Beginnings

Beginnings
Terry Odell

Book beginnings are tough, as evidenced by the interest in The Kill Zone’s First Page Critiques. A blog post I’d read recently talked about having about 250 words to ‘hook’ a reader. That’s not even a full page.

And, it seems, no matter how many books we’ve written, how many times we’ve stared at that cursor on the screen under the words “Chapter One”, it doesn’t get easier.

I know this is a frequent topic her at the Zone, but it hit home (again) as both myself and my critique partner were starting new projects. And, we both were falling into the same old quicksand. She’s more of a planner than I am, and she was starting a new series, so her head was filled with ideas, many of which would fall into the “tell us this later” category. Her first chapter was full of them.

I was going back to my Mapleton Mystery series, so I know most of my main characters. But there were things from the last book that readers might need to know, threads that were left open. Not dangling, not hanging onto cliffs, just springboards to explore in a future book. If you’re interested, I posted an article about endings on my personal blog Monday.

Even “knowing the rules”, when I shared my first draft of page 1 of a new book, a draft I’d set aside to deal with final edits and formatting of Cruising Undercover, an author friend pointed out that my first paragraph was … exposition. In my mind, there was a conflict there, a problem, but there I went, letting my protagonist think about it.

Open with Dialogue. Dialogue is Action.

How many times have I “heard” James Scott Bell and others here pound that advice into us? More than I can count, yet, even knowing this, understanding this, I was so eager to describe the problem so that’s what I did.

This was my opening draft paragraph:

Gordon Hepler held his breath as Angie, his wife, stepped into the house he’d hoped she’d approve of. Not that he didn’t love her—to the moon and back—but her tiny apartment above the Daily Bread diner she ran was … tiny. She’d agreed to consider moving, but so far, she’d found fault with every house they’d looked at. This one—fingers crossed—would meet her criteria. Except for one minor wrinkle, it was perfect.

There was a line of dialogue immediately after this paragraph, but no, I hadn’t opened with it, not to mention loading the paragraph with back story.

Back to that blog post. The author suggested 7 points that should hook readers, and that authors should strive for 4 of them in their first 250 words. Rather than repeat what the contributors to TKZ say in their First Page Critiques, I’m going to open the floor to discussion. Do you agree with these 7 hooks?

  1. Plunge into the action
  2. Communicate a theme
  3. Raise a question that needs answering
  4. Hook the reader’s emotions
  5. Communicate the stakes
  6. Establish tone/voice
  7. Introduce the main character (if possible, by name)

Do you think squeezing 4 of them into half a page is effective? Obviously several can be combined (avoid the laundry list!), but 250 words isn’t much real estate to deal with.

And if you want to read the full article, which contains examples, it’s here.

Floor’s yours.


Cruising Undercover by Terry OdellNow Available for Pre-Order: Cruising Undercover.

Not accepting the assignment could cost him his job. Accepting it could cost him his life.


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

First Page Critique: My Girl is a Dog

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

Title: My Girl is a Dog

Genre: Mystery/Thriller 

CHAPTER ONE

A Sunday morning on a snow-covered mountain trail, as I walked and dwelled on past sins and future amends, Girl hunted.

An old navy peacoat and flannel-lined jeans kept me warm. Girl always has her malamute-shepherd thick coat of hair.

Between her forays into the pines in search of prey, we played her favorite winter game: dig into a snowbank to follow my scent and retrieve snowballs. Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills.

When I threw another snowball, she veered away, dug deep into a different snowbank, and returned with a ski glove clamped in her mouth.

“Smart dog. Someone lost their glove. Let’s go. We’re short on time; things to do at the store today.” I wedged the glove in a pine tree branch and headed toward a meadow where animal tracks crisscross the snow and Girl runs in circles.

But her guttural vocals, dog-talk I call it, told me to turn around.

“What’s wrong?”

I followed her to the hole she dug, expecting to find another glove. Girl once found a purse buried in the snow; instead of a glove or purse, I saw a bare hand and forearm: black hair and white skin. I wondered if Girl pulled the ski glove off the hand as I touched the wrist—thick and cold—no pulse. After clearing more snow, I uncovered a shoulder tattooed in cursive: SEXUEL TABOU.

I brushed snow off the face: a mustached man, a stranger. And I wondered if what the tattoo implied tied to his being dead, at least half-naked, and buried in the snow.

My breath clouded in the frigid air as I pulled out my cellphone—no signal. I needed to call 911 from the truck.

A stark, contrasting memory of the last pulse I checked—five years ago, an unconscious man prone on a Mexican dive bar floor after he cut me with a knife and I busted a beer bottle over his head and held the jagged edge to his throat—accompanied me down the snow-covered trail.

I checked that guy’s pulse out of self-interest to ensure I hadn’t killed him. Then I walked out of the bar into a dusty street under a hot-as-hell sun and onto a bus heading out of town, leaving a job as a deckhand on a sportfishing boat without notice or collecting pay. Better than getting locked up again.

***

Brave Writer, we have a little colon/semicolon problem that needs to be addressed. With a few rare exceptions, they’re not necessary in fiction. If you pretend they don’t exist, you won’t use them as a crutch. That’s not a dig, btw. There isn’t a writer alive who doesn’t have crutch words, phrases, or punctuation they fall back on. The trick is learning our crutches so we can kill our darlings during edits.

Let’s dive right in…

A Sunday morning on a snow-covered mountain trail (Is the day of the week important? If it is, fine. If it isn’t, delete), as I walked (use a stronger verb. Hiked?) and dwelled on past sins and future amends, [my dog] Girl hunted. Added “my dog” for clarity.

An old navy peacoat and flannel-lined jeans kept me warm. Girl [had a] always has her malamute-shepherd thick coat of hair.

Between her forays into the pines in search of prey, we played her favorite winter game: (change colon to em dash) dig into a snowbank to follow my scent and retrieve snowballs. Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills. <–  Here’s your opening line.

When I threw another snowball, she veered away, dug deep into a different snowbank, and returned with a ski glove clamped in her mouth.

Condense all of the above, like this…

My dog Girl has a soft mouth—until she kills.

