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.

Top 10 Social Media Mistakes for Writers

I’ve spent 12 years on social media. *cringe* In that time I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two. That’s not to say my social media presence is 100% perfect. Far from it. I am a flawed human. The trick is knowing where and how you went wrong, so you don’t repeat the mistake and destroy your social media platform.

Whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay, and writers are expected to have an online presence. To help you navigate these turbulent waters, I’ve compiled the top 10 mistakes I’ve seen writers make over the years.

#1: Don’t talk at your audience. Chat with them.

Social media is about making connections, engaging in conversation. It is not a soapbox, nor are you the most important person in the room. People will have opinions that don’t align with yours. And that’s okay. Talk it out. Get to know them.

#2: Don’t try to be something you’re not.

I see this all the time. If you’re not passionate about a subject, don’t try to fake it because it’s trendy. This isn’t high school. Share something that excites you, and your passion will shine through. Folks want to know the real you, not some made up version.

Which brings me to…

 

#3: Chill out, dude.

You cannot hop on social media for five or ten minutes and expect to see instant results.

Building a community takes time. If you rush it, your “buy my book” activities will reek of desperation.

 

#4: Don’t copy a famous author’s social media style.

What works for a thriller or noir writer might not translate well to cozy, HEA romance, or sci-fi fans. If you write in a similar genre, you can emulate that author, but add your own special flair.

#5: Don’t spout orders.

We’re told to have a clear call to action in social media marketing, that’s true, but less is more. Don’t ask for multiple favors at once.

Buy the book.

Rate the book.

Review the book.

Repost the review on Goodreads, BookBub, Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Apple, etc. etc. etc.

Tell all your friends to buy the book.

Choose one. Once you build trust, move on from there.

Otherwise, it feels a lot like this:

Read everything I’ve ever written. Don’t think about time. I’m more important.

When you’re done with that, rate and review all my books, but don’t say anything negative. I will only accept four or five stars. Don’t forget to repost the review everywhere books are sold. And I mean everywhere.

Oh, btw, I need a few things at the grocery story. Grab a pen and write this down. You’ve got time, right? ’Course you do. After all, I’m the almighty author.

Clean my house.

Walk my dog.

Feed my wildlife.

Check in on my elderly parent.

Can you cook? Great. I’m far too busy writing my next masterpiece to waste time in the kitchen.

Come to me when you’re done, and I’ll give you the next task. You’re welcome.

#5: Don’t take before you give.

We’ve talked about the 80/20 rule before. I think 90/10 works better, but you’re safe with 80/20. For those who don’t know, it means 80% of what you share should be about life, pets, passion (not writing), or goofing around, 20% book news. Sounds easy enough, right? Yet some authors can’t seem to wrap their head around it. Every post is a version of “Buy my book!”

To the writers who struggle with the 80/20 rule, let me rephrase in simpler terms. I know you’re excited—we all do—but you are not the first person to write a novel, nor will you be the last. What if an Avon lady knocked at your door day after day after day to buy her products, would you be more or less likely to whip out your credit card? Don’t act like the Avon lady.

#6: Don’t be nasty, argumentative, or spread hate.

Self-explanatory. If you see something that angers you, keep scrolling. It’s simple. If you wouldn’t be nasty or spread hate in person, don’t do it online. If you would, please seek help.

#7: Mind your manners.

Please and thank you go a long way in life and on social media.

#8: Don’t try to be everywhere.

Learned this lesson the hard way. Back when writers were expected to be everywhere, I built a following on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, StumbleUpon, Google+, Reddit, Triberr, Alignable, etc. etc. etc. Lost hundreds of thousands of followers when some of these sites went dark, too.

Learn from my mistakes. Focus your downtime (not writing time!) on one or two sites you enjoy. Social media should be fun.

#9: Use Social Media Management Tools

Shortly after I wrote a post about Hootsuite, they changed their plans. I switched to Buffer. For $15 per month, you can schedule up to 100 posts across several sites. Money well spent. It takes time to schedule posts in advance. Save it for the end of the day (don’t use writing time!).

