Emphasized Words in Fiction

Many new writers struggle with how to emphasize words in fiction. It’s tempting to stick a word in ALL CAPS.

Please resist that urge. Yes, all-caps draws the reader’s attention, but not in a good way. All-caps become annoying after a while.

In fact, a 1955 study found that all-caps slowed reading speed by 9.5% over a five-minute period.

For example:

“I AM NOT HYSTERICAL!”

Notice how all the letters blend together in all-caps? It’s difficult to read. Imagine an entire novel littered with all-caps? In dialogue, it’s even more exhausting and amateurish.

If your character is shouting, use one exclamation point—not three!!!—or show us with a body cue.

“I am not hysterical!”

Or…

She slammed her fist on the table. “I am not hysterical!”

The combination of body cue, italicizing not, and the exclamation mark show the reader she is hysterical.

To the best of my recollection, I only used all-caps once in nineteen books. In my latest psychological thriller that releases at the end of this month (Yay!), the MC finds an engraved invitation, and I used italicized all-caps to show the heading across the front. Because all-caps is so offensive and jarring, I took special care to break up the text with an em dash, spacing above and below it, and double-tabbed to set it apart from the narrative. Offensive and jarring was exactly what I was going for, so all-caps worked in this case.

If you can think of another exception, please share in the comments.

What about changing the font to indicate emphasis?

I know it’s easy to change fonts these days, but the end result doesn’t enhance the reading experience. If anything, it pulls the reader out of the story. Please, stop. Let the writing speak for itself. If it can’t, then the problem is the writing, not the font.

What about bold to emphasize a word?

The short answer is no. The reading experience isn’t enhanced by bold, either. Both bold and all-caps look like the author’s screaming for attention.

What are we left with?

Italics. Yes, but don’t overdo it. Italics work best for emphasis when used sparingly. Like all-caps and bold, if used too much the eye passes right over the words we want emphasized.

We do have one other trick.

Em dashes. I love the little suckers. Maybe too much. 😉 At least I’m in good company. Jim professed his love for the em dash on Valentine’s Day last year.

“It is a crisp, efficient dash used to set off a word or clause for emphasis or additional information.”

Couldn’t say it any better. It’s a beloved, versatile punctuation mark.

Hope he doesn’t mind if I steal his example from Romeo’s Hammer:

So what about the lack of clothing? A love scene gone bad? Someone who had been with her while she was drinking—or drugging—herself? Her condition when I found her was such that she had to have come from one of the beach houses. Access to the sand is cut off all along PCH. She didn’t wander down from the street.

See how drugging stands right out? The em dashes draw the eye right to it. They tell us to pay attention. They pique interest. They emphasize.

With italics and em dashes, we have all the tools we need to emphasize words. Now, go forth and finish that novel.

For fun, share a sentence from your WIP, published work, or a book you’re reading that shows how a word–or words–are emphasized. Don’t forget to include the title!

Pumpkin Spice and Writing

Ever wonder why pumpkin spice is so popular? The fascinating part is not only does it taste amazing, but many are obsessed with how it makes them feel on an emotional level.

Dr. John McGann, a sensory neuroscientist at Rutgers Department of Psychology, explains how it all reverts back to the olfactory system — our sense of smell — which is complex to say the least.

“Most of what we refer to colloquially as taste is actually smell,” McGann says. “About 70 percent of our [perception] of taste is retronasal smell and then maybe 25 percent of it is true taste: salty, bitter, sweet. But there also additional components: the feeling of creaminess, which really contributes to a perception of flavor [and] your sense of touch. Then there’s an additional sense of pungency, [as in] the burning feeling of pepper from hot wings. That’s your trigeminal system. So, your brain is putting all of these things together.”

The human brain also assembles memories and emotions. In this way, smell is unique from all other senses, which first passes through the thalamus — a relay station of the brain — and goes straight to the olfactory bulb.

“From there it goes to the amygdala, which controls emotion, and to the hippocampal formation, the entorhinal cortex,” McGann explains. “Smell anatomically has a more direct connection to classical memory regions in the brain.”

Do you see where I’m going with this? A scene becomes more impactful and memorable when we include smell.

