Something To Do …

This season of Thanksgiving calls to mind a quote by the 18th-century Scottish writer Alexander Chalmers:

“The three grand essentials of happiness are something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for.”

For those of us who write, we can be grateful that the “something to do” part of that is pretty well covered.

* * *

Every now and then, a friend will stop by our home and venture into my office. They’re usually surprised at what they find there. Books are standing or lying on bookshelves in some kind of semi-organized chaos, and the three-door closet is covered with Post-it notes I’m using to plot my next book.

The desk is a riot of papers, laptops, to-do lists, notes, and more books. Whiteboards lean against walls that are covered with pictures and papers, and the back of the office door has more lists taped to it.

Invariably, someone will ask, “How do you get everything done?” The answer is simple: I don’t.

One of life’s greatest blessings is, I think, to have more to do than one can possibly get done. I’m happy to tell the story I’m working on as well as I can, aware that there are many more in the future. I’m like a kid in a magnificent toy store, captivated by the puzzle I’m trying to put together and excited by the endless supply of new and shiny artifacts yet to be tackled. I am so grateful, and I’m reminded of another wonderful and timely quote, this one by a 13th-century theologian:

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” –Meister Eckhart.

* * *

So, TKZers: Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for all the wisdom shared here over the past year!

Do you have more to do than you can ever accomplish? What things in your writing life are you grateful for?

I’ll be traveling today, but I’ll check in whenever I can to respond to comments.

* * *

 

Private pilot Cassie Deakin has something to do: find the culprits who assaulted her beloved uncle. But can she accomplish her mission before she becomes the next victim?  Buy it here.

Biological Responses to Anger

In the comments of my post about fear, Dale suggested I write about anger, another powerful emotion with a physical response within the body. We associate anger as a negative emotion. If well-managed, anger can motivate us to make positive changes. The same holds true for our characters.

Most emotions begin inside two almond-shaped structures in our brains called the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for identifying threats to our well-being, and for sending out an alarm when threats are identified.

It’s so efficient at warning us that it can cause us to react before we’re able to confirm whether our response is warranted. Thought and judgment stem from the prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead), which tends to lag behind the amygdala.

In other words, our brains are wired to influence us to act before we can consider the consequences of our actions. This is not an excuse for behaving badly—people can and do control their anger. Rather, it means managing anger is a skill, not something we instinctually know how to do.

Case in point: Teenagers. 😉

Fun fact: The human brain takes twenty-six years to fully develop. This should help you stay sane when kids lash out or talk gibberish. They’re not working with a full deck yet!

What happens within the body when we’re angry?

Like fear, anger triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response. The adrenal glands flood the body with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The brain shunts blood away from the gut and toward the muscles to prepare for physical exertion.

This results in:

  • Faster heart rate
  • Rising blood pressure
  • Breathing increases and/or shallows
  • Rising body temperature
  • Increase of perspiration

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 release epinephrine (aka adrenaline), noradrenaline, and other energy hormones.

When we’re angry our muscles tense. Inside the brain, neurotransmitter chemicals known as catecholamines are released, causing a burst of energy that can last several minutes to hours. This burst of energy explains why our first reaction is to take immediate action.

In addition to the above list, the face flushes as increased blood flow enters the extremities to prepare for physical action. Attention narrows and locks onto the source of rage or innocent target, if misplaced. Additional neurotransmitters and hormones release, which trigger a lasting state of arousal.

The body is now ready to fight.

Quick story to illustrate anger.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m a chilled person by nature. My blood pressure rarely, if ever, rises above 110/60. It’s tough to get me angry because I do not allow others to control my emotions. There’re only two ways to push my buttons—abuse of animals or children. If you tick one of those boxes, look out. I’m coming for you.

Now, I’ll tell you the story. 🙂

A few weeks ago, I’m editing Merciless Mayhem at my desk, when four husky guys huddled around the side of the road, bordered by woods.

Huh. That’s odd. Why are they here?

I get back to work but keep the strangers in my peripheral.

One of the guys jumps forward and kicks something on the ground.

What the—? Now they’ve got my full attention.

Over and over, this dude kicks. Laughs with his buddies. Kicks again. Another guy squats. When he rises, he has two hooves gripped in one hand, holding a dead deer by the legs while his buddy kicks and punches the carcass.

Unable to trust to my eyes, I jolt to my feet. All four guys find it hilarious to beat a young deer who lost its life.

Heat envelopes me from the inside out. My face flushes. Blood pressure spikes, and I careen out the door. “Hey!”

They stop, turn. The kicker said, “What?”

“Stop abusing that animal!”

“What’s the big deal, lady? It’s dead.”

