How To (Legally) Get Away With Murder

By Sue Coletta

A few nights ago, my husband and I watched Population Zero, a documentary-style movie based on the alleged true account of a murderer who walked free after confessing to a triple homicide.

In the documentary, the killer even videotaped the murders and summoned this documentarian (our hero) to find the motive behind his killing spree. To entice him, he sent a photo of a bear chasing a horrifically burned buffalo — a symbolic message for the murders he committed in Yellowstone National Park.

The entire ninety-minutes shocked me, not only because a loophole in our constitution allowed a murderer to walk free but because of the explosive ending (no spoilers). It also made me suspicious. I thought, you mean to tell me an entire sheriff’s department couldn’t unravel the mystery but a film-maker cracked the case in a matter of days?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie. True story? Ah, not so much. The legal loophole, however, is real. Within the United States there’s a stretch of land where you could, in theory, get away with murder. Fact.

How Is This Possible?

Most of Yellowstone National Park is in Wyoming, but a portion of the federal land extends into Montana and Idaho. That’s where the problem begins. The 50 square miles of Idaho’s section of the national park is called The Zone of Death, and it’s because of a loophole in the U.S. Constitution. If, like in the documentary-style movie, someone committed a spontaneous murder on that 50 square mile strip, the U.S. Constitution may be their ticket to freedom.

Here’s why. Yellowstone National Park is federal land that was established in 1872, years before the three states. Montana joined the union in 1889, Idaho and Wyoming in 1890. Across the United States federal land is split-up and divided into its corresponding state and district courts. Yellowstone National Park is the only exception. 

In 2005, Brian C. Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University of Law, published a paper entitled The Perfect Crime, where he pointed out that all of Yellowstone National Park was assigned to the District of Wyoming. But now, the District of Wyoming includes land in other states. So, Kalt asked the question, “What happens if you’re caught for a crime within that 50 square miles of the Idaho region of the park?” 

The first thing LEO’s would do is bring you to the District Court of Wyoming, because the crime happened within Wyoming’s jurisdiction. But Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states: The trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury; and such trial shall be held in the state where the said crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any state, the trial shall be a such place or places as the Congress may be law have directed.

A smart killer, like the one depicted in Population Zero, could assert his right to have his case heard in Idaho. No big deal, right? Well, not exactly. 

Amendment VI states: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

This is called the Vicinage Clause.

Picture two overlapping circles, with Wyoming (the District) on one side and Idaho (the State) on the other. Where these two circles intersect is that 50 square miles of Idaho land. The legal loophole exists because it has a population of zero. No humans live there, therefore, no jury can be called. Kalt argues, the court must let you walk free to avoid violating your Sixth Amendment rights.  

“The more I dug into it, the more interested I got,” Kalt told Vice. “People have this fascination with uncovering a loophole for the perfect crime. There are a lot of different approaches to it. But in terms of geography, there’s just this one spot.”

Kalt proposed numerous solutions to Congress, but they have yet to act. In Kalt’s words, “All they have to do is redraw the district lines so that the District of Wyoming is Wyoming, the District of Idaho is Idaho, and the District of Montana is Montana. And if they do that, this all goes away.”

In Population Zero, the hero set out to prove the killer had preplanned the murder. If so, he could be tried in the district court where the murder was planned. But in the confession, the killer stated that one of the victims started a fight, and he just snapped. In which case, there’s nothing within the law that let’s the court hold him accountable. All events happened within The Zone of Death. Therefore, he walks.

Crazy, right?

I know what you’re all thinking. What a fantastic plot for a novel! Sorry, folks. C.J. Box beat us to it with his 2007 thriller, Free Fire. I should also mention the author tried to fight Congress to close the loophole but no one wants to acknowledge its existence. The only way it’ll happen is if someone dies within The Zone of Death.

The loophole also inspired a 2016 horror film with the same title as the documentary-style movie, Population Zero. Although, I don’t recall the legalities being mentioned.

Has the Loophole Ever Been Tested?

In 2005, a hunter illegally shot an elk. When he fired he was standing in the Montana section of the park. Authorities indicted him in Wyoming. He successfully argued he had a right to be tried by jurors from Montana, and while people do live in that section, there are too few residents to call a legitimate jury. The court dismissed the argument out of hand, simply because it would imply that Yellowstone National Park contained a Zone of Death. 

I’ll leave you with this: the Buffalo Campground, a popular tourist destination with a gorgeous lake and some of the best fishing for miles, is located within The Zone of Death. If you feel lucky, why not add it to your summer vacation plans. Any takers? 🙂 

Have you seen Population Zero or read Free Fire? What do you think of this legal loophole? Let’s discuss.

 

7+

The Wagon Wheel of Suspense

By Sue Coletta

We have another gutsy writer who submitted their first page. Please pay special attention to the notes at the end of this post, and you’ll understand my title (I hope).

Gym Body

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. Deep breath. Step in. The cop cars outside reminded me of something that had happened long ago.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes.

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down.

Breathing in the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.”

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist, and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepen into greater and more cynical levels of boredom depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now she was pushing 11 on a bored-look scale of 10. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.”

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!”

Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars. She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

* * *

NITTY-GRITTY

With my hand on the gym door handle, I could feel the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio. I stopped, the pulse of the gym in my hand, or perhaps, it occurred to me, it was my own heartbeat in my palm. If her hand is on the door handle, how could she feel her heartbeat in her palm? If you’d like to deepen the POV, reword like this: With my hand on the gym door handle, the thud of the bass beat in the upstairs studio pulsed through my hand.  Deep breath. Staccato sentence, which varies sentence structure and adds rhythm. Good job! Step in. This one may be overdoing it, but it’s a stylistic choice. The cop cars outside [the building] reminded me of something that had happened long ago. I’d love a hint to what happened. Don’t explain in detail, though. Rather, hint at it, teasing us to keep us interested. As written, it’s not enough.

Another instructor pounded down the stairs and brushed by me, wiping tears from her eyes. Good. It makes me wonder why she’s so upset. I hope it’s because someone got their head bashed in with a weight and not due to a minor disagreement. Meaning, if you’re going to show us a woman racing down the stairs in tears in the opening paragraph, you ought to have a compelling reason why, a reason the reader will soon discover. This is precious real estate. Don’t waste it on meaningless conflict that has no bearing on the forthcoming quest. 

The background sound was now a disordered group clap in time to the Zumba cool down. Meh. I’d delete this sentence. It detracts from the next sentence, which I like. Breathing in Inhaling the whirlpool chlorine, the familiar clink of weights being set in place at the top of the stairs, I fished through my wallet for my membership card. Bravo on using sound and smell to enhance the mental image. Too often writers forget to use these senses, and often they’re the most powerful.

“Suzi – don’t worry about it,” said Trixie, the front desk attendant, waving her hand in the air and making her eyes look even more bored than usual. “You teach here. I have no idea why you’re supposed to show your card.” You managed to sneak in the main character’s name, which is great. However, this dialogue is too on-the-nose. What if Trixie gossiped about why the woman ran out in tears? Again, give us a compelling reason. 

I raised my voice over the soothing buzz of the smoothie bar blender to thank her.

Trixie’s dirty blond hair fell to her waist “Fell” indicates she had her hair up prior to this., and her eyes, smudged with thick gray eyeliner, held a bored expression that she could deepened into greater and more cynical levels of boredom, depending on how cool she thought you were. Right now, she was pushing 11 eleven on a bored-look scale of 10 ten. I must be pretty cool. “Just go on in.” Love the snark. This paragraph shows us Suzi’s fun personality. Very good.

“Excuse me!” said a gravelly voice to my left. Unless the character is shouting, lose the exclamation point. “I need a ticket for the 9am Push class!” <– Here too. Rather than pick away at this, I’m stopping here. Please jump to the notes below. Trixie lightened her bored look to appear almost polite – not welcoming, but at least not as bored. It was amazing how fast she could wind down to a 6. “I’m so sorry, but Suzi’s class is full this morning.”

I turned to see who was getting the bad news. It was Georgia, one of my regulars.  She had the pale papery skin and short gray hair of a woman in her golden years, but emerging under her Lululemon spandex tank top were the bicep and deltoid muscles of a woman who pumped iron like a 20-year-old in a bikini contest.