  • If your character is in the forest, include the fresh scent of pine.
  • If your character is in the bowling alley, include the stench of bare feet.
  • If your character is in a boat, include the salty ocean air.
  • If your character is at an Italian restaurant, include the signature tomato sauce.
  • If your character is at the gym, include body odor or sweat.
  • If your character is in a sauna, include cedar.
  • If your character is at a pool, include chlorine.
  • If your character is home, include a scented candle, tart warmer, or air freshener.
  • If one character is cradling a toddler, include baby shampoo or talcum powder.

McGann recalls a famous scene in Proust’s masterpiece, “Remembrance Of Things Past”, where the narrator eats a madeleine cookie and feels as if he’s transported back in time. The same thing happens to us when we drink or eat something flavored with pumpkin spice.

What makes the flavor so widely relatable is the inclusion of spices like cinnamon, clove, ground ginger, and nutmeg that are more prevalent during the holidays. The aroma of pumpkin is associated with Thanksgiving and autumnal harvest — historically, a prosperous time of year.

Food chemists hit an olfactory jackpot. Hence why pumpkin spice became more than just a fad. It’s a seasonal staple.

“The pumpkin spice blend… It’s about making people happy and connecting them to moments: the changing of the season, of being warm under the covers, but also the memory of spending enjoyable time with family and friends.” Thierry Muret, executive chef chocolatier at Godiva

Think about how the aroma of hot buttery popcorn triggers memories of movie theaters or how lobster tails remind New Englanders of the beach.

Where does your main character live? Does the area have a signature dish? Tickle the reader’s sense of smell to transport them there.

“Pumpkin spice is a novelty smell because you don’t smell it very often and it’s usually a pleasant smell,” explains Dr. Gabriel Keith Harris, director of Undergraduate Programs in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences at North Carolina State University. “Combine that with the fact that the part of the brain that processes smell is closely tied to the part of your brain responsible for memories and you have part of the secret to the success of pumpkin spice.”

Makes sense, right?

“Your brain fills in the gaps between the scent of the spices and the memories associated with the smell,” Harris adds. “It takes in everything we’re seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting, and it combines those sensory inputs with what we already know and believe about our environment.”

This helps to explain why scent is such a powerful driver of emotion.

The irony is that pumpkin spice doesn’t smell like pumpkins. Pumpkins are members of the squash family, and don’t smell like spices. On their own their taste ranges from bland to bitter. What we’re actually smelling and/or tasting is a combination of cinnamon, clove, ground ginger, and nutmeg.

The true genius of the pumpkin spice craze is all about timing. Same holds true for writing. Don’t include a scent merely to check off an item on the to-do list. Include smell for a reason.

Examples:

  • To enhance the setting—the MC is hiking up a mountain trail.
  • To transport the reader back in time and/or place—flashing back to a memory.
  • To pack a more emotional punch—a mother loses her son, but she can still smell him on his favorite football jersey or bed pillow.
  • To set the scene—the MC meets a blind date at a restaurant.

“Pumpkin spice plays on what’s known in psychology as reactance theory, which refers to the idea that people will want something more if they are told they cannot have it,” according to Harris. “The seasonality of it is really intentional. If pumpkin spice were available year-round, it wouldn’t trigger such powerful memories and people wouldn’t want it as much.”

Also, when the pumpkin spice craze starts, people don’t want to miss out. They crave being part of a community.

“If you add it all up, the powerful ability of smell to summon up old experiences becomes a mental transportation device, shifting you from summer to fall and it becomes an event people want to be part of.”

Let’s pretend you are the main character. What scents should I expect to smell while reading your life story?

Happy Halloween!

Homegrown Thrill Rides

Homegrown Thrill Rides: A checklist for suspense, what is the domestic thriller,  and tips on writing one.

As a now retired librarian turned full-time fiction writer, diving into the vast Kill Zone archives for three nuggets of wisdom is the perfect role for me here at KZB. It gives me the opportunity to share so many insightful posts on craft, publishing, and much more. For today’s post, I want to take a look on creating “homegrown thrill rides.” It begins with a sampling from a checklist on how to create suspense and tension for the reader, a necessary ingredient in any thrill ride. We then turn to excerpts from a pair of posts on the domestic thriller: defining it, and a few of the key factors to consider in writing one.

