Writing Hacks: Keyboard Shortcuts

Picture this. You’re in the zone rockin’ the WIP, the words flowing from your fingertips faster than you can type. And then . . . splat. You’ve hit a brick wall. That special character or symbol isn’t on your keyboard.

Sound familiar?

So now, you need to stop, go to Insert, then to Advanced Symbols and scroll through the list to find that pain-in-the-butt character. You could leave yourself a note in the manuscript to deal with it later and continue on, but wouldn’t a keyboard shortcut make life easier?

With that in mind, I offer the following . . .

SYMBOLS & SPECIAL CHARACTERS 

Please note: these shortcuts can be used on the web or in Word by using the numbers on the top row of your keyboard. If you use your numbers keypad, you may get different results.

ALT + 1 = ¡

ALT + 2 = ™

ALT + 3 = £

ALT + 4 = ¢

ALT + 5 = ∞

ALT + 6 = §

ALT + 7 = ¶

ALT + 8 = •

ALT + 9 = ª

ALT + q = œ

ALT + SHFT + Q = Œ

ALT + w = ∑

ALT + SHFT + W = „

ALT + e = ´

ALT + r = ®

ALT + SHFT + R = ‰

ALT + t = †

ALT + SHFT + T = ˇ

ALT + y = ¥

ALT + SHFT + Y = Á

ALT + u = ¨

ALT + i = ˆ

ALT + o = ø

ALT + SHFT + O = Ø

ALT + p = π

ALT + SHFT + P = ∏

ALT + a = å

ALT + SHFT + A = Å

ALT + s = ß

ALT + SHFT + S = Í

ALT + d = ∂

ALT + SHFT + D = Î

ALT + f = ƒ

ALT + SHFT + F = Ï

ALT + g = ©

ALT + SHFT + G = ˝

ALT + h = ˙

ALT + SHFT + H = Ó

ALT + j = ∆

ALT + SHFT + J = Ô

ALT + k = ˚ (degree)

ALT + SHFT + K = Ó

ALT + l = ¬

ALT + SHFT + L = Ò

ALT + ; = … (to create ellipsis you can also press CTRL + ALT + .)

ALT + SHFT + : = Ú

ALT + “ = Æ

ALT + ‘ = æ

ALT + z = Ω

ALT + SHFT + Z = ¸

ALT + x = ≈

ALT + SHFT + X = ˛

ALT + c = ç

ALT + SHFT + C = Ç

ALT + v = √ (square root)

ALT + SHFT + V = ◊

ALT + b = ∫

ALT + SHFT + B = ı

ALT + n = ˜

ALT + m = µ

ALT + SHFT + M = Â

ALT + , = ≤

ALT + SHFT + < = ¯

ALT + . = ≥

ALT + SHFT + > = ˘

ALT + / = ÷

ALT + SHFT + ? = ¿

COMMON SHORTCUTS

On my keyboard “Command” equals the “WIN” key—I use a Windows keyboard on a Mac—but yours might be CTRL or COMMAND (Mac users) depending on the keyboard type.

<Command> + C = Copy

<Command> + X = Cut

<Command> + V = Paste

<Command> + Q = Quit

<Command> + W = Close File or Window

<Command> + N = Open New file

<Command> + O = Open Existing file

<Command> + S = Save

<Command> + P = Print

<Command> + F = Find a word or phrase­­­ on web pages or in Word. If the word or phrase appears more than once, press ENTER to move to the next instance.

<Command> + Z = Undo Action (To redo the action, press <Command> + Y)

<Command> + A = Select All

<Command> + B = Bold (To stop bold, repeat command)

<Command> + I = Italics (To stop italics, repeat command)

<Command> + U = Underline (To stop underline, repeat command)

<Command> + T = Open New Browser

<Command> + D = Bookmark Page

<Command> + B = View Bookmarks

WORDPRESS SHORTCUTS

Most of the above commands also work on WordPress. Here’s a few extras exclusive to WordPress …

<Command> + 1 = Heading 1

<Command> + 2 = Heading 2

<Command> + 3 = Heading 3

<Command> + 4 = Heading 4

<Command> + 5 = Heading 5

<Command> + 6 = Heading 6

<Command> + 9 = Address

ALT + SHFT + n = Check Spelling

ALT + SHFT + j = Justify Text

ALT + SHFT + d = Strikethrough

ALT + SHFT + u = Bullet List

ALT + SHFT + o = Numbered List

ALT + SHFT + q = Quote

ALT + SHFT + w = Distraction Free Writing Mode

ALT + SHFT + p = Insert Page Break Tag

ALT + SHFT + l = Align Left

ALT + SHFT + c = Align Center

ALT + SHFT + r = Align Right

ALT + SHFT + a = Insert Link

ALT + SHFT + s = Remove Link

ALT + SHFT + m = Insert Image

ALT + SHFT + t = Insert More Tag

ALT + SHFT + h = Help

Most social media sites offer their own shortcuts in the help menu. YouTube, however, offers several cool hacks to save time.  

YOUTUBE SHORTCUTS

Press 1 = jump ahead 10% through the video.

Press 3 = jump ahead 30%

Press 4 = jump ahead 40%

Press 5 = jump ahead 50%

And so on.

Press 0 = restarts the video

Spacebar = pause/un-pause video

← Go back 5 seconds

→ Go forward 5 seconds

↑ Raise volume

↓ Decrease volume

F = Fullscreen

ESC = Exit Fullscreen

MISC.

CTRL+ALT+DEL = Quit Frozen Application. This command opens the Task Manager. Select the application that stopped working and press END TASK.

Do you have a favorite shortcut that you use regularly? Please share!

Want to have a little fun? Include a special character in your comment. ♠♣♥♦ If it’s not listed above, be sure to tell us how you created it. 

11+

The Writing Math: Craft… plus Art… equals Performance

By Larry Brooks

Allow me to share the story of a writer you may have heard of, and if you haven’t you either aren’t a mystery/thriller fan (you’re here on Kill Zone, I’ll assume you are) or you aren’t paying attention. His name is Robert Dugoni, the author of 18 novels across three series and one literary novel that just sold to Hollywood, as have several of those novels. He is a multiple New York Times bestseller, with enough other lists and awards and credits to fill up an entire Kill Zone post.

This month we celebrate that an author of mystery and thrillers (legal thrillers, murder mysteries and spy stories) is on the cover of Writers Digest Magazine. (Never mind that WD has labeled this their travel writing issue, the monthly interview here is all about writing novels.) He is one of us, and he has something to say to all of us who ply this craft.

There is an amazing bottom line to this author’s journey, which he describes with perfect focus and humility from a teaching perspective. We’re all on that path, seeking a summit, as he has over twenty years of searching for that intersection between craft and art.

He’ll tell you he’s still climbing and learning, too.

He started out with his skill (his “art”) as a writer—honed through a background in journalism and as a defense attorney—with the risky yet common belief that the story-craft side of things was a no brainer. He’d been a reader of quality novels since childhood, so of course he knew in his gut how a novel came together and what makes it tick.

He believed that’s how successful writers do it. Some of them actually claim it as their experience. They just take a chair and start typing, letting the story flow out of them. It would take him years to realize that such advice is toxic, if not an outright lie.

Those years commenced when he left the practice of law after 13 years to pursue his dream of writing fiction. Full time, cold turkey. What he didn’t know was that it would take six years to arrive at that magic moment when craft and art finally embrace, with a brief time-out to write a non-fiction book that become a 2004 Washington post Book of the year (The Cyanide Canary). After that he went back to his dream and his WIP, which was a legal thriller titled The Jury Master.

