First Page Critique – The Mark

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Good morning and welcome to the first page submission from another Brave Author who says the page is in the crime genre. Read and enjoy then we’ll discuss.

  The Mark

Pink hair, tattooed hands, open casket. That’s all he remembered. Well, not quite all he remembered. He remembered his cell phone which he had forgotten to turn off, violating the sacred service with its demand for attention.  Afterwards, standing at her gravesite, he looked skyward, muttered a few obscene words and prayed for forgiveness. 

Hanagan sat and sipped the espresso. The wall mounted tv in the bar was showing early morning futures charts on the screen. Hanagan was a mid level options trader for a company called Maverick Trading. He’d had a good year trading other people’s money which was why he sat in this coffee bar waiting for someone named De Vries.  The man had called him minutes ago, apologizing for his tardiness and promised he’d be there within 15 minutes.

Jensen De Vries had spent all night laboring on a 60 by 80 painting of an early 20th century abstract. Several shades of blue juxtaposed with bright iridescent streaks of red. Blackened blocks of burnt sienna guided the eyes to the hero marks that often identify the style of a painter. He moved his eyes back and forth from the canvas to a photo now projected onto his laptop screen. The photo of the twentieth century abstract that was last reported to be in a family estate somewhere in Portugal.

The coffee shop was not far from where De Vries painted. A rent controlled studio in a warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen.  De Vries entered the bar and scanned the crowd looking for a bright blue blazer that would identify Hannagan.

He began to approach the man but hesitated. Another person had just sat down to join Hannagan. A woman he did not trust.

Earlier that day, in the suburbs of Greenwich, Connecticut,Maria De Vries stood in a darkened living room holding a gun. The room smelled like bleach, as if a crew had cleaned up any incriminating evidence.  She turned towards the seated man and began to tell him what she was going to do and the order in which it had to be done. He didn’t like her patronizing tone, but kept his thoughts under control. He swiveled clockwise to a side table and selected a cigar from a humidor. He raised the cold cigar to his nose and inhaled the earthy aroma.

~~~

Let’s get to work.

Brave Author, your writing is solid and skillful. Your descriptions are vivid and full of excellent sensory detail. I can immediately visualize the body in the casket and hear the rude intrusion of a cell phone at a funeral. Iridescent red, blue, and burnt sienna are strong visuals. The smells of bleach and an unlit cigar are palpable.

Now the nitty gritty:

The first scene is in an unspecified cemetery and the point-of-view (POV) character isn’t identified. It’s in italics, indicating perhaps a preface.

The next scene switches to a coffee bar and an options trader named Hannagan (BTW, Hannagan is spelled two different ways) told through his POV. He’s waiting to meet an artist Jensen De Vries who’s late for their appointment.

Suddenly the location and POV switches to De Vries working on a painting in his studio in Hell’s Kitchen. He then heads for his appointment at the coffee bar with Hannagan but hesitates because he sees Hannagan with a woman he doesn’t trust.

Then the reader is yanked to earlier that day, in yet different location in Connecticut, with another new character, Maria De Vries, holding a gun on yet another new unnamed character who’s about to smoke a cigar and in whose POV we are now.

That’s SEVEN characters, FIVE location changes, and FOUR points of view in a single page. 

This jumps around like a 30-second film trailer for an action movie that might have a title like Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Each scenario by itself could be compelling: a funeral; a mysterious meeting with a stranger; a woman who can’t be trusted; a woman (not sure if she’s the same woman) holding a gun at what may be a murder scene. Each one raises questions the reader wants answers to.

Yes, an author needs to instantly grab attention. But a precisely aimed bullseye is more effective than wildly scattered birdshot.

Trying to cram in too much information all at once overwhelms, confuses, and frustrates the reader. S/he feels whiplashed and never has a chance to become grounded in any single character, storyline, time period, or setting. 

My strong suggestion is to pull back and look at the totality of your story. The connections among these scenes will undoubtedly be revealed later. Each has intriguing potential. But, as presented in this first page, they’re a discombobulated jumble.

Ask these questions:

  1. Which one of these characters is the most compelling?
  2. Which one of the conflicts makes the best launch point for this book?
  3. Which situation will make a reader the most curious to turn the page?

Assessments like this are difficult to make when an author is too close to the story. Don’t feel bad–we’ve all been there.

If you’re unsure how to answer the questions, find an editor, critique group, or beta reader to objectively review the book.

Listen to their feedback carefully. What scenario captures their attention the most? Which elements appeal to them and why? Then decide on the best time, place, space, and character to kick off the story.

When you rewrite the first scene, slow it way down. Give the reader a chance to explore that world, form an impression of the POV character, and become curious about the conflict/problem.

Your quick thumbnail character sketches are well done but too short. The descriptions are vivid and full of sensory detail. The situations are intriguing. Expand on them. You don’t need to rush so much. There’s a whole book ahead to add more plot lines, characters, and complications.

Brief, punchy scenes with jump cuts can be effective but not before the foundation has been established and the reader is firmly enmeshed in the story.

Brave Author, your skills are good, and you have all the necessary elements for an exciting crime story. I’m sure you’ll find the right beginning that fascinates readers so much that they’ll want to keep turning pages. Best of luck!

