Just One More Chapter

By Joe Moore

Welcome to 2015. All of us at TKZ wish all of you the best of New Years. From a writing perspective, I hope you produce your best work yet. And from a reader’s perspective, may you discover a new author that thrills you beyond expectations.

As some of you know, I write supernatural thrillers with co-author, Lynn Sholes. We are at the midway point of THE TOMB, book 3 of a series. It is the eighth novel we’ve written together. We’re often asked how two people can write fiction. It’s pretty much a mystery, but I’ve pulled back the curtain in a previous blog post to answer the question.

What I want to reveal today are some of the secrets and tricks we use to keep our readers turning the pages to our thrillers. It’s important to remember that these are the techniques we use; they may not be right for you. They might even make you feel uncomfortable, but our job is to write the best, most exciting story we can. Here’s how we do it.

Probably the number one technique is short chapters. And when I say short, I mean SHORT. With few exceptions, we try to max out each chapter at around 1000 words. Many chapters are only 500-700. Now you’re probably thinking: What can you do with 500 to 1000 words? Answer: Only tell what’s important. Leave out the rest. What moves the story forward or develops the characters? That’s the questions we ask. Then we write it in 1000 words or less.

Number two technique is to end every chapter with a cliffhanger. Leave the reader hanging. Give them a taste of what’s to come, then stop. Here’s an example—the last paragraph from the opening chapter of THE TOMB.

I grabbed the binoculars and searched in the direction of La Pampa for Marquez and his driver. They were standing in front of the restaurant with their backs to me; the colonel talking on his phone. If I called him, he would see my caller ID and no doubt ignore me. For all I knew he was giving the command to start the assault. I thought of blowing the car horn to attract his attention, but that would also attract the attention of the two targets in the restaurant. The same problem if I got out and started yelling for the colonel’s attention. My last option was the one I chose. I pulled up the right leg of my jeans and removed the Walther PPK strapped to my calf. Slipping out of the SUV, I moved at a quick pace to the door on the side of the building. I reached for the knob, determined to follow the most wanted man on the planet.

Technique number three is to keep them hanging. The next chapter should take them someplace else, probably the continuation of the cliffhanger from two chapters ago. The reader finishes the chapter, knows it’s late and she should be in bed, but takes a peek at the next chapter and sees it’s the answer to a previous cliffhanger. And it’s only two or three pages. What does she do? She reads just one more chapter.

The fourth trick we use is to ask ourselves what the reader thinks will happen next. Then we do something different.

Writing in this fashion creates fast pacing, dynamics, and the unexpected. I love to read books like that. And I like to write them. I want to be placed in a position where I have to read just one more chapter. And I love doing the same thing to my readers.

How about you guys? Any secrets and tricks you want to share?

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Obstacles, roadblocks and detours

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

When you write a story, whether it’s short fiction or a novel-length manuscript, there are always two major components to deal with: characters and plot. Combined, they make up the “body” of the story. And of the two, the plot can be thought of as the skeleton while the characters are the meat and muscle.

When it comes to building your plot, nothing should be random or by accident. It may appear random to the reader but every twist and turn of the plot should be significant and move the story to its final conclusion. Every element, whether it deals with a character’s inner or outer being should contribute to furthering the story.

In order to determine the significance of each element, always ask why. Why does he look or dress that way? Why did she say or react in that manner? Why does the action take place in this particular location as opposed to that setting? If you ask why, and don’t get a convincing answer, delete or change the element. Every word, every sentence, every detail must matter. If they don’t, and there’s a chance they could confuse the reader or get in the way of the story, change or delete.

Your plot should grow out of the obstructions placed in the character’s path. What is causing the protagonist to stand up for his beliefs? What is motivating her to fight for survival? That’s what makes up the critical points of the plot—those obstacles placed in the path of your characters.

Be careful of overreaction; a character acting or reacting beyond the belief model you’ve built in your reader’s mind. There’s nothing wrong with placing an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation—that’s what great stories are made from. But you must build your character in such a manner that his actions and reactions to each plot point are plausible. Push the character, but keep them in the realm of reality. A man who has never been in an airplane cannot be expected to fly a passenger plane. But a private pilot who has flown small planes could be able to fly a large passenger plane and possibly land it under the right conditions. The actions and the obstacles can be thrilling, but must be believable.

Avoid melodrama in your plot—the actions of a character without believable motivation. Action for the sake of action is empty and two-dimensional. Each character should have a pressing agenda from which the plot unfolds. That agenda is what motivates their actions. The reader should care about the individual’s agenda, but what’s more important is that the reader believes the characters care about their own agendas. And as each character pursues his or her agenda, they should periodically face roadblocks and never quite get everything they want. The protagonist should always stand in the way of the antagonist, and vice versa.