#10: Know Your Audience

All sites are not created equal. What works on one site, won’t work on another.

For example:

On Twitter, my blog articles drive a lot of traffic back to my site. But Instagram doesn’t allow active links in a post, so those same articles crash & burn.

My FB audience loves to laugh. I share murder memes, dark humor, and my love of crows, animals, and wildlife. Some things can be reposted to Instagram, some can’t.

On Twitter, I can’t share my Facebook posts or they might trigger my audience to attack.

One time, I caused an uprising by sharing a group promotion for novels featuring strong female lead characters. The image showed silhouettes of women in dresses. I did not create the image. The girl who formed the group did.

Nonetheless, it triggered massive outrage. “Your tweet degrades women!”

Are you talking to me? I’m a woman and don’t feel degraded by a dress or skirt.

“Why can’t strong women wear pants?”

They can. I do.

“Delete that sexist tweet now!”

Sexist? 

“Shame on you!”

via GIPHY

You can’t argue with crazy. So, I created a new image for Twitter. It was either that or stop sharing the group promo. See what I’m sayin’? The original image on Instagram didn’t garner one negative response.

Bonus Tip

Automated private messages are never a good idea. Never. Pretend it doesn’t exist. In fact, you should never message a stranger. Are there exceptions? Yes, but it’s less intrusive to send an email. And please, for the love of God, don’t add followers to your newsletter list. It’s tacky and unprofessional.

Okie doke. Any tips to add, TKZers? Do you struggle with social media? Now’s the time to ask for help.

 

 

A Disturbing New Trend

There’s a disturbing new trend on social media that could bankrupt authors. I first learned about it on Facebook, but it’s since traveled throughout all social media.

Some readers feel it’s fine to buy a Kindle book on Amazon, read it, enjoy it, and then return it for a full refund. After all, who’s it hurting? Authors, that’s who.

Did you know if authors rack up too many returns Amazon can send them a bill? I didn’t realize this, either, but it’s happening as we speak. I’ve heard from more than a few Indie authors who, along with royalty payments they received a bill for returns. And these are professional authors who sell 200-500 books per week.

Before you dismiss this post because you think it doesn’t apply to you, this trend affects all authors regardless of how they choose to publish.

A massive influx of returns might result in a publishing house dropping the author. At the very least, they may be hesitant to buy the author’s next book. Why? Because too many returns give the impression that readers are not enjoying the series, when in fact these habitual returners do it to save money. For some reason they’re under the misguided impression that all authors are rolling in dough. They also don’t take into consideration how hard we work. Most authors I know work six days per week, sometimes seven if they fall behind.

Is it fair for these habitual returners to prevent us from earning a livable wage?

Look. I’m not sayin’ if the book sucks due to a lack of editing or poor formatting you shouldn’t be able to return it. That’s different. But to read the entire book and then return it is just plain wrong. Would you go to a theatre, watch the movie, and then ask for your money back because you didn’t like the ending? Of course not. So, why do habitual returners think the same rules don’t apply to ebooks?

Amazon makes it easy to return digital products within a seven-day period. Here’s the kicker. If these habitual returners continue to game the system, Amazon can stop them from buying more Kindle books for at least a year. Nowhere could I find the parameters of what’s considered abuse, but there’s at least one habitual returner who publicly apologized for her behavior after getting banned from Amazon.

Thankfully, I haven’t seen an increase in returns, but this new trend worries me. Some authors are even habitual returners — and they’re bragging about it on social media! I will never understand what goes through some people’s mind. Be reckless all you want with your own life, but don’t let your crazy loose on the rest of us.

I have never returned a Kindle book in my life, and I’ve slogged through more than my share of crappy reads. Now, I download the sample first. If I like it, I buy it. If I don’t, no harm done. That’s why Amazon has the sample feature.

The return feature is available for readers who one-click by mistake.

SUBSCRIPTION ALTERNATIVES THAT DON’T HARM AUTHORS

Join Kindle Unlimited

For $9.99 a month, you can read an unlimited number of Kindle books. You will only have access to books within the KU library, but for voracious readers it’s a good option. Amazon offers a free 30-day trial period or a two-month deal for $4.99.

