How (and where) To Research Historical Crime

By SUE COLETTA

A few regular readers of TKZ requested tips to help research criminal cases from the past. If the crime occurred in the 18th or early 19th century, the task becomes much more difficult. My hope is that these tips will aid you in finding reliable information.

Let’s say you only have a name, place, and approximate year for your victim or killer. The first logical step is to conduct a Google search to see what’s available online. Someone must have written about the case, right? Well, not necessarily. Sometimes you get lucky and find a couple articles, other times … *crickets* Which I happen to like, because it means the industry isn’t saturated with books on the same topic. But it’s also harder to find what we need. Not impossible; we just need to think like an investigator.

GENERAL TIPS

If you find an online article about the crime, do not solely rely on that information. Instead, within said article search for the author’s sources. Most true crime writers will either link to another source or cite where they gathered their facts from, and that’s where the gold resides.

My overly suspicious crime writer brain tends to question where bloggers and/or journalists get their facts. To satisfy my own curiosity I use a three-source rule. Meaning, if I can’t verify a fact with two other sources, then I don’t consider it a historical fact.

By the way, this is my personal rule, not an industry requirement. Although, some publishers do ask that you verify each major fact with one other source. Even if they never request the citation, their legal department might. So, be sure to keep a log of where you find information, both primary and secondary sources. It’ll save you from having to go back to find where the killer said something, or whatever.

There’s one exception to my three-source rule…

Suppose I find a newspaper article that I am able to authenticate with a trial transcript, deposition, or other court document. Because I have the primary source (court document) which says the same thing, then the newspaper article gains credibility. If I don’t have access to a primary source for verification, then I need two secondary sources to substantiate the fact(s).

True crime readers expect the truth, not our fictional interpretation. It’s our job to question a reporter’s research and not take what s/he says at face-value. They want to sell newspapers, so facts can often be embellished or sensationalized. When I first started searching through old newspapers (I’ll share where you can find them in a sec), I was shocked to find misinformation, discrepancies, untruths, and rumors stated as fact. Embellishments help to create eye-popping headlines but can also hinder a true crime writer/researcher if we’re not careful.

For example, there’s a lot of online content about one of my five female serial killers due to the fact that she rocked the nation with her cold-bloodedness. But all these articles weren’t ideal. If anything, they muddied the water. In order to separate fact from fiction I had to wade through opinions, theories, innuendoes, and rumors. You may have to do the same. My best advice is to roll up your sleeves, consider it a challenge, and dig in. 😉

PRIMARY vs. SECONDARY SOURCES

Think of research as a bullseye, with the killer and/or victim at the center. The first ring around the bullseye includes eyewitness accounts, investigative reports, court testimony, the killer’s journal and/or confession — primary sources. Moving outward, the next ring would be secondary sources, such as a newspaper article written by a journalist who interviewed someone involved with the case (killer, detective, juror, DA).

The third ring includes newspaper articles written by someone with no first-hand or second-hand knowledge. To get the article written on time they simply regurgitated information from other articles — that’s where you’ll find the most mistakes. In this ring you’ll also find bloggers, some credible, some not.

See why I created a three-source rule? If we were to write historical nonfiction using only the third ring as our primary source, the book and its author would lose all credibility among historical nonfiction readers as well as writers. I’ve read numerous snarky remarks about true crime writers who play fast and loose with the facts. Since I would never advocate to spotlight another writer’s inadequacies, I’ll leave it at that. My point is, research as though the whole world is watching. It’ll keep you honest. 🙂

HOMING IN ON PRIMARY SOURCES

One of the best places to gather historic information is the National Archives. Once called the Archival Research Catalog (ARC), which retired in 2013 and was replaced with the Online Public Access (OPA) prototype, the National Archives Catalog searches all web pages on Archives.gov and lists articles, pdf documents, books, and periodicals on a search result page. Along with catalog records, researchers are able to add notes that may cite additional sources, so during your search also be mindful of gold nuggets hidden in research notes.

The current catalog provides access to over two million electronic records in the Electronic Records Archives (ERA). These digital records aren’t available elsewhere. The National Archives is a fantastic place to find reliable primary source material.

Now, suppose the case you’re looking for hasn’t been digitalized. In that case you’ll need to Google “National Archives of [insert the state capitol where the crime occurred].” Note the email address and send a formal record request. The more information you provide, the greater your chances of gaining results. Record requests take about ten business days to complete.

