Surprise in Fiction: Trent’s Last Case

Surprise – noun — a completely unexpected occurrence, appearance, or statement.

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Unsurprisingly, there’s been some research done on the science of surprise. I read this summary on Melissa Hughes’s blog.

There is science in surprise. Neuroscientists have discovered that surprise is one of the most powerful human emotions. As it turns out, the brain’s pleasure center (or the nucleus accumbens) lights up like a Christmas tree when you experience something that you didn’t expect. Not only do you get a nice boost of dopamine, the brain releases noradrenaline – the neurotransmitter responsible for focus and concentration. Think of it as the reset button for the brain. It actually stops all of the other brain activity to let you find meaning in the surprise.

An article on highlights the work of neuroscientists Dr. Gregory Berns and Dr. Read Montague who ran experiments that used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure changes in human brain activity in response to a sequence of pleasurable stimuli, in this case, fruit juice and water.

“Until recently, scientists assumed that the neural reward pathways, which act as high-speed Internet connections to the pleasure centers of the brain, responded to what people like,” said Montague.

“However, when we tested this idea in brain scanning experiments, we found the reward pathways responded much more strongly to the unexpectedness of stimuli instead of their pleasurable effects.”


Given this data, maybe we authors should look closely at the element of surprise in our works. If we can cause the reader’s brain to suddenly experience a pleasurable shot of dopamine, we will have captured their attention and their loyalty.

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“Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise.” — Julia Cameron

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When we read a mystery novel, we expect to be surprised. All those twists and turns are designed to keep our attention. When the shy, gentle woman suddenly pulls a gun out of her purse, or the disconnected nerd leaps into the line of fire to save a stranger, we love it.

According to an essay on,

The importance of surprising your readers should never be forgotten by any aspiring writer. In fact, it should always be considered a vital part of a storyteller’s toolkit. By seeking to confound your audience with plot twists, subverting the reader’s expectations with ‘the element of surprise’ can often allow you to heighten dramatic tension in your story, add suspense, or introduce humour.

Mystery readers, though, are a fairly sophisticated bunch. Most dedicated mystery readers have a sense of the story. We’re accustomed to surprises in the form of strange clues and red herrings to distract us from figuring out who the real culprit is. Complex twists and turns are part of a good mystery, but readers know that no matter what surprises or unusual events are thrown at the amateur sleuth, she will eventually solve the mystery and save the day.

However, I read a book recently that took a couple of turns I didn’t expect. (Note: spoilers in the paragraphs below.)

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Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley was published in 1913 and is widely respected as one of the first, if not the first, modern detective novel. Agatha Christie called it, “One of the best detective stories ever written.” It was dedicated to Bentley’s friend G.K. Chesterton who encouraged him to write it and, maybe unsurprisingly, called it, “The finest detective story of modern times.”

The story begins when the body of a very unlikeable financial magnate, Sigsbee Manderson, is found by one of his servants, and there is concern that his death might shake up the financial markets  When the editor of an influential newspaper hears of the probable murder, he calls on the charismatic Philip Trent, an artist who is also a freelance reporter and amateur sleuth, to help solve the case. Highly respected by the police authorities, Trent seems to have the intellectual acuity of Sherlock Holmes since we’re told nothing can escape his astute powers of observation. (It turns out this is an intended comparison.)

There are the usual suspects in the case: the beautiful widow, the unhappy uncle, and various others who had reasons to do away with the unpleasant Mr. Manderson. And there is an abundance of strange clues to keep the reader busy trying to put the puzzle together. Not to worry, though. Trent puts his considerable analytical skills to work and comes up with a brilliant theory that satisfies all the clues. The only problem is that he has fallen in love with Manderson’s widow, and he believes she was having an affair with one of her husband’s employees who subsequently murdered Manderson.

Trent writes his dispatch to the newspaper editor but doesn’t send it. Unwilling to implicate the woman he loves, he gives the dispatch to the widow, leaves the site of the crime, and accepts a freelance reporting assignment in another country..

Surprise #1: Trent’s solution to the mystery comes just a little after the midpoint in the book. That threw me since I’m accustomed to the reveal coming in the last chapter. I read on, curious to see how the author would continue the story. Will the widow turn out to be a scheming murderer who hunts down Trent and kills him? Will she and her lover taunt Trent with his unwillingness to accuse them?

Several chapters later, we discover:

Surprise #2: The widow wasn’t involved. Trent was wrong.

Very clever, Mr. Bentley. You led me down the garden path, convinced that Trent could not make a mistake because he was modeled on the extraordinary Sherlock Holmes.

It turns out E.C. Bentley was not a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and he intended Trent’s Last Case to show the amateur sleuth as a fallible human, not a flawless reasoning superhero. But I didn’t know that when I began reading the book, and my expectations set me up for a few surprising plot twists.

There are a couple of other surprises in the book, but I won’t reveal them here in case anyone wants to read the story. Even though Bentley employs an early 20th-century style of writing that is no longer popular, the story is enjoyable and stands the test of time.

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“I love surprises! That’s what is great about reading. When you open a book, you never know what you’ll find.” –Jerry Spinelli

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An interesting postscript: I uploaded this post to the TKZ site last week. Over the weekend, my husband and I had lunch with a fellow author who was telling us about a book he recently read: Fade Away by Harlan Coben. Although I hadn’t said anything about my TKZ post, our well-read friend said the thing he loved about the book was that it held many surprises. So there you have it. The proof is in the pudding.

So TKZers: Have you read Trent’s Last Case? What books have you read that took you by surprise? How do you include elements of surprise in your books?

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Private pilot Cassie Deakin is in for a string of surprises when she lands in the middle of a murder mystery. Even Fiddlesticks the cat takes on a new persona that’s shocking.

Buy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google Play, or Apple Books.


Situational Awareness

I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination. –Jimmy Dean

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Did you know the deadliest aviation accident in history happened on the ground? Yes, you read that correctly. It occurred in 1977 when two 747’s collided in dense fog on a runway in the Canary Islands. Here’s how it happened:

An incident at the airport on Gran Canaria Island had diverted aircraft to the smaller Los Rodeos Airport on Tenerife Island. The Los Rodeos Airport had only one runway and an adjacent parallel taxiway with several smaller taxiways connecting the two. Because of the increase in aircraft that had landed at Los Rodeos, several aircraft were parked on  the taxiway.