“Oh, I see.” In seconds, I shorten the distance between us. “So, when you die, I can kick the sh*t outta your corpse? Leave now, or I’m gonna make that happen a lot sooner than you think.”

All four booked it to their SUV, parked around the corner.

Two hours later, my husband strolls through the door after work. “Hey, honey. Have a good day?”

Boom. All the same biological/physiological responses flood my system, and I’m reliving the incident while I recount the story.

“How many guys?” he said.

“Four.”

“And that didn’t give you pause?” He asked because I’m only 5’ 1.5” Doesn’t matter. It’s the fire that burns inside you, and mine was blazing hot.

“No. Why, should it?”

“Honey, they were probably hunters—with guns.”

“And?”

“You could’ve been shot.”

“And?”

“You could’ve been killed.”

“Oh, well. I will never allow anyone to abuse an animal, dead or alive, in front of me. I don’t care who they are.”

See how easily anger can spiral out of control? Hours after the incident, it didn’t take much to trigger me again.

Tips to Show Anger

Anger can build over time or occur in a split-second. If I were writing the above story in a novel, I’d slow it down. Show in detail the motivation that sparked rage in the MC. Drag out an inferno building inside the MC before she snaps.

Body cues include:

  • Flared nostrils
  • Sweating
  • Head up, chin and chest out, shoulders back
  • Audible breath
  • Flexed muscles
  • Vein or artery pulsing, thinning the skin
  • A fighter’s stance
  • Cold stare and all its variants
  • Face reddening (If the POV character is angry, they can’t see the color of their face)
  • Tightness of the eyes, chest, lips, etc.
  • Punching, kicking, throwing things
  • Teeth or jaw grinding
  • Hurtful words, sarcasm, swearing
  • Heart thundering
  • Muscles quivering against the surge of adrenaline
  • Irrationality
  • Jumping to the wrong conclusion 

Trigger the Senses

Using my story as the example…

Did tree limbs obscure my view? (sight)

Did each kick boomerang across the road? (sound)

Did the metallic sweetness of blood assault the back of my throat? (taste) Or was the carcass rotting? (smell)

When I booked it across the street, did the cold asphalt sting my bare feet? (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 is the MC always a hothead?

Prolonged Effects of Anger

  • Headaches
  • Lower immune system
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart disease
  • Depression
  • Tingling sensation—muscle tension
  • Heart palpitations
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Ulcers
  • Muscle soreness
  • Jaw pain

Are you a hothead or chilled? Where is your line in the sand? Meaning, what triggers your anger?

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.

Who Do You Believe?

.

Distrust and caution are the parents of security. –Benjamin Franklin

The trust of the innocent is the liar’s most useful tool. –Stephen King

* * *

I left the kitchen and was strolling down the long hall toward my office, sipping a cup of coffee as I considered what new disasters I could throw at my characters, when something happened that I had never experienced before.

Picture this: the door at the end of the hall that leads into a utility room was open. Suddenly, an animal leaped out of the utility room into the hall and ran furiously. TOWARD ME! It was a chipmunk.

Now I’m not one to panic in a situation like that, and I know little critters are afraid of big humans, so I waved my arm (the one not holding the coffee—I didn’t want to spill on the carpet), and I shouted, “STOP! GO BACK!” as if Mr. Cutie could understand me. He didn’t play his part in the drama, though. He just kept coming.

At this point, I was afraid I might be in danger of getting bitten by the rodent, so I used that tried-and-true defense mechanism: I screamed for my husband to come quick.

When the chipmunk got within a foot or two from me, he made an incredible right-hand turn at full speed into an adjacent hall. Any tight end would have appreciated that maneuver. Then he turned again and ran straight into MY OFFICE. Not good.

While I was standing there looking dumbfounded and considering the next steps in the chipmunk eviction process, my husband sauntered in from another part of the house. “Did you call me?” he asked.

“Yes!” I said. “A chipmunk came running down the hall. I thought he was going to attack me!”

Now you have to visualize his reaction. Eyebrows slightly raised, a disbelieving tilt of the head, and body language that shouted, “I don’t think so.” What he actually said was “A chipmunk?.”

Now my husband knows I wouldn’t make something like that up, but he still didn’t believe me. We live in a suburban neighborhood. We rarely even see a squirrel around here, so he assumed I was mistaken, and it must have been a mouse or a baby squirrel or something else. After a suitably sarcastic remark, I described the cute little face and the stripe down the back of our unexpected visitor, and that convinced Frank that I had indeed been accosted by real, live chipmunk. So we barricaded Mr. Chips in my office, drove to the hardware store, bought a cage, and finally trapped our unwanted guest without harming a single hair on his cute little head.

