Redux: Does Creativity Pass Through Generations via DNA?

With a deadline nipping at my heels, and losing two days to the holiday, I’m sharing a post I wrote in 2018. Still as fascinating today, IMO. Enjoy!

This video sent me down a rabbit hole of research.

As you can imagine, my writer brain lit up. Turns out, the research was even more fascinating than the video. A scientific study showed that a traumatic event could affect the DNA in sperm or eggs and alter the brains and behavior of subsequent generations. This breakthrough is an important discovery in the fight to treat phobias and anxiety.

Do you fear spiders, heights, or small spaces for no apparent reason? This may explain why.

Neuroscientists trained mice to fear a cherry blossom scent prior to copulation. While breeding these mice, the team at the Emory University School of Medicine looked at what was happening inside the sperm. Incredibly, the sperm showed a section of DNA, responsible for sensitivity to the cherry blossom scent, was indeed more active.

The mice’s offspring, and their offspring — the grand-mice, if you will — were all extremely sensitive to cherry blossom and avoided the scent at all costs, despite never experiencing a problem with it in their lives. They also found changes in brain structure.

In the smell-aversion study, scientists believe either some of the odor ended up in the bloodstream, which affected sperm production, or the brain sent a signal to the sperm to alter the DNA.

The report states, “Our findings provide a framework for addressing how environmental information may be inherited transgenerationally at behavioral, neuroanatomical and epigenetic levels.”

Environmental change can also critically affect the lifestyle, reproductive success, and lifespan of adult animals for generations. Exposure to high temperatures led to the expression of endogenously repressed copies of genes — sometimes referred to as “junk” DNA. The changes in chromatin occurred in the early embryo before the onset of transcription and were inherited through eggs and sperm. In mealworms, they traced the DNA changes through 14 generations.

Why mealworms? It’s quicker to test generation after generation on an animal with a short lifespan.

Another study showed that a mouse’s ability to remember can be affected by the presence of immune system factors in their mother’s milk. Chemokines — signaling proteins secreted by cells — carried in a mother’s milk caused changes in the brains of their offspring, affecting their memory later in life.

Memories are passed down through generations via genetic switches that allow offspring to inherit the experience of their ancestors. These switches, however, can be turned on and off, according to Science Daily. Scientists have long assumed that memories and learned experiences must be passed to future generations through personal interactions. However, this research shows that it’s possible for some information to be inherited biologically through chemical changes that occur in DNA.

Creativity counts as a learned behavior, but I also believe it goes deeper than that. Think about how deeply you feel about your writing. For most writers I know, when we’re “in the zone” our soul does the writing. One could argue we’re merely vessels who type. Have you ever read a passage that you don’t remember writing? Our ability to create burrows into the core of who we are, and thus, leaves an indelible mark. How, then, can we not pass that part of ourselves to future generations?

How many of you have creative folks in your family tree, be it writers, artists, musicians, singers, or other forms of creativity?

To test my theory, I asked the same question to my fellow TKZ members. Please note: this revelation occurred to me yesterday, so I’ve only included the members who saw the email in time. Hopefully, the others will add their responses in the comments.

For those I did catch on a Sunday, check out what they said …

Elaine Viets said, “My late cousin Kurt was a talented wood carver, and my grandfather was known as a great story teller in the local saloons.”

I love wood-carved pieces. The smell, the texture, the swirl to the grain. It’s not an easy creative outlet to master.

Jordan Dane comes from a long line of creative people. Here’s her answer: “My paternal grandfather was a writer for a Hispanic newspaper. My dad was an architect and artist (painter), my older brother went into architecture too, specializing in hospital design. My dad is a real renaissance guy. He could sculpt, paint, draw and he has a passion for cooking. My older brother Ed and I share a love for singing. I sang in competitive ensemble groups. He played in a popular area band and has sung in barbershop quartets. My mom was the original singer in our family. She has a great voice.”

Joe Hartlaub has two talented children. Here’s what he said, “Annalisa Hartlaub, my youngest daughter, is a photographer. My oldest son Joe is also a highly regarded bass guitar player locally.”

He’s being modest. When I checked out Annalisa’s photographs on Facebook and Instagram they blew me away. A photography project she created at 15 years old also went viral.

When I prodded further, Joe added, “My maternal grandfather played guitar, but we never knew it until we came across a picture of him taken at a large Italian social club gathering where he was strumming away. He was in his twenties at the time. As far as the source of Annalisa’s talent goes…her mother is a terrific photographer. The conclusion is that Annalisa gets the form of the art from her mother and her creativeness from me.”

Laura Benedict stunned me with her answer. “Someone doing genealogy linked my maternal grandfather’s family to Johann Sebastian Bach.”

Talk about a creative genius!

Laura added, “I remember a few very small watercolors that I believe my maternal grandmother painted. Trees and houses. But while we were close, we never talked about art. My aunt also did some drawing.”

John Gilstrap also came from a long line of creative people. Here’s his answer…

“My paternal extended family has always been fairly artistic.  My grandfather, I am told–he died long before I was born–had a beautiful singing voice, and for a period of time worked whatever the Midwest version of the Vaudeville circuit was.  My father, a career Naval aviator, wrote the Navy’s textbook, The Principles of Helicopter Flight, and had two patents on helicopter cargo handling operations.  He passed away in 2006.

My brother, four years older than I, plays a number of instruments, but his primary proficiency is the piano.  His daughter is a very accomplished cellist who makes her living as the director of a high school orchestra that consistently kills at competitions.
Closer to home, my only musical talent is to be a passable tenor in the choir.  For years, I sang with a choral group that performed all over the DC area, including a number of gigs at The Kennedy Center.  As a high schooler, our son was a pretty good cellist, but he walked away from it in college and never really looked back.”

Although I wasn’t able to catch her in time, PJ Parrish is the sister team of Kris Montee and Kelly Nichols.

As for me, my maternal grandfather was a highly regarded artist (painter) in his time. My mother was a beautiful writer, even though I never knew it while she was alive. After she passed, I discovered notebooks full of her writing. UPDATE: In 2020, two years after I wrote this post, I found out she worked as an editor for many years.

So, can creativity be passed through our DNA? Judging by this small pool of writers, I find it hard not to entertain the possibility.

I’m betting the same holds true if I expand the test subjects to include you, my beloved TKZers. How many of you have creative folks in your family tree?

Wings of Mayhem by Sue Coletta

FREE on Amazon.

When the cat burglar and the serial killer collide, HE looks forward to breaking her will, but SHE never gives up. Not ever. And especially not for him.

Pumpkin Spice and Writing

Ever wonder why pumpkin spice is so popular? The fascinating part is not only does it taste amazing, but many are obsessed with how it makes them feel on an emotional level.

Dr. John McGann, a sensory neuroscientist at Rutgers Department of Psychology, explains how it all reverts back to the olfactory system — our sense of smell — which is complex to say the least.

“Most of what we refer to colloquially as taste is actually smell,” McGann says. “About 70 percent of our [perception] of taste is retronasal smell and then maybe 25 percent of it is true taste: salty, bitter, sweet. But there also additional components: the feeling of creaminess, which really contributes to a perception of flavor [and] your sense of touch. Then there’s an additional sense of pungency, [as in] the burning feeling of pepper from hot wings. That’s your trigeminal system. So, your brain is putting all of these things together.”

