Are Only Humans Creative? Plus, 6 Ways Creativity Improves Health

By SUE COLETTA

My husband and I recently watched an excellent documentary on Netflix entitled The Creative Brain. “Neuroscientist David Eagleman taps into the creative process of various innovators while exploring brain-bending, risk-taking ways to spark creativity.” 

I’ve written about creativity and the brain before, so I didn’t want to write another post on the same subject. Nonetheless, all creatives should find the show fascinating. But — yes, there’s a but — the narrator claims only humans possess the ability to create. I disagree. Creativity surrounds us. We just need to remain open to it.

I think we can all agree that dancing is a creative form of expression. So, if dance is part of the arts, then the Birds of Paradise are creative geniuses …

Now, let me ask you, do you think this little guy is creative or working only on instinct?

Side note: ladies, how cool would it be if men had to woo women in the same way? 😉

Let’s dive into the ocean. In South Carolina lives one pod of bottlenose dolphins whose creativity gains great rewards.

Think about this … If they’re working strictly on instinct, then why aren’t other dolphins hunting in the same way? This “beaching” activity can only be seen in this one pod.

Check out these creative thinkers …

What if an elephant painted a self-portrait, would it then mean she’s using her creativity?

Meet Suda …

If you’re short on time, jump ahead to 10:45 to see what she painted.

This Australian Satin Bower selectively steals from humans. The female he’s courting has a fondness for blue. Only blue. Another color might ruin the design.

This post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning my beloved crows. Crow nest building is serious business, but creativity also plays a role. Made of interlocking twigs gathered from surrounding trees and shrubs, they weave these twigs with metallic wire to strengthen the nest. Some crows even incorporate knotted lengths of thick plastic. But it’s their love of shiny objects that really speaks to their individuality and creativity.

How ‘bout an entire nest made of coat hangers? This magpie’s nest may not look very comfortable, but it’s creative!

That concludes the fun half of the post. Now here’s why creativity is good for you.

6 Ways Creativity Improves Health and Wellness

1) Increased Happiness

When you’re completely absorbed in a project, psychologists call this state Flow. Writers often refer to it as The Zone. For those unfamiliar with either term, have you ever been working on a project and completely lost all sense of time? That’s Flow. And Flow reduces anxiety, boosts your mood, and even slows your heartrate.

2) Reduces Dementia

Studies show that creative engagement not only reduces depression and isolation, but can also help dementia patients tap back in to their personalities and sharpen their senses.

3) Improves Mental Health

The average person has about 60,000 thoughts a day and 95% are exactly the same. A creative act such as writing helps focus the mind. Some compare creative engagement to meditation due to its calming effects on the brain and body. Even just gardening or sewing releases dopamine, a natural anti-depressant.

Creativity reduces anxiety, depression, stress, and can also help process trauma. Writing in particular helps to manage negative emotions in a productive way. Creating something through art (painting or drawing) can help people to express traumatic experiences that are too difficult to put in to words.

4) Boosts Immune System

Studies show, people who keep a daily journal have stronger immune systems than those who don’t. Experts don’t know why it works, but writing increases your CD4+ lymphocyte count — the key to your immune system.

Listening to music can also rejuvenate function in your immune system. Music affects our brains in complex ways, stimulating the limbic system and moderating our response to stressful stimuli.

5) Increases Intelligence

Studies show that people who play instruments have better connectivity between their left and right brains. The left brain is responsible for motor functions, the right brain focuses on melody. When the two hemispheres communicate, our cognitive function improves.

Writers use both hemispheres of the brain, as well. Muse on the right, the critic on the left.

6) Decreases Chronic Pain

People dealing with certain medical conditions that result in chronic pain showed improved pain control after expressing their feelings through the written word. Over a nine-week period, the test subjects also showed an overall decline in pain severity.

According to Medical News Today, “music may help to restore effective functioning in the immune system partly via the actions of the amygdala and hypothalamus. These brain regions are implicated in mood regulation and hormonal processes, as well as in the body’s inflammatory response.”

The world needs creatives.

Let’s nurture creativity rather than force our youth into professions they’re not passionate about. We’re not born creative. It’s a skill learned over time. As such, parents and/or mentors need to encourage creativity and allow our children and young adults to excel in the arts.

Need more motivation? No problem …

Now, go forth and create something amazing!

11+

ELVIS PRESLEY — WHAT REALLY KILLED THE KING OF ROCK ‘N ROLL

By SUE COLETTA

I invited my dear friend Garry Rodgers — retired homicide detective with a second career as a forensic coroner — to share a fascinating post about the real cause of Elvis Presley’s death. Prepare to be wowed. Welcome to TKZ, Garry!

Elvis Presley suddenly dropped in the bathroom of his Graceland mansion on the afternoon of August 16, 1977. Elvis was rushed to Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was pronounced dead, then shipped to the morgue and autopsied the same afternoon. Three days later, the Memphis County coroner issued Elvis Presley’s death certificate stating the cause as hypertensive cardiovascular disease with atherosclerotic heart disease — a heart attack subsequent to high blood pressure and blocked coronary arteries.

It was a rush to judgment. Toxicology results soon identified ten pharmaceutical drugs in Elvis’s system. Codeine was at ten times the therapeutic level and the combination of other prescription drugs suggested a poly-pharmacy overdose. This revelation started immediate accusations of a cover-up and conspiracy theories quickly hinted at sinister criminal acts.

Four decades later, modern medicine and forensic science looked at the Presley case facts. The review indicated something entirely different from a heart attack or drug overdose really killed the King of Rock ‘n Roll. It said Elvis Presley accidentally died after long-term complications from earlier traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). TBIs are known as silent, stalking, and patient killers.

Looking back, it’s likely old accidental head injuries triggered events leading to Elvis Presley’s death.

From my experience investigating unexpected and unexplained sudden deaths, the accidental conclusion makes sense when you consider the totality of evidence in Elvis’ death. Setting aside media reports of gross negligence, arm-chair speculation of cover-up and fan accusations the King was murdered, there’s a simple and straightforward conclusion based on facts. But before examining the facts and knowing hindsight is 20/20, let’s first look at how coroners conduct sudden and unexplained death investigations.

Coroners are the judges of death. Their responsibilities include establishing five main facts surrounding a death. Coroners do not assign blame or fault. In the Presley case, the five facts determined at the immediate time were:

  1. Identity of Deceased — Elvis Aaron Presley
  2. Time of Death — Approximately 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, August 16, 1977
  3. Place of Death — 3754 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee
  4. Cause of Death — Heart attack
  5. Means of Death — Chronic heart disease

There’s a distinct difference between Cause of Death and Means of Death. Cause is the actual event. Means is the method in which death happened. Example: cause being a ruptured aorta with means being a motor vehicle crash, or cause being massive cerebral interruption with means being a gunshot wound to the head.

Once the facts are known, it’s the coroner’s duty to classify the Manner of Death. There are five universal manner of death classifications:

  1. Natural
  2. Homicide
  3. Suicide
  4. Accidental
  5. Undetermined

Elvis Presley’s death was ruled a natural event, thought at the time being an acute cardiac event from existing cardiovascular disease. If the coroner determined Elvis died from a drug overdose, the ruling would have been accidental. No one ever claimed it was suicide or homicide.

One principle of death investigation is to look for antecedent evidence—preexisting conditions which contributed to the death mechanism or was responsible for causing or continuing a chain of events that led to the death.

Another principle of death investigation is examining the cornerstone triangle of Scene—Body—History. This compiles the totality of evidence or case facts. Given that, let’s look at the evidence and case facts in Elvis Presley’s death.