After we dropped Chippie off at a park many miles away from our home, I reflected on our experience, and how useful the concept of disbelief or distrust is to authors, especially writers of mystery.

In any murder mystery, there are characters who mislead the authorities, and other characters who are trying to find the truth amidst all the noise. But even more important are the readers who are trying to figure out who’s telling the truth and who’s lying. If the author can mislead the reader artfully enough, it will result in a surprising climax that readers love.

* * *

In my second novel, Dead Man’s Watch, a man has been accused of murder and everybody thinks he’s guilty. He had motive (his wife died of a drug overdose from drugs bought from the murder victim) and opportunity. He admitted that he had met the drug dealer on the night of the murder with the intent to kill him. But he claims he didn’t go through with his plan.

However, the main character was a childhood friend of the accused and doesn’t want to think he could be guilty. She doesn’t believe he would lie to her, so she visits him in prison. Here’s a snippet of their conversation:

He smiled sadly and turned back. “Kathryn, I know you’re a real nice person, but you don’t owe me anything. Let it go.”

“I can’t let it go, Brad. I have to do this.” She paused and waited for him to focus back on her. “But first I have to know. Did you kill him, Brad?”

He jerked his head up so fast, she sat back in her chair. His eyes burned into hers. “Do you think I could be a killer?”

“No.”

“Good. That makes one person in the world who thinks I’m innocent. Maybe you can convince the jury.”

“Did you kill him, Brad?” She had to hear him say it.

Did you notice Brad avoided answering the question the first time? But Kathryn persists. She needs to hear him say he didn’t kill the man. Different readers might come away with different opinions on whether Brad is innocent, or just willing to use his friend to help him.

* * *

While the character Kathryn in the Watch series is a determined but naïve young woman, the main character in my new novel, Lacey’s Star, is different. Cassie Deakin is just as determined as Kathryn, but her outlook on life is far more skeptical. She is reminded frequently in the course of the book to be careful who she puts her trust in.

At one point in the book, Cassie and Detective Frank White are searching for Sinclair, a man who claims to have evidence that his young sister was murdered. Unable to track down Sinclair, they meet with law enforcement officers who had talked to him recently. When Cassie hears that Sinclair had trusted a group of strangers enough to share some important information with them, this is her reaction:

“Sinclair sounds like an idiot. If he convinced those bikers there was something of real value in Uncle Charlie’s barn, the only explanation is that some of those bikers decided to steal it. If that’s what happened, then Sinclair is the reason Uncle Charlie got injured.” I could feel the heat rising in my face. I wanted to get my hands on Sinclair and shake him until his teeth fell out.

* * *

In both books cited above, the matter of trust is an important theme. Characters have to decide who they can trust, and the reader has to decide who’s telling the truth. My job is to tilt the playing field without the reader noticing.

So TKZers: How do you handle issues of believability and trust in your books? Do you incorporate an unreliable narrator? Do you try to mislead your readers?

* * *

GET IN, SIT DOWN, BUCKLE UP, AND HANG ON!

Come along for the ride as private pilot Cassie Deakin lands in the middle of an unwanted adventure and discovers her beloved Uncle Charlie has been attacked and seriously injured by thieves.

But Cassie has a problem. She doesn’t know who she can trust. Still, she reluctantly agrees to team up with Deputy Frank White, a man she definitely does not trust, to solve the mystery behind the attack on her uncle.

But as Cassie and Frank peel back the layers of one mystery, they uncover a deeper and more sinister crime: the murder of an eight-year-old girl decades earlier. Armed with only a single, cryptic clue to the death of young Lacey Alderson, Cassie makes a crucial discovery that lands her in the crosshairs of a murderer.

Lacey’s Star is now available for pre-order for $1.99. Click here.

 

Remember to Breathe

I wrote this post four years ago, but the subject is important enough to redux. Plus, I needed the reminder. Maybe you do, too.

When chaos starts shaking the to-do list in my face, I close my eyes, lean back, and breathe… It’s amazing what a few deep breaths can do. There’s a running joke in my family that I’m so chill, I’m practically a corpse. It’s true! My blood pressure rarely, if ever, rises above 110/60, even under stressful conditions. And you know why? Because I take advantage of the most powerful and the most basic gift we have — the ability to breathe.

It may not sound like much of a superpower, but controlled breathing improves overall health. Controlled breaths can calm the brain, regulate blood pressure, improve memory, feed the emotional region of the brain, boost the immune system, and increase energy and metabolism levels.

