Titles and Comp Titles — How To Find the Best Ones For Your Book

I asked my dear friend Ruth Harris to dazzle us with her experience of choosing titles and comps, and she delivered. Big time.

Ruth is a New York Times, award-winning bestselling author whose novels have sold millions of copies in hardcover and paperback editions. Translated into 19 languages and sold in hardcover and paperback editions in more than 30 countries, her books were Literary Guild, Book-of-the-Month Club and book club selections around the world. Ruth is also a former Editor, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher at Big Six and independent NY publishers who knows the publishing business from both sides of the desk.

And so, she’s an author who knows what works and what doesn’t. Enjoy!

A Prince by any other name would still be a Prince. (I hope.)

Meghan by any other name would still be a princess.

Ditto Diana.

Lord or Lady. Peasant or serf.

Professor or student.

Beginner or expert.

Titles orient us to where we are and what we should expect next.

Doesn’t just apply to people, either. Also applies to books, because time-pressed readers/editors/agents take only a few seconds to make their buy decision, and authors have the same few seconds to make their sale.

If you’re aiming for a traditional publishing deal including relevant comp titles in your query letter is a must, because comp titles define the expectations and positioning of your book. Well-chosen comp titles provide a target in a crowded marketplace, and will affect your cover, blurb and sales pitch.

Agents and publishers ask for comp titles because they need a quick shorthand way to establish the basis for sales expectations and marketing. The agent/editor/potential reader needs a reference point, and, if your book will appeal to readers who enjoy legal thrillers, steamy romance or epic fantasy, you’re providing a valuable selling tool by providing appropriate comp titles that give a solid clue about which market you’re aiming at.

Meaning before details.

According to John Medina of the University of Washington, the human brain requires meaning before details. When listeners doesn’t understand the basic concept right at the beginning, they have a hard time processing the rest of the information.

Bottom line for writers: The title and the cover—image plus title—have to work as a unit to explain the hook or basic concept first. Wrong image and/or misfit title confuse the would-be buyer and you lose the sale. On-target image plus genre-relevant title and the reader/agent/editor will look closer.

Your cover indicates visually by color, design and image what the reader can expect inside—a puzzling mystery, a swoony romance, futuristic scifi, or scary horror—but the first words the prospective reader/agent/editor sees are the ones in the title.

Your title tells readers what to expect.

You’re unpublished but your title is awfully close to Nora Roberts’ newest or…ahem…a clone of James Patterson’s most recent? Come on. Get real. Please. For your own sake.

Your book is about a modest governess in 19th Century London who falls in love with the maddeningly handsome Prince who lives in the castle next door, but your title promises hotter-than-hot, through-the-roof sales like, oh, maybe, 50 Shades Of Grey? Really? 51 Shades of Grey is the best you can come up with? Seriously?

If you’re in a quandary about choosing a title for your book here are Anne’s 10 Tips for Choosing the Right Title for Your Book.

You can also research successful titles in your genre for inspiration. Whether your genre is romance or suspense, you will find that certain words recur. Just be aware that most publishing contracts give the publisher the right to change the title. Sometimes the author is pleased.

Other times? Not so much. (Don’t ask me how I know, but horror stories abound.)

If the title you’ve chosen for your book is your idea of the one and only, check your contract to make sure you have the last word on title. The reality, though, is that few author have this right and, if you’re just starting out, you won’t. Sorry about that, but it’s the reality.

If you’re self-pubbing, you control the decision about titles. And, if you think of a better title in the future, you can easily change a title later.

All about comp titles.

The writer’s version of GPS, your comps tell readers/agents/editors where they are and what they can expect if they go further. That’s why a poorly chosen title or the wrong comp titles are an invitation to nowheresville for you and your book.

A sweet romance compared to a horror epic called Tarantula Invasion? I don’t think so.

Scifi comped to something titled A Duke For The Duchess? Nope.

Serial killer police procedural titled Miss Emily’s Quaint Cupcake Cafe? You’re joking, right?

Comp titles are books that are similar to yours. Comps help agents/editors/readers figure out who your book will appeal to and how big the potential audience might be. Comps give the Art Department or your cover artist a starting point and help them understand what is required.

Comps are indispensable to the sales department at a publisher and serve the same purpose in your blurb. Sales reps have only a few second to interest a buyer or bookstore owner. Being able to tell them that New Book X is like Old Book Y is useful shorthand telling the prospective buyers something about the likely audience and sales potential.

  • “If you like X, you’ll love Y”
  • “If you like action-adventure with strong female leads, you’ll like Y”
  • “If you like Regency romance, you’ll like Y”
  • “Readers who like Dean Koontz will love Y”

Another approach is X is like Y—with a twist.

  • “Cozy mystery with dragons”
  • “Historical mystery with space ships”
  • “Romantic suspense in a gay retirement home”

A third example is X meets Y—with a twist.

  • “Jack Reacher meets Jane Austen”
  • “Fan fiction meets literary memoir”
  • “Leo Tolstoi meets K-pop.”

Do’s and don’ts of choosing comp titles.

  • Do stay within your own genre (or genres if you write mash ups).
  • Do keep it realistic. Choose comps with the same likely sales pattern: out of the gate with a burst or a long, slow and steady sales arc, front list star vs backlist stalwart.
  • Do keep it recent: choose titles published within the last two or three years so that they are still fresh in the minds of reader/agents/editors/sales staff/store buyers. Pointless to choose a comp from a decade ago that no one remembers.
  • Don’t abandon common sense and compare your book to a #1 NYT bestseller or the latest gee-whiz phenom.
  • Don’t mix formats. If your book will be offered in a digital edition, don’t compare it to a hardcover title and vice versa.
  • Don’t jump genres. Compare apples to apples, oranges to oranges. That is, compare scifi to scifi, thriller to thriller, epic fantasy to epic fantasy, literary fiction to literary fiction.
  • Don’t ignore demographics. If your book will appeal to women, be sure to choose comps that will appeal to that same reader. Don’t choose a comp that will appeal to young adult readers or males looking for hairy-chested adventure in the remote jungles of Borneo.

Where to find good comp titles.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and the gang.

Because readers of romance tend to buy more romance and readers of action-adventure tend to buy more action-adventure, type the title of a book similar to yours into the search window of any book seller to find recommendations under headers like:

  • “Customers who bought this also bought”
  • “What customers bought after viewing this”
  • “Trending now”
  • “Pageturners”
  • “Monthly picks”
  • “Frequently bought together”
  • “Favorite authors”

Goodreads

Tell Goodreads what genre you’re interested in and they will provide a list of titles.

Or you can enter comp titles you’re already considering to ask for more suggestions.

You can also describe the kind of book you’re looking for—“thriller set in Iceland,” “mystery in Uruguay,” “cozy mystery in Nantucket,” or “scifi in a crippled space capsule”—for suggestions.

Goodreads Choice Awards lists their annual picks by category if you’re looking for even more inspiration.

Bestseller lists.

The middle or lower down titles in the NYTimes and the USA Today lists are good starting points, but don’t overlook your town or city. Your local bookstore will know what books are selling well in your area.

If your book is of regional interest—New England, Florida, the Far West—local bestseller info will be valuable and all you have to do is ask.

Librarians can help you ID relevant books that float just below the top bestsellers. We not talking mega authors and books, but titles just below the top ten or twenty that have reliable sales records and are known by buyers/agents/editors/retailers.

BookBub.

Sign up—it’s free—and ask for recs in genres similar to yours or by authors who appeal to the same readers you are looking for.

BookBub also has extensive genre lists that can be helpful as well as real-time updates from authors who write books similar to yours.

More help.

You’ll find more ideas for finding comp titles in this marketing-oriented post by Penny Sansevieri about Finding and Using Competing Book Titles in Your Book Marketing

Dave Chesson’s Publisher’s Rocket uses up-to-date market research data to quickly identify relevant comp titles, categories and keywords.

