How to Enhance your Writing by Layering Your Scenes & Plot

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

When this blog posts, I will be JET LAGGED from my return trip to Italy. It will be my first full day back home, after a late flight on Wednesday. I hope to be coherent enough to participate with comments, but forgive me if I sleep in. (I will definitely post pictures of my adventure in a later post.)

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In my last blog post on “Narrative Drive – Do You Have It?” – I focused on creating a page turner novel using Narrative Drive. As important as it may be to write a page turner (no matter what genre), it’s also important to have balance when you’re creating a world for the reader to love. Adding layers of character emotions, clear motives, interesting subplots that reveal morsels for the reader, and enriching the world the author creates can enhance the reader’s experience and give them something memorable.

USING LAYERS TO ENHANCE A SCENE:

This is my primary process of reviewing scenes after I write them. Yes, I look for typos and probably other things my mind is conditioned to look for (ie word repeats, crutch phrases, cliches, adverbs, passive voice, etc.), but below are my broad brush strokes in reviewing for layers.

FIRST EDIT – After I finish with my first pass as a scene, I go back to edit. My initial pass is to delete unnecessary words and tighten the sentence structure. After I get a stripped down version of the scene, I go back to why I wrote the scene in the first place and add on.

QUESTIONS TO ASK – What’s the purpose for the scene? Do I advance the plot by 1 – 3 plot points so that the scene is integral to the plot? Does my character have a journey through the scene from start to finish? How has he or she grown or been changed? Are things revealed that propel the scene forward? Are motives clear for the reader?

EMOTION – Whatever the purpose for the scene (ie to build on fear, or love, or tension or to add a mystery element), I try to add more layers of THAT. Make the fear over the top, for example. Create images to show a deepening love. Darken a feeling of grief. Intensify the action by ratcheting everything up to another level. I tweak things sparingly so I don’t slow the pace with more than I need, but almost every scene can do with a bit more. Use your judgement on how much to add.

GIVE GREATER INSIGHT INTO YOUR CHARACTER – Enhance the voice of your scene by using DEEP POV to show what’s happening inside your character’s head. This could be a display of emotions if your character is prone to swearing or it could be adding a more colorful VOICE of your character as he or she sees the scene unfolding in front of their eyes. Give them an opinion on what they are doing and show who they are to the reader. Review any scene to tweak it for a more colorful character punch.

ACTION – If there is action in the scene, make the character active. Don’t tell what’s happening. Have the character be in the thick of it. Also make sure you write the action in well-placed snippets of movement without overly describing it. That can slow the pace. Sometimes with action, less is more.

SCENE STRUCTURE – Does my scene have structure with a beginning, middle and end? Does my character know more by the end than at the start? is there a journey? Does the scene foreshadow something coming?

USING LAYERS TO STRENGTHEN YOUR PLOT:

In my book EVIL WITHOUT A FACE, I wrote five full plot/subplots that paralleled the main action. My primary protagonist, Jessie the bounty hunter, was the main driver. It was her story to tell. I had her soon-to-be love interest, Payton, be the uncle of a missing girl and showed what he did to find his sister’s only girl. The 3rd character was the missing girl Nikki. I didn’t want her to be a symbolic McGuffin for people to chase. I wanted to show how dark things got for her as she is abducted into an international human trafficking ring. I also had two other minor subplots involving a woman cop in Chicago, friend of Jessie’s and a mystery woman (Alexa) who brought help to Jessie as things escalated on a global scale. These three women would become my version of Charlie’s Angels on Steroids.

All these plots converged in a big scene in the middle of the book where their separate journeys collided in an action-packed scene with explosions and high-octane battles. The dark moment left them all stunned with the girl still missing and presumed dead. Once they started to work together, they found another way to hunt for the missing girl.

The only way all this would work? I had to make each subplot be integral to the main plot. Each character had different story lines and different motives for their involvement, but they were all chasing either the bad guys or the missing girl. Each added to the escalating tension with the time running out. It was a challenge to write, but I learned a lot and pushed my comfort zone.

MAIN PLOT – When you break down any book, there is a primary or main plot, but there can also be various subplots for the reader to enjoy. Life isn’t just one thing going on. Give the reader insight into the world you have drawn them into. The main plot is the core conflict that drives the plot.

SECONDARY PLOT – A secondary plot (subplot) should work parallel with the main plot to add escalating tension, conflict or mystery. This type of subplot should add complications to your main plot.

TERTIARY PLOT – If there is a third level subplot, this can be something of less substance, yet make it something memorable for the reader – something to give special insight into the character of your protagonist or that may titillate a romance. Think of a 3rd level plot as a CHARACTER ARC that adds color and texture. Although the 3rd level subplot may not be as driving as the main plot or secondary plot, it can sometimes capture the imagination of the reader because it’s fun or romantic, or a mystery.

For a 3rd tier plot, I once had my main character pick out the right puppy for a young woman who was a rape survivor. A therapy dog. A very emotional payoff for that subplot. It gave insight into HIS character and the puppy warmed the hearts of readers. It gave hope that the young woman would survive her ordeal.

WEAVE THEM TOGETHER? – If you are daring, make these 3 levels of plots work together, where the main plot drives the action, the secondary plot can be a plot device to escalate the consequences and shorten the timing of the main plot, and the 3rd plot can reveal the protagonist’s traits as things escalate.

Do they have time to find a puppy while they are saving the world? Do their internal conflicts and weaknesses add tension as the plot shifts (ie suicidal tendencies, aggravated illness, debilitating fears, temperament issues, or romantic involvements)? Test your character by abusing their weaknesses or personal conflicts. How do they deal with it? How does that struggle manifest throughout the main plot development?

Summary – I’ve often thought of layering as it pertains to one scene at a time, but when I researched this topic, I found layering can apply to plots. As I thought of my own writing, on how I devise subplots, I realized layering impacts the overall structure and makes the book more cohesive. Even themes can be enhanced with scenes and subplots that are woven into a story in a subtle way.

DISCUSSION:

Share your thoughts on your current WIP and the levels of plot/subplot you are using. What choices did you make on the structure of your story? (Even if you are a “pantser,” you should have a feel for this.)

 

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First Page Critique: Singularity Syndrome

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer has submitted their first page for critique. I’ll see you on the flipside. Enjoy!

Title:  Singularity Syndrome

It was just the kind of case I like. Someone was sipping data from Hurgle’s supposedly leakproof data cloud. Hurgle wasn’t an especially evil corporation—just average evil. So, I didn’t mind taking their coins to send sniffers loose in the data streams. I found the leak and plugged it for good with a worm that trashed the sneak thieves’ servers. They never knew what hit them, and my client and I never knew who they were. But that didn’t matter. They’d be back, or someone else would. The universe holds an infinite number of crackers.

It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water.

Then she called. And reminded me what kind of case I really like.

The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video. A woman with long scarlet hair, glossy in the style of years ago. She was beautiful, with lines around her eyes that showed she liked to smile. But not smiling now. Of course not. She wouldn’t be calling me if she had anything to smile about.

“How can I help you?” I’m the Finder, that’s what I do, so it’s obvious. But it helps them to start from the beginning.

“I’m worried about my husband.”

“He’s missing?”

“No.”

“Then what?”

A small crease furrowed her lovely forehead. “His behavior has changed.”

“How so?”

“He’s lost focus.”

“Is he dangerous? Accident prone? I’m not clear why you’ve called me. Why not a psychiatrist?”

“We run a business together. A significant company. He’s got some strange ideas, and they’re impacting our business.”

“If this is some corporate drama, I’m not interested.”

“I know about you.”

