Eight Tricks to Tap Your Subconscious for Better Writing

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

The subconscious is the writer’s superpower. Ideas, imagination, and inspiration live in that vast reservoir.

The goal is to open a channel between the conscious mind and the subconscious to allow free flow between them.

Like a physical muscle, the subconscious is a mental muscle that can be made stronger with exercise. Many writers don’t use it enough because they don’t understand its value or don’t know how to tap into its depths.

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The mind is often compared to an iceberg—only a small part shows as “conscious” while the unseen majority is “subconscious.”

What is the subconscious? Novelist/writing instructor Dennis Foley reduces the definition to a simple, beautiful simile:

The subconscious is like a little seven-year-old girl who brings you gifts.

Unfortunately, our conscious mind is usually too busy to figure out the value of these odd thoughts and dismisses them as inconsequential, even nonsensical.

The risk is, if you ignore the little girl’s gifts, pretty soon she stops bringing them and you lose touch with a vital link to your writer’s imagination. But if you encourage her to bring more gifts, she’s happy to oblige.

Sometimes the little girl delivers the elusive perfect phrase you’ve been searching for or that exhilarating plot twist that turns your story on its head.

At those times, she’s often dubbed “the muse.”

The trick is how to consistently turn random thoughts into gifts from a muse. Here are eight tips:

#1 – Be patient and keep trying.

Training the subconscious to produce inspiration on demand is like housetraining a puppy.

At first, it pees at unpredictable times and places. You grab it and rush outside. When it does its business on the grass instead of expensive carpet, you offer lots of praise. Soon it learns there is a better time and place to let loose.

Keep reinforcing that lesson and your subconscious will scratch at the back door when it wants to get out.

#2 – Pay attention to daydreams, wild hare ideas, and jolts of intuition. Chances are your subconscious shot them out for a reason, even if that reason isn’t immediately obvious.

Say you’re struggling over how to write a surprise revelation in a scene. Two days ago, you remembered crazy Aunt Gretchen, whom you hadn’t thought about in years. Then you realize if a character like her walks into the scene, she’s the perfect vehicle to deliver the surprise.

#3 – Expect the subconscious to have lousy timing.

That brilliant flash of inspiration often hits at the most inconvenient moment. In the middle of a job interview. In the shower. Or while your toddler is having a meltdown at Winn-Dixie.

Finish the task at hand but ask your subconscious to send you a reminder later. As soon as possible, write down that brilliant flash before you forget it.

#4 – Keep requests small.

Some authors claim to have dreamed multi-book sagas covering five generations of characters. Lucky them. My subconscious doesn’t work that hard.

Start by asking it to solve little problems.

As you’re going to bed, think about a character you’re having trouble bringing to life. Miriam seems flat and hollow but, for some reason you can’t explain, she hates the mustache on her new lover, Jack. Ask your subconscious: “Why?”

When you wake up, you realize Jack’s mustache looks just like her uncle’s did…when he molested Miriam at age five.

Until that moment, you didn’t even know Miriam had survived abuse…but your subconscious knew. That’s why it dropped the hint about her dislike for the mustache. She becomes a deeper character with secrets and hidden motives you can use to complicate her relationship with Jack.

#5 – Recognize obscure clues.

This tip takes practice because suggestions from the subconscious are often oblique and challenging to interpret.

You want to write a scene where a detective questions a suspect to pin down his whereabouts at the time of a crime. You ponder that as you drift off to sleep. The next morning, “lemon chicken” comes to mind.

What the…?

But you start typing and pretty soon the scene flows out like this:

“Hey, Fred, you like Chinese food?”

“Sure, Detective.”

“Ever try Wang’s all-you-can-eat buffet?”

“That’s my favorite place. Their lemon chicken is to die for.”

“Yeah, it’s the best.”

[Fred relaxes] “But not when it gets soggy. I only like it when the coating is still crispy.”

“Right you are. I don’t like soggy either.”

“Detective, would you believe last night I waited forty-five minutes for the kitchen to bring out a fresh batch?”

“Wow, Fred, you’re a patient man. About what time was that?”

“Quarter to eight.”

“So you must have been there when that dude got killed out in the alley.”

[Fred fidgets and licks his lips] “Um, yeah, but I didn’t see anything. I had nothing to do with him getting stabbed.”

“Oh really? Funny thing is, nobody knows he got stabbed…except the killer.”

Lemon chicken directed you to an effective line of questioning to solve the crime.

#6 – Tiny details pay big dividends.

You’re writing a story about a woman, Susan, searching for her dead grandmother’s missing diamond. In the description of Granny’s garden, an empty snail shell appears. Seems kind of silly but it’s first draft so you leave in the detail. You can always cut it later.

In the second draft, you realize, when Susan was little, she and Granny used to collect snail shells.

Now Susan goes outside and picks up that empty shell you’d left earlier in the garden. The diamond falls out.

Before she died, Granny hid the diamond where only her beloved granddaughter would think to search because of her long-ago interest in snail shells.

Like the mustache mentioned earlier, you didn’t know the story needed that detail but your subconscious did. It planted the seed, sat back, and waited for you to recognize it.

#7 – Bigger problems need more time.