The human brain also assembles memories and emotions. In this way, smell is unique from all other senses, which first passes through the thalamus — a relay station of the brain — and goes straight to the olfactory bulb.

“From there it goes to the amygdala, which controls emotion, and to the hippocampal formation, the entorhinal cortex,” McGann explains. “Smell anatomically has a more direct connection to classical memory regions in the brain.”

Do you see where I’m going with this? A scene becomes more impactful and memorable when we include smell.

  • If your character is in the forest, include the fresh scent of pine.
  • If your character is in the bowling alley, include the stench of bare feet.
  • If your character is in a boat, include the salty ocean air.
  • If your character is at an Italian restaurant, include the signature tomato sauce.
  • If your character is at the gym, include body odor or sweat.
  • If your character is in a sauna, include cedar.
  • If your character is at a pool, include chlorine.
  • If your character is home, include a scented candle, tart warmer, or air freshener.
  • If one character is cradling a toddler, include baby shampoo or talcum powder.

McGann recalls a famous scene in Proust’s masterpiece, “Remembrance Of Things Past”, where the narrator eats a madeleine cookie and feels as if he’s transported back in time. The same thing happens to us when we drink or eat something flavored with pumpkin spice.

What makes the flavor so widely relatable is the inclusion of spices like cinnamon, clove, ground ginger, and nutmeg that are more prevalent during the holidays. The aroma of pumpkin is associated with Thanksgiving and autumnal harvest — historically, a prosperous time of year.

Food chemists hit an olfactory jackpot. Hence why pumpkin spice became more than just a fad. It’s a seasonal staple.

“The pumpkin spice blend… It’s about making people happy and connecting them to moments: the changing of the season, of being warm under the covers, but also the memory of spending enjoyable time with family and friends.” Thierry Muret, executive chef chocolatier at Godiva

Think about how the aroma of hot buttery popcorn triggers memories of movie theaters or how lobster tails remind New Englanders of the beach.

Where does your main character live? Does the area have a signature dish? Tickle the reader’s sense of smell to transport them there.

“Pumpkin spice is a novelty smell because you don’t smell it very often and it’s usually a pleasant smell,” explains Dr. Gabriel Keith Harris, director of Undergraduate Programs in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences at North Carolina State University. “Combine that with the fact that the part of the brain that processes smell is closely tied to the part of your brain responsible for memories and you have part of the secret to the success of pumpkin spice.”

Makes sense, right?

“Your brain fills in the gaps between the scent of the spices and the memories associated with the smell,” Harris adds. “It takes in everything we’re seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting, and it combines those sensory inputs with what we already know and believe about our environment.”

This helps to explain why scent is such a powerful driver of emotion.

The irony is that pumpkin spice doesn’t smell like pumpkins. Pumpkins are members of the squash family, and don’t smell like spices. On their own their taste ranges from bland to bitter. What we’re actually smelling and/or tasting is a combination of cinnamon, clove, ground ginger, and nutmeg.

The true genius of the pumpkin spice craze is all about timing. Same holds true for writing. Don’t include a scent merely to check off an item on the to-do list. Include smell for a reason.

Examples:

  • To enhance the setting—the MC is hiking up a mountain trail.
  • To transport the reader back in time and/or place—flashing back to a memory.
  • To pack a more emotional punch—a mother loses her son, but she can still smell him on his favorite football jersey or bed pillow.
  • To set the scene—the MC meets a blind date at a restaurant.

“Pumpkin spice plays on what’s known in psychology as reactance theory, which refers to the idea that people will want something more if they are told they cannot have it,” according to Harris. “The seasonality of it is really intentional. If pumpkin spice were available year-round, it wouldn’t trigger such powerful memories and people wouldn’t want it as much.”

Also, when the pumpkin spice craze starts, people don’t want to miss out. They crave being part of a community.

“If you add it all up, the powerful ability of smell to summon up old experiences becomes a mental transportation device, shifting you from summer to fall and it becomes an event people want to be part of.”

Let’s pretend you are the main character. What scents should I expect to smell while reading your life story?

Happy Halloween!

Social Media, Blogging, and SEO Redux

Since I am on deadline and preparing to fly to Atlanta to film three episodes of a true crime series, I’m sharing my very first post on the Kill Zone from 2017. Has it been five years already? Seems like yesterday. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. I’ll try to pop into the comment section at some point today. Please be patient! In the meantime, chat among yourselves.

Social Media, Blogging, and SEO Tips

Social Media, Blogging, and SEO tipsTo prepare for my first post as a TKZ member (yay!), I read all the social media posts on the Kill Zone (my little research addiction rearing its head :-)). Back as far as 2009, Joe Moore wrote Social Networking Showdown, which explored MySpace vs. Facebook, Shelfari vs. Goodreads, Crimespace, Gather, Bebo, LinkedIn, and the all-important email list. Even though some of these sites are nonexistent today, Joe’s advice still applies. And in 2011, he shared his perspective on using manners online. Which is critical these days.

The way we conduct ourselves on social media matters. Hence, why Jim made social media easy and why, I presume, Jodie Renner invited Anne Allen to give us 15 Do’s and Don’ts of social media as only Anne could, with her fantastic wit.

One year later, in 2016, Clare shared what’s acceptable for authors on social media and what isn’t. Jim showed us the dangers of social media, and how it can consume us if we’re not careful.

Through the years the Kill Zone authors have tried to keep us from falling into the honey trap of social media. Which brings me to the burning question Kathryn posed this past June: Writers on Social Media: Does it Even Make a Difference?

In my opinion, the correct answer is yes.

Working writers in the digital age need to have a social media presence. Fans expect to find a way to connect with their favorite author. How many of you have finished reading a thriller that blew you away, and immediately went online to find out more about the author? I know I have. It’s only natural to become curious about the authors whose books we love. Give your fans a way to find you — the first step in building an audience.

I’ve seen authors who don’t even have a website, never mind an updated blog. This is a huge mistake, IMO. It’s imperative to have a home base. Without one, we’re limiting our ability to grow.

BLOGGING

There are two types of blogging: those who blog about their daily routine and those who offer valuable content. Although both ways technically “engage” our audience, the latter is a more effective way to build and nurture a fan base.

When I first started blogging I had no idea what to do. I got in contact with a web design company (just like web design company Nashville) to help me get set up, and away I went! I’ve always loved to research, so I used my blog as a way to share the interesting tidbits I’d learned along the way. For me, it was a no-brainer. I’d already done the research. Writing about what I’d learned helped me to remember what I needed for my WIP while offering valuable content to writers who despise research (Gasp!). Over time my Murder Blog grew into a crime resource blog.

Running a resource blog has its advantages and disadvantages. Be sure to look into the pros and cons before choosing this route. When I first scored a publishing deal, I realized most of my audience was made up of other writers. The question then became, how could I attract non-writers without losing what I’d built?

