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?

+14

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.

+12

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.

+8

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.

+12

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!

+7

First Page Critique: How To Improve a Compelling Opener

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

Expendable

Prologue 

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

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

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

“But, I live here,” she lied.

“This is your house, miss?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need to go inside.”

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

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

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

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

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

Prologues

The correct reasons to use a prologue are:

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

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

Point of View 

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

Two little slips:

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

See how you jumped inside the cop’s head?

Same thing happened here:

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

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

Dialogue

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

First Lines

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

To quote Kris (PJ Parrish):

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

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

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

Fine Tuning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example:

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

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

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

“What? Why? Are my parents okay?”

“Did they meet anyone new recently?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“C’mon, let’s get you out of here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When: Sat., March 20, 2021

Time: 7 pm CST/8pm EDT

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

Where: Comfort of home

Register: noiratthebar.online

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Doublespeak: A Look at Voice

Doublespeak: A Look at Voice
Terry Odell

Doublespeak

Image by No-longer-here from Pixabay

I’m looking at two aspects of voice today: Character and Author.

Part A. Character Voices, or “Give Them Their Own.”

I recall reading my first book by a best-selling author. A male character discovered a young girl, about 5 years old, who had been left to die in the woods. He brings her to his cabin and finds she cannot or will not speak. I was impressed with the way the character spoke to the child—it seemed exactly how someone should deal with that situation. However, as more characters entered the story, I discovered that he spoke that way to all of them. Not only that, almost every character in the book spoke with that same “Talking to a Child” voice. Obviously, it doesn’t bother the millions who buy her books, but it bugged the heck out of me. And it’s consistent with all her books in that series. It wasn’t just a one-time deal.

It’s important in a book that characters not only sound like themselves, but don’t sound like each other. That means knowing their history, their age, education, as well as occupation, nationality—the list goes on. Ideally, a reader should be able to know who’s speaking from the dialogue on the page without beats, tags, or narrative.

Cowboys don’t talk like artists, who don’t talk like sailors, who don’t talk like politicians. And men don’t talk like women. They’re hard-wired differently. I’m a woman, and in my first drafts the dialogue will lean in that direction. After I’ve written my male characters’ dialogue, I go back and cut it down by at least 25%.

A few tips to make your characters sound like themselves.

Don’t rely on the “clever.” Dialect is a pitfall—more like the Grand Canyon. If you’re relying on phonetic spelling to show dialect, you’ll stop your readers cold. Nobody wants to stop to sound out words. You can show dialects or accents with one or two word choices, or better yet, have another character notice. “She heard the Texas in his voice” will let the reader know.

Give your characters a few simple “go to” words or phrases. For me, this is often deciding what words my character will use when he or she swears (since I write a lot of cops and covert ops teams, swearing is a given). In a recent book, I’d fixated on characters “rocking” this, and “rocking” that. I went back and adjusted things so only one character used that expression.

Keep the narrative “in character” as well. This especially includes internal monologue, and even extends to narrative. Keep your metaphors and similes in character. If your character’s a mechanic, he’s not likely to think of things in terms of ballet metaphors.

What your character says and does reveals a lot to your readers. Workshops I’ve attended have given out the standard character worksheets (which have me screaming and running for the hills), but it’s the “other” questions that reveal your character. What’s in her purse? What’s in his garbage? What does he/she order at Starbucks? Would he/she even be caught dead in a Starbucks? James Scott Bell’s workshops include excellent examples.

How do you keep your characters distinct? How do you get to know them? Do you need to know a lot before you start, or are you (like I am) someone who learns about them as you go?

Which brings me to Part B: Authorial Voice, or “Stay the Hell off the Page.”

After  a presentation I gave for a local book club, one member said she’d read one of my books. Her comment was, “You write the same way you talk.” And, after I sent a chapter to my critique partners, one said, “This sounds very Terry.” That, I think, sums up “voice.”

Any author starting out tries to write what she thinks a writer should sound like. She might work hard to make her characters sound unique, and true to their backgrounds, but all the other stuff—the narrative parts where the character isn’t speaking—sounds stilted. It sounds “writerly.”

But what the characters say isn’t the same as “Authorial Voice.” It’s all the other words, the way the sentences are put together, how the paragraphs break. Can anyone confuse Harlan Coben with Lee Child? Janet Evanovich with Michael Connelly? Even Nora Roberts has a distinctive voice that is recognizable whether she’s writing a romance as Roberts, or one of her “In Death” futuristics as JD Robb.

Your authorial voice will develop over time and (one hopes) will become recognizable. It’s important to learn the ‘rules’ of writing before trying to be distinctive. In the art world, we recognize artists by their style. The Star Spangled Banner opens countless events, yet even though the notes are the same, they presentations vary. Immensely.

