What Writers Can Learn from Animal Communication

Zoosemiotics is the study of animal communication, and it’s played an important role in the development of ethology, sociobiology, and the study of animal cognition. Writers can also learn from zoosemiotics. Think characterization and scene enhancement.

In the animal kingdom, the sender and receiver of communication may be part of the same species or from different species. Crows, for example, warn the chippies, squirrels, and numerous small birds when dangerous predators are in the area. They do this with a vocal alarm, and every animal pays attention. When crows are around good people and animals they’re comfortable with, they blink several times per minute and have a relaxed, roaming gaze. If a predator prowls or coasts into their domain, their unblinking, hard stare at the threat warns other wildlife in the area.

Warning Coloration

In species such as wasps that are capable of harming potential predators, they’re often brightly colored, and this modifies the behavior of the predator who either instinctively knows to be wary or has learned to use caution through past experiences. Some forms of mimicry fall in the same category. For example, hoverflies have similar coloring to wasps. Although they’re unable to sting, wasps avoid them.

Coloration changes in characters include reddening or flushed neck and/or face (anger or embarrassment) or the lack of color i.e., pale (fear, anxiety, or nervousness).

Behavioral Changes

Canines such as wolves and coyotes may adopt an aggressive posture, such as growling, head leveling, or baring teeth to warn a potential predator to stay back, that if they approach, the canine is ready and able to fight. Rattlesnakes use their telltale rattle—it means, if you come near me, I will strike. Certain amphibians with a bright colored belly and a back that blends into the environment, flash their belly when confronted by a potential threat, indicating they are poisonous in some way.

Behavioral changes in characters include a snarled lip, clenched fists, pitching forward, or lunging at the threat (anger), mouth dryness, licking lips, avoiding eye contact, clenched hands/arms, jerky steps, fidgeting, defensive posture (fear, anxiety, or nervousness), slumped shoulders, tears, flat speech (sadness), raised eyebrows, eyes widening, slacked jaw (surprise), open body language, smiling (happiness) etc.…

Stotting

An example of prey to predator communication is stotting, a highly noticeable form of running shown by some antelopes such as a Thomson’s gazelle. Stotting indicates the animal is healthy and fit, thus not worth pursuing.

Stotting behavior in characters: Think about the difference between jogging and running for your life. The feet may be sloppy or the character zigzags, trips, or falls (fear).

Predator to Prey

Some predators communicate to prey in ways that change their behavior. The deception makes them easier to catch. Take, for example, the angler fish. Fleshy growth protruding from its forehead dangles in front of its jaws. Smaller fish try to take the lure, thereby positioning themselves directly in front of the angler fish’s mouth.

Describing deceptiveness in characters would take an entire post, but you get the picture. 😉

Human & Animal Communication

We are all part of the Natural World. Various ways in which humans interpret the behavior of domestic animals and/or wildlife fit the definition of interspecific communication. Although dogs can use vocal communication, they mainly display nonverbal communication through the use of body language, such as tail carriage and motion, ear and eye position, body position and movement, and facial expressions. Recognizing the correct nonverbal cue will help decipher what the dog is telling us.

More character nonverbal cues include sweating, trembling, damp eyes, muscles tensing, crossed arms or the drawing in of limbs, the body recoiling (fear, anxiety, nervousness), sudden backward movement (surprise), relaxation of muscles (happiness), etc….

While observing a dog’s body language it’s crucial to observe the entire dog, as well as the situation or context. For example, a dog’s wagging tail does not always mean Fido’s happy. A tail in motion is often noticed first, but the rest of the dog is board-stiff, and the ears are back and the dog’s in a couched position, the full picture tells you Fido’s not happy with the situation.

5 Common Groups of Canine Signals

Keep in mind, a dog could use more than one response at a time. Hence why it’s important to analyze the entire dog, not just one body cue (the same applies to characters).

Fido may start with a display of excitement, then decide the stimuli is a threat and switch to aggressive posturing, or send fear signals, or both.

As we review each group, notice the similarities to us (characters).

Fearful Communication

When a dog is frightened, he’s likely to react with his whole body. He may lick his lips, yawn, keep his mouth tightly closed, cower or lower his body, lower or tuck his tail, or flatten his ears. He may also tremble or shake, avoid eye contact, or lean back to avoid the frightening stimulus.

The body language may be a combination of several signals and/or may appear as a progression through these signals as the dog’s response intensifies. Sometimes, the complete absence of active signals can speak volumes. A dog that won’t eat food or treats, is avoiding people when they approach, or freezes when someone reaches for him—a “shut down” appearance—is demonstrating fear. Sadly, we often see this behavior in shelters if the dog doesn’t get adopted. Shelter dogs also may display high arousal or excitement.

Arousal Communication

The arousal in shelter dogs could be due to many factors, including age, confinement, lack of physical and/or mental outlets, and personality. An arousal/excitement response could indicate joy directed at a certain person, another dog, or toy. If the context is a favorable one, the dog should have soft, relaxed body and eyes and mouth, along with a wagging tail that jumps for attention. He may also play-bow—rear end in the air, front end lowered—to demonstrate excitement. Other cues are jumping, mounting, and mouthing. Mouthing should be soft (no teeth).

Arousal behaviors can also be directed at unfavorable stimuli, such as an unwanted human, animal, or situation. Arousal signals in this context may be coupled with fear signals, such as trembling or a low/tucked tail. Or the arousal signals are paired with aggression—barking, lunging, anxious pacing or spinning, or biting of leash, clothing, or the unfavorable stimuli. The dog’s fur can pilo-erect (hackle), his ears bent forward or at attention, his stance upward and erect. The tail is often up and wagging stiffly, and the eyes are wide-open and focused on the target. He could also bark, growl, and/or lunge.

Anxious Communication

If a dog becomes stressed, he may exhibit excessive panting, pacing, and lack of focus. Similar body language to a fearful dog, when in reality, he’s filled with anxiety. Which is why context is key. A dog that jumps at the kennel door as a person approaches is displaying arousal/excitement. Whereas a dog bounding off the side walls of the kennel displays anxious communication signals.

Aggressive Communication

Aggression is a normal and natural behavior in animals, triggered by a perceived threat. Aggressive vocalizations and body posturing are warning signals.

In dogs, we understand aggression through body language that includes stiffening or freezing, eyes wide with the whites visible (called whale eye), tense mouth or curled lips, wrinkled nose, bared teeth, barking, growling, and air snapping.

Relaxed Communication

We all love dogs in a relaxed position, like he doesn’t have a care in the world. Mouth relaxed, lips slightly parted. A smiling appearance. Head and ears relaxed in a neutral position, body loose, eyes soft. His tail may be swishing back and forth, or even wagging in a circular motion. My favorite is when a dog’s lying in the frog-leg position. Those froggy legs are hard to resist!

Over to you, TKZers! You may be using animal communication and not realize it, because many behaviors are similar to our own body language. If you’d like to give an example from your WIP, go for it. Otherwise, please include different animals and how they communicate.

 

 

Are You Anxious or Eager?

Photo credit Pisit Heng, Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

We wordsmiths know that language changes over time. Words often veer far away from their original definition and usage.

Take, for instance, the adjective ANXIOUS. Anxious is an old word, originally coined in about 1548 that (according to Google’s dictionary) means:

1. experiencing worry, unease, or nervousness, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.“she was extremely anxious about her exams”

2. wanting something very much, typically with a feeling of unease.”the company was anxious to avoid any trouble”

However, consider the following examples heard in current everyday speech:

“She’s anxious to reunite with her childhood sweetheart.”

“He’s anxious for his first book to be released.”

“She’s anxious to wear her new jeans.”

The implication is the subjects can’t wait for these occurrences to happen because they are generally considered happy, exciting events.

That made me wonder if EAGER is a more accurate word to describe the above feelings.

So I checked with Merriam-Webster. That source adds a third definition that reflects the increasingly common usage in today’s speech:

  1. ardently or earnestly wishing.

Merriam-Webster goes into a deeper discussion:

Choose the Right Synonym for anxious

EAGERAVIDKEENANXIOUSATHIRST mean moved by a strong and urgent desire or interest. EAGER implies ardor and enthusiasm and sometimes impatience at delay or restraint.  eager to get started  AVID adds to EAGER the implication of insatiability or greed.  avid for new thrills  KEEN suggests intensity of interest and quick responsiveness in action.  keen on the latest fashions  ANXIOUS emphasizes fear of frustration or failure or disappointment.  anxious not to make a social blunder  ATHIRST stresses yearning but not necessarily readiness for action.  athirst for adventure

Can anxious Be Used as a Synonym for eager?

