Be the Mouse

A recent exchange with the hubster went something like this.

Him: What’d you do today?

Me: Same as yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.

Him: You’re a persistent little bugger, aren’tcha?

Me: *shrugs* I’m a writer.

But it’s not as simple as that, is it? Persistence can be grueling at times.

If someone told me ten years ago that in 2021 I would stumble across a true story that’s so meaningful and important it might forever change my writing trajectory, my first reaction would’ve been: Ten years is a lifetime away.

But the truth is if I found this case ten years ago, I wouldn’t know how to do it justice. Today I do. 🙂 This narrative nonfiction/true crime project has so many parallels to my own life, my passion is at an all-time high. Which brings me to persistence. Persistence while researching. Persistence while re-investigating the crime. Persistence while interviewing witnesses. Persistence while submitting the proposal.

The Big Dream

When I wrote my first novel—longhand, by candlelight—the Big Dream was all I could think about. I remember searching for other writers’ interpretation of success and how long it took them to “make it” in this business. Most said a new writer won’t make any money until they’ve written five novels. If they’re lucky, they’ll sell a few hundred copies of their debut. That’s the last thing an aspiring writer wants to hear.

The aspiring writer thinks: If you build it, they will come.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad mindset if it drives the writer to the keyboard. I’m a dreamer. Always have been, always will be. As long as we offset the dream with a dose of reality, I say dream big, dream often, dream without limits.

Now, with a backlist of 17 titles and 5+ trunk novels, I look back on that early advice and it means something completely different.

Writing five novels isn’t only about building an audience. It means the writer has honed their craft. They’ve let their passion lead them on a journey of self-discovery (Think: Who are you as a writer?). It means the writer never gave up. Or quit. S/he continued for love, not money. S/he kept her head down, fingers on the keyboard, butt in chair, and created, edited, rewrote passages, scenes, or whole chapters, and finished five manuscripts.

What else happened?

S/he learned the business side of writing—found an agent, publisher, or learned the ins and outs of self-publishing. Lastly, it means s/he learned how to market a product, build a brand and an audience. S/he persisted, even though the odds seemed insurmountable. S/he leaped out of the nest and learned to fly.

Sometimes this biz can be disheartening, other times it’s super exciting. The ups and downs are all part of this amazing journey. The minute we stop trying to achieve future goals, we’ve already lost. Aside from creatives—writers, singers, artists, actors, musicians, etc.—I can think of no other field that requires as much persistence.

What is persistence?

The dictionary defines persistence as:

  • continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition
  • continuing to exist or endure over a prolonged period

The definition clarifies how difficult it is to persist.

What happens in the brain during the act of persistence?

Serotonin is a neurochemical in the brain important for feelings of happiness. It’s also known for:

  • promoting good sleep by helping to regulate circadian rhythms (a 24-hour inner clock running in the background to carry out essential functions like the sleep-wake cycle)
  • helping to regulate appetite
  • promoting memory and learning
  • helping to promote positive feelings and behavior

If you have low serotonin, you might:

  • feel anxious, low, or depressed
  • feel irritable or aggressive
  • have sleep issues or endless fatigue
  • become impulsive
  • have a decreased appetite
  • experience nausea and digestive issues
  • crave sweets

Scientists have studied serotonin levels and persistent behavior in mice.

During foraging, all wildlife explores an area for food and/or water. But at some point, they must move on to a different area. Thriving animals exhibit patience and persistence before exhausting their search at each location.

In the study, researchers required water-restricted mice to “nose poke” while foraging to obtain water as a reward. The probability of obtaining water in each area lessened with each nose poke. The higher the number of nose pokes equaled more persistence in that individual mouse. Scientists also used video tracking to measure how long it took for the mice to switch to a different foraging area.

Mice exhibited optimal foraging behavior. Meaning, they optimized the trade-off between time spent searching an area for water and leaving to find a water source in a different area.

The mice who received serotonin neuron stimulation performed a greater number of nose pokes compared to mice who didn’t receive stimulation. They also took longer to leave an area, suggesting they were more persistent.

This is the first study to show a correlation between serotonin neuron firing and active persistence. Previously, scientists hypothesized that serotonin was involved in patience. We now know a rush of serotonin is involved in persistence, as well.