Another plot tripwire to avoid is deus ex machina (god from the machine) whereby a previously unsolvable problem is suddenly overcome by a contrived element: the sudden introduction of a new character or device. Doing so is cheap writing and you run the risk of losing your reader. Instead, use foreshadowing to place elements into the plot that, if added up, will present a believable solution to the problem. The character may have to work hard at it, but in the end, the reader will accept it as plausible.

Always consider your plot as a series of opportunities for your character to reveal his or her true self. The plot should offer the character a chance to be better (or worse in the case of the antagonist) than they were in the beginning. The opportunities manifest themselves in the form of obstacles, roadblocks and detours. If the path was straight and level with smooth sailing, it would be dull and boring. Give your characters a chance to shine. Let them grow and develop by building a strong skeleton on which to flesh out their true selves.

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Careful what you wish for

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

When your first book was published, was the experience everything you dreamed it would be? For me, it was quite different than what I expected. In 2005, when I first walked into a national chain bookstore and saw my brand new novel on the new release table, it was a bananarush. I was proud. I felt like I was on top of the world. I couldn’t wait to see customers gather it up in their arms and rush home to read it. Then I stood back and watched as shoppers picked up my book, glanced at the back cover copy, and put it down with no more interest than in choosing one banana over another at the supermarket.

Didn’t they realize that book cost me 3 years of my life? How could they pass judgment on it within 5 seconds?

Reality set in. Not everyone will want to read my book. Not everyone will like it if they do read it. And I found out rather fast that once a book is published, the real work begins.

Today, I’m about to start (with co-author, Lynn Sholes) my eighth novel. My books have won awards, become bestsellers, and been published in many languages. And yet, every day I face the reality that the true test of my success or failure is what the customer does when they stand over that literary produce bin and pick what they think is the ripest banana. It’s about as scary as it can get.

As a full-time writer, I have the best job in the world. I would not trade it for anything. But a word to anyone dreaming of publishing their first book: be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

So when your first book came out, was it everything you dreamed of? And if you’re still working at getting that first banana out there, what are you dreaming it will be like?

————–

Coming this spring: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore
Einstein got it wrong!

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What Can Go Wrong?

by Joe Moore

A huge Happy New Year to all my TKZ friends and blogmates. May 2014 be the best year ever for all of you.

Back in June of 2012, I posted a TKZ blog called Magic Words and how using them can be one of the best methods for kick starting your story ideas. The words are: “What If”. I’m sure that almost every story written probably started with those two words. What better way to get the juices flowing than to start with what if? I consider this a “story level” technique.

Today I want to suggest a “chapter level” exercise. Four words that can help create tension, suspense, conflict, and character-building. They are: “What Can Go Wrong?”

As you’re about to start a new chapter, even if you know what needs to happen, pause for a moment and ask yourself what can go wrong in this scene. Chances are, whatever answer you come up with will give you the opportunity to ratchet up the suspense and thereby keep the reader’s interest. Here’s a recent example of how I used this technique.

In my latest thriller THE SHIELD (co-written with Lynn Sholes) I was to draft a chapter in which my protagonist, her ex-husband, and a Russian colonel who had taken them prisoner, were flying in a 2-engine prop plane from Port Sudan inland across the Nubian Desert to a secret military facility. The outline which Lynn and I constructed about a year ago called for this journey from point A to point B. The only purpose of the chapter was to get to point B, the secret military facility. If I had drafted the chapter sticking strictly to the outline with the flight comprising of light banter between the three and the mention of a few landmarks passing below, it would have been short and dull, almost surely unneeded. The reader would have skipped through it to get to the “good stuff”.

So before I began, I asked myself what can go wrong in this scene that would lift the suspense and conflict, and even give me an opportunity to build character. My answer: what is the worst thing that can happen to an airplane? It crashes. Why would it crash? Well, that area of North Africa is known to be a dangerous place with anti-government rebel and al-Qaeda training camps. So what causes the crash? It’s shot down by shoulder-fired rockets from a rebel encampment.

Keep in mind that the outline calls for the three to get from point A to point B. This is the beauty of outlining: you can still reach your goal but taking an interesting detour can improve the story.

To increase the tension—although the three manage to survive the crash—the rebels are now coming after them. And how about the character-building aspect. My protagonist manages to save the life of her Russian captor when she could have easily left him behind to burn up in the wreckage.

In asking what can go wrong, I managed to turn one chapter into three, prolong the conflict, build character, and still fulfill the plot outline by getting all three to their destination.

As writers, whether we write by the seat of our pants or create a solid outline first, we must never pass up an opportunity to improve our stories. Asking what can go wrong often helps.

How about my friends at TKZ—ever use this or similar techniques in story building? After all, what can go wrong?