The fact that individual words can have multiple senses that are closely related in meaning is something which many people find objectionable about the English language. Anxious is an example of such a word, as people will use it to mean “worried,” “eager (but with an undertone of worry),” and simply “eager.”

Here are a few more examples of words whose meaning has changed over time:

AWESOME – originally, it meant inspiring awe. Now the word is overused as a superlative compliment for any and everything great: “That sushi is just awesome, dude.”

Which leads to…

Public Domain

DUDE – Merriam-Webster’s definition:

1 : a man extremely fastidious in dress and manner : dandy. 2 : a city dweller unfamiliar with life on the range (see range entry 1 sense 3b) especially : an Easterner in the West.

Yet in the past several decades, how often have you heard dude used in that context? Probably not too frequently since surfer and “bro” culture co-opted the term. Now it’s mostly a casual greeting: “Whassup, dude?” Or dude is a noun that refers to a guy.

Which leads to…

GUY – This word has an interesting, violent history. Guy originally referred to Guy Fawkes, a British terrorist. In 1605, Guy and several co-conspirators tried to blow up Parliament with gunpowder. He was sentenced to be hanged and drawn and quartered but, on the way to the noose, he either fell or jumped, breaking his neck. November 5 is still celebrated as a holiday with fireworks and bonfires. Guy is an eponym, meaning a word that is believed to be named for a person or event.

Originally it referred to males, e.g. “He’s a nice guy.”

Nowadays, it’s used collectively—“You guys are an awesome audience!”—inclusive of men and women, adults and kids.

Which leads to…

Photo credit: Pinoydiscus CC BY-SA 3.0

KID – My third-grade teacher Miss Parker didn’t approve when we referred to ourselves as kids. She always corrected us, saying, “A kid is a baby goat.” Ultimately, she lost that battle because Merriam-Webster now lists the first definition as: “a young person, especially a child;” followed by the second definition of “a young goat.”

Which leads to…

Muhammad Ali CC BY-SA 3.0

 

OLD GOAT – an insulting way to refer to an old man, goat has evolved into an acronym especially popular in sports: G.O.A.T.Greatest Of All Time.

 

 

 

TKZ word geeks, let’s open the discussion.

As a writer, do you feel anxious or eager when words evolve and change meaning over time?