In my WIP (working title: Eyes in the Sky), an unseen mastermind is pulling strings to cause harm to the main characters. At page 100, that antagonist is revealed to the reader but remains unknown to the protagonists.

A beta reader suggested keeping his identity secret until even later to increase suspense. It was a great point but would require major rewriting.

For several weeks, I pondered the problem both consciously and subconsciously.

At last, my muse offered a different solution. The mastermind is still identified at page 100. But now suspicion additionally falls on a minor player. That secondary character has an even more compelling motive to harm the protagonists. I simply hadn’t recognized it until my subconscious brought it to my attention.

Rather than withholding the identity longer, instead I beefed up the additional suspect to make the reader wonder which antagonist is the ultimate villain.

Tip #8 – Practice trigger activities.

Whenever a story gets caught in a corner, I go for a walk. I stretch out stiff muscles, breathe fresh air, and let my mind wander.

Before long, the solution pops up from my subconscious and I rush back to the keyboard.

Walking is my trigger activity. It works. Every. Single. Time.

That’s because, for years, I’ve conditioned my subconscious. Like a bell at a factory that signals the start of the shift, a walk signals my subconscious that it’s time to go to work.

Through experimentation, you can find a trigger activity that opens the channel between your conscious and your subconscious. It might be listening to music, reading, playing basketball, meditation, skydiving—what you do doesn’t matter, as long as it works for you.

Once you find your best trigger, use it whenever you need your subconscious to produce. The more often you use it, the stronger the reinforcement between the activity and the results.

Photo credit: Pixabay

 

That little seven-year-old girl wants to please you. She is happy to bring gifts as long as you keep encouraging her.

When the channel between the conscious and subconscious flows freely, the deep well of imagination bubbles up.

 

Your writing will show the difference.

 

TKZers, do you have favorite tips to access your subconscious?

 

Post script: recently Joe Hartlaub blogged about improving creativity by writing with a font called “Comic Sans.” Sounded pretty woo-woo but I always trust Joe’s advice so I tried it while drafting this post. It works. Thanks, Joe!

 

Debbie Burke is still trying to figure out the hidden meaning in the latest five-star review for her thriller Instrument of the Devil :

“Very easy to apply. Great instructions…Product works great just like the expensive ones you buy at the store.”

Whatever.

It’s available on Amazon here.

10+

Could Alexa Solve Murders?

Debbie and I were surfing the same wavelength this week. If you didn’t get a chance to read her post, be sure to check it out.

As technology has become more integral to daily life, authorities have increasingly sought evidence from mobile phones, laptops, social media, and even a video game.

Last summer, I heard about a murder case in Arkansas. The high-profile defense attorney, Kathleen Zellner — best known as Steven Avery’s attorney in season two of Making a Murderer — petitioned the court for Amazon Echo recordings.

The Amazon Echo entered the November 2015 murder case after Victor Collins (47), a former Georgia police officer, died in the suspect’s hot tub. An observer told police he’d heard music streaming through the device that evening.

Zellner’s client, James Bates, invited two friends to his Bentonville home to watch college football, drink beer and shots of vodka. After the game, the three men slipped into Bates’ hot tub. Around 1 a.m., Bates said he went to bed. When he woke in the morning, Collins was floating face-down in the hot tub.

The defense contended the death was a tragic accident, stemming from high levels of alcohol. At the time of death, Collins’ blood-alcohol content was at .32, four times the legal limit to drive in Arkansas.

Investigators believed Collins’ body showed evidence of strangulation prior to drowning. Signs of a struggle they’d seen in the house, including a broken shot glass, dried blood on the floor, injuries to both Collins and Bates, and indications that someone hosed down the patio and hot tub before police arrived. They further contended Bates’ water heater, another smart device, recorded an exorbitant amount of water used in the early morning hours, in what investigators believed was an attempt to conceal the crime. The defense argued the same amount of water had been used 12 hours prior to the night in question.

After Amazon released the recordings, the prosecution dropped all charges against Bates. Why? The DA stated, “They cannot meet the legal requirements to proceed.” No further mention of the Echo recordings, but writers don’t need the outcome to envision the story Alexa might tell.

See where I’m going with this? We could spin the recordings anyway we want. Keep that in mind while you read this next case.

Fast-forward to January 27, 2018, when Amazon Echo recordings could solve a brutal double homicide.

In my home state of New Hampshire — a 30-40 minute drive from where I live — two slayings rocked the quaint Farmington community. In the early morning hours of January 29th, Dean Smoronk returned home after a trip to Florida. When he arrived, his live-in girlfriend, Christine Sullivan, and a friend, Jenna Pellegrini, who was staying with the couple at the time, were both missing. He called 911 around 3 a.m., and said he thought there’d been a murder.

When officers arrived at the scene, Smoronk pointed out a large blood stain on the mattress in the upstairs bedroom and dried blood in the kitchen, with a blood smear on the refrigerator. Hours later, New Hampshire State Police found the two women cocooned in tarps, stuffed under the porch. Eight stab wounds littered Sullivan’s body, her skull fractured by a blunt object. Pellegrini’s head, face, and chest showed 48 stab wounds.

