Book Blurbs: The Good, The Bad, and The Hilarious

During the summer I had the distinct honor of blurbing a book. Not just any book, either. Larry Brooks’ new craft book, Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves. I love Larry’s (and Jim’s!) craft books, so I took my job seriously and did what any self-respecting writer would do… I Googled “How to Blurb a Book.” 🙂

The term “blurb” has amassed a number of meanings in the decades since it worked its way into our vocabulary, including a book description. But the true meaning of the word means a bylined endorsement from a fellow writer or celebrity that sings the praises of the book’s author.

There’s only two crucial steps to book blurbing.

Step 1: read the book.

Step 2: write whatever you liked about it.

That’s it. It’s not rocket science. The only way to screw up this assignment is to skip Step 1. Well, that’s not exactly true.

Don’t write the blurb to a fill-in-the-blank formula…

The Zero by Jess Walter

“Jess Walter’s The Zero is a tense and compulsively readable roller-coaster ride fraught with psychological thrills, unanticipated dips and lurches, and existential truths. The novel frightened and fascinated me in equal measures. Walter has written a neo-noirish masterpiece.” — Wally Lamb

This is also not the time to overwrite…

To The End Of The Land by David Grossman

“Very rarely you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling has opened in you that was not there before. David Grossman has the ability to look inside a person and discover the essence of her humanity; his novels are about what it means to defend this essence against a world designed to extinguish it. To The End Of The Land is his most powerful, unflinching story of this defense.” — Nicole Krauss

Nor is it the time to play with adverbs…

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

“To those who say there are no new love stories, I heartily recommend The Time Traveler’s Wife, an enchanting novel, which is beautifully crafted and as dazzlingly imaginative as it is dizzyingly romantic.” — Scott Turow

Although, if you’re as talented and creative as Jordan Dane, you might get away with adjectives…

“Riveting and haunting! Sue Coletta’s page-turning crime fiction is deliciously nuanced with delectable horror and dark humor. Unique and compelling characters make a sumptuous and satisfying meal. Save room for a decadent dessert of plot twists.”

Let’s not forget the blurb master, Gary Shteyngart, who blurbed the world’s worst books. Here’s a small sampling…

Eating People is Wrong by Malcolm Bradbury

“If eating people is wrong, I don’t want to be right”—Gary Shteyngart

Castration: The Advantages and Disadvantages by Victor T. Cheney

“The ballsiest book of the year”—Gary Shteyngart

Alas, I wasn’t that creative. I just told the truth…

“Larry Brooks has done it again!!! In Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves, Brooks delivers a clear, concise, easily digestible roadmap to make our stories work.

“From the initial story seed to concept to a fully formed premise, he walks us through each part of a four-part structure, with unwavering clarity. It’s the perfect craft book to help aspiring writers turn their writing dreams into reality and an excellent refresher for seasoned novelists.”

 

If you enjoyed Story Engineering or Story Physics, you will love Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves. Did I mention Robert Dugoni wrote the foreword?

While you’re stocking the toolbox, might I recommend another fabulous craft book? The Last Fifty Pages by James Scott Bell. Like Larry’s new book, it’s a game-changer.

Too much? It felt a little heavy-handed. Sorry about that. I get so fired up over craft books. Jim and Larry’s teaching style really speaks to me. Can a writer ever have too many books on craft? Not in my world. What about yours?

 

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Reader Friday: Favorite Time of Year

As many of you know, I live in northern New Hampshire, where trees burst with color in the fall. It’s impossible to be down, upset, or melancholy when you’re surrounded by such beauty.

I’ve lived in New England my entire life, and the foliage never gets old. Nature is magnificent, is it not? And oh, so, inspiring. For this reason (plus I’m a Libra 😉 ), fall is my favorite time of year.

What’s your favorite time of year? It could be a month, a season, or even a special week. Just be sure to tell us why.

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How To Invest Readers in Your Story: First Page Critique

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer has shared his/her first page for critique. Enjoy! My notes will follow.

Traders Market

Blowing up a house with five people inside wasn’t the best way to slip out of town unnoticed.

Heart pounding, hands shaking, knowing she should be gone, Emelia Lopez watched through the stockade fence two houses down, mesmerized by the inferno. She pushed the other thought away when she heard the first sirens, and pushed herself into motion.

Keep to the plan, Nick said.

Staying in the deep shadows cast by the fire, she moved steadily down the alley, around a corner, merging into a crowd of gawkers spilling out of a bar.

“It had to be a gas explosion…”

“Was it a house?”

Another boom, another explosion.

“Holy shit! What is it?”

“Your wife blew up your boat. You better go home.”

Laughing, untouched by whatever it was, they began drifting back inside to get another round.

Emelia moved away, her lumpy figure in its baggy dress and sweatshirt unnoticed, one of hundreds like her in the neighborhood.

The second explosion?

Couldn’t think about it now.

A few blocks later, lights from the bus station beckoned. She pulled up her hood and grasped the key in her gloved hand. Inside, no one was paying any attention to the explosion. Too far away. Sirens were common. She put her head down and made herself shuffle to a locker, key ready. She pulled out a large duffle bag, closed the door, left the key in the lock, crossed the few feet into the restroom.

The biggest stall was open, the one with the changing table. Inside, she pulled the table down and began emptying the duffel.

Twenty minutes later, when she was sure she was alone, she came out, stuffed the refilled duffle into the trash can under the counter, slipped a carry-on bag over her shoulder, and checked herself in the mirrors. She smoothed her slim skirt and straightened the matching jacket, tested her ankles in the spike heels, and readjusted the red wig that completed her transformation into Emma Baxter, a Baltimore, Maryland wife and mother, who wouldn’t discover her passport was missing until long after it was discarded in a trash can in Amsterdam.

Emma straightened and strode purposefully out of the restroom, out of the bus station, and climbed into a waiting cab. Gave directions. Checked her phone. Nothing from Nick.

Follow the plan.

She closed her eyes, and the thought came.

Dear God. I’m a murderer.