FREE ALTERNATIVES THAT DON’T HARM AUTHORS

Prime Reading

Yes, you need a Prime account, but most households have one to save shipping costs. If you don’t, you will need a subscription ($99/yr.). Otherwise, a Prime account automatically gives you access to FREE Prime Reading books. I’ve found some amazing new-to-me authors this way. If I love the author’s writing, I usually buy all their books, but that’s me. You could stay within the Prime Reading lending library and never buy another ebook.

Local Libraries Offer FREE Ebooks Through Libby.

Download Libby from the App Store or Google Play. The welcome page will ask if you have a library card.

If you do, click YES.
Then click ADD LIBRARY.
Enter your zip code.
Select your local library from the list.
Enter your library card details.

If you don’t have a library card, click NOT YET.
Libby will walk you through requesting a library card through the app.

Once you’re inside Libby, you can browse through the books or search for a specific title, author, or genre. Libby adds new titles all the time.

If you read on a Kindle device, click READ ON KINDLE and Libby will open an Amazon account log-in window.
Enter Amazon username and password, and the ebook will automatically download to your Kindle.

Never worry about late fees. At the end of the loan period (time varies among local libraries), the book vanishes from your device.

Libby also provides audiobooks, as Jim mentioned in this post. If you live outside the U.S., you can access Libby through Overdrive.

Become a Reviewer on NetGalley

Use NetGalley for free to request, read, and recommend books before they are published — and provide essential reviews and feedback to publishers and other readers.

Contact Your Favorite Author

Tell the author how much you love their work and ask to join their ARC team. If you keep up your end of the bargain by posting honest reviews, the authors will continue to send you FREE ARCs. Plus, you’ll be the first to read new releases!

With all these free options, why return Kindle books? Unless you one-click by mistake or the book is riddled with typos or formatting errors, please, please, please stop returning ebooks to save money. Think about your favorite authors. Do we deserve to feed our family? Do we deserve a roof over our head? Do we deserve heat in the winter and cool air in the summer? Then let us earn a living. We’re not asking for donations. We’re simply asking habitual returners to stop stealing our work.

If you want to help prevent this trend from continuing, sign the Change.org petition.

TKZers, have you heard of this disturbing new trend? Have you been affected by it yet?

Easy Prey Dies First

A crash startles you awake. Is it real? Are you dreaming?

Glass shatters.

Bolting upright in bed, all the muscles in your back and neck stiffen at once.

Crunch, crunch, crunch. Footsteps through broken glass.

Darkness swallows the bedroom. Even the moon doesn’t dare shine.

A little voice inside your head screams, “Run! Hide!” But you freeze, unsure of what to do or even if this is real. Your neck snaps toward the bedside table.

Through the blackness cherry-red digits blaze 2:00 a.m.

You slide your palm across the silk sheets. A lump. Your spouse is still beside you. You start to exhale but breath catches in your throat. If your spouse in bed, then who—

The bottom tread creaks, echoes off the walls. You reach to shake your spouse awake, but your hand never makes contact. Leaden footsteps grow closer…closer…

A gazillion questions careen through your mind. Why is this happening? You’ve always been so careful to lock the doors and windows at night. How did he get in? What does he want? To kill you? Rob you? Rape you? Or all the above?

Under the covers you kick your spouse, hush, “Wake up. Somebody’s in the house.”

Still groggy and out of it, s/he grapples to understand the situation.

Footfalls strike the hardwood. The stranger—probably armed, murderous—is in the hall with bad intentions. In a few more strides you’ll be face-to-face with this maniac.

An icy tongue licks up your spine. Move. Now!

Your toes sink into the carpet. A coolness prickles your bare legs. You take one step, praying to all that’s holy that you don’t step on the squeaky floorboard. A godawful stench wafts into the bedroom, and churns your stomach acids. Stale booze and cigarettes—like the serial predator who abducted you at five years old. Is he still in prison? Now’s not the time.

You summon your mind to clear. Concentrate. Focus.

The bedside clock flashes 2:01 a.m.

Another creak. This time closer, too close.