Please share examples you’ve noticed lately. Do they annoy you? Or do you appreciate the fresh variation?

~~~

 When the law prevents justice…When DNA isn’t proof…When a lie is the truth.

Please check out Debbie Burke’s new release, Until Proven Guilty. Available on Kindle, Nook, Apple Books, and online booksellers at this link.

A BUT Means Complications and Obstacles

As an animal lover, wildlife documentaries are my jam. My husband and I often joke about one particular aspect that is true in the natural world—there’s always a “but.”

Wolves are fierce hunters, but they need to take their prey on the run i.e., predate.

 

Bears can kill with one strategically placed swat of the paw, but they have terrible eyesight.

Unrelated fun fact: If an ant is decapitated during a battle, the disembodied head can continue to fight for hours.

Penguins live in huge colonies—there’s safety in numbers—but they have to swim past their greatest enemy (sea lions) to reach the open ocean to feed.

 

A giraffe’s long neck helps them reach leaves at the top of trees, but that same neck that aids them in gathering food also causes the highest blood pressure of any animal.

 

 

A rhino’s horn is their greatest asset in a fight, but that same horn makes them targets for poachers.

 

Mongooses are carnivores, but their favorite prey is venomous snakes, including cobras, adders, and vipers, and one good strike could kill them.

Boreal Owls are usually monogamous, but when prey numbers peak, males cheat with up to three females and female boreal owls often have at least one beau on the side. So much for monogamy, right?

Using sharp claws on their fore-flippers, seals punch out 10-15 breathing holes in the ice and maintain the openings all winter but using these holes can mean sudden death if a hungry polar bear is nearby.

Fun fact: Sea ice is as important to the Arctic as soil is to the forest. It supports the entire Arctic food chain. When ocean water freezes, it expels salts, causing channels to form inside the ice. As sunlight filters through the ice, algae grow within these channels, creating an underwater garden that forms the foundation of the food chain.

Mudskippers are fish who live in the ocean, but they need to walk on land and dig mud burrows to mate.

Skunks use an overpowering odor for defense and can spray six times in succession, but once their foul-smelling liquid runs out it takes up to 10-14 days to refill the glands.

Roadrunners can sprint at 40 mph, plenty fast to outrun prey, but food is scarce in their dry, desert environment, so they hunt venomous snakes—like rattlers who feed on roadrunners—and risk death.

Fun fact: A rattlesnake can shake its rattle twice as fast as hummingbird wings flutter.

Wildebeests need to migrate to find food once resources dry up, but to make it to the promise land they need to cross croc-infested water.

Corvids are some of the world’s most intelligent animals, but that same intelligence is what attracts ignorant people to hunt them for sport. (Yes, I’m bias. #BlackFeatheredLivesMatter)

Cuttlefish can change shape, color, and texture—20 million pigment cells create a magnificent light show—but they can only mate once in a lifetime.

Gray whales can submerge for 15 minutes at a time, but a mother’s calf can only hold its breath for 5 minutes, so when under attack by orcas the mother will flip onto her back to create a platform for her baby to lay on, but Momma can’t breathe upside down.

See where I’m going with this? All these complications and obstacles make the natural world even more interesting.

The same is true for writing.

So, while crafting your storyline—plotted or pantsed—keep “but” in mind. Because without complications and obstacles, you risk boring the reader.

Over to you, TKZers. In your WIP or recent book you’ve read, give us an example of a “but.” Or share a “but” found in nature.

 

Tips To Write a Character You Hate

Have you ever written from the perspective of a character you hated?

It’s a unique experience for me. Which is sayin’ something, considering I write psychological thrillers involving serial killers. With all my other serial killer characters, I could find at least one endearing quality, and I clung to that while I wrote from their perspective. I may not have agreed with their motivations, but at least I understood how they justifIed their actions.

Let me back up a minute.

I mentioned in one of my Reader Friday questions that I’ve been teaching a virtual course about serial killers as part of the Advanced Education Program for a school in Connecticut. I’m also racing toward the finish line in Book 5 of my Grafton County Series. I drew a firm line between the two projects until an Ah-ha! moment slapped me across the face. I was working on the lesson plan for Week 3 of my course when a deliciously evil idea popped into my head.

Don’t you love when that happens?

Even though the finish line was within reach, I couldn’t ignore the new idea. It’s a game-changer, and the perfect way to round out the series as a whole. It also required me to go back to page one, drop a few new clues, and include POV chapters from the killer.

Writing from a serial killer’s point of view isn’t anything new for me. In my Mayhem Series, readers expect a cat-and-mouse chase with alternating POVs between protagonist and antagonist. The Grafton County Series is different. I don’t normally include scenes/chapters from the killer’s POV.

To write a character in deep POV we need to know everything about them or slipping into their skin would be challenging to say the least. And here’s where my two projects—fiction and nonfiction—blurred together.

Out of all the serial killers we’ve discussed during class the most frightening of all was a nasty individual named Israel Keyes, whose MO happened to fit my plot. As part of my research for class, I sat through endless video confessions from Keyes, and learned a lot about who he was as a person and what motivated him to kill. Subconsciously, I must have had in mind all along and only now realized it. After all, if I fear him, so will my readers.

To write from his point of view, I had to view the world as he did. Think as he did. Feel—or more accurately, not feel—as he did. This was problematic for one huge reason—I despised everything about him. He’s evil to the core and didn’t possess even one redeeming quality.

Now, you could say, but Sue, this is fiction. You can add anything you want to his characterization. True, but then he wouldn’t be as frightening.

See what I’m sayin’?

The part of him that most frightened me was his complete lack of empathy toward anyone or anything, his arrogance, his inflated self-worth, and the violent blitz attack of his home invasions. If I softened his psychopathic personality, I’d lose the qualities that made me choose him in the first place. A softer villain wouldn’t pack the same punch. And let’s face it, after going head-to-head with numerous other serial killers in Books 1-4, my protagonist is no shrinking violent. She needs a frightening opponent.

Basing an antagonist on a real serial killer is hardly a new concept.

In the 1960s, Thomas Harris was visiting the Topo Chico Penitentiary in Nuevo Leon, Mexico while working on a story for Argosy, an American pulp fiction magazine that ran for 96 years, between 1882 and 1978. The 23-year-old Harris was interviewing prisoner Dykes Askew Simmons, who was committed to the prison’s psych. ward and sentenced to death for a triple murder. Simmons bribed a guard to help him escape. The guard took the money but had second thoughts during the prison break and shot Simmons.

As Simmons lay on the ground, bleeding out, another inmate, Dr. Alfredo Balli Trevino, treated the gunshot wound, saving his life.

This led Harris to develop an interest in Trevino. He interviewed the doctor and learned Trevino was convicted for the murder of his boyfriend, Jesus Castillo Rangel, in a “crime of passion” after an argument.

Apparently, Rangel had attacked Trevino with a screwdriver. The enraged doctor administered anesthetic to Rangel’s body and dragged him to a bathtub, where he slit his throat, draining all the blood out of his body. Trevino then chopped up Rangel’s body into small pieces and packed them into a box, drove to a relative’s farm, and asked if he could bury medical waste there. One of the farm workers called the police.

Thomas Harris said the doctor “had a certain elegance about him,” even as he discussed dismembering his boyfriend in a bathtub.

I found no such qualities in Israel Keyes.

How do we write from a hateful, despicable point of view?

Much like an actor who plays a villain, we must become one with the character. We have to identify with him. Win his arguments, even if those twisted views rub against our values. I despise this antagonist as much as I do Israel Keyes. Doesn’t matter. Our job is to breathe life into him, bring him to life on the page. The only time we can express our own personal feelings is through the protagonist if, and only if, the protagonist shares our views.

I find it easier to skip over a hateful character’s chapters while drafting the storyline. Then I take a day or two, get into character, and bang out his chapters. The next day when I reread those chapters I’m stunned by his actions and comments. That’s a good thing. If it shocks me (the writer), imagine readers’ reactions.

In my case, though the real killer can’t hurt anyone else—he committed suicide like a coward—it’s left me with one burning question: How many other Israel Keyes walk among us? I’d tell you, but I don’t want to shatter your reality. 🙂

Have you ever written a hateful, angry POV character? Did you handle it in a similar way?

The Opening Chapter Reveals a Secret Vow

A novel’s opening chapter makes a promise, a secret vow that says, “This is what you can expect from me.”