Before artists of any format—music, poetry, prose, acting, create their own recognizable style, they learn the basics. Before your voice will develop, you have to write. And write. And write some more.

Try looking at your manuscript, or the book you’re reading. Find a passage that’s filled with narrative. How do you, or the author in question deal with it? Is it in the same vein as the dialogue, or do you get jolted out of the story because all of a sudden there’s an outsider taking over? If it’s a funny book, the narrative needs to reflect that sense of humor. If it’s serious, the author shouldn’t be cracking wise in narrative. If your character speaks in short, choppy sentences, then he’s likely to think that way, too. Again, the narrative should continue in that same style.

You want your voice to be recognized, but not intrude on the story. If you want the reader caught up in the story and the characters, you, the author have no business being on the page. Every word on the page should seem to come from the characters, whether it’s dialogue or narrative. You’re the conduit for the story and the characters. You’re there so they shine, not the reverse.

It takes practice—and courage, because you have to put “you” on the page, and not the “writer.” But when you finish, you should have your own special work. You won’t be a cookie-cutter clone. Rule of thumb—if it sounds “writerly”, cut it. When the words flow from the fingertips, that’s probably your own voice coming through. Let it sing. In the workshops I’ve given on Voice, I hand out pictures and ask the participants to write something the picture invokes. Then, they swap pictures and have another go at it. When the pairs read their works, despite the trigger being the same picture, their stories and voices are never anything alike.

What about you, TKZers? Any distinctive authorial voices you’d like to share? Any authors who have mastered the characterization voices?


Deadly Options Terry Odell

I’m thrilled that Deadly Options, my 10th Mapleton mystery is now available for immediate sale in both digital and trade paperback formats.

 

 

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First Page Critique: Scattershot

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

Scattershot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few questions for Joanna could be:

When did you first know Tom had the virus?

What made you call an ambulance?

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

Did you have a physical response?

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

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

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

Five Stages of Grief

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

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

Infuse Emotion

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

Quick example:

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

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

Example:

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

 I added the motorist to accomplish two things:

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

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

Add dialogue. Keeping with my motorist example…

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Joanna.”

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

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

“Retired.”

“From what, Joanna?”

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

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

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

“So, you’re not from the area?”

“Umm, I…uh…”

“Where are you from, Joanna?”

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

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

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

Pets

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

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

Main Takeaway

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

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

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

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Beware the “ING” Construction

Beware the “ING” Construction
Terry Odell

ING constructionI know this topic was mentioned recently, and apologies for not being able to find the post to credit the author. Perhaps it came up in the comments. No matter the source, I thought this craft topic worth another look, especially after a recent read.

We all have our favorite sentence construction. For the author in question, the book was overrun with sentences starting with gerund phrases – those “ing” words.

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.

What mistakes? We’ve been told that construction with “was/ing” is a sign of weak writing. He was running. She was dancing. It’s stronger to say “He ran” (or sped, or rushed). Or “She danced” (or pirouetted, or waltzed, or sashayed) But there are more ways overusing gerunds can get you into trouble.

Dangling and misplaced modifiers. (Note. You don’t have to be able to know which is which, as long as you know they’re wrong and how to fix them.) A misplaced modifier is too far away from the thing it’s supposed to modify, while a dangling modifier’s intended subject is missing from the sentence altogether.

First, the misplaced modifier. In my first crit group, I held the prize for creating an answering machine that gave neck massages. 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.”

And example of a dangling modifier: “Walking into the room, the smell was overpowering.” Corrected, it could become, “Walking into the room, they encountered an overpowering smell.”

Next, and the one this post-inspiring author was most guilty of: the non-simultaneous action. “Running across the clearing, John dove into the tent.” Or, “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.

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.

ING Construction

If you’re using Word, you can do a “find” using wild cards to flag words ending in “ing.” In Word, which is what I use, it’s Edit/Find/More. Then check the “use wildcards” box, and then special, where you’ll find the command for end of word, which is the > symbol.

That means, you should type ing> into the search box. Then you can either look at them one at a time, or check the “highlight all items found in:” box. True, you’ll get words that aren’t gerunds that end in ‘ing’ – thing, building, etc., but it’ll give you a place to start.

Any examples to share–from your own reading or writing?

OK, one more thing, a brag moment. The Mapleton Mystery Novellas was selected as a top pick for 2020 at Kings River Life Magazine.

 

 


Deadly OPtions e-ReaderAre Gordon’s Days in Mapleton Numbered?

Now available for pre-order. Deadly Options, a Mapleton Mystery/Pine Hills Police crossover.

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.

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