This first page has so much promise. Anon did lose me a few times, though. So, let’s see if we can make things a bit clearer for the reader. Below is the first page with my notes.

Traders Market (I don’t have enough info. to comment on the title)

Blowing up a house with five people inside wasn’t the best way to slip out of town unnoticed. (Awesome first line!)

Heart pounding, hands shaking, knowing she should be gone, (one clause too many) Emelia Lopez watched (use a stronger verb here: peered, stared, gaped?) through the stockade fence two houses down, mesmerized by the inferno (Nice!). She pushed the other thought away when she heard the first sirens, and pushed herself into motion.

Any time you use words like thought, heard, saw, considered, etc., you’re telling the action rather than showing it. Rearrange the above sentence to avoid that.

Example: When the first siren squealed, a spike of adrenaline shot through Emelia and she shoved off the fencepost. Sprinting toward the bus station (added to show the reader a destination), Nick’s words echoed through her mind. Keep to the plan. Easy for him to say. He wasn’t the one out here in the dark (added to weave in some personality).

Keep to the plan, Nick said. 

Staying in the deep shadows cast by the fire, she [Emelia] moved steadily down the alley, around a corner, merging into a crowd of gawkers spilling out of a bar. Very good. Don’t believe the advice that all gerunds are bad. They can be effective tools. Here, you’ve created emotional rhythm, which works for this particular reader.

“It had to be a gas explosion…” Who’s speaking? If it’s a bar patron, then please briefly describe the character so we can visualize the scene. Even something simple like: a bleach-blonde cougar in a leopard-print blouse.

“Was it a house?” Here, too.

Another boom, another explosion. Meh. It’s a little underwhelming, but it gets the job done. I’d rather see Emelia stop short when the earth shakes beneath her sensible shoes—in other words, show vs. tell.

“Holy shit! What is it?” I have no idea whose dialogue this is, either.

“Your wife blew up your boat. You better go home.” Here, too. Show us who this is.

Laughing, untouched by whatever it was, they began drifting back inside to get another round. Who are “they”? Show us! Also, since you’re not in their heads, you can’t know that they’re “untouched” by anything. You can show disinterest, but you cannot tell us they’re untouched. You also can’t know they’re going inside for another round. The protagonist can presume they are, but then you need to make that clear. For more on writing in deep POV, read this first page critique.

Emelia moved away (backed away? From what?), her lumpy figure in its baggy dress and sweatshirt unnoticed (Here again, you’ve slipped out of Emelia’s POV. Emelia wouldn’t think of herself of having a lumpy figure, would she? Most women would never use that term to describe themselves. By choosing Emelia’s POV, you, the writer, have effectively slipped inside her skin. You are Emelia while writing this scene). one of hundreds like her in the neighborhood.

On my second read-through I discovered that you might be referring to padding inside her disguise. If that’s true, then show us how itchy the material is or the padding lumping together. But you need to clue in your reader to what’s going on. Most readers won’t take the time to go back and reread the first page. See what I’m saying? Nailing an effective POV is one of the more difficult craft elements to master, but it’s crucial that you do. I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have. 

The second explosion? Couldn’t think about it now. (Nice. I just moved her response up a line.)

A few blocks later, lights from the bus station beckoned (beckoned what? beckoned her closer?). She [Emelia] pulled up her hood and grasped the key in her gloved hand (key? Where’d it come from?). Inside, no one was paying any attention to the explosion (don’t tell us; show us. Inside the station five fat guys guzzling Budweisers huddled around a black-and-white television with a tinfoil antenna. Monday night football—perfect timing). Too far away (Maybe the explosion was too far away? Not sure how they missed the sirens, though they weren’t uncommon around here). Sirens were common. She put her head down and made herself shuffle to a locker, key ready (Head down, Emelia shuffled to a row of lockers, stacked two high).

Side note: show Emelia searching for the right locker number to drag out the suspense, show her excitement over finding the duffle bag (or her devastation when the locker’s empty), show her hand tremble as she drags the duffle bag off the metal shelf, careful not to make a sound. Or maybe the zipper scratches the metal and draws unwanted attention from a security guard. See all the ways to create conflict? The possibilities are endless. Don’t make things too easy for Emelia. Your protagonist needs to stumble, fall, get back up and move forward, stumble again…that’s how we humanize her into a flesh-and-blood character.

She pulled out a large duffle bag, closed the door, left the key in the lock, crossed the few feet into the restroom.

The biggest stall was open (that’s convenient; maybe too convenient? Something to think about.), the one with the changing table. Inside, she pulled the table down and began emptied the duffel.

Twenty minutes later, when she was sure she was alone (why is she certain she’s alone? Did she peek out a crack in the door? Did she press her ear to the door as footfalls trailed down the hall? Show us!), she came out, stuffed the refilled (refilled with what?) duffle into the trash can under the counter. [Emelia] slipped a carry-on bag (where did this come from?) over her shoulder, and checked herself in the mirrors. She smoothed her slim skirt and straightened the matching jacket, tested her ankles in the spike heels, and readjusted the red wig that completed her transformation into Emma Baxter, a Baltimore, Maryland wife and mother, who wouldn’t discover her passport was missing until long after it was discarded in a trash can in Amsterdam.

Okay, so, I assume the duffel bag contained all these items. Show us the action as it happens. Don’t make us guess after the fact. Why risk confusing your reader? You did a terrific job of showing us Emelia’s transformation—bravo on that!—so I know you can do it. Yes, it takes more time to show an action, but the payoff is well worth the added work. Every time we draw the reader deeper into the scene they become more invested in the story.

[With her head held high,] Emma straightened and strode purposefully out of the restroom [and slipped right past the drunken footballers who failed to notice her departure. Go Pats! (sorry, couldn’t resist ;-)) At the door to an awaiting cab Emelia hip-checked some business-type dude out of the way and stole his ride. Sucker.]

“Corner of Howser and Jewel Street.” She flashed a fan of bills over the front seat. “There’s an extra twenty in it for you if you get me there in ten minutes.” (Note: I added dialogue to show Emelia giving directions to the cabbie, rather than telling the reader about afterward.) out of the bus station, and climbed into a waiting cab. Gave directions.Checked her phone. Nothing from Nick

[Glancing at her phone, Nick still hadn’t texted.]