“Then you know I don’t care about the corps.”

“Unless it interests you.”

“And why would it?”

“I think his brain has been hacked.”

Okay, she was right. That was interesting. “His brain has been hacked or you just don’t like the way he thinks?”

“I don’t like the way he thinks, but it’s more than that. He’s not thinking the way he used to.”

“People change.”

“Yes, they do.” She let the silence draw out and so did I. I could be silent much longer than most people.

* * *

Excellent first page, Anon! The writing is crisp, exciting, and has an engaging voice. The dialogue is punchy and quick, sounds natural and believable. The MC’s personality shines through. There’s a solid goal and conflict, and you’ve dropped us into the story at an ideal place and time. I liked this opener so much, I wanted to keep reading.

Even without you having to tell the reader, we can assume the MC is male. We also get a good sense of who he is—a highly skilled white hat who works for a government agency in a specialized field (my guess is a cyber-tracker). That’s a lot of information that you subtly infused into this first page without clobbering us over the head with backstory. Well done! His name would be nice, but I’m willing to wait. See what good writing does? It tells the reader we’re in capable hands. If I didn’t learn his name for another ten pages, I’d still be content to go for the ride. Try to slip it in earlier than that, though. 🙂

Let’s see if we can improve this first page even more.

It was just the kind of case I like[d] add the “d” to stay in past tense here. Someone was sipping data from Hurgle’s supposedly leakproof data cloud. Hurgle wasn’t an especially evil corporation—just [an] average evil. So, I didn’t mind taking their coins to send sniffers loose in the data streams. I found the leak and plugged it for good with a worm that trashed the sneak[y] thieves’ servers. They never knew what hit them, and my client and I never knew who they were. But that didn’t matter. They’d be back, or someone else would.

The universe holds an infinite number of crackers. I brought this line down for greater impact; also, because you’ve switched to present tense, which isn’t wrong, btw. In this context, the statement still holds true. 

It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima [the Parrot, Altima, and I] sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water. Use the pronoun “I” when the person speaking is doing the action, either alone or with someone else. Use the pronoun “Me” when the person is receiving the action, either directly or indirectly. — courtesy of Webster’s Ask the Editor

Then she called. And reminded me what kind of case I really like. This line is redundant. Instead, I’d rather see you tease the reader here. I don’t know where you’re going with the story, but perhaps you could add something like: The woman that rocked my world, and not necessarily in a good way.

The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video. A woman (if you decide to use something similar to my example above, then change this to [There she sat,] with long scarlet hair, glossy in the style of years ago. She was beautiful, with lines around her eyes that showed she liked to smile (how ‘bout using “laugh” instead of “smile” here to avoid repetition, since you use “smile” at the end of this paragraph?) But not smiling now. Of course not. Not now, of course. (one sentence is tighter than two 🙂 ) She wouldn’t be calling me if she had anything to smile about.

“How can I help you?” I’m the Finder, that’s what I do, so it’s obvious (last part is unnecessary). But it helps them to start from the beginning.

“I’m worried about my husband.”

“He’s missing?”

“No.”

“Then what?” (This seems out-of-character. He’s nice enough to let her “start from the beginning,” yet here he seems agitated. How ‘bout: “Then… I’m not sure why—”)

A small crease furrowed her lovely forehead (normally I’d ding you for “lovely” because it’s a non-visual word, but here, it works to show he’s enamored with the caller). “His behavior has changed.”

“How so?”

“He’s lost focus.”

“Is he dangerous? (why would losing focus automatically make him think “dangerous”? Don’t tell us; you’ll ruin the intrigue. Just give us a hint in the right direction.) Accident prone? I’m not clear why you’ve called me. Why not a psychiatrist?” (I would delete this last question. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it. It just feels… misplaced. *shrug*) 

“We run a business together. A significant company. He’s got some strange ideas, and they’re impacting our business.”

“If this is some corporate drama, I’m not interested.”

I’d love to see her stumble over her words. “It’s not. It’s just that— What I mean is, I know about you.” “I know about you.”

“Then you know I don’t care about the corps.”

“Unless it interests you.”

“Exactly. So, lay it on me. ’Cause as it stands now, I gotta tell ya, so far this sounds like a waste of valuable time and resources.” (I added to the dialogue to increase tension. Your MC is about to hang up when the caller drops a bomb i.e. brain hack) And why would it?”

“I think his brain has been hacked.”

Okay, she was right. That was interesting. (Is a brain hack something that happens every day in your story world? If not, he needs a bigger reaction. Even if it’s as simple as confusion: Whoa. Wait. Huh?) “His brain has been hacked or you just don’t like the way he thinks?”

Both I don’t like the way he thinks, but it’s more than that. He’s not thinking the way he used to.”

(Add a lame half-shrug or another body cue that shows indifference). “People change.”

“Yes, they do.” She let the silence draw out and so did I. I could be silent much longer than most people. (Delete the last line. It adds nothing. How ‘bout something snarky instead? “If she thought she could out-silence me, she obviously didn’t have the first clue about me.”)

All in all, you did a terrific job with this opener, Anon. I really enjoyed it. Be sure to let us know how things progress with your story. So far, I’m intrigued!

Over to you, my beloved TKZers. Would you keep reading? Please add your suggestions/comments of how you might improve this first page. Do you like the title? Why/why not?

 

 

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Key Types of Conflict: Which One Best Fits Your Story?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

iStock image purchase for Jordan Dane

Conflict is EVERYTHING in writing a fictional story. As they say–no conflict, no story. An example might be the difference between describing what happened in your average day (blow by tedious blow) versus sharing the same story but with a driving conflict that smacked you in the face and you had to deal with an escalating problem. A life altering conflict–such as a weird neighbor moving next door or the water that supplies your city suddenly turns into poison.

Conflict Needs Obstacles – Readers love reading about a good fight or a conflict they can relate to, especially if the conflict escalates or there is a sense of urgency to it. Conflict isn’t just about two people fighting or a man or woman against a villain. It’s about throwing obstacles in the way of your main character(s). Make them worthy of a starring role by testing them throughout the story. Conflict needs to be substantial with enough threat to drive the action, to see what the characters will do.

Conflict Won’t Mean Much Without Empathy – It’s key to get the reader engaged in your story through empathy. Conflict wouldn’t mean much if your characters don’t earn sympathy from the reader. Readers will lose interest in unlikable characters. It’s hard to be in the head of someone the reader can’t stand or a character with no redeeming qualities.

Conflict can be Boosted by your Cast of Characters –  What do other characters in your story think of your protagonist? Even a dark anti-hero can give the reader a good impression if a child loves him or a dog follows him everywhere. The people in the life of your hero/heroine can shed light on who they are and make them easier to relate to. Who has their loyalty and why? A cast of well-placed/well-thought-out characters can be strategic to support the protagonist in a conflict.

Conflict Needs Higher or Escalating Stakes – Conflict shouldn’t be something that two people can simply sit down and talk about to fix. Resolution should be hard and challenging. Try pitting two characters against each other who both have admirable opposing goals. Add major roadblocks that escalate based upon each character’s actions. The story should get complicated by their choices and they should pay a consequential price for what they do.

The essence of most conflicts can be in the list below. If you have others to suggest, please list them in your comments.

Classic examples of well-told stories with major conflict are: The Hunger Games series, The Book Thief, Robinson Crusoe, Schindler’s list, Animal Farm, 1984, Moby Dick, The Help, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, The Handmaid’s Tale, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Key Types of Conflict:

1.) Person against Person – A conflict between two people or one person against a group. Typically the opposition or villain is the alter-ego of the hero/heroine. This opposite nature allows you to explore the internal weaknesses of your hero/heroine. Don’t waste an opportunity to cross over conflicts with friction that adds tension, but you don’t have to hit your reader over the head with your cleverness. If done right, readers will get it. (See Person Against Self.) For an example of person against person, try any Die Hard movie where Bruce Willis is against ANY arch nemesis.

