How To Write a Dance Scene

I was eavesdropping on Quora again and stumbled across a thread about how to write a dance scene. Because I included a sensual dance in the WIP, the question piqued my interest. I’ve written dance scenes before, but my characters spent most of their time spying on bad guys. Nothing like the scene I wrote in the WIP (which also ties into the plot).

The writers who responded on Quora had such great advice, I had to share.

Each answer attributed to the writer, of course.

Original question: How can you describe a dance in writing?

Emma Thomas, Novelist wrote:

Here’s two examples of how not to do it.

She stepped onto the floor and awed them all with her dancing.

Under-descriptive. Dancing is such a physical and emotional movement that you have to balance those two in your writing and neither happened here (Sue: She means in the above example).

She gazed across the lacquered wooden tiles and, with a sudden burst of courage that she hadn’t known she’d possessed, stepped onto the dance floor. As the thrumming rhythm of classical music whispered into her ears, she began to dance.

Sliding her right foot back and the other one forward, she dropped low so that her dress brushed the ground, then sprang back up again, so quickly that she got whiplash. She threw her arms out and waved them from side to side, perfectly in tune with the beat, before jumping into the air. Her dress spun around her and for a moment it felt like she was flying … then the ground was beneath her again.

That hurt as much to write as it did to read. I shouldn’t be telling the reader each one of the movements that our dancer makes, unless I want an incredibly monotonous one-hundred page instruction manual on how to jump up and down and fling your hands in the air, like what the MC is doing here. Did you catch that? Possibly not; it sounded like it had taken an hour for her to dance when it was really just a split-second.

When you write about someone dancing, make sure that it’s obvious. It’s okay to say the word “dance.” Not everything has to be a ten-page description — but not everything can be a one-word summary, either. Tie in enough of the surroundings to establish a mood and a sense of place. Lastly, make sure that the dance conveys what you want it to — if it’s careless, make it sound careless. If it’s more meaningful, make it sound like that.

Let’s try this again.

She was dancing. Arms flailing in the sky above her, she whirled around and whooped her happiness into the sweat-stained air. Foot forward. Back. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d done this — why had she ever stopped? A hand grabbed hers and she was swung backward, dipped low, then soaring into the air, the flashing colors momentarily blinding her … she touched ground again and skidded to a smiling, breathless halt.

That’s a rough paragraph but it conveys what it needs to. It established a sense of place, action, and a connection with the dancer. Not under-descriptive or over-descriptive, just effective.

Aaaand that’s it. Hope it helped.

Shreya Pandey wrote:

Do not describe each and every dance step in detail. It’ll get complex and it’ll sound very mechanical. Describe one step, then follow it up by describing how a character felt while they did it. Do they feel dizzy? Happy? Feel an adrenaline rush? Feel scared?

Describe what they see. Does the room start to spin? Do they see the audience looking at them in awe? Describe the way their body moves. Is it effortless? Are they having trouble remembering the steps? Is any part of their body sore?

Describe the atmosphere. Are they dancing at a party? What kind of music is playing in [t]he background? What kind of beats does it have? Can they fee the bass thumping through their body? Is it a popular song? How many people are there? Are they dancing in a crowd, or alone on a stage? What are they wearing?

Give meaning to the dance. It must be significant if you are introducing it in your text. Why is it significant? Is it about how liberated, happy and care free the character feels when they dance? Is it an intimate dance sequence the character shares with someone they love? Does the dance bring back memories? Is it demonstrating their hard work? Is it something they are doing to lose some steam? Do they have a purpose behind it?

The dance scene is always more than just the movement of the character’s body. It is significant to the plot in some way. You need to subtly highlight that significance. At most, if it isn’t anything serious, it can be used to manipulate the reader’s senses. Make them feel, hear, touch, smell, move, see, etc. Transport them. Make them feel as if they are dancing, or as if they are the audience and they are watching someone dance from up close. Writing the perfect atmosphere perfectly is the key.

