Two Important Points for Writers

A recent conversation with my husband brought up two important points for writers to keep in mind. Rather than tell you, I’ll peel back the veil and let you eavesdrop.

Bob: Whatcha doin’?

Me: Studying forensic taphonomy. I’ve been dyin’ to dig into this field and finally gotta reason. Exciting, right?

Bob: Forensic taphonomy? Oh, sure, I know all about it. Are you just researching that now? I’ve known about it for years.

Me: Ha. Ha. Very funny.

Bob: Lemme ask ya this. Why are you studying forensic whatever-it’s-called?

Me: Forensic taphonomy. Well, I need to know it for a new character— Actually, the character’s an anthropologist, but y’know, since we only have one in the state, she delves into forensic taphonomy and forensic archaeology, as well. That part’s true, by the way, not fiction. We really do only have one forensic anthropologist in New Hampshire. Imagine how overworked she is? Anyway, since I needed to learn the field, I figured I’d write a post about it for TKZ. Y’know, two birds, one stone type o’ thing.

Bob: How far’d ya get?

Me: The post? About halfway. Wanna hear it?

Bob: Sure.

Me: Okay. Forensic taphonomy is the study of what happens to the human body after death. Specifically, how organisms decay and/or fossilize when exposed to the elements or in clandestine graves. Most of what happens to the body (and evidence) at an outdoor crime scene is the result of alteration or modification by natural agents, such as plants, animals, insects, soils, environment, gravity, and a whole range of environmental, climatic, and biotic factors.

The recognition and documentation of the specific role played by each of these natural agents becomes critical to understanding why evidence ends up where it does and why it looks the way it looks. By focusing on unusual patterns of dispersal and/or removal of evidence and/or remains, it shows investigators where or if human intervention occurred. (e.g., moving/removing remains to hide evidence).

Bob *teeing his hand*: Stop, stop, stop.

Me: What’s wrong?

Bob: Ya lost me.

Me: Which part?

Bob: Does it matter? You lost your audience.

Me: Oh. *pause* But forensic taphonomy’s a fascinating field.

Bob: For you, maybe.

Me: Since when is decomposition not fascinating? I thought you and I lived on the same page.

Bob: Honey, we do, but your audience may not appreciate your fascination with decomp and death like I do.

Me: Oh.

Bob: What’re you gonna write about?

Me: I dunno now. You ruined it.

Bob: You may wanna rethink that character, too.

Me: Why are you in my office?

Bob: Too much?

Me *glares*

Bob *backing away*: Yep, crossed a line. Okay, okay, don’t shoot. I’m goin’.

Sadly, he’s not wrong. When I read the post aloud it sounded dry. He wasn’t right about the character, though. I need her—she plays a vital role in the plot—but I may have gotten a bit overeager with my research. And you guys almost ended up with a 1500-word post about forensic taphonomy to read with your morning coffee/tea.

This conversation raises two important points. Did you catch them already?

#1: For what reasons do we create secondary characters?

Secondary characters bring the story to life. No one lives in a bubble. Secondary characters can provide comic relief at a tense moment, or make matters worse by adding conflict or increasing tension. A secondary character may come in the form of a mentor, love interest, work colleague, long lost relative…the list goes on and on. Subplots often revolve around secondary characters, and we can use these subplots to mirror and add depth to the main storyline.

Just because the plot may not revolve around a secondary character doesn’t mean their role is less important. After all, they’re still human with hopes and wants and dreams and fears and flaws like the rest of us. The story will be more interesting if our secondary characters are working toward their goals alongside the main characters.

While crafting a new secondary character, don’t get hung up on what they look like, unless their appearance adds to their characterization. For example, a depressed character might wear baggy lounge wear that’s two sizes too big, never wear makeup, or even bother to brush their hair.

What matters most is their role in the story, their association with the main players, and how they work with—or against—the protagonist. Once we nail down their role, we can flesh them out with personality traits that complement or contrast with the key players.

#2: Always keep the reader in mind.

Yes, we’ve all heard the speech: Write for you and you alone.

While it’s true on a certain level, writing is also a business. For those who don’t care if anyone ever reads their work, it’s a hobby. In which case, they probably don’t care much about craft, either. Serious writers keep audience expectations in mind. We care about delivering a visceral thrill ride each and every time. Which is not the same as writing for money or some crazy get-rich-quick scheme. If that’s the goal, find another profession.

I’ll let Stephen King explain:

One more matter needs to be discussed, a matter that bears directly on that life-changer and one that I’ve touched on already, but indirectly. Now I’d like to face it head-on. It’s a question that people ask in different ways—sometimes it comes out polite and sometimes it comes out rough, but it always amounts to the same: Do you do it for the money, honey?

The answer is no. Don’t now and never did. Yes, I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it. I have done some work as favors for friends—logrolling is the slang term for it—but at the very worst, you’d have to call that a crude kind of barter. I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.

Thank you, Mr. King!

TKZers, care to share your favorite secondary character? S/he can be a character you created or one you read about.

I AM MAYHEM is a semi-finalist in the 2021 Kindle Book Review Awards. Fingers crossed for the next round!

Three Things I Learned from Movie Adaptations

Please help me welcome back a dear friend and talented storyteller, Steven Ramirez. The last time he guest posted on TKZ he discussed Pantsing Through the Pandemic. Today, he’s sharing his experience with— Well, I’ll let him tell you…

Recently, I took a break from writing fiction to focus on screenwriting. Currently, I’m adapting my latest novella, Brandon’s Last Words, as a feature screenplay.

If you’re wondering why anyone in their right mind would take on something like this, it’s simple—I live in LA. Trust me, you can’t swing a dead cat at Starbucks without hitting a screenwriter huddled at a corner table, determined to crank out the next Black Widow.

Okay, that’s partly it. The other reason is, I wanted to see if I could do it.