My solution was to widen my scope to things readers would also enjoy, like flash fiction and true crime stories. Who doesn’t like a good mystery?

With a resource blog it’s also difficult to support the writing community. Book promos go over about as well as a two-ton elephant on a rubber raft. If you decide to run a resource blog, find another way to support your fellow writers. When one of us succeeds, the literary angels rejoice.

There’s one exception to the “no book promos” rule for resource blogs, and that is research. It’s always fun to read about other writers’ experiences. Subtly place their book covers somewhere in post (with buy link). That way it benefits both your audience and the author.

The one thing we can count on is that how-to blog changes with the times. A few months ago, my publisher shared a link to an article about blogging in 2018. Because she shared the article via our private group, I’m reluctant to share the link. The gist of article is, come 2018 bloggers who don’t offer some sort of video content will be left in the dust. Only time will tell if this advice holds true, but it makes sense. The younger generation loves YouTube. By adding a video series or a Facebook Live event we could expand our audience.

It’s time-consuming to create each video episode. Hence why I had several months in between the first two episodes of Serial Killer Corner. Our first priority must be writing that next book. However, consistency is key. Weekly, monthly, bi-monthly? Choose a plan that works for you and stick with it. There are many internet marketing experts who can help make your blog become successful.

SEO MATTERS

SEO — Search Engine Optimization — drives traffic to your website/blog. Without making this post 10K words long, I’m sharing a few SEO tips with added tips to expand our reach. In the future I could devote an entire post to how to maximize SEO. Would that interest you?

Tips

  • every post should have at least one inbound link and two outbound links; we highly recommend speaking to a digital marketing agency such as OutreachPete.com to get guidance on how to build these links.
  • send legacy blogs a pingback when linking to their site;
  • never link the same words as the post title or you’ll lessen the previous posts’ SEO (note how I linked to previous TKZ posts in the 1st paragraph);
  • use long-tail keywords rather than short-tail (less competition equals better traffic);
  • using Yoast SEO plug-in is one of the easiest ways to optimize a blog’s SEO;
  • self-hosted sites allow full control of SEO, free sites don’t;
  • remove stop words in the post slug (for example, see the permalink for this post); I’d also recommend removing the date, but that’s a personal preference;
  • drip marketing campaigns drive traffic to your site;
  • slow blogging drives more traffic than daily blogging (for a single author site);
  • consistency is key — if you post every Saturday, keep that schedule;
  • use spaces before and after an em dash in blog posts (not books);
  • use alt tags on every image (I use the post title, which should include the keyword); if someone pins an image, the post title travels with it;
  • link images to post and book covers to buy link;
  • white space is your friend; use subheadings, bullet points, and/or lists;
  • longer posts (800 – 1, 000 words min.) get better SEO than than shorter ones;
  • using two hashtags on Twitter garners more engagement than three or more;
  • protect your site with SSL encryption (as of this month, Google warns potential visitors if your site isn’t protected; imagine how much traffic you could lose?);
  • post a “SSL Protected” badge on your site; it aids in email sign-ups;
  • via scroll bar or pop-up, capitalize on that traffic by asking visitors to join your community, which helps build your email list;

THE 80/20 RULE

Most of us are familiar with the 80/20 rule. 80% non-book-related content; 20% books. My average leans more toward 90/10, but that may be a personal preference.

What should we share 80% of the time? The easiest thing to do is to share what we’re passionate about. When I say post about passion I don’t mean writing. Sure, we’re all passionate about writing, but I’m sure that’s not the only thing you’re passionate about. How about animals, nature, cooking, gardening, or sports?

One of the best examples of sharing one’s passion comes from a writer pal of mine, Diana Cosby, who loves photography. Every Saturday on Facebook, she holds the Mad Bird Competition. During the week she takes photos of birds who have a penetrating glare and/or fighting stance. On Saturdays, she posts two side-by-side photos and asks her audience to vote for their favorite “mad bird.” Much like boxing, the champion from that round goes up against a new bird the following week.

On Fridays, she posts formal rejection letters to birds who didn’t make the cut. With her permission, here’s an example:

Dear Mr. House Sparrow,

I regret to inform you that though your ‘fierce look’ holds merit, it far from meets the requirements for entry into the Mad Bird Competition. Please practice your mad looks and resubmit.

Sincerely,
M.R. Grackle
1st inductee into the Mad Bird Hall of Fame

 

It’s a blast! I look forward to these posts every week. As such, I’m curious about her books. See how that works?

My own social media tends to run a bit darker … murder & serial killers top the list, but I also share stories about Poe & Edgar, my pet crows who live free, as well as my love for nature and anything with fur or feathers. The key is to be real. Don’t try to fake being genuine. People see right through a false facade. Also, please don’t rant about book reviews, rejection letters, or anything else. Social media is not the place to share your frustrations.

As for soft marketing on social media, I like to make my own memes. It only takes a few minutes and it’s a great way to keep your fans updated on what you’re working on. In the following example I wrote: #amwriting Book 3, Grafton Series. I also linked to the series. Don’t forget to include a link to your website. The more the meme is shared, the more people see your name. Keep it small and unobtrusive. See mine in the lower-right corner?

Social Media, Blogging, and SEO Tips

In the next example, I asked, “What’s everyone doing this weekend? No words, only gifs.” Have fun on social media. The point is to engage your audience.

Folks love to be included. Plus, I genuinely want to get to know the people who follow/friend me. Don’t you? It doesn’t take much effort to make your fans feel special. Take a few moments to mingle with them. It’s five or ten minutes out of your busy schedule, yet it may be the only thing that brightens someone’s day. In a world with so much negatively and hatred, be better, be more than, be the best person you can be … in life and on social media.

Over to you TKZers. How do you approach social media?

What Writers Can Learn from Bad TV Adaptations

Even in this image you can see different personality types.

There’s a popular TV adaptation of a thriller series that drives me crazy, but it’s a perfect example of what not to do.

The first problem is characterization. Every single female on the show is the same—strong, badass, snarky, and walks all over the meek male characters, who all seem to cower in their presence.

Lesson: Each character must have unique traits. All women are not strong. All men are not meek. Just as all characters are not beautiful or handsome. They’re individuals with their own quirks, strengths, flaws, etc.

The main character and her best friend are particularly annoying. I won’t get too deep into their backstory. Briefly, they both loved the same man (MC’s husband) who dies by the hand of a serial killer.

Now, either the writer knows nothing about women, or he lives in a dream world, because these two badass women move past the fact that they were sleeping with the same guy and open a PI business together.

Seriously? I don’t about you, but if another woman slept with my husband right before he died, we certainly wouldn’t become best friends and business partners. I’d hunt her for the rest of my life.

Ahem.

Lesson: If you know nothing about cheating or loss, ask someone who does.

Early on there was some mention that the MC was on the force at one point. Husband dies. She gains a new best friend, and the two women open a PI business to chase the serial killer who killed Mr. Wonderful. But because she’s so tough she walks all over the Sheriff and his deputies. And soon, he hands her a badge. On her first day, she’s basically running the whole department.

Now, I’m all for a strong female lead, but come on!