~~~

TKZers, what suggestions do you have for this Brave Author? Which of these scenarios strikes you as the best place to start?

~~~

Please visit DebbieBurkeWriter.com to enter a drawing for a Legacy Wood Deep Fake Sapphire Pen (hand-crafted by Steve Hooley) and a BONUS FREE Short Story when you join my reading group.

How To Write a Dance Scene

I was eavesdropping on Quora again and stumbled across a thread about how to write a dance scene. Because I included a sensual dance in the WIP, the question piqued my interest. I’ve written dance scenes before, but my characters spent most of their time spying on bad guys. Nothing like the scene I wrote in the WIP (which also ties into the plot).

The writers who responded on Quora had such great advice, I had to share.

Each answer attributed to the writer, of course.

Original question: How can you describe a dance in writing?

Emma Thomas, Novelist wrote:

Here’s two examples of how not to do it.

She stepped onto the floor and awed them all with her dancing.

Under-descriptive. Dancing is such a physical and emotional movement that you have to balance those two in your writing and neither happened here (Sue: She means in the above example).

She gazed across the lacquered wooden tiles and, with a sudden burst of courage that she hadn’t known she’d possessed, stepped onto the dance floor. As the thrumming rhythm of classical music whispered into her ears, she began to dance.

Sliding her right foot back and the other one forward, she dropped low so that her dress brushed the ground, then sprang back up again, so quickly that she got whiplash. She threw her arms out and waved them from side to side, perfectly in tune with the beat, before jumping into the air. Her dress spun around her and for a moment it felt like she was flying … then the ground was beneath her again.

That hurt as much to write as it did to read. I shouldn’t be telling the reader each one of the movements that our dancer makes, unless I want an incredibly monotonous one-hundred page instruction manual on how to jump up and down and fling your hands in the air, like what the MC is doing here. Did you catch that? Possibly not; it sounded like it had taken an hour for her to dance when it was really just a split-second.

When you write about someone dancing, make sure that it’s obvious. It’s okay to say the word “dance.” Not everything has to be a ten-page description — but not everything can be a one-word summary, either. Tie in enough of the surroundings to establish a mood and a sense of place. Lastly, make sure that the dance conveys what you want it to — if it’s careless, make it sound careless. If it’s more meaningful, make it sound like that.

Let’s try this again.

She was dancing. Arms flailing in the sky above her, she whirled around and whooped her happiness into the sweat-stained air. Foot forward. Back. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d done this — why had she ever stopped? A hand grabbed hers and she was swung backward, dipped low, then soaring into the air, the flashing colors momentarily blinding her … she touched ground again and skidded to a smiling, breathless halt.

That’s a rough paragraph but it conveys what it needs to. It established a sense of place, action, and a connection with the dancer. Not under-descriptive or over-descriptive, just effective.

Aaaand that’s it. Hope it helped.

Shreya Pandey wrote:

Do not describe each and every dance step in detail. It’ll get complex and it’ll sound very mechanical. Describe one step, then follow it up by describing how a character felt while they did it. Do they feel dizzy? Happy? Feel an adrenaline rush? Feel scared?

Describe what they see. Does the room start to spin? Do they see the audience looking at them in awe? Describe the way their body moves. Is it effortless? Are they having trouble remembering the steps? Is any part of their body sore?

Describe the atmosphere. Are they dancing at a party? What kind of music is playing in [t]he background? What kind of beats does it have? Can they fee the bass thumping through their body? Is it a popular song? How many people are there? Are they dancing in a crowd, or alone on a stage? What are they wearing?

Give meaning to the dance. It must be significant if you are introducing it in your text. Why is it significant? Is it about how liberated, happy and care free the character feels when they dance? Is it an intimate dance sequence the character shares with someone they love? Does the dance bring back memories? Is it demonstrating their hard work? Is it something they are doing to lose some steam? Do they have a purpose behind it?

The dance scene is always more than just the movement of the character’s body. It is significant to the plot in some way. You need to subtly highlight that significance. At most, if it isn’t anything serious, it can be used to manipulate the reader’s senses. Make them feel, hear, touch, smell, move, see, etc. Transport them. Make them feel as if they are dancing, or as if they are the audience and they are watching someone dance from up close. Writing the perfect atmosphere perfectly is the key.

And my favorite answer…

James Sams, Writer/Editor wrote:

I’d like to caution you against “over describing”. Books are not movies. We can see every step of the Tango in a movie, but no one wants to read what every step is. If you write things like…

“He moved his left foot backward in a smooth motion, sliding across the slick floor. She slid her right foot forward, chasing his retreating foot with hers, like a fox on the hunt. Dipping forward and looking into her eyes, his fingers tightened on her ribs as his left foot came forward again, surprising her foot and chasing it back. They stopped, toe to toe, and he pulled her hips in close to his.

Threatening to brush his lips against hers, he looked to the left, and then to the right. She mimicked him, turning her head opposite. To the right, then to the left.

He pushed her away as though she were too terrible, yet to[o] wonderful, to be near, yet he held on to her left hand with his right, catching her as their arms pulled taut and spinning her out and away. Then he reeled her back in, unable to give her up.

She fell into him, his strong arms wrapping her tight, protecting her before casting her out again.”

… you can get away with it for a paragraph, maybe two. Even with the nice similes and small details, it will soon become agony for a reader to get through. You have become a puppet master, forcing the reader to imagine each foot, each hand, each head motion exactly the way you want it to be. Readers don’t like that. They like to use their imaginations. They want you to give them a coloring book outline and then hint at what colors they should use when they color it in with their imagination.

To give them those subtle colors, only give sweeping descriptions, and add in the senses. Put in the emotions, even if they are only faux representative ones [that] describe the types of movement.

The best thing you can do with a dance, is keep it short, at least in your description. Focus on the characters’ feelings, fears, hopes and thoughts, and then come back for another quick description. If you took the dance I wrote above and stretched it out for the full dance, describing every move in detail, I guarantee even an editor will begin skipping over it as they read. Even if you don’t give every little dance step, it will be too long and people will just let their eyes slide over it, looking for the place you stop describing and get back to the story.

Don’t be afraid to use a dance, just remember, readers are reading for the characters and their thoughts, feelings, and stories. The descriptions, backgrounds, clothes, etc. need to always take a back seat.

I hope that helped.

What do you think, TKZers? Have you written a dance scene? If so, did you follow these guidelines? Any other tips to share?

Are Writing Contests Worth It?

Photo credit: Danny Howe-Unsplash

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

I’ll confess right up front. I like writing contests. A lot. 

They’re not for everyone but they’ve helped my career.

Why enter writing contests? Here are six reasons:

  1. Contests are incentives to finish your work and submit it to the outside world;
  2. Some offer valuable critique and feedback;
  3. Encouragement, recognition, and validation;
  4. Money and/or prizes;
  5. Awards help marketing;
  6. Intangible rewards.

Writers are often timid about sending their stories out into the world.

Contests however aren’t quite as scary as cold-submitting to agents and editors. You pay an entry fee and judges read your short story, novel excerpt, or screenplay. Some contests offer critiques to improve your craft and pinpoint what needs work.

If you don’t win, heck, neither did most other entrants so it’s not that humiliating.

Photo credit: Museums Victoria-Unsplash

If you do win, terrific! That recognition boosts confidence and increases credibility when you approach agents and publishers.

There are many reputable contests, but others are questionable or downright dodgy. 

Please note: contests mentioned in this post are not endorsements or recommendations.

