Misjudging A Book By Its Cover,
Getting Back In The Saddle,
And In Praise of Bad Writing

By PJ Parrish

We should all have such problems…

I read a story in the New York Times this week about a debut author whose novel became an international bestseller with rights sold in 40 countries, was named Barnes & Noble’s book of the year, and is on track to be the bestselling debut novel of 2022. Oh yeah, an Apple TV+ adaption is in the works.

But she’s getting a lot of hate mail because of her….cover.

The book, Lessons In Chemistry, is about a woman scientist in the 1960s who is opinionated, funny and intelligent, but she’s cheated out of her doctorate and brutally sidelined by male colleagues who, as one reviewer put it, make Don Draper look like a SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy). Think of The Queen’s Gambit set in the macho labs of abiogenesis. The heroine wears a sharp No. 2 pencil in her chignon not for style but as a weapon against sexual advances.

 

But then there’s that cover.  Bubble-gum pink, with a cartoonish woman’s face peering over a pair of cat-eye sunglasses. Some readers picked it up as a quick beach read, expecting — I hate this phrase — “women’s fiction.” What they got was a serious look at the frustrations of a generation of women, who were relegated to the corners, ignored, or worse.

Garmus is able to laugh about the hate mail from some readers, saying, “They were like, ‘You’re the worst romance novelist ever!’”  She says the cover has turned off a few men, admitting that during an talk to an all-male book club, members were dissuaded by the cover’s Necco Wafer shell. “But as I’m fond of saying,” Garmus said, “the book isn’t anti-men, it’s anti-sexism.”

It’s also, by all accounts, a fun read. There’s a mystery, mixed in with a shrewd  look at politics, and a dysfunctional bad local TV station. The heroine has an addiction to her rowing machine, loves her daughter and her dog Six-Thirty.

James Daunt, chief executive of B&N, admits that aiming the novel at a female readership is “a bit pigeonholing….but the book has dominated the cover.”

Love that phrase — dominated its cover. As a writer who has had her share of bad covers, I sympathize. It’s an eye-catching cover, to be sure. But the dissonance between it and its message is jarring. I’m glad Garmus can joke about it. She had more than 100 rejections of other manuscripts before Lessons In Chemistry. Nice to break through — at the ripe young age of 65.

How To Get Back To Writing

Back from a long and lazy vacation where eating, drinking and reading were the only things on my brain, I’m having a devil of a time opening the file of the WIP. So when Jane Friedman’s latest blog popped up in the mailbox the other day, I clicked.  It was by an author who, feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, found a way to grease the wheels again.

Matthew Duffus writes: “When I finished my MFA in 2005, I didn’t write for a year. Between exhaustion from completing a readable draft of a novel on deadline and the confusion caused by having too many critical voices in my head (thanks, workshop), I didn’t know where to begin, let alone how to get to The End of something. I’d burned out on my thesis, realizing it would be my “novel in the drawer,” and had no idea what to do next. After the first few maddening weeks, I tried embracing Richard Ford’s concept of ‘refilling the well.’ When this stopped working, I knew I needed to try something new.”

Duffus has three easy steps. And yeah, I’ve tried all three.

  1. Set a challenge. Forget stuff like NaNoWriMo. He says, “had I known about that event in 2005, I would have crawled into bed and not come out until December 1st.” Instead, he read like a maniac — English classics mainly. It made him eager to write again. I get that. After my vaca, I was sated on reading. My fingers longed for the keyboard again.
  2. Start small. Says Duffus, “Instead of aiming for 1,000 words per day, as I’d done in grad school, I bought a pack of three-by-five index cards and numbered the first thirty. I filled the lined side of one index card per day for the next month. By the end of that period, I had the beginnings of a longer piece that I was already dedicated to pursuing further.” For me, my small stuff was returning to a short story I had been stalled on, and sweating the deadline for an anthology.
  3. Try a new style. Focusing on his notecards forced Duffus to go slower rather than obsess about hitting a daily word count. He also switched a stalled novel from third to first person and it gave him momentum. That led him to finally set aside a novel he had worked on for 15 years and begin a new one. He finished it. I had a similar experience with my short story. It wasn’t working. I switched it from third to first and reset the time from the present to the 1960s, using John D. MacDonald’s style as my inspiration. I finished it this weekend. It was fun.