Follow the plan.

She closed her eyes, and the thought came. Dear God, I’m a murderer. (This makes me want to flip the page to find out what happens next. Nicely done!)

Brave Writer, I hope I wasn’t too hard on you. If I didn’t see so much promise in this first page, I might be reluctant to bathe your opener in red ink. I want you to succeed, and I know you can. With a little more knuckle grease, this opener could be amazing.

One other thing is worth mentioning. Be careful with run-on sentences. Same goes for staccato sentences. They’re most effective when used sparingly. If used too often, they become a writing tic. 🙂

Over to you, my beloved TKZers. How might you improve this first page?

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Welcome to Murder 101: PG Halloween Edition

With Halloween arriving next week, murder is in the air. It might be the only time of year when “normal” people can fully relate to crime writers and readers. So, ladies and gents, grab your favorite beverage and kick back for a little Murder 101, complete with visual aids.

Let’s say your male character is cheating on your protagonist.

During the confrontation — we can’t ignore that type of behavior, now can we? — take the homewrecker by surprise with one well-placed stab to the carotid artery. Don’t forget to withdraw the hunting knife! We wouldn’t want it to act as a plug.

Notice how the kitty is priming the carotid artery? The subject is nice and relaxed. More importantly, he doesn’t suspect a thing.

There are two carotid arteries in the neck, one on the left side and one on the right. Each carotid artery branches into two divisions:
• Internal carotid artery supplies blood to the brain
• External carotid artery supplies blood to the face and neck

If it were me, I’d aim for the internal carotid, but it’s a personal preference. If you’d rather watch the blood drain from the subject’s face and neck, then shoot for the external. Both will get the job done.

A quiet execution is an effective way to murder…

If you choose this murder method, be sure to use a fast-acting poison. No need to act psychopathic by dragging out your subject’s agony. Unless, of course, that’s what you’re into. No judgments!

May I make a suggestion? Try using Tetrodotoxin, which is a complex biochemical found in two marine creatures, the blue-ringed octopus and the puffer fish. It’s also in slugs, but on a much smaller scale. Garry Rodgers wrote a fantastic article about this deadly poison.

Whether Tetrodotoxin is injected via octopus bite — how might you explain a pet octopus? — or ingested by way of food or drink, the poison will kill the subject within a few minutes, depending on the character’s size vs. the amount of poison administered. Tetrodotoxin first blocks nerve responses and then paralyzes the victim, which prevents the victim from breathing. Finally, it stops the heart. As little as 1 milligram is all you need to accomplish your goal.

Some people prefer a good ol’ fashioned murder method, complete with sound effects.

Ladies, please don’t close your eyes while firing a weapon. I know murder isn’t easy, but if you’re determined to see this through, you may as well do it right. For information on the correct ammunition to use, John Gilstrap, wrote a post about what works best. Hint: hollow points are your friend.

Manual suffocation adds an up-close-and-personal touch.

This method is fairly straightforward. Notice how the sloth covers the kitty’s nose and mouth with one smooth motion? Perfect execution! Only use this murder method on humans please. We’re not savages, after all. 😉

Sometimes, you just gotta let loose — and that’s okay.

Nothing screams you’re on the edge of sanity quite like an ax. Don’t you agree? You may want to act this one out at his place to avoid a lengthy crime scene clean up. Notice the plastic coveralls? Get yourself an identical suit but wear the hood. You wouldn’t want to leave hairs behind for the crime scene unit.

I swear, Your Honor, I had nothing to do with it. He tripped.

Do NOT harm the family dog. Please note how Miss White effortlessly pushes her lover down the stairs. So graceful, so ladylike, a little flick of the wrist and her problem is resolved.

Unless, of course, his neck doesn’t snap. Yeah, that could happen. Then what do you do? No problem. Finish him off with a quick slash to the neck like this …

Time is running out, folks. By November 1st some people may not “appreciate” a crime writer/reader’s passion to help others. Before then, it’s perfectly acceptable to say…

I’ll leave you with one final word of wisdom…

For those participating in NaNoWriMo this year, remember that. Happy hunting! I mean… writing. 😉

 

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Can Writers Lose Their Fingerprints?

By Sue Coletta

In a recent chat with Jordan, she mentioned that when she went for her TSA pre-check ID for her upcoming trip, they couldn’t detect her digital fingerprints.

They said since she spent so much time at a computer keyboard as a writer, she’s deteriorated her ridge detail.

Could this be true of all professional writers?

As you might have guessed, this question sent me down a rabbit hole of research, because I’ve had trouble with my iPhone’s digital fingerprint scan. It only recognizes my thumbprint, not any other finger. Which I figured was just a glitch with the phone. Now, I’m not so sure.

Before we can prove or disprove TSA’s conclusion, we first need to know the basics.

What is a fingerprint?

A fingerprint is a pattern of friction ridge details, comprised of ridges and valleys. A ridge is a high point, a valley is a depression or low point. Friction ridges are also found on our palms, feet, and toes. “Pattern” equals the unique characteristics of the ridges and valleys that make up the print, defined by the spatial relationship of multiple lines, their beginning and terminating points, and the unique pattern they create.

Each ridge contains tiny pores connected to sweat glands beneath the skin. When we touch an object, sweat and oils release from these pores and leave behind a print, latent or visible. The genes from our parents determine the general characteristics of the pattern.

 

Fun fact: Like human fingerprints, a dog’s nose has a unique identifiable pattern. In fact, many dog clubs now keep nose prints on file.

If you’d like to learn how to print your dog’s nose, see this post. 🙂

 

 

Sir Francis Galton was the first person to classify fingerprints into different types based on the three basic features: loops, arches, and whorls. Learn more about points, types, and classifications HERE.

Fingerprints form before birth and remain unchanged until the body decomposes after death.

There are two exceptions to “remain unchanged”…

If, say, someone sliced the tip of their finger with a knife, it may leave behind a scar. But then, their fingerprint would be even more distinguishable because of that scar.