Keep in mind, she still owns half the PI business. Conflict of interest? Nah. In fact, she interviews more criminals with her best friend (who is not law enforcement) than she does with her meek male partner. And get this — she and her PI partner both have the power to make deals with criminals, like no jail time if you give up so-and-so. What??? There’s no DA is this story world? Apparently not.

Warrants also don’t exist, unless the writer needs to buy time. Otherwise, if she wants to kick in a door, she does. She even fights much larger male characters and wins every single time. Oh, and she puts out APBs instead of BOLOs.

Lesson #1: An APB and BOLO are two different things. An All Points Bulletin (APB) might be released when there’s a prison break and they want “all points” to get the message. A Be On the Look Out (BOLO) is more traditional these days for when a specific person and/or vehicle is wanted in connection with a crime.

Same goes for 187 to indicate a homicide. It’s a gang term not used by law enforcement with the exception of California. California operates differently than the rest of the country, so check with local law enforcement.

Lesson #2: Do your homework, writers! If you’re unsure if they use APB or BOLO, call and ask. Most departments will happily answer questions from writers.

Lesson #3: Characters must fail, or they become ridiculous and unrealistic. There’s also no character arc without failure. These characters have not changed one iota from the first episode to the last.

Lesson #4: There are laws in this country, and the vast majority of law enforcement work within the law. Can a cop character cut corners once in a while? Within reason, I suppose, but they cannot blatantly disregard the law entirely.

Let’s talk about the serial killer character for a moment. He could not be more stereotyped with Mommy issues, etc. Another eye roll character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. And—surprise, surprise—a dirty cop is protecting him. At the end of season one, the cop dies. But fear not! He’s back in season two. Can anyone guess how?

Anyone? Anyone?

He’s a twin, of course. A twin, I might add, that no one knew about…until the writer needed an easy way to continue the series.

Lesson: Whatever solution first pops into your mind is a cop-out. Dig deeper and work for a solution that isn’t eye-roll-worthy.

It gets worse. The twin brother gets shot—in the head!—and is still able to flee before capture. Gotta continue the series, right? Wrong. If you kill a character, that’s it. You don’t get to magically move the bullet to his shoulder because it’s convenient.

Lesson: You cannot perform medical miracles to suit your story. Unless you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy.

Now, I will say, I haven’t read the novels, nor will I after sitting through the series while pounding out notes on my phone. It’s possible the film industry destroyed the novels. I doubt it because the author consults on set, but maybe the books aren’t as ridiculous.

I keep watching for two reasons:

  1. My husband I have a blast making fun of it. 🙂
  2. We can learn just as much from bad series as we can from good ones. Maybe more.

If you’ve figured out the series, please don’t mention the title.

If you enjoy strong and snarky female leads (not cardboard cutouts who never fail), check out WINGS OF MAYHEM, Book 1 of the Mayhem Series.

FREE on Amazon.

Walking with the Wise

“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise” – Proverbs 13:20a

***

Over the past several years, I’ve been privileged to conduct interviews on my blog at kaydibianca.com with many highly-respected authors of books on the craft of writing. One question I’ve asked almost every interviewee is “What advice would you give a new writer?” Here are some of their answers:

***

James Scott Bell (Plot & Structure) “It’s the same answer every time: write to a quota. Get in the habit of writing a certain number of words every week, week in and week out. You have to practice what you learn in craft books and classes. You have to exercise your imagination. You have to produce the pages if you want to make it in this game.”

Steve Laube (The Christian Writers Market Guide) “To quote a line from the movie “Galaxy Quest”: Never give up. Never Surrender. Seriously. This is an industry that demands excellence. Few writers are born as a perfect writer. Instead, most writers are marked by a dogged determination to improve their craft, learn the industry, build relationships, and create great ideas.”

Randy Ingermanson (How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method) “Create a habit of writing every day. You can analyze author success mathematically, and there are four crucial factors. One of the factors of a successful career is production. A habit of writing every day drives production. One of the other factors is quality. A habit of writing every day builds quality. So write every day. Every single day.”

Renni Browne (Self-editing for Fiction Writers) “Don’t self-edit your first draft. Let the story pour out, unimpeded by self-editing points, grammar, anything you’ve read or heard from famous writers, and so on. Story first, style later.”

Dave King (Self-editing for Fiction Writers) “Writing is hard.  It doesn’t take long to learn the basics of writing well enough to write competently, especially if you have the help of a professional editor (ADVT).  But to really develop the writer’s gifts – the insight into people you need to create layered characters, the awareness of how your readers will react to your story, the ability to make all the different aspects of your novel work together – takes time to develop.”

Angela Ackerman (The Emotion Thesaurus) “Tough to narrow it down to a single piece of advice, lol. I think what I would probably say is to not be in a rush. Developing strong storytelling skills takes time. Can anyone belt out a book and publish it? Yes. Should they? Not if their intent is to have a satisfying career if their skills are not at the level needed for that to happen.”

H.R. D’Costa (Story Stakes) “The advice I’d give is to make sure that you work on cultivating the right mindset. In fact, I’d put that above even developing plotting and marketing skills. With a healthy mindset, when you run into a thorny plot problem, you won’t give up on the manuscript (or perhaps on writing itself). Instead, you’ll persevere. You’ll power through.”

Jodie Renner (Fire Up Your Fiction) “Don’t be in a rush to publish your novel or send it off to agents. Be sure to go through it several times, then get some volunteer beta readers to go through it and give you their impressions. Then, if you can afford a professional editor, that would be invaluable. Agents and small publishers are flooded with submissions, so the slightest off-putting issue (wordiness, repetition, bland characters, stilted dialogue, not enough intrigue or tension, typos, punctuation errors, bloopers, etc.) will quickly land your story in the “rejects” pile.”

K.M. Weiland (Creating Character Arcs) “Find the process that works best for you. Explore and experiment and figure out what best unleashes your creativity. For example, outlines aren’t one size fits all. My outline won’t look anything like someone else’s outline. So just because one outlining approach doesn’t do it for you, don’t give up right away. Play around and see if you can find the right blend of tools and techniques for you.”

Martha Alderson (The Plot Whisperer) “Understand that writing a novel from beginning to end takes you on an epic journey. You’ll learn as much about yourself as you do about stories the longer you write. Keep going. Trust the process.”

***

So, TKZers: What advice would you give to new writers?

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                    It’s About Time

The Watch Series of cozy mysteries is available here.

5 Similarities Between Your Hero and Villain 

In story terms, a villain is a person, entity, or force who is cruel, evil, or malicious enough to wish the protagonist harm. Rather than simply blocking a goal or interfering with the hero’s plan, a villain causes suffering, making it vital for them to be conquered by the protagonist. Clarice must find and defeat Buffalo Bill if she wants to rise above her past and become a great FBI agent (The Silence of the Lambs); Chief Brody must kill the man-eating shark to preserve his town (Jaws).  