Scene

Elvis was found on his bathroom floor, face down in front of the toilet. It was apparent he’d instantly collapsed from a sitting position and there was no sign of a distress struggle or attempt to summon help. When the paramedics arrived, Elvis was cold, blue, and had no vital signs. Rigor mortis had not set in, so he’d probably expired within the hour. He was transported by ambulance to Baptist Memorial Hospital where a vain attempt at resuscitation occurred because “he was Elvis”.

ER doctors declared Elvis dead at 3:16 p.m. He was then moved to the morgue where an autopsy was promptly performed. There was no suggestion of suicide or foul play, so there wasn’t a police investigation. The scene wasn’t photographed, nor preserved, and there was no accounting for what medications or other drugs might have been present at Graceland. There’s no official record of the coroner attending the scene as this was considered an in-hospital death and a routine occurrence.

Body

Elvis was in terrible health. His weight estimated at 350 pounds—gaining 50 lbs. in the last few months of his life. He was virtually non-functional at the end, being mostly bed-ridden and requiring permanent nursing care. Elvis suffered from an enlarged heart which was twice the size of normal and showed advanced evidence of cardiovascular disease in his coronary vessels, aorta, and cerebral arteries—certainly more advanced than a normal 42-year-old would be. His lungs showed signs of emphysema, although he’d never smoked, and his bowel was twice the length of normal, with a partially-impacted stool estimated to be four months old.

Elvis also suffered from hypogammaglobinemia, which is an immune disorder, as well as showed evidence of an autoimmune inflammatory disorder.

Toxicology tested positive for ten separate prescription medications but showed negative for illicit drugs and alcohol. The only alarming pharmaceutical indicator, on its own, was codeine at ten times the prescribed manner but still not in lethal range.

This is a quote from Elvis’s toxicology report:

“Diazepam, methaqualone, phenobarbital, ethchlorvynol, and ethinamate are below or within their respective ranges. Codeine was present at a level approximately 10 times those concentrations found therapeutically. In view of the polypharmacy aspects, this case must be looked at in terms of the cumulative pharmacological effect of the drugs identified by the report.”

History

Elvis was born on January 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi and had a twin brother who died at birth. As a youth, Elvis was active and healthy which continued during his time in the U.S. military and all through his early performing stage when he was a bundle of energy. He began experimenting with amphetamines, probably to enhance his performances, but shied away from alcohol as it gave him violent tendencies.

In 1967, Elvis came under the primary care of Dr. George Nichopoulos who was well-known to celebrities. Then, Elvis was 32 years old and weighed 163 pounds. His only known medical ailment was slight high blood pressure, presumably due to his high-fat diet.

Also in 1967, Elvis’s health took a sudden turn with progressive pain, insomnia, hypertension, lethargy, irrational behavior and immense weigh gain. Over his remaining years, Elvis was seen by a number of different doctors and was hospitalized a number of times, all the while resorting to self-medication with a wide assortment of drugs from dozens of sources.

Doctor Nick, as Nichopoulos was called, stayed as Elvis’s personal physician till the end. He was present at the death scene as well as during the autopsy. Doctor Nick concurred with the coroner’s immediate conclusion that the cause of death was a natural cardiac event resulting from an arrhythmia, or sudden interruption of heartbeat, and agreed that Elvis’s death was not due to a drug overdose.

When the toxicology report was released, it came with a qualifier:

“The position of Elvis Presley’s body was such that he was about to sit down on the commode when the seizure occurred. He pitched forward onto the carpet, his rear in the air, and was dead by the time he hit the floor. If it had been a drug overdose, [Elvis Presley] would have slipped into an increasing state of slumber. He would have pulled up his pajama bottoms and crawled to the door to seek help. It takes hours to die from drugs.”

Because the tox report appeared to contradict the autopsy report’s stated cardiac cause of death, a prominent toxicologist was asked to review the findings. His opinion was:

Coupled with this toxicological data are the pathological findings and the reported history that the deceased had been mobile and functional within 8 hours prior to death. Together, all this information points to a conclusion that, whatever tolerance the deceased may have acquired to the many drugs found in his system, the strong probability is that these drugs were the major contribution to his demise.”

The Tennessee Board of Health then investigated Elvis’s death, which resulted in proceedings against Doctor Nick.

Evidence showed that during the seven and a half months preceding Elvis’s death—from January 1, 1977, to August 16, 1977—Doctor Nick wrote prescriptions for Elvis for at least 8,805 pills, tablets, vials, and injectables. Going back to January 1975, the count was 19,012.

These numbers might defy belief, but they came from an experienced team of investigators who visited 153 pharmacies and spent 1,090 hours going through 6,570,175 prescriptions and then, with the aid of two secretaries, spent another 1,120 hours organizing the evidence.

The drugs included uppers, downers, and powerful painkillers such as Dilaudid, Quaalude, Percodan, Demerol and Cocaine Hydrochloride in quantities more appropriate for those terminally ill with cancer.

Doctor Nick admitted to this. His defense was because Elvis was so wired on pain killers, he prescribed these medications to keep Elvis away from dangerous street drugs, thereby controlling Elvis’s addiction—addiction being a disease.

One of the defense witnesses, Dr. Forest Torrent, a prominent California physician and a pioneer in the use of opiates in pain treatment, explained how the effects of this level of codeine would have contributed to Elvis’s death.

Central to misconduct allegations was the issue of high codeine levels in Elvis at the time of death—codeine being the prime toxicological suspect as the pharmaceutical contributor. It was established that Elvis obtained codeine pills from a dentist the day before his death and Doctor Nick had no knowledge of it.

The jury bought it and absolved Doctor Nick of negligence in directly causing Elvis Presley’s fatal event.

Continuing Investigation

Dr. Torrent was convinced there were other contributing factors leading to Elvis’s death. In preparation for Doctor Nick’s trial, Dr. Torrent had access to all of Elvis Presley’s medical records, including the autopsy and toxicology reports. Incidentally, these two reports are now the property of the Presley estate and are sealed from public view until 2027, fifty years after Elvis’s death.

Dr. Torrent was intrigued by the sudden physiological and psychological changes in Elvis starting in 1967. He discovered that while in Los Angeles filming the movie Clambake, Elvis tripped over an electrical cord, fell, and cracked his head on the edge of a porcelain bathtub. Elvis was knocked unconscious and had to be hospitalized. Dr. Torrent found three other incidents where Elvis suffered head blows, and he suspected Elvis suffered from what’s now known as Traumatic Brain Injury—TBI—and that’s what caused progressive ailments leading to his death.

Dr. Torrent released a paper entitled Elvis Presley: Head Trauma, Autoimmunity, Pain, and Early Death. It’s a fascinating read—recently published in the credible medical journal Practical Pain Management.

Dr. Torrent builds a theory that Elvis’s bathtub head injury was so severe it jarred brain tissue loose, which leaked into his overall blood circulation. Later additional head injuries exacerbated the problem. This is now known to be a leading cause of autoimmune disorder, which causes a breakdown of other organs. This progression was unknown in 1967 and Elvis went untreated. Side effects of TBIs include chronic pain, irrational behavior, and severe bodily changes such as obesity and enlarged organs like hearts and bowels.

Today, TBI is a recognized health issue in professional contact sports as well as incidental to motor vehicle accidents and workplace falls or other head injury events.

Dr. Torrent’s hypothesis holds that with a change in mental state and suffering chronic pain, Elvis Presley entered a ten year spiral towards death. He became hopelessly addicted to pain killers, practiced a terribly unhealthy diet and lethargic lifestyle, and resorted to the typical addict’s habit of sneaking a fix wherever he could. This led to early coronary vascular disease and, combined with his escalating weight and pill consumption, Elvis was a heart attack ready to burst.