If our persistence starts to wane, we need to increase our serotonin level.

Here’s how:

  • Eat healthy
  • Exercise
  • Bright light
  • Massage

The list is almost meaningless without more explanation. So, let’s dive into each tip.

Healthy Snacks

We can’t get serotonin from food, but we can get tryptophan, an amino acid that’s converted to serotonin in the brain. High-protein foods contain tryptophan. For example, turkey and salmon. But it’s not as simple as eating tryptophan-rich foods, thanks to the blood-brain barrier—a protective sheath around the brain that controls what enters and exits. Isn’t the human body amazing?

Like with most life hacks, there’s a shortcut around the blood-brain barrier.

Research suggests eating carbs along with tryptophan-rich foods pushes more tryptophan into the brain, thereby raising the serotonin level.

Some tryptophan-rich snacks include:

  • oatmeal with a handful of nuts
  • plums or pineapple with crackers
  • pretzel sticks with peanut butter and a glass of milk

Exercise

Exercising creates an ideal environment for serotonin by triggering the release of tryptophan in the blood and decreasing the amount of other amino acids. Thus, more tryptophan reaches the brain.

Aerobic exercise of any kind releases the most tryptophan. Don’t fret if you’re unable to do aerobics. The main goal is to raise the heart rate. This can be accomplished by:

  • a brisk walk
  • a light hike
  • swimming
  • bicycling
  • jogging
  • blaring the music and dance

Bright Light

This surprised me, but it makes sense when you consider seasonal affective disorder. Serotonin levels dip in the winter and rise in the summer. What should we do? Spend 10-15 minutes in the sunshine. Or, if you live in rainy climate or can’t get outside, use a light therapy box. Both will increase serotonin levels.

Massage

Massage therapy increases serotonin and dopamine levels. It also reduces cortisol, a hormone produced when stressed. If paying for a professional massage therapist isn’t within your budget, ask a friend/spouse/partner to swap 20-minute massages.

Be the Mouse

Writers cannot achieve goals without some form of persistence. Be persistent, dear writer. Be the mouse.

When the Right Word is Wrong

When the Right Word is Wrong
Terry Odell

As writers, we deal in words. Thousands of words. And we’re always looking for the right word to use. But what happens when the right word is wrong?

For example, I was reading a draft chapter from one of my writing pals. She’d written something about a man pulling up the collar of his t-shirt to wipe sweat off his face. My comment to her was, “T-shirts don’t have collars.” Her reply was “Yes, that’s what I was taught when I took sewing classes.” I recalled that when I worked a temp job, our jackets were provided, but we were told to wear shirts with collars, and the accepted attire was either a blouse with a collar or a polo shirt, but absolutely no t-shirts. Being curious, I hit the search engines and looked up t-shirts.

Merriam-Webster said this: a collarless short-sleeved or sleeveless usually cotton undershirt; also :  an outer shirt of similar design

Wikipedia had this to say: a style of unisex fabric shirt, named after the T shape of the body and sleeves. It is normally associated with short sleeves, a round neckline, known as a crew neck, with no collar.

So, I was “right”—to a degree. Will readers stop reading to research words, especially ones they assume they know the meaning of? Not likely (as authors, we hate to pull anyone out of the read). However, some readers won’t notice it, because they consider the neckline of a t-shirt a collar. Others might hiccup, thinking the same way I did. Will it spoil the read? No.

Is there a solution? Maybe. When in doubt, I’d go with the dictionary definition. That way, if someone is puzzled enough to wonder, when they look it up, they’ll see the author was right.

Another example. My Triple-D Ranch series includes a character who runs a cooking school. I was writing a scene where she was teaching her students about the various pots and pans they’d be using. She was talking about the differences between frying pans and sauté pans (based on my trip through the Google Machine). I ran my draft by my (former) chef brother to see if I got things right. He came back and told me all my research was “wrong” because anyone trained in cooking wouldn’t use those terms, and proceeded (at some length) to set me straight. And therein lies the rub. He’s not my “target” reader, but he knows of what he speaks. Other readers might, too. And just as many would “know” that they’re right about the differences between sauté pans and frying pans. Either way, I’m right for some, and I’m wrong for some.