Contests may be opportunities for the sponsor to expand their mailing list, offering their advertising and marketing services.

Some competitions require the author to give up all rights to their work. What happens if you create a character who later becomes a merchandising goldmine? Depending on contest terms, your earnings may be limited to a  one-time cash prize with no rights to future royalties. Victoria Strauss’s article cites a contest that solicits writers who want to become Manga scriptwriters. She writes:

Copyright surrender in a work-for-hire situation isn’t necessarily a “beware”, as long as the contract terms aren’t exploitative and you understand the implications of what you’re agreeing to.

In this case, however, the one-time money prize is the sole compensation you’ll receive for your copyright transfer, from which [the sponsor] can then profit indefinitely. Be aware also that if you win and your script does not get developed into a series, [sponsor] will still own your work. Winning, therefore, has potential benefits–but also potential costs.

Before entering, check out contests with reliable sources like Writer Beware, The Write Life, Poets & Writers, ProWritingAid (this list is a year old and may be out of date), Kindlepreneur, Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).

Run a Google search entering “[name of contest] scam” and look for red flags.

Before entering, always, always, always read the fine print.

What about entry fees? They typically range from free to $100+.

High entry fees raise questions:

  • Is the contest’s purpose to recognize excellence?
  • Or is this another scheme to take advantage of writers?

Valid reasons for higher fees are:

  • Pay honorariums to judges;
  • Fund prizes;
  • Support nonprofit organizations that help writers.

Research the contest, then use your own judgment whether or not the fee is worth it.

On the other end of the spectrum, “free” isn’t necessarily free.

You’ve seen the ads in magazines and online popups. Aspiring writers, especially poets, are seduced by dreams of publication and thousands of dollars in prizes.

Reality check: nobody, nowhere, nohow pays big bucks for poetry.

But it doesn’t cost anything so why not?

When you enter these contests, sponsors are thrilled to notify you that your outstanding poem was one of a select few that will be featured in their anthology. And…a beautiful gold-embossed hardcover with your published poem only costs $59.95. You can proudly pass this heirloom down to your grandchildren. In fact, buy a copy for each grandchild! And the rest of your family, and friends, and neighbors, and coworkers, and the mail carrier…

You get the idea. Such contests have endured for generations. Why? Because they make money from the dreams of writers who are hungry to be published.

Many legitimate contests are out there. Here’s the Urban Writer’s list of most prestigious awards.

Contests affiliated with writing organizations and conferences can be great career springboards because judges are often agents and editors. Examples:

Speaking of judges, here’s a little-known trick to give you insight into contests.

Volunteer to be a judge.

You don’t have to be Margaret Atwood or Dean Koontz to judge. Some writing organizations actively solicit their members to be volunteer judges. If you are a member of a group, you may qualify.

Reading and assessing entries takes a lot of time. Some contests pay small honorariums.

A few contests I’ve judged are Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Pikes Peak Writers, Authors of the Flathead Student contest, etc. Several TKZers have judged the Edgars, Agathas, and Nebulas. Please chime in with your experience.

As a judge, you’ll receive score sheets of criteria that show exactly what qualities and skills contests are looking for. Not coincidentally, those are the same qualities and skills editors and agents seek.

Scoring may be done numerically, by written critiques, or a combination of both.

As a judge, you gain a much broader perspective than the writer’s often-narrow point of view.

After reading a few entries, you notice a wide disparity among them, ranging from:

  • Downright awful, sloppy ones that weren’t even run through spellcheck;
  • Grammar? I don’t need no stinkin’ grammar;
  • Needs work but shows promise;
  • Professionally presented with competent writing skills but not compelling or imaginative;
  • A very few are OMG WOW!!!

Reading entries gives you a taste of what editors and agents go through every day when reviewing submissions. That added insight will help you pitch and submit more effectively.

Especially study the OMG WOWs. Figure out what the author did and how they did it. Learn from their strengths. Analyze how they handle pacing, point of view, and critical scenes. What makes their voice special and unique? How do they create a character you’re eager to spend time with and get to know better?

Then apply those lessons to your own writing.

My personal experience with contests began in the 1990s, when I entered the Colorado Gold contest, sponsored by Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. I won the mystery category. As a result, an agent at the conference offered representation. Although we later parted ways and that book was never published, winning the contest was a major boost for my career that led to freelance work, editing jobs, and great friendships (more about intangible rewards in a minute).

In 2016, I entered the contest sponsored by the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. My thriller, Instrument of the Devil, won the mystery/suspense category.

Momentum from that propelled me to enter the Kindle Scout contest, sponsored by Amazon. Book excerpts were posted online, and readers voted for ones they wanted to see published. IOTD was selected. I received an advance and Kindle Press published the book that became a bestseller in Women’s Adventure. I

I was on my way to fame and fortune, right?

Uh, no. A few months later, Amazon closed down the Scout contest and the Kindle Press imprint was shuttered, leaving me orphaned.

But I’ll always remember they gave me that opportunity and I’m grateful.

My other books have been finalists for the Eric Hoffer award (Flight to Forever) and Best.Thrillers.com (Until Proven Guilty).

Can you tell I like contests?

Most recently, I entered my latest thriller Deep Fake Double Down in the BookLife Prize contest sponsored by Publisher’s Weekly for indie books.

The contest receives hundreds of entries in five categories: general fiction, romance, YA, sci-fi/fantasy/horror, and mystery/thriller. Entry fee of $119 is high but includes a critique that authors are free to use for their own promotion.

The grand prize is $5000. Finalists in each category receive a $1000 marketing package.

Photo credit: Joyful-Unsplash

 

In November, Deep Fake Double Down advanced from quarterfinals to semifinals. Yaay!

Then in December I learned DFDD was the mystery/thriller finalist. BookLife magazine featured interviews with each of the genre finalists.

Although I don’t generally count my chickens until they’re fried, I started to fantasize about how I’d spend $5000. Hire a publicist for dreaded marketing. Go on book tours. Attend Thrillerfest in NYC.

 

Well…

Deep Fake Double Down didn’t win the grand prize. The winner was Downpour, a horror novel by Christopher Hawkins. I just read it and it’s beautifully written, compelling, and terrifying, Congratulations, Chris!

Bu I gotta confess a little envy. I really would’ve liked to attend Thrillerfest.

However, I’ll still receive the $1000 marketing package. In the long run, that might be more valuable since I need all the help I can get with marketing.

Now, about those intangible rewards I mentioned earlier. Through contests, I’ve met writers who became friends, made lasting contacts with editors and agents, received invitations to speak, etc. When you put your work out in the world, you never know where it may take you.

Back in the ’90s when my book was a finalist for Colorado Gold, I flew to Denver for my first Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference. At that time, it was biggest writing event I’d ever attended. I was intimidated, not knowing a soul among 400+ attendees. 

One of the anonymous judges had scored my book a perfect 10. At the conference, I learned her name was Julie Kaewert, author of the Alex Plumtree series and a novelization of The Avengers movie. She graciously introduced me to many fellow mystery authors and her critique buddies who made me feel welcome and right at home.

At the banquet dinner, winners were announced in various categories and all received applause.

Then my name was announced. Wild whoops, hollers, and whistles erupted from tables full of my new friends.

I turned redder than the tomatoes on the salad.

I still cherish the memory.

From that contest, close friendships were born that endure to this day. Several became trusted critique partners and beta readers.

Contests give me much-needed reassurance that writing is worthwhile in spite of disappointments and setbacks. 

Are contests good for you? Enter a couple and find out. Then come back to TKZ and share your news.

A big thank you to Elaine Viets who suggested this post!