You’ve Gotta Be Good To Write This Badly

Finally, I give you the year’s best in really bad writing. No, no…not the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. They’ve cancelled them because as the judges wrote: “The public has been subjected to too many bad things this year to justify exposing it to bad sex as well.” Well, we’ll just have to go back and re-read our John Updike, right?

That leaves us with the Bulwer-Lytton Dark and Stormy Night contest. Since 1982 the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest has challenged participants to write an atrocious opening sentence to the worst novel never written. The contest honors Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel Paul Clifford begins with “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I forgot to report these earlier this year, but attention must be paid. Especially since the grand prize winner this year is a fellow crime dog.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER by John Farmer Aurora Col.

I knew she was trouble the second she walked into my 24-hour deli, laundromat, and detective agency, and after dropping a load of unmentionables in one of the heavy-duty machines (a mistake that would soon turn deadly) she turned to me, asking for two things: find her missing husband and make her a salami on rye with spicy mustard, breaking into tears when I told her I couldn’t help—I was fresh out of salami.

CRIME AND DETECTIVE FIRST PLACE by Jim Anderson, Flushing, Mich.

The detectives wore booties, body suits, hair nets, masks and gloves and longed for the good old days when they could poke a corpse with the toes of their wingtips if they damn well felt like it.

Dishonorable Mentions 

They called Rock Mahon the original hard-boiled detective, and it wasn’t because of his gravelly voice, or his crusty manner, or his chiseled jaw, or his cement-like abs, or his feldspar fists, or his iron incorruptibility, or his calcite cynicism, or his uzonite unsentimentality, but because of his goddamned, geezly, infuriating habit of polluting every crime scene with shells dropped from the hard-boiled eggs he munched without surcease.– Barbara Stevenson, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

As detective Harry Bolton knelt down looking at the fifth murdered prostitute in as many weeks, he thought his was a cold cruel city and that maybe he should have taken that job in rural North Carolina but he didn’t think he could be like sheriff Andy Taylor all in black and white, plus he couldn’t stand Aunt Bea’s falsetto voice, and who names their kid Opie anyway, he had to know it rhymed with dopey, you might as well just call him dipstick, that doesn’t rhyme with much. — Doug Self, Brunswick, ME

The heat blanketed the small village in much the same way a body bag blankets a murder victim, except that a body bag is usually black, which the heat wasn’t, as heat is colorless, and the village wasn’t dead, which a murder victim usually is. — Eric Rice, Madison, WI

In honor of all the winners, I leave you with the queen of real talent laboring in the pursuit of artful awfulness — Lucille Ball. She made an enduring and endearing shtick about her caterwauling attempts to get on the stage. In real life, she was a pretty okay singer. Hit it, Lucy.

 

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.

Writing to Save Your Life

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We had a good discussion recently about writer obituaries, and what you might want yours to say. Several comments talked about writing for other than professional reasons. I liked what BK Jackson offered:

Above all, writing is my enjoyable escape and I want it to stay that way, regardless of volume. When I’m old, I want to be as excited about writing as I was in first or second grade when I was taught how to write my first sentence and that huge lightbulb went off in my head as I began to think about the power I would have of stringing sentences together to form stories.

Sure, most writers write in the hopes of bringing in some dough. They believe, as I do, that if you love your job you won’t work a day in your life.

Of course, by work I don’t mean the effort and toil that is required for success at anything. I mean in that colloquial sense of hating what you do. (Drew Carey: “Hate your job? There’s a group for that. It’s called everybody, and we meet at the bar.”)

I have a good friend who worked 20 years for a company where every day was a slog, and the culture chaotic. Being classically educated, he had his license plate changed to SISYPHS, a contraction of the mythological figure doomed for eternity to push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll to the bottom again.