Here’s a little more math for you: over those six years, he submitted The Jury Master to 42 agents. A lot of us would have hung it up after such a string of rejections. Sometimes he would go back and tweak the story, but he received very little input that he could use to raise the bar. He was on his own, as most of us have felt at some point in our journey.

In the meantime life continued, and he found himself frequenting a neighborhood bookstore… where he happened upon a shelf he’d never paid much attention to before: the place where the writing craft books were displayed. Mind you, this was the early 2000s decade, and there wasn’t a James Scott Bell or a Donald Maass or a Larry Brooks writing craft books yet. No, in 2004-07 we’re talking Al Zuckerman, Christopher Vogler and Sol Stein, to name a few of that era.

That’s when an epiphany blew up his life. In a good way. He realized he really didn’t know what he was doing as a novelist. Even after all that reading, his “gut” wasn’t getting the job done.

So Dugoni took over a year off to absorb as many craft books as he could, searching out teachers of fiction craft, applying the principles he discovered to the now dog-eared manuscript of The Jury Master, assembling more than few binder full of notes. Finally this lead to what was, in sum, a total rewrite of the novel.

He thought he knew. But he realized—and was humble and hungry enough to admit it—that he didn’t. That he didn’t even know what he didn’t know.

The storybook outcome of this launch phase of Robert Dugoni’s career, the fruition of all that study, was that The Jury Master landed an agent forthwith, and the book became his first New York Times bestseller, and the first of a five-title series featuring hero David Sloan. Who was, of course, an ace attorney with a mysterious past.

Anyone who tells you writing cannot be taught is thus proven wrong.

Or at least, confused. Sure, Robert Dugoni was a Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford, but that doesn’t mean the knowledge isn’t accessible to anyone with the discipline to seek it out.

What is hard to teach is how to land on a worthy story idea/concept/premisethat requires a learning curve and a keen sense of dramatic and thematic potential, as well as commercial viability. I’m not saying the craft essential to actually writing an idea as a novel is easily or quickly taught—Brother Bell will second me on that one, I’m sure—just that the information and framing of what you need to understand is out there, relevant and more than ready to change your writing life.

Cut to 2020, and this July cover article/interview with Writers Digest Magazine.

By now Robert Dugoni has sold over six million copies of his 18 novels, including the bestsellers My Sister’s Grave (which launched the 7-title Tracy Crosswhite series), and The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell (his literary novel), as well as the new Charles Jenkins spy series, with the second title due out end of September.

The author of that July 2020 Writers Digest article/interview was, well, me.

I’ve known Bob for years after hanging out at writing conferences and discovering that, despite him being a pantser and me an outliner, we shared a strikingly similar outlook on the craft. Ultimately he would go on to blurb one of my novels (Deadly Faux) and my 2017 craft book (Story Fix). More recently, he wrote the Foreword to my new craft book (Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves), published last fall.

Having written for Writers Digest many times, I pitched the editors on the interview, and they didn’t hesitate. The transcript was over 7000 words, and if you’ve ever edited and assembled an interview toward a coherent through-line narrative, you know how long it takes to get it down to 2500 words. WD loved what he had to say, and asked for an additional 800 words. The interview not only covers the timeline of his career, it also delivers abundant take-aways and learning that will be well worth a hungry writer’s time.

In this interview Robert Dugoni has given us a master class on how to avoid the most common mistake and pitfall that explains the 96 percent failure rate of manuscripts submitted to agents for representation (this via The Huffington Post; rejection is almost always a combination of less-than-compelling or original story ideas—which is indeed hard to teach—alongside a flawed sense of structure, character, flow, or simply the writing itself… all of which reside at the very teachable heart and soul of craft).

Which brings me back to today’s title. It’s that word: performance.

Robert threw it in at the end of the interview, and it was something I’ve never heard a writer say before. It froze me with introspection. He says that when a writer has internalized and assimilated and worked with the core principles of storytelling craft—to the point that she or he can see it just below the surface in the books they read, and within their vision for the stories they want write—only then can they truly and effectively sit before the blank page and actually perform. And when that happens, when the writer truly knows how a story should work, it becomes a blissful experience.

This is true regardless of one’s writing process preference, pantser and planner alike. Craft empowers both, the lack of it compromises both.

We perform, in the same context that any professional puts themselves in front of an audience to present their art, relying instinctually on the compounded sum of their years of study and practice of their craft. Singers. Actors. Editors. Athletes. Doctors and nurses and their medical peers. Therapists. Shrinks. Mechanics. Pilots. Designers. They are all artists. But before their art can work at a professional level, a level where people pay money to experience their art, they needed to build a foundation of craft, of the knowledge of their chosen field of work.

Writers who struggle for many drafts over what is often many years are, in fact, searching for and struggling with their handling of those core craft principles. Some aren’t even aware of what they’re missing. All of us know that feeling, just as Dugoni did for those six early years and those 42 rejected drafts.

But he’s a testament as to what can happen when you truly submit to the truth that it is craft will set you free, and allow you to set sail in pursuit of your writing dream.

As a footnote, Robert Dugoni continues to teach at conferences and runs his own annual retreat. Not because he needs to—before the virus and with his prodigious output, he was traveling to book signings nearly every weekend—but because he truly wants to give back, so that we don’t burn six years or more of our life, as he did, chasing something that can outrun us if we aren’t sure what we’re chasing.

Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks is a former Kill Zone blogger who has maintained his own website, Storyfix.com, since 2010. He is the USA Today bestselling author of six thrillers and four books about writing fiction, including Story Engineering.

His latest, Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves,” was published last November from Writers Digest books, a division of Penguin Random House.

 

15+

When, Where, Why, and How To Use Block Quotes and Ellipses

By SUE COLETTA

An interesting discussion arose while working on copy edits for Pretty Evil New England. The conversation dealt with using block quotes—when, where, why, and how I used them in the (nonfiction) manuscript.

If at all possible, I tend to use quoted material as dialogue to create scenes. But there were times where I chose to block quote the text instead. For example, if the quote was mainly backstory and not part of the actual scene but still important for the reader to understand, then I used block quotes. You’ll see what I mean in one of the examples below.

Block quotes can’t be avoided at times. They can even enhance the scene, thereby adding to the overall reading experience. In fiction, two examples of where to use block quotes would be a diary entry or a note/letter/message. Please excuse my using one of my thrillers; it’s easier than searching through a gazillion books on my Kindle.

In Silent Mayhem, the antagonist and hero communicate through an Onion site (untraceable) on the deep web. Because these messages are neither dialogue, nor narrative, using block quotes set them apart.

Example:

Dearest Cautious Cat,

If we shut our eyes to dangers beyond our comprehension, we become powerless to fight. My offer still stands. Should you choose not to accept it, remember this . . .

When it’s your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes, they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.

Hugs & kisses,
Mr. M

Block quotes also break up the text and enhance white space. We’ve discussed white space many times on TKZ. For more on why white space is a good thing, check out this post or this one.

BLOCK QUOTES IN WORD

To include block quotes in Word, highlight the text and right click. This screen will pop up…
Choose “paragraph” and this screen will pop up…

Reset your left margin to .5 and click OK. Leave the right margin alone.

Quick note about margins.

A good rule of thumb for block quotes is to not indent the first paragraph. If your passage contains more than one paragraph, check with the publisher. Most supply a style guide. For instance, my thriller publisher keeps all paragraphs justified. My true crime publisher prefers that the first paragraph be justified and subsequent paragraphs be indented.

To do that, the easiest thing is to click “Special” then “first line” (as indicated in pic below) and set it to .25. Then simply backspace to erase the indent on the first paragraph.

If you’re self-publishing, then obviously it’s your call on whether to indent or not to indent subsequent paragraphs.