Regardless of the form your villain takes, there are certain qualities that will make them formidable and credible—qualities and connections they share with the protagonist. Let’s explore these qualifications through a case study of Dr. Lawrence Myrick, played by Gene Hackman in the movie Extreme Measures 

VILLAINS, LIKE HEROES, LIVE BY A MORAL CODE  

It’s been said that the best villains don’t know they’re villains; they think they’re the hero of the story. And this is true because a well-crafted baddie has his own moral code. Compared to the protagonist’s, it’s twisted and corrupt, but it still provides guardrails that guide him through the story.  

Dr. Myrick is a renowned and brilliant neurosurgeon who has dedicated his life’s work to curing paralysis. It’s a noble cause that he believes in more than anything—not so much for himself but for all the paralyzed people in the world. This cause is so important that when he develops a treatment, he can’t wait decades for it to crawl through the testing process and eventually be approved. So he bypasses the animal testing phase and goes right to human trials. It’s kind of hard to find healthy subjects who are willing to take such a risk, so he kidnaps homeless people and confines them to his secret medical facility, then severs their spinal cords so he can test his treatment on them.  

To the rest of the world, this is unconscionable. But to Myrick, the end justifies the means. He’s perfectly okay stealing people, taking away their freedom and mobility, and subjecting them to countless medical cruelties. And if they reach a point of no longer being useful, he’s fine doing away with them because they’re people no one will miss. He actually views them as heroes, sacrificing themselves for the greater good. His morals are deranged, but they’re absolute, guiding his choices and actions. And when you know his code, while you don’t agree with it, you at least understand what’s driving him, and his actions make sense.  

When you’re planning your villain, explore their beliefs about right and wrong. Figure out their worldview and ideals. Specifically, see how the villain’s beliefs differ from the protagonist’s. This will show you the framework the villain is willing to work within, steer the conflict they generate, and provide a stark contrast to the hero.  

THEY HAVE A STORY GOAL, TOO  

Like the hero, the villain has an overall objective, and they’re willing to do anything within their moral code to achieve it. When their goal is diametrically opposed to the hero’s, the two become enemies in a situation where only one can succeed.  

We know Myrick’s goal: to cure paralysis. And things are progressing nicely until an ER doctor in his hospital discovers homeless patients disappearing from the facility. Dr. Lathan starts nosing around, and when he realizes someone is up to no good, it becomes his mission to stop them. So the two are pitted against each other. If one succeeds, the other must fail. To quote Highlander: there can only be one.  

As the author who has spirited the villain out of your own (dare we say twisted?) imagination, you need to know their goal. It should be as clear-cut and obvious as the hero’s objective. Does it put them in opposition to the protagonist? Ideally, both characters’ goals should block each other from getting what they want and need.  

VILLAINS ARE WELL-ROUNDED  

Because villains are typically evil, it’s easy to fill them up with flaws and forget the positive traits. But good guys aren’t all good and bad guys aren’t all bad, and characters written this way have as much substance as the flimsy cardboard they’re made of. Myrick is cruel, unfeeling, and devious. But he’s also intelligent, generous, and absolutely dedicated to curing a devastating malady that afflicts the lives of many.  

Positive traits add authenticity for the villain while making them intimidating and harder to defeat. An added bonus is when their strength counters the hero’s.  

The villain of Watership Down is General Woundwort, a nasty rabbit whose positive attributes are brute strength and sheer force of will, making him more man than animal. In contrast, hero Hazel embodies what it means to be a rabbit. He’s swift and clever. He knows who he is and embraces what makes him him. In the end, Hazel and his rabbits overcome a seemingly undefeatable enemy by being true to their nature.  

When your villain is conceived and begins to grow in the amniotic fluid of your imagination, be sure to give him some positive traits along with the negative ones. Not only will you make him an enemy worthy of your hero, he’ll also be one readers will remember.  

THEY HAVE A BACKSTORY (AND YOU KNOW WHAT IT IS)  

Authors know how important it is to dig into their protagonist’s backstory and have a strong grasp of how it has impacted that character. Yet one of the biggest mistakes we make with villains is not giving them their own origin story. A character who is evil with no real reason behind their actions or motivations isn’t realistic, making them stereotypical and a bit…meh.  

To avoid this trap, know your villain’s beginnings. Why are they the way they are? What trauma, genetics, or negative influencers have molded them into their current state? Why are they pursuing their goal—what basic human need is lacking that achieving the goal will satisfy? The planning and research for this kind of character is significant, but it will pay off in the form of a memorable and one-of-a-kind villain who will give your hero a run for his money and intrigue readers.  

THEY SHARE A CONNECTION WITH THE PROTAGONIST  

In real life, we have many adversaries. Some of them are distant—the offensive driver on the highway or that self-serving, flip-flopping politician you foolishly voted for. Those adversaries can create problems for us, but the ones that do the most damage—the ones we find hardest to confront—are those we share a connection with. Parents, siblings, exes, neighbors we see every day, competitors we both admire and envy, people we don’t like who are similar to us in some way…conflicts with these people are complicated because of the emotions they stir up.  

The same is true for our protagonists. The most meaningful clashes will be with the people they know. Use this to your advantage. Bring the villain in close and make things personal by engineering a connection between the two characters. Here are a few options for you to work with.  

  • Give Them a Shared History. The more history the two have, the more emotion will be involved. Guilt, rage, grief, fear, jealousy, regret, desire—strong feelings like these will add sparks to their interactions. They’ll cloud the protagonist’s judgment and increase the chances their villain will gain an edge.  
  • Make Them Reflections of Each Other. What happens when the protagonist sees him or herself in the villain? A seed of empathy forms. The hero feels a connection with the person they have to destroy, which complicates things immensely. Personality traits, flaws, vulnerabilities, wounding events, needs and desires—all of these (and more) can be used to forge a bond that will add complexity and depth to this important relationship.  
  • Give Them a Shared Goal. When your hero and your villain are pursuing the same objective, it accomplishes a number of good things. First, it ensures that only one of them can be the victor, pitting them against each other. But they’re also more likely to understand one another. They’ll have different reasons and methods of chasing the dream, but the shared goal can create an emotional connection.  

As you can see, a lot goes into creating an enemy that is realistic, complete, and worthy of holding the title of villain in your story. When you’re drawing this character, give them the same thought and effort you’d put into your hero, and you’ll end up with a villain that will enhance your story, intrigue readers, and give the hero a run for their money.  

Want to take your conflict further? The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1 & Volume 2) explores a whopping 225 conflict scenarios that force your character to navigate relationship issues, power struggles, lost advantages, dangers and threats, moral dilemmas, failures and mistakes, and much more! 

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 900,000 copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online resource for authors that’s home to the Character Builder and Storyteller’s Roadmap tools.

 

Telepathy and Writing

Deep down each of us have a strong but underused connection to the world around us.

Consider the time when you sensed someone watching you, even if you couldn’t see them. Or the gut feeling, telling you something significant was about to happen. Or the intuitive, instinctive feeling that gave you the name of the person on the other end of the line before checking the caller ID.

If we learn how to tap into this sixth sense, we begin to notice when someone—dead or alive—is thinking about us, even when we’re physically apart.

Telepathic communication explains why, when you randomly thought of a friend and she texted you the next day. Or that time when you spontaneously called your third cousin, and he said, “Oh em gee, I was just thinking about you!”