2.) Person Against Society – A conflict that confronts the law, major institutions, society & culture, or government. It’s David against Goliath, a struggle that feels daunting and is all the more celebrated when the little guy finds a way to win–or more crushing when the hero/heroine must give in. The Help or the Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale are good examples of an oppressive society, culture, or the law.

3.) Person Against Self – A conflict that’s internal where a person struggles with physical weaknesses, prejudices, self-doubt, or personality flaws they must overcome. I would argue that even if you HAVE a main conflict, this should be another facet to your story. Giving a character a weakness or flaw to overcome can make the overarching conflict stronger by testing them. Schindler’s List is a great example of a story where the protagonist must confront his own beliefs and practices to do the right thing.

4.) Person Against God/Religion or Fate – A conflict between a person and their faith, their God, or Free Will versus destiny. This category might feel similar to a conflict of a person with Self or Society, but I like to isolate this conflict because religion and the idea of Free Will vs fate is a compelling one. (I’ve woven this thread through many of my books because it intrigues me.) With Death being the narrator in The Book Thief, it can be an example of how fate played a hand in the character’s lives or how God views the struggles of mankind–friend or foe or bystander.

5.) Person Against Nature – A conflict of a protagonist against the forces of nature (from weather to terrain to battling against the animal kingdom). Nature could also mean the embodiment of one formidable creature, as in Moby Dick, or a species such as in The Birds by Hitchcock.

6.) Person Against the Supernatural – A conflict with the supernatural realm. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is an example of a Supernatural conflict. An example of crossing over conflicts is to combine the supernatural obstacle with your protagonist’s views on God or Fate or them battling elements within themselves (Person Against Self). Many people have the belief that the Supernatural ties to the afterlife. The religious aspects complicate the story, but they can be damned compelling.

7.) Person Against Science/Technology – A conflict between a person/humanity against Science or Technology. It’s a given that people generally are skeptical of innovations. Why not make them fearful of them? Create a diabolical villain who creates a technology that is harmful or dangerous for humanity, or discovers a way to rule or manipulate mankind with a new Science. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would fit in this conflict element.

FOR DISCUSSION:
1.) What conflict on this list applies to your present project? Explain how.

2.) When you think about books you’ve read with memorable conflict, what books come to mind and why?

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Interview with Larry Brooks

 by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Today, I’m delighted to talk with former TKZ contributor, Larry Brooks, about his new craft book, GREAT STORIES DON’T WRITE THEMSELVES, with a foreward by mega-bestseller Robert Dugoni. Larry’s book launches on October 8, 2019, published by Writer’s Digest Books. 

Welcome back to the Zone, Larry! 

DB: You’ve written three successful books on fiction craft–Story Engineering, Story Physics, and Story Fixeach with a strong emphasis on the architecture of story structure. What new ground are you digging into for this latest book?

 LB: Each of my writing books sought to bring clarity and order to what one might call the conventional wisdom of writing a novel, which is anything but clear. Within that so-called conventional wisdom there is legitimate imprecision, alongside unfortunate confusion born of contrary interpretations and polarizing preferences. Because of this, there remains a high degree of risk and a frighteningly high frequency of failure. Over 96 percent of novels submitted by agents are rejected at least once. That’s not exactly irrefutable statistical proof that the conventional wisdom serves everyone well.

That said, those who claim “there are no rules” are only adding to the noise and confusion. Frustration resides in the grey area between rules and principles, and between the separate contexts of process versus product. So much of what we hear and read about “how to write a novel” connects to process (how your favorite author does the work may or may not be a process that works for you). This leaves the realm of product – what a novel consists of, the criteria for efficacy, and how to know if you’ve come anywhere near close enough to meeting those criteria as largely untended ground. It’s as if the unspoken common courtesy suggests that you can write anything you want, any way you want, and you’ll be fine… if you “just write.”

That 96-percent failure statistic proves this to be false. My new book – “Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves: Criteria-Driven Strategies for More Effective Fiction” is process-neutral, yet it culls out and assigns specific criteria for each and every element and essence of a novel across the entire structural, dramatic and character arcs involved. No matter how you get there.

Too often writers don’t know what they don’t know, while believing they do know enough, or what they think they know is unimpeachable. My new book seeks to shrink the gap between those extremes.

DB: Sounds like an ambitious goal. Can you give us an example?

 LB: Sure. When was the last time you heard anyone at a writing conference – a speaker, teacher, agent or even another writer in an elevator, tell someone that their story idea isn’t strong enough? Never happens. And yet, as much as half of all rejection connects to story ideas that are derivative, vanilla and flat, that are lacking the raw grist of what makes a story work. Ask any agent or editor how many of the story ideas that cross their desk excite them, how often this happens, and this truth will be verified.

But it’s not just the story idea that matters. Whether it’s the core premise, the opening scene or sequence, the first plot point or the midpoint or the way the character and her/his core quest is framed… all of it becomes more accessible and effective when developed and evaluated in context to criteria that are universally applicable to that specific element.

 DB: Where did the germ of the idea for Great Stories come from?

 LB: I pondered that 96-to-4 failure rate, and decided there had to be a better way forward. After writing three books on storytelling that began exploring this sad truth, the subsequent question of “now what?” wouldn’t let me alone. How and why are those 4-percent of submissions that succeed better than the 96-percent that aren’t working as well? What are the common denominators of that?

My favorite writing tip is this: scenes work best once we understand the narrative expositional mission of the scene, in context to what came before and what comes next. This is why we rewrite and revise, to get closer and closer to that optimal form. From that epiphany, I came to realize this is true for all of the structural, thematic and aesthetic elements of a great story, at all levels. We are either searching for our best story, or we are polishing (optimizing) scenes toward that standard. That said, too many writers aren’t writing toward a standard at all, they are simply writing down what seems to be available in the moment of creation. They are just writing.

The more we understand the available criteria that will apply to a story that reaches the high bar of optimal efficacy, the sooner and more blissfully we will arrive there. That objective became the mission of my new writing book.

 DB: What’s the most important concept or lesson you hope to teach writers with your new book?

 LB: You don’t have to guess, nor do you have only your instincts to inform your choices. Your story choices can be informed by the criteria that will apply, one way or another, to the determination of what works and what doesn’t. These criteria apply within any and all writing processes, readers don’t give two hoots how the writer got it done. What does matter is the degree to which our choices align with what readers want, expect and have learned to recognize as emotionally resonant, thrilling and rewarding. That’s what talent really means: the consistent ability to land on the best possible ideas, and then make them shine on the page. When either of those outcomes happen—they are different core competencies, by the way, meaning we need to develop our craft on two levels, as storytellers and as scene writers—they are always framed by criteria that explains why they work. The book defines, explores and verifies over 70 separate criteria that apply within 18 specific facets or locations within the entirety of a novel’s narrative arc.

 DB: What’s next on Larry Brooks’ “To Do” list? Is there a new thriller simmering on the back burner?

LB: I promised my wife I’d write her a love story, and in my mind the best love story is a thriller, because so much is at stake… stakes being a key criteria in any genre. Setting it in France won’t hurt, either.

Thanks for having me back here on The Kill Zone. I can be reached through my website, www.storyfix.com, where you can learn more about this book and any of my other work, including my fiction.