BLOGGING BLOCK QUOTE

Bloggers who include passages from a resource, whether that be a book or wording from a reputable source, use block quotes to signal the reader that the passage is a direct quote (most commonly, all justified margins). You could style the post in Word, then copy/paste, but sometimes the style doesn’t paste over. Simple fix. Highlight the text and click this symbol…
And that’s it. Easy peasy, right?

ELLIPSIS

An ellipsis consists of either three or four dots. A single dot is called an ellipsis point. Some writers may find using ellipses a little tricky, but once you know the definitions of where, why, and how to use them, determining the right ellipses is fairly straightforward.

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, never use ellipses at the beginning or end of a block quote. CMOS also recommends using equal spacing between dots. Some style guides say to use three equally spaced periods rather than creating an ellipsis in Word, which you can do by pressing CTRL + ALT + Period. Always go by the style guide furnished by the publisher (or editor, if self-publishing).

WHERE AND WHY TO USE ELLIPSES

There are many reasons why you might want to use an ellipsis. An ellipsis can indicate omitted words within the middle of a quote, or faltering dialogue, or an unfinished sentence or thought where the speaker’s words trail off.

For faltering dialogue, you have two choices, depending on your style guide.

Style #1: Equally spaced dots with one space before and after ellipsis.
Style #2: Unspaced dots with one space before and after ellipsis.

Example #1 (uses three periods): “I . . . I . . . would never break the law.”
Example #2 (uses ellipsis created with Word shortcut): “I … I … would never break the law.”

For words that trail off, insert punctuation at end of ellipses. If the dialogue continues to another sentence, leave a space.

Example #1: “Why would he . . .? I mean, I can’t believe he got caught with that bimbo.”
Alternate style (Word shortcut): “Why would he …? I mean, I can’t believe he got caught with that bimbo.”

Example #2: “My weight? I’m about one hundred and . . . So, how ’bout them Bears. Did you watch the game?”

Alternate style (Word shortcut): “My weight? I’m about one hundred and … So, how ’bout them Bears. Did you watch the game?”

THREE DOTS VERSE FOUR

Here’s where some writers may find ellipses a little tricky.

Sometimes we need to omit words from the end of one sentence but still continue the quoted passage. This type of ellipsis is called a terminal ellipsis. In this instance, the CMOS recommends using four dots, or periods. The fourth dot indicates the period at the end of the sentence that we haven’t quoted in its entirety. By including that fourth dot it lets the reader know that the quotation borrows from more than one sentence of the original text.

Example from Pretty Evil New England:

Then I made up my mind to kill Mrs. Gordon. Poor thing, she was grieving herself to death over her sickly child. So life wasn’t worth living anyway. I was sorry, though, for the poor, unfortunate child, Genevieve. I love the little one very much. . . . I thought with Mrs. Gordon out of the way I could be a mother to her child and get [her husband] Harry Gordon to marry me.

Notice how I didn’t omit any necessary words? That’s key. We have a responsibility to other writers—in this case, the female serial killer—to not mislead the reader by leaving out words that change the meaning of the quote.

Three most important takeaways for ellipses in dialogue.

  • Avoid ellipses overload—too many can diminish their impact.
  • Reserve ellipses for middle and end of dialogue. If the character fumbles around to spit out their first word, use a body cue or other description instead.
  • Maintain consistent ellipses spacing throughout the manuscript.

Now, like most things in writing, there are exceptions to these rules. Always follow the publisher or editor’s recommendations. If you don’t have any recommendations to follow, feel free to use this post as a guide.

For discussion: Do you use block quotes in your writing? If so, why did you choose to do that? Care to share one of the exceptions to any of these guidelines?

10+

When Corvids Go Rogue

By SUE COLETTA

The following is a true story. While reading, take note of the bracketed MRUs [Motivation-Reaction Units in red] and scene/sequel structure in parenthesis (in blue), and my unrest can double as a TKZ lesson. 🙂 We’ve talked about these subjects before. Industry professionals write with the MRU (also called action/reaction) construction without conscious thought. For a new writer, learning this rhythm and flow can be a game changer.

For the last five days I’ve been in the middle of a crow verse raven war. I love both species, but I also understand why they’re fighting. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

It all started last Wednesday when a vicious red-tailed hawk chased Shakespeare — the runt of my beloved crow family — past the dome window in my living room [Motivation].

Big mistake. No way could I not get involved (Scene Goal).

So, I bolted outside to help [Reaction]. Allan, Shakespeare’s older brother, was with her. Both seemed exhausted [Motivation] (Scene Conflict).

I called for Poe, their mother [Reaction]. She called back, but she wasn’t nearby [Motivation]. I called again and again, each time panic rising in my tone [Reaction].

Poe soared into the yard, landed on “her” tree branch, and gazed down at me [Motivation]. I pointed over to the left and screamed, “Hawk! The babies are in danger!” [Reaction] (Scene Disaster)

And Poe took off in that direction. Seconds later, a chorus of caws erupted in the treetops. It’s not smart to anger a mother crow — any crows, for that matter. Perched atop the tallest conifer, Poe called for the rest of her murder.

The hawk froze, like, “What the heck’s going on? Did that human call for backup?”

Within moments, the rest of Poe’s family soared in from all directions and attacked. [Motivation] I stood motionless, awestruck by the intelligence of my black beauties and the bond we’ve developed [Reaction] (Scene Reaction). For any hawk lovers out there, s/he’s alive. At least, I assume so. Angry caws trailed into the distance as the crows escorted the hawk out of their territory. If you’re wondering, Shakespeare and Allan flew away unscathed. 🙂

Later that same day, my husband and I had just finished lunch when a second commotion exploded outside [Motivation].

I had no idea my day would take such an ominous turn.

When we rushed into the yard [Reaction], I found a raven with an injured wing [Motivation]. My heartstrings snapped in two [Reaction]. On one hand, I refused to sit by and let that raven die. On the other, I couldn’t blame Poe and Edgar for protecting their chicks. Ravens tend to target a crow’s nest for an easy meal.

How could I be angry over the corvids acting on instinct? If an intruder was sniffing around my home, nothing could stop me from defending my family.

Even so, I couldn’t let the raven die. I’m just not built that way.

After four hours(!) of trekking through the woods after “Rave,” I came to the conclusion that I’d never catch her (Scene Dilemma). But I had to do something (Scene Decision).

I called New Hampshire Fish & Game (Scene Goal). A large part of their job is to help wounded animals, right? Well, not exactly. Much to my dismay, their “rules” don’t apply to corvids [Motivation].

The officer’s response infuriated me [Reaction].

“Since we’re talking about corvids,” he said, “it’s best to let nature take its course. We don’t respond to these types of calls because crows and ravens aren’t endangered. Besides, there’s plenty of them in the state.” (Scene Conflict) [Motivation]

“There’s plenty of people in the state, too, but I’d still try to save a human life.” [Reaction] #BlackFeatheredLivesMatter!

Needless to say, the phone call rolled downhill from there. I was on my own (Scene Disaster). My biggest problem? How to sneak food to Rave without upsetting Poe. Which is a lot more difficult than it sounds.

I waited for Poe and the gang to make their daily rounds in search of intruders within their domain. In a country setting, a crow’s territory stretches for several acres.

Once caws trailed into the distance [Motivation], I bustled up the walkway—my gaze scanning the sky—headed toward the woods where the raven was hiding out [Reaction]. As soon as I’d hustled halfway across the dirt road, Poe rocketed out of a nearby tree [Motivation].

I tried this all damn day. And every single time she busted me. I flung up my hands and tried to reason with her (Scene Reaction) [Reaction for MRU, too]. “Listen, Poe. The raven’s no longer a threat. Can’t you please — please — leave her alone long enough for the wing to heal?”

