Negotiation Secrets for Writers


By Debbie Burke



“Make him an offer he cannot refuse.”
Vector image CC BY 4.0

Whether you’re buying a car, arguing with a boss, or making a deal with your kids to do their homework, most interactions in life are negotiations. Each of us wants to get our own way.

Humans live in a constant state of imbalance, jockeying back and forth to gain the upper hand.

That usually translates into attaining power over someone else. That power can be immense or tiny.

Learning to exploit power imbalances is an effective technique for writers to ramp up the tension in fiction.

In most stories, one character has certain goals while another character has different, conflicting goals. That leads to negotiations between characters that can be physical, verbal, social, or psychological.

The goal can be large scale (world domination) or small scale (spouses arguing whether the toilet seat should be up or down).

One character usually starts out dominant; the other is in an inferior position and wants to rise to the superior position. Their struggle creates tension and suspense as the reader wonders who will prevail.

Each scene in a novel is a micro power struggle between characters. Those struggles can be shown in different ways:

  1. A character has superior knowledge, ability, or position that the other character attempts to gain.
  2. One character wants to control another.
  3. A character takes action that appears to mean one thing but actually means something different.
  4. A character’s dialogue is different from what they’re actually thinking.

Seller says: “I’m offering you a fabulous deal on this 911 Porsche.” Seller thinks: The price is ten grand higher than market but he’s salivating. He won’t leave without the car.

Buyer says: “Forget it. I won’t pay a dime over $$.” But Buyer thinks: I’ve always wanted a 911. If he comes down a grand, I’m snapping it up.

Boss says: “Management told me to cut expenses ten percent across the board including your salary.” Boss thinks: With three kids, she doesn’t dare quit. A ten percent cut means a bigger bonus for me.

Worker says: “That’s unacceptable. Besides, I have a better offer with a twenty percent increase and three weeks paid vacation.” Worker thinks: Can she tell I’m bluffing? What if she fires me?

Anyone who’s ever been a parent can fill in their own examples of negotiations with their kids!

In thrillers, mystery, suspense, sci-fi, and fantasy, typically the antagonist is stronger, richer, smarter, more ruthless, or more determined than the protagonist. The protagonist spends much of the story trying to keep from being squashed and defeated.

Character A may start out in control at the beginning of a scene but Character B has leverage because of superior knowledge or ability that reverses the power by the end of the scene. Then in subsequent scenes, A must scramble and come up with new strategies to regain control while B fends off efforts to topple him/her.

One of my favorite stories is O. Henry’s “Ransom of Red Chief,” first published in the Saturday Evening Post. [Note: some language from 1907 is no longer acceptable today]. It is a detailed blueprint of negotiation among characters who jockey back and forth for power. Demands are made. Counteroffers follow. Demands change, resulting in counter-counteroffers and counter-counter-counteroffers.

Here’s the story premise: Two ruthless criminals, Sam and Bill, decide to kidnap the only son of wealthy Ebenezer Dorset and hold him for a ransom of $2000. Surely Mr. Dorset will immediately cave into their demands and pay. Sam and Bill believe their scheme can’t lose.

When the redheaded ten-year-old victim beans Bill in the head with a brick, that physical act is the first hint of a potential power shift. Nevertheless, Sam and Bill are still in control as they subdue him and spirit him off to a cave hideaway.

However, in the cave, the kidnappers discover their hostage is a handful and they must maneuver to maintain physical and verbal control over him. Bill plays a game of make-believe with the boy, who’s dubbed himself “Red Chief.” In the game, Red Chief captures Bill and ties him up. Soon the kid “…seemed to be having the time of his life. The fun of camping out in a cave had made him forget that he was a captive himself.”

“Red Chief,” says I to the kid, “would you like to go home?”

“Aw, what for?” says he. “I don’t have any fun at home. I hate to go to school. I like to camp out. You won’t take me back home again, will you?”

We weren’t afraid he’d run away.

Although Red Chief remains their prisoner and no longer resists, he has verbally prevailed over Sam and Bill.

Red Chief’s physical harassment of them escalates. The kidnappers’ confidence begins to crack.

During the first night, Sam has a dream that illustrates Red Chief’s growing psychological power: “I had been kidnapped and chained to a tree by a ferocious pirate with red hair.”

Later, terrified screaming wakes Sam.

“Red Chief was sitting on Bill’s chest, with one hand twined in Bill’s hair. In the other he had the sharp case-knife we used for slicing bacon; and he was industriously and realistically trying to take Bill’s scalp.”

Red Chief’s attack demoralizes Bill who asks Sam, “Do you think anybody will pay out money to get a little imp like that back home?”

Their prisoner has taken psychological control of the situation.

Sam leaves the hideout and returns to town, expecting to find villagers in an uproar and frantically searching for the missing boy. He had anticipated the kidnapping would give the criminals social control over the community. Instead, all is calm. Their original premise, that Mr. Dorset will be desperate to get his son back, isn’t happening as planned.


Back at the cave, Sam finds Red Chief has further injured poor Bill. Sam tries to regain physical and verbal control.

