Writing Wisdom from Gary Provost

Jim’s Reader Friday question got me thinking. What is the special sauce that ignites a writer’s brain? Would a new writer know when to run with an idea and when to let it go? Maybe. Maybe not.

With that in mind, I’ll share the following tips from critically acclaimed author and beloved writing instructor, Gary Provost. Incidentally, these tips can be used for fiction and nonfiction, if your nonfiction falls into the “story” category (i.e. true crime, historical, narrative nonfiction, etc).

Gary Provost created a simple paragraph to encapsulate the dramatic arc in a story.

Once upon a time… something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.

This works because of its classic dramatic structure, which is the most satisfying type of story for the reader. It’s brilliant, if you take the time to dissect it. For now, I’d like to concentrate on a quick and dirty shortcut to test a story idea.

Gary Provost thought of stories in terms of a series of “buts.”

Joyce is a poor secretary, but she meets a millionaire and marries him.

She’s married to a millionaire, but the marriage goes sour.

She wants to end the marriage, but she (allegedly) thinks she’ll be left penniless.

She perhaps has a motive for murdering her husband, but so do other people.

After the murder, police suspect her, but she passes two polygraph exams at two different times and places. One, a highly regarded expert.

She passes the polygraphs, but the court rules they will not be allowed. But a federal court rules in a different case that the polygraphs can be allowed.

She goes back to court to get the polygraph tests allowed, but Judge Smith still will not allow them.

Someone claims to have heard shots at 3:30 A.M., but the medical examiner says that Stanley died around 5:30 A.M., consistent with Joyce’s story. She seems to be telling the truth, but it was five minutes from the time of the Colorado phone call to the call to 911.

Joyce allegedly says to Officer Catherine Parker, “I shouldn’t have done it,”but Parker never reports this.

Three days after the murder a cop tells the medical examiner that he saw signs of lividity, indicating that the body had been dead for a few hours.

But Wetli, the medical examiner, reviews his material, still comes to the same conclusion. Stays with that conclusion for three years.

No charges against Joyce, but the Miami Herald starts an anti-Joyce campaign, demanding that she be brought to justice.

Newscaster Gerri Helfman is about to get married, but her father is murdered.

No charges are brought against Joyce, but Stanley’s family pressures the state’s attorney’s office to come up with something.

And on and on it goes.

The above series of “buts” Provost used in a book proposal for a true crime book entitled Rich Blood. The proposal started a bidding war between publishers.

In the end, he decided to write Deadly Secrets instead. Turned out to be the right move because Deadly Secrets became the mega-hit Perfect Husband: True Story of the Trusting Bride Who Discovered Her Husband was a Coldblooded Killer.

Use a series of “buts” to test your story idea. Obviously, a “but” won’t fit every sentence. When it doesn’t, try “and then.” But a “but” should follow “and then” soon. Why? Because “buts” are complications. Complications = conflict. And conflict drives the story.

Example:

Husband kills wife, and then stuffs her body into a 3ml bag, and then drives to a secluded area to bury her, but his foldable spade isn’t in the backseat. Did the neighbor borrow it again?

When you write don’t keep all the “buts” and “and thens.” Think in those terms, but you don’t want all of them in the final draft. Over time your story sensibilities will automatically search for (nonfiction) and/or apply (fiction) this rhythm.

The point is, whether we write fiction or nonfiction, we need to find the story beneath the headline or first spark of an idea. Without a narrative driven by conflict, the story will fall flat.

Five pieces of wisdom from Gary Provost’s 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.

  1. A writer’s most important vocabulary is the one he or she already has. 

Learning new words is much less important than learning to use the words you already know. Think about your ideal reader. If he or she wouldn’t understand your word choice, you might as well be writing in a foreign language. Over time finding the right word becomes easier, almost a subconscious act. Until then, be intentional with every word.

  1. A lead should have energy, excitement, an implicit promise that something is going to happen or that some interesting information will be revealed.

Whether a lead is the first sentence, the first paragraph, or even the first several paragraphs of your story, it should pique a reader’s interest by raising story questions and give readers someone (or something) to care about before delving into the backstory.

Act first, explain later.
—James Scott Bell

A strong lead delivers on the promise it makes.

  1. When writing a beginning, remove every sentence until you come to one you cannot do without. 

Meaning, make your point by answering “who, what, when, where” in the first paragraph. Make the reader wait for “why.” Unless, of course, the why is the character’s goal.

A topic sentence contains the thought that is developed throughout the rest of the paragraph. The topic sentence is commonly the first sentence in a paragraph. For each paragraph ask, “What do I want to say here? What point do I want to make? What question do I want to present?” Answer with a single general sentence.

When you edit, ask how each sentence works for the paragraph. Ask why it’s there. Does it have a purpose? Great! Then keep it. If you can’t pinpoint why you included that sentence, hit DELETE.

  1. Style is form, not content.

In writing, the word style means how an idea is expressed, not the idea itself.

A reader usually picks up a story because of content but too often puts it down because of style.

 

  1. To write is to create music.

The words you write make sounds, and when those sounds are in harmony, the writing will work.

 

Gary Provost was highly regarded as an author, sought-after speaker, consultant, and celebrity biographer.

“The writers’ writer” authored thousands of articles, columns, and dozens of books covering most every genre. His highly acclaimed Writers Retreat Workshop, and video and audio courses remain available through writersretreatworkshop.com.

What’s your favorite piece of advice here? Care to add a tip?

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When Opposites Attract

Foils and antagonists are two types of characters that serve different functions. An antagonist or villain works in direct opposition to the protagonist or hero. The antagonist presents obstacles to thwart the hero from achieving his or her goal. The foil, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily working against the hero. A foil’s qualities simply differ from the hero’s.

The hero and foil often work together, such as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The key difference between the foil and antagonist is that the antagonist’s actions oppose the hero while the foil’s character traits create conflict. Also, a foil shines the spotlight on another character’s personality traits and/or flaws, without necessarily thwarting their plans. When done right, however, there will be conflict!

The term “foil” came into its current usage as a literary device from the concept of putting tin foil behind a gemstone to make it look more brilliant. The foil character works in the same way—to add credibility to the hero or to spotlight his or her faults.

Opposing personalities add a great deal to a story. Pairing these two characters can transform a ho-hum scene into one with explosive conflict. But we need to—dare I sayplan these character traits in advance. 😉

Conflicting personalities rub against one another, which allows the writer to maximize slower moments within the plot. After all, if everyone in the scene “plays nice,” we risk boring the reader. With a bit of character planningoh, my, there’s that word again—clashing personalities lead to conflict-driven scenes.

If the hero dances on the edge of the law, the foil might be hyper-vigilant about following rules of any kind. If the hero never follows directions, the foil might be a map enthusiast. If the hero’s loud and extroverted, the foil might be shy, quiet, and reclusive.

Positioning the foil and main character in close proximity will draw readers’ attention to the hero’s attributes. A story could have more than one foil. In my Mayhem Series, I created a foil for my hero and another for my villain.

By crafting opposites, these characters’ scenes crackle with tension. Foils show the hero’s and/or villain’s strengths and weaknesses through friction. Remember to include the element that ties the two characters together, a believable bond that’s stronger than their differences.

Since Garry mentioned my video excerpt in the comments on Thursday, I’ll include it as an example of the foil/hero relationship. Don’t worry. There’s no need to watch the entire video (unless you want to). You should recognize the opposing personalities pretty quick.

Have you used a foil in your story? Please explain. Or: What’s your favorite fictional foil/hero relationship?

As bloody, severed body parts show up on her doorstep, Shawnee Daniels must stop the serial killer who wants her dead before she becomes the next victim.

But can she solve his cryptic clues before it’s too late? Or will she be the next to die a slow, agonizing death?

Preorder for 99c on Amazon.

Releases April 20, 2021.

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First Page Critique: How To Improve a Compelling Opener

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments/suggestions will follow. Enjoy!

Expendable

Prologue 

Kate turned right onto her parent’s street only to find a street jammed with police cars. A cacophony of lights, flashing red and blue, backlighting people hurriedly moving against the night sky. My parents will certainly be outside watching, she thought. As she drew closer, she was alarmed to see her parent’s house isolated by swags of yellow police tape. 