Two 747’s were lined up at one end of the taxiway, ready to depart. A KLM aircraft was to be first, followed by a PanAm flight. Because of the wind direction, each aircraft would have to move from its current position to the opposite end of the runway, but they couldn’t use the main taxiway because it was blocked by other aircraft.

An air traffic controller in the Los Rodeos tower instructed the KLM plane to taxi down the runway to the end and turn 180° in preparation for takeoff. While the KLM plane was taxiing, the controller told the PanAm plane to taxi on the same runway (which would put it behind the KLM) and then exit at a connecting taxiway. That way, the PanAm plane would be off the runway before the KLM started its takeoff roll.

Because of the fog, the crews of the two planes could not see each other, and the air traffic controller could not see the planes. They were relying on accurate communication to guide their movements. If the crews of both planes had obeyed the controller’s instructions, the accident would not have happened.

The KLM completed its taxi and turning maneuver and was positioned at the end of the runway. Now, an aircraft must have specific clearance from ATC before starting its takeoff roll. The tower never gave the KLM flight clearance to take off, but the captain of the KLM plane thought he had been given the okay. Because of his misunderstanding and his inability to see clearly, the giant 747 began barreling down the runway, unaware that the other plane was in its path.

The takeoff plane was traveling at approximately 160 mph when the crew spotted the other plane dead ahead. They were only one hundred meters apart. There was no time to stop or swerve to avoid the other plane. The captain of the takeoff plane pulled the nose up sharply in an effort to “leapfrog” over the other one. He didn’t make it. The lower part of the KLM aircraft struck the PanAm plane and crashed onto the runway, exploding in a huge fireball.

Although the crews of both planes were experienced, five hundred and eighty-three people died in that accident. All the people on the KLM flight perished, and most of the passengers on the PanAm plane also died. And it happened because the captain of the KLM plane lacked “situational awareness”, or the ability to fully understand his environment. He acted on an assumption that the runway was clear. He was wrong.

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Situational awareness applies to many aspects of life, not just flying. Fortunately for authors, lack of such an awareness will not endanger our lives, but it just might endanger our livelihoods!

So what is situational awareness for writers? Most writers (I hope) know what they want out of writing. It may be fame, financial success, independence, self-fulfillment, a way to touch other people’s lives, or just the experience of writing a very good book. But in order to achieve his/her goals, the writer has to know what the current landscape is. After all, if you don’t know where you are, how can you figure out how to get where you’re going?

If you’re a pilot, you depend on the air traffic controller to direct your flight. When you drive, you may use your car’s GPS system to get you to your destination. For those of us who are new to publishing, we rely on experts in the field to lead us. Add to that the notion that the publishing world keeps shifting beneath our feet, it’s more important than ever to be well-informed.

When I began writing my first novel, I understood early on that I needed an editor/mentor to help guide me. Imagine my surprise when she told me my omniscient narrator was out of style and I’d have to take a different approach. After I got over my “Well, it’s my book and that’s the way I want to do it” reaction, I realized I didn’t understand the big picture of where I was in this new world. I needed a map.

Fortunately for me, the first two resources that were recommended to me were Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Along with my editor, these books laid the groundwork for my moving forward.

Luckily, authors have an abundance of good information in craft books, podcasts, blogs, and a semi-infinite number of online resources. The information is there. We just have to take advantage of it.

Whatever methods you use to get you where you want to go, best wishes for a successful journey and a happy landing!

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So TKZers: What are your writing goals? What tools do you use to get you to your destination? Books? Blogs? Podcasts? Courses?

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Private pilot Cassie Deakin has her feet firmly planted in the air. But when she lands on the ground and has to help disentangle a murder mystery, the landscape isn’t nearly so friendly. 

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Cautionary Tale in the Zone or Flow State

This is a cautionary tale of how “the zone” or flow state can skew reality and common sense.

Several years ago, I turned the sunroom into my office. All the windows allow me a panoramic view of “Animal Planet,” the lower level of the yard where I feed my crows, ravens, jays, cardinals, barn birds, squirrels, chippies, and anyone else who needs an easy meal.

It’s my happy place.

For years, I dreaded winter. The cold weather meant I had to move my office into the spare bedroom, because my converted office had no heat. That changed with the installation of a mini split, an electrical unit for heat and AC. But they can only handle so much.

Here in New Hampshire, the recent temps plummeted to single digits with “feels like” temperatures well below zero. It’s a big ask for a mini split. But I’m stubborn, so I bundle up in warm clothes and write for as long as possible before I must grab my MacBook and head into the living room for the rest of the day.

Yesterday (as of this writing), we had one of the coldest days we’ve had all winter. Downright frigid in my office, with frost crystalized around the windows. The mini split coughed out bursts of heat in between shutdowns to gain its bearings. Didn’t matter that I cranked the thermostat to 76 degrees.

The unit basically told me to pound sand. “Be happy with what I give you.”

Fair enough.

I’m at a point in the WIP where I’ve reached total obsession. You know that point in every project where things gel easier, words flow, excitement builds, milestones/goalposts whip by with less effort? Uh-ha, that’s the place. I’ve also had two scenes rolling around my head for days—weeks?—but it wasn’t time to write them yet.

There’s nothing wrong with jumping ahead to write a specific scene. Sometimes, I do the same. My preference is to let the scenes simmer inside me till they reach a boiling point. If my and my character’s obsession align, all that pent-up anticipation transfers to the page.

If you haven’t experienced this mild form of psychological torture, it’s effective. At least, it is for me.

Ahem. Anyway…

When my husband left for work at 4:30 a.m., I ventured into my office with a hot tea and the expectation that I’d only write at my desk till sunrise, then I’d snuggle up by the wood stove with my MacBook.

The first time I noticed the clock it read 10:30 a.m. But I was mid-scene. I couldn’t switch to my MacBook now. If I’m on a roll, I’ll never mess with the mojo that got me there.

Yes, I know how superstitious that sounds. Don’t we all have a few weird writing quirks?