The Brain’s Breathing Pacemaker

A 2016 study accidentally discovered a neural circuit in the brainstem that plays a pivotal role in the breathing-brain control connection. This circuit is called “the brain’s breathing pacemaker,” because it can be adjusted by alternating breathing rhythm, which influences our emotional state. Slow, controlled breathing decreases activity in the circuit while fast, erratic breathing increases activity. Why this occurs is still largely unknown, but knowing this circuit exists is a huge step closer to figuring it out.

Breathing Decreases Pain 

Specifically, diaphragmatic breathing exercises. Ever watch an infant sleep? Their little tummy expands on the inhale and depletes on the exhale. They’re breathing through their diaphragm. We’re born breathing this way. It’s only as we grow older that we start depending on our lungs to do all the work.

Singers and athletes take advantage of diaphragmatic breathing techniques. Why not writers? If you find yourself hunched over the keyboard for too long, take a few moments to lay flat and concentrate on inflating your belly as you inhale through your nostrils. Then exhale while pulling your belly button toward your core. It takes a little practice to master the technique. Once you do, you can diaphragmatically breathe in any position. The best part is, it works!

Count Breaths for Emotional Well-Being

In 2018, another scientific study found that the mere act of counting breaths influenced “neuronal oscillations throughout the brain” in regions related to emotion. When participants counted correctly, brain activity showed a more organized pattern in the regions related to emotion, memory, and awareness, verse participants who breathed normally (without counting).

Controlled Breathing Boosts Memory

The rhythm of our breathing generates electrical activity in the brain that affects how well we remember. Scientists linked inhaling to a greater recall of fearful faces, but only when the participants breathed through their nose. They were also able to remember certain objects in greater detail while inhaling. Thus, researchers believe nasal inhalation triggers more electrical activity in the amygdala (brain’s emotional center). Inhaling also seems key to greater activity in the hippocampus, “the seat of memory,” according to Forbes.

Relaxation Response

The “Relaxation Response” (RR) is a physiological and psychological state opposite to the fight-or-flight response. RR therapy includes meditation, yoga, and repetitive prayer, and has been practiced for thousands of years. These stress-reducing practices counteract the adverse clinical effect of stress in disorders like hypertension, anxiety, insomnia, and aging.

Yet, research on the underlying molecular mechanisms of why it works remained undetermined until a 2017 study unearthed a fascinating discovery. Both short-term and long-term practitioners of meditation, yoga, and repetitive prayer showed “enhanced expression of genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function…” and more efficient insulin secretion, which helps with blood sugar management. Relaxation Response also reduces the expression of genes linked to inflammatory responses and stress-related pathways. In simpler terms, controlled breathing helps boost the immune system and improve energy metabolism.

Creativity

This probably goes without saying, but I’m mentioning it anyway. Good brain health increases creativity. Creativity helps inspiration. And inspiration ups the word count.

Shawnee and Mayhem continue to wreak havoc on the Killzme Corporation — the largest animal trafficking ring in the country — by killing one poacher at a time. The stakes grow increasingly higher when the nefarious group retaliates by putting a bounty on their heads.

Meanwhile, the traffickers set their sights on capturing Orca for profit and pleasure.

With a ticking clock and no place left to hide, Shawnee and Mayhem alternate between undercover surveillance and clandestine battles to save their loved ones and the Innocent Ones from Killzme’s evil plans. Skills are tested. Tenuous alliances are formed. Not everyone will make it out alive.

Set in a world of cultural wonder, environmental threats, and looming danger, this heart-stopping eco-thriller will have you glued to the page from the first sentence to the last.

Now available for preorder! Steal it for the special preorder price of 99c.

What Does Coffee Taste Like?

I recently had a reader comment, “I noticed most of your characters are tea drinkers. Is that because you are?”

I said yes. Here’s the expanded answer…

I’m allergic to coffee. So, I have no frame of reference for it. None. I’ve never stepped foot inside Starbucks. Wouldn’t even know what one looked like, never mind the sights and smells inside. When my son and daughter-in-law rattle off half-cap, blah, blah, blah, with a shot of blah, blah, blah, they may as well be speaking a foreign language. They’d gain the same reaction from me—a blank stare, my eyes glazed over.

Now, I’ve never serial killed, either, but neither have my readers (I hope). Coffee is too well-known for me to fake it. And let’s face it, we live in a coffee-rich environment, where it’s one of the most popular products on the market. Even if I researched the subject to death, I’m bound to screw up a minor detail. And nothing tears a reader out of a story faster than a mistake about something they know well. The few times I’ve ever even mentioned coffee, I got in and out in one sentence.