If the crime you’re researching was not heard in federal court, then you’ll need to drop down to the state level. Google: “[state where crime took place] State Archives.” Example: Massachusetts State Archives. This may sound like the same place as above, but it’s not. State Archives house court records on the district court level.

Then there’s the Supreme Judicial Archives. In Boston, it’s a separate building with a separate email address. This may not always be the case, though. You’ll need to find out how it works in the state you’re researching, but you can use this example as a guide.

Prepare to spend time on the phone with law libraries and historical societies. The folks who work in these places are extremely helpful, and they love writers. The law library directed me to a wealth of information that I wouldn’t have gotten on my own, because they have access to databases that the public does not. Search for the county where your crime was committed, then add “law library.” For example, I searched for “Barnstable Law Library” for one of my female serial killers.

For my New Hampshire killer, the local historical society had diaries tucked inside an old box, with daily logs written during the string of murders. The gentleman who wrote these diaries knew the victims and the killer. Scoring a firsthand account of a centuries old murder case is difficult to find, but when it happens, it’s the best feeling ever.

See why it pays to keep digging? You never know what you might uncover next.

Most police departments are useless, as they don’t keep investigative records that long. It’s still worth sending a quick email, though. If I didn’t contact one particular department, I would have never known that the town where my killer operated housed their own independent archives that were a lot more detailed than the records I’d acquired elsewhere. It also gave me two primary sources to check facts against.

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

As you may have guessed, a great place to find old newspapers are libraries. Depending on your subject’s location, many libraries have transferred newspapers to microfiche. Be sure to have the month and date for the librarian. If the crime you’re researching made national headlines, you may even luck out at your local library.

But wait …

Before you truck down to the library, check out the Library of Congress. They list 15,273,703 digitized newspaper pages from 1789-1963. Always best to save the shoe leather whenever possible. 🙂

Remember, as you research, search for primary source material to verify your secondary or thrice-removed accounts. Readers will thank you for the added effort.

Researching historical crime takes time and patience, but it’s also fun to piece the puzzle together. Just don’t get discouraged. For every three or four dead ends, you’ll stumble across something new and exciting that’ll set your writer brain ablaze.

I better stop there before this post morphs into a book. Do you have any research tips to share?

 

 

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How To Write Nonfiction Book Proposal

By SUE COLETTA

Remember my last post, entitled Why Waiting is Difficult? Well, I’m happy to report that my wait is over!!! And now, I can share my good news.

In May, Globe Pequot (Rowman & Littlefield) reached out to me about writing a true crime novel about female serial killers of New England who were active prior to 1950.

Some of you may have read the story on my blog, so I won’t bore you by repeating all the details here. Suffice it to say, Pretty Evil, New England: Female Serial Killer’s of the Region’s Past is anticipated to hit stores Fall 2020. Yay!!!

For those of you who missed the announcement on my blog, the acquisitions editor gave me two weeks to send her a book proposal. And like any professional writer, I assured her that a two-week deadline would not be a problem. When I hung up, panic set in.

What did I know about writing a nonfiction book proposal? Not a darn thing!

Plus, I now had mountains of research into historical female serial killers. I’ve written true crime stories on my blog many times, but never a novel-length true crime book. This was a huge opportunity, with a well-respected publisher in a new-to-me genre. All I kept thinking was, if you blow this chance you’ll regret it forever.

Once I managed to get my breathing somewhat regulated, I contacted my dear friend, Larry Brooks. You probably know this from his time on TKZ, but it bears repeating — he is amazing! Not only did he assure me that the editor didn’t contact the wrong author for the job, he explained in detail what she was looking for in the proposal. Most importantly, he told me why she’d asked for certain things, from a nonfiction publisher’s point of view. Knowing “the why” helped me focus on what to include. Incidentally, Jordan was also a godsend through the entire process.

See why it’s important to befriend other writers?

On TKZ, we’ve talk a lot about the business side of writing. In nonfiction, it’s important to show how and why the proposed book will be profitable for the publisher. My situation was a little different, since they came to me, but I still followed the same format as if I’d cold queried. After all, the acquisitions editor still needed the board to approve the project before offering a contract.

So, today, I’d like to share the proper format for a nonfiction book proposal. If you find yourself in a similar situation, perhaps this post will save you some agony.