Old Fashioned Wagon Wheel Garden Fountain

NOTES

Even if we tightened the writing, these last two paragraphs still aren’t interesting enough for the opening page. I’d rather see you use this space to hint at what Suzi will find inside her classroom. Dead body? Blood? An escaped zoo gorilla? Hordes of tarantulas from the exotic pet store next door? Prison escapee? Suzi’s ex-husband who just dumped the crying woman? My point is, the details must connect. Or show us why she fears the past might be repeating itself. Hint at the disturbance you mentioned in the first paragraph. As it stands now, the cop cars disappeared from Suzi’s mind. By including too many details about the surroundings you’ve undone the tension you started to build in the opening paragraph.

The title, I assume, is a play on words. Gym body = dead body in the gym? As a crime writer, my mind jumps to a scenario that involves murder. If this isn’t the case, then you need a new title. Preferably one that hints at the genre.

THE WAGON WHEEL OF SUSPENSE

Envision an old fashioned wagon wheel fountain (pictured above). The water rides up in the buckets, over the top of the wheel, and spills down into the same basin. The water itself never changes, even though it cycles through several buckets. In writing, especially in our opening chapter, we need to narrow our focus to one main conflict (i.e. a killer on the loose), one compelling question that the reader needs to answer (why do folks die at this specific gym?). This is how we force them to turn the page. We can and should include several disturbances along the way (in this analogy, I’m referring to the buckets), but they all should relate to that main conflict (the water) in some way.

In the opening chapter it’s crucial to stop the wheel partway. Don’t let that water escape till later, thereby raising the main dramatic story question. We still need to transfer the water from bucket to bucket on the way up the wheel (remember, conflict drives story). That’s how we build suspense, little by little, almost painfully teasing the reader till we’re ready to let the water flow.

In this opening chapter, the main conflict could be what’s inside Suzi’s classroom that’s so horrible a woman pounded down the stairs in tears after witnessing it, but you’d need to drop more clues to make us want to find out. Use the patrol cars outside the building as one disturbance. How does the past relate to present day? What sort of reaction do the lights and sirens have on Suzi? Has this gym been the scene of other murders? Hint at how these things connect to pique the reader’s interest.

Anon, please remember, if I thought you were just beginning your writing journey, you wouldn’t see this much red ink. Your grasp of POV tells me you’ve got the skills to do better. I already like Suzi enough to go for the ride. That’s a huge plus. All you need to do is give us a compelling reason to turn the page. With some tweaking, I know you can do it.

Over to you, TKZers! What advice would you give to improve this first page?

8+

Nature Provides Amazing Opportunities

By Sue Coletta

It’s no secret that I’m a huge animal lover. Folks who follow me on Twitter may’ve noticed my interest in wildlife, conservation, and protecting our ecosystems.

When our last two dogs crossed the rainbow bridge, part of me died right alongside them. In 10 years we’d lost eight dogs, seven of which died to cancer and one to a brown recluse spider bite. I longed for another to help fill the void, but my husband couldn’t go through the pain again. I understood. Nonetheless, I still grappled with the lack of pitter-pattering of paws across the hardwood. The house didn’t feel the same.  

To help heal, I turned to nature. The woods surrounding our house had to be teeming with life. Surely some little fella needed love.  

At the time, I was writing Blessed Mayhem and had studied crows extensively. How hard could it be to befriend a crow?  

One day, I piled peanuts on the grass. Circus peanuts, unsalted. In my research I’d discovered that circus peanuts are high in carbs. It takes a high-carbohydrate diet to flap wings. Within thirty minutes, a crow landed in the yard. A bubble of joy burst inside me, a tidal wave of love shattering the protective layer of my heart.  

“Poe?” I said, blurring the lines between fact and fiction.   

Unlike in my book, my Poe turned out to be female. The only reason I knew this was because a few days later, she brought her mate, Edgar, who was noticeably larger. Poe struts with an unmistakable wiggle to the hips and Edgar acts as the great protector. A real man’s man, if you know what I mean. The proud parents flew peanuts back and forth to their nest … in the woods across the street.  

OMG, they had chicks! The helplessness that had consumed me each time cancer stole another dog from us, withered away like lilies in a frozen pond.  

Days turned into weeks as I marveled at their intelligence, grace, and loving nature. My husband got swept up, too. 

Then we had a new visitor. The Marilyn Monroe of squirrels, this gorgeous dirty-blonde with a swanky strawberry-blonde tail sauntered into the yard. Hesitant at first but making a b-line for the peanut pile. Uh-oh, she could be trouble. Would Poe and Edgar accept her, or would they retaliate for the intrusion?  

Since I’d already matched the crow names to fictional pets, why not stay consistent? From that day forward, the sexy squirrel became Shawnee. Then I noticed she was pregnant. If Poe didn’t accept her, how could I ever kick her out? Better lay out two piles of peanuts from now on. 

Fights broke out between the two mothers as I bit all my fingernails to the quick. And then something amazing happened. Little by little, day by day, the taunts, lunges, and overall discourse lessened. It’s like they’d struck a deal — you stay on your side of the yard and we’ll stay on ours. With tiny mouths to feed, the kids remained their top priority.  

Just like that, harmony was restored.  

Neither Poe nor Shawnee cared when Hippy joined the party. Hip is a tiny chipmunk who at the time hadn’t even formed stripes yet. Instead, two dotted lines trailed down his back. My heart puddled into goo. Hippy must be the most enthusiastic of his kind. Each time he scores a peanut he leaps a good four-to-six inches into the air, as if screaming, “Hip, hip, hooray!”

Poe and Edgar brought the chicks once they were old enough to fly. Tears teemed my eyes as they taught their babies how to crack peanut shells against the rock. Their beaks weren’t strong enough yet to pry the shell apart. Shawnee brought her babies, too. Two older chipmunks joined Hippy. That was it. No other birds, no other animals of any kind. Until the sun set in the night sky, when Foxy Lady and her kit, Cornelius, ensured the yard was properly licked clean. Jeff, the opossum, and two of the fattest raccoons on record, the Fatty Patty Twins, also helped with the clean-up. Albeit in shifts. The night crew story I’ll save for another time before this post morphs into a book. 

Back to Poe, Shawnee, and Hip … 

In the yard, I designated a pile of peanuts for each family and they stayed at their respective piles, never encroaching on their neighbor. The two mothers formed the foundation for a mutually beneficial arrangement and everyone played fair.  

The nice thing about crows is, they know how to keep a secret. This becomes especially true with places they feed. Sure, they may bring a guest here and there, but it’s a one-shot deal. If the visiting crow(s) try to hang around, Poe and Edgar escort them past the property lines. Crows also aren’t opposed to playing dead next to a consistent source of food, so other crows flying by will think the feast is toxic. They really are smarter than fifth-graders! 

In New Hampshire, winters are long and brutal. This fact alone worried me. How would my new fur-and-feathered-babies weather harsh conditions? Little did I know, they worked out a solution ahead of time: me. If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m an easy mark, and they knew it from day one. A tilt of the head, a swish of the tail, and I’m out the door, trudging through two feet of snow. My husband also isn’t immune. Thank God, too, because someone needs to shovel a path for them. He’ll even clear the snow around the bottom of Shawnee’s tree so her feet don’t get cold when she climbs down.

During the same blizzard, Odin, our chatty raven who loves to hang out on my deck railing, sang for his breakfast around 6:00 a.m.  

Crows and ravens have an amazing range of calls, which include mimicking other animals. They can even imitate us!  

Once the snow arrived, I moved peanut piles up a level to shorten my trek. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but that slight alteration caused a major shift. The waft of peanuts caught the attention of blue jays, who wasted no time in muscling in on the action. Shawnee’s kids had kids of their own, or she’d spilled the beans to one of her squirrel suitors. Between you and me, she’s a bit of a floozie.  

The harmony in the yard became a massive feeding frenzy, new squirrels zigzagging around crows, blue jays divebombing from all directions, warring with one another in mid-air while Poe and Edgar played referee. Add in an adorable red squirrel, aptly named Wile E. Squirrel, and I created the perfect storm. Absolute madness unfolds daily around here … but everyone’s fat and happy.   