I’m not a wine connoisseur, yet Mayhem is. The difference is, I’ve tasted wine. Many wines. 😉 It’s not a favorite of mine, but at least I have some frame of reference. Mayhem is also well-versed in fine dining, and I’m not. But the average reader won’t spend $500-$1,000 on one meal, either. For those that do, I listen to my editor, who not only knows her wine but has made almost all of the fancy dishes I’ve included in my books. When she says that appetizer doesn’t go well with this meal, I change it. No questions asked.

I love how she handles it, too. The comment will read something like, “Mm-mm, sounds yummy… but you know what works better with that dish? Blah, blah, blah.” Or “Yum, but that dish isn’t typically made with cream. It’s made with blah, blah, blah.” Cracks me up every time!

Know your limits. It’s okay to include a detail you’re unfamiliar with if you’re willing to reach out to consultants to check your scene. If you get it wrong, don’t be too stubborn to fix it. We can’t know everything.

You might be thinking, “Why don’t you ask someone about coffee?” It wouldn’t work. I’d have to follow a coffee drinker around to figure out the tiny details they don’t even consider. Things like:

  • How do you order? In the movies it looks complicated.
  • How does it feel to wait in line for your morning coffee?
  • What if they run out of your favorite? Then what?
  • Does everyone have a backup flavor?
  • What’s the difference between flavor and brew?
  • When is the right time of day to switch from hot to iced?
  • Does iced taste different from hot? How so?
  • What do all those pumps do?
  • What do those cap things mean?
  • Do you get jittery afterward?
  • Do you get tired without it?
  • How many cups is enough? How many is too much?
  • What does it taste like? (Describe coffee to someone with no frame of reference)
  • Is it an addiction or pleasure? Or both?
  • How did you decide on half-caps and pumps? What did that transition look like?
  • Does everyone start out drinking it black?
  • Why is espresso served in a tiny cup?
  • Is espresso different from regular coffee? I know it’s stronger, but why?
  • Is coffee measured by caffeine? Quality of beans?
  • What about cappuccino? How is that different from regular?
  • How do they draw those little hearts on top?
  • Do baristas use special tools? What do those look like? Do they get hot? Cold?
  • Why are coffee shops so popular?
  • Why do people hang out in coffee shops? Is it a social thing?
  • Why do the sound of coffee shops soothe some people?
  • Describe the sound and smells of Starbucks.
  • How long would you wait in line for your favorite coffee?
  • Why can’t you make it at home?
  • How much do the fancy coffees cost per cup?
  • Is iced cheaper than hot? Or vice versa? And why.

I could go on and on. There are too many variables with coffee.

Anyone want to take a crack at any of my questions? Try describing the taste to me.

Does it Matter When You Release a New Book?

Strategic timing of a book’s publication date can give it a boost and have a major impact on its long-term success. Commercial publishers and booksellers have known this forever.

*Full disclosure: I wrote this post for Writers Helping Writers, but I thought you could also benefit from my research.

Are certain days, months, or dates better than others?

Well, it depends on the book.

January – March

The first quarter of the year is the perfect time of year for business, self-improvement, health, and writing craft books, as people are eager to stick to their New Year’s resolutions.

Genre fiction also does well in the first quarter. For many of us, the first quarter means terrible weather (I’m in New England). We’re looking for new books to pass the time while stuck indoors. Also, many readers received new tablets, e-readers, or gift cards for gifts. Shiny, new books become irresistible.

Peak reading and buying season are very much tied to the weather. February and March are generally good times to release a novel because the weather’s not great. Snow and ice forces readers to browse the web for their next adventure.

The exception is children’s books. If you’re a children’s book author, wait for the second quarter of the year. Kids received books during the holidays and parents feel they’ve spent enough already. Also, they’re back in school, which leaves less time for pleasure reading.

April – June

The second quarter is another perfect time to release genre fiction, as people are going on vacation and finally getting to that book they’ve been dying to read all year. It makes sense to release a genre novel in the spring, so momentum can carry over into the summer.

What about children’s books? Easter is the second busiest time of year for kids and gifts. Parents are looking for various things to occupy their kids’ time. Books offer a great way to keep children learning and occupied. Activity books for kids also do well during this time.

July – September

In the third quarter, business books and self-help books become popular again. Releasing virtually any book ahead of the holiday season is a smart idea. August isn’t ideal for two reasons. First, readers are often away, and things are quiet. Vacationers have already purchased their beach reads. Second, media outlets are slower to respond in August, if you’d hoped to advertise or score a review.

October – December

October is a terrific month for horror, thrillers, and mysteries—these genres dominate the marketplace, the darker the better. A cozy mystery or HEA romance may not do well in October. Historical fiction, depending on the subject matter, or dark romance might be all right. Really think about your genre and when you tend to buy books. It will help you understand the best time of year to release your book.

