What Writers Can Learn from Animal Communication

Zoosemiotics is the study of animal communication, and it’s played an important role in the development of ethology, sociobiology, and the study of animal cognition. Writers can also learn from zoosemiotics. Think characterization and scene enhancement.

In the animal kingdom, the sender and receiver of communication may be part of the same species or from different species. Crows, for example, warn the chippies, squirrels, and numerous small birds when dangerous predators are in the area. They do this with a vocal alarm, and every animal pays attention. When crows are around good people and animals they’re comfortable with, they blink several times per minute and have a relaxed, roaming gaze. If a predator prowls or coasts into their domain, their unblinking, hard stare at the threat warns other wildlife in the area.

Warning Coloration

In species such as wasps that are capable of harming potential predators, they’re often brightly colored, and this modifies the behavior of the predator who either instinctively knows to be wary or has learned to use caution through past experiences. Some forms of mimicry fall in the same category. For example, hoverflies have similar coloring to wasps. Although they’re unable to sting, wasps avoid them.

Coloration changes in characters include reddening or flushed neck and/or face (anger or embarrassment) or the lack of color i.e., pale (fear, anxiety, or nervousness).

Behavioral Changes

Canines such as wolves and coyotes may adopt an aggressive posture, such as growling, head leveling, or baring teeth to warn a potential predator to stay back, that if they approach, the canine is ready and able to fight. Rattlesnakes use their telltale rattle—it means, if you come near me, I will strike. Certain amphibians with a bright colored belly and a back that blends into the environment, flash their belly when confronted by a potential threat, indicating they are poisonous in some way.

Behavioral changes in characters include a snarled lip, clenched fists, pitching forward, or lunging at the threat (anger), mouth dryness, licking lips, avoiding eye contact, clenched hands/arms, jerky steps, fidgeting, defensive posture (fear, anxiety, or nervousness), slumped shoulders, tears, flat speech (sadness), raised eyebrows, eyes widening, slacked jaw (surprise), open body language, smiling (happiness) etc.…

Stotting

An example of prey to predator communication is stotting, a highly noticeable form of running shown by some antelopes such as a Thomson’s gazelle. Stotting indicates the animal is healthy and fit, thus not worth pursuing.

Stotting behavior in characters: Think about the difference between jogging and running for your life. The feet may be sloppy or the character zigzags, trips, or falls (fear).

Predator to Prey

Some predators communicate to prey in ways that change their behavior. The deception makes them easier to catch. Take, for example, the angler fish. Fleshy growth protruding from its forehead dangles in front of its jaws. Smaller fish try to take the lure, thereby positioning themselves directly in front of the angler fish’s mouth.

Describing deceptiveness in characters would take an entire post, but you get the picture. 😉

Human & Animal Communication

We are all part of the Natural World. Various ways in which humans interpret the behavior of domestic animals and/or wildlife fit the definition of interspecific communication. Although dogs can use vocal communication, they mainly display nonverbal communication through the use of body language, such as tail carriage and motion, ear and eye position, body position and movement, and facial expressions. Recognizing the correct nonverbal cue will help decipher what the dog is telling us.

More character nonverbal cues include sweating, trembling, damp eyes, muscles tensing, crossed arms or the drawing in of limbs, the body recoiling (fear, anxiety, nervousness), sudden backward movement (surprise), relaxation of muscles (happiness), etc….

While observing a dog’s body language it’s crucial to observe the entire dog, as well as the situation or context. For example, a dog’s wagging tail does not always mean Fido’s happy. A tail in motion is often noticed first, but the rest of the dog is board-stiff, and the ears are back and the dog’s in a couched position, the full picture tells you Fido’s not happy with the situation.

5 Common Groups of Canine Signals

Keep in mind, a dog could use more than one response at a time. Hence why it’s important to analyze the entire dog, not just one body cue (the same applies to characters).

Fido may start with a display of excitement, then decide the stimuli is a threat and switch to aggressive posturing, or send fear signals, or both.

As we review each group, notice the similarities to us (characters).

Fearful Communication

When a dog is frightened, he’s likely to react with his whole body. He may lick his lips, yawn, keep his mouth tightly closed, cower or lower his body, lower or tuck his tail, or flatten his ears. He may also tremble or shake, avoid eye contact, or lean back to avoid the frightening stimulus.

The body language may be a combination of several signals and/or may appear as a progression through these signals as the dog’s response intensifies. Sometimes, the complete absence of active signals can speak volumes. A dog that won’t eat food or treats, is avoiding people when they approach, or freezes when someone reaches for him—a “shut down” appearance—is demonstrating fear. Sadly, we often see this behavior in shelters if the dog doesn’t get adopted. Shelter dogs also may display high arousal or excitement.

Arousal Communication

The arousal in shelter dogs could be due to many factors, including age, confinement, lack of physical and/or mental outlets, and personality. An arousal/excitement response could indicate joy directed at a certain person, another dog, or toy. If the context is a favorable one, the dog should have soft, relaxed body and eyes and mouth, along with a wagging tail that jumps for attention. He may also play-bow—rear end in the air, front end lowered—to demonstrate excitement. Other cues are jumping, mounting, and mouthing. Mouthing should be soft (no teeth).

Arousal behaviors can also be directed at unfavorable stimuli, such as an unwanted human, animal, or situation. Arousal signals in this context may be coupled with fear signals, such as trembling or a low/tucked tail. Or the arousal signals are paired with aggression—barking, lunging, anxious pacing or spinning, or biting of leash, clothing, or the unfavorable stimuli. The dog’s fur can pilo-erect (hackle), his ears bent forward or at attention, his stance upward and erect. The tail is often up and wagging stiffly, and the eyes are wide-open and focused on the target. He could also bark, growl, and/or lunge.

Anxious Communication

If a dog becomes stressed, he may exhibit excessive panting, pacing, and lack of focus. Similar body language to a fearful dog, when in reality, he’s filled with anxiety. Which is why context is key. A dog that jumps at the kennel door as a person approaches is displaying arousal/excitement. Whereas a dog bounding off the side walls of the kennel displays anxious communication signals.

Aggressive Communication

Aggression is a normal and natural behavior in animals, triggered by a perceived threat. Aggressive vocalizations and body posturing are warning signals.