Along similar lines, severe burns can also damage the deep layers of skin and obliterate the ridge detail. However, much like the knife injury, the scars that form would become the injured party’s unique identifiers.

The other exception has to do with the elderly. As we age, we lose skin elasticity, which may affect ridge detail. The fingerprints become wider; the spaces between the ridges narrower. Even though the fingerprint still exists, fingerprint technology may find it more difficult to detect.

Can someone be born without fingerprints?

In a few rare cases, yes. One condition called adermatoglyphia — also known as “immigration delay disease” — can result in a child being born without fingerprints. In some cases, these infants have almost no other health issues. In other cases, this condition could cause skin abnormalities, including tiny white bumps on the face, blistering of the skin, and/or a lack of sweat glands. Adermatoglyphia has only been documented in four families worldwide.

Naegeli Syndrome is another rare condition that halts the production of fingerprints in utero. Said syndrome is characterized by reticular skin pigmentation (meaning, mottled, purplish, and lace-like splotches), diminished function of the sweat glands, and the absence of teeth. Individuals with Naegeli Syndrome have sweat gland abnormalities. Not only do they lack fingerprints but they also suffer from heat intolerance due to a decrease or total inability to sweat.

Do Twins Have the Same Fingerprints?

No. Twins do not have identical fingerprints. Our prints are as unique as snowflakes. Actually, we have a 1 in 64 billion chance of having the same fingerprints as someone else.

Sci-fi writers could potentially take advantage of these odds, but it’s such a longshot that it’d be tricky to pull off.

Who’s most at risk for losing their fingerprints?

Patients undergoing chemotherapy — such as capecitabine (Xeloda), for example — are most at risk. With prolonged use of this medication, the finger-pad skin can become inflamed, swollen, and damaged to the point of erasing the ridge detail, according to DP Lyle, MD, author of Forensics for Dummies. Chemotherapy may also cause severe peeling of the palms and soles of the feet. The medical term for this condition is called Hand-Foot Syndrome.

Skin diseases like scleroderma, psoriasis, and eczema also have the potential to obliterate the ridge pattern.

Which professions cause the most damage to fingerprints?

Bricklayers and other heavy manual laborers can wear down their fingerprint ridges to the point where no pattern is visible. Secretaries and file clerks who handle paper all day can have a similar thing occur. Typists (Writers!) and piano players can suffer the same alterations. Hairstylists, dry cleaning workers, and those who work with lime (calcium oxide) are often exposed to chemicals that dissolve the upper layers of the skin, thereby flattening the ridge detail.

So, to answer our initial question, was TSA correct?

Yes! Pounding on the keyboard can wear away a writer’s fingerprints.

How might the lack of fingerprints cause problems?

Losing one’s prints can cause issues with crossing international borders and even logging on to certain computer systems.

Fortunately, fingerprint technology is always evolving and improving.

As more and more careers require hours of keyboard time, someday retinal scanners, facial recognition, and voice prints will replace the current technology.

Have you ever been told you have no digital fingerprints? Have you experienced any problems with fingerprint technology?

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First Page Critique: Singularity Syndrome

By Sue Coletta

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

Title:  Singularity Syndrome

It was just the kind of case I like. Someone was sipping data from Hurgle’s supposedly leakproof data cloud. Hurgle wasn’t an especially evil corporation—just average evil. So, I didn’t mind taking their coins to send sniffers loose in the data streams. I found the leak and plugged it for good with a worm that trashed the sneak thieves’ servers. They never knew what hit them, and my client and I never knew who they were. But that didn’t matter. They’d be back, or someone else would. The universe holds an infinite number of crackers.

It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water.

Then she called. And reminded me what kind of case I really like.

The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video. A woman with long scarlet hair, glossy in the style of years ago. She was beautiful, with lines around her eyes that showed she liked to smile. But not smiling now. Of course not. She wouldn’t be calling me if she had anything to smile about.

“How can I help you?” I’m the Finder, that’s what I do, so it’s obvious. But it helps them to start from the beginning.

“I’m worried about my husband.”

“He’s missing?”

“No.”

“Then what?”

A small crease furrowed her lovely forehead. “His behavior has changed.”

“How so?”

“He’s lost focus.”

“Is he dangerous? Accident prone? I’m not clear why you’ve called me. Why not a psychiatrist?”

“We run a business together. A significant company. He’s got some strange ideas, and they’re impacting our business.”

“If this is some corporate drama, I’m not interested.”

“I know about you.”

“Then you know I don’t care about the corps.”

“Unless it interests you.”

“And why would it?”

“I think his brain has been hacked.”

Okay, she was right. That was interesting. “His brain has been hacked or you just don’t like the way he thinks?”

“I don’t like the way he thinks, but it’s more than that. He’s not thinking the way he used to.”

“People change.”

“Yes, they do.” She let the silence draw out and so did I. I could be silent much longer than most people.

* * *

Excellent first page, Anon! The writing is crisp, exciting, and has an engaging voice. The dialogue is punchy and quick, sounds natural and believable. The MC’s personality shines through. There’s a solid goal and conflict, and you’ve dropped us into the story at an ideal place and time. I liked this opener so much, I wanted to keep reading.

Even without you having to tell the reader, we can assume the MC is male. We also get a good sense of who he is—a highly skilled white hat who works for a government agency in a specialized field (my guess is a cyber-tracker). That’s a lot of information that you subtly infused into this first page without clobbering us over the head with backstory. Well done! His name would be nice, but I’m willing to wait. See what good writing does? It tells the reader we’re in capable hands. If I didn’t learn his name for another ten pages, I’d still be content to go for the ride. Try to slip it in earlier than that, though. 🙂

Let’s see if we can improve this first page even more.

It was just the kind of case I like[d] add the “d” to stay in past tense here. Someone was sipping data from Hurgle’s supposedly leakproof data cloud. Hurgle wasn’t an especially evil corporation—just [an] average evil. So, I didn’t mind taking their coins to send sniffers loose in the data streams. I found the leak and plugged it for good with a worm that trashed the sneak[y] thieves’ servers. They never knew what hit them, and my client and I never knew who they were. But that didn’t matter. They’d be back, or someone else would.