I went out and caught that boy and shook him until his freckles rattled. “If you don’t behave,” says I, “I’ll take you straight home. Now, are you going to be good, or not?”

Red Chief appears contrite and apologizes. Sam believes he and Bill are back in the driver’s seat.

But the kidnappers’ determination falters when Bill, who can’t take any more abuse, begins to negotiate with Sam to reduce the ransom terms.

“…it ain’t human for anybody to give up two thousand dollars for that forty-pound chunk of freckled wildcat. I’m willing to take a chance at fifteen hundred dollars. You can charge the difference up to me.”

They agree to lower the ransom. Their foolproof, get-rich scheme is losing ground.

Next, Sam delivers the threatening note:

If you attempt any treachery or fail to comply with our demand as stated, you will never see your boy again. If you pay the money as demanded, he will be returned to you safe and well within three hours. These terms are final, and if you do not accede to them no further communication will be attempted. Two Desperate Men.

Although battered, the disheartened criminals are still holding onto their victim and believe Red Chief’s father will agree.

Instead, Mr. Dorset responds with a counteroffer:

I think you are a little high in your demands, and I hereby make you a counter-proposition, which I am inclined to believe you will accept. You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands. You had better come at night, for the neighbours believe he is lost, and I couldn’t be responsible for what they would do to anybody they saw bringing him back. Very respectfully, Ebenezer Dorset.

With a classic O. Henry twist at the end of the story, Bill and Sam are out-negotiated. The kidnappers become the victims and must pay Mr. Dorset to take back Red Chief.

To incorporate negotiation in your own stories, ask these questions:

  1. What are each character’s goals?
  2. Which character is in a stronger position and which is weaker?
  3. How do they negotiate with each other to shift power to achieve their goals?
  4. Do they ask, plead, implore, barter, demand, or threaten?
  5. Do they slyly seduce their opponent? Or beat the snot out of them?
  6. Do they feign defeat to fool their opponent into dropping their guard?
  7. Do they bluff and posture, claiming strength or power they don’t actually have?

The more your characters negotiate with each other, the more the power shifts between them, raising tension and suspense. Readers turn pages to find out who wins. When you keep readers interested, they become fans who buy your next book.

Make your readers an offer they cannot refuse. 


TKZers: Please share negotiations and power struggles between fictional characters that made an impression on you. Use examples from published stories, films, or your own WIP.


Debbie Burke is making an offer you can’t refuse:

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A Special Thank You

A couple of years ago, I was invited to participate in the creation of an anthology dedicated to honoring U.S. military veterans who had served during wartime. I accepted that invitation and agreed to write the story of 98-year-old WWII veteran Charlie Henderson.

I couldn’t conduct the interviews with Mr. Henderson in person because it was the summer of 2020, the first year of Covid, and we were separated by a couple of hundred miles, so we arranged to talk on the phone. Charlie’s age hadn’t affected his hearing, and we spent several hours in conversation about his life before, during, and after the war.

Charlie wasn’t thrilled when he was drafted into the army in 1942. He came from a close family in Mississippi, and he hated to leave, but he answered the call and spent most of his service in Europe. He was assigned to the 449th Gasoline Supply Company, a dangerous situation since the Germans wanted to destroy all gasoline supply depots. Charlie talked openly about the fear he felt when he and his fellow soldiers heard the sound of buzz bombs overhead, but he was proud of the part he played in delivering gasoline to the Allied front lines during the Battle of the Bulge.

After we completed our interviews, I sent Charlie and his nephew, John, the first draft of my article. They made suggestions and corrections and we repeated the process until we were all satisfied with the results. I sent the final copy to them and to the editors of the Forever Young Veterans Anthology.

* * *

Charlie’s nephew called me about a year ago to tell me Charlie had passed away at the age of 99. John wanted me to know how grateful Charlie was to me for having written his story. He had even asked John to hand out copies of the article at his funeral.

I was humbled that Charlie was grateful to me while it is I who owe so much to him.

I wrote a story. He fought a war.

As Diane Hight writes about our veterans in the Introduction to the Forever Young Veterans Anthology, “… many returned home to suffer silently and bury the pain of combat and war.”

* * *


In this season of Thanksgiving, I’d like to offer my special thanks to all U.S. military veterans. The Forever Young Veterans Anthology was released on November 2, 2022.



I’ll be traveling on the day this post appears, but I’ll check in when I can. An early Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

TKZers: What are you thankful for? Do you owe a special thank you to any person or group?

Text-to-Speech for Editing

Text-to-speech (TTS)– also called Read aloud technology–is a popular assistive technology in which a computer or computerized device reads the words on the screen aloud to the user.

TTS is used for many things, and the number of applications is increasing. If you like rabbit holes, there’s a lot here to investigate. Just Google it and you’ll be amazed. But today let’s talk about TTS in the context of editing. PCs, Macs, Chromebooks, Word, Scrivener, Google docs, and LibreOffice all have it built into their programs. Open Office and WordPerfect do not. Code can be inserted into WordPerfect for TTS, but it sounds complicated.