In dogs, we understand aggression through body language that includes stiffening or freezing, eyes wide with the whites visible (called whale eye), tense mouth or curled lips, wrinkled nose, bared teeth, barking, growling, and air snapping.

Relaxed Communication

We all love dogs in a relaxed position, like he doesn’t have a care in the world. Mouth relaxed, lips slightly parted. A smiling appearance. Head and ears relaxed in a neutral position, body loose, eyes soft. His tail may be swishing back and forth, or even wagging in a circular motion. My favorite is when a dog’s lying in the frog-leg position. Those froggy legs are hard to resist!

Over to you, TKZers! You may be using animal communication and not realize it, because many behaviors are similar to our own body language. If you’d like to give an example from your WIP, go for it. Otherwise, please include different animals and how they communicate.

 

 

Thoughts on Thoughts

Thoughts on Thoughts
Terry Odell

Tips on Writing Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example:

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

Becomes

Had he meant to kill her? Not likely.

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

They also suggest using the question technique.

Example:

He wondered why he always ended up killing them.

Becomes

Why did he always end up killing them?

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

  1. Beware italics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fish admitted to himself he had considered it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A BUT Means Complications and Obstacles

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same is true for writing.

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

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

 

Macro-Level Jump Cut Scene

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

Clear as mud? Okie doke, moving on…

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

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

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

Let’s look at two examples.

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

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

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

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

It was his time. He had come full circle.

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

Whoever the hell they are.

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

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

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

The Prologue of RACKED opens with…

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

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

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

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

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

I backed away from the tree.

Crunch.

My right heel froze on the pinecone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is someone there?”

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

Dear God, don’t let him find me.

Chapter One rewinds to 26 hours earlier.

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

The Opening Chapter Reveals a Secret Vow

A novel’s opening chapter makes a promise, a secret vow that says, “This is what you can expect from me.”

The chapters that follow better fulfill that promise, or the author will suffer the consequences with low-ratings, bad reviews, or their name on the Don’t Not Read list.

Yes, the promise is that important. It’s how we build and maintain an audience. It’s how we climb the proverbial ladder of success. It’s how we keep readers hungering for more. This solemn vow can NEVER be broken.

So far this month I’ve read three novels (all 5 stars). I average about one novel per week, along with nonfiction (craft books or true crime). None of my recent reads landed within my preferred genres of psychological thrillers, dark & gritty mysteries, and serial killer thrillers, but I feel it’s important for writers to venture outside their genres from time to time.

For my next read, I wavered between WIN by Harlen Coben or Book 2 of a serial killer thriller series from one of my auto-buy authors. I devoured Book 1 in a couple days, and I’d been dyin’ to read Book 2 for a while now, so I bought the $9.99 ebook. Immediately, the author transported me to a serial killer’s lair with the protagonist bound and helpless. I was enthralled. As I said, I’d been looking forward to this novel for a while and the opener didn’t disappoint.

Without sharing the title, I’ll show you how the writer sucked me into the scene.

Darkness.

It swirled around him deep and thick, eating the light and leaving nothing behind but an inky void. A fog choked his thoughts—the words tried to come together, tried to form a cohesive sentence, to find meaning, but the moment they seemed close, they were swallowed up and gone, replaced by a growing sense of dread, a feeling of heaviness—his body sinking into the murky depths of a long-forgotten body of water.

Moist scent.

Mildew.

Damp.

[Protagonist] wanted to open his eyes.

Had to open his eyes.

They fought him though, held tight.

His head ached, throbbed.

A pulsing pain behind his right ear—at his temple too.

“Try not to move, [Protagonist’s name]. Wouldn’t want you to get sick.”

The voice was distant, muffled, familiar.

[Protagonist] was lying down.

Cold steel beneath the tips of his fingers.

He remembered the shot then. A needle at the base of his neck, a quick stab, cold liquid rushing under his skin into the muscle, then—

Gripping, tense, love the story rhythm, the way he pauses at just the right moment. I could not flip the pages fast enough. Lovin’ every second of it!

And then…

In the next chapter, I find out it was all a dream. Infuriated, I almost whipped my Kindle across the room. One of my auto-buy authors wrote this thriller, and I expected him to fulfill the promise he made to me. Instead, he cheated. I was so disappointed, I refused to keep reading. He’d broken my trust. He let me down.

Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But that’s exactly how I felt.

The emptiness he inflicted left me hungering for a visceral, gritty, serial killer thriller, one that would fulfill its promise.

I downloaded thriller number two.

Without revealing the title or author, here’s a small sampling of that opener.

            I woke up from a gentle shake. My sister’s face hovered a few inches above mine, her eyes glistening wet. A grinding sound came from her jaw as it moved back and forth.

I shivered.

[Sister] put her fingers against my lips. “SSSH. Nod if you understand,” she whispered.

I nodded.

My room was freezing from the cold wind blowing in through my open window.

“The monsters are coming for us. Be very quiet. We’re escaping,” she whispered.

I nodded again, biting my lip hard to not cry.

Was there a monster in my closet? Behind my closed bedroom door?

My heart thrashed against my ribs like a bird trying to escape its cage. Why were the monsters after us?

We learn the protagonist is a child and her older sister is rescuing her from an imminent threat. Other than a few writing tics, like SSSH instead of Shh…, the author did a terrific job of showing the action. Finally, I could sink into a gripping read. Or so I thought.

The next chapter (Ch. 1) consisted of pages and pages of backstory. No plot, only backstory. The premise still intrigued me, so I kept reading. Then I hit a flashback that dragged on for several pages. The worst part? It added nothing to the main storyline.

Still, because the prologue was so good, I read on. The prologue had raised many, many story questions, and I wanted answers. But in Chapter 2, I read more pages and pages of backstory and another flashback. The next chapter was equally disappointing, with more pages of backstory and a third (fourth?) flashback. I lost count.

Whiplashed from being thrown forward, then backward, I couldn’t take it anymore and closed the book. A good premise will only take you so far. At some point, you need to deliver on the promise you made to the reader.

The third novel I bought—all in same day, I might add—began with a slow burn opener. A girl is emptying a bucket of oil into the dumpster behind Burger King. It doesn’t sound like much on the surface, but the co-authors held my interest. Which, after being burned twice in a matter of hours, wasn’t an easy task.