What do you do next? Jot down your answer before reading the rest of this post.

In my last post I mentioned I’d put a plan into a motion in case of a home invasion. Kay and Jeanne asked me to share that plan. While it’s not the best idea to share details of my personal plan (bad guys do read), I have no problem offering a few tips for you to create your own plan.

If a killer wants in your home, there isn’t much you can do about it. Nonetheless, there are ways to make your home safer.

According to FBI statistics, a burglar strikes every 30 seconds in the U.S., with almost 29% occurring with someone in the home. Technically, that would be a robbery, not a burglary.

If your house is broken into when no one’s home, it’s a burglary.

If your house is broken into while you’re there, it’s a robbery or home invasion.

Criminology reports don’t yet consider the most unique time in recent history.

Due to voluntary quarantines and more people working from home, the risk of coming face-to-face with a home invader has never been higher. Although burglaries can and do happen at any time, they’re most common during daytime hours. Those numbers spike during the summer months.

By learning how to properly secure and protect your home against invasions or burglaries at any time of the day or night, you can reduce your chances of becoming a victim. Evaluate your home, change your routine when you do leave, and implement other home security measures.

“Safeguarding your home is all about protecting the human asset which is why ensuring it is done efficiently is paramount. Remember, cheap is expensive so don’t gamble with your physical well-being.”

— Paul V. Viollis, Viollis Group International

It’s estimated 34% of all criminals enter a home through the front door. Shocking, right? Knowing this, all exterior doors should be solid core, not hollow. Consider reinforcing your door frames and hinges by installing dead bolts, three-inch screws in door jambs, and secure the sliders.

I watched an interview with an inmate who burglarized over 5,000 homes.

Guess which houses he targeted? The ones with sliding glass doors. Why? It’s one of the easiest entry points. That dowel rod or bar you put in the track is not enough. Nor is the flimsy lock on the handle. With a screwdriver pried under the door, a home invader can pop it open without any harm to the glass. Even with the security bar, a home invader can jerk the door right off the track—a slick move I used in my latest thriller. Thank you, Mr. Inmate. 😉

House alarms only secure the frame of the sliders, not the glass.

Let’s say the home invader has no burglary skills. He’s not interested in robbing you. He’s there to kill you, like in the scenario that began this post. By law, most sliders are made of tempered glass. Sounds like a good thing, right?

Yes and no.

If struck with a tire iron, tempered glass doesn’t shatter into a million pieces. All the shards stay intact as one big sheet. It’s a great safety feature to prevent injury to a child or an unsteady adult. But that same safety feature also protects the home invader.

“Once that glass shatters, I walk right through. Safety glass is not gonna cut you.” — Mr. Inmate

This video will show you how to secure your sliders, where to drill in the screws to prevent a home invader or burglar from lifting the door off the track, and demonstrates Glass Break sensors (more on that in a minute).

Another easy entry point for a robber, burglar, rapist, or killer is a garage door left wide-open. Remember, the majority of home invasions/burglaries occur during the day. How easy is it to pull out of the driveway and forget to lower the garage door? After all, you’re only running a quick errand.

The next time you drive away without lowering the garage door, remember this…

A home invader sneaks in while you’re out—hides—and waits for you to return. How safe are you now?

Believe it or not, residents of gated communities are often prime targets. Why? Because the front gates and/or guards offer them a false sense of security. Same is true for homeowners with an alarm system. Does that mean you shouldn’t install an alarm? No. Just don’t blindly trust that alarm without other safety measures in place.

If you let your guard down and forget to lock a window…

“If you leave one thing open, then leave it all open. Because the thief [or home invader] will find that one thing open.”

— Mr. Inmate

When asked how to safeguard one’s family, Mr. Inmate shared more wisdom.

“The only way to stop somebody is to deter ’em. Keep your doors locked. Keep your windows from opening up more than six inches. Glass Break sensors [are] the only way to deter somebody. Because when they see that Glass Break attached to that window [or sliding door] they know this is a well-secured home.”