Each heading should start a fresh page.

Title Page

Title

Subtitle

Author’s Name

If you’re cold querying an agent and/or publisher, then also include your address, website, phone number, blog address, and agent contact info, if applicable.

Table of Contents for the Book Proposal

Keep this basic format and chapter headings unless the publisher/agent guidelines asks for something different. Next, I’ll break down each chapter to show what to include.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Overview …………………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Target Market …………………………………………………………………….   (page #)

Competitive Titles …………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Author Bio …………………………………………………………………………   (page #)

Marketing Plan …………………………………………………………………….   (page #)

Length & Special Features …………………………………………………………  (page #)

Chapter Outline …………………………………………………………………….  (page #)

Sample Chapter …………………………………………………………………….  (page #)

Overview

You need to hook the agent/editor with a strong opener and establish why the subject of the book is of interest to a definable audience and what your book offers to this market. A sales representative has an average of 14 seconds to sell a title to a bookstore buyer, and the editor in a publishing board meeting has only a few minutes to convince colleagues of the potential of a book.

A few questions to consider …

What’s the book about? What’s your pitch? Does the book fill a need? Why are you the right author to write this book? Are you passionate about the subject matter?

Target Market

You cannot say “this book will appeal to men and women from 18-80,” because it won’t. Instead, you need to provide an actual target audience with real figures to back it up.

Where do we gather these statistics? Social media is a great place to start. Search for Facebook groups about the subject of your book. For example, I included Serial Killer groups, True Crime groups, Historical groups, and groups related to New England, like the New England Historical Society. For each group, I listed the subscribers and, where available, a breakdown of the members’ gender, age group, etc. Next, I went to YouTube and searched for podcasts related to my subject matter. I also included a brief psychological study of why true crime attracts women.

See what I’m saying? Think outside the box to find your audience.

What if you’re proposing a cookbook? You can still use social media as a jumping off point, but I’d also search for culinary classes. Are your readers likely to subscribe to certain magazines? List the circulation numbers. Is your book geared toward college students? Call the universities.

Take your time with this section. It’s vitally important to prove there’s an audience for your book. Publishing board meetings sound more like product development meetings. By providing accurate, measurable data, you’re helping the acquisitions editor convince the board to approve your project.

Competitive Titles

Search bookstores, Amazon, barnesandnoble.com, Books in Print, and libraries. You want to show at least five title that would be considered competitive or at least somewhat related to the subject of your book. For each competitive title, provide author’s name, title, price, publisher, publication date, ISBN, any known sales figures, rankings, or other indications of the book’s success.

I also used this section to show why I chose to focus on five serial killers instead of ten (as proposed by the editor), with titles that proved my theory.

Author Bio or “About the Author”

Unless you’re proposing a memoir, write your bio in third person. Include why you’re qualified to write this book, as well as previous publishing credits and accolades. If you’re short on publishing credits, then include tidbits about yourself that show your passion and/or expertise in the subject matter.

Marketing Plan

How do you plan to market this book? Does your blog get lots of traffic? List how many hits per month. Also include the number of email subscribers, social media followers, etc. List speaking engagements. For example, I included a list of venues I appear at every year (all in New England).

If you’re writing a how-to, do you teach courses? Workshops? Have media exposure?

Length & Special Features

Here, you include word count, photographs, or other special features of the book. I can’t divulge the special features for my book, but again, I thought outside the box to make the book unique.

Table of Contents

There is no pantsing in nonfiction. You’ll have to outline each chapter, with eye-catching headlines, and list them here. To give you some idea of the work, I had 50 chapters in my book proposal, each chapter meticulously plotted. Will they change once I complete my research? Maybe, but the publisher expects you to stick fairly close to the original. After all, that’s the book you sold.

Sample Chapter(s)

Follow the agent/publisher guidelines on length, etc. They’re looking for writing style, tone, and voice. Now that the business side is completed, this is your chance to shine!

And that’s about it, folks.

Nonfiction writers, did I miss anything? Please share your tips.

Fiction writers, have you considered writing nonfiction? If so, which subject/genre are you interested in?

 

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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+

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+

How To Use False Eyewitness Testimony in #Thrillers

By SUE COLETTA

Forensic Psychology is a fascinating field, especially as it relates to eyewitness testimony. Can we always trust our memory? Let’s test your observation skills. In this short video, count the number of times the ball is tossed from one white-shirt player to another. Sounds easy enough, right? Give it a try.