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Writing with Two Heads

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Recently, Mark Alpert posted a blog about The Writing Buddy and how writing can be a lonely occupation. There are few methods of getting around that situation. If you want to write fiction, it’s usually a one-man show. Fortunately for me, I have a solution—a cowriter.

One of the most frequently asked questions  Lynn Sholes and I get is “How is it possible for two people to write fiction together?” The answer is, it ain’t easy. At least it 2heads8wasn’t at first. Collaboration on non-fiction is somewhat easier to understand. In general, with non-fiction, the “facts” usually already exist and the collaborators’ job is to organize them into a readable document that has a beginning, middle and end. A good outline and knowledge of the subject matter along with professional writing skills may be all the authors need.

But with fiction, nothing exists. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Fiction is a product of an individual’s imagination. It might be inspired by actual facts or events, but only the individual has a specific vision of those events in their head. So how can two people have a similar enough vision to be able to write a novel together?

I can’t speak for the handful of other writing teams out there (including TKZ’s own PJ Parrish), but Lynn and I have managed to complete 6 thrillers together because of a number of reasons.

First, we love the same kind of books—the ones we read are like the ones we write.

Second, we have an unquestioning respect for each other’s writing skills and a deep belief that whatever one of us writes, the other can improve.

Third, we believe that there’s always a better way to write something.

Fourth, we never let our egos get in the way of a good story. This comes from spending over 10 years in a weekly writers critique group.

Fifth, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and are willing to admit them.

Sixth, we agree on the same message/theme in each book.

Seventh, we believe that we are on the same level of expertise.

And last, we believe that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Those points cover the mental portion. Now, how do we handle the mechanics of the job? We talk, and talk, and talk. Once a day we conference call, brainstorm, tell and retell each other the story. Our two favorite words are: What if? Whether it’s global plot points or an individual scene or character motivation, we keep telling each other the story until that little imaginary movie in our minds becomes as in-sync as possible. Then one of us will declare they have a “handle” on the scene or character or chapter, enough of which to create the first draft.

We write very slowly because each chapter must go back and forth many times for revision. Years ago, when we first started, everyone could tell who wrote what as we tried to write our first book. It took three years of hard work before we melted our voices together. Now, because the process goes through so many revisions, even I can’t always remember what I wrote and what she wrote. I rely on my co-writer so much that I’ve come to wonder how individuals can possibly write a book on their own.

There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to collaborating. A disadvantage is that you split any money you make. So you’ll always make half of what you could as a single author. And like any relationship, there is always a chance of a falling out. And something could happen where an ego can become inflated and affect the process.

One of the pluses is that we never experience writer’s block. One of us will always have an idea on how to get out of a jam or move the story forward. And unlike our spouses, family, friends, trusted beta readers, and everyone else, a co-writer has an intimate, vested interest in the success of the story that no one else could have.

Lynn and I are approaching the mid-point of our seventh thriller together (THE SHIELD, the follow-up to THE BLADE). I’ve found that creating the first draft of a chapter is just as exciting as getting a new chapter from her and seeing where the story has gone. I guess the whole thing boils down to trust. Trust in each other and in the goals we both want to achieve with the story and with our careers.

One last note: I haven’t seen Lynn in person in over 5 years since we live hundreds of miles apart. That seems to be something that mystifies everyone.

So, now that you know how we write together, do you think you could ever collaborate on a novel? Or is writing fiction too private an experience. Do you believe two heads are better than one or would you rather not have anyone sticking their nose in your work?

————–
THE BLADE is full-throttle thriller writing.” David Morrell

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Show Your Characters’ Reactions to Bring Them Alive

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, & speaker

A novel won’t draw me in unless I start caring jodie-renner1-Small5about the protagonist and worrying about what’s going to happen to her – in other words, until I get emotionally engaged in the story. And it’s the same for most readers, I think. For me to warm up to the protagonist, he has to have some warmth and vulnerability and determination, some hopes and insecurities and fears.

As readers, to identify with and bond with the protagonist – and other characters – we need to see and feel their emotions and reactions to people and events around them. When the character feels and reacts, then they come alive for us and we get emotionally invested and start to worry about them and cheer for their small victories. Once you have your readers fretting about your hero and rooting for him, they’re hooked.

As the late, great Jack M. Bickham said, “Fiction characters who only think are dead. It is in their feelings that the readers will understand them, sympathize with them, and care about their plight.”

Show those feelings.

So bring your characters to life by showing their deepest fears, worries, frustrations, hopes and jubilations. If readers see your hero pumped, scared, angry, or worried, they’ll feel that way, too. And a reader who is feeling strong emotions is a reader who is turning the pages.

And engage the readers’ senses, too, so they feel like they’re right there, by showing us not only what the character is seeing, but what they’re hearing, smelling, touching, sensing, and even tasting.

Show their physical reactions, too.