During the search, investigators also found several knives wrapped in a flannel shirt — the same flannel shirt worn by Timothy Verrill, caught on the home’s surveillance footage that night. Verrill was a known drug dealer in the area. At the time of the killings, he was friends with Sullivan and Smoronk. Some speculate he was also Pellegrini’s boyfriend, but there’s some conflicting evidence on whether that’s true. Allegedly, Verrill feared the two women were working with authorities on an undercover sting, of which he was the intended target.

State Police seized an Amazon Echo from the crime scene. Had Alexa recorded the murders and subsequent cover-up?

On Oct. 30th, Senior Assistant Attorney General Geoffrey Ward asked the judge to direct Amazon.com to produce any recordings made between Jan. 27 and Jan. 29, 2017, suggesting evidence of the murder and/or hindering prosecution could be found on the device.

In the motion, made in lieu of an application for a search warrant, Ward wrote, “As part of the normal functioning of an Echo electronic device, activated either intentionally or accidentally by ‘wake up words,’ audio recordings are made from the moment when the device is activated. Specifically, when the Echo detects a ‘wake up word(s),’ the device begins audio recording through its integrated microphones, including recording the fraction of a second of audio before the ‘wake up word(s).’”

Wake up words include Amazon and Alexa, but as Debbie pointed out, Alexa records even when those words aren’t mentioned.

Ward’s motion also asked for a wider scope in order to identify cellular devices that paired with the smart speaker within the same time period.

The judge ordered Amazon to hand over the recordings. No word yet on what Alexa overheard that night. The trial begins in May, 2019.

So, TKZers, if you were writing these stories, what would you reveal in the recordings? Get your creative juices pumping by including a jaw-dropping twist!

WINGS OF MAYHEM is on sale for 99c.

“The story spins ahead with escalating velocity and well-rendered literary layers, always leaving the reader pleading for more information while delivering just enough with exquisite timing, always nailing a clear and rationale dissection of what seemed in the moment like insanity or illogic. The craft of the writer is on display from page one, with intense pacing, deeply drawn characters and a matrix of plot elements that never lets you see the big picture as completely as you think you do, thus setting up an ending that demands you stick with it until the final, unexpected twist.” ~ USA Today Bestselling Author Larry Brooks

 

 

5+

Process, Schmocess

 

My trusty, late-night writing companion

I’m shy/not shy about discussing my writing “process.” I actually dislike the word “process” when it comes to writing because it makes writing sound both vaunted and ridiculously precious at the same time.

I’m often shy sharing mine here because the posts on TKZ are created by professional, grown-up writers. Most have regimented schedules, produce work, reward themselves, and move onto the next project. They support families and/or themselves. Writing is a job. They also have other jobs, whether they be at home, or working outside the home. They blow me away every day with their dedication, creativity, and professionalism.

Weirdly, I’m also a professional, grown up writer. Though I’m a professional writer who has resisted schedules all her life. The ADHD is an issue. My brain can truly hyper-focus, but when it’s not hyper-focusing, it’s constantly on fire. It can’t be still at all. It constantly searches for novelty and stimulation. ADHD meds clamp down my creativity like an empty yogurt carton trapping a spider in the front hallway. Oh, and the yogurt carton has the Complete Works of Shakespeare on top of it. No more web-spinning, fly-sucking, or terrorizing the kiddies for that spider! (Hmmm. That about describes my creativity, though I’ve never actually drained a fly. I found myself weirdly desirous of eating a dead one once–but that’s another blog.)

Every so often, I dive into schedules and calendars and self-help books and organization projects. They delight me! The future immediately looks so bright! I love the idea of not writing at two in the morning because I couldn’t settle down all day to the work. (I don’t enjoy overnight writing, but I often do it out of necessity.) Schedules discourage writing right up to deadline. What a brilliant concept.  I’ve actually done it a few times and it was AMAZING. Like Graeter’s Ice Cream amazing. First kiss amazing. (Actually, my first kiss was kind of awful. But that’s also another blog. Or not.) Finding six Hershey’s kisses from last Christmas at the back of the cabinet when you’ve been out of chocolate for an entire day amazing. Dang, that’s a great feeling, isn’t it?

I’ve been in next-book mode for months and have restarted it three times. We’re talking between 30 and 50 pages started. I just couldn’t figure out WHERE the book needed to start because it’s a story with a higher number than my usual amount of turning points. (Hey, I used one of those professional writer terms here. Woot.) This is a big book, a big story. It’s opened in different time periods and with different characters. Also different POVs. Many (more sensible) writers would’ve moved on to another idea by now. Another writer might have been at their desk daily at 8:30 a.m. and gone through the three restarts in a few weeks.

Did I mention I’m 56.5 years old? I’ve been writing for thirty years. Honestly, my meandering process has changed little. I’ve written ten novels (eight of which have been published, 2 will remain unseen), anthologies, short stories, essays, blogs, articles, book reviews. There were even several profitable copywriting gigs. Somehow I’ve produced a reasonably significant amount of work.

But I still hunger for the right schedule. The right way to work. The right amount of finished pieces. I still imagine there’s a Platonic Ideal of Laura’s Writing Career out there.