Here’s the opening of DEAD END GIRL by L.T. Vargus & Tim McBain:

            Corduroy pants swished between Teresa’s thighs as she crossed the parking lot. She had a headache. That drive-thru headset gave her a headache every damn time. The band squeezed her skull like an old man trying to find a ripe cantaloupe in the produce department. Pressing and pressing until her temples throbbed. When the headaches were really bad, she got the aura. And it was gonna be a bad one tonight. She could already tell.

By the time she got home, she’d be nauseous from the skull throb along with the stink of fryer grease clinging to her clothes and hair and skin. Sometimes she swore she could feel it permeating her pores.

She placed a hand under the lid of the dumpster and lifted. The overhead lights in the parking lot glinted on the surface below. It looked like water, but it wasn’t. It was oil. Every night they emptied the fryers, dumping the used oil into this dumpster. It was a disgusting task. Worse than taking out the trash on a 90-degree summer day, when the flies got real thick, and the meat went rancid almost as soon as they put it in the bin.

It was dead out. No traffic. No noise at all but her fiddling with the dumpster and the bucket.

Her skin crawled a little whenever she was out here this late. In the dark. In the quiet. A feeling settled into the flesh on her back and shoulders, a cold feeling, a feeling like after watching one of those scary movies when she was a teenager. It might have been a thrill while she was watching, but later on that night she’d always get spooked. She’d tremble in bed, too terrified to walk down the hall to pee. The house never seemed so ominously still as it did on those nights. Anyhow, she couldn’t stand to watch horror movies anymore. Her weak stomach couldn’t handle the gore.

Bending over the metal cart she’d wheeled along with her, Teresa scooped one of the buckets of used fryer oil and balanced it on the edge of the dumpster. She tipped the bucket and watched as the gallons of brown grease oozed into the dumpster, disrupting the smoothness.

Settled at the bottom of the bucket, there were clumps and chunks. Burned bits of fries and chicken tender crumbs. They splatted and splashed into the pool of liquid that looked black in the night.

That’s when Teresa saw it. Something rising out of the oil, disturbing the otherwise unblemished surface.

Intriguing, right? Most importantly, the authors kept their promise. Elated, I could not flip pages fast enough, savoring favorite passages, the story rhythm and pace pitch-perfect. And now, I have a new favorite series. 🙂

Come morning, I felt bad about dissin’ my auto-buy author. Maybe he had a reason to break the don’t-open-with-a-dream rule. Could the last line of the first paragraph indicate a dream?

…his body sinking into the murky depths of a long-forgotten body of water.

In hindsight, maybe. Probably. But it’s too subtle. Nonetheless, I grabbed my Kindle and kept reading. Sure enough, he used the dream sequence to show the affect it had on the protagonist, who’s been suffering nightmares after a serial killer slipped through his grasp. The dream relates to the plot because that serial killer is back.

Do I agree with the dream opening? No, but I’ll keep reading because I know this author delivers each and every time and his writing speaks to me. But what if I wasn’t a fan? What if I’d chosen the book at random? He would’ve lost me. See what I’m sayin’? It’s a risky move.

We spend a lot of time perfecting our opening pages, polishing them till they shine, but our job doesn’t end there. We must follow through in subsequent chapters by setting up scenes, paying them off, setting up more, paying off more.

Other than that crucial promise, your solemn vow to the reader, a few other takeaways are…

  • Don’t start with a dream sequence unless the reader knows it’s a dream AND you’ve got a damn good reason to do it.
  • Go easy with backstory. Sprinkled it in over time.
  • Avoid flashbacks unless they’re absolutely necessary. Most times they’re not.
  • Don’t tell the reader what happened in the past. Trust us to figure it out on our own.
  • A great premise only works if you deliver on that promise.
  • If a slow burn opener works for your story, use it. Every novel doesn’t need a lightning-fast opener to draw and hold interest.

If you missed Jim’s post yesterday, read it (and the comment section!) for speed bumps that stop the reader.

How many chapters do you read before giving up on a novel?

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Craft Lessons: @HarlanCoben STAY CLOSE #Netflix

When I’m not reading or watching true crime or nature/wildlife documentaries, I search for net-streaming series based on novels. Why? Because they’re the next best thing to reading, if the series preserves the craft beneath the storyline. Harlan Coben’s STAY CLOSE on Netflix is the perfect example.

The Limited Series is split into eight episodes. In a novel the dramatic arc is split into four quartiles (25% each), called Parts.

  1. Part I: The Set Up: The first quartile (25%) of the story has but a single mission: to set-up everything that follows. We need to accomplish a handful of things, but they all fall under the umbrella of that singular mission. If we choose to show the antagonist, we only want to include jigsaw pieces of the puzzle. Most importantly, Part 1 needs to establish stakes for what happens to the hero after Part 1. Here in Part 1 is where the reader is made to care. The more we empathize with what the hero has at stake—what they need and want in their life and/or what obstacles they need to conquer before the arrival of the primary conflict—the more we care when it all changes. They’re like an orphan, unsure of what will happen next.
  2. Part II: The Response: This quartile shows the protagonist’s reaction to the new goal/stakes/obstacles revealed by the First Plot Point. They don’t need to be heroic yet. Instead, they retreat, regroup, and/or have doomed attempts at a resolution.
  3. Part III: The Attack: Midpoint information, awareness, or contextual understanding causes the protagonist to change course—to shift—in how to approach the obstacles. The hero is now empowered, not merely reacting as they did in Part II. They have a plan on how to proceed.
  4. Part IV: The Resolution: The protagonist summons the courage and growth to come up with a solution, overcome inner obstacles, and conquer the antagonist. They’re empowered, determined. Heroic.

In the Netflix series, every two episodes represent one quartile. Keep the dramatic arc in mind.

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” —Chekhov

Chekhov’s Gun is the principle that every element in a dramatic work must either be relevant or removed, that we must not hold “false promises” out to readers. Consciously or not, we’re always loading Chekhov’s Gun. Every sentence is a rifle hung on the wall. Sooner or later, it will—must—go off.

Also known as setup and payoff. We’re always either setting up a future moment/scene or paying it off. Let’s see this principle in action…

*Spoiler Alert* of the first 15 minutes of Episode One

The HOOK takes place at a strip club called Viper’s. Fleeting images show a young man, drunk, stumbling outside and into the woods behind the club, in pursuit of…someone.