If you wait until the latter half of November, you might be too late unless you’re targeting a niche market.

December is the worst month of the year for new books. Even if you’re releasing a Christmas-related title, you’re better off planning for Christmas in July (and use the hashtag!).

If this logic doesn’t make sense to you, consider this: When do stores change their seasonal displays? They don’t wait till December, do they? Nor should we. Even if you write a series with eager fans, try to hold off till after the new year. Your readers are too busy with the bustling holiday season to read and review a new release.

Niche Markets

Whenever possible, try to find a niche for your new book baby. Consider the themes, locations, and plot of your book. Character flaws, race, worldviews, etc. can also fall into niche markets. Is there an element of your book that you can tie to a holiday or commonly known date? Think: Romance novels releasing near Valentine’s Day.

Dig deeper than the holidays. What if the protagonist is a 9/11 survivor? Or the heroine lost her life partner in the bombing? A September release makes sense, right? If your MC is a new bride, release during peak wedding season and show the connection in your marketing.

I found this calendar on Self-Publishing Review to help spark new ideas for you.

Does the Day of the Week Matter?

Big 5 publishers release on Tuesdays. Since major bestsellers are compiled on Tuesdays, some say a Tuesday release gives the title a full week to gain traction before the weekend. Readers and booksellers look forward to Tuesdays because of the hot-off-the-press releases. Why not take advantage of the buzz?

That’s up to you, of course, but let’s look at why the beginning of the week—Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday—tends to work better than the end.

In addition to the Big 5 releasing on Tuesdays, movies come out on DVD on that day as well. So, it’s a well-accepted day to release new material into the hands of eager readers. That said, many indie authors agree that Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday are all beneficial. While Tuesday may be more traditional, we don’t need to stick to tradition, do we?

The beginning of the week works best because of the way Amazon records weekly sales. If you’re shooting for a bestseller category, you’ll want time to garner sales before the weekend.

The same holds true for monthly sales.

Releases in the first two weeks of the month gain better traction than books released during the last two weeks because of how Amazon records sales (I learned this the hard way). Also, readers are more willing to spend money at the beginning of a month. But again, if you’re releasing series novels and your readers are foaming at the mouth, you may want to publish as soon as they’re ready, regardless of the date.

Do you consider the date of book launches? What month/day/date worked well for your books, and why?

Readers, does timing influence when you buy books?

Check out the amazing “Poe Pen” Steve created for monthly giveaways for my newsletter subscribers!

The wood dates back to 1850 (“1850 Antebellum Cherry”) and the rings are burned into the pen by wrapping copper wire halfway around the pen while the pen is turning, creating friction, and thus heat. They represent crow talons (like my imprint name), as if a crow picked up the pen. Love it! The crow “Poe” he branded into the wood.

Gorgeous, right?

Do You Have Dirty Links?

All our links need to work. Especially buy links. What if the link to your new release prevents your ARC readers from leaving reviews on Amazon? What if the link prevents all your readers from leaving reviews on Amazon, even verified purchase reviews? Or worse, Amazon shuts down your account because you’re violating their rules.

It happens more often than you may think, and many times the violation stems from a dirty link — the link you used in your marketing. That’s how important it is to clean your links. Trad-pub authors, don’t think this subject doesn’t apply to you. It does. In fact, that’s where I learned about dirty links, from my very first publisher.

What is a dirty link?

Your new book baby goes live on Amazon. If you search for the title on Amazon rather than go through your KDP dashboard, you’ll get a link that looks like this: https://www.amazon.com/Tracking-Mayhem-Sue-Coletta/dp/B0C91HLCJ6/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1EHIC52HI29T3&keywords=Tracking+Mayhem&qid=1692542716&s=books&sprefix=tracking+mayhem%2Cstripbooks%2C107&sr=1-1

That is a dirty link. It even looks ugly, right?

I want to draw your attention to this half of the link:

ref=sr_1_1?crid=1EHIC52HI29T3&keywords=Tracking+Mayhem&qid=1692542716&s=books&sprefix=tracking+mayhem%2Cstripbooks%2C107&sr=1-1

Everything after “ref” is filled with information for Amazon, information that can bite you in the butt. This tells Amazon who searched for the book. If the author conducted the search, then everyone who uses that link must be friends or family of said author.

Though you and I know that’s a ridiculous statement, Amazon disagrees.

If you have a connection to a reader, even if it’s on social media, Amazon presumes they’ll rate your book favorably. Doesn’t matter if you have 1M friends or followers. If someone buys your book from that dirty link, you are friends and/or family in Amazon’s eyes. Period. Hence why it’s also never a good idea to link your Goodreads (Amazon owned) to your Facebook.