Besides showing us your character’s emotional reactions, show their physical reactions as well to what’s happening to them.

Show the stimulus before the response, and show the reactions in their natural order.

To avoid reader confusion and annoyance, be sure to state the cause before the effect, the stimulus before the response, the action before the reaction.

And to mirror reality, it’s important to show your character’s visceral reaction to a situation first, before an overt action or words. And show involuntary thought-reactions or word-reactions, like a quick “ouch” or swear word, before more reasoned thought processes and decision-making.

As Ingermanson & Economy put it, “Here’s a simple rule to use: Show first whatever happens fastest. Most often, this means you show interior emotion first, followed by various instinctive actions or dialogue, followed by the more rational kinds of action, dialogue, and interior monologue.”
 
And don’t skip those first steps! Remember, we’re inside that character’s head and body, so you deepen their character and draw us closer to them by showing us what they’re feeling immediately inside – those involuntary physical and thought reactions that come before controlled, civilized outward reactions.

As Bickham points out, it’s important to imitate reality by showing the reactions in the order they occur. You may not show all of these reactions, but whichever ones you choose, show them in this order.

First, show the stimulus that has caused them to react.

Then show some or all of these responses, in this order:

1. The character’s visceral response
– adrenaline surging, pulse racing, stomach clenching, heart pounding, mouth drying, flushing, shivering, cold skin, tense muscles, sweating, blushing, shakiness, etc.

2. Their unconscious knee-jerk physical action – yelling, gasping, crying out, snatching hand or foot away from source of heat or pain, striking out, etc.

3. Their thought processes and decision to act

4. Their conscious action or verbal response

Showing your characters’ feelings and responses will bring them to life on the page for the readers and suck readers deeper into your story world, your fictive dream.

But don’t go overboard with it — you don’t want your protagonist to come across as gushing or hysterical or neurotic. It’s important to strike a balance so the readers want to relate to and empathize with your main character, not get annoyed or disgusted with her and quit reading.

So how do we strike that balance? How do we as writers find the emotions to bring our characters to life, but also find a happy medium between flat, emotionless characters that bore us and hysterical drama queens or raging bulls that make us cringe?

Bickham advises us to consider how we’ve felt in similar circumstances, then overwrite first, and revise down later. “I would much prefer to see you write too much of feeling in your first draft; you can always tone it down a bit later…. On the other hand, a sterile, chill, emotionless story, filled with robot people, will never be accepted by any reader.”

Do you have any techniques that work for bringing out your characters’ reactions and feelings? And for ensuring that you don’t go off the deep end with it?

[Writing-a-Killer-Thriller_May-13_120%255B2%255D.jpg]
Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller (and the upcoming Captivate Your Readers), and her handy, clickable e-resources, Spelling on the Go– Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips and Grammar on the Go, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebookand Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website: JodieRenner.com

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Suspense vs. Action

By Joe Moore

Back in 1993, country singer Toby Keith had a hit with the song “A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action”. That was a great hook for a song, but the concept doesn’t always work for thrillers. I’ve found that one of the mistakes beginning writers often make is confusing action with suspense; they assume a thriller must be filled with action to create suspense. They load up their stories with endless gun battles, car chases, and daredevil stunts as the heroes are being chased across town or continents with a relentless batch of baddies hot in pursuit. The result can begin to look like the Perils of Pauline; jumping from one fire to another. What many beginning thriller writers don’t realize is that heavy-handed action usually produces boredom, not thrills.

When there’s too much action, you can wind up with a story that lacks tension and suspense. The reader becomes bored and never really cares about who lives or who wins. If they actually finish the book, it’s probably because they’re trapped on a coast-to-coast flight or inside a vacation hotel room while it’s pouring down rain outside.

Too much action becomes even more apparent in the movies. The James Bond film Quantum Of Solace is an example. The story was so buried in action that by the end, I simply didn’t care. All I wanted to happen was for it to be over. Don’t get me wrong, the action sequences were visually amazing, but special effects and outlandish stunts can only thrill for a short time. They can’t take the place of strong character development, crisp dialogue and clever plotting.

As far as thrillers are concerned, I’ve found that most action scenes just get in the way of the story. What I enjoy is the anticipation of action and danger, and the threat of something that has not happened yet. When it does happen, the action scene becomes the release valve.

I believe that writing an action scene can be fairly easy. What’s difficult is writing a suspenseful story without having to rely on tons of action. Doing so takes skill. Anyone can write a chase sequence or describe a shoot-out. The trick is not to confuse action with suspense. Guns, fast cars and rollercoaster-like chase scenes are fun, but do they really get the reader’s heart pumping. Or is it the lead-up to the chase, the anticipation of the kill, the breathless suspense of knowing that danger is waiting just around the corner? Always try for a little less action and a lot more thrills.