She jerked her car to the curb and ran toward the chaos.

“I’m sorry, miss. You can’t go up there.” A policeman seemed to appear out of nowhere.

“But, I live here,” she lied.

“This is your house, miss?”

“It’s my parents’ house. I live with them. Please let me through.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. You can’t go up there.” The officer blocked her path and motioned to a man in an overcoat, standing near the garage. The man closed his notepad as he walked over. The two men had a brief exchange before the one in the overcoat spoke.

“Miss, my name is Detective Montoya.” A badge swung on a ball-chain around his neck. “You live here?” he said, opening the notepad again. She nodded. He put his hand on her shoulder, guiding her to a place on the lawn, away from the activity. He began writing as soon as she answered. Asked her name along with a few other questions. She gave terse answers, anxious to get inside. He asked whereabouts that evening requiring a lengthy explanation about her late class on Wednesdays. Each answer seemed to beget another question.

“Miss, what we’re looking at here is a double homocide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself. 

“No,” she said, covering her mouth with both hands. She battled her mind to keep from considering the obvious. “That’s impossible. No, it can’t be. Let me see,” she tried to force her way past him.

“I can’t let you in. It’s pretty gruesome. I don’t know that you could handle it.”

“I need to go inside.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, miss. Right now, it’s a crime scene and we can’t take the chance of you contaminating it.” 

“Look,” She said. “You owe me something. You can’t ask me to endure the entire night wondering if I’m still part of a family or not.” Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

The writer did so many things right. We’re dropped in the middle of a disturbance, s/he raised story questions, added relatability for the heroine, and I could (somewhat) feel her frustration, fear, and anxiety. Great job, Brave Writer! As written, I’d turn the page to find out what happens next.

Let’s see if we can improve this opener even more. Brave Writer included a note about using a prologue. I hope s/he doesn’t mind if I include it here.

I have never considered doing a prologue before but this allows me to describe a major event that will be referred to various times during the story as well as give some backstory about the protagonist and tell the reader what kind of story to expect.

Prologues

The correct reasons to use a prologue are:

  • the incident occurs at a different time and/or place from the main storyline
  • to inform the reader of something they can’t glean from the plot
  • to foreshadow future events (called a jump cut, where we use the prologue to setup an important milestone in the plot)
  • to provide a quick-and-dirty glimpse of important background information without the need of flashbacks, dialogue, or memories that interrupt the action later on (no info dumps!).
  • Hook the reader into the action right away while raising story questions relevant to the main plot, so the reader’s eager to learn the answers.

It sounds like you’re using a prologue for the right reasons. Keep in mind, if you plan to go the traditional route, many agents and editors cringe when they see the word “prologue” because so many new writers don’t use them correctly. If you can change it to Chapter One, you’d have an easier time.

Point of View 

For most of the opener you stayed inside the MC’s head.

Two little slips:

“Miss, what we’re looking at here is a double homocide homicide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself.

See how you jumped inside the cop’s head?

Same thing happened here:

Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

Stay inside the MC’s head. One scene = one point of view.

Dialogue

The dialogue is a bit stiff. I’ll show you what I mean in the “fine tuning” section. For now, I highly recommend How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by our very own James Scott Bell.

First Lines

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the first line, but I think you’ve got the writing chops to do even better. Let the first line slap the reader into paying attention.

To quote Kris (PJ Parrish):

  • Your opening line gives you an intellectual line of credit from the reader. The reader unconsciously commits: “That line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.”
  • A good opening line is lean and mean and assertive. No junk language or words.
  • A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. It says something interesting. It is a stone in our shoe that we cannot shake.
  • BUT: if it feels contrived or overly cute, you will lose the reader. Especially if what follows does not measure up. It is a teaser, not an end to itself.

“The cat sat on the mat is not the opening of a plot. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is.”  – John LeCarre

To read the entire post, The Dos and Don’ts of a Great First Chapter, go here.

Fine Tuning

I dislike rewriting another writer’s work, but it’s the easiest way to learn. I’ve included quick examples of how to tighten your writing and make the scene more visceral. Keep what resonates with you. After all, I don’t know where the story is headed.  

Kate turned right onto her parent’s street only to find a street jammed with police cars. A cacophony of lights, flashing red and blue, backlighting people hurriedly moving against the night sky. My parents will certainly be outside watching, she thought. “Thought” is a telling word. The italics tell the reader it’s inner dialogue. As she drew closer, she was alarmed to see her parent’s house isolated by swags of yellow police tape. “Alarmed” and “see” are also telling words. Remember, if we wouldn’t think it, our POV character shouldn’t either. Some writers have a difficult time with deep POV, which we’ve discussed before on TKZ. It’s one element of craft that we learn at our own pace. For more on Deep POV, read this 1st page critique. In the meantime, here’s a quick example to show you what I mean.

The swags of yellow police tape surrounding her parent’s house quickened her heartbeat. What happened? She’d spoken to Mom and Dad last night. Granted, the call didn’t last long. Mom said she had to go because someone knocked at the door. Endless questions whirled through her mind. Were they robbed? Are they hurt? Did Dad fall again?

She jerked her car to the curb, threw the shifter into Park, and ran sprinted toward the chaos, the soles of sneakers slapping the pavement. Use strong action verbs to paint a clearer mental image. Plus, I slipped in sound. With important scenes, tickle the senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, taste—for a more visceral experience.

A policeman seemed to appeared out of nowhere. Moved to the beginning to show who’s speaking. Here, too, you can paint a stronger picture: A meaty-chested cop blocked her path.I’m Sorry, miss, but you can’t go past the police tape.”

“But, I live here,” she lied. Not bad but think about this: She’s just happened upon a chaotic scene at her parents’ house. Would she be calm or hysterical? “Get the hell outta my way.” She swerved around him, but he hooked her arm. “I live here.”

His head jerked back. “This is your house, miss?”

“It’s my parents’ house. What’s the difference? I live with them. Please Let me through!

I’m sorry, ma’am. Sorry, but you can’t go up there.” Is the house on a hill? If so, you need to tell us sooner so “up there” makes sense. The officer hollered over his shoulder to blocked her path and motioned to a man in an overcoat (trench coat?), standing near the garage. “She’s the daughter.” The man closed his notepad as he walked over. The two men had a brief exchange before the one in the overcoat spoke.

Mr. Trench Coat hustled over, a badge bouncing on the chain around his neck. As he neared, he extended his hand, but she couldn’t shake it. Not yet. Not without knowing what happened. Miss, My name is Detective Montoya. And you are?

“[Insert her name]” Now the reader knows who she is.

Okay, [name]. Let’s talk in private.” He put clamped a his hand on her shoulder and guided, guiding her to a place on to the lawn, away from the activity. Describe the activity. Example: away from photographers snapping pictures, from uniformed officers guarding the front door, from men and women in white coveralls strolling in and out with evidence bags.

A badge swung on a ball-chain around his neck. “Do you live here?” he said, opening the notepad again.

Tears rose in her throat, and she could only nod.

He began writing as soon as she answered. Asked her name along with a few other questions. The detective would hold her gaze. She’s the daughter of two murder victims and he needs as much information as possible before he breaks the news.

She gave terse answers, anxious to get inside. Don’t tell us. Show us!

He asked whereabouts that evening requiring a lengthy explanation about her late class on Wednesdays. Each answer seemed to beget another question. Don’t tell us. Show us!

“Miss (since he knows her name, he wouldn’t call her miss), what we’re looking at here is a double homicide homicide. We’re still investigating.” Twenty-seven years as a cop told him it was likely her parents but kept it to himself.  This dialogue doesn’t ring true. A detective would try to avoid telling her about her parents until she forces him to, which gives you the perfect opportunity to add more conflict through dialogue.

Example:

“When’s the last time you spoke to your parents?”

“I dunno. Before I went to class, around eight. Why?”

“Did they mention anything unusual? A strange car or someone they didn’t recognize hanging around the neighborhood?”

“What? Why? Are my parents okay?”

“Did they meet anyone new recently?”

“Are they in the ambulance?” She peeked around him, but he stepped to the side to block her view. “Look. I’m done answering questions. Get outta my way.”

“[Name], I’m sorry to inform you, your parents…” His words trailed off, his voice muffled by the ringing in her ears.