Most alarm companies sell Glass Break sensors or detectors. They’re also available at online retailers. Incidentally, the anonymous Mr. Inmate didn’t go to jail for burglary. Police picked him up for loitering and prowling. Which means, he’ll be back on the streets.

Other safety measures…

  • Upgrade the locks on exterior doors and windows with high security locks.
  • Install a wide-angled peephole, cover when not in use.
  • Consider adding protective film to first-floor windows. For those who live in coastal communities, you’re all set. High-impact, high-wind hurricane glass is near impossible to break.
  • Install high intensity LED motion sensor lighting on all sides of your home.
  • Trim trees and shrubbery away from your windows—perfect hiding spots for home invaders. If you must have bushes, make sure they have thorny branches.
  • Add window stops to double hung windows.
  • Cement bases add stability to fencing. Although less attractive, open metal or chain link fences are the safest, as solid walls provide an easier foothold and privacy for the home invader.
  • Draw curtains and blinds in unoccupied rooms.
  • Try not to leave valuables in plain sight near windows.
  • Install smart locks. Many systems allow you to remotely check and lock your doors and windows.
  • Keep your keys and cell phone on the bedside table at night.

If you’ve taken every precaution and a home invader still gets inside, be sure to have a plan in place. Practice, like a fire drill.

The safest option is to flee.

Let a home invader take your valuables, not your life. Grab your cell phone and keys and climb out the nearest window, onto the roof. If you don’t have time to escape, hide and text 911. Text messages receive the same priority as phone calls. Even if the home invader finds you, you’ve already notified the authorities, which gives you a much better chance of survival.

Unless you have training, a weapon can and will be used against you. If you grab a gun, you better be able to pull the trigger without hesitation. A home invasion can turn deadly quick. Whose life is more important, yours or the scumbag who broke in?

Calculate. Every. Move.

How high is the roof? Will the fall kill you? If so, don’t jump. Stay put and wait for the police to arrive. Unless you’re dealing with a psychopath hellbent on murder, most home invaders won’t crawl on the roof to drag you back inside.

Easy prey dies first in the animal kingdom. Don’t be easy prey.

Think like a criminal—you’re a writer! Just because the bad guy broke into your home doesn’t mean you automatically play the victim role. Flip the script. He’ll wish he chose a different house. 🙂

Back to my original scenario. What did you jot down? Has your answer changed? How? Feel free to share any other home safety tips.

 

Tips To Write a Character You Hate

Have you ever written from the perspective of a character you hated?

It’s a unique experience for me. Which is sayin’ something, considering I write psychological thrillers involving serial killers. With all my other serial killer characters, I could find at least one endearing quality, and I clung to that while I wrote from their perspective. I may not have agreed with their motivations, but at least I understood how they justifIed their actions.

Let me back up a minute.

I mentioned in one of my Reader Friday questions that I’ve been teaching a virtual course about serial killers as part of the Advanced Education Program for a school in Connecticut. I’m also racing toward the finish line in Book 5 of my Grafton County Series. I drew a firm line between the two projects until an Ah-ha! moment slapped me across the face. I was working on the lesson plan for Week 3 of my course when a deliciously evil idea popped into my head.

Don’t you love when that happens?

Even though the finish line was within reach, I couldn’t ignore the new idea. It’s a game-changer, and the perfect way to round out the series as a whole. It also required me to go back to page one, drop a few new clues, and include POV chapters from the killer.

Writing from a serial killer’s point of view isn’t anything new for me. In my Mayhem Series, readers expect a cat-and-mouse chase with alternating POVs between protagonist and antagonist. The Grafton County Series is different. I don’t normally include scenes/chapters from the killer’s POV.

To write a character in deep POV we need to know everything about them or slipping into their skin would be challenging to say the least. And here’s where my two projects—fiction and nonfiction—blurred together.

Out of all the serial killers we’ve discussed during class the most frightening of all was a nasty individual named Israel Keyes, whose MO happened to fit my plot. As part of my research for class, I sat through endless video confessions from Keyes, and learned a lot about who he was as a person and what motivated him to kill. Subconsciously, I must have had in mind all along and only now realized it. After all, if I fear him, so will my readers.

