for getting deeper into the psyche of your character, starting with more general tips and working down to fine-tuning.

~ First, decide whose scene it is.

Most of the scenes will be from the viewpoint of your protagonist. We know what your lead character is thinking and feeling, as we’re in their head and body. But we only know the feelings and reactions of the others by what the POV character perceives – by their words, actions, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.

But sometimes you’ll want to write a scene from the point of view of another character. If you choose to use multiple POVs, make sure you only go into the head of important characters such as the love interest, someone close to the MC, or the antagonist. But as readers, we are (or should be) bonded to your MC, so it’s best to show more scenes from the viewpoint of your protagonist than all the others combined – about 70% is optional to keep readers satisfied.

How do you decide whose POV a scene will be told through? Ask yourself these questions: Who has the most at stake in that scene, the most to lose? Which character is invested the most in what’s going on? Who will be most affected by the events of the scene and change the most by the end of the scene?

~ When starting a new scene or chapter, start with the name of the POV character.

The first name a reader sees is the person they assume is the viewpoint character, the one they’re following for that scene. And don’t open a scene or chapter with “he” or “she” – that’s too vague and confusing. Readers want to know right away whose head we’re in, so name the viewpoint character right in the very first sentence.

~ Avoid head-hopping.  Get into that character’s head and body and stay there for the whole scene (or most of it).

Don’t suddenly jump into the thoughts or internal reactions of others, and try to avoid stepping back into authorial (omniscient) POV, where you’re surveying the whole scene from afar.

Stick to the general guideline of one POV per scene. Viewpoint shifts within a scene can be jolting, disorienting, and annoying if not done consciously and with care. (On the other hand, when expertly executed, they can work. Nora Roberts has definitely mastered this difficult technique.)

Become that person for the scene. Are they anxious? Cold? Tired? Uncomfortable? Annoyed? Scared? Elated? We should be able to only see, hear, smell, taste, touch and feel what they do. Don’t include any details they wouldn’t be aware of.

~ Refer to the POV character in the most informal way, as he would think of himself.

Use the POV character’s name at the beginning of scenes, then only when needed for clarity. If we’re in Daniel’s head, he’s not thinking of himself as “Dr. Daniel Norton.” He’s thinking of himself as Daniel or Dan or Danny. When you introduce a new POV character for the first time, you can use their full name and title for clarity if you wish (or just slip it in later), but then switch immediately to what they would call themselves or what most people in their everyday world call them. Most of the time, just “he” or “she” is even better. How often do we think of ourselves using our names? Not often.

~ Don’t describe the POV character’s facial expressions or body language as an outside observer would see them.

Unless she’s looking in a mirror, your character can’t see what her face looks like at any given moment, so avoid phrases like “She blushed beet red.” Instead, say something like, “Her cheeks burned” or “She felt her face flush.” Instead of “Her face went white,” say “She felt the blood drain from her face.”

Or if we’re in a guy’s point of view and he’s angry, don’t say “His brow furrowed and he scowled.” Instead, show his anger from the inside (irate thoughts, clenched teeth), or show him gripping something or aware that his hands have tightened into fists, or whatever.

~ Don’t describe other characters in a way that the POV character wouldn’t. For example, don’t give a detailed description from head to toe of a character the POV character is looking at and already knows very well, like a family member.

~ Refer to other characters by the name the POV character uses for them.

If we’re in Susan’s point of view and her mother walks in, don’t say “The door opened, and Mrs. Wilson walked in, wearing a frayed blue coat.” Say something like, “The door opened, and Mom hurried in, pulling off her old coat.”

~ Show their inner thoughts and reactions often.

To bring the character to life, we need to see how she’s reacting to what’s going on, how she’s feeling about the people around her. Use a mix of indirect and direct thoughts. Short, direct, emphatic thought-reactions, often in italics, help reveal the character’s true feelings and increase intimacy with the readers. For example, What? Or No way. Or What a jerk! Instead of: “They’d been set up” (narration), use: We were set up. (The character’s actual thoughts.) For more on this, see “Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude & Immediacy.”

Indirect thought: He wondered where she was.

Direct thought: Where is she? Or: Where the hell is she, anyway?

~ Frequently show the POV character’s sensory reactions to their environment, other characters, and what’s happening.