“No.” Head wagging, she slapped her hands over covering her mouth with both hands. She battled her mind to keep from considering the obvious. What’s the obvious? Do you mean, the truth? Also, “considering” is a telling word. “No. What you’re saying isn’t That’s impossible. I just spoke to them. I’ll prove it to you. it can’t be. Let me see,” She tried to force her way past him. Don’t tell us. Show us! Example: She shoved him away, but he wrangled her flailing arms, pinned her wrists to her side.

“I can’t let you in. It’s an active crime scene now. pretty gruesome. I don’t know that you could handle it.” A detective would never tell the daughter of two murder victims that “it’s pretty gruesome,” nor would he even consider allowing her into an active crime scene whether “she could handle it” or not.

Instead, show us what’s happening around her. Example: The coroner’s van sped into the driveway. Two men dragged a stretcher from the back.

Our heroine entered a chaotic scene. She’d be on information overload, with sights, sounds, smells all around her, almost too much to process.

“Please.” She waved praying hands, her chest heaving with each hard breath, tears streaming over her cheekbones. “Please let me see them. Please.. go inside.

“C’mon, let’s get you out of here.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, miss. Right now, it’s a crime scene and we can’t take the chance of you contaminating it.” 

“Look.” she said. Remove tag. We know who’s speaking. She stomped the grass. “You owe me something kind of explanation. What happened to my mom and dad? Who did this?You can’t ask me to endure the entire night wondering if I’m still part of a family or not.” Instinct told him to say no but she had a point.

Wrap it up soon. Prologues should be short. Unless, of course, you decide to make this Chapter One. 🙂 

Brave Writer, I nitpick the most promising first pages because I know you can write and write well. If I thought otherwise, you’d see a lot less red. 😉 You’ve given us a compelling opener and plenty of reasons to turn the page. Take a few moments to see the forest for the trees. The elements I’ve focused on are meant to enhance your storytelling abilities. So, yell, scream, curse me, then get back to work. You’ve got this. Great job!

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

Side note: I won’t be around today. What I’m doing is super exciting (!!!), but I’m not at liberty to speak publicly about it yet. Fill you in later…

Join me, Laura Benedict, and many others on Zoom for Noir at the Bar. Win a signed paperback in the giveaway!

When: Sat., March 20, 2021

Time: 7 pm CST/8pm EDT

Tickets are FREE (limited to the 1st 100 fans)

Where: Comfort of home

Register: noiratthebar.online

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First Page Critique: Scattershot

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. Catch ya on the flip-side.

Scattershot

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  We had it planned, Tom and I. We said goodbye to friends – hoping retirement would be an adventure in everything we did. To drive cross country to New England, a picture postcard of snow and autumn leaves coloring the landscape in hues of red, orange, and yellow.  The Coronavirus took my Tom a week before the move.  His labored breathing and limp body placed in the ambulance drove him to the hospital.  I tested negative.  I never saw him again.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.   Oh sure, plans change, but no one ever thinks death will stop you cold.  Well, it stopped Tom and the hospital confirmed my worst fears.  Grateful to the nurse who held his damp, feeble hand, I listened to his last gasp from the speakerphone.  Tom was gone, the house was sold, and the movers expected me in Connecticut in two weeks to unlock the door.  My new life began without the love of my life.

My name is Joanna Seavers, and I am a 59-year-old retired teacher living in the age of Covid-19 or the Coronavirus or whatever the hell it’s called.  Who knows, and who cares?  All I know is the world stopped for Tom and me in 2020, and everyone else for that matter.

One thing I’ve learned in life, even in a pandemic, is never stop planning. It’s what keeps you alive.  You need a reason to get up in the morning, so I got up.   The pandemic wound down, and I drove north.  Businesses reopened and the population was injected with the second shot of the lifesaving serum.  Mask wearing became optional, but on occasions, I still wore the cloth covering my nose and mouth.  You can’t be too careful in a crowd.

Driving down the highway, the virus in my rearview mirror and Alfie, Tom’s faithful bird dog, really a raven, sitting in the passenger’s seat.  Not sure why my husband had a pet raven, but the relationship remained solid for fifteen years.  I read somewhere domestic ravens have a life span of 40 years, so it was a good thing Alf’s loyalty shifted to me.  We clicked and his companionship sustained me as we drove from the Bay Area out of California, not looking back to what we had lost.

I like the voice of this first page. The biggest problem for me was the lack of emotion. The words are there, but it’s not visceral. You can’t gain empathy for Joanna unless the reader feels her pain. As written, she doesn’t seem all that broken up. If Tom’s death is the trigger that kickstarts Joanna’s quest, it needs to pack a bigger punch. Because the first time I read this page, I thought maybe she’d planned his death…till she mentioned the coronavirus.

Dig deeper, Brave Writer. She’d pinned all her hopes and dreams on retiring with Tom. They had plans, plans they talked about for years. Where’s the grief? Where’s the heartache? Where’s the anger over not having the chance to hold him on his deathbed, of one last kiss, of professing her undying love to the man she’s spent a lifetime with? Tom’s death acted more like a minor blip in Joanna’s life.

To deliver a bigger bang, you need to let the emotions unfold gradually. We’re not fine one minute and hysterical the next. Emotions build in layers, change and intensify, and finally reach a crescendo. For Joanna, Tom’s death should be soul-crushing.

Actually, this is the perfect example of why JSB recommends interviewing characters.

A few questions for Joanna could be:

When did you first know Tom had the virus?

What made you call an ambulance?

How did you feel when the medics said you couldn’t accompany Tom to the hospital? Lost? Empty? Frightened?

Did you have a physical response?

Who broke the news of your husband’s decline? What’d s/he tell you? How did it feel to hear those words?

Are you a different person without Tom? What’s changed?

The reader doesn’t need to know every detail, but you do. Joanna’s past will affect her future. You may be thinking, but Sue, Joanna’s the type to raise her chin and forge ahead. Fair enough. But her silent keening should still bleed through.

Five Stages of Grief

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

The character should bounce between each stage to mimic real life. A step forward to depression, two steps back to anger, etc.

Infuse Emotion

I like the echo of “It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” but let’s force the reader to feel those words.

Quick example:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We had a plan, Tom and I. We had a chance at a new beginning, a fresh start. We had hopes and dreams for retirement. But now, emptiness consumed me, the pit widening more each day. If the movers didn’t expect me in two weeks, I’d never leave Tom’s grave. How did this happen? Why us? We were so careful, so diligent about protection. We made all the right moves. And for what? So I could drive cross-country alone?

Notice I never mentioned what happened to Tom. All readers know is he’s dead, she’s devastated. Let the reader flip pages to find out why. In the next paragraph offer a bit more and get the hero moving.

Example:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Tom and I dreamed of life in New England, with its snow glistening on autumn leaves, hues of Scarlet, orange, and gold-painted landscapes. Pointless now. Muted shades of black and gray zipped by the driver’s window. Up ahead, a motorist leaned under the raised hood of a minivan. (Or whatever the case may be.)

 I added the motorist to accomplish two things:

  • It gets our hero moving, active rather than ruminating.
  • It hints at trouble to come.

Delete the part where Joanna introduces herself. It’s the lazy way out. You can do better.

Add dialogue. Keeping with my motorist example…

I pulled in behind the van, and a man craned his neck around the side of the hood. Not a female. Crap. I should’ve let Dr. Rosenthal change my prescriptive lenses before I left.

The stranger approached my window. “Thanks for stopping.”

“No problem.” I held a tight smile, jabbed a chin at the van. “What happened?”

“Outta oil. I could use a lift to the gas station.”

Joanna resists. The motorist pushes. Against her better judgment she gives in. Blah, blah, blah. During the drive the conversation turns.

“Really appreciate this.” He blows into cupped hands (the cold signals she’s on the east coast). “I’m Frank, by the way.”

“Joanna.”

Boom. Now the reader knows her name. Keep in mind, Joanna’s a woman alone. Other than her first name she isn’t likely to tell this stranger her life story.

“What do you do, Joanna?” The way he said my name raised the tiny hairs on my forearms.

“Retired.”

“From what, Joanna?”

Never had my name sounded so creepy. Tom wouldn’t have allowed a stranger in the car. If he were alive, we’d be halfway to Connecticut by now. (See how I slipped in her destination without slowing the pace?)