The novella is a prequel to a new thriller series. It takes place in the same universe as another of my series—only this time, with new characters. For those who have written a screenplay, you already know you need a log line. Here’s what I originally wrote for the novella:

Brandon Wheegar has just joined a secretive government-funded lab as a security guard. Why did no one warn him about the murderous test subjects?

That’s not bad. The question is, does it work for a movie? We’ll see. Of course, there’s plenty of other stuff to worry about. For this post, I’ll focus on three lessons learned.

The Beats, They Are Different

As fiction writers, we are keenly aware of story beats. They’re hammered into us starting in the womb. I’m tempted to joke that our friend James Scott Bell has beat that concept to death, but it would be low-hanging fruit, so.

The point is, screenplays need beats, too. But these are different and immutable. And without them, you effectively have something that is not a screenplay.

There are lots of resources out there that can teach you about screenplay structure. For simplicity’s sake, here are the high-level story beats, courtesy of Syd Field:

INCITING INCIDENT

This scene brings the main character into focus. Without this beat, there’s no story.

FIRST TURNING POINT

What happens here sends the MC off on a new path, similar to the Hero’s Journey.

MIDPOINT

This is where things get interesting. Maybe the MC makes an important decision that changes the course of the story. Or they realize that what they thought was the truth isn’t.

SECOND TURNING POINT

This scene moves the character from conflict to resolution. The MC has a plan and intends to execute on it.

RESOLUTION

Often, these events bring physical and emotional closure. In Hero’s Journey terms, the MC returns home and shares what they’ve learned.

Now, there are many other elements you should layer in to make a killer screenplay. If you want to see a more fully realized story beat list for some well-known movies, check out Save The Cat.

Limiting the Character Count

When writing a novel, I include lots of characters. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve got a little Russian blood in me. In my case, the names don’t all sound the same, though. Anyway, I take this approach because my main characters tend to travel far and wide.

Unfortunately, you don’t have that luxury when it comes to screenplays—unless you’re Quentin Tarantino.

Why?

Because a script is a blueprint that tells the producer how much money they must spend. And the more characters, the more the above-the-line costs skyrocket—things like actors’ salaries, hair, makeup, and snacks.

My novella has a fair number of supporting characters. And they serve the story well. But for the screenplay, I had to find a way to either cut or combine characters. Which brings to mind that most famous of advice, which admonishes the writer to kill your darlings. Most people attribute the quote to Faulkner. But, in fact, it was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote, “Murder your darlings.”

Now, he was talking about prose. In screenwriting, you pretty much have to take out the entire family. Here’s an example. In the novella, I have a chief security officer, a head of security, and two ruthless security specialists. Each has a part to play, and in Brandon’s Last Words, it’s all good. But for the script, I realized I had to combine the two security chiefs into one character and do the same with the two specialists. And it really doesn’t matter what kind of fiction you adapt. Chances are, you’ll slice and dice like a boss.

Getting the Genre Right

My novella can best be described as a horror/sci-fi thriller, with some comedy thrown in. I know, I know—welcome to my world. But, like any successful novel, you should tailor your screenplay to a target market.

When I sent off my first draft to a professional reader, I got back lots of notes. Some centered on the fact that my script didn’t read like horror. I had missed essential tropes, and many of the beats weren’t right.

Rereading the work, I realized I was clinging to my original mashup. Fine for novellas, not so much for screenplays that sell. I’m rewriting now, and let me tell you something. Scripts aren’t written—they’re rewritten. You thought it was a big deal writing three drafts of your novel? Try ten—or fifteen. Yeah. Also, in the real world, once the project is greenlit, they bring in other writers to “punch up the script.” Call it insurance.

Using the reader’s notes, I took a crack at turning my story into classic horror. But I ended up losing much of the humor. Now, if I were as cold-blooded as the chemically modified test subjects who terrorize my main character, I’d continue down this path. Most of you would because it’s the smart thing to do. And after all, you’d like to make some money, right? Me, I’m a rebel. I decided I prefer the story as a comedy thriller. Who knows, I might still have a shot (he said, nursing his tepid tea at Denny’s).

Look, there are quirky films out there that defy genre. I mean, did you ever see a little movie called Naked Lunch? It was directed by David Cronenberg and based on the William S. Burroughs novel. Yeah, so you know what I’m saying. Anyway, my advice is this: If you’re serious about selling your screenplay, then, by all means, write to market. Who knows? You might end up as a big-time Hollywood screenwriter. Me, I just want to create something surprising.

Final Thoughts

We writers are well acquainted with copyrighting our work. Technically, your novel is protected the moment you put pen to paper. Unfortunately, when it comes to screenplays, there’s more to it than that. In this town, a good movie idea gets stolen faster than you can say Coming to America. The point is, register your script with the Writers Guild of America. It’s no guarantee some no-account won’t try to take your precious, but at least you have legal recourse. For more information, visit the WGA West website.

The other thing to consider is screenwriting software. There’s plenty out there, including traditional writing apps like Scrivener, which support the screenplay format. If you’re planning to make this a career, though, I suggest you purchase Final Draft. It’s arguably the industry standard. Also, when collaborating with other screenwriters, there’s an excellent chance that’s the software they use. For more information, visit the Final Draft website.

Well, that’s me done. Happy screenwriting. Oh, and wish me luck with the next Naked Lunch.

Steven Ramirez is the award-winning author of thriller, supernatural, and horror fiction. A former screenwriter, he’s written about zombie plagues and places infested with ghosts and demons. His latest novel is Faithless, a thriller. Steven lives in Los Angeles.

Join Steven’s newsletter here or connect with him on Twitter.

For discussion: Have you ever considered turning your novel/novella into a screenplay? What actor would you want to play your hero or antagonist?

Questions of Life and Death

By Elaine Viets

I like researching a mystery. I get to ask the wildest questions in the pursuit of facts.
A helpful homicide detective answers mundane question like these:
Does my cop have enough to get a search warrant? How about an arrest?
A poison expert shares her arcane knowledge of death. I was surprised how many perilous hazards lurked under the kitchen sink or in the garage.
Sure, I can look up some of these questions online, but it’s not as much fun. I like hands on research.
Here are a few of my favorite research questions.