The truly beautiful thing is, Poe and Shawnee still eat wing to tail without even so much as a harsh glance. Even after all this time they’ve never broken that initial vow to put family first. Can’t say the same for their offspring, though. If a baby squirrel tries to take off with one of the suet squares (yes, I cut them into bite-sized pieces), the Poe clan gangs up on the poor little fella. Massive black wings flapping behind you will make anyone drop their stash.  

I’ve also witnessed new behavior. Poe and Edgar’s kids – who are huge by the way; they take after their Dad – line up on the lower level, their backs concealed by the skeletal-branches of the bushes. When one of the baby squirrels takes off down the hill with a mouthful of nuts, the wings spread. If he makes it past the defensive line, they soar after him. It’s not like there isn’t enough food to go around, either. I go through 15-20 lbs. of peanuts per week. Maybe stolen food just tastes better.  

Spending time with wildlife is one of my favorite ways to relax. Enjoying nature is an excellent excuse for taking a well-needed break from the computer. Thanks to Jim, TKZers know why it’s important for writers to step away from their WIP from time-to-time.  

My neighbors probably think I’ve lost my mind … again. Passerby’s certainly do. Twice a day, if I haven’t been beckoned, I stand in the yard, hands cupped around my mouth, and call into the sky for Poe. A caw always echoes in return. Within minutes of closing the sunroom door, the yard erupts – a Coletta family signal that a new day has begun.  

It’s impossible to have a bad day when you’re surrounded by tiny paws and talons. Let’s start the week off on a fun note. Do you feed the wildlife around your house? Tell me about the animals in your life.  

8+

1st Page Critique: Pinprick

By SUE COLETTA 

We have another brave writer who submitted their 1st page for critique. My suggestions will follow. 

Title: Pinprick 

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA 

Rosa Gomez slammed the door behind her and stalked out onto her small front porch.  She’d just seen the tattoo on her nephew Bernardo’s neck, and knew that if she stayed in the house she’d do something she’d regret.   Mara Salvatrucha was scrawled in ink across the back of his sixteen year old skin.   Mara Salvatrucha meant MS-13, the most vicious street gang in the Americas.   

She collapsed into the rocking chair where she spent her evenings, rocking back and forth, glaring at the gang members who paraded past her bungalow.  Her house was the last one in the neighborhood with a mowed lawn and a front light that hadn’t been shattered by gunfire.  They’d demanded that she pay them money as recognition that they controlled the neighborhood, but she’d vowed to die before she paid them any tribute.   

Most nights she sat with a shotgun on her lap, reminding the punks that they might control the neighborhood but they couldn’t control her.  

She glared out into the darkness, her lower lip thrust forward, knowing that her defiance would be seen by the mareros.  She’d been stubborn since the day she was born.  Her father said he’d seen more of her lower lip than any other part of her body.

Chamacas,” she shouts at the street.   She’s calling them little girls, the way they said it in El Salvador.    It wasn’t much to throw at them, but she’s so upset it’s all she can think of.   

She collapsed back into her chair, rocking back and forth in the early November chill, settling into the rhythm that pumped blood into her arthritic knees.   

 

I like where you’re going with this, Anon. If done well, this could be a compelling storyline about a world many people don’t know a lot about. One word of caution: please portray the inner-workings of gang life and those affected by it in an accurate way, rather than basing your research on the stereotypes fueled by the media. I’m not saying you’ve done that here, just something to think about.  

Big Picture  

Why not show Rosa’s reaction when she first sees the tattoo? This is a big deal. Her nephew just joined a ruthless street gang, the same gang that’s harassed the neighborhood for years. SHOW us how he first told his aunt he’d jumped in. Did she see the tattoo by accident when he stripped off his shirt? Did he flaunt the tattoo in her face? Had he been covered in welts, cuts, and bruises days before this tattoo appeared? There’s your opening. Save what you have here for page 3 or 4. 

First Lines 

I’m a sucker for a great first line. It often takes me several rewrites till I’m satisfied, so I understand the struggle. A great first line accomplishes many things.

A first line should …

  • Hook the reader 
  • Establish mood  
  • Give a sense of foreboding 
  • Reveal character and voice 
  • Hint at, or outright show, an obstacle 

If the first line doesn’t grab the reader’s attention – Think: “Hey, pay attention!” — they may not read the sentence that follows. For writers who choose the traditional publishing model, here’s a hard truth. Agents and acquisition editors give each query 8 seconds, max. If the first line doesn’t grab them, you could drown in that slush pile. 

Links for further study … 

Jerry Jenkins broke down opening lines into four categories: surprise, dramatic statement, philosophical, and poetic. Find the post HERE. 

Writer’s Digest gave us 7 Ways to Create a Killer First Line. 

One of my favorite features on Writer Unboxed is Flog a Pro. Here, you can read numerous 1st pages from books that sit on the New York Times Bestsellers’ List. Skim 58 opening lines, and you’ll see why they’re so important. It’ll also help spark ideas for your story. 

Point of View 

You’re using a limited 3rd POV, which is fine if that’s your intention. However, deep POV has the ability to more closely bond the reader to the main character. Whether you write in 3rd or 1st doesn’t matter. The technique is the same. I hate to keep beating this particular drum, so for an in-depth look at deep POV read this 1st Page Critique 

Nitpicks 

We use one space after a period, not two (or three, like you’ve done in a few places). This may seem petty, but details matter. You also have your tab set to an awkward spacing, which justified when I copied to the blog. The norm is .5.  

Nitty Gritty  

Rosa Gomez slammed the door behind her and stalked out onto her small front porch. (Strong action verbs form an excellent mental picture. Very good. However, try using a first line that delivers more of a punch.) She’d just seen the tattoo on her nephew Bernardo’s neck, and knew that if she stayed in the house she’d do something she’d regret. “Seen” and “knew” are telling words. Anytime you tell the reader what’s happened you rob them of the experience. The same sentence rewritten to show the action would look like this: After glimpsing the tattoo on her nephew’s neck (we don’t need to know his name yet)Rosa stormed out of the house before she crucified him. Sixteen years old and he’s marked for life.

Mara Salvatrucha was scrawled in ink across the back (isn’t the tattoo on his neck? Or do you mean the back of his neck? Be clear and concise. I had to scroll to the top to make sure I’d read “neck” the first time) of his sixteen-year-old skin. Too on-the-nose. See how I slipped in his age earlier? That’s one option. Another is to show through dialogue.  

For example, when she confronts Bernardo, he could say, “I’m an adult. I can do what I want with my body.”  

“But you’re only sixteen, Meho.” 

Mara Salvatrucha meant MS-13, the most vicious street gang in the Americas. The explanation of MS-13 I’ll get to in a minute. In the meantime, America has no “s.” Perhaps you meant “United States”.   

She collapsed into the rocking chair where she spent her most evenings, rocking back and forth, glaring at the gang members who paraded past her bungalow.  Her house was the last one in the neighborhood with a mowed lawn and a front light that hadn’t been shattered by gunfire (the wording could be tighter, but I like that this shows Rosa doesn’t take any crap. She’ll make a fine hero for this story.) They’d demanded that she pay them money as recognition that they controlled the neighborhood, but she’d vowed to die before she paid them any tributeTribute’s an odd word choice. More importantly, you’re missing an excellent opportunity to sneak in a tidbit about Rosa’s background and/or show her personality. Example: She hadn’t scrubbed bedpans for forty years to fork over the cash to a bunch of gang-bangers. They’d have to kill her first. 

Most nights she sat with a shotgun on her lap, reminding the punks that they might control the neighborhood but they couldn’t control her.  Nicely done. 

She glared out into the darkness, her lower lip thrust forward, knowing that her defiance would be seen by the mareros. The title of a street gang should be capitalized. “Knowing” is a telling word. You started to SHOW us the action, then pulled back. Rosa glared into the darkness with her lower lip thrust forward. Any minute now, the Mareros would catch wind of her defiance. She tapped her signet ring against the cool steel of her shotgun. Let them come.  She’d been stubborn since the day she was born.  Her father said he’d seen more of her lower lip than any other part of her body. The last two sentences are unnecessary backstory and all telling. SHOW these details later through dialogue and action. 