Frank rested his hand on my knee. “Joanna?”

Mute, my gaze shifted between his hand and the road. “Is the gas station much farther? My husband’s expecting me.”

“So, you’re not from the area?”

“Umm, I…uh…”

“Where are you from, Joanna?”

Each time my name rolled off his tongue my stomach somersaulted, flipped, acids splashed against the liner. Damn you, Tom! We vowed to grow old together. You promised to never leave me.

“Michigan,” I lied, unwilling to share details about my route from the west coast to the east.

And on and on it goes. I don’t have room for a line edit, but keep in mind there’s only one space after a period.

Pets

The last thing I’ll mention is the raven who materialized out of nowhere. As a die-hard corvid lover, I hope you’re not using the bird as symbolism for doom, gloom, or death. Pets needs a valid role in the plot. If the raven doesn’t fill that need, please consider removing it.

As written, it doesn’t sound like Joanna ever bonded with the family pet, a gigantic bird whose lived in her home for 15 years. It’s odd. When a wife loses her husband, (or vice versa) she clings to any and all traces of him, including his possessions (i.e. Tom’s favorite football jersey, the collar saturated with his scent). A loyal feathered baby should act like Joanna’s life preserver, and not a pet she hardly knew.

Main Takeaway

Concentrate on the fine art of storytelling, less focus on backstory. Allow readers to get to know Joanna in bite-sized pieces. Force the reader to flip pages. And they will, if you avoid filling in the blanks right away. The inclusion of story questions, conflict, dramatic moments, and hints of danger (valid or misinterpreted) helps to create a compelling mystery that strangleholds the reader.

Thank you for sharing your work with us, Brave Writer. Pandemic stories will flood the marketplace, if they haven’t already. Thus, it’s more important than ever to craft a visceral thrill ride so yours rises above the rest.

Over to you, TKZers! I excluded a few things to avoid turning this post into a book, so please mention them in the comments. How might you improve this first page?

+12

Writing Tips from Elmore Leonard’s Boyd Crowder

If you haven’t watched Justified, check it out. It’s a goldmine for writers. The FX series is based on Elmore Leonard’s short story, Fire in the Hole, and three books, including Raylan. In fact, all the actors wore wrist bands that read WWED — What Would Elmore Do?— to stay true to the creator’s vision.

Elmore Leonard worked on the show till his death in 2013.

The series follows Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal, played by Timothy Olyphant, who returns to his hometown of Kentucky to take on the local criminal element. Boyd Crowder, an old friend, proves to be his toughest nemesis. Raylan may be the hero, but Boyd, the villain, steals almost every scene. Boyd is calm, funny, and deadly. The back-and-forth between Boyd and Raylan is absolutely mesmerizing. Elmore Leonard did a masterful job of creating these two characters.

I’m not sure if we mere mortals could pull off such a memorable character like Boyd, but he sure is inspiring. Aside from Leonard’s expert characterization, the remarkable talent of Walton Goggins never lets you see the full picture as clearly as you think you do. Just when you’ve figured Boyd out, he switches sides and teams up with Raylan to bring down a bad guy.

Writing Tip: The best villains have at least one endearing characteristic.

To Elmore Leonard’s credit, Raylon also blurs the line between hero and anti-hero.

Writing Tip: The best heroes are flawed.

Fun fact: Walton Goggins only signed on for the pilot episode, in which Boyd was supposed to die, but Elmore Leonard wanted to explore the character in more depth. The rest, as they say, is history.

Boyd Crowder’s Characterization

Rap sheet: Silver-tongued bank robber turned low-level Kentucky kingpin with higher aspirations and an occasional religious “born again” streak.

Superpower: Nobody who knows this many 50c words has fewer compunctions about stabbing you in the back. Nobody likely to stab you in the back knows this many 50c words.

Kryptonite: He’s desperately in love with his former sister-in-law.

Writing Tip: When crafting characters think outside the box.

What makes Boyd truly stand out is his poetic dialogue, which we’ll get to in a sec. First, let’s look at a few of his one-liners.

Arguing with a man who has renounced reason is like giving medicine to the dead.

I believe you dictate the river of fate through your own actions.

I’ve learned to think without arguing with myself.

A man who speaks out both sides of his mouth deserves to have it permanently shut.

I’ve been accused of bein’ a lot of things. Inarticulate ain’t one of ’em.

He’s right! I should probably note: Until you’re as famous as Elmore Leonard, attempting the following dialogue in your WIP might not work. 😉

Boyd: Well, well, well… I hesitate to ask what brings us the pleasure of this divine coincidence that we find ourselves crossing paths this fine spring morning.

Translation: What are you doing here?

Boyd: I fear, my brother, I am in a quandary as to your inner thoughts and the impact of said ruminations on your future actions in this here hollow.

Translation: What’s up?

Boyd: Mr. Augustine, seeing as how Drew Thompson’s already in the Marshalls’ custody, why you’re cutting off the tail of my cousin and offering him up is opaque to me.

Translation: What do you want?

Boyd: I fear that within my belly stirs the emanations of desire for a product that sates the ache within.

Translation: I’m hungry.

Boyd: Well, my darling, being a lowly omnivore like yourself, I shall choose from this glorious list of animal flesh—the edible prize that men have hunted and killed for centuries, incidentally—a rounded flesh of cow, slipped within a doughy mattress, saddled with cheddar.

Translation: I’ll have a cheeseburger.

Boyd: Be that as it may, I sense within me a growing, nagging torpor that seeks a temporary hibernation in a solitary area for comfort and slumber.

Translation: I’m going to bed.

Make no mistake. Boyd is a dangerous guy. Check out one of the best murder speeches ever written.

That’s a rap, folks! May 2021 be your most successful year yet.

Have you watched Justified or read Fire in the Hole?

Join the giveaway for a chance to win 33 fast-paced thrillers and a new e-reader! No email required.

Enter to win here: https://t.co/k0oZKfcIYX?amp=1

Good luck!

 

+16

Tips to Create a Series Bible

By Sue Coletta

Lately, I’ve been consumed with creating a series bible for my Grafton County Series. So, I thought I’d share some tips to help you avoid making the same mistakes. Mistakes like thinking highlighted notes on my Kindle were enough to jog the ol’ memory bank. Mistakes like scribbling notes on scrap paper or a whiteboard. Mistakes like tabbing umpteen pages in the previous paperbacks.

Yep. I’ve done all of the above and more. Hence why I’ve had to reread every book in the series. It’s been months since I’ve written in the Grafton County Series. When I set out to plan my WIP, I’d forgotten a lot of details. In my defense, I did write a true crime book, another Mayhem Series thriller, and new true crime proposal in between.

Though it’s fun to spend time with my characters, it’s also a ton of added work, work that could’ve been avoided if I had a series bible in place. Don’t be like me. Even if you’re writing book one, start your series bible now.

Format

We first need to decide on a format for our series bible. Some writers use Scrivener. Others prefer Evernote or a Word.doc. The most popular choice is to print the series bible and organize in a three-ring binder. Pick the format that works best for you.

Organize by Color

Choose one color for each book in the series. Every detail you list in the series bible should correspond to the book’s color.

Example…

Book 1: Blue

Book 2: Red

Book 3: Purple

Book 4: Green

By color-coding, if you need a detail from the series bible while writing, one glance will tell you when the fact occurred.

Details to Include

  • Description of main characters
  • Description of secondary characters
  • Description of villains, including monikers (if applicable)
  • Victims
  • Characters’ profession
  • Killers MO (if applicable)
  • Pets, including deceased pets (if applicable)
  • Tattoos/piercings (if applicable)
  • Scars, emotional and physical
  • Jewelry
  • Marital status/relationships
  • Important dates
  • Family ties
  • Themes
  • Setting
  • Backstory
  • Housing
  • Accent (if any)
  • Décor
  • Cherished treasures
  • Timelines
  • Future scene ideas

Most of the above list is self-explanatory, but I do want to point out a few things.

Character Description

An important part of the series bible is character description. Savvy readers will notice if your MC has a small ankle tattoo from her college days in book one, then claims s/he’d never be stupid enough to get one in book five or six.