We don’t know who he’s chasing or why, so we’ll keep watching…

Then we’re in Suburbia and introduced to a mother of three, Megan, and her fiancé. That night, Megan, the bride-to-be, is the guest of honor at one of the tamest bachelorette parties in history.

At the party, a friend says, “It’s about time you two are getting married after sixteen years together.”

That one line of dialogue shows us a sliver of Megan’s backstory: the fiancé is also the father of her three children.

The same friend addresses the flock of women and our bride-to-be, Megan. “I know it’s not a traditional hen night. We’re way too classy for strippers, however, we do have—(man in a bathrobe enters the scene)—a model!”

The women shriek.

The camera pans out to show easels set up in a circle, and the women laugh, drink white wine, and attempt to draw. We like the bride-to-be. Megan’s fun, respectable, and clearly in love with her fiancé. Even with her wealth, we can easily relate to her.

After the fun drawing session, Megan chats with the same friend at the bar.

Friend: “I think it’s wonderful you and David are getting married after all this time.”

Megan: “We should have done it years ago.”

Friend: “Everyone else is splitting up, but you two just keep getting stronger.”

Through the short exchange we learn about her circle of friends and Megan’s relationship. A mental image of Megan takes shape. We like her even more. She’s a good, solid person. Reliable. Trustworthy. Faithful. Nice. We certainly wouldn’t want anything to happen to her—and that’s what good characterization is all about. We care about Megan. We’re living vicariously through her, and we’ll stick around to make sure she stays safe.

When Megan arrives home in a taxi—she would never drink and drive; we know this from her characterization—she finds a bottle of champagne on her front stoop. A card leans against the bottle. A card addressed to Cassie [Motivation]. Who’s Cassie? The card terrifies Megan, evident by her silent gasp [Reaction]. Camera zooms in on the name again [Motivation], then on Megan, whose blank stare and parted lips shows she’s clearly terrified [Reaction]. She whirls around, her gaze scanning the dark road, the envelope gripped tight between her fingers.

In the envelope, a card portrays a bride and groom waltzing. With no note inside, the card itself acts as a direct threat to Megan. But because we have no idea why it’s a threat or who Cassie is, we’re glued to the screen.

A lack of information is often more powerful than the explanation.

Megan races into the house to check the security footage. But the person who left the card is wearing a hoodie. The camera doesn’t help her identify the interloper. (Rising tension, enhanced stakes)

This scene looks a lot like the first pinch point, doesn’t it? But it’s too early. Therefore, the placement indicates it’s the Inciting Incident.

Inciting Incident *Optional*: Not every story has to have an Inciting Incident in the way I use the term. Some call the Inciting Incident the First Plot Point. I refer to it as a separate Milestone, a foreshadowing of the First Plot Point. It can even be an entirely different event, one that relates to the main plot, but it’s a false start. A tease.

New Scene, New POV Character.

This time, a middle-aged detective, DS Michael Broome, and his female partner, DC Erin Cartwright, are assigned the missing persons case of a 20-year-old named Carlton Flynn. The much-younger superior, DCS Brian Goldberg, tells the detectives there’s already been a hit on Flynn’s car.

Camera zooms in on the car so the viewer will remember what it looks like (setting up a future scene).

Carlton has been missing about 48 hours, and this seems to aggravate DS Broome, probably because he has a big enough workload already. Besides, Carlton’s an adult who’s probably out partying somewhere.

Now, DCS Goldberg orders DS Broome to speak with the victim’s father, who is well-connected with friends in the department. The decades between DS Broome and DCS Goldberg add instant micro-tension. The viewer doesn’t need to be told anything. Instinctively, we know these two will butt heads at some point. It’s bound to happen, right? This age-gap adds another layer of intrigue, more story questions, and enhances Broome’s characterization i.e., for now, he’s on his best behavior.

In the driveway at the Flynn residence, Broome exists the car and says to his partner, “Erin, that’s weird.”

Notice how Coben purposefully leaves out the conversation preceding this remark? By doing so, he raises more story questions and piques curiosity.

“It’s not weird,” DC Cartwright says as they stroll toward the front door. “I’m not asking for details.”

“Good, ’cause you’re not getting them.”

“Just tell me, was she nice? ’Cause that’s not details. You deserve a nice woman.”

DS Broome admits, “Yes, she was nice.”

“Good, good, I’m glad.”

“A bit eager, maybe.”

“Eager,” she echoes, nodding.

“Keen to please. Like a Labrador.”

This banter is light, witty, and fun. We instantly like these two, and their partnership (characterization).

Mr. Flynn tells the detectives how worried he is, how his son would never wander off without a word to anyone. The stepmother is much younger than he, and they admit Carlton and the new Mrs. Flynn didn’t always see eye-to-eye. But, Mr. Flynn adds, nothing that would make him leave home.

When the stepmother goes to find a photograph of Carlton, Mr. Flynn asks the detectives if they have kids.

DC Cartwright: Two-year-old.

DS Broome: No. My ex-wife didn’t want them.

Broome’s is a bold statement. We find out why later. For now, we learn he’s divorced, adding another layer of characterization, but it also raises story questions. Did he want kids? The dialogue indicates he did, but we can’t be sure.

See how Coben slips in backstory and keeps the viewer engaged? Every word is strategically placed for a reason. Every sentence/line of dialogue has a purpose.

“He hasn’t been on social media,” the father says, “Nothing. It just stopped April sixteenth.”

The date startles DS Broome. “April sixteenth? I thought Carlton went missing on the seventeenth.”

“No,” Mr. Flynn says. “The seventeenth is the day we realized something was wrong.”

“Right. Huh.” DS Broome pauses. “Does the name Stewart Green mean anything to you?”

DC Cartwright stares at her partner like, Why would you ask him about Stewart Green?

We wonder why, too. Again, raising story questions, dragging us along, forcing us to continue.

When the stepmother returns with a photo of Carlton, he’s the guy from the HOOK. Remember the drunk dude who stumbled into the woods in pursuit of…someone? That’s Carlton Flynn! Not only has Coben paid off the Hook, but he’s also raised new story questions. What happened to Carlton Flynn? Why was he in the woods? Who was he chasing?

When we answer one question, we must raise another—all to set up the First Plot Point or another pivotal Milestone.

While walking back to the car, DC Cartwright says, “Stewart Green?”

“Seventeen years to the day.”