To write from his point of view, I had to view the world as he did. Think as he did. Feel—or more accurately, not feel—as he did. This was problematic for one huge reason—I despised everything about him. He’s evil to the core and didn’t possess even one redeeming quality.

Now, you could say, but Sue, this is fiction. You can add anything you want to his characterization. True, but then he wouldn’t be as frightening.

See what I’m sayin’?

The part of him that most frightened me was his complete lack of empathy toward anyone or anything, his arrogance, his inflated self-worth, and the violent blitz attack of his home invasions. If I softened his psychopathic personality, I’d lose the qualities that made me choose him in the first place. A softer villain wouldn’t pack the same punch. And let’s face it, after going head-to-head with numerous other serial killers in Books 1-4, my protagonist is no shrinking violent. She needs a frightening opponent.

Basing an antagonist on a real serial killer is hardly a new concept.

In the 1960s, Thomas Harris was visiting the Topo Chico Penitentiary in Nuevo Leon, Mexico while working on a story for Argosy, an American pulp fiction magazine that ran for 96 years, between 1882 and 1978. The 23-year-old Harris was interviewing prisoner Dykes Askew Simmons, who was committed to the prison’s psych. ward and sentenced to death for a triple murder. Simmons bribed a guard to help him escape. The guard took the money but had second thoughts during the prison break and shot Simmons.

As Simmons lay on the ground, bleeding out, another inmate, Dr. Alfredo Balli Trevino, treated the gunshot wound, saving his life.

This led Harris to develop an interest in Trevino. He interviewed the doctor and learned Trevino was convicted for the murder of his boyfriend, Jesus Castillo Rangel, in a “crime of passion” after an argument.

Apparently, Rangel had attacked Trevino with a screwdriver. The enraged doctor administered anesthetic to Rangel’s body and dragged him to a bathtub, where he slit his throat, draining all the blood out of his body. Trevino then chopped up Rangel’s body into small pieces and packed them into a box, drove to a relative’s farm, and asked if he could bury medical waste there. One of the farm workers called the police.

Thomas Harris said the doctor “had a certain elegance about him,” even as he discussed dismembering his boyfriend in a bathtub.

I found no such qualities in Israel Keyes.

How do we write from a hateful, despicable point of view?

Much like an actor who plays a villain, we must become one with the character. We have to identify with him. Win his arguments, even if those twisted views rub against our values. I despise this antagonist as much as I do Israel Keyes. Doesn’t matter. Our job is to breathe life into him, bring him to life on the page. The only time we can express our own personal feelings is through the protagonist if, and only if, the protagonist shares our views.

I find it easier to skip over a hateful character’s chapters while drafting the storyline. Then I take a day or two, get into character, and bang out his chapters. The next day when I reread those chapters I’m stunned by his actions and comments. That’s a good thing. If it shocks me (the writer), imagine readers’ reactions.

In my case, though the real killer can’t hurt anyone else—he committed suicide like a coward—it’s left me with one burning question: How many other Israel Keyes walk among us? I’d tell you, but I don’t want to shatter your reality. 🙂

Have you ever written a hateful, angry POV character? Did you handle it in a similar way?

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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Can Niko and Sage stop him before the clock runs out? Click here to look Inside SCATHED.

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.

Reader Friday: What Makes Your Main Character Special?

Are the creative juices flowing on this fine Friday? Great! Tell us…

If we were to read your WIP or last published book, who would we meet for a main character? 

Or tell us about the main character in the book you’re reading.

Why should we care what happens to the MC? What makes them special?

If you’re struggling for an answer, think: logline or elevator pitch.

First Page Critique: Envy Rots Your Bones

Another brave writer shared their first page for critique. Enjoy! My comments will follow.

Chapter One

Envy Rots Your Bones

Grandma Iris had never cradled me like she did that Bible. Sat across the table, she held it tight to her chest, tracing her bony finger down its decorative spine. The golden crucifix embedded in the book’s cover glinted as dawn streamed through the window. A wink… or a jeer… It knew it was Grandma’s favourite.