There are long lists of programs which are supposed to be better than the TTS built into the programs above. Many of them advertise as “free,” but most are only free for a trial period.

We’ve been told to read our manuscript out loud as part of our editing, or have someone else read it to us. I’ve found that even when I read out loud, I still skip over incorrect or missing words and letters. And good luck finding someone else with enough time and patience to read your manuscript to you.

Debbie posted a wonderful article on editing two years ago – – including using TTS, but, today, let’s focus on TTS in our editing routine.

Please share your knowledge:

  1. Do you use TTS in your editing process?
  2. In which program do you use it?
  3. Where or when in the editing process do you use it?
  4. How useful do you believe it is?
  5. If you use one of the “monthly fee” programs, which one did you choose?

Clue — Analyzing the Board Game’s Murder Weapons

Recently, a writer from the online humor site Cracked contacted me with a fun proposal. JM McNab wanted to do a Cracked piece on how effective the murder weapons were in the board game Clue. You remember—the lead pipe, the rope, the knife, the wrench, the revolver and—who could forget—caving a guy’s head in with the candlestick.

JM McNab found me through a Google search. He was looking for an “expert” in murder weapons, and I fit his bill. We had a great phone conversation resulting in this Cracked article being published this past Sunday. With JM’s and the Cracked editorial department’s permission, I’m sharing it today on the Kill Zone:

Which ‘Clue’ Weapon is Best, According to a Former Homicide Detective

Since none of Monopoly’s property disputes end up with grisly stabbings on Park Place, and as far as we know, Candyland isn’t secretly littered with sugary corpses, no doubt the most thematically-intense family board game in history is Clue, in which players are tasked with solving the murder of “Mr. Boddy” in a remote, two-dimensional country manor.

Winning the game means puzzling out the identity of the murderer, which room the crime took place in, and which of six potential deadly weapons was used. Admittedly, this a baffling premise for a murder mystery story; after all, even a drunken party guest should be able to quickly eyeball between a knife wound and a strangulation, right? Yet somehow, all of these confusing elements were skillfully weaved together in the comedy classic that is 1985’s Clue.

So we couldn’t help but wonder; in the world of Clue, given these options, which weapon would actually be the best and most effective choice for the fictitious killer; the rope, the candlestick, the revolver, the wrench, the knife, or the lead pipe? To get to the bottom of this pressing issue, we spoke with Garry Rodgers, a retired homicide detective and coroner, as well as a current best-selling crime writer.

As Mr. Rodgers pointed out, the six weapons fall into different categories; the candlestick, wrench, and lead pipe are all “blunt edge objects,” whereas the knife is a “sharp edge object.” The rope is a “ligature” and the revolver, of course, is a “firearm.”

In terms of the first category, the weapons that could be used to bash someone’s head in, any of these could conceivably be used as an instrument of death – but as Rodgers points out, “human beings are notoriously hard to kill” and can “take a wicked beating.” Using any of these effectively, not to mention discreetly, would be difficult because it might require a lot of work, and the victim could conceivably become “defensive,” either by fighting back, or by just running away at the first sign of an attack. And no one wants to play a round of Clue where “Mr. Boddy bolted out the front door” is the solution.

Rodgers reasoned that if the killer was wielding a lead pipe, approached the victim from behind and “gave a good whack” they ”could probably kill them with one blow.” The same goes for the wrench if it was big enough, since you would need “enough bulk” to “transfer the kinetic energy” and land a fatal blow – although it might be “hard to swing.”

The candlestick was ranked by Rodgers as the worst of all the Clue weapons, since it’s oddly-shaped, could be difficult to handle, and wouldn’t result in a “sharp directed transfer of energy to a particular spot” the way, say, the pipe would. And while Rodgers has investigated cases involving every other Clue weapon, he couldn’t recall any real life murders involving  candlesticks – which, incidentally, doesn’t mean that there aren’t similarly wacky murder weapons in the real world. Rodgers described one case where someone was stabbed with an oyster shucker, and another where the victim was beaten to death with a “bag of frozen pork chops,” AKA the reverse-Rocky.

Then we have the rope, which also has its major issues. For one thing, the killer would have to “overpower somebody to be able to get that rope around the neck” and there would likely have to be “some element of surprise in it.” This is why most strangulations are manual strangulations, as in by hand, “to start off with … followed up by ligature strangulation.” In other words, killers choke their victims until they black out, then finish them off with the ligature. But still “strangulations take quite a bit of time,” which could be a big problem if you need to hurriedly duck into a secret passage and head back to the Conservatory before anyone notices you’re gone.

As for the knife, it’s certainly deadly, but “people can take a lot of slashings with a knife.” So in addition to the fact that “you’re going to have your victim screaming” there would be “blood all over the place.” Meaning that Prof. Plum would have a tough time maintaining his innocence with Mr. Boddy’s innards Jackson Pollock-ed all over his evening wear.