Chamacas,” she shouts at the street.   She’s calling them little girls, the way they said it in El SalvadorIt wasn’t much to throw at them, but she’s so upset it’s all she can think of.  This paragraph slips into present tense … “shouts” should be “shouted”, etc. But it also raises a bigger, more important issue — the use of a foreign language. On one hand, we want to be authentic in our writing. On the other, we don’t want to have to explain. Or worse, risk confusing our reader. Some writing advice says to stick with English. Period. Or only throw in a foreign word (always italicized, btw) if the meaning is clear.  

I like to take chances in my writing, so I didn’t heed this warning. In SCATHED, I included an old-school Italian grandmother, Mrs. Falanga. Like many Italian grandmothers (and I’m no exception), she’s very excitable and enthusiastic around children. Problem is, when she gets rolling she slides into mixing both dialects together. It’s also part of her charm, along with hand motions to accent her words. These mannerisms and speech enhance Mrs. Falanga’s character. To avoid her native tongue would destroy some of her endearing qualities. That said, she wasn’t an easy character to write. I can tell you how I handled using a foreign language, but we don’t have room for that today. I will, however, write a post about it in the near future. To be continued …  

She collapsed back into her chair, rocking back and forth in the early November chill, settling into the rhythm that pumped blood into her arthritic knees. I like the mental image. Rosa reminds me of Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino. We don’t necessarily need to know about Rosa’s arthritic knees, but if you choose to include it, then SHOW her knees aching. With the shotgun leveled in her lap, does she take a moment to massage one knee?

Overall, I like Rosa enough to turn the page. How ’bout you, TKZers? What advice would you give to strengthen this 1st page? Thanks to Anon for sharing his/her work. A public critique takes courage. Best of luck to you!

7+

Better Book Descriptions in 3 Easy Steps

By SUE COLETTA

Let’s be honest. Writing a book description isn’t fun. It’s grueling, mind-numbing work that I detest with every inch of my being. Mastering the art of back cover copy-writing is an important skill. Therefore, I’m always on the lookout for tips.

Saturday, I sat through yet another webinar on the topic, and a formula emerged, a formula that finally resonated with me (after 11 books, it’s about time). So, I figured I’d share my discovery with you, my beloved TKZers, in the hopes that it’ll work for you, as well.

I should preface this post with, do as I say, not as I do. After my Ah-ha! Moment, I now need to rewrite all my descriptions. Oy. I’d prefer a bullet to the brain.

A 3-Step Formula

Back cover copy follows a simple three-step formula, but we do have wiggle room to experiment. With readers’ short attention spans these days, the advice is to keep the entire description to roughly 150-200 words. If your description runs 25 words longer than the desired range, I wouldn’t sweat it too much.

Step 1: Headline/Hook

To find our hook we need to look at the main conflict of our story. We want readers to identify with said conflict, so don’t shy away from the emotional impact it causes the hero. Don’t dwell on it, either. Every word counts.

The following books sit on Amazon’s Top 10 Bestsellers List in Psychological Thrillers, and each description employs this exact formula. These authors worked hard on their hooks, and it shows.

What would it take to make you intervene? I Am Watching You by Teresa Driscoll 

It begins with a phone call. It ends with a missing child. Guilty by Laura Elliot

When family secrets are unearthed, a woman’s past can become a dangerous place to hide… Twist of Faith by Ellen J. Green

Every time Gwen closed her eyes, she saw him in her nightmares. Now her eyes are open, and he’s not going away. Killman Creek by Rachel Caine

They were all there the day your sister went missing. Who is lying? Who is next? The Reunion by Samantha Hayes

She’s a daughter he didn’t know he had. Until she calls him… from death row. 30 Days of Justis by John Ellsworth

What if you discovered your husband was a serial killer? Tell Me I’m Wrong by Adam Croft

Side note: Adam Croft is a master at hooking readers. This next book he wrote after he created the hook. What a doozy, too!

Could you murder your wife to save your daughter? Her Last Tomorrow by Adam Croft

Wow. Right? If that hook doesn’t grab fans of the genre, nothing will.

Step 2: Short Synopsis

The synopsis also follows a micro-formula…

  1. Introduce the protagonist by showing what defines their role in the story.
  2. What is that character up against?
  3. What’s standing in their way?
  4. Transition paragraph or as Kris called it in a 2014 post, “The Big But.”
  5. End with a cliffhanger.

Let’s go back to our examples to see if this micro-formula has merit. The red-bracketed numbers correspond to steps 1-5.

Synopsis of Her Last Tomorrow by Adam Croft

Nick and Tasha are a couple held together by their five-year-old daughter [1]. Until one ordinary morning, when Ellie vanishes amid the chaos of the school run [2].

Nick knows she can’t have gone far on her own, which can mean only one thing: she’s not on her own. Who would take his daughter, and why? With no motive and no leads, Nick is thrown into a tailspin of suspicion and guilt. Like Tasha, he doesn’t know what to think, or whom to trust… [3]

But then someone starts doing the thinking for him. Confronted with an impossible choice, Nick will have to make a decision, and both options will leave him with blood on his hands. But perhaps that’s to be expected. [4]

After all, Nick’s not quite as blameless as he seems. [5]

I Am Watching You by Teresa Driscoll

When Ella Longfield overhears two attractive young men flirting with teenage girls on a train, she thinks nothing of it—until she realises they are fresh out of prison and her maternal instinct is put on high alert.[1] But just as she’s decided to call for help, something stops her. The next day, she wakes up to the news that one of the girls—beautiful, green-eyed Anna Ballard—has disappeared. [2]

A year later, Anna is still missing. Ella is wracked with guilt over what she failed to do, and she’s not the only one who can’t forget. Someone is sending her threatening letters—letters that make her fear for her life. [3]

Then an anniversary appeal reveals that Anna’s friends and family might have something to hide. Anna’s best friend, Sarah, hasn’t been telling the whole truth about what really happened that night—and her parents have been keeping secrets of their own. [4]

Someone knows where Anna is—and they’re not telling. But they are watching Ella. [5]

Synopsis of Guilty by Laura Elliot

On a warm summer’s morning, thirteen-year-old school girl Constance Lawson is reported missing. [2]

A few days later, Constance’s uncle, Karl Lawson, suddenly finds himself swept up in a media frenzy created by journalist Amanda Bowe implying that he is the prime suspect. [1]

Six years later … [4]

Karl’s life is in ruins. His marriage is over, his family destroyed. But the woman who took everything away from him is thriving. With a successful career, husband and a gorgeous baby boy, Amanda’s world is complete. Until the day she receives a phone call and in a heartbeat, she is plunged into every mother’s worst nightmare. [3]

* * *

Even though Guilty played with the order, the description works. The formula still holds. Hence why I mentioned the wiggle room at the beginning of this post. *grin* Also note: some authors put their characters’ names and/or important details in bold, and the words catch the reader’s eye.

Step 3: Selling Paragraph

The selling paragraph answers two variations of the same question that readers ask themselves:

It sounds good, but how do I know it’s for me?

Sounds good, but will I like it?

There’s two ways we can go here, by showing similar books — if you enjoyed X, you will love Y — or by simply mentioning the genre.

A psychological thriller that keeps you guessing till the last chilling page.

If you like heart-hammering suspense, this book is for you!

A third option is to use clips of reader reviews or blurbs from authors in your genre.

CLEAVED by Sue Coletta

 

 

How far would you go to save your child?

CLICK HERE to look inside CLEAVED.

 

 

 

 

Over to you, TKZers. Do you use this formula for your book descriptions? If not, are you tempted to try it? Any tips of your own to share?

19+

A Lesson in Deep POV — First Page Critique

By SUE COLETTA

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. I’ll see ya on the flipside.

Murder Audit 

Jim Dunn, Controller of Prairie Pipeline Co., rubbed his eyes as he glanced up at the clock on the wall of his office. It was almost 7:00 pm and while this would be an early night for him, he was ready to call it quits. He had been working late hours getting ready for PPC’s annual financial statement audit and he wanted to make sure everything was in order for tomorrow’s inventory count. Although he had met with audit manager, Cynthia Webber, several weeks ago, he felt it was important he was at the office bright and early on inventory day.