In this section be sure to include the basics: hair & eye color, height & weight (approximate, if you’ve never detailed this attribute), style of dress, skin tone/complexion, tattoos & piercings (if applicable), favorite perfume/cologne, injuries and physical scars.

When I listed Sage’s injuries/physical scars, I couldn’t believe what I’d done to this poor woman. Here’s a small sample from my story bible.

  • thick neck scar that tugs at the skin
  • white lines zigzagging across her right forearm
  • lost unborn child from rape
  • scar from incised wound on right wrist
  • orbital floor fracture (broken eye socket)
  • fractured cheekbone
  • broken nose
  • faint scar from stitches on left wrist
  • faint scar from stitches on upper lip
  • faint scar from stitches on right cheek
  • faint scar from stitches on forehead

And that’s only the first two books!

Emotional Turmoil

Since I write psychological thrillers, it’s vitally important for me to track each character’s emotional toll. Past experiences define and shape our characters into the people they are today. An emotional sketch of each character allows us to find triggers and/or weaknesses to exploit in future books. *evil grin*

Incidentally, I do the same for pets. For example, Sage and Niko have two dogs, Colt and Ruger. These dogs have lived through harrowing experiences, and they’ve developed certain habits that stem from those experiences. Animals feel things as deeply as we do. If the pets emerge unscathed, the characterization won’t ring true.

Details

Tiny details matter. For example: When Sage gets nervous, she plays with a Gemini pendant, sliding it back and forth across the necklace. Now, the pendant is turquoise and silver, but for some reason, I wrote “gold” chain in book one. Because this necklace holds sentimental value, Sage would never switch the pendant to a different chain. This minor detail has never been a problem for me. Rarely, if ever, do I mention the color of the chain. Too much description slows the pace.

But what if I decide to kill her some day? Or fake her death? That necklace could become a key piece of evidence. See what I’m sayin’? Even if we never intend to use the minor detail when we list it, we still should include it in the series bible in case we change our mind.

Smell

The nose knows! In my Grafton County Series, the medical examiner practically bathes in Aramis cologne. Anyone within fifteen feet knows he’s entered the crime scene before they ever spot him. It’s become a running joke. I could never forget that detail, but I still include it in the series bible under his name just in case.

What did slip my mind was Sage’s perfume. This might not sound like a big deal, but for this series, it’s an important detail. During tender moments, Sage’s husband Niko breathes her in. The soft aroma of Shalimar mushrooms across his face, with notes of lemon, iris, jasmine, rose, patchouli, sandalwood, and vanilla. He loves that about her. If I didn’t include this detail in the series bible, future books wouldn’t ring true.

Side tip: If you’re struggling for a scent, ask your husband/wife or significant other. We all have a scent that’s uniquely ours. Maybe they love your shampoo, skin cream, body wash, after-shave, or scented deodorant. Once you find the answer, transfer that scent to your lead or secondary character. Or show your character cooking, baking, or eating. Food is an easy way to include one of the most under-appreciated senses in fiction: smell. If the character is eating, be sure to include taste, too. Bonus!

Décor

Does your character have a favorite chair? List it in the series bible.

Does your character hate the hard sofa? Jot down why in the series bible.

Did you focus in on an antique timepiece or cuckoo clock in a past book? Describe it in the series bible.

What about a wall safe or gun cabinet? Be sure to include the combination in the series bible.

Example: After a hard day at work, Niko collapses in his Lay-Z-Boy. I’ve never described the recliner in detail. Never had a reason to. Instead, I simply wrote “Lay-Z-Boy” under Niko’s name in the series bible.

He also has a favorite coffee mug, with #1 Dad inscribed on a gold shield. If Sage poured his coffee into a different mug, fans of the series would wonder where it went.

Minor details can impact series characters in an emotional, conflict-driven way.

What if Sage came home to find Niko’s mug shattered on the kitchen floor? Better yet, what if she found it on the bedroom floor? I’ve made it a point to mention this mug in every book. It’s a Grafton County series staple. One glimpse of the shattered mug, and Sage would leap to the conclusion that someone’s been in the house. In reality Colt or Ruger might have knocked it off the counter or bureau. How it wound up on the floor isn’t important (yet). What is important is that I’ve created conflict just by showing the shattered mug.

Future Scenes

A funny thing happens while creating a story bible. Scene ideas flood the creative mind. While working on my series bible, not only have I finished planning my next Grafton County Series thriller, but I gained at least one new premise for a future book, as well. I even stormed through writing the first few chapters of my WIP. And that may be the best reason of all to create a series bible—to get the creative juices pumping in the right direction.

Can’t think of a plot for your next WIP? Review the story bible. It’s a lot easier than re-reading the entire series. Trust me on that. 🙂

Need tips for writing a series? Check out the group TKZ post.

Do you use a series bible? If you do, any tips to share? If not, what’s your process to ensure consistency throughout the series?

His name is Paradox and he poses his victims in RED cocktail dresses, RED roses in place of eyes. He will kill again if his riddles aren’t solved within 24 hours.

Can Niko and Sage stop him before the clock runs out?

Look Inside SCATHED: https://books2read.com/SCATHED

 

 

+12

How To Explode Your Email List

Back in 2017, Jim wrote a terrific post with tips for success in traditional or independent publishing. One of his top tips for all authors is to build an email list.

Did you follow that advice? If you didn’t, heed Debbie’s warning on how NOT to get started. Even if you’re working on your first novel, you should be actively building your list. I’ll let David Gaughran explain why an email list is the most powerful tool at our disposal.

I’m sure all of you know the power of having thousands of committed readers signed up to your mailing list, allowing you to send each new release into the charts. Even if you’re not there yet personally, this should be something you are aiming for. Every single author should have a mailing list and be seeking to actively grow it.

Now that we know why an email list is so important, how do we go about it?

SUMO

To build an email list, we need a way to collect emails on our website/blog. SUMO is the #1 email capture tool. And it’s free. As of this writing, 886,114 sites use SUMO.

We’ve noticed lots of people struggle to collect emails because the tools just aren’t available or are too expensive. So we thought, why not make our tools available for you?

Our goal, plain and simple, is to help you grow your website.

— SUMO mission statement

Create a scroll bar, pop-up, smart bar, Welcome Mat, or static form to trigger visitors to subscribe to your list. If you offer a free book as an incentive (called a reader magnet), be sure to mention it in your form. No coding required. Takes less than a minute to design a form.

I’ve used SUMO for years with excellent results. I started with a smart bar that hung at the top of the website. I can’t remember why I switched to a popup. There’s no question popups are effective. They’re also annoying as all heck. So, I switched back to the smart bar. A Welcome Mat covers the entire page. The visitor must interact with the form to read the article underneath. They’re effective, but I’ve passed on articles because of them. Do what works best for you.

Pro Tip: Rather than offering the same reader magnet for years, swap it for a new freebie from time to time. Using the same one can become white noise after a while.

A Word About the “F” Word: Free

Being an author requires a long-term game plan. There is no get-rich-quick scheme. For most of us, one book won’t produce enough income to survive. Thus, we need a strategic approach to building our brand. The #1 way to do that is to grow our email list, and a free ebook campaign can accomplish that goal.

Many authors put their books into Kindle Unlimited. Which is fine, in theory, but it won’t grow your email list. Amazon won’t tell you who downloaded your book or how to contact them. Sure, you might gain visibility, but wouldn’t you rather form a long-lasting relationship with a fan who can’t wait for your next book? There’s only one way to meet that goal: grow your email list.

If you’re still not convinced, let me ask you this. How many $5 ebooks have you bought from an author you’ve never heard of without a recommendation from someone you trust? Not many, I suspect. Now, what if the book was free? You’d be more apt to take the chance, right? Of course you would.

Some of you may be thinking, offer my book baby for free? Gasp! Believe me, I get it. I know how much of your heart and soul you’ve poured into that book, but we need to shed the emotional attachment to move forward. View each book as a steppingstone leveraged for future sales. By sacrificing short-term gains, we set up long-term rewards. Capeesh? Super. Moving on…

Book Funnel

BookFunnel isn’t only a platform to send ARCs, though I do love that aspect. They automatically add a watermark to Advance Reader Copies to help prevent piracy.