~~~

TKZers: What contests have you entered? Did they change your writing? Which contests do you recommend?

~~~

Read the mystery/thriller finalist for the BookLife Prize at this link.

Who Is In Control of What You Do?

It’s no secret that I’m slightly obsessed with the brain. Okay, okay, it’s a full-blown obsession, but it’s such a fascinating organ!

The other day, I watched a neuroscience documentary (like I often do). One episode asked the question: Who is in control of what you do? The neuroscientist then said…

“Every action you take, every decision you make, every belief you hold is driven by parts of your brain that you have no access to. We call this hidden world the unconscious, and it runs much more of your life than you would ever imagine.”

Shocking, right? The entire episode blew my mind (no pun intended) and drove me down a rabbit hole of research. What I discovered shows just how many superpowers we writers possess.

Let’s dig in…

The conscious you, or conscious awareness, makes up the smallest part of your brain. The conscious brain believes it’s in full control of the body, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

Have you ever driven home and not remembered how you got there? One minute, a thought crosses your mind. And the next thing you know, you’re turning on to your street. It’s a wild feeling that we write off with, “I’ve driven this route so many times, the car knows its way.” But the truth is, this sensation occurs because the action is being done unconsciously and automatically. And somehow, you arrive home without harm.

Through clinical trials, Freud discovered that beneath the surface of each of us lies a swirling sea of hidden motivations, drives, and desires. The way we think and feel and act is profoundly influenced by our unconscious mind.

As the twentieth century progressed, many others dove into the brave new world of neuroscience. They were trying to uncover how much control the unconscious brain really has, but what they soon discovered was far stranger than anyone could have predicted.

In the 1960s, Eckhart Hess ran several experiments. In one, he asked men to look at women’s faces and make snap judgments about them.

  • How kind does she look?
  • How selfish or unselfish is she?
  • How friendly or unfriendly is she?
  • How attractive is she?

What the men didn’t know was how Hess manipulated the experiment. In half the photos, the women’s eyes were artificially dilated. Same women but with different sized pupils. Dilated eyes are, among other things, a biological sign of sexual arousal. This manipulation was meant to influence the choices made by the men, but without them being aware of it.

Can you guess the outcome?

The men found the women with dilated eyes more attractive. Here’s the important part. None of the men noticed the dilated pupils in the photographs, nor did any of the men know about the biological sign of sexual readiness. But somehow, their brains knew.

Hess and his team ran deeply evolutionary programs to steer the men toward the right sort of mate (the feminist in me is holding back here; please do the same). The subjects’ brains analyzed and recognized tiny details in the photos and then acted upon them. All of this occurred without a flicker of conscious awareness.

This type of experiment revealed fundamental knowledge about how the brain operates. The job of this organ is to gather information from the world, then steer appropriate behavior. And it makes absolutely no difference whether you (your conscious awareness) are involved. Most of the time, you’re not. Most of the time, you’re not even aware of the decisions being made on your behalf.

Check out these findings:

  • If you’re holding a warm cup of coffee, you’ll describe your relationship to your mother as closer than if you’re holding an iced coffee.
  • When you’re in a foul-smelling environment, you’ll make harsher moral decisions.
  • If you sit next to a bottle of hand sanitizer, it’ll shift your political opinions a little toward the conservative side, because it reminds your brain of outside threats.

Every day we’re influenced in countless ways by the world around us. And most of this flies completely under the radar of our conscious awareness. Though clueless to us, the unconscious brain is continually reacting to the outside world and making decisions on our behalf.

What separates us from zombie-like beings?

Even when we’re on autopilot, if we come across something we weren’t expecting, our conscious mind is called into action to figure out if this new thing is a threat or opportunity. It’s one of the jobs of consciousness—to assess what’s going on and make sense of the situation. When our expectations are violated, our conscious mind is summoned to work out the appropriate reaction.

But reacting is not its only mission. The conscious brain plays a vital role in resolving internal conflict among the brain’s many automatic sub-systems, each working on its own task.

Take, for example, if you’re hungry but you just started a diet to drop a few holiday pounds. This is when the conscious brain needs to rise above the unconscious and make an executive decision on what to do. Consciousness is the arbiter of conflicting motivations in the brain, with a unique vantage point that no other part of the brain has access to. It’s a way for trillions of cells to see themselves as a unified whole.

For writers, our unconscious brain stores our superpowers.

Our unconscious is capable of truly remarkable feats if we stay out of its way. Therein lies the rub. We can train our unconscious to do many skills automatically, and some of them can seem almost superhuman. Through intense practice, we can harness the brain’s ability to run on autopilot to achieve almost anything.

See where I’m goin’ with this? Note the words “through intense practice.” Meaning, the more we practice, the more we hardwire our brains to work on autopilot. And yes, that includes writing. Those who write daily or several times per week have an easier time than writers who step away from the keyboard for weeks or months at a time.

We also enter the zone more often.

When our conscious awareness relinquishes control to our unconscious brain, we enter the flow state—a form of brain activity experienced by different kinds of people, from elite athletes and meditation experts to professional writers and musicians. Many of whom call this state “the zone,” which arrives during total emersion in a task. In flow states, neural circuits run without conscious mind interference. Our perception clears, our unconscious awareness heightens, and feel-good chemicals flood the brain, which allows for intense focus and gratification.

Thanks to neuroscience, a distinct pattern in the brain emerges when we’re in the zone.

When we first enter flow, dopamine increases attention, information flow, and pattern recognition. It’s essentially a skill booster.

Norepinephrine speeds up the heart rate, muscle tension, and respiration. It triggers a glucose response to give us more energy, increase arousal, attention, neural efficiency, and emotional control, thus producing a high.

Endorphins (rooted from the word “endogenous,” meaning naturally internal to the body) relieve pain and induce pleasure. Strangely, these chemicals function like opioids, with 100 times the power of morphine.

Anandamide (stemming from the Sanskrit word for “bliss”) is an endogenous cannabinoid and feels like the psychoactive effect of marijuana. In flow states, anandamide elevates mood, relieves pain, dilates blood vessels, and aids in respiration. It also amplifies lateral thinking—the ability to link ideas together.

At the end of a flow state, serotonin floods the brain with an after-glow effect. This leaves us with a feeling of bliss and only occurs once we exit the zone.

Unlike many ordinary people, writers dip in and out of the zone on a regular basis. Did I just call us extraordinary? You bet I did! We have a pretty cool superpower. Don’tcha think?

Tips to Achieving Flow

  1. Balance challenge and skill.

If you’ve never written nonfiction, for example, you may find it difficult to enter the zone because your conscious awareness is stressed out. You’re too afraid of making a mistake to enter flow.

If something isn’t challenging enough, you’ll get bored easily. In turn, so will your reader. Not only will adding plenty of conflict improve your plot, but you’ll enter the zone quicker while writing.

  1. Establish clear goals.

I will write for three hours. I will write at least 1000 words today. I will write two scenes or one chapter. By establishing a daily writing goal, it relieves the pressure of having to finish the entire first draft by a certain date. How you choose to establish those goals is up to you.

  1. Reduce distraction.

You will never enter the zone if you’re checking for social media notifications or email every ten minutes. When it’s time to write, write. Save play time and the inbox for later.

  1. Stop multitasking.

Have you ever turned down the radio while searching for a specific house number or highway exit? You’re instinctively helping your brain to concentrate on a visual task. For more on why multitasking is so difficult and why we should avoid it before a writing session, see my 2021 post entitled Can Multitasking Harm the Brain?

  1. Don’t force it.

Some days, you’ll enter the zone. Other days, you won’t. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. You’ll still produce words and make progress.

  1. Enjoy the process.

You won’t enter flow unless you’re enjoying yourself. Simple as that. If you view writing as a chore, it may be time to step away from the WIP for a while. Yes, penning a novel is hard work, but it also should be enjoyable. If it’s not, you may want to ask yourself why you do it.

What were your biggest takeaways from this research? Are you surprised that we live on autopilot most of the time?

What type of writer and reader are you?

Back in 2015, I was chatting with a dear writer friend, Paul Dale Anderson, about the different types of writers and readers.

If you’re a new writer searching for your voice, understanding which classification you fall into might help. Professional writers should also find this interesting.

Some of you may be familiar with Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). Though many call it junk science, most agree with the basic theory behind it: Our brains process information through one of our five senses. Though some rare individuals favor their sense of taste or smell (usually together, and these people are often chefs or perfumers), for most of us, it comes down to either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.

Kinesthetic links the process of learning to physical activity. Meaning, kinesthetic people can read or listen to instructions, but deep learning occurs via the process of doing. Obviously, this doesn’t mean kinesthetic readers need to act out the plot — though that’d be cool to watch! — they better absorb the storyline when it relates to experiences and actions.

Clear as mud? Cool. Moving on…

Paul Dale Anderson authored 27 novels and hundreds of short stories. He earned graduate degrees in Educational Psychology, taught college-level Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), and earned an MA in Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin. He also taught creative writing for Writers Digest School (both Novel and Short Story) and for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Paul was also a Certified Hypnotist and National Guild of Hypnotists Certified Instructor.

Sadly, the writing community lost our dear friend Paul on December 13, 2018. You can still plant a tree in his honor here, which I just discovered. Seems fitting for such a kind and generous soul. Anyway…

What he shared with me in 2015 is pure gold. And today, I’ll share it with you. The italicized paragraphs below are Paul’s words, not mine.

Even from beyond the grave, his knowledge and expertise still dazzles…

Too many writers are unaware of how the human mind processes language. Various structures in the brain—some in the left hemisphere and some in the right—work together to make sense out of symbols. Symbols include, besides alpha-numeric digital representations, sounds, gestures, signs, maps, smells, tastes, and physical feelings. It is the mind that gives meaning to each symbol based on prior associations dredged out of memory. The map is not the territory but merely a representation of the territory.

During conversations with fellow writers at the 2015 Nebula Award Banquet in Chicago, I identified successful new writers by which symbols had salience for them and the way they accessed information.

Some writers were very verbal and had a fluidity of language based primarily on auditory processing of sensory input. Those people were able to instantly duplicate and respond to what they heard as they heard it. Sounds themselves had salience. Those writers are akin to the musician who plays mostly by ear, translating auditory input into kinesthetic output without the additional steps auditory-digital types like me require to process input and output.