Well, how’d you do?

This phenomenon is called inattentional blindness. Your mind perceives what’s happening, but you do not attend to it. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with your eyes. But for some reason this information is more subconscious than conscious. The best known demonstration of inattentional blindness is a study performed by Simons and Chabris (1999) known as Gorilla in the Midst.  It’s highly copyrighted so I couldn’t embed it here, but if you’d like to check it out, click the title.

Imagine the implications inattentional blindness has on eyewitness testimony? Often times victims of violent crime are so focused on the gun they see little else.

Change blindness is another phenomenon that effects key elements of our surroundings, including the identity of the person right in front of us, even if that person has changed places with someone else. If you’d like to use change blindness in your WIP, check out The Door Study.

The implications of change blindness on eyewitness testimony could delay solving the crime. Always a good thing in thrillers. A detective could be led down numerous dead-ends, and so could the reader.

In a violent crime, “weapon focus” muddies the waters. Participants in another study watched a film of a kidnapping attempt. Would it surprise you to learn that actions were better remembered than details?Eyewitness testimony

Action Details

When we witness a crime, we absorb the information by the actions that happened during the commission of the crime. For example, a man pointed a gun at a woman, pushed her into his van, and sped away. The central information — what an eyewitness focuses on — and the peripheral information — what’s happening around said eyewitness — often becomes skewed with the surge of adrenaline.

Such findings suggest that when we witness a traumatic event, our attention is drawn to the central action at the expense of descriptive details. Yet, in other circumstances, such as non-violent events, our attention may be spread more evenly between the two.

Which brings us back to inattentional blindness. This phenomenon occurs when attention is drawn toward only one aspect of an eyewitness’ surroundings, resulting in lack of information. Which writers can use to our advantage.

Weapon Focus

The use of weapons complicate matters even more. When a gunman brandishes his firearm, an eyewitness tends to focus on the pistol rather than other details, such as the suspect’s hair and eye color, build and dress. Researchers have tested this theory, as well.

In the study, they showed participants videos of robberies — robbery involves a weapon and a victim; burglary does not— where one group witnessed the robber with a concealed pistol and other group witnessed the robber with the gun in plain sight. When researchers asked the concealed weapon group to identify the robber in a line-up, only 46% of participants could identify the suspect. From those who watched the video where the robber brandished the weapon, only 26% could identify him.

Schemas

In order for an eyewitness to be able to answer a question, they must be willing to respond. And it’s this willingness that can impair their memory of the events. Not everything we “see” or “experience” is stored in our minds. Our brains don’t work like computers where each bit is encoded. Rather, we make connections to other things in order to process information. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve written about Subliminal Messages on my blog.

Episodic memories — memories involving an event — are organized in our minds as “event schemas.” This allows us to store knowledge, events, and activities by connecting to what we classify as “normal.” In other words, rather than remembering every time we dined at our favorite seafood joint, we tend to build a general impression of seafood restaurants … the smell, the atmosphere, and so on.

However, the use of schemas can distort memories. The perfect example of this is when someone asks me about my childhood, then asks my brother. From our answers one might think we grew up in different households. Many factors contribute to how we remember times and events. Such as, influence. When gaps exist in our memory we tend to incorporate new information in an attempt to fill in the blanks. Although useful in everyday life, this poses real problems for investigators, because this new information is often constructed after the crime took place, and leads to false testimony.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into Forensic Psychology. We’ve barely scratched the surface. Next time, I’ll share how an investigator should pose questions to an eyewitness. Perhaps you could use the techniques in your WIP. Would that interest you?

So, TKZers, how many of you saw the gorilla? Are you tempted to use false eyewitness testimony in your WIP?

12+

Does Your Story Have a Solid Foundation?

By SUE COLETTA

Most writers know this business can be soul-crushing at times, even if we don’t like to talk about it. As can life. This past week, my husband and I secured a mortgage and were over-the-moon excited to close on Friday. The house we’ve been living in for almost 7 years would finally be ours. On Wednesday, we received a call that told us the house had been deemed unsellable. Briefly, 30 years ago a mobile home stood on the land. Rather than remove the old mobile in its entirety, the then-owner stripped it down to the steel beam and built a beautiful 1 ¾ story country contemporary on top of it, rendering the property unsound. Unpredictable. Unsellable, except to a cash buyer who doesn’t glance at the deed.