Larry Brooks

~~~~~

Thanks for sharing the inside scoop with us, Larry.

I, for one, will be looking forward to your love story thriller!

Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves is available for pre-order at:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

~~~~~

TKZers: Do you have questions for Larry about his new book and/or story structure?

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How (and where) To Research Historical Crime

By SUE COLETTA

A few regular readers of TKZ requested tips to help research criminal cases from the past. If the crime occurred in the 18th or early 19th century, the task becomes much more difficult. My hope is that these tips will aid you in finding reliable information.

Let’s say you only have a name, place, and approximate year for your victim or killer. The first logical step is to conduct a Google search to see what’s available online. Someone must have written about the case, right? Well, not necessarily. Sometimes you get lucky and find a couple articles, other times … *crickets* Which I happen to like, because it means the industry isn’t saturated with books on the same topic. But it’s also harder to find what we need. Not impossible; we just need to think like an investigator.

GENERAL TIPS

If you find an online article about the crime, do not solely rely on that information. Instead, within said article search for the author’s sources. Most true crime writers will either link to another source or cite where they gathered their facts from, and that’s where the gold resides.

My overly suspicious crime writer brain tends to question where bloggers and/or journalists get their facts. To satisfy my own curiosity I use a three-source rule. Meaning, if I can’t verify a fact with two other sources, then I don’t consider it a historical fact.

By the way, this is my personal rule, not an industry requirement. Although, some publishers do ask that you verify each major fact with one other source. Even if they never request the citation, their legal department might. So, be sure to keep a log of where you find information, both primary and secondary sources. It’ll save you from having to go back to find where the killer said something, or whatever.

There’s one exception to my three-source rule…

Suppose I find a newspaper article that I am able to authenticate with a trial transcript, deposition, or other court document. Because I have the primary source (court document) which says the same thing, then the newspaper article gains credibility. If I don’t have access to a primary source for verification, then I need two secondary sources to substantiate the fact(s).

True crime readers expect the truth, not our fictional interpretation. It’s our job to question a reporter’s research and not take what s/he says at face-value. They want to sell newspapers, so facts can often be embellished or sensationalized. When I first started searching through old newspapers (I’ll share where you can find them in a sec), I was shocked to find misinformation, discrepancies, untruths, and rumors stated as fact. Embellishments help to create eye-popping headlines but can also hinder a true crime writer/researcher if we’re not careful.

For example, there’s a lot of online content about one of my five female serial killers due to the fact that she rocked the nation with her cold-bloodedness. But all these articles weren’t ideal. If anything, they muddied the water. In order to separate fact from fiction I had to wade through opinions, theories, innuendoes, and rumors. You may have to do the same. My best advice is to roll up your sleeves, consider it a challenge, and dig in. 😉

PRIMARY vs. SECONDARY SOURCES

Think of research as a bullseye, with the killer and/or victim at the center. The first ring around the bullseye includes eyewitness accounts, investigative reports, court testimony, the killer’s journal and/or confession — primary sources. Moving outward, the next ring would be secondary sources, such as a newspaper article written by a journalist who interviewed someone involved with the case (killer, detective, juror, DA).

The third ring includes newspaper articles written by someone with no first-hand or second-hand knowledge. To get the article written on time they simply regurgitated information from other articles — that’s where you’ll find the most mistakes. In this ring you’ll also find bloggers, some credible, some not.

See why I created a three-source rule? If we were to write historical nonfiction using only the third ring as our primary source, the book and its author would lose all credibility among historical nonfiction readers as well as writers. I’ve read numerous snarky remarks about true crime writers who play fast and loose with the facts. Since I would never advocate to spotlight another writer’s inadequacies, I’ll leave it at that. My point is, research as though the whole world is watching. It’ll keep you honest. 🙂

HOMING IN ON PRIMARY SOURCES

One of the best places to gather historic information is the National Archives. Once called the Archival Research Catalog (ARC), which retired in 2013 and was replaced with the Online Public Access (OPA) prototype, the National Archives Catalog searches all web pages on Archives.gov and lists articles, pdf documents, books, and periodicals on a search result page. Along with catalog records, researchers are able to add notes that may cite additional sources, so during your search also be mindful of gold nuggets hidden in research notes.

The current catalog provides access to over two million electronic records in the Electronic Records Archives (ERA). These digital records aren’t available elsewhere. The National Archives is a fantastic place to find reliable primary source material.

Now, suppose the case you’re looking for hasn’t been digitalized. In that case you’ll need to Google “National Archives of [insert the state capitol where the crime occurred].” Note the email address and send a formal record request. The more information you provide, the greater your chances of gaining results. Record requests take about ten business days to complete.

If the crime you’re researching was not heard in federal court, then you’ll need to drop down to the state level. Google: “[state where crime took place] State Archives.” Example: Massachusetts State Archives. This may sound like the same place as above, but it’s not. State Archives house court records on the district court level.

Then there’s the Supreme Judicial Archives. In Boston, it’s a separate building with a separate email address. This may not always be the case, though. You’ll need to find out how it works in the state you’re researching, but you can use this example as a guide.

Prepare to spend time on the phone with law libraries and historical societies. The folks who work in these places are extremely helpful, and they love writers. The law library directed me to a wealth of information that I wouldn’t have gotten on my own, because they have access to databases that the public does not. Search for the county where your crime was committed, then add “law library.” For example, I searched for “Barnstable Law Library” for one of my female serial killers.

For my New Hampshire killer, the local historical society had diaries tucked inside an old box, with daily logs written during the string of murders. The gentleman who wrote these diaries knew the victims and the killer. Scoring a firsthand account of a centuries old murder case is difficult to find, but when it happens, it’s the best feeling ever.

See why it pays to keep digging? You never know what you might uncover next.

Most police departments are useless, as they don’t keep investigative records that long. It’s still worth sending a quick email, though. If I didn’t contact one particular department, I would have never known that the town where my killer operated housed their own independent archives that were a lot more detailed than the records I’d acquired elsewhere. It also gave me two primary sources to check facts against.

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

As you may have guessed, a great place to find old newspapers are libraries. Depending on your subject’s location, many libraries have transferred newspapers to microfiche. Be sure to have the month and date for the librarian. If the crime you’re researching made national headlines, you may even luck out at your local library.

But wait …

Before you truck down to the library, check out the Library of Congress. They list 15,273,703 digitized newspaper pages from 1789-1963. Always best to save the shoe leather whenever possible. 🙂

Remember, as you research, search for primary source material to verify your secondary or thrice-removed accounts. Readers will thank you for the added effort.

Researching historical crime takes time and patience, but it’s also fun to piece the puzzle together. Just don’t get discouraged. For every three or four dead ends, you’ll stumble across something new and exciting that’ll set your writer brain ablaze.

I better stop there before this post morphs into a book. Do you have any research tips to share?

 

 

10+

How To Write Nonfiction Book Proposal

By SUE COLETTA

Remember my last post, entitled Why Waiting is Difficult? Well, I’m happy to report that my wait is over!!! And now, I can share my good news.

In May, Globe Pequot (Rowman & Littlefield) reached out to me about writing a true crime novel about female serial killers of New England who were active prior to 1950.

Some of you may have read the story on my blog, so I won’t bore you by repeating all the details here. Suffice it to say, Pretty Evil, New England: Female Serial Killer’s of the Region’s Past is anticipated to hit stores Fall 2020. Yay!!!

For those of you who missed the announcement on my blog, the acquisitions editor gave me two weeks to send her a book proposal. And like any professional writer, I assured her that a two-week deadline would not be a problem. When I hung up, panic set in.