Whether it’s delivering your reader magnet, sending out advanced copies of your book, handing out ebooks at a conference, or fulfilling your digital sales to readers, BookFunnel does it all. Just like you, we’re in the business of making readers happy. Let us help you build your author career, no matter where you are in your journey.

All true. You do need to pay-to-play, but they offer affordable plans. The New Author Plan is $20/yearly. If you only have 1-5 books, the New Author Plan might be enough to get started, but you won’t be able to collect email addresses unless you join a group promo. Even then, the starter plan has limitations. So, if you’re hoping to explode your email list, my advice would be to upgrade. The benefits far outweigh the cost.

Mid-List Author costs $100/yearly or $10/monthly (if the yearly plan is unaffordable right now, choose the monthly plan; you can always change it later). The premiere plan is Bestseller for $250/yearly. The plan titles are a marketing ploy to shame you into upgrading. That said, there are a few key differences.

  1. Mid-List allows 5K downloads per month; Bestseller allows unlimited downloads.
  2. Mid-List allows 2 pen names; Bestseller allows 3 pen names.
  3. Mid-List doesn’t include Priority Support, Bestseller does.

There’s one other difference worth mentioning. Mid-List has no email integration. Meaning, after a promo they’ll send a .csv file for you to upload to your list. Email integration uploads the names/addresses automatically. You can add email integration to Mid-List for $50/yearly, if you’d like. Or stick with the original plan and upload the .csv file yourself. Whatever works best for you.

Bestseller comes with 3 email integrations. Meaning, if you separate your email list into segments or groups, you can integrate a specific list for each BookFunnel promotion.

BookFunnel Landing Pages

You’ll need to do some work to setup your dashboard, but it’s a painless process. Add books and create beautiful landing pages in minutes. No coding or tech skills required. A landing page is where we send readers to download our freebie.

We have various options when creating landing pages. To grow the email list, check the box that ensures readers must give a valid email address to download the book. BookFunnel verifies each address before granting access.

BookFunnel Promotions

BookFunnel membership comes with free promotions. Hosts offer several different promo opportunities.

To grow the email list, scroll through active promotions in your dashboard and search for Newsletter Builder promos.

Check the requirements for each promo before joining. Some require a minimum number of subscribers in your email list (usually 1K).

Next, subscribe for updates in your genre. Every time an author sets up a new promotion, you’ll be notified via email. Spots fill up quickly, so don’t delay. Or host and run your own promotion and invite other authors to collaborate.

Pro Tip: When the promo goes live, share your personal tracking link in your newsletter, on social media, and your website. BookFunnel tracks your shares. It’s how you build a good reputation for future promos.

BookSweeps

If you like BookFunnel, you will love BookSweeps.

A premiere membership costs $50/yearly, but it discounts future promo opportunities, promotions that add hundreds of voracious readers to your email list. Not freebie seekers, either. These are book buying readers. Freebie seekers join email lists to get the reader magnet, then immediately unsubscribe.

Even with book buying readers, it’s normal for a few to unsubscribe when you send your first email. This happens for various reasons. Don’t take it personally. Think of it as a good thing. Once you hit a certain number (1K-2K email addresses, depending on email provider), sending newsletters is no longer free. Why pay for a reader who has no interest in your work?

Add a Pen Name

A premiere membership allows three different pen names. If you don’t have an alternate author name, create book specific pen names. For example: I created Sue Coletta for my Mayhem Series and another Sue Coletta for my Grafton County Series. Why? Because my two series have different character types, tropes, settings, etc., all of which we can distinguish under separate Pen Names.

Create a Reader Magnet

Generate email subscribers by adding an ebook to the BookSweeps directory, where readers can download the book in exchange for their email. When we create a reader magnet in BookSweeps, we can link to the next book in the series (for sale), add testimonials, and add sub-genres and tropes. It’s an excellent marketing tool.

BookSweeps Promotions

You do have to pay-to-play, but BookSweeps offers discounts once you’ve run a promotion or two. A $50 promo becomes $25 – $35, depending on the promotion.

The best part about BookSweeps promotions is they do all the work for you. All. The. Work.

  • 5 days before the promotion they send you the group promo images for FB and Twitter; they even create a shareable image for your individual book.
  • On promo day, they send you a reminder email with links to the shareable images.
  • During the promo, they remind you when the promo will end.
  • After the promo, they send you an email on what to expect next.
  • 5-10 days after the promo, they send you the spreadsheet with the email address, a separate spreadsheet for the winner and runner-up. That email also contains links on how to upload the list to your email provider, tips for writing a welcome letter, and other valuable information about nurturing your email list. 

Pro Tip: When running a promotion on BookFunnel, Facebook, Twitter, or your website, add a Sweep in the BookSweeps giveaway directory to increase your reach. Free traffic!

Writers: If you follow this advice, your email list will explode with new subscribers.

Readers: If you join BookFunnel or BookSweeps (both free for readers), your e-reader will explode with free books. Win-win!

Over to you, TKZers. What’s your #1 tip to grow your email list? Please share your experience.

+9

Use Color to Test Your Story

It’s been months since I shared the saga of the injured raven vs. my beloved “pet” crows, but there’s a good reason for that. I didn’t have an ending till last Thursday. For a while I thought I did, but I needed to verify my suspicions. Ignore the colors as you read. I’ll show you cool writing trick at the end. 🙂

When the story left off, I was trying to figure out how to feed “Rave” without angering my beloved Poe and her murder. While I weighed my options, the crows scolded the raven from all directions.

I have a strict “no fighting” policy in my yard. When anyone breaks this rule, I reinforce my disappointment by withholding food till they smarten up. A wise crow doesn’t anger the human who controls a never-ending supply of tantalizing treats. Needless to say, the attacks stopped as long as Rave stayed within the property lines. If she crossed the dirt road to the woods, my rules were no longer in play, and they divebombed her.

Brilliant birds.

Two weeks later, Poe signaled for me to use her summer rock. I’d created two separate feeding areas so Dad (my husband) didn’t have to shovel the lower yard — affectionally named Animal Planet for its greenery, flowers, and throngs of wildlife who visit — and Mumma didn’t have to schlep through thigh-high snow all winter.

The change in feeding area reset Poe’s murderous hatred toward Rave. By feeding Poe and family on Animal Planet and Rave on the winter rock in the upper yard, I’d restored a modicum of peace.

Until about a week later when Rave thought Poe’s rock looked tastier than hers. Or perhaps, she remembered switching rocks in the warm weather with her dad, Odin. Hard to say for sure what prompted her to move to the woods near the summer rock when our new arrangement worked so beautifully.

Poe was NOT pleased about Rave’s decision.

For the umpteenth time I tried to capture Rave to bring her to a rehabber. And once again, she outmaneuvered me. Maybe she’d be okay on her own? The question replayed on an endless loop, followed by the grave reality of a fox, Great Horned Owl, Fischer cat, raccoon, or black bear crossing her path during the night.

Sleepless nights wore me down.

For two-plus-weeks I wrestled with what to do. Then one day I stopped looking at the situation through my eyes — human eyes — and viewed it from Poe and Rave’s perspective. Once I did, all the years of researching corvids flooded my mind with ideas.

One of crows’ amazing abilities is delayed gratification. Meaning, crows will wait for food if the food they’re waiting for is tastier than the scraps that await them now (Ravens can do this, too, but don’t when they’re injured).

With this theory in mind, I offered Poe a deal.  As the alpha, she’s the only crow I needed to convince. The others would fall in line behind her.

“Poe, if you let Rave eat, I’ll bring out your favorite treats after she’s safely out of sight.”

Now, I’d love to tell you Poe agreed right away, but the truth is, she wasn’t thrilled with the idea at first. Every time I served breakfast, lunch, or dinner, the crows emptied the rock within seconds. Just once I needed Rave to beat Poe to the rock.

It took about three days before Rave worked up enough courage to race Poe to the rock. Afterward, when Rave hopped back into her new wooded digs, I offered Poe raw chicken breast, her favorite kibble, and of course, I replenished the peanut pile.

Success!

Rave on her own special rock.

Day after day, Poe waited for Rave to eat and I made good on my promise. But then, Rave would climb up on this new rock at the tree-line to check out the menu before proceeding toward the summer rock.