Rodgers concluded that the revolver, of all the Clue weapons, would be the “most effective.” And, really, if there’s a gun in the house, why is anybody running around bludgeoning folks with a candlestick? While it’s noisier than some of the other weapons, “you can easily muffle it by shooting it through a pillow.” Although the further away one is from the target, the less accurate the shot – and accuracy would be key to ensuring that Mr. Boddy goes down for good.

All that being said, were one to attend a secluded country manor with murder on their mind, the ideal weapon would be … none of the Clue weapons. According to Garry Rodgers, the Clue murderer’s best course of action would have been to simply dose the victim with a little bit of poison, which is bafflingly not an option in the game. Of course, Clue obsessives may recall that poison was added as a weapon in the expanded version of the game, 1988’s Clue Master Detective – but then again, so was a horseshoe, which is just as goofy as a candlestick.

Kill Zoners — Who can name the six original suspects in Clue (without Googling them)? And if you were realistically rewriting the game ala 2022, what murder weapons would you retain, what would you change, and with what?

Have the Courage to Ignore Expert Advice

By John Gilstrap

I might have mentioned in this space a few dozen times that I am a self-taught writer. I learned by reading and observing and spilling gallons of ink–real and virtual–on projects that never went anywhere. I have also mentioned here my belief that in this business, there are no rules. There’s well-meaning advice, and lessons that have worked for other writers, but there are no inviolable rules.

One clue that there’s a charlatan in the house is the use of absolutes when teaching the craft to new writers. Words such as never, always, and must should ring a bell in your head that the advice-giver/teacher is one to be wary of.

One caveat: If the teacher is grading your work, and that grade impacts your academic future, then you absolutely live by the teacher’s rules and you compliment his or her brilliance for having so enriched your life. Academics are all about the grade, after all. If you learn something along the way, that’s good, too.

Any discussion of the rules of writing ultimately circles around to Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules For Good Writing.” Here’s a refresher:

  1. Never open a book with the weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify “said” . . . he said gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

There is no denying Elmore Leonard’s talent or success as a writer, and these bits of advice have a lot going for them. Personally, I agree with 60% of his rules. The 40% I disagree with all begin with the forbidden word “never.”

I confess that I had not yet read Mr. Leonard’s rules when I wrote No Mercy, the first book in my long-running Jonathan Grave thriller series. Here’s how that book opens:

The fulness of the moon made it all more complicated. The intense silver glow cast shadows as defined as midday despite the thin veil of cloud cover. Dressed entirely in black, with only his eyes showing beneath his hood, Jonathan Grave moved like a shadow in the stillness.

Smart minds might disagree, but I like that opening. It sets the scene, and, frankly, weather is an important component of hostage rescue operations. I think the opening works, and I don’t believe mine is the only successful novel that begins with the weather. If there is a single exception, then “never” is the wrong word. It’s bad advice.

I never met Mr. Leonard, but I’m willing to wager that when he wrote his rules, he never expected them to be taken literally, but if you’ve ever taught a writing seminar, I think you’ll agree that many new writers take rules from such wildly successful authors as gospel. I think that’s a mistake.

I also sense, yet cannot prove, that one of the reasons that so many MFA graduates never publish anything is because they can’t get the professors’ rules out of their head, and as a result, they never discover their true voices as writers. But I digress.

The next “never” on Mr. Elmore’s list is actually the one that drove me to the keyboard this morning. To instruct writers never to use any dialogue tag other than “said” is just plain malpractice. There’s nothing wrong with whispered, hollered, yelled, bloviated, growled, parroted, or any number of dialogue attributions that might come to mind. To me, this advice is akin to saying that “walked” is the only descriptor for ambulation.

My critique group often chastises me for too many dialogue tags. While I respect their opinions, I reject the critique for the simple reason that a writer’s greatest sin is to confuse the reader. The fact is that dialogue tags become invisible to the reader, even as it keeps them dialed in to who’s saying what to whom.

I’ve learned that in addition to the reading audience for my books, I also need to write for the consumers of audio books, where the visual clues of paragraph breaks between characters’ dialogue are absent. Even though I’m blessed with Basil Sands as the voice of the Jonathan Grave books, there’s only so much real-time characterization that the narrator can do to differentiate between the talkers. Dialogue tags make that much easier for everyone.

The next one brings us to the ever-popular hatred of adverbs. I cannot and do not disagree in principle. That said JK Rowling never met an adverb she didn’t love, and her books did okay.

As for never using “suddenly” and “all hell broke loose,” well, I’ll grant Mr. Leonard the point.

I turn it over you, TKZ family. I will be on travel when this post lands on the page, so I’m afraid you’ll have to talk among yourselves. Enjoy!



What We Can Learn About Writing From Reading On Vacation

The Abbey Bookshop in Paris

Cars are not nouns. They’re adjectives. — Fredrik Backman

By PJ Parrish

The best thing about vacationing in a foreign country is not being able to understand what’s on television. During our month-long stay in France, I was limited to the reality show Master Chef in French. A deflated souffle is the same in any language — pack your knives, knave!