DS Broome’s dialogue adds a sliver of backstory AND implants story questions in our mind: How do these two missing people align? Or is he obsessed with an old case?

“Let it go.”

“Erin, it’s a feeling I’ve got.”

“You see connections everywhere.” (characterization detail)

“I see connections where there are connections,” DS Broome says. “It’s called being a good cop.” (characterization detail)

“Oh, don’t. The only case that’s ever beaten you. (backstory) I call that being an egomaniac.”

“Ego?” DS Broome is visibly upset, tone rising with anger. “I let them down. His family, his wife, they were destroyed. I told them I find him.” (backstory, characterization detail: he is haunted by this old case)

Snide and cold, DC Cartwright smirks. “Did sleeping with her soften the blow?” (backstory, tension)

“That was years later, as you well know.” Over the roof of the car, Broome pouts his bottom lip. “And I was brokenhearted.”

“For the record, I did want kids. Just—”

Broome fills in the blank. “Not with me.”

Bam! Those last two lines of dialogue bring meaning to all the dialogue that came before it, including why DS Broome thought it was weird to share details about his date. These two are a lot more than partners. They were married! Which raises even more story questions. Did he cheat on Erin with Stewart Green’s wife? Is that why they divorced? Give us details!

But Coben is far too clever to reveal all the juicy tidbits at once. We’ll have to wait, and keep watching… 

“Act first, explain later.” —James Scott Bell

The final POV character is a paparazzi-for-hire named Ray Levine, snapping photos outside a bar mitzvah for a young celebrity, who winds up kicking Ray in the shin. The bodyguard ushers the child star into the venue. Moments later, we learn through dialogue that the bodyguard and Ray are buddies. In fact, he’s the one who hired Ray to take photos.

Coben opens his 2012 thriller of the same title with Ray. Let’s take a look…

Sometimes, in that split second when Ray Levine snapped a picture and lost the world in the strobe from his flashbulb, he saw the blood. He knew, of course, that it was only in his mind’s eye, but at times, like right now, the vision was so real he had to lower his camera and take a good hard look at the ground in front of him. That horrible moment—the moment Ray’s life changed completely, transforming him from a man with a future and aspirations into this Grade-A loser you see in front of you—never visited him in his dreams or when he sat alone in the dark. The devastating visions waited until he was wide-awake, surrounded by people, busy at what some might sarcastically dub work.

            The vision mercifully faded as Ray continuously snapped pictures of the bar mitzvah boy.

Look at how many story questions he’s raised in the first paragraph. What’s the blood about? Did he kill someone? What happened to this man? Coben also forces us to care about Ray. The poor guy suffers from horrible visions. At the same time, we wonder why. We need answers! And so, we’ll keep reading.

Coben shuffled the POVs for the Netflix series, and it’s just as effective. 

After we meet Ray at the bar mitzvah, he treks home through the seedier part of town. Someone slams him over the head and steals his camera, making it appear like someone connected to the child star mugged Ray. Coben wants us to make this assumption, so when we find out why he’s mugged in the payoff scene, it’s a surprise. 

Employing all these techniques is how to force the reader to keep flipping pages. Or, in this case, binge the whole series.

Have you read STAY CLOSE? Have you seen the Netflix series? If you haven’t, at least watch the first episode (or even the first 15 minutes!) to see how this plays out on the screen, and witness a master storyteller at work.

How To Spot + Rewrite Fluff

Those dang pesky buggers that sneak into first drafts and weaken the writing are called filler words and phrases—also known as fluff.

If a filler word serves a purpose, keep it. The objective is to tighten the writing by eliminating unnecessary words and anything the reader might find distracting.

For example, a Bigshot Author I adore had the strangest writing tick in her debut novel. It’s a good thing I unknowingly started with book 5, or I might not have devoured two of her thriller series. I can’t tell you her name, but I will share the tic.

“Blah, blah, blah,” she said, and then, “Blah, blah, blah.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” he replied, and then, “Blah, blah, blah.”

Almost every line of dialogue had “she said, and then.” The writing tic distracted me, yanked me right out of the story, and made me want to whip my Kindle out the window. To this day I recall favorite passages from many of her high-octane thrillers, but I couldn’t tell you the basic plot of her debut till I jumped over to Amazon to refresh my memory. She’s since re-edited the novel. 🙂

FILLER WORDS

Just

Just should almost always be murdered.

Original: I just couldn’t say goodbye.

Rewrite: I couldn’t bear to say goodbye.

That 

That litters many first drafts, but it can often be killed without any harm to the original sentence.

Original: I believe that all writers kill their darlings.

Rewrite: I believe all writers kill their darlings.

The original and rewrite have another problem. Did you catch it?

Believe in this context is a telling word. Any time we tell the reader things like “I thought” or “He knew” or “She felt” or “I believe” we slip out of deep POV. Thus, the little darling must die.

Final Rewrite: All writers kill their darlings.

So 

Original: So, this huge guy glared at me in the coffee line.

Rewrite: This musclebound, no-necked guy glared at me in the coffee line.

Confession? I use “so” all the time IRL. It’s also one of the (many) writing tics I search for in my work. The only exception to killing this (or any other) filler word is if it’s used with purpose, like as a character cue word.

Really

Original: She broke up with him. He still really loved her.

Sometimes removing filler means combining/rewording sentences.

Rewrite: When she severed their relationship, his heart stalled.

Very

Here’s another meaningless word. Kill it on sight.

Original: He made me very happy.

Rewrite: When he neared, my skin tingled.

Of

To determine if “of” is needed read the sentence with and without it. Does it still make sense? Yes? Kill it. No? Keep it.

Original: She bolted out of the door.

Rewrite: She bolted out the door.

Up (with certain actions)

Original: He rose up from the table.

Rewrite: He rose from the table.

Original: He stood up tall.

Rewrite: He stood tall.

Down (with certain actions)

Original: He sat down on the couch.

Rewrite: He sat on the couch.

Original: He laid down the blanket.

Rewrite: He laid the blanket on the floor.

And/But (to start a sentence)

I’m not saying we should never use “and” or “but” to start a sentence, though editors might disagree. 🙂 Don’t overdo it.

Original: He died. And I’m heartbroken.

Rewrite: When he died, my soul shattered.

Also search for places where “but” is used to connect two sentences. Can you combine them into one without losing the meaning?

Original: He moved out of state, but I miss him. He was the most caring man I’d ever met.