Not so with writers who work for love and loot.

But that’s not the only reason to write, as BK noted. Indeed, there may be a reason even more important: to save us from a nasty, brutish, and dismal existence.

We all know our culture right now is a roiling sea of hate, anger, vitriol, scorn, and mendacity—and that’s just on Twitter.

So it is a noble task, in my view, for writers to provide a few hours of entertaining escapism. Indeed, the best thrillers and mysteries offer readers a form of “fear management.” They extend the hope that things like justice and love are still possible in a dark world. Time spent in a book like that is infinitely superior to hours ranting on social media, kicking the dog, or opening a new bottle of Beam.

But the act of writing itself, for yourself, is also balm for the spirit. We all know what it’s like to write in “flow,” to get lost in a world we create and the lives of characters who begin to live and breathe on the page. We know the feeling—rare though it may be—of sitting back and thinking, “Wow, that’s a great line” or “This scene really cooks.”

When a writer experiences the joy of creation, it’s good for the spleen.

Ishmael, when he felt a “drizzly November in my soul” and the desire to go around “knocking people’s hats off,” went to sea.

Writers go to the keyboard.

Maybe you don’t have a contract with a publisher, or a huge footprint in the digital space. Write anyway. Write because it’s good for you. Write novels, short stories, flash fiction. Write essays and poetry. Write whatever strikes your fancy. Then show this work to the people you love. Share it with friends. Write for your kids and grandkids (see Hooley, Steve). Write because for a few hours every day you can escape a drizzly November of the soul.

Commenter Barry Knister put it this way recently:

I am grateful for the unignorable impulse to write. Most people never have this impulse. If they write at all, it’s forced on them by the demands of work. When I stop to think of how much writing has meant to me, what life would be like without having long ago tested positive for the writing virus, I am hugely thankful for the disease.

A lawyer named George Bernau, in the hospital after a near-fatal car accident, had a revelation. “I decided that I would continue to write as long as I lived, even if I never sold one thing, because that was what I wanted out of my life.”

So he wrote a novel, Promises to Keep, an alternative history of the JFK assassination. It got a $750,000 advance from Warner Books, a record at the time for a debut novel.

That’s not going to happen for the overwhelming majority writers, of course, especially in these risk-averse economic times.

But you can still write if that’s what you want out of your life.

Is it?

Due Dates

Leaning back in my recliner, I’m typing this post on November 25, the day after Thanksgiving 2022, as the world spins like the blurry view from a municipal park merry-go-round every time I move my head. I’m suffering another bout of vertigo.

Adding insult to injury, I ache all over with a flu virus the Bride contracted from one of the grand-critters a few days ago, before passing it on to me.

Each time I get up, I stagger like a college freshman on spring break, but thanks to the benefits of modern chemistry, I’m now able to keep my stomach from turning wrong-side out.

It’s not a great day to write, but here I am, because I have a deadline for this blog on Saturday, November 26.

I first started showing symptoms of this most recent bout of vertigo three days ago and as luck would have it, I had a newspaper column deadline to meet. Propped up in the bed up at our Lamar County cabin in Northeast Texas (five miles from the Red River and Oklahoma), I kept my eyes closed and pecked out a nine hundred-word Thanksgiving recollection from fifty years ago.

Finished, I hit send after a cursory scan and faded into a deep sleep. Far from recovered the next day, the Bride drove us home. That’s when everything in my body started aching.

Vertigo isn’t something new for me. The first time it attacked was maybe five years ago in Key West, while we were on vacation with the Gilstraps. John and I have a tendency to wreck our livers when we’re together, and early one morning I rose to find myself on the deck of a ship in high seas. Bouncing like a pinball from a wall, to a chair, and finally the bathroom, I upended the contents of my stomach and wondered how much I really drank.

Wait, I’m not in college anymore.

Flipping through mental files with one cheek on the cool toilet seat, I counted up the number of drinks I’d consumed the night before and realized the symptoms weren’t alcohol related. The Bride located a Doc-in-the-Box a mile away and I soon joined the flow of a dozen college kids reeking of booze and heading for the front door. As one, we staggered into the waiting room and the participants collapsed on the nearest horizontal surface.