Jealousy stroked at me, teasing, and I swatted it’s claws away. Envy rots your bones. It’s a sin, I reminded myself. One of Grandma’s many teachings.

Leather creaked as Grandma delicately opened the book upon the table.

“Are you ready, Elisa?” A demand masked as a question.

I inhaled deeply, the cold dusty air of the dining room filling my lungs. I promised Grandma I would do better, be better, this time. And yet, for the second time that afternoon, I sinned.

“I’m ready,” I lied.

Her eyes flickered to mine. Somehow her wrinkles deepened, eyes became darker when they settled on me. And without another word, she fired the first test.

“Luke 1:47?”

With no time to comprehend the question, scripture tumbled out of me.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”

Grandma nodded, a fleeting gesture of approval. “Psalm 107:1?”

Again, I answered without pause, without a doubt. “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His mercy endures forever.”

“Excellent, Elisa,” she said, flicking through the dog-eared pages. “Psalm 18:3?”

I opened my mouth, expecting the answer to dance off my tongue again, but… nothing. Only silence filled the room. Scrunching my eyes, I frantically searched the depths of my mind, bible verses scrambled in my head.

‘When you ask, you do not receive,’ – no, not that one. ‘Come near to God, and he will be near to you’– not that either. 

I could feel her narrow gaze pinned to me now. Waiting, watching as I drowned amongst the scripture. Her fingers rapped against the oak table, underscoring each second that drifted by, still without an answer, still sinking. How silly of me to make false promises. Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, she always was.

Disappointed.

The word buzzed in the forefront of my mind, sending a ripple of familiarity through me. I said it out loud, feeling each syllable float from my lips.

Dis-a-ppoint-ment. 

And with that, I burst to the surface.

“In the midst of disappointment, know that God is listening and-”

But before I could complete the verse, a whoosh of air and the scent of old leather gushed towards me. Pain erupted in my cheek, knocking the words from my mouth and throwing me sideward. As I slammed into the floorboards, my eyes sprung open, just in time to see Grandma lower the bible back to the table.

* * *

Y’know what I love most about this first page? The scene is so complete and compelling, it could double as flash fiction. Anon didn’t feel the need to waste precious real estate by describing the room or the characters in detail. Instead, we’re dropped into the middle of a tense moment, and we cannot look away. This writer also gained empathy for the main character and showed us a lot about the relationship between Elisa and Grandma without resorting to telling. And the voice? Excellent.

I do have a few comments/suggestions, but nothing major.

Chapter One

Envy Rots Your Bones 

Grandma Iris had never cradled me like she did that Bible. (<– Compelling first line) Sat Aacross the table, she held it the book tight to her chest, tracing her bony finger down its decorative spine. The golden crucifix embedded in the bible’s book’s cover, glinted as dawn streamed through the window.

*Side note: Holy Bible, since it’s a title, should be capitalized; the bible—not a title—should be lowercase. Some writers prefer to always capitalize Bible. If you’re consistent, I don’t think it’s a big deal either way. When in doubt, listen to your editor.

A wink… or a jeer… It knew it was Grandma’s favourite.

*Side note: When I received the first page, Lynne noted: “UK writer.” Hence the British spelling of certain words, like favourite vs. favorite and Saviour vs. Savior. Please be aware, US spelling is the preferred industry standard.

Jealousy stroked at me, teasing, and I swatted it’s its claws away. (<–Love that line!) Envy rots your bones. It’s a sin, I reminded myself (<–we know it’s inner dialogue without this attrib.). One of Grandma’s many teachings.

Leather creaked as Grandma delicately opened the book upon the table. “Are you ready, Elisa?” A demand masked as a question.

I inhaled deeply (showing the act of inhaling implies deeply, so the adverb isn’t necessary), the cold dusty air of the dining room filling my lungs. I promised Grandma I would do better, be better, this time. And yet, for the second time that afternoon, I sinned. <–Excellent! These last two sentences say so much.

“I’m ready,” I lied.