Rewrite: The most caring man I’d ever met moved out of state. I miss him—miss us.

Want(ed)

Want/wanted is another telling word. It must die to preserve deep POV.

Original: I really wanted the chocolate cake.

Substitute with a strong verb.

Rewrite: I drooled over the chocolate cake. One bite. What could it hurt?

Came/Went

Came/went is filler because it’s not specific. Substitute with an a strong verb.

Original: I went to the store to buy my favorite ice cream.

Rewrite: I raced to Marco’s General Store to buy salted caramel ice cream, my tastebuds cheering me on.

Had

Too many had words give the impression the action took place prior to the main storyline. As a guide, used once in a sentence puts the action in past tense. Twice is repetitive and clutters the writing. Also, if it’s clear the action is in the past, it can often be omitted.

Original: I had gazed at the painting for hours and the eyes didn’t move.

Rewrite: For hours I gazed at the painting and the eyes never wavered.

Well (to start a sentence)

Original: Well, the homecoming queen made it to the dance, but the king didn’t.

Rewrite: The homecoming queen attended the dance, stag.

Basically/Literally

Original: I basically/literally had to drag her out of the bar by her hair.

Rewrite: I dragged her out of the bar by the hair.

Actually

Original: Actually, I did mind.

Rewrite: I minded.

Highly

Original: She was highly annoyed by his presence.

Rewrite: His presence irked her.

Or: His presence infuriated her.

Totally

Original: I totally did not understand a word.

Rewrite: Huh? *kidding* I did not understand one word.

Simply

Original: Dad simply told her to stop.

Rewrite: Dad wagged his head, and she stopped.

Anyway (to start a sentence)

Original: Anyway, I hope you laughed, loved, and lazed during the holiday season.

Rewrite: Hope you laughed, loved, and lazed during the holiday season.

FILLER PHRASES

As with all craft “rules,” exceptions exist. Nonetheless, comb through your first draft and see if you’ve used these phrases for a reason, like characterization. If you haven’t, they must die. It’s even more important to delete filler words and phrases if you’re still developing your voice.

A bit

Original: The movie was a bit intense. Lots of blood.

Rewrite: Intense movie. Blood galore.

There is no doubt that

Original: There is no doubt that the Pats will move on to the playoffs.

Rewrite: No doubt the Pats will move on to the playoffs.

Or: The Pats will be in the playoffs.

The reason is that

Original: The reason is that I said you can’t go.

Rewrite: Because I said so, that’s why. (shout-out to moms!)

The question as to whether

Original: The question as to whether the moon will rise again is irrelevant.

Rewrite: Whether the moon will rise again is irrelevant.

Whether or not

Original: Whether or not you agree is not my problem.

Rewrite: Whether you agree is not my problem.

Tempted to say

Original: I am tempted to say how beautiful you are.

Rewrite: You’re beautiful.

This is a topic that

Original: This is a topic that is close to my heart.

Rewrite: This topic is close to my heart.

Believe me (to start a sentence)

Original: Believe me, I wasn’t there.

Rewrite: I wasn’t there.

In spite of the fact

Original: In spite of the fact that he said he loved you, he’s married.

Rewrite: Although he professed his love, he’s married.

Or: Despite that he said he loved you, he’s married.

The fact that

Original: The fact that he has not succeeded means he can’t do the job.

Rewrite: His failure proves he can’t do the job.

I might add

Original: I might add, your attitude needs adjusting, young lady.

Rewrite: Someone’s panties are in a bunch. *kidding* Adjust your attitude, young lady.

In order to 

Original: In order to pay bills online, you need internet access.

Rewrite: To pay bills online you need internet access.

At the end of the day

Original: At the end of the day, we’re all human.

Rewrite: In the end, we’re all human.

Or: In conclusion, we’re all human.

Or: We’re all human.

Over to you, TKZers. Please add filler words/phrases that I missed. I’m hoping this list will help Brave Writers before they submit first pages for critique.

“I did not think this series could become more compelling, oh how wrong I was! Coletta delivers shock after shock and spiraling twists and turns that you will never see coming. I was glued to the pages, unable to stop reading.” 

Look Inside ? https://buff.ly/3hmev0C

Those Pesky Pronouns

Those Pesky Pronouns
Terry Odell

PronounsHappy New Year everyone! Wishing you all a year that’s better than its recent predecessors.

Given it’s been a long, long time since I’ve been part of the “typical” workforce, a recent email signature had me scratching my head. Under the senders name was the line (he/him/his). I asked my daughter about this, since she’s more tuned into business communication, and she gave me the Mom, what rock did you just climb out from under look.

Now, I’m not totally oblivious to the change in gender pronouns. Anyone who’s had to fill out a form has seen the choices under ‘gender’ multiply. But I’d never seen it in an email signature. The rationale, I’ve been told, is that if everyone does it, those who are uncomfortable about declaring their pronouns will feel less conspicuous when they do. Am I going to add it to my email signature? I’m not sure. Most of my correspondence isn’t of the formal business variety. And, once you become aware of something you start to see it in many other places. (There’s a name for this. Points if you know what it is.) I did notice the host of a recent Zoom meeting included she/her/hers underneath her name. And I’ve since seen it added to Twitter names.

I’ve been dealing with confusing gender since I was in junior high school. My mom had no idea that girls and boys had different spellings for Terry, and I saw no reason to change. First day of seventh grade, I was assigned to a shop class (exclusive to boys back then). My math teacher called out my name and another one—Robin—and asked us to stand. I wondered what trouble I could have gotten into the first ten minutes of class. We stood, identified ourselves, and she smiled and said, “I just wanted to know if you were girls or boys.” Our English teacher used the Mars/Venus symbols in his roll sheet. Summer before my first year of college, I was invited to pledge a fraternity.

What does this mean for our writing? I’m not sure. Old habits die hard. I’d written the following in the current manuscript:

Ranch work came first, Frank reminded himself, and if there’d been an intruder on the ranch, he needed to find him.

My editor came back and asked if “him” should be “them.” I told her I was following the rules of grammar as I learned them. “An intruder” was singular and would take a singular pronoun.

She came back with “Yes. Either “him” or “them” is fine here. I thought maybe “them” would be better since they aren’t sure if it’s a man or woman. Your call.”