The chapters that follow better fulfill that promise, or the author will suffer the consequences with low-ratings, bad reviews, or their name on the Don’t Not Read list.

Yes, the promise is that important. It’s how we build and maintain an audience. It’s how we climb the proverbial ladder of success. It’s how we keep readers hungering for more. This solemn vow can NEVER be broken.

So far this month I’ve read three novels (all 5 stars). I average about one novel per week, along with nonfiction (craft books or true crime). None of my recent reads landed within my preferred genres of psychological thrillers, dark & gritty mysteries, and serial killer thrillers, but I feel it’s important for writers to venture outside their genres from time to time.

For my next read, I wavered between WIN by Harlen Coben or Book 2 of a serial killer thriller series from one of my auto-buy authors. I devoured Book 1 in a couple days, and I’d been dyin’ to read Book 2 for a while now, so I bought the $9.99 ebook. Immediately, the author transported me to a serial killer’s lair with the protagonist bound and helpless. I was enthralled. As I said, I’d been looking forward to this novel for a while and the opener didn’t disappoint.

Without sharing the title, I’ll show you how the writer sucked me into the scene.

Darkness.

It swirled around him deep and thick, eating the light and leaving nothing behind but an inky void. A fog choked his thoughts—the words tried to come together, tried to form a cohesive sentence, to find meaning, but the moment they seemed close, they were swallowed up and gone, replaced by a growing sense of dread, a feeling of heaviness—his body sinking into the murky depths of a long-forgotten body of water.

Moist scent.

Mildew.

Damp.

[Protagonist] wanted to open his eyes.

Had to open his eyes.

They fought him though, held tight.

His head ached, throbbed.

A pulsing pain behind his right ear—at his temple too.

“Try not to move, [Protagonist’s name]. Wouldn’t want you to get sick.”

The voice was distant, muffled, familiar.

[Protagonist] was lying down.

Cold steel beneath the tips of his fingers.

He remembered the shot then. A needle at the base of his neck, a quick stab, cold liquid rushing under his skin into the muscle, then—

Gripping, tense, love the story rhythm, the way he pauses at just the right moment. I could not flip the pages fast enough. Lovin’ every second of it!

And then…

In the next chapter, I find out it was all a dream. Infuriated, I almost whipped my Kindle across the room. One of my auto-buy authors wrote this thriller, and I expected him to fulfill the promise he made to me. Instead, he cheated. I was so disappointed, I refused to keep reading. He’d broken my trust. He let me down.

Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But that’s exactly how I felt.

The emptiness he inflicted left me hungering for a visceral, gritty, serial killer thriller, one that would fulfill its promise.

I downloaded thriller number two.

Without revealing the title or author, here’s a small sampling of that opener.

            I woke up from a gentle shake. My sister’s face hovered a few inches above mine, her eyes glistening wet. A grinding sound came from her jaw as it moved back and forth.

I shivered.

[Sister] put her fingers against my lips. “SSSH. Nod if you understand,” she whispered.

I nodded.

My room was freezing from the cold wind blowing in through my open window.

“The monsters are coming for us. Be very quiet. We’re escaping,” she whispered.

I nodded again, biting my lip hard to not cry.

Was there a monster in my closet? Behind my closed bedroom door?

My heart thrashed against my ribs like a bird trying to escape its cage. Why were the monsters after us?

We learn the protagonist is a child and her older sister is rescuing her from an imminent threat. Other than a few writing tics, like SSSH instead of Shh…, the author did a terrific job of showing the action. Finally, I could sink into a gripping read. Or so I thought.

The next chapter (Ch. 1) consisted of pages and pages of backstory. No plot, only backstory. The premise still intrigued me, so I kept reading. Then I hit a flashback that dragged on for several pages. The worst part? It added nothing to the main storyline.

Still, because the prologue was so good, I read on. The prologue had raised many, many story questions, and I wanted answers. But in Chapter 2, I read more pages and pages of backstory and another flashback. The next chapter was equally disappointing, with more pages of backstory and a third (fourth?) flashback. I lost count.

Whiplashed from being thrown forward, then backward, I couldn’t take it anymore and closed the book. A good premise will only take you so far. At some point, you need to deliver on the promise you made to the reader.

The third novel I bought—all in same day, I might add—began with a slow burn opener. A girl is emptying a bucket of oil into the dumpster behind Burger King. It doesn’t sound like much on the surface, but the co-authors held my interest. Which, after being burned twice in a matter of hours, wasn’t an easy task.

Here’s the opening of DEAD END GIRL by L.T. Vargus & Tim McBain:

            Corduroy pants swished between Teresa’s thighs as she crossed the parking lot. She had a headache. That drive-thru headset gave her a headache every damn time. The band squeezed her skull like an old man trying to find a ripe cantaloupe in the produce department. Pressing and pressing until her temples throbbed. When the headaches were really bad, she got the aura. And it was gonna be a bad one tonight. She could already tell.

By the time she got home, she’d be nauseous from the skull throb along with the stink of fryer grease clinging to her clothes and hair and skin. Sometimes she swore she could feel it permeating her pores.

She placed a hand under the lid of the dumpster and lifted. The overhead lights in the parking lot glinted on the surface below. It looked like water, but it wasn’t. It was oil. Every night they emptied the fryers, dumping the used oil into this dumpster. It was a disgusting task. Worse than taking out the trash on a 90-degree summer day, when the flies got real thick, and the meat went rancid almost as soon as they put it in the bin.

It was dead out. No traffic. No noise at all but her fiddling with the dumpster and the bucket.

Her skin crawled a little whenever she was out here this late. In the dark. In the quiet. A feeling settled into the flesh on her back and shoulders, a cold feeling, a feeling like after watching one of those scary movies when she was a teenager. It might have been a thrill while she was watching, but later on that night she’d always get spooked. She’d tremble in bed, too terrified to walk down the hall to pee. The house never seemed so ominously still as it did on those nights. Anyhow, she couldn’t stand to watch horror movies anymore. Her weak stomach couldn’t handle the gore.

Bending over the metal cart she’d wheeled along with her, Teresa scooped one of the buckets of used fryer oil and balanced it on the edge of the dumpster. She tipped the bucket and watched as the gallons of brown grease oozed into the dumpster, disrupting the smoothness.

Settled at the bottom of the bucket, there were clumps and chunks. Burned bits of fries and chicken tender crumbs. They splatted and splashed into the pool of liquid that looked black in the night.

That’s when Teresa saw it. Something rising out of the oil, disturbing the otherwise unblemished surface.

Intriguing, right? Most importantly, the authors kept their promise. Elated, I could not flip pages fast enough, savoring favorite passages, the story rhythm and pace pitch-perfect. And now, I have a new favorite series. 🙂

Come morning, I felt bad about dissin’ my auto-buy author. Maybe he had a reason to break the don’t-open-with-a-dream rule. Could the last line of the first paragraph indicate a dream?

…his body sinking into the murky depths of a long-forgotten body of water.

In hindsight, maybe. Probably. But it’s too subtle. Nonetheless, I grabbed my Kindle and kept reading. Sure enough, he used the dream sequence to show the affect it had on the protagonist, who’s been suffering nightmares after a serial killer slipped through his grasp. The dream relates to the plot because that serial killer is back.

Do I agree with the dream opening? No, but I’ll keep reading because I know this author delivers each and every time and his writing speaks to me. But what if I wasn’t a fan? What if I’d chosen the book at random? He would’ve lost me. See what I’m sayin’? It’s a risky move.

We spend a lot of time perfecting our opening pages, polishing them till they shine, but our job doesn’t end there. We must follow through in subsequent chapters by setting up scenes, paying them off, setting up more, paying off more.

Other than that crucial promise, your solemn vow to the reader, a few other takeaways are…

  • Don’t start with a dream sequence unless the reader knows it’s a dream AND you’ve got a damn good reason to do it.
  • Go easy with backstory. Sprinkled it in over time.
  • Avoid flashbacks unless they’re absolutely necessary. Most times they’re not.
  • Don’t tell the reader what happened in the past. Trust us to figure it out on our own.
  • A great premise only works if you deliver on that promise.
  • If a slow burn opener works for your story, use it. Every novel doesn’t need a lightning-fast opener to draw and hold interest.

If you missed Jim’s post yesterday, read it (and the comment section!) for speed bumps that stop the reader.

How many chapters do you read before giving up on a novel?

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Interview with Randy Ingermanson – The Snowflake Guy

By

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Randy Ingermanson AKA the Snowflake Guy

Brilliant people understand complex concepts. But, despite their superior intelligence, they often cannot explain those concepts to less-than-brilliant folks.