The next time I glanced up from the screen, the clock read 2:30 p.m. But again, I was midway through another scene and not willing to risk losing momentum. At this point, I was also super high on craft and probably not in any condition to make decisions about my well-being, with serotonin, adrenaline, and dopamine coursing through my system. 😉

There I stayed in a suspended state of euphoria till the sun lowered toward the horizon. And I marveled at the pink sky interspersed with violet hues.

All my animal pals returned to their burrows, trees, and nests, the lower level now devoid of wildlife.

Still, I ignored the darkness swallowing daylight, my complete focus on the screen, my fingers barely able to keep up with the enticing hum of neurons firing.

When my husband returned from running errands after work, he strode into my cold, dark office. “Step away from the desk, honey. Now. That heater shut off hours ago.”

“It did?”

“Must’ve. It’s freezing in here.”

“Is it?”

I never once felt cold. Not once. I was so immersed in my story world, and drunk on intoxicating hormones, I left New Hampshire before dawn. All day I’d been chasing bad guys through the woods of Montana, dodging bullets and encounters with predators. I laughed. I cried. I feared. I rejoiced. I experienced the entire spectrum of emotions right alongside my characters from dawn to dusk.

It wasn’t till I strolled into the warm living room that I felt the first pang of stiffness, muscle aches, and joint pain.

What can we learn from this, kiddies?

There are worse ways to die. Kidding.

Sort of.

Clear Takeaways

  • Don’t sacrifice your wellbeing, or safety.
  • The human body needs blood flow. Get up and move.
  • The mind is a beautiful place. Take good care of it.
  • You only get one life. Don’t sacrifice a second.
  • Lastly, take the time to admire the natural beauty around you, like sunrises and sunsets.

Do I regret it?

The correct answer is yes, but I don’t. Not one bit. Those chapters rock. 😉 Do as I say, not as I do.

Have you ever gotten “lost” while writing? Tell us about it.

What Would Your Characters Do?

What Would Your Characters Do?
Terry Odell

In my last post, I talked about some of the mishaps on our recent European trip, and how a writer might use them. “Only Trouble Is Interesting.”

What do your characters do when things don’t go the way they want them to? You don’t need to be writing about travel. Stuff happens anywhere and anytime.

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Take our neighborhood. We live in a rural area, in a housing development established back in the 70s. It was designed for weekend getaways. Time marched on, and more and more people decided this was a great place to live. Now, almost everyone lives here all the time, which puts a strain on the water system. Pipes from the 70s are wearing out, developing leaks. Cutting to the chase, there was a major leak that drained the entire system. We have people in charge of this, and they haul water as needed, but between how much water was needed, and the freezing temperatures and snow, we had no water for about five days. The loss showed up late on Christmas afternoon, and I feel for the people who were left with the aftermath of a Christmas dinner and no way to wash the dishes.

Most of us take it for granted that when we turn a tap, water will come out. That toilets will do what they’re designed for. Take all that away, couple it with a community Facebook page, and people’s true colors are waved for all to see.

There were those who said, “This is what rural mountain life is like. The people in charge are working long hours in miserable weather searching for the leak. They will find it, and all this will pass.

In a show of community, nearby RV parks, even though closed for the winter, opened up their showers. Places like Walmart donated cases of water.

Was this enough for some? There were those who demanded minute-by-minute updates. Wanted immediate solutions. “Threatened” to put their homes up for sale. (Good riddance, IMHO). Ranted and raved about how nobody was doing their jobs (they’re all volunteers, btw) and they should be replaced. These were probably the people who made no efforts to conserve water year round, I’ll bet.

Image by César Mota from Pixabay

Other colors were waved when one company’s trash pickup didn’t happen on schedule because of extreme weather (the first time they’ve missed since we moved here 13 years ago), posted their fury and immediately changed trash companies.


An example from our recent cruise. Because of a lot of recent rain and snowmelt, the Danube waters rose to the point that the riverboats couldn’t get under the bridges, even though they had wheelhouses that could be lowered to some extent. The authorities closed the river.

(You can click on the images to enlarge them)

Our ship couldn’t get to its next stop. A sister ship was coming the other direction and faced the same problem. Our cruise director—who probably had very little sleep for several days—and the other ship’s crew coordinated a swap. All our passengers would be bussed to the sister ship, and vice versa.

Yes, it was an inconvenience. We had to pack, but the cruise line took care of transporting our luggage. We got to our scheduled cities, but it required longer bus rides. The ships were in canals now, not in the Danube proper.

I’m glad to say that most of the passengers accepted this as something nobody could have predicted, and praised the crews of both ships for their efficient handling of the unexpected swap.

Historische Wurstküche

The cruise line did offer compensation. They gave us vouchers for lunch at a landmark restaurant. The next day, as we disembarked for the buses to the Nuremburg Christmas Market, they gave everyone thirty euros in cash. And, they refunded everyone the equivalent of 25% of one day’s travel, which was realistically about the only time we lost.

Yet there were some passengers who thought the cruise line should have known about the river rising and should have refunded everyone’s money for the entire trip.

Melk Abbey Courtyard

And then there are the rule breakers. We toured the Melk Abbey, and taking pictures inside was prohibited. Yet there were two people in our group who felt that this rule didn’t apply to them, because … they were photographers with expensive cameras? The guide was very polite, and said, “Please, no photography” but did nothing to stop them. Part of me thought she should have demanded their memory cards (or taken their cameras until the end of the tour), but she let it go.

What about your characters—or people you know—TKZers? Can you use the way they respond to “times of trouble” or “rules” in your stories? What about how other characters react to them? Have you already done so? Have you read books where this was handled well? Or not?

And two more things, totally unrelated to this post. Character naming caveats. Don’t name a character Al. I’ve read two books recently with this name, and my brain insists on reading it as AI, as in Artificial Intelligence. Depending on the font, the reader might not be able to tell the difference. At least if that reader is me.

And don’t give your male character a last name that’s a female name if you’re going to refer to him by last name. If you call Bob Patricia ‘Patricia”, you’re likely to give your reader the hiccups until they adjust. At least if that reader is me.

How can he solve crimes if he’s not allowed to investigate?