            He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a half-full bottle of Crown Royal. He unscrewed the cap and poured a good jigger into his stale, cold coffee. After replacing the bottle in his desk drawer, he swirled his coffee cup and downed the concoction in three big gulps. As he planted his cup back on his desk in its usual spot he thought he heard voices. Knowing he was alone in the office, he went to his window and noticed some protesters had gathered outside the front entrance. Feeling brave from his last four mugs of “coffee Royal”, he opened the window and shouted at the protesters.

            “Get outta here you granola loving hippies! This town wouldn’t be what it is today without this company. I bet half of you work for our subsidiaries and don’t even know it. Go find something better to do!” As Jim closed the window, he heard something thunk against the building. He looked at the angry mob of about 20 to see that they were throwing rocks at the building. He opened his window and shouted at the crowd.

            “I’m calling the police!”

            “Oooh, the police. We’re scared now!” one of the protesters sarcastically snapped back. By this point Jim was ready to take matters into his own hands. He was sick and tired of environmental protest groups showing up at the office and disturbing not only the normal course of business but also the time he put in after hours. It was almost as if they were stalking him. He just couldn’t understand why they would choose 7:00 pm as a time to protest. Then he remembered there was a benefit dinner happening at the University to raise funds to relocate the hundreds of thousands of birds that would be without homes if the new pipeline went ahead as planned.

Overall, I liked this piece. I can see the potential for a fast-paced story, rife with conflict. It’s because of the writer’s potential that I’ve narrowed in on POV.

What we find with this first page is a distance narrator. The following words in bold are all telling words and phrases. Remember, if we wouldn’t think it, our POV character shouldn’t either. Some writers have a difficult time with deep POV, which we’ve discussed before on TKZ. It’s one element of craft that we learn at our pace. One day it’ll just click. My hope is, this is that day for Anon.

When we tell the reader what’s happening rather than showing the events as they unfold, we’re robbing them of a vicarious experience and thus, they won’t be as invested in the story. Force them feel what our POV character is up against. If we don’t, the reader stays detached and it’s easy for them to put down the book.

Taken from the first paragraph, let’s reword into showing.

Telling:

He had been working late hours getting ready for PPC’s annual financial statement audit and he wanted to make sure everything was in order for tomorrow’s inventory count.

Showing:

In preparation for PPC’s annual financial statement audit, he’d worked ungodly hours. Everything must be perfect for tomorrow. If the inventory count was off even a fraction, he could lose his job.

See the difference? We’re now inside the MC’s head.

Let’s look at the same paragraph, last sentence.

Telling:

Although he had met with audit manager, Cynthia Webber, several weeks ago, he felt it was important he was at the office bright and early on inventory day. 

Showing:

Several weeks ago, he’d met with his audit manager. To say it didn’t go well was an understatement. For the last several days, he’d even beaten the crows to work, and their day started at dawn. The pesky buggers never missed an opportunity to raid the dumpster. What a mess they left, too.

Note the hints of environment as well as personality? Using deep POV allows the reader to get to know our MC a little at a time.

I’m including the next line for a different reason.

He looked at the angry mob of about 20 to see that they were throwing rocks at the building. 

The word “looked” in this context isn’t wrong, per se, but it is generic. Meaning, we have no idea “how” the MC is looking at the crowd below. By using a weak verb we miss an opportunity to show the MC’s reaction. Try “gaped,” which shows shock, “glared,” which shows aggravation or anger, “scowled,” which shows resentment, disgust, anger. Choose the word that best describes “how” the MC is staring at the crowd. Incidentally, don’t only concentrate on the eyes. A curled lip shows just as much disgust and paints a better picture.

2nd Paragraph

As he planted his cup back on his desk in its usual spot he thought he heard voices. Knowing he was alone in the office, he went to his window and noticed some protesters had gathered outside the front entrance. Feeling brave from his last four mugs of “coffee Royal”, he opened the window and shouted at the protesters.

Showing:

When he set the cup on the monogrammed coaster, one of the few things the ex-ball-and-chain hadn’t stolen, voices resonated below. Better not be those damn protesters again. For liquid courage, he poured another coffee royal, tossed his head back, and sucked the mug dry. (side note: I loved Jim’s coffee royal habit; my 90 y.o. Italian grandfather-in-law tipped quite a few in his day. 🙂 )

Jim shoved open the window. (Example of using a body cue instead of dialogue tag) “Get outta here, you granola-lovin’ hippies!” (Great dialogue. Good job, Anon!)

However, the following dialogue doesn’t work.

“This town wouldn’t be what it is today without this company. I bet half of you work for our subsidiaries and don’t even know it. Go find something better to do!”

The first line in the above passage is too on-the-nose. The second could work if reworded to sound more natural. Although, I’d rather see Anon use the dialogue to show us more of Jim’s personality. It’s precious real estate and shouldn’t be wasted by sneaking in backstory.

As Jim closed the window, he heard something thunk against the building. He looked at the angry mob of about 20 to see that they were throwing rocks at the building. He opened his window and shouted at the crowd.

“I’m calling the police!” 

Heard and see are telling words. The dialogue should come after the body cue, not on a separate line. Also, why have Jim close and reopen the window? Keep it open. If you need Jim away from the window, let him refill his coffee royal. Which also gives us the opportunity to show the reader how pissed off or frightened he is.

Rewritten:

Jim swiped the Crown Royal off his desk, and a pummel of tings blasted against the side of the building. He chanced a peek out the window. About twenty of the angry mob whipped rocks at the bricks, some even hit the new Prairie Pipeline Company sign. As CEO, he couldn’t let this behavior continue. Hidden by the window frame, his body flattened against the wall, his voice betrayed his confident front when it raised three octaves. “I’m calling the cops!”

Notice how I slipped in the name of the company and his job title? Here isn’t as intrusive as the first line and we won’t risk overloading our reader with information before they get a chance to know Jim.

Last paragraph:

“Oooh, the police. We’re scared now!” one of the protesters sarcastically snapped back. By this point Jim was ready to take matters into his own hands. He was sick and tired of environmental protest groups showing up at the office and disturbing not only the normal course of business but also the time he put in after hours. It was almost as if they were stalking him. He just couldn’t understand why they would choose 7:00 pm as a time to protest. Then he remembered there was a benefit dinner happening at the University to raise funds to relocate the hundreds of thousands of birds that would be without homes if the new pipeline went ahead as planned.

First, cue the reader to who’s speaking right away. “Ooh, the police,” yelled the protest leader. Barry something-or-other. This wasn’t the first time he’d had run-ins with that loud-mouthed-loser. “We’re scared now!”

The next line is all telling and does nothing to further the plot — delete.

Rewrite the rest of the paragraph to hint at the story to come.

So damn tired of environmental groups disrupting the normal work flow, never mind the time spent before and after hours, something had to give. It was almost as if they sensed when he pulled into the parking lot. Had they planted cameras? Stalked him? Oh, maybe they attended the fundraiser tonight. Bunch of tree-huggers trying to find a way to relocate birds once PPC laid the new pipeline. If only these earthy-crunchy types could disappear. Vanished. Scraped off the planet like gum on a sneaker’s sole. But how?

He smirked. Murder might be an option.

###

Overall, there’s a lot to like about this first page. If Anon deepens the POV, s/he could have an intriguing story.

Jordan passed me the music challenge gauntlet. So, I’m including the inspiration behind Paradox, my killer in SCATHED, Grafton County Series, (release date TBA). #TKZMusicChallenge

Over to you, TKZers. What tips would you give to strengthen this first page?

 

6+

1st Page Critique: Across the Road

By SUE COLETTA

We have another brave writer who submitted a First Page for critique. My comments will follow.

ACROSS THE ROAD

Edward stepped on the brakes and brought the car to a halt on the edge of the road. Adjusting his rearview mirror, he again looked to make certain his intervention was indeed required. On the streets of Accra two people fighting was hardly a novel sight, and third party intervention was not always welcome. But the man still held the young woman by her throat, and she squirmed in vain to break free.

Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car.