So I got to read. A lot. I don’t use Kindles or tablets so I have to rely on tree books. I took three but burned through them fast. Restocked at the Abbey Bookshop in Paris, but still ran out of good stuff by the time we got to Provence. Luckily, our rental house had bulging bookshelves. Unluckily, most of it was non-fiction or Italian novels. Including Stephen King’s L’Ombra dello Scorpione. (No clue…)

I read 22 books in three weeks. Some were as great as the Basque Pikorra cheese we had. A few were as forgettable as Velvetta. One I tossed into the pool (yes, I will name names). Another, a bestseller from a great series, put me, and my dog, to sleep. Most entertained me. And almost all of them taught me something about this maddening thing we call writing.

Here’s a sampling and what I learned from each. Apologies for the long post today, and I forgive you if you skim read.

The Financial Lives of the Poets. By Jess Walter. Matthew Prior quits his newspaper job to gamble everything on a quixotic notion: a web site devoted to financial journalism in the form of blank verse. Before long, he’s in debt, six days away from losing his home — and spying on his wife’s online flirtation. Then, one night on a desperate two a.m. run to 7-Eleven, he falls in with some local stoners. Havoc follows.

I loved this book. It’s gasp-out-loud funny. Surprising at every turn. Darkly satirical yet achingly tender. You ever get a book you start to read more slowly because you don’t want it to end? This was it for me. I’ve read only one other Walter book, Beautiful Ruins, his paean to crazy love starring a weird Italian trying to build a golf course on a Ligurian cliff, Burton and Taylor trysting during Cleopatra, and a doomed starlet. Richard Russo called it “an absolute masterpiece.” Walter has written only 10 novels, snapped up countless awards, and won the Edgar for his crime novel Citizen Vince. (I’m off to get it today).

THE LESSON. Trust in your ability to be original. Don’t be a pale copy of someone else. Take chances. The two Walter books I read are blazingly different yet both quirky and deeply affecting. As Walter told the New York Times: “I judged a contest once — 200-some books — and another judge said: ‘You’ll be surprised how many good books there are, and how few great ones.’ Indeed, there were many ‘well-written books’ but the great ones stood out for other qualities: audacity, originality, thematic weight. I think writers sometimes fall in love with this idea of “the gorgeous sentence” and it becomes their only definition of writing. But other elements are also part of writing; to me, an elegant narrative shape is every bit as beautiful as great prose.” Amen to that.

Me and Archie and Ian Rankin.

A House Of Lies. By Ian Rankin. Retired detective John Rebus gets pulled back in when a skeleton of a private eye is found in the woods. His old friend, Siobhan Clarke is assigned to the case.

I’ve enjoyed other Rebus novels and was eager to sink back into this evergreen series. But the pacing was glacial and too many characters are introduced too early — except for Rebus who shows up late for his own party. The Scots are said to be folks of few words. Not here. The cop banter is numbing. It’s the 22nd outing for Rebus, so maybe the old fellow was a bit tired. I don’t know. I gave up on page 72. Very put-downable.

THE LESSON: Keep the focus in the early pages on your protag. Establish a compelling fissure in the norm immediately. Don’t crowd your stage with minor characters too soon. Make your dialogue advance the plot — less talk, more action. And never forget that you’re only as good as your last book.

A Man Called Ove. By Fredrik Backman

Ove, an ill-tempered, isolated retiree who spends his days enforcing block association rules and visiting his wife’s grave, has finally given up on life just as an unlikely friendship develops with his boisterous new neighbors.

I plucked this off the shelf not expecting much. The ho-hum opening line: Ove is fifty-nine. He drives a Saab. And the Ove character is just really nasty and off-putting. Plus it’s set in Sweden. But this quirky, funny, dark book unfolds with grace and perfect pacing, toggling between the present and Ove’s childhood. It’s heartbreaking and ultimately life-affirming. I’ve since found out it’s a word-of-mouth international bestseller. (where have I been?) And it will be released this Christmas as a movie starring — who else? — Tom Hanks (renamed as Otto from Pittsburgh). I love it when I stumble upon a book having no expectations and then am blown away. Oh, as for that opening line: The author says his editor all but demanded that he change it — you need something juicier, editor said. Backman fought for the Saab line.

The Lesson: Yes, an unlikeable character can carry a story. But you must, as Fredrik Backman does with Ove, give your hero a sturdy and believable arc, allowing the plot and other characters to affect his development.  Other lessons: Pay attention to your other cast members. Each one in this book has an impact — some small some major — on Ove’s life. Each is rendered with love and vividness.

A final lesson: Don’t agree with everything an editor tells you to do. Opening lines, at their best, telegraph to your readers the thematic heart of your story. The opening line about the Saab is a splendid example of what we here call “the telling detail.” The Saab comes to symbolize Ove’s very soul. Backman talks about this in a wonderful essay he wrote called “Something About a Saab”: Quote: “It’s a pretty weird process, writing a book…a lot of compromises are made, sometimes between the writer and the publisher…but mostly between the writer and the writer. Ideas are edited, dialogues are shortened, characters are fired. Editors like to call this process killing your darlings. If there is one thing in this whole novel process that wild horses and armed men could have never convinced me to get rid of it was that second sentence: He drives a Saab. I could have written twenty pages and never gotten as much said about Ove as with those four words…Above all you know exactly  what men who drive Saabs would have said about us. Because cars are not nous. They’re adjectives.”