Gordon Hepler, Mapleton’s Chief of Police, has his hands full. A murder, followed by several assaults. Are they related to the expansion of the community center? Or could it be the upcoming election? Gordon and mayor wannabe Nelson Manning have never seen eye to eye. Gordon’s frustrations build as the crimes cover numerous jurisdictions, effectively tying his hands.
Available for preorder now.

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

The Chronology of Story: Flashbacks

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Bears all its sons away;

They fly forgotten, as a dream

Dies at the opening day.

–Isaac Watts

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We live in a four-dimensional world. For most of us, the three dimensions of space can be manipulated at will because we can move around and change our position on the Earth. We can climb the stairs in our homes, sail across oceans, or fly through the air. However, we have no control over the fourth dimension: time.

Albert Einstein famously told us that time is relative, and I sort of understand that. But the clock on my office wall doesn’t know anything about relativity. It just ticks away, recording one second after another. And despite what our friends in quantum physics tell us, my time goes in only one direction. Yes, I’ve heard of Kurt Gödel, worm holes, and theories that say traveling backwards in time is possible, but to my knowledge, no one has accomplished that feat. I know I haven’t. So, for the purposes of this post, we’ll use this definition from

Chronology – noun – the sequential order in which past events occur.

Unless you’re writing a time-travel fantasy book, the events in the story you’re creating occur in a chronological sequence. But the telling of it doesn’t have to. Authors are a lucky bunch because we can tell a story in any way we want to. Even in a non-fantasy novel, we can take time and twirl it around our little fingers, make it do somersaults, or leap forward and backward in great bounds.

But why would we do that? Well, to keep the reader interested, of course. And how do we do it? One way is by the use of flashbacks.

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What is a flashback scene? defines a flashback as

“a literary device where a story breaks away from the present narrative to delve into the past, by showing us a past event or a scene from the past.”


According to novelist James Hynes in his Great Courses lectures entitled Writing Great Fiction,

“One of the fundamental principles of plotting is the withholding of information.…  A plot is the mechanism by which the writer decides what information to withhold, what information to reveal, and in what order.”

If the reader knows there was some disturbance in the protagonist’s past, but doesn’t know the full story, he/she will be compelled to keep reading to find out. When the author decides to reveal that fact, it may be effective to use a flashback scene.

The Power of a Flashback Scene

According to,

“The beauty of flashbacks is that they give writers the freedom to fully show instead of tell the details of a traumatic or significant event in a character’s history, at the moment when it will be most powerful.”


How to move from the present to the past

Transitioning to a flashback scene can be achieved by a character remembering something from his/her past. Or it can be a break in the story that presents some important background information that is crucial to the narrative. In either case, it’s important that the reader understand where he/she is in the story. To that end, transition can be accomplished in several ways:

A change in verb tense: If the story is written in the past tense, switching to past perfect will clue the reader in.

The use of italics: Although some readers don’t like long passages in italics, I’ve seen this device used and found it effective.

A specific date: A flashback can be a separate chapter or scene that is clearly dated to indicate a previous time.

However you decide to handle a flashback, it’s a device that can add strength to your story.

A Word of Caution

In his book Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell warns us about the overuse of this plotting device.

“There is an inherent plot problem when you use flashbacks—the forward momentum is stopped for a trip to the past…. If such information can be dropped in during a present-moment scene, that’s always a better choice.”

But if you feel the flashback scene is necessary, then JSB advises to make sure it works as a scene.

“Write it as a unit of dramatic action, not as an information dump.”

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Examples of flashbacks in literature

The entire book is a flashback

Most of the articles I read about flashback scenes describe a character who remembers something, and the flashback scene ensues from that. One example is The Catcher in the Rye which starts with Holden Caulfield’s first-person account of his current situation. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like,…”

Then the second paragraph begins with a transition to a flashback: “Where I want to start telling is the day I left Pencey Prep.” The rest of the book is a continuation of the flashback.

Other examples of stories written almost entirely in flashback are Wuthering Heights and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Flashback scenes sprinkled throughout the book

Another type of flashback is used by Jane Harper in her debut novel, The Dry. The story begins when Federal Agent Aaron Falk returns to his hometown to attend a funeral. As the story progresses, we learn that Falk left his hometown as a child after being suspected of the murder of one of his friends. As the reader gets more and more intrigued about Falk’s history, Harper fills in backstory through the use of flashbacks dropped in strategic chapters to show Falk and his friends as youngsters. These scenes are written in italics so it’s easy to know when you’re reading a flashback scene. The main narrative is written in Falk’s third-person POV, but the flashback POVs vary.

A single flashback scene to describe a life-changing moment in the plot

I included a flashback scene in my latest novel, Lacey’s Star. When Cassie Deakin’s uncle regains consciousness after being attacked and seriously injured by thieves, he explains that the assailants stole a package he had recently received from his unreliable and long-lost Vietnam war buddy, Sinclair. I wanted to include a flashback scene at that point in the narrative as a powerful display of Sinclair’s drunken despair changing to hope when he finds what he thinks is proof that his young sister was murdered 40 years earlier. In order to ensure the reader understood it was a flashback, I subtitled the chapter “Alaska – Three Weeks Earlier” and wrote it in italics. The novel is written in Cassie’s first-person POV, but the flashback is in Sinclair’s third-person.

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And just in case those guys are right about time travel, here’s a clock that might be useful:

* * *

So, TKZers. What do you think about flashback scenes? Have you used them in your stories? What’s your opinion of the power of the flashback?

* * *

When Sinclair Alderson wakes up from a drunken binge to find himself in the home of a kind stranger, he pours out his despair over the death of his young sister 40 years earlier. Only then does he discover the note that could identify her killer.

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What type of writer and reader are you?

Back in 2015, I was chatting with a dear writer friend, Paul Dale Anderson, about the different types of writers and readers.

If you’re a new writer searching for your voice, understanding which classification you fall into might help. Professional writers should also find this interesting.

Some of you may be familiar with Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). Though many call it junk science, most agree with the basic theory behind it: Our brains process information through one of our five senses. Though some rare individuals favor their sense of taste or smell (usually together, and these people are often chefs or perfumers), for most of us, it comes down to either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.