Because the previous owner cut corners with the foundation, it throws off the entire house. Same holds true for our stories. Without a solid foundation — key milestones, properly placed — the story won’t work, no matter how well-written. The pacing will drag. The story may sag in the middle. The ending might not even be satisfying. It all comes down to the foundation on which the story stands.

After the mountain of paperwork involved to secure a loan, that day our mortgage disappeared. The closing got cancelled. It felt like someone tossed a Molotov cocktail through our living room window, and the fireball obliterated our hopes and dreams. We’d invested a lot of time, money, and effort into this property. We built a home. To receive a call like that two days before closing likened to a gut-punch.

Once we formed Plan B, a scary but exciting venture, I envisioned a parallel to writing. Specifically, the early days when harsh critiques and rejection letters cut deep. It’s never personal, even though sometimes it may feel like it. Writers, however, need to learn this lesson on their own, in their own time. More experienced writers can try to help those who aren’t as far along in their journey — like we do on the Kill Zone — but it’s all part of the process. Writers’ skin thickens over time. The trick is to allow yourself to fail, allow yourself to feel the pain of a harsh critique, poor review, or rejection letter, and then learn from it and move forward.

There is no rewind button for life, but we can press pause.

I applied this same logic to the house situation. For about 36 hours, we didn’t tell a soul. No one. My husband and I needed time to gather facts, talk through what happened, and then re-evaluate our options. The same holds true for writing. If you receive hard-to-handle news, step away from the keyboard and give yourself permission to absorb the blow. It may take ten minutes; it may take two weeks. We bounce back at different rates. When you’re ready, return to the source and re-evaluate with clear eyes. I guarantee you’ll see things differently.

We can’t change the past, but we can change the future.

After 36 hours, we informed “The Kid” who immediately jumped online to look for properties. Kids don’t like their parents’ lives in disarray, which is why we waited to tell him once we’d processed the initial shock. Then we told our closest friends. They sprinted across the dirt road to offer encouragement. My point is, we surrounded ourselves with positivity.

Positivity begets a renewed outlook on life (and writing). Negativity brings nothing but sorrow and unnecessary turmoil.

Trash-talking about how Agent X has no idea what she’s talking about won’t change the fact that she rejected the manuscript. Nor will lashing out at the writer who critiqued your first page. Instead, find writers who will tell it like it is, writers who’ve stood where you might be standing now, writers who will help you see the forest for the trees. I love that expression. It’s visceral. It’s raw. It’s truth.

In life as well as writing, sometimes the unapologetic truth isn’t an easy thing to hear. Yet it’s exactly what we need to move forward, to grow, to find acceptance in the unacceptable. Even if my husband and I had a spare $150K kickin’ around, buying an unsellable house would be a horrible investment.

When life hands you lemons …

I truly believe we’re meant to walk a certain path. When we misstep, life has a way of nudging us back on course. So, after I came to terms with the fact that moving was inevitable, the question then became: If we weren’t meant to buy this house, then why put us here in the first place? Admittedly, the anger may have lingered a bit longer.

Now I understand why.

A little over a year ago, “The Kid” bought 3.5 acres a few house lots down from us. It’s a gorgeous parcel of land nestled under a canopy of tall pines, maple, birch, and oak trees, with a stunning mountain view and a wildlife trail that runs through the back. My husband logged out truckloads of timber, clearing a secluded but serene house lot. At the same time, “The Kid” installed a driveway and had the land surveyed and perk-tested before he and his wife decided to put the land on the market. With three children under the age of 4, it ended up being a stressor they didn’t need.

The land never sold.

When one door slams shut, open a window.

Had we never moved into this house and stayed as long as we did, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to build our dream home now … a few house lots over on land we already love. We envision relaxing on the back deck, watching black bear, moose, and deer stroll through the yard. That’s the plan, anyway. If for some reason it doesn’t pan out, we’ll readjust again.

Give yourself permission to fail, in your writing as well as IRL. Then get back to the keyboard and move forward. Only you can make your dreams come true.

Ellle James’ new press ensured Fractured Lives released in paperback before she left for vacation, which added some well-needed excitement to the week.