In once instance, a young lady curled up in the fetal position on the floor and wept.

The tired doctor surveyed the room, took note of my age, and after a flurry of questions, escorted me into an examination room.

“Lay back on this table and turn your head to the right.”

Urk!!!”

“I thought so. You have vertigo.”

He was glad to see something besides alcohol poisoning and sever dehydration which seemed to be going around that January. After poking a handful of pills down my goozle, he gave me a prescription for dizziness and nausea and launched me back into the world where I managed to function with respectable fortitude for the remainder of our trip.

My second round of vertigo happened again nearly two years later when I was the master of ceremonies at one of the world’s largest book club conferences held by the Pulpwood Queens in Jefferson, Texas. Again, I slept flat on my back the night I arrived and the next day stumbled into the enormous hall containing 500 attendees to take the stage.

I told them up front I wasn’t drunk, though I wished I was. I played off the symptoms, and many thought the organizer, Kathy Murphy, brought in Foster Brooks’ son as the MC. I introduced a panel every hour on the hour beginning at nine that morning, then wove my way outside to sit behind the wheel of my truck and doze for fifty minutes until time for the next panel to begin.

Some of the ladies took pity on me after the second hour and poured copious amounts of coffee into this bod so I could hold up my end of the bargain over a three day period. If memory serves, and recollections are somewhat fuzzy, I ended the conference to a standing ovation.

But that might have been a hallucination.

Today I told you that, to emphasize this. If you’re going to be a writer, or become involved in any aspect thereof, you have to meet deadlines. Whether it’s a weekly newspaper column, a magazine article, a personal appearance, a Zoom panel, a conference, or the delivery date for a book, you must meet that deadline.

Show up for work. Play hurt, or don’t play at all.

Again with John Gilstrap, I wrote a newspaper column at four in the morning, riding in the backseat of an SUV, on the way to join up with a Florida SWAT team and participate in the arrest of an accused purveyor of kiddie porn. We were there to train with those fine men in blue, I had to get it written, because I was on deadline.

I’m close friends with a well-respected, successful novelist and he managed to bring in a novel after building a house, moving twice, attracting Covid, and surviving a disastrous injury to a family member. Because of his track record, his publisher granted a small deadline extension which he met, and he survived with his reputation intact.

I suspect that because that request was granted because he’s been meeting other deadlines for about twenty-five years, or more.

Writing is a business, and we can’t let the public or publishers down because of a few unanticipated obstacles.

And with that, I’m going through the required steps to post this blog, and leaving this stable chair for the rolling deck of my living room. If I make it far enough, I’m crashing again until the crystals stabilize inside my skull.

Even if I’m not completely up to snuff, I’ll write tomorrow, propped up in bed like Mark Twain with his newfangled typewriter, because I have a March 1 deadline for the second Tucker Snow novel.

That’s what I do.

Oh, and Happy Holidays to you all!

 

Reader Friday – Black Friday

Black Friday

You’ve survived Thanksgiving by kicking back in your recliner to watch the football game while you enjoyed the tryptophan-induced coma, but today it’s Friday and you have to face the mob. It’s time to battle the traffic, find a parking spot at Wally World, and push your way through the masses to get that gizmo for your child or grandchild, the one that is discounted 30%, the one everyone is fighting for, and the one you won’t be able to find for this price after today.

So…you flip on your flashing light-siren (the one Cousin Larry built for you) and race down the street as everyone pulls to the curb to get out of your way.

In the parking lot, you turn on the loud speaker in your Larry device and announce a bomb threat. “Everyone, please leave the parking lot, and remain calm.”

Inside the store, you pull out your phone and hack into the Wally World PA system to announce a special offer on aisle 13.

When you reach the gizmo, there are still three determined mamas fighting over the last one. You wouldn’t dare take them on, so you don your gas mask and deodorize the area with tear gas.