Can a body fit in your car trunk?
I sprung this question on a sweet, silver-haired couple who owned a Lincoln Town Car, the same car as Margery Flax in my Dead-End Job mysteries. They were in a shopping center parking lot when I asked that question. Maybe I have an honest face. Or, since they were Florida residents, they were used to crazies. For whatever reason, they obligingly opened their trunk.
Yep, the Town Car trunk was definitely big enough for a body. Two, if the bodies were small.

How do you open a locked door with a credit card?
My cousin showed me how to do this. I’m not using her name because she is definitely light-fingered. She’s especially good with cheap button locks. She demonstrated her skill repeatedly, but I belong to the fumble-fingered side of the family. I did learn that “loiding” a door is a lot harder than it looks on TV.

Can you kill a person with a wine bottle?
“Empty or full?” the pathologist asked me. She was used to my crazy questions.
“A full bottle is a better weapon,” she said. Then she gave me another tip. “If you’re looking for another way to kill a person, please don’t use the old ‘hit-their-head-on-the-coffee-table’ to murder someone. That’s harder than it looks.”

How do you defrost a dead body?
This question for Ice Blonde stumped several pathologists. I finally found one who’d defrosted an intoxicated woman who ran out the door of her home and froze to death.
He told me, “You’ll need two body bags. Use a white one if you can, and then the heavy black bag. The white makes it easier to see the hairs and fibers when the decedent defrosts. Put the person in the white body bag first, then in the heavy black bag. Keep the decedent at room temperature, about 72 degrees, so the body will thaw naturally.
“What does your victim weigh?”
“About a hundred-fifteen pounds,” I said.
“The person will take about thirty-six, maybe forty-eight hours to defrost.”
I have a fairly high tolerance for forensic details, but defrosting someone like a piece of meat made my stomach do a backflip.

There was more. While the person was defrosting, the pathologist has to check the body every two hours. The hands and feet would probably defrost first, and then the pathologist could get scrapings from under the nails. As the defrosting progressed, the pathologist would draw blood and get fluids, including ocular fluid from the eyes, and if the person was a woman, check for seminal fluid in the vaginal vault.
Had enough information? Yeah, me, too.

How do you hot-wire a car?
A friendly mechanic spent an hour giving me lessons until I could describe the process. Don’t worry. Your vehicles are safe – nothing sparked no matter how many times I tried.

What off-beat questions have you asked for research, TKZers?

Now in audio! All my Angela Richman mysteries and the first three Dead-End Job novels. Listen to them during your 30-day free trial with Scribd.
https://www.scribd.com/audiobook/490552091/Death-Grip

What Do Apes, Humans, and Koalas Have in Common?

While researching an unrelated topic last year, I found a cool tidbit and tucked it away (as I often do) to use in a story someday. Since I doubt I ever will, perhaps one of you can put this research to good use.

First, a question.

What do you think is a forensic investigator’s worst nightmare?

Did anyone guess a cute ’n cuddly koala? No? I didn’t think so. In all fairness, I would never have guessed it either, but the koala could keep investigators on their toes. I’ll tell you why in a minute.

Apes & Chimpanzees

As children, we’re taught apes and chimpanzees are our closest living relatives. The similarities are obvious. No one can stare into the eyes of these gentle beings and deny their humanity. Both animals also have astonishing intelligence.

Remember Koko?

Koko, the western lowland gorilla that died in her sleep in 2018 at age 46, stunned researchers with her emotional depth and ability to communicate in sign language. She garnered international celebrity status with her vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs and the ability to understand 2,000 words of spoken English.

National Geographic magazine featured Koko on its cover twice. First in October 1978, with a selfie Koko snapped in a mirror. Then in January 1985, when National Geographic ran a story about Koko and her pet kitten.

“Because she was smart enough to comprehend and use aspects of our language, Koko could show us what all great apes are capable of: reasoning about their world, and loving and grieving the other beings to whom they become attached,” Barbara King, a professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary

In addition to language, Koko’s behavior revealed human emotions. She also seemed to have a sense of humor, and even a bit of playful mischievousness, as portrayed in this video of Koko and Robin Williams.

There’s no denying the human qualities of apes and chimps. But did you know a koala’s fingerprints are so similar to humans the Australian police once feared they’d cause confusion at crime scenes? It’s true.

Similar confusion occurred in the UK during a time when unsolved crime was at an all-time high. In fact, in 1975, British police raided the ape houses at London and Twycross Zoos. According to The Independent, the police targeted “Half a dozen chimpanzees and a pair of orangutans.”

The objective was to fingerprint these animals, partly because the UK police referred to smudged or unclear fingerprints as “monkey prints.”

“If you passed a chimpanzee print to a fingerprint office and said it came from the scene of a crime, they would not know it was not human.” Steve Haylock, City of London Police fingerprint bureau

The chimpanzees and orangutans didn’t mind being fingerprinted. If you’re curious, none of the prints led to solving the string of unsolved crimes. All the furry suspects appeared to be upstanding members of society. 😉

Meanwhile, in Australia

Police feared koalas may have contaminated a criminal investigation. Why? Because like apes and chimpanzees, koalas possess freakishly human fingerprints. The deltas, loops, and whirl patterns of a koala’s fingerprint are as individual as our own. Yet most tree-dwelling mammals don’t possess humanlike prints.

“It appears that no one has bothered to study them in detail,” said Macie Henneberg, forensic scientist and biological anthropologist at the University of Adelaide, Australia. “Although it is extremely unlikely that koala prints would be found at the scene of a crime, police should at least be aware of the possibility.”