Kinesthetic links the process of learning to physical activity. Meaning, kinesthetic people can read or listen to instructions, but deep learning occurs via the process of doing. Obviously, this doesn’t mean kinesthetic readers need to act out the plot — though that’d be cool to watch! — they better absorb the storyline when it relates to experiences and actions.

Clear as mud? Cool. Moving on…

Paul Dale Anderson authored 27 novels and hundreds of short stories. He earned graduate degrees in Educational Psychology, taught college-level Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), and earned an MA in Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin. He also taught creative writing for Writers Digest School (both Novel and Short Story) and for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Paul was also a Certified Hypnotist and National Guild of Hypnotists Certified Instructor.

Sadly, the writing community lost our dear friend Paul on December 13, 2018. You can still plant a tree in his honor here, which I just discovered. Seems fitting for such a kind and generous soul. Anyway…

What he shared with me in 2015 is pure gold. And today, I’ll share it with you. The italicized paragraphs below are Paul’s words, not mine.

Even from beyond the grave, his knowledge and expertise still dazzles…

Too many writers are unaware of how the human mind processes language. Various structures in the brain—some in the left hemisphere and some in the right—work together to make sense out of symbols. Symbols include, besides alpha-numeric digital representations, sounds, gestures, signs, maps, smells, tastes, and physical feelings. It is the mind that gives meaning to each symbol based on prior associations dredged out of memory. The map is not the territory but merely a representation of the territory.

During conversations with fellow writers at the 2015 Nebula Award Banquet in Chicago, I identified successful new writers by which symbols had salience for them and the way they accessed information.

Some writers were very verbal and had a fluidity of language based primarily on auditory processing of sensory input. Those people were able to instantly duplicate and respond to what they heard as they heard it. Sounds themselves had salience. Those writers are akin to the musician who plays mostly by ear, translating auditory input into kinesthetic output without the additional steps auditory-digital types like me require to process input and output.

I work differently. I “see” stories, then translate them into words that describe my visions. First I see the scenes. Then I see the written symbols that best represent that scene. I see each letter, each punctuation mark, each space at the beginning of a new paragraph, the way words and white space look laid-out on a page, the way each page contributes to the story as a whole.

I write at the keyboard where my fingers automatically translate the symbols in my head into kinesthetic actions that produce the symbols that appear on the screen or piece of paper. I cannot listen to music while writing. Background music interferes with the words in my head. Other writers find that listening to music while writing is a big help.

If you are primarily kinesthetic, you might prefer to write with a pen on paper before revising your works on a keyboard or sending your notebooks to a typist. The feel of the paper itself, the touch of the pen to paper, produces words from your subconscious faster and better than any other process. Kinesthetic writers also love to pound out words on manual typewriters. They write with a flourish that adds to their style. James Patterson is a kinesthetic writer.

If you’re more like me, however, you separate the process into a series of “drafts.” The first draft is primarily visual, and you describe what you see.

The second draft includes imagined sounds, tastes, feelings, smells. During the third draft I read all the words aloud to hear how the words sound and to feel how they roll off my tongue. I add punctuation marks to match my pauses, inflections, intonations. I tend to cut unnecessary flourishes out of my stories unless they add momentum to the plot or help describe a specific character.

If a story is to work, it must engage all of the reader’s senses. Some readers are primarily auditory, some are visual, some are kinesthetic, some olfactory, and some gustatory.

The majority of people in this world are auditory. They respond best to dialogue, to alliteration, to phrasing. If you are primarily auditory like Stephen King, you might find writing easier if you dictate and capture the words into a digital recorder. Kinesthetic people respond best to action and they translate words on paper into muscle movements. If you want to appeal to every reader, you need to reach each of them in their own personal comfort zones.

That last line is a killer, right? No pressure. LOL

I fall into the auditory category, both as a writer and a reader. I write with headphones on, but the music becomes white noise that narrows my focus, transporting me into my story worlds. My first drafts consist of mainly dialogue with no tags and minimal narrative and description. After I gain critical distance, I’ll add sensory details and other enhancements.

As an auditory reader, I can’t listen to audiobooks. I need to read the words to hear the story rhythm. Audiobooks rob me of that.

Paul told us readers fall into the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic categories. For fun, let’s look at reading subcategories as well.

  • Motor reader: These readers tend to move their lips and may even mimic speech with their tongues and vocal cords when reading. Their reading range is very slow (150 to 200 words per minute) because they must read word-by-word at the rate they speak.
  • Auditory reader: These readers vocalize minimally or not at all, but they do silently say and/or  hear the words. They read in the 200 to 400 words-per-minute range. Auditory readers are skillful readers with vocabularies large enough that they can quickly recognize words.
  • Visual reader: These readers engage their eyes and minds when they read, but not their mouths, throats, or ears. They can read many words at once because they read ideas, not individual words. They read at a rate of 400+ words per minute.

If we believe Paul, with all his experience and degrees, most people fall into the auditory reader category. If your sentences don’t sing, the auditory reader may DNF your book. We also can’t forget about the visual or kinesthetic reader. Striking the perfect balance for all three can wrench a writer’s stomach, but it’s a goal worth shooting for.

What type of writer are you? What type of reader are you? If you’re an auditory reader, do you enjoy audiobooks? Or can you only hear the story rhythm by reading the actual words?

Biological Responses to Fear

Last night, my husband and I went to a pumpkin festival with another couple. The town blocks off downtown’s main drag, and skeletons, witches, monsters, live music, and laser shows filled the streets.

Dozens of lit jack-o-lanterns on shelved staging fringed one side of the road — the focal point of the evening’s festivities. The only thing missing was a haunted house. Fine by us. We don’t chase the adrenaline high of fear.

Which brings me to today’s subject: Fear

Fear is a universal, physical response to danger. We associate fear as a negative emotion, but it also plays a vital role in keeping us safe by mobilizing us to cope with potential dangers.

What happens within the body when we’re fearful?

Fear begins in the amygdala, which then activates the pituitary gland, where the nervous system meets the endocrine (hormonal) system. The pituitary gland then secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream.

Meanwhile, the sympathetic nervous system — a division of the nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight response — nudges the adrenal gland, encouraging it to squirt  epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and other catecholamines into the bloodstream.