On the snowy hiking trail of Mount Whatever, Girl slalomed around pine trees in search of prey. I threw a snowball for her to fetch, but she returned with a ski glove instead.

“Smart dog. Someone lost their glove. Let’s go. We’re short on time; things to do at the store today.”

With only a pet character to chat with, be careful your dialogue doesn’t become too on-the-nose. Less is more. Example: “Huh. That’s odd. Somebody must be looking for it.”

I wedged the glove between two in a pine tree branches and headed (be precise. Hiked, clomped, plodded, lumbered, strode…) toward a meadow where animal tracks crisscrossed the snow and Girl runs ran in circles (if she’s running in circles, she’s not digging a hole, yet you say she dug a hole three lines below. Easy fix. End the sentence after “snow”).

But her Girl’s guttural vocals, dog-talk I called it, told (alerted?) me to turn around.

“What’s wrong?”

Girl bounced on her front paws, then took off, glancing over her shoulder every few seconds to ensure I followed (to give her some personality).

I followed her to the hole she dug, expecting to find another glove. Girl once found a purse buried in the snow.; instead of a glove or purse, I saw (saw is a telling word. Start the paragraph here –>) A bare hand and forearm protruded from a snowbank.: (lose the colons and semi-colons) Black hair, pale and white skin. I wondered (wondered is also a telling word. Rewrite into a question.) Did Girl pull the ski glove off the hand? as I touched the wrist—thick and cold—no pulse. (<– Nice!) After clearing more snow, I uncovered a shoulder tattooed in cursive.:  Rather than that pesky colon, set the next line apart like this…

SEXUEL TABOU. (Do you mean Sexual? Also, don’t change fonts. Use italics instead.)

I brushed snow off the face: (you’re killing me with these colons!) a mustached man, a stranger. And I wondered (rewrite into a question to remove “wondered”) if what the tattoo implied tied to his being dead, at least half-naked, and buried in the snow.

Why would the MC assume the tattoo and his death are related? If it is a clue, don’t tell us yet. Let the reader wonder if there’s a connection and move on. Later, the MC can circle back to this clue. For more on how to use misdirection, read this post.

My breath clouded in the frigid air (<– great imagery) as I pulled out my cellphone—no signal. I needed to call 911 from the truck.

A stark, contrasting memory (reminder?) of the last pulse I checked. (Don’t use an em dash here. It muddies the sentence.) Five years ago, an unconscious man lay prone (you know prone means facedown, right?) on a Mexican dive bar floor after he cut me with a knife. (This paragraph and ones after it can all be summed up in two sentences. Otherwise, it’s a flashback, and it’s much too early for a flashback.) He’s the reason I left a good-paying job and fled to [insert where we are]. Better than getting locked up. Again (I separated Again into a staccato to give it a little added punch, but it’s also fine as one sentence).

Hope I wasn’t too hard on you, Brave Writer. My only goal is to help you succeed. Once you clean up the few issues I mentioned, you’ll have a compelling storyline. I’d flip the page to find out what happens next. Best of luck, Brave Writer!

Favorite line: My breath clouded in the frigid air…

TKZers, please add your suggestions/comments.

What do you think of the title? Would you turn the page?

It’s a Touching Good Story

It’s a Touching Good Story
Terry Odell

diagram showing the relationship between the brain and body parts for the sense of touchUse the five senses in your writing. We’ve all heard it. Often, writers consider that a ‘rule’ and try to incorporate all five into every scene. For me, that inches into “laundry list” territory. I liked David Morrell’s approach, which was to assume sight is a given and include two others, varying them across the scenes.

I’ve already talked about the senses of sight and smell. What about touch? It’s an important sense—and a very interesting one. Do your characters utilize it? Notice it? React to it?

What are some ways you can use the sense of touch in your writing?

Common sensations for your characters:

Weight. Heavy or light? Can it be unexpected? My marine mammal specialist Hubster was big into bones. A manatee rib is amazingly heavy for its size. When people pick it up, they’re always compensating as their senses readjust.
Smooth or rough?
Bumpy or deep indentations?
Solid, or does it give?
Warm, hot, or cold?

How does your character react if they come into contact with something painful?

Side note: Our nervous system includes a ‘shortcut’ to react to pain. Grab that hot pan on the stove by mistake? Ever notice that your hand jerks away before you feel the pain? That’s because you’ve got nerve pathways to the spinal cord that cause your muscles to contract while the sensation is still working its way up to the brain, which then interprets the feeling as pain, and that’s when you say ouch. Meanwhile, you’ve avoided potential damage.

diagram of nerves to and from the spinal cord in response to painAre you describing the sensations of walking barefoot through the mud? Trying to get a handhold on a slick surface? What about on the rough stones as the character tries to climb to safety?

How do you describe the sensations? Need a prompt or two? Here are over 200 descriptive words.

If you’ve got your character in the dark (eliminating the sense of sight), touch becomes more predominant. But, dark or not, your characters can feel the stickiness of a bloody wound, the roughness of the ropes they’re tied up with, the warmth of another character’s hand, the hardness of the chair they’re sitting in.

folding metal chairPerhaps more important is that there are two systems of touch. One is the obvious factual description. The chair in the interrogation interview room (have to keep up with the terminology) is cold, hard, and off balance. But there’s also the emotional side of the sense of touch.

There are completely different sensors for physical touch vs emotional touch.

If all you’re writing is what that interview room chair feels like as the character sits there, you’re missing an important way to connect with your readers. Does it trigger a visceral reaction as well as a physical one? Let the readers in on it. Maybe instead of the fear or at least the mental discomfort the cop his hoping for, what if the chair evokes happy memories of sitting at the boisterous kids table at Thanksgiving with all his cousins, joking, flipping mashed potatoes across the room at Great Aunt Martha?

When your character picks up a firearm, it might be feel cool, hard, maybe the grip is rough in his palm. Does picking up the weapon give him a sense of power? Of calmness, knowing he’s now in charge? Or is it an unwelcome foreign object? Something the character has no desire to hold, to be in the same room with, but he now needs it for survival? Or to defend someone he cares about? What emotions would those same sensations trigger in him?