Please weigh in with your own thoughts. I have included a few questions as prompts for comments after the excerpts. Date links are provided to the full posts which can provide further fuel for thought and discussion.

Experiment with these devices to increase suspense and intrigue:

__ Sprinkle in some foreshadowing – drop subtle advance hints and innuendos about critical plot points or events.

__ Withhold information – use delay tactics, interruptions at critical points.

__ Stretch out critical scenes – milk them for all they’re worth.

Surprise or shock your readers:

__ Add in a few unexpected twists. Put a big one in the middle and another big one at the end.

__ Use surprise revelations from time to time – reveal character secrets and other critical information the reader has been dying to know.

__ Have your main character experience at least one epiphany – a sudden significant realization that changes everything for them. Try putting one in the middle and one near the end.

__ Write in some reversals of feelings, attitudes, expectations, and outcomes.

Keep adding more tension. Increase the troubles of your protagonist by using these plot devices:

__ Ticking clocks – every second counts.

__ Obstacles, hindrances – keep challenging your hero or heroine.

__ Chases – your protagonist is chasing or being chased.

__ Threats or hints of more possible danger ahead.

__ Traps and restrictions – your character becomes somehow trapped and must use all their resources to get out of the situation.

Create a memorable, satisfying ending.

Design a big showdown scene, an extremely close battle between the hero/heroine and the villain.

__ Write in a surprise twist at the end.

__ Leave your readers satisfied – the hero wins by a hair, the main story question/conflict is resolved.

–Jodie Renner, June 12, 2013 

 

I wanted to talk about a sub-genre known as the “domestic thriller.” I’m not sure when this was coined, but it’s quite popular now, especially after Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller, Gone Girl. More recently, A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window has kept readers flipping the pages.

My research didn’t uncover a hard-and-fast definition of the domestic thriller. It seems to be a cousin of the psychological thriller, but with a home setting and (usually) a woman as protagonist and (usually) a male as the villain. A title like It’s Always The Husband (Michele Campbell) will clue you into the vibe.

I don’t, however, consider this a new genre. It’s at least as old as Gaslight, the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton. You’ve probably seen the 1944 movie version for which Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award as Best Actress. (I actually like the British version better. Released in 1940, it stars Anton Walbrook and the absolutely amazing Diana Wynyard. Catch it if you can!)

Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) may rightly be deemed a domestic thriller.

I would classify many of Harlan Coben’s books as domestic thrillers. Suburban setting, ordinary person, crazily extraordinary circumstances.

Which is my favorite kind of thriller. I’ve always loved Hitchcock, and he was the master at the ordinary man or woman theme. My favorite example is the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much starring James Stewart and Doris Day. The idea, Hitchcock once explained, came from a scene he pictured in his mind. A foreign, dark-skinned man, with a knife in his back, is being chased, and falls dead in front of some strangers. When someone tries to help him, heavy makeup comes off the man’s face leaving finger streaks on his cheeks.

So Hitchcock did that very thing. He had Stewart and Day as tourists in Morocco, and in the marketplace one morning a man with a knife in his back falls at Stewart’s feet. Stewart gets the face makeup on his hands.

Of course, right before he kicks the bucket the dying man whispers a secret of international importance into Jimmy’s ear, and we’re off and running. The bad guys want to know what Jimmy knows and they’re willing to kidnap his son to find out.

–James Scott Bell, May 6, 2018

 

Keys Factors for Writing Domestic/Psychological Thrillers

1.) Set your domestic thriller in familiar settings. Give the reader comfort until they realize your novel doesn’t take place in Mayberry. Set your story in a small town, on a commuter train, in a home with a family who could live next door to you, or create a situation that seems harmless at first until it escalates into a terrifying tale. Much like Stephen King is partial to turning everyday objects into nightmares–I’ll never use a turkey carving knife again–it’s important to think through an effective setting that lulls the reader into a false sense of security until you pull the rug out.