NerdyBookGirl offers a helpful FREE Book Category Hunter.

★★★★★“WOW! WHAT A STORY!”★★★★★

“A master storyteller coaxed me through a maze of fascinating, brilliant, tragic, and heartwarming twists and turns, and left me feeling uplifted and satisfied. ZURI slides to the top of my favorite books of 2020!”

—Sue Coletta, award-winning, bestselling author

 

99c Sale. Ends soon.

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+9

Writing Wisdom from Gary Provost

Jim’s Reader Friday question got me thinking. What is the special sauce that ignites a writer’s brain? Would a new writer know when to run with an idea and when to let it go? Maybe. Maybe not.

With that in mind, I’ll share the following tips from critically acclaimed author and beloved writing instructor, Gary Provost. Incidentally, these tips can be used for fiction and nonfiction, if your nonfiction falls into the “story” category (i.e. true crime, historical, narrative nonfiction, etc).

Gary Provost created a simple paragraph to encapsulate the dramatic arc in a story.

Once upon a time… something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.

This works because of its classic dramatic structure, which is the most satisfying type of story for the reader. It’s brilliant, if you take the time to dissect it. For now, I’d like to concentrate on a quick and dirty shortcut to test a story idea.

Gary Provost thought of stories in terms of a series of “buts.”

Joyce is a poor secretary, but she meets a millionaire and marries him.

She’s married to a millionaire, but the marriage goes sour.

She wants to end the marriage, but she (allegedly) thinks she’ll be left penniless.

She perhaps has a motive for murdering her husband, but so do other people.

After the murder, police suspect her, but she passes two polygraph exams at two different times and places. One, a highly regarded expert.

She passes the polygraphs, but the court rules they will not be allowed. But a federal court rules in a different case that the polygraphs can be allowed.

She goes back to court to get the polygraph tests allowed, but Judge Smith still will not allow them.

Someone claims to have heard shots at 3:30 A.M., but the medical examiner says that Stanley died around 5:30 A.M., consistent with Joyce’s story. She seems to be telling the truth, but it was five minutes from the time of the Colorado phone call to the call to 911.

Joyce allegedly says to Officer Catherine Parker, “I shouldn’t have done it,”but Parker never reports this.

Three days after the murder a cop tells the medical examiner that he saw signs of lividity, indicating that the body had been dead for a few hours.

But Wetli, the medical examiner, reviews his material, still comes to the same conclusion. Stays with that conclusion for three years.

No charges against Joyce, but the Miami Herald starts an anti-Joyce campaign, demanding that she be brought to justice.

Newscaster Gerri Helfman is about to get married, but her father is murdered.

No charges are brought against Joyce, but Stanley’s family pressures the state’s attorney’s office to come up with something.

And on and on it goes.

The above series of “buts” Provost used in a book proposal for a true crime book entitled Rich Blood. The proposal started a bidding war between publishers.

In the end, he decided to write Deadly Secrets instead. Turned out to be the right move because Deadly Secrets became the mega-hit Perfect Husband: True Story of the Trusting Bride Who Discovered Her Husband was a Coldblooded Killer.

Use a series of “buts” to test your story idea. Obviously, a “but” won’t fit every sentence. When it doesn’t, try “and then.” But a “but” should follow “and then” soon. Why? Because “buts” are complications. Complications = conflict. And conflict drives the story.

Example:

Husband kills wife, and then stuffs her body into a 3ml bag, and then drives to a secluded area to bury her, but his foldable spade isn’t in the backseat. Did the neighbor borrow it again?

When you write don’t keep all the “buts” and “and thens.” Think in those terms, but you don’t want all of them in the final draft. Over time your story sensibilities will automatically search for (nonfiction) and/or apply (fiction) this rhythm.

The point is, whether we write fiction or nonfiction, we need to find the story beneath the headline or first spark of an idea. Without a narrative driven by conflict, the story will fall flat.

Five pieces of wisdom from Gary Provost’s 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.

  1. A writer’s most important vocabulary is the one he or she already has. 

Learning new words is much less important than learning to use the words you already know. Think about your ideal reader. If he or she wouldn’t understand your word choice, you might as well be writing in a foreign language. Over time finding the right word becomes easier, almost a subconscious act. Until then, be intentional with every word.

  1. A lead should have energy, excitement, an implicit promise that something is going to happen or that some interesting information will be revealed.

Whether a lead is the first sentence, the first paragraph, or even the first several paragraphs of your story, it should pique a reader’s interest by raising story questions and give readers someone (or something) to care about before delving into the backstory.

Act first, explain later.
—James Scott Bell

A strong lead delivers on the promise it makes.

  1. When writing a beginning, remove every sentence until you come to one you cannot do without. 

Meaning, make your point by answering “who, what, when, where” in the first paragraph. Make the reader wait for “why.” Unless, of course, the why is the character’s goal.

A topic sentence contains the thought that is developed throughout the rest of the paragraph. The topic sentence is commonly the first sentence in a paragraph. For each paragraph ask, “What do I want to say here? What point do I want to make? What question do I want to present?” Answer with a single general sentence.

When you edit, ask how each sentence works for the paragraph. Ask why it’s there. Does it have a purpose? Great! Then keep it. If you can’t pinpoint why you included that sentence, hit DELETE.

  1. Style is form, not content.

In writing, the word style means how an idea is expressed, not the idea itself.

A reader usually picks up a story because of content but too often puts it down because of style.

 

  1. To write is to create music.

The words you write make sounds, and when those sounds are in harmony, the writing will work.

 

Gary Provost was highly regarded as an author, sought-after speaker, consultant, and celebrity biographer.

“The writers’ writer” authored thousands of articles, columns, and dozens of books covering most every genre. His highly acclaimed Writers Retreat Workshop, and video and audio courses remain available through writersretreatworkshop.com.

What’s your favorite piece of advice here? Care to add a tip?

+14

When Opposites Attract

Foils and antagonists are two types of characters that serve different functions. An antagonist or villain works in direct opposition to the protagonist or hero. The antagonist presents obstacles to thwart the hero from achieving his or her goal. The foil, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily working against the hero. A foil’s qualities simply differ from the hero’s.

The hero and foil often work together, such as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The key difference between the foil and antagonist is that the antagonist’s actions oppose the hero while the foil’s character traits create conflict. Also, a foil shines the spotlight on another character’s personality traits and/or flaws, without necessarily thwarting their plans. When done right, however, there will be conflict!

The term “foil” came into its current usage as a literary device from the concept of putting tin foil behind a gemstone to make it look more brilliant. The foil character works in the same way—to add credibility to the hero or to spotlight his or her faults.

Opposing personalities add a great deal to a story. Pairing these two characters can transform a ho-hum scene into one with explosive conflict. But we need to—dare I sayplan these character traits in advance. 😉

Conflicting personalities rub against one another, which allows the writer to maximize slower moments within the plot. After all, if everyone in the scene “plays nice,” we risk boring the reader. With a bit of character planningoh, my, there’s that word again—clashing personalities lead to conflict-driven scenes.

If the hero dances on the edge of the law, the foil might be hyper-vigilant about following rules of any kind. If the hero never follows directions, the foil might be a map enthusiast. If the hero’s loud and extroverted, the foil might be shy, quiet, and reclusive.

Positioning the foil and main character in close proximity will draw readers’ attention to the hero’s attributes. A story could have more than one foil. In my Mayhem Series, I created a foil for my hero and another for my villain.

By crafting opposites, these characters’ scenes crackle with tension. Foils show the hero’s and/or villain’s strengths and weaknesses through friction. Remember to include the element that ties the two characters together, a believable bond that’s stronger than their differences.