That didn’t go over well (Scene Dilemma) [Motivation].

I tried again (Scene Decision). “Tell ya what. If you let the raven heal, I’ll reward you with a juicy steak.” [Reaction]

Better, but a little more convincing was in order. [Motivation] (Scene Goal)

“Hey, how ’bout you two come to an understanding? You’ll leave her alone if she promises not to go after the chicks once she’s airborne.” [Reaction]

Poe cocked her head, as if to say, “You can’t be serious. That’s not how this game is played.” [Motivation] (Scene Conflict)

“Fine! Then you’re just gonna have to get comfortable with me feeding her. I refuse to abide by your stupid rules.” (Scene Decision) And I stormed off. [Reaction]

Not my finest moment. Whatever. The neighbors already call me “that crazy crow lady,” so if anyone saw me arguing with Poe it wouldn’t even faze ’em.

As darkness rolled in, I lost track of the raven. There wasn’t any more I could do but pray she survived the night.

First thing Thursday morning, guess who’s waiting for breakfast? [Motivation] I brought out the leftovers from a roasted chicken [Reaction] (Scene Goal). The raven grabbed the carcass by the spine and hopped toward the woods. A few feet away she must’ve thought better of it. Stealing the whole thing could paint an even bigger bullseye on her back. Rave tore the chicken down the middle, stuffed one half in her beak, and left the rest on Poe’s rock.

I didn’t see Rave the rest of the day. (Scene Conflict)

On Friday night a tornado-like storm hit our area, complete with 50 mph winds, downpours, and lightning strikes. [Motivation] (Scene Disaster) If the raven survived, it’d be a miracle.

Eagle-eyed on the woods the next morning, I waited for hours as sunbeams speared across the grass. My beloved crows arrived on time. But no raven. Did Rave perish in the storm? In front of the window I wore a path in the hardwood floors. (Scene Reaction) [Reaction for MRU, too]

Time slogged. [Motivation]

About 10 a.m. I peeked out the window one last time before hitting the keyboard [Reaction]. And there stood Rave, well-rested, hungry, and disappointed to find the rock empty [Motivation]. The millisecond I stepped on the deck with a fresh plate of raw bacon [Reaction], Poe and the gang emerged from surrounding trees [Motivation] (Scene Dilemma).

Uh-oh, now what? [Reaction]

While I weighed my options, the crows scolded the raven from all directions. They dared not attack her, though. I have a strict “no fighting” policy, and they know it.

Thick tension engulfed the yard. [Motivation]

To create a diversion, I tossed half the bacon in the woods and half on Poe’s rock [Reaction] (Scene Decision). Which seemed to satisfy everyone. The saga, however, continues…

10+

Word Porn

By SUE COLETTA

It’s fun to see how words change over time. Their meanings transform, expand, and even metamorphose into a whole new meaning. These changes occur gradually over time. I find it fascinating how one word used by our ancestors means something totally different today.

While researching my historical “ladies” (female serial killers) for Pretty Evil New England, I ran across numerous differences in spelling and definitions.

The process of words changing over time is called semantic narrowing, which is a type of semantic change by which the meaning of a word becomes less general or inclusive than its earlier meaning. In other words, any change in meaning(s) of a word over time — also called semantic shift, lexical change, and semantic progression.

Common types of semantic change include bleaching (where the semantics of a word reduces while the grammatical content increases), broadening (when the semantics of a word becomes broader or more inclusive than its earlier meaning), metaphor, and metonymy (a figure of speech or trope in which one word or phrase is substituted for its closely related cousin, such as “crown” for “royalty”).

Semantic change may also occur when foreign speakers adopt English expressions for use in their own social and cultural environment.

“We say that narrowing takes place when a word comes to refer to only part of the original meaning. The history of the word hound in English neatly illustrates this process. The word was originally pronounced hund in English, and it was the generic word for any kind of dog at all. This original meaning is retained, for example, in German, where the word Hund simply means ‘dog.’ Over the centuries, however, the meaning of hund in English has become restricted to just those dogs used to chase game in the hunt, such as beagles…”

“Words may come to be associated with particular contexts, which is another type of narrowing. One example of this is the word indigenous, which when applied to people means especially the inhabitants of a country which has been colonized, not ‘original inhabitants’ more generally.”

— Terry Crowley & Claire Bowen, An Introduction to Historical Linguistics, 4th ed. Oxford University Press, 2010

Etymologically, a hound dog translates to dog dog. 🙂

Another prime example of semantic narrowing is mouse and bookmark. Rather than an animal and a device used in place of a dog-earing a page, these words also refer to a computer mouse and online bookmark.

Where’s the Beef? (A nod to JSB’s post, Storytelling Lessons in 60 Seconds or Less 😉 )

If you were a vegetarian in Anglo-Saxon times, you still ate meat. In Old English the word mete referred to food in general. It wasn’t until the 1300s that the meaning of meat began to narrow to mean animal flesh. Even though meat still refers to the contents of a nut (i.e. almond meat) that’s not the first image that springs to mind.

The original sense of meat survived in sweetmeats, an old term for a type of candied treat.

Girl Power

The word girl (historically written as gurlegrile, and gerle) meant “a child” or “young person” of either sex. Today, of course, girl refers to a young female, though women of all ages use the word to refer to close friends. “Girl, you’re not gonna believe what he did this time.”

Along those same lines, woman comes from the Old English word wīfman, which literally means “wife-man.” I know, ladies. Just let the sexist definition roll off your shoulders. After all, I’m referencing a time when man meant any human.

Strangely enough, wife stems from the Old English word wīf, meaning any “woman, female” instead of today’s meaning: a married woman.

Doe a Deer, a Female Deer

When we think of the word deer, we imagine graceful animals, with or without antlers, who frolic in the woods. The word, however, stems from the Old English word dēor, meaning “beast,” especially a four-legged animal unlike a bird or fish. By the 1400s, deer morphed into its current Bambi-like designation.

Should we strive to be an awful writer? 

Don’t answer too quickly. In the 1200s, awful meant “full of awe.” It also meant “inspiring awe” or “reverential.” Later, awful referred to “causing fear and dread,” which contributed to the current meaning of “bad, unpleasant.”

Awesome evolved in the opposite direction, from “inspiring awe” to “great, excellent.” Though in some cases, its original meaning still holds true.

My, What an Egregious Gentleman

Sounds incorrect, doesn’t it? But back in the early 1500s, egregious meant “distinguished” or “eminent.” It comes from the Latin word egregius, meaning “preeminent” with a literal sense of “[standing] out from the flock.”

Naughty Villain

First recorded around 1340-1400, naughty meant “wicked, evil.” It also meant “poor, needy.” Naughty is formed from the Old English naught, meaning “nothing” or “wickedness.” It wasn’t until centuries later that the word transformed to refer to a misbehaving child or an adult engaged in risqué behavior.

Reserved Seating for Vulgar Only

Sometimes semantic narrowing can lead to a negative connotation, a process called pejoration. If I said the word vulgar, you’d immediately think I was referring to someone (or something, as in a painting, photo, song, or language) who acted in an inappropriate manner. But vulgar stems from the Latin word vulgaris or vulgas, meaning “common people” or “ordinary.”

Over to you, my beloveds. Write a sentence that includes two or more of these words with their original definitions. Bonus points if you include more than five! 

 

 

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When Verbs Go Rogue: First Page Critique

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments will follow.

Monstruo Cubano

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Thank you, Brave Writer, for submitting your first page. A public critique takes guts, and I admire your courage.

From this small sample I assume s/he is just beginning their writing journey. So, TKZers, please be gentle and kind in your comments and suggestions (I know you will).