And my favorite answer…

James Sams, Writer/Editor wrote:

I’d like to caution you against “over describing”. Books are not movies. We can see every step of the Tango in a movie, but no one wants to read what every step is. If you write things like…

“He moved his left foot backward in a smooth motion, sliding across the slick floor. She slid her right foot forward, chasing his retreating foot with hers, like a fox on the hunt. Dipping forward and looking into her eyes, his fingers tightened on her ribs as his left foot came forward again, surprising her foot and chasing it back. They stopped, toe to toe, and he pulled her hips in close to his.

Threatening to brush his lips against hers, he looked to the left, and then to the right. She mimicked him, turning her head opposite. To the right, then to the left.

He pushed her away as though she were too terrible, yet to[o] wonderful, to be near, yet he held on to her left hand with his right, catching her as their arms pulled taut and spinning her out and away. Then he reeled her back in, unable to give her up.

She fell into him, his strong arms wrapping her tight, protecting her before casting her out again.”

… you can get away with it for a paragraph, maybe two. Even with the nice similes and small details, it will soon become agony for a reader to get through. You have become a puppet master, forcing the reader to imagine each foot, each hand, each head motion exactly the way you want it to be. Readers don’t like that. They like to use their imaginations. They want you to give them a coloring book outline and then hint at what colors they should use when they color it in with their imagination.

To give them those subtle colors, only give sweeping descriptions, and add in the senses. Put in the emotions, even if they are only faux representative ones [that] describe the types of movement.

The best thing you can do with a dance, is keep it short, at least in your description. Focus on the characters’ feelings, fears, hopes and thoughts, and then come back for another quick description. If you took the dance I wrote above and stretched it out for the full dance, describing every move in detail, I guarantee even an editor will begin skipping over it as they read. Even if you don’t give every little dance step, it will be too long and people will just let their eyes slide over it, looking for the place you stop describing and get back to the story.

Don’t be afraid to use a dance, just remember, readers are reading for the characters and their thoughts, feelings, and stories. The descriptions, backgrounds, clothes, etc. need to always take a back seat.

I hope that helped.

What do you think, TKZers? Have you written a dance scene? If so, did you follow these guidelines? Any other tips to share?

What type of writer and reader are you?

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

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

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

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

Clear as mud? Cool. Moving on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biological Responses to Fear

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

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

Which brings me to today’s subject: Fear

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

What happens within the body when we’re fearful?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biologically, fear responses include:

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

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

Tips to Show Fear

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

Trigger the Senses

Do shadows obscure the threat? (sight)

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

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

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

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

Emotion is Layered

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

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

—Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, the Emotion Thesaurus

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

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

 

 

First Page Critique: The Puzzle Within

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

***

Title: The Puzzle Within

Genre: Romantic Suspense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt cleared his throat and returned to his seat.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Now for some tough love.

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

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

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

Let’s move on…

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

Example:

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

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

One last comment…

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

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

Tips for Distant Settings Redux

Tips for Distant Settings Redux
Terry Odell

Map showing a Norway Cruise RouteIf all goes as planned this time, when you’re reading this, I should be somewhere in the skies between Frankfurt and Oslo. Or Bergen, where our cruise begins. Therefore, I won’t be able to respond to comments, but I trust you’ll play nice and keep things going.

One of my retirement goals is to travel, and even though Antarctica didn’t (and probably never will) happen, I’ve been fortunate enough to see parts of the world I’d never thought I’d be visiting. A lot of this is because our son is a photographer and his “specialty” is leading photo safaris all over the world. This current trip is to Norway and beyond. I’m revisiting a post I did some time ago, with my tips for writing about distant settings, based on a trip to the British Isles.

When the Hubster and I decided to celebrate our 50th anniversary with a trip to the British Isles, of course I had “book” in the back of my mind. However, an international setting wouldn’t have worked with any of my existing series, and since I never plot in advance, I decided to enjoy our tour, taking pictures and notes of what we were seeing and doing and just wait and see what might bubble to the surface.