Perfectibility is the eternal illusion. A quest at least as old as the first cave artist who sketched an Ibex that came out looking like a prairie dog, scraped it off and tried again. And again. Funny how we look at so many of those cave paintings now and think them wondrous. Are they perfect? Who’s to say? By what standards can we judge ancient art? We can classify it. Trace developments over time by looking at similar work. Say one artist’s work is somehow better than another. But each effort stands alone. Human creations are imperfectible, just like humans. (My opinion, y’all. I’m not itching to argue religion or philosophy here…) Here’s the cool thing I’ve discovered about the desire for perfection, though: It keeps me striving. As long as I don’t constantly kick myself for not ever being perfect, I still get plenty of satisfaction.

I will probably die with the notion of the Platonic Ideal of Laura’s Writing Career in my head. Oh, well. It’s definitely far less difficult to live with than it used to be.

Every time I post on Facebook these days, I get some stupid message about how people really respond better to posts with pictures. “Posts with pictures are more popular than posts without pictures, Laura Benedict. Why don’t you include some pictures in this post? And, by the way, you can go ahead and add your photos to this post, and we will automatically remove any preview links you’ve already included in the post, thus completely destroying it. You may then add pictures to your new post.”

So I’m going to add some pictures here. This is what my life has been like over the past five days in which I was hyper-focusing on the third start on this novel. I’m pretty sure I got it almost right this time, in the tradition of horseshoes and hand grenades.

They’re not lovely pictures. But in my life, creation is messy, and occasionally people have to make their own dinner.

After the photos:  Tell us about your process. Or your quest for perfection. Or creativity/work habits that really work for you. We are always open to new ideas here!

Where I slept last night because it’s not fair to disturb a sleeping husband at 5:00 a.m. when he usually gets up at six.

Trust me. You don’t want to see the front.

Sustenance. All the food groups. Plus, I roasted those pecans on Sunday. No one can say I didn’t cook.

I think a dozen clementines, two apples, and a 1/2 grapefruit count as nutrition, yes?

Uniform. Or as I like to call them, Second Jammies.

Bonus: Sometimes if you take the dog out to pee at 1:30 in the morning, there’s a ring around the moon.

Husbands can feed themselves. Birds can too. But I can’t convince Husband to go out and hop around the pole to entertain me when I look out the window as I write.

13+

TKZ Members Weigh In on Series Writing

By SUE COLETTA

Before the holidays, one of our beloved TKZers requested a blog post that offered helpful tips in series writing.

Rather than sharing only my views, I thought it’d be cool to gather advice from all TKZ members. That way, we’d be sure to cover the subject in more depth.

It’s a monster post, but it’s packed with fantastic advice. Ready? Here we go …

From Jordan Dane:

  1. Create a large enough world to sustain a series if it gains traction by planting plot seeds and/or character spinoffs in each individual novel. With the right planted seeds, future stories can be mined for plots during the series story arcs. An example of this is Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole PI series where his main character Cole is plagued by his past and his estranged father until THE FORGOTTEN MAN, a stellar novel in the middle of the series that finally provided answers to the mystery.

Crais often plants seeds that he later cultivates in later books. It takes organization & discipline to create these mysteries and track the seeds to save for later.

  1. Endings of each novel in a continuing series are important to readers if your book release schedule has long lags in time. A major cliffhanger can be frustrating for readers to discover at the end of a book before they realize the next novel won’t be released for 6 months to a year.

If your planned series isn’t limited to a certain number of stories (ie Hunger Games – 3 novels) where the overall story arc will be defined, an author might consider writing series novels that read as standalones with a tantalizing foreshadowing of the next story to hook readers. Creating an intriguing mystery to come will pique reader’s interest, rather than frustrate them with a huge cliffhanger they may have to wait a year to read.

See these tips in action in Jordan’s Mercer’s War Series.

From James Scott Bell:

  • Give your series character one moral quest that he or she is passionate about, to the point where it feels like life and death. For example, my Mike Romeo series is about the quest for TRUTH. This is the driving force for all he does. It gives both character and plot their meaning. A quest like this will carry from book to book.
  • Give your series character at least one special skill and one special quirk. Sherlock Holmes is a skilled stick fighter (which comes in handy). But he also shoots up cocaine to keep his mind active. Mike Romeo has cage fighting skills. He also likes to quote literature and philosophy before taking out a thug.

From Joe Hartlaub:

Sue, I love Jordan’s suggestions, particularly #2, about the works being standalones with a foreshadowing of what is to come. Who among us read Stephen King’s Dark Tower trilogy and got to the end of The Dark Tower III; The Waste Land to find the cast aboard a sentient, suicidal choo-choo heading toward oblivion? That was all well and good until we all had to wait six friggin’ years to find out what happened next in Wizards and Glass. 

  • I have one suggestion, which I call the Pop Tart model. Pop Tarts started with a basic formula; they were rectangular, were small enough to fit into a toaster, large enough to pull out, used the same pastry as a base, and started with a set of fillings and slowly added more and different ones over the years. So too, the series.
  • Design a character with a skill set consisting of two or three reliable elements, decide whether you are going to make them a world-beater (Jason Bourne), a close-to-homer (Dave Robicheaux), or something in between (Jack Reacher), and bring in a couple of supporting characters who can serve as necessary foils (Hawk and Susan from the Spenser novels) who can always be repaired or replaced as necessary. Your readers will know what to expect from book to book but will be surprised by how you utilize familiar elements.