Since Garry mentioned my video excerpt in the comments on Thursday, I’ll include it as an example of the foil/hero relationship. Don’t worry. There’s no need to watch the entire video (unless you want to). You should recognize the opposing personalities pretty quick.

Have you used a foil in your story? Please explain. Or: What’s your favorite fictional foil/hero relationship?

As bloody, severed body parts show up on her doorstep, Shawnee Daniels must stop the serial killer who wants her dead before she becomes the next victim.

But can she solve his cryptic clues before it’s too late? Or will she be the next to die a slow, agonizing death?

Preorder for 99c on Amazon.

Releases April 20, 2021.

+8

Guest Post by Agatha-Winner Leslie Budewitz

Agatha-winning author Leslie Budewitz

Today, I’m pleased to host Leslie Budewitz for this guest post. Leslie is an attorney, mystery author of two cozy series, and triple Agatha Award winner. For more than 20 years, she and I have been trusted critique partners and good friends.

Leslie offers insightful techniques to deepen emotion in our writing. Welcome, Leslie!

Emotional Research

by Leslie Budewitz

No matter what genre we write, readers come to our books in part for an emotional connection with our characters and the story. One way to give them that is to draw on our own experiences. We’ve all felt deep emotion—rage, betrayal, jealousy—that if pushed to extremes could lead us to do terrible things, planned or unplanned. I’m betting most of you have drawn on your own emotional experiences in your fiction, exploring your personal emotions, perhaps through a free-write, then giving that, or pieces of it, to your characters.

But sometimes characters have experiences we haven’t had. This is when need to call on our research and observational skills, as well as our empathy, to better understand a character’s emotional experiences, what motivates them, and how they will respond in a particular story crisis.

I first delved into this when writing my first published mystery, Death al Dente. When the series began, my main character, Erin Murphy, was a 32-year-old who had lost her father to a hit-and-run accident when she was 17; the crime was unsolved and I planned to solve it over the course of the first three books.

My father died when I was 30. That’s a very different experience. I’d worked on countless personal injury cases as a lawyer, including wrongful death cases, and knew some of what survivors went through. But I needed to know more about the emotion and how it might continue to influence this particular woman

I sat down and wrote by hand about every person I could think of that I knew—well or not well—who’d lost a parent when they were young. Some of my observations were decades old, but it turned out that I knew a lot. I remembered talking on the phone for an hour, back when daytime long distance was expensive, when my best friend from college lost her father at 21. I thought about some of the ways that loss at that age affected her—she’s still my BFF—and gave her a different experience than her older siblings got.

I remembered a conversation with a 35-year-old colleague whose father died when he was 18. “But you were grown,” a friend said, implying that that lessened the impact; “not really,” he replied, and his sadness told me how much he felt had been unjustly taken from him.

I wrote about the high school classmate whose father died the year after we graduated, and whose own husband died in his early 40s, leaving her with a small child, giving her—and me—a dual perspective. I let my focus drift and I wrote about my reaction and that of my high school classmates when a boy in our class was killed in a car accident junior year. Later that same week, a girl a year behind us in our small school lost her mother to wintry roads; the family lived near us and went to the same church. I thought about the baby, not a year old, who never knew his mother, and some poor decisions the oldest girl made that might have turned out differently if not for that tragedy.

Other options: Talk to people who’ve had your character’s experience, if they’re willing, or to people involved with it in other ways. I talked to my husband, who’s a doctor of natural medicine with a general practice and has treated many patients rocked by grief. Talk to your friend who teaches high school or your walking buddy who’s a social worker.

I searched online for guides for teachers and school counselors on dealing with students who lost a parent. You could also read memoir, personal accounts, or YA novels involving that situation.

And from all of that, I was able to see how Erin would have responded, the different ways her older brother and sister responded; how the death affected her relationship with her mother at the time, and how it affects their relationship now. Francesca still wants to protect Erin, who’s 32, and knows she can’t, any more than she could when Erin went off to college that fall. What does that lead Francesca to do—and say—when she sees her daughter investigating murder? Erin was on stage in the local theater rehearsing for the school play when the accident happened; fifteen years later, she still thinks about that every time she walks in the building. And the guilt she feels over having argued with him the last time she saw him doesn’t resolve until she solves the crime. It was just a teenager’s pique, but the more complicated the relationship, the more complicated the emotions and the bigger the potential story impact.

Of course, all losses have ripple effects. In college, Erin was aloof, focused on school and her own grief. She barely noticed a guy who was really into her. She meets him again, 15 years later. How does that history influence their relationship? And the impact on her friendship with her childhood best pal is a big driver of the story as well, because of what the other girl thought she knew and how she responded—and because she’s now a sheriff’s detective in their hometown.

For Erin, I did the emotional research during the first draft. For Bitterroot Lake, my suspense debut coming out later this month, I did the digging during revision, in response to questions from my editor. I thought about people I knew who, from my perspective, appeared to be driven by bitterness and resentment. I read articles online in Psychology Today and blog posts by psychologists. Tip: This is one time when you want to read the comments! People will say the most amazing things when given the freedom.

All that helped me develop what I knew, and gave me specifics on how such a person views the world and the language they use. I was able to imagine more fully what this particular character in this town, in this crisis, might do.

I said write by hand when you mine your memories and connections, and I mean it. Research shows that writing by hand bypasses our internal editors and judges, and gives us more direct access to our feelings.