What did I end up writing? My instructor now says,

“Most cooking techniques and terminology we use comes from the French. However, a lot of names have been Americanized, and none of you will be ready for a fancy French restaurant simply by completing this course. You’ll be cooks, not chefs. So, I’m not going to dwell on terminology too much. As long as you can match the right tool with the right task, you’ll do fine.”

And then there’s the most important part about choosing the right word. POV.

Example 1

My characters were in a café, and it was one where customers place their orders at the counter, and the clerk hands them a metal stand with their order number on it to display on their table so the servers can find them.

First, I’d shown the heroine entering the café and placing her order.

She paid for her meal, accepted the metal holder with the number eighteen from the clerk, and found a small table in the back of the crowded café, inhaling the blend of aromas as she waited for her order to be ready.

In the next scene, the hero arrives and places his order.

At the counter, Bailey ordered a burger—a man had to eat, right?—and carried his stand with its number to Tyrone’s table.

My critique partner had trouble with the word “stand” in the second example, and asked what they were really called, and maybe I should use that definition instead.

So, I took a quick trip through Google and learned they’re called “Table Number Stands,” so my use of the term is correct.

Example 2

My character was at an event in a hotel, and she was going to leave, so she wanted to get rid of the half-empty glass she was carrying.

I’ve been to enough events at hotels or banquet halls, and I know the catering people normally have trays on stands set up at various places around the room where guests can deposit their used dishes. But I didn’t know what they were called.

But you know what? I forgot one crucial aspect. Would the character know?

What if my research showed the aforementioned table number stands were called Grabbendernummers. Then, I could have written, “Bailey carried his Grabbendernummer to the table.” But would he know that?

You see, it doesn’t really matter what you, the author knows or doesn’t know about something. It’s what the character knows. If my character with the half-empty glass were in the catering business, then yes, she’d refer to that tray by a proper name, if it had one. (And per my brother the chef and all the Googling I’d done, there isn’t a specific term for them.) So, my heroine, would simply see the tray on a stand. It might be black, or brown, or covered with linens, but she’s going to think of it as a tray.

Yes, do your research. But if you want to save a lot of time—especially if you’re easily sidetracked while looking something up—ask yourself if the character would know whatever you’re researching first. Just because the author knows (or looked up) what a particular object is called, in Deep POV, it’s the character who has to know it. The character is going to use whatever vocabulary exists in his head, not the author’s.

Are you a stickler for the correct word? Do your characters know them?


Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellNow available for Preorder. Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.


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.

Character Descriptions – Part 2

Character Descriptions – Part 2
Terry Odell

character descriptionLast time, I gave some tips for character description. I’ll repeat them here:

  1. Remember the POV of the character.
  2. Avoid “mirror” type self-descriptions.
  3. Less can be more. Readers like to fill in the blanks.
  4. Don’t be afraid to wait for another character to do the describing.
  5. Have your descriptions do double-duty, such as revealing character.
  6. Don’t show the same traits for every character, and remember to make your characters different!

Today’s focus is on dealing with character descriptions in First Person or Deep/Close/Intimate Third (which are almost the same thing.)

I am a deep point of view person. I prefer everything to come from inside the character’s head, However, I will read—and enjoy—books written with a shallower point of view. It all comes down to the way the author handles things.

What are authors trying to convey to their readers with physical character descriptions? The obvious: hair color, length, style to some extent. Eye color. Height, weight, skin color. Moving forward, odds are the character is dressed, so there’s clothing to describe. This is all easier in a distant third POV. Using that POV, you can stop the story for a brief paragraph or two of description, a technique used by John Sandford. In a workshop, he said he didn’t like going into a lot of detail, and listed the basics that he conveys in each book, usually in a single paragraph. Here’s how he describes Lucas Davenport in Chapter 2 of Eyes of Prey, one of his early Davenport books:

Lucas wore a leather bomber jacket over a cashmere sweater, and  khaki slacks and cowboy boots. His dark hair was uncombed and fell forward over a square, hard face, pale with the departing winter. The pallor almost hid the white scar that slashed across his eyebrow and cheek; it became visible only when he clenched his jaw. When he did, it puckered, a groove, whiter on white.