But Randy Ingermanson can. He’s brilliant but he has a simple way of breaking down the incomprehensible so we mere mortals understand what he’s talking about.

For those who don’t know Randy, he has a PhD in physics specializing in elementary particle theory. According to the bio on his website: “Most of my work was in nonperturbative methods in quantum field theory.”

Did that lose you? Yeah, me too.

When I Googled nonperturbative, I recognized three words in the definition: cannot be described. That’s for sure!

Yet…Randy, in his spare time, became a successful author of fiction and nonfiction as well as a sought-after writing instructor. His two-book Snowflake series and Writing Fiction for Dummies still remain in the top 100 writing reference books on Amazon many years after they were published.

Randy has the extraordinary ability to break down complex writing concepts into easily digestible bites. In addition, his step-by-step plan of action template helps writers track and accomplish their goals.

Randy graciously agreed to chat with us here on TKZ. Welcome, Randy!

Debbie Burke: Your day job as a physicist requires a lot of brain energy. You also keep up the Advanced Fiction Writing blog and write bestselling craft books. Plus you write multiple fiction series, some involving extensive historical research, including archaeological digs. And you have a family. Do you ever sleep?

Joking aside, your ability to juggle multiple projects is impressive. Can you share some hints on how you manage your time and prioritize tasks?

Randy Ingermanson: For a big chunk of my life, I didn’t manage my time very well. I took on too many things and then felt really stressed. But things began to change about 15 years ago when I read David Allen’s classic book Getting Things Done. I realized that I was doing things badly, and that’s the first step to doing things better.

One key thing I’ve learned is that sometimes you just have to prune things out of your life. That’s very hard, but over the last several years, I’ve cut back several parts of my life that I thought were essential. And nobody died. I have a theory that everyone has a set limit to the number of main projects they can juggle. My limit is three. Some people can do four, and I admire them to death, but I can’t do it.

Another key thing I’ve learned is that it’s OK to have a hundred things on your To-Do List, as long as they’re not all visible right now. So I have a cascading sequence of To-Do Lists, one for “Someday”, one for “This Year,” “This Quarter,” This Month,” “This Week,” and “Today.” Every Sunday, I review the lists and promote some tasks from “This Month” to “This Week”. Every day, I choose things from “This Week” to put on the “Today” list. The beauty of this is that a day is a success if I knock off all the things on the Today list. I only have to look at those 15 items and decide which to do next. I don’t have to look at the dozens or hundreds on This Week or This Month or This Year. Those will all get done in due time, but the name of the game is to not be overwhelmed. When you get overwhelmed, your brain goes into panic mode, you spend all day spinning your wheels, and you end up eating all the Haagen-Dazs.

I use a nifty method called “Kanban” to manage my tasks. (This is very popular among software developers.) There are a bunch of websites that let you set up Kanban projects. The one I use is at Kanbanflow.com, and it works for me. But I recommend that people always use a tool that resonates with them.

DB: Writing a novel is a hard project. You have a wonderfully workable system for how to tackle hard projects. Can you explain the steps in that system?

RI: I wrote a blog post awhile back on the general problem of managing any hard project. I’ll refer your readers to that post here: https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/blog/2021/01/21/how-to-make-an-action-plan/

I’ve gotten extremely famous for my system for managing one particular hard project—writing the first draft of your novel. The “Snowflake Method” will probably be listed on my headstone. It’s a ten-step method I use for writing my first draft. I wrote out the ten steps back around 2002 in answer to a question somebody asked in an online writing group I was on. And some people liked the idea enough that I posted it on my website. And then it just took off. It’s now been viewed more than 6 million times and has earned me a ridiculous amount of money.

The core idea is that you design a novel before you write it. Some people hate this idea and would rather just write by the seat of their pants. That’s fine by me. Different people are wired different in the brain, and it doesn’t matter how you get your first draft down on paper. We all can respect each other and recognize that we don’t all think alike. The Snowflake Method happens to work well for about a third of the writing population.

You start by taking an hour to write down a summary sentence for your story. This will be your selling tool forever, so it makes sense to take a little time to do it. But don’t spend weeks obsessing on this. Write down your best one-sentence summary for now and then move on to the next step. You can always come back and improve it later. In fact, you certainly will.

The Snowflake Method has another nine steps, and I don’t have space to even summarize them here. But anyone can Google “Snowflake Method” and find my 3000-word web article or my 50,000 word book on the subject. If you like to know approximately where you’re going before you start writing, then the Snowflake Method is designed for you. If you don’t, then it’s not for you.

 

 

DB: Most authors dread marketing. What do you recommend as the most important marketing tools for a writer?

RI: I used to hate marketing. In fact, I remember the day I told an agent friend of mine, “I hate marketing! I’m a terrible marketer, and I don’t ever want to have to market my books again!” She got a panicky look on her face and told me not to say such things out loud, because the walls have ears. And she was right.

I now believe there are three main keys to good marketing for a novelist. I call them the Three Rings of Power. They are:

  • Your website
  • Your email newsletter
  • Paid advertising

Your website is important because you own it. Social media is notoriously fickle, and any social media platform can suddenly become unusable, for a variety of reasons. Various platforms can ban you, or go out of fashion, or start charging you. But you own your website and it’s very hard to take it away from you.

Ditto for your email newsletter. If you have a newsletter with 5000 loyal readers who know you and actually read what you send, you have a guaranteed bestseller, every time you launch a book. That’s gold.

Paid advertising is now just a fact of life. None of us like paying for ads, but they work. If you use Amazon ads and Facebook ads and BookBub ads and the various book promo sites effectively, you can move copies with a positive return-on-investment. I think TikTok will soon join this short list of paid-ad opportunities that authors routinely use.

So the Three Rings of Power are great, and I personally have done extremely well using them. However …

However, a lot of authors don’t see a good return on their investment for their website, their email newsletter, and their paid ads. Why not? Do the marketing gods hate them?

No, the reason is very simple. The Three Rings of Power are useless unless you also master the One Ring that Rule Them All. That One Ring is copywriting. The ability to write good headlines, strong sales copy, and a compelling call-to-action, all without smelling like a weasel. This is a fine line to walk, but once you learn it, you can apply it everywhere. To your website. Your newsletter. Your paid ads. And away you go.

As it happens, I began to learn copywriting shortly after I had my “I hate marketing” conversation with my agent friend. And that has made all the difference for me. In some sense you make your own luck in marketing, and my luck changed permanently when I took the time to learn how to write copy.

Copywriting is not particularly sexy or fun. But if you go to Amazon and do a search for books on copywriting, you’ll find any number of sources that will teach you the fundamentals. And then you just need to go do it, determined to learn it, no matter what.

Learn copywriting, and the Three Rings of Power are your servants, not your masters. Many Bothans died to bring me this secret.

DB: What are you working on currently?

RI: I read Steven Kotler’s book The Art of Impossible back in October, and it revolutionized my thinking. I decided that for the next few years, I’m going to focus on fewer things and do them better. I have a day job doing image analysis for a biotech company in San Diego, and that consumes half my life, because it’s a half-time job. I am currently writing a series of historical novels on the most influential person ever to walk the planet, Jesus of Nazareth, and that’s going to take me another three or four years to finish. And I’m working on a project I call “Project Chronologicus” that will combine my mathematical/computer skills with my interest in ancient history—it’s a project to harvest historical data from ancient documents and compute the best-fit chronology for ancient history. (This is a notoriously hard problem, too difficult for any human to solve without a computer; but my whole career has been spent solving problems humans can’t solve alone, so I may possibly be able to write the software to solve this one. And if not, I’ll have fun.)

 DB: Is there anything else you’d like to add? Any questions you wish I’d asked?

RI:  As Gandalf once said, you don’t know your danger when you ask a hobbit such a question, because the hobbit will go on endlessly. This hobbit will have mercy on you and just say no.