You know how to research dates and car models and the color of prison jumpsuits. Turn those skills to your characters’ inner lives and you—and your readers—will connect with them more deeply, more fully.

~~~

Leslie Budewitz blends her passion for food, great mysteries, and the Northwest in two cozy mystery series, the Spice Shop mysteries set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and the Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, set in NW Montana. She’ll make her suspense debut with BITTERROOT LAKE, written as Alicia Beckman, in April 2021. A three-time Agatha-Award winner (2011, Best Nonfiction; 2013, Best First Novel; 2018, Best Short Story), she is a current board member of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime. She lives in NW Montana.

Find her online at www.LeslieBudewitz.com and on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/LeslieBudewitzAuthor

When four women separated by tragedy reunite at a lakeside Montana lodge, murder forces them to confront everything they thought they knew about the terrifying accident that tore them apart, in Agatha Award-winning author Alicia Beckman’s suspense debut.

More about Bitterroot Lake, including an excerpt and buy links here: https://www.lesliebudewitz.com/bitterroot-lake/

 

 

A big thank you to Leslie for sharing her wisdom! 

TKZers: Do you have favorite techniques to portray emotions about experiences you haven’t experienced yourself? Please share in the comments section. 

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A Single Word Can Change the Tone

by Jodie Renner, editor & author 

In your WIP, are you inadvertently tossing in a word here and there that jolts the readers out of your story or gives an incongruous impression?

Once you’ve completed a first or second draft of your story (or your muse is taking a break), now’s the time to go back and reread each scene carefully. Does every word you’ve chosen contribute to creating the overall tone and mood you’re going for in that scene? Or are some of your word choices unintentionally detracting from the impression you want readers to take away?

Is it possible you may have unconsciously inserted the odd “cheery” word into a tense scene in your story? Or a relaxed-sounding word in a scene where the character is stressed or in a hurry? Or maybe your teenager or blue-collar worker sounds too articulate? I’ve seen examples of these quite often in the fiction I’ve edited over the years.

For example, the heroine and hero are running through the woods, pursued by bad guys intent on killing them. The debut author, thinking it’s a good idea to describe the setting, uses words like “leaves dancing in the light” and “birds chirping” and “babbling brook.” These light-hearted, cheerful words detract from the desperation she’s trying to convey as the young couple races frantically to escape their pursuers. In this situation, it would be better to use more ominous words, perhaps crows cawing, a wolf howling, water crashing over rapids, or thunder cracking.

Read through each of your scenes and make sure every word you use to describe the setting, the people, and their actions, words, and thoughts contributes to create the impression you’re going for in that scene, rather than undermining your intentions.

DESCRIBING YOUR SETTING:

Here’s an example, slightly disguised, from my editing. It’s supposed to be a tense, scary moment, but the author has, without thinking about the impact, inserted relaxed, even joyful imagery that counteracts and weakens the apprehensive mood he is trying to convey (my bolding).

He locked the door behind him, his harried mind ricocheting between frightened alertness and sheer fatigue. He took a furtive glance out the window. No one there, so far. Despite the cold, a warming shaft of morning sunlight filtered through the stained curtain, and languid dust particles slow-danced in its beam.

What had he gotten himself into? They would certainly be on to him now—it was only a matter of time before they found him. He looked out again through the thin curtain. Sunbeams were filtering through the branches of an old tree outside the window, the shriveled shapes of the leaves dancing in the breeze, playing gleefully with the light. He swore he saw movement on the ground outside—a figure.

Some of the wording in the two paragraphs above is excellent, like “his harried mind ricocheting between frightened alertness and sheer fatigue” and the phrases “furtive glance,” “stained curtain” and “shriveled shapes of the leaves.” But the boldfaced words and phrases, warming, languid, slow-danced, sunbeams, dancing in the breeze, and playing gleefully with the light weaken the imagery and tone because they’re too happy and carefree for the intended ominous mood. Perhaps the writer, caught up in describing the view outside in a literary, “writerly” way, momentarily forgot he was going for frightened.  

Check to be sure every detail of your imagery enhances the overall mood and tone of the situation.

Here’s another example where the description of the setting detracts from the power of the scene and doesn’t match how the character would or should be feeling at that moment.

The protagonist has just had a shock at the end of the last chapter, where she’s discovered her colleague murdered. This is the beginning of the next chapter, a jump of a few days.

Mary gazed at the brightening horizon, immersing herself in the beauty of the rising sun. She watched as the dawn’s rays danced across the waves. Mary adored this time of day when the hustle and bustle had not yet started, and she could enjoy watching the waves wash in and listening to the seagulls overhead. It was one of the many reasons she loved this area so much.

Since the murder of Teresa three days ago, Mary had been in a state of turmoil. Teresa’s death had changed everything. Gruesome images continually flickered through her mind like an unending motion picture. She could think of nothing else and was racked by guilt.

To me, the two paragraphs seem contradictory in mood. If she’s racked by guilt and can think of nothing else, how can she enjoy the sunrise so much?

Be sure to choose words that fit the mood you’re trying to convey.

THOUGHTS, IMPRESSIONS, & IMAGERY:

Here’s another example of a tense, life-threatening scene whose power and tension have been inadvertently eroded by almost comical imagery.

The room went black and shots rang out in the darkness.

He took to the floor on all fours and, panicking, scrabbled around aimlessly, searching his addled mind for a direction, a goal. He poked his head up and looked around. Spotted the red exit sign of the back door. Loping ape-like across the office floor, he tried to keep his body below the level of the desks—he had seen them do it in the movies, so it was good enough for him. Several more bullets whistled overhead.

 

The words “addled” and “loping ape-like” seem too light and humorous for the life-or-death scene. Even the bit about seeing it in the movies, so it was good enough for him seems too light-hearted – this could be the last moments of this guy’s life if he doesn’t find a way to avoid the bullets!

Here’s the same scene, rewritten to capture the desperate mood:

The room went black and shots rang out in the darkness.

What the—? He dropped to the floor and, panicking, searching his frenzied mind for a direction, a goal. Get out of here! He poked his head up and looked around. Spotted the red exit sign of the back door. At a low crouch, he set out across the open office, dodging from one desk to another. Several more bullets whistled overhead.

Another example with imagery that’s fresh and creative, but does it actually fit the moment?

A truck came barreling toward them. He wrenched the wheel to the right, and they passed the truck, missing it by inches. Mud splattered onto the windshield, and the wipers smeared it like chocolate ice cream.

I think the chocolate ice cream imagery, although clever, is too positive and playful for the tense, scary moment.

A cliched phrase that doesn’t fit:

The frightening story cut too close to home for Diane. Just the possibility of it happening to her family scared her silly.

My comment to the writer: The word “silly” detracts from your intention to show her nervousness and fear. I’d express this with a less “silly” word. (and less of a cliché).

ACTIONS: The character’s body language and actions need to match the situation.

Don’t have someone “strolling” when they’re worried. Have them “pacing” instead. Similarly, when they’re arguing, don’t have them leaning back in their chair – have them hunched forward, or pointing a finger.

As they entered the police station, a tall, balding man with a goatee and an expensive suit shuffled down the hall towards them. As he passed, he handed a card to Wilson. “I want to see my client now, alone.”

My comment to the author: “I wouldn’t have a high-priced, confident lawyer shuffling. Save that verb for elderly or sick people, or a prisoner with chains.”

Another example of a verb that doesn’t fit the situation:

Joe stood up, shocked and numb, after his boss delivered the tragic news about the death of his friend. He dreaded his visit to Paul’s widow. He sauntered back to his office, his mind spinning.

“Sauntered” is way too relaxed and casual a word for the situation. The guy’s just been told his friend is dead. Maybe “found his way” or “stumbled” back to his office.

Another example: A high-ranking Nazi officer is about to invade the home of a wealthy Jewish family during the Second World War. The author wrote:

He giggled inwardly, thinking about the chaos he was about to bring to the Jews who lived here.

My comment to the writer was: The verb “giggled” fits a couple of schoolgirls, not a nasty Nazi. I suggest “smirked” or “gloated.”

Another example:

At the funeral, the widow caught Peter’s glance and squinted her eyes in accusation. She no doubt held him responsible for her husband’s death.

“Squinted” is like against the bright sun. I’d say “narrowed her eyes” or “glared at him.”

How is your character moving?

Is he strolling, trudging, striding, tiptoeing, stomping, shuffling, meandering, staggering, lurching, sauntering, tramping, slinking, mincing, strutting, pacing, sashaying, marching, or slogging along? Each word paints a very different picture of the state of the character and the situation.

For lots of specific suggestions for choosing just the right verb for the situation, see my post “It’s All in the Verbs” from a few years back here on TKZ. And read the comments there for more great suggestions.

And for specific lists of effective, evocative verbs for various situations, check out my post on my own blog, “People in Motion — Vary Those Verbs!

Make sure every single word fits the scene and enhances the mood.

Even one incompatible word can jolt the reader or dilute the power of a scene.

Can you pick out the word below that deflates the moment?

The guard drew in a shuddering breath as if to cry out. He half-coughed and half-gasped, then started to scream again, this time with enthusiasm. Brad covered the man’s mouth and knocked his gun to the ground.