Some researchers believe that even after closely inspecting the fingerprints under a microscope, investigators would not be able to distinguish a human print from fingerprints left by a koala. Even their closest relatives—kangaroos and wombats—don’t possess fingerprints. The weird part is Koala prints seemed to have evolved independently, and much more recent than primates.

Can you guess which print is human?

Photo credit: Macie Hennenberg, et al. and naturalSCIENCE

Click the image to enlarge.

Top row: Standard ink fingerprints of an adult male koala (left) and adult male human (right).

Bottom row: Scanning electron microscope images of epidermis covering fingertips of the same koala (left) and the same human (right).

 

 

What do humans, apes, chimps, and koalas have in common?

The need to grasp. Yes, it could be that simple.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide discovered koala prints in 1996 and wrote a paper on their findings:

“Koalas … feed by climbing vertically onto the smaller branches of eucalyptus trees, reaching out, grasping handfuls of leaves and bringing them to the mouth… These forces must be precisely felt for fine control of movement and static pressures and hence require orderly organization of the skin surface.”

Makes sense, right?

But wait—there’s more!

I discovered one other fascinating tidbit about fingerprints that I never knew.

Genetics form the base of a fingerprint, but they are personalized when the baby touches the inside of their mother’s womb, resulting in unique whirls, deltas, and loops. Hence why identical twins don’t share identical fingerprints. Each baby touched the womb wall in his or her own unique way, swirling and drawing like finger paints on a bathtub wall.

Maybe it’s me—I do tend to get overly sentimental around holidays—but I find it heartwarming to think the tips of our fingers forever preserve the unbreakable bond between momma and baby, imprinted for eternity.

I hope my discoveries kickstart your creativity in new and unsuspecting ways. Happy Labor Day to our U.S. readers! May your burgers be sizzlin’, the buns toasted to perfection, and your beverages be cold. 😀 

Reader Friday: Your Vacation Destination

Congratulations! You won an all-expense[s]-paid trip to the location of the last book you read or are currently reading. 

Where’s your vacation destination? 

For the next 10 days feel free to explore.

Will you venture outside or stay locked in your hotel room? Why?

First Page Critique: Side Effects

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. Enjoy! I’ll catch ya on the flip side.

Title: Side Effects

Genre: Psychological Thriller

All he could hear was the thunder of rushing blood, only distantly aware of the sharp, bright pain in his palms as his fists tightened and fingernails sunk into flesh.  He pushed his hands deeper into his pockets and poured his focus into moving more quickly along the crowded sidewalk, but not so quickly as to attract attention.  It was a good thing to focus on, a much better thing than the closeness of the warm bodies surrounding him or the intoxicating coppery scent that still lingered in his mind, and as the scope of his concentration narrowed he felt the wild pounding of his heart begin to slow.

Things had gone even worse than he had imagined.  Much, much worse.  The entire point of taking this job had been to avoid contact with the target.  Just simple surveillance and data collection, no face-to-face interaction.  No unspoken promise of violence.  It hadn’t turned out that way at all, but even with the plan shot all to hell, he couldn’t honestly say that he hadn’t hoped for this.

And that was bad.

An alleyway not choked by storage crates or piles of trash appeared ahead on his right.  He darted into it, stopping behind a dumpster and immediately pulling a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket.  It was dry here, the layers of fire escapes overhead blocking out the steady drizzle of warm summer rain.  He lit up with surprisingly steady hands, the tip of the cigarette flaring as he inhaled deeply and pressed his back against the wall of the alley.  The brick was pleasantly cool and rough through the damp fabric of his shirt, and as his lungs burned he felt the first wave of nicotine-fueled calm wash over him.

After a moment he stepped forward and looked around the corner of the dumpster towards the street.  Everything seemed normal.  There were no sirens, no sprinting cops, no gawking onlookers wandering in the direction from which he’d come.  It was unlikely that anything could tie him back to what would be found in that apartment, and that possibility wasn’t what worried him about the situation anyway, but it was good knowing that there was one less problem to deal with right now.

Let’s look at all the things Brave Writer did well.

  • Compelling exposition
  • Action; the character is active, not passive
  • Raised story questions
  • Piqued interest
  • Great voice
  • Setting established. We may not know the exact city/town, but s/he’s planted a mental picture in the reader’s mind and we can visualize the setting.
  • Stayed in the character’s POV
  • The title even intrigues me. Side effects of what? Did an injury or drug turn this character into a killer?

The writing could use a little tightening, but nothing too dramatic. 

All he could hear was the thunder of rushing blood (anytime we use telling words like hear, we distance the point-of-view. Remember, if you and I wouldn’t think it, our characters can’t either. Quick example of how to reword: Blood rushed like thunder in his ears,) only distantly aware of the sharp, bright pain (Excellent description: sharp, bright pain) in his palms as his fists tightened and fingernails sunk into flesh. from his fingernails biting into flesh.

Technically, only distantly aware would be classified as telling, but I like the juxtaposition between only distantly aware and sharp, bright pain. Some might argue both things can’t be true. Hmm, I’m torn. What do you think, TKZers? Reword or leave it?

He pushed (use a stronger verb like shoved or jammed) his hands deeper into his pockets and poured his focus into quickening his pace moving more quickly along the crowded sidewalk, but not too fast or he might so quickly as to attract unwanted attention. It was a good thing to focus on, a much better thing Better to focus on his stride than the closeness of the warm bodies strangers (the warm bodies sounds awkward to me) surrounding him or the intoxicating coppery scent (Love intoxicating here! Let’s end well, too, by replacing scent with a stronger word. Tang? Aroma? Stench?) that still lingered in his mind,. and

As the scope of his concentration narrowed, he felt the wild pounding of his heart begin to slow. “Felt” is another telling word. Try something like: As he focused on his footsteps, the wild pounding of his heart slowed to a light pitter-patter, pitter-patter.