I work differently. I “see” stories, then translate them into words that describe my visions. First I see the scenes. Then I see the written symbols that best represent that scene. I see each letter, each punctuation mark, each space at the beginning of a new paragraph, the way words and white space look laid-out on a page, the way each page contributes to the story as a whole.

I write at the keyboard where my fingers automatically translate the symbols in my head into kinesthetic actions that produce the symbols that appear on the screen or piece of paper. I cannot listen to music while writing. Background music interferes with the words in my head. Other writers find that listening to music while writing is a big help.

If you are primarily kinesthetic, you might prefer to write with a pen on paper before revising your works on a keyboard or sending your notebooks to a typist. The feel of the paper itself, the touch of the pen to paper, produces words from your subconscious faster and better than any other process. Kinesthetic writers also love to pound out words on manual typewriters. They write with a flourish that adds to their style. James Patterson is a kinesthetic writer.

If you’re more like me, however, you separate the process into a series of “drafts.” The first draft is primarily visual, and you describe what you see.

The second draft includes imagined sounds, tastes, feelings, smells. During the third draft I read all the words aloud to hear how the words sound and to feel how they roll off my tongue. I add punctuation marks to match my pauses, inflections, intonations. I tend to cut unnecessary flourishes out of my stories unless they add momentum to the plot or help describe a specific character.

If a story is to work, it must engage all of the reader’s senses. Some readers are primarily auditory, some are visual, some are kinesthetic, some olfactory, and some gustatory.

The majority of people in this world are auditory. They respond best to dialogue, to alliteration, to phrasing. If you are primarily auditory like Stephen King, you might find writing easier if you dictate and capture the words into a digital recorder. Kinesthetic people respond best to action and they translate words on paper into muscle movements. If you want to appeal to every reader, you need to reach each of them in their own personal comfort zones.

That last line is a killer, right? No pressure. LOL

I fall into the auditory category, both as a writer and a reader. I write with headphones on, but the music becomes white noise that narrows my focus, transporting me into my story worlds. My first drafts consist of mainly dialogue with no tags and minimal narrative and description. After I gain critical distance, I’ll add sensory details and other enhancements.

As an auditory reader, I can’t listen to audiobooks. I need to read the words to hear the story rhythm. Audiobooks rob me of that.

Paul told us readers fall into the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic categories. For fun, let’s look at reading subcategories as well.

  • Motor reader: These readers tend to move their lips and may even mimic speech with their tongues and vocal cords when reading. Their reading range is very slow (150 to 200 words per minute) because they must read word-by-word at the rate they speak.
  • Auditory reader: These readers vocalize minimally or not at all, but they do silently say and/or  hear the words. They read in the 200 to 400 words-per-minute range. Auditory readers are skillful readers with vocabularies large enough that they can quickly recognize words.
  • Visual reader: These readers engage their eyes and minds when they read, but not their mouths, throats, or ears. They can read many words at once because they read ideas, not individual words. They read at a rate of 400+ words per minute.

If we believe Paul, with all his experience and degrees, most people fall into the auditory reader category. If your sentences don’t sing, the auditory reader may DNF your book. We also can’t forget about the visual or kinesthetic reader. Striking the perfect balance for all three can wrench a writer’s stomach, but it’s a goal worth shooting for.

What type of writer are you? What type of reader are you? If you’re an auditory reader, do you enjoy audiobooks? Or can you only hear the story rhythm by reading the actual words?

Dead Right – Guest Post by Dr. Betty Kuffel

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Dr. Betty Kuffel

In 2004, a small plane carrying Dr. Betty Kuffel, her husband, and their dog crashed into a remote, snowy Idaho mountain, leaving her leg crushed and dangling with bones exposed.

Where most people would be consumed by helpless panic, Betty stayed calm.

With her husband trapped in the inverted cockpit and the frightened dog circling the wreckage, Betty eased herself through the broken windshield to the icy ground.

She used the radio headset and wires to align her multiple fractures and tied the wires to hold the leg in place.

Yeah, she set her own broken leg.

Yeah, she’s Superwoman.

(Happy ending—all were rescued and survived.)

This example is one of many reasons why Betty has been my trusted medical advisor, critique partner, and dear friend for 30 years. Today, I’m happy to welcome her to TKZ with her guest post entitled:

Death and Dying for Authors

I had a plan for killing someone in one of my novels and wanted to make the death look natural with no discernible cause even with detailed postmortem forensics. To validate my plan, I called a forensic pathologist friend and said, “Dale, I want to kill someone, and I need your help.” He laughed, listened to my scenario, and confirmed my plan was correct. The cause of death would be indeterminate.

Writing accurate medical scenes is as important in fiction as it is in nonfiction. You can’t “just make it up” and make it believable. Research may save you from deadly reviews. Some experts may initially be taken aback by your questions but, in my experience, they love to help.

My background is ER medicine, wilderness hiking, climbing, dog sled racing and flying, which provided personal exposure to gruesome injuries and medical emergencies. Writing some scenes is easy because I’ve observed emotional reactions of patients and families affected by a heart attack, severe trauma from violence, gunshot wounds, and even bear mauling victims. But many writers may not have that firsthand experience.

Understanding “normal” body functions as a baseline is a great help to writers when designing a health-related scene.

First, identify your goal. Are you looking for a health challenge for your character to make him unique, a chronic disease perhaps? Or does your storyline require something acute, painful, or disfiguring? Or is this a climactic scene of violence and death?

To write the end, you need the beginning.

Basics of Life:  Average adult vital signs are a blood pressure of 120/80, heart rate of 70 beats per minute, respiratory rate of 15 times per minute, and temperature 98.6 F. Blood volume: 5 liters for about a 150-pound person. At a heartrate of 70/minute with a stroke volume of 70 ml (volume pumped with each beat) = 4,900 ml ~ 5 liters. This means the entire blood volume is pumped each minute.

Basics of Death: There is wide variation in vital signs with normal activity. With smart watches and wrist exercise monitors, most writers know exercise or stress change the baseline measurements. Running up a flight of stairs will spike both heart rate and blood pressure, but they normalize with a few minutes of rest. What if they don’t normalize? How long will it take to die without oxygen, or to bleed out? You need to know some details to write an accurate life and death scenario.

Having norms in mind for comparison, you are ready to alter them to your character’s detriment and your scene’s enhancement.

It’s time to create a crisis involving (A) the airway, (B) breathing, (C) cardiac function or (N) Neuro/Brain function.

Anyone who has taken a CPR class knows these ABCs. Interruption of airway, breathing or heart function can create a crisis. Brain injury can maim or kill. So, what do you need in your scene?

A Few ABC Scenarios

Airway and Breathing:

Airway obstruction using a ligature around the neck takes moments to interrupt blood flow to the brain and cause loss of consciousness: if not released, it causes death. It’s silent and fast. A shoelace, cable ties, fish line or luxurious silk scarf will do.

The scene can start calmly but quickly change to deadly, requiring immediate interventions to save a life. During a romantic candlelight dinner in an elegant restaurant, choking causes chaos in public and brings paramedics to the scene. Is it an unexpected aspiration of a bite of steak that occludes the airway? Or did the perpetrator know about the victim’s deadly allergy to penicillin and slipped it into their food, causing death from airway swelling and hypotension?

A penicillin-sensitive person who has intercourse with someone who has taken penicillin can result in anaphylaxis and death. The lover with that knowledge can turn a romantic interlude into murder.

Drug overdoses, sedatives (ex. Valium, Ativan, Xanax) and opiates (ex. heroin, fentanyl, morphine, oxycodone), slow respiratory rate, leading to unconsciousness, airway compromise, and death. The drug Narcan (naloxone) can be given as a nasal spray or injected, reversing opioid effects within minutes. So, from unconsciousness and near death, a victim can become alert and fighting medics.

However, Narcan does not reverse the effects of sedatives.

Rapid breathing of 40 times a minute or more can be caused by a collapsed lung, chronic lung disease with failure, asthma, fright and panic attacks. All have unique causes and need interventions to control the symptoms. Some are scary but not fatal. Others are life threatening. Symptoms with impending death include rapid breathing with gasping, holding the chest or throat, being unable to speak. Skin may be mottled and bluish followed by unconsciousness.

Blood Pressure

Lowering blood pressure is an easy way to cause loss of consciousness due to reduced blood flow to the brain. Without reversal this will be fatal.

Hemorrhagic shock can result from a stabbing or gunshot wound. How long will it take to bleed out?

Hemorrhagic shock is determined by volume lost. A blood donation is Class I shock. Class II is 750-1500 ml and is initially treated with high volume IV saline, but as loss progresses fluids and blood must be pumped in. Class IV occurs when 40% of blood is lost. Unless blood loss is stopped and high-volume blood is transfused, loss of consciousness occurs. The pulse becomes rapid, then fades as the blood pressure drops into the 70s. The skin pales, pupils dilate, and the heart stops.

Here’s another way to reduce blood pressure:

The victim takes an erectile dysfunction drug like Cialis and the killer slips a few nitroglycerin tablets into his wine. He loses consciousness during intercourse because this deadly combination results in irreversible low blood pressure, shock and death. Who would know but the perpetrator?

Heart Function

A cardiac arrest means the heart stopped beating. This can result for many reasons. It is not a “cause of death.” Even young healthy athletes drop dead, but the most common cause of sudden death is narrowing of the coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle with oxygenated blood.

Heart muscle cells become unstable with lack of adequate oxygenated blood. The irritability results in loss of an organized rhythm and no contractions to pump the blood. CPR with external compressions of the chest and rapid use of an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) can save lives which is why AEDs are available in public venues like malls, airplanes, and football fields.

Cardiac arrest is the most likely scenario to result in death or brain injury due to lack of oxygen.

What does sudden death look like?

No matter what the cause–a blow to the chest or a heart attack from cholesterol narrowing of a heart artery–when the heart stops, symptom onset is abrupt and often follows this pattern: Slump, fall, with rapid total muscle relaxation; a generalized seizure due to lack of brain oxygen; mouth and eyes may be partially open; no pulse; no breathing; skin, pale, then lips and nailbeds turn blue; no movement; pupils dilate widely, fish-eyes.

Rapid Ways to Kill

A few drugs that work rapidly are easily available in medical facilities, veterinary clinics, and ambulances: Succinylcholine is a paralytic. Potassium intravenous stops the heart. Nitroglycerine overdose under the tongue drops blood pressure. Intravenous insulin overdose results in unconsciousness and death.

Drug or alcohol intoxication and exposure to cold that causes hypothermia hasten death.

Strangulation with hands or a ligature is close, personal, fast and quiet.

Slashing through neck vessels and trachea results in airway interruption and rapid hemorrhagic death.

Ways to do research:

Interview experts such as physicians and even morticians.

Google reputable sites such as universities and NIH.

Consider going on ambulance and police ride-alongs for firsthand information.

Summary:

A writer doesn’t need to include too many details or the story risks sounding like a textbook. Choose the means of death, then incorporate enough information to be accurate but not overwhelming. 