Rather than screaming “with enthusiasm,” I’d use “in desperation or “in terror” or something like that. The choice of “with enthusiasm” evokes positive, cheery connotations.

Here’s another example of just one word jolting us out of the mood:

They broke the lock on the warehouse and looked around. “Let’s check the big freezers in the back.” He strode over and opened the freezer door. The smell of frozen flesh and blood smacked him in the face. An emaciated, naked man stared at him with lifeless eyes, frozen like a popsicle.

Yes, it’s that word at the end. I imagine the writer was searching for a good word for “frozen like” but “popsicle” is an unfortunate choice as it evokes an image that’s way too upbeat for the situation. Best to look for a more somber or horrific simile (maybe “like a pale slab of beef”).

Read these short passages and see if you can pick out the single word in each that contradicts the desired mood and tone.

  1. As the realization of what had happened hit her, Linda gasped and dropped to her knees, a myriad of twirling thoughts bombarding her mind.
  2. Could Greg have sold him out, led him here into a trap? Tony fixed his friend with an intense stare brimming with disappointment and betrayal.
  3. In the interrogation room, the accused man’s stiff, jaunty movements, drumming fingers, and constant glances around made Derek wonder if he was on something.
  4. The car spun on an invisible axis then crashed into a light post. Steve’s head bounced off the window, and his headache blossomed anew.

Words that don’t fit:

  1. “twirling” seems too light-hearted in this situation, like a dancer or a baton twirling. Maybe “whirling” or “swirling.”
  2. “brimming” is too cheery, too positive. Maybe just “his voice filled with disappointment…”
  3. “blossomed” seems too positive for a headache caused by a crack on the head during a car accident. Maybe just something like “intensified” or rewrite the phrase.

Your turn:

Rewrite any of these sentences with a more apt verb and any other tweaks you’d like to add:

  1. The big man walked into the… 
  2. The little girls danced around the room.
  3. The rabbit/squirrel/deer ran off.
  4. She looked at him, hands on hips. “What?”
  5. The crowd moved along the sidewalk.
  6. The pickpocket ran down the street.

Or feel free to make up one of your own. Have fun!

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, and CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. Website: www.JodieRenner.com; blog: http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/; Facebook. Amazon Author Page.

+13

First Page Critique: How To Improve a Compelling Opener

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments/suggestions will follow. Enjoy!

Expendable

Prologue 

Kate turned right onto her parent’s street only to find a street jammed with police cars. A cacophony of lights, flashing red and blue, backlighting people hurriedly moving against the night sky. My parents will certainly be outside watching, she thought. As she drew closer, she was alarmed to see her parent’s house isolated by swags of yellow police tape. 

She jerked her car to the curb and ran toward the chaos.

“I’m sorry, miss. You can’t go up there.” A policeman seemed to appear out of nowhere.

“But, I live here,” she lied.

“This is your house, miss?”

“It’s my parents’ house. I live with them. Please let me through.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. You can’t go up there.” The officer blocked her path and motioned to a man in an overcoat, standing near the garage. The man closed his notepad as he walked over. The two men had a brief exchange before the one in the overcoat spoke.

“Miss, my name is Detective Montoya.” A badge swung on a ball-chain around his neck. “You live here?” he said, opening the notepad again. She nodded. He put his hand on her shoulder, guiding her to a place on the lawn, away from the activity. He began writing as soon as she answered. Asked her name along with a few other questions. She gave terse answers, anxious to get inside. He asked whereabouts that evening requiring a lengthy explanation about her late class on Wednesdays. Each answer seemed to beget another question.

“Miss, what we’re looking at here is a double homocide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself. 

“No,” she said, covering her mouth with both hands. She battled her mind to keep from considering the obvious. “That’s impossible. No, it can’t be. Let me see,” she tried to force her way past him.

“I can’t let you in. It’s pretty gruesome. I don’t know that you could handle it.”

“I need to go inside.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, miss. Right now, it’s a crime scene and we can’t take the chance of you contaminating it.” 

“Look,” She said. “You owe me something. You can’t ask me to endure the entire night wondering if I’m still part of a family or not.” Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

The writer did so many things right. We’re dropped in the middle of a disturbance, s/he raised story questions, added relatability for the heroine, and I could (somewhat) feel her frustration, fear, and anxiety. Great job, Brave Writer! As written, I’d turn the page to find out what happens next.

Let’s see if we can improve this opener even more. Brave Writer included a note about using a prologue. I hope s/he doesn’t mind if I include it here.

I have never considered doing a prologue before but this allows me to describe a major event that will be referred to various times during the story as well as give some backstory about the protagonist and tell the reader what kind of story to expect.

Prologues

The correct reasons to use a prologue are:

  • the incident occurs at a different time and/or place from the main storyline
  • to inform the reader of something they can’t glean from the plot
  • to foreshadow future events (called a jump cut, where we use the prologue to setup an important milestone in the plot)
  • to provide a quick-and-dirty glimpse of important background information without the need of flashbacks, dialogue, or memories that interrupt the action later on (no info dumps!).
  • Hook the reader into the action right away while raising story questions relevant to the main plot, so the reader’s eager to learn the answers.

It sounds like you’re using a prologue for the right reasons. Keep in mind, if you plan to go the traditional route, many agents and editors cringe when they see the word “prologue” because so many new writers don’t use them correctly. If you can change it to Chapter One, you’d have an easier time.

Point of View 

For most of the opener you stayed inside the MC’s head.

Two little slips:

“Miss, what we’re looking at here is a double homocide homicide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself.

See how you jumped inside the cop’s head?

Same thing happened here:

Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

Stay inside the MC’s head. One scene = one point of view.

Dialogue

The dialogue is a bit stiff. I’ll show you what I mean in the “fine tuning” section. For now, I highly recommend How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by our very own James Scott Bell.

First Lines

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the first line, but I think you’ve got the writing chops to do even better. Let the first line slap the reader into paying attention.

To quote Kris (PJ Parrish):

  • Your opening line gives you an intellectual line of credit from the reader. The reader unconsciously commits: “That line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.”
  • A good opening line is lean and mean and assertive. No junk language or words.
  • A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. It says something interesting. It is a stone in our shoe that we cannot shake.
  • BUT: if it feels contrived or overly cute, you will lose the reader. Especially if what follows does not measure up. It is a teaser, not an end to itself.

“The cat sat on the mat is not the opening of a plot. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is.”  – John LeCarre

To read the entire post, The Dos and Don’ts of a Great First Chapter, go here.

Fine Tuning

I dislike rewriting another writer’s work, but it’s the easiest way to learn. I’ve included quick examples of how to tighten your writing and make the scene more visceral. Keep what resonates with you. After all, I don’t know where the story is headed.  

Kate turned right onto her parent’s street only to find a street jammed with police cars. A cacophony of lights, flashing red and blue, backlighting people hurriedly moving against the night sky. My parents will certainly be outside watching, she thought. “Thought” is a telling word. The italics tell the reader it’s inner dialogue. As she drew closer, she was alarmed to see her parent’s house isolated by swags of yellow police tape. “Alarmed” and “see” are also telling words. Remember, if we wouldn’t think it, our POV character shouldn’t either. Some writers have a difficult time with deep POV, which we’ve discussed before on TKZ. It’s one element of craft that we learn at our own pace. For more on Deep POV, read this 1st page critique. In the meantime, here’s a quick example to show you what I mean.

The swags of yellow police tape surrounding her parent’s house quickened her heartbeat. What happened? She’d spoken to Mom and Dad last night. Granted, the call didn’t last long. Mom said she had to go because someone knocked at the door. Endless questions whirled through her mind. Were they robbed? Are they hurt? Did Dad fall again?

She jerked her car to the curb, threw the shifter into Park, and ran sprinted toward the chaos, the soles of sneakers slapping the pavement. Use strong action verbs to paint a clearer mental image. Plus, I slipped in sound. With important scenes, tickle the senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, taste—for a more visceral experience.

A policeman seemed to appeared out of nowhere. Moved to the beginning to show who’s speaking. Here, too, you can paint a stronger picture: A meaty-chested cop blocked her path.I’m Sorry, miss, but you can’t go past the police tape.”

“But, I live here,” she lied. Not bad but think about this: She’s just happened upon a chaotic scene at her parents’ house. Would she be calm or hysterical? “Get the hell outta my way.” She swerved around him, but he hooked her arm. “I live here.”

His head jerked back. “This is your house, miss?”

“It’s my parents’ house. What’s the difference? I live with them. Please Let me through!

I’m sorry, ma’am. Sorry, but you can’t go up there.” Is the house on a hill? If so, you need to tell us sooner so “up there” makes sense. The officer hollered over his shoulder to blocked her path and motioned to a man in an overcoat (trench coat?), standing near the garage. “She’s the daughter.” The man closed his notepad as he walked over. The two men had a brief exchange before the one in the overcoat spoke.

Mr. Trench Coat hustled over, a badge bouncing on the chain around his neck. As he neared, he extended his hand, but she couldn’t shake it. Not yet. Not without knowing what happened. Miss, My name is Detective Montoya. And you are?