But what if you want to write in deep point of view? Staying inside the character’s head for descriptions is a challenge. Is the following realistic?

Sally rushed down the avenue, her green-and-yellow silk skirt swirling in the breeze, floral chiffon scarf trailing behind her. She adjusted her Oakley sunglasses over her emerald-green eyes. When she reached the door of the office building, she finger combed her short-cropped auburn hair. Her full, red lips curved upward in a smile.

You’ve covered most of the “I want my readers to see Sally” bases, but be honest. Do you really think of yourself in those terms?

There are other ways to convey that information. First, trust that your reader will be willing to wait for descriptions. Make sure there’s a reason for the character to think about her clothes, or her hair. Maybe she just had a total makeover and isn’t used to the feel of short hair, or the new color, or the makeup job. Catching a glimpse of herself as she passes a mirror and doing a double-take is one of the few times the “Mirror” description could work for me.

Even better, use another character. Some examples of how I’ve handled it:

Here,  an ex-boyfriend has walked into Sarah’s shop and says to her:

“You look like you haven’t slept in a month. And your hair. Why did you cut it?”

“Well, thanks for making my morning.” Sarah fluffed her cropped do-it-yourself haircut. “It’s easier this way.”

Note: there’s no mention of the color. Someone else can bring it up later. Neither of these characters would be thinking of it in the context of the situation.

Later, Sarah is opening the door to Detective Detweiler. We’re still in her POV, but now we can see more about her as well as a description of the detective, and since it’s from her POV, there’s none of that ‘self-assessment’ going on.

She unlocked the door to a tall, lanky man dressed in black denim pants and a gray sweater, gripping several bulky plastic bags. At five-four, Sarah didn’t consider herself exceptionally short, but she had to tilt her head to meet his eyes.

Sometimes, there are compromises. My editor knows I don’t like stopping the story, especially at the beginning to describe characters, but she knows readers might want at least a hint.

This was the original opening paragraph I sent to my editor:

Cecily Cooper’s heart pounded as she stood in the judge’s chambers, awaiting the appearance of Grady Fenton, the first subject in her pilot program, Helping Through Horses. She’d spent months working out the details, hustling endorsements, groveling for grant monies, and had done everything in her power to convince her brother, Derek, to give Grady a job at Derek’s Triple-D Ranch.

This was my editor’s comment to that opening: Can you add a personal physical tag for Cecily somewhere on the first page—hair, what she’s wearing? There’s a lot of detail that comes later, but there should be something here to help the reader connect with her right away.

So, I figured there’s a good reason I’m paying her, and added a bit more.

Shuffling footfalls announced Grady’s arrival. Cecily ran her damp palms along her denim skirt, wishing she could have worn jeans so she’d have pockets to hide the way her hands trembled.

My reasoning: I mentioned the skirt was denim, because the fabric helps set the “cowboy” theme for the book, but there’s no more detail than that. Not how many buttons, or whether it’s got lace trim at the hem. Now, let’s say she was wearing Sally’s “girly” skirt. For Cecily, that would be far enough out of character  for her to think about it, BUT, I’d make sure to show the reader her thoughts. Perhaps,

“She hated wearing this stupid yellow-and-green silk skirt—jeans were her thing—but Sabrina told her that skirt would impress the judge.”

See the difference between that and Sally’s self description earlier?

How do you handle describing your POV characters?


Blackthorne Inc. Bundle 1A brief moment of promotion–thanks to a BookBub Featured Deal, the box set of the first three novels in my Blackthorne, Inc. series is on special this week only for 99 cents instead of $6.99. Ends the 17th. Available at Kobo, Amazon, Apple & Nook.

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.

Writing Wisdom from Gary Provost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And on and on it goes.

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

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

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

Example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act first, explain later.
—James Scott Bell

A strong lead delivers on the promise it makes.

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

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

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

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

  1. Style is form, not content.

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

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

 

  1. To write is to create music.

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

 

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

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

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

Enough Already

Enough Already
Terry Odell

info dumpingI talked about repetition in my last post. Today, another peeve along similar lines, triggered by the same author that bugged me enough to write that previous post. I understand (and agree) that sometimes telling is more efficient than showing. But how much? While I can understand an author’s  desire to make sure the reader understands background, I’m not fond of his technique, which is to step in as the author and provide details that don’t seem worth stopping forward motion.