~~~

Betty, you “killed it “with that comprehensive overview. Thanks for sharing your extensive knowledge! 

~~~

TKZers: Does this post help you write about dying and death? Will the information alter how you commit fictional crimes?

~~~

Dr. Betty Kuffel is a retired ER physician who lives in Montana. Medical and wilderness experiences, flying, dog sled racing in Alaska, and surviving a plane crash in the mountains of Idaho fuel her writing. She writes across genres, including a medical thriller series and True Crime.

BettyKuffel.com

Biological Responses to Anger

In the comments of my post about fear, Dale suggested I write about anger, another powerful emotion with a physical response within the body. We associate anger as a negative emotion. If well-managed, anger can motivate us to make positive changes. The same holds true for our characters.

Most emotions begin inside two almond-shaped structures in our brains called the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for identifying threats to our well-being, and for sending out an alarm when threats are identified.

It’s so efficient at warning us that it can cause us to react before we’re able to confirm whether our response is warranted. Thought and judgment stem from the prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead), which tends to lag behind the amygdala.

In other words, our brains are wired to influence us to act before we can consider the consequences of our actions. This is not an excuse for behaving badly—people can and do control their anger. Rather, it means managing anger is a skill, not something we instinctually know how to do.

Case in point: Teenagers. 😉

Fun fact: The human brain takes twenty-six years to fully develop. This should help you stay sane when kids lash out or talk gibberish. They’re not working with a full deck yet!

What happens within the body when we’re angry?

Like fear, anger triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response. The adrenal glands flood the body with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The brain shunts blood away from the gut and toward the muscles to prepare for physical exertion.

This results in:

  • Faster heart rate
  • Rising blood pressure
  • Breathing increases and/or shallows
  • Rising body temperature
  • Increase of perspiration

Meanwhile, the sympathetic nervous system — a division of the nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight response — nudges the adrenal gland, encouraging it to release epinephrine (aka adrenaline), noradrenaline, and other energy hormones.

When we’re angry our muscles tense. Inside the brain, neurotransmitter chemicals known as catecholamines are released, causing a burst of energy that can last several minutes to hours. This burst of energy explains why our first reaction is to take immediate action.