The proverbial lightbulb blazed on. If I used both rocks — one for Poe and family and one for Rave — I could potentially decrease the animosity between them. And it worked. For the next few weeks, Poe never ventured near Rave’s rock at feeding time, and vice versa.

What happened next stunned me into submission.

Toward the end of nesting season, Poe sent the fledglings and elder siblings on patrol with Edgar. Shakespeare, known fondly as “Shaky” (Poe’s mini me), stayed with Mumma. Breath trapped in my lungs as Poe swaggered into the woods in search of Rave. Uh-oh. This can’t be good.

Moments later, “low-talking” indicated Poe and Rave were hashing out a few things. Shrubbery obscured my view. There’s nothing I could do but wait. Watch. Pray Poe wouldn’t morph into Hannibal Lecter or Buffalo Bill.

Seconds felt like years.

After several heart-stopping minutes, Poe sauntered out of the woods for a little worm-hunting while Shaky played lookout (since birds are most vulnerable on the ground, crows post a sentinel in the trees). To my surprise Rave lumbered right past Poe, so close the feathers on their wingtips almost touched. Rave climbed up the rock to the feast on chicken thighs, peanuts, sunflower seeds, and kibble. Poe even allowed Rave to eat the dead mouse!

That’s when it dawned on me — these two majestic animals had struck a deal.

Poe watching Rave’s six from the grass below.

With this new arrangement, Rave waited for the crows to tell her if it was safe to step into the open.

Many sharp-shinned hawks flooded our area, and an injured raven equaled easy prey.

In return for Poe’s service, Rave only ate half the food. She even tore off a piece of chicken and tossed it to Poe on the grass below. 

The good times didn’t last long.

Each year when the new fledglings leave the nest, Poe escorts the crowlettes to my yard to practice landing on branches and learn how to slalom through the maze of trees. Normally, it’s a special occasion filled with hilarity and awe.

Not this year.

When Poe brought the fledglings, trepidation surfed their wake. Rave still asked for permission to approach the rock, but Poe’s cutting glare indicated an emphatic, “Don’t you dare come near my babes.”

What could I do? I couldn’t scold Poe for protecting her young. I also couldn’t let Rave starve. A niggling sensation burrowed bone-deep for the next three weeks. Every time Poe, Edgar, and the elder siblings left to teach the fledglings crucial life lessons, I jogged down to the rock to feed Rave.

The situation wasn’t ideal for any of us, but we dealt with it. Until we couldn’t any longer.

Animal Planet turned menacing — dangerous — as a rebellious fledgling ventured past the rock into the woods, in line with Rave’s hiding spot, her home-away-from-home doubling as a hollowed bush.

Poe scolded the fledgling to back away, but he refused to obey. That tiny crow acted like he’d been sworn in as the new sheriff in town, a LEO hellbent on destroying the interloper in their midst.

The situation spiraled toward disaster.

One sultry July morning he’d had about enough of Poe’s “rules” and swooped down in full attack-mode. Ear-piercing caws tornadoed through the trees. I raced toward the woods to intervene before the others joined their brethren.

Whether this incident had anything to do with Rave’s future plan, I couldn’t tell, but she disappeared for three days. Upon her return, she stocked up on food and rested for two days. Vanished for another three days, returned for two. She seemed to have a set route to a precise location. Two days on, three days off. The routine never wavered. Two days on, three days off.

Could Rave be a mother? What if the scuffle with Poe’s fledgling convinced her to find her own? Crows and ravens have similar nesting patterns. If Rave had chicks in the nest when she got hurt, they’d be fledging, too.

More and more I became convinced that she was searching for her family during those three days away. Though this theory filled me with warmth, I still panicked every time she left. Until the day Rave soldiered into the yard with more confidence than she’d had in months, and her shiny black plumage had regained its luster.

For hours she perched on a rock near the house and exercised the injured wing. She even attempted short, low flights, about two feet off the ground for ten feet at a time. Day after day for a solid week, she waited for Poe to soar out of sight before practicing her flying, each day gaining more lift.

When I bustled down the hill to Animal Planet the following day, one flawless raven feather laid on the rock — a thank you from Rave — and I wept, keening over my loss. I’d prayed for Rave to heal, to thrive, but I never got the chance to say goodbye.

Would I ever see her again?

All summer I searched the sky for Rave. Every now and then my husband said he heard gronking in the woods, which brought me some solace. Still, I longed to see her one last time.

Two weeks ago, I had an early appointment that forced me out of the house early on a Friday morning. As I hustled up the walkway, gronk, gronk, gronk emanated from the woods across from the driveway.

I darted across the dirt road. “Rave?”

“Gronk, gronk, gronk.”

“Rave! I missed you so much!”

A black silhouette peeked out from behind a tree trunk. “Gronk, gronk.”

“I wish I could stay, but I can’t. Please come back, baby. I need to make sure you’re okay.”

A week rolled by with no word from Rave. Last Thursday, she strutted across Animal Planet with her bill held high, chest out, confidence and pride oozing off every feather. When she stepped on to Poe’s rock, disappointment crossed her face. The crows had devoured every morsel.

Rave stared up at the window. “Gronk, gronk?”

“Rave,” I called back. “One sec, honey. Be right out.”

That’s all the reassurance she needed. With her spectacular black wings spread wide, Rave leaped into the air and flew to the branch overlooking the rock. I bustled down to Animal Planet, my gaze locked with hers, my emotions rising over the rims of my eyes, joyous tears spilling down my cheeks. Rave’s healthy, happy, and loved.

Now, pull the screen away and look at the colors. It’s a rose garden. Brown = soil (exposition/narration). Red = roses (action/dialogue). Green = leaves (emotion, inner dialogue, and foreshadowing). Too much soil, you’ll have gaps in your garden, wasted space. Too many leaves will overshadow your roses. With too many roses, you can’t see the beauty of each blossom.

This technique is easy to do in Word. I wouldn’t recommend it for a blog, as it’s labor-intensive to manually input colored highlights via CSS. You’re worth it, though. 🙂

One last note: If you come across sentences that contain emotion, exposition, and/or action, it’s fine to highlight it with one color. No need to nitpick. You’re looking at the story as more than the sum of its parts.

 

In other news, Pretty Evil New England released yesterday!  Congratulations to Priscilla Bettis for winning the giveaway!

 

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Video Marketing and Social Media Tips

Videos make a lasting impression. We live in a visual, media-rich world. Marketing via video continues to rise. Experts say 86% of all content will be in video format by 2022. Let’s look at current trends first, then move on to how writers can dip their toes into video marketing without suffering a panic attack. BTW, if you missed John’s clear and concise post about Zoom, be sure to check it out.

Video Trends

Instagram and Facebook Stories allow users to share short-form, vertical videos that disappear after 24 hours. Instagram Stories have 500 million active daily users. I know! That number shocked me, too.

Stories should be informal, relaxed, and allow viewers a quick snapshot of your day or a behind-the-scenes glimpse of your world.

Optimize for Mobile Users

There’s a higher demand for vertical videos that fit on mobile screens. Why? Because 75% of users watch videos on their phones and vertical fits better than horizontal.

Length

Try to keep marketing videos to under two minutes. The shorter the video the greater chance of viewers watching till the end. This “rule” can change according to platform. On Facebook, if you run over, I wouldn’t worry about too much unless it’s an ad. Ads should be kept as short as possible. On Twitter and Instagram, keep it bite-sized.

Live Video

Eighty percent (80%) of shoppers say they’d rather watch a live video than read a blog post. Shoppers age 18-34 watch live content daily.

Optimize for Hearing Impaired

Add captions for the hearing impaired. This tip will also add clarity if the speaker has an accent. Plus, some viewers prefer to watch video with the sound off.

YouTube

As far as SEO — Search Engine Optimization — goes, YouTube tops the list. To give you some idea of why, YouTube is the world’s second-largest search engine. With this in mind, I created a nonfiction book trailer, uploaded it to YouTube, and shared the video across social media.

As you can see, I didn’t include captions like I should have. Yet, after I posted this video, the book rose to #1 New Release, proving (at least, to me) we can veer away from these “rules” and still be effective.