Note that I used the term “antecedent,” like all coroners do when assessing a cause of death. Given Dr. Torrent’s observations—and all the facts compiled from forty years—if I were the coroner completing Elvis Presley’s death certificate today, I’d write it like this:

  1. Identity of Deceased — Elvis Aaron Presley.
  2. Time of Death — Approximately 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, August 16th, 1977.
  3. Place of Death — 3754 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee.
  4. Cause of Death — Cardiac arrhythmia, antecedent to hypertensive cardiovascular disease with atherosclerotic heart disease, antecedent to poly-pharmacy, antecedent to autoimmune inflammatory disorder, antecedent to traumatic brain injury/injuries.
  5. Means of Death — Cumulative head trauma.

Therefore, I’d have to classify Elvis’s death as an accident.

There’s no one to blame—certainly not Elvis. He was a severely injured and sick man. There’s no specific negligence on anyone’s part and definitely no cover-up or conspiracy of a criminal act.

If Dr. Forrest Torrent is right, there simply wasn’t a proper understanding back then to clearly determine what really killed the King of Rock ‘n Roll.

*   *   *

 

Garry Rodgers now works as an investigative crime writer with a number of publications to his credit.

 

In The Attic is based on a true double homicide he investigated involving a psychopathic ax-murderer. Garry also hosts a popular blog at DyingWords.net.

 

Note from Sue: I read IN THE ATTIC in August of 2016, and I doubt the story will ever leave me. It’s just one of those books that I’ll never forget. Visceral, raw, emotional, and true!

16+

First Page Critique: Watch All Night

By SUE COLETTA

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. Enjoy. I’ll catch you on the flipside.

WATCH ALL NIGHT

It was the other buildings that looked sinister. They slumped against each other, lining the alley in ancient, faded red-brick. Their boarded-up windows bothered Joe the most. They made the buildings look blinded. February chill, boosted by the river, let him hurry past those dead old things, still hanging round like they didn’t know their time had come and gone.

He could hear the Felbrigg changing from a warehouse to an apartment-building before he saw it. And there it was, full of life, construction crews hammering and buzzing, wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows, fancy new glass door. Fitting into the London of now.  

Joe went in.

#

Greeley, the building manager, took off his reading glasses and nodded to the two construction guys coming up the corridor where the gym and lift were going to be. The men headed for the front door. This desk station and security room made an island in the middle of the reception floor. A corridor ran all the way to the back of the building, on both sides of the island. Greeley had already run through the CCTV system in the security room, and how to change the recording. The security technology at the desk station was more or less the same. Greeley had explained about the alarm, the keys, the touchpads, the drawer contents.

Greeley looked Joe over with down-sloping grey eyes for about the fifth time. Joe knew the sight he made, six-foot-three, the extra muscle he’d put on, and his entire past in his face. Good look for a security guard; not so good, otherwise, to men like Greeley.

Now the men working on the gym had gone, he could hear Greeley’s nasal voice better through all the banging and drilling.

Greeley’s wide, soft jaw settled back into his neck. He said, “So. Think you can remember all that?”

Joe nodded.

***

The way Anon set the scene in the first two paragraphs works for this particular reader. We know where we are, and I found the dinginess of the building compelling enough to keep reading. The first line implies something terrible is about to happen within said building. Which is great. Could the sentence be stronger? Yeah, but that’s an editorial nitpick. I’d rather focus on the big picture.

The largest concern for me occurs after the hashmark. We have a couple POV hiccups and a distant narrator. A hashmark indicates a new scene, yet we’re in the same building as the previous paragraphs. See my confusion? At first, I thought we’d switched to Greeley’s POV, but it doesn’t appear that way. 

Anon, if you meant to switch to a different POV, then we have an even bigger problem. The first page should only be one scene. One POV per scene. 

Everything after the hashmark is more world-building. There’s also a lot of telling. Whenever we use words like heard, saw, thought, knew, etc., we’re not showing the story in a deep point of view. Think about how you, the writer, views the world. For all intents and purposes, you are that POV character. So, rather than tell us you heard or saw something, show us.

Example of telling (limited POV): I heard waves crashing against the rocks. I saw the salt water slash through the veil of ivory foam.

Without adding to the imagery, here’s the same example, only this time we’re in deep POV (showing): Waves crashed against the rocks, the salt water slashing through the veil of ivory foam.

See the difference? You don’t need to tell the reader that the character heard or saw the waves. It’s implied. How else would s/he know?

Okay, there’s another problem. Everything after the hashmark isn’t interesting enough to carry the first page. The building is under construction. We get it. Move on. Don’t waste precious real estate by over-describing. If you want to include the debris, then sprinkle it in later.

The first page needs to accomplish several things:

  • Raise story questions
  • Pique interest
  • Indicate genre
  • Introduce hero (or in some cases, the villain)
  • Gain empathy; not necessarily likability
  • The POV character needs a goal

I recently finished a terrific thriller entitled A Killer’s Mind by Mike Omer. Let’s look at the first paragraph as an example of how to include all of the above by showing, not telling …

The sharp scent of formaldehyde filled the room as he poured the liquid into the mixture. He had hated the smell at first. But he’d learned to appreciate it, knowing what it represented: eternity. The embalming fluid kept things from deteriorating. “Till death do us part” was an unambitious concept at best. True love should ascend beyond that point.

Did this paragraph raise story questions in my mind? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out who this killer was embalming.

Did it pique my interest? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out what this killer might do next.

Did it introduce a character in a compelling way? Absolutely! I wanted needed to find out more about this killer.

Did I know the genre right away? Absolutely! It’s a serial killer thriller.

Did I have empathy for the villain? Yes! He’s looking for love and thinks the only way to keep Mrs. Right is by embalming her.

Does the villain have a goal? Absolutely! His goal is to build a life-long union with a woman who will never leave him.

And Omer accomplished all of it in one paragraph. Bam. I’m hooked! The rest of the first page drew me in even more. Powerless to fight the urge to stop reading, the world faded away as I frantically flipped pages like a junkie searching for a fix.

Check out the rest of the first page …

He added more salt than the last time, hoping for better results. It was a delicate balance; he’d learned that the hard way. The embalming fluid promised eternity, but the saline solution added flexibility.

A good relationship had to be flexible.

There was a creak beyond the locked door. The noises—a series of irregular squeaking and scraping sounds, intermingled with the girl’s labored groans—grated on his nerves. She was trying to untie herself again. Always moving, always trying to get away from him—they were all the same at first. But she’d change; he would make sure of that. There would be no more incessant movement, no muffled begging, no hoarse screams.

She would be quiet and still. And then they would learn to love each other.

Notice, too, how the killer is moving; he’s active. We’re not hearing about what he did after the fact. We’re experiencing it firsthand through the killer’s POV.

Anon, you need to do the same in your first page. Show us where Joe goes after he enters the building and why we should care. You don’t need to reveal any big mystery, but you do need to hint at it to hold our interest.

This next paragraph tells us what happened instead of letting us experience it ourselves:

Greeley had already run through the CCTV system in the security room, and how to change the recording. The security technology at the desk station was more or less the same. Greeley had explained about the alarm, the keys, the touchpads, the drawer contents.

Granted, it’s best to breeze over the boring stuff. We don’t need to know how to operate CCTV, unless it impacts the plot in some way. If the paragraph falls into the boring stuff category, then it doesn’t belong on the first page.

Ideas

What if Joe reviews last night’s tapes and sees something strange … a burglar, someone being kidnapped, UFO lights, whatever fits your genre. He shows the footage to Greeley and we’re off and running with a new mystery, a goal for our hero, and intrigue.