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Impart Info with Attitude

Today I welcome back to TKZ my friend and editor, Jodie Renner, to share tips on imparting factual information without it coming off like the dreaded “info dump”. Enjoy!Jodie_June 26, '14_7371_low res_centred
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by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

Strategies for Turning Impersonal Info Dumps into Compelling Copy

As a freelance fiction editor, I find that military personnel, professionals, academics, police officers, and others who are used to imparting factual information in objective, detached, bias-free ways often need a lot of coaching in loosening up their language and adding attitude and emotions to create a captivating story world.

Really need those facts in there? Rewrite with attitude!

Say you want to write a fast-paced novel and your background is in a specialized field, so you decide to set your story in that milieu you know so well. Maybe you want to write a legal thriller or a medical suspense, or a mystery involving scientific research or stolen artifacts. Or maybe you’d like to use your military, police, or forensics experience, but your writing experience to date has mainly been confined to producing terse, objective, factual reports.

As you’re writing your story, you decide at various points that you need to interrupt the story to explain something the readers may not understand. And you want to get it right, both to lend credibility to your story and because you’re concerned about criticism from other professionals in your field. Your first impulse might be to copy and paste sections on that topic from a journal or online search, then tweak them a bit. Or just stop to explain the technical points in your own words, factually, as you would in a report or research paper, then go back to your storyline. Big mistake.

You’ve just interrupted an exciting (we hope!) story to give a mini-lecture. Remember that the main purpose of fiction is to entertain your readers with an engaging tale. To do that, it’s critical to stay in the story and in the viewpoint and voice of your compelling, charismatic (we hope!) characters.

How to keep your credibility but write with passion and tension

Want to keep your readers turning the pages? Try to turn off possible reactions of colleagues in your field and remind yourself that your goal here is to entertain a broad spectrum of the population with a riveting story. So limit your factual, informative details to only what is necessary for the plot, and present them through the character’s point of view, with lots of tension and attitude.

Go through the section several times and keep loosening up the words and sentence structure to take out the stuffiness and achieve a more casual tone, in the voice of the point of view character for that scene – it needs to be their thoughts, not the author stepping in. And introduce emotions and reactions – make the character frustrated, angry, or anxious.

And if it still sounds like a university lecture or a journal entry, make your character less reserved, less nerdy, less buried in his work. Give him more charisma and universal appeal, even a bad-boy rebellious side, and add quirks and more attitude.

Better yet, insert another, contrasting character to the mix to add in some tension, conflict and contrast.

Present the facts in a heated dialogue.

To impart some specific information while keeping your readers turning the pages, try these steps:

1. First, in a separate file, copy or write the bare facts in a paragraph or two – up to a page.

2. Go in and loosen up the language a bit – rewrite it in layman’s language.

3. Choose two interesting characters who each have some kind of stake in this info and are passionate about the topic, but in different ways.

4. Give them both charisma and quirks – and opposite personalities. Maybe make them competitive or distrustful.

5. Give them each their unique voice, based on their personality differences.

6. Give them opposing views on the topic or conflicting goals.

7. Using those facts, create a question-and-answer or argumentative dialogue between the two characters.

8. Add in some character actions, reactions and sensory details.

Now it’s starting to read like fiction!

Remember, most of your readers will be outside your field of specialty, and won’t find those dry factual details as fascinating as you do!

A before-and-after example, disguised from my editing:

Setup: A rebellious, trigger-happy cop has been ordered to be examined by a psychiatrist.
The brief “info dump” part starts with “Dr. Brown flipped…”

Before:
Dr. Brown opened up Jake’s file. “What happened after you were discharged from the Army?”
“I decided to become a cop. After police academy, I was assigned a beat in the Washington Park area in the South Side of Chicago.”
“The Washington Park area?” Dr. Brown asked. “That’s a pretty rough part of town.”
“Yeah, it reminded me of downtown Baghdad,” Jake quipped.
Dr. Brown flipped a few pages in the file where there was some background on Washington Park. The summary stated the area was only 1.48 square miles but was usually considered either the most dangerous or second most dangerous neighborhood in the United States. In fact, in some years it had seen more than three hundred violent crimes committed on its turf. Crimes such as murder, robbery, drug-dealing, assaults, prostitution, and rape were committed regularly in Washington Park.

After:

Here, the author has replaced the above factual paragraph with a dialogue.
“Washington Park?” Dr. Brown asked. “That’s a pretty rough area, I hear.”
“Yeah, it reminded me of downtown Baghdad,” Jake quipped.
“How so?”
“The area is tiny, barely one and a half square miles, but it’s infested with crime. Some years you get more than three hundred violent crimes there.”
“Really?”
“Yeah, murder, drug-dealing, robbery, assaults, prostitution, rape—you name it, they’re all run-of-the-mill activities in that area. Stress city, man—I made my bones there.”