~~~

Randy, feel free to go on endlessly with all the knowledge you have to impart to writers! Thanks for visiting The Zone!

Randy’s Snowflake series

Advanced Fiction Writing blog

Randy’s website

~~~

TKZers: Have you tried the Snowflake method of plotting?

Please share your best tips for time management for writers.

Craft Lessons: @HarlanCoben STAY CLOSE #Netflix

When I’m not reading or watching true crime or nature/wildlife documentaries, I search for net-streaming series based on novels. Why? Because they’re the next best thing to reading, if the series preserves the craft beneath the storyline. Harlan Coben’s STAY CLOSE on Netflix is the perfect example.

The Limited Series is split into eight episodes. In a novel the dramatic arc is split into four quartiles (25% each), called Parts.

  1. Part I: The Set Up: The first quartile (25%) of the story has but a single mission: to set-up everything that follows. We need to accomplish a handful of things, but they all fall under the umbrella of that singular mission. If we choose to show the antagonist, we only want to include jigsaw pieces of the puzzle. Most importantly, Part 1 needs to establish stakes for what happens to the hero after Part 1. Here in Part 1 is where the reader is made to care. The more we empathize with what the hero has at stake—what they need and want in their life and/or what obstacles they need to conquer before the arrival of the primary conflict—the more we care when it all changes. They’re like an orphan, unsure of what will happen next.
  2. Part II: The Response: This quartile shows the protagonist’s reaction to the new goal/stakes/obstacles revealed by the First Plot Point. They don’t need to be heroic yet. Instead, they retreat, regroup, and/or have doomed attempts at a resolution.
  3. Part III: The Attack: Midpoint information, awareness, or contextual understanding causes the protagonist to change course—to shift—in how to approach the obstacles. The hero is now empowered, not merely reacting as they did in Part II. They have a plan on how to proceed.
  4. Part IV: The Resolution: The protagonist summons the courage and growth to come up with a solution, overcome inner obstacles, and conquer the antagonist. They’re empowered, determined. Heroic.

In the Netflix series, every two episodes represent one quartile. Keep the dramatic arc in mind.

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” —Chekhov

Chekhov’s Gun is the principle that every element in a dramatic work must either be relevant or removed, that we must not hold “false promises” out to readers. Consciously or not, we’re always loading Chekhov’s Gun. Every sentence is a rifle hung on the wall. Sooner or later, it will—must—go off.

Also known as setup and payoff. We’re always either setting up a future moment/scene or paying it off. Let’s see this principle in action…

*Spoiler Alert* of the first 15 minutes of Episode One

The HOOK takes place at a strip club called Viper’s. Fleeting images show a young man, drunk, stumbling outside and into the woods behind the club, in pursuit of…someone.

We don’t know who he’s chasing or why, so we’ll keep watching…

Then we’re in Suburbia and introduced to a mother of three, Megan, and her fiancé. That night, Megan, the bride-to-be, is the guest of honor at one of the tamest bachelorette parties in history.

At the party, a friend says, “It’s about time you two are getting married after sixteen years together.”

That one line of dialogue shows us a sliver of Megan’s backstory: the fiancé is also the father of her three children.

The same friend addresses the flock of women and our bride-to-be, Megan. “I know it’s not a traditional hen night. We’re way too classy for strippers, however, we do have—(man in a bathrobe enters the scene)—a model!”

The women shriek.

The camera pans out to show easels set up in a circle, and the women laugh, drink white wine, and attempt to draw. We like the bride-to-be. Megan’s fun, respectable, and clearly in love with her fiancé. Even with her wealth, we can easily relate to her.

After the fun drawing session, Megan chats with the same friend at the bar.

Friend: “I think it’s wonderful you and David are getting married after all this time.”

Megan: “We should have done it years ago.”

Friend: “Everyone else is splitting up, but you two just keep getting stronger.”

Through the short exchange we learn about her circle of friends and Megan’s relationship. A mental image of Megan takes shape. We like her even more. She’s a good, solid person. Reliable. Trustworthy. Faithful. Nice. We certainly wouldn’t want anything to happen to her—and that’s what good characterization is all about. We care about Megan. We’re living vicariously through her, and we’ll stick around to make sure she stays safe.

When Megan arrives home in a taxi—she would never drink and drive; we know this from her characterization—she finds a bottle of champagne on her front stoop. A card leans against the bottle. A card addressed to Cassie [Motivation]. Who’s Cassie? The card terrifies Megan, evident by her silent gasp [Reaction]. Camera zooms in on the name again [Motivation], then on Megan, whose blank stare and parted lips shows she’s clearly terrified [Reaction]. She whirls around, her gaze scanning the dark road, the envelope gripped tight between her fingers.

In the envelope, a card portrays a bride and groom waltzing. With no note inside, the card itself acts as a direct threat to Megan. But because we have no idea why it’s a threat or who Cassie is, we’re glued to the screen.

A lack of information is often more powerful than the explanation.

Megan races into the house to check the security footage. But the person who left the card is wearing a hoodie. The camera doesn’t help her identify the interloper. (Rising tension, enhanced stakes)

This scene looks a lot like the first pinch point, doesn’t it? But it’s too early. Therefore, the placement indicates it’s the Inciting Incident.

Inciting Incident *Optional*: Not every story has to have an Inciting Incident in the way I use the term. Some call the Inciting Incident the First Plot Point. I refer to it as a separate Milestone, a foreshadowing of the First Plot Point. It can even be an entirely different event, one that relates to the main plot, but it’s a false start. A tease.

New Scene, New POV Character.

This time, a middle-aged detective, DS Michael Broome, and his female partner, DC Erin Cartwright, are assigned the missing persons case of a 20-year-old named Carlton Flynn. The much-younger superior, DCS Brian Goldberg, tells the detectives there’s already been a hit on Flynn’s car.

Camera zooms in on the car so the viewer will remember what it looks like (setting up a future scene).

Carlton has been missing about 48 hours, and this seems to aggravate DS Broome, probably because he has a big enough workload already. Besides, Carlton’s an adult who’s probably out partying somewhere.

Now, DCS Goldberg orders DS Broome to speak with the victim’s father, who is well-connected with friends in the department. The decades between DS Broome and DCS Goldberg add instant micro-tension. The viewer doesn’t need to be told anything. Instinctively, we know these two will butt heads at some point. It’s bound to happen, right? This age-gap adds another layer of intrigue, more story questions, and enhances Broome’s characterization i.e., for now, he’s on his best behavior.

In the driveway at the Flynn residence, Broome exists the car and says to his partner, “Erin, that’s weird.”

Notice how Coben purposefully leaves out the conversation preceding this remark? By doing so, he raises more story questions and piques curiosity.

“It’s not weird,” DC Cartwright says as they stroll toward the front door. “I’m not asking for details.”

“Good, ’cause you’re not getting them.”

“Just tell me, was she nice? ’Cause that’s not details. You deserve a nice woman.”

DS Broome admits, “Yes, she was nice.”

“Good, good, I’m glad.”

“A bit eager, maybe.”

“Eager,” she echoes, nodding.

“Keen to please. Like a Labrador.”

This banter is light, witty, and fun. We instantly like these two, and their partnership (characterization).

Mr. Flynn tells the detectives how worried he is, how his son would never wander off without a word to anyone. The stepmother is much younger than he, and they admit Carlton and the new Mrs. Flynn didn’t always see eye-to-eye. But, Mr. Flynn adds, nothing that would make him leave home.

When the stepmother goes to find a photograph of Carlton, Mr. Flynn asks the detectives if they have kids.

DC Cartwright: Two-year-old.

DS Broome: No. My ex-wife didn’t want them.

Broome’s is a bold statement. We find out why later. For now, we learn he’s divorced, adding another layer of characterization, but it also raises story questions. Did he want kids? The dialogue indicates he did, but we can’t be sure.

See how Coben slips in backstory and keeps the viewer engaged? Every word is strategically placed for a reason. Every sentence/line of dialogue has a purpose.

“He hasn’t been on social media,” the father says, “Nothing. It just stopped April sixteenth.”

The date startles DS Broome. “April sixteenth? I thought Carlton went missing on the seventeenth.”

“No,” Mr. Flynn says. “The seventeenth is the day we realized something was wrong.”

“Right. Huh.” DS Broome pauses. “Does the name Stewart Green mean anything to you?”

DC Cartwright stares at her partner like, Why would you ask him about Stewart Green?

We wonder why, too. Again, raising story questions, dragging us along, forcing us to continue.

When the stepmother returns with a photo of Carlton, he’s the guy from the HOOK. Remember the drunk dude who stumbled into the woods in pursuit of…someone? That’s Carlton Flynn! Not only has Coben paid off the Hook, but he’s also raised new story questions. What happened to Carlton Flynn? Why was he in the woods? Who was he chasing?

When we answer one question, we must raise another—all to set up the First Plot Point or another pivotal Milestone.

While walking back to the car, DC Cartwright says, “Stewart Green?”

“Seventeen years to the day.”

DS Broome’s dialogue adds a sliver of backstory AND implants story questions in our mind: How do these two missing people align? Or is he obsessed with an old case?

“Let it go.”

“Erin, it’s a feeling I’ve got.”

“You see connections everywhere.” (characterization detail)

“I see connections where there are connections,” DS Broome says. “It’s called being a good cop.” (characterization detail)

“Oh, don’t. The only case that’s ever beaten you. (backstory) I call that being an egomaniac.”

“Ego?” DS Broome is visibly upset, tone rising with anger. “I let them down. His family, his wife, they were destroyed. I told them I find him.” (backstory, characterization detail: he is haunted by this old case)

Snide and cold, DC Cartwright smirks. “Did sleeping with her soften the blow?” (backstory, tension)

“That was years later, as you well know.” Over the roof of the car, Broome pouts his bottom lip. “And I was brokenhearted.”

“For the record, I did want kids. Just—”

Broome fills in the blank. “Not with me.”

Bam! Those last two lines of dialogue bring meaning to all the dialogue that came before it, including why DS Broome thought it was weird to share details about his date. These two are a lot more than partners. They were married! Which raises even more story questions. Did he cheat on Erin with Stewart Green’s wife? Is that why they divorced? Give us details!

But Coben is far too clever to reveal all the juicy tidbits at once. We’ll have to wait, and keep watching… 

“Act first, explain later.” —James Scott Bell

The final POV character is a paparazzi-for-hire named Ray Levine, snapping photos outside a bar mitzvah for a young celebrity, who winds up kicking Ray in the shin. The bodyguard ushers the child star into the venue. Moments later, we learn through dialogue that the bodyguard and Ray are buddies. In fact, he’s the one who hired Ray to take photos.

Coben opens his 2012 thriller of the same title with Ray. Let’s take a look…

Sometimes, in that split second when Ray Levine snapped a picture and lost the world in the strobe from his flashbulb, he saw the blood. He knew, of course, that it was only in his mind’s eye, but at times, like right now, the vision was so real he had to lower his camera and take a good hard look at the ground in front of him. That horrible moment—the moment Ray’s life changed completely, transforming him from a man with a future and aspirations into this Grade-A loser you see in front of you—never visited him in his dreams or when he sat alone in the dark. The devastating visions waited until he was wide-awake, surrounded by people, busy at what some might sarcastically dub work.

            The vision mercifully faded as Ray continuously snapped pictures of the bar mitzvah boy.

Look at how many story questions he’s raised in the first paragraph. What’s the blood about? Did he kill someone? What happened to this man? Coben also forces us to care about Ray. The poor guy suffers from horrible visions. At the same time, we wonder why. We need answers! And so, we’ll keep reading.

Coben shuffled the POVs for the Netflix series, and it’s just as effective. 

After we meet Ray at the bar mitzvah, he treks home through the seedier part of town. Someone slams him over the head and steals his camera, making it appear like someone connected to the child star mugged Ray. Coben wants us to make this assumption, so when we find out why he’s mugged in the payoff scene, it’s a surprise. 

Employing all these techniques is how to force the reader to keep flipping pages. Or, in this case, binge the whole series.

Have you read STAY CLOSE? Have you seen the Netflix series? If you haven’t, at least watch the first episode (or even the first 15 minutes!) to see how this plays out on the screen, and witness a master storyteller at work.

First Page Critique – The Scribe’s Boy

Photo credit: desatboy at Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Let’s welcome another Brave Author who submitted today’s first page for critique, entitled The Scribe’s Boy. Please enjoy reading and we’ll discuss this on the flip side.