Or …

What if Greeley storms over to Joe’s work station with damning footage of Joe sneaking into the building last night. But Joe was at home all night. See all the story questions that might arise from that one simple action? Is someone trying to setup Joe? For what, burglary, murder, or a far more sinister scheme? Who hates him enough to frame him? And why? How’d he or she get his passcode or security card?

With the right action, it’s easy to plant questions in the reader’s mind. But you do need the right angle. We also need to plant the reader in that moment with the hero or villain, rather than the narrator telling us about it after it happened.

This paragraph confused me:

Greeley looked Joe over with down-sloping grey eyes for about the fifth time. Joe knew the sight he made, six-foot-three, the extra muscle he’d put on, and his entire past in his face. Good look for a security guard; not so good, otherwise, to men like Greeley.

I’m guessing Anon’s trying to describe Joe, but it doesn’t work. Some authors never describe their characters. They leave it up to reader-interpretation. On Facebook, a fan asked Karin Slaughter what one of her main characters looked like. Her response? He looks exactly how you picture him in your mind. Perfect answer, right?

The writer needs to know their characters intimately, including their looks, but the reader doesn’t, unless their unique style adds to their character in some way. For example, some of my characters wrongly assume Shawnee Daniels lives a gothic lifestyle. She hates the label, but I show her uniqueness to enhance her character — dressing goth-like raises questions about her. Is she hiding behind all black for a reason? Is she using makeup like a mask to shield the innocent girl who cowers inside? See where I’m going with this?

Greeley has that bulldog look. Great. Let another character tease him about his downward-sloping eyes. Men give each other s*it all the time on construction sites. Show him getting razzed by one of the guys, and then show his reaction to the ribbing. Does he fire the guy on the spot? Does he throw things? Cry? I wouldn’t let this play out on the first page, though. Just spitballin’. 😉

Anon, I see something special in the first two paragraphs. You have the writing chops to make this first page compelling. You just dropped the ball after the hashmark. Happens to the best of us. So, take a moment to curse me out, then get back to work. Make us proud, because I know you have it in you. 

Favorite line of this first page: Greeley’s wide, soft jaw settled back into his neck.

You nailed the body cue in that line. So, stop playing it safe elsewhere. 🙂

Over to you, TKZers. How might you improve this first page? Did the first two paragraphs draw you in? Could you guess the genre from this small sample? What’s your favorite line? Which, if you’re game, I’d like to include in all first page critiques. Not only will asking for a favorite line add a positive spin to the critiques but knowing where the brave writer succeeded is just as beneficial as knowing where s/he went wrong. 

4+

How To Create Free & Easy Book Marketing Images

My eyes glaze over whenever I need to use photoshop or any other application with a steep learning curve. I’m sure I could figure it out eventually, but honestly, I don’t want to spend hours with the tutorials. I’d rather be writing. Sites that allow writers to shortcut the process make life so much easier. When they’re free and easy to use, these sites become invaluable tools.

This first little beauty is a gem. The site’s called DIY Book Covers. The section we want is The 3D Book Cover Creator You’ll Love to Use. And you know what? They’re right! It’s a game-changer for those of us who lack patience for sites like photoshop, which is why I’m sharing step-by-step directions with all of you.

Ready? Here we go …

Please excuse the lighting in some of these photos. I took them with my phone rather taking screenshots (long story).

The linked title above will take you to this page …

It automatically opens to “Single” image choices, as you can see here …

The cool part is, we also have the option of creating tablet, phone, and print combo images by clicking “Composite.”

Click the image you want to create, then click “Next” and it will take you to this page …

Click “Browse” and find your book cover on your computer. Then click the blue “Upload” button and the image will appear.

See the two orange buttons at the bottom? We have the option of saving as PNG or JPEG. I like to use PNG for marketing images because they tend to be crisper, but they do take up more download space. Once you choose your file preference, click “Next” and you’re done. The download will show your 3D image with a clear background.

These steps took less than five minutes from start to finish. Easy-peasy, right? Okay, now, we could use this 3D image as is, but it’s a little bland. We want readers to click our ad, so we need to add a background.

Numerous sites offer public domain photos that don’t require attribution. My top three favorites are Pixabay, Morguefile, and Unsplash.

Finding the perfect background image takes time. To help with the search, consider the following:

  • What type of mood do you want to convey?
  • We want our background to reflect our genre. Are you promoting a gritty crime novel, sci-fi, fantasy, or romance?
  • Will the background compliment your book or overpower it?
  • Where will your 3D image sit? Get creative!

The first and third promo pics below go against the norm; the middle one is more universal, but I’m showing them as examples of thinking outside the box …

 

The third image should be more centered, but you get the picture. The bookend photos are fun images to catch people’s attention. I wouldn’t recommend always using these types of backgrounds unless they fit your book, but taking a break from the serious side of marketing can be fun too.

Okay, once we’ve found our background, it’s time to insert our 3D image and text. As I mentioned in my first official post on TKZ, the easiest site to use is Canva.com.

Let’s go there now. This is the home screen …

See the dropdown menu under “What would you like to design”? Canva takes the guesswork out of social media’s various sizes. All we do is choose the social media site where we’ll be marketing our book, and Canva automatically gives us the correct size. Although, I’ve found that “Facebook post” images also work on Twitter. We don’t need to create two separate images unless we’re paying for ad space. In which case, it’s best to create an image that’s guaranteed to fit. Ads tend to run differently than a regular post.

I chose Facebook Post, which led me to this screen …

On the left-hand-side of the screen, you’ll find Uploads. Click that button and upload your background image as well as your 3D image. I’m showing you the background image I chose for SILENT MAYHEM so you can see how to drag the image to fill the screen.

See the white bars and corner dots around the outer edges of the background photo? Hold and drag until the image covers the entire template. Then decide where your 3D image should go. By clicking the book cover image in Uploads, Canva will stick it in the middle of your background, but positioning it easy and self-explanatory.

Next click “Text” in the left-side menu and a dotted bar will appear. At the top, you’ll find where to choose a font, color, size, etc.

Here’s the finished product that I created for my new release, SILENT MAYHEM …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Brush is another cool site. With the free option, our 3D options are limited, but they’ve combined everything we’d need to create a promo pic, including over one million background images, stamps, text, and fonts. The only catch is, they limit the amount of downloads to three per month. They also offer a Plus Plan for $8.00 per month ($96/yr), which grants access to all 3D templates, unlimited downloads, support, and five video templates per month. With Book Brush, creating a book promo image only takes a few minutes.

What sites do you use to create marketing images for your blog or book(s)? Do you have a favorite site for public domain photos? Any tips to share?

 

Some things in life defy comprehension, but that doesn’t make them any less real. Or deadly.

Pre-Order SILENT MAYHEM on Amazon and join the giveaway!

Email me your receipt and I’ll put your name in a drawing to win signed paperbacks of the first two books in the series.

Winners announced on Release Day (4/29/19).

 

 

5+

7 Hard Truths of Working as a Professional Writer

By SUE COLETTA

When we first begin our writing journey, our dreams often overshadow the realities of working as a professional writer.

Which publishing path we chose (self-publishing or traditional) doesn’t make a difference. The products we produce do.

For those of you who are at the early stages of your career, let’s take a look at 7 Hard Truths of Working as a Professional Writer.

For the professional writers in our TKZ family, please add your truths.

Truth #1:

Writing consumes us. We decline more offers for lunch than we accept. We could analyze one sentence ad nauseum, and still not be happy with it. To an outsider, at times we may look like we’re staring into space, but our mind is whirling with ten different scenarios after a character did something unexpected or our storyline banged a hard right instead of a left, even though we’d planned the milestones in advance.