Three couples, the perfect Maine vacation, and a fateful night that blows everyone’s mind.

Also available in ebook.

 

6+

Recognizing Writing Tics – First Page Critique

By Sue Coletta

We have another brave writer who submitted their first page for critique. I took the liberty of breaking up the paragraphs for easier reading. Anon, white space is our friend. My comments will follow. Enjoy!

Untitled

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman. Deafening and chilling screams, echoed through the steel door.  Andromeda found herself in a small room, with cold metal walls, a plain steel table, metal bed with a thin mattress and blanket, and an uncomfortable looking metal chair. She was a tall, beautiful young woman, whose long black hair fell down to her shoulders, and slightly covered her almond shaped face.

An eerie chill pierced the air in the room, and Andromeda wasn’t sure if the goosebumps that followed were because of the woman screaming, or the total lack of insulation in the room – likely a combination of both.

Andromeda looked around the room, her heart pounding through her chest. Her attempts to remember how she got here was futile; the only thing she remembered was cleaning up after her best friend and roommate Sofia, who was recuperating from the flu.

After disposing of soiled tissue paper and disinfecting their dorm room, Andromeda turned on some classical music and tucked herself in bed. After that, there was a black spot in her memory. She sat up in the bed that she woke up in, and began to stretch and look around the room.

Dressed in a white t-shirt, gray fleece shorts, and white socks, she began to walk around the stark and unoccupied room, looking for anything that may give her a clue as to where she was. She wrapped her arms around her body, bracing herself for the shudder and chills that followed.

The room had the look and feel of a military interrogation chamber: there were no windows, no traces that anyone even knew she was there. But someone knew she was here, the same someone who put her in this place. Suddenly, Andromeda was reminded of the screams as they began again, growing increasingly louder, followed by a loud “BOOM!” Andromeda ran to the door, preparing her mind to bang on the door with all of her might, to hell with alerting whomever put her in this room; the only thing on her mind was escaping. However, before she could even touch the door, it receded into the floor.  Andromeda fell face first onto the cold, hard, metal floor of the hallway. The palms of her hands were burning, and so were her legs.

***

After reading this piece several times, I still can’t figure out if it’s a dream sequence or if it’s the opener for a fantasy novel. The last line indicates the events happened in the real world—how else would her hands and legs be burning?— so my guess is we’re in a fantasy world. If this is a dream, however, we need to be careful not to trick the reader. Opening with a dream is risky. Does that mean we can never do it? No. But we do need to learn the rules of storytelling before we break them.

Let’s set aside the last two sentences for a moment.

Our hero is actively searching for a means of escape while at the same time, wrestling with how she landed in an unfamiliar room. Anon didn’t give away too much too soon, either. Which is great. An opening page should raise story questions and pique the reader’s interest. Our goal is to make it impossible not to flip the page. Anon, I really hope this isn’t a dream, or it’ll undo all the conflict and tension you’ve worked so hard to create.

Writing Tics

Believe me, we all have our fair share of words we favor, extra words (overwriting), and unnecessary words that get in the way. The trick is learning how our writing tics weaken our writing.

This first page is littered with began. It may seem nitpicky to mention it, but it popped right out at me. Our goal is for individual word choices to deliver the right balance of cadence, emotion, transparency, and rhythm, so the reader enjoys the story with no hiccups. Words like began and started detract from the action.  Allow me to show you what I mean.

First line of the excerpt …

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman.

If we only remove “began to be” …

The smell of burning wood and flesh drowned out the sound of screams … the screams of a woman.

See how more immediate that reads? Next, let’s shuffle a few words around so the reader can share in the experience.

Screams drowned out the smell of burning wood and flesh … the screams of a woman. 

Better, but it still needs a few tweaks. By being specific and intentional we paint a more vivid picture …

High-pitched screams collided with the stench of burning flesh … screams of a woman.

Next line: remember to introduce the hero right away so the reader knows who’s telling the story. While we’re at it, let’s deepen the point of view by removing all telling words i.e. smell, sound, remember, knew, thought, felt, etc.

Inside the cramped room with metal-lined walls, Andromeda [last name] jolted upright in an unfamiliar bed, the bare mattress yellowed, torn.

Adding Inner dialogue allows the reader to empathize with our hero. Let’s add that here …

Where was she?