How the experts do it – with attitude!

Here’s an excerpt from a scene in a crime lab, as an example of how bestselling thriller author Robert Crais reveals the details of the fingerprinting process without interrupting the story to fill in the reader as an author aside:

[…] The white smear was aluminum powder. The brown stains were a chemical called ninhydrin, which reacts with the amino acids left whenever you touch something.
Starkey bent for a closer inspection, then frowned at Chen as if he was stupid.
“This thing’s been in the sun for days. It’s too old to pick up latents with powder.”
“It’s also the fastest way to get an image into the system. I figured it was worth the shot.”
Starkey grunted. She was okay with whatever might be faster.
“The nin doesn’t look much better.”
“Too much dust, and the sunlight probably broke down the aminos. I was hoping we’d get lucky with that, but I’m gonna have to glue it.”
“Shit. How long?”
I said, “What does that mean, you have to glue it?”
Now Chen looked at me as if I was the one who was stupid. We had a food chain for stupidity going, and I was at the bottom.
“Don’t you know what a fingerprint is?”
Starkey said, “He doesn’t need a lecture. Just glue the damned thing.”

And it goes on like this. Entertaining reading, and we’re learning some interesting stuff at the same time.

~ from The Last Detective, by Robert Crais

Another good example of how to impart info without boring your readers:

Here’s how Lynn Sholes and Joe Moore provide some information on a well-known structure in Las Vegas, without sounding like a travelogue or encyclopedia. This is from The Blade, an excellent thriller I edited in late 2012:

Setting: The Strip, Las Vegas

“So the Reverend Hershel Applewhite is a liar,” I said when Kenny returned from accompanying Carl down to the hotel lobby.
blade-cover4-internetI stood at the window staring at the imposing pyramid-shaped Alexandria Hotel in the distance. I’d read somewhere that the forty-two-billion candlepower spotlight at the top of the hotel could be seen from space. The same guy who designed it—I couldn’t remember his name—built similar pyramid hotels with beacons in South Africa and China. Claimed he wanted his lights to be seen from every corner of the world.

Writers and readers – do you have a short example to share of imparting info with attitude?
————

 Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/ and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

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Essential Characteristics of a Thriller Hero

blade-cover4-smallI’m pleased to welcome back to TKZ my guest, Jodie Renner, freelance fiction editor and craft writer. I was fortunate to have Jodie edit my upcoming thriller, THE BLADE (co-written with Lynn Sholes), scheduled for release February 20. Enjoy Jodie’s terrific advice on creating the essential thriller hero.

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by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

P1070629_CloseupThe hero or heroine of a suspense-thriller, like the protagonist of any popular bestseller, has to be impassioned, unique, and likeable enough for the reader to want to latch on and follow them through their journey, worrying about them and cheering them on through their challenges. So it’s important to take the time to create a charismatic, passionate, complex, sympathetic main character, so readers connect with him or her immediately.

Heroes in novels and movies haven’t really changed a lot over the centuries since the days of Robin Hood and Maid Marion, but they continue to have universal appeal because through them, readers can vicariously participate in exciting adventures and confront and defeat evil to win the day and restore justice. Makes for a very entertaining, satisfying read. Get the adrenaline flowing with worry and fear, then triumph over adversity together, just in the nick of time!

Like the heroes of tales of long ago and, more recently, western and action-adventure stories and movies, the hero of a thriller is usually larger than life, and because of his cleverness, determination and special skills, can accomplish feats most of us cannot, including finding and crushing the bad guys before they get him! But unless you’re writing a James Bond-type story, don’t make your hero perfect or too cocky! Give them some inner conflict, weak spots or insecurities to keep readers worrying about them.

What’s the basic recipe for a suspense hero or heroine that sells books? I’d say the ideal hero is clever, resourceful, charismatic, likeable, tenacious, and courageous. What else? The classic hero may be (and often is) a rebel who defies society’s rules, but he has inner integrity and a personal code of honor, and will risk his life for a worthy cause. Readers want to cheer him on to defeat evil, so they can get a sense of satisfaction and empowerment that maybe they, too, could stop the bad guys, survive and help innocent victims, and restore harmony to their scary world.

From my various reading of craft-of-fiction books and bestselling thrillers and my own editing of thrillers and other suspense fiction, I’ve come up with this list of desired qualities for the hero or heroine of a page-turning suspenseful mystery, romantic suspense, or thriller novel.

Heroes and heroines of bestselling thrillers need most of these attributes:

~ Clever. They need to be smart enough to figure out the clues and outsmart the villain. Readers don’t want to feel they’re smarter than the lead character. They don’t want to say, “Oh, come on! Figure it out!”