Things had gone even worse than he’d had imagined.  Much, much worse.  The entire point of taking this job had been  was to avoid contact with the target.  Just Simple surveillance and data collection,. No face-to-face interaction.  No unspoken promise of violence.  It hadn’t turned out that way at all, but even with the plan shot all to hell, part of him he couldn’t honestly say that he hadn’t hoped for this.

And that was bad. The inner tussle between good and evil intrigues me. 🙂 

He ducked into aAn alleyway—swept clean, no not choked by storage crates or piles of trashappeared ahead on his right.  He darted into it, stoppinged behind a dumpster, and immediately pullinged a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his (coat?) pocket.

Something to consider: Rather than use the generic word cigarettes, a brand name enhances characterization. Example: Lucky Strikes or unfiltered Camels implies he’s no kid, with rough hands from a lifetime of hard work, a bottle of Old Spice in his medicine cabinet, and a fifth of Jack Daniels behind the bar. A Parliament smoker is nothing like that guy. Mr. Parliament Extra Light would drink wine spritzers and babytalk his toy poodle named Muffin. See what I’m sayin’? Don’t skip over tiny details; it’s how we breathe life into characters. And it falls under fair use as long as we don’t harm the brand. For more on the legalities, read this article.

 It was dry here, the layers of fire escapes overhead blocking out the steady drizzle of warm summer rain (If it’s raining, we should know this sooner, perhaps when he’s focused on his footsteps).  He lit up with surprisingly steady hands, the tip of the cigarette flaring as he inhaled deeply and pressed his back against the wall of the alley. Love surprisingly steady hands! Those three words imply this is his first murder, and he’s almost giddy about it. Great job!

The cigarette flaring is a bit too cinematic, though. The last thing smokers notice is the end of their butt unless it goes out. If you want to narrow in on this moment, mention the inhale, exhale, maybe he blows smoke rings or a plume, and him leaning against the brick wall. That’s it. Don’t overthink it. Less is more.

The brick was pleasantly cool and rough through the damp fabric of his shirt, and as his lungs burned he felt the first wave of nicotine-fueled calm wash over him.

Dear Writer, please interview a smoker for research. A smoker’s lungs don’t burn. If they did, they’d panic, because burning lungs indicates a serious medical issue. Also, a smoker doesn’t experience a wave of nicotine-fueled calm. It’s too Hollywood. The simple act of him smoking indicates satisfaction. Delete the rest. It only hurts all the terrific work you’ve done thus far.

After a few moments, he chanced a peek at stepped forward and looked around the corner of the dumpster towards the street.  Everything seemed normal. There were Nno sirens, no sprinting cops, no gawking onlookers wandering in the direction from which he’d coame. Nothing It was unlikely that anything could tie him back to what would be found in that apartment (let him be certain so when the cops find something later, it throws him off-kilter. Inner conflict is a good thing. Also, simply stating that apartment is enough. We know he killed somebody. Kudos for not telling us who.), and that possibility wasn’t what worried him about the situation anyway, but it was good knowing that there was one less problem to deal with right now. I would end the sentence after apartment, but if you need to add the rest, reword to remove “knowing,” which is also a telling word.

One last note: Use one space after a period, not two.

All in all, I really enjoyed this first page. It sounds like my kind of read. Great job, Brave Writer!

I would turn the page. How ’bout you, TKZers? Please add your helpful suggestions/comments.

Things to Consider for Successful Book Signings

A reader took this pic as I signed her book.

Is there a right way and wrong way to sign a book?

Some authors claim you must sign the title page; others say you should sign the half-title page. Some authors cross out their printed name before signing; others consider it as defacing the book. Some authors only scrawl a signature; others personalize a message to the reader. Some authors include a date and location of the book signing; others don’t.

How can there be so much conflicting advice over signing a book?

I admit, I’d never heard of an author crossing out their name before conducting research for this post. I have more than a few shelves filled with signed editions, and none of the authors crossed out their printed name on the title page.

From where did this custom originate?

Authors seem split on the subject.

Some say the tradition started with personalized stationery. If you’re writing to a friend and your personalized stationery has your full name on it, crossing out the printed name suggests a more personal touch. Thus, an author crossing out their printed name on the title page suggests s/he is there in person to write his/her own name, so the signature supersedes the printed name.

Makes sense.

Others say the historic tradition dates back to the days of a small press run, where the author would hand-sign each book as an authentication of the text.

Also makes sense.

After all the blood, sweat, and tears I pour into each story, I would never cross out my name. I worked too hard to get it there in the first place. 😉 But it’s a personal choice. If you’re fond of tradition, then by all means cross out your name. Next, you’ll need to decide between one quick slanted line, a squiggly line, or a horizontal line drawn straight through the entire name.

To help you decide, read the comment section of Writer’s Digest.

What about adding a date and/or location?

Some say adding a date and/or location adds value for book collectors. Others say the author’s signature is most important. I’ve never added a date or location, but I like the idea of making it easy for the reader to remember when and where s/he met the author.

Personalization

I always ask if the reader wants the book personalized or just signed. I wish I could give you a definitive answer here, but the truth is, my audience is split on this issue. Half want a personalized message; the others are happy with a simple signature. As far as adding value, book collectors seem to agree that a lone signature is worth more than a personalization (aside from the date). That’s always been my impression, too, and one which I repeat to readers when I’m short on time.

“The book will be worth more with just a signature . . . when I’m dead.” 😉

When a line forms at the table, scrawling a lone signature makes life a lot simpler. Adding a date/location would only take a second, but that personalization can and will trip you up from time to time. Learned that lesson more than once. I donate the awkwardly signed paperbacks to my local library. It’s become a running joke.

“Hey, Sue. Book signing yesterday?”

“Yep.”

“Messed up a few?”

“Yep.”

“Excellent! See ya next time.”

Grumble, grumble. “See ya then.”