2.) Make your story hinge on familiar subjects. I’ve suggested a few below, but I’m sure you could come up with more that could be turned on its ear with escalating tension. Use your own personal experiences to discover what might touch your readers.

  • A marriage that doesn’t need much to send it over a cliff
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Neighbors from Satan
  • A clandestine love affair
  • School rivalry/Helicopter moms competing against each other
  • Parenting – Lots of possibilities
  • Family relationships
  • Boyfriends/Girlfriends/Jealousy

3.) Now ask yourself the critical question of “what if…” What are the worst plot twists that could happen in the world you’ve created? Think WAY out of the box. Use a dartboard to add some unpredictability to your brainstorming.

4.) Make your character(s) real. Imagine people you have known, but elevate them into a major player’s role in your story. It helps to start with the familiar to make it real, but then your character would take on his/her own journey. Remember, your characters need to be real and not supersized into movie star status. Take “every man or every woman” and force them to step into an horrendous plot. Make your starring character(s) believable.

5.) Give your characters flaws that could prove to be fatal. It’s a balancing act to pick vulnerability that doesn’t make them appear too weak. Give them insecurities they can overcome in a believable way, without making them whiners. Force them to face their insecurities. Are they capable of overcoming their worst fears? Give them a chance to do it. Will they? Dig deep with a journey for your character to survive through your plot. They must struggle to gain ground or appear that they never will. Nothing trite will work here. It must seem insurmountable. I found a great resource for character flaws – 123 Ideas for Character Flaws

–Jordan Dane, January 3, 2019

***

  1. How do you go about creating suspense in your fiction?
  2. Do you read domestic thrillers? Write them?
  3. What tips or advice do you have?

 

How To Craft a Compelling Character

Last week, Sisters in Crime approached me to do a SINC-UP! video tip for their YouTube channel. Volunteers from the national education committee post video writing tips several times a month to provide inspiration for new writers and promote the value of Sisters in Crime membership. All the videos are only 2-5 minutes long and easily digestible.

I chose characterization. After we taped the video, the volunteer told me she finally understood why beta readers couldn’t connect with her main character. She’s not alone. Many new writers struggle with how to deepen their characters. After all, we can have the best concept, premise, and plot, but if readers can’t connect with our characters then the story won’t work.

How do we craft a compelling character?

It starts with three dimensions. We’re all layered. Who we portray to the world falls under the first dimension of character. That’s not to say we aren’t acting genuine, but when we are in a public setting we act appropriately—or we don’t, but that’s what you’ll have to figure out for your character.

  • Who is your character in public?
  • Do they put their best foot forward?
  • Or are they so uncomfortable in a public setting, they make a total fool of themselves?

Jotting down how your character might react in public places will help you nail down the first dimension.

The second dimension of character is the person we show to family and close friends. At home we let our guard down. We’re more relaxed, more ourselves. We don’t need to try to portray a certain image or level of professionalism because we’re surrounded by close friends and family.

  • How does your character react around close friends and family?
  • Are they goofballs?
  • The practical jokester?
  • More loving, more reserved?

The perfect real-life example of the first two dimensions of character is Richard Simmons. To the world he was a gregarious, loud, sensitive, and passionate workout guru who pranced around in flashy outfits, the more outrageous the better. Everyone loved him. He was so open, so seemingly transparent, even casual viewers of his workout videos felt they knew the real Richard Simmons. He was a shining light of inspiration to many over the years. When he disappeared from public view, the public feared the worst.

  • Did he die?
  • Is someone holding him hostage?
  • Is he being abused?

No one knew. One day he was performing for the camera, and the next day—gone. No explanation, no paparazzi photos, nothing. He vanished.

What very few knew in the decades that followed was that the Richard Simmons he portrayed to the world was who he longed to become. An alter ego, if you will. At home Richard was an extreme introvert, a recluse with only one or two close friends, a quiet, emotionally scarred, deep thinker who preferred the solace of silence—the polar opposite of who he was in public.

Richard Simmons is an extreme example of the first two dimensions of character but keep him in mind while crafting a new character.