The universe holds an infinite number of crackers. I brought this line down for greater impact; also, because you’ve switched to present tense, which isn’t wrong, btw. In this context, the statement still holds true. 

It was 13:06 hours of work by my intelligent agents while me, the Parrot and Altima [the Parrot, Altima, and I] sat around the warehouse snacking on Chapul bars and fresh water. Use the pronoun “I” when the person speaking is doing the action, either alone or with someone else. Use the pronoun “Me” when the person is receiving the action, either directly or indirectly. — courtesy of Webster’s Ask the Editor

Then she called. And reminded me what kind of case I really like. This line is redundant. Instead, I’d rather see you tease the reader here. I don’t know where you’re going with the story, but perhaps you could add something like: The woman that rocked my world, and not necessarily in a good way.

The call came in on my public comms screen with full voice and video. A woman (if you decide to use something similar to my example above, then change this to [There she sat,] with long scarlet hair, glossy in the style of years ago. She was beautiful, with lines around her eyes that showed she liked to smile (how ‘bout using “laugh” instead of “smile” here to avoid repetition, since you use “smile” at the end of this paragraph?) But not smiling now. Of course not. Not now, of course. (one sentence is tighter than two 🙂 ) She wouldn’t be calling me if she had anything to smile about.

“How can I help you?” I’m the Finder, that’s what I do, so it’s obvious (last part is unnecessary). But it helps them to start from the beginning.

“I’m worried about my husband.”

“He’s missing?”

“No.”

“Then what?” (This seems out-of-character. He’s nice enough to let her “start from the beginning,” yet here he seems agitated. How ‘bout: “Then… I’m not sure why—”)

A small crease furrowed her lovely forehead (normally I’d ding you for “lovely” because it’s a non-visual word, but here, it works to show he’s enamored with the caller). “His behavior has changed.”

“How so?”

“He’s lost focus.”

“Is he dangerous? (why would losing focus automatically make him think “dangerous”? Don’t tell us; you’ll ruin the intrigue. Just give us a hint in the right direction.) Accident prone? I’m not clear why you’ve called me. Why not a psychiatrist?” (I would delete this last question. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it. It just feels… misplaced. *shrug*) 

“We run a business together. A significant company. He’s got some strange ideas, and they’re impacting our business.”

“If this is some corporate drama, I’m not interested.”

I’d love to see her stumble over her words. “It’s not. It’s just that— What I mean is, I know about you.” “I know about you.”

“Then you know I don’t care about the corps.”

“Unless it interests you.”

“Exactly. So, lay it on me. ’Cause as it stands now, I gotta tell ya, so far this sounds like a waste of valuable time and resources.” (I added to the dialogue to increase tension. Your MC is about to hang up when the caller drops a bomb i.e. brain hack) And why would it?”

“I think his brain has been hacked.”

Okay, she was right. That was interesting. (Is a brain hack something that happens every day in your story world? If not, he needs a bigger reaction. Even if it’s as simple as confusion: Whoa. Wait. Huh?) “His brain has been hacked or you just don’t like the way he thinks?”

Both I don’t like the way he thinks, but it’s more than that. He’s not thinking the way he used to.”

(Add a lame half-shrug or another body cue that shows indifference). “People change.”

“Yes, they do.” She let the silence draw out and so did I. I could be silent much longer than most people. (Delete the last line. It adds nothing. How ‘bout something snarky instead? “If she thought she could out-silence me, she obviously didn’t have the first clue about me.”)

All in all, you did a terrific job with this opener, Anon. I really enjoyed it. Be sure to let us know how things progress with your story. So far, I’m intrigued!

Over to you, my beloved TKZers. Would you keep reading? Please add your suggestions/comments of how you might improve this first page. Do you like the title? Why/why not?

 

 

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Which Word is Correct: Coffin or Casket?

By SUE COLETTA

Last Friday I was editing what I wrote the day before in my WIP when a word stopped me cold: casket. Should that be coffin?

The specific year in question is 1901, so I needed to figure out exactly when “coffin” first became “casket”?

The words are often used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t be.

Coffins and caskets give two distinct mental images. I could ruin my scene if I used the wrong word.

Coffin

The word coffin comes from the Old French word cofin and the Latin word cophinus, which translates to basket. First used in the English language in 1380, a coffin is a box or chest for the display and/or burial of a corpse. When used to transport the deceased, a coffin may also be referred to as a pall.

The shape of a coffin resembles the shape of a body, with either six or eight sides, wider at the top to allow for the shoulders, then tapered toward the bottom—the foot, if you will. 😉

Think: Dracula movies.

Coffins date back to ancient Egypt when bodies were placed in a sarcophagus after the mummification process but before being buried in pyramids. Around 700 AD, the Celts in Europe began fashioning ornamental flat stones to coffins.

Casket

Interestingly enough, the word casket was originally used to describe a jewelry box, similar to the one George modeled in the above photo. 😀

In the mid-nineteenth century, casket took on an additional meaning synonymous with coffin.

Once morticians and undertakers started operating funeral parlors instead of mortuaries, the word coffin changed to casket because polite society considered it less offensive. The exact date still escaped me, though. I also had to consider the location of my story. What if Maine townsfolk used casket while Massachusetts residents still used coffin?

I kept digging…

A casket is rectangular in shape and often has a split-lid for viewing the deceased.

Caskets and coffins have been made of wood, cast iron, steel, fiberglass, real glass, bamboo, wicker, wool, and even gold. Wicker and wool threw me. How ’bout you? Carved whalebone, ivory, or precious metals adorned the ornamental trim, if the family coughed up the extra dough.

Both possess side handles for easy carrying. The main difference is the shape. Which, for writers as well as readers, is a pretty big deal. How would it look if pallbearers carried a triangular coffin? See what I’m sayin’? Details matter.