~ Resourceful. Think MacGyver, Katniss of The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Jason Bourne, or Dr. Richard Kimble of The Fugitive. The hero needs to be able to use ingenuity and whatever’s at his disposal to get out of any jams he finds himself in and also to find and defeat the bad guy(s).

~ Experienced. They’ve done things and been places. They’ve had a variety of tough life experiences that have helped them grow. They’ve “lived” and are stronger and more resilient for it. They’re definitely not naïve.

~ Determined. Your hero or heroine needs to be tenacious and resilient. They keep going. They don’t cave under pressure or adversity. They have a goal and stick to it, despite personal discomforts like fatigue, hunger, injuries, and threats.

~ Courageous. Bravery is essential, as readers want to look up to him/her. Any heroes who are tentative or fearful early on should soon find courage they didn’t know they had. The challenges and dangers they face force them to be stronger, creating growth and an interesting character arc for them.

~ Physically fit. Your heroine or hero needs to be up to the physical challenges facing her/him. It’s more believable if they jog or work out regularly, like Joe Pike running uphill carrying a 40-pound backpack. Don’t lose reader credibility by making your character perform feats you haven’t built into their makeup, abilities you can’t justify by what we know about them so far.

~ Skilled. To defeat those clever, skilled villains, they almost always have some special skills and talents to draw on when the going gets rough. For example, Katniss in Hunger Games is a master archer and knows how to track and survive in the woods, Jack Reacher has his army police training and size to draw on, and Joe Pike has multiple talents, including stealth.

~ Charismatic. Attractive in some way. Fascinating, appealing, and enigmatic. Maybe even sexy. People are drawn to him or her.

~ Confident but not overly cocky. Stay away from arrogant, unless you’re going for less-than-realistic caricatures like James Bond.

~ Passionate, but not overly emotional. Often calm under fire, steadfast. Usually don’t break under pressure. Often intense about what they feel is right and wrong, but “the strong, silent type” is common among current popular thrillers – “a man of few words,” like Joe Pike or Jack Reacher or Harry Bosch.

~ Unique, unpredictable. They have a special world view, and a distinctive background and attitude that sets them apart from others. They’ll often act in surprising ways, which keeps their adversaries off-balance and the readers on edge.

~ Complex. Imperfect, with some inner conflict. Guard against having a perfect or invincible hero or heroine. Make them human, with some self-doubt and fear, so readers worry more about the nasty villains defeating them and get more emotionally invested in their story.

~ Wounded. Had a tough background that toughened them up somewhat. But they’re still vulnerable because of it. Lucy Kincaid, from Allison Brennan’s romantic thriller series, was brutally attacked and nearly killed by a rapist, but she’s determined to overcome the emotional scars and become an FBI agent; Joe Pike was repeatedly beaten by an abusive father; Elvis Cole was abandoned by his mother; Jack Reacher was an army brat who was constantly in fights and lost his parents and brother. How these characters deal with their emotional and physical wounds touches the reader’s heart and draws us in.

~ Idealistic, Honorable, Self-sacrificing. The thriller hero or heroine may lie, cheat, steal, even kill, but they do it for the greater good, to stop threats and defeat evil. While never a pious goody-goody, the thriller hero is prepared to do whatever it takes to help innocent people who are threatened, protect an individual or family being terrorized, or rescue a child who’s been kidnapped. Having a sense of honor or being self-sacrificing is often what separates a flawed hero from a villain. For example, Rick in Casablanca is a cad-type antihero who ultimately sacrifices his own personal needs/wants/desires for the greater good and turns into a hero at the end. Similarly with Walt, the gruff, racist Clint Eastwood character in Gran Torino.

~ Independent. Often a loner. Might even be an outlaw. Your hero works well – even best –alone, especially if an undercover agent or on a mission or assignment. Heroes often find themselves in situations where they can’t really depend on others – they need to solve the problems through their own resourcefulness, physical effort, and courage. As a result, and because of their inner makeup, heroes often make their own rules. Some examples of this are Robin Hood, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jack Reacher, and Joe Pike.

~ Usually likeable. But not always. Exceptions are those really rough, gruff antiheroes who redeem themselves somehow at the end, like Rick in Casablanca, Harry Callahan in the movie Dirty Harry, or Walt Kowalsky, the crotchety old Clint Eastwood character in the movie Gran Torino.

Also, it’s a good idea to give your hero or heroine:

~ An Achilles heel. A weakness or phobia. Maybe they’re afraid of heights or are claustrophobic. Maybe they’re afraid of snakes, like Indiana Jones. And Superman had to stay away from kryptonite. Give your hero a phobia or weakness, then of course put them in a scene where they’ll have to face their fears and overcome them!

~ A soft spot. Show a softer, more caring side to your tough hero now and then, to make him more human and appealing. Maybe he cares about the underdog, a minor character, an animal, or a child or baby.