Which is why, when I finally divorced my first husband, I got rid of my Honda Accord and bought a TR6 convertible.

Sea of Tranquility and Last Night In Montreal. By Emily St. John Mandel. 

You might know from my previous posts that I’m a big fan of this writer. Her Station Eleven and Glass Hotel are two of the best books I’ve read in the past five years. I splurged on a hardcover of her latest Sea of Tranquility. It involves time travel, love, and plague that takes the reader from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a dark colony on the moon five hundred years later, unfurling a story of humanity across centuries and space. Loved this book! So I grabbed a used copy of her first book Last Night in Montreal at the Abbey Bookshop, ready to be entranced again. Oh brother, what a hot mess. The main character Lilia was abducted in the night by her father. As an adult, Lilia wanders from city to city, lover to lover, eluding a PI who’s obsessed with finding her. There’s a second character Eli, also obsessed with her, trailing her like a sick puppy. Lots of dark hints about a tortured childhood, a bad mom, and such. But mainly, it’s Lilia and Eli whining about their useless lives, as the detective — totally without motivation –lets his relationship with his own daughter wither and die.

The Lessons: Sea of Tranquility taught me that you can indeed whiplash readers through time but only when you’ve got the firmest grasp of your craft. Mandel never gets you confused. Plus she’s a master at world-building. I totally believed her scenes set on the moon colonies. Last Night in Montreal taught me that SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN. (Boy, you haven’t heard that here before, right?) And that whining isn’t deep. It’s just boring. Oh, and that big secret about her bad childhood? A big meh at the end. Lesson: Don’t set up some juicy plot tease and then not follow through. (Montreal is the book that landed in the pool.)  And a final lesson for you all just starting out: Yes, your first book might be flawed but put it behind you and keep moving forward. There’s maybe a Station Eleven — it won the PEN and National Book Award and was an HBO series — waiting to claw its way out of you.

La Sentence By John Grisham

By my final three days, I had exhausted the rental house’s English novels. There was just John Grisham left. Now, I’m not a Grisham fan. I concede he’s a good storyteller but his writing sounds clunky to my ear. Also, this book was in French. It was called La Sentence, a translation of Grisham’s 2018 family saga cum mystery cum war novel The Reckoning. 

Thanks to years of adult ed and Babbel, I have a passable reading knowledge of French. So, dictionary in hand, I cracked open La Sentence, ready for a long slog. The story hooked me immediately. It is 1946 and wounded war hero Pete Banning has returned to his family cotton business in small town Mississippi. Page one: On a cold morning, Banning wakes before dawn and decides today is the day he will kill someone. He knows it will change the lives of everyone he cares for, but “the killing became as inevitable as the sunrise.”

I’ve tried to read French novels before — mainly Georges Simenon’s Maigret series — but the native language’s nuances frustrated me. But this was easier reading, maybe because it is so plot-driven. Also, I began to wonder if Grisham’s translator had added something, making the description and emotion more musical. When I got home, I got a used copy of The Reckoning in English and compared the two.

Take this line in the French version, from a scene where Banning is heading toward town, surveying the cotton fields and workers as he drives.

Les fleurs de coton, emportées par le vent, saupoudraient la route derrière les charrettes.

Here is how I translated it (and checked it via Google):

The cotton flowers, carried away by the wind, powdered the road behind the carts. 

But here is how it appeared in The Reckoning (original English) as Grisham actually wrote it:

Cotton blown from the trailers littered the shoulders of the highway.

Note the difference in word choice: “flowers” instead of cotton balls. “carried away by the wind” instead of “blown” and “littered.” And there’s the use of that verb saupoudre, which in French is used most often to describe powdering a cake with white sugar.

THE LESSON: Word choices matter. Given his massive success (and The Reckoning was well reviewed), maybe Grisham needn’t worry about finding the great word or well-turned phrase. But given this book’s sad opening and almost elegiac tone, I wish he had tried harder to give Pete Banning a better soundtrack. I’m going to finish the book, but sticking with the French version. I like a little powdered sugar with my plots.

So, what have you all been reading lately? And what did you learn from your reading that helped you as a writer?


Here There Be Dragons

I’m a hack, a terrible writer.

This is a horrific novel. My god, I never could write in the first place and someone gave me a contract.

 This part of the book is a wasteland that sucks all the energy from my soul. Nobody cares about these characters, and I hate them myself.

I’m gonna write The End on this stupid career and get a job mowing the sides of highways. At least I can look back and see positive results.

Many writers reach that point in the oft-dreaded second act. It’s where we stall, put off going to the home office or computer, and wonder why we ever invested so much time getting to that part of the manuscript.