Romance writers might have an edge over mystery writers here, since they’re used to showing emotion, and touch is very important to creating a bond between people. And yeah, it plays a part in sex. Even if you don’t like sex scenes on the page, there’s a lot of touching in foreplay. Touch is connected to the release of pheromones. While for men, it’s the sense of smell that triggers them, for women, it’s physical contact with the partner.

Other interesting facts about the emotional side of touch. An experiment showed that people holding hot drinks when meeting someone rated them warmer, as having a more pro-social personality than if they were holding cold drinks.

Another experiment had people evaluating resumes of others. Resumes on a heavy clipboard resulted in people being considered as having more authority. Not that they would be better in the job, but just more weighty.

Remember, senses don’t exist in a vacuum. The feel of rough burlap when the bad guy puts a hood over his victim will intersect with the sense of smell. Use both to add depth to your story.

Your turn, TKZers. How do you incorporate the sense of touch in your books? Do you connect them to the emotional side? The floor is yours.

Some references for this post:
For more about the science of touch, go here.
For more about incorporating touch into writing, go here.

If you’ll permit a brief moment of BSP, in anticipation of releasing Cruising Undercover, Book 11 in my Blackthorne, Inc. series, the first box set of Blackthorne, Inc. novels, including When Danger Calls, Where Danger Hides, and Rooted in Danger, is on sale for 99 cents this week. Price goes up on July 27th.


Cruising Undercover by Terry OdellNow Available for Pre-Order: Cruising Undercover.

Not accepting the assignment could cost him his job. Accepting it could cost him his life.


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

Tips to Deceive Characters and Readers

Fictional truth is never quite as clear as it seems on the surface. Deceptiveness boils down to manipulation, disguise, and misdirection. The writer can deceive characters and readers in numerous ways.

A villain might murder another character, then lie to avoid detection. This leads to more lies, more misdirection, and deepening deceptions, creating tension and conflict.

What if the main character lies to themselves about who they are or their current circumstances? Because the truth may be too difficult to accept, the charade continues. One of the most widely known examples is The Sixth Sense.

*Spoiler Alert*

Dr. Malcom Crowe, played by Bruce Willis, could not accept the fact that he died from a fatal gunshot wound. He was an unreliable character from the start of the movie, but viewers didn’t know it. Because he couldn’t accept his fate, he fooled himself into believing he survived. Thus, we believed. In hindsight, we can see where the writer dropped clues. At the time, though, most viewers didn’t catch any hints the first time they watched the movie.

Creating an unreliable narrator takes a skilled hand.

Fail, and the reader feels tricked. Succeed, and reap the rewards.

The one advantage we have is that trust is often automatic. Because narrators act as our guide, deception isn’t something readers expect. Trust is woven into the fabric of our lives. Thus, we often take it for granted.

  • When we slip behind the steering wheel or into the passenger seat, we trust the wheels will stay bolted to the car.
  • When we eat at a restaurant, we trust we won’t get food poisoning.
  • When we crawl under the covers at night, we trust the legs won’t snap off the bed.

This presumed trust is why and how authors can manipulate readers. It’s reasonable to presume we can trust the main character. And so, we do. Should we, though? No narrator is 100% reliable. Stories that force us to question our own perception are often compelling page-turners, unputdownable, and unforgettable.

Deception can occur anywhere.

We tend to first think of antagonists who are manipulative and deceptive, but heroes can deceive, too. In fact, even secondary characters are capable of deception.

What if a main character lies to protect a child?

What if a foil thrives on deceit? Or it only appears like they thrive on chaos when in truth, they’re hiding a secret? The higher the stakes, the more they’ll lie to protect it.

What if a character believes they’re right? They genuinely want to help and don’t mean to misdirect the detective. I’m talkin’ about eyewitnesses to a crime.

Think about this…

We each view the world through a filter of our past experiences, emotional baggage, scars we carry, profession—past or present—worldview, religion, politics, the list goes on and on.

For example:

When I look at an old mighty oak tree, I see a living, breathing being who’s survived for decades, maybe even hundreds of years, and has provided housing and comfort to thousands of animals. And I think, Imagine the stories it can tell.

Someone else might only see firewood.

Neither view is wrong. We’re admiring the tree through different lenses.

Psychologists refer to this as the Rashomon effect, also known as the Kurosawa effect.

This refers to a phenomenon wherein the same event is interpreted in vastly different ways by different people. The Rashomon effect is named after the popular 1950 Akira Kurosawa movie Rashomon in which a murder is described in four different ways by four different witnesses of the same crime. It is often used to emphasize the point that people’s perceptions about an event can differ considerably based on their individual personal experiences.

Thus, it is entirely possible that an event may be described in different ways by different people without any of the witnesses consciously lying.

The same holds true for our characters. And that’s where the fine art of deception comes into play. If we stay true to our character, deception could be automatic. The reader might not catch on right away, but once the truth unravels it’ll make perfect sense. Why? Because they’ve come to know how the character views the world.

Another way to show a character disguising their actions, emotions, or a secret, is through subtle clues.

Subtle clues of how characters behave can tell the reader a lot about them. Imagine people in real life when they’re not being completely honest. How they act and react say a lot about who they are. Characteristics can also show the reader a character might be deceptive—things like suspicious behavior, not wishing to engage with others, indecisiveness, or apprehension.

Dialogue is another way for writers to manipulate the reader. What characters say—and don’t say—can show a character acting evasive or blatantly lying. Tone of voice also disguises the truth, as does ambiguity.

Symbolism and atmosphere can reinforce a specific message, feeling, or idea. If you look at the setting and the character’s state of mind, think about what you want the reader to see. Is there a symbol or setting that might help foreshadow the truth or reinforce the deception?

For example, the following foreshadows danger:

  • Mirages
  • Heat waves
  • Venomous snakes
  • Fog
  • Poisonous plants

Symbols of triumph and joy:

  • Breathtaking sunrise
  • Rainbow
  • Four-leaf clover
  • Butterfly
  • Cardinal

Both these lists are so common they’ve become cliche, but we can use that to our advantage. What if you took a symbol that commonly brings joy and flipped the script? Now, the reader will no longer be able to trust their own instincts. You’re toying with their perception. Thus, able to deceive.

These are just a few ways to create deception. The possibilities are endless.