What did I know about writing a nonfiction book proposal? Not a darn thing!

Plus, I now had mountains of research into historical female serial killers. I’ve written true crime stories on my blog many times, but never a novel-length true crime book. This was a huge opportunity, with a well-respected publisher in a new-to-me genre. All I kept thinking was, if you blow this chance you’ll regret it forever.

Once I managed to get my breathing somewhat regulated, I contacted my dear friend, Larry Brooks. You probably know this from his time on TKZ, but it bears repeating — he is amazing! Not only did he assure me that the editor didn’t contact the wrong author for the job, he explained in detail what she was looking for in the proposal. Most importantly, he told me why she’d asked for certain things, from a nonfiction publisher’s point of view. Knowing “the why” helped me focus on what to include. Incidentally, Jordan was also a godsend through the entire process.

See why it’s important to befriend other writers?

On TKZ, we’ve talk a lot about the business side of writing. In nonfiction, it’s important to show how and why the proposed book will be profitable for the publisher. My situation was a little different, since they came to me, but I still followed the same format as if I’d cold queried. After all, the acquisitions editor still needed the board to approve the project before offering a contract.

So, today, I’d like to share the proper format for a nonfiction book proposal. If you find yourself in a similar situation, perhaps this post will save you some agony.

Each heading should start a fresh page.

Title Page

Title

Subtitle

Author’s Name

If you’re cold querying an agent and/or publisher, then also include your address, website, phone number, blog address, and agent contact info, if applicable.

Table of Contents for the Book Proposal

Keep this basic format and chapter headings unless the publisher/agent guidelines asks for something different. Next, I’ll break down each chapter to show what to include.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Overview …………………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Target Market …………………………………………………………………….   (page #)

Competitive Titles …………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Author Bio …………………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Marketing Plan …………………………………………………………………….   (page #)

Length & Special Features …………………………………………………………  (page #)

Chapter Outline …………………………………………………………………….  (page #)

Sample Chapter …………………………………………………………………….  (page #)

Overview

You need to hook the agent/editor with a strong opener and establish why the subject of the book is of interest to a definable audience and what your book offers to this market. A sales representative has an average of 14 seconds to sell a title to a bookstore buyer, and the editor in a publishing board meeting has only a few minutes to convince colleagues of the potential of a book.

A few questions to consider …

What’s the book about? What’s your pitch? Does the book fill a need? Why are you the right author to write this book? Are you passionate about the subject matter?

Target Market

You cannot say “this book will appeal to men and women from 18-80,” because it won’t. Instead, you need to provide an actual target audience with real figures to back it up.

Where do we gather these statistics? Social media is a great place to start. Search for Facebook groups about the subject of your book. For example, I included Serial Killer groups, True Crime groups, Historical groups, and groups related to New England, like the New England Historical Society. For each group, I listed the subscribers and, where available, a breakdown of the members’ gender, age group, etc. Next, I went to YouTube and searched for podcasts related to my subject matter. I also included a brief psychological study of why true crime attracts women.

See what I’m saying? Think outside the box to find your audience.

What if you’re proposing a cookbook? You can still use social media as a jumping off point, but I’d also search for culinary classes. Are your readers likely to subscribe to certain magazines? List the circulation numbers. Is your book geared toward college students? Call the universities.

Take your time with this section. It’s vitally important to prove there’s an audience for your book. Publishing board meetings sound more like product development meetings. By providing accurate, measurable data, you’re helping the acquisitions editor convince the board to approve your project.

Competitive Titles

Search bookstores, Amazon, barnesandnoble.com, Books in Print, and libraries. You want to show at least five title that would be considered competitive or at least somewhat related to the subject of your book. For each competitive title, provide author’s name, title, price, publisher, publication date, ISBN, any known sales figures, rankings, or other indications of the book’s success.

I also used this section to show why I chose to focus on five serial killers instead of ten (as proposed by the editor), with titles that proved my theory.

Author Bio or “About the Author”

Unless you’re proposing a memoir, write your bio in third person. Include why you’re qualified to write this book, as well as previous publishing credits and accolades. If you’re short on publishing credits, then include tidbits about yourself that show your passion and/or expertise in the subject matter.

Marketing Plan

How do you plan to market this book? Does your blog get lots of traffic? List how many hits per month. Also include the number of email subscribers, social media followers, etc. List speaking engagements. For example, I included a list of venues I appear at every year (all in New England).

If you’re writing a how-to, do you teach courses? Workshops? Have media exposure?

Length & Special Features

Here, you include word count, photographs, or other special features of the book. I can’t divulge the special features for my book, but again, I thought outside the box to make the book unique.

Table of Contents

There is no pantsing in nonfiction. You’ll have to outline each chapter, with eye-catching headlines, and list them here. To give you some idea of the work, I had 50 chapters in my book proposal, each chapter meticulously plotted. Will they change once I complete my research? Maybe, but the publisher expects you to stick fairly close to the original. After all, that’s the book you sold.

Sample Chapter(s)

Follow the agent/publisher guidelines on length, etc. They’re looking for writing style, tone, and voice. Now that the business side is completed, this is your chance to shine!

And that’s about it, folks.

Nonfiction writers, did I miss anything? Please share your tips.

Fiction writers, have you considered writing nonfiction? If so, which subject/genre are you interested in?

 

9+

How Can 1 Person Have 2 Different Sets of DNA?

Image by Elias Sch. from Pixabay

A human with two different sets of DNA is called a chimera, and it’s more common than you might think. Most chimeras don’t even know they have this strange phenomenon going on inside them.

You could be a chimera, and so could I.

As we go along, take note of the interesting tidbits you could twist into a plot to add conflict.

Without any help from the scientific community, the process of becoming a chimera occurs naturally. Numerous books and movies explore chimerism using a killer who’s had a bone marrow transplant or blood transfusion. But are these characters based in fact?

Let’s take a look and find out.

The tissue inside our bones is called bone marrow, and it’s responsible for making white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. When someone has a bone marrow transplant, doctors use chemotherapy or radiation to destroy all the recipient’s diseased bone marrow. The donor’s healthy marrow is then introduced and continues to produce blood cells with the donor’s DNA, thereby transforming the recipient into a chimera.

In some cases, all of the blood cells in a person who received a bone marrow transplant will match the DNA of their donor. But in other cases, the recipient may have a mix of both their own blood cells and donor cells. A blood transfusion will also temporarily give a person cells from someone else, but in a bone marrow transplant, the new blood cells are permanent, according to the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California.

What if we’ve never had a transplant?

Doesn’t matter. There are other ways to become a chimera.

Early on in pregnancy a mother can be carrying fraternal twins and one of the embryos might die in utero. The surviving embryo may absorb cells from the deceased twin. When the baby is born, s/he can have two sets of DNA. Since twin loss occurs in 21-30% of multiple-fetus pregnancies, think of how many chimeras could be walking around. Are the story wheels spinning yet?

It can also happen with a normal pregnancy.

In the 1990s, scientists discovered that a pregnant woman may retain some DNA from her baby, if fetal cells happen to migrate into her bloodstream and travel to different organs. The New York Times referred to this as a “pregnancy souvenir”— but it’s more scientifically known as “microchimerism.”

A 2015 study suggests this happens in almost ALL pregnancies (you read that right), at least temporarily. The researchers tested tissue samples from the kidneys, livers, spleens, lungs, hearts, and brains of 26 women who died while pregnant or within one month of giving birth. The study found fetal cells in all of the women’s tissues. The researchers were able to tell the fetus cells from the mothers by searching for Y chromosomes (only found in males). The deceased mothers were all carrying sons.