We still need sensory details and conflict …

Rotted meat blended with the warmth of a campfire. Plumes of smoke billowed through the barred-window in the steel door—her only source of air. And light. No windows, no other doors, no means for escape. A steel hydraulic table sat in the corner, a trickle of blood snaked down one leg, the remaining surface polished to a glossy shine.

Hero’s reaction …

Andromeda’s heart thrashed, rattling her ribcage. Was her captor incinerating live victims?

Put it all together …

High-pitched screams collided with the stench of burning flesh … the screams of a woman. Inside the cramped room with metal-lined walls, Andromeda [last name] jolted upright in an unfamiliar bed, the bare mattress yellowed, torn.

Where was she? 

Rotted meat blended with the warmth of a campfire. Smoke billowed through the barred-window in the steel door—her only source of air. And light. No windows, no other doors, no means for escape. A steel hydraulic table sat in the corner, a trickle of blood snaked down one leg, the remaining surface polished to a glossy shine. 

Andromeda’s heart thrashed, rattling her ribcage. Was her captor incinerating live victims?

See how these tweaks pull the reader deeper into the story?

Because it feels like this brave writer is early on in their journey, I added a few quick tips rather than bleed red ink all over the excerpt. I’d hate to be responsible for shattering the magic that keeps us thirsting for knowledge, keeps us creating. The beginning of our journey is an important time in every writer’s career. The muse is running wild and possibilities are endless.

Quick tips

  • Watch your adverbs; words like suddenly don’t add tension;
  • Be specific; rather than “some classical music,” name the composer;
  • All caps are reserved for acronyms, not for words like “Boom”;
  • Use active voice, not passive; this post may help;
  • Followed by, for the most part, is similar to began and started in that we need to reword to make the action more immediate;
  • Anytime you write “herself” you lessen the point of view i.e. tucked herself in bed. Instead, try something like: she slipped under the covers. Or, she swung her legs under the blanket.

I hope these tips help with your next draft, Anon. If this first page isn’t a dream, you have the makings of an intriguing story. Wishing you the best of luck!

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

 

 

3+

Let Me Tell You a Story [Video]

By Sue Coletta

In the video, I tell you a story. After you watch it, we’ll deconstruct how and why I told the story this way. I’m hoping this will help new writers who submit their first pages for critique. For the seasoned writers, please add tips that I’ve missed.

Pardon my lack of acting skills. LOL Catch ya on the flipside.

Did you notice all the things I didn’t say? Learning what not to write is just as important as learning what to put on the page.

The first line tells the audience “someone I buried thirty years ago visited” but I’m vague. The audience doesn’t need to know more than that yet. Tease the reader into finding out on their own.

Our characters experience a slow build of emotion. In the video, I breeze over sharing my emotions because it’s visual. With the written word, we need to describe what the character is feeling, thinking, internal body cues, what she smells, etc., to paint that same vivid picture in the reader’s mind. Which, in my opinion, is why books are more visceral than movies. The reader experiences the story right along with the characters.

Let’s tear apart the transcript to see the inner workings of the scene.

Please note: For some reason I told the story in present tense. Let’s blame the humidity. 🙂 In writing, however, we should remain in past tense, with a few exceptions that’ve been discussed on TKZ before. I corrected the tense in the transcript below.

Blue brackets show the structure, green shows Motivation-Reaction Units (MRUs). Notice the rhythm.

Ready? Here we go …

Someone I’d buried over thirty years ago visited me last night. [HOOK] Hooks the reader right away and plants story questions in their mind. A good opening line forces the reader to continue. It also hints at the story to come and defines the genre.

The next paragraph introduces the main character without bogging down the writing with backstory. At the same time, we’re giving the reader a reason to empathize with, or relate to, our hero.