From Laura Benedict:

The best series do a good job of relationship-building, along with world-building.

  • Give your main character …
  1. someone to love and fight for,
  2. someone to regret knowing,
  3. someone to respect,
  4. someone to fear.
  • Be careful about harming your secondary characters because readers get attached. If you’re going to let a beloved character go—even a villain—make the loss mean something.

See these tips in action in The Stranger Inside.

From Clare Langley Hawthorne:

Sue – I love everyone’s suggestions so far.

  • Add the possibility of exploring lesser characters like Tana French did in her Dublin Murder Squad series — each installment focused on a different lead character that we’d met as a lesser character in another installment. I thought she did this in a masterly way that helped enhance the series.

From Elaine Viets:

  • Murder thoughtfully and with restraint.

I went wild in my first novel “Backstab” in my Francesca Vierling series, and killed off a secondary character I could have used in other books — Lee the Rehabber. I had versions of Lee, but they were pale imitations.

From me: Rather than repeat previous tips, I focused on subplots and character development.

  • Whatever happens to your character in a series must be reflected in future books. Our past affects us. Take for example my Mayhem Series. In Book 1, Wings of Mayhem, Shawnee Daniels learns a shocking secret about her past. It’s a seed I planted for Book 3, but I couldn’t pretend she didn’t learn about it. So, in Book 2, I hinted at it (in the form of dialogue) to remind the readers who knew about it. At the same time, I needed to show how this secret affected Shawnee i.e. she become even more distrustful and broken.

In Book 3, Silent Mayhem, this secret explodes Shawnee’s life. It also became the catalyst for more secrets, a conspiracy, and an underlying mystery that ran parallel to the main plot. If someone read the books out of order, it was imperative that I let the cold reader know why and how this scenario was taking place without dumping the information in one chunk. Instead, we need to either sprinkle the (now) backstory in over time (a slow build toward the explosion) or use dialogue between two characters. I chose the latter, in the form of a confrontation.

  • Think of all potential readers. Do all aspects of the book make sense? Will they understand the subplot and character development without reading the previous novels? At the same time, have you hinted enough but not so much that you’ve ruined a previous twist? It’s a dance that can knot your stomach muscles, but we need to be cognizant of the cold reader who picks up Book 3 or 4 or 5, as much as the dedicated fan whose read all the books in order.

From Mark Alpert:

  • My favorite series characters are those who learn something in
    each new book. And this knowledge changes them, sometimes
    dramatically, sometimes more subtly, but always noticeably. Think of
    Harry Potter. He’s different in each book. It prevents the series from
    getting stale.

From PJ Parrish:

  • As you progress through your story keep a running chronology of dates and salient plot points that happen in each chapter. This is invaluable come rewrite time. You can consult the chronology and at a glance know where to find something in your plot. It also helps you keep track of the passage of time in your story.

Example from my own book:

CHAPTER ONE

Day 1

Jan 13, 2018

Louis shows up at church in Michigan ready to start new job on homicide task force. Introduce his boss, Mark Steele. Set up personality conflict between men and Louis’s fear, he has made Faustian bargain.

CHAPTER TWO

Day 2

Jan 14, 2018

First meeting of task force. They get assigned cold cases as tests. Louis picks “boys in the box” case.

From Debbie Burke:

  • If your character is in a happy marriage/career/friendship, destroy that; if he is an orderly homebody, drop him into an unfamiliar, unpredictable universe he can’t escape from; plunk her into situations she would never enter voluntarily but must b/c of circumstance. Whatever your characters’ personal comfort zones are—physical, mental, psychological, spiritual—yank them out of it and throw them into conditions they have never encountered before. Keep them off balance, straddling an earthquake fault.

From John Gilstrap:

  1. Remember that successful series thrive as much on character as they do on plot—perhaps even more on character than on plot.  So, make that protagonist as interesting and unique as you can.  I would argue that the world might not need another divorced ex-cop with a drinking problem and anger issues—unless your take on the old trope is somehow unique.
  1. Take your time when building the world in Book #1.  Plant seeds in that first outing that will allow for plots in the future.  In No Mercy, the first entry in my Jonathan Grave series, I intentionally seeded his world with details that might (or might not) bear fruit for future novels:
  • His substantial wealth comes from his father’s illegal activities;
  • Said father, Simon Gravenow, is serving a life sentence in prison;
  • Jonathan Grave donated the mansion that was his childhood home to St. Kate’s Catholic Church so that it could serve as Resurrection House, a residential school for the children of incarcerated parents;
  • He is intensely loyal to his friends as they are to him;
  • And more.
  1. Know the intended tone of your series.  Yeah, okay, you’re writing a thriller, but what kind of ride do you intend to give your reader?  This is important because those readers will come to expect a certain consistency from book to book.  The Hunger Games trilogy, for example, is relentlessly dark because everyone we care about is miserable.  Jim Bell’s Romeo series, on the other hand, is lighter in tone without sacrificing any of the thrills.  That tone—that voice—is important to the reader.