In addition to the above list, the face flushes as increased blood flow enters the extremities to prepare for physical action. Attention narrows and locks onto the source of rage or innocent target, if misplaced. Additional neurotransmitters and hormones release, which trigger a lasting state of arousal.

The body is now ready to fight.

Quick story to illustrate anger.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m a chilled person by nature. My blood pressure rarely, if ever, rises above 110/60. It’s tough to get me angry because I do not allow others to control my emotions. There’re only two ways to push my buttons—abuse of animals or children. If you tick one of those boxes, look out. I’m coming for you.

Now, I’ll tell you the story. 🙂

A few weeks ago, I’m editing Merciless Mayhem at my desk, when four husky guys huddled around the side of the road, bordered by woods.

Huh. That’s odd. Why are they here?

I get back to work but keep the strangers in my peripheral.

One of the guys jumps forward and kicks something on the ground.

What the—? Now they’ve got my full attention.

Over and over, this dude kicks. Laughs with his buddies. Kicks again. Another guy squats. When he rises, he has two hooves gripped in one hand, holding a dead deer by the legs while his buddy kicks and punches the carcass.

Unable to trust to my eyes, I jolt to my feet. All four guys find it hilarious to beat a young deer who lost its life.

Heat envelopes me from the inside out. My face flushes. Blood pressure spikes, and I careen out the door. “Hey!”

They stop, turn. The kicker said, “What?”

“Stop abusing that animal!”

“What’s the big deal, lady? It’s dead.”

“Oh, I see.” In seconds, I shorten the distance between us. “So, when you die, I can kick the sh*t outta your corpse? Leave now, or I’m gonna make that happen a lot sooner than you think.”

All four booked it to their SUV, parked around the corner.

Two hours later, my husband strolls through the door after work. “Hey, honey. Have a good day?”

Boom. All the same biological/physiological responses flood my system, and I’m reliving the incident while I recount the story.

“How many guys?” he said.

“Four.”

“And that didn’t give you pause?” He asked because I’m only 5’ 1.5” Doesn’t matter. It’s the fire that burns inside you, and mine was blazing hot.

“No. Why, should it?”

“Honey, they were probably hunters—with guns.”

“And?”

“You could’ve been shot.”

“And?”

“You could’ve been killed.”

“Oh, well. I will never allow anyone to abuse an animal, dead or alive, in front of me. I don’t care who they are.”

See how easily anger can spiral out of control? Hours after the incident, it didn’t take much to trigger me again.

Tips to Show Anger

Anger can build over time or occur in a split-second. If I were writing the above story in a novel, I’d slow it down. Show in detail the motivation that sparked rage in the MC. Drag out an inferno building inside the MC before she snaps.

Body cues include:

  • Flared nostrils
  • Sweating
  • Head up, chin and chest out, shoulders back
  • Audible breath
  • Flexed muscles
  • Vein or artery pulsing, thinning the skin
  • A fighter’s stance
  • Cold stare and all its variants
  • Face reddening (If the POV character is angry, they can’t see the color of their face)
  • Tightness of the eyes, chest, lips, etc.
  • Punching, kicking, throwing things
  • Teeth or jaw grinding
  • Hurtful words, sarcasm, swearing
  • Heart thundering
  • Muscles quivering against the surge of adrenaline
  • Irrationality
  • Jumping to the wrong conclusion 

Trigger the Senses

Using my story as the example…

Did tree limbs obscure my view? (sight)

Did each kick boomerang across the road? (sound)

Did the metallic sweetness of blood assault the back of my throat? (taste) Or was the carcass rotting? (smell)

When I booked it across the street, did the cold asphalt sting my bare feet? (touch)

We already know hearing is impaired by biological changes. How does the impairment affect the MC? Do muffled sound waves heighten other senses? Or is the MC always a hothead?

Prolonged Effects of Anger

  • Headaches
  • Lower immune system
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart disease
  • Depression
  • Tingling sensation—muscle tension
  • Heart palpitations
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Ulcers
  • Muscle soreness
  • Jaw pain

Are you a hothead or chilled? Where is your line in the sand? Meaning, what triggers your anger?

Age Old Problem

By Elaine Viets

See this woman?  I’m sure you have. She’s been featured in a slew of ads. Aw, what a cute old lady.

I loathe the old bat. Her harmless cuteness stereotypes seniors and makes it easy to dismiss older people. Thanks to her, anyone over sixty seems powerless and a bit simpleminded. She may be a fine person in real life, but I don’t like how her stock photo is used.

Crazy old cranks. How about this woman known as “Cranky Martha.” You’ve seen her in the Medicare ads. Martha’s another stereotype – an old woman who grumbles about Medicare programs. Martha is denied the dignity of righteous rage. Dealing with government phone lines and websites should make anyone angry. They can eat up your whole day. But poor Martha is just another complaining, crazy coot.

Like many baby boomers, I’m old enough to get Social Security.  I’m also concerned about how older people are portrayed. Older people are cute, cranky, sexless and downright weird.

How many of these demeaning stereotypes are perpetuated in our books?

Even the language I’m using to describe these people is disrespectful: coot, crazy, old crank, old bat. All those words diminish older people.

Here are a few more stereotypes:

The old weirdo. This person is often found in cozies, dressed in loud clothes and behaving like a silly 16-year-old. Margery, the 76-year-old landlady in my Dead-End Job mysteries, skirted the edges of this stereotype. But I tried to keep her smart and sometimes downright scary.

The male version is the wacky old guy who is the hero’s sidekick, a popular Western trope. Remember Gabby Hayes, the grizzled old codger who tagged along after John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and  Hopalong Cassidy?

The foreign old weirdo. Heaven help an old person who lives in a poor country, like this Cuban woman smoking a cigar. Photographers flock to photograph their wrinkles (apparently poor people can’t afford moisturizer). Writers condescend to them and their customs.

The old technophobe.  Yes, it’s true. Some older people have trouble with cell phones and other tech. There’s a reason for that. Parts of the brain shrink with age and communication between neurons slows. This makes it tough for some older people to learn new technology.

Some. But not all.

It’s true I still long for the return of the five-button phone in offices, but I can use a cell phone. Alan Portman, a regular reader of this blog, is my main IT person, but when I need someone local, I use a sixty-something grandfather with his own business. His brain works just fine, thank you.

Growing old disgracefully. That’s the motto for a lot of boomers. They love to tease their staid children.

The old stereotypes are outdated. Older people are not the old fogies of yesteryear. They are active, well-educated, and entrepreneurial. Empire-builder Martha Stewart was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 81.

Seventy-year-old Christie Brinkley looks damn good in a bikini.

Older people are powerful. Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg held office until her death at age 87.

So how do you portray old people in your mysteries? Are they one of these stereotypes, or realistic characters? Are your older people like Miss Marple, who are underrated because of their age, but use it to their advantage? Or are they fierce and vital?

Deadly secrets in a crypt. The Dead of Night, my 7th Angela Richman mystery, is on sale here: https://tinyurl.com/2c4qzlb6

 

 

Villain Survey

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Readers love a good, juicy, memorable villain.

Villains come in more flavors than Baskin-Robbins features: sinister, seductive, calculating, bumbling, scary, funny, tortured, etc.

Who can forget Danny DeVito as the Penguin; the bunny-boiling “Alex” played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction; The Wicked Witch of the West who frightened generations of children with her threat, “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too.”