Use as many of the five senses as is appropriate to get us into the skin of the character. Also show fatigue, fear, nervousness, hunger, thirst, heat, cold, etc. That way, readers are drawn in and feel they “are” the character. They worry about the character and are fully engaged.

~ Describe locations and other characters as the POV character perceives them.

Filter descriptions of the setting or other people through the attitudes, opinions, preferences, and sensory reactions of the viewpoint character, using their unique voice and speaking style. Don’t step back and describe the environment, another character, or a room in factual, neutral language. And don’t describe details that character wouldn’t notice or care about.

~ Use only words and phrases that character would use.

If your character is an old prospector, don’t use sophisticated language when describing what he’s perceiving around him or what he’s deciding to do next. Use his natural wording in both his dialogue and his thoughts – and all the narration, too, as those are his observations.

~ Don’t suddenly have a character knowing something just because the readers know it.

If you’re using third-person multiple POV, it’s very effective to sometimes go into the head of another character, maybe the love interest or the villain, in their own scene, without the protagonist present. We readers know this other character by name, but the viewpoint character may not even know they exist. Later, we’re in a scene in the POV of the main character when the secondary character appears to them for the first time. It’s easy to slip up and use that character’s name (or other details about him), since we know it so well, before the protagonist knows it. Watch out for this subtle mistake creeping into your story.

~ Don’t show things the character can’t perceive.

Don’t show something going on behind the character’s back or in another room or location. Similarly, don’t show what’s happening around them when they’re sleeping or unconscious. Instead, show what they’re perceiving as they wake up, or you could leave a line space and start a new scene in the POV of someone else. Avoid slipping into all-seeing, all-knowing, omniscient point of view.

Keep the narration in the POV character’s voice.

In deep point of view, not only should the dialogue be in the character’s voice and style, but the narration should too, as that’s really the character’s thoughts and observations. For more on this, see my post, “Tips for Creating an Authentic, Engaging Voice.”

~ Don’t butt in as the author to explain things to the readers, outside of the character’s viewpoint.

   Avoid lengthy “info dumps.” Instead, reveal any necessary info in brief form though the character’s POV or as a lively question-and-answer dialogue, with some attitude and tension to spice things up.

   Avoid author asides, like “Little did he realize that…” or “If only she had known…”. If the character can’t perceive it at that moment, don’t write it. You can always show danger the protagonist isn’t aware of when you’re in the POV of the villain or other character.

~ Use more action beats instead of dialogue tags.

Instead of: “Why do you think that?” she asked, crossing her arms.

Use: “Why do you think that? She crossed her arms.

We know it’s her talking because we immediately see her doing something.

~ For deeper point of view, try to avoid phrases like “she heard,” “he saw,” “she noticed,” etc.

Since we’re in the character’s head, we know she’s the one who’s hearing and seeing what is being described. Just go directly to what she’s perceiving.

He saw the man staring at his wounds. =>  The man stared at his wounds.

~ Similarly, use “he wondered,” “she thought,” “he believed,” and “she felt” sparingly. Without those filter words, we’re even closer in to the character’s psyche. Go straight to their thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.

For example, here’s a progression to a closer, deeper point of view:

She thought he was an idiot. –> He seemed like a bit of an idiot. –> What an idiot!

The last is a direct, internal thought or thought-reaction, often expressed in italics if it’s brief and emphatic.

Third-person limited POV:

As she hurried along the dark, deserted street, she heard footsteps approaching behind her, getting closer. She wondered if they’d finally found her.

Deep POV:

She hurried along the dark, deserted street. Footsteps approached behind her, getting closer. Could that be them?

“she heard” and “She wondered” are not necessary and create a bit of a psychic distance.

Do a search for all those describing words, like saw, heard, felt, knew, wondered, noticed, and thought, and explore ways to express the sounds, sights, thoughts, and feelings more directly.

My third writing guide, Captivate Your Readers, is full of practical tips, with examples, for deepening the point of view in your fiction and drawing readers in more emotionally.

Readers and writers: Do you have any more tips for deepening point of view in fiction? Or maybe some good before-and-after examples? Please leave them in the comments below.  (If you prefer a more distant POV, let’s leave that discussion for another time.) Thanks.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized and edited two anthologies. Website: https://www.jodierenner.com/, Blog, Resources for Writers, Facebook, Amazon Author Page.  

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