~~~

The worst thing about a beating is how much it hurts the next day. But this time I wasn’t going to wait that long. Seth and me were running away right now. Away from the Wiltshire Inn, away from being kitchen boys, away from Bernard and his fists like boulders.

The blood had dried on my cheek but my right eye still flashed and throbbed – I’d be lucky to see out of it tomorrow. Could barely see anything now, with darkness falling and this sudden downpour swallowing us. But dusk and the downpour helped hide us as we cowered further under the wet undergrowth, hoping those two horsemen wouldn’t see us. Bad luck the heavens opening like that just when we were making a run for it – we barely got across the road and into the trees. Even worse luck when the two riders came trotting towards us like smoky shadows and reined in at the hedge we’d scrambled under.

Seth shivered close against the curve of my body, his back to my front. He was folded, knees to chin, his bones digging into me. Our tunics and leggings were sopping wet and slimy with mud but I kept my arm tight around him, sheltering him best I could. The smell of wet earth and leaves filled me.

Twigs jabbed into my scalp and rain dribbled off my hair into my eyes. It stung.

“How’d you like that then, Alfred, eh?” Master Bernard’s fury rang in my head as if he were yelling right next to me. I flinched. Even curled up in the mud I could still hear him as he threw me across the kitchen to sprawl in the rushes on the earthen floor.

Beside me now Seth elbowed my ribs and whispered, “We should run for it.”

“No. They’re too close.” Fear kept me curled up, fear that had me by the throat and made me lie still and silent among knobbly roots and old leaves. My side ached and Seth pressing against it didn’t help. I tried not to tremble but the cold was eating me up. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking.

What I wouldn’t give for some stockpot stew right now. Bernard bragged he ran the best lodgings in the kingdom – always open to anyone willing to pay for pot luck. It was only his kitchen boys he didn’t like feeding.

~~~

Wow! I have to say I’m totally impressed. The Brave Author literally began with a wallop. I don’t know the protagonist yet but already feel sorry for him for being on the wrong end of a vicious beating.

Sentences two and three present the goal: escape from brutality.

Next, the Brave Author sets the scene with the location, establishes the approximate age (children rather than adults) and job of the protagonist and his fellow escapee, Seth, and introduces characters including Bernard, the bullying antagonist with fists like boulders.

One tiny suggestion: How about if you insert “Master” in the first paragraph? That shows the boys are in servitude: “…away from Master Bernard and his fists like boulders.”

A lot of information is packed into one sentence yet it flows well, is clear, and keeps the reader firmly in the action.

The next paragraph establishes the time (dusk), the weather (pouring rain), more location details about the road they crossed and the hedge they’re hiding in. Most important, it sets the era as historic by describing the searchers on horseback.

There is rich sensory detail in the next two paragraphs, especially touch and smell. The boys’ bony bodies not only offer physical description but also indicate the further abuse of being malnourished. The protagonist’s protectiveness toward Seth makes him not only sympathetic but admirable. He’s terrified yet still tries to help his friend.

I feel the chilly rain dripping on them, slimy mud, and sharp twigs poking the protagonist. Tunics and leggings additionally establish the historic time period.

The next paragraph is the only one that felt jarring.

“How’d you like that then, Alfred, eh?” Master Bernard’s fury rang in my head as if he were yelling right next to me. I flinched. Even curled up in the mud I could still hear him as he threw me across the kitchen to sprawl in the rushes on the earthen floor.

The flashback of Bernard attacking Alfred yanked me out of the story. It interrupts the forward momentum and intensity of the scene. Its main function seems to be a way to work in the protagonist’s name and more setting details like the rushes on the earthen floor.

I recommend cutting the flashback. The setting information can be woven in later. The Brave Author is definitely skillful enough to let the reader learn Alfred’s name without resorting to a flashback. One easy way is for Seth to call him by name: “We should run for it, Alfred.”

The next paragraph incorporates more wonderful sensory detail that evokes the boys’ terror.

The last paragraph is poignant, heartbreaking backstory of child slaves being starved by a cruel master. Reference to “the kingdom” sounds British, another location hint seamlessly layered in.

The title The Scribe’s Boy indicates the historic time period.

Dictionary.com defines a scribe as:

a person who serves as a professional copyist, especially one who made copies of manuscripts before the invention of printing; a public clerk or writer, usually one having official status.”

Such a job would require the ability to read and write, a rarity in the time period that this submission appears to be set. People with education were respected and awarded high status in the community.

Presumably a scribe’s boy is an assistant or helper. The title possibly foreshadows Alfred’s future. Will the abused kitchen boy rise to success and freedom? I’m rooting for him.

The page is clean–no typos or spelling errors. “Seth and me were running away…” is ungrammatical but appropriate and consistent with Albert’s voice.

Every word counts on this page. There is no sloppy phrasing or unnecessary verbiage. Each sentence is as tight and resonant as a violin string.

This page hits all-important story elements to hook the reader: action, tension, conflict, setting, introduction of characters, sensory detail, emotion, and suspense.  

Am I invested in the boys’ struggle? Completely. Am I eager to turn the page? Absolutely.

This is a really excellent first page, Brave Author. You should be proud. Let us know when this book is published.