In 1784, a disturbing new law went into effect for a brief period. Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II declared coffins should be reused to save on wood. So, coffin-makers installed trap doors on coffin floors that would drop open as soon the wood hit the grave. After the funeral service, the undertaker would hoist the coffin out of the hole, rinse and repeat. Public outcry abolished the law six months later.

That’s all well and good — fascinating, even; I love learning new tidbits for the ol’ memory bank — but I still hadn’t answered my original question. Should I use coffin or casket in my WIP? Some might not understand a writer’s obsession over one tiny word, but TKZers know every word counts. More importantly, they must be the right words.

Next, I read about the different materials used in coffins…

From 1848 through the 1870’s Almond Fisk made some coffins out of cast-iron. Shaped like a sarcophagus, they weighed over 300 pounds. Total cost: $100. How many pallbearers would it take to carry 400, 500, 600 pounds of dead weight?

Wooden coffins sold for $1.00 to $3.00 during that time. Imagine? Today some “burial boxes” can cost a whopping $50,000., depending on material and style.

In 1950, Fisk died penniless after mortgaging his patent rights to John G. Forbes, who resurrected the company and continued the cast-iron coffin business till it folded in 1888. The affluent members of society, however, preferred cast-iron coffins to wood; they helped to deter grave robbers. In fact, some say General Ulysses S. Grant is buried in a steel casket for this very reason.

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Premature Burial added to the chaos of the 1700’s and 1800’s, when folks feared being buried alive. Which is when coffin-makers introduced the safety coffin, complete with cord and bell. We’ve all heard those stories, right? Countless novels, short stories, novellas, film adaptations, and even plays hopped on that particular bandwagon.

Poe’s The Premature Burial exacerbated many people’s worst fear.

            The lady was deposited in her family vault, which, for three subsequent years, was undisturbed. At the expiration of this term it was opened for the reception of a sarcophagus; — but, alas! how fearful a shock awaited the husband, who, personally, threw open the door! As its portals swung outwardly back, some white-appareled object fell rattling within his arms. It was the skeleton of his wife in her yet unmolded shroud.

            A careful investigation rendered it evident that she had revived within two days after her entombment; that her struggles within the coffin had caused it to fall from a ledge, or shelf to the floor, where it was so broken as to permit her escape. A lamp which had been accidentally left, full of oil, within the tomb, was found empty; it might have been exhausted, however, by evaporation.

          On the uttermost of the steps which led down into the dread chamber was a large fragment of the coffin, with which, it seemed, that she had endeavored to arrest attention by striking the iron door. While thus occupied, she probably swooned, or possibly died, through sheer terror; and, in failing, her shroud became entangled in some iron — work which projected interiorly. Thus she remained, and thus she rotted, erect.

As you can probably guess, I got sucked right into the master of darkness’ story instead of searching for the answer to my research question! It wasn’t easy — Edgar Allan Poe’s mind intrigues me — but I finally managed to refocus on the task at hand.

Turns out, I had the answer all along in my printed research paperwork, hidden in a news article. The story told of a victim’s father who argued over the price of his daughter’s coffin, believing he should be charged the wholesale price rather than retail. *facepalm*

Ah, well, I figured, maybe I can use this casket/coffin research for my Monday post on the Kill Zone. 🙂 There must be a lesson or two in here somewhere. Or maybe, just maybe, this information might save one of you research time in the future.

What say you, my beloveds? Have you ever gotten hung up on one word? Did it lead you to uncover a fascinating tidbit or two? Tell us about it.

International Thriller Writers wrote a feature article about RACKED, which I’m still *happy dancing* about. If you’re interested, you can read the full article HERE.

The ebook of RACKED is on sale for 99c on Amazon for another day or two.

*All books in the series can stand alone.

 

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A Real-Life Monster Will Soon Walk Free

By Sue Coletta

Back in 2017, I shared the story of the Toolbox Killers on my blog. I’m reposting it today to help bring attention to the case, because one of the men in the deadly duo dubbed the “Toolbox Killers” is scheduled to walk free this year.

Halloween night, 1979, 16-year-old Shirley Lynette Ledford made one fatal mistake — trusting the two men who offered her a ride. Forty-eight hours later, a jogger found her naked remains on a random front lawn in Sunland, California. Posed with her legs apart, her mutilated corpse lay in an ivy patch.

No one could have imagined the horror she endured.

If you’re at all squeamish, you may want to stop reading. The following is a true account.

It all started in 1977 when 29-year-old Roy Norris met 36-year-old Lawrence Bittaker while incarcerated at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. The two men — later dubbed “The Toolbox Killers” — shared sexually violent fantasies, which led to a maniacal pact. Upon release they planned to rape, torture, and murder teenage girls. Specifically, one girl of each teenage year from 13 to 19. Two years later, they teamed up on the outside and bought a silver 1977 GM cargo van, nicknamed “Murder Mack.”

From February to June 1979, this murderous duo picked up more than twenty female hitchhikers, not to assault but to practice luring girls into the van. They also used this time to search for a desolate locale. In April, they discovered a secluded fire road in the San Gabriel Mountains. Crowbar in hand, Bittaker snapped the lock on the gate to the fire road and replaced it with his own.

All they needed now was a victim.

On June 24th, 16 year-old Lucinda Lynn Schaefer left her Presbyterian Church meeting in Redondo Beach. She couldn’t have known the evil that awaited her.

After Bittaker and Norris finished constructing the bed in the rear of the van, beneath which they placed tools, clothes, and a cooler filled with beer and soda, they drove to the beach around 7:45 p.m. Lucinda was walking down a side street, and Bittaker remarked, “There’s a cute little blonde.” But their first attempt to entice her into the van was unsuccessful. Bribes of marijuana, beer, and a ride home didn’t work. So, they drove past her and parked alongside a driveway, where Norris exited the vehicle, slid open the side-door, and leaned into the van with his head and shoulders obscured from view. As Lucinda passed by, she exchanged a few words with Norris before he pounced, dragging her into the van.

That moment sealed her fate.