For the record, I’ve left it as “him”—for now. The book won’t be released until February 2nd, so I can waffle back and forth a while longer.

Using “them” or “their” as singular has been acceptable for a long time (Shakespeare and Jane Austen, among others, used them), but I’ve always tried to avoid the construction. It simply sounds “off” to me. I would pause at a sentence like, “Terry did well on their exam; they received an A.”

According to Dictionary.com, “their” is defined as:

A form of the possessive case of plural they used as an attributive adjective, before a noun: their home; their rights as citizens; their departure for Rome.

A form of the possessive case of singular they used as an attributive adjective, before a noun:

  1. (used to refer to a generic or unspecified person previously mentioned, about to be mentioned, or present in the immediate context): Someone left their book on the table. A parent should read to their child.
  2. (used to refer to a specific or known person previously mentioned, about to be mentioned, or present in the immediate context): I’m glad my teacher last year had high expectations for their students.
  3. (used to refer to a nonbinary or gender-nonconforming person previously mentioned, about to be mentioned, or present in the immediate context): My cousin Sam is bad at math, but their other grades are good.

A quick trip through the Google Machine revealed even more choices beyond She/Her/Hers, He/Him/His, and They/Them/Theirs. I’d never heard of Xe/Xem/Xyrs, Ze/Hir/Hirs, Ze/Zir/Zirs, or E/Em/Eirs.

What confuses me is why people need all three. If I know someone is a “she” isn’t it automatic that Her and Hers would follow? Or is that to be parallel with the less usual pronouns of Xe, Ze, and E?

But a signature in a business letter isn’t the same as using pronouns in fiction. I had a trans character in Deadly Fun, but nobody realized she wasn’t a woman, so from the point of view of my protagonist, he’d be using she/her/hers when referring to her. The character had left the story by the time Gordon discovered her history, so I never dealt with non-binary pronouns—not that I was aware of them when I wrote that book.

OK, TKZers. Your thoughts? As I said at the beginning of this post, I’ve been going through life with blinders on.


In the Crosshairs by Terry OdellNow available for pre-order. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.

Changing Your Life Won’t Make Things Easier
There’s more to ranch life than minding cattle. After his stint as an army Ranger, Frank Wembly loves the peaceful life as a cowboy. Financial advisor Kiera O’Leary sets off to pursue her dream of being a photographer until a car-meets-cow incident forces a shift in plans. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences.

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

Cue Words in Dialogue

A cue word, as I call it, sends a subtle cue to the reader for who’s speaking. Using a cue word(s) in dialogue helps to establish a character and adds to their characterization. In my Mayhem Series I have a foil character who says “Woot! Awesomesauce.” These words no one else in the series would ever say. They are uniquely hers. She also says “ship” rather than swear. In my Grafton County Series, an important secondary character uses “Minga” which is Italian slang used in place of WTF? And like my Mayhem Series character, no one else in the series would say her cue word. It is uniquely hers.

Think about the people in your life. Have you noticed subtleties in their speech? We all have favorite words and phrases. Our characters should, too.

In The Darkness by Mike Omer has the perfect example of cue words in action. They jump right out. Never does Omer describe the following eyewitness in detail. Instead, he lets the dialogue form a clear picture in the reader’s mind.

“Well, like I said, me and Jeff—he don’ live here no more because he moved out with his mother because his parents got divorced, so he and his mom moved in with his grandparents down south—we were walking around a while ago, I think it was a year and a half ago, because Jeff moved away last summer and it was just before then…I remember he was talking about how his parents were getting a divorce because they were fighting all the time, and we saw this guy.”

“What guy?” Foster asked.

“A guy where you built that tent over there. He dug a pit, he had a shovel and a bunch of other tools, and he wore some kind of maintenance suit, but we knew he wasn’t maintaining shit, because there are no pipes or wires or anything there, right? Jeff’s dad used to be a plumber working for the city before he got fired, because he drank all the time, so he knew there was nothing there—also this guy didn’t look like a plumber.”

“What did he look like?”

“I don’t know, man. He was white for sure, but we were too far away, and we didn’t want to get any closer because we didn’t want him to see us.”

Notice how he slipped in race? Most “white” people wouldn’t mention the guy was “white” right away. It’s another subtle cue word that adds brushstrokes to the mental image we’re forming of Paul, the eyewitness.

“Why not?”

The author breaks up the dialogue by bringing the reader’s attention to the conversation through Tatum, the POV character, who’s not involved in the questioning.

The rhythm of the conversation was hypnotic, Foster asking pointed questions fast and short and the boy answering in long, serpentine sentences, their structure mazelike. Tatum could almost imagine this being a stage act accompanied by the strumming of a single guitar.

Did he have to bring attention to the dialogue? No, but by letting the POV character mention the contrast between detective and witness, it further cements the mental image and adds characterization for Tatum so we don’t forget he’s there. It wouldn’t be as effective if he allowed Tatum to dwell on it too long. One short paragraph, then segue back to the conversation. Notice where he places the cue word when we return.

“Because Jeff said he was someone from the Mafia and that he dug a pit to stash drugs in or money or a body, and we didn’t want him to see us—we’re not idiots—we stayed away, but we were careful to see exactly what he was doing, and this guy dug there all day, like nonstop.”

Boom — first word is because. Is there any question who’s speaking?

Notice also how Omer chose to exclude most body cues and tags. This demonstrates how to let dialogue do the heavy lifting.

“Did you tell your parents? Tell anyone?”

Now he adds a body cue, but not to indicate who’s speaking. He adds it to show indecisiveness.

Paul seemed to hesitate for a moment and stared downward at his shoes, biting his lips.

“You didn’t want to,” Tatum said. “Because you were hoping he’d stash money there.”

See how Tatum used the cue word? Empathetic people are like parrots. We can’t help but use the cue word when responding to someone like Paul. This subconscious act adds another layer to the characterization.

“It ain’t against the law to say nothin’,” Paul muttered.

“So this guy digs a hole.” Frustration crept into Foster’s voice (now that Tatum’s involved in the conversation it’s important to ground the reader). “Then what?”

“Then he left. So we waited until was dark, and we went there, because we figured maybe he stashed some money there, so we could take some of it—not too much, y’know. Jeff really wanted cash because his dad was unemployed, so he figured he could maybe help out a bit, and I wanted cash because…” He paused. His own motives probably hadn’t been as pure as Jeff’s.