Writers: Don’t take the obvious road. Think victims instead of killers.

  • What if a human brain washed up on the beach?
  • What if the Medical Examiner wrongly assumed the victim was male due to the Y chromosomes?

This is one way to use research to our advantage.

  • What if the brain contained animal and human DNA?

Remember, we’re thinking victim, not killer, which puts a different spin on it.

According to Live Science, fetal cells may stay in a woman’s body for years. In a 2012 study, researchers analyzed the brains of 59 deceased women ages 32 to 101. A shocking 63 percent had traces of male DNA from fetal cells in their brains. The oldest woman died at 94 years old, suggesting that these cells can sometimes last a lifetime.

The blood-brain barrier is the body’s defense system to block many drugs and germs in the bloodstream from entering the brain, but doctors have found this barrier becomes more permeable during pregnancy, which may explain how these fetal cells migrated into the brains of their mothers.

  • What if a serial killer only targeted people with chimerism because s/he viewed them as freaks of nature?
  • How might the killer find potential victims?

If you said the medical field, you’re not thinking outside the box.

Interestingly enough, 26 of the 59 women had no signs of brain disorders while alive. The other 33 were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found that women with Alzheimer’s were less likely to have male DNA in their brains than women without the disease.

Previous work on microchimerism suggested fetal cells might protect against breast cancer and aid tissue repair in the mothers, but could increase the risk of colon cancer. Microchimerism can also incite various autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases occur when a person’s body is mistakenly attacked by its own immune system.

Past research suggested Alzheimer’s is more common in women who had a high number of pregnancies than in childless women. One of the limitations of this research is that the number of brains studied was relatively small. Other researchers involved with microchimerism want to explore what effects a mother’s cells might have in her offspring’s development and health.

Imagine all the different scenarios? Parts of your writer brain must be on fire by now. No? Then check this out …  

Are you a chimera? 

You may never know. Unless you wind up in a similar situation to a woman named Karen Keegan. In 2002, her story became a report in the New England Journal of Medicine after doctors told her that she wasn’t the biological mother of her children.

Imagine? Think of all the ways this one conversation could implode an MC’s life.

  • Maybe the woman’s marriage broke up and the only reason her and her husband reunited was because she said she gave birth to his child while he was stationed overseas.

Turns out, the DNA in Karen Keegan’s bloodstream didn’t match the DNA in her ovaries. The doctors later determined she’d most likely absorbed a fraternal twin in utero.

How’s the ol’ writer brain feeling now?

 

15+

Is It Good to Open with a Dead Guy?

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

After I saw the blog title to P J Parrish’s excellent post this week (Is it Good to Open with a Bad Guy), it sparked an idea for my post today. Can a story that begins with a dead guy be worthwhile if they’re only on the page for a short scene? How can an author make a scene like that count? Or should they? How much effort should you put into one scene and a dead guy?

An author can choose to make any death be about the dead body and the unlucky stiff who finds it, or the detectives who seek justice, or the families left behind. The body can be for shock value, or be a twist in the plot of a sagging middle, but when should a victim be more?

Bottom Line – For every scene you choose to write, make every character count.

In the stories I write, I like to give a face to the dead. If I choose to open with a victim not long for this world, I have to create a vivid glimpse into their life–a quick snapshot into who they are–enough for readers to care about them. Every word and every visual has to count.

I’m not talking about TELLING the reader who the victim is. I’m talking about SHOWING their life in vivid imagery & their voice and character traits. You only have one shot to make it memorable.

In THE LAST VICTIM, I open with the murder of Nate. My psychic FBI profiler, Ryker Townsend, first “meets” Nate in a nightmare of haunting images he must decipher. As Ryker uncovers the puzzle, he must put himself into the boots of Nate to hunt his killer. Nate’s life as a young father, living on a remote island in Alaska, becomes a troubling mystery.

How could an isolated loner like Nate cross the path of a prolific serial killer known throughout the Pacific Northwest? Ryker treks into the mountains of a remote island in Alaska and as he sees more of Nate’s life, he begins to know him and grieve for his passing.

For a few reasons, I made a deliberate choice to begin THE LAST VICTIM as seen through the terrified eyes of Nate when he knows he will die. His last thoughts are of his son. I wanted the reader to care about finding this heartless killer by choosing to make the reader care about Nate.

Excerpts from THE LAST VICTIM

Beginning of the scene

The soothing murmur of an ocean ebbed through Nathan Applewhite’s mind until he felt the waves and made them real. Now as cool water lapped the sandy shore to make frothy lace at his bare feet, he looked up to a cloudless sky—the color of a robin’s egg—that stretched its reach to forever. Fragments of his senses came together. Every piece made him yearn for more. When warm skin touched his, he knew he wasn’t alone and he smiled. He held a tiny hand. His five-year old boy Tanner walked the strand of beach beside him.

The memory came to him often, but it never stayed long enough. The pain always yanked him back.

 

ENDING of Nate’s Life:

End of the Scene – as he’s dying

Nate blocked out the cruelty of the voice. Only one thing mattered now. As the familiar face above him blurred, it got replaced with another—the sweet smiling face of his little boy Tanner—and the rumble of a wave hitting the shore. Sunlight made Tanner squint when he looked up at him. His son let go of his hand and ran down the beach with a giggle trailing behind him.

Hey, little man. Wait up. Daddy’s coming.

With sand caked to his feet, Nathan took off running after his little boy. The two of them splashed in the waves and made shimmering diamonds with their feet. He never caught his son. Time had ticked down to its final precious seconds. He only had one way to say good-bye to Tanner. Nate watched him run and he listened to his little boy laugh until—

Pain let him go and set him free.

KEY “DEAD GUY” STEPS TO EXPLORE

1.) IMAGINE DEATH

If you choose to write through the eyes of someone who’s dying, what must that feel like? It’s hard to do. You must face your worst fears, yet try to put death into words that will be palatable to the reader (not overly graphic) with imagery that will haunt a reader. It takes thought to craft a scene that’s hard to forget for readers, but David Morrell, author of the Rambo series, did that for me when I first read  FIRST BLOOD.

The first time I read a story with a scene written in the POV of someone killed was written by Morrell. I don’t want to give anything away, but a key character dies by a shot gun blast to the head. Morrell wrote it from the POV of the dead guy and I never forgot it.

My first attempt to try Morrell’s scene came when I wrote my first suspense book (the 2nd book I sold to HarperCollins). In an opening scene I wrote in NO ONE LEFT TO TELL, my assassin dies at the hands of a worse killer. His throat is cut. I researched the medical descriptions of what this must be like. After all, there is no expert in dying who is still speaking and can share their wisdom. It’s a one-way ticket.

I had to imagine his assassin’s death and make choices. Death by exsanguination (loss of blood) might be similar enough to drowning. I researched drowning symptoms to pepper them into the action. Due to the violence in the scene, I also pictured a terrified rabbit in the jaws of a wolf, bleeding out. Would a rabbit mercifully lapse into shock and not feel what would happen? I wrote that kind of “rabbit shock” for my bad guy as he died in the arms of the man who butchered him.

At the start of the scene, the assassin wants to retire and he pictures the beach of his dreams. After he makes one last score, it turns out to be one too many. He’s hunted in the dark, in a maze of others like him. When he finally confronts his killer and his throat is cut, he drowns in his blood. As he pictures “his” beach–in shock–he sinks to the bottom of the ocean fighting for breath. It made the killing easier for readers to take, but I needed to establish how cruel the villain of the book would be, so readers would fear more for my woman cop.

I’ve found these scenes can be a challenge, but one worth taking. Below is the end of the scene in Mickey’s POV.