With bound wrists and ankles, her mouth duct-taped, Lucinda had no way to defend herself. Despite her initial scream, the only thing she could control was denying these monsters the satisfaction of witnessing her pain.

“She displayed a magnificent state of self-control and composed acceptance of the conditions of which she had no control,” claimed Bittaker in a written statement. “She shed no tears, offered no resistance, and expressed no great concern for her safety. I guess she knew what was coming.”

With the radio volume at full-blast, Bittaker drove to their pre-arainged spot in the mountains. Norris remained in the back of the van with Lucinda. Once on the fire road, the two men took turns raping Lucinda while the other “took a walk.” The only thing Lucinda asked for was “a second to pray” before Norris attempted to manually strangulate her. Forty-five seconds in, and he became so freaked out by her protruding eyes he ran to the front bumper of the van and vomited.

Bittaker remained unfazed. He wrapped his vice-gripped fingers around her neck, her body slowly wilting to the ground. When the convulsions started Bittaker snaked a wire coat hanger around Lucinda’s throat and squeezed it tight with pliers — an act both men would repeat again and again.

The Toolbox Killers - Lawrence Bittaker

Lawrence Bittaker at his trial in 1979.

Norris and Bittaker rolled Lucinda’s dead body in a plastic shower curtain and tossed her into a canyon, where they expected wild animals to cover their heinous act.

A similar cycle occurred two weeks later when the murderous pair spotted 18-year-old Andrea Joy Hall hitchhiking along the Pacific Coast Highway. After raping and torturing Andrea, they forced her to pose for Polaroids. Sheer terror shone in her eyes as she pleaded for her life. Neither man listened. Instead, they drove an ice pick through her skull, strangled her, and then tossed her lifeless remains off a cliff.

On September 3rd, Jackie Doris Gilliam and Jacqueline Leah Lamp waited at the bus stop near Hermosa Beach. Luring the two girls into the van with marijuana and a free ride worked remarkably well. Until the girls noticed Bittaker wasn’t heading toward the Pacific Coast Highway. Rather, he drove toward the San Gabriel Mountains. When 13-year-old Jacqueline slid open the side-door in an attempt to escape, Norris slammed her over the head with a pre-filled bag of lead weights, knocking her momentarily unconscious. He then bound and gagged 15-year-old Jackie Gilliam. But Jacqueline regained composure and again tried to flee. Sadly, she was no match for Norris, who wrenched her arm behind her back and dragged her back into the van.

The Toolbox Killers

Roy Norris shortly before his arrest.

Meanwhile, Bittaker, noting the struggle was in full view of potential eyewitnesses, slid the shifter into park, climbed in back, and sucker-punched Jacqueline in the face, then assisted Norris in binding and gagging the two girls.

They finally arrived in the San Gabriel Mountains, where Jackie and Jacqueline were held captive for nearly two full days, repeatedly raped and forced to pose for pornographic Polaroids.

Bittaker tape-recorded the first time he’d raped young Jackie, telling her to “feel free to express your pain.”

At trial, Norris claimed he buried the cassette in a nearby cemetery, though it’s never been recovered.

These poor girls were tortured in unthinkable ways, including having their breasts punctured with an ice pick. Norris also tore off one of Jackie’s nipple with pliers.

Even death didn’t come swiftly. Bittaker drilled an ice pick into both of Jackie’s ears before strangling her to death. He beat Jacqueline with a sledgehammer, strangled her for fun, beat her again, and then strangled her to death. The Toolbox Killers tossed both bodies over an embankment into a California chaparral.

From the grave Shirley Lynette Ledford, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this post, ignited the strongest emotional response in the jurors and courtroom audience. The prosecutor played 17 grueling minutes of a tape recording that showed the amount of terror Shirley endured before death. The transcript of which you can find here. Before you click that link, I need to caution you. This isn’t easy reading, nor is it easy to listen to the first few minutes of the accompanying video, where Shirley’s blood-curdling screams carry through closed courtroom doors. This sweet, young girl endured masochist behavior at the hands of pure evil. Proceed at your own risk.

Some say 16-year-old Shirley Ledford accepted a ride on that fateful Halloween night because she recognized Bittaker from the restaurant where she’d worked as a part-time waitress. Apparently, Bittaker was a regular.

Moments after Shirley climbed inside the van, Bittaker drove to a secluded side street while Norris drew a knife. He then bound and gagged Shirley with barricade tape.

The nightmare had begun.

Bittaker traded places with Norris, who drove aimlessly for over an hour as Bittaker tormented Shirley, ordering her to “scream louder. What’s the matter? Don’t you like to scream?”

On tape, Shirley pleaded with Bittaker. “No! Don’t touch me!” To which Bittaker replied, “Scream as loud as you wish,” and then bludgeoned her with a sledgehammer, punched her breasts in order to “beat them back into her chest.” As Bittaker raped and sodomized Shirley repeatedly, he tortured her with pliers, tearing her insides till she was no longer “rape-able,” according to Norris.

At trial, Norris described “screams … constant screams” from the rear of the van.

“We’ve all heard women scream in horror films … still, we know that no one is really screaming. Why? Simply because an actress can’t produce some sounds that convince us that something vile and heinous is happening. If you ever heard that tape, there is just no possible way that you’d not begin crying and trembling. I doubt you could listen to more than a full sixty seconds of it.” ~ Serial Killer Roy Norris

Don’t be fooled by that quote. Norris has an IQ of 135. So, even though he tried to downplay his involvement during his testimony, he still switched places with Bittaker to torture and sexually assault this young girl. Norris was also the one who switched on the tape recorder to memorialize their sadistic treatment of Shirley. Both men were equally vicious. They had no empathy for the victims or their families. In my opinion, Norris deserved equal punishment, but he was able to cut a deal by testifying for the prosecution.

Shirley Lynette Ledford

Back in the van, Shirley saw Norris grab the sledgehammer, and screamed, “Oh no! No! No! No! Please, no!”

Norris struck her in the left elbow, shattering the bone. Shirley begged him not to hit her again, but he didn’t listen. Norris struck that same broken elbow 25 more times.