Writers & Social Media

Whether we like it or not, social media is a must for writers. With fewer book retailers, the discoverability of books depends on the author’s online footprint. Regardless of genre, it’s a fact that social media buzz directly impacts sales. More than 40% of book recommendations come from word-of-mouth, which often originates online.

Whenever a fellow writer asks me for help with social media, my top tip is to be yourself. Be genuine. Social media should be fun. If you’re not enjoying yourself, people will notice.

Always conduct yourself as a professional, but don’t hide the real you while doing it. There’s so much garbage and negativity on social media. As writers, we need to rise above it and not get swept up in a pissing match over political views or coronavirus facts vs. misinformation. If we’re not careful, our opinions on certain subject matters can and will hurt our writing career. Non-writers view us as neutral, and we need to live up to that standard.

You might say: Gee, we’re not even allowed to have an opinion? Of course, we are. What we don’t need to do is broadcast it all over social media. Same goes for complaining about rejection letters, querying, writing, marketing, books we didn’t enjoy, critiques, fellow writers, etc., etc., etc. Use social media as if the whole world is watching, because the whole world IS watching.

The follow-up question I most often receive is, “Be genuine, got it. But how do I let readers know the real me?”

The answer is simple. Share your joys, your passion, your excitement. For example, I recently shared a video of my first reaction to opening the box of PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND paperbacks. I broke almost all the “rules” stated above here, too, but my Facebook audience didn’t care. They loved being included.

Your turn, TKZers! What are some ways you’ve used video marketing?

Join the giveaway for a chance to win the paperback of Pretty Evil New England: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs. Winner will be notified via email and announced in my November 2, 2020 post. Good luck!

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The Smoke Eater: 1st Page Critique

Another Brave Writer submitted his/her first page for critique. My comments will follow. Enjoy!

The Smoke Eater

Reid never witnessed a sunset out of the plane, but the moment was a testament of god’s creation. He was amazed by the radiant heaven through thin clouds of twilight where the earth and sky merged into the silver-black horizon.

Above the horizon was a spectrum of a blue dark glass, teasing the twilight of angels above. Underneath, the fading glow of what lingered on the terrain was smothered by the dark. It was a cruel but beautiful waltz between a master darkness and its mistress of the light. The horizon slowly narrowed, and the radiance ran parallel to its ruthless nocturnal predator that grew with virulence. What was left of the fading light seemed to be distorted as if an imaginary barrier was blocking the warmth from reaching Reid?

He wondered if it was the trick of the glass, but his inner being that wouldn’t allow for comfort. Deep down, he struggled with the truth that he could be easily smothered by his own darkened fear just like the nighttime drape smothering the day.

Reid turned his head at the sound of a woman’s voice and quickly said, “If I fall asleep, please be careful with me.”

The stewardess frowned and tilted her head.

Reid sensed she didn’t understand and he didn’t know what to say. Telling this woman that he could become violent when he slept didn’t seem like the right thing to do but he had to say something. He was struggling to stay awake and he refused to take the medication with only a few hours left in the flight.

Reid didn’t know how much longer he could stay lucid. “If you need to wake me, give me a nudge, or throw something small at me, and stand back. I startle easily… in my sleep.”

The stewardess stood there, indifferent.

Reid was starting to feel uneasy, that he might have said too much. He told himself, how stupid could I be, that he essentially told an airline attendant that he was a threat, admitting that she needed to avoid him should he become violent. Then he realized that it was worse, he just acted strangely on a middle eastern airline that was passing into Asia. He might as well have yelled out that he was carrying a bomb.

 * * *

Intriguing, isn’t it? There’s a lot to love about this first page. The concept of a MC who’s violent while he sleeps piqued my interest right away. It also raised numerous story questions. Why is he dangerous while he sleeps? What happens to the unfortunate people around him if he drifts off? Could he kill? Has he killed before? How does he know he’s dangerous if he’s asleep?

Bravo, Brave Writer, for not telling us yet! “Something” happened in the MC’s life prior to this flight, and we’ll keep flipping pages to find out what that is. Great job!

Now for the technical stuff…

When I received the unformatted first page, I broke up the text into more manageable paragraphs. The lack of formatting could be caused by copy/pasting into the body of an email. In case the manuscript’s littered with large chunks of text, please remember white space is our friend. Transitions are also vital to keep the reader engaged. For more on these two areas of craft, see Jim’s post and Terry’s post.

Paragraph 1:

Reid never witnessed a sunset out of the plane, but the moment was a testament of god’s creation. He was amazed by the radiant heaven through thin clouds of twilight where the earth and sky merged into the silver-black horizon.

The first line isn’t bad, necessarily, but it also doesn’t draw me in. Plenty of folks haven’t flown before. That in and of itself isn’t intriguing, thought-provoking, or emotional. It’s only after we read the first page that we can envision why this plane ride could turn deadly, and that’s too late.

Paragraph 2:

Above the horizon was a spectrum of a blue dark glass, teasing the twilight of angels above. Underneath, the fading glow of what lingered on the terrain was smothered by the dark. It was a cruel but beautiful waltz between a master darkness and its mistress of the light. The horizon slowly narrowed, and the radiance ran parallel to its ruthless nocturnal predator that grew with virulence. What was left of the fading light seemed to be distorted as if an imaginary barrier was blocking the warmth from reaching Reid?

Beautiful imagery, but the writing could be tighter. By rearranging words and deleting filler, we paint a clearer picture.

Above the horizon was a spectrum of a blue dark glass, teasing teased the twilight of angels above. Underneath, the dark smothered the fading glow of what lingered lingering on the terrain was smothered by the dark. It was a cruel but beautiful waltz between a master of darkness and its mistress of the light (<– love that line!). When tThe horizon slowly narrowed, the sun’s ruthless nocturnal predator overshadowed its and the radiance ran parallel to its ruthless nocturnal predator that grew with virulence. What was left of the fading light acted as seemed to be distorted as if a an imaginary barrier was blocking the warmth from reaching Reid’s face.?

Paragraph 3:

He wondered if it was the trick of the glass, but his inner being that wouldn’t allow for comfort. Deep down, he struggled with the truth that he could be easily smothered by his own darkened fear just like the nighttime drape smothering the day.

“Wondered” is a telling word. For more on deep POV, check out a previous 1st Page Critique. “Inner being” also struck me as an odd choice. My suggestion would be to rewrite these two sentences.

Quick example: Is it a trick of the glass? Why, with the breathtaking view before him, could he not relax? The truth caved his stomach. If he weren’t careful, the darkness within him could smother his light, too. (Still not great, but you get the picture.)

All the last two paragraphs need are a couple tweaks to deepen the point of view. Easy peasy. Let’s do it. Changes are in red.

Reid turned his head at the sound of a woman’s voice, and quickly said, “If I fall asleep, please be careful with me.”

The stewardess frowned and tilted her head. Reid sensed She didn’t understand. Not many people did. How could he tell a stranger he could violent when he slept? and he didn’t know what to say. Telling this woman that he could become violent when he slept didn’t seem like the right thing to do but he had to say something. He was Struggling to stay awake, and he refused to take the court ordered (if it fits the story) medication with only a few hours left in the flight. But what if he couldn’t stay lucid? Reid didn’t know how much longer he could stay lucid.

With no easy way around it, he said, “If you need to wake me, give me a nudge, or throw something small at me, and stand back. I startle easily… in my sleep.”

The stewardess stood there, indifferent.

Reid was starting to feel uneasy (don’t tell us, show us! Is he fidgeting? Picking at his cuticles?), that he might have said too much. He told himself, how stupid could I be, Stupid, Reid, stupid. You just told a flight attendant you’re a threat. that he essentially told an airline attendant that he was a threat, admitting that she needed to avoid him should he become violent. Oh, no! He’s on a middle eastern airline heading to Asia (btw, Asia’s too broad. Tell us where the flight’s landing.). She probably thinks he’s got a bomb strapped to his chest. Then he realized that it was worse, he just acted strangely on a middle eastern airline that was passing into Asia. He might as well have yelled out that he was carrying a bomb.

Brave Writer, take a moment to look closer at this critique. For the most part, all I did was rearrange your words and delete filler. This first page works because of your hard work. Stand proud. And thank you for submitting an excellent first page.

Over to you, TKZers! Would you flip the page? What’s your favorite line? Any suggestions/comments for Brave Writer?

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