“[Insert her name]” Now the reader knows who she is.

Okay, [name]. Let’s talk in private.” He put clamped a his hand on her shoulder and guided, guiding her to a place on to the lawn, away from the activity. Describe the activity. Example: away from photographers snapping pictures, from uniformed officers guarding the front door, from men and women in white coveralls strolling in and out with evidence bags.

A badge swung on a ball-chain around his neck. “Do you live here?” he said, opening the notepad again.

Tears rose in her throat, and she could only nod.

He began writing as soon as she answered. Asked her name along with a few other questions. The detective would hold her gaze. She’s the daughter of two murder victims and he needs as much information as possible before he breaks the news.

She gave terse answers, anxious to get inside. Don’t tell us. Show us!

He asked whereabouts that evening requiring a lengthy explanation about her late class on Wednesdays. Each answer seemed to beget another question. Don’t tell us. Show us!

“Miss (since he knows her name, he wouldn’t call her miss), what we’re looking at here is a double homicide homicide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself.  This dialogue doesn’t ring true. A detective would try to avoid telling her about her parents until she forces him to, which gives you the perfect opportunity to add more conflict through dialogue.

Example:

“When’s the last time you spoke to your parents?”

“I dunno. Before I went to class, around eight. Why?”

“Did they mention anything unusual? A strange car or someone they didn’t recognize hanging around the neighborhood?”

“What? Why? Are my parents okay?”

“Did they meet anyone new recently?”

“Are they in the ambulance?” She peeked around him, but he stepped to the side to block her view. “Look. I’m done answering questions. Get outta my way.”

“[Name], I’m sorry to inform you, your parents…” His words trailed off, his voice muffled by the ringing in her ears.

“No.” Head wagging, she slapped her hands over covering her mouth with both hands. She battled her mind to keep from considering the obvious. What’s the obvious? Do you mean, the truth? Also, “considering” is a telling word. “No. What you’re saying isn’t That’s impossible. I just spoke to them. I’ll prove it to you. it can’t be. Let me see,” She tried to force her way past him. Don’t tell us. Show us! Example: She shoved him away, but he wrangled her flailing arms, pinned her wrists to her side.

“I can’t let you in. It’s an active crime scene now. pretty gruesome. I don’t know that you could handle it.” A detective would never tell the daughter of two murder victims that “it’s pretty gruesome,” nor would he even consider allowing her into an active crime scene whether “she could handle it” or not.

Instead, show us what’s happening around her. Example: The coroner’s van sped into the driveway. Two men dragged a stretcher from the back.

Our heroine entered a chaotic scene. She’d be on information overload, with sights, sounds, smells all around her, almost too much to process.

“Please.” She waved praying hands, her chest heaving with each hard breath, tears streaming over her cheekbones. “Please let me see them. Please.. go inside.

“C’mon, let’s get you out of here.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, miss. Right now, it’s a crime scene and we can’t take the chance of you contaminating it.” 

“Look.” she said. Remove tag. We know who’s speaking. She stomped the grass. “You owe me something kind of explanation. What happened to my mom and dad? Who did this?You can’t ask me to endure the entire night wondering if I’m still part of a family or not.” Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

Wrap it up soon. Prologues should be short. Unless, of course, you decide to make this Chapter One. 🙂 

Brave Writer, I nitpick the most promising first pages because I know you can write and write well. If I thought otherwise, you’d see a lot less red. 😉 You’ve given us a compelling opener and plenty of reasons to turn the page. Take a few moments to see the forest for the trees. The elements I’ve focused on are meant to enhance your storytelling abilities. So, yell, scream, curse me, then get back to work. You’ve got this. Great job!

Over to you, TKZers. How might you improve this first page?

Side note: I won’t be around today. What I’m doing is super exciting (!!!), but I’m not at liberty to speak publicly about it yet. Fill you in later…

Join me, Laura Benedict, and many others on Zoom for Noir at the Bar. Win a signed paperback in the giveaway!

When: Sat., March 20, 2021

Time: 7 pm CST/8pm EDT

Tickets are FREE (limited to the 1st 100 fans)

Where: Comfort of home

Register: noiratthebar.online

+10

Navigating Rough Waters

Photo courtesy of Jim Coffey, Esprit Whitewater

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

What does whitewater rafting have to do with writing?

For one thing, rafters and writers often endure blasts of icy water in the face. For authors, the cold, wet shock is metaphoric—a stinging rejection, a hideous review, a kiss-off from a publisher.

Today’s story begins when my pal, former river ranger Susan Purvis recently sent me a link to a podcast about whitewater rafting. Susan often leads me into adventures that always pay off in unexpected rewards so when she recommends something, I listen.

That day, with a crammed to-do list, I didn’t have a spare hour for a podcast. Yet once I started to listen, I couldn’t stop.

The interviewer is Barry Kruse, entrepreneurial coach of Leading Steep, and his subject is Jim Coffey, founder and owner of Esprit Whitewater, a Canadian rafting company.

Jim’s rafting business began in 1992 and survives nearly three decades later, a rarity in the field. A seasonal operation is especially tough because he has to earn enough income in four, maybe five, months to last the entire year. Plus, recreation-oriented businesses are hit hard during recessions when people can’t afford vacation trips.

Jim believes entrepreneurs who succeed have “a high tolerance for adversity and uncertainty.” He proves his point when he relates the setbacks he’s experienced that would tank most businesses— a fire that destroyed part of his facilities, a couple of floods, the Covid shutdown, and, last summer, his own diagnosis of throat cancer.

His attitudes and coping tools struck me as helpful advice for authors. The following are a few gold nuggets from his podcast.

Jim: “You never know where that first step is going to lead.”

When you’re stuck in your writing, take a step.

Inertia is not healthy for writers, in body, mind, or word production. If you’re bogged down, take a step in a new direction.

Write a public service announcement for a charity you admire. Write ad copy for a fundraiser for a worthwhile cause.

If your own ads don’t pan out, analyze what authors with similar books do for promotion. Try new avenues.

Learn a new skill—make a video, add fresh features to your website, try a different software writing tool, create an audiobook.

First steps sometimes lead to dead ends. But they can also lead to new universes.

 

Jim: “You never know who that [most] important customer is going to be. Treat every customer as if they are that person.”

Readers are the author’s customers. Building their loyalty and trust is key to selling books.

A major breakthrough opportunity for Jim’s company occurred when a particular customer was impressed with the fledgling operation. That man turned out to be an influencer who booked more trips for large groups and retreats, as well as recommending Esprit Whitewater to colleagues. A single customer hugely expanded Jim’s business.

For authors, treat every reader as your most important customer. They might place your book in Stephen King’s hands for a blurb. Or convince Oprah to feature it in her book club. Or catch Reese Witherspoon’s attention for a new movie production.

Not likely? Okay, but how about these possibilities?

A reader invites you to speak to their book club. That results in more sales and more readers.

A reader from that book club works for a major media outlet and wants to interview you.

The leader of a civic or professional organization hears/reads your interview and invites you to talk to their 500 members.

And so it can go.

When you treat each reader as that most important customer, their reach and recommendations carry you and your books into markets you never imagined.

 

Jim: “We manufacture our own luck. Preparation collides with opportunity.”

The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Preparation can mean: take a class; read a new craft book; attend a conference; research new marketing angles.

When you’re doing the work, opportunities pop up in unexpected ways in unexpected places.

 

Jim: “Be unselfish and generous with your skills and pass them on.”

Help other writers.

The writing community is a continuum of authors at different levels of accomplishment, from beginners to multi-published bestsellers. We have all been helped by authors more experienced than ourselves and, in turn, we can help others less experienced than ourselves.

Freely share what you’ve learned. Teach a workshop. Write a guest blog post. Produce a newsletter for a charitable organization. Mentor a struggling writer.

You might think you’re too new at the craft to offer anything. Not so. You can beta-read. Judge a writing contest. Offer to talk to schoolchildren—most teachers are delighted to host writers and kids are eager to learn.

 

Jim: “It’s easier to train a great person to be a great whitewater guide than to take a great whitewater guide and turn them into a great person.”

For authors, attitude is more important than skill. Approach learning as a humble student.

I’ve known many talented authors who were positive they were destined to knock Michael Connelly off bestseller lists. They were usually so busy talking about how much they knew and how great they were that, not surprisingly, I haven’t noticed any of their names in USA Today.

C.S. Lewis said: “Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears.”

That advice spans to entrepreneurs, military, industry, and, of course, writing. Nobody knows everything.

Before you become a great writer, you must first be a great student.

 

Jim: “You never know when people you’ve contributed to will come back and contribute to you.”

At the beginning of the podcast, interviewer Barry said Jim had recently undergone chemotherapy and radiation for throat cancer. While Jim was laid low during the busy summer season, his team kept the business going and took care of hundreds of happy whitewater rafting customers. He’d earned the loyalty of his staff who came through when he needed them the most.

At the very end of the podcast, Jim mentions he gave the interview while lying in bed… with a feeding tube.

Wow. Just wow.

That left no doubt Jim Coffey is off the scale in his tolerance of adversity and uncertainty.

 Perhaps the most important lesson can be found in Jim’s actions:

Help others and never give up.

Works for authors, too.