A few tips for personalization:

  • Always ask readers to spell their name. Even common names can have unusual spellings. Example: Stacy, Stacie, Staci, Stacey. Last names? Forget about it. The possibilities are endless. Thankfully, most readers won’t ask you to include their last name.
  • Before the event think of a few standard catch phrases for new readers. Bonus points if it relates to the book or series.
  • Also jot down a few standard catch phrases for your dedicated fans. You don’t want to sign your tenth book with the same catch phrase you used for your debut. By creating a new one per event you’ll lessen the chances of disappointment. When in doubt, a simple “Thanks for your continued support” does the trick. It’s not all that creative, but it works in a pinch.

Sharpie, Colored Ink, or Classic Black?

Again, authors are split. Have you noticed a trend yet?

Some authors say they sign in colored ink to show the signature wasn’t preprinted in the book or done with a stamp. Others claim colored ink looks amateurish and an author should only sign in blue or black ink. And some authors always sign with a Sharpie.

I never sign with a Sharpie. When you’ve got a line at your table, it takes extra time to let the ink dry before closing the cover. Otherwise, the ink smudges. Blowing on the signature could speed up the process, but that’s never a good look. Sharpies also tend to bleed through to the next page.

If signing with a pen, bring more than one. At my last signing I ran through three. It’s a great problem to have, but a problem nonetheless if we forgot to pack more than one pen.

What Form of Payment to Accept?

At my first book signing, I wrongly assumed everyone would hand me dead presidents. Big mistake. I lost a lot of sales by only accepting cash and the occasional check from sweet ol’ cotton tops. Whether we like it or not, a whole generation uses cards or apps for everything they purchase. Including books.

Thankfully, we don’t need to lug around a manual credit card machine aka the “knuckle buster.” Nowadays all we need is a cell phone.

The top two easiest ways to accept cards are:

  • Square Reader
  • PayPal Zettle

The Square Reader is one of the best and most popular options. Compact, easy-to-use, and accepts all credit/debit card transactions. Either manually enter the credit/debit card, swipe the card through the reader attached to your cell phone, or hover the card over the reader for a contactless transaction. Square also accepts purchases via an app. Most purchases don’t require a signature. For those that do, the buyer scrawls a signature on your phone with their finger. Square has added benefits, too, like keeping a running tally of daily sales.

When you sign up for a Square account, you’ll be asked to link a bank account. Funds from the book signing will be deposited on the next business day. There’s also an option for instant transfer. The nice part about Square is the ability to set up your products in advance. When a reader purchases a book(s), tap the product(s) and Square automatically adds the price. Easy peasy. Square does offer a stand-alone terminal, but it’s pricey ($299. on Amazon).

PayPal Zettle is another great option. The Zettle 2 device is a stand-alone terminal. Connects wirelessly to PayPal’s Zettle Go App via Bluetooth and accepts all credit/debit cards, including Apple Pay, Venmo, Samsung Pay, Google Pay, and contactless transactions. The terminal costs $79, but new Zettle account holders only pay $29. Like Square, Zettle allows you to set up inventory and pricing. They also offer a mobile card reader.

I use both Square and the Zettle terminal. Dead zones abound in my area. Whichever device connects first is my favorite of the day. 😉

Group vs. Individual Signings

Group author events aren’t my favorite things to do. Some venues try to squeeze ten authors into a room that holds about five, and it’s a miserable experience for everyone. Aside from conferences, I don’t bother with group events anymore. That said, a signing with one or two other authors can be fun. Plus, if you’re new to book signings, having a fellow author to show you the ropes will help relieve some of the pressure. I will say, a solo signing is far more lucrative than a group event. Though it may depend on your area.

The Actual Signature

Early on in my career, I received top-notch advice from an author friend who had experience with book signings. She told me never to sign a book with my legal signature. By signing in the same way as, say, a check, you’re inviting trouble. For example, my legal name is Susan, but I prefer Sue (obviously). So, I sign my books as Sue Coletta, not Susan, and I changed the way I would write my first and last name on a legal document. This new signature became my author signature.

Why is this important? Because if you hand the wrong person a signed book with your legal signature, they could easily forge your name.

Venues: Think Outside the Box

All book signings don’t need to be held in bookstores or libraries. I’ve had some of my most successful signings at local fairs and Old Home Days, and I’ve sold out and scored numerous book club invites.

Readers love unique book signing venues.

I have a friend who held book signings in hospitals (pre-pandemic). Another friend held a book signing at a local brewery. Another friend has gained her local audience by hosting Florida wildlife cruises that end with a signing. See what I’m sayin’? Be creative!

A few years back, I held a signing at a murder site in one of my thrillers, which is also a popular tourist attraction. I’ve held a signing in a tattoo shop featured in the book. Some of my murder sites are places where I plan to hold signings once the book releases. And I’ve gained a supportive fanbase because of it. I’m lucky that my area is a popular tourist destination. Some fans literally run to my table, all excited to see me again. My husband, son, and daughter-in-law come just to watch readers’ reactions. My grandchildren (8 1/2, 7, and 4 y.o.) are far less impressed . . .

Nanna, why are all these people here to see you?

Because I’m cool.

Hahaha. No, really.

Out of the mouths of babes, right? Little rascals help to keep the ego in check.

Most importantly, book signings should be fun.

A book signing is a time when we get to meet the folks who love our characters, plot lines, twists and turns. Enjoy the day. Each time we sign a book it’s a personal experience between author and reader. The “right way” to sign a book is a personal choice. If it feels right to sign in crayon, go for it. The only part that’s a must is to adopt an author signature. Why invite trouble?

Over to you, TKZers. Did I miss anything? Do you cross out your name? Use colored ink? Doodle little hearts around the title? Please explain.

 If you haven’t done a book signing yet, which of these tips might you adopt and why? Have you attended an unusual book event? Please explain.

 

For Love or Money?

jc cards pixabay

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Has anyone ever said to you: “How nice that you enjoy writing. It’s such a wonderful hobby.”

Did you bristle?

Yeah, me too.

“Writing is not a damn hobby! I just don’t get paid for it!” 