Truth #2:

When you work from home, friends and family assume you have time to chitchat. No matter how many times you mention your deadline, book launch, or any “author” subject, many will breeze right over it with, “Yeah, so, anyway …”

I’ve tried using signs or mugs as a clear signal not to interrupt me (see above pic), but there are those who still barge right in, whether by phone, text, or (gasp!) in person. Not in a callous way; it’s because they don’t understand the amount of brain-power required to plot and successfully execute a novel.

Writers always have multiple balls in the air at once. Yet, from the intruder’s perspective, they think there’s no harm in breaking our concentration for a minute or two (or five or ten), that we can simply return to where we left off as though the disruption never took place.

Easy-peasy, right? Wrong. Interrupting a writer should be punishable by death! At least fictionally. 😉

Truth #3:

Writers spend hours alone in our fictional worlds, and we like it that way. To write professionally, we must be comfortable behind the keyboard. Buy a nice comfy chair; you’re gonna need it. Many professional writers work six or seven days per week, and some hold down full-time day jobs as well. Not everyone has a supportive spouse or makes enough money to write full-time yet.

Truth #4:

Our writing process won’t make sense to anyone but other writers. Don’t even try to explain how a certain song transports you to fictional place or why you have two tiny squares (no more, no less) of chocolate every day as your reward while you read your new favorite thriller.

Writers, did you know daily chocolate* is good for your health? It certainly is, and here’s why:

  • Flavonoids, found in many plant-based foods, including cocoa, can lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain, and make blood platelets less sticky and less likely to clot and cause a stroke.
  • Flavonoids can lower cholesterol.
  • Quality dark chocolate with a high-cocoa content is nutritious, contains a decent amount of soluble fiber, and is loaded with minerals.
  • The fatty acids profile of cocoa and dark chocolate is excellent. The fats are mostly saturated and monounsaturated, with small amounts of polyunsaturated fat.
  • Chocolate contains a stimulant like caffeine and theobromine but is unlikely to keep you awake at night.
  • Chocolate is a powerful antioxidant. One study showed that cocoa and dark chocolate had more antioxidant activity, polyphenols, and flavonoids than any other fruits tested, including blueberries!
  • Consuming dark chocolate can improve several important risk factors for heart disease by significantly decreasing oxidized LDL cholesterol in men. It also increased HDL and lowered total LDL for those with high cholesterol.
  • Dark chocolate can also reduce insulin resistance, which is another common risk factor for many diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
  • A study showed that eating dark chocolate more than 5 times per week lowered the risk of heart disease by 57%.

*I’m referring to a small amount of daily chocolate. Everything in moderation. Too much of anything is never a good idea.

Truth #5:

Our debut is just that, a starting point. It’s where our publishing journey begins. For the first time, the public will read our words, and it’s a terrifying experience akin to standing naked for all to judge. I’d love to say it gets easier, but it doesn’t. I’m as nervous for my thirteenth book to release as I was for my debut. Maybe more so, because the dream of becoming the next “overnight success” isn’t still obscuring reality.

Truth #6:

Many professional writers have health problems. Our bodies weren’t meant to hunch over a keyboard all day, every day. This position can lead to slipped discs, narrowing of nerves in the neck and back, joint issues, carpel tunnel … the list goes on and on.

Remember to take good of yourself! Buy the proper tools of the trade, like an ergonomic chair, a keyboard and/or mouse with wrist support, a sit/stand desk or have the option of switching from the desktop computer to a laptop. Exercise breaks help, too.

Truth #7:

Write for love, not money. The sad truth is, until we build a backlist, writers can’t survive on royalties alone. We can supplement our income in a variety of ways. Some writers coach, some appear on panels or do guest speaking, others offer online courses or webinars. My favorite is mingling with readers at book signings. I make most of my income from May to December. Memorial Day through Labor Day are my busiest time of year, with book signings every weekend.

By studying my area, which is a hotspot for vacationers, I’ve learned where I should appear and when. Year after year, I return to the same venues around the same date. Gone are days of sitting around an empty library, hoping for reader to approach my table, but it took time, consistency, and patience.

There are no shortcuts. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying to you.

***

I haven’t even broached the subject of marketing, piracy, or endless “buy my book!” emails from total strangers who expect you to promote “the book that’ll change the world!” to your audience. You might be surprised by how many new writers believe that, and I seem to attract all of them.

All that said, I love this profession. There’s nothing else I’d rather do.

What are some other hard truths of working as a professional writer? If you’re beginning your writing journey, is there something you’ve wondered about but never had the chance to ask? Now’s the time.

13+

Wounded Writer Syndrome

By Sue Coletta

Being a writer can be traumatizing.

Back in October I finished writing Silent Mayhem, a book that deeply affected me.

Sure, I was passionate about the story — I wouldn’t have written it otherwise — but it morphed into more than that; it slashed open another part of me.

I’m still not sure if I’m feeling my own emotions or my character’s, the line between reality and fiction blurred beyond a rational explanation.

While writing, I became the vessel and something else inside me wrote the story, my soul taking it places I hadn’t foreseen in the planning stage. This sounds like a good thing on the surface, but something occurs in the story that wounded me on such a deep personal level. Was it the best thing for the Mayhem Series? Absolutely. This series of events became the catalyst for the next book. And yet, I was still grappling with how to move past it.

The holidays rolled around, and I reverted back into my happy-go-lucky self again. During that time, I started writing Book 4 of my Grafton County Series, but even this new storyline pierced several layers of my heart, illuminating the fact that I may never escape emotional turmoil.

Fast-forward to the beginning of February. My publisher and I worked with the cover designer for Silent Mayhem. On the day the final cover popped into my inbox, my editor sent back the first round of edits.

No big deal, I told myself. I’m a professional. I’ll just leapfrog into the story, bang out the edits, and then plunge back into my WIP. Easy peasy, right?

Wrong.

I read the story one last time from start to finish, making my corrections along the way. Well, I soon found myself in the same quandary, the storyline almost crippling me emotionally.

Friday night I finished my edits and had planned to reopen my WIP on Saturday morning, but as I sat at my desk, I wasn’t able to let go of Silent Mayhem, the storyline tearing open scars I didn’t even know existed. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake off the emotional upheaval. This isn’t the first time it’s happened, either. Unlike before, though, I don’t have the luxury of processing my feelings ad nauseam, or even take a well-earned break. Grafton County, Book 4, is due in March.

So, what do you do? Exercise, read, watch a movie … anything to take your mind off the story, right? But what if you still can’t flip the emotional switch to off?

I turned to our ol’ friend Google for the answer. Surely other writers have experienced the same thing. One brave soul must have written about it, right? Surprisingly, I couldn’t find one post. Not one! I read about specific emotions that may lie at the heart of my unrest … grief, betrayal, uncertainty, vengeance, etc. etc. But nowhere could I find advice on this topic as a whole.

What would you even call it, Wounded Writer Syndrome?

Psychology Today has a fantastic article about trauma and how writing about it can help heal us. Writer’s Digest also advocates using a traumatic experience to fuel our writing. Harvard Medical School uses the term “expressive writing” when writing becomes cathartic after a difficult life event. But what if writing caused the trauma?

After a lot of soul-searching, I came up with my own way of coping.

The first step is the hardest of all. It requires us to delve deep within our psyche and unearth the root cause. At what point in the story did our emotions entangle with the character’s? Where did we lose control? Is there a certain scene or chapter that arouses a physical reaction, like crying, shaking, or squirming in the chair? If we’re able to pinpoint the exact moment that first had a profound effect on us, the healing process can begin.

Expressive writing may hold the key to healing a wounded writer’s soul, even if the trauma’s self-inflicted. Expressive writing is also beneficial to our overall well-being. Researchers studied the effect of expressive writing on everything from asthma and arthritis to breast cancer and migraines.