***

Amazing advice, right? I don’t know about you, but I’m bookmarking this puppy. A huge thank you to my fellow TKZ members!

For discussion …

Do you write a series? Writers, please share any tips we might have missed.

If you haven’t branched into series writing, are you considering it?

Do you prefer to read a series or standalones? Readers, please share your views!

 

7+

Crime Writer’s Version of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,

Not a corpse was breathing, not even their spouse;

Nylon stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that the cops would not find them there;

The live victims were all nestled, snug in their restraints;

While visions of mayhem snuffed out their complaints;

My ol’ man in his bandana, and I in my cap

Had just settled in for a quick nightly nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew with a dash,

Tore open the curtains and hid the drug stash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,

Gave a luster of midday to a figure below.

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,

But a swirling lit cruiser pulling eight plastic reindeer,

With a rickety old driver so slow and not quick,

I knew in a moment he’d never catch Nick.

He slogged through the snow, toward our doorway he came,

And he whistled and shouted and called us strange names:

“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blixen!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

As leaves that blew before the storm hit,

When he met with an obstacle, our pit bull named Kit;

So up to the housetop the cop climbed the lattice,

With no warrant or recourse, as if he had gratis,

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing like he was dancing in hoofs.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney the cop came with a thundering bound.

He was dressed all in blue, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all singed with ashes and soot;

A bundle of pot brownies he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a junkie just opening his sack.

His eyes–how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a berry!

His droll little mouth snarled up with a grin,

And the squint to one eye like he’d drank all our gin;

The stump of a cigar he held tight in buck teeth,

And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath.

He had a broad face and not much of a belly

That barely moved when he laughed, like a jar with no jelly.

He was cheerful with glee, a right jolly old cop,

And I laughed when I saw him; he looked like Nick’s pop;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And stole all the nylons, then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, into the fire he dove.

I sprang forward to save him, then stopped, reconsidered,

How much would they pay for a cop’s body, delivered?

But I heard Nick exclaim, ere he drove out the lot,

“You’ll get us both busted and rightfully caught.”

“Quiet,” I told him, but one moment too late.

For he’d vanished; so much for that date.

Back in bed I climbed, the mattress now ample,

And sprinkled the pillows with the remaining drug sample.

When I drew my last breath before my eyelids did flutter,

I mumbled, “Merry Christmas to all. May your nights make you shudder.”

 

 

Searching for a special gift for the hard-to-please person on your list?

Send them on a thrilling adventure!

 

 

 

To order signed paperbacks, email me at sue@suecoletta.com or message me on Facebook.

Blowout 99c Kindle sale (all titles — ends tomorrow)

MARRED, Book 1, Grafton County Series
CLEAVED, Book 2
SCATHED, Book 3

WINGS OF MAYHEM, Book 1, Mayhem Series
BLESSED MAYHEM, Book 2
SILENT MAYHEM releases early 2019!

*All books can stand alone.

 

 

Wishing you and yours a joyous holiday season! May all your writing dreams come true in 2019.

 

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READER FRIDAY: The Authors in your Life (Share Your Experiences)

Image purchased from shutterstock for Jordan Dane use

Before my first books had been bought by a traditional publisher and I was an aspiring author, I had not known another writer as a friend or relative. To help me achieve my goal of becoming published, I joined writer organizations and participated in a local writers’ group and attended conferences. Ultimately another author helped me get published and find my first agent. She changed my life forever. Now my life is filled with author friends who bring me so many gifts with that connection.

Please share your experiences with other authors and what they have done to make you a better writer.

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MISSING

Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger from unsplash.com

I sit this evening perplexed by mysteries, personal puzzles that really have no point in being discussed here. Pull one thread, however, and it catches another and then another, whether they be in the material or intangible world. So it is that I occasionally obsess for a few moments about a couple of local puzzles that are commemorated to varying degrees on the anniversaries of their occurrences.

The first of these occurred — or at least manifested itself — within walking distance of my home. I live two blocks away from Hoover Reservoir, a body of water consisting of five square miles which is by turns a water source, park, and recreation area. A gentleman named Rob Mohney also lived nearby until 1996. He abruptly disappeared one evening in July, leaving the door to his home unlocked and the supper on his table untouched, a still-life, landlocked model of the Mary Celeste. He was still missing when his car was noticed at the reservoir a few days later. One of the initial theories of explanation regarding his disappearance was that he had parked at the reservoir, then walked to the pedestrian crossing over the dam, where he had done a Peter Pan for whatever sad reason into the waters crashing beneath. We are not talking Niagara Falls, however, and the waters in question quickly give up their own when there is anything to give. Mr. Mohney was never found.

Local law enforcement still pursues the case. A tip led them to a nearby rural plot of land where a backhoe failed to give up any secrets. Mohney still lives, however, in the local lore. A year after his disappearance a group of drunken seniors from one of the local high schools reported seeing his shade wandering late at night on the far banks of the reservoir, and sightings are still reported by their successors some twenty years and change later.