Excerpt – NO ONE LEFT TO TELL

“You’re mine now.” The intimate whisper brushed by his ear. It shocked him. The familiarity sounded like it came from the lips of a lover. “Don’t fight me.”

For an instant, Mickey relaxed long enough to hope—maybe all this had been a mistake. Then he felt a sudden jerk.

Pain…searing pain!

Icy steel plunged into his throat, severing cartilage in its wake. A metallic taste filled his mouth. Its warmth sucked into his lungs, drowning him. Powerless, Mickey resisted the blackness with the only redemption possible. He imagined high tide with him adrift. He struggled for air, bobbing beneath the ocean surface. The sun and blue sky warped with a swirling eddy. Mercifully, sounds of surf rolling to shore clouded the fear when his body convulsed. Dizziness and a numbing chill finally seized him. The pounding of his heart drained his ability to move at all.

A muffled gurgle dominated his senses—until there was nothing.

2.) GIVE YOUR VICTIM A FACE

Even if your victim is on the page as a soon-to-be dead guy, you have a choice to show the reader who they are. Make them real or keep them as a cardboard stiff and a prop. If you paint a vivid enough picture of their life, you can show how they will be missed by their family or even how they touched the life of the cop who must investigate their death. It’s an opportunity to show violence in a different way and to thread the victim’s humanity throughout your story. It can also show the heroic qualities of your detective or your main character(s). Done right, you can make the reader feel their loss in different ways. Your story becomes more emotional.

3.) PLANT RED HERRINGS

Use the victim’s POV to plant mystery elements & red herrings for the reader to decipher. A victim’s death can serve to showcase clues on the identity of the killer (did he or she know their killer) OR the victim can be an unreliable narrator for the author to plant misdirection clues for the reader to stumble over. Milk that death scene for all its worth.

4.) DON’T WANT TO KILL IN A VICTIM’S POV?

If you’re squeamish about killing a victim and showing the reader what that feels like, you can opt out. You don’t have to stay in their POV. You can write up until the moment they die, in a dramatic adrenaline rush. Or if you switch from inside their head at the last second, you can change POVs to someone who is with them, forced to watch them die. That can milk the emotions of a scene as well.

5.) PEPPER YOUR SCENE WITH HUMANITY

A victim is leaving many people and memories behind. If you choose to make that unimportant–where they are only a corpse for the coroner to autopsy–you’ve missed out on an opportunity for emotion. All people who die leave something or someone behind – a wake where their life had been. If you make it important for your story, it will open your reader’s eyes to you as an author and it will showcase your character’s humanity.

In Mickey’s case in NO ONE LEFT TO TELL, I wanted to show his cocky attitude when he believed as a killer that he was invincible, but there is always someone worse. Mickey’s death paved the way for my villain to hit the stage.

In Nate’s case in THE LAST VICTIM, his son mattered most to him. Even in death, his boy is the only thought he had. It gave him peace. I wanted the reader–and my character, Ryker–to miss him.

Below is an excerpt that shows how I kept writing Nate into the story, long after he died. In this scene, my FBI profiler is hiking to a remote cabin in the mountains of an isolated island in Alaska where Nate lived. He’s there to understand Nate’s life to know how he crossed paths with a prolific serial killer.

Excerpt – THE LAST VICTIM

I listened to the hypnotic sounds of the forest and let the subtle noises close in. A light breeze jostled the treetops and birds flitted in the branches over my head. My boots made soft thuds on the decomposing sod under my feet. Nature had a palpable and soothing rhythm.

Nathan Applewhite had been where I stood now and I knew why he would’ve chosen to make his home on the island. There was a soul quenching refuge I sensed in my bones. I knew Applewhite must’ve felt the same. Perhaps like Henry David Thoreau, Nathan had sought the nurturing solitude of the woods because he ‘wished to live deliberately’ and get the most of his life.

Nate had chosen a quiet, simple life. The fact he was dead now—after being tortured and murdered—struck a harsh blow in me. It was an odd feeling to miss someone I’d never met, but the more I saw of Nate’s life, the greater I sensed the wake of his absence. Violent death was never fair. The haunting words of David Richard Berkowitz, Son of Sam, seeped from my brain.

I didn’t want to hurt them. I only wanted to kill them.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Have you written a scene in the POV of a dying person? What challenges did you have?

2.) What authors have written scenes you will never forget and why did they stick with you? Your examples don’t have to be death scenes. (With my books in boxes from my last move, I am without examples for my posts and am forced to use MY books. Sorry about that.) 

The Last Victim

When a young hunting guide from a remote island in Alaska is found brutally murdered, his naked body is discovered in the Cascade Mountains outside Seattle—the shocking pinnacle to a grisly Totem of body parts. Nathan Applewhite is the fourteenth victim of a cunning serial killer who targets and stalks young men.

FBI profiler Ryker Townsend and his team investigate and find no reason for Nate to have mysteriously vanished from his isolated home. But Townsend has a secret he won’t share with anyone—not even his own team—that sets him on the trail of a ruthless psychopath, alone.

1+

First Page Critique: Watch All Night

By SUE COLETTA

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. Enjoy. I’ll catch you on the flipside.

WATCH ALL NIGHT

It was the other buildings that looked sinister. They slumped against each other, lining the alley in ancient, faded red-brick. Their boarded-up windows bothered Joe the most. They made the buildings look blinded. February chill, boosted by the river, let him hurry past those dead old things, still hanging round like they didn’t know their time had come and gone.

He could hear the Felbrigg changing from a warehouse to an apartment-building before he saw it. And there it was, full of life, construction crews hammering and buzzing, wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows, fancy new glass door. Fitting into the London of now.  

Joe went in.

#

Greeley, the building manager, took off his reading glasses and nodded to the two construction guys coming up the corridor where the gym and lift were going to be. The men headed for the front door. This desk station and security room made an island in the middle of the reception floor. A corridor ran all the way to the back of the building, on both sides of the island. Greeley had already run through the CCTV system in the security room, and how to change the recording. The security technology at the desk station was more or less the same. Greeley had explained about the alarm, the keys, the touchpads, the drawer contents.

Greeley looked Joe over with down-sloping grey eyes for about the fifth time. Joe knew the sight he made, six-foot-three, the extra muscle he’d put on, and his entire past in his face. Good look for a security guard; not so good, otherwise, to men like Greeley.

Now the men working on the gym had gone, he could hear Greeley’s nasal voice better through all the banging and drilling.

Greeley’s wide, soft jaw settled back into his neck. He said, “So. Think you can remember all that?”

Joe nodded.

***

The way Anon set the scene in the first two paragraphs works for this particular reader. We know where we are, and I found the dinginess of the building compelling enough to keep reading. The first line implies something terrible is about to happen within said building. Which is great. Could the sentence be stronger? Yeah, but that’s an editorial nitpick. I’d rather focus on the big picture.

The largest concern for me occurs after the hashmark. We have a couple POV hiccups and a distant narrator. A hashmark indicates a new scene, yet we’re in the same building as the previous paragraphs. See my confusion? At first, I thought we’d switched to Greeley’s POV, but it doesn’t appear that way. 

Anon, if you meant to switch to a different POV, then we have an even bigger problem. The first page should only be one scene. One POV per scene. 

Everything after the hashmark is more world-building. There’s also a lot of telling. Whenever we use words like heard, saw, thought, knew, etc., we’re not showing the story in a deep point of view. Think about how you, the writer, views the world. For all intents and purposes, you are that POV character. So, rather than tell us you heard or saw something, show us.