They conducted a study in Kansas, where women with breast cancer experienced fewer symptoms and went to fewer cancer-related appointments in the months following expressive writing. The aim of the study wasn’t to combat the disease, and the authors of the paper don’t claim the actual cancer cells were affected. However, the study shows other aspects of the women’s health improved faster than the control group, who merely stated facts rather than expressing the emotional impact of the disease.

From BBC.com

What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this simply happened through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d let out their pent-up feelings. But then Pennebaker began looking in detail at the language people used in their writing.

He found that the types of words people used changed over the course of the four sessions. Those whose wounds healed the fastest began by using the word “I” a lot, but in later sessions moved on to saying “he” or “she” more often, suggesting they were looking at the event from other perspectives. They also used words like “because”, implying they were making sense of the events and putting them into a narrative. So Pennebaker believes that the simple act of labelling your feelings and putting them into a story is somehow affecting the immune system. 

I propose the same holds true for those of us afflicted by Wounded Writer Syndrome. Find the exact moment in your story and write about how that scene, or scenes, affected you, the writer. At that point, we can then piece together our shattered spirit … just in time to traumatize ourselves all over again with the next book. 🙂

Have you experienced Wounded Writer Syndrome? What are some ways that helped you heal?

 

13+

When Real Life Collides with Fiction …

By SUE COLETTA

Lately, I’ve been consumed by my WIP. It happens with every book. You know the drill. At a certain point something inside takes over. No more struggling, no more hair-pulling, no more research trips down endless rabbit holes. Instead, we spend more time “in the zone” than out of it.

Keep that in mind while I share this conversation between me and my husband, Bob — with pics!

He’d just stretched out after a long day doing tile work as a favor for a friend, so exhausted he didn’t have the energy to take his boots off yet.

I’m sitting across from him. And within seconds, I’m enthralled by his boot treads. I can’t tear my gaze away, my mind whirling with endless scenarios of how I might use them in my WIP.

Bob: Why’re you staring at my boots?

Me: How long have you had those? Didn’t I buy ‘em, like, two Christmases ago?

Bob: Yeah. Why?

Me: Two years … gee, I woulda thought you’d have more of wear pattern by now. You must walk fairly even.

Bob: Thanks, I think.

It was more of an observation than a compliment, but he didn’t need to know that.

Eyes in a squint, I lean in to study the details of each tread, searching for any anomalies I could use.

Bob: What’s so fascinating about my boots?

I thumb the camera on my iPhone and aim at the treads. “Straighten your feet.”

Bob: In your mind, they’re bloody, huh?

Me: Why do you always assume the worse?

Okay, fine. Maybe I was envisioning blood in the grooves, but nobody likes a show off. 🙂 My main focus, however, was the type of impression these specific boots would leave in snow. At a crime scene, if footwear evidence is found and collected, examiners can compare these unknown impressions to known impressions, collected from other crime scenes and stored in databases.

To do this, examiners use three main characteristics for analysis …

  • Class
  • Individual
  • Wear

Class characters result from the manufacturing process and are divided as “general” —characteristics that are standard for every item of that make and model — or “limited” — any variations that are unique to a certain mold. Two boots may have identical tread patterns but may also hold slight differences due to imperfections in the molds during manufacturing.

Back to Bob’s boots for a moment. This time, let’s zoom in …

See that tiny dot on the “S” in Sorel? On his right boot it’s on the bottom. On his left, it’s at the top. The “O” is filled in on the left but not on the right. Also on the right, it almost looks like there’s an apostrophe after the O, as if the brand spells its name as So’Rel. These imperfections are the perfect example of class characteristics.

Individual characteristics are unique to a particular shoe that’s worn from use, not manufacturing. Suppose someone steps on a nail. That nail hole is there for the life of the shoe, and that mark will show in the impression. Same holds true for a cut or gouge from stepping on something sharp, like broken glass. Even a small stone or twig stuck in the grooves of the tread will transfer to the impression.

Wear characteristics result from the natural erosion of the shoe caused by use. Specific wear characteristics include the wear pattern, the basic position of tread wear, the wear condition, the amount of depth of the wear, and the damage to, or destruction of, the tread pattern. The location and amount of tread loss varies for each individual, wearing that particular brand and style of shoe, based on how and where they’ve walked and the length of time they’ve owned the shoe.

Footwear impressions provide valuable information for investigators …

  • Where the crime occurred
  • Number of people present at the scene
  • Direction the suspect traveled before, during, and after the crime
  • Link other crime scenes to the same suspect

Prints are divided into three types …

  • Visible
  • Plastic
  • Latent

A visible print is exactly like it sounds. These prints can be seen by the naked eye. Think: bloody shoe prints across a linoleum floor.

A plastic print is a three-dimensional impression left on a soft surface, like in sand, mud, or snow.

A latent print is one that’s not readily visible. It’s created through static charges between the sole of the shoe and the surface. Examiners use powders, chemicals, and/or alternative light sources to find latent prints. Think: a burglar’s shoeprint on a window sill.

The FBI compiles and maintains a footwear (and tire tread) database, which contains manufacturers’ information, as well as information from previously submitted evidence. But did you know the National Institute of Justice also maintains various forensic databases? They sure do. Which is perfect for an amateur sleuth character who doesn’t have access to the FBI’s database.

For print impressions, the NIJ maintains three databases called …

  1. SoleMate
  2. TreadMark
  3. TreadMate (for tire impressions)

For detailed information about how each database works, here’s the link to help with your research.

Knowing the basics of footwear impressions, I thought I was all set to write my scene. But if experience told me anything, it’s that a hands-on exercise trumps imagination. Hence why I’ve trapped myself in a steel drum to experience my character’s terror. And why, after spotting the boots, I dragged my poor husband outside to make prints in the snow.

Turns out, he had more of a wear pattern than I thought. After close inspection of several prints, worn spots in the grooves of the heel, toe, and instep revealed themselves. Guess someone doesn’t walk evenly after all. 🙂

If Bob hadn’t stretched out after work with his boots still on, and I wasn’t sitting across from him, consumed by my WIP, my story wouldn’t’ve taken a hard-right turn and led to several intense, gripping scenes. And I probably wouldn’t have written this post, either. Isn’t it amazing how that works?

We writers need to remain open to outside stimuli. If your short on ideas, you’re not paying attention to the world around you. Look through the writer’s lens at all times. That’s the biggest takeaway from this post (outside the helpful info. re: footwear impressions ;-)).

Our experiences bleed through every page we write. So, go ahead and drag your spouse/neighbor/friend into the snow to make prints, if that’s what you need for research. Or pause to listen to the throaty rattle of a raven, if you need a moment of clarity. Life is our greatest ally. Don’t squander the gift of perception by ignoring her.

Has real life ever collided with your fiction? Are you viewing the world through a writer’s lens? Please share a brief sliver of time. Like when a raindrop catches kaleidoscope colors as it rolls down a windshield or how the neighbor’s cat only limps when his owner’s watching.

11+

Could Alexa Solve Murders?

Debbie and I were surfing the same wavelength this week. If you didn’t get a chance to read her post, be sure to check it out.

As technology has become more integral to daily life, authorities have increasingly sought evidence from mobile phones, laptops, social media, and even a video game.

Last summer, I heard about a murder case in Arkansas. The high-profile defense attorney, Kathleen Zellner — best known as Steven Avery’s attorney in season two of Making a Murderer — petitioned the court for Amazon Echo recordings.

The Amazon Echo entered the November 2015 murder case after Victor Collins (47), a former Georgia police officer, died in the suspect’s hot tub. An observer told police he’d heard music streaming through the device that evening.