With that in mind, I offer the following critique.

Using a foreign language on the first page is a huge risk. As someone who doesn’t speak Spanish, my eyes glazed over when I read the title of the library. It wasn’t until the second read-through that I stopped long enough to figure out “La Libreria” meant “The Library.” That’s a problem. Most readers won’t bother to read the scene a second, third, or fourth time.

For more on using foreign languages, see this 1st Page Critique.

I want to point something out that you might not be aware of, Brave Writer. Note all the words in blue…

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. She gaped at the rows of mildewed shelves lined not with books, but broken dishes and food encrusted utensils.

Venturing several steps further inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window, obscuring the outside world with a thick layer of grime.

Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginner’s Spanish book, but leapt wildly into the air. A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches.

Brook skittered backwards, knocking into a shelf and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted.

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot and she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Scrambling upright, Brook saw a heap of crusty laundry. Peering closer, Brook shrank backwards as the rags sprang to life and eyes glared out.

Brook launched herself over the mangy cat and darted down another aisle. Soon she was sidestepping dozens of cranky felines, while her eyes watered from the lethal stench.

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

He reached out a greasy hand and thrusted a sign reading “Cookbooks, 2 for 1” at her.

“I’m sorry, I – I gotta run,” Brook choked out as she hurdled through the door, trampling a cat.

Brook burst into the scorching, bustling streets of Old Havana, and doubled over at the waist, sucking in the sweet smell of briny sea and exhaust fumes that were delightfully feline free.

Look at all those strong verbs! You didn’t take the easy road, like “walked” for example. Strong verbs create a more vivid mental image. Problem is there’s way too many. In this short sample I counted at least 43 verbs. The second thing that jumped out at me was all the chaos in this first page. Don’t get me wrong, conflict is a good thing. It’s how we use it that matters. If the conflict doesn’t drive the plot in some way, then we need to rethink our opener. I’m not saying that’s what occurred here, but I want you to ask yourself…

Does the library or shopkeeper play a pivotal role in this story? What are you trying to accomplish with this scene? Does this opener set up a future scene? The answer should be yes. Otherwise, you’re wasting precious real estate.

For more on the best place to start a novel, see this post.

I love how you took advantage of smell, rather than relying only on sight. When I finished reading this submission, I felt like I needed a shower to get rid of the cat stench. Good job! We want our reader’s emotions to match our point-of-view character.

Now, take a deep breath, Brave Writer. This next part might be a bumpy road for you, but I’m hoping you’ll find value in my demonstration of how to write tighter and more concise.

Monstruo Cubano (Consider changing the title to English. Don’t limit your target audience. Back in 2014, Joe Moore wrote an excellent post on the subject.)

Once inside La Libreria de Juan Carlos, Brook Harper squeaked in horror. Brook Harper squeaked in horror when she stepped inside La Libreria de Juan Carolos, the closest library to her new apartment in Miami. (reworded to ground the reader) She gaped at the Rows of mildewed shelves housed lined not with books, but broken dishes and food-encrusted utensils instead of books. Did she have the right address? (added to show her confusion; for more on Show vs. Tell, see this post, which also dips a toe into distant vs. intimate/deep POV.) When she’d arrived at the airport several weeks ago, colorful displays advertised tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books, but this place didn’t even resemble those brochures.

Venturing several steps farther inside, Brook recalled the colorful display boasting overpriced tourist maps and Spanish-English translation books at the Miami Airport several weeks prior, and scanned the shelves for any hint of a travel section. Instead she discovered Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into littered the front window, the outside world obscured by a thick layer of grime.

Stay in active voice, not passive. An easy way to spot passive voice is to add “by zombies” at the end. If the sentence still makes sense, it’s passive. Example: Old soda cans and chewed apple cores had been tucked into the front window by zombies. Since the sentence still makes sense, it’s a passive construction.

Where did they keep the Brook hurried through an aisle, determined to inquire about a beginners Spanish books? Brook hurried down an aisle, but leaped (leapt is archaic, use leaped) leapt wildly (adverbs and too many verbs and/or adjectives muddy the writing. For more on “writing tight,” see this post) into the air when a . A hole in the crumbling wall revealed a nest of swarming cockroaches. I think “swarming” here creates a good visual, so I’m leaving it alone. Be sure to read JSB’s post, though. Too much description detracts from the action.

Brook skittered backwards (“backwards” is the British spelling of “backward.” Also, “skittered” might not be the best word choice. I’d rather you show us the action. Example: Brook’s boots shuffled backward), knocking into a shelf. Dishes crashed to the floor. (added for sentence variation; for more, see this first page critique) and sending dishes flying. Desperately searching for the exit, she spotted “SALIDA” over a doorway across the room, and bolted (If Brook doesn’t even know beginners’ Spanish, how does she know SALIDA means EXIT? Something to think about).

Sprinting down the aisle, something caught Brook’s foot wedged under peeling linoleum and she sailed through the air, landed face-first she was sent sprawling on the filthy floor. Cat urine coated her palms and one cheek. Vomit lurched up her throat. Why did she ever come to this hellhole? Maybe her new boss wouldn’t notice her bilingual inadequacies. Good looks had gotten her this far (or whatever fits the character).

If you’re not using dialogue between two characters, inner dialogue allows the reader to get to know Brook. Who is she? Why is she in Miami? Where is she from? Is she shy or extroverted? We don’t necessarily need to know these things, but you do. For more on building a character, see this post and this post).

Okay, I’ll stop there.

TKZers, how might you improve this first page? Please add the advice I skipped. Together we can help this brave writer up his/her game.

 

 

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The World Needs Creatives More Than Ever

By SUE COLETTA

I read an article recently that gave writers permission to stop writing during these trying times, and it really resonated with me. Not because I long to stop creating—perish the thought—but being granted the permission not to write lifted some of the pressure from the “new normal,” which isn’t easy, as Clare mentioned last Monday.

Perhaps you can relate.

Do you feel guilty about not hitting the keyboard as often as you normally do? If you do, consider this your permission to stop writing. Just don’t stray away for too long. As we like to remind you from time to time, it’s important to keep our creative juices flowing. 🙂

As a self-professed research junkie, I wondered if creatives might feel the pinch more than non-creatives. Turns out, back in 2015, researchers conducted a study on stress and creativity.

The main reason for the connection between anxiety and creativity is imagination. The dichotomy lies in the fact that the same brain that conjures up inventive paintings, poetry, and music can also get trapped in repetitive thoughts and dreadful worries.

According to an expert at Evergray Digital Media, these individuals use their imagination to visualize something before it happens, whether it’s a piece of art or an issue (whether real or made up) that frightens them to cause feelings of great concern and panic. People with both traits also tend to overthink and over-analyze everything, which can make them more anxious and even neurotic at times. Interestingly, dwelling on one’s fears might be the very root of creativity and problem solving.

It’s difficult to recreate creativity in a lab setting. So, my theory runs a bit deeper into what might be causing creatives to lose focus. I say, many creative types are empaths, at least on a certain level. We need to be, don’t you think? How else could we slip inside a character’s skin?

Being an empath is different from being empathetic. Being empathetic is when your heart goes out to someone else. Being an empath means you can actually feel another person’s happiness or sadness in your own body.

In empaths, the brain’s mirror neuron system — a specialized group of cells that are responsible for compassion — is thought to be hyperactive. As a result, empaths can absorb other people’s energies (both positive and negative) into their own bodies. 

Empaths are the medicine the world needs and they can have a profound impact on humanity with their compassion and understanding… The key skill is to learn how to take charge of your sensitivities and learn specific strategies to prevent empathy overload. — Dr. Judith Orloff

Let’s conduct an experiment.