As you head for the checkout with the precious gizmo, you keep your bear spray unholstered for anyone who is foolish enough to try to jump you.

And as you drive out of Wally World’s parking lot, merrily whistling, you dream of new ideas for your next book.

So, TKZers, how do you fight the Black Friday battle? Or give us some creative ideas for surviving the war for the gizmo. After all, you write fiction.

True Crime Thursday – Thanksgiving Pie Survey

By

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: Dennis Wilkinson on Flickr

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Thanksgiving dinner without pie would be a True Crime.

So let’s take a pie poll. Which is the best: pumpkin, apple, pecan, sweet potato, mince, or something different? 

Please vote for your favorite pie and feel free to include the recipe, too! 

One of the many blessings I give thanks for is being part of the terrific Kill Zone community. 

Wishing you and yours a day filled with love, fellowship, and good food. 

Being Thankful – Writer’s Edition

Being Thankful – Writer’s Edition
Terry Odell

Here in the US, tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day where families often gather around a groaning table, eat way too much, and maybe watch a little football. At one point during the holiday, most people share something they’re thankful for.

In her post on Monday, Kay asked readers what they were thankful for. While we routinely mention family, friends, health, creature comforts, and maybe a pet or two, I thought we could lighten up and look at things less lofty. Little things, “writer-specific” things.

Here are a few of the little writerly things I’m thankful for, in no particular order

  • No work wardrobe
  • No commute to work
  • Post-it notes and foam core boards
  • Legal tablets, red pens, and highlighters
  • Red squiggly lines
  • Word’s Read Aloud
  • Indie publishing
  • Critique partners
  • Draft2Digital’s free conversion software
  • My editor
  • My readers
  • Books

What about you? What writer-specific things are you thankful for?  (Note: TKZ is a given!)

And Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


Now Available: Cruising Undercover
It’s supposed to be a simple assignment aboard a luxury yacht, but soon, he’s in over his head.


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

Negotiation Secrets for Writers

 

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

“Make him an offer he cannot refuse.”
Vector image CC BY 4.0

Whether you’re buying a car, arguing with a boss, or making a deal with your kids to do their homework, most interactions in life are negotiations. Each of us wants to get our own way.

Humans live in a constant state of imbalance, jockeying back and forth to gain the upper hand.

That usually translates into attaining power over someone else. That power can be immense or tiny.

Learning to exploit power imbalances is an effective technique for writers to ramp up the tension in fiction.

In most stories, one character has certain goals while another character has different, conflicting goals. That leads to negotiations between characters that can be physical, verbal, social, or psychological.

The goal can be large scale (world domination) or small scale (spouses arguing whether the toilet seat should be up or down).

One character usually starts out dominant; the other is in an inferior position and wants to rise to the superior position. Their struggle creates tension and suspense as the reader wonders who will prevail.

Each scene in a novel is a micro power struggle between characters. Those struggles can be shown in different ways:

  1. A character has superior knowledge, ability, or position that the other character attempts to gain.
  2. One character wants to control another.
  3. A character takes action that appears to mean one thing but actually means something different.
  4. A character’s dialogue is different from what they’re actually thinking.

Seller says: “I’m offering you a fabulous deal on this 911 Porsche.” Seller thinks: The price is ten grand higher than market but he’s salivating. He won’t leave without the car.

Buyer says: “Forget it. I won’t pay a dime over $$.” But Buyer thinks: I’ve always wanted a 911. If he comes down a grand, I’m snapping it up.

Boss says: “Management told me to cut expenses ten percent across the board including your salary.” Boss thinks: With three kids, she doesn’t dare quit. A ten percent cut means a bigger bonus for me.

Worker says: “That’s unacceptable. Besides, I have a better offer with a twenty percent increase and three weeks paid vacation.” Worker thinks: Can she tell I’m bluffing? What if she fires me?

Anyone who’s ever been a parent can fill in their own examples of negotiations with their kids!

In thrillers, mystery, suspense, sci-fi, and fantasy, typically the antagonist is stronger, richer, smarter, more ruthless, or more determined than the protagonist. The protagonist spends much of the story trying to keep from being squashed and defeated.