Writers are especially attuned to the “little voice” inside us.

Some are more intuitive than others, but we all have an underutilized sixth sense. Once we learn its power and how to use it, new doorways open up, doorways that enhance our writing.

The more we open up to the possibility of telepathy, the more we’ll start to notice the messages from our spirit guides and ancestors, and the synchronicities or coincidences that have always been present in our lives.

The Natural World thrives on telepathic communication.

An animal’s survival depends on it. If you’ve ever wondered how one species warns another about potential threats, telepathy answers this question. And humans — as members of the Natural World — can tap into that same energy.

The notion of telepathic communication first intrigued me as a way to chat with animals, wild and domestic. Because when we watch and listen to animals, they help us reach our full potential. Animals enrich the mind, body, and soul. They’re sentient, intuitive beings who communicate with us in many ways. Body language, vocals, and telepathy, whether we’re cognizant of it or not.

Think about this: Most animals know more about their environment than you or I ever will.

An intuitive exchange with any animal — cats, dogs, guinea pigs, crows — begins the same way. First, with physical body cues. Then with the silent language of love.

So, how can we telepathically communicate with animals?

Step 1: Rest your hands over your heart and practice deep breathing exercises.

Step 2: Once you’re relaxed, pay attention to your heart, to your soul, and feel the gravity of your love for the animal.

Step 3: Express your love for that animal by visualizing a soft beam of light, a tether connecting the two of you.

Step 4: Silently or vocally ask the animal for permission to telepathically communicate with them.

Step 5: If you don’t sense any reluctance, express how you’re open to receiving messages in return. Keep it light in the beginning and progress deeper once you build trust, confidence, and strengthen your bond.

Keep in mind, animals live in the moment. They’re not distracted by the phone, the to-do list, or regret. And so, you must also be in the present moment to connect with them.

The only obstacle is you.

Trust the flow, the energetic pulse of life. Align with, not against, this flow. By blocking out all distractions, the energy exchanges between you and animals will occur effortlessly. You are in the present, anchored by love and grace, and coming from a place of neutrality. You are part of the Natural World, connected across space and time.

The same principals apply to human-to-human telepathic communication. Both parties must be willing participants. Don’t use this life skill for evil (unless you’re targeting fictional characters).

Remember These Three Simple Truths

  1. We are all part of divine consciousness.
  2. Love creates alignment with all creation.
  3. We all have the ability to listen with our heart.

When we refocus on lowering the frequency of emotions — fear, self-doubt, anxiety — we raise our cognition, enhance the vibration of our energy, we align with nature. Animals are drawn to bright inner lights, and therefore will be enthusiastic about communicating with you.

That’s all well and good, Sue, but how does that help our writing?

Glad you asked. 😉

In On Writing, Stephen King provides the perfect example of telepathy and writing.

“Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop to think about it—for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists—and all the time it’s been right there, lying out in the open like Mr. Poe’s The Purloined Letter. All the arts depend on telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.”

What does the quote mean?

The best way to think about writing is the process of transferring a mental image from your mind to the mind of a reader. As writers, we envision scenes, settings, characters, etc. Our job is to transfer that mental image to the page for the reader to experience later.

Sounds a lot like telepathy, doesn’t it? Because it is!

Hence why writing coaches tell us to envision our ideal reader, carrying that image with us while writing. The trick is learning what images to include and what to leave out. Hint: Less is more.

Want to hear something bizarre?

While writing this post in Word, the document kept disappearing. One second it’d be on my screen, gone the next. And I had three other documents open at the time. The other two stayed on the screen. Coincidence? You tell me.

Releases tomorrow! Preorder on Amazon for $1.49 before my publisher raises the price.

She may be paranoid, but is she right?

A string of gruesome murders rocks the small town of Alexandria, New Hampshire, with all the victims staged to resemble dead angels, and strange red and pink balloons appearing out of nowhere.

All the clues point to the Romeo Killer’s return. Except one: he died eight years ago.

Paranoid and on edge, Sage’s theory makes no sense. Dead serial killers don’t rise from the grave. Yet she swears he’s here, hungering for the only angel to slip through his grasp—Sage.

With only hours left to live, how can Sage convince her Sheriff husband before the sand in her hourglass runs out?

 

 

 

First Page Critique – Samaritan Sins

Photo credit: wikimedia CC-BY-SA-3.0

By Debbie Burke 

@burke_writer

 

Let’s welcome another Brave Author who submitted a first page for review. Enjoy reading it then we’ll discuss.

~~~

 “Waller, they found a body on the Midwest Bike Trail about two hundred feet east of the Northwestern tracks,” stated Police Sergeant David Dodson, our special-operations supervisor. His voice was full of tension. Even when he smiled, his dark brown eyes never quite lost their keenness or their watchfulness.

I sat up straighter at my desk. “Isn’t that the Forest Preserve Police?” I asked into my cell.

“They’ve asked us to handle it because it looks like a homicide. I want you and Garcia on it. I’ll notify the coroner next.”

“A body? Yeah, we’re on it.” I looked at my partner, Detective Carlos Garcia, seated at his desk.  He’s not bad looking. The Fu Manchu mustache looked good with his brown skin. A raised glazed donut perched in his right hand and a paper cup of Dunkin coffee before him on his desk. His white shirt and blue suit hung lean and long off his well-tapered build. I looked down at my solidly built arm, thinking, how can he eat donuts and still look like that? I became aware I had to hook my belt on the last notch when I dressed that Monday morning. I told him, “They’ve got a body for us.”

Garcia’s hand stopped halfway to his mouth. He made the necessary adjustments that would transform his appearance from simply splendid to magnificent. Only after each hair had been lovingly combed into position and his silk tie straightened, the second button of his jacket buttoned, he rose his six-foot frame and said, “Let’s go.”

My career as a detective with the violent Crimes division of  the West Chicago Police Department exposed me to a lifetime of crime and tragedy. We strode out of the station house in a hurry to begin our job. I pride myself on being a no-nonsense individual. I’m thirty-five-year-old Detective Alicia Waller. My black shoes making long, mean strides.

Once in our unmarked Ford Explorer, I turned towards him and asked, “What do you know about the bike path?”

Garcia grew up in this town, probably walked that path hundreds of times as a teenager.

~~~

Okay, let’s dig in.

Photo credit: Public domain

The title Samaritan Sins intrigued me. Samaritan conjures the image of kindness and compassion. Sins brings to mind misdeeds, perhaps even evil. The ironic juxtaposition hints at the story’s conflict. Does a good person commit a terrible act? I want to learn more. Well done!

Unfortunately, this first page doesn’t live up to its promising title.

Brave Author, recently Terry Odell and Jim Bell wrote excellent posts on beginnings. I highly recommend you read them at links here and here.

Jim coined a new term—Wood—and quoted an old saying:

Your story begins when you strike the match, not when you lay out the wood.

The first page of Samaritan Sins is wood laying. It needs work before a match lights it on fire.

Brave Author is getting acquainted with the characters, their backgrounds, and the setting, before starting the story. Yes, preparation is important homework. But the information belongs in an outline, story notebook, character sketch, etc., not on the first page.  