What are some ways you’ve deceived a character and/or the reader? Or name a favorite author/novel that hoodwinked you.

Thoughts on Thoughts

Thoughts on Thoughts
Terry Odell

Tips on Writing Thoughts

A recent read dealing with the way a debut author dealt with characters’ thoughts triggered this post.

This author handled things differently from my preferences, which pulled me out of the story. Not to say the author was wrong, but it slowed the read. The subject has made it to these pages before, but here’s my take. (For courtesy reasons, I’m not using examples from the author’s book.)

I’m a Deep POV person. Doesn’t matter if I’m writing first (rarely, but I’ve done it) or third (where I’m most comfortable, and which is almost first), I want readers to be inside the characters’ heads. The basic 5 senses are obvious, but how do we show what they’re thinking?

**Note: If you’re following the one POV character per scene “rule”, the reader should be well grounded and know who the POV character is, making it easy to know who’s thinking, but there are still techniques that can help.

When I auditioned narrators for my audiobooks, I gave them passages with dialogue, narrative, and internal monologue and told them I wanted it to be clear which was which for listeners. I had one auditioner come back with a “technique” he was very proud of that made it sound like the characters was in a tunnel for thoughts.

Having no formal education in the craft of writing, I went to workshops and conferences. One book that showed up on almost every presenter’s Suggested Reading list was Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King. Another handy booklet I picked up was Going Deep with Point of View by Suzanne Brockmann. Together, they laid the foundation for my approach to handling thoughts (among many other things).

What are my thoughts about writing thoughts? My two biggies:

  1. Don’t use speaker attributions/tags to tell the reader someone’s thinking.

If you’ve put the reader in the character’s head, it should be obvious they’re thinking. Per Browne & King, removing “he thought” makes them “unobtrusive to the point of transparency.”

Example:

Had he meant to kill her? Not likely, he thought.

Becomes

Had he meant to kill her? Not likely.

The second gets the same point across and is more effective.

They also suggest using the question technique.

Example:

He wondered why he always ended up killing them.

Becomes

Why did he always end up killing them?

Brockmann says “Anytime you interject she thought, she reflected, she guessed and so forth in this way—that’s you speaking, taking on the voice of the narrator, and your doing this takes the reader outside of the character’s head.”

  1. Beware italics

Italics do have their place, but italicized thoughts should be short—a sentence or two.

My ‘rule of thumb’ is to use italics when the character is talking to himself, and set them off in their own paragraph. Browne & King also suggest it as a useful technique to show a character’s thoughts in the middle of an action scene. Action doesn’t have to be fights and explosions. Here’s an example from my Identity Crisis. The following passage is a mix of narrative and Brett’s thoughts, but there’s only one bit in italics.

After the helicopter had deposited the team five miles down the mountain from the cabin, he, Adam—their team leader—and Fish had hiked up, then taken their positions surrounding the cabin. Since they couldn’t see each other, the only way to communicate was via radio. Then Adam had put the stupid radio silence rule into effect. What did he think? They were all telepathic?

Brett shifted, tightened and released his muscles in an attempt to keep warm. Toes, feet, ankles, calves. Quads, butt, shoulders. After two hours of lying on his belly in the cold, he had doubts he’d be able to move when the order came down. He was an endurance athlete. Not moving wasn’t part of his regimen.

Of course you’ll be able to move. Could be worse. Could be snowing.

Did he detect motion inside the cabin? He adjusted his binoculars. Nothing different. Curtains shifting as the wind blew through rotting walls and broken windows. Brett itched to crawl closer. Hell, just to move, keep the blood flowing.

What does Command know? We’re halfway up a bloody mountain somewhere in Mexico, while they’re sitting on their asses at Ops—where the building was heated, damn it—in San Francisco looking at computer terminals.

Some more examples of the way I handle the technique. Your mileage may vary.

From Falcon’s Prey. Fish is the POV character in this scene. First, a ‘clunky’ version.

“You two are free to get back to whatever you were doing,” Dalton said. “We’ll call if anything changes. Let’s move our seventeen hundred sitrep to eighteen hundred.”

Get back to what they were doing? What did that mean, Fish wondered. Dalton couldn’t think Fish was getting things on with Lexi, could he?

He told himself to chill. He was reading his own thoughts into a casual remark.

He didn’t think he would mind a little diversion. No, for the duration of this assignment, Lexi was the principal. They had plenty to talk about, plenty to catch up on, but getting things on wasn’t one of them.

Fish admitted to himself he had considered it.

Now, the streamlined version, the way it appears in the book. Thoughts should be obvious to the reader.

“You two are free to get back to whatever you were doing,” Dalton said. “We’ll call if anything changes. Let’s move our seventeen hundred sitrep to eighteen hundred.”

Get back to what they were doing? What did that mean? Dalton couldn’t think Fish was getting things on with Lexi, could he?

Chill. You’re reading your own thoughts into a casual remark.

Not that Fish would have minded a little diversion. No, for the duration of this assignment, Lexi was the principal. They had plenty to talk about, plenty to catch up on, but getting things on wasn’t one of them.

Don’t kid yourself. You’ve considered it.

What would the second, cleaner passage look like if all the thoughts were in italics?

“You two are free to get back to whatever you were doing,” Dalton said. “We’ll call if anything changes. Let’s move our seventeen hundred sitrep to eighteen hundred.”

Get back to what they were doing? What did that mean? Dalton couldn’t think Fish was getting things on with Lexi, could he?

Chill. You’re reading your own thoughts into a casual remark.

Not that Fish would have minded a little diversion. No, for the duration of this assignment, Lexi was the principal. They had plenty to talk about, plenty to catch up on, but getting things on wasn’t one of them.

Don’t kid yourself. You’ve considered it.

I don’t know about you, but I find all those italics hard to read—even harder when I’m using my e-reader.

Does this mean you should never use “he thought” in your books? Of course not. It’s only when you’re using them as speaker attributions that you want to be careful. There’s nothing wrong with the “I thought” here:

The bus driver took the corner on two wheels. I was going to die. I thought of all the times my mother had urged me to go to church.

What about you, TKZ peeps? How do you handle character thoughts? Pet peeves, examples of those well done?