Thousands of people are reported missing each year. Most are found in one condition or another, either reunited with loved ones or bound over to the state of deep and seemingly unending mourning, depending upon circumstance. The truth, however, is that some people just…disappear. There is no law against it if the person missing is an adult and the absence appears voluntarily. While the occurrence often raises suspicion of what is known as “foul play,” it isn’t always. Some people tire of their lives and decide to up sticks and reinvent themselves elsewhere. Stories abound of how the quick-witted and -footed took advantage of the 9/11 terror attack in New York and left a hated job or a tired relationship behind to go on permanent vacation in the Mohave.

It is hard to classify the second and better known mysterious absence which has occurred in my area. Theories about the perplexing disappearance of Brian Shaffer abound. Shaffer, a 27-year-old medical student at the Ohio State University in Columbus, seemed after a deep personal tragedy to have the world by the tail with a downhill pull. On Saturday, April 1, 2006, as he and two friends began a bar crawl through the North High Street campus area. Shaffer needed the break. His mother had died a few weeks earlier following a long battle with cancer and his life seemed to be entering a new and better chapter. Shaffer and his girlfriend were scheduled to leave the following Monday for Miami, and he had planned to propose to her after they reached their destination. The evening was a way of properly lubricating the beginning of the much-needed spring break. The trio entered a loud and boisterous two-story establishment named “The Ugly Tuna Saloona” (a dive bar with pretensions). Shaffer became separated from his friends soon after they entered. Their calls to his cell phone went straight to his voice mail. They eventually left the bar, assuming that Shaffer had gone home to bed. Their assumption was partially right.  He was gone.

The area in question was — and is — heavily blanketed in security cameras and monitors. Columbus Police detectives assigned to investigate the case repeated reviewed hours of video from the night in question and were able to account for the exit of each person who entered the bar that night but for one, that being Shaffer. Cadaver dogs went through every inch of the building but found nothing. The Saloona has gone to that great tavern in the sky, and the empty premises have been examined again, but it still refuses to give up its secrets. Shaffer went in but apparently never came out.

A disappearance such as this leaves its own uncomfortable ripples behind. Shaffer’s father died two years later as a result of a home accident without knowing what happened to his son.  An online memorial posting following his father’s death, allegedly from Shaffer and purportedly from the Virgin Islands, was concluded to be a hoax. Elaborate tips phoned into the detectives led nowhere. Rumors continue to this day, the most persistent being that Shaffer is pursuing a different life in a suburb of Atlanta. There have been “Where’s Waldo” sightings of him literally all over the world. Each false tip is a fresh wound for Shaffer’s brother, who understandably remains haunted and perplexed by the incident. The oddest post-disappearance manifestation, however, was experienced by Shaffer’s girlfriend, who is no doubt haunted to some degree by what occurred and what might have been. She continued calling his cell phone on a nightly basis after his disappearance. Her calls went straight to voicemail, each and all but for one that she placed approximately six months after he vanished. That call rang four times. It was found that the call had “pinged” off of a cell phone tour in a suburb southwest of Columbus. It was, unfortunately, another dead end.

Where did Shaffer go? And how did he get there? I’m repeating myself, but that area of High Street is heavily covered by surveillance. He was not seen leaving the building. It is all but obvious, however, that he did. I have my own theory, one that is unkind in some ways and that I accordingly keep to myself. Someday there might be an answer. Or not. There is no rule of the universe that states that all questions will one day be answered, that all mysteries will be revealed, other for than for the divine. The lesser ones, however, will still matter.

I’ve prattled on long enough, perhaps too long. Disappearances. What is the most puzzling unsolved one near you? Please share. And thank you as always for stopping by…

…and, like Columbo…I’ve got just one more very important item: Chag Urim Sameach to all of our many friends celebrating the Festival of Lights commencing tomorrow! We join you in spirit!

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Let’s Talk About the Skeleton in the Room

By SUE COLETTA

I’ve seen way too many medical professionals in the last six months (living with rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis isn’t always easy). As Joe pointed out Saturday—beautifully, I might add—life as we know it can change in an instant. In short, remember to have fun. Laughter really is the best medicine.

One way I’ve amused myself while waiting in the exam room is by analyzing the skeleton suspended by a metal pole. You know the one … the staff usually names it Fred, or something equally common, as though the name will somehow lessen the impact of bad news.

What I find fascinating is the fact that the vast majority of doctors and nurses don’t know the sex of their skeleton, evident by the female skeletons tagged with a male name.

Determining the Sex of a Skeleton

Many differences exist between the two sexes, and the variations run as deep as our bones. This becomes especially important for corpses found in an advanced stage of decomposition. All that might remain is the skeleton, perhaps teeth, and possibly some hair. Even if the pathologist has teeth and hair to work with, that doesn’t mean enough DNA material remains to identify the victim.

This is where the skeleton offers more information. The only exception would be that of a pre-adolescent, where sexual dimorphism is slight, making the task much more difficult. Need to buy time in your story? Murder an adolescent. (Oh, no, she didn’t just say that.) Or have the killer shatter the key areas of the skeleton.

The most common way to determine a skeleton’s sex is by bone size. Not the most accurate, but it’s a starting point. Male bones are generally larger than female bones because of the additional muscle that increases on the male through adolescence and into adulthood.