I was sitting at my desk, reading my manuscript, reading the story through one last time, second-guessing every move I made from the opening scene to the end, when static from the TV drew my attention. <-- First hint of trouble. [GOAL] [MOTIVATION IS 2ND PART AND TWO LINES BELOW]

It was off. Yet, it popped, crackled, hummed. <-- We’ve begun to build suspense. I should add, in writing it’s best to substitute a generic word like “it” with the item we want the reader to visualize. [CONFLICT]

We’d just bought the television last December. <-- One line of backstory to show why this situation is unusual. Don’t tell me it’s goin’ already. <-- Inner dialogue helps the reader relate to our hero. [REACTION]

When silence enveloped the room, I shrugged it off as one of life’s mysteries and got back to work. <-- Adds to characterization and sets up the following inner dialogue, so the reader doesn’t get confused. [1ST HALF IS MOTIVATION, 2ND IS REACTION]

Gee, I really love the storyline, the way it ebbs and flows. But is that the right word? Is this the right reaction for the scene? I don’t know …

Pop. Crackle. Hum. <-- There’s the conflict again — the antagonist force isn’t going away. [DISASTER] [MOTIVATION]

My gaze shot to the flat-screen. That’s weird. It’s almost like it’s trying to turn itself on. That can’t be right … can it? <-- Reaction, emotions building. If written, I’d trigger the senses here. [REACTION]

As my jaw slacked, voices in the other room whirled me around. I was alone in the house. <-- Stakes. [MOTIVATION]

Maybe the breeze carried my neighbor’s conversation through the screens. Wouldn’t be the first time. <-- Reaction. Even though emotions are on the rise, our hero still tries to reason the strange happening away. [ABOVE IS ALL REACTION] [REACTION FOR MRU, TOO]

Once again, I focused on my manuscript. <-- Hero tries (and fails) to ignore the conflict. I guess that word works. Yeah, it’s pretty good. Plus, I’m running out of time. <-- Inner dialogue allows the reader inside the hero’s head.

I glimpsed the clock. One hour left to turn it in. <-- Micro-conflict.

I read on.

The voices from the sunroom grew louder and more intense. <-- Antagonist force grows stronger and more visible. Stakes rise. Suspense increases. [DILEMMA] [MOTIVATION]

What the heck’s goin’ on? <-- Reaction. If this was a written scene rather than a visual one, I’d add more emotion and inner turmoil here. [REACTION]

Unable to concentrate, I swiveled out of my desk chair. <-- Our hero is forced to act.

Slow. Cautious. I snuck through the kitchen to the French doors. <--Action, punctuated with sentence fragments to help build suspense. Crackling blurs the voices of talk radio. <-- The hero realizes what’s happening. This also sets up the reveal at the end of this scene. [LAST SENTENCE IS MOTIVATION]

My eyes widen in disbelief. With my head swiveling like a pinwheel on a stick, scoping out the room in all directions, I tiptoed toward the stereo. <-- The hero’s emotions have reached a crescendo. If written, add more visceral details. [DECISION] [REACTION] Sure enough, the switch clicked up one notch to AM. <-- The antagonist force is revealed, but we still don’t know why or what it wants. When we raise more story questions we force the reader to flip the page. [MOTIVATION]

Oh. My. God. She’s come back. <-- Sets up future scenes and, hopefully, makes the reader fear for our hero. [REACTION]

Now, could I have shared a better story? Absolutely. But the reason I chose to use this particular story is because everything I told you in the video is true. This happened to me last week.

Quick SEO tip: When including video in your post add [Video] to your title. The bracketed word tells bots to crawl the post. Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. give video the highest priority. I’ll share more SEO tips with you soon or you can learn more here!

TKZ family, please share your favorite writing advice, writing quote, or something that resonated with you that will help new writers on their journey.

 

 

Read the opening scene of CLEAVED, and you’ll see the same storytelling structure in action.

 

 

 

 

3+

The Wagon Wheel of Suspense

By Sue Coletta

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

Gym Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

NITTY-GRITTY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Fashioned Wagon Wheel Garden Fountain

NOTES

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

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

THE WAGON WHEEL OF SUSPENSE

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

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

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

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

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

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Better Book Descriptions in 3 Easy Steps

By SUE COLETTA

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

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

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

A 3-Step Formula

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

Step 1: Headline/Hook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 2: Short Synopsis

The synopsis also follows a micro-formula…

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

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

Synopsis of Her Last Tomorrow by Adam Croft

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

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

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

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

I Am Watching You by Teresa Driscoll

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

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

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

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

Synopsis of Guilty by Laura Elliot

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

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

Six years later … [4]

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

* * *

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

Step 3: Selling Paragraph

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

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

Sounds good, but will I like it?

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

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

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

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

CLEAVED by Sue Coletta

 

 

How far would you go to save your child?

CLICK HERE to look inside CLEAVED.

 

 

 

 

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

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