When he finally stopped, he glared at Shirley, who was sobbing, shaking, and terrified.

“What are you sniveling about?” he said.

“Please, just do it! Kill me!”

After two solid hours of unfathomable torture, Norris finally killed Shirley by strangling her with a coat hanger, tightening the wire with pliers. Bittaker opted to pose her body on a random lawn in Sunland to gauge the public’s reaction. Norris agreed. So, under the cover of darkness, Bittaker played look-out as Norris posed Shirley’s mutilated remains on an ivy patch. Not wanting to waste his last chance to humiliate this poor girl, he wrenched open her legs.

Death by lethal injection is too kind for these two, IMHO. They deserve to die like Shirley, Jackie, Jacqueline, and many others.

The autopsy revealed extensive blunt-force trauma to Shirley’s angelic face, head, breasts, left elbow, with her olecranon (the bony tip of the elbow) sustaining multiple fractures. Torn genitalia and rectum was caused in part by Bittaker raping her with pliers. Her left hand bore a puncture wound and a deep slash mark scarred the finger on her right hand. At trial, Bittaker claimed the tape recording was nothing but a threesome, but added that toward the very end Shirley Ledford pleaded for death.

Can you blame her? There’s only so much pain a body can endure. I’d probably pray for death, too.

Investigators eventually found the remains of Jacqueline Leah Lamp and Jackie Doris Gilliam in the San Gabriel Mountains. The bodies of Lucinda Schaefer and Andrea Hall have never been found.

As for Bittaker, an initial execution date was set for December 29, 1989, which Bittaker appealed. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision and set a new date of execution for July 23, 1991. And again, Bittaker appealed. Only this time, on July 9, 1991, the court granted a stay. As of 2017, Lawrence Bittaker remained on death row in San Quentin State Prison.

In total, police found 500 Polaroids and identified 19 missing girls, but Norris only admitted to five murders before he stopped talking. The parole board denied his request for release in 2009. But this year, 2019, he will have served his full 45-year prison term. The worst part? He promised to “have a little fun once he gets out.”

Let’s all take a moment to remember these innocent victims who died way too young, way too brutally. Hug your children a little tighter tonight. This monster will soon walk free.

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One Writer’s Strange Encounter with a Reader

By SUE COLETTA

Joe’s Saturday post inspired me to share a strange encounter I had with a reader last week. I loaded up the SUV for my annual trip north to appear at a 5-star library in New Hampshire (rated by Library Journal). I’ve all but given up on libraries for book signings, but this library has the coolest librarian/director I’ve ever met. She’s a walking contradiction! Inside the library, she’s quiet, polite, and super helpful. When she locks the library doors, however, she really lets her hair down, hops into her supped-up Mustang convertible and races down the streets—a quick streak of blue and white whizzing by. I adore this woman! Every signing, successful or not, ends with a hug. Which keeps me coming back year after year.

Sometimes my timing is perfect. Other times, not so much.

Last week, the local priest decided to hold his retirement party across the street from the library on the same night as my book event. Needless to say, it wasn’t my most successful signing ever. Didn’t matter. Whether we’re speaking to a packed room or only three or four readers trickle in, we still need to put on the same show. Sometimes a more intimate setting is really nice, as it gives us the opportunity to chitchat with the folks who read our books.

Unless you get an angry-looking woman in the front row who does nothing but glare at you.

All she wanted was for me to keep reading excerpts, one after another. It was strangest thing. Every time I stopped she’d point to another book and ask me to read the opening chapter. No one else objected, so I gave her what she wanted. After I read about four, I was beginning to feel like a puppet on a string. So, I asked her why she’d rather hear me read than chat with me.

Her response? “I don’t even think about the writer when I read. I don’t care about the research. I don’t care about the story behind the story. All I want is the next book.”

“Wow,” was all I managed before the librarian jolted to her feet.

“I care,” she said, “I care very deeply for writers.”

The others in the room agreed.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking, how sad. Here this woman sat surrounded by books lining every wall, every partition. Decades, if not centuries, of writers who’d worked endless hours, alone, pecking the keyboard or typewriter or writing longhand by candlelight, their joys, their sorrows, their laughter and pain spilled across the pages, and this poor woman was incapable of seeing any of it. Didn’t care to, either, apparently. But even if she continued to disrespect writers, I wasn’t about to stoop to her level and spout an equally snarky comeback. I’m a big believer in karma. So, I gave her a free signed paperback and thanked her for coming to the event.

If you haven’t done book signings yet, let me put your mind at ease. For every one clueless reader, there are thousands of others who cherish every word. Readers who sit our books on a shelf of honor because they loved it so much. Our characters become their best friends, sometimes their only friends. When these devoted readers finally get the chance to meet the writer who brought their beloved characters to life, they shower us with love. Some might even mistake the writer for one of their characters. You know what? That’s okay, too… unless she’s a Delores Claiborne type. 😉 It means our words, our stories, touched their lives in some way.

Isn’t that why we write?

Please excuse me while I share my love for those who read my books. I’ve been blessed with an amazing, generous, thoughtful, kind, funny, loving, and downright nutty audience. It’s no secret that I adore crows, right? I’m so enamored with these birds that I’ve set out to change the public perception that crows are pests. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Spotting one in the yard does NOT equate to a bad omen. These amazing creatures—the smartest of the bird world, by the way, along with their cousin, the raven—do NOT bring death and destruction. They’ve been saddled with an unjustified bad reputation for no apparent reason. It’s time to stop judging birds by the color of their plumage.

Ahem. Excuse me. I get a little carried away when it comes to breed profiling. 🙂

Anyway, since I share my love for Poe (my crow who lives free, yet comes when called) along with Edgar, Allan, Thoreau, Shakespeare, and the rest of my black beauties (some of which I’ve turned into characters for my Mayhem Series) readers are now decorating my office with crows. Here are a few I received this summer…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over to you, TKZ family. Have you ever heard a similar remark as the woman in the library? If so, how’d you handle it? Tell us about your strangest — or best! — encounter with a reader?

*I’m on the road today, researching, so I may be late responding to comments.

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