Are you really intuitive when it comes to friends and family?

Can you sense conflict before it hits?

Do you pick up on the emotions of others, even those you’ve just met? How about those you’ve never met in person (aka online friendships)?

Can you sense when someone isn’t telling you the whole truth?

Do you feel drained after being around certain people?

If you answered yes to these questions, you could be an empath.

Empaths are highly sensitive individuals, who have a keen ability to sense what people around them are thinking and feeling. Psychologists may use the term empath to describe a person that experiences a great deal of empathy, often to the point of taking on the pain of others at their own expense. However, the term empath can also be used as a spiritual term, describing an individual with special, psychic abilities to sense the emotions and energies of others. — PsychAlive.com

When I say creatives are empaths, I’m referring to the psychological definition. Other signs may include an overpowering sense of intuition. It drives my family crazy when I know something’s bothering one of them, even if we’re only communicating via text. I’m not psychic, as some would like to believe. I’m simply in tune with my intuition.

Without attaching labels, I think we can all agree that creatives need a healthy dose of empathy to view the world through a writer’s lens. If you missed Jordan’s post last week, read it. I’ll add one tip to her list: give yourself permission not to write. If you’re feeling distracted or overwhelmed, take the time you need to process your new normal.

During these turbulent times, an overabundance of empathy can suck the life right out of you. Thus, it’s important to develop self-protection mechanisms, like deep breathing exercises and communing with nature. Ridding one’s psyche of negativity promotes balance and good mental health.

There’s a lot of beauty in this world. If we take a moment to find it—the chipmunk who grins at a shelled peanut, the goofy antics of a squirrel, dog, or cat, the magnificent agility of crows and ravens, or the gentle whisper of silence—we can lessen the heavy burden of our new reality.

 

The world needs creatives more than ever before. So, let’s rise to the challenge.

As writers, what can we do to help folks stuck at home? One idea is to ask your subscribers if they’d like to read a free novel to help pass the time. I did, and the response was overwhelming. I’m still receiving emails from readers in my community. It feels wonderful to give back!

This seems to be a growing trend among creatives.

Many of our favorite recording artists are performing free home concerts under the hashtag #TogetherAtHome (link includes 80 concerts). On StorylineOnline celebrities read books to children (16 books and climbing).

Have you come across something beautiful that’s touched your heart? Share it with us in the comments. C’mon, creatives! Let’s lavish the world with our gift. What are other ways writers can help the community adjust to the new normal?

 

9+

A Writer’s Guide to Surviving Social Distancing & Quarantine

JordanDane

@JordanDane

No one has to tell me twice to stay home. I work from there as a writer. My commute is from the bedroom to my office. (No. I don’t work in my PJs. Puleeze.)

Don’t mingle? I love people, but I’m a bit of an introvert. I’m perfectly happy entertaining myself in my head. No worries. But in order to flatten the curve of the #CoronaVirus and allow health professionals to get this pandemic under control for the hospital beds and respirators they have, I am determined to do my part, happily. I’m also the primary caregiver to my parents who are in their 90s. They’re in good health, but their age puts them at a disadvantage.

I’m limiting my errands, appointments and socializing for the next few months and am hoping we, as a country, can get this pandemic under control. I’ve cancelled my European trip in July and will target my travel for 2021-2022 when things might be better.

I thought I would share what I am doing during my self-imposed lock down and get a conversation going. Let’s share what we’re up to and make this quarantine/social distancing survivable.

ALWAYS allow time for your daily quota but think outside the box for how to spend your time. This shouldn’t be same-old-same-old time. Treat yourself & bolster your spirit. The last time I had to spend time sequestered at home, I wrote my debut book after I had surgery. Perhaps this inconvenience could be a renaissance of sorts, a rebirth like a Phoenix rising from the ashes.

Stay positive & fuel your creativity.

Ideas for Writers to survive the #CoronaVirus #Pandemic:

1.) Develop your cooking skills. Treat yourself well by making an effort, even if it’s for a party of one. I have fun posting recipes with pics on social media, like Twitter and Instagram. If you’re feeling generous, try supporting your local restaurants who are suffering during this shut down. They may only be making money on deliveries. Order online with delivery & make sure to wipe down the cartons/containers & throw away the bags. Plastic & cardboard surfaces can carry the virus for 24 to 72 hours–and tip your driver.

2.) Research cooking homemade dog food & treats. My sister and I have challenged each other, from our respective homes, of course. We are cooking our own nutritious dog food with healthy ingredients (meats, vegetables and fruit) with vitamin & probiotic supplements. I recently did the math and I’m saving $20/bag off my old kibble brand. I cook once or twice a month and freeze some to have inventory. It’s fun to be creative for them. My oldest dog is ten and she’s gobbling up her food like she has never done before. I love seeing the joy of my three rescue dogs at meal times and their appreciation shows.

3.) Organize your life. What needs doing? What have you put off? For me, it’s tackling a storage room & my office. I also cleaned out my freezer & made use of what I could to make dog food. These jobs were long overdue. Writing deadlines are pushed to the top of the list normally, but this time of self-reflection has helped me get after projects that will make me feel better in the long run.

4.) Spend time outdoors. It’s spring. Get fresh air by working in a garden, cleaning up, applying lawn treatments. I maintain my home & yard on my own. It’s rewarding, invigorating & a reminder of nature’s renewal. This time of year, it is cleaning up leaves and sprucing up the garden to make way for the new growth. My tangerine tree is blooming and my tulips and bulbs are flowering.

5.) Do an inventory of the favorite things in your home & post pics of them on social media. I saw this on social media and participated. I thought it was a great idea for the home bound. Share a story of why something means the world to you. Tell a story and invite your followers to share their prized possessions. Very touching and interesting.

6.) Post a video of your quarantine activities online if you’re tech savvy. Or read excerpts of your books on video to share with readers. Do you feel comfortable with recording writing craft tutorials? With all the late night shows getting creative on Youtube, I thought–why not share our work with other quarantiners or read an age appropriate book to children? What the hell. I can’t sing

7.) Catch up on research for your next book & dig into a new plot. Daily writing time is important. That should come first, but working on a new project can be invigorating.

8.) Reach out to friends & family on FaceTime or texting or calling. Reassure your loved ones & stay more connected with the people you value most. Not including family, ask yourself–who makes the list of my top 10 contacts? I call this – taking an inventory of the heart.

9.) Focus on your pets. Things have changed in their world too. They see you home more and want your time. Take them on longer walks. It’s good exercise for you. Buy new toys for them, something you can enjoy with them.

10.) Catch up on your reading. Authors should be avid readers. You’ll learn as you enjoy.

11.) Write a letter to someone special. We’re writers, after all. Or keep a daily journal to get in touch with the emotions you might be feeling.

12.) Go on an online shopping spree. Or send a special gift to someone you love.

13.) Plan a vacation for late 2021 or 2022. Save for it. Take your time researching it & make the trip special.

14.) With sports being cancelled across our country, check out what others are doing on TikTok to invent a sport. Here is a LINK. Roomba Curling, window tennis, turtle tic tac toe, Sock Pacman, & ping pong trick shots set up in your home with obstacles.

15.) Take a vitual tour of these great sites at this LINK. Over 30 sites. Animal cameras, national parks, touring famous places across the world, try a virtual trip on Mars.

I count my lucky stars for everything good in my life, despite what’s going on across the globe. I hear & read about horror all over the world and things happening close to home. People are hurting and they don’t have many options if our economy shuts down to a crawl. Be kind to one another and help where you can. You will not regret it.

FOR DISCUSSION:
What are you doing to keep your sanity during this challenging time?