~~~

TKZers: What are your impressions of Alfred, Seth, and Master Bernard? Do you have ideas or suggestions for the Brave Author? Would you read the book?

~~~

 

Try Instrument of the Devil for FREE. Then come back for more Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion by Debbie Burke.

First Page Critique: Envy Rots Your Bones

Another brave writer shared their first page for critique. Enjoy! My comments will follow.

Chapter One

Envy Rots Your Bones

Grandma Iris had never cradled me like she did that Bible. Sat across the table, she held it tight to her chest, tracing her bony finger down its decorative spine. The golden crucifix embedded in the book’s cover glinted as dawn streamed through the window. A wink… or a jeer… It knew it was Grandma’s favourite.

Jealousy stroked at me, teasing, and I swatted it’s claws away. Envy rots your bones. It’s a sin, I reminded myself. One of Grandma’s many teachings.

Leather creaked as Grandma delicately opened the book upon the table.

“Are you ready, Elisa?” A demand masked as a question.

I inhaled deeply, the cold dusty air of the dining room filling my lungs. I promised Grandma I would do better, be better, this time. And yet, for the second time that afternoon, I sinned.

“I’m ready,” I lied.

Her eyes flickered to mine. Somehow her wrinkles deepened, eyes became darker when they settled on me. And without another word, she fired the first test.

“Luke 1:47?”

With no time to comprehend the question, scripture tumbled out of me.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”

Grandma nodded, a fleeting gesture of approval. “Psalm 107:1?”

Again, I answered without pause, without a doubt. “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His mercy endures forever.”

“Excellent, Elisa,” she said, flicking through the dog-eared pages. “Psalm 18:3?”

I opened my mouth, expecting the answer to dance off my tongue again, but… nothing. Only silence filled the room. Scrunching my eyes, I frantically searched the depths of my mind, bible verses scrambled in my head.

‘When you ask, you do not receive,’ – no, not that one. ‘Come near to God, and he will be near to you’– not that either. 

I could feel her narrow gaze pinned to me now. Waiting, watching as I drowned amongst the scripture. Her fingers rapped against the oak table, underscoring each second that drifted by, still without an answer, still sinking. How silly of me to make false promises. Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, she always was.

Disappointed.

The word buzzed in the forefront of my mind, sending a ripple of familiarity through me. I said it out loud, feeling each syllable float from my lips.

Dis-a-ppoint-ment. 

And with that, I burst to the surface.

“In the midst of disappointment, know that God is listening and-”

But before I could complete the verse, a whoosh of air and the scent of old leather gushed towards me. Pain erupted in my cheek, knocking the words from my mouth and throwing me sideward. As I slammed into the floorboards, my eyes sprung open, just in time to see Grandma lower the bible back to the table.

* * *

Y’know what I love most about this first page? The scene is so complete and compelling, it could double as flash fiction. Anon didn’t feel the need to waste precious real estate by describing the room or the characters in detail. Instead, we’re dropped into the middle of a tense moment, and we cannot look away. This writer also gained empathy for the main character and showed us a lot about the relationship between Elisa and Grandma without resorting to telling. And the voice? Excellent.

I do have a few comments/suggestions, but nothing major.

Chapter One

Envy Rots Your Bones 

Grandma Iris had never cradled me like she did that Bible. (<– Compelling first line) Sat Aacross the table, she held it the book tight to her chest, tracing her bony finger down its decorative spine. The golden crucifix embedded in the bible’s book’s cover, glinted as dawn streamed through the window.

*Side note: Holy Bible, since it’s a title, should be capitalized; the bible—not a title—should be lowercase. Some writers prefer to always capitalize Bible. If you’re consistent, I don’t think it’s a big deal either way. When in doubt, listen to your editor.

A wink… or a jeer… It knew it was Grandma’s favourite.

*Side note: When I received the first page, Lynne noted: “UK writer.” Hence the British spelling of certain words, like favourite vs. favorite and Saviour vs. Savior. Please be aware, US spelling is the preferred industry standard.

Jealousy stroked at me, teasing, and I swatted it’s its claws away. (<–Love that line!) Envy rots your bones. It’s a sin, I reminded myself (<–we know it’s inner dialogue without this attrib.). One of Grandma’s many teachings.

Leather creaked as Grandma delicately opened the book upon the table. “Are you ready, Elisa?” A demand masked as a question.

I inhaled deeply (showing the act of inhaling implies deeply, so the adverb isn’t necessary), the cold dusty air of the dining room filling my lungs. I promised Grandma I would do better, be better, this time. And yet, for the second time that afternoon, I sinned. <–Excellent! These last two sentences say so much.

“I’m ready,” I lied.

Her eyes flickered to mine. Somehow her wrinkles deepened, eyes became darkened when they settled on me. And without another word, she fired the first test. (<– Slight hiccup here. As written, it implies “without another word” from Grandma. But I think you meant Elisa. Easy fix. “Without another word from me”)

“Luke 1:47?” (see below for citing scripture in dialogue)

With no time to comprehend the question, scripture tumbled out of me (comprehend isn’t the correct word. If she didn’t understand the question, she wouldn’t be able to cite the verse. Try: Without much forethought… Or leave out altogether: Scripture tumbled out of me). “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.”

Grandma nodded, a fleeting gesture of approval. “Psalm 107:1?”

Again, I answered without pause, without a doubt. “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His mercy endures forever.”

“Excellent, Elisa,” she said, flicking through the dog-eared pages. “Psalm 18:3?”

I opened my mouth, expecting the answer to dance off my tongue again, but… nothing. Only Silence filled the room. Scrunching my eyes, I frantically searched the depths of my mind, bible verses scrambled in my head.

When you ask, you do not receive,.(Removed single quotes and incorrect usage of en-dash.) No, not that one. Come near to God, and he will be near to you’–. Not that either. 

I could feel Now, her narrowed gaze pinned to on me now. Waiting, watching, as I drowned amongst the scripture. Her fingers rapped against the oak table, underscoring each second that drifted (drifted implies slow. Try: ticked, fled, drained, raced, sped, or another strong verb for fast) by, still without an answer, still sinking (<– Nice visual). How silly of me to make false promises. Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, she always was. (Suggestion: Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, her usual state of mind.)

Disappointed.

The word buzzed in the forefront of my mind, sending a ripple of familiarity through me. I said it out loud, feeling each syllable float from my lips.

Dis-a-ppoint-ment. (Would she really say this out loud in front of Grandma?)

And with that, I burst to the surface. (Consider deleting. I understand Elisa is metaphorically bursting to the surface, but it stopped me. Perhaps others will feel differently.)

“In the midst of disappointment, know that God is listening and—” (Use em-dash, not en-dash, to indicate cut off speech. For more on em-dashes, see this post)

But before I could complete the verse (Redundant since you went through the trouble of showing us the verse had been cut short), aA whoosh of air and the scent of old leather gushed (rushed?) towards me. Pain erupted in my cheek, knocking the words from my mouth, and throwing me sideward. As I slammed into the floorboards, my eyes sprang open, just in time to see catch Grandma lowering the bible back to the table.

The Editor’s Blog has a fantastic article about numbers in fiction. For citing scripture in dialogue, they recommend the following:

For dialogue, spell out the numbers as words. Do this whether a character is saying just the chapter or just the verse or is including both. “My dad always quoted Romans twelve to me.” “My grandmother’s favorite verse was Jeremiah twenty-nine eleven.” “I can’t remember if the verse he quoted was nine or nineteen.” (Could you make an exception for the Psalms? Probably so. “My niece learned how to say Psalm 23 in four languages.” If you consider psalm plus the number a title, I’d say that would work. I don’t know that other books and chapters, however, would get the same treatment.)

Outside of dialogue, use the typical convention for chapter and verse when you include both. Make this one of your exceptions to the rule about when to write out numbers. So—The text he’d quoted was Genesis 3:23.

Yet if you’re using only the verse, spell out the number (use a numeral for numbers greater than 100)—The text he quoted was verse twenty-three.

Also spell out the numbers if you’re not including the book and verses in the typical reference style—The text he was hunting for was in Luke—verses four through eleven of chapter six.

In a reference to the chapter only, you may want to adjust the wording—The text he quoted was from the third chapter of Genesis.

Could you write Genesis 3 or 1 Timothy 5? Probably. And I’d suggest using that format for the Psalms, writing Psalm 119 or Psalm 23. Yet such a format with other bible books might be difficult for readers, at least at first glance. You may want to play around with how you say it if you’re only including the book name and chapter number without a verse number. After all, many people would understand easily if you wrote—He loved the Twenty-third Psalm.)

Brave Writer, I really enjoyed this first page. Thank you for sharing your work with us.

I’d turn the page to find out what happens next. What about you, TKZers? Any suggestions/comments for this brave writer? Favorite line?

How To Spot + Rewrite Fluff

Those dang pesky buggers that sneak into first drafts and weaken the writing are called filler words and phrases—also known as fluff.

If a filler word serves a purpose, keep it. The objective is to tighten the writing by eliminating unnecessary words and anything the reader might find distracting.

For example, a Bigshot Author I adore had the strangest writing tick in her debut novel. It’s a good thing I unknowingly started with book 5, or I might not have devoured two of her thriller series. I can’t tell you her name, but I will share the tic.

“Blah, blah, blah,” she said, and then, “Blah, blah, blah.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” he replied, and then, “Blah, blah, blah.”

Almost every line of dialogue had “she said, and then.” The writing tic distracted me, yanked me right out of the story, and made me want to whip my Kindle out the window. To this day I recall favorite passages from many of her high-octane thrillers, but I couldn’t tell you the basic plot of her debut till I jumped over to Amazon to refresh my memory. She’s since re-edited the novel. 🙂

FILLER WORDS

Just

Just should almost always be murdered.

Original: I just couldn’t say goodbye.

Rewrite: I couldn’t bear to say goodbye.

That 

That litters many first drafts, but it can often be killed without any harm to the original sentence.

Original: I believe that all writers kill their darlings.

Rewrite: I believe all writers kill their darlings.

The original and rewrite have another problem. Did you catch it?

Believe in this context is a telling word. Any time we tell the reader things like “I thought” or “He knew” or “She felt” or “I believe” we slip out of deep POV. Thus, the little darling must die.

Final Rewrite: All writers kill their darlings.

So 

Original: So, this huge guy glared at me in the coffee line.

Rewrite: This musclebound, no-necked guy glared at me in the coffee line.

Confession? I use “so” all the time IRL. It’s also one of the (many) writing tics I search for in my work. The only exception to killing this (or any other) filler word is if it’s used with purpose, like as a character cue word.

Really

Original: She broke up with him. He still really loved her.

Sometimes removing filler means combining/rewording sentences.

Rewrite: When she severed their relationship, his heart stalled.

Very

Here’s another meaningless word. Kill it on sight.

Original: He made me very happy.

Rewrite: When he neared, my skin tingled.

Of

To determine if “of” is needed read the sentence with and without it. Does it still make sense? Yes? Kill it. No? Keep it.

Original: She bolted out of the door.

Rewrite: She bolted out the door.

Up (with certain actions)

Original: He rose up from the table.

Rewrite: He rose from the table.

Original: He stood up tall.

Rewrite: He stood tall.

Down (with certain actions)

Original: He sat down on the couch.

Rewrite: He sat on the couch.

Original: He laid down the blanket.

Rewrite: He laid the blanket on the floor.

And/But (to start a sentence)

I’m not saying we should never use “and” or “but” to start a sentence, though editors might disagree. 🙂 Don’t overdo it.

Original: He died. And I’m heartbroken.

Rewrite: When he died, my soul shattered.

Also search for places where “but” is used to connect two sentences. Can you combine them into one without losing the meaning?

Original: He moved out of state, but I miss him. He was the most caring man I’d ever met.

Rewrite: The most caring man I’d ever met moved out of state. I miss him—miss us.

Want(ed)

Want/wanted is another telling word. It must die to preserve deep POV.

Original: I really wanted the chocolate cake.

Substitute with a strong verb.

Rewrite: I drooled over the chocolate cake. One bite. What could it hurt?

Came/Went

Came/went is filler because it’s not specific. Substitute with an a strong verb.

Original: I went to the store to buy my favorite ice cream.

Rewrite: I raced to Marco’s General Store to buy salted caramel ice cream, my tastebuds cheering me on.

Had

Too many had words give the impression the action took place prior to the main storyline. As a guide, used once in a sentence puts the action in past tense. Twice is repetitive and clutters the writing. Also, if it’s clear the action is in the past, it can often be omitted.

Original: I had gazed at the painting for hours and the eyes didn’t move.

Rewrite: For hours I gazed at the painting and the eyes never wavered.

Well (to start a sentence)

Original: Well, the homecoming queen made it to the dance, but the king didn’t.

Rewrite: The homecoming queen attended the dance, stag.

Basically/Literally

Original: I basically/literally had to drag her out of the bar by her hair.

Rewrite: I dragged her out of the bar by the hair.

Actually

Original: Actually, I did mind.

Rewrite: I minded.

Highly

Original: She was highly annoyed by his presence.

Rewrite: His presence irked her.

Or: His presence infuriated her.

Totally

Original: I totally did not understand a word.

Rewrite: Huh? *kidding* I did not understand one word.

Simply

Original: Dad simply told her to stop.

Rewrite: Dad wagged his head, and she stopped.

Anyway (to start a sentence)

Original: Anyway, I hope you laughed, loved, and lazed during the holiday season.

Rewrite: Hope you laughed, loved, and lazed during the holiday season.

FILLER PHRASES

As with all craft “rules,” exceptions exist. Nonetheless, comb through your first draft and see if you’ve used these phrases for a reason, like characterization. If you haven’t, they must die. It’s even more important to delete filler words and phrases if you’re still developing your voice.

A bit

Original: The movie was a bit intense. Lots of blood.

Rewrite: Intense movie. Blood galore.

There is no doubt that

Original: There is no doubt that the Pats will move on to the playoffs.

Rewrite: No doubt the Pats will move on to the playoffs.

Or: The Pats will be in the playoffs.

The reason is that

Original: The reason is that I said you can’t go.

Rewrite: Because I said so, that’s why. (shout-out to moms!)

The question as to whether

Original: The question as to whether the moon will rise again is irrelevant.

Rewrite: Whether the moon will rise again is irrelevant.

Whether or not

Original: Whether or not you agree is not my problem.

Rewrite: Whether you agree is not my problem.

Tempted to say

Original: I am tempted to say how beautiful you are.

Rewrite: You’re beautiful.

This is a topic that

Original: This is a topic that is close to my heart.

Rewrite: This topic is close to my heart.

Believe me (to start a sentence)

Original: Believe me, I wasn’t there.

Rewrite: I wasn’t there.

In spite of the fact

Original: In spite of the fact that he said he loved you, he’s married.

Rewrite: Although he professed his love, he’s married.

Or: Despite that he said he loved you, he’s married.

The fact that

Original: The fact that he has not succeeded means he can’t do the job.

Rewrite: His failure proves he can’t do the job.

I might add

Original: I might add, your attitude needs adjusting, young lady.

Rewrite: Someone’s panties are in a bunch. *kidding* Adjust your attitude, young lady.

In order to 

Original: In order to pay bills online, you need internet access.

Rewrite: To pay bills online you need internet access.

At the end of the day

Original: At the end of the day, we’re all human.

Rewrite: In the end, we’re all human.

Or: In conclusion, we’re all human.

Or: We’re all human.

Over to you, TKZers. Please add filler words/phrases that I missed. I’m hoping this list will help Brave Writers before they submit first pages for critique.

“I did not think this series could become more compelling, oh how wrong I was! Coletta delivers shock after shock and spiraling twists and turns that you will never see coming. I was glued to the pages, unable to stop reading.” 

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