As you probably know, Amazon doesn’t allow friends and/or family to review your book. If they do, Amazon can delete it from your book’s page. If you continue to violate this rule, Amazon can shut down your account.

So, the first thing you should do is delete everything from “ref” forward, leaving you with this: https://www.amazon.com/Tracking-Mayhem-Sue-Coletta/dp/B0C91HLCJ6/

Looks better, right? That link is now clean, but we can shorten it even more. The title and author are also irrelevant as far as the link is concerned. Let’s delete both. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0C91HLCJ6/

If you’re working with limited space, you also don’t need “www.” You’ll end up with this: https://amazon.com/dp/B0C91HLCJ6/

Now that’s a spotless link! A far cry from the original, right? And with no added information for Amazon to track.

While we’re on the subject of links…

Most profile sections on social media only allow you to include one link. Wouldn’t it be great if you could house all your books, website, blog, newsletter sign-up, etc. under one link rather than choosing which one to include? You can!

The creative minds behind LinkTree solved the one-link problem.

Did I mention it’s free? When you sign up, they’ll ask you to customize your link with your name. Don’t use your book title or a clever alias. That defeats the purpose. You could use your pen name if that’s the only name you write under. Or create a new link for additional pen names.

Personally, I only want one link, but you do you.

Here’s how mine looks: https://linktr.ee/suecoletta

You can customize the links inside, with headings, color, button style, thumbnail images, etc.

Of course, you can upgrade for statistical data and other bells and whistles, like affiliate marketing. Though the free account does accept affiliate links for books without the upgrade.

Are you using affiliate links?

 If you’re unfamiliar with affiliate marketing, here’s what Amazon says about its program:

Amazon’s affiliate program, also known as Amazon Associates, is an affiliate marketing program that allows users to monetize their websites, blogs, or social media. Amazon affiliate users simply place links to Amazon products on their site, and when a customer makes a purchase via one of their links, the user receives a commission.

Every time we pay for a promo spot, you can bet the book site is including their affiliate ID in your link. Which is fine. It’s their site.

Quick funny story…

When my debut released, I thought a certain book site was the cat’s meow for sending me a universal book link to use in all future marketing. So nice, right? Yes and no. What I discovered later was they included their affiliate ID in the universal link. So, for well over a year, I gave away commissions that I could’ve earned. Kudos to them. They got me good. Now, the only links I use are the ones I create. If anyone’s gonna earn commissions from my marketing efforts, it’s me.

Do you use affiliate links? Do you clean your links? Have you ever had reviews removed by Amazon? Has a book site ever created a universal link for you? 😉 

Writers, have you fired “Chekhov’s Gun”?

I’ve got a special treat for you today. My dear friend Anne R. Allen is here! If you’re not following her blog, you should remedy that immediately. It’s a must-read for all writers.

Linked to Amazon

So okay, what the heck is “Chekhov’s gun?”

It’s a reference to advice the great Russian playwright and short story writer, Anton Chekhov, (1860-1904) gave young writers:

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

In other words, he says we shouldn’t clutter the story with things that have no relevance. If chapter one says your heroine won a bunch of trophies for javelin throwing, which she displays prominently on the wall alongside a javelin once thrown by Uwe Hohn, somebody had better darn well throw a javelin before the story is done.

Setting Details vs. Chekhov’s Gun

Yeah, but what if that javelin is there to show us what her apartment looks like? It’s good to show her décor, because it gives an insight into her character, right?

It depends. Yes, it’s good to use details to set tone and give depth to our characters.

But what’s all important is how you stress those details when you first present them. If there’s a whole page about those javelin throwing trophies, and the characters have a conversation about whether anyone will ever break Uwe Hohn’s throw record of 104.80 meters, you gotta toss some javelins. But if there’s just a cursory mention, “her apartment walls were decorated with an odd assortment of personal trophies and long spears,” then you can leave them on the wall.

In other words, not every lampshade the author mentions has to show up two chapters later on the head of a drunken ex-boyfriend, but you need to be careful how much emphasis you put on that lampshade.

What, No Red Herrings?

Wait just a goldern minute, sez you. I write mysteries! Mysteries need to have irrelevant clues and red herrings. Otherwise the story will be over before chapter seven.

This is true. But mystery writers need to manage their red herrings. If the deceased met his demise via long pointy spear-thing, probably thrown from a considerable distance, then your sleuth is going to look like a very viable suspect to the local constabulary.

But of course she didn’t do it because she’s our hero, so the javelin on the wall and the trophies are red herrings.