Zellner’s client, James Bates, invited two friends to his Bentonville home to watch college football, drink beer and shots of vodka. After the game, the three men slipped into Bates’ hot tub. Around 1 a.m., Bates said he went to bed. When he woke in the morning, Collins was floating face-down in the hot tub.

The defense contended the death was a tragic accident, stemming from high levels of alcohol. At the time of death, Collins’ blood-alcohol content was at .32, four times the legal limit to drive in Arkansas.

Investigators believed Collins’ body showed evidence of strangulation prior to drowning. Signs of a struggle they’d seen in the house, including a broken shot glass, dried blood on the floor, injuries to both Collins and Bates, and indications that someone hosed down the patio and hot tub before police arrived. They further contended Bates’ water heater, another smart device, recorded an exorbitant amount of water used in the early morning hours, in what investigators believed was an attempt to conceal the crime. The defense argued the same amount of water had been used 12 hours prior to the night in question.

After Amazon released the recordings, the prosecution dropped all charges against Bates. Why? The DA stated, “They cannot meet the legal requirements to proceed.” No further mention of the Echo recordings, but writers don’t need the outcome to envision the story Alexa might tell.

See where I’m going with this? We could spin the recordings anyway we want. Keep that in mind while you read this next case.

Fast-forward to January 27, 2018, when Amazon Echo recordings could solve a brutal double homicide.

In my home state of New Hampshire — a 30-40 minute drive from where I live — two slayings rocked the quaint Farmington community. In the early morning hours of January 29th, Dean Smoronk returned home after a trip to Florida. When he arrived, his live-in girlfriend, Christine Sullivan, and a friend, Jenna Pellegrini, who was staying with the couple at the time, were both missing. He called 911 around 3 a.m., and said he thought there’d been a murder.

When officers arrived at the scene, Smoronk pointed out a large blood stain on the mattress in the upstairs bedroom and dried blood in the kitchen, with a blood smear on the refrigerator. Hours later, New Hampshire State Police found the two women cocooned in tarps, stuffed under the porch. Eight stab wounds littered Sullivan’s body, her skull fractured by a blunt object. Pellegrini’s head, face, and chest showed 48 stab wounds.

During the search, investigators also found several knives wrapped in a flannel shirt — the same flannel shirt worn by Timothy Verrill, caught on the home’s surveillance footage that night. Verrill was a known drug dealer in the area. At the time of the killings, he was friends with Sullivan and Smoronk. Some speculate he was also Pellegrini’s boyfriend, but there’s some conflicting evidence on whether that’s true. Allegedly, Verrill feared the two women were working with authorities on an undercover sting, of which he was the intended target.

State Police seized an Amazon Echo from the crime scene. Had Alexa recorded the murders and subsequent cover-up?

On Oct. 30th, Senior Assistant Attorney General Geoffrey Ward asked the judge to direct Amazon.com to produce any recordings made between Jan. 27 and Jan. 29, 2017, suggesting evidence of the murder and/or hindering prosecution could be found on the device.

In the motion, made in lieu of an application for a search warrant, Ward wrote, “As part of the normal functioning of an Echo electronic device, activated either intentionally or accidentally by ‘wake up words,’ audio recordings are made from the moment when the device is activated. Specifically, when the Echo detects a ‘wake up word(s),’ the device begins audio recording through its integrated microphones, including recording the fraction of a second of audio before the ‘wake up word(s).’”

Wake up words include Amazon and Alexa, but as Debbie pointed out, Alexa records even when those words aren’t mentioned.

Ward’s motion also asked for a wider scope in order to identify cellular devices that paired with the smart speaker within the same time period.

The judge ordered Amazon to hand over the recordings. No word yet on what Alexa overheard that night. The trial begins in May, 2019.

So, TKZers, if you were writing these stories, what would you reveal in the recordings? Get your creative juices pumping by including a jaw-dropping twist!

WINGS OF MAYHEM is on sale for 99c.

“The story spins ahead with escalating velocity and well-rendered literary layers, always leaving the reader pleading for more information while delivering just enough with exquisite timing, always nailing a clear and rationale dissection of what seemed in the moment like insanity or illogic. The craft of the writer is on display from page one, with intense pacing, deeply drawn characters and a matrix of plot elements that never lets you see the big picture as completely as you think you do, thus setting up an ending that demands you stick with it until the final, unexpected twist.” ~ USA Today Bestselling Author Larry Brooks

 

 

5+

TKZ Members Weigh In on Series Writing

By SUE COLETTA

Before the holidays, one of our beloved TKZers requested a blog post that offered helpful tips in series writing.

Rather than sharing only my views, I thought it’d be cool to gather advice from all TKZ members. That way, we’d be sure to cover the subject in more depth.

It’s a monster post, but it’s packed with fantastic advice. Ready? Here we go …

From Jordan Dane:

  1. Create a large enough world to sustain a series if it gains traction by planting plot seeds and/or character spinoffs in each individual novel. With the right planted seeds, future stories can be mined for plots during the series story arcs. An example of this is Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole PI series where his main character Cole is plagued by his past and his estranged father until THE FORGOTTEN MAN, a stellar novel in the middle of the series that finally provided answers to the mystery.

Crais often plants seeds that he later cultivates in later books. It takes organization & discipline to create these mysteries and track the seeds to save for later.

  1. Endings of each novel in a continuing series are important to readers if your book release schedule has long lags in time. A major cliffhanger can be frustrating for readers to discover at the end of a book before they realize the next novel won’t be released for 6 months to a year.

If your planned series isn’t limited to a certain number of stories (ie Hunger Games – 3 novels) where the overall story arc will be defined, an author might consider writing series novels that read as standalones with a tantalizing foreshadowing of the next story to hook readers. Creating an intriguing mystery to come will pique reader’s interest, rather than frustrate them with a huge cliffhanger they may have to wait a year to read.

See these tips in action in Jordan’s Mercer’s War Series.

From James Scott Bell:

  • Give your series character one moral quest that he or she is passionate about, to the point where it feels like life and death. For example, my Mike Romeo series is about the quest for TRUTH. This is the driving force for all he does. It gives both character and plot their meaning. A quest like this will carry from book to book.
  • Give your series character at least one special skill and one special quirk. Sherlock Holmes is a skilled stick fighter (which comes in handy). But he also shoots up cocaine to keep his mind active. Mike Romeo has cage fighting skills. He also likes to quote literature and philosophy before taking out a thug.

From Joe Hartlaub:

Sue, I love Jordan’s suggestions, particularly #2, about the works being standalones with a foreshadowing of what is to come. Who among us read Stephen King’s Dark Tower trilogy and got to the end of The Dark Tower III; The Waste Land to find the cast aboard a sentient, suicidal choo-choo heading toward oblivion? That was all well and good until we all had to wait six friggin’ years to find out what happened next in Wizards and Glass. 

  • I have one suggestion, which I call the Pop Tart model. Pop Tarts started with a basic formula; they were rectangular, were small enough to fit into a toaster, large enough to pull out, used the same pastry as a base, and started with a set of fillings and slowly added more and different ones over the years. So too, the series.
  • Design a character with a skill set consisting of two or three reliable elements, decide whether you are going to make them a world-beater (Jason Bourne), a close-to-homer (Dave Robicheaux), or something in between (Jack Reacher), and bring in a couple of supporting characters who can serve as necessary foils (Hawk and Susan from the Spenser novels) who can always be repaired or replaced as necessary. Your readers will know what to expect from book to book but will be surprised by how you utilize familiar elements.

From Laura Benedict:

The best series do a good job of relationship-building, along with world-building.

  • Give your main character …
  1. someone to love and fight for,
  2. someone to regret knowing,
  3. someone to respect,
  4. someone to fear.
  • Be careful about harming your secondary characters because readers get attached. If you’re going to let a beloved character go—even a villain—make the loss mean something.