Another good inclination of sex is the pelvic area.

The sub-pubic angle (or pubic angle) is the angle formed at pubic arch by the convergence of the inferior rami of the ischium (loop bone at the base) and pubis (top of loop) on either side. Generally, the sub-pubic angle of 50-60 degrees indicates a male. Whereas an angle of 70-90 degrees indicates a female. Women have wider hips to allow for childbirth.

Female

Male

There are also distinctive differences between the pubic arches in males and females. A woman’s pubic arch is wider than a male’s as is the pelvic inlet to allow a baby’s head to pass through.

The pubic arch is also referred to as the ischiopubic arch. Incidentally, this difference is noticed in all species, not just humans.

 

 

The area around the pelvic inlet (middle of the pelvic bone) is larger in females than in males. A female skeleton who has given birth naturally will be identifiable because this space widens during childbirth. Even though it contracts afterward, it never fully returns to its original size. In the picture above notice the heart-shaped space.

 

If you don’t want the pathologist to easily ID the victim, perhaps the neighborhood bear takes off with the pelvis bone. You could also have him return for the rest of the body as the coroner is examining the corpse. Talk about adding conflict to the scene! Just remember, most black bears don’t eat human flesh (in my area, anyway). So, do your homework. Grizzly bear, anyone? How about a Kodiak brown bear?

Other Body Clues

The acetabulum—the socket where the femur (thigh bone) meets the pelvis—is larger in males. Also, the head and skull have several characteristics that help the pathologist (or crime writer) determine male from female.

  • In males, the chin is squarer. Females tend to have a slightly more pointed chin.
  • The forehead of males slant backward, where females have a slightly more rounded forehead.
  • Males tend to have brow ridges; females do not.

These differences and more tell the pathologist the sex of the deceased.

So, the next time you’re sitting in an exam room, get friendly with the skeleton in the room. Who knows? You may even sell a book or two when you educate the staff. Do it nicely, though. Some medical professionals don’t like to be schooled by a crime writer, as weird as that sounds. 🙂

Wishing you all a joyous Thanksgiving!

 

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From Cool to Heat

Photo courtesy Eddie Howell on unsplash.com

The weather has turned cool since last we met. Each area of the United States has its identifiable seasons, from the Deep South (where New Orleans has two, those being “summer” and “February”) to the West (where, as Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “The coldest winter I’ve ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”). Ohio has a more severe line of demarcation. The heat of summer at this time of year sinks into the chill of fall. Leaves drop. One can’t um, leave them go without raking or mulching for too long, as snow will almost inevitably fall by November. One sets the thermostat from “cool” to “warm” and calls for the furnace check-up, even as it seems as if but a few weeks ago it was the air conditioning system that was being checked out. The circle, it seems, moves faster and faster.

I’ve of late been feeling the rapidity of the turning of my own seasons. I came across a passage in a new book entitled THE DARKNESS by Ragnar Jonasson. The protagonist is a police inspector who is being involuntarily retired as she approaches the age of sixty-five, muses that she feels little different than she did in her forties, other than for perhaps some minor fatigue. Just so. I’m waking up at 3 AM much too frequently but I’m doing it in my bed in my house and know where I am. There are no real complaints there. Still, I am increasingly aware that the miles in the rear view mirror are substantially greater than those between me and the final destination, and I increasingly doubt whether I’m going to get there before the warranty expires. Most of my close friends are a few years older than I — in their early to mid-seventies — and seem to be hitting a wall. One of them,  who I have known for well over fifty years, advised me yesterday that he was not up to making the two-hour drive to visit me this weekend due to vision problems. He reminded me that when we lived on the west coast he would call me and say, “Tahoe!” and off we would go, making the six-hour round trip to Nevada and back on the same day as if we had not a care in the world. We didn’t. Not then. It was high noon. We are well past that. The sun hasn’t kissed the horizon, but the lengthening shadows hint that, from our landlubber perspective, it is well-nigh approaching the yardarm. Sunset occurred for another friend last week. His body mercifully slipped loose of its moorings last week and followed his essence, which had been stolen by Alzheimer’s Disease, piece by piece, over the past two years. It’s not the way I want to go — I would prefer to pass either while writing at my desk or at the hands of an irate husband — but we don’t always get a choice. Shakespeare’s untimely frost follows no calendar. 

 

Photo courtesy Eddie Howell on unsplash.com

What more to do? I have four wonderful children, each accomplished in their individual ways, and a terrific granddaughter. There might be time for one more dog. I think I’ve made more people smile than otherwise which is something that not everyone can truthfully claim. It’s been a good ride and there are many more miles and adventures to come. I hope. The lesson I’ve learned, and which I am making so bold as to impart to you —particularly those of you here who are younger — is don’t waste a day, or even an hour. Decide what you want to do and work toward it, whether it is writing the Great American Novel — someone will do it, so why not you? — adopting a stretch of highway, or visiting every Sonic, Tim Horton’s, and Cracker Barrel in the country. Regardless of what you want to do, there are only a finite number of times that you get to switch from cool to heat and back again. Cherish each one, and enjoy them.

Photo courtesy Pathecho Grid on unsplash.com

 

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