When we got home, I decided I’d write a short and sweet romance. Write it quickly, understanding that it’s not my true “brand” but that I had to publish something to justify writing off at least part of the trip.

Well, I soon discovered I’m not a short and sweet romance author, and mystery elements insisted on working their way into the story. What I ended up with is Heather’s Chase: an International Mystery Romance which is closer to my brand, although it’s a stand alone and still a bit of a one off. Nevertheless, it was an educational experience. Since then, I had another major trip, this one to Croatia, which led to the book Cruising Undercover.

Things I’ve learned about setting a book in real places, especially distant ones.

Less is more. My first drafts went into phenomenal detail about absolutely everything. Airports. Train stations. Hotels. Food. All the places we stopped, what we saw on the drives. Given we were traveling for well over two weeks, that would have been a LONG book. A sense of place is good. Overwhelming readers is not. I had to keep reminding myself to make sure everything related to the plot and characters. I wasn’t writing a travelogue.

Stay true to time. Readers familiar with the area will know that you can’t get from A to B in two hours, or that when you’ve had your characters on their bus for five hours, it’s really a twenty-minute drive.

You’ll always miss something. Unless you’ve got your plot mapped out before your trip, once  you start writing, you’ll have a scene to write and—lo and behold—you missed taking a picture, or didn’t take the right notes. I spent a LOT of time on the internet rechecking facts, looking at maps, and refamiliarizing myself with some of the attractions we visited. If I couldn’t find exactly what I needed, I reminded myself I was writing fiction—another reason not to name real places. On the occasions where my characters were eating in real, named places, I made sure I had pictures and menus. Same for attractions.

Don’t make up real stuff. One of the reasons I made this book a stand alone was because our trip didn’t include visits to police departments (although I snapped a picture of a vehicle in Ireland, “just in case”). Also, it would be unrealistic for my American characters to have any access to law enforcement in several different countries.

Be nice. I also opted not to name the specific hotels or restaurants (mostly). For one thing, it gave me the freedom to change the décor, layout, amenities, or the restaurant menus. And, if something “bad” happened, I wasn’t going to incur the wrath of those establishments.

It’s about flavor. Although my characters didn’t visit Northern Ireland, I did include a character from the same town we’d visited when we stayed with my daughter. I made sure she vetted all his dialogue. For example, people in Northern Ireland use the word “wee” as a meaningless adjective. I was asked for my wee credit card, given a wee receipt, offered a wee bag for my purchases. My British critique partner was very helpful with vocabulary as well.

All in all, I had a great time ‘revisiting’ my trip to the British Isles while I was writing the book, and being able to incorporate my experiences into Heather’s Chase. I did a little better with the Croatia trip, although there were lapses in my note-taking. At least, since it was a photography trip, I had plenty of pictures to nudge my memories.

Any tips to share, TKZers?


And a little BSP. I’m going to be teaching some writing craft classes via Zoom, hosted by my editor.
12 Steps to Intimacy on June 17th

Creating Armchair Adventures on July 15th

Into the Heads of Your Characters, on July 29th.

The links will provide more details.

Please spread the word. Friends, writing groups, libraries … wherever you think there might be people interested in learning more about the craft.


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


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

How Critical Distance Improves Writing

The conversation about critical distance doesn’t come up often in writing circles. If someone does raise the point, critical distance is usually mentioned in passing as though other writers should inherently know what it is and why it’s important. Let’s change that today.

What is Critical Distance?

The phrase stems from researchers who lost all subjectivity in their analysis. To regain clarity (critical thinking), they had to step away from the project for a while.

Practitioner researchers have often been criticised for a lack of critical distance from their work often leading to conclusions which can be, in the field of objective research, critiqued for a lack of creditability and validity (Saunders, 2007). Also inherent in this type of research is the fact that the types of practitioners who come to this kind of research often have been thinking about the research topic for several years bringing with them a host of assumptions and ideas of what they want to find out and usually already having a theoretical stance for the project (Drake and Heath, 2011; Wellington and Sikes, 2006).