Police procedurals—which this appears to be—generally start with a dead body, in this case on a bike path in West Chicago. However, neither the point-of-view character, Detective Alicia Waller, nor the reader sees the body firsthand.

Instead the story begins with a report by a supervisor, Sergeant Dodson. That distances the reader from the crime. A report by phone, rather than in person, adds even more distance.

Further, it’s confusing. Alicia describes Dodson’s watchful dark brown eyes as if he is standing in front of her. Yet, in the next paragraph, she is talking to him on her cell.

The farther away from the crime, the less a reader cares about it. A crime needs to provoke an emotional response from the reader. A third-hand phone report dilutes the impact.

Details like “two hundred feet east of the Northwestern tracks” also dilute it. Specific details are important to paint a vivid picture. But choose details the reader cares about, not bland measurements.

There is a lot of repetition.

“…they found a body…”

“A body? Yeah, we’re on it.”

“They’ve got a body for us.”

Alicia mostly tells about Carlos Garcia, rather than showing. The description is also repetitive.

He’s not bad looking.

The Fu Manchu mustache looked good with his brown skin.

…transform his appearance from simply splendid to magnificent.

She appears to have a crush on him. Fine, but is that important enough to include on the first page? Not unless it’s significant to the story.

I strongly recommend getting rid of the donut cliché. Look for fresher ways to show Carlos’s looks. But again, consider if these details are significant enough to use up valuable first page real estate. If not, cut them.

Only after each hair had been lovingly combed into position and his silk tie straightened, the second button of his jacket buttoned…

Would this vain-sounding guy fuss with his appearance without first washing donut glaze off his hands?

I mention this because his sticky hands took my mind far away from the dead body. When the reader can be distracted that easily, there’s a major problem.

My career as a detective with the violent Crimes division of  the West Chicago Police Department exposed me to a lifetime of crime and tragedy.

This statement is pure telling without offering insight into Alicia’s personality or how the career has affected her. Is she jaded? Wounded? Fed up? Does she still hold out hope she can help people? “A lifetime of crime and tragedy” is vague and meaningless without specifics.

I pride myself on being a no-nonsense individual. I’m thirty-five-year-old Detective Alicia Waller. My black shoes making long, mean strides.

Again, more telling rather than showing. How important is it for the reader to know this on the first page?

Photo credit: Public domain

A Jack Webb/Dragnet-style introduction could condense the background info and establish a distinctive voice while also moving the story ahead. Here’s one way it might be written:

I’m Detective Alicia Waller, West Chicago Police Department, fifteen years on the job, the last four in Special Operations. I’m thirty-five, wear sensible shoes, battle my weight, and have a secret crush on my partner, Carlos Garcia, a stylishly-dressed six-foot hunk with a Fu Manchu mustache. He’s vain but I forgive that flaw because he’s easy on the eyes.

Together we’ve worked violent crimes ranging from gang murders to a sexual assault on a ten-month-old baby that sent us both to the department shrink.

Today, we stood over a deceased teen-aged male lying face-up on the Midwest Bike Trail. Forest Preserve Police had called us because they suspected homicide.

The above is about 100 words, conveys relevant facts, introduces characters, and plops the reader into the crime scene.

Wordsmithing:

Overall, the writing is competent but verb usage needs work.

Stated is an awkward verb that draws attention to itself. Why not use said?

Perched is another odd verb. A parakeet might perch on his hand but not a donut.

…a paper cup of Dunkin coffee [sat] before him on his desk. Missing verb.

His white shirt and blue suit hung lean and long off his well-tapered build. Hung doesn’t work. Is the suit hanging lean and long? Or do you mean his build is lean and long?

…he rose his six-foot frame. A person generally doesn’t raise his frame unless the frame is for his barn.

My black shoes making long, mean strides. This sentence lacks a verb. It’s also inaccurate and awkward. The shoes aren’t striding; Alicia is. What are “mean strides”? Emphatic, loud, decisive?

In trying to be creative with verbs, BA instead inserts speed bumps and confusion.

~~~

Brave Author, I hope you don’t feel beat up by these comments. As writers, we’ve all been here. It’s part of the learning process as you hone your craft.

I suggest you save this first page in a “story notes” file. Refer to it as you develop the plot and characters. The information is useful background—it just doesn’t belong on page 1. 

For now, move ahead with your story. After drafting a few chapters, you’ll likely find a more compelling place to start. Once you complete the ms., circle back and rewrite the opening.

Just because it says “Page 1” doesn’t mean it has to be written first. Write it last. 

One way to interest readers is to make them curious. Ask questions they want answers to. Here are a few ideas:

What makes one or both members of this detective team unique?

Why should the reader care about a faceless victim in a city where murders occur frequently? (Hint: give the victim a distinctive characteristic. Is she missing an arm? Is he a local celebrity?)

Are there special circumstances or unusual clues that set this crime apart from run-of-the-mill calls?

Thank you for submitting, Brave Author. It takes courage to expose your work to strangers. Please take suggestions in the spirit they’re offered—to help make your story the best it can be.