The Blackthorne Inc Novels, Volume 3And a quick moment of BSP. I’d bundled books 7-9 in my Blackthorne, Inc. series, and the set is available now.


Terry OdellTerry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

A BUT Means Complications and Obstacles

As an animal lover, wildlife documentaries are my jam. My husband and I often joke about one particular aspect that is true in the natural world—there’s always a “but.”

Wolves are fierce hunters, but they need to take their prey on the run i.e., predate.

 

Bears can kill with one strategically placed swat of the paw, but they have terrible eyesight.

Unrelated fun fact: If an ant is decapitated during a battle, the disembodied head can continue to fight for hours.

Penguins live in huge colonies—there’s safety in numbers—but they have to swim past their greatest enemy (sea lions) to reach the open ocean to feed.

 

A giraffe’s long neck helps them reach leaves at the top of trees, but that same neck that aids them in gathering food also causes the highest blood pressure of any animal.

 

 

A rhino’s horn is their greatest asset in a fight, but that same horn makes them targets for poachers.

 

Mongooses are carnivores, but their favorite prey is venomous snakes, including cobras, adders, and vipers, and one good strike could kill them.

Boreal Owls are usually monogamous, but when prey numbers peak, males cheat with up to three females and female boreal owls often have at least one beau on the side. So much for monogamy, right?

Using sharp claws on their fore-flippers, seals punch out 10-15 breathing holes in the ice and maintain the openings all winter but using these holes can mean sudden death if a hungry polar bear is nearby.

Fun fact: Sea ice is as important to the Arctic as soil is to the forest. It supports the entire Arctic food chain. When ocean water freezes, it expels salts, causing channels to form inside the ice. As sunlight filters through the ice, algae grow within these channels, creating an underwater garden that forms the foundation of the food chain.

Mudskippers are fish who live in the ocean, but they need to walk on land and dig mud burrows to mate.

Skunks use an overpowering odor for defense and can spray six times in succession, but once their foul-smelling liquid runs out it takes up to 10-14 days to refill the glands.

Roadrunners can sprint at 40 mph, plenty fast to outrun prey, but food is scarce in their dry, desert environment, so they hunt venomous snakes—like rattlers who feed on roadrunners—and risk death.

Fun fact: A rattlesnake can shake its rattle twice as fast as hummingbird wings flutter.

Wildebeests need to migrate to find food once resources dry up, but to make it to the promise land they need to cross croc-infested water.

Corvids are some of the world’s most intelligent animals, but that same intelligence is what attracts ignorant people to hunt them for sport. (Yes, I’m bias. #BlackFeatheredLivesMatter)

Cuttlefish can change shape, color, and texture—20 million pigment cells create a magnificent light show—but they can only mate once in a lifetime.

Gray whales can submerge for 15 minutes at a time, but a mother’s calf can only hold its breath for 5 minutes, so when under attack by orcas the mother will flip onto her back to create a platform for her baby to lay on, but Momma can’t breathe upside down.

See where I’m going with this? All these complications and obstacles make the natural world even more interesting.

The same is true for writing.

So, while crafting your storyline—plotted or pantsed—keep “but” in mind. Because without complications and obstacles, you risk boring the reader.

Over to you, TKZers. In your WIP or recent book you’ve read, give us an example of a “but.” Or share a “but” found in nature.

 

The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You

The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You
Terry Odell

scene endingsKeeping readers turning pages is a big thing for authors. Who doesn’t love a message saying “I stayed up all night reading your book”? I’m closing in on ‘the end’ of my first draft of my new book, Cruising Undercover. One of the things I look at on my read through is how I end my scenes. Will a reader be invested enough to turn the page? This is a topic that’s been covered here before, but even though I’m writing novel number thirty-something, it’s a piece of the craft I have to revisit every time. I thought a refresher or reminder might be worthwhile.

I’m a “self taught” author. That’s not to say I never took classes or workshops, but I was a Psychology major/Biology minor in college. I took the requisite English classes—the ones you couldn’t graduate without. I got decent grades, but I learned more about how to string words together in high school than in those few college classes. I never took a “How to Write” class. The writing courses I took were at conferences or online.

Writing began as a whim. Could I do it? When that moved from writing fan fiction to attempting an actual, original novel, I simply sat down and wrote. My first manuscript was my writing class. That manuscript was one long (140K words) puppy. And there were no chapter breaks. That’s not to say I was trying to avoid using chapter breaks. Rather, it was because I didn’t really know where to put them.

Readers look for reasons to put the book down. They have chores, or work. Kids. Schedules. Bedtimes. Chapter breaks are logical stopping points. Long before I started writing, I learned that if I was going to get any sleep, I had to stop reading mid-page.

A former critique partner referred to these endings as landings. Others have called them hooks.

What makes a reader say Okay, I’ll read a little longer?

Cliffhangers are a tried and true way to get readers to keep going. Leave the character with a dilemma. Jump cuts have been discussed here as well. Since most of my books have alternating POV characters, I often leave one character hanging while I shift to the other’s POV. Since these POV shifts mean each scene has to be a mini-chapter, they need their page-turning landings.

They don’t always have to be character in peril cliffhangers.

You can leave readers with a question they want answered. It could be a phone ringing or a knock at the door. (I use these too often in my first drafts and have to go back and mix things up. You don’t want your chapters to be monotonous or predictable.)

Short chapters, or short scenes are another way, which seems to be a current trend. I recall a workshop given by the late Barbara Parker who told of going to the pool in her apartment complex and asking a woman reading there if she liked the book. The answer, after a moment or two of reflecting, was, “Well, the chapters are short.”

**Personal note: I’m not fond of the super-short chapter. To me, it screams gimmick. Not only that, in a print book, it’s an extreme waste of paper. It’s as if the author or publisher is trying to meet a page count quota and all those short chapters make the book seem longer than the story actually is.

Back to my learning the craft of landings. When I went back and added breaks to my endless tome, I discovered that I’d ended every chapter or scene either with someone driving away or going to sleep. They were, to my still learning the craft mind, logical stopping places. But not exactly page-turners.