The third dimension is our true character. And by that, I mean, if your character is sitting in a crowded theater when a fire breaks out, do they help others find the exit? Or do they trample the crowd to save themselves? One’s true character is tested when they’re put into perilous situations.

  • Who is your character then?
  • Are they the savior or the selfish?
  • Do they think they’re the savior but when trouble ensues, they run in the opposite direction?

Ask your significant other or best friend to describe who you are in public, who you are in private, and how that might differ. Unless you’ve been in a dangerous situation you may not even know your third dimension…until it’s tested. Then you’ll find out quick. 😉

Once you’ve mastered these three dimensions and have gotten to know your characters on a deeper level, then ask them questions like,

  • What’s your greatest passion?
  • What’s your favorite genre of music?
  • Do you travel?
  • What places have you gone?
  • How did each trip affect you?
  • What was your childhood like?
  • Are you an animal lover? (I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like animals)
  • Did you have a favorite childhood pet?
  • How did you feel when they died?
  • What type of things are on your bucket list?

The more questions you ask, the better you’ll get to know them.

Apply the same three dimensions to all your characters, even your villain. You need to know the villain as well as your main character. After all, the two characters should be equally matched. Thus, even if everything they stand for rubs against who you are as a person, you’ve gotta fight for them, win their arguments, understand why they do the things they do. Most villains don’t know they’re the bad guy. They’re on a mission to fulfill their goals, and you, as the writer, need to champion their efforts, especially if you plan to write from their point-of-view.

Do you concentrate on the three dimensions of character while crafting characters?

For those who struggle with characterization, did this help connect a few dots?

Beginnings – Not Just For Page One

Beginnings – Not Just For Page One
Terry Odell

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

I belong to a small online critique group. We’ve been together about 15 years now, so we’re in a combination beta-reader/critique partner relationship. Our process is to send a chapter at a time, with no real schedule. This means there are times when we’ll be seeing submissions every few days (as deadlines approach) or every couple of weeks.

Even when we’re moving “quickly” and sending subs every few days, this isn’t how we hope readers are going to be reading the final product. Much as we hate to admit that not every reader starts at page 1 and doesn’t put the book down until “The End”, it might be several days before a reader picks up the book again.

Most readers use chapter and scene breaks as stopping points. One thing my partners and I are aware of is how it’s critical to ground the reader at the start of each chapter, scene, or POV switch. It’s also the most common piece of feedback we give each other. Being aware and executing don’t always go hand in hand.

Unlike Chapter One, Page One, new chapters don’t have the same compelling “hook the reader” conventions. They should already be vested in the characters and the conflicts to want to keep reading.

How do you make sure you’re not creating those what’s going on? moments? I’m borrowing from a post I did several years ago on Transitions. You need to ground the reader in the who, where, and when.

You should be able to work all of these into the first sentence or two in the new scene. Action beats are your friend. If the previous chapter ended with a question, it can’t hurt to remind the reader what the question was. Subtlety is your friend here. You don’t want the “moving right along” reader to feel that you’re being repetitive or casting doubts on their intelligence.

If you’re writing a single POV, the task is easier, because odds are, your reader is pretty sure whose head they’re in.

An example of the end of Chapter 1 in Deadly Options:

Gordon turned to McDermott. “Vicky, what do we know? Angie called, said you were arresting Megan Wyatt. Is that true?”

“Not exactly,” she said.

There’s the hope that readers will turn the page to find out what Vicky McDermott knows. But what if they’re reading while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, and they’re called into the exam room right there? They use a bookmark, and who knows when they’ll be able to spare the time to read again.

My approach to grounding the reader is starting Chapter 2 with this:

“Either she’s under arrest or she isn’t, Vicky,” Gordon said. “Not exactly isn’t an acceptable answer.”

“Sorry, Chief. She’s not under arrest, but I can see how Angie might have interpreted it that way when I put Megan in a private room.”

We see the speaker is Gordon, and the question is repeated/paraphrased as a reminder to the reader. Using the other character names helps as well.

My romantic suspense books use two POV characters. A chapter might end with a nice hook for one protagonist, but he’s not taking center stage again until after the other protagonist has her turn. Here, it’s even more important to reground the reader. That requires a bit of a leapfrog mentality from the reader. If my characters weren’t together in the last scene, then things have happened to character A while we were with character B. Grounding becomes critical.