It hit him like a falling object. “What the…?” he muttered. Cupping his hand over his eyes, he looked up.

It was a stupid thing to do. The pain in his head only worsened. He looked at his watch to ensure it wasn’t already mid-day. Even at 7:45 in the morning, the sun churned an unbearable amount of heat. If he kept driving, he’d be in his office in fifteen minutes waiting on an aspirin from his secretary. He squinted in the direction of the helpless young woman, and marched towards her.

Every step he took increased the throbbing in his head. He’d stopped his car only a couple of metres away. Amidst her gasping and choking, Edward heard the woman say, “Let…go of me.” Her small hands slipped and slapped against the man’s vice-like grip.

“Give me my money or else…” The man, who couldn’t have been shorter than six-foot-four, threw up a big, veiny left hand, palm wide open, and began to drop it at a target on the side of her face.

Edward reached it in time. He caught the weapon in his left hand before it reached its target. His fingers barely closed around the thick wrist. “Easy, my friend,” he said.

The man staggered, and Edward’s head exploded. Still holding on to the woman, the man turned his eyes from her to Edward. Deep furrows in his forehead marked his confusion. In a quick movement Edward transferred the seized hand from his left hand to his right. With his left hand he grabbed the choking hazard and calmly said to the brute, “Let her go.”

For a brief moment the two men glared at each other in a not-so-epic Mexican stand-off. Edward fixed his gaze. Too many times he’d been told he had kind eyes.

* * *

The writer has given us a peek into Edward’s character and we’re thrown into an action scene. Yet the writer didn’t hook me enough to turn the page. Why? Because when we don’t resist the urge to explain every movement in detail, it ruins the suspense. Readers are smart. Trust us to fill in the blanks. I’ll give you a quick example.

He reached for the bloody rag. By two fingers he pulled it from the stranger’s grasp, then retracted his arm.

See how overly descriptive that is? Remember, every word counts.

He snatched the bloody rag.

Same action. Same visualization. Four words instead of 19. We know what it looks like to snatch a rag from someone’s hand. Too many body movements slow (or stop) the suspense rather than enhance it.

The Headache

Throughout the first page we learn about Edward’s headache. I’m guessing these episodes play a key role in the story. In which case, the writer has done a good job of showing us how migraines start as a dull ache and little by little build into mind-numbing pain.

A word of caution here. Headaches aren’t all that interesting, nor are migraines. They help gain empathy for the MC, but they’re not enough to carry an entire story. Unless— and this is key—these migraines are a symptom of something larger. Jason Borne had migraines after the CIA erased his identity. If Edward went through a similar procedure, then you need to drop a few clues. As it stands now, Edward’s an average Joe who makes his secretary bring him aspirin. Speaking of, unless the story takes place before the 1970’s, this tidbit makes Edward look like a male chauvinist pig. Do you want to turn your female readers against Edward?

Word Choices

Throughout the first page the writer chose odd wording. For clarity, the brave writer’s questionable word choices are in red, my remarks in blue. Please add your own helpful suggestions in the comments.

Edward stepped on the brakes and brought the car to a halt on the edge of the road. “Brought” is generic. The edge of the road makes me think Edward stopped at the edge of a steep cliff. Breakdown lane or dirt shoulder may work better. 

It hit him like a falling object. What hit him? “It” tells us nothing.

The man, who couldn’t have been shorter than six-foot-four (don’t confuse the reader with odd wording. If he’s the size of a Patriot’s linebacker, say so), threw up a big, veiny left hand (first, gross; second, unless Edward is inches away he wouldn’t be able to see the dude’s veins), palm wide open, and began to drop it at a target (what target? Did a bullseye suddenly appear on her cheek?) on the side of her face.

Edward reached it (reached what?) in time. He caught the weapon (there’s a weapon now?) in his left hand before it reached its target (I still don’t see a target).

Adjusting his rearview mirror, he again looked (did he look a first time?) to make certain his intervention (intervention reminds me of an alcoholic who needs to get sober) was indeed required.

Also, the first line is nowhere near strong enough for an opener. Rather than rehash TKZ’s sound advice on first lines, I’ve linked a few posts that may help HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Always try to use strong action verbs. You can find an active verb pdf HERE.

On the streets of Accra two people fighting was hardly a novel sight, and third party intervention was not always welcome. The first half of the sentence shows us that Accra isn’t a safe place. Bravo! After the comma, however, is called over-writing. Most people don’t like others prying into their business. Because it’s common sense and it doesn’t help to clarify, well, anything, we can (and should) delete.  

But the man still held the young woman by her throat (still? This is the 1st time you’ve shown us), and she squirmed in vain (meh. You can do better) to break free. 

Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car. 

Unless men have a habit of strangling women on the side of the roads in Accra, the terror should be palpable. He’s killing her! Yet Edward turned off the engine, took out the keys, and stepped out of the car? No, no, no.

Edward slammed the shifter into park and leaped out the driver’s door. “Let go of her, you bastard!”

Force us into that fight! Let us feel Edward’s face flush with rage as he witnesses a man beat on a woman half his size.

Let’s jump ahead.

The man staggered, and Edward’s head exploded. His head exploded? What a mess! I understand what the writer is trying to convey here, but I can’t help but giggle every time I read that line. Migraines are no joke, though. Please choose words that best describe how painful they are.

Example:

A volcanic blast exploded within Edward’s head. Vision blurred. Words jumbled. With a flat hand, he latched on to the hood to steady his gait. The goon dragged the woman by the hair, but Edward couldn’t react. The migraine held him hostage.

Still holding on to the woman, the man turned his eyes from her to Edward. How does one turn their eyes? I’m able to “shift” my eyes, but alas, I cannot turn them. I’m also a stickler for “eyes” that shoot across a room. “Gazes” can shoot to and fro. They can also roam, wander, and dance.  Eyeballs, to my knowledge, remain in their sockets at all times. Unless, or until, someone pries them out.

Deep furrows in his forehead marked his confusion. Simple, clear, paints an image in the reader’s mind. Well done!

 In a quick movement Edward transferred the seized hand (Seized? Money and property can be seized, hands cannot) from his left hand to his right. With his left hand (avoid repetition. In less than two sentences the word “hand” is used three times. Too many details confuse the reader. Which hand did what now?) he grabbed the choking hazard (I must admit, I’ve reread this first page umpteenth times and am still unsuccessful in finding “the choking hazard.” To me, a choking hazard is a small toy or toy part that we keep away from babies and toddlers) and calmly said to the brute, “Let her go.”

For a brief moment the two men (we’re not in Edward’s head anymore) glared at each other in a not-so-epic Mexican stand-off (cliché). Edward fixed his gaze (this works better than the preceding sentence; good job here!). Too many times he’d been told he had kind eyes (delete this line. Not only is it irrelevant, but it makes no sense in this context).

To review

  • Resist the urge to explain every single body movement.
  • Choose words carefully.
  • Avoid repetition.
  • Trust the reader to fill in the blanks, but give us enough information to do so.
  • Know your audience.

Over to you, TKZers. What tips would you give this brave writer?

8+

Tips to Include Pets in Fiction

By Sue Coletta

I love writing pets into my stories. Not only is a great way to show a killer’s soft side, but they’ve become important family members for my main characters. In my stories, I’ve used a Rottweiler, English Mastiff, St. Bernard, a calico, tabby, and all-black cat, pet crows, and a black bear.

I’ve even borrowed a friend’s Bulldog, but I felt so responsible for him, I couldn’t include him like I’d originally planned. God forbid I returned him emotionally scarred from the experience. It’s much safer to create a fictional pet.

Need a way to show your character’s quirky side? Include a bearded dragon, snapping turtle, boa, tarantula, or exotic bird.

Is your character adventurous? Give him a pet moose, lion, leopard, or tiger to love. How ‘bout a pet elephant? When writing about pets let your imagination soar.

Fit the pet to a specific character to cue readers about their personality. By using well-thought-out animals, it can say a lot about who they are, where they live, or even, their state of mind. It’s also fun to juxtapose. Give a tattooed biker a Chihuahua or toy poodle. Readers will love it!

A few things to keep in mind when writing pets into fiction…

If you kill the pet, you better have a damn good reason for it, a reason readers will understand.