Her eyes flickered to mine. Somehow her wrinkles deepened, eyes became darkened when they settled on me. And without another word, she fired the first test. (<– Slight hiccup here. As written, it implies “without another word” from Grandma. But I think you meant Elisa. Easy fix. “Without another word from me”)

“Luke 1:47?” (see below for citing scripture in dialogue)

With no time to comprehend the question, scripture tumbled out of me (comprehend isn’t the correct word. If she didn’t understand the question, she wouldn’t be able to cite the verse. Try: Without much forethought… Or leave out altogether: Scripture tumbled out of me). “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.”

Grandma nodded, a fleeting gesture of approval. “Psalm 107:1?”

Again, I answered without pause, without a doubt. “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His mercy endures forever.”

“Excellent, Elisa,” she said, flicking through the dog-eared pages. “Psalm 18:3?”

I opened my mouth, expecting the answer to dance off my tongue again, but… nothing. Only Silence filled the room. Scrunching my eyes, I frantically searched the depths of my mind, bible verses scrambled in my head.

When you ask, you do not receive,.(Removed single quotes and incorrect usage of en-dash.) No, not that one. Come near to God, and he will be near to you’–. Not that either. 

I could feel Now, her narrowed gaze pinned to on me now. Waiting, watching, as I drowned amongst the scripture. Her fingers rapped against the oak table, underscoring each second that drifted (drifted implies slow. Try: ticked, fled, drained, raced, sped, or another strong verb for fast) by, still without an answer, still sinking (<– Nice visual). How silly of me to make false promises. Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, she always was. (Suggestion: Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, her usual state of mind.)

Disappointed.

The word buzzed in the forefront of my mind, sending a ripple of familiarity through me. I said it out loud, feeling each syllable float from my lips.

Dis-a-ppoint-ment. (Would she really say this out loud in front of Grandma?)

And with that, I burst to the surface. (Consider deleting. I understand Elisa is metaphorically bursting to the surface, but it stopped me. Perhaps others will feel differently.)

“In the midst of disappointment, know that God is listening and—” (Use em-dash, not en-dash, to indicate cut off speech. For more on em-dashes, see this post)

But before I could complete the verse (Redundant since you went through the trouble of showing us the verse had been cut short), aA whoosh of air and the scent of old leather gushed (rushed?) towards me. Pain erupted in my cheek, knocking the words from my mouth, and throwing me sideward. As I slammed into the floorboards, my eyes sprang open, just in time to see catch Grandma lowering the bible back to the table.

The Editor’s Blog has a fantastic article about numbers in fiction. For citing scripture in dialogue, they recommend the following:

For dialogue, spell out the numbers as words. Do this whether a character is saying just the chapter or just the verse or is including both. “My dad always quoted Romans twelve to me.” “My grandmother’s favorite verse was Jeremiah twenty-nine eleven.” “I can’t remember if the verse he quoted was nine or nineteen.” (Could you make an exception for the Psalms? Probably so. “My niece learned how to say Psalm 23 in four languages.” If you consider psalm plus the number a title, I’d say that would work. I don’t know that other books and chapters, however, would get the same treatment.)

Outside of dialogue, use the typical convention for chapter and verse when you include both. Make this one of your exceptions to the rule about when to write out numbers. So—The text he’d quoted was Genesis 3:23.

Yet if you’re using only the verse, spell out the number (use a numeral for numbers greater than 100)—The text he quoted was verse twenty-three.

Also spell out the numbers if you’re not including the book and verses in the typical reference style—The text he was hunting for was in Luke—verses four through eleven of chapter six.

In a reference to the chapter only, you may want to adjust the wording—The text he quoted was from the third chapter of Genesis.

Could you write Genesis 3 or 1 Timothy 5? Probably. And I’d suggest using that format for the Psalms, writing Psalm 119 or Psalm 23. Yet such a format with other bible books might be difficult for readers, at least at first glance. You may want to play around with how you say it if you’re only including the book name and chapter number without a verse number. After all, many people would understand easily if you wrote—He loved the Twenty-third Psalm.)

Brave Writer, I really enjoyed this first page. Thank you for sharing your work with us.

I’d turn the page to find out what happens next. What about you, TKZers? Any suggestions/comments for this brave writer? Favorite line?