As writers, we’d love to create a character who endures for years, like Professor Moriarty, Nurse Ratched, Darth Vader, Cruella de Vil, Hannibal Lecter. 

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey-Mythic Structure for Writers examines the hero.

Riffing on that structure, I’m working on a writing craft book that follows a similar theme but instead takes readers on The Villain’s Journey.

I deconstruct various villains by asking questions. What are their origin stories? What are their needs and desires? Are they psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists? What drives them to do antisocial acts? Are they forced by circumstances to step over the moral line from ordinary to evil? How far will they go to achieve their goals?

What are qualities that make a villain memorable? Here is a partial list:

1. Powerful – They are in control of their situation and the people around them. They are stronger than the hero, at least initially.

President Snow in The Hunger Games keeps his districts impoverished, desperate, and fearful to the point that people accept the cruel practice of children murdering each other for rewards.

2. Cunning – They use intelligence, guile, and manipulation to achieve what they want.

In several Arthur Conan Doyle stories, detective Sherlock Holmes dubs  Professor James Moriarty “the Napoleon of crime.” Moriarty is the only person who can match wits with the brilliant Holmes and best him.

3. Ruthless – They are willing, sometimes even eager, to harm others and cause destruction to achieve their goals.

In The Godfather I, the climactic baptism scene shows Michael Corleone becoming the godfather to his sister’s son at the same time his henchmen kill the leaders of all the rival families. That clean sweep elevates Michael to reign as the undisputed Godfather of crime. 

4. Terrifying – They exploit deep human fears like helplessness, pain, and death to overwhelm their victims with physical, psychological, or emotional threats.

Agatha Trunchbull is the sadistic, bullying headmistress in Roald Dahl’s Matilda. The 1996 film was rated R because of scary (although absurd) violence like the pigtail hammer throw scene.

5. Ordinary – On the surface, villains can seem like regular people. They blend in with normal society and don’t attract attention to themselves. That’s how they get away with immoral acts. Their invisibility makes them chilling.

In Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Nothing Man, the murderer of Eve Black’s family is a supermarket security guard living an inconspicuous life until Eve writes a true crime book that taunts him with threats to reveal his identity.

6. Reluctant – circumstances may force a law-abiding person into committing crimes. Their reasons may be justifiable but the acts are evil. 

In Death Wish, Charles Bronson plays a grieving widower whose wife was killed by thugs. He takes justice into his own hands, becoming a vigilante. 

7.  Persistent – They may appear to be vanquished but they don’t give up. Remember the Terminator’s immortal line, “I’ll be back.”

Now I’d like to ask readers of TKZ to participate in a survey for The Villain’s Journey.

Who is your favorite fictional villain?

Why is s/he compelling and memorable to you?

Please answer in the comments. Your response could be included in the book (with permission).

Thanks for your help!!!

~~~

 

Please check out the manipulative, seductive, ruthless, cunning, ordinary, persistent villains in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series

Biological Responses to Fear

Last night, my husband and I went to a pumpkin festival with another couple. The town blocks off downtown’s main drag, and skeletons, witches, monsters, live music, and laser shows filled the streets.

Dozens of lit jack-o-lanterns on shelved staging fringed one side of the road — the focal point of the evening’s festivities. The only thing missing was a haunted house. Fine by us. We don’t chase the adrenaline high of fear.

Which brings me to today’s subject: Fear

Fear is a universal, physical response to danger. We associate fear as a negative emotion, but it also plays a vital role in keeping us safe by mobilizing us to cope with potential dangers.

What happens within the body when we’re fearful?

Fear begins in the amygdala, which then activates the pituitary gland, where the nervous system meets the endocrine (hormonal) system. The pituitary gland then secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream.

Meanwhile, the sympathetic nervous system — a division of the nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight response — nudges the adrenal gland, encouraging it to squirt  epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and other catecholamines into the bloodstream.

The body also releases cortisol in response to ACTH, which raises blood pressure, blood sugar, and white blood cells. Circulating cortisol turns fatty acids into energy for the muscles to use should the need arise.

Catecholamines include epinephrine and norepinephrine, both hormones that prepare the muscles for violence by causing the following:

  • Boost activity in the heart and lungs
  • Reduce activity in the stomach and intestines, producing “butterflies” in the belly.
  • Inhibit the production of tears and saliva, which explains why dry mouth often accompanies fright.
  • Dilate the pupils.
  • Produces tunnel vision.
  • Reduces hearing.

The hippocampus part of the brain is heavily involved in memory, whereas the prefrontal cortex aids in high-level decision making. Both these areas help us control the fear response and determine if the danger is real or exaggerated. If the latter, these areas of the brain dampen the fear, allowing us to read scary books or watch slasher films.

Biologically, fear responses include:

  • Increased breathing.
  • Increased heart rate.
  • Peripheral blood vessels in the skin constrict while central blood vessels around vital organs dilate and flood with oxygen and nutrients.
  • Blood pumps the muscles so they’re ready to react.
  • Muscles at the base of each hair tighten, causing piloerection aka goosebumps.
  • Eyebrows raise and pinch together.
  • Upper eyelid raises while the lower tenses.
  • Jaw may slack and part stretched lips.
  • Voice pitch rises, tone strains.
  • Posture either mobilizes or immobilizes or fluctuates between both.
  • Breath shallows.
  • Muscles tighten, especially in the limbs.
  • Increased sweating.

Metabolically, glucose levels spike to provide energy if needed for action. Fear also increases levels of calcium and white blood cells.

Tips to Show Fear

To show a believable fear response in your main character, consider the above scientific and biologic changes within the body. Then get creative. An effective way to enhance fear is to slow down. Visualize the context. What’s happening in this moment? What is the character experiencing, moment by moment? By drilling into slivers of time, we’re telling the reader to pay attention. We’re creating emotional resonance. We’re drawing readers farther into the story, forcing them to turn the page.

Trigger the Senses

Do shadows obscure the threat? (sight)

Do the leathery wings of a bat flap overhead? Or do footsteps ricochet off the building and make it difficult to pinpoint direction? (sound)

Does the metallic sweetness of blood assault the back of the throat? (taste) Or fill the sinuses? (smell)

Is the thick bark of the ash tree she’s hiding behind rough and scratchy? (touch)

We already know hearing is impaired by biological changes. How does the impairment affect the MC? Do muffled sound waves heighten other senses? Or does the MC enjoy the adrenaline rush that accompanies fear?

Emotion is Layered

Characters shouldn’t be totally fine one second then immediately immobilized by terror. Let emotions build over time, even second by second.

“In the real world, no two people are alike, which means each of us expresses emotion in our own way. Some people find it perfectly natural to share what they feel with those around them, experiencing little to no discomfort with their emotions being on display. Others find the idea of revealing what they feel horrifying and will avoid situations that could lead to such vulnerability. Most fall somewhere between these extremes. This spectrum of expressiveness is called an emotional range, and it will influence not only which feelings a person overtly shows but when and how they will manifest.”

—Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, the Emotion Thesaurus

Emotions — especially ones as extreme and universal as fear — unfold on a continuum. To impact the reader, show the MC’s physical and emotional responses in the correct order and with the proper intensity, or fear may come across as irrational or melodramatic.

Any adrenaline junkies in our audience? Do you ride roller coasters? Like haunted houses? Have you ever zip-lined? What about jumping out of an aircraft? Care to share a frightful experience?