For example, not long ago my husband and I watched John Wick. [SPOILER ALERT] I fell in love with the Beagle puppy his dead wife sent from the grave. When the bad guys murdered the dog I almost shut off the movie. If my husband hadn’t begged me to keep watching, that would’ve been it for me. Turns out, this moment kicked off the quest (First Plot Point in story structure). Not only is it an important scene, but if it didn’t happen there’d be no story. See? Understandable reason why he had to die. John Wick would not have gone ballistic over a stolen car. The puppy was the only thing left he cared about. It had to happen.

The safer option is to not harm the pets.

Why Does the Character Have That Specific Pet?

As I mentioned earlier, you need to know why the character chose that pet. Is he lonely? Does a couple use their pets to fill a maternal/paternal need? Are you using that pet as a way to show the character’s soft side? Does the pet become the only one who’ll listen to their fears, sorrow, or hidden secrets? In other words, for an introverted character, pets can assume a larger role in the story so your character isn’t talking to him/herself.

As the writer, you need to know why that dog, cat, bird, lizard, or bear is in the story and what role they play. Does a K9 cop track criminals? Did your criminal character train a horse to be the getaway driver? Does the killer feed his pet hogs or gators human flesh? Knowing why that fictional pet exists is crucial.

What’s the Pet’s Personality?

Animal lovers know each pet has his/her own personality. If you’ve never owned the pets you’re writing about, then I suggest doing a ton of research till you feel like you have. For example, while writing Blessed Mayhem I needed to know how crows communicated and how people could interpret their calls. What separated a crow from a raven, what they felt like, what they smelled like, what foods they enjoyed most. In order to make the characters real I spent countless hours of research into the life of crows. I even went so far as to befriend a crow of my mine. Turns out, Poe was female. It didn’t take long for her to bring her mate, Edgar. When they had chicks, they brought them too. It’s turned into a very special experience (story for another time).

What Does the Pet Look Like and How Does S/he Act?

First, you must know the basics … their markings, voice, breed, habitat, diet, etc. Then delve deeper into the expressions they make when they’re happy, content, sleeping, aggravated, and downright pissed off. Every animal has their own unique personality, mannerisms, and traits. Evoke the reader’s five senses. Don’t just concentrate on sight. By tapping into deeper areas, our fictional pets come alive on the page. A scene where the hero or villain cuddles with a pet can add a nice break from the tension, a chance to give the reader a moment to catch their breath before plunging them back into the suspense.

Plus, pets are fun to write.

Does the Basset Hound snore so loudly he keeps the rest of the family awake? Is he now banished to the garage at night? Does the German Shepherd’s feet twitch when he’s dreaming? Does the Mastiff throw his owner the stink-eye when he can’t reach his favorite toy?

Let’s talk dogs. They do more than bark. Use their full range of grunts, moans, groans, happy chirps, and playful growls when your character plays tug-of-war. For cats, nothing is more soothing than a purr rattling in their throat as your character drifts asleep. Soft claws can massage their back after a brutal day.

Years ago, I had a pet turkey who used to love to slide his beak down each strand of my hair. This was one of the ways Lou showed affection. I’d sit in a lounge chair with a second lounge chair behind me, and Lou would work his magic till I became putty in his beak. He knew it, too. After all that hard work, I couldn’t deny him his favorite treats.

Symbolism and Locale

Need an already-creepy area to become even more menacing? Have vultures, eagles, or other carrion birds circle overhead. Use coyotes’ eerie chorus of howls. Crickets and tree frogs symbolize a desolate country milieu or swampland.

Dead silence also works well, but sometimes you need that extra oomph to evoke the correct emotional response. Anyone who’s ever spent time outside, in the dark, with only wildlife around for miles, can tell you their calls have a way of raising all your tiny body hairs at once.

Ever hear a Fisher cat? Their cries sound like a baby being slaughtered. This the best YouTube video I could find, but around here they’re even more sinister. When a Fisher cat screams it’s a tough sound to ignore.

If your character is camping or lost in the woods, ground the reader with the songs of nature and a crackling fire.

Near a lake, use water lapping against the shore.

Listening to nature and animal sounds can also be a great way to trigger the muse.

Consistency

If your characters are snuggling with a pet in the first few chapters, then you must include them in later scenes as well. Otherwise, the home environment won’t ring true. Where’d the dog go? He was in Chapter Three and now, he’s gone. What happened to him? Animal lovers will notice his/her absence.

If your villain is killed and you’ve gone to great lengths to show how much he loves his dogs, then make sure the reader knows what’ll happen to those dogs after his death. Did your hero just orphan them? Or did the villain write them into his will? Maybe he or she has a family member that will care for the dogs. The tiny details matter. Think of it in terms of yourself. If you own an African Gray, then chances are s/he will outlive you. What provisions have you set in place for his/her care after you’re gone? Same goes for fictional pets.

Aging Pets

Everyone ages, even fictional pets. Sometimes the years aren’t kind. Does your dog character limp from arthritis? Then you can’t let him charge out the door with a spring in his step. He needs to lumber into a room. He’s slower than your younger animal characters. His muzzle now has gray. Around the eyes are graying too. Maybe he takes medication for achy joints. By including the aging process readers can relate. We’ve all had older pets, and it broke our hearts to see them age. Unfortunately, your fictional pet needs to age. We can prolong this process, but we need to at least show them slowing down. By doing so, we can also show the emotional angst it causes our character to see them this way.

The Day-to-Day

Does your fictional dog have a favorite squeaky toy? Does your cat like to get high on catnip? Maybe s/he knows where your character stashes the bag, and every time they leave the house the cat gets wasted. Maybe your character goes to the local butcher every Saturday to buy the family dog a bone. If your fictional dog is panting in the summer heat, please give him a bowl of water to cool off. Whatever you do, don’t lock him inside a car in ninety-degree heat.

Ever see a dog drunk on apples? It’s hilarious! Let your fictional dog eat fallen apples, then show him stumbling back to the house. How about peanut butter? Peanut butter and animals can be a winning combination. Does your fictional cat walk on the counters? Does your fictional dog beg for food at the dinner table? On the sly do your children characters slip bacon to him? How ’bout cauliflower, and even the dog spits it out. You get the picture.

Have fun with your fictional pets. I do. They’re some of my favorite characters to write.

 

What are some ways you’ve used pets in your writing? Have you ever created an exotic pet?

2017 winner of #RBRT Readers’ Choice Award in Mystery/Thriller. Available in paperback and ebook. Look inside HERE.

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Our Brain and Creativity

By Sue Coletta

Creativity and the brainFirst, let’s define the word “muse.”

A muse is a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist. How amazing that we’re able to tap into her energy and translate our story to the page.

An alternate definition of “muse” is an ancient Greek word that means to be absorbed in thought or inspired. Amusement is the absence of thought or inspiration. Hence why social media can destroy our creative time. Over saturating ourselves with anything, including thoughts, outside and inner pressure, too many ideas, etc., can wound our muse. Ever notice that some of our best ideas come when we’re falling asleep or taking a shower or walk? That’s because our mind is relaxed.

What happens inside the brain?

Dr. Lotze from the University of Greifswald had always been fascinated by the creativity of writers, so he wondered how the brain reacted when they crafted stories. In a scientific study, he took novice writers who’d never completed a story and professional writers who’d authored published books. The results amazed him.

Did you know our brains react differently, depending on whether an author writes professionally or if they’re just beginning their writing journey?

First, Dr. Lotze built a custom-made writing desk. While lying supine, their head cocooned inside the scanner, the subject rested their arm on a wedged block. He positioned several mirrors which allowed the writers to see what they were writing.

Novice Writers 

Dr. Lotze asked 28 volunteers to first only copy a block of text. This gave him a baseline of brain activity. Next, he gave them the first few lines of a short story and told them to continue on. Thus, triggering their muse. They were allowed to brainstorm for one minute, write for two.

Hippocampus in red.

The research showed certain parts of the brain became active during the creative process but not while copying text. During brainstorming, some vision-processing regions also came alive in some of the writers, as if they were seeing the scene unfold in their mind’s eye.