~~~

Many thanks to Jim Coffey and Barry Kruse for their permission to quote and reference the interview which can be heard here: https://www.leadingsteep.com/podcast

~~~

TKZers: What is your favorite advice, touchstone, or belief that helps you over treacherous rapids and shoals encountered in your writing career?

~~~

 

In Debbie Burke’s new thriller Flight to Forever, her main character persists in spite of lots of cold water thrown in her face. Please check it out here.

+10

Public Domain Day 2021 and Writing Advice from 1925

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Public Domain Day was January 1, 2020. Although today is February 22, a tad late, it’s still a newsworthy event for writers and readers because books like The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf), Manhattan Transfer (John DosPassos), In Our Time (Ernest Hemingway), and An American Tragedy (Theodore Dreiser), among many others, came into the public domain.

Same with films like Buster Keaton’s Go West and songs like “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.”

Here is the link to Duke University Law School’s announcement and listing of many other artistic works whose copyrights expired as of January 1: https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday/2021/

One book in the bunch caught my attention: The Writing of Fiction by Edith Wharton, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence.

Has fiction writing changed much since 1925? Are 95-year-old insights from the first female Pulitzer winner relevant to writers in 2021?

The Writing of Fiction is short, fewer than 150 pages, originally published by Scribner in 1925. Much of the beginning section is literary criticism, comparing Proust, Austen, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and other greats of the era, contrasting them with the new “stream-of-consciousness” trend that shook up readers at that time. I confess I skimmed those parts.

But elsewhere Wharton reveals her views on the art and craft of storytelling.

I found several passages I thought might provoke interesting discussion among TKZers.

Wharton calls the “modern” novel “that strange chameleon-creature which changes its shape and colour with every subject on which it rests.”

In the following paragraph, she describes what writers often call being in the zone:

“To the artist his world is as solidly real as the world of experience, or even more so, but in a way entirely different; it is a world to and from he passes without any sense of effort, but always with an uninterrupted awareness of the passing.”

Here at TKZ, we often work on point-of-view problems.

Wharton is critical of “the slovenly habit of some novelists of tumbling in and out their characters’ minds, and then suddenly drawing back to scrutinize them from the outside as the avowed Showman holding his puppets’ strings.”

About character development, she writes: “[they are] the creatures of [the author’s] imagination, more living to him than his own flesh-and-blood…”

Further, she studies the tightrope that writers must walk while creating characters. On one hand, she cautions against the “author [who] is slave to characters” while, on the other hand, who risks becoming a “puppeteer manipulating marionette strings…”

Conflict is another topic that she addresses:

“The conflict, the shock of forces, is latent in every attempt to detach a fragment of human experience and transpose it in terms of art, that is, of completion.”

This is what she has to say about an artist’s sensitivity:

“One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break.”

On the focus of a story, she writes:

“…the only remedy is resolutely to abandon the larger for the smaller field, to narrow one’s vision to one’s pencil, and do the small thing closely and deeply rather than the big thing loosely and superficially.”

The topic of inspiration:

“Many people assume that the artist receives, at the onset of his career, the mysterious sealed orders known as ‘Inspiration,’ and has only to let that sovereign influence carry him where it will. Inspiration indeed comes at the outset to every creator but it comes most often as an infant, helpless, stumbling, inarticulate, to be taught and guided, and the beginner, during this time of training his gift, is as likely to misuse it as a young parent to make mistakes in teaching his first child.”

Writers often ponder if their concept, plot, or characters are original enough to capture readers’ tastes. Wharton’s answer:

“True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision. That new, that personal vision is attained only by looking long enough at the object represented to make it the writer’s own; and the mind which would bring this secret germ to fruition must be able to nourish it with an accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience.”

~~~

TKZers: Did any of Edith Wharton’s thoughts particularly strike you?

Are they out of date, no longer relevant?

Or does she express timeless truths about the art of writing fiction?

~~~

 

Debbie Burke is one of Montana’s Women of Mystery, along with Leslie Budewitz and Christine Carbo. Three crime novelists will reveal writing secrets and talk about their books during a Zoom appearance on Wednesday, February 24, at 3 p.m. mountain time. Email debbieburkewriter@gmail.com for the Zoom invitation.

+7

Want to Talk to a Kill Zone Author?

Photo credit: Chris Montgomery – unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Have you ever wanted to chat with the Crime Dogs at The Kill Zone?

Now, your book club, reading or writing group can meet with TKZ authors via Zoom, Facetime, Google Meeting, or Splash.

To give you hints what they might talk about at a virtual meeting, I posed two questions to each member.

Joe Hartlaub:

#1 – When you’re invited to speak, what do you plan to say?

I accept!

Actually, I would discuss the steps that a writer goes through after finishing their manuscript and before being published. 

 

 

#2 – What would you like listeners to learn from you?

That they probably should have asked someone else! Seriously, I would hope they would come away encouraged, rather than discouraged. While the process of publishing seems overwhelming, people still do it. 

(BTW, we’ve asked Joe to leave his big knife at home when he zooms.)

~~~

Sue Coletta:

Most readers ask about the story behind the story, my characters or subjects (if nonfiction), research, and male vs. female serial killers. I also touch on forensic science (i.e. blood spatter analysis, decomposition, handwriting analysis, forensic psychology, the difference between a psychopath, sociopath, spree killer, etc. The seven stages of serial killing is a big hit, as it allows readers to peek into a killer’s mind. The psychology behind these monsters is a fascinating topic.

For writers: how to create believable characters, show vs. tell, understanding deep point of view, story structure, how to use research without slowing the pace. Also, my experience working with publishers.

Most of all, I want attendees to have fun. Laughter is good for the soul.

~~~

John Gilstrap:

I have several “canned” presentations that are fully described here, but I tailor every presentation to the individual audience. I’ve been doing this for over a quarter of a century, so I can discuss everything from character development to finding an agent to adapting stories for the screen. I’ve done full day seminars and I’ve done 20-minute chats.