An example from Nowhere to Hide, where Graham is the male protagonist, a cop who wants to move up in the department. He’s been away from center stage for several scenes.

Graham finished filing his reports, surprised to see it was four-thirty. Instead of going home, he drove to Central Ops. Roger Schaeffer in CID might let him poke around a little. The lieutenant seemed to be one of the few who thought Graham had a shot at the CID spot. His recommendation could make the difference.

For this scene, I opened by using Graham’s name (who), and also a time reference (when). The where, Central Ops, is mentioned. Also, by showing something only Graham can be aware of (his surprise at the time), we’ve established it’s his POV scene. If there was any doubt, the rest of the paragraph is internal monologue, thoughts only Graham would know.

Another caveat: Be very careful if you’re opening a chapter with a secondary/non POV character doing something. You need to make sure your protagonist’s thoughts, actions, or dialogue are clearly theirs. Also if there’s been a time jump.

All right TKZ peeps. Have you run across examples of ways authors keep readers grounded over scenes and chapters? Or places where you’ve been confused? Solutions you use?

Note: I’m heading out of town for a while tomorrow. I’ll try to respond to today’s comments. Don’t know how much internet access/time I’ll have on the road.


Now Available: Cruising Undercover

It’s supposed to be a simple assignment aboard a luxury yacht, but soon, he’s in over his head.


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

A Balancing Act

A Balancing Act
Terry Odell

Image by JL G from Pixabay

I’m about 14K into my next novel, the tenth offering in my Mapleton Mystery series. Unlike my other series, which fall under the romantic suspense umbrella, my Mapletons are a true series, not a set of connected books. Although my romantic suspense series feature recurring characters, the protagonists are different in each. In Mapleton, my police chief, Gordon Hepler (who got his name when a postal clerk where I did a lot of mailing begged to be included. Neither of us had any idea he’d be a series protagonist) is the POV character in almost every story.

While I face the same issues with all series, the Mapleton books are more challenging. Why? The dreaded backstory conundrum. The setting, with a few detours, is the small town of Mapleton. The books progress in time from one to the next, so I’m continually balancing content that will offer enough explanation for new readers while not boring returning ones. By book ten, a LOT of things have transpired, and while my characters have a good idea of what’s gone before, readers might not.

Stopping to info dump bores new readers and can insult those ‘in the know.’ However, the occasional Easter egg makes a welcome reward. Overexplaining things or detailed character descriptions will have returning readers skimming. The further into the series I get, the sketchier descriptions become. John Sanford once said he includes a short paragraph with the highlights of Lucas Davenport in each novel—tall, lean, dark hair, facial scar, clothes horse—and that’s about it.

What kind of information has accumulated over the series? To name a few:

Gordon had Central Serous Retinopathy in an early book, takes blood pressure meds, and has to limit his caffeine intake. While this was a major plot thread in Deadly Puzzles, there’s no need to give readers the entire history in each book. But he’s a cop and he’s drinking decaf? Will readers wonder?

Angie has grown from character of interest to girlfriend to lover to wife throughout the series. They were newlyweds in Deadly Fun but now, they’re settling into the marriage. Angie runs the local diner, had a side business of catering with another character prominent in several books. There’s her cook who appears regularly and the rest of the staff of the diner who appear from time to time.

There are the other officers on the police force, and their number has increased. There are the dispatchers and Gordon’s admin, all of whom play their own parts in the stories. And we can’t forget Buster, the department’s part-time K-9 who shows up in this new book. Is that enough, or do I need to show that when he’s not doing police work, he lives with Officer Solomon? Should I mention his wife and kids?

Mapleton has had several mayors, each a thorn in Gordon’s side, and they’ve been dispatched in one way or another. Now, there’s an interim mayor and friction on the town council. There’s a newspaper reporter who often crosses a line Gordon thinks she shouldn’t when she writes her articles for the local paper.

The list goes on. And on.