“Because cash is a good thing to have,” Tatum said. “Go on.”

Even without the dialogue tag, the reader knows Tatum responded because he used the same cue word earlier. See how powerful they can be? Foster would never get sucked in like Tatum. It’s not in her character.

Do any of your characters use cue words?

Surgery for the Manuscript

Surgery for the Manuscript
Terry Odell

I hit “The End” on the current WIP, which is really “The Beginning.” James Scott Bell talked about getting rid of mosquitos in his recent post. To continue with his analogy (it was an analogy, wasn’t it?) Sometimes you’re getting rid of angry wasps, and sometimes it’s annoying gnats.

I prefer thinking in surgical terms when I tackle my draft. First, the major medical. The current manuscript came in longer than I wanted. Although I firmly believe that a story should be as long as it needs to be, the operative word is needs, and I check to make sure that every scene pulls its weight and advances the story. I confess that as a non-plotter, I often find things that never got followed up on, or were just fun scenes to write. If they don’t connect to the overall story, they get cut.

  • Purely practical note. At Amazon, for books priced for the 70% royalty option, there’s a “delivery fee” for ebooks based on file size. Longer books, bigger cut for them. Example: for my three-book box sets, they slice from 25 to 27 cents per book. They take about a dime from my “normal” length books. For those who go wide, B&N, Kobo, and Smashwords don’t have these fees. D2D keeps about 10% regardless of book length.
  • In print, the cost to produce the book via KDP is based on page count. More pages, bigger cut. I don’t sell enough print books to check out the other distributors, so I can’t speak for them.
  • If you’re going to produce the book in audio and pay a narrator, the longer the book, the greater the cost.

These, to me, justify excising ugly fat. If you want more advice from the real experts, Ruth Harris has an excellent summary. Check this out.

Back to cutting plot threads. Should be easy, right? Patient has appendicitis, you cut out the appendix. In the manuscript, you find the threads that don’t need to be there and remove them.

Trouble is, threads don’t exist in nice, tidy packages. There will be places where you’ve foreshadowed, places where you’ve followed up, and places where you’ve made a reference, almost in passing, to something that happened in that now defunct thread.

Example: One thread I’d decided wasn’t necessary (even though it created conflict and tension) related to the character finding an earring in the pasture. How did it get there? Who dropped it? Could it belong to the cattle rustler? I set things up by having my hero spot similar earrings on the heroine and asking where she got them which led down a path I decided was no longer needed. I had enough other mystery threads to be solved. The entire scene had to be revised. (And it was at a restaurant, JSB.) If that patient’s appendix burst, the surgeon wants to remove all traces of infection. In the manuscript, I have to make sure I’ve removed all references to this “earring thread.” It showed up in several more chapters, and cutting them leads to more problems.

A tip: Watch your transitions. It’s more than likely the scene before the one you cut led into it. That will have to be adjusted. Likewise the one after it. If you ended the scene with a page-turning cliff hanger, that cliffhanger now sends readers into an abyss with no bottom.

Another example came from removing a simple piece of stage business. My characters love coffee, and they were often (too often?) brewing, pouring, sipping. In the scene in question, the characters were dealing with a suspicious package purportedly delivered by FedEx, and the heroine offered to make coffee while they worked. Yet another coffee-making scene. Didn’t add enough to justify the extra words, so I deleted it:

“There’s time for coffee. Want some?”
Figuring the simple task might take her mind off what she was dealing with, he said yes.
As she went through the process of water, filter, and grounds, he mulled over what had gone on.

But now, since they had coffee, there were more references throughout the scene (and more) that had to go: carrying the mugs upstairs, bringing them down and washing them, leaving the half-empty pot for the house-sitter and … having the hero taste like coffee when they kissed. The kiss was important, but he couldn’t taste like coffee anymore. None of these references went on for more than a sentence—a paragraph at most. Often they were simply action beats. But if you want the patient to recover, you have to make sure there are no sponges or instruments left behind when you close him up.

Deleting a paragraph can create a dominoes effect. Watch what happens right before and after, and smooth out the edges. Critique partners, beta readers, and editors are helpful here, because they haven’t read the manuscript seventy-eleven times.

Moving on to the gnats, or doing the minor and microsurgery.

Words that don’t add anything to the story need to go. They might even add distance, keeping a layer you don’t want between your readers and the characters. Or, there might be awkward bits.

I’ve talked about using SmartEdit before. It’s great for finding those pesky adverbs, repeated words and phrases, and another source of extra words: redundancies.

As with any automated program, you have to review every “suggestion” it makes. These programs don’t write genre fiction. SmartEdit suggests possible redundancies. I’ve run chapters and scenes through Grammarly as well, and find the same problem. Many of their suggestions don’t apply in context. However, they deserve a second look. Fortunately both programs show you where each “offense” occurs, so you can move through the manuscript quickly. Some examples:

  • Outside of
  • Whether or not
  • Start off
  • Ask a question
  • Started out
  • Advance warning
  • Off of
  • Open up
  • Shut down
  • Temper tantrum
  • Major breakthrough
  • Basic essentials
  • Stand up
  • Fall down
  • Advance notice
  • Burning embers
  • Shrug a shoulder

I remember my high school Latin teacher complaining about advertising wording. “From its earliest beginnings to its final completion.” Or “Free gift.” He also said “up” is an overused word, which I talked about in an earlier post. I’ll never forget class clown Leon saying, “So what’s the bank robber supposed to say? This is a stick?”

Then there are the clunkers. Sometimes the eye catches them, but having Word (or your program of choice) read the book aloud to you will help you find them.

Example from the current wip: A woman was busy decorating a wooden wall hanging made from pieces of weathered wood.

Duh. Do I need to use the word wood twice? Wouldn’t the same information get across more efficiently as A woman was busy decorating a wall hanging made from weathered wood.  Do I even need “was busy”? Can it be A woman decorated a wall hanging made from weathered wood?

Listening calls attention to repeated words. Plus, you can hear words that aren’t really repeats, but echoes, such as this passage I discovered:

His mouth dropped. “You’re saying you’re going to wash my clothes?”
She sighed. “Apparently.”
It took several heartbeats for his mouth to close….

Did you spot the ‘clunker’? If not, read it out loud.

OK, TKZers: What are your tips for performing surgery on your manuscript?


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


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