Michelle M. Appleby, University of Derby

 

  • Surgeons aren’t allowed to operate on family members.
  • Cops aren’t allowed to investigate a family member’s murder.
  • Judges aren’t allowed to preside over a loved one’s case.

These rules are in place because the surgeon, cop, and judge cannot be objective if a personal connection exists.

What’s more personal than writing?

While drafting, we wear love goggles. We’re so wrapped up in our characters, we lose all objectivity. It’s only after we’ve gained distance that we can view the story through the proper lens. Also, we may miss plot holes or leave threads dangling while drafting.

I’ll give you an example…

When I wrote the first draft of Restless Mayhem, one of my anti-heroes mentioned two characters from a previous book. I’d originally planned to have these two characters play a critical role in the story, but then the plot twisted and turned and my original plan changed. Well, I forgot to change the conversation at the beginning of the book. Even though I read the manuscript a few times, I still missed it. After I set it aside for a month, those two names popped right out. And I thought, gee, why are they there?

At that point, I couldn’t recall what my characters did with that information, so I left myself a note and continued on. Guess what? No one ever mentioned those two names again. Never. Whoops! I ended up changing the names to two characters who did play a vital role in the plot. But what if I hadn’t set the manuscript aside? I’d have a lot of confused readers.

Does your character have an accent in chapter two that disappears in chapter twenty?

Does someone have green eyes that turn brown by the end of the book?

Did you name the cat Henry and then change it to Harry?

Did your character have a left arm injury that moved to the right?

Even though most of the above you’ll include in your story bible—you made one, right?—we can still miss seemingly insignificant details if we forego the critical distance stage. I know you’re excited to release your new book baby, but that puppy will shine even more if you allow it to sit a while. I’m amazed by what I find once I return to the manuscript.

How can we view our creations through an objective lens?

After you’ve written the first draft, set it aside for x-amount of weeks. The length of a break varies between writers. For some, two or three weeks may be enough. Others may need a month or more. There’s no right or wrong answer here. Whenever you’ve gained enough distance that you don’t recall every scene. The best way to do that is by working on a different project while the draft cools.

Benefits of critical distance…

  • Easily fix writing tics.
  • Catch typos and grammatical errors.
  • Seal plot holes.
  • Tie-up dangling threads.
  • Swap weak verbs for strong ones.
  • Correct passive voice.
  • Fix clunky words, awkward sentences, and/or phrases.
  • Deepen characterization.
  • Better ground the reader in the setting.
  • Strengthen your theme.
  • Make your writing more expressive.
  • Paint a more vivid mental picture.
  • Infuse more emotion.
  • Change body cues (1st drafts often include obvious or less-than ideal body movements).
  • Convey emotion better.
  • Rewrite to remove some dialogue tags.

Do you let the manuscript rest once you complete the first draft? How long do you let it sit?

Amidst a rising tide of poachers, three unlikely eco-warriors take a stand to save endangered Eastern Gray Wolves—even if it means the slow slaughter of their captors.

Preorder for 99c!

*Please note: 99c sale is only available on Amazon.

Restless Mayhem releases in ebook and paperback on April 26, 2023. Can’t wait!

 

Write What You’re Passionate About

It isn’t easy to expose your heart, but the rewards far outweigh the risks. Let me say up-front, there’s nothing wrong with writing to entertain, to allow readers to escape their lives for a while. That’s not what I’m saying at all.

For me, I wanted more. I write to touch lives. I write to make a difference. The latter of which compelled me to write Unnatural Mayhem, my new psychological thriller. The underlying message—the pulse, if you will—strikes at the core of who I am, what I care about, and who I aim to protect. Writing this story required me to peel back even more layers of my heart and soul. I thought, if that’s what I had to do, then so be it. I set out to write a book that matters, a book that could help protect the voiceless, the most innocent among us.