During the writing process, other regions activated, as well. Dr. Lotze theorized that the hippocampus was retrieving factual information for the subjects to use in their stories. Who says research isn’t important?

Another region of the brain, near the front — left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for storing several pieces of information at once — also activated. When writers juggle characters and plot lines we put special demands on that part of the brain.

The problem with this study was that he’d chosen all novice writers.

What happens inside the mind of a seasoned writer? 

Twenty authors volunteered this time. In the same position as the novice writers, Dr. Lotze gave seasoned writers the exact same instructions. Brainstorm for one minute, write for two. Like before, the first few lines had been written for them.

Dr. Lotze’s findings are as follows …

During creative writing, cerebral activation occurred in a predominantly left-hemispheric fronto-parieto-temporal network. When compared to inexperienced writers, researched proved increased left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex activation. In contrast, less experienced participants recruited increasingly bilateral visual areas. During creative writing, activation in the right cuneus showed positive association with the creativity index in expert writers.

High experience in creative writing seems to be associated with a network of prefrontal and basal ganglia (caudate) activation. In addition, the findings suggested that high verbal creativity specific to literary writing increased activation in the right cuneus associated with increased resources obtained for reading.

You can read the full report here.

Let’s break it down in easier terms.

The brains of seasoned writers worked differently than novice writers, even before they began to write. During the brainstorming, the novice writers showed more activity in the brain’s regions responsible for speech.

“I think both groups are using different strategies,” said Lotze. “It’s possible that the novice writers are watching their stories like a film inside their head while the professional authors are narrating it with an inner voice.”

He discovered more differences.

Deep inside the brain of seasoned writers, a region called the caudate nucleus, responsible for skills that require a lot of training and practice, also became active. In the novice writer, it didn’t. The caudate remained quiet. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that when we start learning a skill we’re more consciously trying to master it. With practice, those actions become largely automatic, and it’s inside the caudate nucleus where the shift occurs.

Skeptics like Dr. Pinker, another scientist, said the test wasn’t involved enough to make comparisons. He’d rather see tests between writing fiction vs. nonfiction or other factual information. Creativity might also cause differences from writer to writer. For example, some writers may activate the taste-perceiving regions in the brain when they write about food. Another writer might rely more on sound. Paul Dale Anderson wrote a fascinating post that touched on this difference in more depth.

What’s the best way to summon creativity?

Read a book, listen to music or audiobooks — any exercise that forces us to envision someone else’s story world. A passionate and focused writer can accomplish more in a few hours than an unfocused writer can in a full day.

Over to you TKZers. What do you think of this study? Are you an auditory or visual writer? While writing, can you taste the food?

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What Do Tom Turkey and Writing Have in Common?

by Sue Coletta

Photo by Andrea Reiman on Unsplash

Clare’s recent post got me thinking about craft and how, as we write, the story inflates like a Tom turkey. If you think about it long enough and throw in a looming deadline, Tom Turkey and story structure have a lot in common.

Stay with me. I promise it’ll make sense, but I will ask you to take one small leap of faith — I need you to picture Tom Turkey as the sum of his parts, constructed by craft. And yes, this particular light bulb blazed on over the Thanksgiving holiday. We are now having spiral ham for Christmas dinner. 🙂

But I digress.

Story beats build Tom’s spine (hook, inciting incident, first plot point, first pinch point, midpoint, second pinch point, all is lost, second plot point, climax). The ribs that extend from Tom’s spine liken to the equal parts that expand our beats and tell us how our characters should react before, during, and after the quest.

Broken into four equal parts, 25% percent each, we call this the dramatic arc and it defines the pace of our story.

  •             Setup: Introduce protagonist, hook the reader, and setup First Plot Point (foreshadowing, establishing stakes); establish empathy (not necessarily likability) for the MC.
  •             Response: The MC’s reaction to the new goal/stakes/obstacles revealed by the First Plot Point; the MC doesn’t need to be heroic yet (retreats/regroups/doomed attempts/reminders of antagonistic forces at work).
  •             Attack: Midpoint information/awareness causes the MC to change course in how to approach the obstacles; the hero is now empowered with information on how to proceed, not merely reacting anymore.
  •             Resolution: MC summons the courage and growth to come up with solution, overcome inner obstacles, and conquer the antagonistic force; all new information must have been referenced, foreshadowed, or already in play by 2nd plot point or we’re guilty of deus ex machina.

Tom Turkey is beginning to take shape.

Characterization adds meat to his bones and interesting, conflict-driven sub-plots supply tendons and ligaments. When we layer in dramatic tension in the form of a need, goal, quest, or challenge, Tom grows skin. Obstacle after obstacle, conflict after conflict, he sprouts feathers. Utilizing MRUs — Motivation-Reaction-Units; for every action there’s a reaction — sets our story rhythm. They also aid us in heightening and maintaining suspense.

When we use MRUs, Tom Turkey fluffs those feathers. Look what happened. He grew a beak.

Providing a vicarious experience, our emotions splashed across the page, makes Tom fan his tail-feathers. The stakes add to Tom’s glee, and he prances for a potential mate. He thinks he’s got the goods to score with the ladies. He may actually get lucky this year.

Then again, we know better. Poor Tom, he’s still missing a few crucial elements in order to close the deal.

By structuring our scenes, Tom grew an impressive snood. See it dangling from his beak? The wattle under his chin needs help though. Hens are shallow. Quick, we need to imbue the story with voice.

Ah, now Tom looks sharp. What an impressive bird. Watch him prance, all full and fluffy, head held high, tail feathers fanned in perfect formation. Stud muffin.

Uh-oh. Joe Hunter leveled his shotgun at Tom. We can’t let him die before he finds a mate. We need to ensure he stays alive. But how? We’ve given him all the tools he needs, right?

Well, not quite.

Did we choose the right point of view to tell our story? If we didn’t, Tom could end up on a holiday table surrounded by drooling humans in bibs. In other words, we’ll lose our reader before we even get a chance to dazzle them with Tom’s perfect structure.

We also need narrative structure. Without it, Joe Hunter will murder poor Tom. We can’t let that happen!

Narrative structure, by the way, is almost impossible for me to define (maybe one of our craft teachers will weigh in here). I call it the “oomph” and I know it when I write it. I also know when it’s missing. Have you ever started writing a story but it didn’t have that certain something? The story was just … meh. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but it didn’t sizzle like it should for some reason.

Yeah, so have I. Those novels are now trunked. Without the oomph, the story doesn’t work. We need the oomph — aka narrative structure.

Tom needs narrative structure, too, if he hopes to escape Joe Hunter’s bullet. He also requires wings, in the form of context. Did we veer too far outside of our readers’ expectations for the genre we’re writing in? Did we give Tom a heart and soul by subtly infusing our theme? Can we boil down the plot to its core story, Tom’s innards? What about dialogue? Does Tom gobble or quack?

Have we shown the three dimensions of character in order to add oxygen to Tom’s lungs? You wouldn’t want to be responsible for suffocating Tom to death, would you?

  •             1st Dimension of Character: The best version of who they are; the face the character shows to the world;
  •             2nd Dimension of Character:  The person our character shows to friends and family;
  •             3rd Dimension of Character:  Our character’s true character. If a fire broke out in a crowded theater, would she help others or elbow her way to the door to save herself?

Lastly, Tom needs a way to wow the ladies. We better make sure our prose sings. If we don’t, Tom could die of loneliness. Do we really want that on our conscience? No! To be safe, let’s review our word choices, sentence variations, paragraphing, grammar, and the way we string words together to ensure Tom lives a full and fruitful life. Don’t forget to rewrite and edit. If readers love Tom, he and his new bride could bring chicks (sequels or prequels) into the world, and we, as Tom’s creator, have the honor of helping them flourish into full-fledged turkeys.

Aww … it looks like Tom’s story will have a happy ending after all.

Over to you, TKZers. Is Tom Turkey missing anything? What would you name his mate?Can anyone define narrative structure in a more craft-appropriate way?

Want to meet more feathered friends? The antagonist in BLESSED MAYHEM has three pet crows, Poe, Allan, and Edgar. The Kindle version is on sale for a limited time.

Blessed Mayhem by Sue Coletta

 

 

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