Character A may start out in control at the beginning of a scene but Character B has leverage because of superior knowledge or ability that reverses the power by the end of the scene. Then in subsequent scenes, A must scramble and come up with new strategies to regain control while B fends off efforts to topple him/her.

One of my favorite stories is O. Henry’s “Ransom of Red Chief,” first published in the Saturday Evening Post. [Note: some language from 1907 is no longer acceptable today]. It is a detailed blueprint of negotiation among characters who jockey back and forth for power. Demands are made. Counteroffers follow. Demands change, resulting in counter-counteroffers and counter-counter-counteroffers.

Here’s the story premise: Two ruthless criminals, Sam and Bill, decide to kidnap the only son of wealthy Ebenezer Dorset and hold him for a ransom of $2000. Surely Mr. Dorset will immediately cave into their demands and pay. Sam and Bill believe their scheme can’t lose.

When the redheaded ten-year-old victim beans Bill in the head with a brick, that physical act is the first hint of a potential power shift. Nevertheless, Sam and Bill are still in control as they subdue him and spirit him off to a cave hideaway.

However, in the cave, the kidnappers discover their hostage is a handful and they must maneuver to maintain physical and verbal control over him. Bill plays a game of make-believe with the boy, who’s dubbed himself “Red Chief.” In the game, Red Chief captures Bill and ties him up. Soon the kid “…seemed to be having the time of his life. The fun of camping out in a cave had made him forget that he was a captive himself.”

“Red Chief,” says I to the kid, “would you like to go home?”

“Aw, what for?” says he. “I don’t have any fun at home. I hate to go to school. I like to camp out. You won’t take me back home again, will you?”

We weren’t afraid he’d run away.

Although Red Chief remains their prisoner and no longer resists, he has verbally prevailed over Sam and Bill.

Red Chief’s physical harassment of them escalates. The kidnappers’ confidence begins to crack.

During the first night, Sam has a dream that illustrates Red Chief’s growing psychological power: “I had been kidnapped and chained to a tree by a ferocious pirate with red hair.”

Later, terrified screaming wakes Sam.

“Red Chief was sitting on Bill’s chest, with one hand twined in Bill’s hair. In the other he had the sharp case-knife we used for slicing bacon; and he was industriously and realistically trying to take Bill’s scalp.”

Red Chief’s attack demoralizes Bill who asks Sam, “Do you think anybody will pay out money to get a little imp like that back home?”

Their prisoner has taken psychological control of the situation.

Sam leaves the hideout and returns to town, expecting to find villagers in an uproar and frantically searching for the missing boy. He had anticipated the kidnapping would give the criminals social control over the community. Instead, all is calm. Their original premise, that Mr. Dorset will be desperate to get his son back, isn’t happening as planned.

Uh-oh.

Back at the cave, Sam finds Red Chief has further injured poor Bill. Sam tries to regain physical and verbal control.

I went out and caught that boy and shook him until his freckles rattled. “If you don’t behave,” says I, “I’ll take you straight home. Now, are you going to be good, or not?”

Red Chief appears contrite and apologizes. Sam believes he and Bill are back in the driver’s seat.

But the kidnappers’ determination falters when Bill, who can’t take any more abuse, begins to negotiate with Sam to reduce the ransom terms.

“…it ain’t human for anybody to give up two thousand dollars for that forty-pound chunk of freckled wildcat. I’m willing to take a chance at fifteen hundred dollars. You can charge the difference up to me.”

They agree to lower the ransom. Their foolproof, get-rich scheme is losing ground.

Next, Sam delivers the threatening note:

If you attempt any treachery or fail to comply with our demand as stated, you will never see your boy again. If you pay the money as demanded, he will be returned to you safe and well within three hours. These terms are final, and if you do not accede to them no further communication will be attempted. Two Desperate Men.

Although battered, the disheartened criminals are still holding onto their victim and believe Red Chief’s father will agree.