More often than not, the best exit was behind where I’d put my break. I’d gone too far, feeling the need to wrap things up. Sometimes a sentence or two was all I needed to cut—usually those extras leaned into telling rather than showing. Sometimes several paragraphs. Once I accepted that those words might still be good, they just weren’t good where they were sitting, it was easier to cut them. I hardly ever needed them, but I felt better knowing that hadn’t been destroyed.

An example of a scene ending from a very early version of what ended up becoming Finding Sarah:
Sarah didn’t care; she cried great gulping sobs until exhaustion overcame her and she slept.

A better version of the ‘end with bedtime’ scenario adds a question:
As she drifted off, she heard a man’s voice from the main house. Had Jeffrey come home?

Here are a couple of examples of “non-cliffhanger, non-action-filled” chapter endings:

From Forgotten in Death, by JD Robb:
Kneeling, she pulled off the work gloves, then resealed her hands. And took a closer look at her second and third victims of the morning.

From A Thousand Bones, by P.J. Parrish
He took another drag on his Camel. “Maybe I will have something else for you as well.”
“What?” Joe asked.
He smiled. “A little surprise.”

What about you TKZ peeps? Do you struggle with ending scenes and chapters? Do you tend to overwrite? What tips can you offer for keeping readers turning pages?



Available Now. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.

 

 

 

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

Macro-Level Jump Cut Scene

Full Disclosure: Jump cut may not be the correct term for the advice that follows. Years ago, the late great John Yeoman, beloved writing coach and friend, called the cinematic technique a jump cut during one of our lengthy craft discussions. Thus, it’s the term I’ve always used. Then I reread JSB’s 2018 article to prepare for this post. Jim’s correct use of the term is more widely known. Nowhere could I find the description of what I call a jump cut. Nonetheless, the two techniques are basically the same. When I use the term, I’m referring to the macro-level. Jim’s post focused on the micro-level.

Clear as mud? Okie doke, moving on…

The macro-level jump cut is a technique where the writer drops the reader into a harrowing situation—in media res—conflict builds, tensions rise, all without the reader knowing what proceeded this scene (aside from a few hints). The scene ends at a pivotal moment. Next scene rewinds the clock to the days or hours leading up to the opener. We’ve all seen this play out in movies and net-streaming series. Novelists use it to ensure readers will stick around to find out how the protagonist wound up there. Inducing curiosity and/or fear in the opener strangleholds the reader, forcing them to keep flipping pages.

The payoff that follows must live up to the hook. All my Grafton County Series novels (except the first book) open with the first half of the jump cut scene. Chapter One rewinds the story. It isn’t necessary to label this scene as a prologue. I do, but it could also be the first chapter. If you choose to include it as a prologue, Chapter One still needs its own hook.

Remember the pivotal moment where we left the reader? No matter where the payoff is—first plot point, midpoint, or climax—continue the jump cut scene from there. Newer writers may be tempted to copy/paste the first half of the scene. Resist that urge. Trust the reader to connect the dots. They’ll recognize the setting and situation.

Let’s look at two examples.

The Prologue of Pressure Points by Larry Brooks opens like this…

It was the echo of gunfire that kept him running. His body had long ago abandoned hope, pushing on faith alone through a fog of pain and fatigue. Logic screamed that this was pointless, while another voice whispered it was all a lie. Both were old friends that had served him well, and like Jesus on his fortieth desert night, he was tempted.

But neither voice was real. The gunshot had been real. The echo of it was real.

And so he ran. For his very life, and for those left behind. He knew that precious little time remained, and what was left was as critical as it was dwindling. Everything he had ever learned or believed or dreamed was at stake. He was out of options, down to a final chance that, win or lose, would be his statement to the universe.

It was his time. He had come full circle.

It is not paranoia when they are really out to get you. When they are right on your ass, downwind of the scent of your blood, closing fast.

Whoever the hell they are.

He ran all through the night’s relentless downpour. Low branches whipped his forehead and cheeks until they bled. He could feel his heart pounding in every extremity of his body, his vision clouded by sweat and rain. Both elbows were bloodied from a fall when his foot caught an exposed root, sending him skating wildly across a patch of decaying leaves. Leaping over a rotting log, he felt his right ankle turn impossibly inward, and the ensuing bolt of pain seized his leg like a pair of gigantic hands twisting with the enthusiasm of a gleeful sadist. But he had no time for this or any other distraction, not on this night, when, one way or the other, his past would finally and conclusively catch up with him.

Chapter One rewinds to 41 days earlier. I can’t show you the payoff scene without ruining the ending. Trust me, it’s amazing.

Please excuse my using an excerpt from one of my books. I searched my Kindle for other examples but couldn’t find any that jumped out at me.

The Prologue of RACKED opens with…

In the vast openness of the snowmobile trails, solar-powered Christmas lights danced across pine needles on the branches I separated while the lanky silhouette of the Serial Predator tossed shovelfuls of dirty snow on a mound. Was he digging a fresh grave? My calf muscles jumping-jacked beneath my skin, begging me to run. But I couldn’t. Not yet.

A row of thin birch trees bowed over the makeshift grave, thin branches curled like the skeletal fingers of a demon protecting its prey. The overcast sky blurred the hazy moon into non-compliance, its glow hastened by gathering storm clouds.

Who did he plan to bury here? My gloved hand clawed at my throat.

Please tell me Noah’s still with Mrs. Falanga. All the saliva in my mouth dried, my insides squirming, screaming for release. What if Childs left his post long enough for the Serial Predator to sneak past him? What if he murdered everyone in the house? What if he abducted my son after Mrs. Falanga tucked him in bed? She might not realize he’s missing till dawn.

Beyond the tree a flashlight balanced on its end, a smoldering yellow glow pointed toward the heavens. Cigarette smoke billowed through the haze. Hot ash tumbled into the darkness when he flicked the filter into the arctic December air.

I backed away from the tree.

Crunch.

My right heel froze on the pinecone.

The Serial Predator slung his portable spade over one shoulder and stalked toward me. “Hello?”

Male voice. Almost familiar. Where had I heard it before?

Holding my breath, cramps squeezed my calf muscles as I crouched behind the conifer, flames tunneling down my sciatic nerve to my partially raised foot, bent at such an angle mind-numbing pain riddled the whole right side of my leg.