You can see that trying to fit all this in would make a book far longer—and more tedious—than it needs to be. When a recurring character shows up, it’s tempting to lay in more background and description than is necessary. (Side note: since I write in Deep POV, I’m not going to intrude with my own descriptions. Those of you writing from a more distant POV might not have as much trouble.) I have to remind myself to save bits and pieces of description as well as other background information until there seems to be a logical place to do so. If Gordon’s admin has been with him since his first day on the job, he’s not going to be thinking of what she looks like every time he sees her. Now, if it seems important that readers “see” her, then maybe she’s wearing something unlike her normal office attire, or she’s changed her hairstyle. That way, Gordon’s doing the describing, not me. Or he might ask her about her family to follow up on a thread from another book.

My approach tends to be to include first, cut later. I think about having a series bible, and then think I’d probably want to include even more since I’d have everything laid out for me.

When someone asked Michael Connelly how he handles keeping readers up to speed, he said he thought about it early on and decided to take the “The other books are out there. Let them find out for themselves” approach.

JD Robb (based on her books, not asking her) throws in plenty of references to things gone before and after over 50 books in the In Death series, a lot has happened, and the cast of characters has grown tremendously. Given the state of my memory, I often wish there were footnotes for whichever book the various cases or situations she mentions. Not explanations, not backstory, not info dumping, but I’d know which book to take another look at.

What about you? How do you handle information in an ongoing series? Your preferences as a reader?

In case anyone wants to see my interview for the Speed City Sisters in Crime, you can watch the replay.


Now Available: Cruising Undercover

It’s supposed to be a simple assignment aboard a luxury yacht, but soon, he’s in over his head.


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

Everyone’s Got Rules

Everyone’s Got Rules
Terry Odell

Red book saying The Rule Book with a pair of black glasses

Cruising Undercover is “finished” and waiting for release day, August 23rd. Early reviews have been positive, and it’s time to move on to the next project. In a rare moment of office “housekeeping” I came across an unmarked folder. Inside I found a page titled “Barbara Wright’s Rules of Writing.”

Because I have handwritten notes on the page, I must have attended a workshop where this was a handout. I had no memory of Barbara Wright, but she was smart enough to include her website in the footer. Looking at her picture on the site, I still had no memory of either her or the workshop, but the “Rules” she gave were interesting and, of course, I thought they’d make good discussion fodder here at TKZ.

  1. Keep it concrete
  2. Familiarize yourself with the best writing. Dismantle it and ask yourself what makes it work
  3. Create the conditions you need in order to write
  4. Everything is material
  5. Anyone can be a writer
  6. Don’t take rejection personally
  7. Keep your eyes open (my notes added ‘ears’ here)
  8. There’s no such thing as failure. The only way you can fail is to quit.
  9. Don’t show off. All details must be in service of the story
  10. Pretty good is not good enough
  11. You don’t find ideas; ideas find you
  12. Take risks (my notes say ‘forces you to be better than you are’)

Her last “rule” was the familiar quote: There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are. (Somerset Maugham)

All right, TKZers. Do any of these resonate with you? Any you’ve tried and given up on? Any you don’t think are worth trying?

For me, when I was starting, #6 was a tough one to develop. Currently, I’d say my top three are 5, 9 and 10.

And one final note: On Saturday, August 27th, I’ve been invited to speak at the Speed City Sisters in Crime chapter’s meeting. I would really love to “see” some of you (or at least your names, because they turn off video for the audience). The Title is “How I Became a Writer by Mistake” and it’ll be mostly Q&A. Time: noon EDT, 9 Pacific. You have to register, but it’s free. Details here.


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

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


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

Beginnings

Beginnings
Terry Odell

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

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

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

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

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

Open with Dialogue. Dialogue is Action.

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

This was my opening draft paragraph:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Floor’s yours.


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

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


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

First Page Critique: My Girl is a Dog

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

Title: My Girl is a Dog

Genre: Mystery/Thriller 

CHAPTER ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Let’s dive right in…

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

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

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

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

Condense all of the above, like this…

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite line: My breath clouded in the frigid air…

TKZers, please add your suggestions/comments.

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

It’s a Touching Good Story

It’s a Touching Good Story
Terry Odell

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

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

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

Common sensations for your characters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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