Who are some of your favorite thriller heroes and heroines of novels, films or TV? What makes them so likeable? What special talents or attributes do they possess? Any you really don’t like? Why not?

Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller and her handy, clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website: JodieRenner.com.

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Writing Tense Action Scenes

blade-cover4-smallI’m pleased to welcome to TKZ my guest, Jodie Renner, freelance fiction editor and craft writer. Jodie is currently editing my next thriller THE BLADE (co-written with Lynn Sholes), soon to be released as an indie published e-book. Not only is she doing a great job of finding all our line and copy edit stumbles, but she’s got a keen knack for suggesting just the right content tweaks to help tighten the story. I asked Jodie to put together some thoughts and tips for writing action scenes. Here’s her terrific post. Enjoy!
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Thanks, Joe! Great to be here.

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

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I specialize in editing thrillers, and I sometimes get asked how editing suspense fiction is different from editing other genres. That’s a huge topic, too long for one blog post, and would include specific approaches to various elements like premise, plot, characterization, pacing, word choice, and writing style.

For this post, I’ll just talk about writing effective action scenes, which can appear in many other genres besides thrillers.

When your characters are running for their lives, or your hero is in a race against time to save innocent lives, it’s time to write tight and leave out a lot of description, especially little insignificant details about their surroundings. Characters on the run don’t have time to admire the scenery or décor, start musing about a moment in the past, or have great long thoughts or discussions. Their adrenaline is pumping and all they’re thinking of is survival – theirs and/or someone else’s.

Of course, if the details of the setting are significant or would somehow help or hinder your protagonist, then definitely include them. Basically, put yourself in the head and body of your character under stress, fighting for her life, and see/hear/smell/feel what she does, then react as she reacts.

SOME QUICK TIPS FOR WRITING STRONG ACTION SCENES

~ Show, don’t tell (of course!). Play the scene in real time, with actions, reactions, and dialogue.

~ Use deep point of view. Stay in the POV character’s head and body.

~ Avoid info dumps. Keep the readers right there in the scene with the characters. Don’t intrude as the author to clarify anything. If details need explaining, fit that in somehow before the tense scene starts.

~ Evoke the senses. Show your viewpoint character’s vivid sensory impressions, so the reader sees, hears, smells, tastes, feels what he does.

~ Amp up the imagery. Use the most concrete, suggestive nouns and the most powerful, evocative verbs you can find.

~ Show inner reactions. Reveal your POV character’s emotions, brief thoughts, and physical reactions, starting with their visceral responses.

~ Use tight, staccato thinking. Avoid long, involved thought processes, which deflate tension and slow things down.

~ Describe physical actions succinctly, for fast pacing and high tension. Don’t get into distracting minor details about which hand or finger or foot and exactly how high or low, unless it’s important for some reason.

~ Show other characters’ threats and reactions through their words, tone of voice, actions, body language, and facial expressions.

~ Use rapid-fire dialogue. Avoid complete, correct, thoughtful sentences and lengthy discussions among characters.

~ Write tight. Cut out any little unneeded words that are cluttering up sentences and slowing down the pace.

~ Use short sentences and paragraphs, for a tense, breathless, staccato effect. – Writers and readers – do you have any tips to add to this list?

SOME BEFORE-AND-AFTER EXAMPLES OF EFFECTIVE ACTION SCENES

(Well-disguised from my editing. The “after” examples are of course only one possibility among many.)

Before:

Fortunately for Jennifer, the attacker was far enough away that when he attempted to grab her she sidestepped him and delivered a sharp kick to the outside of his left knee. He grunted and fell back against the stack of wooden crates. He then got up clumsily, rubbing his arm, showing his anger at how easily Jennifer had dodged and hit him.

After:

The attacker lunged at Jennifer. She dodged to the side and delivered a sharp kick to his knee. He grunted and fell against the stack of wooden crates. He scrambled up, rubbing his arm, eyes full of hate.

Before:

His facial expression changed from one showing loathing to one communicating unrestrained joy. Jennifer realized at that moment that she had made a fatal mistake. She looked to her right. The door leading out of the warehouse was about fifty feet from where she was standing.

After:

His expression changed from loathing to amusement. Jennifer knew she had made a fatal mistake. She searched for the exit door. It was to her right, about fifty feet away.

Before:

An inline skater came careening around the corner and skated fast towards them, shouting loudly. Josh shot a look back at Amy as he grabbed her arm and pulled her bodily to the edge of the street out of the path of the oncoming skater.

After:

An inline skater came careening around the corner and barreled towards them, yelling. Josh grabbed Amy’s arm and yanked her out of the way.

Writers – feel free to add a before and after example of your own in the comments!

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversFor more on this topic and on writing tighter, see Jodie’s book, Fire up Your Fiction.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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