The body also releases cortisol in response to ACTH, which raises blood pressure, blood sugar, and white blood cells. Circulating cortisol turns fatty acids into energy for the muscles to use should the need arise.

Catecholamines include epinephrine and norepinephrine, both hormones that prepare the muscles for violence by causing the following:

  • Boost activity in the heart and lungs
  • Reduce activity in the stomach and intestines, producing “butterflies” in the belly.
  • Inhibit the production of tears and saliva, which explains why dry mouth often accompanies fright.
  • Dilate the pupils.
  • Produces tunnel vision.
  • Reduces hearing.

The hippocampus part of the brain is heavily involved in memory, whereas the prefrontal cortex aids in high-level decision making. Both these areas help us control the fear response and determine if the danger is real or exaggerated. If the latter, these areas of the brain dampen the fear, allowing us to read scary books or watch slasher films.

Biologically, fear responses include:

  • Increased breathing.
  • Increased heart rate.
  • Peripheral blood vessels in the skin constrict while central blood vessels around vital organs dilate and flood with oxygen and nutrients.
  • Blood pumps the muscles so they’re ready to react.
  • Muscles at the base of each hair tighten, causing piloerection aka goosebumps.
  • Eyebrows raise and pinch together.
  • Upper eyelid raises while the lower tenses.
  • Jaw may slack and part stretched lips.
  • Voice pitch rises, tone strains.
  • Posture either mobilizes or immobilizes or fluctuates between both.
  • Breath shallows.
  • Muscles tighten, especially in the limbs.
  • Increased sweating.

Metabolically, glucose levels spike to provide energy if needed for action. Fear also increases levels of calcium and white blood cells.

Tips to Show Fear

To show a believable fear response in your main character, consider the above scientific and biologic changes within the body. Then get creative. An effective way to enhance fear is to slow down. Visualize the context. What’s happening in this moment? What is the character experiencing, moment by moment? By drilling into slivers of time, we’re telling the reader to pay attention. We’re creating emotional resonance. We’re drawing readers farther into the story, forcing them to turn the page.

Trigger the Senses

Do shadows obscure the threat? (sight)

Do the leathery wings of a bat flap overhead? Or do footsteps ricochet off the building and make it difficult to pinpoint direction? (sound)

Does the metallic sweetness of blood assault the back of the throat? (taste) Or fill the sinuses? (smell)

Is the thick bark of the ash tree she’s hiding behind rough and scratchy? (touch)

We already know hearing is impaired by biological changes. How does the impairment affect the MC? Do muffled sound waves heighten other senses? Or does the MC enjoy the adrenaline rush that accompanies fear?

Emotion is Layered

Characters shouldn’t be totally fine one second then immediately immobilized by terror. Let emotions build over time, even second by second.

“In the real world, no two people are alike, which means each of us expresses emotion in our own way. Some people find it perfectly natural to share what they feel with those around them, experiencing little to no discomfort with their emotions being on display. Others find the idea of revealing what they feel horrifying and will avoid situations that could lead to such vulnerability. Most fall somewhere between these extremes. This spectrum of expressiveness is called an emotional range, and it will influence not only which feelings a person overtly shows but when and how they will manifest.”

—Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, the Emotion Thesaurus

Emotions — especially ones as extreme and universal as fear — unfold on a continuum. To impact the reader, show the MC’s physical and emotional responses in the correct order and with the proper intensity, or fear may come across as irrational or melodramatic.

Any adrenaline junkies in our audience? Do you ride roller coasters? Like haunted houses? Have you ever zip-lined? What about jumping out of an aircraft? Care to share a frightful experience?



Pull the Chocks!

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” ― Leonardo da Vinci

* * *

In yesterday’s TKZ post, James Scott Bell deconstructed the movie The Fugitive and shared some lessons from it. Today, I want to look at a very different movie for a different reason.

The1957 film The Spirit of St. Louis is the story of Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight from New York’s Roosevelt Field to Le Bourget Field in Paris. Lindbergh hoped to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize by being the first to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, but this was no easy task. Six men had already died trying.

Now you would think a movie that follows a thirty-three-hour flight over the ocean would be a huge bore, but the filmmakers came up with a way to present it that engages the audience. Jimmy Stewart in the role of Charles Lindbergh lends authenticity, humor, and occasional hilarity to the film.

Like most stories, this movie is divided into three parts.

Act One covers the night before the flight when Charles Lindbergh is lying awake, dreading the sound of raindrops plunking against the window of his hotel room. This 53-minute act fluctuates between scenes of Lindbergh’s insomnia and flashbacks to his experiences as a U.S. Post Office airmail pilot, and other humorous scenes. From the story-telling point of view, this act provides movie-goers with knowledge of Lindbergh as a man, not a legend. He comes across as a likeable, shy, and determined young pilot.

Act Two recounts the take-off scene in seventeen minutes. I’ll come back to this in detail below.

Act Three is another long segment that follows the flight across the ocean and the landing in Paris, alternating between scenes of the sleep-deprived Lindbergh’s efforts to stay awake, a scary moment when ice forms on the wings and threatens to bring the plane down, and more flashbacks of his life as a barnstorming pilot and as a cadet with the United States Army Air Service.

* * *

But it’s Act Two where the real tension lies. Even though we all know the outcome, I find myself holding my breath whenever I watch the scene.

It begins when Lindbergh arrives at Roosevelt Field on the morning of May 20, 1927. The conditions are awful. The rain has made the field a muddy mess, and the fog renders a successful takeoff over the very tall trees at the end of the runway unlikely. Frank Mahoney, the owner of the Ryan Aircraft Company which built the plane, advises Lindbergh to wait and try again later. But the young pilot thinks there may be a chance, and he places a white marker at a certain point on the side of the sloppy runway. If he tries the takeoff and reaches the marker before the plane gets off the ground, he says he’ll abort the effort.

Only Lindbergh can make the Go/No-Go call, and he knows the odds are not good. He suits up, climbs into the cockpit, and does the runup. You can see the doubt on his face when he raises his hand in a goodbye gesture to the small group of people who came to see him off.

No one would blame him if he decided to wait. But you can almost hear his inner voice say, “This is your moment. Don’t let it pass you by.”