Michael Connelly feeds in background, but it never pulls me out of the story. This author, also writing a police procedural, isn’t pulling it off as well.

The two cops in the story—typical detective tropes: old, fat, donut eating guy just counting down to retirement, and the young, attractive female, recently promoted to detective—answer a call to a home where a neighbor says she saw blood. The cops take a look, and the newbie says, “Exigent circumstances?” Now, both cops know what this means, but the author decides to spend a paragraph explaining it. If the author wants to show the reader, why not have one of the cops explain it to the neighbor who wants to know why they’re not rushing right in?

Then there’s stopping the story for reflection. Two cops looking into a possible murder scene. Is this the time for one of them to reflect on what her siblings dressed up as on Halloween? And do we need to know the ages of those siblings? Is it important? Maybe. Is it important now? I don’t think so. Skimming right along.

Given the possible victims have connections to the movie industry, one of the witnesses mentions a possible suspect who’s a grip. She very nicely explains that a grip “moves lights and carries stuff on movie sets.”

That’s fine. Makes sense for her to explain it to the cops, but then the author takes us on another trip down memory lane while the rookie cop reflects on a family member who was also a grip, and how he was related, how often he visited, and what he brought them for Christmas. I’d call this a “stay in the phone booth with the gorilla” moment.

Details about what kind of magnets are holding up what kind of artwork on the fridge don’t move the story forward. The fact that there’s blood spatter on one of those pieces of art does.

In an attempt to give the readers information, the author has a scene between the rookie detective and the head of the Crime Scene Unit. It’s clear the author has researched the subject and wants to make sure readers know it, but how many readers care that the techs test stains they think are blood with tetramethylbenzidine? Just “We ran a test to confirm they’re blood” would probably work for 90% of readers. And do I want to know that they used HemDirect to tell if the blood was animal or human? Again, a simple “We determined the blood was human” would probably be sufficient. And this type of conversation went on and on for the entire chapter. We see the rookie detective using her knowledge, but her thoughts seem to be on the page as a way to explain—or over-explain—things for the reader. Or, worse, showcase the author’s research. Research should be like pepper. You don’t want to overwhelm the dish.

I’m also bothered by a lot of the roadmap descriptions. I don’t really care what street a sheriff’s station is on, or that the street runs alongside the southern edge of the 101 freeway. I’m direction-challenged, so telling me a hotel is seventy miles north of Los Angeles (even through I grew up there) doesn’t add anything. It makes me stop and try to imagine a map, thus pulling me out of the story. Unless you’re familiar with the city, seeing the turn-by-turn route a character takes won’t add anything to the story. Going into detail about how long it would take to get from point A to point B in varying traffic conditions, unless there’s a plot-related reason is just another speed bump. Even the Hubster, who has a much higher tolerance level for things that bother me, complained about the overdone roadmap scenes.

Where do you draw the line between description and info dumping?  Genre matters, of course, but in commercial fiction, especially mysteries, thrillers, and action-adventure, too much might be as bad as too little.


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.

Deadly Options

Are Gordon’s Days in Mapleton Numbered?

Deadly Options, a Mapleton Mystery/Pine Hills Police crossover.

When Opposites Attract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preorder for 99c on Amazon.

Releases April 20, 2021.

Reminders or Repetition

recorder

Image by Andreas Lischka from Pixabay

When I was finally able to travel after my vaccinations earlier this month, I visited my mom. She’s 95 and has cognitive issues. (And vision issues, and hearing issues, but she’s 95 and has survived COVID.) Carrying on a conversation with her is a challenge. She’ll ask a question, you’ll answer, and a minute later, she’ll ask the same question. It doesn’t take long before you feel like you could record your answer and set it to play back while you go do something else. Of course, she has no idea she’s repeating herself.