But they still need to be “fired.” Maybe not like Chekhov’s gun, but they need to come back into the story and be reckoned with. Like maybe the real killer visited her apartment earlier when delivering pizza, then broke in to “borrow” the Hwe Hohn javelin, but he couldn’t get it into his Kia, so in the end he used a shorter, more modern javelin…

Chekhov’s Gun and Subplots

I’ve been running into this problem in a lot of fiction lately: I find myself flipping through whole chapters that have nothing to do with the main story. That’s because the subplot isn’t hooked in with the main plot. It’s just hanging there, not furthering the action.

The subplot becomes the unfired Chekhov’s gun.

For instance, one mystery had the protagonist go through endless chapters of police academy training after the discovery of the body. The mysterious murder wasn’t even mentioned for a good six chapters. I kept trying to figure out how her crush on a fellow aspiring policeperson was going to solve the mystery.

I finally realized it wasn’t. None of the romance stuff had to do with the mystery. When I finally flipped through to a place where the main plot resumed, the hot fellow student didn’t even make an appearance. He’d already gone off with a hotter fellow recruit.

It’s fine to have a romance subplot in a mystery — in fact, that’s my favorite kind. But the romance has to take place while some mystery-solving is going on.

But if that romance doesn’t trigger a new plot twist or reveal a clue, then it’s an unfired gun on the wall. It’s just hanging there, annoying your reader, who expects it to be relevant.

Naming a Character Creates a Chekhov’s Gun.

Another “unfired Chekhov’s gun” situation often comes up with the introduction of minor characters and, um, “spear-carriers.”

You don’t want to introduce the pizza delivery guy by telling us how he got the nickname “Spear” followed by two paragraphs about his javelin-throwing expertise — unless he’s going to reappear later in the story. And he’d better be doing something more javelin-related than delivering another pie with extra pepperoni.

This is a common problem with newbie fiction. In creative writing courses we’re taught to make every character vivid and alive. So every time you introduce a new character, no matter how minor, you want to make them memorable. You want to give them names and create great backstories for them.

Don’t give into the urge, no matter what the creative writing teacher in your head is saying.

If the character is not going to reappear, or be involved with the plot or subplot, don’t give him a name. Just call him “the pizza guy” or “the Uber driver” or “the barista.”

A named character becomes a Chekhov’s gun. The reader will expect that character to come back and do something related to the plot.

Beware Research-itis

A lot of unfired guns come from what I call research-itis. That’s when the author did a heckuva lot of research and goldernit, they’re going to tell you every single fact they dug up.

You’ll get three chapters on the historical significance of the javelin in Olympic competitions, going back to ancient Greece. And the popularity of depictions of javelin throwers in Hellenistic art. And how both Zeus and Poseidon are depicted throwing their thunderbolts and tridents like javelins…

None of which has anything to do with the dead guy in the back yard with the big pointy spear in his back.

If the reader doesn’t need to know it to solve the mystery and it’s not a red herring, keep it to yourself.

Although a lot of that research will come in very handy for blogposts and newsletters when you’re marketing the book, so don’t delete any of those research notes!

Beta Readers and Editors Can Take Chekhov’s Gun Off Your Wall

It’s tough to weed out all those unfired guns in your own work.

You’re sure you absolutely need to tell us that our heroine won those trophies when she was on her college javelin team where her nemesis, Rosalie Rich, once stole her glasses before a meet…and she found out she could throw better without them and didn’t need glasses after all, which was great because her glasses made her look dorky and after she stopped wearing them, Lance Spears noticed her for the first time. He turned out to be a creep, but…

Your editor will disagree. And eventually you will thank her for it.

So will your readers.

Have you ever left a Chekhov’s gun on the wall? Are you annoyed when you find them in published books? What’s the worst Chekhov’s gun mistake you’ve found in fiction? 

Anne R. Allen is a popular blogger and the author of the bestselling Camilla Randall Mysteries as well as the Boomer Women Trilogy and the anthology Why Grandma Bought that Car (Kotu Beach Press.) Her most recent mystery is Catfishing in America (Thalia Press) a comic look at romance scams. Her mystery The Gatsby Game is being published in French at the end of this month. Anne’s nonfiction guide, The Author Blog: Easy Blogging for Busy Authors, is an Amazon #1 bestseller that was named one of the 101 Best Blogging Books of All Time by Book Authority.  She’s also the co-author, with Catherine Ryan Hyde, of the writer’s guide How to Be a Writer in the E-Age. She blogs with NYT million-copy seller, Ruth Harris, at “Anne R. Allen’s Blog…with Ruth Harris.” You can find them at annerallen.com.

Don’t miss Anne’s new release! CATFISHING IN AMERICA is a mashup of mystery, romcom, and satire.