 

8+

Tips & Pitfalls to Writing in First Person – First Page Critique: Organization K

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Today we have the first 400 words of a novel entitled ORGANIZATION K. With it written in first person, I wanted to talk about using first person – benefits and dangers – as well as give our brave author feedback. My comments will be on the flip side. Enjoy!

***

Insane or not, I refused to let Victor assassinate me without a fight.

Exaggerating my daze, I meandered toward the locked exit of Bienveillance Hospital’s Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy. If someone opened the door carelessly, I’d flee. My pale, youthful skin crawled, and I scratched my stubbly cheeks. I was nearsighted and had discarded my glasses, so my surroundings appeared blurry. As I passed a couple staff members in white uniforms and neared possible freedom, blood pounded behind my ears.

An olive-skinned female orderly intercepted me. “Breakfast time, Max,” she said in German with a Turkish accent. She pointed over my shoulder and tapped her foot.

I tugged on my bleached-blond hair’s jagged ends. “Oh joy.”

My former best friend, Victor, might reenter the recuperation prison to murder me. He’d once failed to kill me there. Given my lingering madness, the personnel would disbelieve my claim. Besides, in my disgrace, maybe I deserved to die.

Clenching my teeth, I plodded into a corner of the main common room. The space’s pastel green paint, which matched my ward outfit, reminded me of vomit. Outside the lofty windows, October 2001 fog obscured the Berlin Television Tower. On clearer days, the landmark from ex-East Berlin resembled a giant lance impaling a cratered moon. As an earlier East German, an Ossi, Germany’s tallest structure inspired me to surpass my rivals.

A boyish patient with a fair complexion draped a blanket over his shoulders. Wordlessly, he wandered around the roomy area in sandals and hugged people. He approached me.

My body stiffened, and I crossed my arms. “Go easy on me, man.”

The stranger embraced me. His obliviousness to his bleak position repulsed me. Like pins and needles accompanied a hand waking from sleep, regaining sanity hurt, but the pain came with healing. He released me and strolled away.

At long tables, many fellow sufferers clanked their tableware, grating my ears. The reek of greasy food and disinfectant seeped through the air. My stomach churned.

I rushed into my spartan room and sprawled on the bed or paced on the floor. Zoned out, I stood facing the murky outdoors. The door opened behind me. Someone thumped their boots toward me and stopped. As I turned around, my spine tingled.

Victor waved at me, grinning. “Hey, Mega Max, how the hell are you?” he shouted in German with a slight Californian accent.

I swallowed hard.

***

FEEDBACK & TIPS

This anonymous entry has an intriguing premise of a man confined in a mental hospital with an assassin out to get him, but the way it’s written, it made me wonder if I could suggest ways to make it more effective to draw the reader in. The author is counting on the reader to be curious, but are there other nuances the author could add that would intrigue the reader more?

Tips to Writing in First Person

1.) Start with action – Instead of being in the head of a character as they passively begin a story, have them DO SOMETHING. Is this character really in action? He’s stumbling through a ward and on alert, but it’s more like he’s taking inventory of the setting for the reader to “see it.” The action is TELLING. We’re being told about Victor wanting to kill him. If he’s purely delusional, the first line feels like a cheat to the reader. By the second line, any tension or intrigue the reader might’ve felt is gone when the action goes nowhere.

It might be more effective if Max is agitated and feeling the effects of an unexplained drug, attempting an actual escape from an unknown location. Leave the reader wondering – escape from where? The reader can wonder if he’s a captive, a good guy or bad. Give the reader something to care about with his situation.

2.) Make the reader care – Since this is the start of the story, I know nothing about Max. Yes, he is in a precarious position and vulnerable with an assassin after him, but why should a reader care about him at this early stage? Has the author given enough to get the reader engaged? Rather than focusing on describing the setting of the hospital through Max’s head, why not target his mental state and show the reader how he is vulnerable. Make the reader feel like THEY are held captive with him. I don’t know where this story is going, but I don’t feel enough empathy for Max because of the author’s choice to keep the story superficial.

3.) Show don’t tell – As I mentioned, Max is telling us what he fears. He’s not showing us enough of his emotional state or his vulnerability. He’s too in control and the threat doesn’t seem real – especially since he is locked up in a mental hospital. I’m not buying his fear. The author hasn’t done enough to make me feel it. Since I don’t know the rest of the story, it’s hard to suggest how to rewrite this intro, but the author should make the reader feel the threat and not just tell it.

There are many ways the author TELLS through Max, but below are specific examples:

  • Insane or not, I refused to let Victor assassinate me without a fight.
  • If someone opened the door carelessly, I’d flee.
  • My former best friend, Victor, might reenter the recuperation prison to murder me. He’d once failed to kill me there.
  • Given my lingering madness, the personnel would disbelieve my claim.

4.) Make your character’s voice stand out – It’s a challenge to cram a great deal into 400 words, but why squander the opportunity with generic? I’m assuming Max is the main character. When he enters the scene, make him show why he has earned the storytelling role. Give him an attitude about what he sees and let the reader in on it. Give him color and make him memorable. Think about how movies portray main characters when they first walk into the scene. In the first minutes of Pirates of the Caribbean, Captain Sparrow makes a splash for moviegoers. That intro defines him for the rest of the film. Shouldn’t that be how books are written? It takes thought and planning on how to do this effectively.

Make each word count on what he says? Does he have an accent or a unique way of speaking? How does he express himself? The author controls ALL of this. Is Max a chameleon in appearance? Does he have skills that would make it hard to confine him in a hospital or anywhere? Is he charming or funny and can he talk himself out of any situation? If he’s a cynic, why not infuse his surly, sarcastic nature into his dialogue? Less internal thoughts, more dialogue with another character to set up a mystery?

5.) Use your character’s self-deception as an unreliable narrator to manipulate the reader into your mystery. How much are they delusional or unreliable? Is their self-deception in small ways or is the character completely unaware of the situation. With first person, the author has a unique perspective for plot twists and misdirection. Be patient and savor the moment to add mystery and intrigue.

DANGERS OF USING FIRST PERSON

First person is fun to write. It is very intimate if the author stays in the head of the character. The insights into the nature of the protagonist are alluring for an author. Even if you use third person for your book, it can be a great exercise in getting to know your character by writing a scene in first person to get a feel for their personality. But first person also has dangers. Here are a few:

1.) The reader is trapped inside the head of one character. Even if you mix the POV between first and third in your book, the first person character generally dominates the story. It could be a major turnoff for the reader if the character weren’t sympathetic or compelling.

2.) Don’t make the first person voice about YOU. Some authors have trouble distinguishing between their character and themselves. It can be limiting. It’s much more interesting if you don’t limit your imagination.

3.) Overuse of “I” & filtered words – In first person, it is important not to overuse the tedious sentence beginning with “I.” This leads to filtered words and sentences that diffuse the action through the character. It distances the reader from the action. For example:

Don’t:

I watched an angry crowd of protesters marching down the street.

Do:

The angry crowd of protesters marched down the street.

4.) Too much introspection can lead to telling and backstory dumps. Rambling internal thoughts can be boring, page after page. Give glimpses inside your character for insight or plot twists but get your character into the action with their attitude and color.

5.) First Person can be limiting plot-wise, especially if you only use first POV for the whole book. The plot is only seen through one set of eyes. It takes planning to make a plot work.

SPECIFIC FEEDBACK ON SUBMISSION

1.) In general, I found the action uneven and a bit jumbled. Max goes quickly from wandering the ward, into a large day room until we make a leap to a dining room situation until there’s another quick shift into his room. It’s as if the author wrote a quick draft and forgot to fill in details. The author is more interested in describing the hospital than in setting up Max’s story. There’s no real action. The story is taking place in Max’s head by telling.