~~~

TKZers, your turn to offer ideas to the Brave Author.

~~~

Flight to Forever was a finalist for the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Award. Try a sample at these links:

Amazon

Major online booksellers

Or ask your favorite independent bookstore to order the paperback.

What Writers Can Learn from I Was Prey

Please excuse my absence over the last 7-10 days while I was on deadline. I’m usually a better multitasker. *sigh*

Every once in a while, a TV show comes along that’s a goldmine for writers. I Was Prey is that type of series.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, each episode recounts the hauntingly true stories of people who found themselves in a life-or-death struggle with a dangerous animal. Whoever puts these shows together knows story structure, because each episode grips you, holds interest, and keeps you watching. It’s like a car crash. You cannot look away.

The benefit for writers comes through observation.

As each victim recounts their harrowing tale, watch their facial expressions, their involuntary tics and body movements. Listen to the inflection of their voice. It’s all real, raw emotion. These victims carry lifelong emotional and physical scars.

The grizzly bear and hippo attacks are my favorite. Not because I enjoy watching people fall prey to these animals, but because of their reaction to the animal’s power and strength. And we can use that to our advantage. The shock when they first encounter the animal, and what that looks like as they relive the moment on screen. More importantly, how they felt at the time.

Stories thrive on emotion.

It’s how we breathe life into characters.

By studying real people in dangerous situations, we can then transfer that emotion to our characters. It’s especially helpful for the young writer who has never experienced trauma, thus has an empty well of emotional upheaval to dip into.

Emotions add to the credibility of the story.

In a much-cited experiment, researchers showed several versions of the story of a father whose son is dying of cancer. The goal was to encourage listeners to donate money to charity. The versions of the story that emphasized statistics yielded the least donations. Versions focusing on the father’s feelings for his son’s condition gained the most.

Surprising? Not really. When we connect on an emotional level, we react.

Emotionally infused messages are more memorable.

Researchers have also shown how compelling stories boost hormones, oxytocin and cortisol. These hormones help us forge powerful connections. Stories that unlock strong emotions linger in a reader’s mind.

Evocative storytelling overcomes objections.

If we focus on “Just the facts, Jack,” the reader can experience analysis paralysis. Hence why there’s a fine art to weaving in research. Emotion allows readers to mark choices as good, bad, or indifferent, which in turn allows them to move beyond objections.

Emotional narratives inspire change.

For centuries we’ve told stories around the campfire. We’re wired to respond to traditional narrative structures. And so, emotion encourages empathy (say that five times fast). That emotional connection grounds the reader in the scene. Because they’ve been transported into the story, rather than merely reading words on a page, we’ve changed their mindset. Whether it’s temporary or permanent depends on the story.

A vivid, emotional story packs an extra punch and feels more real, more important. If you look back through times at moments when somebody’s beliefs changed, it’s often because of a story that hit home.

Emotion encourages word of mouth.

Emotion begets emotion. Readers who are moved by a story are more likely to recommend the book to friends, family, coworkers. They may even sing the author’s praises online.

Visceral emotion commands attention and creates a shared experience between character and reader.

Don’t tell the reader how the character feels. Show them through body cues, dialogue—external and internal—and unspoken truths. By doing so, the reader bonds with the characters.

Have you ever seen I Was Prey? Any suggestions for other documentary-style shows that writers can benefit from?

How Memorable Are You?

 

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Everyone in the writing community is part of a long continuum climbing a steep hill. Those who are ahead often reach down their hands to help those who are less experienced.

For three decades, my local writing group, the Authors of the Flathead (AOF), has thrived because of mentors who extended their hands to the rest of us, freely and generously sharing knowledge.

Barbara Schiffman, script consultant and creative producer

One of those mentors is Barbara Schiffman, who worked in Hollywood for 35+ years as a script consultant and creative producer. She reviewed potential projects for literary agencies and production companies like DreamWorks, HBO, Showtime, and more. After retirement, she and her author-husband Glenn moved to Montana in 2019 to live near their grandchildren and settled into a new home.

Before their boxes were unpacked, Barbara jumped in to help local writers. At the community college in Kalispell, she now facilitates monthly seminars about screenwriting sponsored by AOF and her MT Screenwriting Meetup (https://meetup.com/MTScreenwriting/  – not limited to Montana writers).

At a recent meeting I attended, screenwriters had driven long distances from Polson (50 miles), Ovando (120 miles), Helena (220 miles), and Spokane, Washington (240 miles) to hear Barbara. With gas at more than $5/gallon, these are serious writers hungry to learn. The trip is worth it.

That evening, Barbara spoke about how to make a good first impression on people who might buy your stories. She stresses you never have a second chance to make a good first impression: “Get ’em in the beginning or you don’t get ’em.”

Her approach is two-pronged and applies to both to you as the author and to the main characters of your stories.

You, the writer, could be pitching to agents, editors, producers, etc., hoping to stand out among thousands of writers they meet.

Or…

Your book’s main character could be pitching to readers browsing thousands of books on virtual and physical shelves.

Both you as the author and your main character have the same goal: seduce the reader into saying, “I’ve got to hear/read more about this person!”

Barbara analyzed countless scripts and learned to read quickly, sometimes simultaneously writing a logline, one or two page synopsis, and comments for her clients.

The first 10 pages make or break a screenplay. Even when they didn’t grab her, she still needed to skim the rest, write a full summary, and make recommendations. The options were pass or consider, strong consider, or consider with recommendations.

An unqualified Recommend was rare. While many scripts were good, they needed to be great to earn a Recommend.

Insider tip: a reader’s analysis of each script or book must be thoroughly documented, including the date received and who submitted it, to protect the producer, director, and others from plagiarism claims.

Next, Barbara put us through an exercise to demonstrate everyone has a unique quality or experience that makes them memorable. She asked each person to give their name, where they’re from, and relate one unusual thing about themselves that isn’t generally known.

She offered her own example of a memorable event that led to a realization: a fire walk with motivational guru Tony Robbins. As she walked across the coals, she thought, This isn’t so hot. Yet afterward, she had a blister on her little toe. Even though her perception had been the walk was no big deal, the physical blister proved to her that, yes, the fire was indeed scorching.

Then she went around the room full of writers, ranging in age from early 20s to 70+, asking for their memorable events. Since I don’t have their permission, I can’t share what they said. But every single person, no matter how ordinary they appeared, had a unique, surprising story that caused the rest of us to say Wow!

Prior to that evening, I hadn’t met several newcomers. Next time I see them, I likely won’t remember their names or where they’re from but I will definitely remember the unique story they told.

That is exactly the effect a writer wants to achieve when meeting with a producer, actor, agent, or editor. According to Barbara, even if they don’t accept your current pitch, if you make a good impression, they will remember you and perhaps offer a different opportunity later.

Your main character must make a similar impact when s/he first walks onstage in the story.

If it’s a script, you want the actor reading it to say, “I have to play that character onscreen.”

If it’s a novel, you want the reader to say, “I have to learn more about this character. I need to buy this book.”

A current character description trend in screenwriting is to be minimalist—hair color, height, age. Barbara considers that “lazy writing.” When she reads scripts, she wants to know more than surface impressions. She says physical traits are important ONLY if they are integral to the plot.

“Less can be more but make it the right less,” she says.

Barbara recommends developing a skill she calls “screenplay haiku”—memorable phrases, especially in dialogue, that she says may wind up in a movie trailer and frequently in common lexicon.

Think: Make my day. (Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry).

Houston, we’ve had a problem. (Jim Lovell, Apollo 13)

I’ll be back. (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Terminator)

Barbara admires Taylor Sheridan, the creator-producer of Yellowstone and considers him “Shakespeare in the Wild West.”

She also mentioned Sheridan’s screenplay of Hell or High Water as a prime example of memorable screenwriting. A number of TKZers have recommended the film. Here’s a scene-by-scene dissection by director David Mackenzie.

 

Timothy Hallinan’s Junior Bender book series has also earned Barbara’s admiration. She says he’s a cross between Carl Hiaasen and Donald Westlake.

From Crashed: A Junior Bender Mystery, here’s Hallinan’s first description of a dirty cop named Hacker:

The face in the rear-view mirror possessed more distinctive characteristics than you’d normally find in a whole room full of faces. The eyes, black as a curse, were so close to each other they nearly touched, barely bisected by the tiniest nose ever to adorn an adult male face. I’d seen bigger noses on a pizza. The guy had no eyebrows and a mouth that looked like it was assembled in the dark: no upper lip to speak of, and a lower that plumped out like a throw pillow, above a chin as sharp as an elbow.

It wasn’t a nice face, but that was misleading. The man who owned it wasn’t just not nice: he was a venal, calculating, corrupt son of a bitch.

 

That’s a character most readers will remember!

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Thanks, Barbara, for sharing tips on how to make a memorable first impression.

For more info about her, visit: https://literasee.com/

Check out: https://www.meetup.com/mtscreenwriting/

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My memorable detail for today is I’m having cataract surgery. Barbara kindly offered to pinch-hit and respond to comments, as well as answer questions.

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TKZers: What makes your main character memorable?

If you dare, share a memorable detail about yourself.