The Serial Predator hustled back to the shallow grave, and I lowered my wet boot to the snow. The moment he turned his back, I nosedived toward the base of the tree trunk, slithering beneath the branches like a frightened garter snake. Snow piled around the bottom helped shield the top half of my body. I pulled my legs out of view. A glacial breeze swept across my wet hair, and I could not stop shivering, the icy snow soaking through my jeans and wool coat.

With one smooth motion, he swiped his flashlight off the snow and aimed the beam toward the pine tree. “Hello?”

After the blinding light struck my eyes, I would never be able to describe his face or any distinguishable features, the black hoodie masking his identity. He could be anyone. Or no one.

With both gloved hands covering my nose and mouth, I held back icy breath that threatened to reveal my hiding spot.

“Is someone there?”

A cylindrical sphere lasered through the pine needles, and I ducked, my bare cheek trembling against a clustered mass of icicles. Snow boots clomped around the tree, then stopped—inches from my face.

Dear God, don’t let him find me.

Chapter One rewinds to 26 hours earlier.

Have you used this technique in one of your novels? There’s nothing wrong with writing a linear storyline. This is just another option. Let’s discuss.

R.U.E. Pitfalls

R.U.E. Pitfalls
Terry Odell

Resist the Urge to ExplainA comment by Garry Rodgers to one of Debbie Burke’s posts a while back made me check the archives. I thought for sure I’d written a TKZ post on the subject of R.U.E., but apparently I hadn’t.

When I starting playing around with writing, I belonged to an in person critique group (The Pregnant Pigs, but that’s irrelevant here) and we normally worked with hard copies of our chapters. I was the novice in the group, and my chapters often came back with RUE sprinkled through the pages.

What did that mean? “Resist the Urge to Explain,” they said. “What was I doing wrong?” I asked. And they proceeded to tell me.

As authors, we want to make sure our reader’s “get it,” so we tend to go overboard with information, explaining far too much.

Here’s a simple example: “Mary laughed so hard, she was afraid she’d pulled a stomach muscle. Susie had just told the funniest joke Mary had ever heard.”  The second sentence isn’t needed; it’s explaining something the reader would be able to figure out in context.

Another pitfall—telling something, then going on to show it. Let’s say you’re beginning to understand the “show don’t tell” advice everyone gives you, and you put the action on the page. For the sake of example, a simplistic passage might be written as follows:

After Bill cancelled their date, claiming his aunt was sick, Mary was depressed. She took one bite of chocolate cake, then pushed the plate away.

The second sentence shows what the first tells. If you find this in your writing, use your delete key on that first sentence. A better approach:

Mary had been looking forward to her date with Bill for weeks, but he’d cancelled, giving some excuse about a sick aunt. She moved the chocolate cake around the plate with her fork, then pushed it away.

The reader gets the information, and can see that Mary’s depressed without having to be told. You can use the same to show other emotions. Maybe Mary was angry, not depressed, after Bill cancelled. Maybe she throws the whole cake against the wall.

What about this?

Mary’s feet felt like lead. She couldn’t run fast enough to escape the man chasing behind her.

Cut the first sentence. You don’t need both. What about:  Mary ran, but her feet refused to move fast enough to escape the man chasing her. Or, Mary’s feet moved as though encased in lead shoes.

Sometimes, we tell the reader too much.

Mary twirled up two strands of spaghetti and waited for the excess sauce to drip onto her plate. Leaning forward, she manipulated the fork into her mouth, then wiped her mouth with her napkin. She was a very careful eater because she hated getting stains on her clothes.

Don’t insult your reader with the last sentence. No need to explain. We can see for ourselves Mary is a meticulous eater.

Another common place writers need to Resist the Urge to Explain is in dialogue. Too often, we tack on tags or beats that tell the reader what the dialogue has already shown. Are you adding adverbs to your dialogue tags?

“I’m sorry,” Tom said apologetically.

Those adverbs are usually signals that you’re telling something the dialogue should be showing. They’re propping up your dialogue, and if it needs propping, it wasn’t strong enough to begin with. All that ‘scaffolding’ merely calls attention to the weak structure beneath.

Will your reader notice these differences? Probably not, but they might not enjoy the read even if they can’t explain why. However, agents and editors are tuned into them, and if you’re submitting, you don’t want to send up any red flags.

Even for experience authors, it’s easy to fall into these traps in early drafts. Some tips:

Check your manuscript for ‘emotion’ words, especially if they’re preceded by “was” or include “felt.” Are you describing your character’s feelings? Don’t tell us how your character feels. Show us.

Check your dialogue tags and beats. Are they consistent with the words being spoken? If so, you don’t need them. If not, your readers will be confused, trying to reconcile dialogue with the action.

Readers are smart. Don’t patronize them by ‘talking down’ to them.

What about you, TKZers? How do you avoid “overselling” in your manuscripts?
Any encounters of RUE from other authors that slog the read?


In the Crosshairs by Terry OdellAvailable Now. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.

Changing Your Life Won’t Make Things Easier
There’s more to ranch life than minding cattle. After his stint as an army Ranger, Frank Wembly loves the peaceful life as a cowboy.

Financial advisor Kiera O’Leary sets off to pursue her dream of being a photographer until a car-meets-cow incident forces a shift in plans. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Research to Right the Wrongs … and Mary Poppins

Research to Right the Wrongs … and Mary Poppins
Guest Blog by Lee Lofland

Given I was still supposed to be in Antarctica this week (long, sad story), I’d asked Lee Lofland to fill in, and his post is definitely worth reading, so I’m turning the stage over to him.

Retired cop Lee Lofland got so sick of reading blatant errors in police procedure that he founded the Writers’ Police Academy, which is where I met him. I can’t recommend this conference enough for its hands on experiences and workshops given by experts–one of whom was TKZ’s own John Gilstrap. I’ve attended at least four times and learn something new every time. But I’ve rambled long enough … take it away, Lee.

Writers' Police AcademyWriters sometimes bypass the research portion of their craft and rely on rehashing outdated inaccuracies and dog-tired cliches about police. Unfortunately, allowing those blunders to wiggle and squirm their way into dialog, scenes, characters, and settings is occasionally the factor that sends once loyal readers to the words of another author.