At approximately the exact middle of the movie (and I know James Scott Bell will love this), Lindbergh finalizes his decision by calling out the words that will start the plane forward: “Pull the chocks.” There will be no turning back.

A group of men actually push the plane to get it moving in the muck, and the little aircraft, heavy with fuel and struggling against the poor-to-horrible weather conditions, slogs its way down the field toward a line of trees that look increasingly ominous.

It would be hard to describe the scene of the actual takeoff, so I’ll let you watch this three-minute clip instead:

* * *

Charles Lindbergh was passionate about his chosen profession, and he put in the time to learn his craft. He had honed his experience through years of barnstorming, flying airmail routes, and giving lessons. He went through training with the United States Army Air Service at Brooks Field in Texas and earned his Army pilot’s wings and a commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Service Reserve Corps.

But even though he was the sole pilot of The Spirit of St. Louis when he flew across the ocean, Lindbergh’s effort would have been impossible without the support and knowledge of many others.

A group of St. Louis businessmen had financed the building of the aircraft. The owners and employees of the Ryan Aircraft Company supplied the experience and commitment to design the plane that could make a journey of almost four thousand miles. Lindbergh couldn’t have lifted off the ground without their help.

* * *

It seems I find an analogy to writing in just about everything these days, and it’s easy to see the connection between lifting off on a flight where the conditions aren’t perfect and launching a novel.

As everyone here knows, the preparation for bringing a novel to publication is long and difficult. And it isn’t just the hard work of meeting the weekly quota. The background of life experiences, craft books, writing courses, and blogs like The Kill Zone, all combine to prepare the writer for his/her effort.

In most books, only the author’s name is on the cover. But the product is usually the result of many people who willingly came alongside to make the book a success. Friends, editors, mentors, beta readers, endorsers, experts, and supporters from other areas pour their knowledge and expertise into the project.

But at some point, the author has to make the last preparations and commit to the flight. A new book launch may not be as risky as taking off in an airplane to fly a course no one has flown before, but to the author, it is just as exciting.

* * *

So there you have it. Today is launch day for Lacey’s Star: A Lady Pilot-in-Command Novel. It’s been a long, bumpy runway. Now we’ll see how she flies.

* * *

So TKZers: Have you launched a book recently? Tell us about it. What advice do you have for authors about making a book launch successful?

* * *


Private pilot Cassie Deakiin is smart, funny, and determined. She can land a plane safely in an emergency, but can she keep her cool when confronted by a murderer?

Lacey’s Star: A Lady Pilot-in-Command Novel began flying off the shelves today. $1.99 at Amazon   Barnes & Noble   Apple Books   Kobo   Google Play

Have a nice flight, Cassie.

First Page Critique: The Puzzle Within

Let me apologize to the Brave Writer who submitted this first page. A mix-up in communication caused me to think Brian sent this to another TKZer. Sorry! And thank you for your patience. My comments will follow.


Title: The Puzzle Within

Genre: Romantic Suspense

Arizona Powers slammed her palm into the office wall, ignoring the stinging sensation. Unbelievable. “Are you kidding me? I’m not doing that. I’m a federal agent, not a babysitter.” Her boss had clearly lost his mind. She spun on her hiking shoe, locking eyes with Senior Special Agent Matt Updike. Her fingers fidgeted with a button on her shirt. I deserve a second chance. 

Matt shoved his chair backward, rising with his hands splayed over the glass surface. “I’m not kidding. You are doing this,” he said, angling his bushy eyebrows and closing the distance between them in two steps. “You don’t have a choice.” His hot, stale coffee breath blasted her skin, and a vein in his neck bulged.

Reclining her head to make eye contact with a man nearly a foot taller than herself, Ari wrinkled her nose, crossed her arms, but refused to back down. “You can’t force me to do this. I’ll take it to the top.” All the way to the Director if necessary.

Matt’s energy deflated, a muscle twitching in his cheek. “This assignment came from the top. From the Director himself. The shrink doesn’t believe you’re ready,” he said, placing a warm hand on her shoulder. His expression softened. “Not yet.”

Ari shrugged, knocking his hand away, and stalked to the other side of the room. She rested her hands on a bookshelf, her eyes falling upon the photo of Matt’s smiling family taken at Disneyland last summer. The FBI was her family, and she didn’t need sympathy. She needed her job back. With a sigh, she rotated to face her boss. “But why me? Why isn’t DSS handling this?”

Shouldn’t the Diplomatic Secret Service be handling this problem? They’re responsible for Ambassador Van Sloan and his spoiled daughter, Bianca—the biggest brat in diplomatic circles. Growing up in the consulate with the world at her fingertips and a silver spoon in her mouth, the college student didn’t comprehend the word “no.”

I don’t have time for this. I’ve got cases to solve and missing children to find. A knot formed in her stomach.

Matt cleared his throat and returned to his seat.

Ari’s pulse flickered in her neck. “What aren’t you telling me?” Apprehension tinged her voice.

He swallowed. “DSS is handling it.” His eyes darted to a manila envelope on his desk. “You’re being ‘borrowed’ for the time being.”


Let’s first discuss all the things Brave Writer did right.

  • Good grasp of POV
  • Story starts with a goal: To get out of babysitting a diplomat’s daughter.
  • Includes a complication: The boss is forcing her to go.
  • Raises story questions: Why is Arizona not ready for FBI work? Why did the psychiatrist evaluate her?
  • Includes a subtle clue that tells us Arizona isn’t dressed for work—her hiking boot—which implies she’s on leave after an incident or came in on her day off.

If we put all these puzzle pieces together, the assumption is something bad happened to Arizona.

Kudos to you, Brave Writer. You’ve worked hard to hone your craft.

Now for some tough love.

The bones of intrigue are there, but it’s overshadowed by too many body cues and random details that add nothing of value. Here are the first two paragraphs with my comments in blue.