See these tips in action in The Stranger Inside.

From Clare Langley Hawthorne:

Sue – I love everyone’s suggestions so far.

  • Add the possibility of exploring lesser characters like Tana French did in her Dublin Murder Squad series — each installment focused on a different lead character that we’d met as a lesser character in another installment. I thought she did this in a masterly way that helped enhance the series.

From Elaine Viets:

  • Murder thoughtfully and with restraint.

I went wild in my first novel “Backstab” in my Francesca Vierling series, and killed off a secondary character I could have used in other books — Lee the Rehabber. I had versions of Lee, but they were pale imitations.

From me: Rather than repeat previous tips, I focused on subplots and character development.

  • Whatever happens to your character in a series must be reflected in future books. Our past affects us. Take for example my Mayhem Series. In Book 1, Wings of Mayhem, Shawnee Daniels learns a shocking secret about her past. It’s a seed I planted for Book 3, but I couldn’t pretend she didn’t learn about it. So, in Book 2, I hinted at it (in the form of dialogue) to remind the readers who knew about it. At the same time, I needed to show how this secret affected Shawnee i.e. she become even more distrustful and broken.

In Book 3, Silent Mayhem, this secret explodes Shawnee’s life. It also became the catalyst for more secrets, a conspiracy, and an underlying mystery that ran parallel to the main plot. If someone read the books out of order, it was imperative that I let the cold reader know why and how this scenario was taking place without dumping the information in one chunk. Instead, we need to either sprinkle the (now) backstory in over time (a slow build toward the explosion) or use dialogue between two characters. I chose the latter, in the form of a confrontation.

  • Think of all potential readers. Do all aspects of the book make sense? Will they understand the subplot and character development without reading the previous novels? At the same time, have you hinted enough but not so much that you’ve ruined a previous twist? It’s a dance that can knot your stomach muscles, but we need to be cognizant of the cold reader who picks up Book 3 or 4 or 5, as much as the dedicated fan whose read all the books in order.

From Mark Alpert:

  • My favorite series characters are those who learn something in
    each new book. And this knowledge changes them, sometimes
    dramatically, sometimes more subtly, but always noticeably. Think of
    Harry Potter. He’s different in each book. It prevents the series from
    getting stale.

From PJ Parrish:

  • As you progress through your story keep a running chronology of dates and salient plot points that happen in each chapter. This is invaluable come rewrite time. You can consult the chronology and at a glance know where to find something in your plot. It also helps you keep track of the passage of time in your story.

Example from my own book:

CHAPTER ONE

Day 1

Jan 13, 2018

Louis shows up at church in Michigan ready to start new job on homicide task force. Introduce his boss, Mark Steele. Set up personality conflict between men and Louis’s fear, he has made Faustian bargain.

CHAPTER TWO

Day 2

Jan 14, 2018

First meeting of task force. They get assigned cold cases as tests. Louis picks “boys in the box” case.

From Debbie Burke:

  • If your character is in a happy marriage/career/friendship, destroy that; if he is an orderly homebody, drop him into an unfamiliar, unpredictable universe he can’t escape from; plunk her into situations she would never enter voluntarily but must b/c of circumstance. Whatever your characters’ personal comfort zones are—physical, mental, psychological, spiritual—yank them out of it and throw them into conditions they have never encountered before. Keep them off balance, straddling an earthquake fault.

From John Gilstrap:

  1. Remember that successful series thrive as much on character as they do on plot—perhaps even more on character than on plot.  So, make that protagonist as interesting and unique as you can.  I would argue that the world might not need another divorced ex-cop with a drinking problem and anger issues—unless your take on the old trope is somehow unique.
  1. Take your time when building the world in Book #1.  Plant seeds in that first outing that will allow for plots in the future.  In No Mercy, the first entry in my Jonathan Grave series, I intentionally seeded his world with details that might (or might not) bear fruit for future novels:
  • His substantial wealth comes from his father’s illegal activities;
  • Said father, Simon Gravenow, is serving a life sentence in prison;
  • Jonathan Grave donated the mansion that was his childhood home to St. Kate’s Catholic Church so that it could serve as Resurrection House, a residential school for the children of incarcerated parents;
  • He is intensely loyal to his friends as they are to him;
  • And more.
  1. Know the intended tone of your series.  Yeah, okay, you’re writing a thriller, but what kind of ride do you intend to give your reader?  This is important because those readers will come to expect a certain consistency from book to book.  The Hunger Games trilogy, for example, is relentlessly dark because everyone we care about is miserable.  Jim Bell’s Romeo series, on the other hand, is lighter in tone without sacrificing any of the thrills.  That tone—that voice—is important to the reader.

***

Amazing advice, right? I don’t know about you, but I’m bookmarking this puppy. A huge thank you to my fellow TKZ members!

For discussion …

Do you write a series? Writers, please share any tips we might have missed.

If you haven’t branched into series writing, are you considering it?

Do you prefer to read a series or standalones? Readers, please share your views!

 

7+

Crime Writer’s Version of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,

Not a corpse was breathing, not even their spouse;

Nylon stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that the cops would not find them there;

The live victims were all nestled, snug in their restraints;

While visions of mayhem snuffed out their complaints;

My ol’ man in his bandana, and I in my cap

Had just settled in for a quick nightly nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew with a dash,

Tore open the curtains and hid the drug stash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,

Gave a luster of midday to a figure below.

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,

But a swirling lit cruiser pulling eight plastic reindeer,

With a rickety old driver so slow and not quick,

I knew in a moment he’d never catch Nick.

He slogged through the snow, toward our doorway he came,

And he whistled and shouted and called us strange names:

“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blixen!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

As leaves that blew before the storm hit,

When he met with an obstacle, our pit bull named Kit;

So up to the housetop the cop climbed the lattice,

With no warrant or recourse, as if he had gratis,

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing like he was dancing in hoofs.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney the cop came with a thundering bound.

He was dressed all in blue, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all singed with ashes and soot;

A bundle of pot brownies he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a junkie just opening his sack.

His eyes–how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a berry!

His droll little mouth snarled up with a grin,

And the squint to one eye like he’d drank all our gin;

The stump of a cigar he held tight in buck teeth,

And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath.

He had a broad face and not much of a belly

That barely moved when he laughed, like a jar with no jelly.

He was cheerful with glee, a right jolly old cop,

And I laughed when I saw him; he looked like Nick’s pop;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And stole all the nylons, then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, into the fire he dove.

I sprang forward to save him, then stopped, reconsidered,

How much would they pay for a cop’s body, delivered?

But I heard Nick exclaim, ere he drove out the lot,

“You’ll get us both busted and rightfully caught.”

“Quiet,” I told him, but one moment too late.

For he’d vanished; so much for that date.

Back in bed I climbed, the mattress now ample,

And sprinkled the pillows with the remaining drug sample.

When I drew my last breath before my eyelids did flutter,

I mumbled, “Merry Christmas to all. May your nights make you shudder.”

 

 

Searching for a special gift for the hard-to-please person on your list?

Send them on a thrilling adventure!

 

 

 

To order signed paperbacks, email me at sue@suecoletta.com or message me on Facebook.

Blowout 99c Kindle sale (all titles — ends tomorrow)

MARRED, Book 1, Grafton County Series
CLEAVED, Book 2
SCATHED, Book 3

WINGS OF MAYHEM, Book 1, Mayhem Series
BLESSED MAYHEM, Book 2
SILENT MAYHEM releases early 2019!

*All books can stand alone.

 

 

Wishing you and yours a joyous holiday season! May all your writing dreams come true in 2019.

 

4+