Whether your own second act is fifty percent of the novel, or in my case crawls out of a dark, dank hole at the 30,000 word mark and taunts me until somewhere past 60,000, it’s a struggle for many authors, no matter how many books they have out.

And we wonder why the same thing happens every single time. It does for me, even though I’ve set everything into motion and breeze through the first 30,000 words. Then I hit the wall. The pace of my writing slows, and I force a thousand words at each sitting, but it isn’t pleasant.

One foot after the other. Keep on. Write something. I’ll be through this slow wasteland in thirty days if I just keep on keeping on.

The second act is the confrontation point in which your established characters and antagonists are on set, and in my case seemingly wandering without direction, as the protagonist says to hell with it and sits down with a cigarette and a glass of scotch.

Wait, that wasn’t the protagonist, it was me halfway through the last novel I wrote.

At this point, your characters are reacting to what’s happened in the first act and are now pursuing their assigned goals, whatever they may be, and if you don’t outline, it could be anything.

Here there be dragons.

Many times this part of the work in progress is a yawning blank wasteland requiring dedication to complete. Look at it this way, no matter what kind of novel we’re writing, the easy part was the first leg of a roller coaster ride that pulls us to the top. It’s fairly fast, because the author knows where s/he’s going, starting the excitement with that idea that leads to…something.

At the pinnacle of this elevated point of our amusement park ride, we look back from the lead car to those behind to see our hero, secondary characters, supporting members, and of course, the bad guys either out in the open or in some kind of concealing costume (hopefully not clown suits).

But when we reach the top, the ride doesn’t head straight back down, though we wish it would. The incline is shallow, but quickly turns to the left, a slight jolt in the plot if you will, but now we’re just cruising along in the wasteland.

The ride may be flatter than the opening chapters, but those on this roller coaster fill the air with excitement, anticipating what’s to come as they interact with each other and push the plot forward. This is where our hero develops a relationship with any secondary characters that we introduce and motivate.

Not every part of the story has to be about the protagonist. This is the time we can shift viewpoints, to see through the eyes of those other characters, and even wriggle inside the evil mind of the antagonist.

Maybe that’s what they’re doing back there in those cars.

Someone calls from behind. “Where are we going?”

The author shrugs. “Hell if I know. It’s the middle of the story. You tell me.”

We’ve arrived at the point where the characters will clash, providing much needed action at this juncture. Others go to work together, knowing there’s a drop ahead and preparing for it. They’ll agree we have a solid story structure, even though the author is doubting the entire project. Past a peeling sign proclaiming we’ve reached 50,000 words, halfway point, there’s another clatter of wheels on the rails as the cars lean right.

Yep, it was about time for a twist.

We’re building toward the climax, the rushing drop to the end, but before we can get there, a couple more things need to happen. Those folks behind the lead car will evolve and develop in order to push the story forward. They’ll collude, fall out with one another, or even branch out on their own for a short while until the author reels them in.

This is where an even more detailed world will develop as the entire cast of characters reacts to what happened back with that first major plot point in the first act.

But now as authors we need to be persistent and keep things interesting. Despite our misgivings, we show up for work because something needs to happen, because dialogue and discussion alone can’t hold our interest, and Michner-like descriptions get old fast.

So what does the author want out of the second act?

To get through into the third act, the fun part.

Hotamighty! Though persistence, either with our writing or the characters doing what they’re supposed to do, plot points converge. We finally look ahead from the cars and see nothing but sky, horizon, that razor edge of the drop and with it, exhilaration, action, and the big reveal in a mystery, or in thrillers, and that fast, breathtaking plunge to justice, Act Three.

The faded wooden sign reads, Over 60,000 words. We’re through it!

The third act writes itself with that fresh rush of adrenaline, and the manuscript soon flashes away in an electronic firehose of bits and bytes to its final destination. Weeks or months later, after copy edits, we open the file and read what we eked out in the course of several dismal weeks.


It works!

The first act sets everything up, and despite what we recall, the plot points and characters don’t mill around in the middle of the book because they hold our interest and make sense. It successfully leads to that exciting ending that satisfies.

So are you there right now? Still stuck slightly beyond that rotting sign that reads Act II, and creeping along one sentence at a time? I’ll leave you today with an alleged discussion that occurred at the Algonquin Round Table.

A few guys are talking about the same three act premise in screenwriting.

One asks, “How’s the play going?”

Another answers. “I’m having second act problems.”

Everybody laughs and another comments. “Of course you’re having second act problems!”

In summation about this discussion on Act Two, here’s a quote from Lone Waite, a character in Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster movie, The Outlaw Josey Wales.

“Endeavor to persevere.”

You’ll get through it.

What’s In Your Closet?

What if…

While on a long hike at your crazy Uncle Harry’s property in the steep hills and deep valleys of Appalachia, you discover a tiny shanty hidden in a brush pile at the back of the property. After moving enough brush to enter the little shack, you find a skeleton shackled to the wall, still holding a moonshine bottle with a note inside.

Would you?