Example of telling (limited POV): I heard waves crashing against the rocks. I saw the salt water slash through the veil of ivory foam.

Without adding to the imagery, here’s the same example, only this time we’re in deep POV (showing): Waves crashed against the rocks, the salt water slashing through the veil of ivory foam.

See the difference? You don’t need to tell the reader that the character heard or saw the waves. It’s implied. How else would s/he know?

Okay, there’s another problem. Everything after the hashmark isn’t interesting enough to carry the first page. The building is under construction. We get it. Move on. Don’t waste precious real estate by over-describing. If you want to include the debris, then sprinkle it in later.

The first page needs to accomplish several things:

  • Raise story questions
  • Pique interest
  • Indicate genre
  • Introduce hero (or in some cases, the villain)
  • Gain empathy; not necessarily likability
  • The POV character needs a goal

I recently finished a terrific thriller entitled A Killer’s Mind by Mike Omer. Let’s look at the first paragraph as an example of how to include all of the above by showing, not telling …

The sharp scent of formaldehyde filled the room as he poured the liquid into the mixture. He had hated the smell at first. But he’d learned to appreciate it, knowing what it represented: eternity. The embalming fluid kept things from deteriorating. “Till death do us part” was an unambitious concept at best. True love should ascend beyond that point.

Did this paragraph raise story questions in my mind? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out who this killer was embalming.

Did it pique my interest? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out what this killer might do next.

Did it introduce a character in a compelling way? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out more about this killer.

Did I know the genre right away? Absolutely! It’s a serial killer thriller.

Did I have empathy for the villain? Yes! He’s looking for love and thinks the only way to keep Mrs. Right is by embalming her.

Does the villain have a goal? Absolutely! His goal is to build a life-long union with a woman who will never leave him.

And Omer accomplished all of it in one paragraph. Bam. I’m hooked! The rest of the first page drew me in even more. Powerless to fight the urge to stop reading, the world faded away as I frantically flipped pages like a junkie searching for a fix.

Check out the rest of the first page …

He added more salt than the last time, hoping for better results. It was a delicate balance; he’d learned that the hard way. The embalming fluid promised eternity, but the saline solution added flexibility.

A good relationship had to be flexible.

There was a creak beyond the locked door. The noises—a series of irregular squeaking and scraping sounds, intermingled with the girl’s labored groans—grated on his nerves. She was trying to untie herself again. Always moving, always trying to get away from him—they were all the same at first. But she’d change; he would make sure of that. There would be no more incessant movement, no muffled begging, no hoarse screams.

She would be quiet and still. And then they would learn to love each other.

Notice, too, how the killer is moving; he’s active. We’re not hearing about what he did after the fact. We’re experiencing it firsthand through the killer’s POV.

Anon, you need to do the same in your first page. Show us where Joe goes after he enters the building and why we should care. You don’t need to reveal any big mystery, but you do need to hint at it to hold our interest.

This next paragraph tells us what happened instead of letting us experience it ourselves:

Greeley had already run through the CCTV system in the security room, and how to change the recording. The security technology at the desk station was more or less the same. Greeley had explained about the alarm, the keys, the touchpads, the drawer contents.

Granted, it’s best to breeze over the boring stuff. We don’t need to know how to operate CCTV, unless it impacts the plot in some way. If the paragraph falls into the boring stuff category, then it doesn’t belong on the first page.

Ideas

What if Joe reviews last night’s tapes and sees something strange … a burglar, someone being kidnapped, UFO lights, whatever fits your genre. He shows the footage to Greeley and we’re off and running with a new mystery, a goal for our hero, and intrigue.

Or …

What if Greeley storms over to Joe’s work station with damning footage of Joe sneaking into the building last night. But Joe was at home all night. See all the story questions that might arise from that one simple action? Is someone trying to setup Joe? For what, burglary, murder, or a far more sinister scheme? Who hates him enough to frame him? And why? How’d he or she get his passcode or security card?

With the right action, it’s easy to plant questions in the reader’s mind. But you do need the right angle. We also need to plant the reader in that moment with the hero or villain, rather than the narrator telling us about it after it happened.

This paragraph confused me:

Greeley looked Joe over with down-sloping grey eyes for about the fifth time. Joe knew the sight he made, six-foot-three, the extra muscle he’d put on, and his entire past in his face. Good look for a security guard; not so good, otherwise, to men like Greeley.

I’m guessing Anon’s trying to describe Joe, but it doesn’t work. Some authors never describe their characters. They leave it up to reader-interpretation. On Facebook, a fan asked Karin Slaughter what one of her main characters looked like. Her response? He looks exactly how you picture him in your mind. Perfect answer, right?

The writer needs to know their characters intimately, including their looks, but the reader doesn’t, unless their unique style adds to their character in some way. For example, some of my characters wrongly assume Shawnee Daniels lives a gothic lifestyle. She hates the label, but I show her uniqueness to enhance her character — dressing goth-like raises questions about her. Is she hiding behind all black for a reason? Is she using makeup like a mask to shield the innocent girl who cowers inside? See where I’m going with this?

Greeley has that bulldog look. Great. Let another character tease him about his downward-sloping eyes. Men give each other s*it all the time on construction sites. Show him getting razzed by one of the guys, and then show his reaction to the ribbing. Does he fire the guy on the spot? Does he throw things? Cry? I wouldn’t let this play out on the first page, though. Just spitballin’. 😉

Anon, I see something special in the first two paragraphs. You have the writing chops to make this first page compelling. You just dropped the ball after the hashmark. Happens to the best of us. So, take a moment to curse me out, then get back to work. Make us proud, because I know you have it in you. 

Favorite line of this first page: Greeley’s wide, soft jaw settled back into his neck.

You nailed the body cue in that line. So, stop playing it safe elsewhere. 🙂

Over to you, TKZers. How might you improve this first page? Did the first two paragraphs draw you in? Could you guess the genre from this small sample? What’s your favorite line? Which, if you’re game, I’d like to include in all first page critiques. Not only will asking for a favorite line add a positive spin to the critiques but knowing where the brave writer succeeded is just as beneficial as knowing where s/he went wrong. 

4+

Quit Trying to Write

 

You were expecting Yoda?

 

Having coffee this morning? Yum!

Now, try to pick up the cup. Go on… Are you touching the cup? No, no, no–that’s not allowed. You’re only allowed to try to pick it up.

Is your hand hanging uncertainly in the air?

This is not a trick. Okay, maybe it’s a little tricky, but it demonstrates something very important. Trying doesn’t get things done. It isn’t a thing. There is only doing. *insert Yoda here*

I think I read the phrase “I’m trying to write a (insert genre) novel” online five or six times a week. Although I empathize with struggling, beginning, and frustrated writers–as I’ve been them all–I want to gently shake these “trying” authors by the shoulders of their faded university sweatshirts and tell them to stop trying and just keep writing.

Either you’re writing a novel, or you’re not writing a novel. We can prepare ourselves to write. We can take a break from writing, or we can quit writing, or we can continue writing until we’re finished, and start the next one.

If you’re bogged down, or stuck, admit it. Don’t hide it. Ask for help, then quickly get back to your keyboard. Don’t worry: if you’re thinking constructively about your work, you’re still writing. But don’t think too long. Take an afternoon, or a day. Don’t lose your momentum, even if it’s the momentum of the  hundred words you wrote during the fifteen minutes before breakfast yesterday.

If you’re writing, you’re a writer.

Keep writing.

Help other writers.

Don’t bother trying. Make the choice to do, and not give up.

 

Are there things you find yourself “trying” to do, instead of doing them?

(for me it’s “trying” to lose weight)

 

14+