Here’s a snippet:

Imagine a world without animals? No pattering of paws, no wingbeats, no singing in the treetops, no howls at the moon, no buzzing in flower blossoms, no slithering through garden beds, no sympathetic eyes begging for a treat, no unconditional love or companionship, and the oceans, ponds, and lakes devoid of life. The Natural World as we know it would forever be silenced. For eternity.

That passage still kills me, because I can’t even fathom living in a world without animals. I don’t know about you, but that’s not a world I want any part of. Yet here we are, with numerous species on the brink of extinction.

Writing about subject matters you’re passionate about doesn’t mean slamming your reader over the head with your message. Your passion may influence the story, but we must let readers come to their own conclusions in their own time, even if those conclusions differ from ours. Hence why the story needs a compelling plot, or all the passion and heart you infuse into the story won’t make a dang bit of difference.

In Unnatural Mayhem, I focused on the trophy hunting of crows as a starting point for where I’m taking the series. I don’t need to remind you of my undying love for crows, right? Needless to say, the quest shredded my soul, but it also drove my characters through a complicated maze to stop this senseless killing—by any means necessary—before one black feather hit the earth, my passion and their passion intermingled on such a deep, personal level.

Writing about subjects you’re passionate about is also spiritually fulfilling. When I finished Unnatural Mayhem, a wave of accomplishment washed over me, like I’d written the right story at the right time to effect change, and destiny tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Well done.” Like I was always meant to write this story. Like I was always meant to take my Mayhem Series in this direction. Fate.

Have you ever felt this?

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when writing about subjects you’re passionate about:

#1: Find a subject you’re passionate about. Construct the plot around it. Create a cast of characters that would be most affected by it. In my case, I already had the perfect characters to tell this story.

#2: For hot button issues, like trophy hunting and poaching, you need to decide what to show the reader and what to leave out. No one likes dead animals in books. Most of all, me! The trick is to find ways to tiptoe around obvious triggers while still remaining true to the story.

#3: Balance and forethought are key. For every emotional, spiritual, or suspenseful scene, I balanced with some of the most hilarious scenes I’ve ever written. That balance gives the reader time to breathe and makes the book more enjoyable. ARC readers tell me they experienced all the feels, from heartbreak to joy and every emotion in between.

#4: The ending always matters, but it becomes even more important when writing about subjects you’re passionate about. We can’t leave the reader heartbroken. What fun is that? If we leave them uplifted, they’ll look forward to the next book in the series.

#5: When your emotions are tangled up in your characters, let the words just flow. Don’t worry about editing, word choice, or sentence structure. You’re in the zone, emotions spilling on the pages, fingers trying to keep up with your brain. Write first, edit later.

This is my last post of 2022. From my family to yours, Happy Holidays!

 

With the fate of the Natural World at stake, can a cat burglar, warrior, and Medicine Man stop trophy hunters before it’s too late?

Explosive news of a crow hunt rings out in the White Mountain Region of New Hampshire, and one hundred crows gather to put an end to it. With so many lives at stake — including Poe’s — Shawnee and Mayhem must work together to stop the trophy hunters before they obliterate the local murder.

Taking on twenty-five experienced hunters armed with shotguns is no small feat. If they fail, Poe may lead his brethren to their death.

No matter what it takes, this group must be stopped. But what if Shawnee and Mayhem aren’t seeing the full picture? What if these men have secrets worth killing over?

Unnatural Mayhem is on preorder for $1.49. Releases tomorrow (Dec. 13, 2022).

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!

What Writers Can Learn from Bad TV Adaptations

Even in this image you can see different personality types.

There’s a popular TV adaptation of a thriller series that drives me crazy, but it’s a perfect example of what not to do.

The first problem is characterization. Every single female on the show is the same—strong, badass, snarky, and walks all over the meek male characters, who all seem to cower in their presence.