Here are some sentences where the scene transition was most confusing and had me re-reading. There’s no transition between spaces and the leap from dining hall to private room is too noticeable.

At long tables, many fellow sufferers clanked their tableware, grating my ears. The reek of greasy food and disinfectant seeped through the air. My stomach churned.

I rushed into my spartan room and sprawled on the bed or paced on the floor. Zoned out, I stood facing the murky outdoors.

2.) The author chose first person POV but certain passages & word choices didn’t feel like an internal thought. In an internal thought, Max would feel his skin crawl. He wouldn’t picture his skin as pale and youthful. He might tug at his hair, but not describe the bleached color and jagged ends, as if he were seeing from outside his body.

I’ve highlighted these examples below:

  • My pale, youthful skin crawled, and I scratched my stubbly cheeks.
  • I tugged on my bleached-blond hair’s jagged ends. “Oh joy.”

3.) In the sixth paragraph, the author diffuses the action with a diversion from Max as he looks out a window and sees a historical site. It’s brief, but coupled with all the other distractions, this is a passage that could’ve waited for later in the story.

On clearer days, the landmark from ex-East Berlin resembled a giant lance impaling a cratered moon. As an earlier East German, an Ossi, Germany’s tallest structure inspired me to surpass my rivals.

4.) Californian Accent? At the end, Victor comes into Max’s room and speaks in German with an accent. I may have to defer to others on what a California accent is. I come from Texas and know about a distinctive accent, but I wasn’t aware that California had a unique one. Are we talking surfer dude lingo? This reads as more author intrusion. The author is cutting corners to introduce Victor and let readers know he’s not a local.

SUMMARY

I didn’t make line by line corrections. I wanted the author to reevaluate their introduction by considering my questions for Max and rethinking how this story begins. Give Max more action and give him a distinctive attitude for his voice. Eliminate the TELLING and add depth to this introduction with elements of mystery. I’m pretty sure the author has something more in mind for a plot to fill a book, but this excerpt doesn’t leave me wanting more. Reading into the piece, I would imagine Victor is someone Max knows well. Hence, the nickname Mega Max. That would completely deflate any intended tension written into this intro. I would rather the author give us something real to wonder about. Thoughts?

FOR DISCUSSION

I would appreciate your feedback. I’m sure the author would love more voices weighing in, but besides line edits, let’s try something a little different. Let’s keep the basic premise the same, that Max is in a mental hospital and he fears Victor will kill him.

1.) How would you rewrite Max’s actions? What would you have him do? Think out of the box. Let’s brainstorm as a writing exercise.

2.) How would you make Max unique and give him more character and a more memorable voice?

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Lessons Learned from Writing True Crime

By SUE COLETTA

Have you ever considered writing true crime? With five days left of my deadline, I’ve finished the manuscript of Pretty Evil New England and am now just tightening the writing and gathering my photographs for the book. The hard part is behind me.

via GIPHY

While on this journey into true crime I learned a few lessons that might interest you.

Would I recommend true crime to new writers? The only honest answer I can give is, it depends.

The truth is, this work isn’t for everyone. Writing true crime is a huge undertaking that requires months of intense research and deep concentration. Some days I swear my brain had caught fire from overuse. Seriously, it can be physically draining to live inside a real killer’s head for months on end, never mind five killers’ heads, or the victims and their families. At the same time, my passion and excitement for the project kept me racing to work every single day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

Please indulge me for a moment. I do have a point, but you’ll need context to understand what I’m talking about. When the publisher approached me about writing Pretty Evil New England, they asked me to include 10 +/- female serial killer stories.

But I didn’t want to write 10 short stories. What fun is that? If I was to veer out of my comfort zone (psychological thrillers and mysteries), then I needed to write a story that mattered, a story that readers could sink into, spend time in the story world, and experience a visceral thrill ride. What I failed to realize at the time was that the publisher’s idea would’ve been a cakewalk compared to my over-eager proposition. But hey, I was never one to shy away from a challenge. Why start now?

In my book proposal, I outlined the book in four Parts. Part I – III focused on one female serial killer at a time, with each Part dedicated to the subject’s case, all four Parts the length of a novella. In Part IV, I zeroed in on two female serial killers — one poor, one “lady of influence” — who committed almost identical crimes. They both claimed to experience visions and prophetic dreams, both murdered the people they loved most, and both stunned the public with their heartless crimes. Yet, after they were exposed as killers, the two women’s lives ran in opposite directions. Even more shocking were the outcomes at trial. So, Part IV became not only two intriguing storylines that intertwined but it shined a (subtle) light on fairness and equality.

Not conforming to the publisher’s original vision for the book was a risk, but I backed up my argument with facts from various sources that proved true crime readers prefer quality over quantity.

Lesson #1: When pushing for your own concept, you need to provide proof that your idea will be more profitable and enjoyable than the one posed by the publisher.

Once I found my five cases, I delved into research. Now, I had no idea what to look for, so I researched everything… life in nineteenth century New England, nursing requirements back then, forensics of yesteryear, how trials worked back then, the gallows… you name it, I researched the topic to death (no pun intended). I had no direction, except for my five ladies, two of which had practically no online footprint and one who had too many articles written about her, and many with conflicting accounts that didn’t align with my early research. Which is worse, actually. It’s much more time-consuming to wade through conflicting information than to research a bare bones case.

Lesson #2: Have a plan of attack. Meaning, before you start to research plan what you’ll need for the story, like dialogue and a sense of place.

Being a fiction writer helped a lot, because I viewed the cases from a storyteller’s point of view. The worse thing we can do is to just report facts. Boring! Instead, we need to find that perfect balance between journalism and engaging storytelling. But, and this is key, we cannot change or embellish to enhance the story.

What I discovered is, there are numerous ways to write true crime. Each of my four Parts are written differently. Why? Because no true story is the same. Thus, it’s our job to be able to adapt according to the case. For example, in Part I, I used the killer’s confession and dialogue to write scenes from her perspective, the victims’ perspectives, and the dogged investigators who caught her. Using a backdrop of the historical Eastern Heatwave of 1901 enhanced the atmosphere in a creepy way. Which brings me to…

Lesson #3: Look outside the case for a sense of place. What else is happening at that time, in that area?

Lesson #4: No amount of online research can replace real-world experience.

Even if we’re writing historical true crime, we still need to visit the crime scenes, grave sites, walk where the killer walked, visit the town, or the murder house, if you’re really lucky. In my research I stumbled across a third floor that was perfectly preserved from 1881. I walked where the killer walked (in Part III of Pretty Evil), I sat where the victims sat, I laid my finger on the ivory keys of their piano and perused their bookshelves. What an incredible find! It’s an experience I will never forget. If you’d like to see the photos, I blogged about it.

The most important lesson I learned was this. Before choosing a subject to write about, ask yourself, why does this story interest me? What is it about this crime that makes it unique?

We, as writers, need to be passionate about all our projects. For true crime writers, we need to be doubly sure, because we can’t change real life. The true crime writer lives with the case for a long time… many months, sometimes years. If the writer isn’t passionate about the story, chances are readers won’t care, either. Same goes for fiction. Hence why TKZ members have written umpteen posts on concept, premise, when to keep a story idea and when to trash it.

By the time I wrote the final sentence of Part IV of Pretty Evil, I couldn’t wait to go back to page one. I missed my “characters” from Part I-III. And now that I’m just tidying up the manuscript, I feel like I’m visiting old friends, even if they are psychopaths. 😉 Their stories are part of me now, and hopefully, will become part of my readers’ lives as well.

Have you ever considered writing true crime? If you already do, please share your tips.

 

PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs hits bookstores Sept. 1, 2020. Can’t wait!

 

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