I start every presentation by asking attendees what they want to take away from the seminar/meeting. In my experience, people who attend these kinds of presentations have one or two very specific itches that they’d like to have scratched, and my job is to scratch them.

~~~

Clare Langley-Hawthorne:

Most often my presentations start off with the history that inspired my stories and, depending on the audience, delve into my own personal connection to the events or characters in the book. Rarely do I go into the actual writing process but this is often a question I get asked so that’s when it comes up. I want listeners to come away inspired – either by history, reading, or to write their own stories.

~~~

James Scott Bell:

I speak on any of the 7 critical success factors of fiction: plot, structure, character, scenes, dialogue, voice, meaning.

Fiction writing can be learned, if one studies diligently and keeps practicing.

 

~~~

Terry Odell:

I’m flexible with what I’ll talk about. If it’s a writer’s group, I can talk about craft, including dialogue, point of view, voice, writing romantic suspense, or just the writing process. I can also share my experiences with small presses, digital presses, and independent publishing.

Book clubs are usually a whole different game, with them wanting to talk about specific books or series, or just general Q&A.

~~~


Garry Rodgers:

From my experience it’d be “talk about what you know.” Mine is crime, forensics, and death investigation and the worlds around them. My schtick would be about Joseph Wambaugh’s saying, “The best stories aren’t about how cops (and coroners) work on cases – it’s how the cases work on cops (and coroners).”

I see it from the reality human angle rather than the non-reality TV CSI stuff.

~~~

Steve Hooley:

My subject would be “Heritage, Writing, and Leaving a Legacy.” The discussion would center on the importance of passing on (in writing) to our descendants what we have learned from our ancestors – history, service, and values.

I would like to convince listeners that “passing the torch” is important, and maybe inspire some young people to become interested in writing.

I added a category: Who is my desired audience? Middle Grade Schools, High Schools, Parochial Schools, Christian Schools, Home School Groups, Senior Citizen Groups, and Writers’ Groups.

~~~

Elaine Viets:

My talks are tailored for the audience. If you want to be entertained, I talk about my light-hearted Dead-End Job mysteries. If the audience likes darker mysteries, I discuss my Angela Richman, Death Investigator mysteries. Death investigators are like paralegals for the medical examiner. They are in charge of the body and work for the ME.

I’ve also taught workshops and seminars for Sisters in Crime, MWA, and the Florida Writers Academy and other groups. Topics include: “Forensics for Mystery Writers.” “How to Murder Your Darlings — editing for writers.” “Who’s Talking? What voice is best for your novel?” and “Mystery Writing for Beginners.” All workshops come with handouts.

I’d like all my audiences to come away entertained, and if they’re taking a workshop, to leave it energized and ready to write.

~~~

P.J. Parrish (Kris Montee): 

The need to learn your craft and have patience, especially if you self-publish. A book that’s put out in public before it’s professionally ready will fail.

Perseverance. I’ve run the full gamut of publishing with huge NY legacy publishers, paperback imprints, foreign publishers, and Amazon’s Thomas and Mercer. I changed genres from romance to mysteries, reinventing a stalled career. I regained backlist rights and self-published them, also self-published an original series. Lots of success (bestseller lists and awards) and plenty of failure, but you keep going! You have to have a hard shell, lots of drive, and you can’t let the suckers get you down!

Topics I like to talk about: The difference being showing and telling. Making your settings/locations come alive. Series vs standalones.

~~~

 

Debbie Burke:

For writing groups—how to edit your own writing, how to survive rejections and keep writing, traditional publication vs. self-publication, tapping the subconscious for stories, confessions of a pantser.

For book clubs—A peek inside the warped mind of a writer. Behind the scenes anecdotes. How does a nice girl like me write such nasty villains? What does an author do when characters won’t behave?

~~~

How do you set up a virtual meeting with a TKZ author? It’s easy!

At the top of the screen on the left side of the menu banner, click on “Request a TKZ Speaker.” Fill out the form and hit submit. We’ll be in touch.

 We look forward to “seeing” you for a virtual chat!

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Writing Tips from Elmore Leonard’s Boyd Crowder

If you haven’t watched Justified, check it out. It’s a goldmine for writers. The FX series is based on Elmore Leonard’s short story, Fire in the Hole, and three books, including Raylan. In fact, all the actors wore wrist bands that read WWED — What Would Elmore Do?— to stay true to the creator’s vision.

Elmore Leonard worked on the show till his death in 2013.

The series follows Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal, played by Timothy Olyphant, who returns to his hometown of Kentucky to take on the local criminal element. Boyd Crowder, an old friend, proves to be his toughest nemesis. Raylan may be the hero, but Boyd, the villain, steals almost every scene. Boyd is calm, funny, and deadly. The back-and-forth between Boyd and Raylan is absolutely mesmerizing. Elmore Leonard did a masterful job of creating these two characters.

I’m not sure if we mere mortals could pull off such a memorable character like Boyd, but he sure is inspiring. Aside from Leonard’s expert characterization, the remarkable talent of Walton Goggins never lets you see the full picture as clearly as you think you do. Just when you’ve figured Boyd out, he switches sides and teams up with Raylan to bring down a bad guy.

Writing Tip: The best villains have at least one endearing characteristic.

To Elmore Leonard’s credit, Raylon also blurs the line between hero and anti-hero.

Writing Tip: The best heroes are flawed.

Fun fact: Walton Goggins only signed on for the pilot episode, in which Boyd was supposed to die, but Elmore Leonard wanted to explore the character in more depth. The rest, as they say, is history.

Boyd Crowder’s Characterization

Rap sheet: Silver-tongued bank robber turned low-level Kentucky kingpin with higher aspirations and an occasional religious “born again” streak.

Superpower: Nobody who knows this many 50c words has fewer compunctions about stabbing you in the back. Nobody likely to stab you in the back knows this many 50c words.

Kryptonite: He’s desperately in love with his former sister-in-law.

Writing Tip: When crafting characters think outside the box.

What makes Boyd truly stand out is his poetic dialogue, which we’ll get to in a sec. First, let’s look at a few of his one-liners.

Arguing with a man who has renounced reason is like giving medicine to the dead.

I believe you dictate the river of fate through your own actions.

I’ve learned to think without arguing with myself.

A man who speaks out both sides of his mouth deserves to have it permanently shut.

I’ve been accused of bein’ a lot of things. Inarticulate ain’t one of ’em.

He’s right! I should probably note: Until you’re as famous as Elmore Leonard, attempting the following dialogue in your WIP might not work. 😉

Boyd: Well, well, well… I hesitate to ask what brings us the pleasure of this divine coincidence that we find ourselves crossing paths this fine spring morning.

Translation: What are you doing here?

Boyd: I fear, my brother, I am in a quandary as to your inner thoughts and the impact of said ruminations on your future actions in this here hollow.

Translation: What’s up?

Boyd: Mr. Augustine, seeing as how Drew Thompson’s already in the Marshalls’ custody, why you’re cutting off the tail of my cousin and offering him up is opaque to me.

Translation: What do you want?

Boyd: I fear that within my belly stirs the emanations of desire for a product that sates the ache within.

Translation: I’m hungry.

Boyd: Well, my darling, being a lowly omnivore like yourself, I shall choose from this glorious list of animal flesh—the edible prize that men have hunted and killed for centuries, incidentally—a rounded flesh of cow, slipped within a doughy mattress, saddled with cheddar.

Translation: I’ll have a cheeseburger.

Boyd: Be that as it may, I sense within me a growing, nagging torpor that seeks a temporary hibernation in a solitary area for comfort and slumber.

Translation: I’m going to bed.

Make no mistake. Boyd is a dangerous guy. Check out one of the best murder speeches ever written.

That’s a rap, folks! May 2021 be your most successful year yet.

Have you watched Justified or read Fire in the Hole?

Join the giveaway for a chance to win 33 fast-paced thrillers and a new e-reader! No email required.

Enter to win here: https://t.co/k0oZKfcIYX?amp=1

Good luck!

 

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