Lesson: Each character must have unique traits. All women are not strong. All men are not meek. Just as all characters are not beautiful or handsome. They’re individuals with their own quirks, strengths, flaws, etc.

The main character and her best friend are particularly annoying. I won’t get too deep into their backstory. Briefly, they both loved the same man (MC’s husband) who dies by the hand of a serial killer.

Now, either the writer knows nothing about women, or he lives in a dream world, because these two badass women move past the fact that they were sleeping with the same guy and open a PI business together.

Seriously? I don’t about you, but if another woman slept with my husband right before he died, we certainly wouldn’t become best friends and business partners. I’d hunt her for the rest of my life.

Ahem.

Lesson: If you know nothing about cheating or loss, ask someone who does.

Early on there was some mention that the MC was on the force at one point. Husband dies. She gains a new best friend, and the two women open a PI business to chase the serial killer who killed Mr. Wonderful. But because she’s so tough she walks all over the Sheriff and his deputies. And soon, he hands her a badge. On her first day, she’s basically running the whole department.

Now, I’m all for a strong female lead, but come on!

Keep in mind, she still owns half the PI business. Conflict of interest? Nah. In fact, she interviews more criminals with her best friend (who is not law enforcement) than she does with her meek male partner. And get this — she and her PI partner both have the power to make deals with criminals, like no jail time if you give up so-and-so. What??? There’s no DA is this story world? Apparently not.

Warrants also don’t exist, unless the writer needs to buy time. Otherwise, if she wants to kick in a door, she does. She even fights much larger male characters and wins every single time. Oh, and she puts out APBs instead of BOLOs.

Lesson #1: An APB and BOLO are two different things. An All Points Bulletin (APB) might be released when there’s a prison break and they want “all points” to get the message. A Be On the Look Out (BOLO) is more traditional these days for when a specific person and/or vehicle is wanted in connection with a crime.

Same goes for 187 to indicate a homicide. It’s a gang term not used by law enforcement with the exception of California. California operates differently than the rest of the country, so check with local law enforcement.

Lesson #2: Do your homework, writers! If you’re unsure if they use APB or BOLO, call and ask. Most departments will happily answer questions from writers.

Lesson #3: Characters must fail, or they become ridiculous and unrealistic. There’s also no character arc without failure. These characters have not changed one iota from the first episode to the last.

Lesson #4: There are laws in this country, and the vast majority of law enforcement work within the law. Can a cop character cut corners once in a while? Within reason, I suppose, but they cannot blatantly disregard the law entirely.

Let’s talk about the serial killer character for a moment. He could not be more stereotyped with Mommy issues, etc. Another eye roll character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. And—surprise, surprise—a dirty cop is protecting him. At the end of season one, the cop dies. But fear not! He’s back in season two. Can anyone guess how?

Anyone? Anyone?

He’s a twin, of course. A twin, I might add, that no one knew about…until the writer needed an easy way to continue the series.

Lesson: Whatever solution first pops into your mind is a cop-out. Dig deeper and work for a solution that isn’t eye-roll-worthy.

It gets worse. The twin brother gets shot—in the head!—and is still able to flee before capture. Gotta continue the series, right? Wrong. If you kill a character, that’s it. You don’t get to magically move the bullet to his shoulder because it’s convenient.

Lesson: You cannot perform medical miracles to suit your story. Unless you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy.

Now, I will say, I haven’t read the novels, nor will I after sitting through the series while pounding out notes on my phone. It’s possible the film industry destroyed the novels. I doubt it because the author consults on set, but maybe the books aren’t as ridiculous.

I keep watching for two reasons:

  1. My husband I have a blast making fun of it. 🙂
  2. We can learn just as much from bad series as we can from good ones. Maybe more.

If you’ve figured out the series, please don’t mention the title.

If you enjoy strong and snarky female leads (not cardboard cutouts who never fail), check out WINGS OF MAYHEM, Book 1 of the Mayhem Series.

FREE on Amazon.