Arizona Powers slammed her palm into the office wall, ignoring the stinging sensation. This first line has no context. It’s a reaction without a motivation, or an effect without a cause. If, say, a grizzly bear was advancing on our MC, we wouldn’t first show the MC’s reaction. We’d show the grizzly bear huff or stomp the ground. Then the MC could react. Unbelievable. “Are you kidding me? I’m not doing that. I’m a federal agent, not a babysitter.” Her boss had clearly lost his mind. She spun on her hiking shoe This body cue implies she’s changing directions to leave, yet the rest of the sentence implies she’s entering her boss’s office. When put together, these two body cues cancel each other out and cause confusion., locking eyes with Senior Special Agent Matt Updike. I realize some writers use “locking eyes” but I immediately envision floating eyeballs. “Locking gazes” avoids confusion. But again, without knowing if she’s leaving or entering the office, the scene remains scrambled in this reader’s mind. Her fingers fidgeted with a button on her shirt. And now, she’s fidgeting, which implies nervousness. However, slamming a hand into a wall, locking gazes, and the inner monologue and dialogue all implies anger and/or defiance. Choose one emotion and stick with it. We haven’t even gotten to the second paragraph, and already the MC has experienced a plethora of conflicting emotions. I deserve a second chance. 

Matt shoved his chair backward, rising with his hands splayed over the glass surface. Glass surface of what? “I’m not kidding. <- this adds nothing of value, nor does this -> You are doing this,” he said, angling his bushy eyebrows <- I have no idea what this means. Is he consciously angling his bushy eyebrows at something? Doubtful. And if he is, we’ve slipped out of Arizona’s POV. and closing the distance between them in two steps. “You don’t have a choice.” His hot, stale coffee breath blasted her skin Face? Nose? Be specific. ’Course, shoving his chair backward is all you need to portray anger. All these other emotional cues distract from the dialogue. It’s too much. A good exercise for you may be to limit one emotion per character per page. It’ll force you to focus on strengthening the dialogue, inner monologue, and the narrative., and a vein in his neck bulged.

Let’s move on…

What if you started by showing Ari trying to control the diplomat’s reckless daughter (and failing)? Then this whole opener could be threaded through the narrative in a more organic way.


I didn’t become a federal agent to babysit a diplomat’s brat.

That one line of inner dialogue shows what you’ve conveyed in this first page. Please don’t get discouraged. We’ve all started novels too soon. And many of us continue to learn that lesson over and over and over. I wrote three different openers to my current WIP before I landed on one that worked, and it’ll be my 22nd book.

One last comment…

Because the out-of-control diplomat kid is a familiar trope, you need to work twice as hard to twist it in a way that’s fresh and new. It likens to the alcoholic cop or homicide detective who’s haunted by the cases he couldn’t solve. I can see that you have worked hard on your craft—otherwise I’d be handling you with kid gloves—so I’ll assume you have a fresh take. Which is great. I only bring it up to make you aware. Okay? Now, go write your bestseller. You’ve got the writing chops to do it. 😉

Over to you, TKZers. Please add your thoughtful suggestions for this Brave Writer.

Time Warps and the ING Construction

Time Warps and the ING Construction
Terry Odell

UPDATE: My audiobook narrator, Steve “Captain” Marvel was unable to respond to comments on the post where I interviewed him. He has now replied to those who left comments. You can find the post here.  He’s graciously left his email address in a reply should anyone need to follow up.



Time WarpI’m on my way to Montana to attend the Authors of the Flathead Writing Conference. I did a Zoom presentation for their group at Debbie Burke’s request, and had a good time talking to people who understood the “writer’s mindset.” So much so that I registered for their conference and am looking forward to meeting Debbie in person.

I’m revisiting a topic I’ve addressed before, triggered by a recent read of a traditionally published author’s book. (Why do we feel it’s necessary to differentiate between traditionally published and indie publishers?) Anyway my guess is both the author and the editor didn’t grasp the fine points of the “ing” construction, and this book had countless misusages of the ‘simultaneous action’ that goes along with those “ing” clauses, resulting in numerous time warps.

You don’t have to read science fiction to run into a time warp. At the very first writer’s conference I attended, an agent said she would reject a query with more than 1 sentence beginning with the “ing” construction. Her explanation—it’s too easy to make mistakes with that sentence structure.

But is it wrong? No. You have to be careful, and you have to pay attention. There are different reasons to avoid, or minimize use of those pesky “ing” words.

First, the inadvertent time warp.

Unlocking the door, Fred dropped the mail on the table and poured himself a drink. Using that “ing” phrase shows simultaneous action (or it’s supposed to), and Fred couldn’t have done all that while he was unlocking the door. Time warp!
Better to write After unlocking the door, Fred dropped the mail on the table, then went to the liquor cabinet to pour himself a drink. Time moves forward in that one.

What’s wrong with these sentences?
“Running across the clearing, John rushed into the tent.”
“Opening the door, Mary tripped down the stairs.”

John can’t be getting into the tent while he’s running across the clearing. And Mary needs to open the door before she goes downstairs.

Next, the misplaced modifier

Time Warp
In my first critique group, I held the prize for creating an answering machine that gave neck massages. In my draft of Finding Sarah, I’d written, “Rubbing her neck, the blinking red light on the answering machine caught Sarah’s eye.” Ooops. (But I would like a machine with that function!)

Make sure the noun or pronoun comes immediately after the descriptive phrase. Thus, the above example could be “Rubbing her neck, Sarah noticed the blinking red light on the answering machine.”If your “ing” verb follows “was”, take another look. “John was running across the clearing” isn’t a strong as “John ran across the clearing.” Of course, you’ll want to use stronger verbs, such as raced, sped, or barreled, but the idea is the same.

When you’re looking over your manuscript, you might want to flag words ending in “ing” and take another look to be sure you haven’t made any of these basic errors.
Here’s a quick way to spot them in Word. Click the image to enlarge.
Time WarpIn your document, click the drop down arrow by “Find” then select “Advanced Find.”
Click “More” and then check the “Use Wildcard” Box. Type ing into the find field, then click the “Special” Option, and “End of Word.” This will add a > character. You can use the Reading Highlight to see all of them, and the “Find Next” to deal with them one at a time. You’ll get more than just verbs ending in ing, but it’s still a quick way to spot them. The hard part is determining whether you’ve got a problem!

What grammar “conventions” do you have trouble with? Which bother you when reading?

Cover image of Deadly Relations by Terry OdellAvailable Now
Deadly Relations.
Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does
Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

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