Instead, Mr. Dorset responds with a counteroffer:

I think you are a little high in your demands, and I hereby make you a counter-proposition, which I am inclined to believe you will accept. You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands. You had better come at night, for the neighbours believe he is lost, and I couldn’t be responsible for what they would do to anybody they saw bringing him back. Very respectfully, Ebenezer Dorset.

With a classic O. Henry twist at the end of the story, Bill and Sam are out-negotiated. The kidnappers become the victims and must pay Mr. Dorset to take back Red Chief.

To incorporate negotiation in your own stories, ask these questions:

  1. What are each character’s goals?
  2. Which character is in a stronger position and which is weaker?
  3. How do they negotiate with each other to shift power to achieve their goals?
  4. Do they ask, plead, implore, barter, demand, or threaten?
  5. Do they slyly seduce their opponent? Or beat the snot out of them?
  6. Do they feign defeat to fool their opponent into dropping their guard?
  7. Do they bluff and posture, claiming strength or power they don’t actually have?

The more your characters negotiate with each other, the more the power shifts between them, raising tension and suspense. Readers turn pages to find out who wins. When you keep readers interested, they become fans who buy your next book.

Make your readers an offer they cannot refuse. 

~~~

TKZers: Please share negotiations and power struggles between fictional characters that made an impression on you. Use examples from published stories, films, or your own WIP.

~~~

Debbie Burke is making an offer you can’t refuse:

For only $.99, try out the award-winning Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

Special price for Thanksgiving week only. 

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A Special Thank You

A couple of years ago, I was invited to participate in the creation of an anthology dedicated to honoring U.S. military veterans who had served during wartime. I accepted that invitation and agreed to write the story of 98-year-old WWII veteran Charlie Henderson.

I couldn’t conduct the interviews with Mr. Henderson in person because it was the summer of 2020, the first year of Covid, and we were separated by a couple of hundred miles, so we arranged to talk on the phone. Charlie’s age hadn’t affected his hearing, and we spent several hours in conversation about his life before, during, and after the war.

Charlie wasn’t thrilled when he was drafted into the army in 1942. He came from a close family in Mississippi, and he hated to leave, but he answered the call and spent most of his service in Europe. He was assigned to the 449th Gasoline Supply Company, a dangerous situation since the Germans wanted to destroy all gasoline supply depots. Charlie talked openly about the fear he felt when he and his fellow soldiers heard the sound of buzz bombs overhead, but he was proud of the part he played in delivering gasoline to the Allied front lines during the Battle of the Bulge.

After we completed our interviews, I sent Charlie and his nephew, John, the first draft of my article. They made suggestions and corrections and we repeated the process until we were all satisfied with the results. I sent the final copy to them and to the editors of the Forever Young Veterans Anthology.

* * *

Charlie’s nephew called me about a year ago to tell me Charlie had passed away at the age of 99. John wanted me to know how grateful Charlie was to me for having written his story. He had even asked John to hand out copies of the article at his funeral.

I was humbled that Charlie was grateful to me while it is I who owe so much to him.

I wrote a story. He fought a war.

As Diane Hight writes about our veterans in the Introduction to the Forever Young Veterans Anthology, “… many returned home to suffer silently and bury the pain of combat and war.”

* * *

 

In this season of Thanksgiving, I’d like to offer my special thanks to all U.S. military veterans. The Forever Young Veterans Anthology was released on November 2, 2022.

 

 

I’ll be traveling on the day this post appears, but I’ll check in when I can. An early Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

TKZers: What are you thankful for? Do you owe a special thank you to any person or group?

Down in the Writing Weeds

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I love talking to fellow writers who are craft nuts. I love getting into the weeds to discuss things like adverbs, POV violations, and whether you should use a comma in the phrase “Oh God.” (On that last one, strict rules of style say yes. I say it depends on how the character is reacting—somberly or fearfully?)

Today I want to discuss four weed words (and I’m not talking about euphemisms for a certain plant). This is about as granular as you can get, but where else but on a famous writing blog can all this be hashed out? Try discussing dialogue attributions with your insurance agent, or exclamation points with your CPA!