 

Considering the amount of work, study, and time we put into our writing, the term “hobby” sounds insulting. Yet, try to convince the IRS that a new computer and a research trip to Greece are valid expenses to write off if one’s income is a measly three figures.

The tug of war between writing as vocation vs. avocation never ends.

A keynote speaker at a Colorado conference I attended in the 1990s posed a question: If there was no possibility you’d ever be published, would you still write?

Like most of the 400 diehards in the audience, I raised my hand.

An updated version of that question might be: If there was no possibility you’d ever be paid, would you still write?

The answer is still yes.

Way back in the last century, long before Kindle was even a gleam in Bezos’s eye, I decided to become a full-time writer. Aside from a few short stories published in long-ago college literary mags, I had zero experience.

The plight of the unpublished writer is like the job where you need experience in order to be hired, yet how do you get that experience if no one will hire you?

To jumpstart my new career, I gave away articles and short stories. Someday, I hoped, someone would think my writing was good enough to pay me.

The love of writing sustained me for years when I earned exactly zero.

Meanwhile, though, I took classes, joined critique groups, attended conferences, and studied craft books. In other words, I did my homework and paid my dues.

My first sale was a short story to a little literary magazine for the princely sum of $5. At last, I had a published clip!

However…the check bounced.

Oh well.

For years, I kept that check to remind myself never to become too cocky. It also taught me the transitory nature of the writing business. One day, you summit the mountain; the next day, you drown in the gutter of rejection.

During the time when I gave away my work, a full-time travel freelancer named Jacquie spoke to our writing group. She was the consummate pro. She shared how to earn more money by re-purposing the same article for many different markets; how to take photos that sell an article; and how to develop ongoing relationships with editors who called her whenever they needed a story. She made a good enough living from writing that she could afford a lovely riverfront condo and enjoy exotic travel with expenses she deducted on her taxes.

Jacquie also made a point that I had not yet considered at the time. She said when writers give away their work, it undermines the ability of professionals to earn a living.

That made me pause. Now I felt guilty for giving away work because that deprived someone trying to support a family. Yet that’s how most writers must do their apprenticeship.

I finally broke the pay barrier when a journalist friend couldn’t fulfill an assignment and  asked me to cover the story for her. That led to an infrequent but regular paying gig with a prestigious state magazine.

With published clips under my belt, I queried other markets and got to know more editors. Because I always met deadlines and didn’t require major rewrites, soon I was on staff for several periodicals and became a quarterly columnist for a glossy wildlife magazine. Pay ranged from a penny to a dime per word.

Do the math—no riverfront condo.

My all-time best pay came from a little 300-word profile of a jazz pianist named Nina Russell for the AARP Magazine (then called Modern Maturity).

A dollar a word. In 1995. Wow!

Unfortunately, lightning didn’t strike twice. But my going rate rose to 20 cents a word.

That paid for printing costs and postage to submit my novels to agents and editors. Yes, back in the last century, writers mailed paper manuscripts via the post office.

But… the internet and electronic publishing spelled doom for many print magazines. I used to joke that I’d personally put at least 20 of them out of business but I can’t take all the credit.

The early 2000s saw a sea change in the market from print to electronic format. The advent of Kindle Direct Publishing in 2007 revolutionized the book world.

By 2010, some authors who jumped on board early were making a decent living by self-publishing. One friend remodeled her house with KDP earnings. A few became wealthy.

But the law of supply and demand rules the market. With millions of writers publishing millions of books, articles, blog posts, etc., the market quickly became glutted.

On top of that, why pay for what you can get for free?

Thousands of websites, blogs, newsletters, and platforms like WattPad offer  information and entertainment…for free.

Articles and short stories that, back in the 1990s, would have commanded four figures from The Atlantic and The New Yorker are now available for only a mouse click.

More outlets than ever need content but millions more writers are also clamoring to fill those needs, often without pay.

Despite the low market value of writing itself, an entire cottage industry has sprung up to support the self-publishing community with marketing, editing, cover design, book formatting, coaching, etc. Although I don’t have verifiable proof, I firmly believe most authors pay more to these support businesses than readers pay to authors for their books.

Don’t forget Bezos, who’s done just fine servicing authors.

Remember the dollar/word I made in 1995? More than a quarter century later, here’s a link to top-paying markets for freelancers. Fifty cents is about the max you can expect today. Some are down to a penny or dime/word, same rates as when I started.

Yet the gallon of gas that was $1.15 in 1995 now costs $4.

Factor in the disaster of 2020 and writing incomes dropped further. According to the Authors Guild, “…by January [2021], over two thirds [of writers surveyed] had lost a significant portion of their income—almost half of their pre-pandemic incomes on average—due to the loss of freelance journalism work, speaking engagements and teaching jobs, as well as low book sales due to bookstore closures.”

Highly respected writing/marketing guru Jane Friedman never shrinks from shining a light on cold, hard reality. She tackles the uncomfortable subject of current author earnings in this post.

Jacquie the successful travel journalist is no doubt spinning in her grave. The nice living that she once made as a freelancer nowadays translates more accurately to the revenue from your kid’s lemonade stand.

There are more authors with 15-year-old Subarus than chauffeur-driven limos.

I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer but that’s the reality of the profession we’ve chosen.

Yet…there are other forms of payment.

“Your character totally captured how I felt.”

 “I could see the place like I was right there.”

“I’m a crusty old Marine but your story brought tears to my eyes.”

“I’m disabled and don’t get out much. Your books make me forget my troubles for a little while.”

“Your book kept me up all night. I couldn’t put it down.”

How much are the above reader comments worth?

Well, they won’t buy a new laptop or pay for a research trip to Greece.

But there’s something about making that connection with readers that feeds my soul.

This year, I’ve concentrated more on marketing than in the past and book sales are gradually rising. But I’m not ready to sign a contract for a riverfront condo yet.