  1. Report your finding to the county sheriff
  2. Leave as quickly as possible, replace the brush, and say nothing to anybody
  3. Use the information for the plot of your next book
  4. Something else

Justify your decision based on the note, and tell us what the note said.

Add any additional details you wish.

Killer Deadlines

By Elaine Viets

Throughout my writing career, I’ve lived by deadlines. I started as a newspaper reporter and then became a columnist, where I often had four deadlines a week – with no time off. When the holidays rolled around, I had to write my columns ahead of time. That meant six or even eight deadlines a week.
As a mystery writer, I still have deadlines, but the pace seemed easier. Newspapers moved swiftly, like a cold through a kindergarten. Publishing seemed slower than a Manhattan traffic jam.
At first, I wrote two novels a year. Now I’ve cut back to one a year.

No problem with deadlines, right?
Wrong. No matter how much time I have to write a novel, the last week is always jammed up.
This August 31, I turned in my new Angela Richman, death investigator mystery to my London publisher, Severn House. This time, I spent that final stretch writing twelve-hour days, trying to finish. As I read through the book, a straggling subplot had to be cut. Its crabgrass-like tendrils were deep in the book. I dug them out.
Errors popped up – difficult characters deliberately changed their hair color and didn’t tell me. One nasty customer gave himself two different names. Typos appeared out of nowhere.
As I struggled to finish on deadline, I wrestled with my recalcitrant manuscript. I could feel it squirming. It refused to settle neatly in place.
I read and reread it until my eyes were blurry. Finally, I pressed the button and emailed it off to London, hoping all was well. I couldn’t read the book one more time.
Exhausted, I slept for two days.
Then I waited and worried, my head buzzing with questions:
Would my editor like the new book? Would she want a rewrite? What if she rejected it?
Finally, I got a brief note two weeks later – that’s lightning speed for publishing. My editor was reading the manuscript and “enjoying it hugely.”
Whew. I felt so much better. What was I going to do while I waited?
I could write a short story. Clean off my desk. Answer my emails. Plot my next book.
I could do that, but I didn’t. I couldn’t get up the energy.
My editor didn’t like the working title, so I came up with a new one – “The Dead of Night.”
I didn’t do much else. I just need to lie fallow, I told myself. I was so fallow I was turning into a puddle of goo. I moped around my home. I’ll get my energy back soon, I thought.
I got it back this Tuesday. My editor emailed me the copyedited manuscript. It needs some tweaking and a small rewrite. And I have one week to finish. It’s due next Tuesday.
Suddenly I was awake. Galvanized. Ready to work. I quit moping. I had a purpose.
Better yet, I had a deadline.

What about you, writers? Do you need deadlines?

PS: I’m also working under another deadline. Hurricane Nicole is heading this way, and I’m going to drag in the plants on the balcony. Wish us luck.

I’m celebrating! My short story, “We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About,” in the anthology, “The Great Filling Station Holdup: crime fiction inspired by the songs of Jimmy Buffet,” edited by Josh Pachter, won Silver at the Royal Palm Literary Award.
Buy the anthology here:

Where’s The Body?

Where’s The Body?
Terry Odell

Sherlock Holmes with pipe and magnifying glass I write a small town police procedural series that readers have said “has a cozy feel.” I’m not big on traditional thrillers (defined as a suspense with consequences of global proportions), or psychological suspense, or serial killers—probably because I burned out on them the year I judged the Edgars, and I don’t think I’ve fully recovered.
So, here I am in the 7th novel in my Mapleton Mystery series. Book 1, Deadly Secrets, revolved around a new and reluctant chief of police faced with solving the first homicide in the town’s collective memory. Avoiding the Jessica Fletcher/Cabot Cove syndrome became my challenge as I continued through the series. I had a cold case, homicides discovered while my character was outside of Mapleton, another case when the victim wasn’t a Mapleton citizen. With the current WIP, currently approaching the 35K mark, I realize I have yet to have a homicide. The story begins when someone sets off an IED in the protagonist’s house and subsequently disappears. It’s an arson investigation. There are personal connections between the arsonist and the protagonist, but I don’t have a body yet. Will I? Should I? What happens if I don’t?
Maybe it’s because I learned to love mystery with Sherlock Holmes, and I’m sure he solved a lot of puzzles where nobody died.
My question to you TKZers: Is a dead body critical to a book that’s going to end up on the mystery “shelf” in bookstores? There are plenty of crimes that aren’t homicides, but why is the focus on a mystery always the murder victim?
Floor is open.
Note: This is a short post because the Covid virus has invaded the Odell household. The Hubster swore it was “just a head cold” and didn’t take my “suggestion” to test until two days later. Meanwhile, we’d been going about our normal, relatively isolated rural lives, so we still have no idea where we contracted the disease. Fortunately, we’re both fully vaccinated and boosted, so our symptoms have been mild. But the old brain isn’t making all the connections, most notably with the fingers.

Now Available: Cruising Undercover

It’s supposed to be a simple assignment aboard a luxury yacht, but soon, he’s in over his head.

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