I’m always amazed to learn of the writer who still uses cop-television as a research tool over the many true experts who make themselves available to writers. A great example of a wonderful resource for writers is this blog, Kill Zone. The combined knowledge shared by the contributors to this site is a treasure-trove of information.

With the so many top law enforcement resources available to writers, why, I often wonder, do some still consider as accurate the things they see on television shows such as Police Squad and the woefully ridiculous Reno 911? Even top-rated crime dramas take shortcuts and often make errors in police procedure, cop-slang, etc. It’s TV, and the duty of writers and producers of fictional shows is to entertain, not educate viewers about the NYPD Patrol Guide.

Writing a novel is, of course, a completely different enterprise than writing a television show. Scenes and action play out at a much slower pace; therefore, readers have more time to absorb and analyze the action and how and what characters are doing and WHY they’re doing it.

Shows like Star Trek and Amazon Prime’s Reacher are fiction, but viewers are easily drawn into the action. They’re engaged in what they see on screen because writers provide plausible reasons for us to accept what we’re seeing. (believable make-believe).

The ability to expertly weave fact into fiction is a must, when needed. But writers must have a firm grasp of what’s real and what’s made-up before attempting to use reality as part of fiction.

For example, confusing a semi-auto pistol with a revolver, or a shotgun with a rifle. Those are the sorts of things that cause writers to lose credibility with their readers.

shotgunA great example of this is in a current book I read a few weeks ago, where the main character “racked” a shotgun shell into the chamber of her rifle. A quick message to an expert, such as Kill Zone contributor and weapons expert John Gilstrap, and the writer would have learned that racking a shotgun shell into the chamber is an action used for shotguns, not rifles.

The writing in the book was wonderful, and the story flowed as easily as melting butter oozing from a stack of hot pancakes … until I read that single line. At that point, as good as the book had been, from that point forward I found myself searching each paragraph for more errors.

So, what are some of the more glaring police-type errors often seen in crime fiction? Well …

  • When shot, people fly backward as if they’d been launched from a cannon. NO. When struck by gunfire, people normally fall and bleed. Sometimes they cuss and yell and even get up and run or fight.
  • “Racking the slide of a pistol” before entering a dangerous situation is a TV thing. Cops carry their sidearms fully loaded with a round in the chamber. Racking the slide would eject the chambered round, leaving the officer with one less round.
  • People are easily knocked unconscious with a slight blow to the head with a gun, book, candlestick, or a quick chop to the back of the neck with the heel of the hand. NO! I’ve seen people hit in the head with a baseball bat and they never went down.
  • FBI agents do not ride into town on white horses and take over local murder cases. The FBI does not have the authority to investigate local murders. All law enforcement departments, large and small, are more than capable of solving homicides, and FBI agents have more than enough to do without worrying about who shot Ima D. Crook last Saturday night.
  • The rogue detective who’s suspended from duty yet sets out on his own to solve some bizarre and unrealistic case. He’s the alcoholic, pill-popping unshaven guy who never combs his hair, wears a skin-tight t-shirt and leather jacket, and carries an unauthorized weapon tucked into the rear waistband of a pair of skinny jeans. No. If an officer is suspended from duty, they are forbidden to conduct any law-enforcement-related business. Many departments require that suspended officers check-in daily with their superiors.
  • CSIs do not question suspects, nor do they engage in foot pursuits, shootouts, and car chases. Typically, they’re unarmed and come to crime scenes after the scene is clear.
  • Revolvers do NOT automatically eject spent brass.
  • Cops cannot tell the type of firearm used by looking at a bullet wound.
  • Cops do NOT fire warning shots.
  • Cops do NOT shoot to kill.
  • Cops shoot center mass, the middle of the largest target, because it’s the easiest target to hit when even a second could mean the difference between life or death for the officer.
  • Cops do NOT shoot to wound. They shoot to stop a threat.

Imagine that a man suddenly turns toward you, an officer. He has a gun in his hand, and it’s aimed at you. His finger is on the trigger, and he says he’s going to kill you. How do you react?

First, the scene is not something you’d expected, and in an instant your body and brain must figure out what’s going on (perception). Next, the brain instructs the body to stand by while it analyzes the development (Okay, he has a gun and I think I’m about to be shot). Then, while the body is still on hold, the brain begins to formulate a plan (I’ve got to do something, and I’d better do it now). Finally, the brain pokes the body and tells it to go for what it was trained to do—draw pistol, point the business end of it at the threat, insert finger into trigger guard, squeeze trigger.

To give you an idea as to how long it takes a trained police officer to accomplish those steps, let’s visit Mary Poppins and Bert the chimney sweep from the movie Mary Poppins. More specifically, that wacky word sung by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke—supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

The time it takes me to say the word is somewhere between 1.01 seconds and 1.22 seconds, depending upon how quickly I start after clicking the button on the stopwatch. To put this scenario into perspective, the average police officer’s reaction time (based on a study of 46 trained officers), when they already know the threat is present (no surprises), AND, with their finger already on the trigger, is 0.365 seconds. That’s less than half the time it takes Bert to sing that famous word.

In short, in a deadly force situation like the one mentioned above, police officers must decide what to do and then do it in the time it takes to say “supercali.” Not even the entire word.

Considering that hitting a moving object such as an arm or leg while under duress is extremely difficult, if not impossible for some, shooting to wound is not a safe option when a subject is intent on shooting the officer.

  • Cops do NOT use Tasers when the situation calls for deadly force.
  • Cops should never use deadly force when the situation calls for less than lethal options, such as Taser, pepper spray, baton, etc.

Finally, unless you’re writing historical fiction, your characters will not smell the odor of cordite. Cordite manufacturing ceased at the conclusion of WWII; therefore, scenes written in the past 75 years or so shouldn’t contain anything resembling, “I knew he’d been shot within the past few minutes because the scent of cordite still lingered in the air.”


Lee LoflandLee Lofland is a veteran police detective and recipient of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police Medal of Valor. He’s the author Police Procedure and Investigation, blogger at The Graveyard Shift, and founder and director of the popular Writers’ Police Academy, a hands-on training event for writers, and Writers’ Police Academy Online.