Repetition is something to watch out for in our writing as well. One lesson learned early on was, “Don’t tell readers something they already know.” But, as writers, we often want to make sure our readers understand a point we’re making, and we repeat it. But when is it too much? What’s the best way to handle it?

repetition or reminderAn extreme example: A long time ago, in one of my first critique groups, one author’s character was an activist, giving speeches all over the country. The author had done a good job of writing the speech and the readers ‘heard’ it all on the page (or several pages, as I recall). But then, when the character made the next stop, the author repeated the entire speech verbatim. You can imagine that by the third or fourth delivery of the speech, the reader was tuning out. Now, the author was also adding some new material to the speech, but would the reader stick with it to get to the end of the already way-too-familiar territory to see what was added? Probably not. The group suggested that the only thing the author needed to show was the new stuff.

I’ve been seeing the same issues in a series of mystery novels I’ve been reading. Cop Bob interviews a suspect, Jim. Then, when he reports to his partner—let’s call her Mary—he repeats all the information he’s gleaned. Skim time.

If you’re writing multiple points of view, any time your POV characters are separated, only one of them knows what’s going on. If you’re in a Bob POV scene, it’s easy enough to handle. But what if you’re Mary’s POV when Bob tells her what Jim said? You don’t want to repeat the conversation. AND, you don’t want to repeat the same plot points from the previous scene. No matter what the “rules” say, there’s nothing wrong with telling in order to get information to the reader—it’s when the telling becomes back story dumping that you’ll run into problems.

You need to move things forward. You can recap in narrative in a few words. “Mary listened as Bob told her Jim had admitted to being in the shop when the robbery took place. She cut him off before he went into every detail about who else had been there, and who bought what.”

Start your showing from there, dealing with the critical plot points for this particular scene.

An example from In Hot Water, one of my Triple-D Ranch romantic suspense books. In the genre, it’s expected to have alternating POVs. Here, the heroine, Sabrina, isn’t always with Derek, the hero. When the hero’s scene has him learning about a possible attack on his ranch, he and his team go over the possible ramifications, discuss plans of action. Now, when Sabrina gets her POV scene, the reader already knows all of this. But in her POV, she’s learning all new stuff. She needs to be brought up to speed. There will have to be some repetition, but it’s also important to have her add something to the mix. Does she bring up a point the guys didn’t think of? (One hopes so!) Is this attack going to affect her differently than it does the men? Show that.

Another aspect of repetition is to remind readers of things they might have forgotten, especially if they’re going to be important later. Did you foreshadow it? How long has it been since this information was relayed to the reader? Do they need a reminder? After all, much as an author hates to admit it, readers don’t always sit down with a book and read from page one to the end in a single sitting.

In a mystery, the cops/detectives are going to be reviewing the case, recapping old information along with introducing new facts. This can help the readers remember. It also lets the author sneak in red herrings and hide the “real” clues in plain sight.

Bottom line: Give the information in a new way. Add something new beyond straight repetition. Keep moving the story forward.


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.

Deadly Options

Are Gordon’s Days in Mapleton Numbered?

Deadly Options, a Mapleton Mystery/Pine Hills Police crossover.

Reader Friday: Are There Rules for Good Books?

Reader Friday: Are There Rules for Good Books?

Reader Friday

Photo: Ansel Adams with Camera from Wikimedia Commons

My photographer son had an informal holiday party (virtual, of course), and trivia games were played, including quotes from famous photographers. One that caught my interest was this quote from Ansel Adams.

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

Do you think this this applies to books, too?

**I’ve been vaccinated, my waiting period is up, and am finally going to see my mom for the first time in over a year. She had COVID, got the antibody infusion, and her doctor said it’s safe to get together. I’m on the road (and in the air) today, so I won’t be around to reply to comments. Don’t let that stop you from leaving them!

First Page Critique: How To Improve a Compelling Opener

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

Expendable

Prologue 

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

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

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

“But, I live here,” she lied.

“This is your house, miss?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need to go inside.”

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

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

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

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

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

Prologues

The correct reasons to use a prologue are:

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

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

Point of View 

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

Two little slips:

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

See how you jumped inside the cop’s head?

Same thing happened here:

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

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

Dialogue

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

First Lines

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

To quote Kris (PJ Parrish):

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

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

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

Fine Tuning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example:

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

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

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

“What? Why? Are my parents okay?”

“Did they meet anyone new recently?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“C’mon, let’s get you out of here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When: Sat., March 20, 2021

Time: 7 pm CST/8pm EDT

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

Where: Comfort of home

Register: noiratthebar.online