So, TKZ community, let’s hack some weeds.

Then

I sipped my flat Coke and gave her the head start she’d asked for. Then I picked up my change and left a buck on the bar. I went out the door, up the stairs to the street. (Lawrence Block, A Ticket to the Boneyard)

The word Then is used here for rhythm. The action isn’t “hot.” The author is controlling pace. I do this myself. When the action is hot, I don’t use Then. I cut sentences to the bone. But if things are a bit slower it comes in handy.

There’s another use of the word then I like. It’s when you want to emphasize an emotional moment.

She came to me then and put her arms around me.

Strictly speaking, you don’t need then. But then again…ahem…it has a subtle and enhancing effect.

Suddenly

This word gets a lot of chatter down here in the weeds. Some say you never need it, as the action itself should prove the suddenness. One of Elmore Leonard’s “rules” (discussed here this past week) is: Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

First off, this “rule” can confuse newbies, who might think you should never use suddenly at all, not even in dialogue. Obviously false.

But Leonard was talking about narrative. We have to remember that he wrote his books in 3d Person. In 3d, the word Suddenly is coming from the author. It’s a “tell.” There are better ways to convey such moments (see commenter Marilynn Byerly’s examples in Brother Gilstrap’s post).

But in First Person, Suddenly is perfectly acceptable. In my latest thriller, Romeo’s Rage, I have a scene with Mike and Sophie at an eatery where a minor protest is happening. Mike is confronted by the gadflies and their upraised camera phones. He starts confounding one of them with verbal jiu-jitsu.

“Shut up!” shouts the gadfly, and it looks like things might get heated.

Suddenly, Sophie was by my side and looking at the cameras.

That’s how Mike experiences the moment. It’s like an internal thought. And since this is First Person, we can go there. Without the Suddenly, readers might think Sophie was standing next to Mike all the while, instead of showing this new side of her—a willingness to jump into a fray.

Here’s another example of an internal thought, from another Mike. Hammer, to be exact, in Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me, Deadly. In chapter one Hammer has picked up a mysterious woman wandering on the road. He is going to take her into New York to drop her off, but another car speeds in front of them and stops, causing a crash. Mike jumps out of his car, and so do men from the other. Gun shots. Mike takes a sap to the head. Down he goes. As he fights to come to [italics in original, and notice our friend Then making an appearance]—

It was like a sleep that you awaken from because you had been sleeping cramped up. It was a forced awakening that hurts and you hear yourself groan as you try to straighten out. Then suddenly there’s an immediate sharpness to the awakening as you realize that it hadn’t been a bad dream after all, but something alive and terrifying instead.

Now, just for the heck of it, let me say something about all hell broke loose. I think most of us would agree it’s a cliché and that it’s better to show what the breaking hell looks like.

But in First Person you can use a cliché if you freshen it up, as in All hell broke loose and kicked every dog in the neighborhood.

That’s fun to do.

Very

This one I usually avoid. It’s flabby and indistinct. An exception is when it’s used sardonically in First Person POV, as in: Needless to say, when he saw the toilets, Sarge got very upset.

And, of course, a character might use it in dialogue.

But in narrative portions, don’t write: He was very big. Instead, write something like: He was the size of a beer truck.

Had

This one is constantly overused by writers when the narrative goes into the past. Consider:

She had grown up in Boston. When it came time to apply to college, she’d chosen Wellesley and Bryn Mawr. and Yale. That didn’t please her father, who had made his sentiments known to her in no uncertain terms. They’d had a lot of arguments over that.

Here’s a rule for you (that’s right, I said rule): Use one had to get you into the past, but after that you don’t need it.

She had grown up in Boston. When it came time to apply to college, she chose Wellesley and Bryn Mawr. That didn’t please her father, who made his sentiments known to her in no uncertain terms. They argued a lot over that.

Nothing lost, and the narrative is crisper.

I now put down my Weed Wacker and invite comments. What other weed words or phrases do you see popping up in our wonderful craft garden?