Meanwhile, I continue to treat writing as a profession, working as hard for unpaid stories as I do for paid ones.

Will I keep writing even though the pay is lousy?

Yup.

~~~

TKZers: Would you keep writing if you never got paid? What’s the best reader comment you’ve ever received?

Writing Ritual and Routine

I always write to music, but a problem arose recently that made me question my writing ritual.

But I love writing with my headphones on, music blocking out the world around me. There’s no better way for me to strike the right mood in the WIP. I create a playlist for each book, with overlapping “series songs.” Songs I listen to only while writing books in that series. Since my series are vastly different so are the songs in each playlist.

As soon as I slide on the headphones, the music transports me back to my story world.

The problem I ran into recently was with writing true crime. I’d created a playlist for Pretty Evil New England. But for this new book I veered away from my usual writing routine and threw on Pandora.

Big mistake.

I struggled. The words wouldn’t come like they normally do. My mind felt cluttered and bogged down. Hence why I wrote my last post about multitasking and the brain. Frazzled, I panicked. Why I couldn’t reach “the zone” with my WIP? The beginning had been so easy, words flowing like Niagara, paragraphs in perfect harmony with one another. Had I finally lost my writing mojo?

The answer seemed clear. Only it wasn’t an answer I could accept. I emotionally degraded myself, exercised, read . . . I tried everything I could think of to breathe life into my muse, dying next to two unfinished WIPs. And yet, every time I slid on the headphones and clicked Pandora . . . total brain block.

After several grueling days (felt more like years), I stumbled across a blog post that advised writers never to listen to music unless it has no lyrics, background instrumental music. In other words, the total opposite of my music. But I’ve written all my books to music. What changed?

The metaphoric lightbulb blazed on.

By switching to Pandora, not knowing what song would play or when, my brain couldn’t interpret the music as white noise.

As soon as I went back to YouTube and clicked the playlist for Pretty Evil New England (since I’m writing true crime), my fingers could barely keep up with the flood of creativity.

I’m back!

Writers have writing rituals/routines for a reason. The ritual or routine encourages focus and has the ability to get us back on track if we drift off course. The familiarity snaps us out of the funk and reminds us that yes, we can finish the WIP, just as we’ve always done. It also allows the words to flow. Rituals help us find comfort and balance and sets the tone for a solid writing session. Routine is especially important. Employing a consistent writing routine can be the difference between hitting our word count or staring at a blinking cursor.

If your writing comes to a screeching halt for no apparent reason, a change within your writing ritual or routine may be to blame.

For me (obviously), it’s sliding on the headphones with a familiar playlist cranked. Emphasis on familiar. An argument could be made that I’m not really listening to music. Rather, the playlist morphs into white noise and acts as the gunshot to start the footrace. Although, strangely, I’ve tried the white noise app and it’s not nearly as effective (for me). All my research is done on my iMac, but I switch to my MacBook to write. This was a subconscious act. I wasn’t even aware of the ritual until I focused on changes within my writing routine.

For others, the writing ritual may include an environmental change, like shutting the door to the office or sitting outside in a special chair. Some writers trek to the local coffee shop or settle in at their designated desk in the university library. *waves to Garry*

Some of our most celebrated authors had/have consistent writing rituals and routines.

JAMES JOYCE

Joyce’s ritual included crayons, a white coat, and a comfy horizontal surface. For word flow, he would lay flat on his stomach in bed. Since he was severely myopic, crayons enabled Joyce to see his own handwriting more clearly, and the white coat served as a reflector of light.

MAYA ANGELOU 

In her own words:

I keep a hotel room in my hometown and pay for it by the month.

I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible. Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles. Something to occupy my little mind.

I think my grandmother taught me that. She didn’t mean to, but she used to talk about her “little mind.”

So when I was young, from the time I was about 3 until 13, I decided that there was a Big Mind and a Little Mind. And the Big Mind would allow you to consider deep thoughts, but the Little Mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the subjects I wanted to write about.

I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and housekeeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: “Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!

But I’ve never slept there, I’m usually out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve written that morning, and I try to edit then. Clean it up.

TRUMAN CAPOTE 

The creative genius behind In Cold Blood was a superstitious man. Capote’s writing ritual often involved avoiding things like hotel rooms with phone numbers that included the number 13, starting or ending a piece of work on a Friday, and tossing more than three cigarette butts in one ashtray.

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.

No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

Even so, Capote stuck to his writing routine because it worked.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY 

In stark contrast to James Joyce, Hemingway was a firm believer in standing while writing. While working on The Old Man and The Sea, he followed a strict regimen.

“Done by noon, drunk by three.”

This entailed waking at dawn, writing furiously while standing, and eventually hiking to the local bar to get hammered.

JOAN DIDION 

Didion holds her books close to her heart—literally.  When she’s close to finishing a manuscript, she’ll sleep with her WIP.

“Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it.”

E.B. WHITE 

In his own words:

I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me.

KURT VONNEGUT 

Check out Vonnegut’s writing routine:

I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare.

When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.

JODIE PICOULT 

Picoult doesn’t believe writer’s block exists:

Think about it — when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

Wise words. I agree. Nothing motivates quite like a looming deadline, self-imposed or contracted.

DAN BROWN 

Most writers would do anything and everything to get rid of writer’s block. According to The Da Vinci Code novelist, Dan Brown hangs upside down to cure writer’s block. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But we can’t argue with the results. If Brown didn’t hang like a bat, imagine all the amazing thrillers we would have lost?

Bats can’t launch into flight until they’re upside down. Why not Dan Brown? He says he’s more productive and creative afterward. He also does push-ups and stretches every hour. Not only has he found the cure for writer’s block, he’s in tip-top shape.

Writers are complicated beings. 😉

Do you have a writing ritual and/or routine? Tell us about it.

My publisher ran a sale for Pretty Evil New England last week. Not sure how long the sale will last, but for now the ebook is $1.99 on Amazon.